Film as Propaganda in America during WWII

Project team

Maureen Grzan, Rachel Lee, Kevin Pham, Tasha Mamoody



Our group’s main argument was that the government worked with the Hollywood industry to use film as propaganda during World War II. As a starting point, we tried to find out the public’s perception of cinema before the war so we could gauge whether the war had changed the content of the movies that were being released to the public. While researching this, we found that there was a time period when movies were incredibly feared due to the Hypodermic Needle Theory which stated that the content of movies would be completely injected into the minds of viewers, with no personal filters or ability for the viewer to think for himself. This led to a general fear of movies and the ways in which they could control the public’s way of thinking.

From the 1920’s the movie industry was becoming established as an industry. But soon there was a stigma that started surrounding Hollywood in the early 20’s as actors and directors were convicted of scandals that caused the public to start protesting the immorality of the industry. This led to the Motion Pictures Producers and Distributors Association in 1922, headed by Will Hays. Hays strived to reinstitute morality into the reputation of the movie industry, mainly through the Motion Picture Production Code in 1934. Through the 1915 Supreme Court case Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, movies were judged to be a business and not an art, giving it no protection under the First Amendment. As a result, the Production Code was a self-regulating measure to keep the government from trying to shut it down. With the Production Code, we can see the ways in which the government was using its back hand to indirectly control the content that was released. It was during WWII when it would start working directly with Hollywood to send a very specific image about the war into the public.

During WWII, the government worked with Hollywood directly in order to use films as a powerful tool to promote the war. As mentioned earlier, the Hypodermic Needle Theory came into play again and movies were the perfect avenue through which the government could inspire support from the public. To bring this into action, the government, under FDR, set up two major institutions. First, the Office of War Information regulated what information about the war was released. Second, the Bureau of Motion Pictures was an agency that directly worked with Hollywood, setting up guidelines such as “Will this picture help win the war?” that helped decide which movies could be most beneficial to the American war effort.  To achieve this, movies released during this time showed grim images, anti-Japanese propaganda, and took the viewer into the depths of the sacrifices that American soldiers suffered through. In our research we found that films such as Guadalcanal Diary and Objective Burma were movies used to instill images in the public mind that would inspire the viewer’s support that the government hoped would bring victory. Even after the war was over, films continued to show a very skewed view of the war, glorifying the efforts of the soldiers to show that their sacrifice was worth it.


Japanese Relocation. Office of War Information. 1942. Pacific Film Archive.19 July 2009.

“A propaganda film designed to show the co-operation and satisfaction of the Japanese American internees in terms of being relocated, re-employed, re-educated and interned.” This film pushed the idea that America was being fair and balanced; that the American efforts and bombing was good for the Japanese-American citizens in internment camps. It is another example of blinding the American citizens from the realities of the war, in an effort to keep a mild and accepting public.

Rostron, Allen. “No War, No Hate, No Propaganda”: Promoting Films About European War and Fascism During the Period of American Isolationism.” Journal of Popular Film & Television. Summer 2002. International Index to Performing Arts. 19 July 2009.

This article takes a look at the Film Industries marketing campaigns in the late 30s, early 40s. As revenue was plummeting, studios had to think of new ways to appeal to both foreign and American audiences. In doing so, the portrayal of soldiers and governments were “watered down versions of reality”, without mention of Nazism. In doing so, America reaffirmed ideal of neutrality in the eyes of others, though this at times spurred negative reactions.

Until Pearl Harbor, America was isolated from the war, at least in the minds of its citizens. Through the movie industry, they tried hard not to portray anything that might spur revolt or insistence on involvement in the war.

Sbardellati, John. “Brassbound G-Men and Celluloid Reds: The FBI’s Search for Communist Propaganda in Wartime Hollywood”. Film History. International Index to Performing Arts. 19 July 2009.

This article analyzes the FBIs efforts and investigation of the film industry during WWII in relation to the communist scare. It follows the governments’ belief that film was a “hypodermic needle”, a way to infiltrate and “poison” the minds of the audience without audience resistance.

After the 1943 release of Warner Bros.’ Mission to Moscow, J. Edgar Hoover exclaimed that ‘recent events in the motion picture industry have caused me much concern regarding the spread of Communism’.

Nevertheless, the FBI tended to operate by what Staiger calls ‘a ‘hypodermic needle’ theory of cultural production’, whereby ‘ideology is simply ‘injected’ into individuals’, and only belatedly questioned its assumptions regarding the effects of these supposedly subversive films.13 Such questioning, however, led not to a re-examination of the merits of their investigation, but rather served to heighten their need for secrecy lest critics expose the Bureau’s operation in Hollywood.

Bates, Roy Eugene. “Private Censorship of Movies.” Stanford Law Review, Vol 22, No. 3 (1970): 618-656.

In this source, Bates tries to explain in the larger context of his book, on how the Motion Picture Industry came to be a self-regulating industry. This is the part that becomes useful for the purposes of this paper. He goes back to the 1930’s and explains the origins of the Production Code which created a standard for which films were required to meet in order for there to be a “cleaner” sense of content featured in these movies. Bates then goes directly to the consequences of these steps, in light of the end of WWII. He analyzes the motifs and themes in American cinema that had to do with the war. Bates also discusses the attitudes of the American public in response to the codes and regulation of the movie industry.

Doherty, Thomas. Pre-Code Hollywood: Sex, Immorality and Insurrection in American Cinema 1930-1934. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

In this book, Doherty takes a look at the movie industry before the Production Code came into place. It reveals in detail the ways in which the movie industry was taking advantage of the fact that there was not much censorship, before it became scrutinized by the public and the Motion Picture Production Association. Doherty studies the four years between where William Hays was starting to really crack down on movie content in 1930 and when the Production Code was actually enforced in 1934. Doherty gives a background on the movie industry pre-Code which helps me understand just how much the code was taking away and censoring after it was put into place.

Slocum, David J. “Cinema and the Civilizing Process: Rethinking Violence in the World War II Combat Film.” Cinema Journal 44.3 (2005): 35-63. JSTOR. 20 July 2009 <‌stable/‌3661140>.

Slocum writes about cinema and World War II films and how they use to inaccurately represent war before government regulation. The source gives background information about Hollywood regulations by the government and their aim for the war effort. Slocum calls it a “wartime public information campaign.” Hollywood had the power to shape public opinion. Although Americans believed that America should fight the war, the general public did not know the realities. Many movies only had war in the background of romances, comedies, and musicals, but with OWI and BMP, they made films show the sacrifices that the troops dealt with. The government wanted the audience to be united and connected to the war effort. Slocum then continues to use specific examples of films to make his argument of typical war movies.

“Wartime Hollywood.” Digital History. 20 July 2009.  20 July 2009 <‌modules/‌ww2/‌wartimehollywood.html>.

In this article, it talks about how the motion picture industry was a leading force in the war effort with Europe during World War II. Before America got involved with the war, some believed that Hollywood was trying to promote the war with anti-Nazism and pro-British films. It was not until Pearl Harbor that Hollywood was a leading agency for the war effort. They portrayed patriotic and moral themes for a national purpose. Government agencies were created to to supervise the film industry like the Office of War Information and the Bureau of Motion Pictures. The government wanted films to convey what “the allies were fighting for” and “exaggerated the extent of Nazi and Japanese espionage and sabotage.” Yet some of the realities of war were not portrayed and we got a mild description of the war.

Roeder Jr, George. The Censored War. Yale University Press, 2005.

This book brings attention to the censorship which was taking place in America during the war, and how images and film affected how the public perceived the wartime conflicts and realities. The visual experience was very powerful, and the Government used that to shape how American’s understood what was really happening. For example, there were instances of racial conflicts and emotional distress on the battlefield which were conveniently ignored in order to paint this picture of unity and bravery which simplified how we viewed the war, and failed to touch upon the true complexity of the war. He argues that the way WW2 was depicted shaped public opinion on political debates for decades to follow. Furthermore, they depict a very biased view of the war, by simply putting the sides in the context of good and evil; page 88 of the text uses the following example, “If the enemy was treacherous, cowardly, and heartless, Americans were fair, courageous, and caring. The enemy won only when they had great numerical superiority.” They failed to recognize the unjust matters of the war such as the treatment of the Japanese who were trapped in internment camps, and nonetheless the destruction imposed on their people by the bombing.

Insdorf, Annette. “Nazis and the Movies: Holocaust films have long been a Hollywood staple. Now they’re more than black and white.” Newsweek .(  8 Dec 2008) 31 July 2009. <>

This article assesses the development of films portraying the Holocaust which were made post WW2. I feel it is important to the overall argument of films being used as propaganda, because it talks about how Hollywood would filter or “sanitize” the horrors of the Holocaust which were a very real and prominent event in the war. While it took a good amount of time for a film to even address the Holocaust, the first one which did so (The Diary of Anne Frank, released in 1959) was very cautious in its representation of such a dramatic event in history. The articles states that, “there’s an inherent tension between commercial films and depicting the 20th century’s most unimaginable atrocity. The nature of narrative in general, and of mainstream movies in particular, is to be reassuring.” By doing so, they are not fully addressing all of the horrors which took place and are in a sense undermining the importance or impact of this piece of history. It also tells a lot about Hollywood as a whole, and how the emphasis is on commercial value and what will be received well. By offering reassuring tales and highlighting stories of human strength they are painting a rather idealistic view of the war, and all of the aspects of it. While this did evolve, so much time had passed since WW2 that ideas had already been built and the picture of the war had already been painted by the mainstream media.

“List of Allied propaganda films of World War II”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 31 July 2009. <>

This list is very informative in terms of portraying the films which were made during and immediately following WW2. The list is all the propaganda films which are made, and the details of the films are surprising in terms of what they do show, and who really ends up seeing it. For example, the film “That Justice Be Done” opposes all German regime and demonizes the Nazi’s, while stating that they will not torture their victims like they did, and instead “uphold a higher standard of justice.” By doing this they are further bridging the gap between the enemy and the allies by portraying the Germans in a barbaric fashion, while the American’s are the rational and composed judges of their actions. It places all German’s under the category of being a Nazi and thereby a criminal and threat to our nation.  The film “Don’t Be a Sucker” was interesting in how it dealt with racism. The motive was to discourage racism and offer equality in the armed forces, however, “due to fears that the film would be offensive to white Southerners, the film was not intended initially to be broadcast to the general public.” The fact that they didn’t want to offend the public by broadcasting the movie further demonstrates that the government was still closely regulating what was released to the public on the war, and issues such as racism were overshadowed for fear of offending viewers.

Ventre, Michael. “Top Ten WW2 Films”. msnbc. 31 (19 Oct 2006) < > 31 July 2009.

This list sums up some of the most acclaimed films on the war. The list begins with films made during the war and continues on to more modern depictions. The list claims that these films capture the impact that the war had on mankind. However, after reviewing it, the majority deal with stories of US soldiers and their war stories. While “Schindler’s List” is also amongst the 10, it was released in 1993 which is 48 years after the war ended which seems like a long time for a top film to be released that captures the essence of the wars impact on Jews living in Germany.  Furthermore, the impact on the Japanese is not generally portrayed in mainstream films, leaving a significant aspect of the war unaccounted for.

“List of WW2 Films”. Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. 31 July 2009, <>

This list displays all the films released about the war. Upon viewing the list, and finding which movies were really considered mainstream, a trend was starting to appear in the films, and it was clear which side was being heard. Furthermore, American sentiments following the war were clear with the release of “Best Years of Our lives” which was a blockbuster hit about three soldiers returning from war. The film was optimistic and generally chose to focus on budding romances and the bright new futures of the returning soldiers. It took many years for other viewpoints to be portrayed especially in mainstream films, with German neutrality, the Holocaust, and Japanese viewpoints slow to appear.

sbbfc – Students’ British Board of Film Classification. <> WW2 films – Part 1: War is hell… but how much can you show? . 20 July 2008.

This was an original source which I chose not to use because it deals with films produced by the UK which is irrelevant to the argument of films being used as propaganda in the US. However, it is interesting to see how censorship and propaganda are common worldwide, and especially during war time. The power of visual media was and still is profound, and the amazement of new media which was felt by citizens during WW2 made film very powerful in influencing and shaping public opinion.

Other sources

The Best Years of Our Lives Poster. N.d. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2009. <‌1946/‌best_years_of_our_lives.html>.

“Casablanca Poster.” Entertainment Legends Revealed. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Aug. 2009. <‌entertainment/‌2009/‌05/‌15/‌movie-legends-revealed-5/>.

“Confessions of a Nazi Spy (Movie Still).” Alternative Film Guide. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2009. <‌blog/‌film-festivals/‌national-socialist-cinema-at-filmarchiv-austria/>.

“Cross of Iron (Movie Poster). .” Silva Multimedia. N.p., n.d. Web. 4 Aug. 2009. <‌Nazi/‌index2.htm>.

“Give ‘em Both Barrels Propaganda Poster.” The American Legion. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌whatsnew/‌posters?row=18>.

“Guadalcanal Diary (Movie Poster).” Internet Movie Poster Awards. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌1943/‌guadalcanal_diary.html>.

“Hollywood’s World War II Combat Movies.” Digital History. N.p., 28 July 2009. Web. 28 July 2009. <‌modules/‌ww2/‌combatfilms.html>.

“Hypodermic Needle Theory.” The Media Know All. N.p., n.d. Web. 28 July 2009. <‌alevkeyconcepts/‌audience.html>.

“Letters from Iwo Jima Poster.” WordPress. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌2008/‌04/‌07/‌letters-from-iwo-jima/>.

“Life is Beautiful.” Wayne State University. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌ life_is_beautiful.jpg>.

“The Longest Day .” On Topic Media. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌17-favourite-robert-mitchum-films/>.

“Objective Burma Poster.” Flucuat. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌blog/‌tag-classique-p2.html>.

“Pearl Harbor Picture.” Star Gazette. N.p., 1941. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌blogs/‌genx/‌apbond/‌labels/‌video.html>.

“The Pianist Poster.” Soda Head. N.p., 2002. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌ film/‌2003/‌Jun03/‌pianist.jpg>.

“Protesting is just Unamerican .” Flickr. N.p., n.d. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌photos/‌9757654@N08/‌1251282791/>.

“Schindler’s List Poster.” Teach with Movies. N.p., 1993. Web. 29 July 2009. <‌guides/‌schindlers-list.html>.

William Wyler. Best Years of Our Lives . YouTube. N.p., n.d. Web. 5 Aug. 2009. <‌watch?v=379d-VCKk4E>.

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