Spoilers follow for the 2011 film “Captain America: The First Avenger,” the 2009 Quentin Tarantino film “Inglourious Basterds,” and the mid-20th Century military conflict “World War II.”
As the United States was engaged in a global strategy that had become known as the War on Terror, with its two most visible fronts being the military operations in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. government had more problems than the ones on the battlefield; they were simultaneously engaged in a marketing campaign rivalling even that of John Carter of Mars or whatever that movie ended up being called. America’s own citizens as well as the governments of most of the United States’ traditional allies were less and less convinced about these wars. Even many of those who supported the invasions as reasonable pre-emptive actions were growing ever more critical of the U.S.’s effectiveness in completing their stated goals as the destruction of the Taliban and the Ba’ath party degenerated into seemingly uncontrollable sectarian violence and terrorism against American troops on the ground.
Into this scenario emerged two major Hollywood blockbusters set against the backdrop of World War II, not only America’s last most consummate victory, but also its most convincingly moral military engagement. Captain America: The First Avenger and Inglourious Basterds both pit American superheroes (or antiheroes) against the closest thing the real world has ever had to actual supervillains: the Nazis. Of course there have been more movies made about World War II than probably about any other subject, except maybe Dracula, and if there hasn’t ever been a movie that included both Dracula and World War II, then I am officially calling dibs. So there was nothing unusual about these movies happening when they did, and the fact that the U.S. was fighting a war at the time could easily have been a coincidence – however, both these movies also had as major thematic components the concept of war marketing, specifically propaganda films. And the way that Captain America and Inglourious Basterds dealt with the production, reception, and consequences of using the mass media to promote the righteousness of nationalist military causes provides insight into not only the filmmakers’ thoughts on the subject while anticipating and pre-emptively refuting their critics’ inevitable accusations of propagandizing (remember the reviews castigating earlier thematically similar films 300 and The Dark Knight as little more than crypto-fascist American apologetics?), but also commenting on the uses of propaganda films in practice and the relationship between propaganda and the moral certitude necessary for military victory in the first place.
When the young American soldier Steve Rogers is injected with an experimental “super-soldier serum” that gives him astonishing strength, stamina, and agility, he’s intended to be but the prototype for a new kind of army that can easily defeat the U.S.’s enemies. However, when the inventor of the serum is assassinated, rendering the super-soldier process irreproducible, Rogers is relegated to a somewhat less glorious assignment: pitch-man for war bonds. As “Captain America,” he is dressed up in a flashy costume and sent around the country to hype up crowds and record newsreels as the personification of the war effort, to stir up patriotism and encourage Americans to make their contributions on the homefront.
He starts out awkwardly, but develops into quite the enthusiastic and effective mascot; once Rogers overcomes his natural modesty and shyness, it is his genuine patriotism and love of his countrymen that shines through and makes the citizenry want to rally behind him – and behind America. Now, Rogers is undoubtedly doing good for the American cause by inspiring support for the troops; remember that despite the fact that we tend to recall the Allies’ cause as just (disputes over the necessity of Hiroshima and Nagasaki notwithstanding), there was strong opposition to U.S. involvement in the war, from isolationist groups who didn’t feel that America was particularly threatened by the Nazis, by German-Americans who had personal stake in not destroying the country where many of their relatives still lived, as well as from straight-up personal friends of Hitler like Henry Ford and Charles Lindbergh, the latter of whom asserted that the pressure on the U.S. to enter the war against its own interests was a Jewish plot and that the “greatest danger to this country lies in their [the Jews’] large ownership and influence in our motion pictures, our press, our radio, and our government.” The “Jew-controlled media” canard is something that crops up much more explicitly in Inglourious Basterds; but in Captain America, which is after all set after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, American support for involvement in the war was galvanized and although opposition remained in certain spheres (mainly among American Communists, anarchists, and political pacifists, whose British counterparts George Orwell himself brutally castigated as “objectively pro-fascist”), voicing these sorts of objections in public became unpopular once the United States itself had actually been attacked and Americans killed. The propaganda war, though, was still extremely important – war is exhausting not only for those on the front lines, but also for those at home who must now ration their coffee and gasoline, and pray that their loved ones abroad would return home alive. Civilian morale is incredibly important, as Captain America well understood.
That said, Rogers was not satisfied to stand in the literal spotlight of the media rather than the symbolic one of the battlefield. While overseas performing for the troops, he insists on undertaking a very dangerous mission to rescue American soldiers who have been captured by a splinter group of the Nazi party called HYDRA, and the movie follows this adventure as the resolution of its main plotline. What’s interesting is the conclusion that seems to be drawn here: this American war movie seems to be implying that while the media’s support of military engagements when they are seen to be just is important, it pales in comparison with the actual soldiers doing the actual fighting. That sounds so obvious as to be trivial, but it’s more complicated than it seems on the surface. Because we must remember that while Marvel Studios / Paramount Pictures is an American company, it is still a private company and not an arm of the U.S. government (unless you’re particularly conspiracy-minded). Its motive is not nationalistic but capitalistic. And in 2011, when Captain America was released, not only had support for America’s wars significantly dropped and opposition greatly increased, lip-service had arguably largely replaced actual support – “Support the Troops” bumper stickers that benefited nobody but the sticker manufacturers (and were probably printed in China) certainly dwarfed the number of Americans enlisted in the armed forces or providing material assistance to the war effort (you can still buy U.S. Treasury securities, if you want to – especially if you’re more interested in financially aiding the country than assuring return on your investment).
So there’s no reason for Marvel Studios to denigrate the role of the media in war unless they, as an entity, either genuinely feel that way or believe that it will help them make more money to behave as if they feel that way. And yet that’s exactly what Captain America does – its hero essentially realizes that talk is cheap, and decides that he must take action in order to really support the cause he believes in. Before taking the super-soldier serum, Rogers was desperate to enlist but was turned down numerous times for his physical shortcomings. Once he was granted the gifts by the U.S. military that nature saw fit to deny him, he was not satisfied to play the clown even though he grew to be eminently good at it. Captain America’s message appears to be that when it comes to war, those who can do and those who can’t make movies.
On the other hand we have Inglourious Basterds, which makes the propaganda war absolutely front and center for the WWII military theater. The climax of that film has Hitler and the entire German High Command locked inside a Paris movie theater for the premiere of a highly anticipated Nazi propaganda film. The premiere been infiltrated by a number of Allied soldiers (posing as Italian cameramen), accompanying a German film actress working as a double-agent for the Allies, who plan to plant explosives in the theatre and end the war by killing the entire Nazi leadership in one strike. In addition, the theatre itself happens to be owned by a Jewish woman who fled to Paris when her family was murdered by the Nazis, and who plans to burn down the theatre and everyone in it by igniting a pile of highly flammable old-style nitrate film. So not only does the Americans’ plan to win the war depend on military personnel masquerading as filmmakers, but the tool used to actually bring down the Nazis is turning their own propaganda against them (blowing up the premiere) by literally weaponizing film.
Much has already been made of what some people have seen as an attempt at portraying moral equivalence between the Nazis and the heroes of Basterds, but Tarantino very deliberately complicates this reading with his attitude toward film and propaganda throughout the movie. One scene in the theater shows Germans laughing uproariously as the “hero” of the film mows down hundreds of American soldiers onscreen. The effect this has on the audience of Basterds (that is, us) is to be at first disgusted by their attitude, and then uncomfortable as we recall that we ourselves were laughing at the deaths of Nazis onscreen not so long ago. Shortly thereafter, a couple of Jewish-American soldiers fire their machine guns at the theater attendees as the Germans riot, having realized that the theater is aflame and all the doors are sealed. We’re intended to feel complicated about this, but Tarantino primes us earlier to prove that he is not drawing a moral equivalence. He does this in two main ways.
The first, and more obvious, is that we’re explicitly told that the premiere is very exclusive and only the German High Command and their guests will be in attendance. While this doesn’t, perhaps, make the theater deaths less of a massacre, it certainly does make it a military operation and decidedly not, say, a terrorist attack; there are no innocent civilians inside that theater.
The other is subtler. The reason the Basterds’ plan ends up the way it does is because of one fatal miscalculation earlier in the movie by a British soldier who accidentally blows his cover as a German. This soldier, Lieutenant Hicox, speaks fluent German and was, before the war, a film critic, and author of several books on German cinema. When asked to describe the German film industry under Propaganda Minister Goebbels, Hicox says, “Goebbels considers the films he’s making to be the beginning of a new era in German cinema. An alternative to what he considers the Jewish-German intellectual cinema of the ’20s, and the Jewish-controlled dogma of Hollywood.”
At this point, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, also in the room, interrupts to ask, “You say he wants to take on the Jews at their own game. Well, compared to, say, Louis B. Mayer, how’s he doing?”
While this is, on the one hand, a fair characterization of the sort of thing Churchill might actually have said in such a situation, it is also a very important point being made by Tarantino. The Nazis are obsessed not only with physically/militarily destroying the Jews, but also eradicating the cultural influence that they perceive the Jews to have on civilization. The propaganda war, then, is at least as important to the Nazis as the actual military objectives. Tarantino shows Hicox being momentarily nonplussed by Churchill’s basically admitting he agrees with Goebbels on this point, but doesn’t put forward any particular narrative argument against it either. Tarantino is not actually himself promoting the “Jews control Hollywood” conspiracy theory (note that, having drawn the equivalence between propagandists and soldiers, the leader of the Basterds, Aldo Raine, is a white Southern American through and through, who recruited Jewish soldiers to undertake clandestine missions inside Nazi-controlled territory; they report to him, not vice versa), but he is making a connection between the idea of Jewishness and the film’s force of moral narrativity, in particular the Hollywood studio system of which he, Tarantino, is a part. This moral-narrative sense comes out in the contrast between Lieutenant Raine and Hans Landa, the “Jew Hunter” who is the film’s main antagonist. The banality and opportinism of Landa’s malevolence (early in the film he openly admits that the common German’s dislike of Jews isn’t particularly based on anything, and toward the end he is almost delighted to betray Germany and hand victory to the Allies in exchange for his life and an official pardon) is the direct antithesis of Raine’s ethical system, who seems to have no specific stake in seeing that Jews personally defeat Hitler and yet is absolutely dedicated to making that happen, and who we have no doubt would gladly die rather than be disloyal to America. Everything that Landa and the Nazis do seems to be just a series of amoral performances (even the rank-and-file Nazi soldiers we meet at the bar at one point act like a bunch of punks who aren’t operating out of any particular devotion to the cause), whereas everything Raine and the Basterds do are motivated by genuine certainty in the absolute righteousness of their mission.
This is why there is no moral equivalence between the good guys and the bad guys in Inglourious Basterds (despite some intentionally superficial similarities), why Tarantino portrays media and military as equally important factors in war (as opposed to Marvel’s downplaying its own significance in the global fight against terrorism, fascism, or what have you), and what gives Inglourious Basterds the narrative authority to rewrite history in a more poetically just way than how things actually turned out, with Hitler and his confederates decisively and publicly eliminated by a couple of plebian Jews. Tarantino unapologetically allies himself with “the Jewish-controlled dogma of Hollywood,” with America/the West and its moral ideology (if not necessarily its specific tactics or strategies) precisely because, as he shows us in Inglourious Basterds, the alternative is the disturbingly luxuriant nihilism imputed to those identified as enemies of the West.
Both these war movies communicate a message about their own unavoidable role as a sort of crypto-propaganda; saying that while history is indeed written by the victors, and perhaps even rightfully so, victory itself is a condition achieved only by genuine dedication to the moral narrative of the cause, a burden from which the media can never fully be exempt.