Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

February 9, 2009

Mission to Moscow

Filed under: Film,ussr — louisproyect @ 5:24 pm

Quite by accident on Sunday morning I tuned into “Mission to Moscow” on the TCM cable network, which was already 15 minutes in progress. For a film buff and veteran of the Trotskyist movement like me, this is almost like spotting an ivory-billed woodpecker in Central Park. This is an exceedingly rare event, as this alert on IMDB.com points out:

Turner Classic Movies will be showing Mission to Moscow tomorrow (Sunday) morning at 11:15 Am (Est). This is a rare event, as Warner Brothers, which produced the film during WWII, has virtually tried to bury it out of embarrassment. It’s never been released on home video, as I learned when I taught a course at NYU I developed called Cold War Cinema. The film was essential viewing, but the only copies could be obtained on the collector’s circuit. The movie was the result of strong-arming by the Department of Defense to convince Hollywood studios to present the Soviet Union in a positive manner. This was no easy task. In the early stages of the war, Stalin was a strong ally of Nazi Germany had helped them invade several nations. However, when Hitler betrayed Stalin by invading the Soviet Union in 1941, the USSR immediately became an unlikely, but indispensable part of the Allied cause.

What the alert leaves out and what I discovered not long after joining the SWP was the movie’s dramatization and defense of the Moscow Trials. Based on the memoir of Joseph E. Davies, the American ambassador to the USSR, it could have been written by a Communist Party member-which it was sort of. Screenwriting duties were shared by Davies and Howard Koch, who was blacklisted in the 1950s although the consensus was that he was not in the party. Despite the 1930s and 40s reputation of Hollywood being under the artistic influence of the CP, their screenwriters very rarely put anything resembling a “party line” into a movie.

“Mission to Moscow” was something else entirely. Featuring Walter Huston (the old codger who teamed up with Humphrey Bogart in “Treasure of the Sierra Madre) as Joseph Davies, it follows him on his tour of duty across Europe trying to first convince the Nazis to choose peace (they are strictly out of central casting, monocles and all) and finally setting up shop in Moscow where he feels right at home, despite being a “capitalist” as he admits to his Soviet hosts. Not surprisingly-given the popular front context-they are all right with that.

The movie makes no attempt to use a conventional plot with conflict and resolution over human problems. It is strictly a propaganda piece and exceedingly crude. Through Davies’s eyes (and filmed on location in the USSR), we see jolly workers in the mines and factories-including women to Davies’s surprise. Everything is going swimmingly well in the Soviet economy except for the occasional mysterious explosion or industrial accident, which plant managers attribute to sabotage. We are led to believe that it is the sinister Germans and Japanese who are behind the anti-Soviet conspiracy.

Finally, we see the GPU rounding up a number of party leaders who we have already met in the movie. They include Radek, Yagoda, and General Timoshenko. The last man to be arrested is none other than Nikolai Bukharin. One by one the suspects confess to Vishinsky that they were part of a plot to overthrow the Soviet government and install Leon Trotsky as the new head of state. The conspiracy was backed by Germany and Japan. It is entirely possible that their speeches came directly out of the Moscow Trials, especially Bukharin’s that had that peculiar mixture of confession and contempt that gave a subtle hint of his hatred for Stalin and the proceedings.

As a defense of the Moscow Trials, the movie completely fails. Since it gives no background on the characters, the audience is not prepared to take the confessions at face value. A more skilled propagandist would have had Radek, Timoshenko and Bukharin meeting with Nazi spies even though this would have been a lie. It would have also developed them more as villains, something that Howard Koch perhaps did not have his heart in. I imagine that most CP’er or fellow travelers in the film industry were far more enthusiastic about women miners in the USSR than they were about show trials.

The wiki on “Mission to Moscow” reports:

During production, Office of War Information officials reviewed screenplay revisions and prints of the film and commented on them. By reviewing the scripts and prints, OWI officials exercised authority over Mission to Moscow, insuring that it promoted the “United Nations” theme. An administration official advised the film’s producers to offer explanations for the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Red Army’s invasion of Finland. After reading the final script, in November 1942 the OWI expressed its hope that Mission to Moscow would “make one of the most remarkable pictures of this war” and “a very great contribution to the war information program.”

The OWI report on Mission to Moscow concluded that it would “be a most convincing means of helping Americans to understand their Russian allies. Every effort has been made to show that Russians and Americans are not so very different after all. The Russians are shown to eat well and live comfortably, which will be a surprise to many Americans. The leaders of both countries desire peace and both possess a blunt honesty of address and purpose…One of the best services performed by this picture is the presentation of Russian leaders, not as wild-eyed madmen, but as far-seeing, earnest, responsible statesmen. They have proved very good neighbors, and this picture will help to explain why, as well as to encourage faith in the feasibility of post-war cooperation.”

In 1950 “Mission to Moscow” became a casualty of the Cold War as the USSR was now cast in the role that the Nazis once played. Jack Warner, the studio head who commissioned “Mission to Moscow”, testified before Congress and assured it that he received instructions from Davies and FDR to make the movie.

It is too bad that “Mission to Moscow” is not available in home video since it provides the same kind of laughs as “Reefer Madness”. Short of this, you can read Joseph Davies’s memoir in Google books, which fully captures the unintentional comedy of the movie. Here’s Davies on a talk he gave in 1941:

Passing through Chicago, on my way home from the June commencement of my old University, I was asked to talk to the University Club and combined Wisconsin societies. It was just three days after Hitler had invaded Russia. Somebody in the audience asked: “What about Fifth Columnists in Russia?” Off the anvil, I said: “There aren’t any-they shot them.”

6 Comments »

  1. I saw Mission To Moscow a few years ago in Canada (late night show on CBC). The influence it had on me was to make me think of the power of propaganda in movies – both on the conscious and sub-conscious level. Mission To Moscow is a tragi-comedy; a warning to modern audiences of the power of film!

    The power of propaganda is especially obvious in times of war when most (if not all) cultural products are vetted through some state ministry. Hollywood was co-opted in the war effort in WWII – _one_ pro-Soviet movie from each studio: Warners made Mission to Moscow and MGM made The North Star. If they can do this in an open and blatant manner, what are they doing to us when not in war-time. When “artists” have complete control to push our emotional buttons? and mold our allegiance to the (capitalist) system?

    For every Mike Leigh or John Sayles that questions the system, there’s a thousand artists competing to make the feel-good movie of the year.

    Comment by movie-buff — February 9, 2009 @ 6:18 pm

  2. […] Made in 2003, “Bright Leaves” is now available in home video and is a worthy addition to the McElwee oeuvre, as they put it. McElwee got the inspiration for this movie after visiting a cousin in North Carolina who kept a basement full of film memorabilia, including a poster for the 1950 movie starring Gary Cooper as Brant Royle, a tobacco grower. As it turns out, the director was Michael Curtiz, who was also responsible for the Stalin-worshiping “Mission to Moscow“. […]

    Pingback by Bright Leaves « Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist — May 4, 2009 @ 8:13 pm

  3. WW 2 was a victory for international communism and not a defeat of tyranny. There is no difference between fascism and ocmmunism. The MISSION TO MOSCOW film is the worst piece of film trash ever, praising the greatest mass murderer in history, Joey Stalin.

    Comment by sam taranto — April 13, 2010 @ 6:53 am

  4. this movie is nothingn but communist propaganda. The Soviets and Nazis started WW 2. Movies like this is what caused congress to investigate Hollywood.. Hollywood still has a lot of reds and socialists. Since that era, one film after another is leftist or outright commuunist propaganda.

    Comment by sam taranto — April 15, 2010 @ 4:45 am

  5. Stalin is the greatest politic in hystory, this is shown by your weaky angriness. Stalin did not provide your hungry faces with oil neither you shall leak his ass with happy wispering.

    Comment by Igor — February 11, 2011 @ 9:40 pm

  6. Joseph Davies might well be among the most despicable Americans of the 20th Century. Both the book and film, “Mission to Moscow” were unfortunate pieces of pro-Stalin propaganda, perpetrating the “Uncle Joe” image of our (then) totalitarian ally. In the film’s prologue, Davies portrays himself as a humble Midwestern country boy. A much different Davies appears in “The Forsaken: An American Tragedy in Stalin’s Russia by Tim Tzouliadis,” a little-known history about Americans who went to Russia in the 1930’s to find work, only in many cases to wind up Kolyma or other Gulags. And most tragically it was often the children of those expats, who were tortured and imprisoned. One individual who was aware of this, and did or said nothing was our fine, Joseph Davies. The book is available at Amazon.

    Comment by Ranger Joe — February 18, 2012 @ 10:39 pm


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