Building a Better War Through Propaganda – The Fighting Lady (1944)

***SPECIAL “GUEST BLOGGER” NOTE*** I suppose you could consider this a late Memorial Day Post. I had not really planned to do anything special for the day, but when I was looking at a couple of other things, I was reminded of this post that I did a while back. However, due to an extended work schedule and other things going on yesterday, I didn’t get a chance to get this up. Still, it seemed worth a revisit, so here it is. First, however, let’s get the usual “guest blogger” boilerplate out of the way for new visitors:

A couple of years ago, under the guise of “Professor Michael Damian”, I was writing and running a blog called “Professor Damian’s Public Domain Treasure Chest” in which I attempted to highlight movies that were available for free legal download, streaming, remix, what-have-you, thanks to the Public Domain. The site hasn’t been updated for awhile now, but if you like what you’ve read here so far, or if you enjoy this post, or have an interest in the public domain or even just want to check out some really good (and, admittedly, some not-so-good) free movies, I encourage you to go check it out.

Anyway, from time to time, when it’s relevant or when I’m under a kind of time crunch, or maybe just when the fancy strikes, I’ll be re-presenting some posts that originally appeared there. The post below first ran there a couple of years ago, on June 17, 2010. At first I considered rewriting or editing this some for its presentation here, but ultimately decided, for better or worse, to just let it stand on its own, as is, though I have changed/updated some of the links so they will work properly. I hope you enjoy this little blast from the past. ***END NOTE***

Today we shift focus to a different, though no less fascinating, type of feature: the propaganda film. Governments, and especially the military have used various forms of propaganda probably ever since Kulano of the Shell Tribe called the inland tribe they were fighting “squirrelly little tree climbers who are afraid of the water” and said therefore that they would be easy to defeat.

So what exactly is “propaganda”? Well, in his book Film Propaganda and American Politics, author James Combs describes propaganda as material produced by governments or political groups designed to “sway relevant groups of people in order to accommodate their [the government’s] agendas”. In other words, propaganda, and specifically for our discussion propaganda films, are movies, either documentary or fictional, which are designed not only to present a particular point of view, but to persuade the viewer of the rightness of tht point of view or outlook. For a current example, one could point, say, to the films of Michael Moore or Morgan Spurlock or Al Gore as propaganda. No, they are not produced by the government, but they definitely have a particular point of view, and though the use of select footage and interviews, are designed to persuade the viewer that that point of view is the only “correct” or “intelligent” one.

nips1A couple of weeks ago, in an article I wrote for Blogcritics.org, I discussed the use of characters from popular fiction to promote the war effort during World War II. Characters as diverse as Bugs Bunny, Tarzan, Superman, and even Sherlock Holmes were all used to promote different aspects of the war against the Axis powers, whether it was conservation/recycling, the need for vigilance on the homefront, the superiority and fighting capability of the Allied forces, or even the dehumanization of the enemy. (The last being an especially popular tactic in cartoons of the day as animation made it easy to over-exaggerate certain physical or stereotypical qualities of the enemy, thereby making them seem less like “us” and even more alien and therefore easier to kill in battle. For an actually fairly restrained example, see the picture at the left.)

Famous characters were not the only ones called upon to contribute their talents to the government’s propaganda efforts during the great war. On both sides of the conflict, all-star directors were also expected to bring their expertise to bear in the creation of films designed either to convince viewers of the rightness of the cause and the superior military might of their respective countries. In Germany, Leni Riefenstahl was busy creating Triumph of the Will, long considered one of the greatest propaganda films of all time, while in America Frank Capra (with the aid of the Disney studios) was making his seven-part propagandistic blockbuster Why We Fight which was first commissioned to show to U.S. soldiers to explain the necessity of going to war against the axis, but was later also used to convince the American people not only of the rightness and validity of the U.S. joining the fray but early intervention was the only way to keep the war from coming to America’s shores. As a matter of fact, the last film in the series is titled “War Comes to America”, and spells out in dire terms the consequences to America of an Axis victory:

German conquest of Europe and Africa would bring all their raw materials, plus their entire industrial development, under one control. Of the 2 billion people in the world, the Nazis would rule roughly one quarter, the 500 million people of Europe and Africa, forced into slavery to labor for Germany. German conquest of Russia would add the vast raw materials and the production facilities of another of the world’s industrial areas, and of the world’s people, another 200 million would be added to the Nazi labor pile.

whywefight1Japanese conquest of the Orient would pour into their factory the almost unlimited resources of that area, and of the peoples of the earth, a thousand million would come under their rule, slaves for their industrial machine.

We in North and South America would be left with the raw materials of three-tenths of the earth’s surface, against the Axis with the resources of seven-tenths. We would have one industrial region against their three industrial regions. We would have one-eighth of the world’s population against their seven-eighths. If we together, along with the other nations of North and South America, could mobilize 30 million fully equipped men, the Axis could mobilize 200 million.

Thus, an Axis victory in Europe and Asia would leave us alone and virtually surrounded facing enemies ten times stronger than ourselves.

The film then ends with images of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, showing that even as the U.S was honorably negotiating with them, the “treacherous Japs” were plotting to attack us on our own soil. Of course, this idea is the same that fueled the propaganda of a more recent administration who more simply put it “We’re fighting them over there so we don’t have to fight them over here.” Let’s face it, kiddies, good propaganda never dies.

Capra was not the only filmmaker called into the service of his country at the time, of course. Other notable directors who lent their talents were John Ford, John Houston, William Wyler, and the director of today’s feature, noted photographer and Director of the Naval Aviation Photographic Unit Edward Steichen who spent months aboard the USS Yorktown documenting the lives and heroic deeds of the brave men who manned this great ship.(The ship, and most of her crewmen, are never actually identified by name, due to wartime security restrictions, thus, she is simply called The Fighting Lady. It was only after the end of the war that the ship in question was officially identified as the Yorktown.)

fightinglady3The film opens slowly, exploring the lives of these men as they go about their day-to-day duties as the ship sails through the Panama Canal and on into the Pacific Ocean. The emphasis here is on the mundanity of the shipboard life, and quite often we are reminded (in a voice-over by narrator Robert Taylor) of the saying that 99% of war is waiting. The waiting does not last forever, however, and it is not long before we get to see the ship and her crew in action at Marcus Island. This, and the subsequent battle scenes (especially those filmed at what was to become known as the “Marianas turkey shoot”) is where the film truly begins to take off, as the Technicolor photography brings the dogfights and ship-to-air fighting a spectacular brilliance. It’s easy to see why the government wanted the most skilled directors and photographers (many of them enlisted men who went uncredited for their part in the filming for years afterward) involved in a project like this. The battle raging all around them, these men, just like their comrades manning the guns or working the take-offs and landings of the airplanes, stood their ground and provided a document of the war like few others, including some truly spectacular footage taken by cameras actually mounted on the cockpits of fighter planes in the air. There is even footage of some spectacular crashes as the planes try to return to the ship once the fighting has ended.

Nor does the film forget to remind the viewer of the cost of war even as it celebrates the victory at the Turkey shoot” and shows the sailors and airmen painting battle flags and war markings on the ship and planes, counting the number of enemies downed, it also shows us the flag-draped bodies of those lost by our side, letting the viewer know the fates of some of the ones met earlier, and even giving us a glimpse of a twenty-one gun salute and burial at sea.

Here’s a section from the middle of the film showing some of the fighting and its aftermath:

And the skinny:
Title: The Fighting Lady
Release Date: 1944
Running Time: 61min
Color

The Fighting Lady and many other World War II propaganda films including Capra’s Why We Fight are available to watch or download for free here.
It’s also available for purchase on DVD from Amazon: The Fighting Lady Deluxe Edition Featuring USS Yorktown.

Until next time, Happy Treasure Hunting,
-Professor Damian

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