Alfred Hitchcock
Propaganda movies

Alfred Hitchcock holding a dead duck.
I, myself, was not old enough for World War I until near the end, when I was rejected. I was too old for World War II, but I like to believe I would have been brave.

Story

Alfred Hitchcock was friendly and talkative, but when it came to politics, he kept things to himself and his wife. It was very rare for anyone to be able to lure him into talking about his views on the matters.

But then World War II started. And with that, he quickly opened. No longer restraining himself, he was all for action, urging for advanced efforts against Germans to be taken. It didn't drive him towards rostrums and political events, but in his direct surrounding, he was very vocal.

British Empire had a sizeable colony in the U.S.A., and especially in Hollywood where many talented British actors, writers and directors had arrived to seek fame and money impossible to earn in their home country. Older men were put on hold, expected to continue their normal lives, but remain ready in case the British government decides to call for their help in one way or the other.

Hitch had a unique approach, in that he didn't initiate anything, but was opened to all offers of cooperation, willing to devote his time and money to the cause.

All he could do was offer his set of cinematic skills though, as not only was he past the military age, but his weight disqualified him from any serious physical activity and would make him a target practice for the Germans on the frontline.

Of course, a respectable figure like him can do much more good with his words than would ever be able to do with a single rifle. During wartime, artists are always better 'utilized' doing what they do best. Still, Hitch later admitted on multiple occasions that he had felt that he needs to do something during WW2, that he needs to do more.

In the conflict's early stages, the director's opinion stood in sharp contrast with that of general public in the United States. Still disappointed after the U.S. WW1 involvement, people were largely against active participation, and the government played along. So, even if Hitch would be willing to make public appearances urging people to go to war, government would not be too happy seeing these.

Hitchcock's first voyage into World War 2 in his fabular movies was in 1940, when he made Foreign Correspondent. Whether he wanted to say something through it or not is a matter of speculation, but one of the picture's conclusions is obvious: the U.S. is in it, whether it wants it or not.

One of its main stars, Herbert Marshall, was an Englishman living in the U.S.A. just like Hitch, and he also shared his enthusiasm for decisive action against the Germans. Marshall served during WW1, which had costed him his leg, and during WW2 he was one of the most eager to contribute to war efforts in any way he could.

When still in England, Hitchcock had worked under Michael Balcon, who was one of the most important people in the director's early career. After migrating across the Atlantic Ocean, the chubby director achieved something no British man had before - he became an absolute star on that market.

That didn't sit well with Balcon, who had hoped to keep him under his wings and supervision as long as he could. On top of that, that success probably made him jealous too, as being one of the key people in the British film industry, Michael had his fair share of failures on the U.S. market, which was a cursed land for the British until Hitchcock broke the spell.

Those two things were the probable driving forces of one of the most bitter memories related to WW2 that Hitchcock must have had. In August 1940, out of nowhere, Balcon attacked Hitch, challenging his courage, patriotism and moral spine.

British press was delighted, having great quotes that turned heads. Balcon's comments gained so much traction that American media caught the story as well, putting him in questionable light in front of his new audience, to which he was trying to appeal. Given how aggressive the comments were, it was clear that the real motif was personal.

I had a plump young junior technician in my studio whom I promoted from department to department. Today, he is one of our most famous directors and he is in Hollywood, while we who are left behind short-handed are trying to harness the films to our great national effort.

Some time ago, this man is reported to have made an astonishing statement in an interview. He said he was anxious to come back to England, and he sent his wife back to see what he was doing in the film business. But after getting her report, he decided to stay in Hollywood.

According to the newspapers, this lady "saw one of the leading production companies which said it couldn't even offer our former salaries." When you're called up for the army, navy or air force, can you refuse because the pay isn't good enough?Michael Balcon

Alfred's response was very quick: his involvement is his business only. Reasons aside though, how much truth was there in Balcon's statement?

First time the director made a war contribution was 1941, the year in which he made two Hollywood pictures: Mr. & Mrs. Smith and Suspicion. His input was minimal then, as he only re-edited the movie Target for Tonight for the American market, which was a quick job.

As the war advanced, so did his efforts, with 1944 being the key year, when despise Lifeboat-related obligations, he participated in 4 different propaganda movies.

As you can see, there is truth in Balcon's statement. Vocal or not, Hitch didn't do much until later. At the same time, he was indeed busy building his Hollywood career, with at least one big picture per year during that period.

To his defence, it needs to be remembered that he didn't turn down a single proposition of cooperation.

How did his efforts turn out is another matter. From the propaganda perspective, saying that he was useless was an understatement. A case can easily be made that he was more damaging than beneficial with whatever he did in the department. If anything, he unwillingly worked against the cause.

There were two reasons for it. The first one was his inability to understand what it takes to make a successful propaganda movie. More, he was unaware about how the core ingredients are supposed to function.

Instead of setting out a clear goal, flatten characters and dramatize events culminating in a clear call to action that even the most clouded dimwit would understand, his personal ambition and professional habits were taking over almost every time. The result was attempting to make a captivating story whose one and only goal was to entertain.

Hitch was known for ridiculing statements about hidden messages in his pictures. Many avantgarde film critics took his works apart and had ten explanations for even the simplest things that were appearing on screen, while almost every such theory he crushed when asked about them.

His wartime pictures prove one interesting thing in relation to that: even if he'd actually want to dig deep into the symbolic and the metaphorical, it is possible that he wouldn't be able to achieve even the simplest results.

This is of course nothing to hold against him. If anything, the fact that he avoided such things in his pictures only shows that he knew his strengths well and utilized them first and foremost. However, with the cinematic toolkit that has, he should be aware of the damage he was doing to his projects.

His most astonishing flops were in Aventure Malgache, where he made Britain look like "the least of all evils" and glorified Madagascar's independence efforts (in a movie made for the French - Madagascar was a French colony then).

Hitchcock is not known for his wartime propaganda activity. In fact, most people have no clue that he did any such thing and it is so not because this chapter of his life has been somehow forgotten.

A scene from Night Will Fall

The reason for it is that almost everything Hitchcock touched was shelved for decades. Sometimes it was bad luck, other times political landscape changed to make the picture's message obsolete before it was even finished.

One frequently appearing element though is the dissatisfaction of U.S. and British governments. They were very quick to bury the outcomes of Hitchcock's politically insensitive efforts, in one case even aggressively blocking movie's release decades after the war was finished.

Fortunately for the director, Hollywood schedules kept him from bigger humiliations and regularly interrupted his projects. Most of the time (if not always), he arrived knowing that very soon he has to, or might have to come back to fulfill his contract obligations. A week or two of heavy work and usually that was it.

After the war, most people didn't even know that he engaged in propaganda movies, and those who knew couldn't find out much from the man himself. He knew they were mostly failures. Whether he was aware that the ones in which he was sitting at the steering wheel were largely burdened with his misdoings, is unknown.

In the next section, you can find short descriptions linking to detailed reviews of all his propaganda pictures I could lay my hands on. Whether it is everything he did, I don't know, but I wasn't able to find out about the existence of any others.

Be warned that if you're not a Hitchcock completionist, or a fan of history and propaganda pictures, you're not going to have much fun with them. One exception is Forever and a Day, a wonderful movie with a star cast and a true hidden gem of the 1940s.

Movies

Target for Tonight front cover

Target for Tonight (1941)

Harry Watt's movie which shows how Bomber Commands worked during WW2. Daily administrative routines are shown, followed by the bombing mission. Most of the time, the focus is on the crew of 'F for Freddie'. Hitchcock re-edited the picture to prepare it for the American market.

Men of the Lightship '61 front cover

Men of the Lightship '61 (194?)

Another story documentary, that is, a picture where every role is played by real-life military men serving on positions of the characters they play. This one tells a story a lightship crew that's being attacked by two German aircrafts. Again, Hitch just polished it for the U.S. audience.

Forever and a Day front cover

Forever and a Day (1943)

Here, 7 directors/producers, 21 writers and 78 famous British actors living and working in Hollywood during WW2 meet to make a patriotic effort. Successful as propaganda, but most importantly a fantastic movie on its own. Can't miss it, if the words "Golden Age of Hollywood"make you blush. Alfred prepared the script for one part.

Bon Voyage front cover

Bon Voyage (1944)

First of the two movies the director made as a tribute to the Free France, destined to be screeed on the French market first and foremost. A pilot has a miraculous escape from the German-occupied France, but his superior makes him aware that the supposedly Polish man who made it happen is in fact a German spy.

Aventure Malgache front cover

Aventure Malgache (1944)

Second French Hitchcock tribute. The action takes place in Madagascar, where a man called Fran├žois Clermont provides an unusual underground service - he sneaks out people who want to join the fight against the Germans (normally they couldn't, because Nazi-controlled Vichy France governed Madagascar). The actor who plays Clermont actually tells his own real life story.

Memory of the Camps front cover

Memory of the Camps (1944)

Mostly a compilation of concentration camp video material, gathered by military cameramen who were on the spot when camps were taken from the Nazis. Be advised, as this is one of the most graphic materials you'll find on the subject. Hitchcock was responsible for managing the team that put the materials together, and contributed other ideas concerning the plot.

There was no official front cover to Watchtower over Tomorrow

Watchtower over Tomorrow (1944)

An effect of American government's need to familiarize people with United Nations, ideas behind it and the real life consequences of its creation. A conversation of two men representing different social standings is used as an excuse for a lecture. Together with Ben Hecht, Hitchcock was busy with the project at first, but abandoned it still at an early stage.