FIGHTING WORDS [ 1951 ]
Describes the purposes and techniques of psychological warfare, hostile and friendly. An exposé of enemy propaganda based on lies, distortion, and false promises designed to destroy morale on home and fighting fronts as "truth warfare."
—1952 Armed Forces Information & Education Film Service Catalog entry for FIGHTING WORDSOne of the opening lines of FIGHTING WORDS, a 1951 military training film about propaganda, demonstrates that the Cold War was a different kind of war—at least in terms of fantastical paranoia. The gossipy dialogue is uttered by a soldier to a captive audience of fellow soldiers who are on a ship that is presumably bound for Korea: "Hey, I hear they got a flying super saucer that's so fast it's invisible!" The world weary character actor James Gregory (THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE; BARNEY MILLER) who plays "Chief," rolls his eyes while a younger soldier listens intently to the science fiction.
"Chief," who we learn is a World War II vet, is a standard issue instructional character common to these types of films and so is the younger, gullible soldier. Together they function throughout the 22-minute film as a team to educate (or, more likely, amuse) the intended 1950s audience: the troops.
Gregory, who was an unknown 40-year-old actor at the time of FIGHTING WORDS, brings just the right pugnacious Bronx attitude to his role. No one can say "commie" quite like James Gregory as he does repeatedly in this film. At one point he challenges one of the gossiping grunts: "Hey, you! Where'd you hear that one? You know you're giving commie propaganda a free plug when you spread stuff you don't know anything about." He goes on to tell his eager young pupil: "There may not be any harm in some of the rumors, but if you're a sucker for everything you hear now, what are you going to do when you get to the full psychological treatment at the front? You get a real dose of psychological warfare up there."
Oddly enough, the next scene does take place at the front, a jungle-decorated set with the soldiers sitting around listening to a Tokyo Rose-esque propagandist on the radio. Her American accent is so perfect that she sounds as if she should be selling detergent, rather than subversion:
Hello boys. This is your girlfriend again as every evening with a program of entertainment and news to cheer you up while you're so far from home. Sorry you're still here. You're such nice fellows when you're back in the states minding your own business. We like most of you Americans, but how could you be so foolish as to let fascist war mongers lead you into another senseless war...Because this movie is an Armed Forces production, the screenwriters shoehorn in a multi-service cast—cleverly having "Tokyo Rose" tailor her broadcast for the different branches so no one feels left out. For her address to the flyboys she even harkens back to an earlier rumor: "And now some news of special interest to you Yankee airmen, our latest flying super saucer..." This scene fades back to our army unit in the jungle as they face another brand of enemy propaganda— the dreaded leaflet.
The leaflet in question features an image of an attractive, Ava Gardner-ish woman in bed with the caption "I wonder who's kissing her now?" The younger soldier, missing the point, says admiringly of the enemy's handiwork, "Boy, that's not hard to take." Chief gently chimes in: "I don't mind their music and news, no matter where it comes from. But don't forget— nothing's for free. The commie pay-off comes if he can catch you off-guard, get your goat."
After another burst of "Tokyo Rose's" communist advertising ("Exploited workers in the American armed forces, remember the meaning of the Elks union members in Detroit and Pittsburgh— embrace your fellow workers in the People's Republic!") the younger solider says to Chief with mounting frustration: "We have to take that hogwash without being able to fight back?"
"Hell no," replies a more upbeat Chief, "propaganda works both ways. They have it, we have it. Now don't forget we do a pretty good job at the game ourselves. Don't you remember that class in psychological warfare back in the states?" A convenient character trait of the "student" soldier character is that he has a very poor memory for what he has learned.
The next portion of the film takes us back to that class and the instructor's confident boast that "We use everything in the book to talk back to our misguided enemy." This statement leads to a ponderous stretch of film wherein we learn that our propaganda is more honest than the enemy's or, as the instructor sums up: "We can give them the freedom which their leaders have promised but never intended to fulfill."
The flashback fades back to the present and another mass leaflet drop. This time the propaganda is little wordier than the previous "Ava Gardner" issuance. Chief picks one up off of the ground and proceeds to read it offering his own brand of commentary:
Well boys, here's the latest gem: 'Asiatics resist liberation made in U.S.A. The Yanks are wasting their time combating the irresistible tide of Soviet peace, prosperity, happiness and human freedom.' Anybody want to read any more of this? Too bad they don't send it over in rolls!The forgetful young solider, inexplicably, has taken up a collection of the various enemy propaganda drops which Chief takes a concerned interest in. The solider explains his collection as "souvenirs" and then reveals a darker secret about his mother's socialistic views that she has communicated in a letter:
I know it's a just a lot of stuff, but sometimes they seem to tell the truth. Listen to what my mom said about how bad things are back home: 'Everybody's hoarding. Profiteers are getting fat contracts. Neighbors say politicians are using the war to their own advantage. All of our chief atomic scientists are spies. They say our cities have no defenses against the atomic or H-bomb' and a lot more.Chief tells the young man to "take it with a grain of salt" and then goes on to imply that the boy's mother may be a Communist dupe: "Let me tell you how the commies plant propaganda back home. Some time ago, Mac, Johnnie and I managed to get our last leave together in the big city..." This wonderfully clichéd line of Cold War instructional film dialogue leads us into the centerpiece of the story: Confronting propaganda on our very own shores!
Chief, Mac and Johnnie (Mac or Johnnie is a sailor who looks like he just stepped off the set of a Gene Kelly musical) stroll through "the big city" in flashback and encounter a loud, leftist, frumpily-dressed woman1 (read: Lesbian Communist) beseeching passersby to sign a peace petition. Spotting the military men approaching, she incorporates them into her rant: "These poor boys will shed their innocent blood in a war that this country is provoking." The airman character points at the woman and says dismissively, "Get a load of that."
The agitator continues her diatribe:
Asiatic people all want the peaceful establishment of native regimes without the interference of United States troops. Communists don't want war. War would be world suicide. Only Communist countries can guarantee you peace!The sailor character pipes up with the kind of classically trained voice heard only in films of this era: "Why don't you go live in a Communist country then?"
The airman adds "Can you blow your top on a street corner there?"
"You look pretty well off, sister," rejoins the sailor, "to be tearing down the country that gives you freedom of speech."
The "sister" continues her speechifying: "Communist countries will cooperate with the United States if we destroy the atom bomb. All they want is a full and better life for the oppressed people of the world."
It is at this point that Chief cuts the woman off in mid-tirade and says forcefully:
Like Hell. That's what they say, but what do they do to back up their words... We've let them come here to see for themselves what democracy is. But they won't let anyone in. They won't even let their own people out to see what's going on. If they're so honest, what are they hiding?With their counter-arguments clearly not making an impact with the American Communist, the sailor says: "Ah, let's not waste any more time." The airman gets one last dig in before the men walk off (to a "big city" saloon to get hammered?): "Funny thing is, people like her never go to live in any of those countries.").
Chief's tale of the stateside assault on democracy has impressed the younger solider: "I think I have an answer for mom. Lend me your pencil and I'll write her right now." But Chief also wants to know what the young man is going to do with his propaganda collection. The soldier rips up the offending literature and throws the pieces in the air to the approving smiles of his teacher.
FIGHTING WORDS concludes with the surrender of an enemy combatant who has picked up a U.S. piece of propaganda— a "surrender pass." The solider is treated with kindness and respect by the American soldiers and tells the interpreter that "he's fed up with the lies" his government has been feeding him. Just so no one in the audience misses the contrasting point, immediately before this scene, Chief reads a "surrender pass" intended for American use. He quickly hands it off to another person saying sarcastically: "Here you are soldier, surrender pass. Free ticket to Siberia— one way."
Evidently, the final message that the filmmakers intended their audience to take with them into battle was that enemy propaganda is bad and false while ours is good and true. Unfortunately, the surrendered prisoner's interrogation is not depicted, because the film is over. The audience can only assume that the terms of his surrender pass were adhered to fully because this was, after all, the 1950s. Of course, for all we know, in reality "Chief, Mac and Johnnie" or their brethren might just have chosen to ignore the promises made in a surrender pass in order to finally learn the truth about the enemy's invisible "flying, super saucer."
CONELRAD wishes to extend a very special thanks to Dr. Christopher DeRosa who assisted in identifying the title of the formerly untitled James Gregory film. For those readers interested in learning more about the history of military propaganda, we recommend Dr. DeRosa's 2006 book POLITICAL INDOCTRINATION IN THE U.S. ARMY. Dr. DeRosa is the Director of Graduate Studies and Assistant Professor of History at Monmouth University in New Jersey.
Special thanks also to THE ATOMIC CAFE filmmakers who recognized the unintended humor of FIGHTING WORDS which they excerpted in their legendary 1982 documentary. If not for THE ATOMIC CAFE, CONELRAD never would have even been aware of the existence of the movie. It is our pleasure to be able to finally provide to the filmmakers with the title of this film (which, understandably, none of the three could remember).
1. The street corner agitator character that so memorably enlivens FIGHTING WORDS was resurrected— in spirit at least— in the guise of Young Communist League President Katie Morosky played by none other than Barbra Streisand in the period film THE WAY WE WERE (1973). Robert Redford, who portrays a naval officer, falls for Morosky's socialist charms thus proving that military training films can do only so much.
FIGHTING WORDS [ 1951 ]
Starring James Gregory (uncredited)
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