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"Make a good picture that will tell people that the decision is theirs to make... This is the beginning or the end." With that remark to producers at MGM, President Harry S. Truman gave his stamp of approval to and provided the title for The Beginning or the End, a 1947 docudrama about the development and world-changing use of the atomic bomb to bring about an end to World War II in 1945.
While other writers and studios had also proposed a film about the birth of the atomic age, this was the first reality-based feature on the subject to see the light of a projector. Along the way the project passed through numerous writers at MGM including an outline written by none other than Atlas Shrugged author Ayn Rand in January of 1946 under the working title Top Secret. Among her contributions was a montage of Hitler's conquests and a sequence involving a dying informer sending an urgent message to Albert Einstein, as well as a brief sequence with President Franklin Delano Roosevelt giving the go ahead for the bomb project. Some of the other writers brought on at various points as seen in MGM's original production records included Bob Considine, Robert Smith, Frank Wead, Norman Krasna, David Hawkins, John Lee Mahin, Glenn Tryon, and producer Sam Marx, who contributed written narration to the opening sequence. Alternate titles were also temporarily assigned to the film including Atom Bomb and The Manhattan Project.
Extensive research was undertaken to ensure accuracy including painstaking details on the Enola Gay and its crews, as well as other details like the intricacies of military attire with inspirations including Major General Curtis E. LeMay, the so-called "grim prophet." Several real-life figures were depicted in the film, including both U.S. presidents with FDR played by Godfrey Tearle and Truman by Art Baker. Other familiar figures were played by actors strongly associated with film noir: Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, played by Hume Cronyn hot off of his role in The Postman Always Rings Twice (1946); Major General Leslie R. Groves (Brian Donlevy, back to back with Kiss of Death the same year); Italian physicist Dr. Enrico Fermi (Joseph Calleia, just seen in Gilda and Deadline at Dawn the year before); and of course, Dr. Albert Einstein (Ludwig Stssel, just seen in Fritz Lang's Cloak and Dagger).
However, this being a Hollywood studio film, there also had to be a dramatic core for audience identification. As the concept of the film was developed further from the idea of an ambiguous moral stance about the use of atomic weapons, greater emphasis was placed on Matt Cochran, a fictionalized composite character played by Tom Drake, still best known as "the boy next door" John Truett in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944). A clean-cut MGM contract actor, he had also recently appeared in the studio's Courage of Lassie and The Green Years, both 1946. Also added were Robert Walker (soon to achieve immortality in 1951's Strangers on a Train) as a military colonel and Hurd Hatfield (another MGM vet from the 1945 version of The Picture of Dorian Gray) as a scientist, though it's still Drake who drives the film to its melodramatic, sacrificial climax.
In addition to the newly added characters, the ending of the film was altered several times in production. Originally the concept involved concluding with the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki with a child finding a note written in Japanese and English threatening further imminent destruction unless Japan surrenders, but the tone grew more sentimental and patriotic as the cameras started rolling. Many critics derided the eventual epilogue involving the Lincoln Memorial, finding it overly manipulative and obviously tacked on (which it was).
With the Production Code still controlling all of the Hollywood output at the time, this film ran into few problems but had to lose some of its edgier dialogue during the approval process. Some of the deleted lines included potentially derogatory references to Mexicans, a query about radioactive material ("Is it true if you fool around with that stuff you don't like girls anymore?"), and a potentially offensive reference to national politics ("I got it confidential--we're makin' the front ends of horses. We ship 'em to Washington to hook on to the other end."). In Spain the film underwent an additional round of censorship when the local authorities demanded the removal of the chaplain's invocation before the Hiroshima bomb drop.
The critical reception for The Beginning or the End ranged from respectful and positive to mixed, with Variety summing it up as "a vivid documentary picturization" that "suffers, however, from an inept mixture of atom and hokum." However, seen today it's a fascinating snapshot of the nation's identity during its postwar transition, functioning exactly like the time capsule mission statement heard in its opening minutes.
By Nathaniel Thompson