uring World War II, American mass communications helped create and intensify the most jingoistic, ethnocentric, and ideologically unified public opinion in the history of this country.
    During this anomaly in American ideological diversity, through print and radio news, public service announcements, entertainment and consumer advertising, Americans were exposed to a steady diet of U.S. war propaganda -- exquisitely-crafted, persuasive messages designed to raise spirits, engender national pride and foster understanding of our reasons for going to war and of America’s inevitable victory. When workers poured out of their around-the-clock shifts at defense plants and other war-essential industries, or when Mr. and Mrs. America simply craved escapist diversion, they visited their local movie theaters, the "television" of their age (Sklar, 250). In these Bijous, Rialtos and Strands, audiences sat back in the dark and absorbed idealistic, enthusiastic pro-American, anti-Axis messages presented in the form of cartoons, newsreels, and feature films.
    This investigation concerns itself with one small aspect of this deluge of war propaganda: the characterizations of the enemy presented to Americans in the feature-length war films Hollywood produced between 1941 and 1946. It will describe how the film industry, at times both cooperating with and defying the wishes of the Roosevelt administration, treated each Axis member differently, portraying the Italians with the least severity, the Germans with considerably more venom, and reserving its most vicious attacks for the Japanese (Morella, 59-60). | Note on propaganda |


Uneven Treatment of the Axis Powers
    In Hollywood feature films, Germany, Italy, and Japan were not treated as villains of equal stature. Were they handled differently relative to their perceived threat to the U.S.? If so, Japan’s attack on American territory on Dec. 7, 1941 might explain why the Japanese became America’s number one object of hate. Germany had blitzed England and occupied France prior to December 7, and President Roosevelt's speeches had warned Americans that we were next. So correctly, Germany received much harsher treatment than did Italy, but not at all as severe as the venom reserved for the Japanese (Dolan, 45). In American feature films, with the exception of Mussolini himself, the Italians were either ignored or received little serious criticism beyond their stereotypical lassitude and military ineptitude. By and large Italians were treated, as this investigation's title suggests, as buffoons, simple comic diversions in otherwise melodramatic scenarios. (Interestingly, Frank Capra's propaganda documentary Prelude to War (1943) treated Germany, Italy and Japan equally.)

    But perhaps this pecking order of damnation was inspired by the amount of engagement American and Allied forces had with each of these enemies. After all, the very best of Hollywood's wartime output was drawn from actual occurrences, producing such fictional accounts as Mrs. Miniver (the blitz and the battle of Britain), They Were Expendable (defending the Philippines from the Japanese), Air Force (recovering and "counter-punching" after Pearl Harbor), Action In The North Atlantic (Allied convoys battling German U-Boats), and Sahara (holding the line against Rommel’s Afrika Corps at El Alamein).

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    The scant mention of Italians in American films of this period might then be explained by the simple fact that Americans faced them in battle only briefly. Although Italians fought against the Allies during the campaigns in North Africa and Sicily, shortly after the allied invasion of Italy, the Italian army ceased to be an effective fighting force. By the time the Allies drove the Germans out of Sicily and crossed over to Italy, the Italian army was virtually nonexistent. Given a choice between the Nazis and the Allies, most Italians greeted Americans as friends and liberators.
    In films produced during or shortly after World War II, only the 1943 film The Immortal Sergeant dealt with Allied soldiers actively fighting the Italian army. In Five Graves to Cairo, the Italian Army does not engage anyone: it has already been defeated. In The Immortal Sergeant, Italians are neither prisoners, turncoats, comic characters, or non-combatants. They are faceless foes across the battlefield. But even in this film, the sons of Caesar get no respect. In one scene, two scruffy-looking excuses for Italian soldiers are on picket duty. Not only do they fail to notice British soldiers sneaking up on their position, but by striking a match to light their cigarettes and illuminate each other, the two Italian soldiers make it easy for the British soliders to pick them off.
    Early in America’s portion of the war, however, the Pacific Fleet had suffered a sound thrashing by the Japanese. From FDR to the U.S. media, this blow to American national and military pride was dismissed by reminding audiences that the savage, uncivilized Asian enemy did not "play fair," choosing to mount a "sneak attack" while their envoys were negotiating for peace in Washington. The first major film about America’s defeat in the Pacific, Wake Island, was portrayed as a victory because the heroics of Wake's defenders delayed the Japanese while America recovered from the treachery of the Pearl Harbor attack. Using a "one front at a time" strategy, FDR and joint chiefs chairman George Marshall planned to first defeat Germany and then turn their efforts toward Japan. American propaganda feature films reflected these priorities.

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    Another possible explanation for the uneven treatment of America's enemies can be discovered in the mass-mediated stereotypes of the Italian, German, and Japanese races and cultures. During the formative years of motion pictures, the now-offensive image of the ignorant, happy, harmless, garlic-eating, wine-making, organ-grinding Italian had been frequently presented to American moviegoers. The stereotype of the strutting, monocled, supercilious, Prussian martinet with his riding boots and jodhpurs made its debut in World War I anti-German propaganda films (Maynard, 50-51). The same type of individual pervaded Hollywood's anti-Nazi films of the late 1930s and continued unabated during the war. At this time, Japanese stereotypes appeared in American films. One Hollywood creation, Mr. Moto, was a cunning, diminutive, bespectacled Oriental, in contrast to the servile, grinning, deferential-to-Occidentals stereotype of the "Chinaman." But "sneaky" may have been the kindest comment Hollywood made about the perpetrators of the attack on Pearl Harbor.

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    Because name-calling is a clear way to define and characterize these distinctions, this discussion will next address this pillar of propaganda.

Japanese as Sub-Human
    Racial differences (as well as political and moral differences) made the Japanese easier propaganda targets than the Germans or Italians. More tools to use and no need to hold back. Anthropomorphisms were used often to portray the Japanese as lower creatures, which perhaps explains why U.S. leaders felt that public opinion would support the use of nuclear weapons on Japanese civilian populations. Although they were called worse names, the most common anthropomorphism was the monkey.
    For example, in Guadalcanal Diary, after capturing the enemy’s main base, Marines examined the food their enemy had left behind. They were surprised to find caviar:

Marine: Caviar! I thought these monkeys lived on fish heads and rice!

    Later, when three ragged Japanese prisoners are paraded in front of a group of Marines, the American soliders say:

Marine #1: Hey, it’s three monkeys on a rope. Boy, are they small!

Marine #2: Hey, Snow White! Where’s the seven dwarfs [sic]?

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    Not to belabor this particular anthropomorphism, but to name just a few films, the Japanese were called monkeys five times in Guadalcanal Diary, four times in The Fighting Seabees, three times in both Objective Burma and Bataan, twice in Gung Ho!, and once each in China Girl, Blood on the Sun and Air Force.
    In addition, in Guadalcanal Diary and Black Dragons, the Japanese are called "apes," and in Bataan, the enemy is referred to as "no-tailed baboons" -- a name inspired by the American stereotype of the buck-toothed Japanese.
    Another anthropomorphism often used against the Japanese was the "rat," and screenwriters didn’t hesitate to suggest that the enemy should be favorably compared to them. As Goebbels suggested about the Jews in the Nazi hate film The Eternal Jew, it takes very little imagination to conclude that the Japanese, like the rodent, required extermination.

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    The reference may be as simple as a backhanded insult, as in The Purple Heart. In this film, Dana Andrews argues with a Japanese General, who describes with pride the fanaticism of his army, who are willing to fight to the last man. The American, wittily jabbing at the enemy with a mannerly insult, says,
Andrews: . . . From all I’ve heard of your soldiers, they fight like cornered rats. [sarcastically] No offense, General.

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    In Destination Tokyo, a submarine’s executive officer is watching the destruction of Japanese ships and shore targets caused by the bombers in the Doolittle raid. As he watches Japanese cruisers and destroyers getting under way to avoid being sitting ducks for the American bombers, the officer shouts:
Exec: Yipe! Our planes are chasing the rats out of their nests!

    Likewise, in God is My Co-pilot, an American flyer refers to Japanese pilot "Tokyo Joe’s" wingmen as "brother rats." Bataan contains an additional rodent variation: the Japanese are called "dirty, rotten rats."

Germans as Scavenger Animals
    The Germans also received their share of anthropomorphisms. Although sometimes the object of comparison with rodents, Germans were frequently compared to scavenger animals. For example, in Lifeboat, they’re "Nazi Buzzards" and in Sahara, they’re "mad dogs." In addition, in Five Graves to Cairo, an Italian general characterizes Italy’s fateful alliance with Germany: "Well, as they say in Milano, when you lie down with dogs, you wake up with fleas."

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    Also in the canine family, in Tarzan Triumphs (1943) (yes, even Tarzan fought the Germans in films made during World War II), the ape man calls Germans "jackals" and "hyenas."

Italians Dismissed as Fools
    Italians get off relatively easily. In Sahara, the Italian prisoner is referred to by Humphrey Bogart as "a load of spaghetti" and the Italian people as "suckers" for buying into Mussolini’s fascism. In a dinner conversation about war negotiations in Five Graves to Cairo, an Italian general suggests that instead of threats of aggression, disputing countries should exchange chefs rather than envoys. This, reasoned the Italian, would result in conflict resolutions by macaroni rather than threats. Dining with the Italian general is German Field Marshall Rommel, played phlegmatically by Erich von Stroheim. Extremely disdainful of his ally, Rommel calls the general a fool, and, the obsequious Italian apologizes and speaks no more at the table.
    And, of course, J. Carrol Naish makes a classic speech in Sahara. He plays an Italian prisoner of war who finally stands up to the bullying "Nazi dog" prisoner:

Naish: Italians are not like-a Germans. Only the body wears the uniform, not-a the soul. Mussolini’s not so clever like-a Hitler. He can dress his Italians only to look-a like thieves, cheats, murderers. He cannot, like-a Hitler, make-a them feel like that!

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    In A Walk in the Sun, Italians are dismissed as a people, ". . . sold a bill of goods that they were gonna boss the world. . . . Now the ones who sold it to them are gone, they’re left holding the bag, the poor suckers." In the same picture, Italians are characterized as ". . . the slap-happiest people I ever saw."

Sticks and Stones
    The majority of the venomous names were left for the Germans and Japanese. Here’s a chosen handful of mouthfuls from a few dozen World War II films. First the Germans:

  • "Heels" in All Through the Night
  • "Dirty bastards" in Action in the North Atlantic (This line, spoken by Dane Clark, is partially obscured by explosions.)
  • "Stupid swine" and "oxen" (Ironically spoken by a Nazi colonel about his own men in Berlin Correspondent.)
  • "Heinie" in Captains of the Clouds and Corvette K-225
  • "Kraut" in A Walk in the Sun
  • "Huns" and "Jerries." in Eagle Squadron
  • "A crummy bunch of jokers" in Sahara
  • "Brutes" in This Land is Mine
  • "Ersatz Superman" and sarcastic references to "Der Master Race" in Lifeboat

Then, the Japanese:

  • "Japs," of course, in nearly every picture
  • "Nips" in The Fighting Seabees and "little sneakin’ Nips" in Air Force
  • "Dirty snipes" in Destination Tokyo
  • "Hong Kong Hophead" ("Tokyo Joe’s" air field was in Japanese-held Hong Kong) in God is My Co-Pilot
  • "Suckers" in Bataan
  • and "Savages" in China Girl and Objective Burma

Other Tactics
    American filmmakers adopted several other methods besides name-calling in their campaign of derision against the Axis powers. (Few, if any, of the following methods apply to depictions of Italians.)
    The Japanese, and especially the Germans, are often shown thoughtlessly killing their own soldiers if it serves their purposes. Enemy riflemen and especially fighter pilots are shown grinning with delight and sometimes laughing as they gun down Americans, who are sometimes unarmed.
    These films include references to Germans and especially the Japanese as cruel and barbaric, preying mostly upon the weak. Germans and Japanese are shown to be capable of bloody and needless reprisals against civilians, including rape, and the murder of women and children.
    By the end of the war the Allies were almost as guilty as the Axis powers when it came to bombing civilians (more so, if we count Hiroshima and Nagasaki) -- although Americans were always shown in our films bombing just military targets, and then only in so-called "surgical strikes." But the enemy was repeatedly shown taking great pains to bomb civilian targets, especially orphanages, schools, churches, and hospitals.
    German and Japanese cultures were shown in many different ways to be inferior to that of the Allies. In Destination Tokyo, a submarine crewman named "Mike" tries to rescue a downed Japanese flyer from the water. Instead, the "ungrateful" Japanese soldier stabs Mike in the back, killing him. Later, as the Captain (Cary Grant) and his men mourn Mike’s passing, the Captain delivers this speech:

Captain: ". . . Mike bought his kid roller skates when the kid turned five -- Well, that Jap got a present when he was five: only it was a dagger. His old man gave it to him so he would know right off what he was supposed to be in life. [Grant goes on to say that Japanese kids were taught the skills of war at a young age] . . . and by the time he’s 13, he can put a machine gun together blindfolded. That Jap was started on the road 20 years ago to putting a knife in Mike’s back. And a lot more Mikes are going to die until we wipe out a system that puts daggers in the hands of five-year-old children. That’s what Mike died for: more roller skates in this world -- even some for the next generation of Japanese kids.

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    The differences between "us" -- and "them" -- were made clear in movie after movie during the war. These differences included the Japanese disregard for human life and liberty and their godlike worship of their emperor. Hollywood also showed us the Germans’ love of totalitarianism, their plans to make all other nations slaves of the Third Reich, and their worshipful devotion to Hitler. As an example of their imperialistic aims, in Casablanca Vichy Captain Renault greets SS Major Strasser as he arrives in the North African city. Renault apologizes for the oppressive heat, but Strasser dismisses Renault’s concern, saying that Germans (because of their conquests) must become accustomed to all climates.
    In these films, gangster-like behavior was standard for the Germans and frequent for the Japanese, especially in spy films such as Across The Pacific. This of course included thievery, the classic double-cross, and officers whose word (including the white flag of truce) could not be trusted. For example, during a lull in the battle between a small band of allied soldiers preventing a battalion of Germans from occupying an oasis in Sahara, a swinish Nazi colonel orders his troops to open fire on an allied soldier who waves a white flag while returning to the Allied trenches.
    Finally, American film propagandists took great pains to remind us of the Japanese and German disdain for the Allies. In particular, films displayed sneering German and Japanese officers voicing their disdain for American virtue, religion, rule of law, and freedom.

    Besides vilifying the enemy, films of World War II took other propagandistic tacks which in this article I can only list. They include establishing, as Harold Lasswell referred to it, the "guilt" of the war -- who’s responsible for Americans having to go off to a foreign country and kill people they don’t know. Or, in movie talk, as John Wayne would say, "They started it, and now we’re gonna finish it." As well, these films went to great pains to establish "happy endings," even when Americans lost the battle, to make it clear to all, that again in Lasswell’s terminology, that the "Illusion of Victory" -- ultimate triumph over the enemy, was a sure thing -- if Americans all sacrifice and work together against the common foe (Lasswell).
    As well, American filmmakers employed even Biblical metaphors and types, dubbed by Ronald Reid Apocalypticism and Typology, to characterize the enemy as the forces of evil and darkness, and the Allies as the army of light and God’s righteous avengers, out to conquer the Antichrist (Reid, 229).
    As well, with frequent references to how the Germans and Japanese planned to conquer America, such as Admiral Yamamoto’s famous threat to ". . . dictate peace terms on the steps of the White House," these films employ appeals to Americans’ natural sense of territoriality (Donald, 43).
    But in all of these, there is a pecking order of venom against our enemies: A slap on the wrist to the hapless Italians, hatred for the Nazis and the fascism they stood for, and antagonism, loathing and revulsion for the Japanese unmatched in filmed war propaganda either before or since.