Top Five (and other) Cold War Movies

The Spy Who ... (Richard Burton)

Richard Burton as Alec Leamas in “The Spy Who Came In From The Cold”

Bryan Caskey has drawn up his Top Five Cold War Movies over at his blog, and I feel compelled to answer it. My perspective is a little different from his, because I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s, giving me not only different cultural touchstones, but a different feel for the Cold War itself.

Here’s my Top Five:

  1. The Spy Who Came in from The Cold — This defines the genre. Starts and ends at the Berlin Wall. A lot of bad movies were made from good books in the ’60s, but this wasn’t one of them. It did a great job of capturing the atmosphere, the moral ambiguity and the deception-within-deception-within-deception plotline of LeCarre’s book.
  2. Dr. Strangelove — I was torn between this and Fail-Safe, which was the same story without the comedy. But this was such an awesome piece of film-making, it had to go on the list. Strangelove got us to laugh at the things that caused our hair to stand on end in Fail-Safe. The link is to my favorite scene: “Now, then, Dimitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the Bomb…”
  3. Our Man in Havana — I’m going for satirical again with this spoof of the spy genre. Both Alec Guinness and Ernie Kovacs. How do you beat that? Based on Graham Greene’s most enjoyable “entertainment” (which is what he called his less serious novels), which inspired le Carre’s The Tailor of Panama.
  4. The Mouse That Roared — Yes, I’m going for the more obscure reference because Barry in High Fidelity (the ultimate authority for the science of Top Five lists) would sneer at any Top Five list that didn’t have one that no one else would think of. I’ll even admit that the movie wasn’t very good — although I enjoyed the book. This is about a tiny country with a medieval military capability that becomes the world’s greatest power by stealing a Doomsday Machine from the U.S. For Strangelove fans, this also has Peter Sellers in multiple roles.
  5. The Manchurian Candidate — Paranoia is a huge part of what the Cold War was about, and this is the classic of that genre.

Another Five, in case you’d like a Top Ten:

  1. Seven Days in May — In a way not really about the Cold War, except for the paranoia thing.
  2. Fail-Safe — I initially had this in the Top Five, trying to be cool by picking on the less-obvious choice. I was going to say that “Awesome as it was, Strangelove was more about a sort of smartass 60s cultural sensibility than it was about the way real people felt about nuclear annihilation.” But I changed my mind.
  3. The Ipcress File — Perhaps the all-time best Michael Caine vehicle, based on Len Deighton’s very best novel. Deighton’s book is breezily ironic, very hip, yet far more realistic than Bond.
  4. The Lives of Others — A look at what life was like on the other side of the curtain.
  5. WarGames — More of a movie about the then-new phenomenon of computer hackers than about the Cold War, but it still fits in the genre. Ferris Bueller meets Fail-Safe.

Also-rans, in no particular order:

  • The Third Man — This might have made the list, but I think it’s more about postwar black-marketeering than about the Cold War proper.
  • Stripes — Great fun, but too silly to make the Top Five list.
  • The Right Stuff — Not what you think of as “Cold War,” maybe, but what was it all about? Trying to prevent the godless Russkies from being able to drop nukes on us from space, like rocks from a highway overpass. An amazing job of turning a book that is mostly about the narration into an engaging film.
  • Red Dawn — A high school kid’s fantasy of World War III. I mean, wouldn’t every adolescent boy like to see the boredom of school interrupted by a shooting war in which he is the hero?
  • Twilight’s Last Gleaming — Didn’t we see Burt Lancaster play this character before, in “Seven Days in May”?
  • The Quiet American — The jaded European view of Americans as blundering do-gooders.
  • Blast from the Past — Bomb-shelter anxieties transformed into romantic comedy.
  • 2010 — The sequel to 2001: A Space Odyssey, this one wrongly guessed that we’d still be goin’ toe-to-toe with the Russkies nine years later. Best parts: Both Dave and Hal show up.
Ernie Kovacs playing minibottle chess in "Our Man in Havana."

Ernie Kovacs playing minibottle checkers in “Our Man in Havana.”


19 thoughts on “Top Five (and other) Cold War Movies

  1. Steve Gordy

    A number of good selections on these various lists. In my mind, the classic era of Cold War movies ended in 1965, when Vietnam heated up. After Vietnam, I can’t think of a single flick to rank with Fail-Safe or Dr. Strangelove.

  2. Silence

    Good list, it seems like you’ve covered all of your bases. I’ll go ahead and dispute the Third Man, because while it’s a cinematic masterpiece, it’s not really cold war. I’ts more of a detective noir against the backdrop of post-war occupied Vienna.
    Good inclusion of “The Mouse That Roared” I haven’t thought about that story in years.

  3. bud

    Crimson Tide was also very good.

    Then there were the flops: “Torn Curtain”, Hitchcock’s worst movie, and “The Green Beret”, John Wayne’s worst.

    1. Silence

      bud – it’s “The Green Berets” , since there was more than one beret. It may have been John Wayne’s worst movie, but it was SSgt Barry Sadler’s best song.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        I had that on a 45…

        It would definitely be the first song on a Barry Sadler Greatest Hits album. And the second. And the third. In fact, they should just call it a Greatest Hit album…

        Or stick with the 45…

  4. Bryan Caskey

    I was talking to someone at dinner last night who was telling me about how good “Seven Days in May” was. I need to add that to my list of movies to watch.

  5. Kathryn Fenner

    My then 20 something niece was studying History at USC in about 2003, and despite being a product of supposedly excellent Massachusetts schools, had no idea what the Cold War was. I rented The Spy Who Came in From the Cold as the best way to illustrate what it was about.

    There is a very cute German film whose name escapes me, set in East Germany at the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. The mother is a good Party member who falls into a coma right before the Wall falls, and is not to be upset after she recovers, so her family contrives to recreate East Germany for her, including the dreadful pickles…..

  6. Scout

    The Hunt for Red October? I liked that one, but I’ve not seen most of these so don’t know how it compares.

  7. Cormac Farrell Dublin.

    Good list. As a Cold War junky though I’ve got to point out a few possibilities that you might find interesting.
    1. Movie. “Threads”. If you want to get to the very core of the utter horror of Nuclear War, this movie is it. Released around the same time as “The day after” it is more graphic, more pessimistic, more realistic, more brutal and also moves the clock forward a number of years to further illustrate the nightmare world we were busy preparing ourselves for. Grimey, grimly majestic. NOT for the faint hearted.

    2.Series. The Cambridge Spies. Excellent BBC mini series which gives detailed background of the Cambridge spies, Burgess, Philby, McClean and Blunt. Brilliantly put together, beautifully shot and a real insight into the hopelessly idealistic spies who were later disabused of their rose tinted communist spectacles , drinking themselves to death in dreary Muscovite Apartments. The series only gets as far as their dramatic uncovering and hurried defections. But as usual the BBC get it spot on.

    Ps. Complete agree on TTSS movie. Despite bizarre alterations to the story a very commendable effort, heard rumours they are talking about “Smileys People” movie as a sequel to the above. If so, can’t wait.

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