Sunday, February 10, 2019

Walt Disney, part VIII: The bomber sometimes gets through


A cartoon about strategic bombing?  Walt, did you make this for me?

Directed by James Algar, Clyde Geronimi, Jack Kinney, H.C. Potter, and Perce Pearce
Based on the book by Maj. Alexander P. de Seversky

Spoiler alert: the USAF exists

By 1942, the Walt Disney Studio had been nearly broken by the exertions of the preceding years, and perhaps the biggest part of its financial suffering had been the outbreak of World War II; now, World War II had come to America, and, ironically, it was going to throw Disney a lifeline.  The groundwork for a close relationship between Disney and the U.S. government had already been laid in 1941, when the State Department had used the studio to produce Saludos Amigos as a gesture of intrahemispheric goodwill, and it was not long after Pearl Harbor that the government, starting with the Navy and eventually including every branch of the military (and a lot of civilian agencies, too), reached out to Disney to produce instructional and propaganda films.

And they came in an endless variety: cartoons that directly attacked the ideology and competence of our Axis foes; cartoons that taught you how to do your job at your airplane factory; cartoons that told you to not be a dick and pay your taxes.  Disney didn't make an enormous profit off these films; Walt didn't really mind as long as they kept the lights on.  For the sake of cost and timeliness, he even accepted that the standards they'd be produced under would be comparatively low, and Disney animators began to experiment with far more limited animation styles, no more detailed than the bare minimum needed to get the point across, and sometimes no more sophisticated than animated diagrams.  Ultimately, Disney produced about 68 hours' worth of film at the behest of the U.S. government—hundreds of cartoons, all told.  Yet the longest, costliest, and most famous film Disney made in service of our war effort wasn't one of them.  No, Victory Through Air Power was all Walt, and caused many to ask whether it serviced our war effort at all.

Like millions of other Americans, Walt had read Major Alexander de Seversky's manifesto when it was published in 1942; like many of them, he'd become convinced that Seversky had the magic formula for winning this war—why, it says so, right in the title.  Seversky was a man who struck a heroic figure, at least in print and in stills (starring in the film of his book, he's frankly a little lecturey, but not necessarily in a bad way).  He'd begun his career as a naval aviator for Imperial Russia in World War I, and lost his leg on a mission gone awry.  This hadn't stopped him, however, from returning to the air and racking up an impressive kill count, and, in 1918, he emigrated to the United States for some reason.  The filmmakers of Victory, obliged to relate Seversky's biography, but also clearly conscious of our sudden alliance with the Soviet Union, skip over these mysterious reasons with the kind of amusingly-jarring elision that I at least suspect we're supposed to notice.

As an American, he'd built a successful aircraft company, and then lost control of it in 1939, which had given him a lot of time to think and write.  In the second week of December 1941, he put his pen to paper in earnest.  Attacking the grayhairs of the Army Air Forces and Navy for sticking to outmoded philosophies of warfare, and riding the wave of popular resentment toward our military for allowing Pearl Harbor to happen in the first place, Seversky had built himself something of a celebrity cult.  Counting himself amongst their number, Walt secured the rights to Seversky's book in order to bring it to the silver screen as an animated advocacy documentary that would marry Seversky's ideas to the emotional power of his animators' images.

Victory became an urgent matter for the Disney Studio, then, because it seemed only Seversky had an answer to the question, "How do we defeat Germany and Japan?" that didn't involve years of grinding ground and sea warfare and massive casualties; moreover, Seversky's book suggested that if America did not make itself the premier air power on Earth, then we were depending on the aquatic "Maginot Line" of our ocean moats, and our own nation would soon enough find ourselves on the receiving end of aerial bombardment, the way our allies had.  In other words, Disney was at the business of saving America—something Walt was rather fond of, you know—and Victory was sped through production as fast as Disney's circumstances allowed, which in practice meant no more than twelve months between Walt first picking up Seversky's book and the film being released in the July of 1943.  In the process, Walt nearly lost his government business, and while Seversky's enemies in the military were ultimately tolerant of his joint statement with Disney, Walt certainly hadn't made his clients in the military particularly happy.  Not even the commander of the USAAF, General Henry Arnold, and "Happy" was his nickname.

The thing about latterday looks at Victory is that they've all been done by film critics, and most film critics are not historians of military aviation, which means that they're a lot more willing to take the propaganda around this propaganda at face value.  For our part, let's not be gulled by the legend that Victory was actually an influential film, that it changed Franklin Roosevelt's mind about air war or shook up the establishment view of things.  For starters, it wasn't even a financial success.  Unlike the book, it had arrived not in the midst of fear but at a point when the war was actually going just fine (Stalingrad and Midway and most recently Prokhorovka had happened, resulting in decisive Allied victories); meanwhile, echoing Disney's Golden Age more than this era of the package film, Victory saw Walt ponying up large sums of money in pursuit of a passion without concern for its commercial viability.  Indeed, it was his very last time.

Moreover, if one does know the history of American military aviation in WWII, one will look askance at a message picture whose message was always stunningly insular, and was matched in the shrillness of its alarm only by its strange redundance.  But let's get back to that later, since I've barely even talked about the movie itself, and I probably should.  If Victory did need a reason to have been made, being a cool piece of animation that taps into my interest in WWII strategic bombing is, for me, quite good enough.

Victory begins with its thesis, delivered by way of Art Baker's slightly-detached, sometimes-ironic, but mostly-stentorian narration, as well as by Seversky's predecessor in American airpower advocacy, the late General Billy Mitchell, whose gross nasal voice will make you glad that they could only dig up thirty seconds' worth of stock interview footage for him.  Victory then moves into a short history of aviation as it had begun at Kitty Hawk forty years before, and continues in this vein up through the 1930s, including the foundation of aerial warfighting during WWI; and this part, said to have been intended for a different project altogether, definitely feels it, though it hangs together well enough with the rest.  The main distinction, besides the fact that human figures play a much more prominent role than they will later (that is, anything more than "almost none"), is that it's goofy, basically a comedy short that happens to incidentally involve warfare, which is portrayed as rather goofy itself.

The comedic tone is emphasized with some of the most cartoonish human beings in any Disney feature, drawn with huge disproportionate heads and limited articulation, and devoted mainly to sight gags like French and German airmen throwing bricks at each other.  Of course, it's hard for any overview of the earliest years of flight to not look comedic, and Victory embraces the whole strange menagerie of frivolous-looking aircraft that represented humanity's very first leaps into the air.  It's pretty funny, actually, but educational too, explaining (for example) how machine guns can possibly fire through propeller blades (and, also, how they came to realize the problem).

It is not, for a film about air war, particularly fascinated by it yet, generously sharing its runtime with civilian feats of aeronautics, such as the first crossings of the English Channel by aircraft, effected by Louis BlĂ©riot and C.S. Rolls in 1909 and 1910, respectively.  But war arrives on schedule in 1939, and Victory becomes fascinated very quickly, visually collapsing time into a single point, and having Rolls repeat the dry report he'd made back in 1910, only now in a far darker register:

"Departing from England, the flight across the Channel was quite uneventful.  Reaching the other side and being recognized, dropped greetings, and without stopping returned home safely, without mishap."

Victory is at its best when it shows off such streaks of grim irony, embracing the fundamental darkness of its mission.  However, for now we find Major Seversky at a Disney soundstage dressed with many maps and globes, through which he may enlighten us as to the geopolitical situation, providing a canned history of WWII up to that point, something that I expect is more fun for a present-day viewer than one who'd just lived through it.  This is where we get to the meat of what this advocacy doc is advocating, and its version of history is very much one seen through the lens of the air forces, explaining that airpower did this, that, and the other thing, coming off as The Luftwaffe's Greatest Hits, including such popular tracks as "May 1940," "The Invasion of Norway" and "The Battle of Crete," but presenting them in ways that don't fully account for their reality.  Its rhetorical goal, anyway, is to really pump Axis airpower up, while always intending to turn that around and say the Germans and Japanese are still doing airpower wrong.

Fundamentally, Victory represents an ideological struggle of the most hair-splitting kind.  The book and film advocate the production of thousands of heavy bombers, to be used to smash Axis industry, culminating in its dreamed-of deployment of heavily-armed intercontinental superbombers that could launch from American soil, strike Japan, and return.  And it's surprising to think anyone needed to make this argument in 1943: everything that Victory wanted was already being done.  The joint strategic framework (USAAF bombing by day, the RAF by night) had been formalized at Casablanca in January 1943; the Eighth Air Force was already striking (or attempting to strike) German industrial targets by the end of 1942; the legendary factory at Willow Run, the largest room on Earth, had begun operations in the middle of 1942 and had already produced hundreds of B-24s; the Project A superbomber had been authorized in something like 1937, and had borne fruit in the form of the long-ranged B-29, whereas even the real-deal interhemispheric bomber, the B-36, had been under developlment at Convair for a couple of years.  (The YB-19, a stepping stone to the superbomber, is featured in the film.)

Uh, yeah, but superbombers get to roll three dice on strategic bombing runs, dude.  They're crucial.

Gracious, the only plans outlined in Victory that weren't being put into action were the extremely stupid ones.  In fact, it's hard to disentangle Victory's intellectual dishonesty from its stupidity, though both arise from hardline bomber partisanship: when describing the self-defending bomber bristling with machine guns, it appears cheerfully ignorant of three years' worth of experience determining that "flying fortresses" simply didn't work; when describing "earthquake bombs," it seems to have taken the basic concept of cratering bombs and gone out of its fucking mind; when describing bases in the Aleutians as an alternative to bases in China or the Marianas (it also talks about bases in the USSR, a doofy thing to suggest, but for other reasons), it appears completely uncomprehending of the incredible logistical challenges this idea poses.  Indeed, despite logistical challenges taking up many minutes of Seversky's lecture, Victory appears uncomprehending of them in numerous respects.  It's kind of ironic: a splendid visual shows the lapse of a whole decade as America attempts to defeat Japan by conventional means, but Seversky's notion of devoting all production and research to big intercontinental bombers would have had exactly this effect, waiting for a B-36 fleet sizeable enough to pound Japan into oblivion.  (Yes, it wouldn't have taken a fleet, but Seversky didn't know this; if he was right, it was for very wrong reasons.)  Meanwhile, when describing "scientific" (their word) bombing, it's clear Seversky and Walt were dreaming of precision bombing, in contrast to RAF-style population bombing, and in this they shared the intellectual dishonesty of the USAAF itself.  In any event, they gave it up very quickly once over Japan, where population bombing became the standard doctrine.  Of course, once combined with atomic bombs, delivered by two of Seversky's hoped-for superbombers to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it is fair to say it won the war.

In other, shorter words, then, it's something of a religious document, an epistle from one sect of adherents of airpower to another, all anxiously awaiting the millennium, i.e., the creation of an independent Air Force.  Despite being framed in a way designed to mislead and incense its lay audience, Victory is a prosecution of an extremely finely-split argument, between ultra-radical airpower proponents like Seversky and the merely-radical airpower proponents actually running the USAAF, who arguably wound up with more than what they wanted, only not in the quantities or timeframes Seversky desired.  Now, Victory elucidates many valid points—its disdain for the utterly-pointless South Pacific campaign is, in hindsight, probably less disgusted than it ought to be—but so much of it is pure Air Force parochialism, and bomber parochialism at that—like its derogation of aircraft carriers, or the smug bird it flips to escort fighters—that brass in the USAAF considered it an active spoiler for their own (comparatively) incrementalist plans for American airpower.

Yet it's a shockingly persuasive argument nevertheless!  And more because of Disney's contribution than Seversky's, I suspect, though I'm rather susceptible to airpower enthusiasm even in its dumber forms.  In any event, Victory is surely the most unique of all Disney's feature films (its absence from the "canon" is entirely understandable).  It offers an airpower pageant, huge flying fleets of lovingly-designed aircraft, some drawn from existing models, some entirely fanciful, trading the traditional flexibility of Disney animation for a curious combination of detail and speed: the usual image of airplanes in Victory is of a single well-painted watercolor cel moved across a background, or, in the alternative, a background moved beneath a cel, with grace notes (spinning propellers, gunfire, flames) added in, often on a loop.  (And sometimes the airplanes are fully animated, which is cool too.)  It's an uncanny effect, emphasizing the industrial inhumanity of these weapons, presenting them as looming apocalyptic machines devoid of passion, invulnerable and majestic in a distant and distressing way.  The only humans we ever see in the latter half are very near the end, and they too are immobile paintings, a pilot and a bombardier made heroic figures in a mythological sense, monumental and eternal.  Like I said earlier, it's religious: the strategic bomber is made to be in some sense indistinguishable from God, and this seems exactly right, since to its victims it very much was.

Victory dehumanizes this war in another way, with colorful animated maps and charts of all shapes and sizes, sometimes renewing interest in Seversky's lecture with nothing more than a sudden change in his map's projection.  Often akin to an animated Axis and Allies board, it emphasizes the collective just as its visions of bomber streams do, but it is not as dry as the phrase "collection of maps and charts" makes it sound, injecting significant emotion and dark cartoonish whimsy into its God's eye view of the Second World War, as when Seversky's metaphor of an "iron wheel" of ground power becomes a concrete object in the animators' view, a crimson ring of steel with a central array of factories laid out in the form of a swastika.  It is a hateful and upsetting image; we're happy to see it blown to smithereens by our bombers, though disgusted as the green arrows of Allied (ground) forces channel through it, almost exactly like worms burrowing through a tomato.  Vivid imagery attends faithfully to the narration throughout, from the clever observation that the Wright Bros' first flight wouldn't even make it from one wingtip to the other on one of our colossal new bombers, to the final salvo delivered by Bill Tytla in his last work for Disney, Japan and America rendered into the forms of an enormous ebon octopus locked in struggle with a vengeful eagle.  Between its symbolic charge and the brutal montage patterns it follows (more than just reminiscent of the clash of T-rex and stegosaur in Fantasia's "Rite of Spring"), it's arguably the most violent thing ever seen in a Disney cartoon; it represents, of course, only what Victory has already shown, a premonition of cities aflame.  It ends with America holding the globe in its claws.  It's monstrously exciting, if it's the kind of thing you're into (Denis Leary has a whole song about it).  And that's as it should be.

But what I think I love about Victory most of all is what it represents politically: not an argument from an airpower supremacist that I agree with in general and disagree with in almost every specific, but that it exists to present such a pointed, angry argument at all.  Consider in what circumstances Seversky published his book and Walt produced his film: not seven months after Pearl Harbor had shocked the nation and thrown us into war, these Americans felt a sacred duty to scream at the top of their lungs that we were being led by incompetent hacks who were doing everything wrong.  It is one of the truly great examples of what freedom of speech actually means, not in the decadent and dishonest sense that its "defenders" use the phrase today, in order to try to shield bigotry and hatefulness from the criticism of other citizens, or to try to convince you that controversial pundits are entitled to jobs or audiences or money simply because they have views.  No, Victory Through Air Power is freedom of speech in the purest sense: Americans disagreeing with their government on an issue of policy, and, by God, telling them so—rain or shine.

Score: 8/10

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