Hollywood’s Classic Propaganda

As I’ve no doubt written before, I occasionally get the idea in my head that I need to read a certain novel, play a certain video game or see a certain film because of it is considered a “classic”. As one example for each you might include Moby-DickSuper Mario Bros. and Citizen Kane. These three titles are recognisable to the average person even though they may not be familiar beyond the title and vague references they’ve absorbed. Usually, I find the status is well-earned and I use the above three examples because I would agree they are all classics in their respective mediums though I admit I wasn’t as fond of Herman Melville’s classic as many are. I do still acknowledge its quality as I do with Citizen Kane though it isn’t my kind of film.

So it is with the two films pictured above which I watched late last year. I had borrowed The Sound of Music from the library once before but balked at the almost three hour run-time and returned it unwatched. Casablanca, I’d just never really paid much attention to but it did have a much more agreeable length. The New Zealand director Taika Waititi’s out-of-context comment on nobody remembering the director of Casablanca (Michael Curtiz) put me in mind to watch it and the surprise of a former colleague that I had not seen The Sound of Music prompted the other. It was also towards the end of the year where my work had mostly wrapped up and I had time to gamble.

In any case, what has compelled me to write about them is not the films themselves so much as the similarities they share as World War II propaganda.

Now admittedly The Sound of Music was released theatrically over twenty years after the war and the stage musical it was based on was from 1959. So it is not strictly propaganda from the war but it does still reinforce the narrative of the war that is now firmly entrenched in popular consciousness. What struck me about Casablanca which was released in 1942 a year after the United States entry into the war was how obvious it was as a piece of propaganda. This is not a secret I have discovered but I was not at all aware of it from anything I had read or heard about the film before.

Even though they are in different genres and separated by over twenty years, they have other similarities:

  • “The Nazis” are the antagonists in both.
  • They both have a scene where characters defiantly sing patriotic songs.
  • They both include a love triangle.

In Casablanca, Humphrey Bogart’s character Rick Blaine is an American ex-patriot living in Casablanca who had fought on the Republican side in the Spanish Civil War. It is not mentioned that this was the Communist side and what this would also imply about the character. He meets his old flame Ilsa Lund played by Ingrid Bergman who left him in Paris which would explain why he seems to live on a diet of cigarettes and whiskey though this may have been normal for all I know. Ilsa’s husband who is part of the Czechoslovak Resistance was believed to be dead but after discovering he was alive, she (quite understandably) abandoned Rick to be with him. This is where the love-triangle comes in as they need papers to get out of Casablanca and on to the United States via Lisbon. These papers Rick had obtained through an earlier contrivance. Ultimately, he does the “right thing” and sends her away with her husband to Freedom Land.

What jumped at me apart from the propaganda was just that the film has been parodied to the point where many of the famous lines sounded immediately corny. Though even then, I can’t say I would necessarily have thought any different if I wasn’t aware of them. It also contains one of those famous lines that was never actually said, “Play it again, Sam”. As a film, I would say I can somewhat understand why it is considered a classic but it isn’t otherwise to my taste. At the very least, it is a sophisticated piece of propaganda.

The Sound of Music is based on the real Von Trapp Family but in typical Hollywood fashion, there is significant license taken. This is about a young Austrian woman named Maria played by Julie Andrews who is a troublesome postulant in a monastery that is sent to be a governess for the Von Trapp family. The head of the family Captain Von Trapp played by Christopher Plummer, is a distinguished naval officer and veteran of the Great War. Maria is shown to be a free spirit and Captain Von Trapp to be a ill-tempered disciplinarian. Through teaching music, his children warm to Maria and she also manages to capture the heart of the father. The love triangle comes from Baroness Elsa von Schraeder who is hoping to win the hand of the captain though seeing he is becoming drawn to Maria. This is ultimately a minor drama as Von Trapp breaks off the engagement to the baroness and she takes it unbelievably well. The big drama is the happy family with their new stepmother having to escape the Nazis who have just brought Austria into the Reich. Although it is a musical, this seems to be mostly forgotten in the second half of the film which mostly repeats numbers from the first half. By the end, I thought the film could have included all people remember most fondly about it and still ended neatly with a marriage before the two hour mark. The Nazi drama was largely ahistorical and unnecessary. 

Despite being overly long, I would say I liked The Sound of Music more than Casablanca simply because it is a more pleasant film. I found none of the characters in Casablanca relatable or in any way appealing outside of Bergman’s undoubted beauty. While The Sound of Music has much hammier performances, I liked the characters much better too. Both films have one appeal that comes through the accident of age as the characters are all immaculately dressed. Even the supposedly drab dress Maria first introduces herself to the Von Trapp’s in is more presentable than most clothing you see people wearing today.

To get back to the subject of World War II, I have written a number of posts on revisionist histories of this event and most recently in September of last year. There are first some quibbles with The Sound of Music. Maria was married to Captain Georg von Trapp in 1927 well before World War II and the latter was not a disciplinarian nor was he distant from his children. There was also didn’t have to to escape Austria in anywhere near as dramatic a manner as portrayed in the film. Casablanca is fiction in all but the World War II as a backdrop so one can’t complain too much about its historicity.

What they don’t show is also more interesting than what they do. Hitler’s Germany is not usually shown to have any respect for laws or borders when in their way. In Casablanca, the Nazis are somehow still restrained enough to not kidnap or assassinate an enemy despite being a few tables over in a club. His eventual escape is a bit more dramatic but not much when one considers how monstrous they were supposed to be. There is interestingly no mention of oppression of Jews which is obligatory in most films I’ve seen based on World War II. The film mostly just aims to rationalise American involvement in the European theatre of war almost a year after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The Sound of Music also has no mention of Jewish oppression which is all the more interesting since it came twenty years later and the filmmakers could easily of contrived to include. 

I haven’t read deeply into either film’s writing and it would be fair criticism to point this out. However, I am writing this mostly because these aspects jumped out more in viewing them than anything else. When you consider how much of a focus the Holocaust in particular has become, it is interesting to see it absent in one contemporary film and another that came just over twenty years after the end of the war.

Purely as films, I would say these are worth watching but as must be clear, neither really appeal to my tastes. What was more interesting is that one is a classic despite being consciously created as propaganda and another changed the story it is based on to fit the historical narrative following the war.

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