"Packaging American Wars," a public-TV documentary about wartime propaganda, is not very well packaged itself, but it has some rich raw material buried within it--primarily, films produced by the War Department and the Army Signal Corps during World War II.
Unfortunately, the producer, director and writer, Richard D. Fine, makes inadequate distinction between government-produced propaganda and privately-produced propaganda--and never fully defines "propaganda" in the first place. The program, produced on the cheap by WBRA in Roanoke, Va., and narrated by Richmond Times-Dispatch Washington correspondent Charles McDowell, airs at 10 tonight on Channel 32 and at 11:30 Saturday night on Channel 22 and other Maryland public-TV stations.
At one point in the film, it looks as though an Edward R. Murrow "See It Now" report on the Korean War is being included under the heading of propaganda--which is insane. Irrelevant film of Lena Horne singing "The Man I Love" is tastelessly folded into wartime combat footage that climaxes with the dropping of the atomic bomb. The Vietnam conflict is recalled with more unnecessary war footage, intercut with Country Joe's "Fixin' to Die Rag."
This documentary is almost camp.
The scenes from such wartime propaganda films as "Know Your Enemy--Japan" are too brief, but they're artifacts from cultural history one rarely gets a chance to see. Even more novel is the sight of Tokyo Rose taunting Our Boys during a broadcast in which she identifies herself as "Orphan Ann of Radio Tokyo, a little sunbeam who's throat you'd like to cut." Then she continues, "Okay, here's the first blow at your morale . . ."
There's an excerpt from a "Pvt. Snafu" cartoon, film of silent-screen stars Charles Chaplin and Mary Pickford pitching war bonds during World War I, and "Pershing's Crusaders," a silent Army Signal Corps production from the same war that compares it to the Crusades and declares in a flowery prologue, "We shall gain from it a nobler manhood and a deeper sense of America's mission in the world."
Fortunately, the program does not take a scolding tone toward this sort of material, but then it doesn't really have any tone at all. It concludes with a panel discussion about the role of information in wartime; among those participating is retired four-star general Robert Porter, who says earlier in the program that reporters should be barred from the front lines during a war because they don't belong there--an intriguing idea, but one not explored further.