Tune in Sunday, March 5, 2006 at 8 p.m. and 11 p.m. ET
Q: While writing and producing the episode, what was the most surprising thing you uncovered?
A: I was really impressed by Jimmy Stewart. He had just won an Oscar for the "Philadelphia Story" and his career was skyrocketing when he put it all on hold and joined the Army Air Corps in March of 1941. He knew that war was imminent and he was determined to join in the fight. During the war he flew many dangerous bombing missions over Europe, despite the fact that as a major he could have just planned the missions and not actually flown them. As a reservist after the war, he attained the rank of brigadier general, making him the second highest ranking actor in the military. Who was the first? President Ronald Reagan.
Q:What was the extent of the government's involvement in so-called "propaganda films" before and during World War II?
A: Before the war, Hollywood — particularly Warner Brothers — was actually criticized by a Senate committee for making pro-interventionist films when America was officially maintaining a neutral stance in regards to the war in Europe. But after the attack on Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt knew that he needed Hollywood's considerable influence to get the public to remain behind the war effort. In June of 1942, he established the Office of War Information, which set stringent guidelines for filmmakers to follow in regards to the war effort. with questions like, "will this help us win the war?" They even read scripts and made suggestions to studios how to strengthen messages being sent to the public. It was something that is truly inconceivable today.
Q: How did America benefit or suffer from the themes taken away from propaganda films?
A: World War II was unique in that America was pretty much undivided in the opinion that we needed to win that war. The public was really united in the effort, and Hollywood seemed to reflect the nation's resolve. I think a segment of the public knew to a certain degree that they were being subjected to propaganda, but a lot of it was entertaining and it was something they were interested in, so many took it with a grain of salt. It definitely influenced their feelings about Nazi Germany and the Japanese, but it doesn't seem to have been much of a stretch to portray them as evil. The newsreels and newspaper reports of what was happening overseas were just as effective a tool in uniting the public. Some of the propaganda and stereotyping is laughable today, but some of it incorporated universal themes that remain relevant.
Q: Do you think that World War II combat films are an accurate depiction of what actually happened on the battlefield?
A: I have never been on a battlefield, but have seen countless hours of archival footage of combat over the years. I think it is much too brutal, graphic and terrifying to have been portrayed accurately to a 1940s audience. They would find it too disturbing. They did the best they could, but taking the gore out of it makes it hard to understand what it's really like.
Q: What could today's actors/actresses learn from WWII-era Hollywood?
A: Not much. World War II was not as polarizing as some of the issues that have confronted us since then. Everyone seemed to be united in the war effort, and not serving or supporting the war was looked down upon by much of the public. The one thing I would remind them is that they are free to offer their unsolicited opinions because a lot of people died during that war defending their right to do so.