The Unknowing War of Propaganda Within Cinematography

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The year is 2035, a conflict between the U.S. and Russia has reached threatening levels with proxy wars littering the cities of the Middle East and Europe. Seeing this on the news alongside the daily escalation of conflict, the local theater seems like the only safe haven left to escape the harsh reality of the world. The person enters the theater finding a long line up of comedies, exactly what is needed at times like these. A near two hours later and the credits roll, the theater exit calls, once leaving a Russian man walks by, he greets the person with a friendly good evening. The person continues to walk and whispers a term he/she heard in the film that was said repeatedly by the actors when referring anyone of Russian descent. Thinking nothing of it until entering their bed and zoning out to yet another new news story highlighting the death and casualty list of a battle overseas, the realization dawns upon them, that term they whispered under their breath in response to that man they’ve never met, and that term so blatantly repeated throughout the film is a term that the U.S. lists as a racist and derogatory description of enemy forces. This is what propaganda within the media we enjoy including films hopes in achieving, a psychological tool that can alter a person’s values and thinking to the point that it is seen as normal. The use of propaganda within films is a delicate process full of the injection of government-sponsored ideology, censorship, and review that alters film directly guiding these ideologies into the minds of the viewer, in turn, overpowering any positive outcomes with the negatives attributed with propaganda use within film.
Propaganda’s effectiveness within films to instill militaristic ideologies, censor opposing viewpoints and distort or alter narratives reached its beginning during the greatest human conflict on earth; WWII. During this the U.S. government sought to form a link between the homefront and warfront, settling upon six major ideologies that would ensure these fronts became as one.

These six major ideologies are highlighted within an article by the Artifice, an independently maintained website of writers that explore everything art based within the world, citing: “The movies consisted of propaganda themes that aimed at influencing the American people and their view of the war... [consisted] of six main themes The Nature of the Enemy, The Nature of the Allies, The Need to Work, The Need to Fight, The Need to Sacrifice, and the Americans-What are we fighting for” (World War II’s Secret Weapon). The U.S government had a deliberate goal in specifically choosing these six themes as it effectively created a link between fronts by covering every possible viewpoint and idea present. In turn, creating a public fueled by the government’s dispersion of ideological ways of thinking. The compelling nature of propaganda’s use within the films is only further supported by the Artifice as they show just how it affected more than just the militaristic thinking of the public and actually shifted personal beliefs and values, “In popular movies, such as Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and Destination Tokyo the Japanese are referred to as “Japs” throughout the films... [It] wasn’t how it was said, but it was how many times it was said and the underlying racism that is accompanied by it” (World War II’s Secret Weapon). Through this, the power held by films in their ability to spread propaganda is uncovered as the simple yet subtle repetition of a derogatory term referring to the enemy influenced the public’s values and beliefs to such a point that they now held a stark hatred and racist mindset to a nation they previously held no knowledge about.

The influence of these state influenced films reached and even higher degree as it pushed the American people to physically act out against fellow citizens that fit the characteristics presented: “The fear and hatred led to the mistreatment of Japanese on American soil. Japanese Americans were forced to be held in internment camps for the duration of the war because of fears they were spies for the Japanese Empire” (World War II’s Secret Weapon). The films spurred out of governmental offices reached a threatening level, as the subtle repetition of nuanced themes present inside the films held such control over the public that it led to state-sponsored violence against fellow American citizens that fit these state developed characteristics. To truly see how these films reached this extent of control, the initial process the government took in controlling Hollywood during this monumental event in human history needs to be explored. Which resulted in the rise and infusion of propaganda within our film media today.

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During the raging battles of WWII, another war was being fought on the homefront of American soil; the government’s push to obtain greater control over Hollywood. Larry Margasak a graduate from Temple University, and a 48-year reporter for the Associated Press, now self-employed as a freelance writer for a wide range of organizations delves into this takeover within Hollywood. With the war overseas in its infancy, the U.S. began to dip its toes within the film industry: “In June 1942, The White House created the Office of War Information to build public support for the war- basically a propaganda effort. The government’s existing Bureau of Motion Pictures came under the new agency” (Hollywood Went to War in 1941). In developing its own governmentally funded bureau and agency, the U.S. government at the time established the threat of a monopoly over the industry. This gave rise to a problem in the industry within Hollywood as already present agencies realized they could very well be taken over directly: “There were furious debates between Hollywood and government agencies. There was internal warfare between the agencies. It all focused on how much control the government should exercise” (Hollywood Went to War in 1941). Through this internal warfare, the motive behind this takeover of Hollywood laid within the government’s strive to more readily develop and imbue mass propaganda in order to broaden their control over the malleable minds within the public. Allowing for the war overseas to continue unprohibited and emplaced the building blocks of propaganda within the film industry for the future. Despite this Hollywood maintained their grip on the industry, but the continuous onslaught of governmental agents/agencies led to their grip loosening in order for a compromise to be presented, “1943, there was a truce... [From] a mixture of patriotism and movie profit motive, Hollywood became a complaint part of the American war machine” (Hollywood Went to War in 1941). From this compliance, the government’s efforts within Hollywood succeeded in creating the footing they required to develop more propaganda, while simultaneously keeping the entire industry from collapsing under a monopoly.

The government's efforts within Hollywood during the ’40s were leading down a one-way road of control. Elmer Davis, the journalist who headed the Office of War Information during that time highlights that “The easiest way to inject propaganda into most people’s minds is to let it go in through the medium of entertainment picture when they do not realize they are being propagandized” (Hollywood Went to War in 1941). Since the film’s psychological effects as stated by Davis are not realized or acknowledged by the viewers it causes their minds to follow the path of ideology specifically included by the U.S. government. This subtle and unnoticed manipulation of the public was also utilized by other world powers and governments around the same time. A prime example being the Nazi Party that like the U.S government sought to hold control over the public but with a far more authoritarian hand. Facing History and Ourselves is a global teaching organization that utilizes past instances of hatred and violence in human history to allow for classroom environments across the globe to learn from these mistakes and to avoid them. They highlight that films within the Nazi regime like Triumph of the Will worked in crafting Hitler and the Nazi Party as deities with a particular scene in the film that had the people of Germany look upon Hitler as if he were the embodiment of a divine being (Propaganda at the Movies). Unlike the Americans overseas yet very similar in nature film influenced propaganda was a vital part of all war efforts as it guarantees control and influence over the populace without the need to force it upon the people. Whether film was utilized with an openly democratic government or a direct authoritarian regime the power propaganda within films held during wartime was monumental as it not only introduced a form of psychological warfare but presented nations across the globe with a way to mold ways of thinking.

Film’s rise since the 1900s is directly linked to its ability to quickly and easily disperse information to a near-global audience. An ability that allowed for the inevitable influence of the government in introducing their global propaganda. Once these nations truly held their grasp around the film industry the information spread within these films be it nonfiction or fiction was and still is heavily scrutinized under the eyes of government agencies and committees. Agencies that scour any and all film-based media military related or not in order to represent their government in the best possible light. This scrutinization of films brings up the problems of free speech and censorship as these nations including the U.S. are directly involved within the creative visions of directors, analyzing every aspect of the visionaries goals and themes within their films in order to confirm that the films don’t highlight any instances of portraying the government negatively or don’t focus upon controversial decisions and mistakes made by the government in the past. With this in mind, it’s questionable if as the Constitution states free speech is truly prohibited within aspects of our society, when the films we enjoy on a daily basis, especially the military focused ones are always heavily altered and influenced by the government. This alteration process leaves the industry on an ever-present thin sheet of ice as any media that is scoured and deemed unfit is immediately sent under and never brought to fruition ever again. A process that is namely nothing more than an act of censorship through forced governmental review.

Propaganda’s use in film since WWII has been an ever-evolving tool that reached higher heights once a set procedure was crafted by the government and their accompanying agencies. A procedure that is built upon the central idea of censorship through forceful action. Two agencies in particular play a large role in the ever prevalent censorship that dominates the industry, the Department of Defense (DoD) and the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). A prominent writer for the DoD is a woman by the name of Katie Lange that is contracted under Defense Media Activity which serves as the agency’s social media platform. For the film industry, in particular, Lange details the close-knit relationship Hollywood and the government have had: “The Defense Department has a long-standing relationship with Hollywood. In fact, it’s been working with filmmakers for 100 years with a goal that’s two-fold: to accurately depict military stories and make sure sensitive information isn’t disclosed” (How and Why the DoD). This highlights the extent of censorship that is done by agencies such as the DoD within the film industry, as the accuracy of stories and the pursuit of withholding sensitive info leads to extensive governmental review. Which as a result leads to a stark imbalance of control between the filmmaker and the government, an imbalance Lange further explains, “There are compromises on both sides. There’s a point where we just have to say no... [Production] agreements require the DoD to be able to review a rough cut of the film, so officials can decide if there are areas that need to be addressed before a film is released” (How and Why the DoD). By just saying no to an upcoming idea within the industry the entire idea is effectively scrapped and never revisited, so unless the content presented within the films is up to the liking of a governmental agency or official and fits the narrative and ideologies they’re trying to produce then that said compromise Lange describes in such a nuanced way will never occur.

Although agencies within the industry like the CIA and the DoD review any deals and films in the efforts of not portraying the government in a bad light, they flip this pursuit at times and strive to show the negative side in order to mask their involvement. Tom Secker is the author MPS News and various books that dive into how propaganda within film has truly worked and evolved, working alongside various colleagues Secker has investigated 1,000’s of previously classified documents pertaining to governmental involvement within the industry. Secker highlights the utilization of a negative portrayal in order to mask true intentions: “The 1941 film Dive Bomber was supported by the Navy as a “preparedness film” for WW2. Even though “some people objected to the death of some pilots as bad image-making” the Navy argued “if film only showed the positive side it would be labeled propaganda” (How War Propaganda). This quote easily uncovers the mask that is trying to be held. Through the utilization of negative imagery the government can reverse the audience’s thoughts upon the film being a propaganda piece, causing them to question why the deaths of soldiers would be put on the big screen. This reverse psychology is also seen today in another analysis by Secker, in the film Shooter and its subsequent TV remake. Both adaptations utilize a device that can fake suicide by gunshot with the film, in particular, having conspirators try and use the device upon an FBI agent. Even with this dark subject, it’s highlighted that the FBI supported production and even went to the extent to flaunt of this accurate representation (How War Propaganda). Even though the government on most occasions tries its best to not show the darker areas within their practices or ideologies, like the use of the dying dive bombers or suicide devices the negative portrayal aids in masking the underlying motive of propaganda. Which explains why the FBI agents would boast of such as a device as it strays the average mind from thinking that the involvement of such governmental agencies is a form of propaganda in any way.

Presenting one’s self in a negative light is a successful tool in masking true intentions, but altering events to portray one’s self in a positive light is a refined specialty by the government’s within their film industries. Matthew Alford and Tom Secker highlight a scene within a recent James Bond film that has him HALO jumping over Vietnam, in which the original script had Bond say “you know what will happen. It will be war, and maybe this time we’ll win” this line during the revision process was removed by the DoD. (Documents expose how Hollywood) Vietnam for the Americans was an utter failure both in its execution and its lasting impacts. So with that in mind, the government wouldn’t want to reopen to the average person the failures of Vietnam and how horribly the war truly went both ethically and practically, which is seen with the DoD removing that line and in turn masking/altering a past failure. Alford and Secker continue this investigation of alteration within media, finding that the rejected film Countermeasures included callbacks upon the Iran-Contra affair that the U.S. was involved in with Phil Strub, the head of entertainment liaison of the DoD stating that “There’s no need for us to remind the public of the Iran-Contra affair” (Documents expose how

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