Top 10 War Films Used as Political Propaganda

Sometimes, Hollywood Lies to You.

Sometimes Hollywood makes films to tell an important story within our shared history. Sometimes it's to give visual presence to an unknown story of war, or to simply viscerally entertain. But other times, it's to push a political agenda and sway perspectives.

Pushing propaganda is one of the cardinal violations of my rules for war films. But not all propaganda is created equally. Sometimes propaganda is awful and insidious in that it lies to the viewer about important facts or histories. Other times propaganda is simply silly -- think Tom Cruise in Top Gun. These are 10 films (ranked from most insidious to least) that, for one reason or another, did a hell of a job contorting reality.

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Birth of a Nation

"Birth of a Nation" movie still
Actors costumed in the full regalia of the Ku Klux Klan ride on horses at night in a still from the first feature-length film 'The Birth of a Nation.'. Hulton Archive/ Getty Images

One of the first great propaganda films, Birth of a Nation portrays the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) as valiant defenders of society, struggling to fight the good fight against the evil "blacks" that marred the South.

Sigh...does anything else need to be said about this awful film?  Sadly, it was a box office hit upon its release.

Propaganda Threat:  Severe

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The Green Berets

The Green Berets. Warner Brothers

The Green Berets is the definition of insidious propaganda. The film was brought into being specifically because John Wayne was bothered by the anti-war sentiment within the country in 1968. With the Pentagon's backing and President Lyndon Johnson's approval, the film was made with the specific intention of countering existing opinions about the war.

At the start of the film, a journalist who is skeptical of the war is given a lecture by an American Special Forces soldier who paints the conflict in Vietnam in starkly simplistic terms as being a fight for freedom against Communist forces. Later, the journalist travels to Vietnam where he witnesses the American forces participating in humanitarian acts, while the enemy engages in brutal violence (as if the Americans never participated in brutal acts of violence against civilians). Ultimately, the journalist realizes his ideological errors and reverses his previous opposition to the conflict. (In the film, there's no mention of the millions of dead Vietnamese or Agent Orange or the fire bombing of civilian villages.)

The Green Berets takes an exceedingly complex conflict, and reduces it to a simplistic dichotomy of good and evil, with the U.S., of course, being the side of good. Most striking though is what the film omits. In addition to the aforementioned omission of civilian casualties, the film also omits that the war was started on a lie with the Gulf of Tonkin incident, the brutalities committed by U.S. forces, and the indifference of much of the Vietnamese civilian population to their own conflict. All of this in addition to over-playing the threat that was posed by the Soviets. A viewer watching this film, who received no other information about the war, would have some very one sided views of the conflict.

Propaganda Threat: Severe

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24. Fox

The 24 television series starring Keifer Sutherland, although not technically a film, is nonetheless an example of Hollywood propaganda at its finest. In the series, secret agent Jack Bauer, takes on an endless parade of terrorists, and throughout the multi-season run, ended up having to repeatedly torture terrorists to find out information. Usually it was the location of a bomb that was about to explode.

24 earns the dubious distinction of making this list because of its prevalent worldview that was so timely post 9/11. It was a worldview of indefinite detention, in which torture was necessary, and all Muslims were terrorists. As entertainment -- and more troubling, very popular entertainment -- it certified the legitimacy of a particular worldview to millions of Americans, except that this worldview was based upon absurd fictional narrative constructs.

Unfortunately, this "simple mindless television show," ended up inspiring real-life episodes of torture within our government, with CIA agents modeling themselves off of Jack Bauer's character.  Sadly, this show also helped form the political opinions of more than one individual that I happened to know.

Propaganda Threat: Severe

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Winter Soldier

Winter Soldier. Millarium Zero

This 1972 documentary features the testimony of American soldiers detailing war crimes in Vietnam. Winter Soldier makes this list because its unique in that rather than offering pro-war propaganda, this film offers anti-war propaganda. While U.S. soldiers most certainly did participate in war crimes, and while these crimes were systematically under-reported, and while this film should receive accolades for exposing some of these crimes, the film also is uncritical in its release of this information.  Which is to say that veterans with a bone to pick got on a stage, and gave the audience very detailed accounts of horrible civilian murders committed by U.S. forces, but there was no investigation into the veracity of these claims, which were often taken for fact.

The film was highly controversial as critics argued about whether everything presented in the film was actually true, and this is highly problematic. When you charge U.S. soldiers with committing war crimes, you need to have your evidence verified.

In short, this film floods the viewer with all of these troubling narratives and horrific descriptions in the hopes of striking a strong emotional cord, without any accompanying explanation or nuance. At the end of the day, liberal propaganda is just as bad as far right wing propaganda.

Propaganda Threat: Severe

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Blackhawk Down

Blackhawk Down. Columbia Pictures

This 2001 film about Army Rangers under siege in Mogadishu is intensely violent and to the casual observer would paint a horrific portrayal of war. Except that to many young soldiers who watch this film, the response is to end up attracted to combat. (I wrote about this phenomenon in an article entitled, "Films that Made Me Join the Army.") Blackhawk Down paints an intensely romantic picture of high-intensity combat: Soldiers in a brotherhood of arms, a sweeping musical score for every fallen comrade, and a battlefield that one can imagine navigating while picking off enemy fighters if only they were a bit more fit.

Throw in some simplistic stereotypes of Somali warlords and heavy doses of American patriotism with slow motion shots of the American flag flapping in the wind, and a bunch of very "cool" looking commandos, and one could easily leave this film not thinking that war is horrible, but that being surrounded by hundreds of armed Somalis in the Battle Mogadishu was fun. 

Propaganda Threat: Moderate

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Red Dawn

Red Dawn. MGM/UA

Red Dawn stars a lot of adult actors as teenagers (Patrick Swayze and Charlie Sheen, among others) who are high-school kids that retreat to the mountains when America is invaded by Russians and Cubans. From the mountains, they wage a guerilla campaign against the enemy forces.

Red Dawn is especially symbolic of a particular type of film that was prevalent in the 1980s, whereby the Russians were reduced to an evil caricature, and the idea of the Soviet threat was unflinchingly reinforced. To what extent the collective work of all of 1980s Hollywood contributed towards reinforcing the paradigms of the Cold War is an impossible question to ask; but films like Red Dawn never helped.

Red Dawn is so over the top ridiculous that it's difficult to know where to start. Most absurd is the idea that these teenagers, with no formal military training but lots of American derring do courage, are able to take on the Soviet military by themselves...and win. Red Dawn is an important film as a cultural artifact of a strange period in American history, and propaganda in that it reinforces a conservative nationalistic worldview.  (Also made my  list of worst war films of all time.)

Propaganda Threat: Moderate

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Act of Valor

Act of Valor. Relativity Media

Act of Valor is an action film that was made in cooperation with the U.S. Navy that profiles the Navy SEALs. In fact, many of the actors within the film are real-life SEALs. The film though is little more than an homage to Navy Special Forces soldiers masquerading as a real-life entertainment. The film even fails in its basic mission as a serviceable action film. Act of Valor is little more than a Navy recruiting video that was released to theatres.

Propaganda Threat: Minimal

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Top Gun

Top Gun. Paramount Pictures

This 1968 Tom Cruise action film about Navy fighter pilots at the infamous Top Gun school is another film that is little more than one long two hour recruitment campaign for the military. Navy recruitments purportedly shot up after this film and why wouldn't it? Potential recruits learned that if you sign-up for the Navy's fighter pilot program, you'll get to ride around on a motorcycle, flirt with beautiful female instructors, and play volleyball with your shirt off. (I wonder how many recruits were disappointed to learn that acceptance into the fighter pilot program is exceedingly difficult, and that for those who got in, acting like a "maverick" as Tom Cruise did in the film and flying by the control tower is a quick way to get booted out of the Navy.)

Of course, ultimately, Top Gun is silly, harmless propaganda, and, most importantly, so obviously rigged against any semblance of real life, that it's likely no one took it seriously.

At least, I hope that's the case.

Propaganda Threat: Minimal

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Rocky IV

Rocky IV. MGM/UA

Rocky IV is not a war film. But it still offers us propaganda that affected our nation's cultural response to the Russians during the Cold War. In Rocky IV Rocky faces off against a Soviet super soldier named Ivan Drago, a boxer who has been physically conditioned to perfection in the mountains of Siberia, and designed by Soviet planners and scientists to be the perfect fighter. Drago was a testament to the Soviet economy and their scientific superiority, and in this way, a metaphor for the great military Soviet threat.

Except, of course, the real-life Soviet military threat was almost entirely imagined. Yes, the Soviets had a huge stockpile of missiles and a massive military. But, as we now know with the benefit of hindsight, the Soviet economy was so strained at attempting to keep up with the American military build-up, that they were struggling to pay for basic infrastructure within the country. The military was large but inflexible, and often lacked fuel to even move its component parts around the country. But films like Rocky IV never let truth get in the way of creating a good boxing nemesis for Rocky. Still, it is just Sylvester Stallone in a boxing ring punching Dolph Lundgren

Propaganda Threat: Minimal

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Casablanca. Warner Brothers

This 1942 film, often hailed as one of the best films of all time, was actually backed by the War Department because of the film's pro-war stance. America was largely indifferent to involvement in the war's early early years, and films like Casablanca which showed Humphrey Bogart taking a stand were given assistance by the military for helping to shape public opinion.

As war film propaganda goes, Casbalanca's contribution is fairly innocuous. Still, the overall popularity of the film and its little known history as a tool of the American military to change minds warrants its inclusion on this list.

Propaganda Threat: Minimal