MAY 11, 2020

For over a century, Hollywood has often stood hand in hand with the American military when telling stories of war, coups and assassinations and of spies and espionage, historians and researchers say.

“A proportion of the entertainment that you’re watching has been through some sort of government script review process,” says researcher Tom Secker, co-author of National Security Cinema. “We’re talking about thousands of movies and TV shows.”

And once these films and shows pass through the hands of the CIA, the Department of Defense and the FBI, they frequently present America as the mightiest force for good in the world, he notes.

Here’s a look at some of the films made over the last 80 years that have been shaped by the relationship between Hollywood and the U.S. military.

Please note some film clips contain coarse language and violence.
Photos: Yousuf Karsh, Hulton Archive & Robert Giroux/Getty Images; Montage: Andrew McManus/CBC

Before the Second World War, American movies were seen as an amusement and an investment. But when Hollywood enlisted itself as an active agent in the war effort, suddenly it mattered to the U.S. War Department — the office responsible for the U.S. army — and the Office of War Information, the agency charged with providing information from the battlefront to the American public. What resulted was an unprecedented alliance between Washington and Hollywood.

Before the Second World War, American movies such as The Wizard of Oz were seen as an amusement; Film Director Frank Capra is decorated with the Legion of Merit award.

Photos: Warner Bros. & Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Online Collection

The Office of War Information, which was created months after Pearl Harbour, had a special unit to deal with Hollywood: the Bureau of Motion Pictures. Between 1942 and 1945, the Bureau reviewed 1,652 scripts, asking Hollywood to revise any that depicted the U.S. as a lawless, classist, racist society, according to historian Thomas Doherty. Hollywood abided by all of its specifications. The Bureau of Motion Pictures, along with Hollywood, made hundreds of war-time pictures, including recruitment films, training reels and news flashes.


Why We Fight is a series of seven documentaries commissioned by the U.S. government during the Second World War. Most of the films were directed by Frank Capra, who enlisted shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. With some 90 million Americans going to the movies every week in the 1940s, cinema was seen as an effective tool to propagandize and rally support for the war among the public.


In 1943, Warner Brothers produced Irving Berlin’s This is the Army — one of the most profitable war films ever — starring Ronald Reagan. In the middle of the Second World War, Col. K. B. Lawton, chief of the Army’s pictorial division, said about Hollywood’s cultural workers: “I have never found such a group of wholehearted, willing, patriotic people trying to do something for the government.”



Amid a rumour that African-Americans were planning a civil rights movement, and were going to try to get a special deal for themselves out of the war effort, the government asked Hollywood to focus on films that showed the United States fighting alongside everyone to give the Germans or the Japanese “what for,” says historian Nicholas Cull, who has authored various books on propaganda. Bataan offered that image of the country as being a collective effort, he says.


Ninotchka, made in 1939, is filled with communist stereotypes — dour, humourless characters who secretly embrace consumerism. Greta Garbo played the title character, a stern Communist agent who melts at the sight of western luxury goods. The film was one of America’s Cold War victories at the box office — and at the election box in Italy. In 1948, the U.S. flooded the Italian market with hundreds of Hollywood films. When the Communists lost in Italy, several newspaper headlines cheekily printed: “Greta Garbo Wins Election.”


After George Orwell died in 1950, the CIA secretly purchased the film rights to his iconic novel so it could make script changes that advanced America’s cause during the Cold War. The story is about a revolution gone wrong — allegorically, it's about the Soviet Union. The book ends with the Communists, represented by the pigs, in total control of the farm. At the end of the animated film, however, the other animals storm the farmhouse and throw the pigs out of the farm. This was intended by the CIA to act as some sort of symbol or inspiration for revolution, says Tony Shaw, author of Hollywood’s Cold War.


The Ten Commandments is a great example of soft propaganda, Shaw says. Director Cecil B. DeMille wanted to use the biblical story of Moses leading the Israelites out of slavery into freedom and to nationhood and draw links to the politics of the 1950s.



Cartoonish in character, the popular F.B.I. television series portrayed successful efforts to bring criminals to justice. J. Edgar Hoover, then-director of the actual Federal Bureau of Investigation, approved every aspect of the show, including the cast, writers and directors. He didn’t want any violence, civil rights issues or depiction of the Mafia. Meanwhile, there were race riots in the U.S., and the FBI was involved in the persecution of black people, wire-tapping and intrusive surveillance of key political opponents. The series lasted nine years, and Hoover was thanked on the credits of every episode.

What’s also unique about Hollywood is that many of its films are embedded in the American military — and made to glorify the American military. No country in the world churns out as many images of itself as the military hero … like the United States does. That is a unique cultural phenomenon.
Tanner Mirrlees, author of Hearts and Mines: The U.S. Empire's Culture Industry
Photo: Hulton Archive

In the decade following World War II, every major Hollywood movie about the war was made with the Pentagon’s “help.” But following the end of the Vietnam War, Hollywood was reluctant to co-operate with the Pentagon, says Tanner Mirrlees, author of Hearts and Mines: The U.S. Empire’s Culture Industry. The studios understood the Vietnam War would be a tough sell.

U.S. troops take cover from the Vietcong, during the Vietnam War; Robert De Niro in The Deer Hunter.

Photos: Terry Fincher/Getty Images & UNIVERSAL PICTURES

So Hollywood decided to back movies that featured victims, with the nobility of suffering by American soldiers as a major theme. There was a “crisis of masculinity” following America’s defeat in Vietnam, and much of the subject matter in films at the time involved broken men, post-traumatic stress disorder, unemployment and suicide. Critics call it the Hollywood Revolution because of the “truth” and grit portrayed on screen.


While the Vietnam War was still being waged, America’s anti-war climate troubled Hollywood star John Wayne. The iconic actor, who didn’t hide his conservative and white supremicist views, personally wrote to President Lyndon Johnson to ask the government to help him make a propaganda film about Vietnam, says Mirrlees. The Pentagon supplied props and military bases for the movie and retained final script approval. It was later learned that atrocities attributed to the North Vietnamese in The Green Berets were actually committed by American troops.


This movie is about what the John Wayne heroic myth does to American men, says Dan O’Meara, co-author of Moves, Myth and the National Security State. Told from the point of view of three U.S. soldiers who fought in Vietnam, it deals with complex and sensitive issues like post-traumatic stress disorder, mental health and disabilities amongst veterans. But films like Coming Home, explains Mirrlees, never show the bigger geo-political context of the Vietnam War — why it was fought, and who it was fought for.


Over time, the Deer Hunter came to be viewed by many as a powerful anti-war film, but there were serious rumblings of discontent at the time. Outside the building where the Academy Awards ceremony was held that year, the police arrested 13 members of the group Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who believed the film was a lie. Some cultural critics called it a “criminal violation of the truth.” Several infamous scenes, including a game of Russian Roulette, sparked controversy amongst critics who argued that the movie depicted American soldiers as victims in atrocities actually committed by the U.S. in the war.

The United States articulates this kind of heroic myth … unable to face their own internal damage. They are unable to look at themselves and say, ‘My God, we did this.’ … Not to say, you know, ‘Aren’t we awful?’, but to acknowledge just the truth of what they have done.
Dan O’Meara, co-author of Moves, Myth and the National Security State
Photo: Patrick Christain/GETTY IMAGES

By the 1980s, movies depicting Vietnam War veterans as broken men struggling with unemployment, addiction and suicidal thoughts were gone. The decade brought on a different kind of film, one featuring muscled, macho men espousing “rugged individualism,” says O’Meara. President Ronald Reagan, who sat in the White House for much of the 1980s, epitomized the era with one of his most famous lines: “The nine most frightening words in the English language are: I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

Former U.S. President Ronald Reagan prepares a speech at his desk in the Oval Office, 1981; Sylvester Stallone in Rambo: First Blood.

Photos: Getty Images & Hulton Archive

During Operation Desert Storm, where Iraq was driven out of Kuwait, hundreds of coalition soldiers died. Estimates of the Iraqi death toll in the 1991 Persian Gulf War vary, however, The Lancet and International Red Cross estimate some 300,000 soldiers and civilians were killed. President George H.W. Bush concluded the war had allowed the U.S. to kick the Vietnam Syndrome, but amongst the public, there was no clear consensus — director Oliver Stone commented that the technology behind the war made it appear far less brutal and bloodless than Vietnam.

Hollywood stayed silent for years, then produced a handful of movies and documentaries. Film director Oliver Stone didn't find that surprising given that in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, “there was none of the grittiness, the dirt, the sweat of hard ground combat, just high-tech video clips.”


In First Blood, the second of a three-part series in the Rambo franchise, Vietnam War veteran John Rambo is sent back to Vietnam to find American PoWs held captive. Hard bodies, virtuous revenge, victory were the messages embedded in the film co-written by Sylvester Stallone.


The New York Times called Top Gun an “adrenaline-pumping ode to outsized masculinity.” Tom Cruise was the affable U.S. navy pilot trainee. The movie was a collaboration between Hollywood and the Defense Department. All the planes and battleships seen in the film are operated by military personnel, and many extras are military men as well. According to the U.S. navy, Top Gun “completely rehabilitated the military’s image,” which had been destroyed by the Vietnam War.



The producers of this film first approached the U.S. navy to see if they could use military equipment, like helicopters and a ship. Either Geena Davis or Sigourney Weaver were slated to star as a navy psychiatrist on board an aircraft carrier where she eventually uncovers an illegal weapon smuggling ring. The Department of Defense didn’t like the proposed film because of sexist comments made by naval officers. According to researcher Tom Secker, the discovery of the illegal weapons smuggling might remind the public of the Iran-Contra affair, a secret arms deal during the Regan administration that saw the U.S. selling weapons to Iran in exchange for American hostages. The navy turned down the project and the film was never made.


The U.S. military was more and more becoming attracted to the study and stamping out of terrorism. In this film, done with military help and approval, Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a fearless secret agent seeking to find terrorists attempting to smuggle nuclear warheads into the United States.


This movie stars “white Senator turned homeboy” Warren Beatty. It’s really about satirizing and subverting the American political process and suggests that America needs socialism, says Matthew Alford, co-author of National Security Cinema. Beatty admitted that because Fox was producing the film, they tried to “make it in secret.” The movie was released, but suffered from a poor distribution deal.

If every so often the cinema was showing some ridiculous 1980s Rambo 7 with big muscles, destroying Iceland or something — fine. I can take a bit of nationalism and militarism with a pinch of salt. But it's systematic … When those ideas go through the Hollywood machine, there’s the hidden, behind-the-curtain involvement of the National Security State.
Matthew Alford, co-author of National Security Cinema

In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration held secret meetings with Hollywood filmmakers, according to Mirrlees’ research. The Pentagon asked producers and directors to help them imagine future threats to America. President George W. Bush referred to 9/11 as another Pearl Harbour, hence, the reboot of WW II films began.

Former U.S. President George W. Bush arriving onboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln, 2003; Jeremy Renner in The Hurt Locker, 2008.

Photos: Hector Mata/AFP & Jonathan Olley/Summit Entertainment

The military announced there would be a Global War on Terror and Hollywood needed to rally Americans around the flag and help sell the war. In 2003, the Iraq War began, with the U.S. vowing to destroy weapons of mass destruction. It became a protracted affair, dragging on until 2011. Again, there were far fewer Hollywood movies about the Iraq War, but an abundance of films about terrorism, assassinations and espionage.


Hollywood produced low budget propaganda films like Spirit of America and Operation Enduring Freedom, says Mirrlees. The latter was seen as a modern version of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight. The film was done in support of the invasion of Afghanistan. Regal Entertainment Group, the largest theatre chain in the U.S., showed Operation Enduring Freedom before all feature films on 4,000 screens across America.


World Trade Centre was Oliver Stone’s much-anticipated American survival disaster drama based on the Sept. 11 attacks. Critics described the 9/11 film as “big, wilfully dumb,” adding that “it manages to avoid the drama and history of ideas.” Patriotism was still running high and anything that critiqued the National Security State would be a rare find, says Alford.


This American war thriller drama is a fact-based yet fictional story that follows a specialist who defuses bombs under enemy fire in Iraq. The opening statement is poetic and reductive: “War is a drug.” Like many other films, it deals with war’s consequences from the point of view of U.S. soldiers and addresses topics like grief, murder and rape. But it says nothing about the horrifying impacts of war on Iraqi civilians, says Mirrlees.


This film is a grim depiction of the CIA’s decade-long search for Osama bin Laden, following the Sept. 11 attacks. Director Kathryn Bigelow was criticized for her “cozy” relationship with the CIA.  Guardian columnist Glenn Greenwald called the film a “pro-torture CIA propaganda vehicle” that falsely proclaims that torture was instrumental in finding bin Laden.


This American musical comedy was produced with editorial help from the military. The U.S. air force rewrote portions of the script, including a scene in which a military character aggressively confronts a father. The military also cut a scene where a girl kisses a female air force officer and military characters weren’t allowed to gamble.



The CIA and the U.S. military helped shape Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan series, but writer Matthew Alford says this series rewrites an entire country’s history — in this case, Venezuela. Alford, the co-author of National Security Cinema, says the lies contained in this popular show are really too numerous to count.


In this film, based on the 1986 arcade game Rampage, larger-than life monsters bash buildings to smithereens or jump onto moving helicopters. The U.S. military didn’t like the film because it objected to giant lizards smashing up military vehicles.

The modern military movie is not set in a war … After the [Global War on Terror], it’s about metaphors for war. The enemy is everywhere. Maybe it’s a Muslim or a giant monster, or a robot, and the military has to save us from it. And it’s that idea: the world is a threatening, dark place, and we need the military.
Tom Secker, co-author of National Security Cinema
Photo: Chris Hondros/GETTY Images

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