New Medium, Old Tricks: Animated Propaganda

Today’s entry in WWI on Film isn’t one film. It’s a collection of much shorter films. If you’re an AU student, you can access 20th century film and newsreel clips from the WPA Library and British Pathe. Some of these clips are from WWI, and are basic black-and-white motion pictures. Of course, they don’t have sound, but it’s fascinating to catch a glimpse of the WWI era.

There are dozens of clips that you can explore, but I wanted to focus on one in particular: an animated short from British Pathe. In the short, the German Kaiser steps onto a balcony (not-so-subtly labeled “Germany”), and gazes up at a smiling moon. The moon’s smile immediately begins to transform into a smirk, and as the Kaiser gazes up, new stars appear in the sky. As the Kaiser watches with growing horror, the stars multiply, and the streaks of moonlit clouds form themselves into stripes, until the night sky looks like an American flag. Just after the stripes morph into bayoneted guns, the Kaiser cowers in fear. A gun shell comes soaring through the air, hitting his balcony and causing a massive explosion. When the smoke clears, the balcony and the Kaiser are gone, and the moon is laughing.

This animated short interests me for a couple of reasons. For one, it’s an early example of an animated film, but it doesn’t feel much like a modern animated film. Instead, it looks like a political cartoon set to motion. The unsubtle symbolism is there, as are the exaggerated reactions.

Its target audience is also different from modern day animation. Animated feature films in the US tend to be marketed towards young children, while this short is clearly marketed to all ages. It’s meant to prove a point, to provide hope, and to make an enemy laughable.

What also strikes me is how the United States is portrayed. While no American is ever shown on frame, the national flag, a potent symbol, saturates the sky like an omen. A bad omen for Germany, yes, but a good omen for Britain and its allies. The entrance of the US into the war meant an injection of fresh troops and other resources (like guns and shells) for Britain and France, which sorely needed them. This short is meant to send a message to British viewers—victory is in sight, now that the Americans are here.

While I can’t link directly to the video due to copyright restrictions, you can find this film by searching “Animated Film Depicts the U.S. Entry into World War I ca. 1917” in the AU Library catalog.

Posted in WWI on Film.