Book Review: “The Star-Spangled Screen” — How Hollywood Makes War Acceptable

By Joan Lancourt

One comes away a trifle numb: in part due to the sheer number of films made; but in part both awed and terrified by Hollywood’s ability to use what were, for the most part, mediocre films to make the ravages of war not only so acceptable to the American public, but glorious.

The Star-Spangled Screen: The American WWII Film by Bernard F. Dick. The University Press of Kentucky, 340 pages, $30.

According to Bernard Dick, most American WWII films fall into one of four categories: the “preparing for war,” pre–Pearl Harbor films, with the Spanish Civil War a frequent setting; the films that took place and were made during the war years; films that took place during the war, but were made after 1945; and films made 20, 30, even 70+ years later about WWII. In The Star-Spangled Screen he covers a vast canvas of issues, genres and sub-genres, with frequent detours into an equally vast array of sociopolitical, economic, and cultural byways. He also examines the films from two perspectives: the studios that created them, and the audiences that made the Saturday matinee a defining feature of American culture. There are, for example, interesting descriptions of the ways in which studio heads left their mark on a given film, and how the major studios created their “brands”: MGM, for instance, was known for turning out family fare. And there are countless examples of the awkward dance between giving the audience what it wanted and the ways in which the studios shaped and polished what the audience wanted, all within the confines of the Production Code Administration, and the various governmental agencies (e.g., the Office of War Information) created to “manage” the way war-related information was disseminated.

His research is impressive, and the inside view of “how the sausage was made,” and of how the psyche and mores of the nation were influenced and molded to the needs of the time, is fascinating, especially given how the “fake news” of today is shaping the minds of a frighteningly significant number of Americans. There is a case to be made that many WWII films — cocooned in what was then “fake news” —  defined patriotism, what was American, the role of women, foreigners, and race. The gender norms cultivated in many WWII films also provide a way to measure how much the #MeToo movement, for example, has changed things. And how much still remains the same. Ditto for race relations, especially in the current context of “Asian hate.” According to Dick, Hollywood’s post–Pearl Harbor revilement of the Japanese had no parallel in film history; and its view of women was through the double standard of a male lens. Women were either a spiritual force, pure enough to transform ordinary men into fighting patriots by making them feel “masculine and superior,” or a Mata Hari, with an “obligation to sleep with or marry her quarry, if necessary,” followed by the requisite screen death, and the “deepest gratitude” of those she had saved.

Despite the richness of the material, the thematic way Dick has organized the book often makes it difficult to get a clear sense of the broader picture. We don’t get a good grasp of how these sociopolitical themes emerged over time or how they influenced each other. This problem is compounded by the placement of a so-called Introduction added in 2022 to the original 1985 edition. The reader is immediately plunged into detailed descriptions of Holocaust films, battle recreation films, and films about groups of protagonists, some made as recently as 2020 — all without any context. In essence, the so-called Introduction is a useful post script or addendum, but is in no way an introduction.

That said, while the attack on Pearl Harbor marked America’s formal entry into WWII, its impact on American life began earlier. In the chapter “The War That Dare Not Speak Its Name,” Dick discusses the ambivalence that infused both the film industry’s and America’s reaction to the Spanish Civil War. He notes that a common hatred of fascism among various members of the film community easily drew liberals, radicals, Communists, and unions into a united front. But he also makes it clear that the film industry was nothing if not a business, and as such, hated “Communism as much as fascism because both would make capitalism unworkable.” Hollywood found it impossible to explain to itself, let alone to an unsophisticated audience of middle-Americans, how anti-fascists and Communists could be on the same side. This complex set of mental gymnastics was beyond the industry’s ability. Dick sketches a messy competitive process in which studios tried to outdo each other in an effort to make films that treated the war in a nonpartisan and ambiguous manner. Scripts were written and rewritten in an effort to reduce the war to a confrontation between good and evil. Titles morphed, and Darryl Zanuck, head of Fox, directed his screenwriters to “Eliminate all references to ‘loyalists’ and ‘traitors’ …” Plots and characters had to “play in Peoria,” and Paramount’s Last Train from Madrid was advertised as a flaming love story, an action romance out of war-torn Spain. A similar fate befell For Whom the Bell Tolls, with Paramount’s board chair, Adolph Zukor, loudly claiming the film had no political significance. When the studio decided the film was too long, the editor was directed to take out the political dialogue. Here is how Confidential Agent, the film version of Graham Greene’s 1939 spy novel, was advertised: “Watch Her Lips Answer the Call When Charles Boyer Whistles for Lauren Bacall! They’re Burning With Yearning in Warner’s Screen Scorcher!”

The industry’s inability to handle nuance was compounded by the Production Code Administration. Its view was that films were entertainment not education, and Article 10 dictated, “The history, institutions, prominent people and citizenry of all nations shall be represented fairly.” Over and over, we see the studios deciding to “minimize history and emphasize melodrama.” Nevertheless, having “fought in Spain” became a political signifier for many post–Spanish Civil War film characters, the most famous being Humphrey Bogart’s Rick in Casablanca.

In the chapters “Hollywood as Premature Antifascist” and “Hollywood as Neutral Interventionist,” Dick goes into the studios’ difficulties in depicting an enemy they could not name. Politics was decidedly not good for the box office. Any “message” had to be “brief, easily grasped, and neatly summarized.” Range Defenders conflated “fascism in Europe with totalitarianism out west.” Meanwhile, the A studios were making what they called “military preparedness films” with plots lauding various branches of the armed services who were ready to “confront the enemy, though the enemy was never named.” As war became less remote, we find Pals in the Saddle, a western espionage film, with John Wayne heading off enemy agents at the border instead of cattle rustlers at the pass. Even singing cowboy Gene Autry in In Old Monterey reminds the audience that war could happen here if a superior fighting force was not created. And in South of the Border, Autry tangles with agents from an unidentified nation “hoping to gain control of American oil concessions…”

George Sanders rallies American fascists in Confessions of a Nazi Spy.

With neutrality still the official policy, Hollywood had trouble figuring out not only what films they should make, but what films they could make. As war drew nearer, the marketing of Confessions of a Nazi Spy sought to sound an alarm: “What do you know about the man next door?… To whom does he report?… Over there you wouldn’t be allowed to see this picture!” Confessions also illustrated the rocky terrain Warner Bros. had to negotiate in making the first overtly anti-Nazi film. Initially envisioned as a no-holds-barred exposé of the German spy network, early versions of the script contained a blatant Nazi anti-Semitic diatribe and a condemnation of the Bund. But then key scenes were blue-penciled by the White House and there was concern over potential lawsuits if characters’ real names were used, as well as fear of alienating the FBI. The final version became a spy thriller robbed of its suspense. MGM was advised by the MPPDA not to film Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here because it would offend Italy and Germany and, when it filmed Idiot’s Delight, the studio felt the need to change the ending.

Respecting American neutrality, Warner Brothers promised “no propaganda films,” which meant no movies advocating for America’s entry into the war. Instead, audiences were fed International Squadron, a film that glorified the RAF, or MGM’s The Mortal Storm, which depicted the negative effects of the Nazis on a half-Jewish, half-Christian family. But even in so specific a plot, the studio was careful to eschew use of the word “Jew,” replacing it with the euphemism “non-Aryan.” As it struggled with the meaning of neutrality, Hollywood introduced anti-Nazi themes into a wide range of films: In Charlie Chan in Panama, the Nazis were spies or saboteurs; in the romantic The Man I Married, they became “drawing room villains.” Remaking Four Sons, Zanuck instructed his screenwriters to emphasize characters, not historical events; Chaplin’s United Artists satirized Hitler in The Great Dictator; Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent focused on supporting the British war effort; and Universal’s Paris Calling introduced the French resistance. Paramount’s Billy Wilder broke the taboo with Arise My Love, which ended with a prayer to the American public: “Arise my love. Arise, be strong …,” and an aviator in Dive Bomber, Warner’s tribute to those who defend the country from the air, tells us, “the main event is about to start.”

Incensed by this warmongering, two US senators called for an investigation into Hollywood’s efforts to push Americans into participating in the “European war.” According to them, Hollywood was swarming “with refugees and British actors,” full of men with non-Nordic names — aka, Jews. A Washington Post headline read, “Witch Hunt on Capitol Hill,” and New York’s Auburn Citizen Advertiser suggested it was Congress, not Hollywood, that needed to do some house cleaning.

Until 1940, Hollywood’s focus had been on Western Europe. Two events — Japan joining the Axis, and the opening of the Burma road (the 700-mile supply route to China) — shifted the studios’ focus. Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor made it possible for Hollywood to finally make its war movies in earnest. In his  chapters “Hollywood Mobilizes” and “Plotting the War,” Dick explores film plots that glorified patriotism, the nobility of personal sacrifice, and the inspirational force of the American fighting spirit. A Yank on the Burma Road, China Girl, and Secret Agent of Japan all told the story of an uninvolved protagonist transformed into a patriotic hero by the war. Despite the absence of any proof (a precursor of fake news?), rumors of fifth-column sabotage made for dramatic opportunities; Hitchcock’s Saboteur, with its dramatic final scene atop the Statue of Liberty, set the tone for a long list of films about espionage. MGM’s Nazi Agent opened with a montage of derailed trains, crashing planes, and bridges being destroyed, with a voice-over demanding that America “relentlessly ferret out this hidden enemy.” There was even comic espionage, with Bob Hope’s They Got Me Covered and Abbott and Costello’s Rio Rita. Tarzan got into the act when the State Deptartment decided he was “an important propaganda weapon.” Espionage plots were a means to unify audiences, an outcome deemed vital to winning the war. Wake Island, and Guadalcanal Diary were examples of another standard plotline, male bonding — men who found each other in the midst of battle. Hollywood even salvaged the major defeat at Bataan, turning it into a paean to patriotic sacrifice: In Bataan’s final scene, the camera moves in for a close-up of the enemy’s gun, and a title scrolls up the screen, “So fought the heroes of Bataan. Their sacrifice made possible our victories in the Coral Sea, at Midway, … and Guadalcanal.”

Robert Taylor and Loyd Nolan in a scene from Bataan.

There is a great deal more: films about the French Resistance fighters in “The People’s War”; films about the Nazi state-sanctioned breeding camps, modeled on the Germans’ study of American slave plantations, in “The Masters of the Race.” “California Comrades” takes up movies about the Blacklist while “Japs on Their Minds” scrutinizes the Asian dimension of American racism, including Executive Order 9066. In the “Afterword,” and the misnamed “Introduction,” Dick focuses on some Holocaust films, movies about the Atomic bomb, and a long string of titles — The Pawnbroker (1963), Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), Sophie’s Choice (1982), Schindler’s List (1993), Saving Private Ryan (1998), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), Dunkirk (2017), and Midway (2019) — that attest to America’s enduring fascination with every facet of WWII. One comes away a trifle numb: in part due to the sheer number of films made, but also both awed and terrified by Hollywood’s ability to use what were, for the most part, mediocre films to make the ravages of war not only acceptable to the American public, but glorious. One can’t help but wonder what kind of world we might be able to create if those same skills were applied to the glories of peace. And what the response to wars to come will be, given the increasingly sophisticated power of technology and social media to manipulate popular opinion.

Joan Lancourt, Ph.D. is a retired organizational change consultant, a former theater board chair, and a recent chair of the Brookline Commission for Diversity, Inclusion & Community Relations. She consults and has run workshops on increasing theater board diversity and community engagement, and is currently writing a book on Junior Programs, Inc, 1936-43, one of the first major professional performing arts companies devoted exclusively to theater, opera, and dance performances for young audiences.

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