Hollywood films helped Americans cope with the long and harsh realities of World War Two. That tradition continues today. Hollywood is still telling stories about the Second World War, even as it produces several films about the current war. WNYC’s Sara Fishko reports.
BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I'm Bob Garfield. BROOKE GLADSTONE: And I'm Brooke Gladstone. Here are just a few of the movies now in or coming soon to a theater near you. In the Valley of Elah, Redacted, Rendition, Lion for Lambs, Grace Is Gone — all generally related to Iraq or the war on terror, movies that depict the war even as it's being waged.
The war in Iraq has often been likened to the war in Vietnam, but Hollywood's quick reaction time is more like a replay of World War II. And, as WNYC's Sara Fishko reports, right now pop culture is almost as obsessed with that war as it is with the current one. MAN [SINGING]: December Seventh, nineteen hundred and forty one CHORUS: Our Land of Freedom was defiled — [SINGING CONTINUES UNDER] SARA FISHKO: After Pearl harbor was attacked, on December 7, 1941, it took the music business all of three days to package, publish and record this song. MAN SINGS: We did it before and we can do it again. And we can do it again — SARA FISHKO: First airing on radio, December 10 of that year. So someone alive at that time heard news reports of the tragic events û RADIO ANNOUNCER: We interrupt this broadcast to bring you this important bulletin from the United Press. Flash: Washington: The White House announces Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. SARA FISHKO: And then Roosevelt's speech on December 8. PRESIDENT FRANKLIN DELANO ROOSEVELT: No matter how long it may take us to overcome this premeditated invasion, the American people in their righteous might will win through to absolute victory. [CHEERS, APPLAUSE] [WOMAN SINGING WAR SONG UP AND UNDER] SARA FISHKO: And then along with boys going off to war, the culture of the war started to emerge. PHILIP BEIDLER: How it happened and how we remember it kind of come together, and popular memory is cultural memory. SARA FISHKO: Philip Beidler's book, The Good War's Greatest Hits, is subtitled World War II and American Remembering. It's about history and memory. PHILIP BEIDLER: I think those things always combine. They always come to us through popular culture —images, you know.
SARA FISHKO: What do we recall and understand about that era? Beidler believes it was that war that could effectively be called the first media war. It was instantly surrounded, sold and transformed by cultural expressions of every variety. THOMAS DOHERTY: You have all these different mass communication media feeding off each other, and offering something different. SARA FISHKO: Thomas Doherty, of Brandeis University, is the author of Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II. THOMAS DOHERTY: So Life, of course, gives you the marvelous full page pictures that you can examine. Radio gives you the aural immediacy of it. People like Edward R. Murrow would take you up in a B 17 over Germany during a bombardment. [CLIP]: EDWARD R. MURROW: The sky ahead was lit up by bright yellow flares. Off to starboard, another kite went down in flames. The flares were sprouting all over the sky, reds and greens and yellows, and we were flying straight for the center of the fireworks. [END CLIP] SARA FISHKO: Newsreels, of course. [CLIP]: NEWSREEL BROADCASTER: And the President's words meant action, as billions of dollars — [END CLIP] SARA FISHKO: The first of them appeared less than a week after the Pearl Harbor attack, but the dramatic feature films about the war were a genre in themselves.
THOMAS DOHERTY: During World War II, we don't know we're gonna win the war, so those movies are actually, you know, much more severe, mature, than some of the movies made afterwards. They really want to give Americans harsh lessons about the nature of heroism, the sheer terror of the enemy, and the power of the enemy. SARA FISHKO: One of those was Air Force, the 1943 film about a B 17 bomber, the crew all working together to accomplish a dangerous mission. It was a message picture, like many of the era. [CLIP FROM AIR FORCE]: ACTOR: Now look, Winocki, there are two other men on this ship who washed out as pilots. [END CLIP] THOMAS DOHERTY: The message of these films is that no one individual is more important than another individual. [CLIP FROM AIR FORCE]: ACTOR: We need you, just like we need the whole gang. It takes all of us to make this ship function. [END CLIP] THOMAS DOHERTY: In Air Force, the hero was the combat squad. [CLIP]: ACTOR: Every man has got to rely on every other man to do the right thing at the right time. You've played football, Winocki. You know how one man can gum up the whole works. [END CLIP] SARA FISHKO: Part of the message of these films also was that of a tolerant America, unified against its enemy, the idea of the harmonious melting pot, whether it was true or not. [CLIP]: ACTOR: There's only city in the U.S.A. and that's New York. ACTOR: Oh, you're just another home town hick, Weinberg. What's wrong with California? [END CLIP] THOMAS DOHERTY: You have these sort of statistically-apportioned ethnic groups that, you know, happened to be on every plane or any combat squad [LAUGHS] and you've got the Brooklyn Jew, the, you know, the Boston Irishman, you know, the Iowa farm boy, the guy named Tex, and all these different American ethnicities and regions, all of course working together to defeat the Nazi enemy. [CLIP]: ACTOR: Minneapolis, where the grass still grows in the streets. Besides that — [END CLIP] SARA FISHKO: America's melting pot image was a useful and necessary way of putting off our own issues in a time of war, and in some ways the popular culture was way ahead of the reality. [JAZZ MUSIC UP AND UNDER] You could almost say that propaganda charted a course for America. THOMAS DOHERTY: At the end of the war, you can't go back, right? You can't go back to a culture that's a Jim Crow culture or a culture that doesn't embrace different ethnicities and sensibilities.
So right after the Second World War, not coincidentally, Jackie Robinson in 1947 enters Major League baseball, Truman integrates the Armed Forces in '48, Hollywood begins making its first, you know, really unapologetic social problem films about American racism. SARA FISHKO: The Academy Award for Best Picture of 1947 went to Gentlemen's Agreement, the film about American anti Semitism. [CLIP]: CHILD ACTOR: They called me a dirty Jew [CRYING] and a stinking kike. [END CLIP] THOMAS DOHERTY: All this stuff sort of just spews out in American culture and American cinema. SARA FISHKO: So memory, history, popular culture and experience, all shift and trade places over time to create a certain kind of recollection. JAMES YOUNG: Real things happen, and part of reality is that they get assimilated, you know, into our lives, made sense of and passed down. SARA FISHKO: Professor James Young writes about history and memory in books like At Memory's Edge and The Texture of Memory. Growing up, his favorite post war TV show was the series Combat. [LOUD MARTIAL MUSIC UP AND UNDER] JAMES YOUNG: Everything that happened in that war, from the TV programs, the popular, you know, cultural representations of it, the books I read, the stories I heard, really did shape all of our lives through the sixties, especially, so we were somehow thinking of war all the time, a big war, even a third world war. And that did shape us, for better or worse. SARA FISHKO: For a long time, the World War II myth held strong — America as the noble face for good, democratic values that must be fought for.
JAMES YOUNG: And then the Vietnam ethos, which is that there are times in which America is the villain in foreign affairs and that it can get involved in meaningless wars that send back nothing but body bags.
And those tend to be the two different [LAUGHS] dynamics that America now faces whenever it's confronted with another foreign policy adventure. SARA FISHKO: Now, as then, with our war in progress, the media are sending out uncompromising messages about the ugly business of fighting a war. What they've not provided so far is the uplifting patriotic narrative that so enshrined the Second World War, the first media war, in our memories.
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