The midterm exam in Professor Boyle’s class — which is worth 30% of our grade — was due this evening. We had a choice of two of seven questions to answer. I chose to compare and contrast the styles of John Grierson and Pare Lorentz, as well as explore the issue of propaganda in documentary films by focusing on Frank Capra’s Prelude to War (1942) and Humphrey Jennings’s London Can Take it (1940):
Documentary: Its Art, History & Future
Prof. Deirdre Boyle
October 20, 2011
QUESTION 1: Masters of the documentary form emerged early, each different in their styles, values, and interests in filmmaking. Compare one pair of filmmakers (John Grierson and Pare Lorentz) and examine their divergent approaches to the documentary by analyzing the various reasons (intellectual, aesthetic, political, economic, etc.) behind their similarities as well as their differences.
John Grierson’s documentary style developed largely during his time spent in the U.S., beginning in 1924, as a Rockefeller Research Fellow where he studied the impact of the press, film, and other mass media on forming public opinions. At the same time, he was greatly influenced by writer and political philosopher Walter Lippmann who, according to Patricia Aufderheide, “argued that our increasingly complex society required professionals who could translate issues for the masses, who otherwise would become overwhelmed by the level of expertise needed to address any particular issue.”
Grierson concluded that the collective complexity of the problems facing the public demanded “a kind of democratic education that went beyond the individual stuffing himself with knowledge.” In a 1943 speech, he recounted how this thinking led him to filmmaking:
The idea of documentary in its present form came originally not from film people at all, but from the Political Science school in Chicago round about the early twenties. It came because some of us noted that Mr. Lippmann’s argument closely and set ourselves to study what, constructively, we could do to fill the gap in educational practice which he demonstrated…We thought, indeed, that even so complex a world as ours could be patterned for all to appreciate if we only got away from the servile accumulation of fact and struck for the story which held facts in living organic relationship together.
Eric Barnouw states that Grierson believed that the problems raised by Lippmann might be best handled by the filmmaker who could effectively dramatize the issues and their consequences and thereby “lead the citizen through the wilderness.” Following Lippmann’s suggestion that he investigate the evolving patterns of American film forms – and after visiting Hollywood – Grierson concluded he would not secure needed film financing through the established movie studios declaring, “Our cinema magnate does no more than exploit the occasion. He also, more or less frankly, is a dope pedlar.”
Meanwhile, Grierson continued his work in journalism, which began as graduate student in Scotland. His writings turned to film and that opened the door to work in New York City as a film critic for The Sun. A crucial outcome of this work was that it brought Grierson into close contact with Robert Flaherty, a relationship that would become a major building block of the documentary film movement. In fact, it was in his review of Flaherty’s second film, Moana, that Grierson would be the first to publicly use the term documentary. However, as Barnouw notes, Grierson hailed Flaherty as the father of documentary while at the same time “deploring his obsession with the remote and primitive.” Instead, Grierson began to show an affinity in his columns for Soviet cinema which stressed the “fluidity of its dramatic movement, the robustness of its approach, and the social reality of its content.”
By the time Grierson returned to England in 1927, he was convinced that film was the vehicle to shape public opinion during the Great Depression. Eschewing its value as art, he considered it a malleable form of publication, “of these the most important field by far is propaganda.” Richard Barsam says that Grierson saw the filmmaker as “a patriot first, and an artist second.” Having already excluded traditional options for financing, Grierson set out to find a government agency he might convince of his vision for the value of films. Soon, Grierson was hired as a film officer for the Empire Marketing Board (EMB), the government office responsible for promoting inter-Empire trade.” It was through EMB’s efforts that the modern documentary form began to be revealed.
Grierson then flashed one of his most effective personal attributes: his salesmanship ability. As Barnouw describes, while EMB wanted to pursue film work, it met resistance from its sole patron – the Financial Secretary of the Treasury, Arthur Michael Samuel, who opposed the effort. Grierson, not to be denied, realized that Samuel was the leading authority on the herring industry and proposed a film on the subject. In 1928, Drifters, the only film Grierson would ever direct, “brought the daily work of the herring fisheries to life in a way that astonished the audience.”
That Grierson would shine light on the everyday lives of British workers, even casting them as heroes, was revolutionary. While Flaherty might have trained the lens on the charming fishing villages, Grierson’s eye was squarely on “the teamwork of man and machine;” his emphasis on the working man, his skills and rituals. Deviation from Flaherty was clear, as we would see in subsequent films like Night Mail (an ode to the postal worker) and Housing Problems (spotlighting slum conditions at housing projects brought to us by direct address by the tenants themselves).
Drifters’ success catapulted Grierson’s career. Instead of directing films, he would now become “creative organizer” of EMB’s film unit, focusing on production and administration, recruiting and training budding filmmakers, closely monitoring projects (even watching dailies), securing ongoing funding, and “fanatically” shielding his units from bureaucratic interference. Grierson sought left-leaning political activists as recruits, like himself – a remarkable achievement and a bow to his political acumen, since funding would come by way of the British government’s Conservative Party. Grierson also ordered his teams to avoid the “aestheticky.” Per Barnouw, “they were propagandists first, film makers second. Art is a hammer, not a mirror.”
Despite his reluctance to get pinned down on his methods, Grierson did reveal his “first principles” of documentary: the cinema’s capacity for observing life (it could capture the living scene and the living story), its refusal to use actors, the belief that stories taken from “the raw” are finer and more real than those made by the “shim-sham mechanics” of the Hollywood studios. Aufderheide notes Grierson’s 1942 statement which summarizes his philosophy: “The documentary idea was not basically a film idea at all [but] a new idea for public education.”
President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s aggressive efforts to tackle the Great Depression would find Americans seriously engaging with documentaries on its own soil for the first time. Aufderheide argues that the government’s massive investment – and intrusion into the lives of citizens – necessitated a proactive sales pitch by the Roosevelt administration. In 1934, the Resettlement Administration (RA), the agency responsible for combating rural poverty, tasked Pare Lorentz to lead the way.
Like Grierson, Lorentz had no previous filmmaking experience. Similarly, he had worked as a journalist, including writing film criticism, and was well known in music circles having often written about the role of music in film (likely an outgrowth of his mother’s career as a professional singer). In 1930, Lorentz collaborated on a book concerning the social role of cinema where he articulated his belief in the enormously powerful medium of film: “At its logical development…it could dwarf the stage, the press and literature with its power.”
The book was seen as an indictment of the film industry, a charge that would cause Lorentz problems throughout his career. His early attempts to make commercial films were unsuccessful, as were efforts to obtain footage from the studios, which later tried to keep his films out of theaters. Lorentz concluded that only the government could use film as a tool to truthfully inform the public. Barnouw adds that many in Hollywood viewed government film production itself as an outrage (some deeming it “socialism”), and Lorentz sought to overcome this attitude. Aufderheide notes that Lorentz – like Grierson and Vertov before him – “strove to make works of art in the service of state objectives he profoundly believed in.”
Lorentz’ first film – The Plow That Broke the Plains (1936) – depicted the social and economic effects of the Dust Bowl that some equate with John Steinbeck’s novel, The Grapes of Wrath. Lorentz described the film as telling “the story of the Plains and it tells it with some emotional value – an emotion that springs out of the soil itself. Our heroine is the grass, our villain the sun and the wind, our players the actual farmers living in the Plains country.” It was considered a powerful indictment of social and economic policies that ravished farm families, but also a strong endorsement of Roosevelt’s reforms. Despite being shunned by Hollywood distributors, Lorentz’ personal efforts ensured that the film was booked into 3,000 of the nation’s 14,000 theaters.
Lorentz’s style argued for films that were both aesthetically pleasing and politically relevant, blending images with music and a lyrical and poetic commentary never before seen in American documentary film. Compositionally, the films differ greatly from Grierson’s as they contain few close-ups and do not focus on specific people or personal stories. From the outset, Lorentz married his films to music. Betsy McLane suggests that Lorentz’s choice of utilizing “hypnotizing blank verse spoken over images and music” instead of typical narration in The River hints at influence from Grierson’s Night Mail released a year earlier which also linked images to poetry by W.H. Auden, along with a musical score by Benjamin Britton. Instead, “Lorentz found an American equal in Virgil Thomson” who combined American folk tunes and hymns with original themes.
Lorentz followed Plow with his greatest work: The River (1937), which poetically traced the history of the Mississippi River and its tributaries (his character) and made in association with the Tennessee Valley Authority. His theme was the relationship between the water, land, and people. With a budget ten times that of Plow, and with Roosevelt’s personal endorsement, the acclaimed film was distributed by Paramount to 5,000 theaters. Lorentz was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for the poetic narration he wrote for it. Roosevelt then named Lorentz to lead the newly-created U.S. Film Service to make films for various federal agencies, similar to that of Britain’s GPO Film Unit under Grierson’s command.
Thomson’s composition has been praised not just for its beauty and creativity, but for “the way that they work with the visual and narrative elements of the film to create a single work of art.” So important was Thomson’s work that Lorentz edited and cut the film to match the score in places and changing the music to match the images in others, giving the film balance and harmony:
My intent almost a half-century ago was to have the pictures tell their story; to augment that story with music that would not only be an accompaniment but would also evoke emotions related to the lives of the people concerned, and finally to write the fewest possible words, solely for explanation and clarity, and to have them as much as possible in time with the music.
In contrast to Grierson, many view the scripts to Lorentz’s films as closer to poetry than film narration. Barsam argues that “Lorentz’s films consistently achieve an artistic distinction, blending sight, sound, and theme in a way that few Grierson productions (Night Mail is the exception) ever matched.” While Grierson’s films teach, Lorentz opts instead for a less edgy emotional style that establishes a relationship with viewers as though they are being taken on a ride and free to roam.
In fact, following a 1938 meeting of the men in London, Lorentz “was somewhat scornful of Grierson’s theories about documentaries, which seemed to him those of a school teacher, precluding beauty. In fact, Lorentz didn’t like the term ‘documentary’ – didn’t care what the impulse was called but tried to avoid that label. In relation to his own work he applied the term ‘Films of merit.’” In this context, I would argue that Lorentz’s films are situated stylistically between Flaherty and Grierson.
While their films are both considered examples of the “problem-solution” type of documentary, Brian Winston has criticized Grierson’s approach for depicting problems just as they are about to be solved, or failing to evoke a call to action when they are not. But where Lorentz fell short was on the business and public relations side. Unlike Grierson, Lorentz was not a savvy politician and badly failed to see the big picture when it came to the economics of his filmmaking. Said Barnouw:
Lorentz seemed to have achieved a status comparable to that of Grierson, watching over a spreading documentary empire. But Grierson was a skilled politician who knew how to keep his fences mended; Lorentz was not. Lorentz was in the field, trying to maintain artistic control over diverse enterprises. In the midst of his whirlwind efforts, he received a shock: the appropriations committee of the House of Representatives had scuttled the U.S. Film Service.
QUESTION 2: “Propaganda,” as Abbie Hoffman once said, is “establishing vision as reality.” Select two films screened in class that you consider to be examples of propaganda, and explain why they are propaganda, how effective they were (and are now) as propaganda, and how your idea of “propaganda” has been impacted through this study.
The two films which will be discussed for their propaganda qualities are Frank Capra’s Prelude to War (1942) and Humphrey Jennings’ London Can Take It (1940).
London Can Take It (1940)
By 1939, with World War II looming, John Grierson left Britain’s GPO Film Unit and was dispatched to Canada to study the state of its government film production and established the National Film Board of Canada. At the same time, the GPO Film Unit (now Crown Film Unit) was tasked with making war films for the Ministry of Information. Grierson’s years at GPO’s helm had well prepared the nation for what Barnouw calls a “documentary war.” The GPO filmmakers were then seasoned veterans and the mission fell to Humphrey Jennings who had been brought to GPO by Grierson in 1934.
Jennings’ background before joining GPO was diverse and artistic: a theatrical and fabric designer, a painter, a literary critic, a poet, and a broadcaster. He was also credited with having had a major hand in bringing surrealism to Britain and starting the Mass-Observation project (a project in 1937 aimed at recording the everyday life in Britain using 500 untrained volunteer observers). While other “artists” working under Grierson found his avoidance of the “aestheticky” stifling, eventually leaving to pursue art on their own, Jennings wholly embraced the documentary form as another canvas to showcase his talents.
Jennings’ first project was the short film First Days (1939), done in collaboration with Henry Watt (who directed Night Mail). Barnouw claims the film “caught the spirit of the moment” with a style “precise, calm, rich in resonance.” The following year, as Nazi Germany launched its air assault on Britain, Jennings would again collaborate with Watt on a film whose intended audience was not British public as much as an isolationist American public. London Can Take It (1940) was a piece of British propaganda devised to push the U.S. into war against Germany, as well as boost morale at home. The film was shot over a two-week period – though cinematically portrayed as one night of bombing – during the “blitz” on London in the fall of 1940. The film was narrated by an American journalist, Quentin Reynolds, a war correspondent for Collier’s Weekly.
According to author Nicholas John Cull, the choice of Reynolds came from the Information Ministry which “wanted British authorship to be unobtrusive and decided that an American should provide the commentary…Reynolds repaid them by delivering an electrifying commentary and thinking up the title.” In fact, the U.S. release print credited only Reynolds. Jennings, Watt, and the British government went unmentioned. Watt later noted that “all America imagined that this was an unbiased, personal report made by one of their own people.”
Jennings’ film was a contrast in style from most government-sponsored war films, which Barnouw claims is a reason for its great impact. In a departure from the typical Griersonian approach, the film does not try to explain the British predicament, nor does it castigate or attempt to lay blame with the Nazis. Barnouw notes the absence of “hate-the-enemy incitements – which did crop up in British newsreels.” Its tone is calm and even, projecting Londoners as a stoic and hardy bunch who have learned how to deal with the nightly bombings that have continued for many weeks, yet return to a sense of normalcy by sunrise. It simply observes, depicting the blitz’s effect on ordinary people, an attempt to alter the perception of Britain as the huge empire which then comprised 20 percent of the world’s population.
Stylistically, like Lorentz, Jennings envelops his film with music, infusing it with Beethoven, Mozart, and Brahms. Brian Winston argues that Jennings “filmed with rare understanding and empathy” and called the “multi-layering and juxtapositioning of sound and image that they achieved in the cutting room, working at the edge of what was then technically possible, render the film astonishing and challenging.” London was nominated for an Academy Award in 1940 in the short subject category. Even Joseph Goebbels called the film “a masterpiece of propaganda.”
No doubt, the film had to walk a tightrope in the U.S.: it needed to engage the American public to its plight without seeming to be either a lost cause or the likely victor. Either sentiment would likely fail to rouse Americans into such a sacrifice for another country without having first been attacked by the Axis powers. In Barnouw’s words, Jennings “seemed to be saying that time was short for humanity; that being human could not be postponed until some postwar era.”
As a piece of propaganda to generate the American public’s sympathy and change its opinion of Great Britain, it was wildly effective. According to Cull, the film would be shown in 12,000 theaters and seen by 60 million Americans. During its first run, eight theaters in “downtown New York” were showing the film. Public opinion during the run showed that Americans’ perception of the British had improved considerably. However, as in marketing, the goal is less to be loved than to get the public to buy your product. In the case of London, its emotional connection with Americans and its government did not translate into a drumbeat for war. Not yet, at least. That would come only after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941.
John Grierson was “bitterly critical” of the GPO’s propaganda efforts in the U.S. and expressed his sentiments directly to the Information Ministry:
Sympathy is only a second-class propaganda gambit and doesn’t create participation. It doesn’t create confidence. London Can Take It though…had I think the wrong secondary effect. “Boy was I sorry for London last night!.” Tear dropped, job over.
The British government agreed and instructed the BBC:
At the last meeting of the planning committee it was agreed that the phrase “Britain Can Take It” and the other members of the “Can Take It” family had become ineffectual and therefore undesirable. We should be glad therefore if you would discourage the use of such phrases in broadcasting.
Prelude to War (1942)
Once the U.S. entered World War II, the war propaganda effort was launched in its typical can-do fashion, with healthy doses of gaudiness and American exceptionalism added. Rather than returning to talented socially-conscious artists with no previous filmmaking experience (and who may have previously antagonized Hollywood), this time the federal government – specifically General George C. Marshall, President Roosevelt’s trusted Chief of Staff – went for pure Hollywood gold, tapping famed and beloved director Frank Capra, the champion of “the forgotten man.”
Though a Republican himself and having never created a documentary film, Capra was tasked with making a series of films collectively known as “Why We Fight” which would be primarily used as training and indoctrination for the millions of soldiers now forced to support the war effort and their viewing was compulsory. Equally critical was the need for the film to overcome the strongly held isolationist mentality of the American public. To combat this, Capra created Prelude with all the trappings of an over-the-top, big budget Hollywood blockbuster. Aufderheide points out the film’s interwoven images from Hollywood films, animated maps from Disney studios, U.S. Army footage, and use of enemy propaganda as a “portrayal of danger.” Barnouw refers to the film as “muscular and down-to-earth.” Aufderheide adds that its “style is jaunty, confident, even brash” and it use of “[p]olitical arguments are simplified, sometimes into falsity. No mention of segregation, for instance, creeps into the rosy portrait of American democracy.”
As a work of government propaganda, it was masterful. It shocked, rattled, and uplifted the nation, masterfully feeding the bitter medicine of military service in the form of a big screen epic on terms they understood – intellectually and emotionally. Notions of good and evil are prominent, so is the repeated invocation of the existential threat to Christianity that loomed. Maybe more than anything, Capra’s efforts would demonstrate that America had not really gone soft over the years. It simply needed a reason to rally and live up to its historic mission as a beacon for democracy and free people. More than 50 years later, it is difficult not be seduced and swallowed by the film.
Eventually, Prelude was released to the public to explain why the nation was at war, unifying Americans, and encouraging all to do their part in the war effort. Prelude, as well as the other films, were very successful and boosted public support for the war. In 1943, Prelude won the Academy Award for Best Documentary film and came with the Academy’s notation: “A special award to Prelude to War for its trenchant conception and authentic and stirring dramatization of the events which forced our nation into the war and of the ideals for which we fight.”
The Use of Propaganda
Personally, neither film altered or impacted my own idea of propaganda, even when the term is not limited to efforts by governments alone. I consider all documentary filmmaking as an exercise in someone’s propaganda, that is, each creator is presenting a point of view in accordance with his or her own view of the world, or the truth as they see it. Especially when it relates to political films, creators are surely attempting to promote or publicize a particular cause or point of view. In my opinion, we live in the present and can only approximate the past. It is impossible to eliminate subjectivity to documentary filmmaking as choices are constantly made by filmmakers.
Patricia Aufderheide reminded us that “documentaries are about real life; they are not real life. They are not even windows onto to real life. They are portraits of real life, using real life as their raw materials’ constructed by artists and technicians who make myriad decisions about what story to tell to whom, and for what purpose.” I agree whole-heartedly. Whether the effort is a government film to sell the benefits of the TVA or entering a war or shining light on British slums or saluting the workers, each is attempt to bring us to a particular point-of-view and, sometimes, a call to action. We are seduced by images and music and poetry or are moved by fear of an enemy. The films discussed above by Grierson, Lorentz, Jennings, and Capra are examples of ones which have stuck with generations of viewers. Many, many more will never be discussed after they are released. It is for each of us to decide how much weight to give a point of view, rather than be simply seduced by what is presented.
Notes for Question #1
 Aufderheide, Patricia. Documentary film: a very short introduction. Oxford University Press, 2007. Print, p. 33.
 Ellis, Jack C. John Grierson: life, contributions, influence. SIU Press, 2000. Print, p. 22.
 Barnouw, Erik. Documentary: a history of the non-fiction film. Oxford University Press, 1993. Print, p. 85.
 Grierson, John. Grierson on documentary. Praeger Publishers, 1971. Print, p. 171.
 Ellis, Jack C. “The Young Grierson in America, 1924-1927.” Cinema Journal 8.1 (1968): 12-21. Web.
19 Oct. 2011, p. 19.
 Barnouw, p. 85.
 Ellis (“The Young Grierson”), p. 19.
 Grierson, p. 185.
 Barsam, Richard Meran. Nonfiction film: a critical history. Indiana University Press, 1992. Print, p. 80.
 Grierson, p. 16.
 Barnouw, p. 87.
 Ibid, p. 88.
 Ibid, p. 89.
 Grierson, John. “First Principles of Documentary,” in Imagining Reality. Faber & Faber, 1996. Print, pp. 97-102.
 Aufderheide, p. 35.
 Ibid, pp. 66-67.
 Aitken, Ian. Encyclopedia of the Documentary Film. Routledge, 2006, pp. 823-26.
 “Pare Lorentz and the Films of Merit.” Reaping the Golden Harvest: Pare Lorentz, Poet and Filmmaker. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 1998. Web. 18 Oct. 2011 <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/FILM/lorentz/bio.html>.
 Barnouw, p. 114.
 Barsam, p. 153.
 Dunaway, Finis. Natural Visions: The Power of Images in American Environmental Reform. University of Chicago Press, 2008, p. 54.
 Barsam, p. 152.
 McLane, Betsy A. “‘The River’ Runs Through It: The Legacy of Pare Lorentz.” Documentary.org. Nov/Dec 2007. Web. 18 Oct. 2011 <http://www.documentary.org/content/river-runs-through-it-legacy-pare-lorentz>.
 “The River.” Reaping the Golden Harvest: Pare Lorentz, Poet and Filmmaker. American Studies at the University of Virginia. 1998. Web. 18 Oct. 2011 <http://xroads.virginia.edu/~1930s/FILM/lorentz/river.html>.
 Barnouw, p. 120.
 “The River.”
 Barsam, pp. 152-53.
 Ellis (“John Grierson”), p. 19.
 Barnouw, p. 121.
Notes for Question #2
 Barnouw, p. 98.
 Ibid, p. 144.
 Winston, Brian. “Books: Humphrey Jennings: Lost Star of the British Screen ; Humphrey Jennings by Kevin Jackson.” The Independent Dec 10 2004: 27. ProQuest. PROQUESTMS. 20 Oct. 2011 <http://search.proquest.com/docview/310752821?accountid=12261>.
 “Mass Observation.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. 2011. Web. 19 Oct. 2011 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass_Observation>.
 Matthews, Peter. “Fires were Started.” Sight and Sound 2000: 34,34, 3. International Index to Performing Arts. PROQUESTMS. 20 Oct. 2011 <http://search.proquest.com/docview/1820853?accountid=12261>.
 Barnouw, p. 144.
 Cull, Nicholas John. Selling War: The British Propaganda Campaign Against American “Neutrality” in World War II. Oxford University Press, 1996. Print, p. 107.
 Ibid, p. 108.
 Barnouw, p. 146.
 Cull, p. 112.
 Barnouw, p. 146.
 Cull, p. 108.
 Ibid, p. 114.
 Aufderheide, p. 70.
 “1942: Documentary Results Page.” Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Web. 19 Oct. 2011 <http://awardsdatabase.oscars.org/ampas_awards/DisplayMain.jsp?curTime=1319063048224>.
 Aufderheide, p. 2.