The Investigation: Operation Abolition
By the slick technical standards of Hollywood, Operation Abolition is one of the least likely film hits since nickelodeons first started to charge a dime. The movie is an abrupt, badly edited 45-minute short. Its eye-jolting camera work is murky, its sound track raucous and shrill. But its impact is pure boffo. Prints of Operation Abolition are booked months in advance by Army camps, student groups, American Legion posts, political meetings, churches and corporations. Pennsylvania Democrat Francis E. Walter, chairman of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, estimates that more than 10 million people have seen the film since its release last July.
Subpoenaed Film. Operation Abolition is a documentary report on student demonstrations against an Un-American Activities subcommittee hearing in San Francisco last May. Much of the footage concentrates on “Black Friday,” May 13, when student-provoked city police turned fire hoses on the unruly, song-chanting crowd, dragged and pushed demonstrators down the steps of city hall, arrested 68 students (mostly from the University of California, some from Stanford University, San Francisco State and the University of San Francisco) on charges of inciting a riot and resisting arrest. The House Committee subpoenaed film of the incidents from two San Francisco TV stations, turned it over to a Washington movie studio for processing. With the help of Committee Researcher Fulton Lewis III,* the studio edited the film, added new sequences of commentary by Walter and other Congressmen, peddled 750 copies of the film for $100 each (none of the $20,000 profit so far has been shared with the TV stations).
Lewis delivered the narrative, written largely by the committee staff. Its main, heavily accented points: the “riots” were a clear example of Communist crowd tactics ; the students were either Communists or “Red dupes.” As if in proof, much of the camera work zooms in on verbose Longshoreman Archie Brown, California’s No. 2 Communist, who was summoned as a witness, finally got tossed out of the hearing room for misbehavior.
Largely because of such blunt accusations, Operation Abolition stirs up some kind of trouble nearly everywhere it goes. Last week Narrator Lewis, who has spoken on behalf of the film at some 75 U.S. colleges, appeared with Operation Abolition at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn, and the University of Connecticut at Storrs. As usual, well-organized campus liberals picketed the showing, jammed the hall to heckle, boo, fire loaded questions at the narrator. Praised by FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, the National Review, and a number of conservative Baptist groups, Operation Abolition has come in for searching criticism by the Jesuit weekly America, the Protestant Christian Century, Episcopal Bishop James A. Pike. After making its own study of the events, the National Council of Churches urged Protestant ministers “not to exhibit the film unless a full and fair presentation” of all the facts is made.
Undisputed Stars. In defense of Operation Abolition, Committee Chairman Walter charges that much of the criticism stems from Red-led groups eager to see the committee abolished, claims that the film “has provided a great contribution in the fight against Communism.” Without defending the students’ snarling defiance of the cops, critics of the film note that even Committee Investigator William Wheeler admitted “distortions” in the editing, e.g., footage shown out of time sequence, claim that the Communist influence is exaggerated. A careful sifting of evidence by a team of San Francisco News-Call Bulletin reporters supports the critics. San Francisco’s Mayor George Christopher gives his qualified approval of the movie but acknowledges that “at least 90% of the students were not organized by the Communists.” Fact is that nobody comes off very well in Operation Abolition. Commentator Lewis reaches for smooth explanations that are not quite there. The windy interludes by committee members get in the way of the documentary itself. And the hell-raising students reflect little glory on higher education. But—as they obviously intended to be—the undisputed stars of the show are the acknowledged Communist witnesses and agitators playing themselves with chilling conviction.
*Son of Conservative Columnist and Radio Commentator Fulton Lewis Jr.
Friday, Mar. 17, 1961