Shakespearean World War II films blur lines between propaganda, art

Garret Sullivan, professor of English at Penn State, speaks during his keynote speech at the 15th Annual Undergraduate Shakespeare Conference, held in the UConn Student Union in Storrs, Connecticut on Friday, April 1, 2016. (Erming Gao/The Daily Campus)

When we hear the word “propaganda” today, North Korea, communist China and even ISIS spring to mind. It’s easy to forget that posters, ad campaigns and movies have been used to win over the hearts and minds of people on both sides of a conflict for centuries and sometimes even to disrupt the powers that be.

During World War II, British film directors harnessed the influence of beloved playwright William Shakespeare to project the concept of the “people’s war” into the public consciousness, said Garret Sullivan, professor of English at Penn State, during his keynote speech at the 15th annual Undergraduate Shakespeare Conference.

Sullivan, who spoke in the University of Connecticut’s Student Union Saturday afternoon at “What Britain is Fighting for: Shakespeare and World War II Film Propaganda,” said the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Information devised this plan to fight Hitler not just with tanks and guns, but with ideas. MOI advisor Kenneth Clark championed three themes to guide propaganda makers toward this end: “What is Britain fighting for?” “how Britain fights” and “the need for sacrifices if the fight is to be won.”

These messages, through a combination of government sponsorship and patriotic fervor, soon came to permeate British film culture in the 1940s through works like “A Matter of Life or Death,” written, directed and produced by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; “Fires Were Started,” directed by Humphrey Jennings; and “Henry V,” directed and starred in by Laurence Olivier.

All three works, and many others like them, leverage Shakespeare’s plays as source of national pride as well as a vehicle for Britain’s wartime agenda.

“It’s one thing for a government ministry to come up with a plan for wartime propaganda, it’s another for that plan to be widely adopted and implemented throughout the film industry,” Sullivan said. “It would be hard to imagine that happening today.”

Not all of these directors were content to support the crown and carry on, though. The image of World War II as the people’s war was more than British patriotism. For some, Sullivan said, it was an opportunity to push a country long divided by class toward a more egalitarian future.

“Fires Were Started,” for example, told the story of England’s underpaid and unappreciated Auxiliary Fire Service. Jennings’ depiction of the AFS, which responded to fires during Germany’s strategic bombing of Britain between 1940 and 1941, is a clear example of the “realism” progressive critics of the time demanded in film, Sullivan said.

“In Britain during the war, cinematic realism connoted the representation of all social classes and it often assumed a working or lower class perspective rather than an aristocratic one,” he said.

While “Henry V,” a cinematic adaption of one of Shakespeare’s best known works, likened King Henry V’s conquest of France to the invasion of Normandy, “Fires Were Started” borrows a single speech from “Macbeth.” Following the loss of a fellow firefighter, one of the AFS crewmen uses the murderous king’s claim that some men are no better than dogs to underscore the classism that persisted throughout the British war effort.

Elizabeth Hart, an associate professor of English at UConn and one of several conference organizers, said that it’s important to understand a film’s use as propaganda doesn’t preclude it from being art as well. Shakespeare himself, Hart said, is now thought to have been a member of Queen Elizabeth’s Men, an acting company assembled to create a “national voice” for England.

This year’s Undergraduate Shakespeare Conference was notable not only for being the first hosted at UConn, but for taking place on the eve of the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, which also happens to be his birthday.

“This year is unbelievably meaningful because from April 23 on, we will have been without Shakespeare for 400 years,” Hart said.

The main purpose of the conference is to provide undergraduates studying Shakespeare in the New England area the opportunity to showcase their research.

“The whole idea is to give students an idea of what a professional presentation is like,” said Linda McJannet, a professor of English at Bentley University and member of the conference steering committee. “We find it is a really great way for students to elevate their act, so to speak.”

Lawrence Petery, an eighth-semester English major who served in the military for over 20 years before coming to UConn, said the conference was a rare opportunity to get feedbacks from experts in the field.

“It’s people looking at your work, people who know something,” Petery said. “They’ve forgotten more than we’ll ever know.”

The Undergraduate Shakespeare Conference may have ended Saturday evening, but celebration of the 400th anniversary of his death isn’t over at UConn. Resident anglophiles should keep an eye out for a copy Shakespeare's First Folio, one of just 233 known copies of the first edition of his collected works, on display at the Benton Museum of Art from Sept. 1 to 25.


Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at kimberly.armstrong@uconn.edu.