A Call To Arms — Nine of History’s Most Famous Wartime Propaganda Films

Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood's latest film, American Sniper. (Image Source: Warner Bros. handout)

Bradley Cooper in Clint Eastwood’s latest film, American Sniper. Some have criticized the movie for glorifying war. (Image Source: Warner Bros. handout)

THE HOLLYWOOD BLOCKBUSTER American Sniper has raked in a cool $90 million since its debut on Jan. 16. But the Clint Eastwood action drama has been under fire from some who complain that the movie smacks of pro-war propaganda.

Canadian-born comedian Seth Rogan took to Twitter this past week weigh in on the bio-pic about Chris Kyle, the Navy SEAL sharpshooter who chalked up 160 confirmed kills in four tours of duty in Iraq.

American Sniper kind of reminds me of the movie that’s showing in the third act of Inglourious Basterds,” he tweeted

The star of the controversial 2014 comedy The Interview was referencing the fictional Nazi propaganda movie that figured prominently in Quentin Tarantino’s 2009 Oscar-nominated war film. Rogan later clarified his remarks on social media.

“I actually liked American Sniper,” he tweeted on Jan. 19. “It just reminded me of the Tarantino scene.” He then joked that widespread coverage of his earlier statement was the result of it being a “slow news day.”

Yet even with the clarification, the actor’s comments prompted strong reactions from the likes of Michael Moore, Sarah Palin and even Kid Rock who declared that critics of the movie deserved a “fist to the face.”

While all of this… hmmm… thoughtful discussion has only served to promote American Sniper, it does bring to mind other more clear-cut examples of wartime propaganda films. Consider these:

The Green Berets (1968)

Public opinion was already turning against the war in Vietnam when John Wayne’s The Green Berets invaded movie houses. Yet the star-spangled, patriotic war flick did little to win the hearts and minds of ordinary Americans. In it, “the Duke” plays Mike Kirby, a Special Forces colonel who sets out to show a jaded war correspondent that the United States’ campaign in South East Asia is far from doomed (while mowing down legions of Charlie in the process). Produced with the full cooperation of the Pentagon, The Green Berets showcased all the latest American military hardware, while featuring a script overflowing with hackneyed PSA-style dialogue warning about the dangers of international communism. Although a moderate box office success, the film drew equal parts scorn and derision from critics. “I couldn’t believe how absurd this movie was,” said real-life war correspondent John Pilger. “I laughed out loud.” Roger Ebert would later list The Green Berets as one of the ten worst movies ever made.

Alexander Nevsky (1938)

Unlike The Green Berets, it wasn’t the dangers of communism that celebrated Russian filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein was warning of in his propaganda classic Alexander Nevsky — it was the threat of German aggression. Produced amid growing tension between Moscow and Berlin, the movie depicts the struggles of a 13th Century prince of Novgorod as he defends his homeland against invading Teutonic knights. Sequences in the film, which were all approved by none other than Stalin himself, show the foreign crusaders ruthlessly slaughtering inhabitants of the city of Pskov and even tossing their infants into bonfires — and all with the blessing of swastika-adorned Catholic bishops to boot. Of course the tale ends in rousing fashion with the hero wiping out the conquerors in an epic battle on a frozen lake, all set against a stirring score by composer Sergei Prokofiev. Alexander Nevsky was required watching in pre-war Soviet Russia, but it was quickly yanked from cinemas following the regime’s 1939 pact with Germany. Of course it came roaring back with a vengeance just two years later when Hitler invaded the the U.S.S.R. To this day, Nevsky remains a favourite among many Russians.

Sergeant York (1941)

America’s most decorated Great War Doughboy, Alvin York, was the subject of this summer-of-1941 box office smash. Yet the patriotic tale of the Medal of Honor-winning Tennessee backwoodsman who famously bagged 132 German prisoners in the Argonne Forest took on a new currency after Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor. Accordingly, Sergeant York was rushed back into theatres when the United States officially joined the fight against the Axis. It’s been said that young men who watched the hour-and-a-half war drama raced to their nearest recruiting depot to sign up as soon as the lights came up. [1]

Target for Tonight (1941)

Even under ideal conditions, Allied bomber crews were lucky if they could place their payloads within three miles of a target. In fact, only about 7 percent of all bombs dropped in World War Two landed inside a thousand feet of the bull’s eye. [2] But you’d never know it by watching the 1941 British docu-drama Target for Tonight. The film, which was produced by the RAF’s own Bomber Command, took audiences through a supposedly typical nighttime Wellington raid on Germany. Not surprisingly, the bombs in the movie all fall with pinpoint precision and it’s mission accomplished (as usual). The 47-minute picture stars a seemingly ordinary ‘real-life’ crew of the plane ‘F for Freddie.’ But while the producers strove to create an air of authenticity, the camera work and dialogue make it wincingly clear that the entire movie is scripted. Target For Tonight was distributed by Warner Bros. and won an honorary Academy Award in 1942 for Best Documentary.

Red Dawn (1984)

When Soviet and Cuban troops invade a small-town in middle America, jocks and preps from the local high school gather weapons and launch a guerrilla war against the commie conquerors. Such is the premise of the Brat Pack Cold War action flick Red Dawn. Starring Charlie Sheen, Patrick Swayze and C. Thomas Howell, this ridiculous teenage shoot-‘em-up tapped into growing angst surrounding the renewed Cold War tensions that marked the early years of Reagan presidency. While largely panned by critics, it ultimately grew into a cult favourite for many who came of age in the ‘80s.


The Bond (1918)

More than 20 years before his famous send-up of Hitler in The Great Dictator (1940), Charlie Chaplin was socking it to Kaiser Wilhelm II in his own self-financed 1918 movie for the Liberty Loan Committee entitled The Bond. The 11-minute comedy, which features the Little Tramp punching out the German emperor, was produced to get Americans to open their wallets and invest in the victory in Europe. And it wasn’t Chaplin’s only war film either. The famous funny man appeared in the 1918 Shoulder Arms (see above) and even the long-lost treasure Zepped, which sees our hero take on German airships over Great Britain.

Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944)

The Doolittle Raid must have seemed like ancient history in November 1944 when MGM released Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo. After all, so much had happened in the Pacific since the legendary April 18, 1942 air strike on the Japanese capital: Midway, Guadalcanal, Saipan and the Great Marianas Turkey Shoot, among others. Yet the rousing patriotic drama about the brazen B-25 attack filled theatres and won kudos from reviewers, many of whom considered it one of the best movies to come out of Hollywood during World War Two. No less than the New York Times called it a film of “magnificent integrity and dramatic eloquence.”[3] It took home Oscars in 1945 for special effects and cinematography.

Triumph of the Will (1935)

Although it predated the war by four years, Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens) is widely regarded as the standard-bearer of Nazi-era propaganda films. The 104-minute documentary focuses on a speech Adolf Hitler delivers to a crowd of 700,000 party faithful at a massive 1934 rally in Nuremburg. The handiwork of German auteur Leni Riefenstahl, the movie was heralded worldwide for its sweeping cinematography, all of it painstakingly engineered to portray the Nazi dictator as something akin to a god on earth. And despite its troubling subject matter, Triumph stands as a remarkable (if not chilling) historical artifact that continues to fascinate 80 years after its release. Ironically, it’s still banned in Germany due to laws prohibiting the public display of swastikas.

Why We Fight (1942)

Frank Capra’s Why We Fight was a series of seven hour-long documentaries released between 1942 and 1945 that explained to the general public the origins of the Second World War and America’s place in it. Not surprisingly, the movies framed the conflict using an overly simplistic ‘good versus evil’ narrative that frequently glossed over some rather inconvenient truths, namely that the Allies were aiding a totalitarian dictatorship in Moscow as murderous as the Third Reich. Individual episodes deal with specific aspects of the struggle such as the rise of Nazism, the fall of France, the Battle of Britain, the invasion of Russia and Japanese aggression in China. By VE Day, more than 54 million Americans had seen the Why We Fight series. One of the films, Prelude to War, even won an Academy Award for Best Documentary.


Life Goes On — The Propaganda Epic Nobody Saw

War ravaged Berlin was the setting for the unfinished Nazi epic Life Goes On.

War ravaged Berlin was the setting for the unfinished Nazi epic Life Goes On.

LITTLE EXPENSE WAS spared on Joseph Goebbels’ feel-good epic about plucky Berliners standing firm in the face of Allied bombing. Described as Third Reich’s answer to Mrs. Miniver, the regime pulled in the hottest stars of Nazi Germany to appear in the movie. Unable to shoot on location in the capital because of the growing mountains of rubble, filmmakers spent millions reproducing whole city blocks on a sound stage, complete with legions of extras (played, ironically enough, by concentration camp inmates) Filming, which began in late 1944, faced constant disruptions due to widespread power outages, shortages of manpower and even the advance of Soviet troops. The picture was never finished and stands as one of the lost cinematic curiosities of World War Two. Read the full story about the film here.

9 comments for “A Call To Arms — Nine of History’s Most Famous Wartime Propaganda Films

  1. Veritas
    23 January, 2015 at 12:42 am

    I found the author, admin, to display an amazing lack of cinema and historical background. I found admin’s political bases more evident than any thoughtful or insightful background. In 1968 the American people rejected Johnson not because they turned against the war but turned against a no win strategy which might have occurred to the author if they realized that Nixon won in 1968 not as a dove. Wayne’s picture was no masterpiece but did show the war was orchestrated from Hanoi and Moscow not as we were told at the time was it a civil war.

    I also found the more ridiculous aspects of the allied WW2 films to have been glossed over. Every Nazi was a beast, one especially awful picture, I believe it was called Red Star, showed Nazi doctors draining the blood of children for use by wounded German soldiers. In another movie with Bogart, I believe it was Passage from Marseilles, when a German vessal sinks there is Bogart machine gunning the helpless German sailors in the water barying “that’s what they deserve.” I believe this is what is called a war crime and Churchill refused to allow the movie to be shown with this scene intact for this reason.

    Wartime movies are awful, I have yet to see one that was anything other than propoganda and in the worst sense of the word.

    • splen·dif·er·ous
      24 January, 2015 at 12:42 am

      Sounds like just another message board blowhard in love with the sound of his own voice. I thought it was a good story. Keep calm. Carry on!

    • admin
      24 January, 2015 at 10:56 am

      Thanks for your perspective. I welcome all feedback.

  2. Veritas
    23 January, 2015 at 12:44 am

    I forgot, Egbert helped write that cinema masterpiece Myra Breckinbridge didn’t he? Anyone who could quote him as a cinema expert just couldn’t afford the talents of Michael Moore.

  3. Calum Macleod
    23 January, 2015 at 5:56 am

    What about Olivier’s Henry V? One that invokes the past, but with its eyes on another invasion of France.

    • admin
      24 January, 2015 at 10:56 am

      Damn! That’s a good one. My bad!

  4. Mike Halvorsen
    23 January, 2015 at 4:27 pm

    I refuse to believe that you failed to even mention the 1942 Oscar-winning “Casablanca”. Somebody really dropped the ball on this one!

    • admin
      24 January, 2015 at 11:01 am

      Fair enough. There were several that also could have been included. Thanks for the input.

  5. Van Doyle
    9 March, 2015 at 12:52 pm

    I visit the VA every week. I share a waiting room with the PTSS patients. If you believe you can kill another human being without suffering emotional consequences you are not aware of what war is really like.

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