In the third act of the play Oppenheimer, the audience finds themselves in a darkened hall as they witness a slide show of the devastating consequences of the atomic bomb at ground zero. However, director Christopher Nolan deliberately chooses not to show the Japanese victims in the field of vision of the main character, Robert Oppenheimer. This decision has sparked both criticism and defense. While some argue that it demoralizes and unrealistically distances the experience of Asian people, others contend that the omission is not erasure but rather encourages viewers to construct their own mental images of the horrors depicted.
Unlike the Holocaust, which has left an indelible mark on the popular imagination through newsreels and visual evidence, the visual imprint of the victims of Hiroshima and Nagasaki has been largely restricted and memory-holed by media gatekeepers and the U.S. government during the Cold War. Only a handful of glimpses managed to slip through the cracks.
During the classical Hollywood era, newsreels played a crucial role in the film viewing experience. They were an integral part of the “balanced program” that included a cartoon, a comedy short, and a feature-length film. Five studio-affiliated newsreels, including MGM’s News of the Day, RKO’s Pathé News, Fox Movietone, Universal Newsreel, and Paramount News, released two issues per week, each running about 8-10 minutes in length.
When the atomic bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945, newsreel editors were caught off-guard. While they had no prior knowledge of the top-secret weapon, the military had prepared press releases for newspapers and radio. The newsreels scrambled to catch up, but were initially denied access to the key sites involved in the Manhattan Project.
It wasn’t until August 21, 1945, that the military released around 80 feet of film (approximately a minute) showing the atomic bomb blast at Trinity on July 16. This footage was described as one of the most spectacular scenes ever filmed by Showman’s Trade Review. However, it wasn’t until September 15, 1945, that the first films of the atomic bombings in Japan reached newsreel screens. The footage showed the flattened landscape of Hiroshima from both aerial and ground perspectives. However, no images of the dead and wounded were shown.
According to reports, Japanese camera people were also present in the immediate aftermath of the blasts and documented the devastation inflicted upon their countrymen. They captured over two hours and forty minutes of motion picture footage, which was later confiscated by U.S. Occupation forces. The footage was initially developed and prepared for public consumption, but government and military authorities quickly decided to withhold it. They feared that the appalling images of dismembered bodies, piles of dead animals, and the extent of destruction would cause the American public to withdraw support for future atomic bomb testing.
However, a year later, on the first anniversary of the bombings, the U.S. government released the confiscated footage to the newsreels. Three out of the five newsreel outfits deemed the footage “too gruesome” to be shown to moviegoers seeking entertainment. Only Universal Newsreel and Paramount News chose to use the footage. The release of the footage coincided with the military’s release of footage from the underwater atomic test conducted near Bikini Atoll in the Marshall Islands on July 25, 1946.
Paramount News, known as “the eyes and ears of the world,” dedicated around half of its nine-minute issue to an unflinching look at the Japanese victims of the bombings. The issue, titled “Atom Bombs!”, highlighted the new world crisis unleashed by the atomic bomb, featuring both the Bikini test and Hiroshima footage.
The footage from Hiroshima begins by showing the city before the blast, juxtaposing it with the post-apocalyptic vista of rubble that followed. The narration describes the extent of the devastation, with four and a half square miles almost completely burned out. However, the footage still refrains from showing specific images of the dead and wounded.
The issue concludes with a call to action, posing the life-and-death question of whether atomic power can be controlled. The commentary by Paramount editor Weldon Kees showcases overt editorializing, demanding an answer from politicians who remain deadlocked on the issue. The issue ultimately ends with images of the Bikini explosion and a warning from the narrator that unless there is complete agreement on the bomb, mankind should prepare for Armageddon.
Overall, the newsreels played a crucial role in bringing the horrors of the atomic bomb to the public’s attention. Although much of the footage was initially restricted and memory-holed, the eventual release of the Hiroshima footage by Paramount News provided a rare, unflinching look at the devastating consequences of the atomic bomb.