Once upon a time, a country won a great war but found itself uncertain about how to proceed in the aftermath of victory. How best to ensure that the enemy got on its feet economically? And, more important, how to encourage a revival of democracy in countries that had been under totalitarian rule for many years? How indeed.
Though the parallels to America's challenge in postwar Iraq are unmistakable and intriguing, the cataclysm that previously put America into that kind of a quandary was the Second World War. How we responded to those dilemmas is the subject of a fascinating and surprisingly relevant four-part series of rarely seen films -- at one time actually illegal in this country -- beginning tonight at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Linwood Dunn Theater in Hollywood. Its title says it nicely: "Selling Democracy: Films of the Marshall Plan, 1948-1953."
The economic part was shrewdly handled by the Marshall Plan, an aid package named after the secretary of State, George C. Marshall, who started it. Though the eventual cost was $13 billion (an estimated $90 billion in today's money), what has been called the genius of the plan was, in the words of the series' program notes, "not in sending money but in shipping fuel, fertilizer, food -- essentials for life -- and in sending machines and equipment -- essentials for recovery."
A key element of that recovery plan was the production of films candidly intended to influence public opinion and, as the title proclaims, sell democracy. A Marshall Plan Motion Picture Section was set up, headquartered in Paris but working out of 18 countries. Stuart Schulberg, the son of pioneering studio executive B.P. and the brother of writer Budd, was one of the heads of the section, and it is his daughter, Sandra Schulberg, who has spearheaded the creation of the current 25-film series.
The motion picture section made some 250 films, all shorts and most in the 20-minute range. In an era when audiences demanded shorts, the films played widely in theaters and had an extensive nontheatrical life in 13 languages as well: The Athens administrator of the Marshall Plan even hired boats to bring copies to the Greek islands. As a result, the prints of these films were pretty beaten up, which is where the Academy Film Archive stepped in to preserve a good percentage of the ones being screened.
The Los Angeles event is the first stop on a national tour for the Marshall Plan films (a different version of the series played at the Berlin and New York film festivals), and there are several reasons they make compelling viewing.
One is how rarely they've been seen. Until 1990, screening these films in this country was forbidden by Congress because Americans, the program notes explain, "were not to be 'propagandized' with their own tax money." In our more enlightened age, of course, it's apparently OK to use tax money to hire actors or consultants pushing a point of view while pretending to be objective newspeople.
The best reason to see the Marshall Plan efforts is the filmmaking skill employed in making them. Though a number are traditional documentaries heavy on voice-over narration, they were light on the most obvious propaganda: The program notes disclose that it was "an unwritten law" that "the Marshall Plan -- and other informational objectives -- will not be mentioned more than twice in a one-reeler and three times in a two-reeler." And they are all quite enjoyable little films -- including some fine animation and a 39-minute drama starring Abbey Theater actors -- made with more subtlety than you might imagine.
The academy has divided its films into a quartet of themed evenings, with tonight's, called "Out of the Ruins," focusing on the different kinds of rebuilding that the war made necessary. "Between East and West," for instance, has a newsreel-type structure, dealing in stirring detail with the ins and outs of the Berlin blockade.
"Houen Zo" is the least traditional of the group, a poetically shot, wordless look at the rebuilding of Rotterdam, Netherlands, that won a prize at Cannes in 1952. And "Hunger," famous for dealing candidly with food shortages, was the most controversial, so much so that it was pulled from distribution.
The April 13 program, called "Help Is on the Way," smartly illustrates a series of Marshall Plan can-do success stories.
"Extraordinary Adventures of a Quart of Milk," for instance, allows a singularly talkative quart to insist on telling its own story from farm to can. "Island of Faith," set on the Dutch island of Walcheren, illustrates in stirring detail how Marshall Plan funds help farmers reclaim land that was flooded in an attempt to stop the Germans.