Films, from the advent of the first attempts at filmmaking in 1878 with the running horse film by Eadweard Muybridge, to current Hollywood productions are studies in technology but, more than that, they are instruments of social change and controversy. We have proven to be willing participants in all their efforts as we watch in rapt attention or disbelief. How we will respond is carefully anticipated by writers and directors and their agendas have not always been to entertain but to manage us.
Politicians and various media outlets, in addition to film reviewers, are currently foaming at the mouth with either vitriol or cinematic praise for “American Sniper.” Clint Eastwood’s take on American militarism and heroes is evident from this and other films he has made. There’s no denying that he has a specific point of view and wants to present it in all his efforts. I just wonder how this played out in his stint as the mayor of Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. No idea how that went.
But AS can either be seen as propaganda or a story of a guy caught up in the throes of his wish to save those in war-torn countries and what it did to him and his family. The latter doesn’t really show up much in the film, unfortunately, which is more focused on those kill shots and tense moments of war. Not too realistic according to one Seal Team trainer who notes that it is the stealth of the sniper that takes most of the time and incredible skill. They all don’t hop on a truck and jump into their appointed spot on a rooftop. Well, let’s just chalk that up to the need for drama in film.
No one needs to look very far back into the film archives of the past 60 years or so to find multiple examples of the film-as-propaganda machine. If you enjoy film, you’ve seen “The Best Years of Our Lives” which incorporates many of the themes of the aftermath of war and the bravery of those who survived to return home. The Hollywood studios did their best to keep up the tempo of patriotism and to support a post-war political agenda. No problem in that, either.
All during WWII not only were films turned out to help, but film stars were sent out to sell War Bonds, they went on USO tours and movie theatres ran news reels depicting events in the wars. Film stars even made news as they paraded in their new military uniforms after they enlisted for WWII. Afterward, men like Audie Murphy would be the embodiment of the rags-to-riches war hero who would star in a film about his own heroics.
The Vietnam War had “The Deer Hunter” which won five Academy Awards and even Walt Disney was engaged by the U.S. Government for its war efforts. Yes, Donald Duck had his place, too, in helping further efforts both political and economic. He even starred in films directed toward achieving American acceptance of the income tax and war rationing.
Esteemed director Frank Capra produced a propaganda series, “Why We Fight” and the aforementioned Best Years film. Capra had seen how effectively the Nazi propaganda mastermind, Joseph Goebbels, had enlisted the genius of filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl. She would produce “Triumph of the Will” to advance the Nazi cause. Riefenstahl melded Germanic and ancient Roman themes with riveting cinematic perspectives to produce heightened dramatic effects. Music and lighting were used masterfully and the audiences ate it up.
I’ve seen Triumph and appreciate it for how Riefenstahl worked her cinematographic magic, but it didn’t make me want to go out and join a fascist army or any other group. I saw it for what it was and Capra did, too. Film can be an effective tool.
Unquestionably, film has a place in our lives and is the servant of the master—the writer/director. The writer may provide the raw content and the theme, but it is the director who determines how we will ultimately view the film landscape. Want to see how it’s done? If you get a chance to see a theatre production of some well-known play that’s been turned into a film, see both of them. You’ll quickly become aware how the director has pulled your attention to follow his/her wishes in order to create the desired effect. Characters can be either minimized or made to stand out and that is where the psychological magic takes place. “Streetcar Named Desire” I guess would be a good place to start.
The dialog will always be ongoing regarding any film and any subject material and that’s a good thing because we should never just swallow something whole. We need to use our own intellect to review what’s really going on and where the backstory lies in each film. No, we’re not dumb animals and we shouldn’t act like we are. But, I should give animals their due here, too. They are smarter than we’ve ever given them credit for and that’s a topic for film, too.