Well, they sure don’t make them as they used to. I don’t know how many times you have uttered that line, indifferent to the rules of grammar, whether as a lament or a sigh of relief. Take So Proudly We Hail, for instance, the 1943 war drama I watched last night. Until I decided that doing so would be rather too self-indulgent (considering my love for a certain leading lady), I thought of discussing it yesterday, corresponding with the anniversary of the radio version in which stars Claudette Colbert, Paulette Goddard, and Veronica Lake reprised their original roles (along with the long forgotten Sonny Tufts) on the Lux Radio Theatre.
So Proudly We Hail is a well-crafted, surprisingly unsentimental, and highly engaging melodrama about US army nurses serving their country in the battlefield that was the Philippines during the Second World War; as such, it is also unabashed wartime propaganda. I do not think that any producer in Hollywood today would dare to remake it, say, with Julia Roberts, Winona Rider, and Scarlett Johansson (to pick three contemporary actresses approximately of the respective ages of the three original leads). Why not? Allow me to speculate.
There’s a war on, lest we forget; but it doesn’t seem to reunite the West (or any Western nation) against a clearly defined enemy. Instead, we find ourselves in a war on terror—and the terror appears to be as much the cause as it is the effect, violence and violations being brought on by so-called anti-terrorist measures that continue to provoke it. This is not a time in which to express pride in one’s country or its elected representatives; and those making decisions in Hollywood today seem least inclined foster a sense of loyalty and regard. I don’t think, though, that widespread dissatisfaction and skepticism—a critical attitude only the thoughtless or unthinking ever entirely suppress—account for the current rejection of propaganda drama.
As the reception of Clint Eastwood’s latest film suggests, people are not lining up to see movies with a political message. They might accept a controversial documentary inviting us to take sides; but they no longer appreciate being manipulated or swayed by dramatic fare. Propaganda is a dirty word these days, dirtier by far than advertising, which is still being tolerated.
However much we might groan, we tend to allow the promotion of a product, but get squeamish when it comes to the advancement of an idea. Corporations have taken a prominent place in—or even taken the place of—the government; and when peddling products, advertisers appeal to the individual, whereas propaganda seeks to motivate the community. It simply pays to stimulate division and selfishness, a targeting strategy generally marketed as choice. There no longer is a public, it seems; there are only people; and for advertising purposes, several million of these supposed individuals will do.
Unlike today’s conflicts, the Second World War was not endorsed by big business; companies were not eager to surrender sales or give up the production of consumer goods for a nation that needed to consolidate precious resources. So, I don’t think we’ll get to see Scarlett Johansson grabbing a hand grenade and blowing herself up for the sake of her country (as Veronica Lake’s character does) or picking up an empty can of soda for the benefit of the planet. Instead, she’ll grab that soft drink or lipstick or pair of designer shoes and fight for what she believes in . . . or what those placing the products in her hands want us to believe.
I did not grow up in a country or an age in which it was easy or felt right to be proud of one’s people; and, watching a film like So Proudly We Hail I sense that to be a profound loss. We so proudly hail individuality these days because corporations hand out the flags and buttons to match, knowing that we are at our most receptive and vulnerable when we are at our greediest.