propaganda films

Who needs Rosebud? We’ve Got Nazis!

Orson Welles in The Stranger

When Orson Welles set out to direct The Stranger (1946), he did so under unfavorable conditions.  Saddled with a well-deserved reputation for being constitutionally unable to complete films on time or anywhere near the budget, he simply agreed to everything and got down to it.

How much of the result was actually his fault is open to discussion, but the bottom line is that, though this film has a certain Wellesian nightmare quality, it is far removed from his more atmospheric work.  It’s definitely not terrible, but there’s a reason Citizen Kane is a household name and this one isn’t.

Let’s start with the good.  The tension in this film is constant and constantly ratchets.  It is mainly driven by concern for the wellbeing of the young bride and her family as opposed to any sense of mystery as to what is really going on.

And therein lies my major complaint about this movie: there’s no mystery, about whether the protagonist is the bad guy or not.  That’s pretty much cleared up in the first five minutes of the movie (contrast that with the Rosebud mystery), so we’re pretty much left with a melodrama of a thriller.  That’s fine for some audiences, I suppose, but one expects better of Welles.

The Stranger DVD cover

Perhaps what got this film its place on the 1001 movies list (apart from the name of its director) is that it was the first hollywood film to use images of the Holocaust at a time when many Americans were either unaware of what had transpired, or simply didn’t believe it.  They are strong scenes which, perhaps, have lost a little bit of the effect on modern audiences that they would certainly have had on period viewers–making the job of reviewing it just a tad more difficult.

So, even though it’s certainly not a bad movie, it certainly wasn’t the best thing Welles produced, but as a document of its time… definitely worth watching.

Our unusual note returns today with the fact that one of the actors went on to play Mayor Linseed in the 1960s Batman series.  Not sure what that might mean, but it has to mean something, right?

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When Bad Propaganda is Good

John Huston

John Huston is best known for directing Hollywood classics ranging from The Maltese Falcon to Annie, but perhaps his most interesting films are three that were shot at the behest of the US army during the Second World War.  The Army Signal Corps requested a series of propaganda films, which Huston duly filmed…  and which were then released only in a limited way, never really used during the war effort.

Perhaps the least controversial of the three was Report from the Aleutians, which was reasonably aligned with what the government wanted, but was delayed by Huston’s portrayal of Army life as monotonous – not a particularly welcome message for a wartime propaganda film, obviously.  It can be viewed in its entirety, here.

The most surprising thing about Let There Be Light is that it was allowed to be filmed in the first place.  1946 was hardly a time to focus on the “nervous condition” and treatment of veterans.  It brought to light a whole raft of issues that are only really being taken seriously today, and which were extremely unwelcome in the dawning light of the cold war.  The one unsurprising chapter in its history is that it was banned by the Army until 1981.  It can be viewed here.

The final film is, by far, the most interesting of the three.  It is called The Battle of San Pietro, and was filmed during and immediately following the battle of the same name, during the Italian campaign.

As a film that documents a victory for the Allies, this one could have been (it is arguable that it should have been, as that was what he was being paid for, after all) a paean to the justice of the Allied cause and an ode to the heroism of its troops and to the inevitability of victory when one took into account the combined virtues of justice and heroism.

The Battle of San Pietro Still

But Huston, unlike his Nazi counterpart, documentary genius Leni Reifenstahl, decided not to obey his masters’ commands to the letter.  He let an evident love for truth in documentary filmmaking overrun his assignment, and showed just how hard-fought the victory had been.  Dead GIs are not something one normally expects from a film meant to raise US morale, nor is the effect of the war on civilian populations… but they are present.  The film was released, in 1945 (though some troops saw it in 1944), and eventually even allowed to be called a classic in its own right (and by far the most famous of Huston’s wartime work), but it was a close-run thing.  Curious people can watch it here.

Perhaps the fact that Huston could do this kind of thing and still get promoted means that the correct side won the war.  The fact that he wasn’t sent to Siberia or executed without trial for disobeying the spirit, if not the letter, of his contract makes these films even more valuable today.

The fact that both of the above were a close-run thing…  bears thinking about.

Actually Missing the Soviets

Nikolay Cherkasov as Ivan the Terrible

Every once in a while at classically educated, we take a few minutes to think about stuff.  It generally isn’t our first choice of activities, but we can be bludgeoned into it.  One such episode happened when viewing one of Eisenstein’s classic films from the 1001 movies list: Ivan the Terrible.

The film itself is a two-part, four-hour monster, but it passes reasonably quickly despite that.  It has war, murder, betrayal, intrigue and all the good things that a movie needs in order to be a good piece of entertainment (talk about living in interesting times), and the Ivan the Terrible character reminded us a LOT of Johnny Depp as Jack Sparrow.  It is a historical film packed with a heck of a lot of actual history.  And history, if you happen to be viewing five hundred years later as opposed to being in the middle of it, is quite diverting.

So the movie went past quickly, with a “highly recommended” verdict on the side.  You’d be hard-pressed to find CE giving Eisenstein that kind of a rating normally as his masterpieces, Battleship Potemkin and October, though innovative and respected are terrible as entertainment – propaganda films generally are.  But this one deserves the descriptor “eminently watchable”.

However, it’s what’s behind the film that makes one think.

Sergei Eisenstein

To me, Eisenstein’s life epitomizes life of Soviet citizens.  Being essentially himself, he was constantly in and out of favor as the political fads changes in the party.  His films were critical successes until they were criticized because they weren’t popular enough (a crime that, in the communist paradise, could entail an appointment with a firing squad).  The first part of Ivan the terrible won him a Stalin Prize, the second was suppressed until after Stalin’s death and garnered its creator a severe reprimand.

He was allowed to go on tour in the west for a brief period – but then had to face the distrust of his peers.

Ah, the Soviet Union…  We miss it.

Anyone who remembers the 20th century will be well aware that, back then, the Soviets were no joke.  They were a big, influential power that effectively dominated a good chunk of Asia and Africa, as well as Eastern Europe.  They had a big army, lots of very destructive atomic bombs and an utter lack of a sense of humor.  So it might seem that the world is much better off without it.

But after the fear-ridden years of the cold war, Communist Russia has not aged well.  Casual observers looking back are already beginning to scratch their heads and ask themselves: did anyone take these clowns seriously?

Yes, we did, but there’s plenty of reason for the wonder, and we have to admit that, had they not been so well-armed, we would have appreciated just how entertaining the Soviets were:

1) Minor points in doctrine, impenetrable to most outsiders, could get you turned from a hero of the Soviet Union into a traitor to the Soviet Union before you could blink.  Most people would look at communism and say “simple enough, no one owns anything, but everything belongs to everyone” possibly adding “let me know how that works out for you”, but not the Soviets.  They regularly killed each other over invisible shades of gray.  Killing Trotsky with a hammer in Mexico has to be counted among the more entertaining episodes of the 20th century.  That combo of brutality and style has to be admired.

2) They were insistent that everyone was happier there in the west, and that the walls they had to build to keep their population in were actually there because the leaders knew better than the people and were doing them a favor.  Also, shooting people attempting to flee was a favor: death was clearly a happier place than capitalism.  Like Cuba today pretending to be a socialist paradise, that took chutzpah, and one cannot help but admire them.

Soviet Union Monarchy

3) They had established a monarchy but barefacedly told the world that the proletariat weren’t just politburo serfs.  I can only imagine the kind of laughter that echoed in the halls of the Kremlin when they heard that some western activists wanted to align themselves with communism to gain “freedom” for the masses.  Hats off to them for the sheer barefaced humor.  The best practical jokes are always the ones where you wonder whether they might actually be serious.

The truth is that no major government in the world today would dare do the things that the Soviets did in the name of “human rights” and of “equality”.  Yes, there are some clown states like Venezuela or North Korea (although I think the North Koreans have long since given up any pretense of Marxism), but no one who gets taken seriously on a worldwide level.  The Chinese seem to have found an excellent balance between communism and capitalism in a difficult situation, and Western countries generally seem to vote socialist for a few years before realizing that losing even more personal freedoms and having your economy destroyed isn’t worth the supposed benefits in increased equality that are eternally just around the corner.

Today, you’ll only find that kind of lip service to obscure utopian principles in niche cultural areas.

But back then, the USSR waved its missiles around and acted like what it was doing was perfectly normal.  Since, by all accounts, the leaders of the country were reasonably stable hardened politicians, one must conclude that they were laughing at the rest of the world the whole time (well, except for Stalin.  Anyone with a mustache like that has to have been batshlt insane).

And if you didn’t like it?  They’d boycott your Olympics*!

Yeah, we miss them.