Sep 11 2012

Propaganda on the Big Screen

Published by at 10:00 am under Editorials,Movies

According to Wikipedia, propaganda is a form of communication that is aimed at influencing the attitude of a community toward some cause or position. Hell, there will probably be some propaganda in my commentary.

One major reason people choose to make art is to get a point across. Maybe it’s not a universal, cosmic truth point, but sometimes it is. People use poetry, novels, paintings, movies, and countless other media to share their ideas or to say something about the world in which they live. Social and cultural commentary is a huge part of the arts

In these instances, subtlety is usually more readily welcome than the blunt and repetitive propaganda we sometimes find.

The problem with propaganda in movies is that it gets annoying. It feels like the writer or director is preaching at us. And though that may be the case, we shouldn’t feel like we’re being preached at—nobody likes being preached at. It’s a movie; we should be entertained. And if the director or writer feels the need to preach, let them do it in such a way that no one notices.

In The Lorax, for instance, I knew going in that it would be about saving the environment. I didn’t know how much it was going to beat me over the head with being eco-friendly, though. But I didn’t really notice just how adamant the Lorax was about his trees until a friend pointed it out to me. She complained about there being too much propaganda, especially for a children’s movie.

But there is such a thing as good propaganda. As annoying as it may be, The Lorax does have a pretty good message: Don’t wreck the environment. It’s bad for everyone. Personally, and I hope most people feel this way, I would rather my children be exposed to that kind of message than one that told us to do with the environment what we want.

Even with the endless talk about preserving the environment, The Lorax was very enjoyable. Some movies, however, are not so enjoyable.

I had no desire to see Act of Valor, but it was a friend’s birthday. The movie follows members of the United States military as they go on secret missions murdering terrorists and drug lords. I say “murdering” because that’s what it is.

First of all, it probably didn’t help that everyone who was cast was a terrible actor (as they were actual soldiers). Secondly, there was very little plot—and what little there was wasn’t very good or original. But once I got past that, the movie seemed familiar, like I had watched it before. But I hadn’t. It took me a while to figure out, but the movie played just like a first-person shooter video game. That’s fine; games like Call of Duty and Halo sell quite well. I don’t blame them for doing that.

But when they finally get the big bad terrorist at the end, they don’t just kill him, they obliterate him. Two or three shots would have done just fine, but the troops pump a seemingly endless supply of ammo into the terrorist.

When everyone in the theater stood up and clapped, I realized that Act of Valor was merely glorification of war and the military. Not only that, but first-person shooter video games were too. I was appalled at the overwhelming amount of propaganda in the movie.

Other movies like The Hunger Games and the Harry Potter series carry strong messages that get across without being too preachy. The Hunger Games is about standing up against an oppressive government even if it means risking your life or the lives of others. It’s about correcting injustice in a system that should be built on justice. Harry Potter is about racial tension (wizards and witches vs. muggles vs. mudbloods). Voldemort is basically a modern Hitler.

These two movies/series have a lot of plot and action. The action distracts from the message just enough so that it doesn’t get to be too much, and the plot makes the message more meaningful and helps the action to stay relevant.

These are just a few examples of the different ways propaganda can be used in movies. Be careful not to mistake a single incident with propaganda though. Propaganda is usually repetitive, and can be approached from multiple angles. A single detail does not make a movie propaganda.

Fox News attacked The Muppets recently for containing anti-capitalist propaganda. The primary antagonist is an oil tycoon named Tex Richman. He’s a stereotypical wealthy villain. Fox was trying to say that using a wealthy oil tycoon as a villain made the movie anti-capitalism. That single instance doesn’t mean the movie wants viewers to become socialists, and it doesn’t make the movie anti-capitalism.

Now, had the characters blown up gas stations and boycotted Wal*Mart while carrying anti-Romney signs, you might be able to say the movie had a lot of anti-capitalist propaganda. But as I remember it, none of those things happened.

Propaganda is sometimes a necessary evil, so be prepared to watch it on television and in movies. And don’t be afraid to have some of it in your story if you’re writing a screenplay or something similar. Just think about your audience, and you should be fine.





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20 responses so far

  • Blake

    Heh… this guy thinks Romney is a capitalist, natch.

    Regardless, I think the Muppets responded eloquently.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6vYj7YVPo70

  • Michael

    You are appalled by the propaganda in a movie with the tag line: “A Motion Picture Starring Active Duty Navy SEALS”?

    What expectations did you have of this movie that made you think it would be anything other than a terribly acted action movie?

    Your point on propaganda is that it is annoying? That is seriously the crux of your argument? The last paragraph lost me, is it directed at people who have never turned on a TV or watched a movie or is this supposed to be a self help guide for writers?

    I will say that probably at no other point in the history of the man will you find an article on the internet that compares Act of Valor, Lorax, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, Muppets and Call of Duty. On another note, please proofread the article before posting it. The first sentence sets the tone for the entire article.

  • J. Morales

    Sorry but I actually enjoyed Act of Valor. :-)

    Your point on murdering is ridiculous as well. They are special ops, not cops. Unfortunately a lot of people seem to have trouble making that distinction, the laws of war and the laws of peace are not the same thing. Anyway, glad you at least saw the movie.

    Overall, an interesting article and your right that no one likes getting preached at in a movie. I would say that it depends though. Act of Valor, most people knew what they were getting into. Something like the Lorax though, it’s annoying because you weren’t expecting it and didn’t desire it. You were just going to watch a fun kids’ movie.

  • frikkenkids

    Happy Feet was the last movie I watched where the level of the propaganda made me angry. And again, that was in a children’s movie.

  • Skeebo

    I expected the Lorax to be a pretty big propaganda movie b/c that was the point of the book. Seuss delivers the message fairly adroitly, but b/c absolutely none of Seuss’s other books or messages have been handled well at all by the movie industry so I fully expected the Lorax to be a shit storm of in your face propaganda.

    Watching a movie like Happy Feet though, which is ostentatiously about an outsider trying to be accepted and fit in and then in pulls a HUGE turn on you in the last 10 minutes or so to become about something completely different so as to completely invalidate the previous hour of movie or so… that pisses me off, doubly so b/c it is a kids movie.

  • Steve

    Act of Valor was more of a shameless cash grab aimed at America’s military fetishists than propaganda. It didn’t seem to be trying to convince anyone of anything.

    Its sole purpose was to take money out of the wallets of that subset of people who are always talking about who we should bomb, and who can tell you way too much about guns and the military but have never served a day in their lives.

  • Draugr

    The jingoism in Act of Valor is merely the distilled jingoism of many american action movies.

    The question I ask is why you thought it was going to be anything different.

    @Steve

    Sure its a cash grab, but it does try to sell you something, yeah its not trying to convince in a direct way, but thats the hallmark of good propaganda, subtlety. (But I would argue its not subtle at all.)

    Battleship Potemkin is acknowledged as one of the greatest propaganda films of all time, at no point does it shift into trying to directly convince you of anything. The Medium/Story fills that purpose, just as it does in Act of Valor. Though I would argue Act of Valor is far more blunt in its messaging (“Yay Jingoism”)

    Propaganda is a part of all movies, whether consciously inserted or not.
    Are we going to pretend the hostility the US populace (generally) has towards towards middle-easterners/arabs/Muslims has NOTHING to do with portrayal of these peoples in American media of the past 20 and 30 years? We’d be hard pressed to find many examples of these groups being portrayed in a positive way in american media, and this feeds into our perception and our reaction to them. Not that they are the only group who has to deal with this kind of thing.

    How much harder would it have been to go to war in Iraq if we didn’t already have these preconceptions? (Obviously, I don’t mean to imply this was the only factor, but it certainly influences their decision. Its easier to convince people that Saddam Hussein has WMD’s when our media portrayal of Middle easterners is always portraying them as enemies and terrorists – with WMD’s.

  • trashcanman

    Act of Valor and shit like that is just the tip of the iceberg. As Americans, we are taught to worship killing (as long as you are in a uniform when you do it and the victim isn’t white) almost from birth. I think the anime “Sky Crawlers” really captured that bizarre cultural kink where we need soldiers out fighting for freedom wherever there’s trouble (we can always make our own trouble if necessary) to make ourselves feel pride in our country. The movie that really shocked me with it’s blunt propaganda was “Fast Food Nation”. If you actually know anything about the topic at hand it plays almost as a satire of left wing stupidity, but it’s clear that the filmmakers were quite serious and that just makes it pathetic.

  • drunkenjunk

    while act of valor was shit, don’t call it murdering people dipshit. Those people do all the fucked up dirty work that you’re to big of a pussy to mange. Also they’re not soldier, they’re sailors. Soldiers are Infantryman in the Army.

    You’re article blew and I like most of the stuff on here.

  • Stev0

    I’m sorry but this article is begging to be re-thought. I’m not sure you’re really thinking about what propaganda actually is and how it differs (if at all) from other forms of persuasion. And why its “annoying.” I think it can be annoying because it takes its message for granted. Usually the best works of art that try to convey a message by diving deep into it the theme(s) its trying to explore. It looks at it through general and specific lenses, pulling it apart and exposing it for what it seems to really be. For instance, “Hotel Rwanda” zeros in on dehumanization in both its causes and function. And through this in-depth discussion the viewer sees the complexity of the issue so they can make an informed judgement about the life we live.

    Propaganda generally pushes critical thought to the side and says, “this is how it is. And that’s that.” I think the “preachy” element you’re discussing is when someone conveys a message without being critical; without realizing the complexity of the issue its dealing with and how it should take its own thoughts with a grain of salt. Your article falls susceptible to this mentality, where you deem the propagated theme in “Lorax” more acceptable than the one conveyed in “Act of Valor” without actually giving any reason. This is normal human behavior and is fine in some circumstances. But it becomes a problem when it attaches itself to issues that clearly have sophisticated layers and large social implications. You generally don’t need to justify the statement “ice cream is good,” whereas you probably should investigate ideas like “X group is Y’s enemy” or “X gender is meant to do Y thing.”

    And fyi. Please consider saying things like “movies are supposed to entertain me!” No. Not all movies are meant to entertain. For instance, I mentioned “Hotel Rwanda.” That movie is not meant to be entertaining. Seriously, it’s a movie that explores genocide. It’s an excellent movie. But not an entertaining movie; it’s meant to inform you on a serious set of themes. Not everything in life is entertaining. War is not entertaining. Rape is not entertaining. We can try and make it entertaining but that doesn’t mean it has to be.

  • Draugr

    @Drunkenjunk

    Your name perfectly summarizes your response.

  • Charlie Ward

    @Blake: Do you NOT think Mitt Romney is a capitalist? I’m confused. He obviously is, and proud of it. I’m genuinely interested in what you were going for, there.

    Oh, and Glen? Good article, but I have to add my voice in opposition to your “murdering” comment. You KNEW that was going to be offensive, right?

  • Kudos

    Thank you for calling it what it is! Murder is murder whether you are in a fucking uniform or not.

  • Waahmbulance Driver

    Yo Dawg, I heard you like propaganda,
    so we put some propaganda in this post criticizing propaganda. Then you can propagandize while you criticize propaganda

    Your distinctions between “good” propaganda and others is basically which way you already lean on a given issue beforehand. Objectivity fail. But I seriously feel terribly. no good, very bad about other people daring to hold opinions that you disagree with and then victimizing you with their message. I mean what’s wrong those wackos?

  • http://fatpie42.livejournal.com fatpie42

    I wasn’t aware that providing an moral message for children was “propaganda”. When I was young, there was a moral message at the end of every He-Man episode. My parents never thought of it as ‘propaganda’ because that’s an entirely inappropriate term for it. That would suggest that there was some kind of controversy involved.

    Lorax isn’t the only children’s movie to push an environmental message. For one, most of Miyazaki’s animated movies such as “Spirited Away”, “Princess Mononoke” or “Castle In The Sky” have that message too. And let’s not forget “Wall-E”. I don’t think of any of these as propaganda, yet they definitely push an environmental message. They are encouraging ethical behaviour in children.

    Also, in terms of Harry Potter, themes of racism and the like are just that: “themes”. I’ve not seen past the first four Harry Potters so perhaps I’m missing something, but I don’t think the movies can really be said to be pushing a particular point of view on you. When a minority character is mistreated or under threat of mistreatment, then you might well feel that this is not worth making fuss about because they are just a whatever-kind-of-thing-they-are. However, if you find yourself pulled into the movie you may well recognise that these characters deserve equal treatment and may even be able to see the parallel with real life. Propaganda never gives you that level of freedom for personal consideration.

    Your Act of Valour example seems like a good choice. In that instance, there is no question. The movie is pushing that the enemy is absolutely bad and deserves no mercy. Whenever we watch films we tend to want to explore characters in depth and within that film it sounds like the bad guys are given no depth. The reason is because giving bad guys realistic depth of character would conflict with the zealous ‘patriotic’ message.

    On the Muppets thing? Fox News are idiots. Making the bad guy an oil tycoon doesn’t mean that ALL oil tycoons are bad. Fox News presumably want to treat the stereotype of rich white men in the same way as stereotypes of minorities where people can often get (very reasonably) quite upset. But the idea that there has ever been the same kind of stigma against rich oil tycoons as the prejudice against racial minorities resulting from the stereotypes in the media is absurd. It would make more sense to laugh at the fact that the film “brought out the old ‘evil oil tycoon’ stereotype again” than to start calling out “socialist propaganda!!!!” like they do on Fox News.

  • Kisa

    Normally, I come to this site for funny pictures and geek news, but never read the articles. Mostly because a lot of articles I read seem to miss the point or try to push the writers opinion on you. One example of an article here that I felt was missing the point was an article awhile back that interviewed a gamer girl. Speaking as a gamer girl, I felt some areas was highlighted too much and some were completely skipped over. Like how horrible it is to play online as a girl, the male gamers find your gender and either A) sexually harassed you or B) tell you to get back in the kitchen, or make some other sexist joke. It happened so much for me that I hide my gender on online games as much as I can. That issue is BIG among gamer girls, it should have been mentioned.

    I think you mixed up propaganda with preachy, true propaganda can be preachy, but something preachy may not be propaganda. Also, if you want to talk about Act of Valor’s propaganda, you can just talk about how their message is propagandized, not be blunt and force your opinion of how you think killing terrorists is murder. It made your own article come across “preachy” in itself.

  • mark miller

    George Orwell said that art can never escape politics beacuse the notion that art should not be political is in itself a political ideal

  • Sarah

    While I agree with a lot of what was said, including the “murder” comment, there are certain things that need rethinking. Yes, Act of Valor is propaganda. Pure and simple. So is The Lorax. While one of these gives a good message and the other a negative message, both propaganda. However, the Harry Potter series, I don’t believe can count as propaganda. Yes it has themes of tolerance that may be references to current social issues, but that makes it more of an allegory than propaganda. That’s like saying that To Kill a Mockingbird is propaganda due to the story line of Boo Radley. While we see propaganda pretty much every day of our lives, not every piece of media we ingest falls in this category and I feel you may want to reexamine your ideas of what is and is not propaganda.

  • Patrick

    Fox news is the biggest conservative station ever.
    Any thing they say regarding any kind of government or politics should be ignored completley

  • Jack Baxter

    Like a Dean Koontz novel. The guy preaches at you so badly you want to punch him. He sacrifices plot, character development and even a decent ending for many of his novels just so he can preach his personal opinion to you. And it’s always the same in every one of his novels. That’s why I stopped reading them.

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