Technology and "Reel Patriotism" in American Film Advertising of the World War I Era

By Latham, James | West Virginia University Philological Papers, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Technology and "Reel Patriotism" in American Film Advertising of the World War I Era


Latham, James, West Virginia University Philological Papers


"We can now see, through the looking glass of several decades, that both war and Hollywood thrive on illusion." Robert S. Sennett

Advertising and publicity are forms of commercial speech that function powerfully to motivate moviegoing and shape our understanding of films. In fact, at times, advertisements are more memorable, more evocative, and more widely seen than the films they promote. While historians have studied the production and exhibition of war-related films, they have paid much less attention to how these films were sold to the American public. The promotion of war-related films, specifically the advertisements that announced them to consumers, conveyed cultural meanings of patriotism, the national identity of Americans and her enemies, and the reasons why the country was at war and why the public should contribute to it. Advertising for American films from World War I did more than simply tout movies. This case study of seven advertisements reveals the ideological power of what Christian Metz once described as cinema's "third machine: after the one that manufactures the films, and the one that consumes them, the one that vaunts them, that valorizes the product." (1) Most of these advertisements promoted films exhibited in the latter years of World War I, when the United States and its film industry were fully engaged in the war; other ads emphasized certain issues that were of special concern to exhibitors, such as war taxes on theater admissions. (2)

WWI era advertisements for war films created rich rhetorical forms with words and images that could evoke primal fears or modern optimism. Technologies were deployed in ads to encourage exhibitors to book movies and the public to see them. World War I marked the introduction or modernization of the submarine, machine gun, tank, airplane, artillery, radio, and chemical weapon. These technologies transcended conventional limitations of space and time to deliver destruction to distant military or civilian populations. They created lasting physical and emotional damage on an unprecedented scale. Film promotion both familiarized audiences with these technologies and used them rhetorically to signify the relative power of combatants and the righteousness of the Allied cause. When, for instance, ads showed Americans with one of the new weapons technologies they were portrayed as effective and morally justified; however, when a German wielded a machine gun, he was inept or evil. In addition to new technologies, film promotion depicted more conventional and even primitive weapons, such as knives and clubs, sometimes staging allegorical scenes with figures like Uncle Sam and Kaiser Wilhelm II. These condensed the war into a dramatic conflict between two familiar combatants, and alluded to the great historical significance, or the putative ancient animosities, in this struggle between democracy and the tyranny of the evil "Hun." Film promotion even depicted non-military technologies being used as weapons, such as mechanical presses that squeezed the Kaiser to death. Thus, images of technology in ads often went beyond the literal content of the films they promoted, as is typical with advertising--a practice prone to hyperbole and playing upon the emotions and imaginations of consumers. (3)

Like the films they promoted, advertisements functioned to rally support for the war effort and to exploit the conventional movie attraction of technology as spectacle. War film promotion also valorized the medium of cinema, itself a modern form of communication and a powerful technological weapon that served "our" interests. Ads touted the capacity of cinema to provide news or spectacular images from the war with greater verisimilitude than any other medium. They vaunted cinema's ability to advocate the war effort, how cinema could portray the leaders, heroes, villains, and victims of the war in ways that served government interests. Cinema was likened to weapons such as the machine gun, with the information and persuasive content of film images being as powerful as bullets in combating the enemy. …

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