The United States, with a guaranteed freedom of the press, has provided its citizens access to information as a right of the democratic process. The idea of "propaganda" is linked to totalitarian governments, with an attendant suspicion of inaccurate, slanted information. Therefore, when the United States became involved in two world wars, it faced the issue of how to mobilize its populace, provide accurate information, and influence morale without violating the basic tenets of democracy. The movie business became an important force in this process. After America declared war against Germany on 6 April 1917, the Committee on Public Information was formed, headed by the liberal journalist George Creel. The Committee organized a campaign to stimulate nationalism through patriotic speeches, recruiting posters, and pamphlets, but more significantly by using motion pictures, resulting in such strongly anti-German movies as The Kaiser, the Beast of Berlin (1918) and My Four Years in Germany (1918). Successful directors created movies that also supported the war, including D. W. Griffith (1875–1948) with Hearts of the World (1918), part of which was actually shot on Europe's battlefields, and Cecil B. DeMille (1881–1959) with The Little American (1917), starring the very popular Mary Pickford.
When World War II began in Europe on 1 September 1939, both Russia and Germany had established film propaganda machines. Vladimir Lenin, the first head of the Soviet government after the Russian Revolution of 1917, said, "of all the arts, the most important for us is the cinema"; he understood that movies could help spread the goals of the revolution to rural areas and provide visual information for illiterate peasants. He created a nationalized Soviet film industry, and filmmakers such as Sergei Eisenstein (1898–1948) made great films that were also effective propaganda: Bronenosets Potyomkin ( Battleship Potemkin , also known as Potemkin , 1925) and Oktyabr ( October and Ten Days that Shook the World , 1927). Nazi Germany marshaled an effective system of selling Hitler's ideas under the leadership of Joseph Goebbels (1897–1945), with the talented Leni Riefenstahl (1902–2003) as one of the chief directors. Riefenstahl's Triumph des Willens ( Triumph of the Will , 1935), the official record of the Nazi Party Congress in Nuremberg, and Olympia (1938), her presentation of the 1936 Olympic games in Berlin, stand today as preeminent examples of propaganda. Italy, Japan and Great Britain also had experience in using
movies to influence their people and to popularize their political ideas.
The United States, however, found itself the only country without an established agency for such purposes. President Franklin D. Roosevelt (1933–1945), who understood the importance of the media in politics, began the process of creating an official "propaganda" agency for America in late 1939. After various committees were formed and disbanded between 1939 and 1941, the bombing of Pearl Harbor clarified the need for a single entity to direct American propaganda. Roosevelt appointed Lowell Mellett, a former journalist, to coordinate government films, to establish a working relationship with Hollywood, and to make sure that the studios cooperated with the war effort. Roosevelt's executive order establishing this group, which would become the Office of War Information (OWI), clearly stated that movies would be one of the most important avenues with which "to inform" the public about the war. In April 1942 Mellett set up his Hollywood office, which was placed under the Domestic Branch of the OWI. The OWI provided Hollywood with a list of seven questions with which to review all films made during the war:
- Will this picture help win the war?
- What war information problem does it seek to clarify, dramatize, or interpret?
- If it is an "escape" picture, will it harm the war effort by creating a false picture of America, her allies, or the world we live in?
- Does it merely use the war as the basis for a profitable picture, contributing nothing of real significance to the war effort and possibly lessening the effect of other pictures of more importance?
- Does it contribute something new to our understanding of the world conflict and the various forces involved, or has the subject already been adequately covered?
- When the picture reaches its maximum circulation on the screen, will it reflect conditions as they are and fill a need current at that time, or will it be outdated?
- Does the picture tell the truth or will the young people of today have reason to say they were misled by propaganda?
b. Marion Michael Morrison, Winterset, Iowa, 26 May 1907, d. 11 June
John Wayne's long and successful movie career earned him legendary status. He became an internationally recognized American icon, representing the strong, silent hero who lived by the virtues of bravery, commitment to traditions, respect for women and children, and a deep patriotism. Wayne was most commonly associated with the western genre, beginning with The Big Trail (1930), his first starring role, to his final movie, The Shootist (1976). More than any other film star, Wayne came to represent the concept of "American."
Wayne is the undisputed Hollywood movie boxoffice champion, having been ranked in the top-ten most popular stars for over two consecutive decades, a record that has never been equaled. A popular joke is that the United States didn't win World War II—John Wayne did. However, Wayne made only five movies between 1942 and 1945: Reunion in France , Flying Tigers (both 1942), The Fighting Seabees (1944), Back to Bataan (1945), and, in his most important combat role of the era, as a PT-boat officer in John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945).
Wayne's association with war movies increased after World War II ended, in both postwar combat films and cavalry westerns directed by Ford: Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), and Rio Grande (1950). Wayne also played a Civil War cavalry officer in The Horse Soldiers (1959), General Sherman in an episode of How the West Was Won (1962), and Davy Crockett in The Alamo (1960), a film he also produced and directed. Wayne's later World War II combat movies began with Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), for which he was nominated for an Academy Award ® as Best Actor. His creation of Sergeant Stryker, a man who "has the regulations tattooed on his back," became the model for the postwar tough-guy top sergeant of World War II, a loner who puts duty before personal life and who, as a result, is misunderstood by his men.
Although Wayne made more westerns than war movies, Sands of Iwo Jima solidified his association with World War II. All his World War II movies were boxoffice hits: Operation Pacific (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1965), The Longest Day (1962), and In Harm's Way (1965). His least successful and most controversial war film was The Green Berets , a 1968 pro-Vietnam film which, like The Alamo , he starred in, produced, and directed.
Stagecoach (1939), Flying Tigers (1942), They Were Expendable (1945), Fort Apache (1948), She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949), Sands of Iwo Jima (1949), Operation Pacific (1951), Flying Leathernecks (1951), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Longest Day (1962), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962), In Harm's Way (1965), The Green Berets (1968), True Grit (1969)
Davis, Ronald L. The Life and Image of John Wayne . Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1998.
Levy, Emanuel. John Wayne: Prophet of the American Way of Life . Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow, 1988.
Roberts, Randy, and James S. Olson. John Wayne: American . New York: Free Press, 1995.
Wayne, Pilar. John Wayne: My Life with Duke . New York: McGraw-Hill, 1987.
Wills, Garry. John Wayne's America: The Politics of Celebrity . New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997.
The most discussed of the questions became the famous "number seven," which touched on the heart of the propaganda issue for a democratic nation. The guidelines stated that any movie, whether it was directly about the conflict or not, would be significant to the war effort. The OWI enlisted the famed director Frank Capra (1897–1991) to direct or supervise a series of movies called Why We Fight (1943–1945). First as an army major, but promoted later to colonel, Capra worked under the aegis of the Special Services Branch and the Army Pictorial Service at the 834th Photo Signal Detachment.
Other famous war documentaries made by Hollywood directors were Huston's Report from the Aleutians (1943) and The Battle of San Pietro (1945), Wyler's The Memphis Belle (1944), and Walt Disney's Victory Through Air Power (1943). Two influential documentaries were made by John Ford: The Battle of Midway (1942) and December 7th (1943). The Battle of Midway was the first documentary of World War II to find wide release and popular response. It was an accident of fate that Ford, a commander in the Navy, was on Midway the day the Japanese attacked. He ran out, placed three 16mm cameras in the sands, and shot as much footage as he could. Two of the cameras were destroyed and Ford was wounded, but the resulting film showed Americans what it looked like to be in the midst of the chaos of combat. December 7th , photographed by Gregg Toland (1904–1948), the legendary cinematographer of Citizen Kane (1941), is a classic example of the blurring of filmed fact and fiction. On the day that Pearl Harbor was bombed, few cameras were available to cover the events. The scenes many people today believe to be photographs of soldiers and sailors engaging the enemy were, in fact, scenes with actors, staged inside a studio. The National Audio Visual Center's booklet on World War II documentaries comments:
The film represents one of the rare instances where moments of illusion have become, for most of us, the documentary reality. However, because the fact and fiction of December 7th are blended together so skillfully, its impact is not seriously diminished. On the contrary, the film stands as an almost textbook example of the use of a succession of edited images to involve and overwhelm an audience.