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Extended Thoughts on ‘Victory Through Air Power’

Victory Through Air Power

Directed by Perce Pearce, James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, H.C. Potter

Written by Perce Pearce, T. Hee, Erdman Penner, William Cottrell, James Brodero, George Stallings, Jose Rodriguez

Starring Alexander P. de Seversky, Art Baker

Watching Victory Through Air Power in 2012 is akin to being given a glimpse into a parallel universe. Because of how protective the Walt Disney Company is of its history and legacy, and what people know of that history and legacy, the period in which they worked almost solely at creating propaganda of various types for the United States government isn’t as frequently discussed as their work on films like Bambi, Dumbo, or the package films of the 1940s. The very idea of propaganda is so different now than it was 70 years ago that being confronted by a more direct, adult, and dry version of patriotism is startling. Watching any film from a period you weren’t alive in requires the viewer to remind themselves of the film’s original context. But somehow, I had major struggles with this as I sat down to watch Victory Through Air Power.

And let’s be clear about something: I’m not a philistine. (My co-hosts are likely raising their eyebrows at this statement, but hold on.) I’m not the kind of movie viewer who expresses ridiculous distaste at black-and-white films, or movies with subtitles, or something like that. Though I hesitate to say it so bluntly because it may make my arguing I’m not a philistine that much more doubtful, many of my favorite films are older, or are set in a period well before the present day. So what makes Victory Through Air Power such a challenge? If any blame can be laid, I’d focus it on the Walt Disney Company. See, I think it’s safe to assume that many people have a) never seen Victory Through Air Power, because b) they haven’t heard of it, either. How many people know that Walt Disney made propaganda during World War II? More people might be familiar with Frank Capra’s foray into this type of filmmaking, thanks to the recognizable phrase that was the title of his most famous propagandistic work, Why We Fight. But Disney’s involvement in the military effort isn’t as often remembered, partly because the company hasn’t emphasized that part of their history.

And why doesn’t the Walt Disney Company emphasize this part of their history? They’re known for supporting the troops in small and large ways—for example, every single day at the Magic Kingdom in Orlando and Disneyland Park in Anaheim, there’s a US flag retreat ceremony that honors a random veteran who’s attending the park that day. And on a more ephemeral level, few things define America as well—relatively speaking—as Mickey Mouse, his friends, and the Disney name in general. But these are the most positive ways to paint Disney as being ultra-patriotic. It’s hard to see the downside in a flag retreat; it’s not nearly as difficult to see the dark side of propaganda, even if the war that propaganda was serving is one everyone supports. Granted, I should point out that the Walt Disney Company prefers to look forward almost all the time, no matter what came before. Many Disney buffs, including myself, were thrilled at the various Walt Disney Treasures DVD box sets, which intended to compile various shorts, features, documentaries, and more that weren’t as readily available as movies like Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or Aladdin.

I imagine the majority of people who consider themselves fans of Disney—and seeing as such people are probably in the billions, don’t think I’m trying to slight you if you know what I’m talking about—don’t know a damn thing about the Swamp Fox, the Davy Crockett movies, or the amount of propaganda that Walt Disney put his lifeblood into during the early 1940s. And it’s not their fault—if you’re not a huge buff of the company’s work, why would you know? Disney doesn’t emphasize it, which is a sad, expected, yet distressing fact. But the most challenging aspect of talking about Victory Through Air Power is acknowledging that it’s not some hidden gem that mainstream audiences would massively embrace if they saw it today. But Disney should make all of their movies more accessible to audiences. I get the idea behind the so-called but also-not-actually-real Disney vault, but I also think it can be bad for business. On the one hand, sure, the vault may drive up demand as something’s off the market. But in the case of the Walt Disney Treasures box sets, all of which aren’t being made anymore (and were meant to be in limited quantities to begin with, because why sell millions of copies when you can sell 250,000?), it’s detrimental.

As much as I won’t advocate the quality of Victory Through Air Power nearly as much as this week’s guest, Michael Crawford of Progress City, U.S.A., I’ll do my best to make sure people try to check it out. If you can’t or don’t want to spend the money, go to YouTube and search for it. The history buff will find as much to love as the animation buff will. But I think you’ll find it more impressive as a cultural find, more than a good movie. Because Victory Through Air Power isn’t exactly a movie. It’s animated, but not fully. It’s got live-action sequences, but not entirely. The live-action and animation don’t interact with each other. Though the movie isn’t exactly fictional, it’s not exactly a documentary. The best possible way to describe the film is as an act of advocacy.

But how do you criticize an act of advocacy, one that worked almost 70 years ago? The idea behind the film, convincing the military to use long-range air bombing in World War II, is something we take for granted these days. It was this fact that I was mostly unable to get around while watching the film. The very notion that the government wouldn’t have been using airplanes in this fashion when it’s second nature today is something I can’t even grasp. Moving past that, the structure of the movie is fairly creaky, leaping abruptly between stylish and clever animation and a turgid on-camera narration from Alexander P. de Seversky, the author of the bestselling book on which the film is based. De Seversky isn’t the worst possible screen presence to anchor this film, but he’s clearly an amateur despite being passionate about the topic.

What I’m left with is a curiosity, one that has notable moments—specifically the way that violence is brought to life through animation, as in the climactic battle between a bald eagle representing American and an octopus representing the general villainy and tyranny the Allies fought against in World War II—but isn’t itself wholly notable. While Victory Through Air Power is a must-see for any Disney buff, it’s a movie that needs a lot of footnotes and asterisks to prepare you for what’s in store. Each aspect of this film is so strange in connection with each other that it never gels into something great.