Steve Kaczynski looks at September 11, Hollywood and the portrayal of war and terrorism

The cinema, like other forms of entertainment and the media, is a powerful means of reflecting what goes on in society. It, like other forms of entertainment and the media, is also used by the powers that be to shape public perceptions in ways congenial to the ruling class. Hollywood and politics, at this point, is essentially the same system; it’s the monolithic corporate state. (Oliver Stone, quoted in the Spring 2002 issue of the US film magazine Cineaste, p.64.) And the system exerts its influence not just economically and politically, but culturally as well.

This article will examine how this has been done in America, with specific reference to events since September 11. But to start with, it cannot yet be said that September 11 has seen a dramatic change in American cinema and the way its movies portray foreign politics, especially with regard to the Middle East. This is, in part, because the destruction of the World Trade Center and the damage to the Pentagon happened only seven months ago. Films often take as much as two years to go through all the steps from conception in the mind of a screenwriter to their ultimate appearance on the screen at a multiplex near you. So in the Spring 2002, it is simply too early to say whether S11 will trigger a dramatic change in US films. Before I return to this subject, I want to devote some time to examine how cinema has been used to shape public perceptions, especially but not exclusively in the USA.

While this aspect of the cinema being used to influence the public never goes away in peacetime, it is particularly relevant in times of war or special stress. The USA entered World War I in 1917, a relatively late date, but the US path to the Western Front was smoothed by various films portraying the barbarity of the Hun.

Cinema used for propaganda

The Second World War saw cinema used for propaganda by all the belligerent countries. Nazi cinema showed The Eternal Jew, which compared Jews literally to rats, and contributed to dehumanising them so that their extermination would spark as few protests as possible. Meanwhile in Hollywood, especially after America entered the war, movies played their part in keeping the home fires burning. Josef Goebbels, the Nazi propaganda minister, is reported to have admired the 1942 American film Casablanca as an expert piece of enemy propaganda.

After the war the American film industry could hardly escape the consequences of the cold war. The HUAC imprisoned some communists or excommunists who had been active in Hollywood, and drove many more out of the industry or into foreign exile. Studios made anticommunist films, generally of poor quality, and partly as a guarantee that the HUAC and similar bodies would leave them alone. When the Korean War broke out, it was reflected in Hollywood’s output.

John Ford’s 1951 film, This is Korea! , has appalling footage of napalm, no less horrifying for having been staged in part. Over one scene with a flame-thrower the commentary (read by John Wayne) simply says: ‘Burn ‘em out, cook ‘em, fry ‘em.’
Korea: The Unknown War, Jon Halliday and Bruce Cumings, Viking, 1988, p.166.

The favourite villain of Hollywood tended to be reds of one kind or another, up until the latter half of the 1980s. However, a recurrent problem of using entertainment as propaganda is that it has to remain entertainment. This to some extent limits the capacity to use them as propaganda tools to make people see the world the way the government and ruling class want. People go to see films in large part for escapism, not necessarily to be told what to think. For example, it is noticeable that Hollywood tended to avoid overtly portraying the Vietnam War while it was actually going on. The main Vietnam film during that period was John Wayne’s The Green Berets, made in the late 1960s, and it did poorly at the box office and was savaged by just about every critic who was to the left of J. Edgar Hoover. The film MASH, which came out in 1970, cast a cynical eye on the Korean War, though it was often seen as a coded reference to Vietnam. This lack of a clear propaganda message (despite attempts by the government to influence the industry in that direction) reflects the real confusion and revulsion engendered by the Vietnam conflict in
US society.

Still, despite setbacks the US government and establishment has continued its efforts in various channels to influence Hollywood. For example, the US military extends facilities, often free of charge, to the making of films which portray the US armed forces in a positive light. It withholds such facilities from films that are critical. For example, the 1992 film A Few Good Men, starring Jack Nicholson and Tom Cruise, was hardly a radical clarion call, but because it suggested that Marines at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba use illegal forms of discipline, the US Marine Corps refused to cooperate with the film.

Demonising Muslims

The Reagan years saw a drift back to a more propagandist America’s back style, with radical and fundamentalist Islam beginning to take over as the bogeyman. With the collapse of the
USSR in 1991, this trend was reinforced.

A good example is the 1994 film True Lies, starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jamie Lee Curtis. This features a set of mainly Middle Eastern baddies, whose leader is played by Art Malik, a British actor of Pakistani origin. They belong to something called Crimson Jihad (perhaps to mix the red threat with the Muslim peril). They are evil and fanatical but also inept and ridiculous: in one scene their attempt to make a threatening video message fails because they are too incompetent to operate the camera properly. When I watched this film, I wondered whether members of other religions or ethnic groups could be lampooned so freely in Hollywood as Muslims could be. There is a Muslim lobby in the USA, but clearly it is not as powerful as others out there. There have been surprisingly few films about the Gulf War, perhaps because it was relatively short, and the 1990s, on the whole were relatively peaceful for Americans. But where a cinematic villain on the international stage was needed, Muslims and Arabs have tended to be chosen.

The film from the year 2000, Rules of Engagement, starring Samuel Jackson, tended to demonise Arabs, while even more recently Black Hawk Down did the same with regard to Somalia, referring to a real-life American military fiasco in 1993, in which a number of US soldiers were killed. Black Hawk Down was released after S11, though made before it, and since Somalia is a possible target for the USA as part of the war on terrorism, the film has some political and propaganda significance. However, in style and treatment it is not very different from trends that have long been established in US cinema and are hardly unique to that country’s films. US troops are in Somalia for good, altruistic reasons but evil warlords are there to foil and frustrate them, etc. So, in summary, trends that appear at first glance to have S11 written all over them were in fact established well back in the last century.

Impact of September 11

Coming back to S11’s potential or future impact on US cinema: after it, British TV’s Panorama examined whether Hollywood could have averted what had happened, since many of the more extravagant scripts and completed films are not unlike the events of that day. It is very probable that many Hollywood screenwriters do indeed have more imagination than CIA or Pentagon planners and analysts, but for me that was not the most interesting part of the programme. What was interesting was some of the interviews. In particular, one screenwriter or producer said that there had been some criticism of the way Muslims had been portrayed in American films, but that American cinema’s earlier use of Muslims and Arabs as villains and bogeymen had now been vindicated by S11.

Because of the long lead times for making films, as explained at the start of this article, post-S11 trends have yet to reach full fruition, but what we are likely to see is an intensification of terrorism, especially Muslim and/or Arab, as a threat woven into the plots of US films. The Panorama remarks I have mentioned strongly point in that direction. That would please US policymakers and the Zionist lobby, and might do well at a box office, which has for a long time tended to have villains of a carefully selected kind dangled before it.

Considering how many films shown in Britain are of US origin, such trends are likely to have an impact in Britain. The left will need to respond in some way. It will need to picket cinemas, which show particularly revolting films of the kind I have described. But this will be a real test of the British left’s anti-imperialism and internationalism.

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