HOLLYWOOD AND HITLER

The Guardian reports on a new book by Harvard professor Ben Urwand detailing active collaboration between the Hollywood studios and Hitler’s Nazis. Alarmed by the Nazi reaction to ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT (perhaps the only anti-war movie a Hollywood studio ever made), and worried about profits from screenings in Germany, American studio heads – many of them recent eastern European Jewish refugees – enthusiastically worked with Hitler’s censors to alter films or even cancel productions entirely in order to protect access to the German film market. All the studios were guilty, though MGM was the worst, using its tied-up Deutschmarks to invest in the German arms industry.

It’s a disgusting story which I can’t wait to read in full: entirely credible if you’ve had any dealing with the Hollywood studios or their London branch offices, where censorship, appeasement and collaboration have always been the order of the day. The story is also suitably ironic in that it follows another Guardian article – published only a month ago – entitled Be Nice To China, which details the Hollywood studios’ current grovelling to the Beijing regime: self-censorship, re-editing films to remove offensive references to China, and including shots of the glittering skyline of Shanghai. Among recent (and upcoming) studio films re-edited to please the Chinese government are DJANGO UNCHAINED, RED DAWN, IRON MAN 3, WORLD WAR Z, and TRANSFORMERS 4.

I don’t mean to suggest an offensive parallel between the Chinese government and Hitler’s Nazis. But both regimes were/are anti-democratic, and opposed to the freedoms we supposedly fight and die for (especially the freedom not to watch another TRANSFORMERS or Tarantino movie). It’s entertaining to read how the Chinese pay no attention whatsoever to our most important freedom of all – “free trade” – and limit the screening of foreign films in China to 34 films a year. The only way to circumvent the trade restraint (long ago abolished in “free” countries like Britain and Mexico, which are as a result swamped with American film and TV garbage) is to make your film a co-production with Chinese producers: censorship requirements apply in either case.

So it goes, when big corporate money is the only thing that matters and film is no longer treated as a personal statement, or an art.

Many thanks to Jerry Donaghy for the copy of Harry Harrison’s original Plague From Space. I’ve read it and am preparing a comparative essay on this and the subsequent Jupiter Plague, for your and his entertainment. One immediate observation: paperback books in the 1960s had much better cover art than in the 1980s. Why?

Meanwhile, modesty forbids me from sharing this review with you. It’s of a little book I wrote about the parallel lives of President Kennedy and his alleged assassin. It comes out next week in the US, courtesy of Feral House, and in the UK in November. The title is The President and The Provocateur.

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THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE…

Within the same twelve month period (1965-66) Harry Harrison finished three science fiction novels. MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! was his serious take on overpopulation, the only one of his books (so far) to have been filmed. BILL, THE GALACTIC HERO was something he’d been working on for several years — probably since he read STARSHIP TROOPERS and was so pissed off by it. And there was a third book, too: a short novel called THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE. A few years after PLAGUE was published, Michael Crighton published his own novel about a plague from space, which got made into a tedious major motion picture. This annoyed Harry since he felt that Crighton borrowed much of his plot and all of his research (it’s one of his books, like WEST OF EDEN, which came from a process of research and collaboration with gen-u-ine scientists — the way science fiction used to be). So Harry re-worked the book and republished it as THE JUPITER PLAGUE.

Last week, the used bookstores of Oregon yielded up two of Harry’s works – another copy of BILL (can’t have too many of them!) and THE JUPITER PLAGUE, which I had never read before. I haven’t yet found a copy of THE PLAGUE FROM SPACE so can’t comment on how different the two books are. What impresses me is the sheer hard work of which H.H. was capable: three novels in a year, at least one of them a masterpiece.

Yet it’s a puzzling book, as well — hard to believe it’s from the pen of the man who wrote BILL, since it’s heroes are hard-charging medics and army generals (in other words, the people who cause all the problems and stupidity in Harry’s anti-war tract). Thinking about it, all three books — written the same year — seem to contradict each other: BILL is entirely cynical and shows no respect for any authority, of any kind; the hero of MAKE ROOM! is an honest, if ineffectual, police detective; the protagonists of PLAGUE are all authority figures: doctors, cops, the military. All are good, entertaining reads. PLAGUE is the weakest of the three, though it comes back to life splendidly in its final pages when the presence of an incomprehensible alien being aboard the plague ship, managing the viral attacks, is revealed.

But what did Harry think? Are MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE just “work novels” while BILL reveals the author’s true feelings? Or were there no true feelings — just books? Like most of his contemporaries, Harry wrote fast, aiming for first publication in science fiction magazines, and wrote for a living: that was how he and the family survived. And the market in the mid-sixties was still for “hard”, science-based science fiction (the fashion for imps and elves and dragons and Star Trek/Wars which has devastated the modern medium had not yet occurred) so books like MAKE ROOM! and PLAGUE were more likely to find a publisher. Remember that BILL was rejected by Harry’s regular publisher and it was only the enthusiasm of his dear wife Joan, who found it hilarious, that kept him working on it.

BILL is also unusual in that there is no hard science in it. The Bloater Drive, the dehydrator ray, the robot humans with lizards instead of brains, all is entertaining and full of meaning, but not the kind of meaning a DUNE fan would understand. I love Harry’s writing, but feel that in some books – like the EDEN trilogy and PLAGUE – he was shackled by his science fiction writer’s respect for hard science. He was an intelligent man and he wanted the science to be right – but often that stuff just gets in the way of the story, slowing the narrative pace as the author gets into the nitty-gritty of viruses or reptilian warm-bloodedness. Whereas in BILL, his own experiences were the story. Despite the insanity of it all, nothing was made up or needed to be “researched”. Everything that happens in BILL had happened, one way or another, to Harry Harrison. Many of those things have happened to you and me, too. There is truth in BILL of a greater depth than mere scientific accuracy or historical veracity. Which is why it will endure, I think. (Better make a good film of it, then!)

Revisiting these sixties science fiction books has led me to compile a short list of science fiction stories which may encourage us as we begin work on the film. I really compiled it for my students, but I’ll share it here, and add to it as I remember the titles which are currently eluding me… In no particular order, if you’re interested in reading some outstanding “hard” science fiction, I recommend:

Who Can Replace a Man?, by Brian Aldiss

Lot, by Ward Moore

The Only Thing We Can Learn, by C.M. Kornbluth

The Tunnel Under The World, by Frederic Pohl

Children of the Night, also by Frederic Pohl

Hell is the Absence of God, by Ted Chaing

Sound of Thunder, by Ray Bradbury

Poor Little Warrior, also by Brian Aldiss

(Oh, and here’s a plug for a written offering of my own. Please buy it at your local independent bookstore, or from the publishers!)