Atomic cinema in America: Historical and cultural analysis of a new film genre that reflected the nuclear zeitgeist of the Cold War (1945–1989)

John R Mathis, Salve Regina University


The dissertation identifies a new film genre forged in the cold war era, called atomic cinema. Genre analysis has frequently been criticized for its over emphasis on classificatory labels and for the theoretical minefield that can result from the ahistorical search for ideal forms or an expectation that categorizing texts can achieve a kind of scientific precision. This dissertation argues that the best uses of genre are ones that are formed in relation to particular historical contexts and questions. Employing Terry Eagleton’s approach to texts as the key to this study’s interdisciplinary approach, surveys of works by film theorists, critics, historians, Cold War strategists, and even anti-nuclear activists were conducted in the development of an analysis to analyze the zeitgeist of three eras during the Cold War—1945-1963 (The Dawn of the Atomic Cinema), 1964- 1979 (Transformative Years of Atomic Cinema), and 1980-1989 (Armageddon Redux). This chronological partitioning aided the historical examination of the public discourse over the growing nuclearism, the in situ backdrop in which these films were produced and subsequently understood by audiences. All of which enabled an effective means to document the maturation of the genre as well as vetting borderline films effectively—resulting in an atomic cinema filmography of eight-hundred and fifteen films and made-for-television movies. Facilitating the etymological discussion of the author’s chosen term atomic cinema, a comparative analysis of how notable film scholars and critics (i.e., Susan Sontag, John Baxter, Jack Shaheen, Paul Boyer, Peter Biskind, Mick Broderick, Joyce Evans, Toni Perrine, Kim Newman and Jerome Shapiro) defined and approached their study of atomic-themed films was conducted—demonstrating that a coherent definition for this body of films did not exist. Concomitantly, their research and divergent filmographies provided insights useful in devising a comprehensive definition for atomic cinema that accounts for the distinct use of symbolism, motifs, mise-en-scène, and atomic terminology associated with the atomic paradox—nuclearism—that developed over time in atomic cinema productions.

Subject Area

American studies|American history|Film studies

Recommended Citation

Mathis, John R, "Atomic cinema in America: Historical and cultural analysis of a new film genre that reflected the nuclear zeitgeist of the Cold War (1945–1989)" (2013). Doctoral Dissertations. AAI3567681.