Skip to main content

History And The Imagination

July 2024
5min read

As three recent films show—one on the atomic bomb, one on women defense workers during the Second World War, one on the government arts projects of the thirties —this history of our times offers film makers arresting opportunities. Footage shot on the spot supplies a measure of raw actuality, and survivors are still available for interview. The real problem is to give abundant but diffuse materials a shape and structure. This is not, however, a problem that automatically solves itself.

In The Day After Trinity , Jon Else, the producer, director, and co-author, discloses his unifying principle in the subtitle: J. Robert Oppenheimer and the Atomic Bomb . Obviously this theme does not “force” the material. Oppenheimer and the bomb represent one of those connections that unite historical fact with artistic felicity. He was a scientific genius of rare moral and intellectual sensitivity. His rise and fall provide the story of the bomb’s birth with legitimate dramatic focus.

Recently declassified film gives the Los Alamos sequences freshness and immediacy. Interviews with veterans of the Manhattan Project supply a fascinating retrospective. But what matters is the film maker’s attitude toward his material. Jon Else, I am glad to say, argues no thesis, except that the perplexities involved had no easy answer—an attitude that permits the men who wrestled with those perplexities at the time to retain their dignity. For, though the planet would be far safer today if there never had been an atomic bomb, the motives of military urgency and scientific passion that produced it were not, even with hindsight, contemptible.

The decision not to play tricks with the material also recognizes the limitations of the medium. Film is simply not a vehicle for the rigorous analysis of complex questions such as Were Hiroshima and Nagasaki absolutely necessary to bring about the quick surrender of the Japanese? or, Did the failure to share the secret with the Russians have much to do with the Cold War? By renouncing the temptations of glib judgment, The Day After Trinity gains historical as well as cinematic force.

“Trinity” was the name Oppenheimer gave to the site in the New Mexico desert where the first detonation took place on July 16, 1945. We see the scientists working feverishly to assemble the bomb, as electronic music sounds in the background. The camera pans almost lyrically across the desert, and the explosion takes place in all its ghastly beauty. A Los Alamos woman remembers her husband calling to her, “Come look—the sun’s coming up in the wrong direction.” But the images of Oppenheimer linger almost as powerfully in memory as the bomb itself—the dashing, elegant young scientist in his jaunty porkpie hat, turning, after what Freeman Dyson calls his “Faustian bargain,” into a lonely man with a harrowed, haunted face. If I were to quibble, I would suggest that Jon Else is a little uncritical in his use of Haakon Chevalier against Oppenheimer. But this is a remarkable movie. The title, not without contemporary impact, comes from Oppenheimer’s remark when asked in the 1960’s about stopping the spread of nuclear weapons. “It is twenty years too late,” he said. “It should have been done the day after Trinity.”

Connie Field had a different organizational problem in The Life and Times of Rosie the Riveter , an account of the women who worked in defense plants when their husbands and sons went off to the Second World War. Cozy wartime appeals—“Do the Job He Left Behind”—are crosscut with the testimony of five valiant women, three black, two white, about their lives in the factories. The home-front atmosphere is engagingly evoked through popular songs, recruitment posters, and bland propaganda films, while the women recollect their frustrations and fulfillments with sharp intelligence and a certain contagious joyousness.

The drama lies in the contrast between the opportunities war briefly opened up for women and the disillusion when their men came home and took back their jobs. For a moment the Rosies had a chance to escape from domestic service and other low-paid, unskilled labor. They used blowtorches, ran dollies, worked on assembly lines, held jobs that were relatively responsible and productive. Then, after the war, they found no outlets for their new skills and hopes. Now they were instructed to recover their femininity by returning to domestic life. It was, one recalls, “a very defeating thing for me.” “We believed we were the New Women,” says another. “But to the population we are largely a joke, a big joke.”

Plainly Connie Field is a feminist. But she does not bend her material to make obvious points. Rosie the Riveter is exuberant and funny as well as touching. The five witnesses are entertaining, eloquent, and wryly ironical. This is a splendid historical essay, touching on significant themes—the tribulations of women, the manipulations of propaganda, the robustness of the female spirit—with a consistent good humor that never compromises the basically serious purpose.

The New Deal for Artists goes back to the arts projects of the 1930’s. It originally was made for West German television by Wieland Schulz-Keil, a German director, as four 50-minute films. The only version thus far shown in the United States is a 90-minute condensation for the Public Broadcasting System. Why do West Germans seem more interested in the history of public support for the arts in the United States than American film makers and television networks?

The PBS version, no doubt because of the problems of condensation, suffers from structural difficulties. The survey covers both the arts projects of the Works Progress Administration and the photographic division of the Farm Security Administration. The organization is discursive, and no clear story line emerges until the programs get into political trouble and are finally shut down. The narration, delivered by Orson Welles, himself a veteran of the Federal Theater Project, is pretty good, though sometimes careless. Francis Biddie, for example, is described as “Roosevelt’s first Attorney General” when he was his fourth and last. And it does seem hard to spend an hour and a half on the WPA and never mention the name of Harry Hopkins.

Still, the combination of contemporaneous footage with testimony from survivors is once again effective. The New Deal for Artists vividly shows the way the federal projects stimulated a movement for the artistic repossession of the American scene. As the painter Aaron Bohrod puts it, “The American artist was finally looking at his own country for his subject matter“—a quest expressed in post office murals, in the WPA guidebooks, in the Theater Project’s Living Newspaper , and in the wonderful photographs taken by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, and others for the FSA. And if the film overstates somewhat the contribution of the projects to America’s artistic future, it quite properly emphasizes the abundance of talent enabled—by the government- to develop on its own lines during the Great Depression—from Ben Shahn and Jackson Pollock through Orson Welles and John Houseman to Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow.

The arts projects fell victim in part to the regressive politics of the Dies Committee on Un-American Activities. But there were problems involved in the demise that the film only suggests. Congressional primitivism and bureaucratic timidity certainly hampered artists and writers; but some artists and writers were in fact engaged in political manipulations of their own. Bernarda Bryson-Shahn, Ben Shahn’s widow and a veteran herself of the Arts Project, has some realistic memories of the role of the Communist Party. Moreover, the massive re-employment engendered by the defense boom at the end of the thirties doomed the relief projects in any case. The New Deal for Artists could have been better still—probably is in the complete version—but it is already a good deal better than nothing.


It is not easy to make historical documentaries. The labor of research is intimidating—digging through archives, screening old newsreels, tracking down and interviewing survivors. Jon Else spent nearly four years on The Day After Trinity . Connie Field conducted seven hundred survey interviews and one hundred in-depth taped interviews for Rosie the Riveter . Wieland Schulz-Keil interviewed fiftyfive veterans of the arts programs. The historian is bound to wonder what happens to the interview material not used in the final cuts. (In these three cases an appropriate repository would be the Franklin D. Roosevelt Library at Hyde Park.) And the citizen is bound to wonder whether we can expect many more films like these in the future. Trinity and Rosie had limited theater release; The New Deal for Artists exists only on television. Americans cannot count on Germans to finance more films about American history. Both Trinity and Rosie received grants from the National Endowment for the Humanities; Trinity was, in addition, a beneficiary of the National Endowment for the Arts. Foundations and corporations also contributed in both cases. One wonders what will happen to projects like these in the age of Reagan.

Enjoy our work? Help us keep going.

Now in its 75th year, American Heritage relies on contributions from readers like you to survive. You can support this magazine of trusted historical writing and the volunteers that sustain it by donating today.