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Beginning or the End, The (DVD Review)

26 Oct, 2015 By: Mike Clark

Available via Warner Archive
$21.99 DVD
Not rated
Stars Robert Walker, Tom Drake, Brian Donlevy, Hume Cronyn.

Somewhere around age 11 or 12 I used to confuse The Beginning or the End with 1957’s The Beginning of the End (emphasis on “of”) — the latter a frugally-budgeted folly about grasshoppers the size of buses attempting to eat Chicago, with only Peter Graves to stop them. Its “or” predecessor, however, had a much less fanciful disaster on its mind — the all-too-real bombing of Hiroshima (Nagasaki is ignored here) after a massive wartime coalition of scientists, politicians and other keepers of top secrets to develop the atomic bomb in the first place.     

Hollywood really wasn’t up to the subject matter so soon after World War II, but this very strange movie still makes an interesting (if exasperating) view for its compromised plot emphases but surprisingly thoughtful overall attitude, which is more solemn and less prone to “rah-rah” than one might expect from an MGM movie of the time. I remember taking part in a rowdy 6arty lunch at the AFI offices in 1983 that included the exchange of “routines” from Donovan’s Reef (“Hey, Marty, is that the island of Haleakaloha?”). But I also recall that Scorsese had apparently just seen The Beginning or the End for either the first time or in a fresh reviewing — and had found it fascinating in the way one would observe some rare specimen. And, indeed, the movie is such oddball that it begins with story principals helping bury a print of the film in a time capsule for 500 years, which may or may not have an effect on its nitrate decomposition. The movie is also directed by Norman Taurog — who, though one of the first Oscar winners (for 1931’s Skippy) is much better known for a subsequent slew of Martin & Lewis and Elvis movies, to say nothing of The Fuzzy Pink Nightgown and Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine. What’s more, there’s nothing like a narrative taking time out away from the Manhattan Project for a couple side-issue romances.

Though Brian Donlevy probably comes off best as Project orchestrator Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves (they looked something alike), the nominal leads are Robert Walker and Tom Drake (which, gotta say, is a lot of real-life alcoholism to have on one set). Walker plays a Groves assistant and Drake a very young Columbia University researcher who gets to work along with Dr. Enrico Fermi and other scientific luminaries — to say nothing of an early scene where Drake and Walker pay a visit to Albert Einstein himself in an attempt to get the great one to lean a little on FDR so that the bomb (then only a theory) will have a fighting financial chance with Congress when it comes to bankrolling its development. Groves, a consultant on the film, obviously cooperated with its production — as did the project’s No. 1 scientist J. Robert Oppenheimer. Others did not, which contributes to the kind of historical skewing that can be very much the norm with screen histories filmed close in time to the real events. This said, the actor who plays Roosevelt (Godfrey Tearle) is very good, albeit thinner than the real thing and a good deal healthier-looking than the president in his later days.

Cronyn plays pipe-smoking Oppenheimer and even gets chummy with the audience in his introductory scene — though as it turns out, his part is small. Upbeat and at one point even making a baseball reference, this is not a character one can sense will be eventually hounded by HUAC parasites, though in 1946 (when the film was in production), Red-baiting was not quite in gear — and even had it been, studio head Louis B. Mayer wouldn’t have allowed any movie under his watch to go there. Where it does go is to the marital challenges faced by Drake and his new wife (Beverly Tyler), to say nothing of some office flirting-turned-serious between Walker and Audrey Totter (catching a breather from her film noir labors in the mid-late ’40s). This is also what happened with MGM’s unofficial 1952 companion piece (and better movie) Above and Beyond — which concentrates on the dropping of the bomb. A lot of that one is devoted to how the top-secret nature of the planning affects the marriage of story principals played by Eleanor Parker and Robert Taylor (he’s clamming up a lot, and she doesn’t know why). You can’t blame this one on L.B.; by this time, he was gone, and Dore Schary was MGM production chief.

Still, The Beginning or the End does touch on a lot of important material (while leaving a lot out) and displays enough ambiguity about the bomb and the pro-con morality of its use to keep it from being unwatchable to many modern eyes. Truth to tell, it doesn’t compare that unfavorably to 1989’s cruelly disappointing Fat Man and Little Boy, which was horribly miscast with Dwight Schultz as Oppenheimer and Paul Newman (a rare late-career stumble) as Groves. The best Manhattan Project dramatization by far is the Emmy-winning Day One (also 1989) with a perfectly cast David Strathairn as Oppenheimer and Brian Dennehy as Groves. But at the absolute top of the heap is Jon Else’s Oscar-nominated documentary The Day After Trinity, which is one of my favorite films of all time (i.e. not just documentaries) and my personal best of 1980 next to Raging Bull.

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