“We’re Going to Win this Thing, Right?” The Art of Propaganda

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To view The Lion Has Wings click here.

Propaganda can be as benign as simply biasing information to promote one particular point of view, usually at the expense of another. In its more naked form, it can be used to convince one set people that another group will be their destruction if they’re not dealt with swiftly and decisively. And in its most dangerous form, it can be used to convince the masses that an entire population of people don’t deserve to live. Radio and the movies gave propaganda a reach it never had before the 20th century. During the 1930s, both became a strikingly strong means of getting the message across and once World War II got started, radio broadcasters like Lord Haw Haw and Axis Sally did their best to demoralize the enemy: the Allied Powers in general, Britain in particular. At a certain point, you’ve got to hit back and all sides did. During World War I and II, the Allies dehumanized their enemies in posters,  from the “Mad Brute” ape depiction of German soldiers in World War I to the buck-toothed, thick glasses of the Japanese in World War II. The Nazis, of course, took things to an entirely different level with their rampant dehumanization of the Jews leading to eventual systemic genocide. And when the Nazis went into western Poland on September 1, 1939, joined by the Soviet Union in the east a couple of weeks later, Britain found itself in a tense situation. They weren’t nearly as prepared as they could have been but needed to convince the British people they were. Enter Alexander Korda and his three contract directors Michael Powell, Adrian Brunel and Brian Desmond Hurst, to quickly make a propaganda film that could be released to audiences within weeks. The result was The Lion Has Wings, one of the most important, and groundbreaking, propaganda films of the period.

Producer Alexander Korda knew a few things about the British film industry and war. He knew that during the Great War, the film industry had been effectively shut down, put on hold until the war was over. But movies were bigger business now and the thought of having them halted again didn’t sit well with him. He made a deal with the British government in August, 1939, that should war be declared he would immediately cease production of whatever film he was working on (at the time, it was The Thief of Baghdad) and get to work on a propaganda film that could be released to audiences within weeks. When war was indeed declared, Korda kept his word and pulled everyone away to begin production on The Lion Has Wings. He knew if he could prove the British Film Industry was a valuable tool in the war effort, that business would keep going steady.

Korda had a great company to work with. In addition to his directors, he had Ralph Richardson and June Duprez, fresh off of their big hit The Four Feathers (1939), released only a month earlier. And in addition to those two, he had recently wed Merle Oberon who just happened to be an actress of some, shall we say, international fame. And he even had some historical reenactment courtesy of a clip from Fire Over England, in which Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth, gives a rousing speech to her men. He put all three directors to work simultaneously with Powell filming the air raid scenes, Brunel the spy scenes and Hurst the home front scenes with Richardson, Oberon and Duprez. In less than eight weeks, it was done, edited and out in theaters.

Mixed in with the narrative story was a plentiful amount of stock footage from munitions factories and air shows. Since Britain was quite unprepared for war at the time, the footage itself sometimes works against the whole idea of what the unit was going for. We see footage of biplanes from airshows intended to impress the audience, and the Nazis, but since the planes are clearly inferior to the Luftwaffe’s forces, the narrator says the footage is outdated but rest assured, Britain has planes way better than this now! It’s not entirely convincing. The Powell sequences exaggerate the technical readiness of the early detection by making it seem that Britain had “electronic eyes” monitoring the coast and the Nazis would only lose pilots and planes if they attempted to invade.

At times, it feels as if the movie itself is unconvinced. Just behind the written narration you can almost here the filmmakers asking each other, “We are going to win this thing, right?” “Oh, gosh, yes, of course! I think. Anyway, what else can we exaggerate?” Michael Powell himself had several blunt observations on the making of the film, including that it was an “outrageous piece of propaganda” and “mostly lies,” but that he felt it had the right spirit, the spirit of survival and the will to fight which was, after all, what they were really going for. The main purpose was to give the British people hope when everyone knew, in a fairly open secret, that the air force was diminished and antiquated. And as the opening of the movie makes clear, as it contrasts Adolph Hitler’s values with Britain’s values, Britain’s way of life was at stake and so it was, to quote another Prime Minister from decades later, “no time to go wobbly.”

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And that’s the key to this, and most propaganda that preceded and followed it. It wasn’t trying to convince the British that the Empire really had the best weapons or that it should fight because it was the strongest. The conviction was that if Britain lost, they would be the slaves of Nazism. Whether the propaganda is full of lies or cleverly twisted truths, most pit one way of life against another. The difference is that everything the Nazis claimed about what they could achieve if only the Jews would stop undermining their country was a lie in and of itself. WhenThe Lion Has Wings, on the other hand, shows life in Nazi Germany and how that way of life would sweep across Europe, you think, “Yep, that seems about right.” So if you need to lie to make sure that doesn’t happen, isn’t it worth it?

Propaganda is unsettling no matter how you look at it, even when its ultimate goal is a civil one. It’s unsettling because it almost always employs lies and half-truths as weapons so even if it works for the good, you’re still left with the knowledge that it worked because you lied. And if it worked for a noble cause, it could just as easily work against it, or for something far more sinister. The Lion Has Wings is a classic example of war time propaganda and one of the most influential pieces of film propaganda in history. It would pave the way for hundreds of small films during the war and some big ones too, like the Why We Fight (1942-1945) series. It oversimplified, bent the truth, and outright lied, but it gave the British people confidence while at the same time creating a monster we’re still trying to figure out how to rein in.

Greg Ferrara

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11 Responses “We’re Going to Win this Thing, Right?” The Art of Propaganda
Posted By Doug : September 15, 2017 8:07 am

Oh yeah-content warning. Propping up our spirits with propaganda:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q7vtWB4owdE

Posted By swac44 : September 15, 2017 8:53 am

So much of this propaganda quickly falls by the wayside once its goals are achieved (or in the case of the opposite side, lost), only to be reexamined years later by historians and devotees of pop culture.

One example I was stunned by was the animated Disney offering, Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi which, like The Lion Has Wings was parceled out to different factions in the studio, so the schoolboys resemble Pinocchio, while a Hitler burlesque has the feel of a Goofy short.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 15, 2017 10:20 am

“The Germans?”

“Forget it, he’s rolling.”

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 15, 2017 10:31 am

Swac, Disney has apparently blocked that on copyright grounds so I will seek it out elsewhere.

I bought all the Max Fleischer/Dave Fleischer/Famous Studios Supermans on DVD a few years back (I even wrote one up here not long after) and it was jarring to see the utterly dehumanized portrayal of the Japanese. In the same series, the Germans are portrayed as more of a standard villain, one we are to root against, to be sure, but still human bad guys. In the piece from a few years back I mention Jungle Drums in which a Nazi leads a mindless African tribe to do his bidding. He is an evil mastermind, they are dehumanized Africans unable to think for themselves. So even when it’s a short about freaking Nazis(!!!), it’s the African tribesmen who get diminished, not the Nazis!

Then, of course, when it’s Japanese, they are never masterminds, like the Germans, they are instead alien destructors, a sub-human race bent on destroying the world. The worst part of all of this is how long it took for that to be recognized. I mean, I watched these on tv when I was a kid, decades after the war ended and nobody thought, “Eh, maybe we shouldn’t run these ones?”

Posted By George : September 15, 2017 5:56 pm

Greg, Japan started the Pacific War by bombing Pearl Harbor. For the next four years, Americans hated the Japanese probably more than they have ever hated any people.

We wanted to defeat the Nazis, but we wanted to exterminate the Japanese. Because of Pearl Harbor.

Read about Japan’s invasion of China in the late 1930s, and the Rape of Nanking, among other atrocities. Or about the use of Korean women as “comfort girls.” The Japanese DID act like subhuman monsters in that war. Virtually no American cared when they committed suicide en masse, or when they were incinerated at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The attitude was: they asked for it.

A lot of that wartime propaganda seems over the top now, but there was a basis in reality.

Posted By George : September 15, 2017 6:05 pm

I should amend my comments to say the Japanese MILITARY acted like subhuman monsters during the war. The average Japanese civilian was no worse than anyone else.

This is what happens when a country is run by a military dictatorship, which is what Imperial Japan was. (The emperor was just a figurehead. He was spared after the war, while Tojo and other military leaders went — deservedly — to the gallows.)

Posted By Doug : September 15, 2017 8:23 pm

“Foreign Correspondent” might be considered propaganda in line with
“The Lion Has Wings”-it placed the coming conflict front and center before the audience, as if to say, “Hitler is a global threat-we MUST take him and the Nazis seriously.”
Perhaps “Once upon A Honeymoon” from 1942 would also fill the bill.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 15, 2017 9:48 pm

George, I’m well aware of the history and even covered a little of it in my Last Emperor post. And not that it makes any difference, but just for the record, my uncle was a Marine and died at Iwo Jima. I’ve given this link before but here it is again: http://www.recordsofwar.com/iwo/dead/dead.htm#f He is listed “Ferrara, Joseph L, Cpl, KIA, 25th Marines, USMC.” I grew up reading every history on the war in the Pacific I could and talking to my dad about it.

Look, I know how horrible the Japanese were in the thirties and forties in China and at war with America. My intention was to point out the dehumanization of people in propaganda and how the easiest stereotypes are used to convey the message, not excuse or in any way negate the horrific actions of the Japanese.

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 15, 2017 10:03 pm

Doug, and everybody I guess, another propaganda film that qualifies as a masterpiece regardless is The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. I’ve thought of it often when propaganda comes up because of the speech that Anton Walbrook gives Roger Livesy about the Nazis. He explains how evil they were and tells him that there is no place anymore for gentlemen’s rules in war. He’s basically saying, they fight dirty and so should we. And that’s an ethical dilemma right there.

There’s a good documentary on the air raids of World War II (it was on PBS a few years back and I cannot remember the name, sorry) that starts out by showing footage of citizens and politicians expressing shock and disgust that the Nazis were bombing cities, not military centers or munition factories, but cities with the sole purpose of wreaking havoc on the civilian population in an effort to destroy their will to fight. It ends with the Allies bombing city after city with far worse destruction and no one saying anything but they agreed with it. In only four years, people had gone from shock and disgust from civilian populations being bombed to total acceptance. Then it ends with one of the historians saying, basically, if we hadn’t done it, would we have won?

I think about that with Colonel Blimp and how easy you can go from doing anything to win in a situation like World War II to doing anything at all, from torture to God knows what, just because you can. The first one may excusable because civilization was on the line, but what about the second? Or maybe the future is on the line so you can’t take any chances. They’re tough questions and ones that movies can handle with grace (Blimp) or a sledgehammer (The Lion Has Wings).

Posted By George : September 15, 2017 10:22 pm

Don’t guess this 1943 cartoon gets many (or any) TV showings these days …

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sy9rGAO-qfc

Posted By Greg Ferrara : September 15, 2017 11:07 pm

I imagine not. But, honestly, I’m grateful for the internet that we do have such a treasure trove of relics like this. It used to be that studios got rid of the stuff they didn’t like after it fell out of favor but it’s important to preserve all of it.

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