The Weird History Of 5 Famous Propaganda Films
At times it can feel like everything is wrapped up in some kind of messaging. This week at Cracked, we're taking a closer look at propaganda and how it has shaped the world in ways that may not be so obvious.
Propaganda films have been around practically since the invention of the motion picture. For real: The first motion picture was screened publicly in 1885, and it only took them three years to start cranking out deceptively edited newsreels. Perhaps the only film genre that embraced the medium faster than that was porn, and that took less than a year.
But even politically motivated media messaging has its fair share of behind-the-scenes drama or unlikely cultural impact. For example …
Pulgasari was an adaptation of a classic Korean fable and a soft remake of Korea’s first sci-fi monster movie Bulgasari, all packaged as a blatant rip-off of Godzilla. On the surface, it had all of the makings of a really great kaiju film. It had one of South Korea’s most celebrated directors at the helm, they had a practically unlimited budget, and the crew of over 700 people risked everything they had to make sure this film got made. The problem was that the producer was an absolute tyrant, and we mean that literally. That producer’s name was Kim Jong-il, future supreme leader of North Korea.
In his twenties, Kim Jong-il was growing a little tired of having everything handed to him, so he decided to take on some actual responsibilities in the family business of human rights abuses and international powder kegs. So, he joined the Propaganda and Agitation Department and by 1968 had become director of their Motion Pictures and Arts Division. Being an avid movie buff with a collection of over 15,000 films no one else in his country was allowed to watch, Kim knew that entertainment like films and operas were the best way to reach the hearts and minds of his loyal subjects.
Kim was dissatisfied with the quality of the films being produced under his control. He had a very specific vision of what he wanted these films to be but was frustrated that none of the actors and filmmakers shared his passion. Apparently, those lazy bastards were only putting in enough effort to keep the state from denying them food. Having seen how much better movies were in the rest of the world, Kim Jong-il had to figure out how to bring the quality of Western cinema to North Korea without having any of those annoying Western values like dignity, independent thought, or the idea of getting paid. So, he reached out to many of the filmmakers whose work he admired … and kidnapped them.
In 1978, popular South Korean actress Choi Eun-hee took a trip to Hong Kong to meet with a businessman who was offering her an opportunity to direct a film and run a performance school. The “businessman” turned out to be a group of covert North Korean operatives who then abducted Choi and brought her to Pyongyang. But she was only bait. The real target was her then ex-husband, famed South Korean director Shin Sang-ok.
Shin had been traveling around the world trying to find someone to finance his next film project, but when he had heard of his ex-wife’s disappearance, he went looking for her. When he arrived in Hong Kong, he too was abducted and flown to North Korea. At first, neither of them were informed of the other’s capture and both were held in lavish accommodations, although Shin was sent to prison for disobedience after twice attempting to escape.
In 1983, Shin was released from prison and finally reunited with Choi. Kim Jong-il quickly put the two to work, making them watch and critique four films each day. Kim wanted Shin to direct films that could be entered in international film competitions. He granted Shin some leeway on the subjects and themes that might play well on these circuits, as long as the film’s message didn’t give the people of North Korea any funny ideas about freedom or anything.
Pulgasari was actually the sixth and final film of this forced collaboration, and it turned out to be their ticket to freedom. After producing six films in two years, Shin and Choi had gained Kim Jong-il’s trust. They had both played along well enough to issue a statement to the international press that they had entered North Korea of their own choosing, but they had also managed to secretly record conversations with Kim proving otherwise. In March 1986, when Kim had sent the pair to Vienna to secure funding for a Genghis Khan biopic, they saw their chance to break free.
Under the guise of being interviewed by a journalist at their hotel, Shin and Choi asked their bodyguards to leave the room. At which point the journalist snuck them out of the hotel and into a waiting taxi. When the taxi got stuck in traffic, and with the North Koreans catching up to them, they got out and hoofed it to the U.S. embassy. They were finally safe.
North Korea, being North Korea, of course denied that they'd ever kidnapped Shin and Choi, even accusing them of embezzling money prior to their escape. Shin Sang-ok and Choi Eun-hee had renewed their vows to each other while in captivity, and stayed together until Shin’s death in 2006. In the '90s, they spent some time in the U.S., where Shin tried his hand in Hollywood under the pseudonym Simon Sheen. He directed 3 Ninjas Knuckle Up, the second installment in the kid-friendly martial arts franchise, and later produced parts three and four. Yeah, with a resume like that, we don’t blame him for unceremoniously slinking back to South Korea.
The Birth Of A Nation (1915)
D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation has two heavily conflicting legacies in film history. On one hand, it pioneered so many cinematic techniques, like being the first movie to clock in at over three hours long and the first American film to have an orchestral musical score. Close-ups and fade-outs had never been done before, nor had of hundreds of extras like in the battle sequences. It was also the first film to be screened inside the White House.
On the other hand, it remains one of the most blatantly and deliberately racist films ever made. It portrayed post-Civil War Reconstruction as a failure, implied that Black people could never be assimilated into a civilized society, and that the only ones capable of restoring order to the South was the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, it had white actors in blackface, because they couldn’t stand to have even a lynching scene be integrated.
The Birth of a Nation was adapted from Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman: A Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan. If that title alone wasn’t enough to clue you in on the novel’s bias, keep in mind it was the second in a trilogy of books, nestled between The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden and The Traitor: A Story of the Fall of the Invisible Empire. Dixon later adapted The Clansman as a stage play and agreed to sell the film rights to D.W. Griffith for $2,500 plus 25% of the film’s profits. That option made Dixon a very rich man.
The film ultimately became a hit because Griffith used every bit of press to his advantage. They took the film on a roadshow tour to generate buzz before giving the film a wider release. There is no real definite version of the film because Griffith would re-edit the film to cut out any scenes venue owners found objectionable to prevent the screenings from being canceled.
Getting the film screened at the White House supposedly happened because Dixon had gone to college with President Woodrow Wilson and called in a favor with his former classmate. The night after the White House screening, Griffith and Dixon held a showing of the film in the ballroom of the Raleigh Hotel, with members of Congress in attendance and Chief Justice Edward Douglass White as guest of honor. The prestige of these two screenings and the heavy implication that everyone there enjoyed the film gave Griffith all the clout he needed to get the film approved by the National Board of Censorship.
Before The Birth of a Nation, the Ku Klux Klan was all but defunct. The popularity of the film and its depictions of the Klan as heroes helped facilitate the Klan’s refounding and resurgence. So yeah … great job, movie. But perhaps the film’s greatest legacy is how it managed to generate its own feedback loop even a century later. Calls to ban the film only make it more popular, criticism of the film’s racism only makes racists want to defend it even more, and so, it is impossible to talk about the film’s monumental technical achievements without also having a deeply uncomfortable discussion about its horrific subject matter. Seriously, it’s like praising the cinematography of a snuff film.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
Battleship Potemkin was a Soviet-produced five-act silent film commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1905 Russian Revolution. It told the story of the titular warship’s crew who mutinied against their officers and stood defiant against the Tsar. What set these sailors off? Being forced to eat rotten borscht. I’m not gonna argue whether it was worth sparking a revolution over that, but I get it. Even fresh borscht is enough to make you want to turn on the person serving it to you.
The film itself is widely considered a masterpiece, and so much of it has influenced other works that it’s impossible to watch it for the first time without feeling like you’ve seen it before. Especially when it comes to the Odessa Steps massacre sequence …
Pretty much anytime you’ve seen a movie in the past 97 years that features an out-of-control baby carriage, they’re paying homage to this scene. Bonus points if there’s gunfire involved. A prime example is The Union Station showdown in The Untouchables, which was later spoofed in The Naked Gun 33 ⅓. The siege of the Ministry of Information in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil swapped out the carriage for a vacuum cleaner. Clive Owen technically played the baby carriage himself in both Children of Men AND Shoot ‘Em Up. And of course, The Simpsons did it.
The Odessa Steps sequence also helped establish the trope that if someone gets shot, it’s always more dramatic if it happens on a really big staircase. Why have them simply collapse to the floor when you can leave your audience wondering when they’re gonna stop tumbling. And then there’s this image from the final shot of this scene:
Director Sergei Eisenstein used eyeglasses throughout the movie to symbolize the characters’ blind spots to the horrors going on around them. But this image of the elderly nurse with her eye shot out through her glasses is particularly haunting. The cracks in the lens are almost more shocking than the blood. If you want to show that a character is having a really rough day, break their glasses.
Filmmakers have been calling back to this shot ever since. Hell, just look at the poster for Straw Dogs. Moe Greene’s death in The Godfather was very on the nose. Ralphie shooting his eye out in A Christmas Story () took a more playful approach. By the way, if you’re gonna Google “shot in the eye," you’re gonna want Safe Search ON … or not. We’re not here to kinkshame anyone.
Triumph Of The Will (1935)
Triumph des Willens (Triumph of the Will), directed by Leni Riefenstahl, is a very difficult film to judge objectively. It is widely considered to be the greatest propaganda film ever made, but it’s really hard to praise the cinematic achievements of a movie that’s all about how great the Nazis were. Worse yet, it was technically a reboot.
In 1934, Riefenstahl had directed Der Sieg des Glaubens (The Victory of Faith), which covered the events of the 1933 Nazi Rally in Nuremberg. Months after its release, Hitler had ordered all copies of it to be destroyed. Not because the film was a failure but because it heavily featured Ernst Röhm, leader of the Nazi’s paramilitary wing, whom Hitler had ordered to be executed during a purge of political rivals known as The Night of The Long Knives. Hitler wanted to erase all references of Röhm from German history, and since it was impossible to swap him out with Christopher Plummer or Tig Notaro, they decided to delete the film altogether and try again at next year’s rally.
The 1934 Nuremberg rally was planned and designed to accommodate Riefenstahl’s 172-person film crew. This wasn’t just a political rally, it was a movie set. The speeches weren’t incorporated into the script like a documentary, the script was written into the speeches. There were extensive rehearsals. They laid down tracks to allow for dolly shots of the crowds. They built pits in front of the speakers’ platform so the cameras could get heroic looking upward angles of the speakers. They shot over 60 hours of footage, including multiple takes and reshoots.
From a filmmaking standpoint, there wasn’t anything groundbreaking about Triumph of the Will. Riefenstahl didn’t innovate any new cinematic techniques, she just didn’t know how to make a typical propaganda film. She took what she had learned making regular movies that manipulate audiences into identifying with characters on an emotional level, and used those cinematic tricks to convince the German people that Hitler was a great guy and a stable leader. Given everything we know about the guy now, that was some next-level turd polishing.
Triumph of the Will’s lasting legacy and cultural influence has been twofold. In filmmaking, it has served as a guide for making any fascistic regime look powerful. Saruman rallying the orcs in The Lord of the Rings, Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers, V for Vendetta, Scar’s “Be Prepared” sequence from The Lion King, Emperor Palpatine and the Galactic Empire in Star Wars, etc.
But surpassing that is the film’s influence on political marketing. Triumph of the Will was essentially a 114-minute campaign ad, and you can find so many of its elements in campaign ads today. The film championed Hitler as a unifier, a hero to the workers, a protector of children, a strong supporter of the military, and a moral leader who embodied everything his nation stood for. They were purposely vague about who exactly he thought the enemy of the people was, but they made it crystal clear he was the only one who could defeat them.
I’m not saying every modern politician that utilizes the same shtick to get themselves elected is as bad as Adolf Hitler. I’m just saying that Triumph of the Will managed to unlock an incredibly effective way to win over the hearts and minds of the public, all accompanied by a sweeping musical score, amazing production value, and just … a metric shit ton of flags. If the strategy didn’t continue to work this well, they wouldn’t keep doing it, would they?
Red Dawn (1984)
As the Cold War was drawing to a close in the '80s, Hollywood really went all-in on the trope of Russian bad guys. And it worked because America wasn’t the least bit interested in understanding anything about the Soviets or their culture, so filmmakers were able to build these caricatures out of whole cloth. They just had to make them super strong, humorless, selflessly devoted to Mother Russia, and often with an incredibly high tolerance for pain.
It’s not like Soviet cinema was going easy on Americans, either. As far as they were concerned, practically every American was a greedy, racist, capitalist pig who valued money and self-interest over human life. And you know what? That’s fair. I mean, that’s not true of the vast majority of Americans, but some of them … yeah, nailed it.
No film leaned into the trope quite as hard as 1984’s Red Dawn, a film that centers on a group of high school students who become fierce guerrilla warriors after their sleepy Colorado town, as well as the entire United States, is invaded by the Soviet Union, assisted by Cuban and Nicaraguan forces. The teens take on the invading forces with nothing but their grit, determination, and every gun they could get their hands on, naming their group after their high school’s mascot: The Wolverines. Good thing the film didn’t take place in Hoopeston, Illinois, home of the cornjerkers.
The film wasn’t exactly a probable World War III scenario as much as a two-hour masturbatory aid for the National Rifle Association. Red Dawn had earned the Guinness world record at the time for Most Violent Film, with an average of 2.23 acts of violence per minute. The 2007 DVD release even included a “Carnage Counter” among the special features. Strangely enough, it was also the first film to be released with a PG-13 rating, proving that you can kill as many Commies as you’d like, but if you want to avoid an R rating, you better watch your gosh-darned language!
The first version of the script, written by future Waterworld director Kevin Reynolds, limited the invasion to just the Southwestern U.S., and focused on ten children who trained themselves in guerrilla warfare while hiding out in the woods. Reynolds fought to direct the film himself, but after MGM bought the script, they decided the script’s Lord of the Flies tone needed to be Rambo’ed up a bit. So, they hired notorious writer/director/absolute goddamn lunatic John Milius to helm the project. His fee? $1.25 million, plus any gun he wanted.
John Milius is, to put it lightly, really freaking intense. He wrote the original script for Apocalypse Now but hated the final film because he felt Francis Ford Coppola made it too “liberal” and not violent enough. Remember John Goodman’s Walter from The Big Lebowski? That character was based on Milius, and the Coen Brothers went easy on him.
In rewriting the script for Red Dawn, Milius received some help from a very enthusiastic member of MGM’s board of directors, retired four-star general and former Nixon chief of staff Alexander Haig. Together, they brainstormed the backstory for how the film’s invasion would take place and enlisted conservative think tank The Hudson Institute to further develop the scenario. Milius wanted to design futuristic weaponry for the invading forces, but couldn’t get the studio to allow him more time in the filming schedule.
John Milius insists that Red Dawn is an anti-war movie, but much in the same way Road House is anti-bar fight. Despite that stance, Milius also stated he was very flattered when the 2003 Army mission to capture Saddam Hussein was labeled Operation Red Dawn, and their target sites were referred to as Wolverine 1 and Wolverine 2. Ironically enough, despite being named after a movie that couldn’t go three minutes without someone getting blasted away, Operation Red Dawn was carried out with zero casualties and without a single shot being fired.
Dan Fritschie can occasionally be seen performing stand-up somewhere. You can find him on Twitter HERE.
Top image: United Artists