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The OWI and Hollywood's Portrayal of the Enemy

pca japanese war story

The care which the OWI lavished on the portrayal of the Allies was mirrored by its concern for the correct image of the enemies. The propaganda agency warned against the simplistic “hate pictures” which stirred up irrational hatred during World War I and thwarted postwar peace efforts. The enemy, insisted the OWI, was the doctrine of fascism and its ruling cliques, not the German or Japanese people. The Allies would win, but only with a supreme effort against these “cunning, tough, cruel” foes. Movies that showed wisecracking Yanks effortlessly knocking off the enemy deceived the public about how tough this war was. With its penchant for adapting the formulas of Westerns and gangster pictures to the war, Hollywood needed the OWI’s correctives. If anything, the propagandists underestimated the brutality of the enemy, particularly Germany, about whose anti-Semitism the OWI remained too cautiously mute.

The portrayal of the Japanese was the single most intractable problem government regulators faced. Pictures such as LITTLE TOKYO, U.S.A. established the themes of diabolical Japanese conspiracy and revealed a deep-seated American racism. The OWI was timid, and largely unsuccessful, in challenging these racist representations. Most movies showed all Japanese as fanatically devoted to the emperor, routinely practicing despicable battlefield tactics, and lacking any redeeming qualities. They were not individuals but, as explained in Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” documentary KNOW YOUR ENEMY—JAPAN (1945), “photographic prints off the same negative.” One of the few individualized Japanese characters was the propaganda minister in BEHIND THE RISING SUN (1943), who realized his country’s cause was wrong and committed suicide. In such films as BATAAN (1943), GUADALCANAL DIARY (1943), and THE PURPLE HEART (1944), the Japanese were little more than beasts who took naturally to jungle fighting. Faced with the virulent hatred of the Japanese, the OWI seldom fought such portrayals, choosing to block export licenses only in the most flagrant cases.

While the PCA deferred to the OWI on political questions, its preoccupation with profanity and individual guilt remained intact. In Zanuck’s THE PURPLE HEART, a young Chinese man murders his traitorous father. The OWI praised the politically conscious character as an exemplar of the new freedom-loving China. But Breen ruled out parricide, even in the cause of democracy, and insisted that the son be tried by the Japanese for murder. The PCA chief also tried to protect the screen from profanity even when it peppered the exact words of none other than General Joseph “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell in a prologue to the Errol Flynn vehicle OBJECTIVE BURMA. Breen initially vetoed Stilwell’s comment that U.S. forces took a “hell of a licking,” only to reverse himself. But the PCA chief refused to allow the general to say “by God” on the screen because the expression was “intrinsically objectionable.” Meanwhile, the PCA allowed repeated references to the Japanese as “dirty yellow rats,” “blasted monkeys,” and the like to litter the screen.

The Germans received a much more nuanced treatment than the Japanese. As fellow Caucasians, they did not suffer from anti-Asian racism, and they had not launched a surprise attack on American territory. Moreover, the endemic horror of Nazism, culminating in the Holocaust, was inadequately grasped by Americans during the war. In contrast to the evil Japanese mass, Hollywood followed the OWI’s lead and created individual German characters and distinguished between good Germans and evil Nazis.

The divergence between German and Japanese representations appears starkly in the 20th Century-Fox release THE MOON IS DOWN (1943). The German officers are sharply differentiated characters. While some officers are Nazi villains, Lt. Tonder is an innocent, handsome, likable farm boy who doubts Hitler’s sanity and hates occupation duty in Norway. When he meets his death at the hands of a Norwegian war widow—an opportunity to salute the resistance movements—it is as a fellow human being, not a diabolical enemy.

Dramatizing the resistance movements was a key theme in 1942-1943, since American army contact with the Germans was slow to develop. In THIS LAND IS MINE (1943), a collaboration of the leading talents Jean Renoir and Dudley Nichols, Charles Laughton delivers an impassioned oration against Nazi tyranny. The OWI wanted his speech to stir the townspeople to active uprising, but the agency rested content with the unusually detailed exploration of Nazi ideology. CASABLANCA, probably the most famous film from the war, provided a human story of the war’s effects and of various modes of resistance. To the OWI, however, Rick’s cynicism persisted too long. They wanted the picture to end not with the immortal line, “This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship,” but with Humphrey Bogart declaiming about the Four Freedoms. Luckily, Hollywood’s sense of story overrode the OWI’s political agenda. The OWI approved CASABLANCA for export, except to North Africa, where America’s tangled relations with Vichy France made the subject too touchy.

However much the OWI wished for serious examinations of Hitlerism, PCA restrictions would have blocked any film that did more than hint at Nazi horror. Paramount and the OWI worked unusually closely to make THE HITLER GANG (1944) a credible explanation of Nazism, only to find the PCA using the Code to block them. The film was not without its problems. Straining for a link between popular ideas of personal perversion and brutal statecraft, Paramount suggested that an impotent Hitler had a perverted attraction to young girls and that many Nazis were homosexual (the latter notion a travesty in view of Nazi persecution of gays). Breen objected that THE HITLER GANG contained “an orgy of bestiality and brutality such as the civilized world has never witnessed.” That was, of course, the point Paramount and the OWI were trying to make. Breen insisted that such material be cut, including a blasphemous speech a Nazi had actually given. The OWI was not willing to fight the PCA over sex and blasphemy, just as the PCA deferred, however unhappily, to the OWI on politics. After five months of struggle, Paramount capitulated to the PCA. Even if Paramount and the OWI were wrong about some particulars, their instincts about Nazism’s utter depravity were right. This was something which Americans gradually came to comprehend after the war and which millions of Europeans knew from firsthand experience during the war. The PCA, however, was determined to insulate Americans from all but faint intimations of the nature of the enemy.

Both the PCA and the OWI wanted depictions of battlefield violence to be carefully contained. The PCA strictly enforced the Code’s warnings against gruesomeness. The OWI encouraged a modicum of battlefield realism in order to prepare the public for casualties, but within rather antiseptic limits. The propagandists primarily wanted to ensure that Hollywood employed a “people’s army” with ethnically, religiously, and geographically diverse platoons whose members articulated what they were fighting for. For the most part, battle films, such as WAKE ISLAND (1942), made combat look no more deadly than a football game. Combat pictures often were a variant on a proven genre—the success story. As the OWI wished, dedicated men carry out their civic virtue and are rewarded with the promise of a better life. PRIDE OF THE MARINES (1945) followed the real-life story of a Philadelphia marine who was severely wounded in the Pacific and then restored to health by a loving nurse in a well-equipped service hospital. Virtually the only exception to such formulae was William Wellman’s THE STORY OF GIJOE (1945), based on Ernie Pyle’s memorable dispatches. Its gritty, documentary-style realism, avoidance of false heroics, and laconic acknowledgment of the randomness of death gave the film an uncharacteristic, uncomfortable verisimilitude. Nevertheless, THE STORY OF GI JOE offered only a glimpse of realism about the war, a perspective that both the OWI and the PCA, for their own reasons, wished to ignore.

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