Film and War Propaganda

Film and War Propaganda

How far the films were being used as propaganda was another point sometimes raised. Movies played the role in promoting war sentiment through their big navy and aviation films. Working with the US government’s Office of War Information (OWI), one of Hollywood’s wartime roles was to wake the United States up to the end of its period of international isolation.

The enduring appeal of Casablanca comes from the way it encapsulates the essential quaIities of the Hollywood studio production: dialog pushed just the other side of plausibility (“l remember every detail. The Germans wore grey. You wore blue.”), delivered by stars enacting their archetypal personas.

But in early 1943 Casablanca, like many other Hollywood movies, deliberately set out to convince American audiences that World War II required the nation’s committed entry into world affairs.
The most general answer to how it is possible to think about the film qua abstract object is that film’s contents, which are information stored in retrievable form on rolls of celluloid, can be actualized so that those who experience the film build up from it an intelligible content, one we even might be tempted to call ‘a world’.

The real world includes among its contents things, people, relations, abstractions; so does the world on film; the world we can discern on film simulates the real world so closely that we can speak of a resemblence, even of a continuity, between the two. Yet since the film world is a world contained on celluloid, it is philosophically important to discuss whether we know in principle how to demarcate this imaginary world from whatever we take to be the real world that it resembles.

Film and War Propaganda

Only if we can demarcate the film world from the real world can we ask the question of whether the presuppositions involved in making the contents of film intelligible to ourselves resemble those presuppositions we need for intelligibility in general and hence whether film is a useful way to think about thinking and making sense in general.

A basic condition enabling us to think about film, then, is that it is such that we are able to discern in its content something resembling a world; something, that is, like the world, but yet in some definite way not the world, merely like it. ‘World’ here could be expanded: it connotes order not chaos, contents not void, intelligible not meaningless. So we can redescribe what is presupposed by our discerning a world on film by saying that it permits us to impose order, to make intelligible, to individuate and to identify things. What we might call the project of constituting a world on film is merely a small part of the wider project with which we are constantly engaged; that is, imposing intelligibility, order, individuation and identity on the world in which we live. Precisely because film in some way replicates locally what we are constantly engaged in globally there is the possibility that we may learn from our constitution of the film world about our world-constituting activities in general.

The overwhelming majority of the intelligibles, the ordering forces, the individuals and the identities to be found in the film world are people; or, as some philosophers prefer to call them, persons. Each narrative film such as Casablanca has what we may call a cast of persons. But films in general also have casts of persons, persons who reappear in one film after another—shifting their personae from one story to another, changed yet the same. I am referring to stars, a by no means trivial variant of the notion of a person. Here then we have a feature of the world on film that both differs from and resembles our world. Stars provide points of continuity and recognition across or between films. They may be a principle or cause of whatever reality we decide the films have, as well as another clue to the very possibility of thinking about the film.

Why not now go on to explain how it is possible for us to discern a world on film? This Kantian question is better avoided here, for the simple reason that it is too ambitious. Our understanding both of thought and of the objects of thought is rudimentary, no more so than when we try to tackle world constitution. We have only the dimmest idea of how infants build up their picture of the world from the undifferentiated manifold of experience, especially when all our communication presupposes our results being coordinatable. It is possible that studying how it is done with films may illuminate that murky area. If world constitution from films is to illuminate world constitution tout court we have some way to go as yet.

Not only do we discern a world on film, but that world resembles our world. Here again the theory of resemblance is bitterly disputed territory—ironically, since none of the competitors has strength to do much more than throw a punch or two at their opponents before collapsing.

For the present, then, I take it that thinking about film is possible because we have the physical and mental equipment and they provide the materials for us to constitute something it is natural to write of as a world, both resembling and differing from ours, differing in particular because the world on film is an artifact, not a natural occurrence. Furthermore, although resembling our world, it differs from it decisively in being known not to be real.

Bogart’s character rehearsed a heroic role constantiy re-enacted in American culture: the man drawn reluctantly into a conflict he cannot avoid unless he compromises his principles. During the course of the film his cynical isolation is converted into energetic resistance to the Nazis through the resolution of his love affair with the charaeter played by Ingrid Bergman. At the end of the film, he sends her to America with her Resistance leader husband.

Bogart’s renunciation of her completes the pattern in which characters sacrifice their personal desires for a greater cause. Hollywood’s own sacrifice was a limited affair. Along with every other entertainrnent business, the film industry enjoyed a boom during the war.

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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