Movies and propaganda in the Second World War

More than one billion cinema tickets were sold in the UK in 1939 and that number rose throughout the war, peaking at 1.06 billion in 1946. The figures for the USA were more than three times that amount, given their larger population, and in Germany films were equally  popular. Small wonder that  studios, film makers and governments used the movies as propaganda.

Two of the worst films I’ve ever seen were outright flag wavers; Big Jim McLain and The Green Berets. Both starred John Wayne who was also the central character in one of my favourite films, The Searchers. Most propaganda films were, like the two above, but some film makers turned out exceptional material. Some of these I have watched again recently and, to my embarrassment, discovered that I had failed to recognise their quality the first time around.

The first of these was Went the Day Well? made by the Brazilian-born film maker Alberto Calvanti in the UK in 1942. Graham Greene wrote the story on which the script was based and it told the story of a quiet English village infiltrated by German soldiers disguised as British troops on exercise. The Germans, in their original guises, appeared to be very decent English people but, later, when they revealed their true identities, they were portrayed as vicious and unpleasant, ready to kill unmercifully. Equally revolting was the local collaborator. The villagers showed true English courage and initiative in fighting off the  threat, even at the cost of some lives. The audiences left the cinema convinced of Nazi evil, the necessity of being on the look-out for fifth columnists and confident that the special qualities of their countrymen and women would eventually win the war.

Entirely different, but none the less effective, was Yankee Doodle Dandy which I saw on the big screen for the first time six weeks ago at the Glasgow Film Festival. I’d always believed this to be a typical product of Hollywood’s golden age with great songs, hugely creative and energetic dance routines and a fabulous Oscar-winning performance from James Cagney. There was, however, much more to it than that! The story told of the life of George M Cohan, born on the fourth of July, an early twentieth century singer, dancer and theatrical impresario on Broadway. His enthusiastic patriotism is obvious from the opening reels and, in one of the film’s most revealing scenes, he sits and watches his famous song performed over there in front of US troops in Northern France in 1917. The song was reprised at the end of the movie by US soldiers marching to win the war agasinst the Germans and Japanese in 1942. Filming had begun shortly after the 7th. December 1941 and production was rushed through and completed by May 1942, just in time to bolster American morale as their citizens embarked on a war that many had been desperate to avoid before Pearl Harbour.

Germany, of course, used their film industry as a propaganda tool. Their most accomplished and productive studio Ufa had been responsible for some of the best inter-war European films like, for example, Metropolis and The Blue Angel. Among the many fine directors working there was Fritz Lang who, like Marlene Dietrich, left for America as soon as the Nazis came to power. Goebbels began to exert influence over Ufa’s output and, as Nazi influence grew, so the quality of the studio’s output fell. By 1937, the German government had full control over its film industry and turned out a series of cheap and nasty quickies where the heroes and heroines were all Aryan and the villains Jewish.

During the war, Goebbels switched his attention to propaganda films directed against the Nazis’ enemies. A typical example was The Titanic, subject of a recent documentary shown on the UK’s Channel 5. The focus of the plot was was the pressure put on the Titanic’s Captain by the board of the White Star Line, the ship’s owners, to cross the Atlantic in record time. The German First Officer insisted that this would put the passengers’ lives in danger and he was the one who performed acts of heroism when the ship began to sink. Like Went the Day Well? it poured scorn on the enemy and lavished praise on the citizens.

Titanic had a limited release in some countries under German occupation but was never shown inside Germany during the war. At the time of its release, November 1943, the German people needed cheering up from the terrible war news. The inevitable tragedy of the sinking of the Titanic was hardly likely to do this. The film had a few brief screenings after the war and, amazingly, some of the footage was used in the 1958 British film about the Titanic A Night to Remember.

Some indication of government involvement with, and influence on, movie production during the war, came with One of Our Aircraft is Missing which was sponsored by the UK’s Ministry of Information, but probably the best British wartime propaganda movie was In Which We Serve (1942). This film received the full backing of the Ministry of Information and was based on a recent incident in the life of Captain Lord Louis Mountbatten. Its greatest strength lay in the showing of the effect of the war on people of all classes of British society and it reminded the audience that sacrifices had to be made to achieve final victory. The Germans were never mentioned as such, being referred to as jerry or those bastards, as British seamen were machine gunned in the water. The film was a tour de force for Noel Coward, who took the main role, wrote the screenplay and the music and was both producer and c0-director (along with David Lean). The audience, pouring into the streets after the film had ended, were left in no doubt about the severity of the tasks that lay ahead but that the British had the quality to ensure final victory.

There were quickly made and poorly produced flag wavers made during the Second World War but others, like Went the Day Well? Yankee Doodle Dandy and In Which We Serve survive as great movies in their own right.

In Which We Servewent the day well

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About David Lowther

Author of The Blue Pencil, Liberating Belsen and Two Families at War (all published by Sacristy Press)
This entry was posted in Reflections on WWII and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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