America's entry into World War II, depending on which economist you listened to, finally lifted the country out of the last draggy bits of the Great Depression; yet it was not all good news for everybody*. Walt Disney, was among that small population of folks who'd done just fine for himself during the worst of the Depression, riding the public's appetite for silly, diverting entertainment as successfully as any movie producer of that golden age for escapism, who then found himself in a bit of trouble once the war years started up.
What happened to Disney and his company in the years following the Pearl Harbor attack might be nicely described as "a rough patch" (the less-nice way of describing it would be "a Brobdingnagian clusterfuck"). The summer, 1942 release of Bambi was, if not a flop on the scale of Fantasia, proof enough that war audiences had a new set of tastes that Disney's painterly fables couldn't sate. Just as soon as Dumbo had allowed the studio to crawl back out of the financial hole it had been in, Bambi re-opened the hole, and that, plus the sudden loss of staff due to animators joining the military, plus the closing of the international markets which had been such an important part of Disney's business model previously, meant that the studio was a breath away from extinction.
The solution was found, partially, in government grants: for the bulk of the war years, Disney functioned the the producer of dozens cheap, fast training films, the most limited animations ever made by the company (in recognition of their need to be produced quickly, with a skeleton crew), and aided no doubt by Walt's eager jingoism, the company transformed into a propaganda unit of sorts, both officially (Saludos Amigos, the 1942 package feature, was co-financed by the government as part of President Franklin Roosevelt's "Good Neighbor" policy), and unofficially (the long list of films in which Pluto or Donald or whom you will learned about soldiering, rationing, and the like).
Even so, there's no movie in the Disney vault quite like Victory Through Air Power. Inspired by the 1942 book of that name by Alexander P. de Seversky, the film is sheer propaganda, by which I am only making a categorical statement, not an aesthetic judgment. It is an advocacy piece for a very specific military plan, marshaling any evidence which would support that plan and denigrating or ignoring anything else. It is a movie wholly dedicated to advancing an argument. A damn far cry from watching woodland animals frolic around a princess in the woods, and to the surprise of absolutely nobody - I suspect, not even to the eternally optimistic Walt himself - Victory Through Air Power lost money. It is easily the driest, least-entertaining, and grimmest feature ever made by the Disney animators, and the fact it was released theatrically at all - by United Artists, not Disney's customary distributors at RKO, who felt that the project was a surefire money-loser - is testament to how much weight the name "Walt Disney" yet carried in July, 1943.
Here, then, is the film's claim: Seversky, a decorated hero and great airman, a Russian immigrant with a keen desire that his adopted home should avoid being destroyed by the Nazis. It was his strong believe that the Allied countries were not sufficiently exploiting the possibilities of long-range bombing aircraft, and that if the United States would devote its energies to the creation of a fleet of bombers (which had mostly been designed already), it would enjoy a significant tactical advantage over Japan and Germany, whose strategies up until that point - that is, early 1942 - had exploited the fact that their opponents did not have the ability to seriously mount an air-based attack
Seversky maintained that the surest way for the Allies to win would be a series of strategic long-distance bombing missions against the manufacturing hubs of the Axis countries, and that single belief, which in the end proved to be completely accurate, is the single point at which the movie drives.
Victory Through Air Power is a fairly excellent piece of propaganda, in that it communicates its point so persuasively that even without the benefit of hindsight, Seversky's theories seem inescapably wise. It's structure is quite ingenious, beginning with a silly cartoon typical of Disney's cheap, war-time animation (and this sequence, which has sometimes been shown independently of the feature as "The History of Aviation", was the relic of a different project, which perhaps explains why it is so different from the remainder of the film). This eases the viewer into the film, making it seem like something that might be even marginally fun.
Even once the history takes us to the back half of the 1910s, and World War I, the style remains squashy and loose, much more a popular entertainment than a cinematic depiction of the horrors of war.
This segment goes on for quite a while, until it segues into an introduction to Seversky, with an emphasis on his credentials, and then lets the man himself explain what he believes to be the keys to victory through air power.
The middle section of the film is at times unbearably expository; and how could it not be? It consists of a man droning on in a single room filled with globes and maps about flight radii and supply lines. The live-action sequences feature Seversky were all directed by H.C. Potter, an RKO contract filmmaker of little historical importance, and his task was primarily to find things for Seversky to do that would keep the film at least a tiny bit lively. He succeeded, at the "tiny bit" at least; there's only so much one can really do to keep subject matter this dry from being boring, though there are a few moments in which Seversky's sternly professional delivery and the violent subject matter he discusses contrast with one another such that there's a certain discomfiture produced that might not have been entirely accidental; even today, when a man with a pronounced but not thick Russian accent muses about the destruction of all we hold dear, it's hard not to perk up and take notice.
Still, the film is much more effective during the animation sequences - directed by James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, and Jack Kinney under the general supervision of David Hand (his last work at Disney, after leading Snow White and the Seven Dwarf and Bambi, along with many shorts) - with the slightly less bland narration of Art Baker taking over for Seversky, and the animators finding a number of ways to dramatise tactical discussions in a way that isn't totally visually flat.
I need hardly point out that, for a modern viewer, the value Victory Through Air Power has as propaganda is almost totally academic. Its single point of interest is in the animation, and even then only to a small audience of Disney completists. Rightly so: given that the film's entire artistic purpose is to propagandise, it would be surprising if it did have any particular lasting merit for anything other than its visual artistry. That said, part of me wishes that the film was a bit easier to acquire for more people (its single home video release, in 2004, was in a limited release of 250,000 copies in the Walt Disney Treasures DVD series), since even though it is wildly boring as a documentary, that animation is more than worth a peek; as part of the stripped-down, "get it done cheap and fast" war-time effort, it's absolutely unlike any other feature ever released under the Disney brand name, that or any of its corporate stepchildren. Other than that "History of Aviation" sequence, in fact, it is the Disney Studios' most protracted and arguably their most successful experiment with limited animation, a form that by all accounts Walt himself despised.
(Limited animation - using only a few images per second, or images which are mostly still except for their position in the frame - was only just starting to make itself known in the early 1940s; its most famous and influence practitioners were the animators at UPA in the post-war years, though it's worth noting that much of the UPA staff had come from Disney before the 1941 strike. An early half-experiment in limited animation was Chuck Jones's 1942 The Dover Boys, and if my eyes do not deceive me completely, I see an echo of that legendary short in the "History of Aviation" sequence in our present subject).
The film's imagery is undeniably beautiful: drawings that look to be watercolors or pencil sketches, highly realistic depictions of planes and other mechanisms of warfare created by Disney artists at the height of their skills, in a most unusual mood.
Freed from the needs of making objects that could be fluidly animated at 24 frames per second, the animators explored details of line and shading unlike anything they'd ever done, unlike the great majority of them would get a chance to do again (save for the training films being done at the same time; but these lack the gorgeous detail of Victory Through Air Power). It's difficult to express in words the effect of these paintings - any lesser word seems inapt - in motion. It is both alien and haunting, a vision of the implacable march of inhumane metal that stresses the object quality of the things being depicted. And further saps the film of anything remotely akin to "entertainment value", but this is more than made up for by the sheer graphic beauty of the piece.
The finest moments in the film - and they are not too rare, at that - achieve a sublime measure of visual poetry, blending the strict, even banal realism demanded by the script's argumentative needs, with hazy, imaginative compositions that recall, out of all the rest of Disney's output, the Impressionistic rendering of the woodland backgrounds in Bambi more than anything else. Taken out of context, there are moments in Victory Through Air Power whose abstract elegance is most enviable; in context, of course, this is a depiction of the hardness of war whose painterly edges are both ironic and - since this is certainly not an anti-war film - somehow exhilarating.
The quality of the imagery is not simply beautiful in and of itself; though this alone would be enough to make Victory Through Air Power a worthy project for the animation buff. At certain points, the painterly quality is worked invisibly into the film's argument.
I am chiefly thinking of a repeated image of Nazi Germany as the grotesque, smoke-belching industrial hub of a wheel of evil. Drenched in reds and blacks, it is a hellish image.
And all the more hellish because it is implicitly contrasted with another repeated image, of the Good Ol' US of A, similarly rendered as an industrial hub - but where Germany is a tiny, cramped swastika, colored to look as hideous and unappealing as possible, the United States is all but bursting with the can-do wonders of Democracy, Freedom, and Puppies, in soothing, bright blues and golds. The contrast between these images is, all by itself, the most compelling argument for American industrial might in the whole feature.
Victory Through Air Power is genius propaganda: a very adult vision of patriotism, contrasted with the wide-eyed eagerness that marked most of Walt Disney's treatments of Americana. It's so persuasive, in fact, that it manages to carry the modern viewer through almost to the end, when Seversky is chatting in his serious way about the benefits of firebombing, and the film throws a few images our way that are enough to wrench anybody out of the moment, knowing what the future would bring. The film ends with a visceral depiction of the destruction of Japan, which was no doubt meant to impress the original viewer with its gravity at the time: "There will be no end of destructive power, and we will then win this terrible war". The imagery is certainly impressive, and grave, and unfortunately reminiscent of all the awful things we have seen, that nobody in 1943 could have imagined, which is the nightmarish effect of an atomic bomb on a major city.
So much for propaganda and jingoism and the like: the last few minutes put me too much in mind of e.g. Grave of the Fireflies, and any question about visual beauty seems quite out of place. We can all certainly agree that it's best that the Allies won the war, I assume; but there's a terrifying degree to which Victory Through Air Power makes you forget that this victory came after the deaths of many, many civilians on both sides; something no propagandist would like to allow.
That's hindsight for you, though. At the time, the concluding scenes of the movie could only have suggested to the viewer the efficacy of the system Seversky wanted to put into place, and it does so tremendously well. A tremendous box office failure, it probably didn't move the populace to agitate for the creation of a dedicated Air Force (which did not happen until after the war), but it didn't need to. It only needed to impress a small number of decision makers; and it did. At the urging of Winston Churchill, Franklin Roosevelt himself sat down to watch the film, and it was sufficient to convince him of the need for a strong commitment to a strategic air campaign against Germany and Japan.
Movies don't get much more significant than that.