World War II Propaganda Movies
The word propaganda is defined (by the New Oxford American Dictionary 2001) as “chiefly derogatory (showing a critical or disrespectful attitude) information especially of a biased or misleading nature used to promote or publicize a particular political cause or point of view”. While movies and documentaries containing propaganda have become commonplace today the period of time just prior to and throughout WW II contained the highest concentration of such content. The film that began this period was Nazi Germany’s own Triumph of the Will (1935) from Leni Riefenstahl but the focus of this article will be the Allied response.
Other than the early documentary style feature Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939) which relates the true story of a New York-based Nazi spy ring that was uncovered by the FBI and attempted to alert its audience of the real dangers which existed within the United States at the time many of the earliest World War II propaganda movies were made by British film-makers who hoped to influence our country to join England in the war against Nazi fascism and world domination – Alfred Hitchcock’s thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940) producer-director Michael Powell writer Emeric Pressburger’s drama 49th Parallel (1941) and (to a lesser extent) the Noel Coward (David Lean) navy drama In Which We Serve (1942). All portray the Nazi threat their rhetoric methods and/or brutality in a way designed to inform and incite “us” to take up the fight. MGM had their own early trilogy with The Mortal Storm (1940)Escape (1940) and the Academy Award winning Mrs. Miniver (1942) which Winston Churchill said was worth many battleships whereas (except for Underground (1941) which I’ve not seen) Warner Bros. played it a bit more humorously with Desperate Journey (1942) and All Through the Night (1942) before its detective roster could be converted into a different kind of sinister intrigue for Across the Pacific (1942) and Casablanca (1942). In addition to the anti-Nazi movies there were also pro-American and/or other patriotic offerings released such as the biographies of WW I hero Sergeant York (1941) and the multi-talented entertainer George M. Cohan (Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942)) “born on the fourth of July”.
By 1943 the studios were cranking out films laced with anti-Nazi and/or anti-Japanese themes with regularity – whether they were war movies romance dramas or even comedies – and each branch of service specialization or support organization involved in the war effort received its due. Some of these were actually released prior to the United States’ formal involvement like Dive Bomber (1941) or told of our assistance before it like Flying Fortress (1942) and the Flying Tigers (1942) but most came later as the quest for new material led to stories about the Navy (Stand By For Action (1942)) and their submariners (Crash Dive (1943) Destination Tokyo (1943)) the Air Force (1943) and more specifically the Bombardier (1943) merchant marines (Action in the North Atlantic (1943)) the Army (Bataan (1943) Sahara (1943) and the recruitment musical This is the Army (1943)) and least we forget a Salute to the Marines (1943) (or later The Fighting Seabees (1944) for the construction battalions and John Ford’s PT-boat homage They Were Expendable (1945)). The terror of Nazism continued to be related through the eyes of those in countries under German occupation such as Czechoslovakia (Hangmen Also Die! (1943)) France (This Land is Mine (1943)) Norway (Edge of Darkness (1943)) Russia (The North Star (1943)) and even those living in Germany itself (Hitler’s Children (1943)). Descriptions of Japan’s atrocities against China (Behind the Rising Sun (1943) Dragon Seed (1944)) served a similar purpose. Two other (really bizarre) propaganda films released that year were Mission to Moscow (1943) which encouraged Americans to trust the Soviet Union as an ally against the Nazis and the German-made Titanic (1943) which is an anti-British account about the famous fated ocean liner.
Watch on the Rhine (1943) expertly posed the question of “what would you do?” as an individual to fight fascism in America; screenwriter Dashiell Hammett cleverly used a freedom fighter that had escaped from Germany as his protagonist. In the role Paul Lukas won the Best Actor Oscar among stiff competition that included two Americans abroad faced with a similar decision: Gary Cooper in For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943) – a different war – and Bogart in Casablanca (1942). But women’s hearts were also directly appealed to with dramas about the heroic Joan of Paris (1942) and the ironically similar Reunion in France (1942) with Joan Crawford and encouraged to do their part on the home-front by The War Against Mrs. Hadley (1942). Also Journey for Margaret (1942)Cry ‘Havoc’ (1943)So Proudly We Hail! (1943) Tender Comrade (1943) and later Since You Went Away (1944) were also targeted at female audiences. The threat here at home was portrayed in such films as Hitchcock’s Saboteur (1942) Journey into Fear (1943) Secret Command (1944)The House on 92nd Street (1945) and the unique Tomorrow the World! (1944) which detailed the dangers of brainwashed Hitler Youth domestically.
Except for a few like None Shall Escape (1944) The Seventh Cross (1944) and The Way Ahead (1944) aka The Immortal Battalion (1945) by 1944 many of the war movies being released were accounts (albeit somewhat fictionalized) of real events (e.g. battles or heroic actions) that occurred earlier during WW II like Jimmy Doolittle’s (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)) response to Pearl Harbor. While there was still a propaganda motive fewer elements of these stories needed to be created since as a nation we were already united against our enemies in Europe and Japan.
© 2007 Turner Classic Movies – this article originally appeared on TCM’s official blog
War Is Hell: 20-Minute Video Essay Explores The Cinematic Landscape Of War Movies
In 1998, two celebrated American directors each delivered a World War II film depicting the horrors of war. The directors were Terrence Malick and Steven Spielberg, proffering “The Thin Red Line” and “Saving Private Ryan,” respectively. While Spielberg’s classic focuses on the individual’s sacrifice and pain in service of a worthwhile mission taking place in WWII, Malick’s film is an anti-war tone poem that could just as easily be about the Vietnam war, examining how the destruction of war affects all of nature. A video essay from Adam Laity deconstructs the way landscapes and natural environments are used in those films among others.
Running just over 20 minutes, the video reads classics like “Apocalypse Now” and “Full Metal Jacket” closely, dissecting how a director can use the setting of a film to drive home certain themes. Big chunks of the essay are devoted to both Coppola’s and Malick’s works —while both are anti-war films, each are wildly different in terms of the filmmaker’s sensibilities.
Watch Laity’s “The Role of Landscape, Nature and Environment in War Films” below. [35MM]