by M. Todd Bennett
Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2012. Pp. xvi, 362.
Illus., notes, biblio., index. $39.95. ISBN: 0807835749
This book is neither a survey nor a catalog of American war films. Rather, Prof. Bennett (East Carolina) looks at how the film industry was harnessed to the war effort or, perhaps better, harnessed itself to the war effort.
Initially reluctant to address a possible fascist threat (or even a communist one), by the mid- to late-1930s some studios had begun making pictures intended to educate the public as to the rising threat of fascism, in contrast to the generally isolationist trend in public opinion. This trend increased when the Germans overran Europe, and the Japanese China, and became a flood after Pearl Harbor. Bennett focuses on four themes which he sees as running through these films. These were, in effect, promoting sympathy and support for the British, the Soviets, and the Chinese, as well as the idea of a “United Nations” (perhaps best illustrated by the 1943 epic Sahara, in which American Humphrey Bogart leads Americans, Britons and Commonwealth, a Frenchman, and even a Sudanese, portrayed very sympathetically, plus an Italian POW). In each case there were serious emotional and political obstacles to overcome, such as isolationist fears of “foreign entanglements.” For the British and the Chinese, the goal was to replace negative stereotypes by positive ones, albeit often as inaccurate and even racist as the old images. In the case of the Soviets it was a matter of putting a happy face on a very ugly regime, an issue that would ultimately come back to haunt some producers, directors, writers, and actors during the “Red Scare” of the 1950s. Oddly, Bennett fails to include a look at the changing nature of war pictures made for Americans about Americans.
An excellent look at how a democratic government can shape and sustain public support in wartime.