Notebook Primer: Hollywood Anti-Fascism during World War II

An introduction to the films Hollywood made during World War II in an effort to stamp out fascism.
Megan Feeney

The Notebook Primer introduces readers to some of the most important figures, films, genres, and movements in film history.

The Mortal Storm (Borzage, 1940)

During World War II, just as American car factories were converted to churn out tanks and airplanes, America’s “Dream Factory” was converted to churn out messaging about “why we fight.” As President Roosevelt put it, Hollywood “emotionaliz[ed]” the war effort for Americans, who streamed into movie theaters at record-breaking rates, despite the departure of 16 million men to the fronts. No matter the title on the marquee, moviegoers were sure to get a heavy dose of anti-fascism and, to balance it out, a rousing boost of pro-democratic patriotism. 

As such, the war represented a pivotal moment in Hollywood history, one in which the U.S. film industry came to take itself seriously as a significant socio-political force. Hollywood’s left-liberal filmmakers ascended during the war and, in close collaboration with the Roosevelt administration, used Fascism as a foil to redefine the so-called American Way on their own terms, emphasizing popular democracy, civil liberties, religious tolerance, ethnic pluralism, and liberal internationalism. And though cold war conservatives succeeded after the war (temporarily and incompletely) in returning Hollywood to its prior conservatism (posited as depoliticized centrism), World War II Hollywood anti-fascism left indelible marks on the U.S. film industry and American culture writ large. 

To this day, the Hollywood Nazi is used as a villainous foil against which to define heroic (American) democratic subjectivity, whether the Nazi is literal in films like Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) or Captain America (2011) or figurative throughout the Star Wars, James Bond, and Marvel franchises. In such films, the overwhelming fascist evil that must be confronted reconciles conflicts between America’s cherished individualism and the collective good, and between America’s massive military might and its sense of its own peace-loving global benevolence. To this day, Hollywood returns to the anti-fascist “Good War”—and to narrative conventions developed during it—to assure us that we are the (exceptionally) good guys, that we are reluctant warriors (aka ‘avengers’) forced into spectacular retributive violence in the name of saving humanity. To name a very few, see Saving Private Ryan (1998); Fury (2014); and, more complexly and knowingly, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds (2009), torn between ironizing and exploiting these impulses. Occasionally, too, as in the war years, Hollywood reminds us that fascism—right-wing totalitarianism built on charismatic demagoguery, racism, militarism, and ultra-nationalism, fueled by insidious propaganda foisted on vulnerable publics—is not just an external threat, but an internal one, maybe even the perverse side of the American coin, as recent events have highlighted and only a handful of more recent features explore, i.e., American History X (1998) and BlacKkKlansman (2018). 

Before the war, Hollywood’s fervent anti-fascism was not a foregone conclusion. As Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Tojo rose to power in the early and mid-1930s, the heads of the major U.S. studios (all Jewish, except Zanuck at Fox) were determined not to stick their necks out. They had their reasons: They were allergic to controversy, and were admonished to avoid it by the industry’s new self-censoring Production Code Administration (PCA); they were attuned to U.S. public opinion’s prevailing interwar isolationism and the U.S.’s official policy of neutrality; they were sensitive to a healthy strain of American anti-Semitism that might label them globalist warmongers or communists for any perceived interventionism; and they feared offending foreign governments and/or audiences, a sound business calculation given that foreign markets accounted for a full 40% of Hollywood’s prewar revenues. Thus, the moguls resisted pressure from their own left-leaning film artists, especially its screenwriters and directors, whose ranks grew with European (often Jewish) émigrés fleeing Nazism. This “Hollywood Left” was at the vanguard of emerging anti-fascist activism in the U.S. in the mid-1930s, founding the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League, the Motion Picture Artists’ Committee to Aid Republican Spain, and the Hollywood Joint Anti-Fascist Refugee Committee.  

Black Legion (1937)

Warner Bros. was the exception that proved the rule of the studios’ initial timidity. It was the first to criticize Hitler onscreen (in 1933, in a Looney Tunes cartoon, Bosko’s Picture Show);first to close its German offices (in 1934, in protest of a Nazi edict to fire all Jewish employees); and first to fill its features with anti-fascist content. Among Warner Bros.’s first entries was Black Legion (Archie Mayo, 1937) about the potential for fascism within the U.S. (with the PCA cutting explicit parallels to Nazism). Based on true events, in line with the studio’s penchant for ripped-from-the-headlines social problem films, Black Legion is about a white supremacist terrorist organization in the Midwest (spun off from the KKK), whose appeal grew during the Great Depression, culminating in some fifty murders and a highly-publicized trial. In the film, Humphrey Bogart plays Frank Taylor, an Everyman whose descent into domestic fascism argued against the assumption that  “It Can’t Happen Here” (just like the dystopian 1935 Sinclair Lewis novel of that title, the film rights to which MGM sat on). Embittered that a “Polack” is promoted to foreman over him, Taylor tunes his radio to a fascistic blowhard who speaks to his pain, claiming “America for Americans” (“100% real” ones), sounding a lot like the real-life progenitor of right-wing radio, Father Charles Coughlin, who counted some 30 million listeners weekly. Thus readied, Taylor is easily recruited to the Legion, which is run (behind-the-scenes) by wealthy opportunists raking in the membership dues. Taylor falls into proto-noir darkness: arming himself (and imagining himself thus enlarged) and donning a hooded robe to participate in arson, torture, extortion, and finally murder—losing his family and friends (including a young Ann Sheridan) in the process. Black Legion’s raison d’être is to reclaim the meaning of “America” from fascistic distortions. A trial judge does so explicitly at the film's end, lecturing the indicted legionnaires: “Your idea of patriotism and Americanism is hideous to all decent citizens. It violates every protection guaranteed by the Bill of Rights, [which] is the cornerstone of true Americanism, and must be jealously guarded if we are to remain a free people.”

Confessions of a Nazi Spy (1939)

In the spring of 1939, shortly after Kristallnacht and the Nazi seizure of Czechoslovakia, Warner Bros. dared to take on  Nazism directly. To the chagrin of the PCA and the German consul in Los Angeles, the studio released Confessions of a Nazi Spy, directed by Jewish émigré Anatole Litvak. Borrowing again from the headlines, this time about a Nazi spy ring in the U.S., Confessions introduced the Hollywood Nazi, with many of his enduring characteristics evident from inception. Confessions’ Nazis are coldhearted masterminds and skilled propagandists, “glorifying hatred and brute force.” They obsessively self-aggrandize in Third Reich regalia, which Hollywood borrowed from Leni Riefenstahl with notable ambivalence, half-enthralled, half-repulsed. From the swastika-draped dais at German American Bund meetings and grandiose offices back in Berlin, Nazis spew disdain for American “democracy and racial equality” and, again, the Bill of Rights. Their sieg-heiling followers are frigid fräuleins, sadistic Gestapo henchmen, perversely indoctrinated Hitler Youth, and “half-wit[s],” whose innate smallness make them desperate to be Aryan “supermen.” They are insatiably expansionist: No matter that Americans don’t want war; the Nazis want war with them,  Confessions argued directly against (eroding) U.S. isolationism. Thank God, then, that not all Germans are Nazis (a caveat demanded by the PCA), and that those that are prove no match for Edward G. Robinson’s G-man turned Nazi-hunter. As in Black Legion, America is (re)defined in a U.S. courtroom. America is: Equality, Civil Rights (mercifully extended even to Nazi suspects), and Global Leadership. Prescriptively, a prosecutor assures the viewer that “America will wake up!” from its naïveté, and that American exceptionalism will prevail where Nazi-occupied countries failed: “America is not simply one of the remaining democracies. America is democracy.”

Blockade (1938)

By the time Confessions was released, Warner Bros. was not entirely alone. A handful of independent filmmakers, under distribution deals with the majors, also stuck their necks out. Producer Walter Wanger, a liberal interventionist (as well as Joan Bennett’s husband and wartime president of the Academy of Motion Pictures), started tentatively with the William Dieterle directed  Blockade (1938), set in the ongoing Spanish Civil War. Though screenwriter John Howard Lawson did his best to imply his anti-fascist convictions (and Wanger drummed up controversy around them to drive ticket sales), Blockade doesn’t name sides.. Still, its advocacy of interventionism is crystal-clear. Playing a besieged Spanish campesino distraught about civilian suffering and death, Henry Fonda implores into the camera at the film’s end, “Where’s the conscience of the world?” 

Foreign Correspondent (1940)

The anti-fascism in Wanger’s next pro-interventionist entry is more overt. For the spy thriller Foreign Correspondent (1940), he borrowed director Alfred Hitchcock, fresh off his first Hollywood entry, Rebecca (1940). In Foreign Correspondent, American reporter (Joel McCrea), on assignment in England, is run through the wringer of Nazi treachery, and more than a few Hitchcockian set pieces, moving from complacency to interventionism. (“Pacifism,” he discovers, is a Nazi-orchestrated ploy.) For the film’s release in August 1940, after France had fallen and as the Battle of Britain raged, script doctor Ben Hecht added a coda, in which McCrea’s character broadcasts from London. While Nazi bombs drop, and before the lights cut out, he calls on Americans to send reinforcements of guns and steel. “Hang on to your lights,” he tells America ominously, “They’re the only lights left in the world.”  (Hitchcock directed two additional anti-fascist entries during the war, Saboteur [1942]—whose climactic set-piece takes place in the Statue of Liberty’s torch—and Lifeboat [1944].) 

The Great Dictator (1940)

Just two months later, another bomb dropped: Charlie Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940), the most famous of Hollywood’s prewar anti-fascist films, a long-awaited, still-controversial, and still-imitated satire. In it, Chaplin plays two roles: that of Adenoid Hynkel, dictator of the fictional Tomania, in which he hilariously lampoons Hitler; and that of the Jewish Barber, a modified version of Chaplin’s beloved Little Tramp and the first instance of Hollywood unabashedly specifying Jews as the primary target of Nazis’ genocidal race hatred. Rendered in Chaplin’s signature blend of comedy and pathos, Chaplin’s Hynkel (along with Jack Oakie’s Benzino Napoloni) elaborates the psychological profile of the Hollywood Nazi/Fascist: his pompous grandiosity belies a fragile ego; his bombastic verbosity belies the baseness of his ideas; and his hyper-masculinity belies effeminacy. The Great Dictator is best remembered today for its moments of (anti-Riefenstahlian) burlesque, e.g., Hynkel bloviating in mock-German; and Hynkel, horny with ambitions of global domination, bouncing an inflated globe on his “heinie.” But contemporary viewers took special notice of the Jewish Barber’s final speech, not least of all because it was Chaplin’s first sustained use of spoken dialogue, a full decade after the advent of the “talkies.” Deadly serious, Chaplin speaks directly into a static camera for over three minutes, articulating his humanism; denouncing dictators as “unnatural men” (“brutes” who “enslave” their followers using hate and deception); and exhorting “The People” to “Fight for Liberty…in the Name of Democracy!”

Mrs. Miniver (1942)

By the end of 1940, as the Nazis closed European markets to Hollywood and as U.S. public opinion shifted, the other studios joined the cause. MGM released The Mortal Storm, featuring Jimmy Stewart as a “Good German” suffering the rise of Nazism, and its seduction of his family members. 20th Century Fox released Man Hunt (one of four anti-fascist thrillers directed by German émigré Fritz Lang), featuring Walter Pidgeon as a British sharpshooter who gets Hitler in his crosshairs—a wish-fulfillment fantasy par excellence. Indeed, there was a rash of pro-British anti-fascist films, like Fox’s A Yank in the R.A.F. (Henry King, 1941) and United Artists’ That Hamilton Woman (Alexander Korda, 1941), whose moral about the Napoleonic Wars—“you cannot make peace with dictators; you have to destroy them”—was iterated for the present. This Anglophilia would culminate in MGM’s Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942), Hollywood’s top-grossing and Best Picture-awarded film of 1942, in which an Anglican vicar sermonizes the film’s moral about “The People’s War,” for which British civilians’ painful sacrifices would not be in vain.  

Meet John Doe (1941)

In 1941, Warner Bros. still led the anti-fascist way, particularly with a pair of Gary Cooper vehicles that were two of that year’s biggest films, Meet John Doe (Frank Capra, 1941) and Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941). The follow-up to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), Meet John Doe stars Cooper as Capra’s usual incorruptible Common Man, here John Willoughby (aka “John Doe”), this time gumming up the plans of would-be American fascist D.B. Norton (Edward Arnold, reprising his Fat Cat villainy from Mr. Smith). Norton attempts a fifth columnist takeover of America, buying a newspaper (a jackhammer chisels away the previous ownership’s “A free press means a free people” sign); surrounding himself with a Nazi-esque nephew and his “D.B. Norton Troopers”; and channeling the real grievances of Depression-era “folks” to his rise as an “iron hand.” Explicitly compared to Jesus, Willoughby’s (initially falsified but essentially authentic) populism saves America, shepherding all the other “little punks” to join “The Team,” in his all-American baseball analogy. “Don’t wait til the game is called on account of darkness,” Cooper speaks directly to the camera. “Wake up, John Doe. You’re the hope of the world." After the war began, Hollywood would return to the threat of domestic fascism with Keeper of the Flame (George Cukor, 1942), the second pairing of the legendary [Katherine] Hepburn and [Spencer] Tracy, the former as the widow of a would-be American fascist, and the latter as the journalist to whom she confesses his diabolical schemes posthumously. Her husband had been a wealthy industrialist and the charismatic leader (and false idol) of the “Forward America Association”—with all the usual race-baiting by power-hungry profiteers of hate. Hepburn tells Tracy that she saw “the face of Fascism in my own home,” even though they “painted it red, white, and blue and called it Americanism.”

Sergeant York (1941)

1941’s other Cooper-as-Common Man vehicle (and the one that won Cooper the Oscar over Orson Welles’ fascism-curious Charles Foster Kane) was Sergeant York, a direct hit at isolationist holdouts like Charles Lindbergh and the America First Committee for which he stumped. Based on the life of Alvin C. York, a famed World War I hero from rural Tennessee, Sergeant York dramatizes York’s conversion from conscientious objector on the basis of his Christian faith—“Thou Shall Not Kill” and “Blessed be the peacekeepers”—to reluctant warrior, who comes to see that to kill those dead-set on killing others (i.e., Germans) is just and necessary. York reconciles his interpretation of the Bible (and his individual conscience) with a superior officer’s philosophy of just war enshrined in American History. York comes to be “a trustin’ in a somethin’ that’s a heap bigger than I be.” The film drives home its pro-war message in a 15-minute battle scene, which announced an inchoate new genre: the World War II combat film. In response to Sergeant York, isolationist U.S. congressmen convened hearings in August, also singling out Confessions of a Nazi Spy and The Great Dictator as evidence of Hollywood “warmongering.” By then, the isolationists were on the wrong side of public opinion, and the Hollywood moguls submitted their defense unblinkingly: Yep, we’re anti-fascist, and proud of it. 

On December 7, 1941, the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor made the isolationists’ hearings moot and opened the floodgates of Hollywood anti-fascism. The U.S. was at war, and the U.S. film industry, especially its ascendant left-liberal faction, committed itself wholly to mobilizing its citizens. As Axis conquests mounted, the gravity of the situation seemed to call for more direct address exposition, more patriotic music, and more flags. By mid-1942, newly-formed government propaganda agencies (or “information” agencies, as they preferred), led by the Office of War Information (OWI), had opened offices in Hollywood. Together, government agents and filmmakers were unabashedly enthusiastic about using the “sugar” of entertainment to make the “medicine” of messages go down in hundreds of films—from thrillers and comedies, to musicals and women’s melodramas, as well as explicitly war-themed films.  

U.S. “information” agents didn’t “dictate” content (that was the province of fascists and their deceitful propaganda) but served in an advisory capacity, supervising scripts and offering guideline manuals. Fascism, they explained, should be represented as a “poisonous doctrine of (racial and religious) hate, of might making right.” But more inked was spilled to delineate how [American] Democracy should be represented as Fascism’s diametric opposite. This war was The People’s War for the recently coined “Four Freedoms.” America was leading the fight for a world free from prejudice, want, fear, and censorship. (The continued allowance of social criticism in wartime films proved the latter.) Americans were united, yoking their individual interests to the unimpeachable collective cause, together making previously unimaginable sacrifices. Class and racial conflict should be minimized. 

Days of Glory (1944)

Towards emphasizing this Free vs. Enslaved World dichotomy, the Hollywood Nazi’s depravity was elaborated in nightmarish shades. This was especially true in the many films about underground (and underdog) resistance in Nazi-occupied territories, in which Hollywood stars, not incidentally, play the heroic leaders, e.g., Edge of Darkness (1943; Errol Flynn as Norwegian), Hangmen Also Die! (1943, Brian Donlevy as Czech); and Days of Glory (1944, introducing Gregory Peck as a Russian commander). The latter is one of wartime Hollywood’s pro-Soviet films, encouraged by the U.S. government during the war but used by it afterward as evidence of communist infiltration in the industry (also evidence: the industry’s “premature anti-fascism”). 

Casablanca (1943)

Of course, Warner Bros.’s Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1943) is Hollywood’s most famous wartime film about the nobility of anti-fascist resistance. Iconically, Bogart plays Rick Blaine, a cynical American ex-pat running a “gin joint” in North Africa, from where refugees fleeing Nazism hope to transit to the “freedom of the Americas,” the prologue explains. Despite his previous anti-fascist commitments, Rick is determined to keep his “neck out” of the war. Like Sergeant York, and so many wartime films, Rick must experience (and model for the spectator) a conversion from isolationism to interventionism, from self-centered to self-sacrificing. This conversion is precipitated by the villainy of Nazis, personified in Major Strasser (Conrad Veidt); by the despicable opportunism of collaborators, personified in French Captain Renault (Claude Rains); and by the inspiring heroism of European resistance, emotionalized in the rousing La Marseillaise scene and personified in Czech hero Victor Lazlo (Paul Henreid). The latter is husband to Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman), the woman who broke Rick’s heart and turned him temporarily inward, but who ultimately brings him back into the anti-fascist fold. (Bogie himself reenacts this conversion in To Have and Have Not [Howard Hawks, 1944], this time for the love of Bacall in French Martinique; while Bergman again inspired self-sacrifice in For Whom the Bell Tolls [Sam Wood, 1943], this time in Gary Cooper’s character, an American fighting with anti-Franco guerrillas in Spain.)   

Throughout the war, Hollywood continued to insist that not all Germans were Nazis (nor all Spaniards Francoists, nor all Frenchmen Vichy collaborators). Indeed, some of the most committed anti-fascists were German, as depicted in The Seventh Cross (Fred Zinnemann, 1944), starring Spencer Tracy as a “Good German” escaped from a Nazi concentration camp and Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943), starring Paul Lukas as a German resistance leader and Bette Davis as his American wife. Nor even were all Nazi collaborators irredeemable, as suggested in Captain Renault’s change of heart at Casablanca’s end, famously “the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” The problem was the fascist system, not the European races, whose otherwise civilized souls were under duress. 

Objective, Burma! (1945)

The Japanese were not afforded such grace. Instead, they were depicted as unindividuated beasts in the jungle in films like Manila Calling (1942), Bataan (1943),  Guadalcanal Diary (1943), and Objective, Burma! (1945). In contrast to Hollywood’s impulse to try to understand Nazis, the Japanese were thoroughly “Other-ed.” In War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, historian John Dower argues that such dehumanizing racism facilitated the ferocity of U.S. war-making in the Pacific past the point of strategic necessity.     

Wake Island (1942)

It was in the jungles of the Pacific that American boots first hit the ground, and thus, the combat film arose in its settings. There, the faceless savagery of the fascist enemy justified America’s new militarism to a people who had only recently rejected foreign wars as senseless. This enemy’s ruthless war-making was rendered with gritty realism to clarify the stakes for American moviegoers, who wouldn’t believe a prettified version anyway, given what they were seeing in newsreels. Early defeats and high U.S. casualties facilitated the refitting of America’s beloved captivity narrative—in which stories of Native Americans brutally victimizing white settlers reverse the relations of conquest and justify all measure of retributive violence, already imported to Hollywood via the Western—to the current war. Particularly favored was the captivity narrative’s corollary, The Last Stand with its brave underdogs fighting overwhelming odds. In Wake Island (John Farrow, 1942), the first of the wartime combat films, this refitting is announced in a prologue: “Valley Forge, Custer’s Last Stand, the Lost Battalion—[these] represent the dark hours [of American military history]. There, small groups of men fought savagely to the death because in dying they gave eternal life to the ideas for which they died.” Americans fight “savagely” to defeat savagery. They conquer territories to liberate people. They “fight to destroy destruction,” explains one Wake Island soldier.

Bataan (1943)

Whether by land, air, or sea in the war’s proliferating combat films, U.S. servicemen are reluctant warriors in contrast to bloodthirsty fascists. They are peace-loving family men who cherish democracy, which notably survives within the military’s (benevolent) hierarchy. These combat films have stars but every man is a hero.  In contrast to fascists’ race hatred (and per OWI recommendations), U.S. platoons are microcosms of America’s melting pot, emphatically ethnically-mixed; they even incorporate the occasional African American soldier, ignoring the fact that the U.S. military was still segregated. Often, there is one among them who must be convinced of the necessity of war and killing. And, in contrast to fascism’s regimented soldiers-cum-expendable cannon fodder, U.S. servicemen maintain their humanity through the horrors of war and freely offer their lives, carefully individuated for maximum emotional impact. Their willing sacrifices contribute crucially to a final victory that will rid the world of totalitarianism. Containing these elements, including the anti-Japanese racism and the Last Stand device, Bataan (Tay Garnett, 1943) is the “seminal” exemplar of the World War II combat film, according to film historian Jeanine Basinger. 

When the war ended, a lot of things changed: the government propaganda agencies dissolved; the totalitarian enemy in question switched from right-wing fascism to left-wing communism; and the Hollywood Left fell precipitously from grace (see HUAC and the blacklist). Some of the latter’s filmmakers, like Philip Dunne in his memoir Take Two: A Life in Movies and Politics, regretted their wartime contributions to idealized visions of U.S. society and “Messianic” ones of U.S. foreign policy, visions that marginalized (even criminalized as communistic) criticism of the so-called American Way after the war, forcing such criticisms into the nihilism of film noir, a genre born of the fallen Hollywood Left. Interestingly, some of them transferred their representations of foreign fascists onto the domestic cold warriors persecuting them, albeit obliquely in noir villains; see, for instance, the jail warden played by Hume Cronyn in Brute Force (Jules Dassin, 1947) and the gangster played by Edward G. Robinson in Key Largo ( John Huston, 1948).  

Key Largo (1948)

Which is to say that some things didn’t change after the war. The Hollywood Nazi, the Resistance Hero, and the World War II combat film has endured to date, continuously resurrected—by Hollywood cinema, at least—in order to measure “America,” usually, if not always, in the most favorable terms possible.  

Recommended Reading

“Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros.’s Campaign Against Nazism” by Michael E. Birdwell offers a close-up of Warner Bros.’s prewar anti-Nazi “crusade” and of brother Harry, a “highly moral, devout Jew” who served as the studio’s moral conscience. Birdwell contrasts Warner’s anti-Nazism to Louis B. Mayer’s Nazi-coddling, even hosting Riefenstahl at MGM in 1938. Harry did not contain his antifascist pronouncements to his studio’s films, writing articles about the film industry’s “duty to educate” the public. Ahead of the curve, Harry’s antifascist crusade put him in powerful U.S. isolationists’ crosshairs and in terrible health, briefly hospitalized in 1938.  Along the way, Birdwell focuses on the production history of three films: Black Legion, Confessions of a Nazi Spy, and most especially Sergeant York

“The Moguls and the Dictators: Hollywood and the Coming of World War II” by David Welky builds on Birdwell’s studio-specific history to survey prewar anti-fascism throughout the U.S. film industry. He describes the industry’s shift from “studied indifference” to advocating international interventionism as less about studio moguls’ individual consciences and more about “various and often conflicting priorities in Hollywood,” along four themes: 1) the film industry’s ties to the Roosevelt administration, and the studios’ interest in currying favor with the government to stop the trust-busting that threatened to break-up the studios’ vertical integration; 2) the industry’s foreign trade relations, and the PCA’s related prohibition of “injury to national feelings”; 3) pressure from the Hollywood Left’s impassioned anti-fascist activists; and 4) the resulting film content. Welky explores the rise of pro-military, pro-British, and pro-hemispheric-defense films, and their generic conventions. Welky argues that this moment was when Hollywood became “mature,” with a new confidence in its importance, with the right, nay obligation, to weigh in on contemporary issues.  

Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies by Clayton R. Koppes and Gregory D. Black is a history of the OWI’s Bureau of Motion Picture’s extensive role in shaping Hollywood theatrical features during the war. Consider this: in just one year alone (September 1943-August 1944), the OWI-BMP read 390 scripts, “and recorded changes to meet their objections in 71 percent of the cases.” 

The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre by Jeanine Basinger lays out the generic conventions of the World War II combat film and traces them, in waves, from Wake Island through Saving Private Ryan. The essential elements include: a faceless and ruthless enemy; a hero/star (who is nonetheless equal to his peers); an ethnically and socioeconomically “mixed group of types” united by their (clearly delineated) objective; an internal group conflict (often dramatizing a societal anxiety the film seeks to resolve, e.g. about inflicting civilian casualties); the absence of women; and soldiers’ remembrances of home.   

Screen Nazis: Cinema, History and Democracy by Sabine Hawk: Though focused on postwar European cinema, Hawk offers a first chapter on “The Hollywood Anti-Nazi Films of the 1940s” as well as a primer in her introduction on the history of theorizing film Nazis, starting with Susan Sontag’s seminal essay, “Fascinating Fascism” (1974), which established psychoanalytic theory as the primary approach, “assuming a libidinal economy of domination and submission.” Additively, Hawk insists on historicizing film Nazis, understanding their representations within specific socio-historical contexts, and tracing their evolution over seven-plus decades. She argues that the endurance of the “fascist imaginary as signifying system” is less about the past than it is about contemporary anxieties about democracy. Hawks explores how anti-Nazi films traffic in affect and demonstrate a reflexive impulse towards “demarcation and externalization,” betraying the fascistic enemy as the democratic subject’s “suppressed self.” 

Don't miss our latest features and interviews.

Sign up for the Notebook Weekly Edit newsletter.


ColumnsHollywood Anti-FascismWorld War IINotebook Primer
Please sign up to add a new comment.


Notebook is a daily, international film publication. Our mission is to guide film lovers searching, lost or adrift in an overwhelming sea of content. We offer text, images, sounds and video as critical maps, passways and illuminations to the worlds of contemporary and classic film. Notebook is a MUBI publication.


If you're interested in contributing to Notebook, please see our pitching guidelines. For all other inquiries, contact the editorial team.