Operation European Freedom

The propaganda films the Pentagon didn't want you to see

But then who needed it? The unflagging can-do-ism of these movies must have carried the clean, brassy scent of the United States. The Marshall films present a world of beneficent technocrats and their miraculous infrastructure. One can imagine a young Frederick Wiseman or John McPhee thrilling to a piece like "The Home We Love" (Thursday), which provides a thorough tour of a French town's wool-denapping industry--a very thorough tour. It's harder to fathom what inspired a filmmaker to chronicle the drying process for a tin of powdered milk ("The Extraordinary Adventures of a Quart of Milk," Thursday). Granted, no one could deny the genius--or lunacy--that inspired the director to narrate the industrial process from the point of view of the milk itself. There are not one but two documentaries ("Bulls and Rice" and "Island of Faith," both Thursday) about the desalinization of damaged soil. Put another way, these weren't exactly women's pictures.

It wasn't just people who were working, these films insisted; the system itself was working. Beyond the countless shots of scaffolding, the Marshall Plan movies laid out a new architecture for the continent. Europe was to be a zone of free elections and even freer trade. The animated allegory "The Shoemaker and the Hatter" (Saturday, April 8) is the kind of tariff-trashing movie that the Cato Institute would make compulsory viewing for kindergartners. Just such a group of tykes commandeer a mountain ski resort in the charmingly hokey "Let's Be Childish" (Friday). Junior nationalism and a lack of a lingua franca lead to a cataclysmic snowball bombardment. But when a basket of candy is on the line, cooperation wins the day. Here and elsewhere, the seeds of the European Union can be seen--although they would first be fertilized with a goodly amount of rank manure in the form of anti-Soviet and anticommunist messages. At times like these, the filmmaking earns the label propaganda.

But that's to be expected. Only a congenital naïf would find these movies innocent. Our experience in Iraq tells us to look for the graft, the waste, and the profiteering, the criminal syndicates and the regime dead-enders. For the most part, they're hiding outside the sprockets of these filmstrips. The peaceful and wealthy Eurozone that emerged in the decades that followed has justified those omissions of ugliness--and probably gives comfort to the current crop of optimists in the White House, who have mastered the art of selective vision.

Without a tidy sense of historical analogy, what may attract today's viewer are the quirky touches. Who knew that the European man had such a broad variety of hats at his disposal? That struggling dirt farmers toiled in vests and blazers? No less than three-quarters of the films in the Selling Democracy series depict the common donkey at work and play. The Marshall Plan, with its rural electrification projects and its promise of mass-produced consumer goods, stamped out not just postwar poverty, but a rich, artisanal world. This is a Europe of small-plot farming and kerosene lighting, brass bands and cave cities, short pants and urban cyclists. We look backward while the people in front of the camera look forward. We're watching the same films that these people once saw, but we're seeing a different picture.

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