Bond has been beaten. Not by Blofeld, or Goldfinger, or Rami Malek’s megalomaniacal Lyutsifer Safin, but by The Battle at Lake Changjin. The Chinese blockbuster, a war epic set during the Korean War, has bested not only No Time to Die in the global box office rankings, but everything Hollywood’s had to offer in 2021 so far. F9, Marvel’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings, and Godzilla vs Kong are among the other films to trail in Changjin’s wake, as statistics revealed earlier this week. Most everyone outside of China seems to be in agreement, however: this film is bald nationalist propaganda, endorsed and shaped by the Chinese state.
The Telegraph described it as an “anti-US propaganda film”. The BBC wrote that it was “Chinese propaganda”, and The Independent has described it likewise. By all accounts, deeming it propaganda is entirely fair; criticisms have cited the film’s loaded historical inaccuracies and heavy-handed nationalist overtones, which paint the Chinese intervention in Korea in a heroic light. Indignation is perhaps an appropriate response when you see it has already taken in almost five billion yuan at the box office (roughly $769m, or £557m), as of last weekend, from an initial budget of 1.3bn yuan (£147m). It’s already China’s fourth-biggest film of all time, and looks set to claim third place imminently. It will likely surpass Hi, Mom!, the Chinese time-travel comedy from February that has topped the global box office for 2021. That a work of transparent indoctrination is getting called out for what it is can only be a good thing. If only we were so ready to spot propaganda when it’s a little closer to home.
Hollywood has had a long and storied history with propaganda, specifically surrounding its links to the military. It dates back as far as the silent era: Wings, the first-ever Best Picture winner at the Oscars, was produced with the assistance of the Pentagon. During the Second World War, the US Department of Defence (DoD) established the Office of War Information, which dedicated an entire agency (the Bureau of Motion Pictures) to censoring or vetoing more than 1,650 scripts across a three-year period. After the dissolution of the bureau, the American war movie remained a platform for affirmational jingoism; when the Vietnam war came around, it was with the government’s backing that John Wayne produced the hit propaganda film The Green Berets.
The UK was not immune to the allure of the military-entertainment complex. The First World War saw the UK’s War Office Cinematograph Committee produce and sponsor a number of fiction and non-fiction works with a fervent ideological edge. Among these was Hearts of the World, a crudely partisan war story directed by Birth of a Nation filmmaker DW Griffith, designed to curry favour for the war among American viewers. During the Second World War, Powell and Pressburger were enlisted by the Ministry of Information to make a number of propaganda-laden films, including 49th Parallel, which again sought to sway neutral Americans, and won the Oscar for Best Original Story.
But it wasn’t just war movies that were used for agitprop. The 1954 British adaptation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm, for example, was covertly funded by the CIA, with the ending altered to encourage unrest among communist viewers abroad, and discourage communist sentiment at home. (For its part, the Soviet Union was always a world-leader in the art of cinematic propaganda, with state-commissioned films driving a number of formal and technical innovations the US wouldn’t replicate for decades.)
Nor was the trend limited to the early- and mid-20th century. Documents that surfaced via Freedom of Information requests prove that the US DoD exerted its influence on more than 800 films between 1911 and 2017, including major blockbusters, from Captain America to Iron Man to Transformers. Though Marvel’s hugely popular film franchise rarely presents the military as heroes, it’s fair to say Iron Man’s depiction of them is flattering; research by Tom Secker revealed that the DoD’s changes included the removal of a scene in which Iron Man was shot down by the air force, and the excision of a line referring to military suicides. The CIA also set up an entertainment liaison office in 1996, and leaked memos revealed it was heavily involved in Al Pacino’s 2003 movie The Recruit, and the controversial Kathryn Bigelow thriller Zero Dark Thirty.
Every so often, the spin will be so egregious that it merits a mention. American Sniper, Clint Eastwood’s 2014 drama about real-life Iraq War vet Chris Kyle, was widely criticised for its historical inaccuracies and pro-military slant, eliding much of Kyle’s racism and brutality. Still, that didn’t stop it bagging six Oscar nominations. Captain Marvel was one of the biggest films of 2019, and was a bare-faced piece of propaganda, made with the collaboration of the US air force. In stretches, it appeared like an unusually elaborate advertisement for air force recruitment, a fact that was not lost on some critics. The film grossed well over $1bn.
Now, the biases and misrepresentations of American Sniper and Zero Dark Thirty were picked up on and discussed by western critics at the time the films were released. However, these were seldom described in news stories as “propaganda films” – though they undoubtedly fit the definition. Perhaps the issue with The Battle at Lake Changjin is not that it indoctrinates its audience, but that it fails to clothe its insidious political message in the requisite amount of subtlety.
Even Bond is, on some level, simply propaganda – espousing a kind of quietly imperialist, Anglo-supremacist worldview that sees the British intelligence forces always save the day in the end. (Earlier 007 outings were reportedly among those titles to be worked on by the US DoD, including Goldfinger, Thunderball, GoldenEye and Tomorrow Never Dies.)
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Obviously, any attempt by a state to effectively brainwash its population should be met with nothing but resistance and condemnation. China is, for many reasons, incomparable with the UK, or the US, and criticisms of its human rights record should be taken with the utmost seriousness. However, as we saw with some of Donald Trump’s campaign speeches, positioning China as some kind of faraway bogeyman – a land of authoritarianism and unvarnished propaganda – only serves to deflect attention away from the west’s own failings, and disguises our own socio-political shortcomings.
Yes, propaganda can look like The Battle at Lake Changjin. It can look like a Leni Riefenstahl film, black-and-white reels of wide-eyed crowds braying for Adolf Hitler and Nazi speeches. But propaganda can also look like Brie Larson strapping herself into a fighter jet in Captain Marvel, or Bradley Cooper squinting through the sight of a rifle in American Sniper. Propaganda has many faces. Picking and choosing which to recognise can only end badly.
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