Propaganda and World War II


 Propaganda and World War II
It was inevitable that the ideological clashes of the thirties should result in what Erik
Barnouw (1993) called “the politicizing of the documentary.” The Spanish Earth (1937),
by Ivens, for which Ernest Hemingway wrote and spoke the commentary, and Native
Land (1942), by the left-wing group, Frontier Films, illustrate the use of the film medium
by radicals within the United States. (Ivens had twice visited the Soviet Union.) In
Germany, Leni Riefenstahl’s close relationship to Hitler was responsible for two notable
productions: Triumph of the Will (1935), a celebration of Hitler’s leadership at the 1934
Nazi party rally at Nuremberg, and Olympia (1938), a two part feature on the 1936 Berlin
Olympic Games. In their form and in the staging involved in their production both films
offered a cinematic spectacle that foreshadowed the way television would handle live
events later in the century. Turksib (1929),

 by the Soviet filmmaker Victor Turin,
illustrated the achievements of Soviet engineers in constructing a rail link between
Turkestan and Siberia, a film that impressed Grierson and Lorentz.
All the combatants in World War II had film units at the front gathering material
for release in newsreel and longer form. Dramatic images of real war brought a new
dimension to the documentary. “The moment they appeared,” said Watt, the director of
Night Mail, “the real thing, the front line shot by real army men who were being killed
while doing it, the reconstructed documentary as such, was dead” (cited in Sussex, 1975,
174/5). Watt’s Target For Tonight (1941) was itself a dramatized account of a Royal Air
Force bombing raid over Germany, every participant in the film being a real service man
or women. Its American counterpart was William Wyler’s Memphis Belle (1944).

 When the United States entered World War II in December 1941, Hollywood
immediately joined the war effort. General Marshall himself commissioned a series of
films from Frank Capra to explain the war’s aims to the thousands of newly drafted
American servicemen. Under the general title Why We Fight, the films in this series and
others that followed it such Know Your Enemy-Japan (1944) showed the same distortions
and stereotyping as the output of the Axis powers. Hollywood directors were as
responsive to the demand for propaganda in nonfiction as in fiction films. Among the
best known is the film John Huston made of a battle that had taken place at San Pietro in
Italy in December 1943 during the American Fifth Army’s campaign to take Rome. The
film itself was titled San Pietro, but it is widely referred to as the Battle of San Pietro.
Huston staged the most dramatic footage in the film two or three weeks after the battle
itself with infantry units assigned for the purpose and using techniques for achieving
realism that had been perfected in Hollywood’s fiction films.

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