The Manhattan Project has been fodder for the silver screen and television pretty since J. Robert Oppenheimer donned his porkpie hat. Mere months after the Manhattan Project ended, a film loosely — very loosely — based on the clandestine creation of the atomic bomb that helped end World War II went into production. Many scenes were shot on location in Los Alamos (as if Norris E. Bradbury didn’t have enough to deal with). Released in 1947, the film was provocatively titled “The Beginning or the End” and starred Hume Cronyn as J. Robert Oppenheimer and Brian Donlevy as Maj. Gen. Leslie Groves. Among the movie’s fictional features, it depicts Manhattan Project scientists sealing a time capsule to be opened in the 25th century, Gen. Groves joking that if Trinity produces radioactive fallout he plans “to run,” and a ghost at the Lincoln Memorial waxing poetic about the atomic bomb. In the film, a casual acknowledgement of extreme creative license appears on the screen: “This is basically a true story.”
That caveat wasn’t good enough for Manhattan Project scientist Harrison S. Brown, who had worked at Oak Ridge and the University of Chicago’s Metallurgical Laboratory during the Manhattan Project. Brown wrote a review of “The Beginning or the End” in the March 1947 issue of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, an issue that predominantly focuses on appointment of David E. Lilienthal to the Atomic Energy Commission. Brown compared the feeling he had from watching the movie to the “grotesque reality” of a “duck wearing shoes.”
Fiction vs. fact
Brown wrote of the movie, “The misrepresentations of the actual sequence of events and of the events themselves are too numerous to discuss … (and) give a completely false impression as to how scientists work and as to how the project progressed.” His complaints were many. “I was constantly jolted by sudden appearances of actors portraying acquaintances, by the inconsistencies of technical detail, by the improper interpretation of events and by outright falsifications of history.”
The worst of these concerned Hiroshima. Wrote Brown, “The most horrible falsification of history was the insistence throughout the last part of the picture that Hiroshima had been warned of the approaching attack … Actually, Hiroshima was a secondary target and had not been pelted with leaflets at all … No mention is made in the picture about the dropping of the second bomb in Nagasaki.”
It wasn’t just the factual sloppiness that irked Brown. “How is it as a motion picture?” he asks. “I personally consider it poor. The love interest was insipid in the extreme.”
Better things to do than watch movies
In hindsight, Brown may have been heartened to know that the 1947 newsletter’s heftier topics cast a longer shadow over history, while “The Beginning or the End” is mostly forgotten. Many other movies have used the Manhattan Project — with and without “insipid love interests” — as the keystone for dramatic arcs; one can only guess how Brown would have responded to these other interpretations of the work and people he knew so intimately.
Brown went on to help develop the field of nuclear geochemistry, he taught at the University of Chicago and the California Institute of Technology, and he later worked in oceanography and international affairs. In 1983, Brown worked full-time for the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists — not as its resident film reviewer, but as its editor-in-chief.