America’s Greatest Propaganda Movies

America; the land of freedom, not just any old freedom but American freedom. For a country so obsessed with individual freedoms, the American establishment has a bad reputation for attempting to trick citizens into conforming to a certain ideology and set of morals that have adapted based on the nations current socio-political landscape. With Donald Trump currently turning the US Election into the most depressingly profound reality TV show ever conceived it is almost hard now to distinguish between what is real and what is scripted but then again as Shakespeare said; “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players”. Even though Trump may be one of the first presidential candidates to explicitly push the boundaries between politics and entertainment, the film industry has always provided a tool for pushing agendas and for as long as there have been forms of communication there has been propaganda.

 

The Birth of a Nation 1915

This silent film tells the story of the relationship between two families in the American Civil War and Reconstruction era: the pro-Union Northern Stonemans and the pro-Confederacy Southern Camerons over the course of several years around the time of the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln by John Wilkes Booth. Even though the film was a commercial success, it was considered highly controversial because of its portrayal of black men (some played by white actors in blackface) as unintelligent and sexually aggressive towards white women, and the portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force of white knights. The Birth of a Nation has been credited as revolutionary among its contemporaries for its innovative application of the medium of film. Film historian Kevin Brownlow described the film as “astounding in its time” and highlighted that it initiated “so many advances in film-making technique that it was rendered obsolete within a few years”. This was one of the first instances in which the medium of film had been used to emotionally deceive viewers into buying into an ideology. The scariest thing about this movie is that it is widely considered to be the birth of modern cinema in America.

 

Reefer Madness 1936

The issue of Cannabis legalisation is currently a hot debated topic in the US that has seen a gradual shift in public opinion since cultural revolutions over the last 50/60 years. With many states either relaxing laws surrounding Cannabis use or legalising it completely the United States has come along way from the no questions asked, outright ban on the substance. It is largely believed that the American war on weed began with wealthy lobbyists looking to protect their interests in the timber industries viewing hemp as a dangerously useful alternative. This also doubled up as a racially motivated legislation as Marijuana use had been traditionally been seen as a Black and Latino activity and this served as a way of demonising these groups in society and provided grounds for arresting otherwise law-abiding citizens. Reefer Madness captures this carefully calculated paranoia perfectly in a way that seems almost comedic to us today. Originally financed by a church group, the film revolves around a group of high school students that are lured by dealers to try marijuana. After smoking they melodramatically find themselves caught up in a series of events involving a hit and run accident, manslaughter, suicide, attempted rape, hallucinations, and a general descend into madness due to marijuana addiction. Whilst this film has become little more than an unintentional tongue-in-cheek stoner comedy, much of the paranoid rhetoric that it created still permeates it way through into the current debate surrounding the worlds most profitable cash crop.

 

Red Dawn 1984

Set in an alternate 1980s in which the United States is invaded by the Soviet Union and its Cuban and Nicaraguan allies, Red Dawn features a young Charlie Sheen and Patrick Swayze as a group of American high school students who resist the occupation with guerrilla warfare, calling themselves Wolverines, after their high school mascot. The movie is set against the backdrop of the beginning of World War III although this is not really elaborated on over the course of the film. As you’ve probably guessed, this one reeks of propaganda and this was shown to the extent that the operation to capture former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein was named Operation Red Dawn and its targets were dubbed Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2. Army Captain Geoffrey McMurray, who named the mission, said the naming “was so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie.” The movie’s legacy was further extended with the release of the 2012 remake which, I must admit, I haven’t even bothered watching although as far as I’m aware, Jake Coyle’s description of it in the Huffington Post as “an ill-advised remake of the campy 1984 original” is pretty accurate. With the usual “brat pack” of 80s teen movie stars and their cringe inducing hyper-Americanism behind it, the film managed to be a large commercial success despite being panned by the critics and remains somewhat of a cult classic to those with a right wing tilt.

Top Gun 1986

Top Gun, the film that made America love war. Much has been said about this movie and its influence on the American psyche and whilst opinions differ depending on who you speak to, one thing we know for sure is that the film was sponsored by the U.S Navy and that it is now in fact banned from using it for promotion. After it’s release, it is no coincidence that Navy enlisting rose, especially those wanting to become pilots, as the Navy managed to cleverly reinvent themselves as cool and exciting. Top Gun became the template for a new “Military-Entertainment Complex”, whereby the military realised that if they subsidised these types of films and lowered the costs of using their facilities they could influence the kind of messages that the film portrayed. The filmmakers were required to submit their script to Pentagon brass for line edits aimed at portraying the military in the most positive light. An example of this was that Goose’s death was allegedly changed from a mid-air collision to an ejection scene as “the Navy complained that too many pilots were crashing. The movie wasn’t the first to see external influence coming in from the pentagon, however it’s unrivalled success really set the benchmark for the Hollywood propaganda film. This wasn’t just a film with a political agenda or a government issued film, this was literally the military attempting to infiltrate Hollywood. The kind of special effects that came from military sponsorship made it almost impossible for independently sponsored war films to compete and this led to what we now see as the post-Top Gun era of American war films.

 

Home Alone 1990

I know what you’re thinking; Home Alone? Propaganda? You’re probably thinking that I’m some kind of communist Scrooge who hates happiness but a recent article published by VICE came to my attention regarding this family favourite. It’s one of those ones that the more you think about it, the more it makes sense and then by the end you hate yourself for being so stupid that you didn’t even notice. The first thing to notice is that the film’s creator was committed Republican and Reaganite John Hughes, who had already casually promoted his trademark brand of bratty individualism through films such as Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and The Breakfast Club. Now, I hear you say, just because a film focuses on individualism doesn’t make it propaganda but it is more in the way that this celebration of individualism is portrayed in the social context of the film. Every time our rich white hero Kevin begins to enjoy himself he is thwarted by some member of the lower class. This is evidenced in the “Wet Bandits” who are the kind of villains one can degrade without causing too much outrage. They are presented as sub-human with a pair of IQs that when combined are still thicker than the fucking 10-year-old. They are tri-staters, slightly ethnic, Jewish and Italian; and so allow for a certain level of socially acceptable discrimination, as opposed to Kevin’s ‘pure’ Midwestern WASPness. Say what you like, but if you can tell me that a 20-minute sequence whereby the kid literally tortures the poor bandits whilst carrying round a BB gun in the name of ‘self defense’ to protect his property doesn’t smack of Reaganism then well I don’t know what does.

 

Pearl Harbor 2001

Released just a few months prior to the 9/11 attacks – but funnily enough, just in time for Memorial Day – Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor remains a Pentagon propaganda classic. USA Today reported in May 2001, “If Lt. Col. Jimmy Doolittle comes across as particularly heroic in the new war epic Pearl Harbour, the credit goes as much to the behind-the-scenes influence of the Pentagon as to the vision of Hollywood filmmakers”. Using the same tactics pioneered by films such as Top Gun, Michael Bay brought out his typical array of explosions and special effects designed for those simple folk too dumb to be entertained by anything other than cool fight scenes, the type of people who believe that wrestling is real. The film’s protagonist Jimmy Doolitle was originally meant to be a “boorish, oafish type of fellow” but, in exchange for Pentagon cooperation with the film, was instead “rewritten and made a little bit more of the real hero he was.” According to USA Today, Disney paid more than $1 million for military assistance, “including extensive shooting at Pearl Harbor, with adjacent Ford Island virtually transformed into a production back lot.” To make sure the military was suitably unoffended, Pentagon “project officers” were present on the set during filming and production “watching every salute and bugle call.” The Pentagon’s film liaison office in Washington, even openly admitted at the time that the Pentagon was glad to offer assistance “because (they) see it as an opportunity to inform the American public about the military and help our recruiting and retention programs at the same time.”

American Sniper 2014

Directed by Clint Eastwood, American Sniper starred Bradley Cooper as former Navy Seal Chris Kyle who eagerly enlists in the military after 9/11, being shipped off to fight in the Iraq War. Completely disregarding the fact that 9/11 had nothing to do with Iraq, Cooper awkwardly stumbles his way through a painfully predictable script that desperately searches for some kind of moral justification as our all-American hero shoots children, refers to Iraqis as savages and punishes them for defending themselves against war crimes with a great big bullet hole in the head from his safe cosy little shelter 200 yards away. The jury is still out on whether American Sniper was funded by the Pentagon or not but seeing as Bradley Cooper asked people to not use the film as an excuse to discuss politics when it is based on the Iraq war seems a little suspicious. This is essentially like telling a bunch of fans leaving a football match that they’re not allowed to talk about the game because they didn’t play very well. Many people would like to think that propaganda is a thing of the past and that we’re not stupid enough to fall for that anymore, however; the fact that they have managed to turn a man who once said “I don’t shoot people with Korans, I’d like to, but I don’t” into some sort of national hero suggests otherwise.

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