The Second World War had already been ongoing for twoyears by the time America joined in 1941, just a day after the devestation ofthe attack on Pearl Harbour. Before the surprise Japanease attack on the U.S Pacific Fleet, theAmerican popluation had been much in favour of maintaining it’s isolationiststance, and therby did not want to get involved in another European war.However due to the shock and fatality of Pearl Harbour the general consenus unanimouslyshifted almost over night; whereby the mood changed from resitance toacceptance, thus almost all aspects of American society changed as a result. Forexample, certain items became less accessable as a rationing programme wasintroudced in 1942, and since so many young men went away to join the army,women were now able to secure jobs usually reserved for men only. For instance,there was a dramatic increase in the amount of women employed in factory workas welders, electritians and riverters.
Furthermore, the entertainment industryas a whole underwent a change during this time, but there was dramatic changein the content of films in paticular. Prior to America’s enteringinto the war, the majority of American films leant on the idea that cinema was purley for entertainment, and thereforemostly focused on providing some kind of escapsim for the American audience.Hence, the bulk of Hollywood movies were musicals, comedies, romances,melodramas and westerns. Before 1938 it was rare to see a movie with overtydecteble political overtones.1The puropse of films in that era was provide an escape from reality andtherefore it was commonplace for films to follow somewhat unrealisticstorylines and almost always have a traditional happy ending.
So, it would havebeen counterproductive to have the trials and tribulations of real lifeencroach on the cinema-goer. However, during the 1940’s films took on a morereslistic tone. In the early 1940’s, nearly thirty perecent of Hollywood filmswere ‘directly related to World War II.’ 2This is emphasised by the fact that, during the war, films shown were precededby Movietone news.
This was a newsreel that provided a visual account of thecurrent events of the war and the positions of the U.S troops. Sometimes thesenewsreels would portray raw footage of Nazi concentration camps and Japaneaseenvasions in south Asia which were prehaps quite dsiturbing. Many peoplerealied on these newsreels for updates on loved ones and America’s position inthe war.
This additiion to the cinema is testement to how the cinema expierencechanged, and how the purpose of films changed during the war. Films became lessabout escapism as such and were now concentrated on informing the Americanpublic on the realities of the war, and boosting morale and patriotism. This isevidnece by one of the most famous wrtime films in Americn history.
Casablanca is oftencalled a Hollywood classic, it was a success at the box ofice and won an Academy Award for best picture. It has also been called ‘ a veryclever use of political propganda’. Although the film has transcendedgenerations, critics have said that Casablancaheld such a strong appeal during its initial release because it told muchmore than just the story of Rick, Ilsa and Victor; as for many uniformedAmericans it told the story of World War II.
In just a few days the Americanpublic had gone from the believing ‘theirboys are not going to be sent into any foreign wars’, to Fralnkin Roosevelt,the American President, and the same man that had made the statemnet, declaringwar on Germany. Hence, it goes without saying that apart from the attck onpearl harbour, the American population knew little else on why they were nowfighting in the war after their firm isolationist stance. Although devesated byPearl Harbour, most Americans still did not want to be in the war and thereforelacked the morale and enthusiams to deal with the hardships that would comewith now being involved in the biggest armed conflict in history. Manycritics have called Casablanca propagandaas it is often noted that each of the significant characters in the filmrepresent a different aspect in the war, as an attempt to justify and explainAmerica’s involvemnet in the war and how it should be fought. We can see thisthrough the charcters themselves and what they appear to represent. Firsty, VictorLazlo seems to represent the resistnce. His charcter is the eptiome ofleadership, selflessness and self-sacrifice for the good of the cause. Heembodies the idealisms of the nobel hero and is outspoken without fear of beingpunished.
One of the key scenes that can be used to explain this in the middleof the film, when a group of German officers begin to sing ‘Die Wacht am Rhein’, a German patriotich anthem in a café full of refugeesfrom German occupied countries. The song therefore, is a mallicious display ofGerman power and authourity. Although Rick clearly becomes visably infuriated,it is Victor who uses his intiative and marches down to band ordering them toplay ‘La Marseillaise’, the French national anthem. He begins to sing loudlyand boldly and in turn the rest of the café join in and sing with him, drowningthe German officers out. Victor Laszlo therefore, can be said to represent the ideal,the leadership and selflessness required to lead the people to the victory.
Although Victor is being hunted by the Nazi’s and is facing the very realpossibility of being caught, he still risks himself to show the Germans thatthey can be defeated and to empower the refugees. The film was filmed in heightof World War II and released in 1942 when the Germans were looking almostundefeatable. Laszlo’s restistance, instilled a resitsnce into the Americanpopulation.
Ilsa’s trials andtribulations could represent the struggles of European women, or prehaps Europeans in general. She is often presented asbeing morally torn, and at one point says to Rick “I don’t know what’s right any longer. You’ll have to dothe thinking for both of us, for all of us.” Ilsa, being a European herself, couldrepresent Europe’s reliance on America to win the war, and/or the generalfeeling that the fate of the war rested on American participation.
Ilsa alsomay represent a small part of something bigger, being a Norwegian and thereforea European she is part of the vast array of Europeans that spend time in Rick’scafé. Going back to the scene in which ‘La Marseillaise’ is sung, it shows the comingtogether of this vast array of nationalities; the French; Isla; Laszlo(Czech);Sacha(Russian); Jan and Annina(Bulgaria); and the Spanish and Italians. Thisunification of nationalities that puts there difference aside for one commongoal is what overpowers the German officers when they re singing, and suggests Iwhat will overpower in Germans in the war.
Rick, was perhaps themost relevant representation to an American audience at the time and the most obvious to a contemporary audience.Rick embodies America’s attitudes and position in the war. He owns Rick’s Café Americain, which has been saidto be like the United Nations in some regards, as it provides a safe place foran array of European foreigners and refugees at war with Germany or from Germanoccupied countries, as well as German officers themselves.
However, althoughsurrounded by so many different opposing forces, Rick is adamant in staying neutraland makes it known that he isn’t prepared to ‘stick his neck out for anyone’. Thisstubbornness and refusal to take a side, results in him refusing to sell Laszloexit visas so he can escape the country and get way from the Nazis pursuinghim. This is confirmed when Rick tells Strasser: ‘My interest in whether VictorLaszlo stays or goes is purely a sporting one’. To which Strasser asks him: ‘Inthis case you have no sympathy for the fox, huh?’ Rick replies: ‘Notparticularly. I understand the point of view of the hound, too.’ This isperhaps the clearest display of Rick’s obstinate neutrality. This reflectedAmerica’s isolationist approach to the European conflict that was Word War II,and the public opinion of not wanting to get involved.
However, Rick’s truefeelings begin to reveal themselves to the audience. For instance, when a Bulgarianrefugee asks Rick for help, initially he refuses. However, later we see him allowher husband to make enough money at the roulette table to buy an exit visa fromthem both, at a loss to himself.
This showcases that underneath his stubbornnessand reluctance, Rick is too morally in tune to let ‘the bad guys win’, so tospeak. This surprising act of kindness foreshadows the end of the film, wherehe gives up his neutrality and the girl he loves for the greater good that isLaszlo, and the heroism he represents by giving them the exit visas to escape.This indicated to an American audience that one must let go of one’s selfish attitudesin order to provide the leadership that will instigate unity amongst allies todefeat the enemy.It is not a suprisetherefore, that the script for the play ‘Everybody Comes to Rick’s’ that Casablanca was based on, was presented toWarner Bros just a day after the attack on Pearl Harbour. The story explicatedto the Americans why and what they were fighting for. Roosevelt saw the need toenlist the help of Hollywood to distribute war propaganda, which was unarguablysuccessful as Casablanca was screened in thousands of theatres around the U.
S andis stlll considered one of the greatest Hollywood films of all time. Approximately 16 millionpeople served in the US Army, over 400,000 of these people lost their lives and a further 600,000 were injured. Rationingwas introduced, in order to provide for U.S troops and “Do with less- so they’llhave enough” became a popular poster slogan. Although America and itspopulation were phsyically crippled due to the devastation of the war, the filmindustry thrived. The film industry was supported by the government and PresidentFranklin Roosevelt himself signed an executive order creating, effectively apartnership between the Office of War Information and the Hollywood film industry,called the Bureau of Motion Pictures. The BMP provided information to film industryon how to accurately and effectively portray patriotism, sacrifice, duty andthe like on film. Elmer Davis, the director of the U.
S Office of War Information,said that “The easiest way to inject a propagandaidea into most people’s minds is to let it go through the medium of anentertainment picture when they do not realize that they are beingpropagandized”.3 Although the BMP claimedto act solely in an advisory capacity, and insisted that it’s job was not to censorbut to advertise. It had several reviewers that reviewed all Hollywood films, exceptthose made by Paramount studio, by analysing scripts and screening finishedfilms to ensure the message complied with their own. The Bureau of Motion pictures releaseda “Manual for the Motion Picture Industry” for the Governments information programme in 1942. The documentspanned 42 pages and they released additional supplements to it every week.
Themanual described World War II as “the people’s war” between “freedom andfascism”. It disclosed that the enemy was not the German, Italian or Japanesepeople as whole, but the “ruling elites and their ideology” (despite, the factthat 140,000 Americans of Japanese decent were forcibly relocated or imprisonedin America during the war). The programfollowed and directly related to the speech given by Roosevelt in 1942 afterAmerica had entered the war and in which he stated six main themes. These sixthemes were used by Franz Capra to create the series of seven films entitled Why We Fight.
These seven propaganda filmswere commissioned by the Bureau of Motion Pictures and worked in direct responseto Leni Riefenstahl’s propaganda film Triumphof the Hill. The first was the issue of why they where fighting andthe kind of peace that would follow. Although the Office of WarInformation did not have the power to ban films, as a government agency theydid have considerable power and could use the threat of stopping overseas distribution of filmsthat didn’t comply with their ideals, and often, they openly criticised B-gradewar films because, they claimed, they gave “the public an exaggerated idea of the menace.
“1 2 3 Black and Koppes, p. 88.