by guest reviewer Dillon Bluemel
1942’s Wake Island, directed by John Farrow, is hands-down a propaganda film: we get faceless, merciless Japanese soldiers being mowed down in waves by heroic, handsome American Marines. To watch this film now, with the “greatest generation” attitudes towards war behind us, the film just seems incredibly corny. It's amazing that at one time a movie like this could be nominated for four academy awards (Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Best Director, Best Picture and Best Original Screenplay).
Of course, we would never be taken in by propaganda, would we?
Of course, in 1942, WWII was raging; thousands of young men were going off to an uncertain fate in a "world" war. The audience for "Wake Island" would have included not just those too young to fight and women whose sweethearts were off to war, but young men who were getting ready to go to war, as well. So the image of brave, good-looking men fighting a ruthless enemy and winning gave those left behind the courage to keep fighting Fascism, one of the most evil ideologies in history.
If it weren’t for that history, though, I believe this movie would have been mediocre at best, even for it’s time--but because of its timing, and the valor this film presents regardless of its cornyish sentiment, it was probably exactly what America needed.
Compare the reception of Wake Island to the Vietnam War era production The Green Berets starring John Wayne: it also shows brave, handsome, and highly trained soldiers destroying hundreds of faceless foreign troops. Basically the one and only propaganda film of the Vietnam War era, The Green Berets was met with almost universal derision. National perceptions of war had shifted, and America no longer saw war in general as worthwhile.
Our post-9/11 world has seen a turnaround in American war films; once again Hollywood is depicting a ruthless and faceless enemy in films such as The Hurt Locker and American Sniper, although these films have evolved towards melodrama with the addition of a “head villain” character, such as was popular in westerns and crime films.
Moreover, most Americans today won’t ever see conflict. But really the only difference between WWII propaganda cinema and modern war cinema is the spotlight on the lone true bad guy leading that army of faceless soldiers, whereas in classical propaganda it was always purely a faceless army. But whatever the differences, war films have never been just pure entertainment; they are used as a symbol to direct the public’s feelings about war.