Hollywood's New War Flicks

It was April 21, 1898, the day the United States declared war on Spain. Soon thereafter thousands of New Yorkers sat in makeshift theaters at vaudeville houses watching the Vitagraph Company’s version of the seizure of a Spanish government installation in Havana by US Army troops, an event that was still weeks from taking place. The flickering images rallied moviegoers towards flag waving and a sense of victory. Forget that the whole film production was fiction. The film Tearing Down The Spanish Flag is cited as the beginning of a relationship between motion pictures and propaganda.

Anti-German propaganda films would follow during WWI. By 1942 the Office of War Information oversaw the Hollywood propaganda machine. Countless movies glorifying war were cranked out by Hollywood under the direction of the government. It’s not like Hollywood’s role in war flicks has been kept in total secrecy. In 1990 Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black published their book entitled Hollywood Goes To War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Univ. Calif. Press). The authors’ primary concern was “to examine the enduring question of the appropriateness of governmental coercion and censorship of private media as it was raised by the relationship between the movie industry and the US government.” [Amazon.com review]

A plethora of war flicks are again hitting American picture screens. “Black Hawk Down,” “Behind Enemy Lines,” and “We Were Soldiers,” are a few of the film titles that have been released, or are just about to be released. A website, www.military.com, provides a complete run down on these movie titles.

Karl Rove, President Bush’s special advisor, met with 40 Hollywood executives on the second week in November, 2001, to enlist their help in the nation’s cause, the war against terrorism. The film-makers wouldn’t describe themselves as being involved in propaganda, just good old fashioned patriotism. After all, George W. Bush has indicated “anyone who is not with us, is with the terrorists.” Robert Iger, chief operating office for the Disney studio and the ABC Network said: “We’re not going to set out to influence opinion in a manner that could in any way be construed as a propaganda effort backed by the administration.” Doug Saunders, writing for the Globe & Mail, says “Why would they need bother? For many years, Hollywood’s most prominent products, its major studio films and TV series, have been almost indistinguishable from government-funded propaganda.”

The FBI, the Pentagon, NASA and other government agencies all have advisers to Hollywood who provide military settings and equipment with the understanding that scripts will put the government in a favorable light. A year-old revelation that the White House paid major US TV networks millions of dollars to insert anti-drug plots into the scripts of prime-time series might even serve as Hollywood’s payback for keeping the war propaganda machine going. Hollywood is accelerating production schedules to exploit the national mood and to deliver films that are compatible with war against the “axis of evil” that President Bush has described.

But strangely, Hollywood appears to be way ahead of the government. The new war movies now being released started production long before the terrorist attacks of September 11. In fact, the Army News Service announced on March 7, 2001, that actors for the “Black Hawk Down” movie trained at Army installations in Kentucky and Georgia. [Army Link News] Either Hollywood somehow knew a war was brewing, or it just decided to start making war movies, a whole bunch of them, that remind one of the days of John Wayne captaining a submarine again.

As Doug Saunders says it: “Washington hardly needs to call Hollywood to action for the current war. It is as if Hollywood has been fighting it for 20 years and Washington is just catching up.” [Globe & Mail, November 17, 2001] That 1898 movie “”Tearing Down The Spanish Flag” chronicled war action ahead of historical events that would follow. It appears Karl Rove’s meeting with Hollwyood executives was just for show. Hollywood, just like General Patton, was one step ahead.

There have been so many suggestions as to why the US is really fighting a war in Afghanistan, from a planned oil pipeline through Afghanistan and Pakistan to the sea, to the standard government spiel about bombing the Al Queda terrorists out from their caves. It’s obvious now what the real motive is – the war is a public relations stunt to further box office sales for Hollywood’s new war flicks! Watch for the return of Rambo soon in theatres near you.

February 20, 2002

Political Theatre

LRC Blog

LRC Podcasts