“All art is propaganda”, George Orwell observed, which was especially true in the 1940s. He also pointed out that “not all propaganda is art”. And most of it wasn’t. During the Second World War, Britain’s most popular propagandist was Lord Robert Vansittart, whose theory of eternal German villainy was quickly forgotten, along with its author, after 1945. Vansittart’s invective was positively mild by comparison with the leading Soviet propagandist, Ilya Ehrenburg. “If during a day you have not killed a single German,” readers of his pamphlet, Kill, were informed, “you have wasted the day.” Even Stalin could have written that. He probably did.
Still, a few of the films made in service of the allied cause are worthy of lasting appreciation. Here are ten of the finest.
10. The Silver Fleet (1943)
Just edging Alfred Hitchcock’s Foreign Correspondent (1940) for a place on this list, Vernon Sewell and Gordon Wellesley’s The Silver Fleet explores the complexity of the relationship between resistance and collaboration in the Nazi-occupied Netherlands. The protagonist alienates everyone, even his wife, through his apparent collaboration with the German occupiers. In fact, he is carrying out the most ambitious and clandestine of one-man resistance missions, which finds tragic fulfilment in The Silver Fleet‘s closing scene.
I happened to watch this around the same time I had been reading about a leader of Himmler’s Ahnenerbe whose defence at the Nuremberg Medical Trial was that he had been a “Trojan Horse” resister. His story may or may not have been true, but the question of the lengths to which collaboration could go in the cause of resistance was a very real one all over occupied Europe.
9. The Mortal Storm (1940)
“I’ve never prized safety, Erich, either for myself or my children. I prized courage.” So says Professor Victor Roth, whose 60th birthday is the occasion for a tremendous celebration at his Bavarian university. But the date is 30th January 1933, and a radio announcement informs his students that Hindenburg has given them something new to celebrate. Roth is soon denounced, ostensibly because his scientific ideas contradict the race theories of National Socialism, and he dies in a concentration camp.
Frank Borzage’s The Mortal Storm also hints, however, at Roth’s own racial “impurity” – a bold subject to raise at the time. The persecution of the Jews was rarely addressed in contemporary anti-Nazi films made in the United States, partly because the Holocaust hadn’t happened yet, but more importantly because the US had its issues with racial persecution. Indeed, for its American release, Michael Powell’s 49th Parallel (1941) – or The Invaders, as it was titled in the US – was edited to remove references to Nazi racism so as not to alienate racist theatregoers in the southern states.
For all this, The Mortal Storm displays a certain naïvete about antisemitism in Hitler’s Germany. Two of Roth’s sons become enthusiastic Nazis, which, on account of their origins, would hardly have been possible. Nonetheless, The Mortal Storm is the most morally powerful of all the films on this list. Another fine contemporary film about moral courage is Roy Boulting’s Pastor Hall (1940) but I decided only one of the two could make the cut, given the similarity of their themes and scenarios. James Stewart’s performance decides it for The Mortal Storm.
8. International Lady (1941)
Ilona Massey plays a singer who is a German spy in Tim Whelan’s film, conveying secret messages through her music. International Lady is a thriller with a comedic sub-plot – the rivalry and one-upmanship between Scotland Yard (Basil Rathbone) and F.B.I. (George Brent) agents tracking her. Reggie Oliver (Rathbone) struggles with his companion’s American slang, quoting Oscar Wilde: “we have everything in common with America, except language”.
International Lady begins in London, but the main action occurs in the US. “I’m going to have a deuce of a time learning the language”, Oliver comments on the flight over. Ultimately, they overcome language difficulties to demonstrate the fruitfulness of Anglo-American cooperation.
7. Mrs. Miniver (1942)
Roosevelt wanted William Wyler’s film rushed to theatres; Churchill said Mrs. Miniver was worth five battleships; even Goebbels gave it grudging praise. “There is not a single angry word spoken against Germany,” the latter noticed. “Nevertheless, the anti-German tendency is perfectly accomplished.” Mrs. Miniver is Hollywood a la lettre, portraying what is supposed to be a quite ordinary English middle-class family but is actually one – living in a huge and luxuriously furnished house in an idyllic village on the banks of the Thames – which would have struck British cinemagoers as exorbitantly wealthy.
Mrs. Miniver‘s romantic subplot – which aimed to show how British class barriers were breaking down so that the moneyed family’s mere Oxbridge-educated son could be accepted as a suitable match for the granddaughter of the even more moneyed local baroness – was something of a travesty of the “people’s war” idea. But Mrs. Miniver‘s main point – to depict how the War came home even to this not-so-ordinary family – was clearly relatable to the ordinary folks who went to see it. Though it was made primarily for an American audience, Mrs. Miniver was the biggest box office hit in Britain in 1942.
6. To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Contemporary critics didn’t much like Ernst Lubitsch’s To Be or Not to Be, finding its comedic take on the destruction of Warsaw to be in poor taste. It has, however, aged rather well. This is because, while much of the anti-Nazi propaganda films made the Nazis look terribly cruel and brutal, To Be or Not to Be made them look terribly stupid. It demystified Nazism, turning something frightening into something farcical.
Audiences may not have been ready for that in 1942, which is probably why it was remade by Alan Johnson, starring Mel Brooks 40 years later (1983). Armando Iannucci’s The Death of Stalin (2017) probably wouldn’t have got too many laughs if it had been released in the threatened parts of central Europe in 1953. Which is to say that To Be or Not to Be was ahead of its time. The fun it has with the action of heiling must surely have influenced the hilarious “Heil Hitler” scene in Taika Waititi’s 2019 war comedy, Jojo Rabbit.