The Combat Film and Propaganda: How Sahara Illustrates the Fears of a Nation

From 1941 to 1945, American culture took a dramatic shift towards patriotism as war raged on overseas. The thought of World War II conjures images not only of men fighting abroad, but of the home front; junk drives, victory gardens, rationing, and respect for the government are prevalent themes in literature and films set during this time. While the actuality of these events is unknown except to the people that lived them, much of the knowledge held by younger generations of the United States during World War II has been passed down largely through the media. Films made in the era present an America that is not afraid to sacrifice comforts and face fears to aid in the war effort. Wartime films represent a special relationship between the United States government and Hollywood. In the 1943 film Sahara, Humphrey Bogart plays the quintessential American soldier; tall, handsome, and authoritative, Bogart’s character epitomizes the kind of strength and virility that the American government thought fighting men should have. Sahara is riddled with wartime tropes straight out of the pages of the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry. This film, and films like it, help create the cultural memory of World War II that Americans cling to generations later. Although it might not be a perfect, factual representation of events that occurred, Sahara presents the viewer with a patriotic challenge: will you, the American on the home front, sacrifice what you hold dear to help the men who have given up their freedom and comfort to protect yours?

During World War II, the newly formed Office of War Information, or OWI, gained enormous control over the content released by Hollywood. Recognizing the increasing cultural influence of the movies and hoping to harness the power of propaganda, the Roosevelt administration began strengthening the relationship between the film industry and the government with the creation of the OWI, the nation’s official propaganda machine.1 In June 1942, the office released the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry, a comprehensive document stating the agency’s goals and standards for wartime film.2 By directly controlling Hollywood’s cultural output, the OWI was able to create a lens through which the American public viewed not only the war itself, but their role in the war as citizens of the United States. The first page of the code states, “Unless every American clearly understands how much he has at stake, the nation cannot gear itself to the all-out effort necessary for victory.”3 Through films like Sahara, the OWI created a concept of what it means to be an American or an ally; by carefully structuring a character’s actions, language, and morality, filmmakers proved to be effective and important partners of the administration. The creation of a combat genre that followed the Government Information Manual for the Motion Picture Industry’s strict guidelines resulted in films that, while not directly representative of the home front or front lines of World War II, shows the intimate relationship between the OWI and American cultural output.

The opening scene of Sahara lends no doubt that the main character, Sergeant Joe Gunn (played by an ever-gritty Humphrey Bogart), is the epitome of masculine energy and American loyalty. As the radio spits out American lingo and the vast, foreign desert swirls unforgivingly, Gunn leads a group of all-American boys, named Jimmy and “Waco,” on a mission. The use of a recognizable city name as a nickname for a character presents an image of a man with a very strong sense of place– “Waco” is identified by his roots in the United States even before he is identified by his given name. In the scene, the trio attempt to repair “Lulubelle,” or the tank they have been riding in. Gunn seems to have developed a strong attachment to the tank; in several instances, he compares the tank to a woman, saying that “no dame ever said anything as sweet as this motor will sound to us once she gets rolling.” While other characters talk about the women they have back home, Bogart’s character seems to have only the tank, which quickly becomes a symbol of Gunn’s deep devotion to the military.T his gives Gunn a brash, cold quality that makes it difficult for him to distinguish between logical and honorable. One scene allows Bogart to play out his gruff character while also retaining some humanity– while he seriously considers leaving a stranded Italian to die in the sun, British characters who are portrayed as softer persuade him allow the man to join the tank.4 He grudgingly concedes and later offers both the Italian and German prisoners water, illustrating the idea that “freedom from want” and “freedom from fear” must be established “even in Germany, Italy, and Japan.”5 Ultimately, Gunn is a good guy, although he needs the persuasion of kindhearted foreigners before he makes a caring decision.

These traits in particular make Gunn a poster child for the hero described by the Manual. The Manual claims that the United States was built “upon the devotion of men who have always been, and are today, willing to die for their country.”6 Because Gunn has no family back home, he is easily the bravest of the bunch. Willing to die for his country, his attitude is contagious and creates an atmosphere of honor and loyalty between the Americans, British, French, and Sudanese allies. Bogart’s character serves as a meeting point between each nationality, showcasing the idea that the allies are varying nationalities converging upon a shared vision of a “new world.” The clearly displayed leadership abilities of Gunn allow the film to show that “American commanders have allied troops and naval units under them in certain theatres of war.”7 By showing the willingness of the British commander to release his command to Gunn, the film illustrates not only that Gunn and his tank are strong leaders, but that the Allied forces must trust and defend each other unselfishly. By initially offering the French and British men cigarettes, Gunn creates a relationship of dependency among them troops that culminates with the men sharing stories of loved ones back home and ultimately sacrificing their lives to defend common values. Between his thick accent, name taken straight out of a comic book, and militarized attitude, Joe Gunn represents the type of American soldier the government hoped would inspire both soldiers abroad and workers on the home front to work for the war effort.

While Sahara portrays Americans and their allies as strong, caring, and honorable, the film takes a markedly different approach to portraying the Axis. The German in particular is conniving, rude, uncooperative, racist, and snide. The film makes it a point to illustrate the racism of the Nazis by having the German object to being touched by the Sudanese soldier. This is ironic considering the status of race relations in the United States in 1943; while the film used the Sudanese character to create a Manual-inspired aura of cooperation between the races, the German’s reaction is not too far off from how many Americans would have reacted in the same situation. The German is meant to encompass the absolute worst characteristics of humanity, and in doing so manages to become the antithesis of a patriotic American. Even his dramatic death, being smothered in the sand by an “inferior race” rather than killed by an enemy bullet, brings to mind the idea that he is a man drowning in his own ignorance and cruelty. The German in the film is given a more symbolic role and a less personal role. Caricatures of brutal enemies are the creation of “Hollywood’s war,” which did not always accurately describe the complexity of the enemy. As Thomas Doherty quotes a veteran: “When I see Japs once again portrayed as comic opera characters, thick skulled and insanely egotistical, I am inclined to walk out [of the theater].”8The role of the German definitely fits the OWI’s expectations, but ensures that the entirety of the German people, not just committed Nazis, are faceless and evil.

The role of the Italian prisoner of war in the film starkly contrasts with that of the German. The Italian, who is given the name Giuseppe, plays to Gunn’s humane side when he pleads while showing pictures of his family to be saved from a painful death in the desert. From the initial moment the character is introduced the audience understands that Giuseppe is not evil or malicious like the German; instead, he is a victim of circumstances that needs the paternal care of the more liberated Allied forces. Several instances show his loyalty to Gunn and his men once joining the tank. He explains his circumstances and his fear of Mussolini, refuses to aid the German in betrayal, and serves as an example of a simple mechanic who ended up on the wrong side of the war. Giuseppe’s situation is best described by his final soliloquy, spoken just before the German kills him in rage: “Italians are not like Germans. Only the body wears the uniform, and not the soul…. I’d rather spend my whole life living in this dirty hole than to stand and fight for things I do not believe, against men I do not hate. And for your Hitler, it’s because of men like him that God, my God, created hell!”9 The character is seen as clearly different from the Allies- compared the Frenchman, who also describes the suffering in his homeland, the Italian seems helpless- but he ultimately redeems himself by dying for the Allied cause. The representation of the Allies as being in the moral right and this moral right being recognized (except for by the hopelessly evil German) illustrates a convergence of the Manual, the personal feelings of the studio, and the hope of the American people that this war was worth it. Giuseppe’s emotion-packed monologues give a face to the people overseas that Americans at home are wishing could be free as well. Although there certainly were Italians loyal to Mussolini, Giuseppe’s disloyalty reassures the viewer that even Mussolini’s own people disagree with his moral position.

The film’s dramatic final battle begins when Gunn delivers an impassioned speech to the Allied forces. When confronted with the idea that standing against the Germans akin to throwing life away, Gunn responds by describing previous hopeless stands the Allies had taken: “Maybe they were all nuts. But there’s one thing they did do. They delayed the enemy and kept on delaying him until we got strong enough to hit the enemy harder than he was hitting us. I ain’t no general, but it seems to me that’s one way to win.” By giving this speech, Gunn tells more to the American people than a thousand propaganda films could: Help the war effort. Acknowledge the suffering of your men abroad. Never lose hope when things become dark. Understand that you are on the side of good, and that good must always take a stand against evil. True Americans value honor and morality over even their own lives. Sahara’s dry, desperate setting and diverse cast of characters bring to mind the struggle for good to prevail in a desert of immoral evil. It is no great wonder that with films like Sahara, America’s cultural memory of World War II evokes passion and patriotism more so than any war after it.

 

1Koppes, Clayton and Gregory Black, “What to Show the World: The Office of War Information and Hollywood, 1942-1945.”, The Journal of American History  4, no. 1 (June 1977): 87.

2 Ibid., 91.

4 Zoltan Korda, Sahara (1943).

5Government Information manual for the motion picture industry.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8Thomas Patrick Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 1993) 8.

9 Sahara

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What is Indiana Jones Trying to Do?

There’s no denying that Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is really, really racist.

Look at these weird foreigners. They eat monkey brains! They steal little children to force them to be workers for their cult of Kali! If you’re not good, they’ll rip your heart out… because, clearly, this is how people in North India act. Racism and sexism aren’t just present in Temple of Doom; orientalism of “weird” cultures and alienation of indigenous peoples occurs through all three (or four, if you count aliens as indigenous peoples, which I don’t) Indiana Jones movies. With so much blatant racism and a clearly Anglo-centric worldview, why is the Indiana Jones franchise so popular? Better yet, why do I love it so much?

 

Part of the reason is that, admittedly, I’m not above ignoring inconvenient realities in order to enjoy myself for a bit. Another part of the reason is that without obvious, screaming racism and sexism, Indiana Jones wouldn’t be what it’s mean to be; a rebirth of the adventure serials from the early part of the century, and a depiction of a 1930’s worldview. The Indiana Jones films are interesting because besides being fantastic adventure stories, the films allow the viewer to relive what is sometimes thought of as sort of a “golden age,” a time when the American dream was alive and an average professor could fight Nazis while recovering ancient artifacts sneaking onto blimps (sorry, Dr. Welky, but I don’t think it’s going to happen). The first film in the franchise was made in 1981, in the wake of the seventies and in the midst of the rapidly changing eighties. At this point, American morale was starting to raise but wasn’t quite there yet. America, to many, seemed like it was weakening. People yearned for the “good old days,” and the media reflected this. This is the same time period that brought us the “Little House on the Prairie” TV series and A Christmas Story. Why shouldn’t nostalgia be injected into an adventure movie? Viewers wanted to see a time when Americans, living in a nation healing from the Great Depression, were a vital force in the world and knew the difference between good and evil. If this film were actually made in 1938, there’s no way that Indy would be shown fighting off Nazis; in the world recreated by Spielberg, however, Indy’s intuition led him to know that the Nazi were worth fighting even if the American Government wasn’t sure yet. By re-creating the adventure serial, maybe Americans could think back to a day when illegal archaeology was okay and the hero always won. An interesting quote (which I admittedly pulled out of Wikipedia) reflects how I feel about the art style and feel of Indiana Jones:  ‘Roger Ebert praised the scene depicting Indiana as a Boy Scout with the Cross of Coronado; he compared it to the “style of illustration that appeared in the boys’ adventure magazines of the 1940s”, saying that Spielberg ‘must have been paging through his old issues of Boys’ Life magazine… the feeling that you can stumble over astounding adventures just by going on a hike with your Scout troop. Spielberg lights the scene in the strong, basic colors of old pulp magazines.’”

 

So, the purpose of Indiana Jones goes beyond pure racism– is this still okay? I think this could be argued in a lot of ways, just like any controversial film. Is CSI wrong for depicting detectives as magical crime solvers in a way that hurt a lot of real CSI labs? Should Pocahontas be removed from the shelves? Perhaps the difference here is that Spielberg and Lucas seem to be channeling a bygone era, where Pocahontas aims to tell viewers exactly what Native Americans are like. The average viewer, however, might not know that Indiana Jones is supposed to be modeled after adventure B-movies, and could take the films at face value. It’s also difficult to decide what is and isn’t offensive for a member of a group to which you don’t belong; while I can argue all day that Indiana Jones’ racism and orientalism provides a historical setting rather than reflects Lucas’ and Spielberg’s actual views, my Indian boyfriend will probably never think that Temple of Doom is acceptable, family-friendly entertainment. To him, the Indians in the films are used like props, reminiscent of the use of blacks in early cinema. I’m not proposing any direct answer to this question. Personally, I’m still conflicted when it comes to films like this because the line is so blurry. At what point does a caricature of a southerner or an American become less entertaining and more offensive to me? I’ve still got a lot of pondering to do, but for now, I’ll leave the worst of the Indy films, Temple of Doom, out of my DVD player and stick to watching Nazi sympathizers shrivel up from drinking from the wrong holy grail. 

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A Møøse once bit my sister

My dad is a true product of the seventies. He doesn’t like electronic music. He doesn’t trust the government. He wishes vinyl were still a thing, and he absolutely refuses to get a Facebook account. Most of all, my dad has a very seventies sense of humor. He’s completely bizarre. Every time I watch Monty Python’s Holy Grail or Used Cars, I’m reminded of him. Not because he would watch these movies with me as a child- as I’ve mentioned before, my dad isn’t a huge movie person- but because the characters in the film represent a type of humor that I see in my dad more than any other person. I could never put my finger on exactly what it was, but I saw it mirrored in The Fatal Glass of Beer in class last week. The short film reflected, to me, a type of humor I usually see in seventies films like Airplane or Monty Python. It’s a humor I also see in certain instances of “country” humor, like “The Beverly Hillbillies,” “Hee Haw,” or humorous country songs. What’s the common factor here? Is it the parody aspect (whether that be a movie parody or the parody of a stereotype) or is it the bizarro factor? Are these things combined to create the kind of humor I find the funniest? The idea of parody is important because we allow ourselves to laugh at something we may hold dear or are very familiar with. I think, however, that the root similarity between thirties and seventies comedy lies in the confused and desperate moral of the nation in each era.

Now, take a look at The Fatal Glass of Beer. What is this short even about? We have a Canadian (complete with every stereotype in the book) father mourning his prodigal son, who was tempted by the alluring call of the city. The short is a parody of prohibitionists, melodramas, and frontier life. Small details in the short add to the absurdity of the piece. The dulcimer (which the father conveniently keeps in his shack, along with an electric fan) represents the melodrama of the “frontier way,” in which sorrow is best expressed through a terrible song and shared with others, performed while committing the terrible dulcimer faux pas of playing with your mittens on. Of course, he manages to individually pluck strings even with the mittens on, giving an even stronger impression that the story we are being told is framed in a completely unrealistic universe. From the funny-turned-strange storyline to the pointless repetition (it ain’t a fit night out for man nor beast!) to the clearly fake elk projection, The Fatal Glass of Beer leaves the viewer with a sense that they are in a world they do not understand but are somehow experiencing. Watching the film feels like riding a roller coaster blind; you think you had fun, but you have no idea what just happened.

Surely The Fatal Glass of Beer would have made more sense to a viewer in the 1930’s. The ending, in particular, might have resonated with Depression-era audiences more than a happy ending would. Just as there is no “happy ending” in the wake of financial disaster, The Fatal Glass of Beer does not try to give viewers the moral and emotional satisfaction of a son returned to his upright parents. Instead, the son is cast out, and the father, wrought with desperation, laments the fact that his son did not keep the money he stole to end up in jail. This surprise ending relieves the viewer of the pressure to conform to the “perfect” expectations that the cinema often impose. This short works particularly well as a parody because the audience secretly wants the morally upstanding, teetotaler father to have a desperate streak in him. The audience wants to see themselves reflected, and the goody-two-shoes families of the twenties didn’t reflect how the average person felt about their situation. By making fun of the “perfect ending,” the film sends the message that in times like this, it is normal to put aside morals for survival.

In a way, I think the comedy of the seventies echoes this. The seventies weren’t a whole lot of fun; between bad presidents, economic crisis, and social change, the nation’s morale was at an extreme low. Without faith in the government or the future, it’s pretty easy to see how a nation’s comedic tendencies would veer toward the absurd. In Monty Python and the Holy Grail, we see the logic of villagers as they try to condemn a woman for being a witch, deciding that she was guilty because witches and wood both burn, wood and ducks both float, and the woman weighed the same as a duck. The rhetoric of the villagers teeters in between logic and idiocy, making connections based on word-play rather than reasoning. The whole situation is reminiscent of the style of Groucho Marx; unforgiving and brash, this style of comedy echoes a time period where the viewer does not believe things will get much better. Airplane mixes cultural humor with smart societal criticisms; everything from alcoholism (“I’ve got a drinking problem.”) to pedophilia (“Have you ever been inside a Turkish prison, Joey?”) is poked fun at. The characters in both films are inherently flawed in ways that films often portray to be unforgivable. They aren’t just messy or chronically late; they are murderers, pedophiles, selfish, and ignorant. Comedy in times of upheaval or national conflict gives the viewer a way to confide their confusion and fears within the context of the theater. Hollywood’s refusal to always give a happy ending during these times reflected the mood of the nation. Parody and bizarre comedy do more than make the viewer laugh through means of familiarity or the lack thereof. They change the way we think about society; without imperfect examples of humanity or an understanding of the feeling of confusion the nation felt, film would not have been a medium in which viewers could leave their downfalls and shortcomings at the door and relate to others.

Yes, I Still Think Will Hays is Boring.

 When the 1930’s began, talkies were stumbling out of their awkward toddler phase (think Lights of New York) and finally growing up. For some, the films grew up a little too fast. While Will Hays’ 1927 “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” gave some direction toward the film industry regarding vulgarity, the onset of sound created an entire new plane to be censored. Poor, Presbyterian Will was caught in the middle; between keeping the film producers happy, pleasing the religious right, and keeping the government out of the film business, Hays had a tough job on his hands. What he really wanted is to consolidate film censorship within the industry. Each state had its own censorship board with different rules, and these rules made it hard for one particular cut of a film to be able to be screened everywhere. With an industry-wide censorship board, the power would be out of the hands of the state boards and censorship would be standardized. The 1930 Production Code, headed by Martin Quigley and Father Lord, attempted to create a universe in which it was okay to show evil as long as good triumphed. The Code wasn’t enforced until 1934, when the Production Code Administration, headed by Joseph Breen, required that all films released must be submitted in order to receive the MPPDA seal of approval and be allowed to be shown. This new censorship didn’t necessarily make films boring. Now, filmmakers had to find creative ways to suggest things not allowed to be shown in the aftermath of the newly enforced Code.

Hollywood wanted respectability. This was the main motivating factor for adopting the Code– that, and keeping the government out of the film industry. In light of the scandals of the 1920’s and the dropped attendance brought on by the Great Depression, the film industry needed a way to become more palatable to the average viewer. The Code gave Hollywood a way to say “Hey! Look! We’re trying to be classy!” while giving the viewer an increasingly active imagination. It was in this time that the gangster movie and the musical flourished. The gangster movie, in particular, showed a triumph of good over evil at the end. The fast and selfish life of the gangster was always avenged by the good guy, usually a cop or detective. The gritty underworlds portrayed by the gangster movies and the musicals reflected depression-era pains. Clawing your way to the top, singing about money while actually being broke, desperately working for a lost dream; these scenes showed an America that was struggling, with the character aligned with the right moral side succeeding. The sadness and desperation of the depression gave way to these gritty characters but also to a completely different style of comedy.

Surprisingly, the comedy of the 1930’s did not necessarily reflect the happy, beautiful world dreamed up by the PCA. While the 20’s was filled with Charlie Chaplin telling the audience that things would get better, the 30’s gave way to comedy that assumed confusion, pain, and distrust in the audience. “The Fatal Glass of Beer” is an interesting example of 1930’s comedy. While it is totally bizarre, it also gives a typical moral message– a young boy goes to the city, tastes a fatal drink, goes to jail, and comes back home to his Ma and Pa. The strangeness in the piece lies in the ending. While the film shows Ma and Pa about to happily accept their boy and his newfound morals back into their home, the viewer is presented with a version of Pa that is unexpected. Pa asks if his son has kept any of the money that he went to jail for stealing. When the son answers “No,” Pa throws him out. Ma and Pa, in the desperate face of the depression, have seemingly lost their morals as well. I’m No Angel, filmed in 1934, features a woman who is the opposite of the Victorian flower; while she seduces men on stage, others working alongside her pickpocket patrons. In the world of the Depression, morals seem to be lost until the end of the film. Sarcastic, dark comedy gave a way a nation to express itself in the face of a painful economic crisis.

While the content of 1930’s film became racier, the PCA ensured that filmmakers had to find creative ways around direct references to vulgarity. This lent to an artistic style that allowed the audience to fill in the blanks with their imaginations. The MPPDA stamped films into the 1960’s, when the film industry gave way to a rating system. Throughout the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s, thousands of films were approved by the PCA. Because of this, our cultural memory of America has been altered. The censorship that began in the 1930’s forced upon us an image of an America where good always triumphs over evil, the world is clean and happy, and couples stay chaste. It is because of Will Hays that we view the first half of the century with such rose-colored glasses. Had film been allowed to more accurately portray reality, our memory of the world might not be so beautiful.