Linguistic Means of Constructing ‘Enemy Number One’ in the US Cold War Cinema

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The study examines how the US Cold War cinema employed linguistic means to construct images of the USSR and American communists. The research relevance is determined by: the need to study the techniques of creating the enemy image as one of the crucial issues in international relations; and the importance of the topic amidst the aggravation of Russia- US relations. The study aims at analysing the usage of linguistic means in such practices of constructing/deconstructing the images of ‘enemy number one’ as dehumanisation of the enemy, its normalisation, domestication, and rehumanisation. The research novelty lies in the fact that, for the first time, the language as a resource for constructing enemy images in the Cold War films is analysed. The material for the study makes American films of the 1940s-1960s, in which contaminated speech for depicting Soviet characters is extensively used. Particular attention is paid to the means of creating speech portraits of Soviet characters. The research methods used are descriptive, linguistic, and sociolinguistic methods, and discourse analysis. The authors conclude that linguistic means (primarily linguistic competences and accent) were instrumental for creating enemy images in the cinematic Cold War. Linguistic otherness served as a means of emphasising second-rate culture, which in turn was intended to mark political foreignness. Linguistic means helped fulfil functions of the enemy image: showing its otherness; depriving it of the linguistic abilities as an essential attribute of humanity, helping dehumanise it; emphasizing its civilisational inferiority; and making the enemy comical. Finally, attention is drawn to the fact that the cinematic image of ‘enemy number one’ contributed to the hierarchisation of languages; everything Russian was associated with communism and therefore perceived as inferior and hostile.

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The enemy image is a constant element of human history, but the Cold War era provides particularly rich material for its study. Rieber and Kelly noted in their article, published at the end of the Cold War, that perhaps never before in history had one society so hated and feared another for so long-during a period of prolonged peace. In fact, the nuclear confrontation could only be ‘sold’ to society if images of the enemy were mass-produced. Advanced weapons meant that the entire civilian population of the rival superpower, not solely the army, became the enemy against whom combat operations were allowed. Residents of the USSR and the USA had to get used to the idea that they were potentially either accomplices to mass murder or targets of a lethal attack by the opposing side [1. P. 5].

The atomic bomb was the ‘great leveller’; with the advent of nuclear weapons, the potential victims of war were not only soldiers in the trenches and civilians in war zones, but also those populations that had previously been relatively safe: military and political leaders, the economic and cultural elite, as well as ordinary citizens on the home front. This was also a factor in the intensification of hostile feelings.

Additionally, as the superpowers sought to avoid a direct military confrontation, they were particularly inventive in creating enemy images as part of the ‘struggle for hearts and minds’. In studying the frames of mutual perception of the USSR and the USA, a special role belongs to the study of culture, as shown in works devoted to the ‘cultural turn’ in studies of the Cold War [2]. On the one hand, culture actively influenced international relations by acting as part of ‘soft power’. On the other hand, ignoring the context of the confrontation between the two superpowers, it is difficult to understand many cultural phenomena of that era, be it the space race or hockey, rock and roll or ballet. This applies in full measure to cinema, which was one of the main theatres of the cultural Cold War. As Shaw writes, American films consciously or unconsciously both reflected and propagated the official ideology of the Cold War [3. P. 303]. Apparently, this was no less true of Soviet films. The cinematic Cold War involved leading actors, directors, and screenwriters on both sides of the Iron Curtain.

Cinema, which combined production of visual images, narration and sound, served as a very effective tool in constructing the enemy image. It contributed to substantiating the superiority of a certain way of life, to producing positive collective identity, and to creating an image of the enemy. In forming cinematic images of the enemy, various discourses are employed, including political, civilisational, national, moral, aesthetic, historical, anthropological, gender and sports ones; they have been intensively studied (for more detailed information on the cinematic Cold War s(see, e.g. [3—7]). The role of linguistic means in constructing the Cold War enemy by cinema should be analysed as well. The enemy was not only visible on the cinema screen, but also audible. The role of using linguistic means for constructing enemy images has already been studied [9—11], on corpora of films including [12—14].

However, American Cold War films have not yet been the object of such study. The role of linguistic means of speech stylisation (i.e. the transmission of features of sound speech in order to create the speech characteristics of characters) in creating cinema-images of the enemy is therefore the subject of research. This determines the novelty of the work and its relevance. The analysis of the types and functions of linguistic stylisation is carried out in pragmatic, stylistic, cognitive aspects and within the framework of discourse analysis. Descriptive method as well as linguistic and sociolinguistic analysis methods are used as research methods.

We will therefore try to trace how linguistic means are employed to construct the image of ‘enemy number one’ in the US Cold War cinema. The main questions can be presented as follows. What is the theoretical background of the study? What linguistic means are used to create the enemy image? What functions does the employment of these means perform? How does the language of the characters depend on their political orientation? Finally, how does the deconstruction of the images of the enemy take place, i.e. their rehumanisation?

The enemy image, language and the cinematic Cold War

Language has more than just a denotative function, which is to name objects or convey factual information. Language also reflects social relations and defines cognitive relationships, and accordingly, various linguistic tools are used intentionally to construct a particular reality (e.g., [8; 9]). Of particular importance for our study is the fact that language is used to draw symbolic boundaries between social groups and to legitimate social hierarchies. Phillipson uses the term linguicism to refer to ‘ideologies, structures and practices which are used to legitimate, effectuate, and reproduce an unequal division of power and resources (both material and immaterial) between groups which are defined on the basis of language’ [11. P. 47].

The linguicism is a significant component of the cinematic discourse, which, following Androutsopoulos, we understand as ‘the ensemble of film-as-text and processes of its production and consumption’ [12. P. 140]. Consequently, anything said in the film might be used as a stylistic device with a certain purpose to produce and reveal the ideological message of the film. Androutsopoulos points out that linguistic heterogeneity and stylisation are of great importance for cinematic discourse [12. P. 139].

Bleichenbacher distinguishes four types of narration in movies: complete elimination of any linguistic hints to the nature of the language (s) replaced [13. P. 57]; signalisation, which means ‘the literal naming of a language in the text’ [13. P. 59]; evocation when the marked variety of English is used [13. P. 59]; and presence when the usage of the other language (s) is attracted for creating the certain atmosphere or reality. He underlines that the use of other languages indexes undesirable social practices [13. P. 47]. In his opinion, ‘movies pervaded by linguicist ideologies can be expected to portray speakers of languages other than English as more negative, and also to downplay the use of languages other than English’ [14. P. 157–158]. Androutsopoulos assumes that ‘a lot of non-English dialogue typically serves to make the respective L1 speakers more negatively salient’ [12. P. 150]. Characters who use non-standard speech more have lower status. These linguistic means are therefore used to indicate the status of the character, its character features or regional differences.[1]

Among stylistic resources that are employed as linguistic means are accent, code-switching, and non-standard varieties to name just a few. Phonetic means play a special role in representing the speech of foreigners: even when statements are grammatically and lexically correct, it is the accent that reveals the foreigner.[2] At the same time, it can be manifested both at the sound level, when sounds are mispronounced, and at the prosodic level, when the intonation pattern is distorted and the wrong phrasal or sentence stress is used. In any case, such speech irregularities act in relation to standard speech as markers of substandard speech, not literary speech. Accordingly, the binary opposition ‘standard speech — substandard speech’ is realised. This plays a significant role in: constructing the enemy image; realising the ‘us — them’ opposition; and promoting a certain ideology in films using language. As a result, language mistakes are politicised.

Linguistic means of creating film images are presented at all levels of the language: phonetic, grammatical, lexical, and syntactical. They can be found both at the sentence level and in some lexical-semantic units. At the same time, they are used in order to indicate belonging to ‘us’ or ‘them’, to endow them with certain positive or negative traits.

One of the first attempts to investigate the importance of language to promulgate the certain ideology in regard to cinematic Cold War has been made by Lawless in her article about James Bond films shot in 1962–2012, which created the image of the USSR [17]. Her article generated a scholarly discussion [18; 19]. However, the reviewers note her timely research and the necessity to continue investigating this subject.

Language and practices of creating the image  of ‘enemy number one’ in Hollywood films

We will try to answer the question of how language becomes a weapon in the cinematic Cold War by analysing such characteristics as linguistic competences (when authors endow their character with the ability to speak a foreign language), accent, mistakes in pronunciation and word choice, any sub-standard, distorted forms imitating the speech of a foreigner. All these mistakes in speech make it difficult to perceive it and create an opposition ‘us-them’, signalling belonging to a different linguistic community. To this end, we will examine how linguistic means have been used to construct images of the Communist enemy (internal and external) in Hollywood films, analysing such practices of constructing/deconstructing this image as dehumanisation, normalisation, domestication, and rehumanisation.

Dehumanisation of the enemy

The division of the post-war world between the two poles produced a Manichean worldview in which everyone was ‘enemy number one’ to the other. According to Campbell, during the Cold War it was important for the maintenance and preservation of American identity to represent the ‘Evil Empire’ as totally different from the USA [20]. For America, communism was not just a situational enemy but the constitutive Other that framed and sustained the collective identity. The ideal image of social relations in the USA was constructed by contrasting it with the social and political system of the USSR. Linked to the containment of communism was the very idea of the U.S. global leadership.

The most effective way of showing the difference between ‘us’ and ‘them’, as well as the superiority of the former over the latter, is dehumanisation, i.e. the total or partial denial of the Other’s right to belong to the human race. Dehumanisation has been a widespread tool of war propaganda for millennia; its purpose is, above all, to destroy feelings of pity for the enemy and legitimise their killing. According to Haslam’s dual concept of dehumanisation, it comes in two forms: the animalistic form (by likening the out-group representatives to animals) and the mechanistic one (by comparing them to machine). The former is characterised by such features as lack of shared humanity, immorality, lack of intellectual abilities and education, aggressiveness, inability to self-control; the latter includes depriving out-group representatives of such characteristics as will, subjectivity, individuality, emotionality, interpersonal warmth, compassion, flexibility of thought, sensitivity to pain [22. P. 255–256]. During the Cold War, the dehumanisation of ‘enemy number one’ was actively employed in both the USSR and the USA. First of all, this was true of the animalistic form of dehumanisation. Besides a direct likening of Soviet people to animals, an indirect type of animalistic dehumanisation was also used, involving the attribution of characteristics to the enemy that signified a lack of cultivation and, thus, humanity. In the majority of US films produced during the period under study, among the qualities attributed to representatives of the communist world, one can identify, first, those that accentuate the backwardness of the USSR as a lack of civilisation: terrible living conditions and filth; uneducated population; and bad manners. Secondly, these are the qualities that indicate an inability to control oneself, which manifests itself in excessive drinking, propensity for domestic violence, and unbridled sexuality. Thirdly, these traits were meant to emphasise the lack of respect for the human person: oppressive powers, the suppression of the individual by the collective, and disregard for the right to privacy.

In the context of our study, it is necessary to stress that one of the most important attributes of the human being is language. The denial of the ability of ‘others’ to speak (or speak the ‘regular language’), which is part of dehumanising practices, allows their belonging to the human race to be also questioned. At the same time, linguistic competencies were often meant to differentiate ‘others’. As a rule, in propaganda only the leaders of the enemy state are presented as the embodiment of evil; ordinary citizens, the ‘people’, hate their own rulers and have no hostile feelings towards ‘us’ (and if they are now duped by propaganda, they will soon begin to see clearly (e.g.: [1. P. 27]). Such a device was designed to implement the function of the enemy image as a prediction of victory: the enemy is weak; they are deprived of unity. It also serves as a way of legitimising our own politics: our truth is recognised by all normal people, including in the enemy’s camp.

This technique was actively employed during the Cold War. Above all, it was typical of Soviet propaganda based on the class principle: there are two Americas, a reactionary one and a progressive one; the representatives of the latter are workers, communists, peace activists, and Afro-Americans. However, in Hollywood productions, there were also images of Soviet citizens who were sympathetic to the filmmakers: victims or fighters against the Soviet system, with many Soviet residents trying to escape from the communist paradise at the earliest opportunity.

Let us consider how the portrayal of ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Russians is carried out and the opposition between ‘self’ and ‘others’ is implemented using the film Never Let Me Go (1953) as a case study. All positive characters (the heroine — a ballet dancer Maria Lomakina, who is in love with an American journalist — and her friend — a translator and English teacher Svetlana Mikhailovna) speak English. However, their accent is not so exaggerated in comparison with other characters. Their sound [r] is not so rolling as the Russian one. The sound [h] is much less hard and their intonation patterns do not differ much from native English speech. However, the border guards, employees of the NKVD and other state organisations have a very strong Russian accent, which is a deliberate grotesque typification of the enemy image. The phonetic features that are employed to mimic a Russian accent include: strong pronunciation of sound [g] instead of [ŋ] at the end of the word; no aspiration of sounds [d] and [t]; soft [l]; the use of sound [v] instead of [w]; and the use of sound [z] or [s] instead of [ð] and [θ]. A communist woman is distinguished by the absence of romance, but Maria is very romantic, which means she is not an enemy. She is not a robot, but an affectionate loving woman who calls her American husband Philip Sutherland in the Russian manner Filippushka. Even mistakes in her speech seem adorable. If she does not know something, she asks her beloved man. She is a brilliant ballet dance, open to becoming a civilised person. For example, when Maria talks about a ballet dancer who works for the NKVD, she tries to learn unfamiliar vocabulary: She is … how do you say ‘следит’?

Another example of creating an image of a positive character by demonstrating language skills is the film The Journey (1959) directed by Anatole Litvak and starring Yul Brinner and Deborah Kerr. The film, dedicated to the events in Hungary in 1956, is, of course, anti-Soviet in nature. However, Yul Brinner managed to create a complex image of the Soviet character, Major Zurov (or Surov), which was unrivalled in American cinema of that time. Having often sinister and sometimes caricatured character features that are all alien to the American film audience, Major Zurov is an intelligent, courageous, honest officer devoted to his country. He is a man capable of nobility in relation to a woman whom he unrequitedly falls in love with. It is significant that the major speaks English well, in contrast to the negative characters; he lived for some time as part of the Soviet military mission in Canada. (‘Deborah: I must say you have a remarkable command of the language. Where did you pick it up? Surov: Canada. I was with our military mission, just after the last war.’).

Normalisation of the enemy

Another practice of producing an enemy image is normalisation. In American communism, the rivalry between capitalism and socialism was represented as a struggle between the natural and the unnatural [21. P. 42–46]. The ‘abnormality’ of communism was expressed through the widespread use of the metaphor of disease to describe ‘enemy number one’ (see: 21. P. 98–100]. America embodied the norm, and returning to the norm meant choosing the American way of life and getting closer to the values of American society.

In the cinematic Cold War, love stories played a special role in this normalisation, in which He is a worthy representative of the ‘free world’; She belongs to the world of the ‘Red Menace’. Already in Ninotchka (1939) directed by Ernst Lubitsch and starring Greta Garbo the plot was built around a caricatured image of Soviet masculinity, opposed to Western masculinity, thanks to which a woman-party hand was able to become a ‘normal woman’ again. The success of Ninotchka ensured further Hollywood interest in such stories. One of these love stories was the film Silk Stockings (1957) directed by Rouben Mamoulian. From the point of view of the use of linguistic means, of great interest is the fact that the accent of the main heroine, Nina Yoschenko, is changing while she is transforming from a communist woman sent on a special mission to return to the Soviet Union the commissars and composer who have got out of control, into a normal woman who can love. At the beginning of the film, her accent is heard clearly. Typical methods of depicting Russian speech are used such as: rolling [r]; absence of nasal sounds; hard [h]; errors in the length and shortness of vowels; and devoicing consonants at the end of words to name just a few. From a robot-like creature, she turns into a romantic girl who does not want to talk about business, but wants to talk about love: ‘What is a woman without love — a zero’. After the date, her accent becomes much softer, but she makes lexical mistakes, and this is even adorable, because we are talking about a man’s offer of marriage (proposition), and Stephen kindly corrects her (proposal). When she and her fellow countrymen are not happy with the interpretation of the ode to the tractor, the strong accent returns again. That is, Nina turns into a person alongside the English language acquisition. Political normalisation is manifested not only through gender normalisation, but also through language. Linguistic competences and political views turn out to be directly related to each other.

Domestication of the enemy

The image of the enemy is needed not only for foreign policy, but also for domestic policy. The legitimisation of power and the socio-political order is associated with the representation of the ruling elite as a reliable protector from the enemy, and the opposition as an internal enemy and an accomplice of an external enemy. The political opposition is presented as a fifth column. Portraying the American ‘reds’ as henchmen of an external enemy was perhaps the most significant component of the ‘struggle for hearts and minds’ on the home front.

In Hollywood films, enemy agents seek to trigger unrest in American society and stir up inter-class and inter-racial tensions (The Red Menace (1949) directed by Robert G. Springsteen; I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951) by Gordon Douglas; The Woman on Pier 13 (1949) by Robert Stevenson). Additionally, the espionage (above all, atomic espionage) of American communists in favour of the USSR is dealt with in such films as Robert Aldrich’s Kiss Me Deadly (1955), Russel Rouse’s The Thief (1952), or Lewis Allen’s A Bullet for Joey (1955). Finally, their ultimate goal is to seize power in the USA (The Manchurian Candidate (1962) by John Frankenheimer) and deprive it of its independence. In I Was a Communist for the FBI, Matt Cvetic, an FBI agent working undercover as a member of the Communist Party, exposing the ‘criminal nature of Communism’, states in a court scene that the US Communist Party is ‘a vast spy system composed of American traitors whose only purpose is to deliver the people of the United States into the hands of Russia as a slave colony.’

The Cold War cinema also used linguistic means to mark the internal enemy. It was important to expose and discover them. We have taken The Red Menace (1949) as a case study. This film shows American communists and ethnic others. This is evidenced by the names of the characters (for example, among the members of the US Communist Party in the film are Nina Petrovka, Yvonne Kraus, Henry Solomon). 100 % Americans are primarily white Anglo-Saxon Protestants.

The linguistic means used are scarce in this film. It is even stated by the police officers who arrest Yvonne Kraus and accuse her of murders: ‘We found that Yvonne Kraus did go to Mexico in 1938 to open a pottery business and we lost track of her and so did the Mexican authorities… Besides that, you made a mistake here. A mistake that any German might make. It was a pronunciation you gave to the names of Friedrich and Humbert. The real Yvonne Kraus never spoke a word of German in her life.’ At that very moment, she begins speaking with a very strong German accent. It was the climax of the film. It seems that the filmmakers might have used a lot of other means to construct the enemy image. One of them is The Internationale, the official anthem of the socialist movement, as a soundtrack to enhance the menace from enemy number one.

Rehumanisation of the enemy

Finally, another practice associated with the image of ‘enemy number one’ is the rehumanisation of the USSR, that is, the return of humanity to the representatives of the communist world. The most prominent example of rehumanisation was Norman Jewison’s film The Russians are Coming! The Russians are Coming! (1966). The Soviet submarine ‘Sprut’ (Octopus) accidentally approaches an island off the northeastern coast of the USA so close that it runs aground. Part of the crew go to the American territory to find a motor launch and to remove the submarine from the aground before the American military notice it. As a result of many adventures, when it almost comes to an armed clash between the sailors and the inhabitants of the island, everything ends well, warm relations are established between them, and the Sprut goes to sea. The film does not seek to convince the audience that Russians are the same humans as Americans, however, shows that Russians are also human beings. They are Others, but people with whom it is possible to negotiate the conditions of peaceful existence; they have the same basic values as US citizens: they want to live, so they strive to prevent the outbreak of a nuclear war in which there will be no winners, they are able to love, they take care of children, and so on. They are not enemies anymore who pose a mortal danger to ‘us — Americans’ and it is not necessary to neutralise them anymore; they are recognised as having a right to legitimate interests (see detailed analysis of the film by Shaw [5; 23]; Riabov [22]). This was how the main message of the film was perceived in the USA; a 1966 review in The New York Times noted that the film reveals ‘the fundamental fact that, after all, Russians and Americans are basically human beings and, therefore, share basic human qualities’ [23. P. 242].

How is this rehumanisation achieved through linguistic means? Russian sailors are given the ability to speak English. In conversation with Americans, they constantly try to behave politely, use formulaic language and fixed verbal expressions. When they first visit an American’s house, the lieutenant greets the head of the family ‘A pleasant good morning to you, sir!’

A notable plot line of the film, contributing to the rehumanisation of Soviet people images, is a love story line that develops between the youngest sailor Alexei Kolchin and Alison Palmer. Kolchin speaks a mixture of Russian and English, which betrays his excitement: ‘In Union of Soviet, when I am only young boy, many are saying, Americanski are bad people, they will attack Russia. So all mistrust American. But I think that I do not mistrust American… not really sinceriously. I wish not to hate… anybody!’. This example clearly shows that contaminated speech is implemented at different levels of the language. There are grammatical errors in speech (absence of articles, incorrect use of tenses), phonetic errors (rolling [r]), morphological errors. But he is so sincere in his statements that the audience, of course, have a liking for him. Linguistic means thus help to create an image of otherness. At the same time, the very possibility of communication shows that even linguistic errors cannot impede mutual understanding if representatives of the two superpowers show goodwill.


We have examined the issue of using linguistic means to construct the cinematic images of ‘enemy number one’ in the US Cold War cinema. They both create symbolic boundaries between ‘us’ and ‘them’ and legitimate social hierarchies. It can be concluded that linguistic means (primarily linguistic competences and accent) acted as an important resource for creating enemy images in Cold War cinema. Hierarchisation of languages is a means of hierarchisation of cultures, and, as a consequence, a means of hierarchisation of ideologies. Linguistic otherness served as a means to emphasising cultural otherness, and that, in turn, was intended to mark political otherness. Language helps to fulfil all the functions of the enemy image: it shows the otherness; deprives them of the most important attribute of humanity, contributing to their dehumanisation; emphasises the civilisational superiority of ‘us’; and makes the enemy funny. Additionally, it is necessary to take into account the opposite influence: the cinematic image of the Russian enemy contributed to the hierarchisation of languages; Russian was associated with communism, and was therefore perceived as inferior and hostile.

We have shown these patterns using stylistic resources such as accent, codeswitching, and non-standard varieties. The length of the article did not make it possible for us to consider other stylistic resources (e.g. jargon and dialect), which obviously also help to create enemy images. Another promising direction of development of this topic is the verification of the article’s conclusions, both by involving a wider range of Hollywood sources and by conducting a comparative analysis by studying the use of linguistic means in Cold War Soviet cinema.


1 According to Taavitsainen & Melchers, ‘it is mostly the low and the rural that are presented as speakers of non-standard; humorous parts are attributed to minor characters and non-standard language to side episodes’ [15. P. 13].

2 Based on the qualitative and quantitative analyses, Lippi-Green comes to a conclusion that ‘the negative characters are the largest group among those who speak English with a foreign (L2) accent’ [16. P. 159].


About the authors

Marina N. Kulikova

Saint Petersburg State University

Author for correspondence.
ORCID iD: 0000-0003-2501-9894
SPIN-code: 8785-2770

PhD in Philology, Associate Professor in the Department of English in Philology and Arts

7-9, Universitetskaya Embankment, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, 199034

Oleg V. Riabov

Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia

ORCID iD: 0000-0002-5944-9668
SPIN-code: 6502-7446
Scopus Author ID: 35096463200
ResearcherId: E-2527-2016

D.Sc. (Philosophy); Professor; Leading Researcher at Department of History and Social Sciences

48, Moika Embankment, St. Petersburg, Russian Federation, 191186


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