Movies & Rural America

MoviesThe motion picture industry began the 1950s struggling to hold on to some semblance of its glory years of the 1930s in the face of television, and ended the 60s struggling to find a new artistic voice in the face of social upheaval in American society. In the process, movies brought both challenging ideas and escapism to even the most remote corner of rural America.

In 1960, the average price of a movie ticket was 69-cents, the equivalent of around $4.00 in today’s dollars. But despite bargain basement prices, fewer and fewer Americans were going to see movies. In 1943, despite the war, Americans were spending 25.7 percent of their recreation budgets in movie theatres; by 1960 that dropped to 5.2 percent, and in 1970 it dropped to 2.9 percent. People found it more rewarding to stay home and watch television or go do something else. Movie revenues plunged by a third between 1950 and 1960 – from $1.4 billion to $951 million. The total number of films released in the U.S. dropped from almost 400 in 1943, to around 200 in 1960 and to 186 in 1970.

To try to win back audiences from TV, the movie industry promoted the color, better sound, big screens and emotional power of the theatre experience, even to the point of inventing new formats like “Cinerama,” “Cinemascope” and – thankfully, briefly – 3-D and “Aroma-Rama.” The huge wide screen formats demanded spectacular stories like The Ten Commandments, The Robe, and Ben-Hur that were all top money making films of the 50s. That list also included several Disney titles designed to appeal to the growing Baby Boomers – Cinderella, Peter Pan, Lady and the Tramp and Sleeping Beauty.

In the 60s, Disney scored again with 101 Dalmations, The Jungle Book, The Love Bug and Mary Poppins. Robert Wise, an independent producer, scored with The Sound of Music, a film that had the feel of a Disney movie. Historical epics included Spartacus, Cleopatra, The Carpetbaggers, and World War II flicks The Guns of Navarone and The Dirty Dozen. Both Thunderball and Goldfinger did very well beginning the James Bond franchise. And toward the end of the decade, The Graduate questioned the authority of the older generation and still made money.

Rural American values were celebrated in the continuing popularity of Westerns. For many audience members the Western echoed themes of good vs. evil in the struggle between capitalism and communism in the Cold War. Shane and The Searchers have become classics of the genre from the 50s, while How the West was Won, The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid were notable examples from the 60s. John Wayne won his only Oscar for his role in True Grit in 1969.

But those same rural American values were portrayed as evil in Easy Rider where Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson (as Captain America, Billy and George respectively) were murdered by conservative rednecks who couldn’t tolerate the counterculture lifestyles portrayed by the film.

Other films took on the issues facing Americans in the 50s and 60s.

  • The threat of Communism, in films like The Manchurian Candidate and I Was a Communist for the FBI. The witch hunts of Sen. Joseph McCarthy produced a blacklist of former Communists in Hollywood and at least one great film from the period – On the Waterfront that dealt subtly with the pressure to conform politically.
  • Civil rights, with films like Broken Arrow, The Defiant Ones, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night.
  • Changes in sexual mores, in films like From Here to Eternity, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Peyton Place, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, The Seven Year Itch, Lolita, Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice, and The Graduate.
  • Drugs, in The Man with the Golden Arm, Midnight Cowboy and Easy Rider.
  • Crime and violence, in films like Cool Hand Luck, In Cold Blood, Bullitt, Bonnie and Clyde and all the increasingly violent Westerns.
  • Youthful rebellion, in films like Blackboard Jungle, Rebel Without a Cause, East of Eden, Giant, A Hard-Day’s Night, Blow-Up and Alice’s Restaurant.
  • The Vietnam War was still too controversial in the 60s to really be dealt with in films. About the only Vietnam film to be produced in the 60s was John Wayne’s jingoistic The Green Berets. Later, the war produced such outstanding films as Platoon, The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Full Metal Jacket, Coming Home and even Forrest Gump.

The threat of nuclear war was portrayed by a series of both serious and silly movies.

Easy Rider Movie captureIn the 50s, no really knew what to make of radioactivity. There were newspaper stories about how radiation might cause mutations, followed quickly by preposterous films like Attack of the 50 Foot Woman (radiation from an alien creates, you guessed it, a 50-foot woman), Them (where nuclear tests produce giant killer ants), Godzilla (where nuclear tests produce a 164-foot dinosaur) and It Came From Beneath the Sea (where an atomic radiation creates a giant octopus).

But there were serious films as well. In 1959, On the Beach (directed by Stanley Kramer) was one of the first films to show what would, conceivably, happen after an all-out nuclear war. Gregory Peck plays the commander of a U.S. submarine that has survived the war, and he’s looking for the last place on earth that hasn’t been destroyed by the radioactive fallout cloud – Australia. The cast includes Ava Gardner, Anthony Perkins and Nebraska-native Fred Astaire in his first dramatic movie role. All of the characters wait for the inevitable – the moment when the radioactive cloud reaches Australia and all life ceases.

In 1964, there were three distinguished films that explored the dangers of nuclear war.

In Seven Days in May (directed by John Frankenheimer) fictional President Jordan Lyman (Fredric March) pushes through a nuclear disarmament treaty. But a politically ambitious General James Scott (Burt Lancaster in a role loosely based on Douglas McArthur) opposes the plan and plots what amounts to a military coup. His friend, Col. Jiggs Casey (Kirk Douglas) is torn between his loyalty to his military colleague and his sworn oath to protect the Constitution.

That same year, Fail-Safe (directed by Sidney Lumet) explores the limits of government to control nuclear arms. A nuclear scare, somewhat like the Cuban missile crisis or two years before, puts U.S. nuclear bombers in the air on their way to a “fail-safe” point where they can be ordered to turn around or proceed to targets in the USSR. When the President (this time played by Henry Fonda) realizes it’s a mistake, the military orders all planes back to base, but there are six planes that fail to receive the “fail-safe” message. In the end, the President is forced to trade the destruction of Soviet cities for the destruction of a like number of American ones to avoid an all out nuclear exchange.

Also in 1964, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb. Kubrick brilliantly lays out the absurdity of the nuclear stand off. The Soviets have created a dooms day nuclear machine that will be triggered when a mad Air Force General Jack D. Ripper sends his bomber wing to destroy Russia to preserve our “precious bodily fluids.” The cast includes Sterling Haydon (as the mad colonel), George C. Scott (as another general), James Earl Jones (in an early role as a member of the bomber crew) and Slim Pickens as the bomber commander who is suicidally committed to his mission. The cast was headed by Peter Sellers in three different roles, the President, British Col Mandrake and former Nazi genius Dr. Strangelove himself. Actually, Strangelove may have stolen the thunder from the other two films because it came out in January 1964 – before Seven Days (released in February) and Fail-Safe (in October) – and so ironically counseled viewers to “stop worrying” about the bomb.

In part because of these movies, most rural and urban citizens found it almost impossible to be comfortable with nuclear arms pointed at them.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2007. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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