Some use film to tell stories, and to entertain their audiences. Others will use film as a means to spread a message. Propaganda filmmaking has been a prolific part of cinema since the invention of the motion picture, with filmmakers using it as an opportunity to show their political, religious or social thoughts to mass amounts of people. Propaganda films have evolved over time, from symbolism filled films of the 1920’s to the point films during World War II, and to satire-based features as well as documentaries. This list of ten films will cover that spectrum across film’s history, and touch on a variety of uses for propaganda filmmaking.
Battleship Potemkin (1925)
One of the most well-known films among academics and film enthusiasts, Battleship Potemkin is a silent film that championed the use of the Soviet montage. Renowned for its editing, the film carries a message about revolution, with Eisenstein’s attempts to make audiences feel sympathy for the sailors of the Potemkin, and anger at their oppressive leaders. Filled with scenes to invoke anger at the Imperial government, Battleship Potemkin still stands as one of the most important films in history for its revolutionary technique and messages.
The Great Dictator (1940)
Chaplin’s first full sound film, The Great Dictator, revolves the titular Adenoid Hynkel, and a Jewish barber who is the spitting image of him. Hynkel orders a mass purge of Jews and the barber is imprisoned. Upon his escape, he uses his likeness to Hynkel’s looks to give the famous speech about goodwill to all mankind. The film is a clear condemning of the Nazi and fascist regime, along with Hitler and Mussolini being parodied, and was released during a time of peace between Germany and the USA. The film was banned in many countries with Nazi sympathies upon its release.
Triumph of the Will (1935)
During the Nazi party’s rise to power, many films were made to spread their message to the masses. The most well known, Triumph of the Will, documents the party’s congress in Nuremberg in 1934. Politically biased, the film’s main theme is the return of power to Germany, led by Hitler, and shows many of Hitler’s speeches, the Hitler Youth and crowds of SA troops, showing Germany to still be a strong nation after World War I. The film used techniques such as aerial shots, moving cameras and a full orchestral score to match the cinematography to emphasise its message, solidifying its position in this list.
Reefer Madness (1936)
Somewhat of a cult film nowadays, and critically panned, Reefer Madness is an exploitation drama about the grossly exaggerated effects of teenagers smoking marijuana. Financed and produced by religious groups, it was conceived as a film for parents as a warning of what could happen to their children if they got into the drug. Famous for its unsubstantiated claims that smoking marijuana would lead to murder, rape and insanity, the film was rediscovered in the 1970’s and became a classic midnight movie, developing a cult following from its ridiculousness and unintentionally bad script.
Starship Troopers (1997)
Verhoeven’s ironic satire film about a futuristic military at war with an alien race owes a lot to films such as Triumph of the Will. Using fictional newsreels, cinematography, and even Nazi-like costumes, Starship Troopers uses many propaganda film techniques to condemn mankind’s quest for warfare, with Verhoeven stating on the film’s commentary that the film’s message is “War makes fascists of us all”.
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
Moore’s documentaries have often been controversial; especially in the US, and his feature Bowling for Columbine is no different. Revolving around finding out why the Columbine massacre happened, and how America’s violent crime rate is affected by their gun laws, the film uses a lot of editing techniques and propaganda-esque content to show Moore’s feelings on the matter. Ironic montages of gun purchases and crime set to The Beatles ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’ and the US’s involvement with arms dealings overseas to Louis Armstrong’s ‘What a Wonderful World’ clearly show the film’s true message.
A prominent film in the era of German Expressionism, Lang’s sci-fi epic Metropolis immediately begins by showing the workers of the city as underprivileged, all dressed alike, exhausted by the day-to-day struggle. Throughout the film they’re depicted like flocks of sheep, blindly following orders. The awful conditions they work in are compared to Moloch, an ancient deity appeased by human sacrifices. The film uses a great amount of symbolism to display the differences between the workers and the upper society Thinkers, and the mutual dependence the two shares. The film was a representation of the conditions the German society was left in around the time of hyperinflation after the First World War, and how the working class should not tolerate these conditions. The film was criticized at the time for having a Communist message.
La Grande Illusion (1937)
Held in high praise by film critics, La Grande Illusion revolves around French prisoners of war during World War I, who are planning an escape. Like Metropolis, La Grande Illusion examines the differences in social classes, as well as human relations, and the futility of warfare. The rise of fascism in Europe and anti-Semitism is also featured, using these as a chance to promote civil unity across all of humanity, and that we all share experiences that should not drive us to war. It is regarded as one of France’s greatest films ever produced by many viewers, academics and critics.
The Birth of a Nation (1915)
The incredibly controversial The Birth of a Nation’s tale of two families during the American Civil War and the reconstruction of the country is notorious. The portrayal of black men is incredibly racist, with white men using blackface to play them, and appearing stupid and sexually aggressive towards women. The Ku Klux Klan is shown as a force for justice, heroic in its quest. The film was used as a recruitment tool for the KKK upon its release, using it as an example of its manifesto. Its filmmaking techniques earned it a place in the United States Library of Congress, but it should also be remembered also as a powerful yet disturbing propaganda piece in a dark period in American history.
Red Dawn (1984)
Red Dawn is set in an alternate reality where the Soviets invade the USA during the Cold War, where a gang of high school students fends them off using guerilla tactics. Staunchly pro-America and anti-Communist, the film has references to the NRA, and other anti-fascist and resistance movements during World War II. Its patriotism carried over into the real American military when the operation to capture Saddam Hussein was named after the film, and units were named Wolverine 1 and 2, after the gang of teenagers in the film. Captain Geoffrey McMurray, who named the mission, said it was “so fitting because it was a patriotic, pro-American movie.”