Propaganda in the Cinema (101)

Posted: December 12, 2011 in Joe Giambrone
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

You’re Being Attacked


by Joe Giambrone

Propaganda takes innumerable forms and is all around us.  Early cinema thrived on the overt type of propaganda, as in The Birth of a Nation a.k.a. The Clansman.  This 1915 outrageously racist story was the highest grossing film of its day, the first blockbuster (  The Soviets and the Nazis used film propaganda skillfully and pushed the envelope in their efforts to homogenize their populations and to create unanimous consent for official policy goals.  Film propaganda techniques have succeeded in driving nations toward war, and they remain widely in use today.

Nazi Reich Marshall Hermann Goering’s famous quote is perhaps the most authentic definition of war propaganda in existence:

“Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders.  This is easy.  All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and for exposing the country to danger.  It works the same in every country.” (Gilbert  278)

The hyper-nationalism of so-called patriotism is central to war propaganda.  The propagandist wraps himself and his characters in the flag.  His flag and his national symbols will feature prominently as unifying beacons and to shut down honest debate and criticism.

The U.S. pentagon sees the value of propaganda in mainstream films and offers tens of millions of dollars worth of assistance and hardware to productions that portray the U.S. military in a favorable light.  David Sirota writes in the Washington Post that Top Gun, “proved to be a major force in resuscitating the military’s image” as well as boosting recruitment, and that “polls soon showed rising confidence in the military”  (Sirota).  The U.S. military demands script changes in exchange for its participation, and it gets them.

Film naturally lends itself to good guys and bad guys.  Good guys are attacked by bad guys, but in the end the good one rises up and defeats the evildoer.  Film welcomes a problem, reaction, solution formula.  It welcomes violence and violent solutions to conflicts.  Conflicts on film are far more often decided by superior force and tactics than through mutual understanding, agreement or peaceful resolution.   This repetitive conditioning of populations to the supposed urgent need for military supremacy distorts the audience’s perception of reality.

Film’s visceral and emotional qualities communicate scenarios effectively and manipulate the audience to desire certain outcomes for the characters in which they invest and identify.  This may all seem obvious, but covert manipulation is a double-edged sword, dangerous.

The father of modern propaganda, Edward Bernays, wrote in the late 1920s:

“The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions.  The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays noted the “unconscious” character of much film propaganda.  It was not necessary to directly state messages, but to let the scenarios and the story world carry the messages in the background.  Once immersed in the foreground story — whatever it was — the “unconscious” background elements were passed to the audience without critical interference and often without the viewer’s knowledge.

This subliminal quality is praised by Bernays as a positive thing, in his view. This is hardly surprising as Bernays’ concept of propaganda is broad in scope encompassing every medium and method of communication that exists.  Bernays’ seminal book Propaganda begins:

“The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.  We are governed, our minds are molded, our tastes formed, our ideas suggested, largely by men we have never heard of. This is a logical result of the way in which our democratic society is organized.” (Bernays 1928)

Bernays considered nearly everything that could be seen, touched or heard to be a propaganda opportunity, that is people pushing their opinions of what society should be onto other people, all of them competing for attention.  This meant goods, services and ideas, all of the basic building blocks of modern life.

Taking this expansive view of propaganda and applying it to films leads to analyses of characters and class, the interpersonal relationships, casting, prejudices and biases expressed, wardrobe, locations, the role of authority figures, the role of money, gender relations, power relations, subservience, levels of education, patterns of speech, the desires and aspirations of the protagonists and the antagonists, even the style of music, etc.  It also requires an investigation into the puppet masters themselves: the studios and the producers who wield the power of the purse.

Because of the high cost of producing mass marketed cinema, film is inherently hierarchical, and in a capitalist regime its on-screen content is steered by the money men.  In Bernays’ view, these men will use their positions whether knowingly or unknowingly to propagandize in their own perceived interests.  Why wouldn’t they?

In fascist regimes, the state run film industry propagandizes in the interest of the nationalist agenda.  In communist regimes the state run film bureau propagandizes the official party myth of worker equality and the glory of the proletariat.

Early overt propaganda films, those which consciously and obviously pushed political ideologies, are instructive for studying the on-screen techniques used to convince audiences and to gain their approval.

The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation played to the worst fears of racist whites.  On the screen history is rewritten completely such that the blacks of the reconstruction era reign over the defeated southern whites.  As one title card proclaims, “The helpless white minority” (Griffith 1915).

These situations are taken to absurd heights in order to make white audiences uncomfortable and to demonize the black race.  Numerous African American actors are featured in bit parts.  However, a number of the more sinister and despicable characters are actually white actors wearing not very convincing blackface.

The most hot-button moment of the film is when the black legislature proclaims interracial marriage legal.  The black assembly erupts into wild celebration as the few minority whites quietly escape.  After this point the protection of the white women becomes the main goal of the heroically-portrayed white southerners.

Despite the preponderance of overt racism in The Birth of a Nation unconscious techniques are also employed.  By the selection of very young and petite white female actresses their vulnerability is enhanced.  By placing the girls on screen for long periods of time, and usually isolated without any male guardians present, the idea of the need to protect them from outside forces is reinforced.

The Ku Klux Klan was reborn in 1915 after William J. Simmons viewed the film, and he set out to organize a resurgence of Klan activity.  “When ‘Birth of a Nation’ opened in Atlanta, [Simmons] ran an advertisement for the Klan next to the movie’s ad in the Atlanta newspaper” (ADL).   This new Klan directed its hatred not just at blacks but also at immigrants in general as well as Jews and Catholics.  “At the peak of its strength in 1924, membership in the KKK is estimated to have been as high as three million” (

Triumph of the Will

One of the most successful propaganda films of all time was Triumph of the Will, which depicts Adolf Hitler’s 1934 Nazi rally in Nuremberg Germany.  This film sought to place the viewer in the rally with numerous camera setups that gave a visceral experience of attending such a highly coordinated and staged event.

Hitler was himself an accomplished propagandist and showman who studied earlier works in order to sway his audiences in person, over the radio waves and in these Nazi films.  From the uniforms to the swastika symbols to the sea of flags to the camera angles to the regimented placement of all in attendance to the music and lighting Hitler indeed followed the expansive interpretation of propaganda voiced by Bernays.  Everything in Triumph of the Will is designed to communicate strength, leadership and the fawning love and admiration of the German people for their supreme leader. Wide overhead shots capture the full expanse of the large crowds giving weight and credibility to the speaker, Hitler.

The reason given for the enormous gathering captured in the film is the 20th anniversary of the start of the first World War.  A title card opens the piece:

“20 years after the outbreak of the World War… 16 years after the German suffering began… 19 months after the beginning of Germany’s rebirth Adolf Hitler flew to Nuremberg again…” (Riefenstahl 1934)

Triumph then opens with the aircraft delivering Hitler to immense crowds of admirers.  Before we see Hitler, we see his plane circling above Nuremberg, and the camera glimpses more and more of the gathered flock below in the town.  Perhaps the most powerful images are of the adoring children, no doubt Hitler Youth, who hail the arriving savior.

Many shots that day place the camera at waist height looking up to the perfectly symmetrical lines of storm troopers, as swastika flags are carried by rows and rows of identical groupings.  Strong compositions place the leadership in the center where all focus is directed and all salutes are aimed in at the undisputed Fuhrer.

The Battleship Potemkin

The Soviet propaganda film The Battleship Potemkin (Eisenstein, 1926)tells a revolutionary narrative loosely based on an actual incident from 1905.  Here the officers of the corrupt old regime are cast as the villains and demonized.  The downtrodden sailors of the Czar’s navy are pushed to their breaking point by the abusive officers.  This is the class struggle personified.

When the ship’s crew is offered only rotted maggot-infested meat to eat this becomes the final straw.  Mutiny follows, and then solidarity with the nearest Russian town Odessa.

The Czarist soldiers ruthlessly massacre the civilians of Odessa, an event that actually did not occur as portrayed in the film, although other atrocities were reported at the time (Ebert).   The rebellious ship sailors fire on the enemy stronghold, destroying the opera house in a hail of artillery rounds.

Soon more Czarist ships are sent to battle the mutinous Potemkin.  A tense standoff on the high seas climaxes with numerous montage cuts that show the ships in action and approaching one another, guns ready.  Eisenstein was a pioneer of montage and of placing contrasting images next to one another for effect.

Solidarity wins out, and these new ships join in the rebellion taking the cue from the revolutionary actions of the Potemkin’s sailors.  Revolution wins in the end.


Jumping ahead to modern times, Dr. Jack Shaheen studied negative portrayals of the Arab race in Hollywood’s films.  He analyzed over 1,000 such films from the early days right up into the present.  In Reel Bad Arabs Shaheen opens the discussion:

“For more than a century Hollywood too has used repetition as a teaching tool, tutoring movie audiences by repeating over and over, in film after film, insidious images of the Arab people.  I ask the reader to study in these pages the persistence of the defamation, from earlier times to the present day, and to consider how these slanderous stereotypes have affected honest discourse and public policy.” (Shaheen p. 7)

Public perception of Arabs is relevant to multiple current wars, and to likely future conflicts.  “Arabs are the most maligned group in the history of Hollywood.  They’re portrayed basically as sub humans, Untermenschen, a term used by Nazis to vilify Gypsies and Jews” (Shaheen film).

Shaheen contends that the willingness of the US population to wage war on Iraq and elsewhere in the region naturally follows from a century of conditioning to regard Arabs as less than human.  Such conditioning leads to apathy in regards to real atrocities perpetrated against Arabs, including civilians.  The torture crimes at Abu Ghraib and Bagram Air Base fit with a desensitized people who regard the objects of their violence as undeserving of sympathy or humanity.

Shaheen followed up with a documentary film of the same name. Numerous ugly portrayals of Arab characters are presented in ways that if applied to other races or religions would be met with protests and public wrath.  For Arabs and Muslims generally this negative stereotyping not only passes without protest in the American culture but is often celebrated as realistic.

“The movies that we see basically follow Washington’s policies… Islamophobia now is a part of our psyche.  Words such as Arab and Muslim are perceived as threatening words.  And if the words are threatening, what about the images we see in the cinema and on our television screens?” (Shaheen film)

Deceptive, Insidious

Propaganda is pervasive, insidious, often subliminal and is in evidence even in today’s so-called mainstream films.  The use of out groups and demonization continues despite cultural trends toward more inclusiveness and acceptance of others.  Film is a powerful force for rewriting history and for glorifying one’s own side at the expense of the truth.

One-sided depictions are overwhelmingly the staple of film narratives both in fiction and in supposed non-fiction.  In fiction, the protagonist’s view is the dominant view expressed, and events are concocted to reinforce this view.  Those whom the protagonist sees as bad or evil the audience is led to see in the same light by the unfolding of the plot.

As for non-fiction film:

“Selection and half truth are the corner-stones of propagandist documentary, and it is a psychological fact that half truths serve as well as whole truths in supporting cinematic illusions of what is real.” (Furhammar- Isaksson 152)

It is all too easy to accept a film as reality in whole or in part because of the convincing manner in which the events are staged.  This tendency in gullible audiences has been exploited for propaganda reasons and will continue to be exploited.  For that reason, film will remain a battleground, of ideas and clashing views, which needs to be monitored and commented upon.

“It is fundamental to propaganda that the message must be expressed in a way that does not invite discussion. The effect depends upon being received without question, on drowning out all criticism or analysis. Its appeal is purely emotional and excludes all alternatives.” (Furhammar- Isaksson 201)

One of the keys to sneaking in propaganda in a way that doesn’t invite question or discussion is to embed it in genre films.  The audience fixated on the genre conventions and plot ignores the political messages that accompany the story.  This is the most common type of “unconscious” or subliminal propaganda.

Judith Hess argues that the classic genres of horror, western, sci-fi and gangster seek to reinforce the status quo and to dissuade any disaffected masses from challenging the existing order.  While token gestures are offered in the telling, the end result tends to suppress criticism of the system and to reinforce the status quo.

“Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt. They serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and therefore afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts.” (Hess)

By reducing complex structural social problems to simplistic dilemmas these films redirect the audience’s concerns into politically safe harbors.  The organization of society is never questioned, according to Hess, but instead society is simply a backdrop to the drama.  Often the conflicts are simply attributed to the character flaws of individuals, and not to the injustice of his or her situation.

The genre conventions play with the idea of addressing real world problems only to bait and switch.  In the classic Western, we are told to adhere to a “well defined and unchanging code.”  In classic horror, we must solve problems “based on tradition and faith.”  In science fiction invasion stories we must choose isolationism as no “knowledge gained from communication could possibly outweigh the dangers it represents.”  The gangster’s troubles arise from his seeking to challenge for power inside the system, to rise above his class.  He does not seek to change the system, but to overreach.  The gangster narrative serves as a “warning to stay within one’s station if one is to survive—all [these genres] militate against progressive social change” (Hess).

Propaganda of one sort or another is found in most films.  Editorial selection insures that a particular view gets a better close-up than its opponents.  It is important to realize that films are designed and contorted to manipulate audience perceptions.

Awareness and discussion of propaganda should be front and center from early childhood on through to the retirement home.  Whether in film, on the radio, in print, on television or now on computer screens or phones the fact is that we are bombarded by complex messages that often carry subliminal characteristics. Television commercials are but one type of obvious propaganda, clearly blatant, but are these discussed and dissected in the classroom?  Does our education system account for slanted messaging and biased sources generally?  Are our citizens taught to even recognize when someone is constructing a tall tale in order to sell them a specious worldview?

Propaganda, like fascism, is generally relegated to the historical dustbin.  People assume that they are immune and that propaganda doesn’t affect their lives.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

Some further research:

The Century of the Self


Reel Bad Arabs: How Hollywood Vilifies a People


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Joe Giambrone is a filmmaker and author of Hell of a Deal: a Supernatural Satire. He edits the Political Film Blog. He be reached at: polfilmblog at gmail.



ADL, Ku Klux Klan – Extremism in America, web, Anti Defamation League, web, November 19, 2011,

Bernays, Edward, Propaganda, 1928, History is a Weapon, web, November 17, 2011,

Ebert, Roger, Battleship Potemkin, originally published in Chicago Sun Times, web, November 19, 2011,

Eisenstein, Sergei, The Battleship Potemkin, Russia: MosFilm, 1926, film.

Furhammar, Leif and Isaksson, Folke, Politics and Film, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971, print, p. 152.

Gilbert, Gustave, Nuremberg Diary, Interview with Hermann Goering, New York: Farrar Strauss and Co. 1947, pp. 278-279, print.

Griffith, D.W., The Birth of a Nation a.k.a. The Clansman, 1915, film.

Hess, Judith, Genre films and the status quo, Jump Cut, no. 1, 1974, pp.1, 16, 18, web, November 18, 2011,, Birth of a Nation Opens, A&E Television Networks, LLC., web, November 19, 2011,

Riefenstahl, Leni, Triumph des Willens a.k.a. Viljans triumf  a.k.a. Triumph of the Will, Germany: Reichspropagandaleitung der NSDAP, 1934, film.

Shaheen, Jack Ph.D., Reel Bad Arabs, Northampton, MA: Olive Branch Press, 2001, p. 7, print.

Shaheen, Jack Ph.D., Reel Bad Arabs, Media Education Foundation, film, 2006, web, November 19, 2011, Google Video:

Sirota, David, 25 years later, how ‘Top Gun’ made America love war, The Washington Post, Aug. 26, 2011, web,

  1. […] “The American motion picture is the greatest unconscious carrier of propaganda in the world to-day. It is a great distributor for ideas and opinions. The motion picture can standardize the ideas and habits of a nation.” (Propagnada, Edward Bernays, 1928) more […]

  2. […] Magazine notes that John Ford played a Klansman in Birth of a Nation.  Tarantino had this to […]

  3. Robert says:

    No mention of the overwhelming jewish ownership of Hollywood. Might not that have some relation to the manipulative depictions of Arabs in film? Or is the background message of this article one where we’re being told not to notice that ?

  4. Wolfgang Amadeus says:

    These are all true, rare pieces of right-wing propaganda, which, however, hardly places a dent in the Socialist-atheistic Left propaganda promulgated by 99% of the cynical Hollywood execs and wannabe indie players. Just admit it, you manifest throughout your site here, a will to power of Leninists, abortionists, etc. Not good bro!

  5. Editor says:

    Sorry, Wolfy, your own propaganda is as crude and simpleminded as anyone I’ve come across. If telling the truth on a regular basis for no money means “Leninist” to you, then you’re just too dumb to waste bandwidth on. You are programmed by the standard reich wing nonsense that we hear far too much about on the radio and on the web. Not interested really.

  6. Eric says:

    Reblogged this on Calculus of Decay .

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