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Would you agree that in its treatment of American wars, Hollywood acts as a propaganda arm of the U.S. government?

Discuss in relation to one or two popular films about EITHER the Vietnam War, OR Iraq wars. (You are expected not only to view and comment on film but also use sources from the reading list.)

The American film industry, metonymically known as Hollywood, exists for many purposes. One is to entertain, be it the American public, or the wider world. Another purpose is to generate billions of dollars in revenue for major film studios as well as the US government through taxes. More importantly, the medium of film is effective in shaping human ideas and attitudes towards any given number of issues. This yields Hollywood an enormous influence on public opinion regarding, among other things, war. Arguably the US Government takes advantage of such power, and disseminates propaganda. It has done so throughout major conflicts such as World War II, portraying the American military as heroes, and their opponents as savage barbarians. Whether this can be said for the current trend of war films released by Hollywood is less certain. This essay will analyse if the American film industry is still guided by the US Government, with the Gulf War and the Iraq War (2003-2010) as key points of reference. Two films (The Hurt Locker and Three Kings) shall be used as evidence, along with material from Westwell (2006) and Weber (2006). It will be concluded that Hollywood operates on its own agenda, often presenting multiple perspectives on Americans at war itself. The term propaganda is defined by Terence Qualter (1985 cited in Culbert et al: x) as the deliberate attempt by the few to influence the attitudes and behaviours of the many by the manipulation of symbolic communication. Any government in power has the responsibility of maintaining order and structure. This is even more so during a war, but attracting the public to a nationalistic viewpoint has its advantages. Films glorifying the war effort, making their national army to be righteous, tend to unite their audiences. Tarnishing the image of the opponent further brings the audience, and country, against a common enemy. Numerous cases of film propaganda come to mind, such as the Nazi-supporting Triumph of The Will (Riefenstahl: 1999) and The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein: 1925). As the USA deployed troops abroad during World War II (1939-1945), the Pearl Harbor attacks lay fresh in the minds of Americans. The US Government sought to restore Americans confidence in the national army through influencing the output of film studios at the time. Schatz (1998 cited in Westwell: 29) claims within six months roughly one-third of features in production dealt directly with the war. However, the Production Code Administration often had an uneasy relationship with the propagandist direction Hollywood was taking (Westwood, 2006: 30). This shows the film studios need to follow PCA regulations, while retaining profits, commanding from them some contribution to the propaganda films of the time. Casablanca (Curtiz: 1942) is an exceptional film that proves the rule. Doherty (1993 cited in Westwell: 30) describes how its characters conform to PCA rules, but still promote the

American military cause. Furthermore, it can be argued that the storyline and plot of Casablanca are more engaging than its propagandist function, as typified by its critical praise. During one of the most hectic periods since its existence, Hollywood did not, and could not always create films allied with propaganda, as the US Government intended. Some films are more effective as just films, and not tools of manipulation. The repercussions of the Gulf War, far from clear, has become subject to all but a handful of films in Hollywood. Notably, none were shot and released during the short combat. Three Kings (Russell, 1999) depicts four American soldiers on what is essentially a treasure hunt in Iraq, soon after the Gulf War ceasefire. Three Kings stars instantly recognisable big-name actors yet in many ways resembles an independent film (McCrisken and Pepper, 2005: 188). Propaganda films often command high financial budgets and an array of well-known film crews, an option only available to major film studios. To aim for creating a film with independent overtones suggests Russell and Warner Bros. had little or no intention of producing propagandistic material. That said, it is necessary to examine this further. Three Kings begins with Mark Wahlberg, wearing a helmet with a badge of a newly born babys face, presumably his child. He loudly enquires his leader across the Iraqi desert, as to whether they should shoot an armed Iraqi in the distance. A sweeping pan shot brings the viewers attention to his leader and two soldiers, deliberating the distribution of chewing gum, and afterwards to Spike Jonze casually blowing dust out of his colleagues eye. After discovering his target possesses a weapon, Wahlbergs dilemma is solved, and he performs what is widely regarded as his only killing. This opening scene, and the overall premise of Three Kings, is a clear example of filmic elements propaganda attempts to avoid. According to McCrisken and Pepper (2005: 189), although Three Kings adheres to many of the conventions of the combat genre it raises questions about the legitimacy and morality of the US mission in the Gulf. As opposed to contributing to the numerous portrayals of soldiers displaying an insistent moral conscience (Westwell, 2006: 83), Three Kings, in many ways, carries itself across as an anti-war film. It forces the viewer to question the motives and intentions by which American soldiers entered combat. Moreover, one is left to ponder the precise accuracy to which war, in general, is a means to a peaceful end. For these reasons, Hollywood may not act as a propaganda machine, but perhaps as a way of challenging the preconceptions of viewers.

As noted previously, one function of propaganda is to boost the morale of a nation to aid the support of civilians during war. A more difficult task lay ahead for the US Government, with relation to the most recent Iraq War (2003-2010). Americans were to be convinced that this conflict, also part of the on-going War on Terror, was justified, for the greater good. Weber (2006: 119) writes the Bush Doctrine had played itself out in the Iraq War increasingly unpopular with many US citizens.Then US President George W. Bush outlined, among other policies, a need for pre-emptive action when necessary to defend our liberty (Bush, 2002). To create pro-Iraq War films for an incredulous audience to view seemed a problematic task for major film studios. With this, attention is to be turned towards The Hurt Locker (Bigelow, 2009).

The cinematography, sound editing and staid performance by the films lead actor Jeremy Renner, all combine to establish a hostile environment. One particular scene consists of Renner and his colleagues investigating a dilapidated factory for rebels. This is conducted in silence, in order for the viewer to perhaps concentrate on the portrayal of American military personnel as heroic and bold in the face of imminent danger. Scenes like this are scattered throughout The Hurt Locker, earning the film a slightly pro-American stance. The red herring lies in the films central tenet, made clear from the outset: War is a drug. The Hurt Locker commands viewers support for the American military through relating to the risks they face daily. Granted this is so, statements of strength and resolve in the American military are too implicit to be regarded as propaganda.

When scrutinising the relationship between the US Governments (foreign) military policies and Hollywood, one must pay attention to context. Few films of the 1960s and 1970s need to be watched to discover the stereotype-laden, pro-American nature of Hollywood. Westwell (2006: 114) argues that the false interpretations of the intricacies of (American) wars come from a military-romanticism that governs contemporary understanding. This is in respect to how World War II is represented in film. Yet it sheds light onto why American films no longer depict the country to have fought the good fight (Westwell, 2006: 114). Up until Apocalypse Now (Coppola, 1979), war films produced by Hollywood presented conflict as a necessary step towards ideals such as world peace.

Throughout history, propaganda has been used as an instrument for broadcasting ideas and sentiments. Often nationalistic and derogatory to opponents in combat, propaganda has influenced many works of art, namely films produced by Hollywood. To the US Governments favour, propaganda film was the norm throughout World War II, though the PCA regulated output at the time. Since then, it has become increasingly difficult to believe the US Government still uses, or relies on, Hollywood to produce films favouring America or the countrys military causes. This essay has demonstrated the autonomy with which the American film industry now operates. It is a freedom most likely derived by the ambiguity of current American foreign policies as well as a shift in the meaning of war to citizens, post 9/11.

The Hurt Locker. (2009). Kathryn Bigelow (dir). USA: Summit Entertainment

BUSH, G. (1 June 2002). President Bush Delivers Graduation Speech at West Point. Office of the Press Secretary. Available from: (accessed 2 March 2011)

Culbert, D. and WOOD, R. (1990). Film and Propaganda in America Connecticut: Greenwood

McCRISKEN, T. and PEPPER, A. (2005). American History and Contemporary Hollywood Film. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press

Three Kings. (1999). David O. Russell (dir). USA: Warner Bros.

WEBER, C. (2006). Imagining American War. New York: Routledge

WESTWELL, G. (2006). War Cinema. London: Wallflower