“Some do still stand out, if for no other reason than their value as historical artifacts (not to mention their kitsch appeal).”
IT’S NOT OFTEN THAT an army training film gets a nod from the Oscars. But that’s just what happened in 1944 when a War Department short entitled Baptism of Fire was nominated for Best Documentary at the 16th Academy Awards.
The 36-minute docudrama tells the story of a fictional rifleman known only as Pete. When his platoon finds itself heading up to the front, the rookie protagonist quietly agonizes over the prospect of facing combat for the first time.
Aimed squarely at the legions of green recruits that made up the backbone of the American military at the time, the big-budget motion picture was intended to give novice warriors a brutally honest glimpse of the modern battlefield. And unlike the slew of patriotic recruiting poster flicks passing through stateside movie houses during the war, Baptism of Fire pulled no punches when it came to the brutality of combat.
When Pete is finally thrust into battle (about 16 minutes into the movie), he immediately gets way more than he bargained for. Within moments of the opening salvos, the GI’s hapless squad mates are blown to bits by shells. Others bleed out while writhing in agony after being raked by machine gun fire. Still more are skewered by German bayonets and die ignominiously face down in the mud. Moments later, our boy watches in horror as a seemingly impervious Sherman is holed by artillery, while its crew, engulfed in flames, runs screaming from the stricken tank. For a fleeting moment it all seems more than Pete can take. But unlike one of his previously ‘tough-guy’ comrades who completely falls to pieces amid the blood and noise of battle, the young infantryman keeps his cool. In fact, after shaking off the panic, the film’s hero charges forward and cold-bloodedly kills several enemy soldiers (and in surprisingly graphic detail for a 1940s movie).
Although entirely predictable, the no-holds-barred drama strives let soldiers know just how bloody and awful combat will be. And what’s more, the message is that’s it’s okay, even normal, to be terrified before during and after the fight. It’s a point that’s driven home repeatedly by the then-cutting-edge special effects, graphic realism and high production values. In fact, it was the film’s seemingly unflinching honesty that won it the Academy’s respect. And while Baptism of Fire was ultimately passed over for the Oscar by a British documentary about the North African campaign entitled Desert Victory, the picture won a host of kudos from critics of the day.
Of course, the same can’t be said for the hundreds of other army training films that were produced over the decades – most of them are entirely utilitarian, while others are comically abysmal. Yet some do still stand out, if for no other reason than their value as historical artifacts (not to mention their kitsch appeal).
Here are a few noteworthy examples in the genre.
Gas! Gas! Gas!
Cinema was barely out of the era of the five-cent nickelodeon when the U.S. Army adopted the medium of motion pictures as a training tool. Case in point: This 1918 short film instructs Doughboys on how to put on a gas mask quickly and properly. The captions were added later.
Check out this classic example of a World War Two training film – how to operate a M1911 .45 caliber pistol. Watch for the use of tracer ammunition in some of the demonstrations (a nice touch). And make sure you pay close attention, soldier! There’ll be a test later.
Meet Private Snafu
Not all training films were as dry as the previous example. Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng of Looney Toons fame along with Theodor Geisel, P. D. (later known as Dr. Seuss) produced a string of animated shorts staring the long-suffering but lovable Private Snafu. In this installment, the popular cartoon grunt learns to handle everything from a bayonet to a BAR.
Nazi Training Films
It wasn’t just the Allies who dealt in training films. Germany’s robust pre-war film industry was pressed into service to produce a string of educational movies for the Wehrmacht like this 15-minute ditty on how to knock out a Soviet tank.
Duck and Cover
There’s something almost naively quaint about this Cold War relic that focuses how to survive a nuclear war (as if anyone could). Produced for television during the 1950s as part of ABC’s Big Picture series, the 28-minute public service featurette was intended for military and civilian audiences alike. It illustrates the dangers that would await Americans after a full-on thermonuclear exchange. In retrospect, one wonders who the network lined up as sponsors for the episode: flame broiled Whoppers?
How to Survive Behind Enemy Lines
This World War Two-era trainer has a bit more plausible a premise than making it through Armageddon unscathed. It’s simple: You’ve just been shot down over hostile territory. Now what? Presented as a dramatization, the film offered young fliers all sorts of dos and don’ts if they ever found themselves on the ground behind enemy lines. The 28-minute picture shows (among other things) how to find ones’ bearings and live off the land; smart ways to traverse hostile country; and even how to disguise oneself in civilian clothing to make good an escape (and to do so without risking being being shot as a spy if captured).
How to Survive Your First Date
It wasn’t the battlefields of Southeast Asia, but rather the frontlines of the stateside Sexual Revolution that inspired this Vietnam-era training film entitled How to Succeed With Brunettes. Made for U.S. Navy personnel, the flick provides insight into modern dating etiquette (if you can believe it). The inadvertently hilarious 16-minute short shows young male officers how to be gentlemen too when out on the town with a member of the fairer sex. And remember, guys: You saw it here first!
Something for the Morning After
And what exploration of wartime training films would be complete without a movie warning amorous young sailors about the dangers of venereal disease? Sadly, a full version of this movie, entitled Ship of Shame, isn’t available. But here is a 34-second excerpt with some absolutely priceless dialogue. Enjoy and be safe!