Nationalism in the Cinema

Nationalism in the Cinema

The United States, the largest consumer economy in the world despite the Depression, remained immune to cultural incursions from abroad, and had no difficulty in following a policy of cultural as well as political isolationism.

Elsewhere the commercial power of exported American culture, both of Hollywood and of the consumer goods it celebrated and advertised, was regarded as a threat. In response, governments round the world encouraged cultural nationalism in resistance ‘to the invasions of American-dominated international culture.

Nationalist propaganda was latent in the very notion of resistance to American cultural influence, and there was widespread antipathy to Hollywood’s “superficiality” – in 1936 Lithuanian censors rejected the Katharine Hepburn movie / Alice Adams because it was “banal” – among European intellectuals. This did nothing to hinder the emergence of more extreme forms of nationalism.

For purposes of content analysis a sample of heroes and a sample of villains in Soviet films have been classified as to their ethnic nationality, socio-economic class, motivation, age, and sex. Motivation was divided into goals, in terms of a personal-social dichotomy, and into areas such as politics, economics, romantic love, family, and culture. Classification was based on total judgments which considered all clues pertaining to heroes and villains. The units chosen for analysis were complete full-length feature films produced between 1923 and 1950.

Practically all Soviet films discussed in available English-language publications were included in the two samples, provided that an adequate description of their content was obtainable. The titles of over 400 Soviet films were found by perusal of books, magazines and newspapers in the English language, but information about the villains depicted was available for only 130 films, and about heroes for only 240. The representativeness of these samples cannot be determined. It is estimated, however, that they are based on about 10 and 20 per cent, respectively, of all feature films produced in the Soviet Union during the period 1923-1950.

In all the countries of Europe, bourgeois guardians of “traditional national values” linked American and indigenous working-class culture together through their “vulgarity”. The appeal of Hollywood to the working classes was taken as evidence of their need for “education” in the superiority of their own traditions. Cultural nationalists throughout the 1930s attempted to restrict the flow of American cultural imports, protested about Hollywood’s misrepresentation of their national culture, and sought to create and disseminate a rival cultural idiom.

Goals are defined so as to focus on the people affected. The term “personal goal” is applied to motives which aim to affect the character portrayed or a small group of people well known to him. The category “social goals” is reserved for motives intending to affect large social groups, such as the population of a particular nation, “the workers of the world” or all mankind. All motives are rated as personal or social, depending on which goal received greater emphasis in a given film.

Such attempts were most effective where cultural nationalists exerted most institutional power; in Britain the monopolistic BBC presented its own version of national culture more effectively than the British cinema, which was in economic thrall to Hollywood, while in Japan the film industry, which enjoyed sufficient economic protection as well as cultural distance from American forms, developed genres of its own.

Wartime propaganda intensified the cultural nationalism of the previous decade, and for those on all sides whoever their political opponent was represented as being, the cultural struggle was directed against the American institutions of Hollywood and Madison Avenue. The war changed the industry. Many residents of Hollywood took time off to participate in the war effort. Some like John Ford and Frank Capra made films for the government.

Others like Fritz Lang continued to make commercial films, but they were propaganda-oriented and helped build morale. The stars went to the battle areas to entertain the troops. Even studio space was commandeered to produce war documentaries, and war films became a dominant fictional genre. After the war the rate of change accelerated. Anti-trust suits broke up the large companies and forced them to sell their theaters. And television began to keep the public at home. The movie industry responded with attempts at expanding the medium to attract new interests: 3-D, CinemaScope, Technicolor; and it continues to experiment: quadraphonic sound, sensurround, holographic images, and giant leaps in special effects have been tried.

Next Page: Film and War Propaganda