Red Nightmare
Asleep with the
Defense Department

by Michael J. Jackson

from Jump Cut, no. 9, 1975, pp. 16-17
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

“I am happy to speak openly and honestly in an inquiry which has for its purpose the reaffirmation of American ideals and democratic processes ...”

“Our American way of life is under attack from without and from within our national borders. I believe it is the duty of each loyal American to resist those attacks and defeat them ...”

“Our company is keenly aware of its responsibilities to keep its product free from subversive poisons. With all the vision at my command, I scrutinize the planning and production of our motion pictures. It is my firm belief that there is not a Warner Brothers picture that can be judged fairly to be hostile to our country, or communistic in tone or purpose.”

-- Jack L. Warner, Testimony from the Hearings of the House Un-American Activities Committee, October 20, 1947.

In 1939 Martin Dies, chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee, first declared that Communism was thriving in Hollywood. He asserted,

“Forty-two or forty-three prominent members of the Hollywood film colony were either full-fledged members of the Communist Party or active sympathizers and fellow travelers.”

In his two-part article in Liberty in 1940, he named JUAREZ as an example of a film which contained questionable propaganda.(1) Yet this mention of JUAREZ was not to be construed as a full-scale denunciation of Warner Brothers Studio. In fact, Dies singled out Warners for praise as being very anti-Comunist.(2)

Indeed, anti-Communism was one part of a patriotic campaign emanating from the Studio’s Hollywood headquarters. Warner Brothers gave free radio time every week on its station (KFWB) to “America Marches On,” one of the first anti-Nazi, anti-Communist programs in the country. Each dramatization featured an address by Dr. John R. Lechner of the American Legion, and the formal sign-off of the program was the statement,

“Americans are opposed to Nazism, Communism, and Fascism.”

After 1945, Nazism and Fascism officially were defeated, leaving only one enemy. Hitler’s storm troopers gave way to Stalin’s stalwart Red Army, and the Hollywood HUAC hearings arose in 1947 amidst the new turmoil of the Cold War. Jack L. Warner, Vice President in Charge of Production at the Studio, appeared twice before the committee, voluntarily, and a “friendly” witness. He pledged his allegiance to the investigation of the Parnell Thomas Committee and his support for the U.S., anti-Communist way. He even promised to initiate a fund to “ship to Russia the people who didn't like our American system of government and who preferred the communist system to ours.”(3)

He declared,

“The Warner Brothers interest in the preservation of the American way of life is no new thing with our company. Ever since we began making motion pictures we have fostered American ideals and done what we could to protect them...” (4)

MISSION TO MOSCOW, the controversial 1943 pro-Stalinist picture, was no exception.

“This picture was made when our country was fighting for its existence, with Russia as one of our allies. It was made to fulfill the same purpose for which we made such other pictures.”(5)

But if the Warners’ loyalty was still in question, the Studio proved itself by dismissing twelve of its screenwriters of alleged Communist leanings.

By the 1950s all the Hollywood studios were demonstrating their national loyalty through films offering an active anti-Communist line. Some examples: MY SON JOHN at Paramount, SILK STOCKINGS at MOM, RED PLANET MARS from United Artists, MAN ON A TIGHTROPE and PICKUP ON SOUTH STREET at Fox. Warner Brothers joined the cause with BIG JIM McLAIN in 1952, in which John Wayne and James Arness battled the Communist curse from Washington, D.C. to Hawaii. The picture was unique in that it lauded the activities of the House Un-American Activities Committee by actually dramatizing a “mock” HUAC proceeding on the screen. (John Wayne has to hold Arness in harness when Wayne’s fellow crusader wants to punch out a contemptuous, hostile witness who repeatedly resorts to the Fifth Amendment when under government questions.)

The Warners’ anti-Communist crusade continued into its production of short films in the 1950s and 60s. While Warners’ press releases exclaimed, “Shorts Mean Business. Advertise and Exploit Short Subjects to Bring Added Revenue to Your Box Office,” these patriotic shorts were preplanned at a financial loss to the studio. However, these professionally budgeted works were crucial to Warners’ image as an Anti-Communist Crusader.

One such short was the peculiar RED NIGHTMARE (1962, reissued 1965), produced under the personal supervision of Jack L. Warner. The clear objective of this “educational film” was to make formal alliance with the Department of Defense Directorate for the Armed Forces and Educational Information, the cosponsor of the project.(6)

The cast and credits listed on RED NIGHTMARE are as follows:

“Cast: Jack Kelly: Jerry Donavan; Jeane Cooper: Mrs. Donavan; also Peter Brown, Patricia Woodell, Andrew Ougan, Peter Buck, Robert Conrad, Mike Road. Narrated by Jack Webb.”

“Credits: Direction, Jack Waggner; Production, William L. Hendricks; Screenplay, Vincent Fortre; Photography, Robert Hoffman; Music, William Lava; Screen Editing, Folmer Bronstead.”

The film opens with a shot of a militaristic town, a small city ensnared with barbed wire and covered with sandbags. Two soldiers are speaking secretly in a droll, Slavic accent,

“Americans have too many freedoms. It is our purpose one day to defeat these bourgeois capitalists.”

Jack Webb approaches the camera amid this xenophobia to give us a clue to the meaning of this short.

“Frightening, isn't it?” the old detective patrolman retorts from behind his invisible badge.

“This town could be in Iowa, California, or Tennessee, as American as apple pie and ice cream ... Appearances are deceptive. This is not an American town. It is assumed that such a town exists somewhere behind the Iron Curtain.”

“It is a town shrouded in secrecy ... a college town -- Communist style. Here they study the economic, political, and religious heartbeat of American institutions. The courses ... are simple: propaganda as a science, espionage as an art, sabotage as a business ... deep in the Soviet Union.”

While the opening speech switches to voice over, we see a montage of ordinary U.S. scenes: a college campus, a malt shop, a laboratory, a blackboarded classroom. It’s a general picture of a new England college   -- students scurrying with books under their arms -- all part of the stream of life in the United States. These are sights and sounds from any ancient syndicated television show, remains from an earlier decade. The college campus looks like Walt Whitman High in Room 222, the malt shop might be from an old set from Ozzie and Harriet. This town has no peculiarity or eccentricity. It is the model of a leftover Eisenhower era community -- bland, unidentifiable, anonymous. But remember: this town is the facade for a Communist encampment. Jack Webb is right: “Appearances are deceptive.”

Amid this opening barrage of upside-down images, Webb sorts out the truth and puts us at ease, much like a CBS correspondent reporting from the confused war front. Webb’s voice is guttural and his eyes are as unwavering as a sergeant’s stare. His hair is close-cropped and shaped into military regulation. He is the ultimate TV cop, Badge 714, and he stands strong for law and order. We have just seen a communist town, he tells us. Now it’s time to see a real American town.

This is Midtown, another anonymous town, which also could be in Iowa, California or Tennessee. It has the same drugstore and malt shop, the college campus and the Protestant church. It is also the home of RED NIGHTMARE’s hero, Jerry Donavan. Jerry is married and has three lovely children. His biggest problem is choosing between stew and hamburger for his workingman’s dinner. In his free time away from the machine shop, Jerry bowls on Wednesday evenings and has a serious relationship with the TV.

But Jerry also has a stubborn streak, an individuality bordering occasionally on the anti-social. For instance, he believes that PTA meetings are a waste of time and refuses to attend them. But more seriously, he squabbles with his eighteen-year-old daughter when she announces a plan that disagrees with him. “Bill and I want to get married,” she smiles. Mother is overjoyed, offering her congratulations easily; but Jerry is distressed. He feels that the couple should wait four or five years for wedlock. The daughter looks teary-eyed, her fiancé dissident. A pleasant evening has broken apart by an opposition as strong as the battering of two rams.

On this night Jerry does not sleep easily, and not just because of the evening arguments. Jack Webb approaches with a little devil in his throat. He says:

“Jerry Donavan in a few minutes will be asleep. Let’s give Jerry a nightmare, a real, Red nightmare. Let’s lift it out of the Soviet Union and superimpose it on Jerry’s home town. We'll see how many freedoms Jerry loses when under Communist domination.”

An amorphous cloud, a pillar of smoke, some banal editing, and we are taken adrift. In Jerry’s dream world, Midtown, U.S.A., is under Communist siege and subjugation. Yet poor Jerry remains strangely oblivious to the change until almost all of his precious freedoms vanish away. All of a sudden, he needs a permit to telephone his wife. Armed guards patrol the streets -- in a frightful reenactment of the opening scene.

A fat commissar pulls his jeep up to a crowd gathered around the downtown park. The crowd listens intently. He advises,

“When the moral fiber of America weakens and the economics of competitive capitalism collapse, it will be your responsibility to purge the reactionary system and conform to the dictatorship of the proletariat.”

Other parts of Jerry’s orderly life have also been altered. Doting Mrs. Donavan has become a cybernaut, never betraying her wooden stare. Jerry’s older daughter is forced away by brusque military police, as she has volunteered to attend a Workers’ Agricultural School. Further, this daughter expresses no regret but mumbles something about the decaying family unit.

Even the younger Donavan scions are sapped-of-life Halloween goblins. They refuse to attend Sunday school but pack aggressively for their sojourn to a state-operated school. When Jerry desperately drags his children to the Presbyterian church, he finds it converted to a state museum. The curator is a squat man with a black moustache and black eyes and has a distinct resemblance to Stalin. Jerry’s hostility finally is beyond control. He smashes a valuable museum piece to the floor, and he is hustled away by forceful guards.

Jerry’s trial is a microcosm of Justice, Communist style. Jerry, the accused, is not even allowed a seat. He has no defense, no written indictment, only signed accusations, and a jury that looks like the decidedly unsympathetic front line of an opposition football team. They hulk impassively while the shrewd district attorney twists and molds the case. Jerry is convicted in this kangaroo court -- convicted of subversion, deviation, and treason. He lands in jail.

As in many famous Hollywood scenes, Jerry sits tied to a chair, with a pendant light swaying ominously across his eyes. A sadistic guard circles around, intimidating him to confess other names in the underground conspiracy. But Jerry refuses to squeal, maligns the Communist system for his Last Request. He is shot helplessly in the head to climax the Red Nightmare.

This dream narrative allows the Warners filmmakers to pile together every surrealistic stereotype of life under the Communist state. There is no bill of rights, no choice of religion -- no religion at all, no right against illegal searches, no freedom of speech and choice, no freedom to criticize the state. Further, there is no civil law; the state decides who lives and dies.

The party members have no warmth, only a dedication to the ideal state; they are shiftless, pusillanimous, and petrified. The people under their domination are similarly cold, hypnotic, and unmerciful; they betray their husbands and send their children to labor camps. These Communists are unicellular; they only have one goal, to maintain the state while destroying the capitalist, bourgeois system.

Overcoming his dismal nightmare, Jerry awakens to Midtown morning. He marches down the staircase in high fashion, full of love and humanity. He kisses his wife as if the marriage ceremony were being reenacted. And Jerry now chooses detente in place of last night’s stubbornness. After breakfast, Jerry meets with his daughter and her fiancé to discuss the marriage plans anew. It seems that Bill is joining the service, so the betrothal can be postponed for a time, though not quite for so long as originally proposed by Jerry. But a compromise is on hand, and Jerry Donavan is delighted with it.

Our hero has truly “awakened,” for he knows the meaning of living freely without suppression. In the United States alone, this can be done. Jack Webb explains: “Freedom must be earned.” With this knowledge, Jerry has become an American at last. He has returned from his “Mission to Moscow.”

The last two minutes of RED NIGHTMARE contains another montage paean to U.S. freedoms: freedom to have simple pleasures, to educate, to vote, to come and go, to own property, to marry, to study and learn, to have a career, to speak. It is the freedom found in the hypnotic, star-spangled music that sounds the very last shot: grinning militia men of every uniform walking arm in arm down the steps of the nation’s capital. A hundred versions of Bill, Jerry’s future son-in-law. The United States’ future.

In 1975 RED NIGHTMARE seems, of course, a stupid and silly film, but it is too important a document to banish to the vaults of the Congressional Library. It should be watched and recalled as a statement from Warner Brothers Studio and as a personal project of Jack L. Warner. Surely it is easy to sentimentalize Warners for I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, CASABLANCA, and other commendable political works. But just as surely RED NIGHTMARE was not a dream in the Warners repertoire.


1. Leo C. Rosten, Hollywood: The Movie Colony, The Movie Makers, p. 145.

2. Ibid p. 152.

3. Reid Rosefelt, “Celluloid Sedition? The Strange Case of the Hollywood Ten,” The Velvet Light Trap, No. 11, Testimony from the Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding the Communist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, Eighteenth Congress, 1947, p. 8.

4. Take One, Vol. 2, No. 4, Testimony from the House Committee on Un-American Activities, Hearings Regarding the Comm.4nist Infiltration of the Motion Picture Industry, Eightieth Congress, 1947, p. 8.

5. Ibid., p. 8.

6. According to THE SELLING OF THE PENTAGON, the CBS documentary, RED NIGHTMARE was the most ambitious of the Department of Defense films. However, many other films were made in alliance with the Pentagon. Many of these shorts dealt with Vietnam; Jack Webb tells of the catastrophe resulting from a pullout of U.S. troops from Indochina in THE ABANDONMENT OF VIETNAM. The late Chet Huntley, formerly of NBC news, narrates the film, THE AMERICAN NAVY IN VIETNAM. Another source of propaganda films arises from the threat of world Communist domination. Walter Cronkite, Mr. Twentieth Century, discusses the spread of Communism over Asia, Europe, and the United States in THE EAGLE TALON (1962). Not only will the earth become one Red stronghold, but James Cagney tells us that the moon, the planets, and even beyond will be controlled by Communists in ROAD TO THE WORLD. Some other films released through the Office of the Chief of Information are: WHY VIETNAM, RED CHINA'S BATTLE PLAN, COMMUNIST TARGET: YOUTH, OUTLOOK S.E. ASIA, THE COLD WAR, ALONE UNARMED.