When the Russians were heroes

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The ups and downs of Russian-American relations tell the story of the postwar world. They were not always down. Forty years ago this month they were decidedly up: The night crowd came out of the theater after seeing Warner Brothers' $2 million film ''Mission to Moscow.'' Although it was wartime the invitation audience was fashionably dressed, with lots of finery and gold braid. Those with B-ration gasoline cards drove home, others took the street car.

You probably don't remember! Ah me . . .''Mission to Moscow'' extolled the heroic Russians; it was based on the book by Ambassador Joseph E. Davies and the film went beyond the book in glamorizing Russia and making the average muzhik look like a citizen of Weehawken, N.J.

It just shows what the media can do in creating the mood of the moment: in extolling comrades at one point and decrying the other nation if international circumstances differ.

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A little work on the film reviews of those days gives the mood. Here are excerpts from the gaudy advertisement in the New York Times after the opening:

Walter Winchell - ''A convincer that truth is more exciting than fiction.''

Herald Tribune - ''Faultless . . . swift pace . . . memorable . . . good screen entertainment . . . should be seen by everyone.''

Daily Mirror - ''High adventure on the screen . . . Great . . . Powerful!''

World-Telegram - ''Superb . . . vivid . . . dramatic.''

No talk about communist propaganda 40 years ago. The film made heroes of Davies, Roosevelt, and Stalin and targets of the plodding French and British. The climax was the purge trial in Moscow. Mr. Davies was reticent on ideology where defendants publicly ''confessed'' they were Fascist conspirators. But the film said the Stalin regime was under treacherous attack. It was our side. Philosopher John Dewey wrote a 2,000-word letter in 1943 denouncing the passage, and Ann O'Hare McCormick observed in the New York Times that ''the film does not even stick to the facts in his (Davies's) book.''

By the time the film reached Washington the critics were alerted to its controversial aspect, even in wartime. But who cared? Stalin was our man. The chairman of the Americanism committee of the Veterans of Foreign Wars said that the film ''which is the object of such calumny . . . is in fact a great picture, a powerful plea for understanding and unity among the united nations.''

There were anomalies in the film, it is true, and these were pointed out more or less discreetly. People who had traveled in Russia asserted that the women there didn't use lipstick or normally have Fifth Avenue hairdos. It was unlikely , some said, that the Soviet diplomatic force would wear evening dress or that the clientele of the cosmetic factory ascribed to Mme. Litvinov would be quite so frivolous and numerous. But who would carp against an ally? Indeed, when has Hollywood, then or since, ever been strictly accurate and particularly when relations were friendly?

Looking back into day-before-yesterday one realizes the differences in mood. Now we are competing in manufacture of nuclear weapons. Forty years ago the publishers of ''Mission to Moscow'' bought the back page of the Times, as the film appeared, to point out that they had sold 705,800 copies of their book.

How swiftly the international mood can change. At Wheeling, W.V., on Feb. 9, 1950, a previously obscure senator, Joseph R. McCarthy (R) of Wisconsin, told an audience he held in his hands evidence that there were 205 known Communists in the State Department. (The speech wasn't recorded and there were various versions.) The ball had gone down the field and McCarthy was off and running. He wasn't tackled (if I may continue the football metaphor) until Edward R. Murrow on CBS's ''See It Now'' presented a documentary March 9, 1954, with a devastating critique of McCarthy. In June there was the confrontation between the senator and Joseph Welch, the army's special counsel. ''Until this moment,'' said Welch, ''I think I never really gauged your cruelty or recklessness.'' McCarthy didn't know what had hit him. ''What did I do? What did I say?'' he asked aides helplessly.

How a yellowed newspaper clipping of a film opening brings it all back. . . . Forty years ago we hopefully watched ''Mission to Moscow''; then the mood changed. It has fluctuated a lot since. Now it seems on the threshold of another change - let's hope for the better.

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