Issue: Issue Winter 2001

Patriotic Films

These days everyone has patriotism on the mind, and Hollywood is no exception. Whether addressing sensitivity or censorship, the industry is as much under the microscope as are issues of national security. In fact, Hollywood has always played a crucial and difficult role in defining national character. From the traditional war hero to the archetypal enemy, the line between the industry reflecting trends in American sentiment and vice versa has often been blurred. With an increasingly complex national dynamic the task of recreating the notion of patriotism on screen has only offered greater challenge over time.

Although Hollywood’s position as a detached private entity should ideally result in an objective portrayal of national events, in reality this hasn’t been the case. The reduced political criticism during both World War eras rings all too familiar a bell in the wake of recent events revealing that sometimes the stories that Hollywood strategically chose not to tell brought to light as much as the stories it did. 

The industry is not necessarily all that subtle either. The turning of heads is one way to track the ties between the power of commercial film and the power of government. But in times of war the film industry shamelessly adopted themes of obvious nationalistic pride that, despite criticism, generated massive support. The influx of these patriotic and propagandist films in congruence with the great wars of the 20th Century undoubtedly contributed to the success of landmark Hollywood films.

Some would argue that the propagandist tone was instilled as early as 1897 when Albert Smith and J. Stuart Blackton produced Tearing Down the Flag for the Vitagraph Company only hours after the United States went to battle with Spain. A very successful commercial war film, it provided the foundation for the militant propaganda that would dominate the film industry until the more controversial Vietnam War.

Heading into World War I, Hollywood films in addition to entertaining an increasingly anxious American citizenry, served to not only synthesize public opinion about the possibility of entering the war, but to aggressively recruit potential soldiers. A famous example of this is William “Wild Bill” Wellman’s Wings (1927), which is strewn with heroic sentiment amidst a tragic love story. As with D.W. Griffith’s Hearts of the World (1918) the end result was an underlying image glorifying the American soldier while harshly antagonizing the enemy. 

This simple formula was also applied to World War II (also known as Hollywood’s War) films such as So Proudly We Hail! (1943. What began as an instrumental technique earlier in the century evolved into a cultural heritage of mass film production. Although the message was essentially the same, conventional notions of patriotism were altered by experimentation in cinematography. Who will ever forget Charlie Chaplin’s crudely satirical depiction of Adolf Hitler in The Great Dictator (1941)? A severe contradiction to the traditional small town America values subtly encouraged by such films as Frank Capra’s It’s A Wonderful Life (1946). Patriotism became a more malleable concept as Hollywood boldly reinterpreted appropriateness. The sociological impact of an industry initially established to entertain became strikingly apparent. Suddenly Hollywood was as much a concern for the War Department as the war itself.

The odd couple that would come to define Hollywood-Washington relations attributed an entirely new significance to what was once an artistic endeavor. Hollywood was no longer just an outlet for popular expression, but crucial to the make-up of American culture. What Americans identified with as patriotism was a direct result of the realistic images they absorbed from their fold-out chairs in movie theatres across the nation. If anything, the one commonality in the ever-diverging American population would be their access to these films, the Hollywood blockbusters that were released simultaneously nationwide.

The message and patriotism itself was, for the most part, a clearly understood concept involving loyalty and trust in one’s government. Despite the distinction between war and anti-war films there seemed to be a general consensus that the nation should stand by its leaders. But, what happens when that nation enters a situation in which it no longer fully trusts that government? What kind of films does Hollywood produce? It was called the Vietnam War and the films were inevitably controversial. Whereas in the past audiences were willing to uniformly accept nationalistic propaganda, the 1968 release of The Green Berets and the demonstrations that followed revealed the end of the once easy to address notion of patriotism.

Entering the 21st Century, and even more so in the wake of Sept. 11, policy-makers and producers are still searching for common ground in the fragile balance between patriotism and film. A recent proposal to paint the Hollywood sign in stars and stripes initiated enough conflict to suggest that although issues of nationalism are reflected in the film industry, the relationship is by no means as clear as the message of early propagandist flicks. The question is one of responsibility and freedom. Although there is no longer a War Department requiring studios to include recruitment trailers, Washington does continue to communicate its concerns to Hollywood. And despite skepticism lingering in the disastrous aftermath of Vietnam, patriotic films are not a thing of Hollywood past. For all the hundreds of nationalistic cinema productions that emerged during war time in the United States, Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan (1998) still tops the charts of greatest patriotic films of all time, reinforcing Hollywood’s legacy of producing patriotic sentiment amidst a melting pot of emotion. It will be interesting to observe the unfolding depictions of the 21st century war hero and enemy, whether there will be such depictions and how the public will react to them as we enter a new situation with an old history.