When Ayn Rand’s Wild ‘Top Secret’ Atomic Bomb Movie Lost Its Way
After Hiroshima and Nagasaki, at least two Hollywood studios planned movies about the atomic bomb. One was about its horrors. Ayn Rand’s? Not so much.
In the autumn of 1945, just weeks into the postwar era, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer decided to make an epic movie about the invention of the atomic bomb and its use by the United States against two Japanese cities. The film was set in motion when young actress Donna Reed received a letter from Dr. Edward Tompkins, her former high school chemistry teacher back in Iowa, who had worked on the bomb at the top-secret Oak Ridge site in Tennessee. He suggested a Hollywood drama that would reflect the atomic scientists' fears about further developing the bomb for military purposes, which would likely provoke a nuclear arms race with the Soviets and threaten the future of the planet.
Her husband, Tony Owen, an agent, had taken the idea to MGM chief Louis B. Mayer who predicted that it must become his studio's "most important" movie ever, an early example of what would become known as the docu-drama genre. Owen and MGM producer Sam Marx met with President Harry S Truman, who offered approval as well as the title for the movie: The Beginning or the End.
Unbeknownst to MGM, the studio was not alone in rushing ahead to make the first atomic epic. Hal B. Wallis, producer of Casablanca and The Maltese Falcon, among others, had been pursuing the idea at Paramount since late September. By the time MGM got moving, he had already engaged a well-known magazine writer to supply a treatment for a film tentatively titled Manhattan Project.
The writer Wallis hoped to recruit to pen the script, however, was a woman already under contract to work for him six months out of every year. This was the controversial novelist Ayn Rand. She had already written two screenplays for Wallis. Earlier that year her Love Letters had earned four Oscar nominations. Bosley Crowther of The New York Times slammed her script as a “mucky muddle,” but it proved to be a box office hit. Rand’s breakthrough 1943 novel The Fountainhead, meanwhile, was back on the bestseller list and slated for a major Warner Brothers movie. Its main character, an architect named Howard Roark, reflected her strong, anti-socialistic views. And she would be free to tackle this atomic bomb script starting in December.
Wallis and Rand had been friends for years, even though he did not share her political philosophy. When Rand, born in Russia as Alisa Zinovyevna Rosenbaum, had arrived in New York in 1926 at the age of twenty-one, she had shed ‘“tears of splendor” on viewing the famous skyline. Now, across the country nearly two decades later, her next assignment under a movie contract—to compete with the MGM epic—promised to be Wallis’ Manhattan Project. The first “nuclear race” of the postwar era was on.
Hal Wallis did not know about the competing project, so it’s likely MGM remained in the dark about his entry. If true, this was an impressive display of secrecy in notoriously loose-lipped Hollywood almost on the level of the Manhattan Project itself.
Wallis quickly confirmed that Rand would return to the payroll at the impressive rate of $750 a week from her annual six-month sabbatical at the end of December. He had planned to assign her a gangster movie, I Walk Alone (starring his recent discoveries, Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas). Rand, however, was skeptical that he would accept her conditions for the atomic project. For her to proceed, the man she called “the Boss” would have to agree that nothing would be added to her script that “clashed with my political ideas.” Also, she must be allowed to interview the scientific director of the bomb project, J. Robert Oppenheimer, and its overall chief, General Leslie R. Groves, and other key figures.
Perhaps to her surprise, Wallis agreed to all of this. Even so, she wanted to lay out her concept for the film in detail so there would be no misunderstandings, as she set to work at her home outside Los Angeles in the rural San Fernando Valley.
Celebrities had just started moving to the area about twenty miles from the movie studios, lending it the nickname “Valleywood.” The sprawling two-story ranch house, designed by modernist architect Richard Neutra, was built in 1936 for famed director Josef von Sternberg on thirteen acres of remote meadow in Chatsworth. It featured an aluminum facade with rounded edges and industrial windows offering views of the Santa Susana Mountains. An artificial stream with drawbridge wrapped around the front of the residence almost like a moat. Tropical fish swam in the pond on the second-floor deck. Neutra told friends that Sternberg ordered that none of the bathroom doors should have locks—to prevent his party guests from finding a secure spot to commit suicide during the depths of the Depression.
Rand had purchased the home in 1943 after selling The Fountainhead to Warner Bros. She despised Los Angeles but loved the steely skyscrapers of Manhattan, so this shiny ranch—and distance from Hollywood—appealed to her.
Now she set to work on a lengthy memo she titled An Analysis of the Proper Approach to a Picture on the Atomic Bomb. Any such attempt, she wrote, “can be the greatest moral crime in the history of civilization—unless one approaches the subject with the most earnest, most solemn realization of the responsibility involved, to the utmost limit of one’s intelligence and honesty, as one would approach Judgment Day—because that is actually what the subject represents.... If there is any reason why this picture cannot be made honestly—it is better not to make it at all.” Rather they must be motivated by one simple fact: It involves the life or death of mankind and “this picture could be an opportunity seldom offered to any man. It could be truly an immortal achievement, an event of historic importance and a great act of patriotism.”
It was a paean to Objectivism, her philosophical system. She remained devoted to the idea that the world needed saving from global destruction, and that she and this movie were instruments to do so. Otherwise, she told Wallis, “We will have on our conscience millions of charred bodies—those of our children.” Her solution: “a tribute to free enterprise.” To her, the subject of the atomic bomb was inherently political and the main problem was “Statism,” the idea that government must be all-powerful and "must control the existence of men.” The crucial conflict was between Statism and freedom—between the government and free enterprise, and the atomic bomb “is safe only in a free society… men must be free—or perish.”
If the Wallis movie improved the argument for Statism, Rand wrote, “we will have blood on our hands,” but if they boosted free enterprise they would make “a historic and immortal contribution” to saving mankind. All they had to do was present the issue in such a way that would leave no room for argument “and nobody will dare disagree with us, except the out-and-out fascists and Communists.”
Their most important goal, therefore, was to dispute the image of a government-directed Manhattan Project, inspired by Franklin D. Roosevelt. If the movie bolstered FDR’s status as the hero it would be “committing a moral crime by falsifying a historical lesson of tremendous importance… If we take the greatest invention of man and do not draw from it the lesson it contains—that only free men could have achieved it—we deserve to have an atomic bomb dropped on our heads.” And “if anyone objects to our saying that, he does not deserve the name of a human being.”
But what if her fervent views highlighted in this memo did not represent Paramount’s approach to the picture? In that case, she instructed Wallis, “I cannot permit myself to take upon my conscience the contribution of a single line to it.” But if he did choose to make the picture on her terms, she would “consider it an honor and a privilege to work on the screenplay.”
Within the week, Wallis would not only assign the project to her—she would be sitting down with J. Robert Oppenheimer to pick his celebrated brain.
Oppenheimer, now teaching at Cal Tech in Pasadena, had told MGM he didn’t want to be distracted from his work by Hollywood chitchat but for some reason agreed to suffer a visit from Rand and Wallis. Rand had prepared a long list of questions and the interview apparently went well. Rand found Oppenheimer to be a fascinating, somewhat tortured figure—profoundly conflicted about his role in creating an earth-shattering device that had already killed perhaps 200,000 civilians—and insisted on a second interview, and also meeting his wife.
Rand’s second interview with Oppenheimer yielded twice as many notes for her movie script. In an overview she wrote simply: “Tormented by something he can’t solve.” Rand came away from the encounters so impressed she would soon use him as the model for the character of Stadler, a troubled scientist involved in “Project X” in the novel she was sketching (later titled Atlas Shrugged), even borrowing Robert as his first name. This character was, she would later explain, a “type that Oppenheimer projected—that enormous intelligence, somewhat bitter, but very much the gentleman and scholar, and slightly other-worldly. Even his office was what I described for Stadler—that almost ostentatious simplicity.”
While Oppenheimer was close at hand in Pasadena, Rand had to make sure to meet General Groves during a brief visit to Los Angeles. A week later she spoke with a Dr. Kaynes who worked with Richard Feynman, a bit of a “screwball,” he said, in the computing group at Los Alamos. In the lab, Kaynes related, Feynman would bang on tom-tom drums—“the more noise, the harder he was thinking.”
After completing the interviews, Rand assembled what she called Philosophic Notes. The atomic bomb, ostensibly a first-strike terror machine, is actually a weapon of “defense… of a free country.” She was now thinking of how her beliefs and interviews would be expressed in scenes and dialogue on the pages of a script. One character, for example, might say, “Just as a tiny, invisible atom holds forces that determine the shape of matter—so you, each man, by the ideas you hold, determine the shape of world events.” Another scene should contrast the Nazi ideal with a scientist at a blackboard. “All human activities,” the scientist might say, “are like a chain reaction—somebody has to be the first neutron.” Then he would look to the sky and declare, “God did give us a means for right to win over might”—minds that “cannot work under compulsion.”
With her research and boundless rumination completed, Ayn Rand was ready to outline the Wallis movie in her usual detail. It bore little resemblance to the MGM script, which at the point was raising questions about the use of the bomb and its future development (before vast changes ordered by General Groves and the Truman White House were enacted).
She imagined it opening with a shot of an immense night sky full of stars. A single man stands on a hill, a tiny speck in the landscape. He returns home to find his wife in bed. She had given birth earlier that day (apparently thanks to a midwife?) and expresses high hopes for her son, yet her husband speaks bitterly of being a “helpless worm” in the universe—what was the sense of doing anything? Only men of action count.
Ten years later he advises his son that “there is no such thing as objective truth.” The boy’s name is, for now, “John X” to suggest he is a universal youth. His father is not happy that the kid just wants to study for school. John X tells his father he wants to become a scientist. Dad responds by seizing all of his books—and throwing them in the fireplace! Two years later, John X attends college anyway. The United States enters the war and John X joins the army in military intelligence and speeds to Europe. The Manhattan Project begins as Hitler’s bomb program sputters.
Wounded in battle, John X is sent home, where he is assigned to serve as a bodyguard for a famous physicist. He has only contempt for this idea (thanks to indoctrination by his father), but that night meets the rather interesting Dr. Oppenheimer, who sparks in John X a “regeneration and return to spiritual values, as he sees them exemplified in the work at Los Alamos.” John X watches as Oppenheimer recruits other scientists.
Now we’re in 1945. The bomb project is a success and Oppenheimer is hailed. Oppie and John X walk the hills of Los Alamos. What they’ve accomplished was no accident, the physicist instructs—“only free men in voluntary cooperation could have done it… the mind is man’s only real weapon, and his mind will always win against brute force.” The treatment continues: “The boy is looking at the stars—just as his father did 26 years ago. But his face is shining with pride, courage, self-confidence. Now man does not look like a worm in the face of the immensity of the universe—his figure looks heroic, that of a conqueror.”
The boy’s last line: “Man can harness the universe—but nobody can harness man.”
One can only guess what Hal Wallis might have thought on receiving the Rand treatment, although her earlier philosophizing on this matter ought to have warned him. Clearly his immediate reaction was not one of excitement nor satisfaction, for within days, perhaps hours, he had activated a backup scribe, Robert Smith, to offer an alternative.
Smith and Rand had already collaborated on a movie the previous year, You Came Along, a romantic comedy revolving around a heroic flying ace (Robert Cummings) who happens to be terminally ill. Smith wrote the story and his first Hollywood screenplay before she put her brand on it. Rand called it “a very cute story—not profound, but clever and appealing… I kept whatever was good in the original script and wrote the rest… I saved it.” Reviews were decidedly mixed. Now, Smith took elements of Rand’s approach, which had been forwarded to him, and assembled an outline with a long list of scenes accompanied by one-paragraph descriptions of each.
Apparently not aware of this alternate approach, and with Wallis not calling her off, Rand went to work on fully executing her scenario. On February 15, 1946, she wrote to Esther Stone, the wife of one of her cousins, “I am working now on an unusual assignment—the screenplay for a picture about the Atom Bomb. It is the most difficult job I have ever attempted. And it keeps me chained to my desk as usual.” She had completed fifty-five pages, or nearly half of the normal length, by the time she wrote to Stone.
The script followed almost precisely her lengthy treatment, with stiff dialogue and action added. John X now had a real name, John Nash. Yet even at its considerable length, Rand’s script still barely reached 1939. We see a map of Europe with a Nazi flag stuck in Paris. A young assistant to physicist Otto Hahn runs down a dark Berlin street. Two Gestapo agents arrest him. He breaks away and runs back toward the house when they fire on him. Fatally wounded, he has time to slip a note to a young girl who emerges from the house, and whispers, “Get this out.” The note says, “Tell Dr. Einstein in America that the Nazis are working on atomic research.”
Moving on, ever so slowly, Roosevelt approves the top-secret American bomb project. Oppenheimer meets young John Nash—who in this iteration is no longer a mere bodyguard but a young scientist. Thanks to the inherent limits of Statism, and American spies, the German bomb project falters, then collapses.
And that’s as far as she got. Wallis was racing MGM, and Rand had called this movie potentially one of the most important creations in the history of humankind, yet for someone chained to a desk she wasn’t exactly making rapid progress. In fact, she appeared to be weeks from finishing.
Hal Wallis had been first to pursue an epic movie on the creation and use of the atomic bomb, and happily pushed forward when MGM made a race out of it. Now, in mid-March 1946, he was ready to quit the contest, even though it would hand a humiliating public relations victory to Paramount’s rival MGM.
Of course, this being the movie business, Wallis was paid off handsomely by L.B. Mayer for his troubles. MGM would cover all of his expenses on the abandoned project plus award him a share of any profits on its own The Beginning or the End. Paramount sent over, as part of the deal, all of the work Wallis had secured so far on his film, including every sketch and partial screenplay completed by Ayn Rand.
Variety broke the news, calling the handover at this advanced date “unprecedented,” while noting that this cooperation mirrored the United States getting its allies engaged in the Manhattan Project. The New York Times carried its report under the headline “Hollywood Atom Race Ends,” noting that instead of a “contest” MGM now had “a clear field.” Wallis had simply concluded that “duplication would not make for satisfactory box office results.” In any event, gossip columnist Louella Parsons declared she was “happy to say our industry is adult enough not to war with itself.”
When Ayn Rand got the word on the MGM-Wallis deal, she took it badly. There was all that wasted time and work, and now strangers at MGM would review her far-from-polished script. She seemed especially angry about the way she found out about it—in a visit (she had no phone) from a Wallis aide, not even from “the Boss” himself. Rand would likely be assigned to another film, but she was anxious to get started on her next novel.
In the months that followed, MGM shot and completed its movie, which after unprecedented intervention by the Pentagon and White House had become little more than pro-bomb propaganda. Whither Ayn Rand? A peevish letter to Wallis after the collapse of the atomic bomb epic had not produced whatever it was she wanted from him, so she had stopped making the regular trip from her modernist San Fernando ranch house to the studio. Instead, she devoted herself almost full-time to answering fan mail inspired by the paperback revival of The Fountainhead—as well as a nationally syndicated comic strip based on the book—which had popularized her hyper-individualist ideas.
Rand also started sketching out the plot and characters, such as a John Galt, for a novel she titled The Strike. (It would eventually become known as Atlas Shrugged, originally the title of just one chapter.) Work on producing dozens of pages of outlines went far more quickly than it had for The Fountainhead. And having interviewed Dr. Oppenheimer, she had a head start in creating the character of brilliant but weak Dr. Stadler and his “Project X.”
She would write only one other screenplay for Hal Wallis, and it went unproduced. Her script for The Fountainhead did reach fruition, however, when Warner Bros. released the movie directed by King Vidor in 1949. The film was neither a critical nor a commercial hit. As she continued writing Atlas Shrugged, she appeared as a “friendly witness” before HUAC warning about Communist propaganda in movies.
Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957 and would become her most popular and influential novel. Critics vied in mocking the novel. Granville Hicks in The New York Times Book Review judged that it was “written out of hate.” Time magazine asked: “Is it a novel? Is it a nightmare? Is it Superman—in the comic strip or the Nietzschean version?” Even some conservatives blasted it. Whittaker Chambers, settling at the National Review after the Alger Hiss controversy, called Atlas Shrugged “remarkably silly” and “sophomoric,” adding that it could be called a novel “only by devaluing the term.” But one of Rand’s admirers, Alan Greenspan, wrote a complaining letter to The New York Times Book Review, calling the novel “a celebration of life and happiness. Justice is unrelenting… Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should.”
Rand stayed true to her “Objectivist” calling into the 1970s until her health and income declined. Going against her steely principles, she filed for Social Security and Medicare benefits. When she died in 1974 she was buried in Valhalla, New York, and Alan Greenspan attended the funeral. Next to her grave: a six-foot floral arrangement in the shape of a dollar sign.
Adapted from The Beginning or the End: How Hollywood—and America—Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, copyright 2020 by Greg Mitchell, published by The New Press.
Greg Mitchell’s books include The Tunnels; The Campaign of the Century, winner of the Goldsmith Book Prize and finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize; Tricky Dick and the Pink Lady, a New York Times Notable Book; So Wrong for So Long; and, with Robert Jay Lifton, Hiroshima in America and Who Owns Death? He lives in the New York City area.