Saturday, December 30, 2017

Hollywood Enlists!: Propaganda Films of WWII

Hollywood Enlists! Propaganda Films of World War II
by Ralph Donald
Rowman and Littlefield
Hardcover ISBN: 9781442277267
March 2017
274 pages

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Over the years the term "propaganda" has developed a negative connotation. It suggests the brainwashing of its subjects by an authority who lacks good intentions. However, the word propaganda really just means persuasion. Professor of communications Ralph Donald, points out in his new book Hollywood Enlists! Propaganda Films of World War II that "the United States is by far the world's biggest exporter of media" and in those pivotal years of WWII used its media, especially in the form of movies, to drum up support for the war effort. The author breaks down propaganda into two definitions:

1) "forming new and adjusted attitudes in the minds of audiences."
2) "urging them to action, to do something about these newly acquired attitudes."

It was during WWII that Hollywood linked arms with the government to deliver many types of propaganda to its devoted audiences. Feature films about Americans fighting overseas and holding down the fort on the home front, flooded the theaters. There were also documentaries, newsreels, promotional reels encouraging the sales of war bonds and much more. In his book, author Donald focuses on American feature films released during WWII and specifically about the war. We all know that countless movies about WWII came after and are still coming out today (two good examples are the recent releases Dunkirk and Darkest Hour). However, the movies of that pivotal time delivered an important message of American loyalty and support of the war.

"Films made during WWII accomplished their objectives so well that they helped to forge an entire generation into one of the most ideologically unified, singularly-minded populations in the history of the world." - Ralph Donald

The author packs so much in what turns out to be less than 200 reading pages. He breaks down the different themes of propaganda, based on theories developed in the academic world, and shows how each of these themes, and even their sub-themes, play out in different films of the era. It helps to have some familiarity with these films as spoilers are not held back especially if the ending of a movie helps demonstrated the execution of a particular theme. Many movies are referenced and the backmatter of the book includes an annotated filmography. Films discussed at length include: J'Accuse (1938), Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939), Sergeant York (1941), Captains of the Clouds (1942), Casablanca (1942), Mrs. Miniver (1942), Saboteur (1942), Bombadier (1943), Destination Tokyo (1943),  Five Graves to Cairo (1943),  Lifeboat (1944), Back to Bataan (1945), Blood on the Sun (1945), They Were Expendable (1945), and more.

The various themes explained throughout the book really demonstrated just how these movies were intentional in their messages. Sometimes the themes are obvious and some are incredibly subtle. The author breaks down propaganda into five points: Guilt, Sat-nism (good vs. evil), Illusion of Victory, Apocalyptic/Biblical and Territorial. Each of the five points gets it's own chapter with plenty of breakdowns, examples and explanations. In Sat-nism, propaganda films demonstrated polar opposites of good and evil, America vs. the Japanese or the Nazis in many cases, by constantly comparing characters on both sides. This sounds relatively simple and it is on the surface. However, the author breaks down all of the aspects of this good vs. evil portrayal down to many many factions. Not all possible themes were available to use because there was still the Hays Code to contend with. For example, one theme that was often turned down by the Hays Office, was the portrayal of enemy soldiers raping women. It's seen in films like Edge of Darkness (1943) starring Errol Flynn and Ann Sheridan. Constant comparisons of the treatment of women, the fairness of judicial systems, suppression of ideas and honor vs. dishonor really drive home the message that we are fighting for the right reasons. I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Italy was not considered a true threat and portrayed that way in many films. It's something I'll look for next time I encounter an Italian character in a WWII film.

"Hollywood was both an influence in, and a dutiful mirror of, American public opinion." - Ralph Donald

This book is by no means light reading. It took me a couple of months to get through as it is packed with information and is delivered in a straightforward academic tone. It is not so much a reference book, unless you are working on a paper on propaganda in film, as it is a book meant to be read cover-to-cover. I wouldn't recommend this to the casual classic film reader. It's really meant for classroom use or for someone, like me, who is particularly interested in WWII and Hollywood.

Hollywood Enlists! by Ralph Donald packs a punch with its thorough and well-researched breakdowns of the propaganda themes found in the feature films of WWII.

Thank you to publisher Rowman and Littlfield for sending me a copy of this book for review!

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