Of course, as with advertising, no one is willing to admit that propaganda affects their behavior, but its efficacy cannot be denied in an age where it has led us into war on false pretenses, where we’ve been frightened into sacrificing our liberties to the ironically-named Patriot Act, and where perfectly law abiding Muslim-Americans are persecuted and shunned (and their brothers and sisters abroad slaughtered at the slightest provocation--justified or not).
Some of my favorite examples of movies as socio-political propaganda come from the days of the Cold War. The late 1940s and 1950s gave birth to some of the most unsubtle, over the top movies ever made. And our first offering is a prime example. Released in 1951, I Was a Communist for the FBI told the highly fictionalized story of Matt Cvetic, who spent ten years working undercover for the FBI as a member of the Communist Party USA.
Although most of the events in the movie never happened, Cvetic was a real undercover infiltrator who was influential in smashing the CPUSA. I guess the truth of what he did wasn't sensational enough, so they had to invent Wild Adventures with which to titillate audiences.
In it, we are told that racial strife and the civil rights movement were inspired by communist agitators, as if African Americans had no reason to be angry until the communists convinced the poor, simple creatures that they did.
We are told that labor unrest is also inspired by those evil reds. When communist infiltrators rig a union vote to generate a wildcat strike, the dissenting union members try to dissuade the picketers from marching, so the commies send a gang of tough guys to beat them senseless with steel pipes (all of which are wrapped, for some strange reason, in Hebrew language newspapers). In a stunning turnabout, union-busting goons weren't sent by the Big Shots who run the factory, but those slimy Bolsheviks. I should've known it was them all along!
In another hilarious scene, a member is ordered to start a fascist movement in order to arouse sympathy for the communists. You see, even the Nazis are a commie plot.
But best of all is how we are taught all Good Americans should treat anyone who joins or even sympathizes with those Red Devils. Cvetic’s brother and son don’t realize that he is only pretending to be a communist and treat him with furious hatred. His brother even punches him out at their mother’s funeral.
In those days, it was widely believed that ‘every communist is Moscow’s spy.’ Because of this, someone who sincerely believed in communism (however misguided that might be), even if he was opposed to the outrages committed by the Soviet Union, was almost universally despised in the U.S.
But the chief irony is the film’s main message: It is nobler for us to hold loyalty to the state more sacred than loyalty to our family. If a loved one adopts beliefs that run counter to the established party line, he must be spat upon, shunned and hopefully, imprisoned or killed. I needn’t point out that this attitude is more characteristic of a totalitarian society (like, ahem, Stalin's Soviet Union) than a free country.
Watch, and be amazed.
As an antidote, I now present some leftist propaganda from the same era. Salt of the Earth, released in 1954, was also based on a true story. But, unlike the last film, it actually follows the real events fairly accurately. The story of a miners' strike in New Mexico, it deals boldly with issues like racism, women's rights, labor struggles, arrogant one-percenters, and police violence against unions and the poor--unheard of in the movies of those days.
There are only five professional actors in the entire film. The rest of the parts were played by the people who staged the strike on which the film is based. Because of this and a shoestring budget, it isn't as slick and professionally produced as the last film, but that doesn't diminish the power of its story.
The film's proposed solutions to these problems would seem self evident to today's eyes. I mean, it's hardly controversial these days to suggest that women, racial minorities and union organizers should receive fair and equal treatment (even if these dreams have yet to be realized). The last film tried to make us think these problems didn't exist, and that anyone who suggested they did was a traitor, out to destroy our nation and its freedoms. Salt of the Earth deals with them unflinchingly, and with no little amount of humor.
I think you can see which side was proved to have the right idea. Salt of the Earth could be remade today and it would fit right in with later union classics like Matewan and Norma Rae. No one would bat an eye. I Was a Communist for the FBI, on the other hand, appears ridiculously shrill to modern audiences. I mean, it looks about as relevant as D.W. Griffith's Birth of a Nation.
So how were the films received? Salt of the Earth almost wasn't produced. The federal government relentlessly harassed the production, flying planes overhead when they were shooting and even deporting the female lead to Mexico in the middle of production. They had to shoot some of her scenes in Mexico and smuggle them back into the U.S.
Needless to say, all of its actors and producers were blacklisted in Hollywood, in spite of the fact that the movie doesn't advocate--or even mention--communism.
From the Wikipedia entry on the film::
The film was denounced by the United States House of Representatives for its communist sympathies, and the FBI investigated the film's financing. The American Legion called for a nation-wide boycott of the film. Film-processing labs were told not to work on Salt of the Earth and unionized projectionists were instructed not to show it. After its opening night in New York City, the film languished for 10 years because all but 12 theaters in the country refused to screen it.
By one journalist's account: "During the course of production in New Mexico in 1953, the trade press denounced it as a subversive plot, anti-Communist vigilantes fired rifle shots at the set, the film's leading lady [Rosaura Revueltas] was deported to Mexico, and from time to time a small airplane buzzed noisily overhead....The film, edited in secret, was stored for safekeeping in an anonymous wooden shack in Los Angeles."
Yes, America must be protected--at all costs--from such dangerous propaganda!
And what about I Was a Communist for the FBI? It was nominated for an Academy Award for, get this, Best Documentary! Fortunately, it lost.