The Challenges Faced by the Marshall Plan Filmmakers
British historian David Ellwood, a professor at Italy’s University of Bologna, is one of the foremost experts on the aims and methods of the Marshall Plan’s public information program. According to him, the single overarching goal of the information program was to paint a convincing picture of rising expectations a vision of a future in which Europeans could aspire to prosperity, American-style.
This was a remarkable promise in countries that had been physically and emotionally devastated by years of war. In this laboratory of hostility and hope, film was used as a medium for social change. Created in an atmosphere of experimentation and, for the most part, by people at the beginning of their careers, the Marshall Plan films found myriad entertaining ways to tell the same story: “Help is on the way, there’s hope for the future, you can do it!”
The filmmakers of the German Reich had pioneered the use of film as a means of generating nationalist fervor. OMGUS and Marshall Plan filmmakers in Germany were keen to discredit the Nazi propaganda and to re-socialize large elements of a society that had been brainwashed by it. This was a delicate and difficult operation. Documents from the time indicate that their efforts sometimes went awry when they pushed their message too fast or too hard, an example being the film Hunger, which OMGUS authorites withdrew from theaters in response to German protests.3 OMGUS film officers also had to decide which films to allow in from the outside, and made controversial decisions like the one to ban Billy Wilder’s A Foreign Affair.
The Marshall Plan filmmakers, working out of 18 country missions, emphasized cross-cultural understanding, European solidarity and cooperation, and the choices each individual faces in determining how he or she will fit into the larger social fabric. The individual’s responsibility to embrace diversity, rather than fear and reject it, was proposed by the Marshall Plan filmmakers as a core democratic value. But it was also the only possible path toward healing the hatred and mourning that existed within Germany, and between Germany and its European brethren.
The techniques and forms used by Marshall Plan filmmakers ranged from straightforward information exchange to obvious propaganda. But one can discern a single thread that runs throughout, and that is a determination to, as Ellwood puts it, “awaken elites and masses alike to the universal significance of the connection Americans made [and one could add, still make] between prosperity and democracy…And cinema was the preferred medium of communication.” 4
Many of the Marshall Plan films described a specific program. Island of Faith, an extraordinarily moving film by John Ferno, describes the repairing of Dutch dikes to reclaim farmlands. It was distributed theatrically in nine European nations in eight different languages.
Technical Assistance in the Form of Film
Some films disseminated technical information, i.e., the medium was the message. Watch Georg Tressler’s winsome Hansl and the 200,000 Chicks, and you will learn how to build a simple hygienic chicken coop, and several amusing life lessons to boot.
True Fiction Films
Although the vast majority of Marshall Plan films were documentaries, the Motion Picture Section also commissioned a few remarkable fiction films, fully scripted, in which professional actors carry the main roles. Examples include George Freedland’s The Promise of Barty O’Brien (featuring the actors of Dublin’s Abbey Theater); the hilarious satire Do Not Disturb!, starring German cabaret comic Walter Gross; and Philip Mackie and Peter Hopkinson’s The Smiths and the Robinsons, which uses sly wit to make a subtle commentary on the blurring of class differences in a brave new, postwar, world.
Mutual Security, Anti-Communism, Civic Freedom
The Marshall Plan filmmakers had to contend with increasingly aggressive propaganda efforts and border and travel restrictions that the Soviets imposed on East Germany and the rest of the Eastern Bloc. The contrast between the rights of the individual in West Germany and Western Europe, on the one hand, and those in the totalitarian regimes of the East, on the other, are starkly depicted in the Marshall Plan film Whitsun Holiday, produced by Peter Baylis. It echoes the earlier OMGUS film by Wolfgang Kiepenheuer, It’s Up To You! These films and others extol the virtues and responsibilities of individual freedom as a natural bulwark against, and the best antidote to, Communism and other forms of totalitarianism.
Economic Cooperation and Unity
Many films were made to urge European economic cooperation and unity, and one cannot help but observe the groundwork for European union being laid. The most exhuberant of these, The Shoemaker and the Hatter, was created by Marshall Plan animators Philip Stapp, Joy Batchelor and John Halas. The animated films represent the Marshall Plan in its most imaginative form, yet they also hit their message home.
Films for the American Public
Of the over 260 films made for the Marshall Plan, only a few were ever seen in the United States. The Smith-Mundt law forbade the showing of these films to audiences in the United States because Americans were not to be “propagandized” with their own tax money. Films for U.S. audiences had to be specially made or re-edited. In 1952, MSA’s Paris film unit undertook production of Strength for the Free World, a series of 26 half-hour documentaries for American television, broadcast by ABC. The shows were mostly cannibalized by series producer Henry Sandoz from already-completed ECA/MSA documentaries made for European audiences. Ten of them survive: Assignment Europe, Edge of Freedom, Gun for Gaetano, Indochina Today, Keep ‘Em Flying, North Sea Harbor, Rebirth of a Nation, Small CountryBig Ideas, Three Cities, and Your Eighty Dollars. This last was designed to tout the goals and efficacy of the Marshall Plan to the American people, the title a reflection of each American’s contribution to the cost of Marshall aid. According to Al Hemsing, “MSA ran into some flak because of this series. Congress chastized Washington authorities, reminding them that the agency’s enabling legislation prohibited its films from being shown in America.” 5