Cinema Goes to War

Since the birth of cinema, propagandists have hidden behind the mask of producers, realising the potential of film as a brainwashing tool. Insidiously, ideological seeds are planted in these films and watered by visual aesthetics, in order to germinate in the minds of the citizens. Motion pictures are utilised to teach the masses, how they should feel about the international conflicts that their country finds itself in. The beginning of the 20th Century marked a revolution in the medium propaganda was transferred through. The ancient Propaganda of scratched graffiti on walls, had undergone a major technological improvement. Therefore, when the First World War broke out, politicians saw the potential of using film to guise their patriotic motives.

Selling “The Bond” of American Citizens

Liberty BondsAt the outbreak of World War I, motion pictures were becoming a favourite Westernized past-time. Cinema-goers became the first guinea-pig brains to test propagandist media. The American government saw the potential of immuring its citizens in boxed cinematic rooms, to push their ideologies and values. Ergo, anti-German sentiments pervaded many of their films, such as “To Hell with the Kaiser” and “Wolves of Kultur.” Rage flared through America, as Germany was pigeon-holed as ‘the enemy’ against the democratic ideals of the US. Ultimately, cinema was a persuasive tool to rally people to fight and support the war effort.

One blatant example of clear propagandist motives is evident in “The Bond” by Charlie Chaplin. The war effort was exceedingly expensive and costing the government a fortune. The concept of Liberty Bonds was conceived to encourage citizens to buy a share in the country’s freedom. A clear advertisement for these bonds was hidden under the guise of Chaplin’s ‘short film.’ It depicts several sketches along the theme of bonds, from friendship to marriage to the most important, Liberty Bonds. At the end, Chaplin is seen to be buying bonds from Uncle Sam, whom gives the money to a worker who manufactures the guns for a soldier. A montage of patriotic scenes wins the audience over to the monetary cause. This wasn’t movie-making but marketing.

Propaganda: A slap in “Der Fuhrer’s Face”

Der Fuhrer's FaceEven the innocent Disney could not stay pure from propaganda, amidst WWII. Donald Duck joined the war campaign in WWII, during the animated film: “Der Fuhrer’s Face” (1942). Indeed, imagine Donald Duck in a Nazi uniform, saluting the Heil Hitler. Today, it can be seen as a mighty paradox, with the symbol of the greatest evil and child entertainment, morphed into a marching duck—Disney and the devil. He makes a parody of the enemy, gives people a good laugh and bolsters patriotism. At the end, the ‘lucky duck’ wakes up in his bed, realising that the trauma he has experienced within the film (the everyday occurrences Germans could sympathise with) was just a nightmare.

Disney refuses to let the public see these films in modern times, with their strong anti-German sentiments. However, the well-known child brand cannot deny the fact that during this war, they dumped their usual princesses and princes, for propagandists. Once again, Hollywood joined the war effort.

A cross-cultural analysis

Triumph of the WillHowever, we cannot point the finger of blame only at Hollywood, as cinemas around the world have opened their ticket boxes to the propaganda phenomenon—none more so than Nazi Germany. Film played an indispensable role in the nationalised brainwashing of its citizens. In fact, the bad connotations that cling to the concept of “propaganda” can largely be blamed on Nazi’s pervasiveness through it. This is explicit, in “Triumph of the Will” (1935), which venerates the Nazi dynasty above all else, with a montage of exulting clips of Hitler and his mass support. Through film angles, he was set up as a temporal god and Germans were persuaded towards an idolised perception of him. This should not even be considered a film, but an indoctrinated advertisement.

You may be thinking: this was ages ago. Haven’t we evolved from these Neanderthal-minded attempts at coercing the public towards a particular opinion. However, even though cinema goers have swapped their cravats for connies these days, we are still at risk of military-persuasive cinema. This became evident to me, when I recently watched Lone Survivor and saw its persuasive power to recruit my date, to its ideological side.

Surviving through the Lone Survivor

The Lone Survivor teamUnfortunately this militarisation of Hollywood still continues today, especially in the recent release of The “Lone Survivor.” Directed by Peter Berg, it is based on a real-life Navy SEAL mission that went bad in Afghanistan in 2005. Although not explicit naked propaganda, this movie is still barely covered by unpartisan clothes, as it deals with its war deaths with racial bias.

Berg makes American soldiers’ deaths sanctimonious, while simply eradicating Afghani lives with detachment. The local soldiers are killed as faceless men—with no back story or personality. They are mere flies to swat in bloody demises for the visual appeal of the audience. However, each slow death of the American soldiers is dealt with slow-motion footage and humane camera angles. Indeed, almost five minutes of the film is taken up with the valiant death of comrade, LT Murphy with his last wheezing gasps. It rekindles anger of this sacrilege of such noble heroes. Honestly, you might be hoodwinked into seeing a halo of light illuminating these soldiers’ bleeding scalps. They are the heroes of war that audiences cannot help but want to emulate.

Once again, this apparent “unbiased film” imbues patriotism in its watching crowds, in the hope to validate the honourable work of the infantry. The credit should be screaming: “Join the Army and become a Super Hero.”

The Other Side of the Argument

As I said, propaganda movies were utilised to teach the masses on how they should feel about the international conflicts that their country finds itself in. However, that means that film can also be used as a medium against war.

Therefore, unpopular mêlées were not promoted through the movies of their time, but rather ridiculed. In the 1930s, a new type of cinema emerged from the ashes of World War I’s aftermath. Leading films of this new cinematic age, were “Quiet on the Western Front” by Lewis Milestone (1930) and “Wooden Crosses” by Raymond Bernard (1932). These movies showed World War I in a very bloodthirsty, unglorified manner that even today manage to be very powerful in pervading anti-war sentiment.

Also, this anti-war cinema was evident in the 60s and 70s again, when patriotism was warped into contempt for U.S. soldiers and the vitriolic attitude of the nation was soaked through the time’s movies. The Vietnam War was the longest and most disliked war that America ever fought. Thus, producers pervaded anti-war sentiments within their films for the first time, rather than promoting patriotism. This revealed a shift in propagandist film, in which for the first time, cinema-goers were not bubbling with nationalist pride when they left the theatres. This was explicit in the 1978 movie, “Boys in Company C.” It observes the dehumanizing effects the Vietnam War had on recruits, as a U.S. marine travels for his brutal boot camp training to the bloody street fighting in Hue. The public were cursing the war as they took their empty buckets of popcorn from the cinema.

Whether it is to ratify or glorify the current war, cinema has always played an imperative role in persuading masses’ minds on how they should feel about current conflicts. Ultimately, the movie screen has been fighting its own persuasive war for almost a century. Its bullets in the shape of palm-sized admission tickets.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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18 Comments

  1. Birth of a Nation. One of the first great propaganda films. What can I say about it. Sadly, it was a box office hit upon its release.

  2. Your commentary on Lone Survivor is spot on. Films and news coverage just gloss over the others deaths, even civilians, as unfortunate biproducts of war. Immense patriotism is a sort of propaganda that has been used to promote unquestioning support of the wars, though there have always been pacifists and skeptics.

    I do think, though, that with increased media coverage since the Vietnam War, more films have come out and exposed the problems of war to a greater extent. Apocalypse Now is another great film that graphically shows the war crimes that occured and the psychological toll war takes on soldiers.

    Thanks for the great read!

    • August Merz

      I’m in disagreement with the view on Lone Survivor but I’m 100% with you when you say that one of the great advancements of war films is the way in which they present war as a brutally savage environment. Some films/miniseries like Saving Private Ryan, Band of Brothers, and The Pacific have done a terrific job of making the carnage of war much more perceptible for the modern audience.

      Other films like Platoon, as you said Apocalypse Now, and more modern war pictures like Black Hawk Down and, I’ll say it, Lone Survivor, do at the very least show the physical torment endured by soldiers while also looking at the psychological tolls of war. But I think it ought not go unnoticed that even in the 40’s, movies were being made that, to the best of their ability, showed how terrible war is. In fact, William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives was entirely about American soldiers returning from Europe and acclimating themselves to ‘normal’ civilian life.

      Though there have been some missteps on the way, I’d say that on the whole the war genre is one that has grown in cinema’s time.

    • Emily Lighezzolo

      Thanks Kristin for the feedback and support 🙂 I hate when films or politicians call war murders as “collateral damage” or “the by-products of war.” It’s just inhumane. Indeed, I do agree that some producers/directors have fought to show the realities of war and not this glorified crusade now that we have a clearer sight of what it’s really like

  3. August Merz

    You raise a number of very important points dealing with the nature of war pictures and how they can sometimes blur the line between entertainment and propaganda, but I would have to say that on the whole I disagree with your view of the general war movie. I don’t in the least bit mean this pejoratively; I’m actually quite glad that you wrote from this perspective so we can get a discussion going.

    First off, the United States is far from being innocent in terms of making propagandist films. As iMEP above pointed out, Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation had despicable messages which boiled down to lauding the Ku Klux Klan as national saviors while demonizing black people as savages. In spite of it’s horrid and blatant racism, it was still enjoyed by the masses, including President Woodrow Wilson who actually said that he believed in the message of the film. Of course it doesn’t stop there; in World War II there were a number of films like Sands of Iwo Jima, Wake Island, and To Hell and Back which were made exclusively to promote the war effort and get people to join the army.

    But here’s where I think there ought to be a distinction. The message that Nazi Germany espoused through Leni Riefenstahl’s films was the idea that an Aryan utopia could be achieved through the systematic eradication of the weak and different (mainly Jews, homosexuals, the poor, mentally/physically disabled people, Poles, and Gypsies). Needless to say, this is a barbaric proclamation. The United States on the other hand wanted to bring down this incredible evil and while they turned to methods that were similar to those that the Nazi’s employed, their message was ultimately one of justice. While the means of both countries to get public support were similar, there is a great deal of difference between a message that promotes murder and one that promotes the end of that murder.

    This extends into my next point which is that when there is a division between good and evil, then they should be seen in different lights. I did not mind the way that Peter Berg presented the deaths of the American soldiers in Lone Survivor because ultimately, I think that the life of a U.S. soldier who is fighting to restore justice in a part of the world where innocent men, women, and children are hurt is more valuable than the life of a member of the Taliban who is not only allowed to hurt those same innocents, but is actually encouraged to do so. While the introduction of the film did feel propagand-y, what with the footage of recruits training and finally being admitted as Navy SEALs, I would definitely say that the rest of the picture promoted a very positive attitude towards the men who fought and died for our national security.

    I want to reiterate that while I’m completely on the other side of this topic, I’m glad that you wrote this article Emily. It was very well written and you presented your case in a very thorough manner. Hope to hear from you soon 🙂

    • Emily Lighezzolo

      Hi August, there’s nothing I love more than a good intellectual debate! So I’m more than happy to read your side of the argument, nicely articulated. I think we a more getting into an ethical debate, more than anything. Is promoting war ever on the side of “good?” Was going encouraging the nation to get behind the “war on terrorism,” which was just a cover for dominant occupation “good?”

      I believe when ideology is cemented in cinema, it does not give the audience the opportunity to refine their own ideas. Instead they are shoved with the nation’s perspective and often through propaganda, forced to agree with it cognitively.

      As you say, there is a HUGE difference between promoting the “final solution” murder and the murder of terrorists for peace. But it is two sides of the same coin of murder.

      America shouldn’t thrust on us that their cause is noble and that the deaths of civilians in Lone Survivor are just unfortunate “by-products.” That’s what infuriated me. Why should deaths of different races be treated with such varying degrees of tenderness?

      Thank you for your thorough explanation of the other side of the argument. Really appreciate it 🙂

      • August Merz

        I hear you Emily, and I think that the one thing that would absolutely turn me off in a war movie is a disregard for the lives that are lost (e.g. films like Windtalkers and Pearl Harbor), but in the end I do believe in a division between what is right and what is wrong and sometimes those who are in the latter camp need to be taken down and, while it may make me sound a bit reptilian, the deaths of bad people don’t effect me as much as the deaths of good people.

        But I hope that we find a measure of common agreement in the idea that no war is ever good (though I believe that some are necessary) and that ideological stances should not be present in films. Thanks for replying 🙂

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Well-written comment : )

  4. Interesting article, thank you!
    Whether it is war which is connected with pride, or whether it is glorification of beauty which is connected with lust- the cinema has always made a bold effort to persuade the minds of masses. Visualizations and images make a strong network in the brain; we humans will later remember and manifest, reinforcements of one kind or the other(Bandura’s social learning theory). I appreciate the movies and the brilliant imagination of many human beings. However, I do not agree with propagating hate, cruelty, white man domination, and the like… hate instead of love, really? In the end, is that what humanity truly desires?

    • Emily Lighezzolo

      Thanks so much for the feedback, loved hearing from you! Indeed, every day our brains are brainwashed without our knowledge… not just through cinema, but also advertisements. It’s why we relate Nescafe now with George Clooney… and what Lone Survivor tried to do was relate the deaths of U.S. soldiers to heroism. Does it make them a hero, if they go down killing? I’m not so sure

  5. I completely agree with you on the point that cinema is a very persuasive tool used to influence the public, but I also think the viewers are involved as well. Anyone can look at a film and get a different message from it, whether through their own experience or background knowledge of the movie’s content. I’m not saying that we should all do research before seeing movies inspired by real events, but I think we do have to take into account that films are a form of art that can be viewed in many different ways. As for war films, I do generally think that there is propaganda involved, but I always pause my opinion when I think of my family members being in the military and all they’ve done(and will do) to protect our country. If anyone knows the reality of war, it’s our troops, and I’m sure if you asked them they’d say the movies are realistic in some ways and over-idealized in others. I once read a marine poster that said “Freedom is not free,” and war is one of those gruesome realities that exist to protect a country’s citizens and ideas. Governments have used them for different reasons, of course (not the most humble ones, as your article points out), but for the honorable reason of protecting the innocent, that statement still stands and we should still honor our troops, regardless of what the media portrays.

    On another note, your point on Disney and WWII is valid. I remember watching a video on Disney’s history that showed how the military actually took over the studio during that time, so the Donald Duck cartoon makes sense. They even refer to the war planes in Dumbo when you see his silhouette flying over the land (according to IMDb, it came out in 1941).

    • Emily Lighezzolo

      Thanks for your contribution, I always love hearing others’ thoughts on the matter 🙂 Indeed, it is the individual’s prerogative to not let film influence and always remain critically aware of what is being presented in front of them. Hence, why I could disagree with Lone Survivor.

      I agree that our troops should be honoured for their contributions… but their deaths should not be venerated above the other causalities of war. Whether you die as a soldier, or a unsuspecting civilian… the deaths should be treated the same. And this is when the bias comes in (especially of American troops) and contradicts this humane premise. And wow I did not know that fact about Dumbo… that’s another good addition to my argument 🙂

  6. I think this really reveals the value of the modern documentary. When done well, like in Restrepo or The Square, the viewer really sees an objective look at real events. There’s little to hide, and artistic license is tougher to utilize.

  7. The Holocaust Industry is unnecessarily popular in Hollywood. Orson Wells directed, and starred in “The Stranger,” a film that focused on the lingering fear of Nazis and undercover spies. This 1946 film was the first studio produced film following the wretchedness of WWII. What does this say about our beloved Hollywood? It thrives on war and brutality, a subject matter that has become all too familiar. Most importantly, Holocaust films guarantee the production company a profit. Filmmaker Don Edmonds confessed after creating “Ilsa: She Wolf of the SS” that he simply made that film because he knew this subject matter would draw a large crowd. And it did.

    Your commentary on the Chaplin and Disney film is fascinating on its own, however, we cannot disregard the other films produced by Chaplin and Disney. Chaplin’s 1940 film “The Great Dictator” fashioned the comedic actor as both a dictator and as a victim of a so-called powerful regime. Towards the end of the film, Chaplin denounces his silent character and proposes several ways of spreading peace. This move on his part was of paramount importance not only to his professional profile, but to his own esteemed self as a filmmaker.

    The same applies with Disney. There are a couple of other films that depict the horrid nature of film (that which you mentioned in your article), however, the focus is on the effected individuals. These short-films are available on YouTube, which I find most interesting because they have become public. You stated that Disney has a certain child-like stigma, but we have to remember that early animation were actually intended for adults. The film you mentioned and animated cartoons like “Tom and Jerry” were generated for adults. The aggressive and troubling nature of such animations targeted an older audience.

    You mentioned other war films, but my question to you is this: how do you digest films that revolve around the lingering effects of war, for example “Deer Hunter?” It is an incredibly stunning film that strays from conventional war films, however, it does not deprive its audience from the gruesome nature of battle.

  8. When I saw Lone Survivor, I thought of the story as an account of war told through the eyes of a Navy SEAL and his fellow teammates like films such as Saving Private Ryan have done. I understand that slow motion and wide camera angles to depict the deaths of the solders during battle are overused in films like these but many films do that to depict the events from the account of which they are told. I am curious though to hear what the real Marcus Lutrell thought of the film.
    I also enjoyed the section about how films released in the 60’s and 70’s avoided promoting patriotism. WW II succeeded in promoting patriotism across movie theaters, but promoting it during the Vietnam War would have caused larger uproars by anti-war activists. Yet, it is interesting to see how films like The Deer Hunter and Apocalypse Now played out on screen since they were stories set in combat, but were not accounts of the war as Oliver Stone did for Platoon and Born on the Forth of July. Both Platoon and Born on the Fourth of July do depict the experience of war as Lone Survivor does, but Born on the Fourth of July allows for audiences to understand the anger and protest generated to the choice for America to fight in the war.

  9. Sam Gray

    While your first two sentences sound like the beginning of a Twilight Zone episode, I do think this is an interesting topic to discuss, particularly in today’s context. I’ve always thought the success of recruitment films like Lone Survivor, Black Hawk Down, Act of Valor and so on can be seen as analogous to the success of video games such as Call of Duty and Medal of Honor. They offer an exciting alternative to the more depressing realities of war, something we hear about on the news but would rather not know. It’s easier to imagine a group of people triumphing over the forces of evil through teamwork and bravery than to imagine those same people being sent into a politically unstable, dangerous region with no clear long-term objective.

    But I do think the conclusion you reach is a bit cynical. For every Lone Survivor there’s something like The Hurt Locker or Jarhead, a film which both presents and subverts the stereotypes of war films we’ve come to expect, often with an explicitly political slant. And to their credit, critics were fast to call out Lone Survivor on the brash way it dealt with patriotism, although I agree that some of the positive response the general public gave the film was disturbing.

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