I've just started writing for an exciting new web-journal, Bits of News. They publish some very interesting stories - many of them written by my friend Henry Midgley. The site is being re-designed at the moment, and screenshots of the new layout look very promising. In short, be sure to check it out. Ah, and here's the story I just put up on their site. (Click here to see it in the original.)
Hollywood could prouduce great propaganda for today's world – if it rewatched its old classics, such as Casablanca. The world needs it, desperately.
Casablanca is one of the greatest propaganda films ever written, subtly spreading its message through romance and humour as well as heroism. It is also a deeply American film – not just as it is a Hollywood production, but because of the values it communicates.
Politically, one of the most climactic moment of the film revolves around the rousing rendition of an anthem – but it is the Marsaillaise, not the Star-Spangled Banner, which humiliates the tone-deaf and ugly Nazi officers who beleaguer Rick's Cafe.
Crucially, the humble choice of another country's anthem is not owed primarily to the film's setting in Free France. Rather, it is one of the many concious rhetorical devices which make the film so universally appealing. Casablanca's political language does not glorify American courage and valour. It is not militaristic. It is not even triumphalist. Instead, it drives its message home through a humble yet self-assured presentation of the facts.
“Listen”, the film seems to tell viewers in its reassuring baritone voice as we watch Humphrey Bogart's Rick progress from cynical businessman to resistance fighter: “Listen, even if you are not particularly nationalist. Even if you are not particularly moral or just or political. Even if, mostly, what you want from life is a beautiful girl and a full wallet – under today's circumstances, whether you're American or Czech or French, you can only remain a decent human being by making sacrifices for this important cause.”
And in case the message has not become clear yet, Rick repeats it right at the end: “I'm no good at being noble, but it doesn't take much to see that the problems of three little people don't amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world”. Thus he explains away a heroic act in common sense terms. This makes him less of a hero, but more of a model that everyman feels called upon to emulate.
What a contrast to today's offering of American patriotic films! In our day, US propaganda not only fails to marshal any comparable artistic achievement; more worryingly for the world, it neglects the brilliant propaganda arsenal it had once so painstakingly developed.
Hollywood, today, doesn't even try to demonstrate the importance of the West's fight against terrorism by showing why the American way of life is more desirable than what Islamic fundamentalists have in store for the world. Neither does it picture its enemies to dissect what it is about their ideology that makes them act so cruelly – as, to take but one example, Ernst Lubitsch had done so comically in his To Be or Not to Be. No, it just shows the American flag and zooms in on a couple of Middle Americans blindly willing to die for their country.
300, a 'fine' example of its genre, at least goes to the length of clothing its simplistic message in Spartan togas. But – whether or not, as many have suggested, it consciously tries to cast Xerxes and the Persians as antique versions of the Middle Eastern forces America fights today – its content is completely indiscriminate. Though the film's Spartan heroes invoke 'liberty' in much the same way as a patriotic American might, the society depicted in 300 is so evidently unfree that this noble battle-cry sounds frightfully hollow. Not one of the 300 men who die for their liberty seems to have a minimal grasp of what this revered slogan actually means to them. At the end of the film, a calm spectator might be impressed by the Spartans' foolhardiness – but he will have less, not more, reason to be on their side.
America's current rhetorical failure is all the more puzzling as it would be so easy – and, to a great extent, so right – to project the fight against Islamic fundamentalism onto the big screen as principled resistance against letting ideology, repression and war dictate our lives.
If Hollywood told moving and humane stories about how Islamic fundamentalism has stopped people from leading their lives in free dignity, in its countries of origin as well as the West, it could help to win over the hearts and minds of people all over the world. But where are the big Hollywood blockbusters depicting life in Afghanistan under the Taliban? Where are the subtle films that could win over moderates in countries threatened by fundamentalism by illustrating what difference true freedom can make to the life of everyone?
It is not naïve to think it possible to make films that carry such political messages in subtle ways – we forget that countering Hitler's propaganda machine was not so easy either. What is missing today is not a universally attractive ideal to rally behind, nor even talent, but simply the realisation that a lot depends on making ourselves understood abroad as well as at home.
Casablanca was effective as a moving wake-up call precisely because its protagonist is not Laszlo, the perfect hero who will inspire you only if you share his ideals anyway, but Rick, the difficult yet winning romantic who everyone can identify with. It's time for American films to show more Ricks, and fewer Laslos. It's time for Hollywood to try to win over the hearts and minds of people irrespective of where they're from – rather than revelling in 'inspirational' stories of American glory and heroism which often have little to do with the distinctive values of freedom and individuality.
Play it again, Sam!