“Chuck Norris has a grizzly bear carpet in his bedroom. It’s not dead, it’s just afraid to move”. “When the bogeyman goes to sleep every night, he checks the closet for Chuck Norris” and, “Chuck Norris can sneeze with his eyes open.” It’s safe to say that Chuck Norris jokes are on the whole far smarter than most of his movies. The all-American all-action actor and revered martial artist (among his many accomplishments, Norris was the first Westerner to be given the rank of 8th degree black belt grand master in Tae Kwon Do), fought his way with fists, fury and fire through a string of 1980s flicks such as Silent Rage, Lone Wolf McQuade and Missing in Action (parts one, two and three). Hardly movies to change the course of human history you might think. But think again.
In communist countries in Cold War times, Western cultural imports were either heavily edited or outright outlawed. One such nation was Nicolae Ceaușescu ruled Romania. During the 1980s, pre-Netflix and various other streaming services of varying degrees of legality, smuggled black market VHS tapes were the only way populations of many nations were able to watch Hollywood romps starring the likes of Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, of course, Chuck Norris. Ilinca Calugareanu’s recent documentary, Chuck Norris vs. Communism, tells of how their heroic adventures inspired downtrodden citizens to rise up and lift the Iron Curtain of Ceasecu’s Romania.
“I was raised in Romania in the 1980s, under a Communist regime that, among countless repressions, reduced television to two hours a day of dull propaganda, traditional music, patriotic poems and censored poems,” writes Calugareanu in the New York Times. She was six when she watched her first forbidden Western flick.: “All the dialogue in these movies was dubbed in Romanian in a husky, high-pitched woman’s voice. Throughout my childhood, these films provided a glimpse into the forbidden West, resplendent with blue jeans, Coke and skyscrapers.”
Chuck and his muscular mates can’t take all of the glory however. JR Ewing and your cowboy cohorts, take a bow. Television show Dallas was one of the few Western exports actively encouraged to be viewed in the Eastern Bloc at the time, with dictators such as Ceausecu believing the show’s glorification of capitalist excess would appal citizens and thus bolster their communist manifesto. Appal it most certainly did, but not in the way they had hoped. “I think we were directly or indirectly responsible for the fall,” the late Larry Hagman, who played JR Ewing, once told the Associated Press. “They would see the wealthy Ewings and say ‘Hey, we don’t have all this stuff’.”
“Dallas wasn’t simply a television show,” write Nick Gillespie and Matt Welch in their piece, How Dallas Won the Cold War, for the Washington Post. “It was an atmosphere-altering cultural force… viewers in the nearly 100 countries that gobbled up the show, including in the Warsaw Pact nations, came to believe that they, too, deserved cars as big as boats and a swimming pool the size of a small mansion.”
A far earlier cultural phenomenon can also lay claim to facilitating the fall of the Berlin Wall: rock ‘n’ roll. “The Beatles promoted a cultural revolution in the former Soviet Union that played a part in the demolition of communism in that part of the world,” former British Cold War Spy and documentarian Leslie Woodhead tells the Daily News. He confides that during the 90s a Russian Beatles fan told him it wasn’t to be nuclear missiles that ended the Cold War, rather Liverpool’s most famous musical sons. Other musical heroes such as David Bowie followed. Then came Bruce Springsteen. In 1988 around 300,000 souls rocked up to an East German field to watch ‘The Boss’ strut his stuff. “I’m not here for any government,” came his cry, in broken German, from the stage. “I’ve come to play rock ‘n’ roll for you in the hope that one day the barriers will be torn down.”
Soon, they were, for on 9 November, 1989 the dismantling of the Berlin Wall began. The following New Year’s Eve, a bouffanted television superstar by the name of David Hasselhoff (questionably) merged the worlds of screen and song with a performance of his (German) hit single Looking for Freedom as newly freed citizens partied across the former political partition.