Tuesday, September 07, 2004

War and Disney

From the Elder at Fraters Libertas comes this gem. He links to an article by Mark Yost describing the life of Col. Billy Mitchell, war hero and victim of a short-sighted government's fear of change.

There's nothing I can add to the wealth of knowledge surrounding Mitchell's life and career. That he died in a disgrace he never deserved is tragic. Such pioneering thinkers have always, it seems, had to fight against overwhelming prejudice of any idea that takes people out of their comfort zones. The peace-time military of Mitchell's day just couldn't justify this man's challenge of their century-long military doctrine.

Still, there were those who listened. By the time World War II raged in Europe, many began to openly question why we weren't pushing aircraft to the forefront of the fight. Some of these individuals carried impressive credentials, both military and civilian. One individual in particular was Major Alexandar P. de Seversky. Maj. de Seversky was a naturalized Russian with an extensive and impressive background in aeronautics. He had written a book titled "Victory Through Air Power" which, among other things, boldly declared that the United States should consolidate its military aircraft under a single air force - a heresy according to then-military thinking.

One man who had read the book and appreciated its significance was Walt Disney. Disney, who was already under contract to the Government for training and motivational films and short subjects, decided to do a film version of de Seversky's book, with de Seversky's enthusiastic support and participation.

The studio just recently released one of its "Walt Disney Treasures" series of DVD specials entitled "Walt Disney Treasures - Walt Disney on the Front Lines." As an amateur historian (strictly amateur, mind!), this release is a true treasure. Many of the shorts, training films, and even the feature "Victory Through Air Power" have not been released since the war. Many of them were considered too politically insensitive in the wake of reconstruction and renewed relations with Japan and other former enemies. Also, as pointed out in the several explanations and interviews, many of the films have also just recently been declassified. Makes one wonder if there might still be any pieces that have yet to be declassified. An intriguing thought.

In any case, this collection is well worth the price. I watched the entire thing on my laptop DVD player so as not to interrupt the kids' viewing pleasure during the holiday. I was spellbound. Leonard Maltin does a terrific job as one of Disney's unofficial ambassadors in providing us with tidbits of historical background, and his interviews of old Disney participants in the war effort are respectfully done. For me, however, the real treasure is (of course) the body of work that Disney churned out to support the war. The shorts, taken in historical context, are fun, but thought-provoking. Maltin correctly points out that Disney (and most of Hollywood in those days) needed to demonize the enemy in order to make such things as rationing, black-out policies, and even paying taxes on time become more important to the audience.

Included in this collection is the hilarious "Der Fuerher's Face," which is built around the original song later recorded by Spike Jones. You are also treated to numerous Disney-designed posters, military insignia designs, and other bonus features that nicely round out the set.

I plan on introducing this material to my youngsters only when they're old enough to appreciate and understand what war is and the role it plays in their young lives. Such exposure needs to be carefully engaged, and I want to make sure they get the proper context. For myself, it's been a potent reminder that the key to any victory is maintaining the proper attitude in the face of conflict. If you want to call that patriotism, I won't quibble.

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