Monday, July 16, 2012

Spies like us

I've been seeing how many calories I can log on the exercise machines at the gym (I realize those numbers may not accurately measure what I'm burning but they make a good motivational metric). To keep myself distracted I've been digging up all the files I can for my cheap media player, including a number from the wonderful Internet Archive.

One of the shows on the playlist was Ziv Television's I Led Three Lives. I had never actually seen the show but I had heard about it and knew the basic premise -- a fictionalized account of a man who infiltrated the communist party for the FBI. It was a well done show (Ziv always knew how to get the most out of a limited budget and often hired some interesting talent like Harlan Ellison and Gene Roddenberry), but what stood out was just how much a product of its time the show was and how difficult it would be to imagine the '53-'56 show ten years later.

We often talk about the Sixties as being the height of the Cold War but that certainly isn't the picture you get from pop culture. Light entertainment like Man from UNCLE and Hogan's Heroes as well as message films like the Russians are Coming featured sympathetic Russian communists. More serious fiction like the Harry Palmer and Matt Helm books (no, really) and most of all the novels of John LeCarre depicted counter-intelligence agents as morally compromised as their counterparts. Even the Bond films never used the Russians as primary villains.

The difference in attitudes is particularly sharp when the Bond movies are compared to the corresponding novels of a decade earlier. Other than the Blofeld arc at the end of the series (which also happened to be the Sixties books), the villains in Fleming's books were Russians and they were every bit as despicable (and somewhat more cartoonish) than the fifth columnists in I Led  Three Lives.

Of course it was possible to find evil Russian communists and (thanks to Stan Lee*) even rhe occasional fifth columnist, but the public mood had clearly changed. I would guess this was primarily a reaction to the Cuban Missile Crisis but I'm open to other suggestions.

*On a related note, Lee's famous break with the comics code was prompted by a request from the Nixon administration'

(From Wiki)

An early 1970s Spider-Man story led to the revision of the Comics Code. Previously, the Code forbade the depiction of the use of illegal drugs, even negatively. However, in 1970, the Nixon administration's Department of Health, Education, and Welfare asked Stan Lee to publish an anti-drug message in one of Marvel's top-selling titles.[1]:239 Lee chose the top-selling The Amazing Spider-Man; issues #96–98 (May–July 1971) feature a story arcdepicting the negative effects of drug use. In the story, Peter Parker's friend Harry Osborn becomes addicted to pills. When Spider-Man fights the Green Goblin (Norman Osborn, Harry's father), Spider-Man defeats the Green Goblin, by revealing Harry's drug addiction. While the story had a clear anti-drug message, the Comics Code Authority refused to issue its seal of approval. Marvel nevertheless published the three issues without the Comics Code Authority's approval or seal. The issues sold so well that the industry's self-censorship was undercut and the Code was subsequently revised.[1]:239 
[Also posted at Mippyville TV]

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