MISSION TO MOSCOW—-“You can’t handle the truth!” snarled a situationally compromised Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men, when irksome reality ripped his cover off using duty to mask dark deeds. Barks from a fictional peacetime stockade honcho are showy business: the imprimatur of a President, gospel from his respected advisors and resources of a major studio, stating ‘truth’ about real people during a wartime emergency is a whole different kettle of borscht. This lavish 1943 propaganda wallow, To Russia With Love, has, to quote a future famous non-Com Cuban, a lot of “‘splainin’ to do”, in and for its 124 minutes of jaw-dropping fact maiming. You could cut to the chase with this nugget of wisdom, delivered by Walter Huston, as American Ambassador Joseph Davies: “Mr. Stalin, I believe history will record you as a great builder for the benefit of mankind.” Never mind darn Mr. History also jotted down that the diligent labor of ‘Uncle Joe’ put millions in their graves. Now where’s that vodka, comrade?
In the late 1930s, Joseph Davies, diplomatic point man for FDR, observed the German and Soviet scenes in order to gauge how the US might work with the latter if, or rather, when, the former stopped talking and started marching. Davies returned with praise for the Communist state and its mysterious ruler. War knocked, Russia became an ally, Roosevelt was anxious to buoy relations. Hollywood served the cause. “Paging Warner Brothers….”
Davies best-seller on his journey was put into script form by Howard Koch (with the former ambassador hovering like a hawk, reporting back to the White House), and Michael Curtiz directed with his usual efficiency, marshaling 200 speaking parts and $1,516,000 worth of crowds and sets (the excellent Art Direction was Oscar-nominated), with music by Max Steiner and montage mixes from a new second-unit director, Don Siegel.
The sturdy Walter Huston served up vigorous sincerity as Davies, with a commissary full of dependable Euro-transplant character actors adeptly covering all their diplomatic counterparts; lots of soon-to-be-familiar faces passed through the ballrooms, factories, street scenes, opera houses and dinners.
For the average viewer, it’s a tough sell (talk, more talk, all talk). For movie buffs, it’s of interest as a relic, due to the noteworthy cast and crew, doing their sleek professional thing back in the handsome, well-oiled-studio machine. For those with a bent for history (find hand, count fingers), it’s a fascinating excursion into a never-never land of political wishfulness, idealogical brinkmanship and bald-faced horse puckey. The reworked versions of actual events and the make-believe presentation of the everyday USSR are astonishing departures from reality: alternative facts on a dogsled. Outrageous depictions of happy Soviet life (see those full shelves, watch them shop), the delusional portrait of Stalin, the absurd lies about the USSRs attack on Finland, to protect it from the Nazis (a double whopper with extra fries and a free shake), the pot-brownie version of the Nazi-Soviet pact, the insane defense of the Show Trials (‘you have the right to be guilty’)—next to this Mayday parade of lardware, a fib like The Green Berets comes off as if it was directed by Noam Chomsky.
The controversial, confrontational nature of the espoused views of Davies and the script provoked outrage from a number of quarters; dueling editorials stalked the Home Front. The War & war-movie pounded public didn’t troop in with enough numbers to cover the production costs, and it marked a loss. It was popular in the Soviet Union, even though its starry-eyed portrayal of their ‘workers paradise’ had audiences hooting in derision (while nervously looking over their shoulder for those comrades without humor). Stalin loved the film, and Davies grand-daughter, historian Mia Grosjean, later offered that “the Normandy invasion would not have been possible without Mission To Moscow”. That may be family defensiveness and pride, but history is filled with strange details that signal big moves. The real battle royale, tally sheet and casualty list over this dizzyingly misguided moose came after the war ended, when Our Man Stalin went back to being the mad bear from the steppes.*
With Ann Harding (as Davies wife, Marjorie Meriwether Post, worth a cool quarter-billion, a real example of sisterhood for Muskovite babushkas), Oscar Homolka, Eleanor Parker (at 21), George Tobias, Gene Lockhart, Richard Travis, Helmut Dantine, Victor Francen, Henry Daniell, Roman Bohnen, Vladimir Sokoloff, John Abbott, Cyd Charisse (21, uncredited as a ballerina), Virginia Christine, Jerome Cowan, Frank Faylen, Mike Mazurki, Duncan Renaldo, Glenn Strange, Tom Tully, Edward Van Sloan, John Wengraf. Davies begins the film with several minutes of draggy introduction before Huston/Davies takes over.
* Davies was in Russia during 1936-38. His 1941 book “Mission To Moscow” sold 700,000 copies. FDR and Davies asked/persuaded Jack Warner to make the movie, knowing how effective Warner’s had been with patriotic hits like Sergeant York and Yankee Doodle Dandy. Warner leaned on the liberal but subject-hesitant Koch (Sergeant York, The Sea Hawk, Casablanca) to tackle the script. Roosevelt felt the need to reassure a suspicious Stalin (in ’43 his Red Army was holding Hitler at bay while the Americans and British had yet to open a Second Front) that America was indeed coming full force: FDR worried Stalin might negotiate a truce with Germany. Films like this bolstered US home-front support for their bleeding Russian ally. Other rousers touting the Soviet contribution included The North Star, Days Of Glory, Song Of Russia and Counter-Attack.
Fast-forward—in 1947, the Cold War was on, and the House Un-American Activities Committee was on the rampage for pinks and finks. Searching the scriptheap for nefarious fellow-travelers the HUAC took another look at the content and creators of those pro-Russia WW2 flicks. A cowed Jack L. Warner evaded the noose but after trying to blame FDR (loyal schmoyal) he kicked Howard Koch to the curb. Dragooned into the whole cine-diplo-mess in the first place, ostensibly for patriotic reasons and on behalf of the President and the War Effort, Koch (who, for the record, was not a Communist) was effectively blacklisted. Thanks, Jack. All things being honorable in politics and those who ply it, we finish by noting that Davies and the Post hostess often entertained guests aboard their Sea Cloud, the largest private yacht in the world. After they split in ’55, Marjorie sold the boat to one of Davies former clients, Rafael Trujillo, dictator of the Dominican Republic for 31 years, and all-round swell guy, responsible for 50,000 murders, yet a mere beachbum piker next to Davies admired Josef Stalin. “You can’t handle the truth!”