Propaganda is a curious thing. In common usage the term ‘propaganda’ has acquired something of a negative connotation—ask most people to recite their favorite wartime propaganda and they’ll throw out slogans like “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” or “Reds Under the Bed,” and perhaps they’ll mention some of the more unfortunate caricatures seen during World War II, like the German depiction of Jews, and the American depiction of the Japanese (and vice versa). This is overt propaganda; we know it when we see it. But the term ‘propaganda’ is not just limited to negative imagery or patriotic imagery. In a more traditional sense, propaganda is any material that seeks to convince the audience into adopting a particular opinion or worldview. Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 is an easy example of this: it looks nothing like a wartime poster, but it clearly makes no attempt to be objective, and its goal is purely to persuade the audience to buy its argument.
Some of history’s most acclaimed films are works of propaganda. There was a time when people believed Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin—a pro-Marxist silent movie released in 1925—was the greatest film ever. But the most curious propaganda films are those that mask their true intentions. Akira Kurosawa is not known for his wartime films—we remember him for the likes of Ikiru, Seven Samurai, and Throne of Blood—but from his large pantheon of works, he declared The Most Beautiful to be the one dearest to him. It was his second directorial feature, released in 1944, and it was a propaganda film. But there are examples that might come as more surprising. Consider another film prized by critics, a piece of propaganda that is no longer recognized as such: the 1943 Humphrey Bogart vehicle Casablanca.
To our eyes, there’s nothing overtly propagandistic about Casablanca. There are Nazis milling about, but they’re not the typical caricatures seen in World War II propaganda. There is no doubt that Colonel Strasser, the film’s German antagonist, is the enemy, but he isn’t a boorish, sneering, abjectly cruel individual. While he is arrogant and unemotional, he certainly isn’t a cartoonish figure. The most threatening he gets is when he casually asks Rick, the film’s American hero, to imagine a German invasion of the United States, a prospect that seems laughable today (though it may have upset some of the audience then). In fact, besides the character of Strasser and his small band of subordinate officers, the war hardly figures in Casablanca.
The absence of World War II may be the foremost reason why Casablanca holds up today, and why we now characterize it as a romance. But there’s no doubt that the censor’s office viewed Casablanca differently. A report on the film noted that it was a “very good picture about the enemy . . . from the standpoint of the war information program.” The censors appreciated that the characters’ personal desire was “subordinated to the task of defeating fascism,” that “America [was] shown as the haven of the oppressed and homeless,” and that the film “[aided] audiences in understanding that our war did not commence with Pearl Harbor.”
It’s not that Casablanca was written, directed, and produced only with the goal of being propaganda—it is certainly a romantic film. But its romance-centered narrative did not preclude the incorporation of a subtler type of propaganda that the censors found so agreeable. Indeed, in a country bombarded with very loud messaging that demanded each person do their part for the war effort—Uncle Sam’s “I Want You for the U.S. Army,” “We Can Do It,” and the like—films like Casablanca must have provided a much needed counterbalance. The war’s distance allows for the characters to take center stage, and there they thrive. They are virtuous and admirable, heroes that the public can admire. And in a propaganda work, it’s those types of heroes—heroes like Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick—that the creators hope the audience will emulate. It may be totally trite, but these are the films that work to raise national spirits. The film is ostensibly about a fresh topic in a far-off, exotic location, and yet it is relevant to the present cause; the messaging is subtle, and it places a premium on individual strength, on character, and on leadership, not just on military might and bravado.
Across the Pacific in Japan, and one year after Casablanca, Akira Kurosawa’s The Most Beautiful was released, a film with similar designs and a very similar means of execution to Casablanca, though the two narratives are markedly different. Where Casablanca is a romance, The Most Beautiful is a simple examination of a volunteer corps of teenage girls who are working at a lens-manufacturing plant, creating targeting sights for fighter planes. The film has no real story—Kurosawa termed it a “semi-documentary,” in as much as the narrative was essentially factual, with actors playing the characters—and its themes are essentially identical to Casablanca’s: personal sacrifice, personal strength, and working for the common good.
Similar to Casablanca, Kurosawa doesn’t dwell on the war. His interest is in the character of the girls, their determination, and the trials of life faced by those that aren’t fighting. But The Most Beautiful doesn’t stand only as a work of propaganda. In fact, it is most interesting as a “semi-documentary,” where Kurosawa tells his story with actors, but in a way that simulates reality. This is different from a mockumentary, where the audience is being fooled into believing the film is real. There is no illusion that The Most Beautiful is a work of fiction, but it isn’t too far from being a reenactment of sorts—in fact, Kurosawa essentially turned the young actresses into method actors, requiring them to live in the lens factory dormitories and to actually do some of the difficult labor. His direction worked, and the result is a film where much of the acting seems invisible—thus, a “semi-documentary.”
Casablanca’s function as propaganda is passed over today. The war is well behind us, and we now remember the film for its striking characters and surprising (if not somewhat clumsy) ending. Though it might grow more opaque as time passes, the propaganda messaging is still there. There’s no reason to ignore it or to shun it or to be mortified by it—for me, it makes these films more fascinating than other routine pictures from that era. When we look at typical instances of propaganda, like posters, or like a Leni Riefenstahl film or the Battleship Potemkin, our first response is to analyze the way in which the work is attempting to convince us and bring us under its spell. But this process is foregone when we watch Casablanca. It’s not a film about soldiers and battle and death; it’s a film about people. We’re drawn by the characterization and by the conflict and by the romance, and almost subliminally, the ideas that are so important in wartime—personal sacrifice, most prominently—get passed along. On that mechanical level alone, Casablanca is quite brilliant, and its role as a wartime film should not be forgotten.