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Cinema's Military Industrial Complex$

Haidee Wasson and Lee Grieveson

Print publication date: 2018

Print ISBN-13: 9780520291508

Published to California Scholarship Online: September 2018

DOI: 10.1525/california/9780520291508.001.0001

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From Wartime Instruction to Superpower Cinema

From Wartime Instruction to Superpower Cinema

Maintaining the Military-Industrial Documentary

(p.192) 11 From Wartime Instruction to Superpower Cinema
Cinema's Military Industrial Complex

Noah Tsika

University of California Press

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter, by Noah Tsika, considers the U.S. military’s cultivation of documentary as a form of “useful cinema,” arguing that the institution’s emphasis on formal hybridity and pedagogic adaptability, far from being a neutral reflection of the contingencies of wartime, was, in fact, strategic—part of a broader attempt to naturalize the large-scale military and ensure its permanence. Even when the military identified them as timely documents designed to catalyze an Allied victory, many World War II training films were meant to last—to remain useful tools of the American military-industrial state, whether screened in conjunction with the public-education initiatives of local newspapers or excerpted for use in private manufacturing plants.

Keywords:   World War II, documentary, useful cinema, visual education, propaganda, government sponsorship

During World War II, the United States military embraced documentary film as an especially adaptable pedagogic agent, one that could instruct both new recruits and seasoned soldiers, build institutional consensus, and assuage civilians’ anxieties about the national costs of combat. Developing its film program within a distinctly intermedial economy, the military frequently combined documentary enunciation with other sources of instruction, including radio broadcasts and transcriptions, phonograph records, pamphlets, and symposia. The institution thus fused diverse forms of knowledge in order to redefine the borders between soldier and civilian, officer and infantryman, and Hollywood and the US Army Signal Corps, the latter of which produced over two thousand wartime documentaries in New York starting in 1942. From dramatic navy features to self-reflexive army shorts, and from documentaries produced “for soldiers’ eyes only” to those given the widest possible distribution, these films functioned simultaneously as vehicles of practical instruction and tools of public relations, reflecting the military’s multidirectional investment in “useful cinema.” Such a cinema has, as Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson have shown, “as much to do with the maintenance and longevity of institutions seemingly unrelated to cinema as it does with cinema per se.”1

In this chapter, I examine the military’s cultivation of documentary as a form of “useful cinema,” focusing on activities initiated during World War II. I argue that the military’s emphasis on formal hybridity and pedagogic adaptability was a strategic part of a broader attempt to naturalize its newly massive scale and ensure its permanence. Through its wartime output, the military managed to advance an idea of nonfiction film that dramatically expanded the contours of “the documentary” even while drawing inspiration from select aspects of documentary history (p.193) and theory. As apt to borrow footage from Hollywood as to tout a thoroughly original observational style, and as “at home” in a deployment center as in a private manufacturing plant, wartime military films ushered state documentary into a new aesthetic and material flexibility, a new openness to diverse and sometimes competing uses and arenas of reception. For even when the armed forces identified them as timely documents designed to catalyze an Allied victory, many military films were designed to last—to remain useful tools of the American military-industrial state, whether screened in conjunction with the public-education initiatives of local newspapers, excerpted for use in private manufacturing plants, or presented to high school students as sources of instruction and inspiration.2 Examined in detail, they defy a certain documentary mythology—the notion that the war years represented a period of stasis for documentary cinema, during which crude patriotic mandates prevented the military film from acquiring the kind of formal and ideological features that would render it “relevant” during peacetime. In War and Cinema, Paul Virilio provides the plainly erroneous assertion that the military’s wartime documentaries “were withdrawn from circulation” immediately following Japan’s surrender—an assertion that thoroughly ignores the nontheatrical distribution networks that multiplied after 1945.3 What I aim to do, in the space of this chapter, is begin a revisionist history of wartime military documentaries—one that not only acknowledges their status as documentaries (and thus their implications for documentary history and theory), but also considers their lasting value for institutions (the army, the navy, the marine corps, the air force, the coast guard) committed to their own permanence as well as to that of the war economy. Far from halting documentary’s development, World War II marked a period of intense debate about documentary’s scope and significance, setting the stage for the ideological obsolescence of the newsreel and the emergence of an adaptable model of audiovisual education—one that transcended theatrical spectatorship and transformed the immediate postwar period into what Zoë Druick has characterized in terms of “an unprecedented utilization of film for political ends, intensive and extensive, covert and explicit, educational and entertaining.”4

The nontheatrical exhibition of nonfiction film was hardly a military invention, but it would acquire a new discursive force during and after World War II—a new legitimacy as part of the campaign first to win the war and finally to assure the ascendance of the American armed forces amid efforts to spread “freedom and democracy” around the world. The military nurtured a comprehensive view of nontheatrical-film reception, regarding this sweeping arena as containing not only future soldiers but also strategically essential manufacturers—not only those directly tied to the armed forces but also those capable of acceding to the permanence and versatility of a large-scale military. In this sense, then, the adaptability of the military documentary—its calculated capacity to infiltrate any number of nontheatrical spaces and with any number of official and tacit justifications— (p.194) mirrored that of the expansionist, increasingly interventionist institution itself. If the military could travel into previously overlooked zones in order to claim hegemony there, so could its many documentaries. Contrary to a dismissive suspicion that has, regrettably, calcified into common sense in the field of film studies, the military’s nonfiction works were widely considered documentaries during World War II, and they certainly merit the label today. While the term “training film” has held sway in military circles since as early as 1940, when the army established its Training Film Production Laboratory in Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, the documentary value of the films falling under this classification should hardly be in question. The point is not to deny the significance of various subcategories (training films/”nuts and bolts” films, “film bulletins,” “morale films,” and so on) but to consider what the military’s own nonfiction films—and especially their diverse uses—have to teach us about documentary history and theory. As Major General Dawson Olmstead, the army’s chief signal officer, announced in September 1942, the military’s filmmaking goal was documentary-specific—to move beyond merely “recording events for news and history” by accommodating something closer to a Griersonian conception of the “creative treatment” of actual and probable experiences.5 This goal applied to the sizable category of “training films” as well as to many other categories of military-film production. Such films—works of nonfiction that offer basic truth claims and involve the creative, often dramatic shaping of factual material—provide a powerful case study of the extent to which “useful cinema” has often rested upon vast ambitions for documentary as an aesthetically complex vehicle not only of training but also of public relations. As Joris Ivens, himself an employee of the US Army Signal Corps, noted in 1942, “We must learn to think of documentary as requiring a wide variety of styles—all for the purpose of maximum expressiveness and conviction.”6 John Grierson himself, in his “First Principles of Documentary,” may have denigrated educational, scientific, industrial, and training films as “lower categories” of filmmaking far removed from the lofty echelons of documentary proper, but there is little reason to believe that his logic was shared in military circles. In fact, an abundance of evidence points to documentary’s carefully engineered adaptability within and in the service of the armed forces.7 In this chapter, then, I presume that “training films” are a subset of the broader category of documentary. I also suggest that the category of “training films” itself can be used broadly to name not just films that prepared soldiers, but also those that prepared civilians and industrial partners alike for an enduring, naturalized, trusting relationship with the military-industrial state.

Publicizing Military-Industrial Training

One of the most salient features of the wartime military film was its shifting, sometimes incompatible itineraries, which reflected the military’s belief that cinema (p.195) could be useful as a source of instruction on both an ad hoc and an enduring basis. For instance, John Ford’s signal corps documentary Sex Hygiene (1941), produced in collaboration with the Office of the Surgeon General and the Research Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, remained in institutional circulation for three decades. Neither disposable instruments nor treasured works of art, wartime military films are prime examples of the functionality and durability of “useful cinema”—the filmic tools through which the military advanced an institutionally convenient conception of documentary at a time of widespread mobilization. As Jonathan Kahana argues, state documentary “addresses its viewers as citizens,” inviting them “to recognize that by interpreting the documentary text, or code, they take part in an ideal form of national community”8 For its part, the military-sponsored nonfiction film—a particular type of state documentary that, for the duration of the war, became the dominant form of government film production in the United States—sought to position its spectators as diverse “war workers,” situating them in terms of the following, often overlapping categories: soldiers, private arms manufacturers, and civilians capable (at the very least) of purchasing war bonds at their local movie theaters. In the 1940s, the military documentary became a means of soliciting broad spectatorial identification with the military itself—an ideological task that was hardly limited to wartime exigencies, and that troubles conventional accounts of state propaganda, which tend to reduce World War II training films to modest, temporary dimensions. Contrary to such accounts, these were, as the military itself maintained, “motion pictures of documentary importance.”9 Some were, to be sure, strictly utilitarian (such as short, step-by-step guides to lubricating machine guns), but even these were routinely reused by a range of filmmakers committed to the realist representation of the armed forces. They were also repurposed by the military itself, including on the army’s public-service television program The Big Picture, nearly a thousand episodes of which were produced between 1951 and 1971. Wartime military documentaries remained useful as more than just B-roll material, as The Big Picture’s regular practice of using footage from signal corps archives attests. The military’s nonfiction films, produced with the intent to train and educate, were also remediated to fulfill a number of seemingly unrelated aims. They entered union halls (such as those of the United Auto Workers) in order to foster a lasting sense of the connectedness of labor and military might. They also made their way into Rotary clubs in order to cultivate an appreciation for military intervention as a humanitarian affair.10

The military’s film program was predicated not only on a sense of the sheer utility of documentary as a fundamentally pedagogic enterprise, but also on the genre’s capacity to “honestly” promote identification with the military and its shifting goals. This included the use of footage shot to document war activities as much as to expressly teach or train. A key player in this context was the War Department’s (p.196) Bureau of Public Relations (BPR), which in 1945 invited “any individual, group or local theater” to request in writing the “privilege” of screening images that allegedly could not be seen elsewhere—that exploded the boundaries of documentary as a civilized enterprise even while preserving many of the instructional and citizen-building ideals that Grierson had championed.11 The BPR, which was founded in February 1941, maintained a direct line to the American popular press via a privately run propaganda organization known as the Writers’ War Board, and it often served as an unofficial mechanism for marketing and distributing military documentaries to the general public. Toward the end of the war, the BPR was, for instance, regularly reminding prominent American publishers of the existence of footage of concentration camps, occasionally exhorting those publishers to run stories and sidebars devoted to the availability of what it termed “atrocity films”—all as part of its “strategy of truth,” a manifesto of sorts (shared by the army’s Information and Education Division and the Office of War Information) that identified the military’s documentary praxis as a particularly honest enterprise.12 In pursuing its goal of communicating “to the general public” the exceptionality of the wartime military documentary, the BPR did more than just wait for requests from civilian quarters. Before it was phased out in September 1945, returning to the broader functions of the War Department general staff, the BPR took an active, prescriptive approach, regularly instructing the signal corps to ship 16mm prints of allegedly “unprecedented” works to the offices of various American newspapers (including the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch), requesting that they eventually be returned “by prepaid express.”13 At the same time, the signal corps was shipping special 35mm prints of military documentaries to various community organizations (such as the National Conference of Christians and Jews) that had rented commercial theaters for morning screenings of those nonfiction films that they took to be unique.14

“Atrocity films” were among the more observational of the military’s wartime documentaries, simply recording in somber long takes the horrors of concentration camps as seen by members of the Ninety-ninth Infantry Division (including Hollywood filmmaker George Stevens). But such films were especially useful not only as reflections of documentary’s visual and evidentiary power, but also as advertisements for the military’s capacity to “liberate” and as indices of the evils against which the institution would ostensibly continue to fight. These films asked spectators to identify with the military as an ultimately humanitarian collection of institutions and with documentary as a humanizing discourse—a way of improving Americans by educating them about concentration camps and exposing them to the experiences of individual victims. On May 28, 1945, just under three weeks after VE-Day, an audience of five hundred saw the army’s German Atrocities Unexpurgated (1945), along with Frank Capra’s Your Job in Germany (1945), at the Museum of Modern Art.15 In St. Louis, an estimated eighty thousand people saw these films (p.197) in a number of theatrical and nontheatrical settings, in a series of screenings arranged by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.16 An additional 177 American towns and cities hosted screenings of German Atrocities Unexpurgated through the organizational efforts of the BPR, the Writers’ War Board, and local newspapers, and by the summer of 1945, the National Conference of Christians and Jews was arranging for screenings of the film throughout New York City—including at the historic Normandie Theatre on Park Avenue and 53rd Street, and at the more modest Circle Theater in the Bronx.17 The wide circulation of German Atrocities Unexpurgated was not without controversy, however, indicating that military documentaries were hardly the seamless agents of unification that the armed forces hoped they would be, however successfully they managed to tap into a national imaginary that valorized industry, martial strength, and global exploration. The Milwaukee Deutsche Zeitung, one of seven German-language newspapers in the United States in 1945, protested the BPR’s suggestion that it arrange for public screenings of German Atrocities Unexpurgated. In an open letter, the newspaper’s editor, who had previously doubted the authenticity of still and moving images of the horrors at Buchenwald, claimed that the suggestion to screen German Atrocities Unexpurgated may have been “motivated by vengefulness, or intended to stir up animosity and hatred against Germans as a race.” Rather than refusing to screen the film, however, the editor of the Milwaukee Deutsche Zeitung simply requested that it be supplemented by a film about “the frightfully destroyed German cities and the millions of innocent women and children buried under the ruins of these once proud and flourishing cities.” The military, with its vast archive of wartime documentaries, readily furnished this in the form of The Battle of Peace (1945), a signal corps film about the US military government in Germany that features observational footage of German ruins and outlines efforts to “rebuild and rehabilitate” them.18 It was not a particular documentary per se that upset the newspaper’s editor, then, but the genre’s inflection as a tool of the military’s public-relations apparatus—one that, in offering visible evidence of Germany’s crimes against humanity, could only obscure the military’s own role in spreading misery and destruction. The editor and staff took umbrage at the wide circulation and capacity to “mislead” of the “horrific” German Atrocities Unexpurgated. Nevertheless, the Milwaukee Deutsche Zeitung dutifully organized public screenings of the film, demonstrating that a contested military documentary could enjoy as broad and diversely functional a distribution pattern as its more agreeable counterparts.

Licensing the Military-Industrial Documentary

The military had an ideological as well as material stake in circulating its films beyond its own institutional parameters. Investing in the production and active and wide circulation of nontheatrical nonfiction films helped to ensure the (p.198) prosperity of the American armed forces, whether by appealing to students in the classroom, workers in the factory, congregants in the church, or patrons of the museum.19 Even those wartime films that were initially withheld from public circulation—“classified”—received broader distribution later in the war or during the immediate postwar period. For instance, Combat Exhaustion (1945) was first categorized as “restricted,” its exhibition limited to army officers, medical personnel, and their patients. Yet archival evidence indicates that, like John Huston’s Let There Be Light (1946) and many others, the film was eventually screened in civilian psychiatric hospitals, and also made available as a source of stock footage for documentary films and television programs. It was also held by select libraries.20

Military classifications were not the only challenges to the wide circulation of World War II training films, however, since the formal hybridity of these films was often the result of complicated and prohibitive licensing arrangements. Produced in the wake of VE-Day, the signal corps documentary G-5 in Action (1945), which addresses “the job of military government” and outlines efforts to “de-Nazify” and “demilitarize” Europe while caring for displaced persons, was initially intended for exhibition only in military settings, pursuant to an agreement with Paramount Pictures and several other studios whose original musical scores are featured in the film. In fact, G-5 in Action makes use of no fewer than fifteen Hollywood scores (from such films as Jacques Tourneur’s Cat People [1942] and Jean Renoir’s This Land Is Mine [1943]), but it also, in a further indication of the longevity and adaptability of wartime military documentaries, features excerpts from the unpublished scores of three other army films: Tunisian Victory (1944), The Negro Soldier (1944), and Diary of a Sergeant (1945).21 When, over two years after the film’s completion, the War Department announced its plans to dramatically expand the circulation of G-5 in Action, signal corps executives were obliged to contact those who held the rights to both the sounds and the images that the film “incorporates.” A 1947 letter to Paramount summarizes the initial agreement between the studio and the signal corps (“Clearance was granted … for military personnel showings only”) before stressing that “public exhibition of this film is now desired.” The letter concludes with the War Department’s request that Paramount “extend the necessary clearance” in order to enable the wide distribution of G-5 in Action, including to schools, factories, and any number of other nontheatrical settings.22 Three days earlier, the signal corps had sent a similar letter to Look-Ampix Productions—a collaboration between Look magazine and American Pictures, Inc., that had produced and distributed numerous nonfiction short films since 1940—in order to request “full commercial exhibition rights … to the public on a worldwide basis” for G-5 in Action, which features footage of a boys’ marching band taken from the Look-Ampix production Crisis.23 What had made wartime military films so strategically relevant—so adaptable to a range of exhibition contexts within the armed forces—was the inclusion of varied audiovisual elements and styles of argumentation (p.199) adopted from a range of military and extramilitary sources. Yet this amalgamating approach also presented obstacles to a given film’s broader distribution.

The military was, nevertheless, committed to surmounting these obstacles to its entangled methods of production and distribution through the signal corps and other subdivisions devoted to nonfiction film. This commitment entailed aggressive and ongoing negotiation with rights holders in order to ensure the expansive and continued circulation of the military’s hybridized documentaries, largely on the assumption that formal hybridity would continue to pay diverse dividends, appealing to a vast array of spectators in a variety of theatrical and nontheatrical venues. If a rights holder withheld clearance, military technicians could simply recut the film in question, or replace its entire soundtrack. For example, when five of the eight film studios from which the signal corps had borrowed music for its 1945 documentary The Army Nurse withheld clearance, the film was recut, enabling it to be broadcast on network television in 1953.24 In the case of the postwar life of G-5 in Action, the military hoped to continue using the film to promote its role as a global watchdog—to screen it both theatrically and nontheatrically, both commercially and on a nonprofit basis, everywhere from major American movie houses to overseas classrooms and makeshift screening spaces. This, they believed, would better ensure broad recognition of American military might and democratic efficacy during the Cold War. Thus by the early 1950s the adaptability of the military documentary was marshaled for a host of new purposes as the military sought an expanded global legitimacy that occasionally hinged on the revival of World War II training films—precisely those works that had established a language of visual education aimed at promoting military might.

The durability of wartime military films meant that they survived through long distribution cycles and diverse repurposing strategies and, in the process, transformed “from wartime propaganda to superpower propaganda.”25 Rather than disappearing into the ether, these films persisted, both militarily and well beyond the borders of the armed forces. The survival of military documentaries was not accidental—a consequence of the piecemeal circulation of “stock footage”—but was, rather, the product of the military’s careful attention to various sites of spectatorship. Occasionally, the military was forced to negotiate with local censors, including those threatening to prevent The Negro Soldier (1944) from reaching the United Auto Workers. The union had hoped—on the army’s own recommendation—to use the film to prepare for racial integration in the workplace and to improve the social experience of the assembly line. Yet its aims were complicated by local censorship boards hoping to suppress so “racially charged” a film. The military prevailed, however, and The Negro Soldier was eventually screened for union members, PTA members, prisoners, MoMA visitors, and audiences assembled by the American Council on Race Relations.26 The case of The Negro Soldier thus attests to the tenacity with which the military often pursued screening opportunities for its (p.200) wartime documentaries even long after the end of hostilities. This commitment to longevity and wide relevance can be seen in the military’s repeated efforts to alter the most arcane of documentaries in order to “invite” potential spectators, and to lay the discursive groundwork for the films’ inclusion in any number of possible exhibition sites.27

The sheer hybridity of the typical wartime military film was the essence of a multipronged effort to mobilize spectators in support of the emergent military-industrial state. The success of this documentary-specific mobilization effort can be seen in the response of the privately owned Empire Plow Company to John Huston’s Report from the Aleutians (1943), a signal corps production that standard histories of documentary cinema tend to position as a minor, institutionally superfluous work.28 Focusing on US military strategy in the Aleutian Islands campaign, Huston’s film was screened for both soldiers and civilians, and it so impressed executives at the Empire Plow Company that one of them, C. C. Keller, wrote to the War Activities Committee to request a print. According to Keller, since the company’s patented Airplane Landing Mat (Pierced Plank Type) “is shown quite extensively” in Report from the Aleutians, Huston’s film could serve as a “morale builder” for the men engaged in its manufacture. Recognizing the hybrid and readily adaptable style of many American military documentaries of the era, Keller outlined his company’s plans to further “transform” Report from the Aleutians, which involved intercutting the film with original footage of the company’s production line, the better to take employees “thru fabrication [of steel landing mats] on thru use [of these mats] by our Armed Forces.”29 Mimicking the military’s own rhetoric for describing its wartime training-film program—rhetoric that the BPR routinely disseminated to the general public via press releases, and that often appeared on-screen in wordy opening crawls—Keller demonstrated that the utility of the military documentary extended well beyond basic training and into the realm of private industry. He eventually oversaw the transformation of Huston’s film into an “in-house” advertisement for the Empire Plow Company, and his labors were made possible by the military’s amenability to the remixing of its documentaries, even when this remixing was orchestrated independently of the armed forces.30 Where “atrocity films” invited diverse spectators to identify with the military’s allegedly humanitarian aims, other documentaries (in both their original and “transformed” versions) exhorted factory workers to identify the military as the recipient of their manufactured goods—the direct, globally forceful beneficiary of their labors.


As formulated within the armed forces during World War II, cinema’s military-industrial complex was attuned as much to the precise aims of the institution as to (p.201) the discursive contours of the broader social imaginary in whose name it fought. Wartime military films not only offer insight into the general institutional utility of documentary in the 1940s; they also reveal that the military’s expansive, accommodating conception of documentary legitimacy often embraced self-reflexive gestures, obviously staged sequences, and folksy asides designed to defuse concerns about the totalitarian potential of state-sponsored cinema. Such concerns—widely expressed in the popular press and in major Hollywood films—were the emotive effects of a broad cultural awareness of Axis-produced documentaries in general and of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935) in particular. In express opposition to the uniformly lionizing techniques that Riefenstahl employed in the service of National Socialism, a number of military filmmakers sutured facetiousness to otherwise serious institutional imperatives, injecting allegedly healthy doses of audacity—as in the ribald, scatological Private SNAFU series (1943–45)—into efforts to mold the minds of soldiers. In some cases, military documentaries even went so far as to poke fun at officers, and it was precisely the intermedial economy in which military films were produced that convinced officials of the permissibility of such iconoclasm. Like so-called comic-strip manuals—cartoonish step-by-step guides to executing complex military maneuvers—training films were permitted a certain flexibility precisely because their educational counterparts (such as live lectures and technical journals) were more “serious.”

Consider, for instance, a 1943 training manual entitled Your Body in Flight, which furnishes a defense of its own comic-strip form. “Pictures are easier to remember than words!” proclaims an introductory note to the reader, which proceeds to trumpet not just the general documentary qualities but also the specific military legitimacy of cartoons—an argument that clearly reflects the institutional popularity of the defensive rhetoric surrounding Private SNAFU, with its irreverent pedagogy, but also the contentious, far-from-Griersonian notion that “silliness” could adequately instruct: “This book is done for fast remembering. Military training has accepted the ‘thought-picture’ method: it is just as scientific to present these facts in cartoon as it is to do them by diagram and chart.” Rendering resistance in the figure of an aged professor who foolishly wags his finger (“Tsk! Tsk! It’s all very unscientific!”), the manual provides a rebuttal in the form of a humanized, happy airplane that speaks on behalf of its pilot: “This flyer understands what he’s reading!” it cheerfully announces.31 Such gestures were doubly educative, and they extended to the military’s self-reflexive documentary films: on one level, these films attempted to convey immediately useful information; on another, they sought to engage in—and end—contemporaneous debates about whether documentary, as a pedagogic category extending from typed bulletins to audiovisual media, could possibly sustain a “cartoonish,” unashamedly attention-grabbing approach. So pronounced was the military’s commitment to animation as a documentary device that it regularly outsourced the production of official (p.202) documentary films to various animation studios. Even so serious a subject as mental illness received the Disney treatment: the army’s animated Ward Care of Psychotic Patients (1944) was made by Walt Disney Productions under the supervision of military psychiatrists Lauren H. Smith and Olin B. Chamberlain.

In a 1939 essay, Richard Griffith endeavored to mitigate the ambiguity in which the term “documentary” had been mired since Grierson’s influential 1929 definition of the genre as representing “the creative treatment of actuality,” and he concluded that the cartoon form was much too “creative” for a documentary film, however factually accurate, to lay claim to it.32 For Griffith, accessibility—the pandering implicit in the use of eye-catching animation—was the currency of advertising, not of documentary. If the military adopted a different approach, it was by promoting a certain slippage between the two categories, such that its documentary films could always be readable as advertisements for the institution itself, even long after an Allied victory. In its production of flexible, hybridized documentaries, the military was thus dismissive of the kinds of taxonomic hierarchies and bourgeois taste claims at the center of much of the era’s documentary criticism, embracing an eclecticism that was deemed necessary if a film was to transcend its immediate purpose and satisfy a diversity of spectators, securing their trust in the ever-expanding armed forces. In perceiving the lasting value of institutional advocacy as a component of practical instruction, the military presciently embraced artistic license—a hybridic creativity that would serve it well in the immediate postwar period, as its films were transformed from timely instruments of training into the resourceful, broadly inspirational achievements of the recent past.

If many military documentaries (with the conspicuous exception of “atrocity films,” which tended to be strictly and somberly observational) were granted a certain freedom from “stuffiness,” that did not prevent them from attracting the attention of those capable of countering their occasional irreverence. In fact, the military rarely afforded training films the exclusive authority to instruct personnel, instead relying on various “in-house” experts to explain or at least echo their most salient points (due in part to the sheer, sometimes ambiguous hybridity that is the subject of this essay). As Nathaniel Brennan argues in his chapter in this volume, social scientists and cinema scholars were instrumental in convincing the military of the importance of live, embodied, “expert” testimony as a supplement to film spectatorship. The formal experimentation and discursive flexibility deemed essential to the training film’s successful transition into a variety of civilian venues were precisely those factors that seemed to demand an expert presence in the military’s own sites of exhibition. Military officers and other instructors routinely provided the “moral disposition” that Ronald Walter Greene sees in the “pastoral mode” of nontheatrical film exhibition in the 1920s and 1930s, extending (p.203) into military settings the function of the “talking secretaries, teachers, and preachers who often lectured alongside, before, and after” screenings.33 If, in other words, an individual training film dared undermine—or at least lightly spoof—military hierarchy, an officer would always be available (often for a postscreening question-and-answer session) to reestablish order, consolidating whatever institutional standards a cheeky documentary had, if only momentarily and fantasmatically, undone. Equally available were written documents that converged with various live performances (including simulations and step-by-step reenactments of proper combat techniques) in order to emphasize that intermediality—what Mary Simonson describes as “the articulation of a concept across media types”34—would inform soldiers’ experiences of documentary cinema.

Wartime military films were far from uniform in their didacticism, and the strategic infusions of humor that characterize many of them were born of the military’s interest in presenting its documentary enterprise as democratic and thus far removed from the purview of Axis propaganda. Formal experimentation was implicitly homologous with democratic expansiveness, the plasticity of the military documentary a symbol of the institution’s departure not merely from the rigidity of typical documentary criticism but also from the fascism of Axis filmmaking. Considerably more complicated, though no less strategic, was the military’s relationship to reenactment, which the institution not only recognized but also celebrated as a legitimate method in nonfiction filmmaking, the very essence of documentary artistry and authenticity. Pushing past the borders of documentary as understood by the likes of Grierson and Richard Griffith, and as practiced by the likes of Leni Riefenstahl and Fritz Hippler in the service of National Socialism, the military embraced methods more conventionally associated with fiction films, employing dramatization and reenactment to suit its own institutional imperatives. As a tool of the military-industrial state, one that extended well beyond the screen, this ethos of reenactment provided a road map for military filmmakers tasked with reproducing institutional claims.

Individual military documentaries—particularly those about the stubborn subject of combat trauma—were obsessively remade or “reimagined” throughout World War II and well into the postwar period. From 1944’s Psychiatric Procedures in the Combat Area (an adaptation of several military documentaries about psychiatry) to 1947’s Shades of Gray (a remake of Huston’s Let There Be Light, among other works), these films moved almost immediately beyond institutional contexts in order to “reassure” potential employers about the viability of all veterans, even “nervously wounded” ones. By 1945, they were in heavy rotation in various manufacturing plants and were often heralded as ways to demonstrate to both employers and employees “the veteran’s physical and mental coordination and his general intelligence.”35 Furthermore, manufacturers responsible for the continued supply (p.204)

From Wartime Instruction to Superpower CinemaMaintaining the Military-Industrial Documentary

Figure 11.1. An intertitle from the navy documentary Return to Guam (1944), which stresses the military’s dependence on private industry for necessary materials. Such means were widely used in postwar efforts to normalize this dependency as the essence of the military-industrial state.

of armaments to the military were given frequent reminders of military needs, often in the form of films (such as those in the military’s Industrial Incentive series) that simply restated the claims of their predecessors. The trade journal Industrial Relations, which began publication in 1942 and targeted “war work” (a category encompassing a range of manufacturing activities), ran advertisements for military documentaries that were readily available for use in factories and plants. A 1944 issue touted the navy film Return to Guam (1944), which stresses the military’s increasing “need for equipment”—its commitment to gaining “enough of every kind of apparatus and supply and shipping.”

The same issue features a section entitled “How to Use Films,” which notes that all military documentaries “are sound films and cannot be run on silent projectors.” Emphasizing the importance of screening these documentaries in various production sites, the better to cultivate worker appreciation for the military’s vast needs, the journal warned manufacturers that there could be no conceivable excuse for avoiding the use of military films: “If you do not have a projector, a local film distributor can rent you excellent equipment.”36 Reminding readers that such major manufacturers as the Curtiss-Wright Corporation and the Caterpillar Tractor Company regularly exhibited the military’s Industrial Incentive films, Industrial Relations presented the nontheatrical exhibition of military documentaries as a key component of management, a way of disciplining workers into respecting the scope of the new military-industrial state.

(p.205) Conclusions

The military’s wartime output of films both crystalized and catalyzed debates about documentary as, at once, a particular category of cinema, an adaptable teaching tool capable of accommodating other pedagogic forms, and an artistic pursuit. More specifically, wartime military films were, if not the most popular or the most profitable, then certainly the most functional and adaptable cinematic instruments of an emergent military-industrial state. As such, they bridged the gap between the social advocacy of state documentary characteristic of New Deal liberalism and the blatant institutional advocacy typical of mid-twentieth-century examples of industrial and sponsored film. In wartime military documentaries, appeals to “social progress” routinely coexist with references to industry; films that praise the wartime work of enlisted men and women simultaneously celebrate the assembly line (as in 1945’s Strictly Personal). Such canny strategies set the stage for decades of military-sponsored theatrical and nontheatrical films that use formal experimentation and generic indeterminacy as vehicles for conveying institutional authority.

This earlier tendency has contemporary exemplars. Consider, for instance, Mike McCoy and Scott Waugh’s Act of Valor (2012), which lies somewhere between documentary reenactment and Hollywood fiction, combining a variety of audiovisual sources and assimilating self-conscious claims to wide relevance in ways that recall the diverse strategies of wartime military films. Promoted as “a motion picture starring active-duty Navy SEALS,” Act of Valor began as an instructional video that McCoy and Waugh produced for the navy’s special warfare combatant-craft crewmen, and it embeds a commitment to recruitment, military-industrial expansion, and technological mastery in a hybrid form that it identifies as unprecedented. Like Peter Berg’s Lone Survivor (2013), the making of which provided many military advisers with promotional materials for the institution’s use—multiple ways of visualizing the operation of its equipment for active-duty soldiers and potential recruits—Act of Valor revived the military’s earlier conception of documentary as a form of institutional advocacy with any number of sources and inexhaustible potential. Indeed, the relatively poor box-office performance of Act of Valor is immaterial in light of the military’s multipronged and indefinite use of the film, as both a feature-length recruitment vehicle and an eminently divisible source of footage of navy equipment in need of continued manufacture. Unfolding from the visual perspectives of “real SEALS,” Act of Valor further evokes the documentary devices of other media, especially the video-game franchise Call of Duty, with its “first-person shooter” aesthetic, which closely resembles simulations used in actual military exercises. The ideological success of wartime military films—the product of particular cultural and historical contingencies—may appear to have been short-lived in terms of the longue durée of American documentary. But if, by (p.206) the early 1970s, antiwar documentaries had eclipsed military propaganda in terms of circulation and cultural impact, more-recent interventions in the form of massively successful video games suggest the rhetorical staying power of World War II films, particularly given their insistence on the intimate links between the military and private enterprise. Consider, for instance, the establishment in 2009 of the Call of Duty Endowment, a nonprofit foundation created by the company behind the titular video-game franchise, which is intended to help military veterans find employment, and which frequently relies on new forms of documentary instruction (such as YouTube videos and Facebook testimonials) in order to guide former soldiers and prepare potential employers.

There is a telling moment in Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Basic Training (1971) that highlights the lasting pedagogic and public-relations utility of wartime military films—shorts and features wrongly believed to have fallen out of institutional use after the Allied victory. Introducing back-to-back film screenings to an auditorium full of men newly inducted into the army, a sergeant notes that this double bill combines new and old, bringing together, for instructional as well as inspirational purposes, a documentary about US policy in Southeast Asia (possibly the Defense Department’s Why Vietnam? [1965]) and “an old one”—a World War II film that, based on the sergeant’s description, is most likely the signal corps’s Hell for Leather (1943), which explores army victories “through the ages,” stressing the division’s “undefeated” status. A historical docudrama, the ten-minute Hell for Leather was widely distributed for decades after its completion in 1943, often as part of the army’s Pride of Outfit series, which, from World War II until as late as the 1990s, circulated among new and potential recruits in a variety of nontheatrical settings, including community centers and high school and college classrooms.37

As Wiseman’s documentary suggests, the lasting utility of wartime military films was tied as much to their formal diversity as to their ideological adaptability. Made to facilitate Allied victory, they could later serve as advertisements for everything from limited conscription to global peacekeeping to private manufacturing. Whether produced at the Signal Corps Photographic Center or at the Training Films and Motion Picture Branch of the Bureau of Aeronautics, each wartime military documentary was, in its own way, an agent of the military-industrial state—an advertisement for a permanent large-scale military and a justification for increasing defense expenditures. Broad, nontheatrical distribution also contributed to rhetoric that positioned the military documentary as the opposite of the “mere” newsreel, which would soon obsolesce amid the disintegration of the Hollywood studio system and the rise of television broadcasting. The wartime military film was, however, not so much the anti-newsreel as the supra-newsreel—a form capable of rising above extant categories by assimilating all of them, a cannibalistic strategy of self-justification that lent the genre a broad and lasting utility.

(p.207) Acknowledgments

Support for this project was provided by a PSC-CUNY Award, jointly funded by the Professional Staff Congress and the City University of New York.


(1.) Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson, “Introduction: Utility and Cinema,” in Useful Cinema, ed. Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 4.

(2.) A key example of these public-education initiatives was that sponsored by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which arranged public screenings of two military documentaries—German Atrocities Unexpurgated (1945) and Frank Capra’s Your Job in Germany (1945)—that cultivated a total audience of over eighty thousand civilians in the summer of 1945. See the Writers’ War Board Monthly Report for July 1945 (no. 27, p. 1), in record group 111, Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, 1860–1985, 111-M-1241 (hereafter cited as RG 111), box 10, folder labeled “Concentration Camp Atrocities,” National Archives and Records Administration, College Park, MD (hereafter cited as NARA). An example of military documentaries being excerpted for use in private industry can be seen in the case of the Empire Plow Company, which endeavored to make extensive, “inspiring” use of John Huston’s army film Report from the Aleutians (1943). See C. C. Keller to War Activities Committee, October 18, 1943, RG 111, box 3, NARA. Initially reserved for coast guard use, the navy’s The Inside Story of Seaman Jones (1945), which dramatizes a young man’s psychosomatic symptoms and their psychiatric treatment, was acquired in 1948 by the Nassau County School District for mandatory use in health-education classes throughout the county. “Yule Seal Sales Net $28,000 First Week,” Freeport (NY) Leader, December 2, 1948, 7.

(3.) Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logistics of Perception, trans. Patrick Camiller (London: Verso, 1989), 13.

(4.) Zoë Druick, “UNESCO, Film, and Education: Mediating Postwar Paradigms of Communication,” in Useful Cinema, ed. Charles R. Acland and Heidi Wasson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 95.

(5.) Quoted in Richard Koszarski, “Subway Commandos: Hollywood Filmmakers at the Signal Corps Photographic Center,” Film History 14, nos. 3/4 (2002): 302.

(6.) Joris Ivens, “Making Documentary Films to Meet Today’s Needs,” American Cinematographer 23, no. 7 (July 1942): 299.

(7.) John Grierson, “First Principles of Documentary,” in The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism, ed. Jonathan Kahana (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 217–18.

(8.) Jonathan Kahana, Intelligence Work: The Politics of American Documentary (New York: Columbia University Press, 2008), 114.

(9.) This was the military’s official position on its own films, and it was routinely communicated to the public via the Bureau of Public Relations. See Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II, rev. ed. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999 [1993]), 58.

(10.) For more on the United Auto Workers and the organization’s use of the army documentary The Negro Soldier, see Thomas Cripps, Making Movies Black: The Hollywood Message Movie from World War II to the Civil Rights Era (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 113, 158. For more on the use of military documentaries in and by Dallas Rotary clubs, see the published edition of Susan D. Bachrach’s U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum exhibition Liberation, 1945 (Washington, DC: United States Holocaust Memorial Council, 1995), 67.

(12.) For more on the Bureau of Public Relations, see RG 107, NARA.

(p.208) (13.) See Colonel Emanuel Cohen to Joseph Pulitzer, May 25, 1945, in RG 111, box 10, folder labeled “Concentration Camp Atrocities,” NARA.

(14.) Willard Johnson to Major Robert Benjamin, July 2, 1945, in RG 111, box 10, folder labeled “Concentration Camp Atrocities,” NARA.

(15.) Writers’ War Board Monthly Report for July 1945 (no. 27, p. 1), in RG 111, box 10, folder labeled “Concentration Camp Atrocities,” NARA.

(16.) Writers’ War Board Monthly Report for July 1945 (no. 27, p. 1), in RG 111, box 10, folder labeled “Concentration Camp Atrocities,” NARA.

(17.) Johnson to Benjamin, July 2, 1945.

(18.) “Paper Asks ‘Proof’ of German War Loss,” Deseret News (Salt Lake City, UT), June 19, 1945, 3. See also RG 111, box 10, folder labeled “Concentration Camp Atrocities,” NARA.

(19.) Often at the behest of the BPR and the Writers’ War Board, local newspapers, trade unions, and various civic organizations regularly organized screenings of military documentaries in all of these venues—and many more—well into the postwar period.

(20.) In the parlance of the military’s film program, “restricted” was one step beyond “classified” in terms of the constraints that it placed upon a film’s distribution and exhibition. For more on these constraints and how they applied to Field Psychiatry for the General Medical Officer, see Field Manual 21–7 and L. M. Barker to Commanding Officer, Signal Corps Photographic Center, “MB-5266, Field Psychiatry for the General Medical Officer,” April 10, 1945, RG 111, box 10, folder labeled “Field Psychiatry for the General Medical Officer,” NARA. See also Jonathan Kahana and Noah Tsika, “Let There Be Light and the Military Talking Picture,” in Remaking Reality: US Documentary Culture after 1945, ed. Sara Blair, Joseph Entin, and Franny Nudelman (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, forthcoming).

(21.) See the routing and work sheets and “Source of Material Report” in the G-5 in Action file in RG 111, box 10, NARA.

(22.) Major John S. Bardwell to Paramount Pictures, Inc., September 8, 1947, RG 111, box 10, NARA.

(23.) Major John S. Bardwell to Look-Ampix, September 5, 1947, RG 111, box 10, NARA.

(24.) For more on the copyright issues plaguing The Army Nurse in the immediate postwar period, see the clipping file on the film in RG 111, box 10, NARA.

(25.) This is Kirsten Ostherr’s evocative phrase for describing the expansion of state-sponsored nonfiction film culture in the immediate postwar period. See Kirsten Ostherr, “Health Films, Cold War, and the Production of Patriotic Audiences: The Body Fights Bacteria (1948),” in Useful Cinema, ed. Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 118.

(27.) A signal corps routing and work sheet from late 1944 objects to the “rather stuffy” title of a training film then in preproduction (“Manufacture and Reworking of 60mm and 80mm Mortars”), arguing that even esoteric subjects deserve a palatable presentation, the better to ensure the “appeal” of a documentary beyond military contexts and to facilitate its transition into these new, previously unimagined arenas. If a “dull” title was a turn-off, preventing a film from being embraced or even requested by organizations not required to screen it, then so was rhetoric that suggested a similarity between military documentaries and other forms of nonfiction film such as newsreels. See “Routing & Work Sheet 10931: Project 13,205,” RG 111, box 10, folder labeled “Combat Team,” NARA.

(28.) Erik Barnouw, for instance, refers to the film as “routine,” particularly in relation to Huston’s later documentaries San Pietro (1945) and Let There Be Light (1946)—a claim that Gary Edgerton echoes in an essay on Huston’s wartime work for the government. Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), 162; Gary Edgerton, “Revisiting the Recordings of Wars Past: Remembering the Documentary Trilogy of John Huston,” in Reflections in a Male Eye: John Huston and the American Experience, ed. Gaylyn Studlar and David Desser (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1999), 33–61.

(p.209) (29.) C. C. Keller to War Activities Committee, October 18, 1943, RG 111, box 3, NARA.

(30.) Two months before Keller wrote to the War Activities Committee to request a print of Report from the Aleutians, another private citizen, Albert Gansberg, contacted the signal corps to request excerpts from the film—only those scenes featuring his son, First Lieutenant S. Gansberg. After consulting with the Bureau of Public Relations, which had no objection, the signal corps sent 16mm excerpts (specially processed at Eastman Kodak) to Gansberg for his own use, thus further confirming the flexibility with which the military approached the use-value of its wartime documentaries. See Colonel Curtis Mitchell to Colonel Barrett, August 11, 1943, RG 111, box 3, NARA.

(31.) US Army Air Forces, “Your Body in Flight: An Illustrated ‘Book of Knowledge’ for the Flyer,” 20 July 1943, box 13, folder 5, John M. Murray Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

(32.) Richard Griffith, “Films at the Fair,” in The Documentary Film Reader: History, Theory, Criticism, ed. Jonathan Kahana (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016), 312–21.

(33.) Ronald Walter Greene, “Pastoral Exhibition: The YMCA Motion Picture Bureau and the Transition to 16mm, 1928–1939,” in Useful Cinema, ed. Charles R. Acland and Haidee Wasson (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2011), 224.

(34.) Mary Simonson, Body Knowledge: Performance, Intermediality, and American Entertainment at the Turn of the Twentieth Century (Oxford: Oxford University Press), 18.

(35.) Advertisement, Industrial Relations: A Magazine for Employers 3, no. 6 (October 1945): 28.

(36.) “How to Use Films,” Industrial Relations: A Magazine for Employers 2, no. 7 (November 1944): 23.

(37.) See, for instance, Seerley Reid, Anita Carpenter, and Annie Rose Daugherty, U.S. Government Films for Public Educational Use (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1955), 358.