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Column: Hollywood should stay out of war

One of the most powerful sentiments in Casablanca was uttered in the final scene when Humphrey Bogart said goodbye to Ingrid Bergman. “It doesn’t take much to see that the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world,” Bogart’s character, Rick, said.

As 1942 audiences left the theater, that was one of the last images they saw. In a time when Americans were unsure about how they should feel about the war effort, Hollywood told them how. For all its brilliance, Casablanca was quintessentially a WWII propaganda film. It was written to tell one of the greatest love stories of all time, and yet it took every opportunity to plug in pro-American sentiments throughout.

As we enter a new kind of war, Hollywood is once again called upon to be the face of America. President Bush had top aides meet with Hollywood’s top guns last weekend to talk about how the movie industry can aid the war effort.

The problem is that this isn’t 1942 and Casablanca was a one-time shot. While all involved have stressed this effort is in no way a promotion of outright propaganda films, any type of government interference will always be unhealthy for art.

While a big-budget action flick doesn’t fit everyone’s definition of art, any change in dialogue that makes America look or sound better is not the answer.

“The world gets much of its impression of the United States from the movies,” Daily Variety reported Sam Stratman, congressional committee aide, said. “We know the power that compelling images have in changing people’s attitudes.” But changing attitudes is a problem U.S. foreign policy has created for itself, and trying to correct America’s poisonous image should not be Hollywood’s role.

A year ago, Washington and Hollywood were enemies in the debate about excessive violence in films. In one month, a follow-up report will be released examining how well Hollywood has kept up its agreement to follow new regulations. And now Tinsel Town is supposed to just roll over and do what Washington says?

According to Jack Valenti, president for the Motion Picture Association of America, this is not a situation where the White House will tell Hollywood what kind of movies to make. However, inviting this collaboration allows for just that.

Paramount Pictures chief Sherry Lansing said the war against terrorism crosses party lines, and Disney exec Robert Iger said the effort isn’t about propaganda at all. But any time a focus is placed on an ulterior motive in any piece of art, integrity will be compromised.

“This was about contributing Hollywood’s creative imagination and their persuasion skills to help in this war effort, so that one day Americans can lead normal lives again,” reported Valenti said.

While Valenti’s intention to help out any he way can is noble, it’s also losing sight of his organization’s role. Hollywood’s role is to entertain and allow escapism for audiences from the world’s problems.

While most of the effort is being placed on messages overseas, such as public service announcements and pro-America trailers attached to exported films, there is still a Washington-led movement to saturate domestic films with certain themes.

Karl Rove, political adviser for President Bush, has a list of messages he would like Hollywood to address. The themes include explanations for why America is in this war and why it should be supported. A call to service is also on the agenda for Rove’s campaign. He is concerned how a negative image of America could affect war support, both domestically and internationally.

While Rove is in the right to believe anti-American images could lead to negative sentiments, the act of adding or deleting aspects from feature films is not the way to go about it.

Hollywood has already delayed releases or amended films in the editing process as a result of Sept. 11, but it did so for business reasons. There is no difference between the government asking Hollywood to omit a particular image from a film and artistic regulation. It all boils down to censorship.

During the propaganda movement of the 1940s, some anti-war films were kept from domestic audiences. Rove’s requests are no different.

While this is just the beginning and all talk of the Hollywood effort is simply speculation, the entertainment industry needs to be careful about its involvement in this endeavor.

Any movement toward changing artistic goals to satisfy government intervention could jeopardize the credibility of Hollywood’s current independent position.

  • Contact William Albritton at