Wednesday, August 22, 2018

The Politics of "The North Star"


The North Star was made in 1943 at a time when the Soviet Union was our ally in World War II.  A mere decade later, The North Star would be among the pieces of evidence used to show that Hollywood was making Communist propaganda, with subsequent re-release of the film cut to add more anti-Soviet dimensions under a new title, Armored Attack.  With over seventy years now separating us, I will look at The North Star to see what I can gleam from it in terms of political messaging.

First, an overview of The North Star.  In a Soviet village, North Star, the rustic peasants live a happy, jolly life filled with song and plenty.  One of the boys, Damian (Farley Granger), is set to go to University.  Before that, however, he decides to take a brief holiday to Kiev.  Joining him on his sojourn is his brother Kolya (Dana Andrews), an officer in the Soviet Air Force, Damian's girlfriend Marina (Anne Baxter), and their friend Clavdia (Jane Withers), who is smitten with Kolya.  They ease on down the road, doing more singing and later joining more rustic people riding down these roads until they are caught in a German air assault.

Kolya goes to join his military comrades, while the others attempt to be an insurgency to the invading Fascists.  Back at North Star, the Germans are already heading there.  The villagers attempt to burn down the village rather than surrender it to the Fascists, but the Nazis get there before they finish the job.  Under the direction of Mengele-type Doctor von Harden (Erich von Stroheim), nefarious work is done of the village children: he bleeds them dry of blood to provide blood for German troops. The Soviet doctor Kurin (Walter Huston), who was internationally known and renowned before retiring to the simple life, is horrified.

The North Star villagers form a guerrilla army and The North Star culminates in a tremendous battle between the noble Soviet partisans and the horrifying Huns, one that costs lives of many of our cast but that will lead to the inevitable Soviet victory.

Related imageThe North Star was not some two-bit quickie production or a B-Picture.  It was a 'prestige picture', one that commanded high production value leading to six Oscar nominations.  Its producer was Samuel Goldwyn, one of the few independent producers with clout.  It had music by Aaron Copland and lyrics to songs by Ira Gershwin, cinematography by the legendary James Wong Howe, and screenplay by noted playwright Lillian Hellman.

Copland, Howe and Hellman were among those nominated for Academy Awards for their work, along with the film's art direction, sound recording and special effects.

In short, The North Star was meant to be of the highest quality.  I imagine that many involved in The North Star could not have foreseen that less than a decade later their film, along with Song of Russia and Mission to Moscow, would be held up as Communist propaganda.

I think a very strong case can be made that The North Star is propaganda.  It was made as a response by President Franklin Roosevelt to Hollywood studios to make films portraying the positive role of the Soviet Union in the war effort.  As such, the people had to be shown in a heroic light, with any questions about any 'evils' or atrocities of Soviet Communism ignored. The North Star was specially made to change hearts and minds, and would that not fall under 'propaganda'?

As a side note, it's astonishing that even in wartime, Hollywood studios were quick to rally behind a Presidential directive to make a particular type of film to sway public opinion.  One can only gasp at the thought of studios answering a request from President Lyndon Johnson or George W. Bush asking for similar films about Vietnam or Iraq.

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The North Star's worst aspect in terms of being propaganda is in the early sequences before the Nazi invasion.  Its portrayal of the village and villagers as being extremely happy and upbeat is shocking to being almost obscene.  These musical numbers are disingenuous to say the least, horrifying at worst.

If one saw The North Star and knew nothing else about this time period, the impression left would be that these villages were filled with well-fed people with their own charming huts, where food was plentiful and where they spent their lives singing and dancing.  These scenes really seem to come from a Soviet film that wants to promote their world as one of frivolity and plenty, where the citizens want to be ruled by a benevolent ruler in Moscow for whom they would lay down their lives and put above all other considerations.

Apart from the scenes of happy, content peasants singing and dancing while picnicking together with much food, we get some pretty surprising bits of dialogue and music.  The scene where the schoolchildren sing a song about the nation isn't a big surprise.  Children in the Communist world would be taught to love the State.

It's other moments that are far more troubling.  In one bit, Damian makes clear that as much as he loves Marina, "the Country" comes before any other consideration.  On the road, with Kolya playing his balalaika, the youngsters sing the chorus, "We're the younger generation and the future of the nation!"  As the men ride out to hide in the forest, they sing about 'being free once more' (as if under Soviet rule, they were free to begin with).  At the end, after having defeated the Nazis, Marina makes a defiant speech as they ride into the unknown.

"We'll make this the last war.  We'll make a free world for all men.  The earth belongs to us, the people, if we fight for it, and we will fight for it!"

Image result for lillian hellman communistIt is not a surprise that The North Star showcased such images and messages.  Lillian Hellman, who wrote The North Star, reflected in her memoir An Unfinished Woman that The North Star came about because an early project, a straightforward documentary about the Russian war effort, fell through.

Her solution was to make, in her words, "a simple, carefully researched, semi-documentary movie to be shot in Hollywood" (emphasis mine).

Her 1937 trip to Russia was part of that 'carefully researched' effort, that trip giving her insight into what a collective farm would be like.  She also states that for more research, she read translations of Pravda, the Soviet Union newspaper.

"The script sounds authentic, I suppose" she concluded, "because Russian motion-picture people to whom I've shown it said it read like a Russian script, which pleased me very much".

One simply marvels at Hellman's total lack of awareness in the idea that The North Star 'read like a Russian (or rather, Stalinist-era Soviet) script' is something to be pleased about given that the Soviet Union was a totalitarian regime.

Her visit to the Russian collective, her taking Pravda as truth, and The North Star itself playing like something written by a Soviet screenwriter at the very least show her to be essentially a 'useful idiot'.  Hellman took everything she was given and shown as truth when the reality was more problematic, to use a Millennial term.

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The collective Hellman was shown might have been quite jolly and pleasant, but in the Ukrainian* collectives there was fierce resistance, not to the Nazis, but to the Soviets.  There were no happy peasants singing folk songs about the joys of life under Stalin. Instead, there were famines and executions. It was a reign of terror, one so massive that far from fleeing the Nazis, these peasants almost ran to them as liberators.

The Ukrainian farmers were burning their crops and killing their cattle, but not as Hellman paints it, to stop the Fascists from taking them.  They did it to stop the Communists from taking them.

Moreover, Pravda, as the voice of the USSR, was not going to publish the truth about the misery Stalin unleashed. The 'Holodomor' as the Stalin-created Ukrainian famine became known, was not a secret.  Various newspapers in the United States and United Kingdom were reporting on the starvation, even cannibalism happening among the peasants Hellman paints as content and well-fed.  Rather than believe these stories, she chose to believe the official Party line.

I have no proof that Hellman knew the truth about the Holodomor before writing The North Star and chose to ignore it in order to show the Soviet Union in a glowing light. At the very least, she only saw the surface and decided that was good enough.

Other pesky details, such as how up to the 'summer of 1941', far from being outraged at Fascist/Nazi atrocities the Soviet Union was in a non-aggression pact and there was no great talk among the Soviet population about an impending war, are not even brought up.

Perhaps here is where The North Star could have been altered to be less propagandist. Rather than paint North Star as a land of plenty with happy peasants, they could have shown them as struggling to keep their farms going.  At the very least, the decision to make the village so bucolic as to make The Emerald City look like Gotham was a horrendous decision that opened The North Star to accusations of Communist propaganda.

One final note.  It's curious that Walter Huston and Ann Harding, who appeared in both The North Star and Mission to Moscow, were themselves never fully affected career-wise during the blacklist era.

As I look on The North Star, I judge the issue of it being Communist propaganda, as it was charged with being sixty-odd years ago with a hopefully more balanced eye than those who insist that Hellman and her group were all innocent martyrs to freedom or those who equally insist they were collaborators to a monstrous regime they wanted imported and imposed on America.  I've come to these conclusions.

Image result for the north star 1943The North Star is propaganda, made to persuade non-Soviet audiences to have a positive image of the Soviet Union, particularly as a land of happy peasants free from worry and want.

The North Star was made as propaganda at the request of the United States government and not from a direct decision by those involved. I do not believe The North Star's producer, Samuel Goldwyn, would have made it if not for President Roosevelt's encouragement.

The North Star writer Lillian Hellman was at the very least a useful idiot in portraying false and misleading images of a Soviet collective, at worst a willing propagandist who either knew or chose to ignore the truth to create something that 'read like a Russian script'.

The North Star actors were not, to my knowledge, deliberately attempting to subvert the United States by acting in the film.  As actors, their job is to perform the script given to them as convincingly as their abilities and directing allow them to.

The North Star may be propaganda, but it must also be seen in the light of the times it was made.  The desire to show the Soviet Union as our allies brought about this disingenuous imagery.  I do not think The North Star would have been made under independent motives to specifically be pro-Soviet propaganda. 

"Goldwyn received a message from President Roosevelt through Lowell Mellett, the chief of the Bureau of Motion Pictures of the Office of War Information, that American needed a film about our Russian allies," wrote The North Star costar Farley Granger in his autobiography.  If that is the case, then I cannot call it deliberate Soviet propaganda. 

It is the fact that makes me decide that while The North Star is propaganda, it is not part of a conspiracy to subvert the United States.

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One final point. In 1977 Lillian Hellman returned to Hollywood to present the Documentary Oscars.  Held up as a heroine by presenter Jane Fonda and given a standing ovation, Hellman reflected on the blacklist, commenting that "even before Senator Joe McCarthy reached for that rusty, poisoned ax, I and many others were no longer acceptable to the owners of this industry".

"I have no regrets for that period," she continued.  "Maybe you never do when you survive, but I have a mischievous pleasure in being restored to respectability, understanding full well that the younger generation who asked me here tonight meant more by that invitation than my name or my history".

It is not known whether Hellman had 'no regrets' for her idealization of those 'happy peasants' she wrote of in The North Star, those who ended up dead despite Hellman's idealization of their circumstance and the government she thought highly of.
Image result for ukrainian famine

Oddly, they don't appear to be jolly peasants singing folk songs and feasting on picnics as seen in Lillian Hellman's The North Star.  Maybe it's just me, but I think the subjects of The North Star would gladly exchange their suffering for whatever Hellman endured.

*It is never overtly stated, at least as far as I remember, that 'North Star' was Ukrainian.  I think it was referred to as 'Russian'.  While this does not suggest to me a deliberate deception, I lean towards these being Ukrainians due to them going to Kiev, which is the capital of Ukraine. 

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