“First was your firecracker, a harmless explosive. Then your hand grenade: you began to kill your own people, a few at a time. Then, the bomb. Then, a larger bomb: many people are killed at one time. Then your scientists stumbled upon the atom bomb, split the atom.” ‒Eros (Dudley Manlove), in Plan 9 from Outer Space
While the words of Edward D. Wood, Jr. are usually laughed at, the above passage from the late B-movie auteur’s best-known messterpiece is almost as pithy as Wood intended it to be when it comes to describing Hollywood’s first (and perhaps least-known) attempt at dramatizing the Manhattan Project and the subsequent bombing of Hiroshima during World War II. And said film, 1947’s The Beginning or the End (that’s “or”, not “of,” so don’t confuse this with a certain Bert I. Gordon flick about giant locusts invading Chicago made ten years later), is an interesting affair indeed. Though unquestionably a dramatization (many realities are sugar coated; after all, this was 1947), the film is presented in docudrama form ‒ which was very rare for its time.
The Beginning begins the beguine (couldn’t help it, sorry!) with a faux newsreel showcasing the depositing of a time capsule somewhere in the redwoods of Northern California. Here, many of the film’s leads ‒ in character ‒ are including a copy of the movie we are about to see itself, to be viewed in 500 years by the descendants of the human race, providing there are any by then, that is (“never comprehending the race had long gone by”?). Even by 1947 standards, such a thing was probably seen as being a bit silly, but Hume Cronyn’s depiction of Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer ‒ who addresses the audiences of both then, now, and tomorrow ‒ does so straightforwardly. From there, we venture into the “feature” film itself , which is also pretty straightforward.
It’s also fairly inaccurate, despite the filmmakers’ claims it was not. Most of these faults in the storyline are deliberate: it wouldn’t exactly be advisable to tell people how atomic bombs are made, now would it? Two references about the US dropping warning leaflets on Hiroshima ten days prior to its bombing have also been strongly refuted, but then, at the End of the day, this is just supposed to be a movie, right? (Right?) Sadly, many filmgoers back in ’47 weren’t entirely certain about that. The movie’s overemphasis on good old fashioned theatrical dramatics combined with actual real life events comes was not well received.
Ironically, The Beginning or the End ‒ a film about “the bomb” ‒ bombed itself out of existence at the box office; the title doomed to a radioactive shelf-life of nearly 70 years afterward. But, much like the appeal post-apocalyptic movies have with select audiences today, this pre-apocalyptic docudrama ‒ a precursor to the prelude of an alternate history we only ever had to worry about, fortunately ‒ still has it a certain impact after all this time. The great Brian Donlevy takes the lead billing credit as a characterization of Major General Leslie R. Groves, who has the unenviable task of being in charge of the Manhattan Project once a group of scientists including a naïve, timid Tom Drake ‒ who gets the doomed (fictionalized variation of) Louis Slotin role of the story (also see: John Cusack in Fat Man and Little Boy).
But it’s second-billed then-Hollywood heartthrob Robert Walker who gets to shine the most as he and his fellow actors apply copious amounts of SPF-1,000,000,000 in the face of experimental atomic blasts. Starting off as an observer for the government, Mr. Walker’s fictional character winds up going all the way to the big party crashing event of the millennium itself as the story progresses. Lovely lasses Audrey Totter and Beverly Tyler portray the significant others of our younger male heroes (doomed and not doomer); Hurd Hatfield and the underrated Joseph Calleia are doctors John Wyatt and Enrico Fermi, respectively; young Barry Nelson is the pilot of the Enola Gay; while Godfrey Tearle and Ludwig Stössel turn in memorable cameos as FDR and Einstein.
A number of other familiar faces line the projected side of The Beginning or the End throughout, while it is interesting to note the film’s origins began with actress Donna Reed and her high school science teacher (she obviously blinded him with science, though it’s not what teacher said to do, making dreams come true like that). Screenwriter Bob Considine ‒ who co-wrote the script for Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo with Dalton Trumbo three years before ‒ penned the initial treatment, which was then passed onto the likes of Ayn Rand before being finalized by Frank Wead (The Hoodlum Saint, They Were Expendable). Director Norman Taurog later dropped more bombs on humanity by helming many several Elvis movies.
Finally available for both the nostalgic and the curious to see, The Beginning or the End has hit DVD-R thanks to the nuclear powered efforts of the good folks at the Warner Archive Collection. Presented in its original 1.37:1 aspect ratio, the transfer of this lost gem (and its many pickled leads) looks incredibly nice. But then, this one hasn’t exactly been making the rounds since its unsuccessful theatrical debut in 1947. Speaking of which, the sole extra for this Manufactured-on-Demand release is a lengthy preview, which is something of a time capsule in itself. Designed to heavily promote the feature film MGM was extremely hopeful to turn into a hit, the trailer is presented as a newsreel (just like the beginning of The Beginning of the End), entitled “The Inquiring Reporter.”
Here, a slew of uncredited bit players are on parade as an uncredited “reporter” interviews various people from all walks of (white, Christian, red-blooded American) life following an exclusive premiere for the film. From a family of four (whose young boy likes the airplanes, while his older sister likes the romantic angle, thus shamelessly plugging the “something for everyone” angle) to a priest who considers it recommended viewing. Nobody has nary a bad thing to say about the film, naturally, as this phoniness of this event stands out farther than the big ’80s hair of some of the female extras in many Italian post-apocalyptic movies. The weird trailer features Morris Ankrum and Barbara Billingsley, too (to name a few), making Warner Archive’s debut of The Beginning or the End that much more enjoyable.
Don’t wait for someone to unbury the incinerated remains of the nitrate stock copy our nuke-bearing forefathers placed in a time capsule: just order the DVD-R today!