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Millions of Americans are eagerly anticipating this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. For over a century, motion pictures have been a dominant cultural and leisure medium. There are, however, two aspects worth highlighting: the sheer novelty of motion pictures and the medium’s initial democratic nature. Twenty-first century Americans have difficulty imagining the wonder and awe motion pictures inspired in the early 1900s.
Seth Rogen isn’t the only actor to have a film about North Korea nixed: A script helmed by Bob Hope met a similar fate in 1954.
If US government sources are correct, North Korea cowed Sony Pictures into withholding a bawdy comedy about assassinating supreme leader Kim Jong-Un. Sony’s corporate computers were hacked and many bytes of tawdry Hollywood secrets were disgorged. The technical achievement lent credibility to the hackers’ threats of mass murder in theaters if Rogen’s The Interview was released. (Editors’ note: The Interview is currently in limited release and no attacks have been reported.) Governments can be expected to decry movies about murdering sitting presidents, but the bombast of Pyongyang’s apparent reaction lacks proportionality and appreciation of blowback from global audiences, which are sure to make Kim Jong-un a universal punch line. This cluelessness no doubt derives from the cultish isolation of Pyongyang, but it is not the first comedy set in North Korea to discomfit officials.
In 1954, the military-friendly jokester Bob Hope dropped plans for a screwball comedy on the Korean peninsula after the US Army refused to support it. The similarities and differences from the current episode tell us something about government influence over cinema, a vital conduit to the mass mind.
Only months after the end of the Korean War (1950-1953), Hope pitched a film to the Army’s Motion Picture office for approval. The military routinely lent expensive war equipment and technical advice to movie studios in return for a veto over scripts. Hope’s timing was awful. The “sour little war” was so unpopular it ended the political career of President Harry Truman and prompted years of soul searching into the American character and its failure to vanquish the enemy. The Army was touchy about cinematic portrayals of anything Korea, so much so that it reversed itself on a Ronald Reagan movie it had previously supported.
In March 1954, the same month Hope’s proposal was under consideration, the Army yanked approval of MGM’s P.O.W. Military bands had to cancel plans to play at premiers and all Army commands were ordered to cease publicizing the film. This was curious since the Army Motion Picture office had assisted P.O.W. throughout production, providing a former prisoner as consultant and requesting and receiving four pages of script revisions. The problem? Image management. The hastily-made movie was coming out at the same time the Army was beginning prosecutions of former prisoners accused of collaborating with their captors. The Chinese ran the prison camps in North Korea and persuaded some inmates to assist them on shortwave radio and other propaganda tasks. Collaboration became a big stir in the United States, especially after 21 American POWs defected to China after the war. Court martials of repatriated prisoners were part of a Cold War panic that the nation’s youth had gone soft, unable to resist Chinese indoctrination.
The difficulty with the Reagan film P.O.W. was that it was relentlessly brutal, even by today’s standards. Prisoners were subjected to awful tortures that were sure to arouse audience sympathy just when court martials were underway. Movies too heavy on torture or brainwashing would seem to excuse the behavior of soldiers who were now facing years at hard labor. Hence the Army bands repacking their instruments.
The delicacy of national morale helps explain the Army’s discomfort with the Bob Hope proposal. Donald E. Baruch, head of the Motion Pictures office, wrote Hope’s agent that the Army valued its previous work with the comedian:
However, in this instance, we believe no military purpose would be served in the production of this story. When Mr. Hope called while recently here, I did not react negatively because all he mentioned was that the story was about a U.S.O. tour to Korea and the repatriation of a prisoner. The subject is considered of too great importance and seriousness especially at this time to be treated in the farcical manner indicated by the outline. Other basic story objections are ‘stealing’ of the helicopter, Jane, Jimmy and Bob in North Korea, and the rescuing of Lloyd.
A serious prisoner of war movie that did get Army approval was MGM’s The Rack (1956) with Paul Newman. This courtroom-bound film was a psychological exploration of an officer’s conscience and why he failed to resist collaboration. However, The Rack was broody and talky and made no impression on the box office. The same occurred with Time Limit (United Artists, 1957), another courtroom film approved by the Army that failed to move audiences. To get a Pentagon subsidy and imprimatur, POW films set in Korea could not follow the tried and true formula of action and escape; collaboration was too imposing an issue. The small sub-genre of Korea POW films was steered into amnesia.
US Army influence on Korea POW films was gentle. Studios wanted subsidies and association with the military brand, so they were usually cooperative. In itself, Rogan’s The Interview has little in common with the patriotic cinema of the 1950s, but the apparent reaction of North Korea provides an interesting contrast. Some pundits have been quick to accuse Sony of letting Pyongyang become a censor by holding the film industry hostage. With this one film, they might have a point. But Pyongyang’s method of influencing movie content is really one of weakness. The Pentagon, neither today nor in the 1950s, has to threaten Hollywood, it simply waits for producers to come to it for set pieces and shrouds of official martial aura. In contrast, Kim Jong-Un’s royal court is so isolated and unable to shape the narrative that it resorted to the threats of a desperate loner. If North Korea’s apparent intervention in Hollywood still has an effect two years from now, it will only serve to focus more attention on the regime worldwide. Look for more hidden camera documentaries. Any other lasting influence is unlikely, since Kim Jong-Un can’t open a Hollywood office or even do lunch.
Featured image: Bob Hope (center) and other guests salute while “The Star Spangled Banner” is played during a ceremony to award Hope the Distinguished Public Service Award. Jan. 31, 1971. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.
From the author of the National Book Award winner Slaves in the Family, The Inventor and the Tycoon is about the partnership of Eadweard Muybridge and Leland Stanford — one an eccentric inventor of stop-motion photography, the other a railroad baron with a penchant for racehorses. Murder, ingenuity, wealth, and sensation spiraled out of this [...]