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American WWII Propaganda Films

Review of the relationship between cinema and politics is one of the basic problems in the film research. In the center of this relationship is the influence of an ideology, but also the politics itself on the film formation. The stability of this influence is easy to understand if we take into consideration that the film is a social heritage and it is liable to various social and ideological influences. The degree of this influence depends on the political liberty but also on the willingness of the filmmaker to carve out that freedom. Besides the influence of politics and ideology on the film, it is necessary, and perhaps more important, to study the influence of film on shaping social reality. The great strength of ideological influence of film lies in its very form. Unlike text, or other means of advertising, film occupies our senses of sight and hearing, draws us into a story and evokes certain emotions. In that manner, we begin to think about some subject or to support a certain idea without being aware of that. The World War II can be seen as a watershed moment in the relationship between U.S. policy and film industry.

1. Before USA got into the War

Before 1939, when the War out-broke in Europe, American cinematography consisted mainly of musicals, comedies, romantic melodramas and Westerns. There was a complete ignorance of fascism or any kind of dictatorship. Americans led pacifistic and isolationistic policy. Only after Hitler seized Czechoslovakia did American films start to show political events on screen. The first film that stood sharply against fascism was The Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939). This film spoke not only against fascism, but also how its ideology confronts and threats American democracy. A year after this film, appeared a film that was adaptation of Phyllis Bottome’s novel, which brought to daylight the facts of which most of the well-informed people were aware. The Mortal Storm, that’s the name of the film, showed a new wave of Nazi’s cruelty and barbarism.

American WWII Propaganda Films

2. USA backing the Allies

Because of the growing panic in the country, American government controlled showing violent scenes of war and combats. However, there were several documentary films that did breakout in the public. Four of those, which were the most impressive were widely distributed (two from England and two from Germany). The British ones were The Lion Has Wings and The London Can Take It (both from 1940) and the German ones – Baptism of Fire and Victory in the West (1940, 1941). At this time, American films started to show, more and more, the cruelty of war, the severity of threat of Nazi ideology and related topics. Such were films The Man I Married and Four Sons (1940). After England’s shattered retreat from Dunkirk, president Roosevelt decided to aid British, and that was the removing of the last trace of American neutrality. Than, the need for films preparing American public for entering the war emerged.

American WWII Propaganda Films

3. Preparing the public for the War

The Ramparts We Watch (1940) was one of the films that made strong plea to get ready for the War. This film had informative character and was objective; it was supposed to show America’s place in the world and how it should fight for its liberty and democracy. The stress of the film was on military preparedness. Addition to this was The World in Flames (1940), a film that spoke about happenings leading to War. Two great names also included in awaking American awareness against fascism and isolation policy – Alfred Hitchcock and Charles Chaplin. Hitchcock made Foreign Correspondent, a film showing an American newspaperman in England reporting on the impending war there. Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940) made fun of Hitler and Mussolini. The plot is about a Jewish barber with amnesia who was sent to concentration camp, and escaped searching for a friendly place. As the American neutrality was disappearing, films about spies, manhunts and saboteurs emerged. Those were Flight Command (1940), I Wanted Wings (1941), Dive Bobmer (1941) and Navy Blues (1941) etc. At the same time, films that were supposed to make it easier for young people to accept changes war had brought appeared, like Buck Privates, Caught in Act, Call Out the Marines, You’ll Never Get Rich…

American WWII Propaganda Films

4. Entering the War

America didn’t enter the War officially until the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, but they were messing in the War by aiding the Allies. After Pearl Harbor, the film studios were mobilized for national defense. The president appointed Lowel Mellet as coordinator of government’s motion pictures. The Hollywood was given six basic suggestions of what should be in the movies – “(1) The  Issues of the War: what we are fighting for, the American way of life; (2) The Nature of the Enemy: his ideology, his objectives, his methods; (3) The United Nations: our allies in arms; (4) The Production Front: supplying the materials for victory; (5) The Home Front: civilian responsibility; (6) The Fighting Forces: our armed services,our allies and our associates.” As the War went on, the films were trying to keep up with happenings in Europe, such as Atlantic Convoy, The Navy Comes Through, Flying Tigers, War Dogs and others. Then, documentary films emerged, showing the real tension of War. The most famous was Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series. There were also The Nazis Strike, Divide and Conquere and others. Capra’s series was made for the purpose of creating better soldiers, believing that a soldier who knows his enemy and why he is fighting is a better one.

American WWII Propaganda Films

5. “Our brothers in arms”

There was number of films that were telling a stories from the inside of conquered countries. Films describe resistance of people in Europe against Nazism, their needs and hopes, ways of fighting… Those films were The Moon is Down, This Land is Mine, Hangmen Also Die, The  Commandos, Edge of Darkness, Cross of Lorraine, Song of Russia and North Star. But one that is the most outstanding is Mission to Moscow.

American WWII Propaganda Films

6. Individualism and Idealism

After America’s being in war for a couple of years, its filmmakers were somewhat preoccupied with the deep emotional crisis of individuals – Action in the North Atlantic (1943), Destination Tokyo (1943), Sahara (1944), Air Force (1944), A  Walk in the Sun (1945), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945), and The Purple Heart (1945).

American WWII Propaganda Films

7. Home front

Films dealing with the home front were mainly humorous in order to ease the pain of all changes in American life due to the War. Hale the Conquering Hero, The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek, and See Here Private Hargrove were among the best films on this subject. The More the Merrier (1943) and Princess O’Rourke (1943) were the films that stood out from the rest in wave of film for their mockery of the irksome tribulation of a people who had to put out with seemingly endless scarcities and inconveniences.

American WWII Propaganda Films

In the end we can say that Hollywood has established a relatively standard form of uncritical cinematic staging of foreign proceedings. It features an emotionally-narrative fragmentation (avoiding the broader historical context and the complex political messages, as well as focusing on individuals), clear and stereotyped division into good and bad characters, indulging themselves socially acceptable patterns executioner-victim, a traditional moralism etc. Besides all the foregoing, the question remains whether the presented political and ideological aspect of Hollywood’s less important characteristic, and, in turn, the policy to the extent permeated the production of the world’s largest film industry, that it can interpret and explain, if not in form and a broader ideological and political context.


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