The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb by Greg Mitchell

Well, The Beginning or the End is the book for you if you want to know everything you possibly can about the flop movie The Beginning or the End. Do you?

Author Greg Mitchell, who has published widely on the atomic bomb and atomic culture, has studiously and sincerely collected the available material on Hollywood’s postwar production race—specifically, Paramount versus MGM—to make a movie about the catastrophic consequences and urgent considerations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. MGM finally won; they made the movie whose title gives this book its name. That the movie is putrid has not deterred Mitchell from preserving, in detail, the play-by-play push-pull of historical fact and public-relations fiction that comes with the everyday routine of screenwriters hired and fired, actors cast and re-cast, and so on. In between are colorful appearances from Ayn Rand and Robert Oppenheimer, and, throughout, a few fun fish-out-of-water cameos from President Truman and, memorably, Albert Einstein.

MGM wanted him to sign his name to the movie:

“Although I am not much of a moviegoer,” Einstein declined to Louis B. Mayer, head of MGM, “I do know from the tenor of earlier films that have come out of your studio that you will understand my reasons. I find that the whole film is written too much from the point of view of the Army and the Army leader of the project, whose influence was not always in the direction which one would desire from the point of view of humanity.” Mayer, in a reply written for him by the screenwriter James K. McGuinness, explained, “It must be realized that dramatic truth is just as compelling a requirement to us as veritable truth is to a scientist.”

And there you have it.

The Movie, the Myth, the Legend

It will come as no surprise that Hollywood, far from adhering to the noble intentions of enlisted scientists and politicians, will favor American myth over nuclear reality. But is that why this movie sucks? Mitchell seems to think so. Rather than track the production’s myriad creative missteps (director Norman Taurog, anyone?), he emphasizes, painstakingly, Hollywood’s crimes against the truth, creating, inadvertently or otherwise, a familiar—and, I daresay, shortsighted—portrait of a callous industry and the bullies who worked it.

Mitchell’s appraisal of Mayer, one of the key figures of the century, a brilliant businessman, and, by anyone’s estimation, the wellspring of many of the greatest movies of his era, is left at “vigorous, vulgar, tyrannical, and, as always, quick to judge.” Agent Tony Owen and writer Sam Marx are “Hollywood hustlers.” Hollywood itself is “notoriously loose-lipped.” Screenwriters don’t write; they “pen.” And I’m not sure anyone who is content with the epithet “famed” to describe the director Josef von Sternberg has seen his Blue Angel or Morocco. Also “famed” is agent Leland Hayward. So are writers Albert Hackett and Frances Goodrich. I’d never write a book about nuclear physicists. Why do people who don’t know Hollywood think they know Hollywood?

Mitchell, naturally, is much stronger at home, very usefully surveying, throughout the development and production of The Beginning or the End, key artifacts of the post-nuclear media. But the tantalizing proximity of John Hersey’s epochal “Hiroshima” and James Agee’s dreams of an unmade post-apocalyptic Chaplin movie got me hungrier for the garnish than for the entrée.

Unsurprisingly, The Beginning or the End scared Hollywood off Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but, as Mitchell points out, we would get Dr. Strangelove and On the Beach, and a few other works of atomic fiction. A version of the truth was attempted, in 1989, by Roland Joffe, in his Fat Man and Little Boy, and, after a fashion, far from Hollywood, by Alain Resnais in Hiroshima, Mon Amour. If Resnais’s film is the more successful of the two, it is because it looks at its nightmare subject obliquely. Art cannot pretend to report factually on a nightmare—that is the job of journalism and history—but it can nonetheless report accurately. The potential for poetry waits between those poles, in a place where Norman Taurog rushed in, and Lynne Littman, director of the post-nuclear masterwork Testament, surely feared to tread. I’d like to read Mitchell’s history of her film, distributed by Paramount in 1983. So, maybe MGM won the battle, but Paramount won the war.

Sam Wasson is the author of six books, including The Big Goodbye: Chinatown and the Last Years of Hollywood