The Man in the Street and Second World War Propaganda
Finch, Lynette, Journal of Australian Studies
Throughout the second world war the allied state-run propaganda departments found themselves in a philosophical conundrum. Despite officially declaring themselves to be departments of information, they were never impartial conduits of `fact' about the war's progress; the skill of their staff was judged by the information they withheld, rather than by that which they broadcast. The messages they released, the morale-boosting film and radio scripts they approved and the news broadcasts they censored with blue pencils, were aimed at an imaginary community made up of ordinary Australians. The narrators, too, were constructed characters. Newsreaders and documentary narrators were selected because of the timbre or resonance of their voices with `the sole purpose of trying to get the average man in the street to listen'.(1)
The main task of the propagandists was to convince civilians that the war was their war and that survival depended upon victory. With this task in mind they enlisted the help of an irascible modern character: the bumptious, frequently cynical, mediumly intelligent but resourcefully ingenious `man in the street'. This article analyses the ways in which tensions in representations of the man in the street in Australian and allied second world war morale-boosting propaganda proclaimed deep philosophical contradictions within modern democratic experience.
Following Baudelaire, Marshall Berman describes the archetypal modern man as `a pedestrian thrown into the maelstrom of modern city traffic, a man alone contending against an agglomeration of mass and energy that is heavy, fast and lethal'.(2) While city traffic throws rapid movement and chaotic disorder at him, `the individual walkers or drivers, each ... may be pursuing the most efficient route for himself', negotiating crises that are commonplace and therefore, ordinary. The modern man calls upon `resources he never knew he had'.(3) He is:
forced to stretch them desperately in order to survive. In order to cross the moving chaos, he must attune and adapt himself to its moves, must learn to not merely keep up with it but to stay at least a step ahead. He must become adept at somersaults and movements brusques, at sudden, abrupt, jagged twists and shifts -- and not only with his legs and his body, but with his mind and his sensibility as well.(4)
The chaos of modern warfare threw this problematic hero into a maelstrom that was greater and far more pervasive than anything that the city and its hurtling traffic could create. War propaganda films attempted to capture this sense of vulnerability while featuring individual resourcefulness.
It is unique to modernism that warfare has become literally, wars between masses.(5) For the twentieth century citizen there would be nothing short of total commitment for, as Bertrand Russell put it, `a nation cannot succeed in modern war unless most people are willing to suffer hardship and many people are willing to die ... to produce this willingness, the rulers have to persuade their subjects that the war is about something important -- so important, in fact, as to be worthy of martyrdom'.(6) Professional armies were replaced by civilian armies, private property was confiscated by invading armies for the first time, and civilians -- especially those in cities -- became the legitimate targets of the new weapons of mass destruction.(7) War propagandists embraced the new situation by, as Sam Keen points out, seeking `to condition individuals to act as a mass'(8) or, as a speaker addressing the Melbourne Rotary Club in 1942 put it, propagandists had `to persuade millions of people with diverse interests that it is necessary to merge them into attaining one end'.(9) Herein lay a conundrum for the allied propagandist: if their task was to convince modern people that an extra layer of crisis had been added and that the modern solution of negotiating a multiplicity of responses and of finding an infinite number of individually efficient routes could no longer be permitted, how could their message differ from the fascist message?
One of the few Australian war propagandists who understood the problem was also the country's best known and most popular film producer, Ken Hall, director and owner of the independent film company, Cinesound. Cinesound captured a large proportion of the Department of Information's newsreels, morale-boosting films, and other shorter educational and advertising films of the second world war. Hall produced extremely low cost and meticulously receipted films for the department.(10) Key Cinesound personnel were granted exemptions from service in the armed forces. The secretary of the Department of Information, R E Hawes, noted: `a great deal of your newsreel has been devoted to the war effort. The effect of this steady presentation of war facts in the correct way has had a big influence on the Australian community'.(11) The `correctness' of Hall's messages was due, primarily, to the fact that the man in the street was consistently the hero of both his peace-time and war propaganda films.(12)
Kokoda Front Line, filmed by Damien Parer in New Guinea and produced by Hall in Australia, was Cinesound's most acclaimed war film. It shared with John Ford's Battle of Midway the 1942 American Film Academy award for short documentary. The theme of the simple man rising to meet the challenge is present from the opening scene. The `utter weariness of sorely tried men ... who have suffered fearful privation', the narrator explains over footage of young men emerging from the fecund jungle. Hall's longest propaganda film, the thirty-five minute 100,000 Cobbers, features the ill-mannered lout, Bluey, who is transformed into `a good bloke' by the experience of military training and the camaraderie of the men.(13) The film opened simultaneously in thirty cinemas across Australia and, retitled Five Men of Australia was screened simultaneously in several Canadian theatres.
From 1937, the American Institute for Propaganda Analysis provided subscribers with a guide to recognise the `seven common propaganda devices', one of which was to evoke the man in the street. In `the plain folks device', the bulletin explained, `the propagandist seeks to win our confidence by appearing as l'homme moyen sensuel; he likes the things the man-in-the-street likes, he shares his little failings and his simple ambition'.(14) This was precisely the approach deployed by Hall. In the …
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Publication information: Article title: The Man in the Street and Second World War Propaganda. Contributors: Finch, Lynette - Author. Journal title: Journal of Australian Studies. Publication date: March 1999. Page number: 96. © 1998 University of Queensland Press. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
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