April 30, 2007

Walt Disney


Like Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney is not the first person who comes to mind when thinking of editorial cartoons. But like Dr. Seuss, Walt Disney also produced a wealth of work during World War II, and you'll find it all in the excellent DVD set Walt Disney Treasures: On The Front Lines.

The topics of these animated shorts range from the Seven Dwarves selling war bonds to the proper use of a .55 caliber anti-tank rifle. But there are films with strong editorial content as well. "Education for Death" follows the life of a boy in Nazi Germany as he is indoctrinated to become an unquestioning soldier. "Reason & Emotion" examines how Hitler enslaves reason by making appeals to fear, hate, racial pride, and sympathy.

But by far the highlight of the DVD set is the feature-length 1943 film "Victory Through Air Power," based on the book by the same title. The film stars Alexander P. de Seversky who, with the invaluable help of Disney graphics and animation, made the case for the development of long-range bombers as the best route to victory over Japan. Walt Disney, being convinced of these ideas, sought to convince both politicians and the public.

Seversky argued that bombing the industrial centers of Japan was the only way to cut the long supply lines to the Japanese war front and end the war. The same strategy was being used successfully against Nazi Germany but only because of the close proximity of central Germany to allied air fields in Europe. To come within the a similar range of Japanese industrial centers, many battles for small islands would have to take place costing countless more American lives. Seversky convincingly argues that long-range bombers would eliminate the necessity of island-to-island battles, and that as such limited resources should be devoted to their speedy development.

According to the DVD, the film "changed FDR's way of thinking -- he agreed that Seversky was right." And that "it was only after Roosevelt saw Victory Through Air Power that our country made the commitment to long-range bombing."

Think about that for a moment. To influence the opinion of American citizens and politicians, a film was produced during a time of war that openly advocated victory through the swift, total destruction of the enemy's war-making capabilities in a way that would spare as many Americans as possible. Clearly we live in different times.

Besides being a strong political statement, "Victory Through Air Power" is also an amazing work of art. The climax of the film is the bombing of Japan, which is entirely animated. Seeking to underscore the idea emotionally, the final sequence (frames excerpted above -- click to enlarge) shows an American eagle sweeping down on a Japanese octopus whose tentacles are forced to release captive lands. It's a powerful sequence that leaves it's message clear: We can defeat Japan by striking the command and industrial centers from the air until it dies or surrenders. (You can see the influence of this visual in one of our cartoons here.)

You can learn more about the book and film at Wikipedia: Victory Through Air Power.

UPDATE -- May 4: I have fixed an important mistake above. I meant to say "in a way that would spare as many Americans as possible." Instead I had "in a way that would spare as few Americans as possible" -- the "few" was residue from another edit, as in "risk as few American lives as possible." Thanks to Jonathan Murray for pointing out the error.

Posted by Forkum at April 30, 2007 03:00 PM