Hollywood's Reaction to 9/11 Lacked Unity of World War II-era Films

Unlike their post 9-11 successors, Hollywood generally dealt with the aftermath of World War II with a more united front, more humor and less political correctness.

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Since 9-11, Hollywood filmmakers have had, within free-market parameters, the choice to make any type of picture they wish. No one in government prohibited director Steven Spielberg, in the 2005 drama “Munich,” from implying, in the minds of some critics, that Mossad agents and Palestinian terrorists were morally equivalent and that both sides were equally responsible with their shared intransigence for the Twin Towers coming down (Gabriel Schoenfeld, in the February 2006 issue of Commentary Magazine stated that Munich,” deserves an Oscar in one category only: most hypocritical film of the year.”)

Spielberg, who previously produced “An American Tail” (1986), which depicted Jewish immigrants as mice, seemed to be conflicted with the whole notion of Israelis fighting back against those who wished them not to exist. “”I’m always in favor of Israel responding strongly when it’s threatened. At the same time, a response to a response doesn’t really solve anything. It just creates a perpetual-motion machine,” Spielberg told Time Magazine. “There’s been a quagmire of blood for blood for many decades in that region. Where does it end? How can it end?”

Another post-9/11 cinema trait was that Muslim villains became mostly taboo on the screen. The 2002 thriller “The Sum of All Fears,” adapted from the Tom Clancy novel of same name, featured Aryan villains trying to bomb Baltimore rather than the Arab destroyers depicted in the book. Director Phil Alden Robinson claimed the ethnic change was because Middle East terrorists would not be able to accomplish the mayhem that took place in the story, not mentioning that he had been lobbied hard by CAIR (Council on American-Islamic Relations) not to show Muslims in a bad light.Writer Clancy later jokingly referred to himself as “the author of the book Phil Robinson ignored.”

The political correctness which was already present in the film industry, and that just seemed to grow after the World Trade Center was struck down, was a stark contrast to events following America’s entry into World War II. Shortly after December 7, 1941, Washington’s Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMI) made their objectives clear: every director, producer and writer needed to ask whether their current picture would help win the war. The implication by the Roosevelt administration was clear; if the major studios failed to cooperate, their industry would be nationalized.

For the most part, such threats were not needed.

With Stalin’s Russia and the United States on the same side against the Nazis, an uneasy alliance formed in Hollywood between the more traditional patriotic right and the Communist-leaning left. Up until 1942, the Hollywood Studios, similar to today, largely depended on foreign markets. When Greer Garson accepted the title role in the drama “Mrs. Miniver” (1942) in late 1941, she felt the German soldier that menaced her in the movie was too sympathetic.

With her country under attack, the thirty-three-year-old Londoner wanted to give up Hollywood stardom, return home, and drive

ambulances. The only reason Greer agreed to do the picture was that the British government felt that it would be great propaganda; however, the nice Nazi would undermine any hawkish message. Garson’s cautious bosses at MGM pointed out that America was neutral; they couldn’t take sides. Their attitude changed when Germany declared war on the US in December; Greer’s on-screen antagonist was allowed to become evil. Years later, Garson lamented that Mrs. Miniver trapped her into being typecast as sacrificing British mothers. But her Oscar winning performance in Miniver helped convince many Americans to support England’s war effort.

An obvious difference between the World War II and contemporary Hollywood is that in the 1940’s there were no twenty-four-hour cable TV news cycles. Despite being well-received by critics, “United 93” (2006), a mostly factual account of the fatal San Francisco-bound flight that was hijacked by four al-Qaeda terrorists and ended up crashing into a field in Pennsylvania after some of the heroic passengers tried to retake control of the plane, grossed a paltry (by Hollywood standards) $31.4 million in the United States.

Whether modern movie goers distrusted liberal Hollywood to do the subject justice, were too burned out by the news to be sufficiently entertained, or were mostly just too young to appreciate a heavy realistic drama without comic book superheroes in it was hard to say; whatever the reason, “United” did not appeal as escapist fare.

In contrast, audiences during World War II, with far less access to information, often enjoyed movies with real life elements. One factor that helped cinema attendance was that female factory workers, often lonely on the home front, and having disposable income for the first time in years, became rabid filmgoers; unlike other products at that time, movies were not rationed. Also, servicemen stationed in many American cities with no hotel vacancies were welcomed to stay the night and sleep in movie theaters.

And sometimes a little light-hearted fantasy mixed with realism didn’t hurt; in “Tarzan Triumphs” (1943), Tarzan and Cheetah teamed up to help win World War II on the screen. After the Ape Man dispatched some very dangerous Nazis in the jungle, his furry pal got on the radio and broadcasted a message to Berlin. The soldiers on the receiving end mistook the chimp’s chattering for Hitler and saluted their imagined Fuhrer while goose-stepping.

Many modern Hollywood stars, including Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Jack Black, Mark Wahlberg, Scarlett Johansson, and most notably Gary Sinise, have done their country proud by entertaining US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan in USO shows, but it would be hard to match the overall patriotism displayed by the movie industry during World War II. Amongst the public spirited leading ladies, there was Bette Davis dancing with servicemen at the famed Hollywood Canteen, Ingrid Bergman joyously grabbing a random soldier and kissing him hard on the mouth in France right after Germany surrendered, Carole Lombard feverishly selling war bonds on the last day of her life just before she embarked on a military transport plane that would fatally crash near Las Vegas, and Ginger Rogers, who told of a letter she received from an American soldier who had been incarcerated in a Japanese POW camp. His guards had screened Rogers’ romantic comedy “Tom, Dick and Harry” (1941) and were so enthralled by it that he was able to escape.

With today’s volunteer army, no one really expects stars like Justin Timberlake or Matt Damon to give up the fame and fortune of

Hollywood for military service, yet that is exactly what happened during the Second World War with a number of prominent leading

men. The icons of the past could have easily used their connections to be exempt from service; many people, including General Dwight Eisenhower, felt that the best thing the Hollywood leading men could do for soldiers often bored and in need of entertainment between battles, was to make more movies.

Victor Mature, Tyrone Power, James Stewart, Clark Gable and Henry Fonda were some of the better-known celebrities who were willing to go fight the enemy in an arena where there is no one around to yell, “cut!” Conversely, actors with ailments such as Gregory Peck, saddled with a bad back, or Van Johnson, who after a near fatal car accident ended up with a metal plate in his head, were able to stay behind and fill the onscreen void.

One possibly apocryphal story while the war was still raging involved an agent who had a meeting with a mogul about a potential new

discovery. “You’ll love him! He’s handsome, he’s talented, and best of all, he has a double hernia!”

Correction: Shortly after this article went to press I was contacted by Phil Robinson who informed me that the ethnicity of the terrorists in his film “The Sum of All Fears” was changed a year before he came on the project; it was not his decision. Robinson’s only contact with CAIR came through a fax he received a month before the shoot asking that “Sum’s” villains not be Arab, the director assured CAIR’s representative that was already the case. I apologize for the error and thank Mr. Robinson for being an absolute gentleman when he informed me of my mistake.

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