Sergeant York and the ire of the isolationists

Kevin Brianton

Senior Lecturer, La Trobe University

Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington.
Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

The 1930s were not an easy time for political players in the left or right. While Roosevelt remained a popular President, the economic carnage of the depression meant that political certainties began to fade. During the 1930s, both liberal and conservative political certainties started to crumble in the face of the Great Depression and the rise of fascism. Communism seemed to offer a solution to many.The tone of films such as Gabriel Over the White House (1933) often verges on the hysterical. There was a faint desperation in the political solutions offered by both the left and the right, verging on despair. A political consensus did emerge in the United States after Pearl Harbor, when it was shaken out of its isolationist stupor and became a reluctant ally of the Soviet Union to fight Nazi Germany. While Fascism appeared rampant in Europe, American cinema was mute on the topic.

The political censorship of the production code meant for a long time almost no anti Nazi or fascist films were made in Hollywood during the 1930s. While fascism rose in Europe, isolationism was a strong and formidable force in the United States. The possibility of a war in Europe or Asia, redoubled the efforts of isolationists to stay out of the war. The isolationists were particularly strong in the Republican Party, which constantly goaded the Roosevelt administration that it was seeking an unnecessary war. The isolationists also had considerable support across the Untied States.

Sergeant York (1941) was the film which finally raised the ire of the isolationists in Washington. It was based on the life of First World War hero Alvin York and was launched with an amazing amount of fanfare, even by Hollywood standards.  The Astor theatre in New York was decorated with 15,000 flashing red, white and blue lights.  York was marched down Broadway with an escort of First World War soldiers to a premiere attended by Roosevelt, General John ‘Black Jack’ Pershing and other dignitaries.  Roosevelt enjoyed the film and welcomed Alvin York to the White House following the screening.  The army used the occasion to give out recruiting material.[1]

The film followed the transformation of a devout Christian pacifist in to a war hero.  York represented the dilemma of America in many ways.  It was a nation which clearly did not want to fight in Europe, but in the end, found it had to do so.  In a key scene, York wrestled with his conscience over the commandment “Thou shalt not kill.’  After failing to register as a conscientious objector, he went to boot camp where he was recognised as a crack shot.  After spending a day and a night debating the conflicting demands of country and God, he read the verse form the Bible about rendering unto Caesar what belongs to Caesar and decided to travel to France.[2]  The film was one of the most popular of the year.[3]

The success of this and other pro-interventionist films, finally sparked the isolationists into action.  On 1 August 1941 Senator Gerald Nye attacked Hollywood for plunging America into war fever.

When you go the movies, you go there to be entertained…And then the picture starts – goes to work on you, all done by trained actors, full of drama cunningly devised…Before you know where you are you have actually listened to a speech designed to make you believe that Hitler is going to get you.[4]

Nye reasoned that the Roosevelt administration wanted to glorify war and British actors and directors wanted to lure America into the war.  With Europe dominated by the Nazis, the major diplomatic issue of the time was whether America should intervene in the European war.  Roosevelt had committed America to the Lend Lease program and the isolationists feared that it would slowly drag the United States into the war.  Time pointed out the Senate investigative committee was ‘stuffed with die-hard isolationists.’  The committee was not even established by any Senatorial vote.[5]

If the isolationists had proven their case, it would have meant the introduction of federal legislation to control Hollywood’s film content.  The industry responded with a forthright defense headed by the former Republican party presidential aspirant Wendell Willkie who fired off a press release where he denounced Nye as un-American and questioned the legality of the hearings.  The committee demanded that Hollywood product films showing both sides of the dispute and Willkie responded:

This, I presume, means that since Chaplin made a laughable caricature of Hitler, the industry should be forced to employ Charles Laughton to do the same on Winston Churchill … the motion picture industry and its executives are opposed to the Hitler regime … we make no pretence of friendliness to Nazi Germany.[6]

Warner bothers studio head Harry Warner was even more blunt.  Sergeant York was: ‘a factual portrayal of one of the great heroes of the last war … If that is propaganda, we plead guilty.’[7]

A remarkable contrast exists between the Senate investigation of 1941 and the HUAC investigations six years later.  The Hollywood industry was vigorous in its defense.  Accusations were not taken lying down and were thrown back at the committee.  Under pressure, the committee bungled by not being thoroughly prepared for the investigation.  While facing tight questioning from Senator Ernest McFarland, Nye admitted that he had not seen some of the films.  Nye also confused the plots and titles of films and could only make weak attacks on the films he could remember.[8]  The hearings became a disaster for the isolationists who were forced to abandon the whole issue after Japan bombed Pearl Harbour on 8 December.

[1] Koppes, Hollywood, pp. 38 – 39.

[2] Ibid. p. 38.

[3] Steinberg, Reel Facts, Vintage, New York, 1982, p. 18.

[4] Gerald Nye, ‘War Propaganda’, Vital Speeches, 15 September 1941, p. 720 quoted in Koppes, p. 40.

[5] Time, 22 September 1941.

[6] Time, 22 September 1941.

[7] Koppes, Hollywood, p. 44.

[8] Koppes, Hollywood, p.45.

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