Tonight's Cinematheque screening was a rather bizarre historical curiosity from 1943 called Mission to Moscow
; I wish I could call it a good film, but I can't. Made under the auspices of the Office of War Information (OWI), Mission to Moscow
, the film is basically an adaptation of a report/memoir by former US ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E. Davies (he served in Moscow from 1936 to 1938), and it was intended to reverse the negative perception of the Soviet Union in the US at the time. OK, OK, the film is sheer propaganda, necessitated by the pragmatism of a war time alliance, and like most propaganda, it is kind of boring; most entertainment is derived from the huge disparity between the film's viewpoint of then contemporary Russian history and what we know today, but I'm sure the film's claims sounded as hollow then as they do today. I have no idea how Davies really felt about Russia, though I don't doubt that he supported our alliance with the USSR against the Axis, but let's put it this way, the film's Davies wears glasses so rose-tinted, the thorns have poked out his eyes (the real Davies appears in a five minute prologue to the film, towing the official line that the film would extoll for the next two hours; he looked distinctly uncomfortable on camera, and the film cut in and out seemingly arbitrarily; you can tell it was spliced together out of the best parts of his interview/speech; he did get a hoot from the audience when he revealed he was from Wisconsin and that he had graduated from the UW).
Given his task personally by FDR (seen exclusive in over the shoulder shots, or in insert shots of his hands, but with a nice, stereotypical FDR impersonator voice), a close personal friend of Davies and apparent fellow internationalist acolyte of Woodrow Wilson, to inspect and frankly report back on not only the state of Russia, but that of Europe. Davies is played by Walter Huston, his speechifying dialogue is spoken in a clipped, rapid manner, like he was in a 90 minute movie instead of a two hour one; in any case, Huston seems to be talking as if he was the only person in the room, delivering his speeches to no one in particular. Davies first stop is Nazi Germany, where he tries to meet Hitler. His first stop is a swaztika-adorned train depot in Hamburg, which just happens to have a bunch of marching Wehrmacht soldiers, Hitler Youth, and Jewish deportees milling about at the same time, in the rather grandiose train station (one of the funniest lines in the film is when two Germans try to get to their train, but are locked out by an unsympathetic watchman who declares that "Trains run on time in the New Germany.") After much interpolated stock footage (most of which is taken from The Triumph of the Will
and other newsreel footage), Davies fails to meet Hitler and takes off for Russia. The film immediately counterpoints the militaristic Nazis with the apparently slightly less militaristic Soviets. Actually, whereas the German train depot is grandiose and imposing, the Russian depot is modest and rustic; whereas the Germans are stern, the Russians are jovial; and whereas the Germans offer trains that run on time, the Russians offer snack food. Such is the paradise of Stalinist Russia. The postive aspects of Russia are again accentuated by the film's first shot of Moscow, a long, descending shot of an Orthodox cathedral's spires overlooking the Kremlin (they aren't all atheists you see).
Unfortunately, the film really doesn't have a narrative, just an episodic series of events. Davies meets a bunch of nice commisars; Davies takes a tour of various Soviet industries, marveling at their economic progress; Davies marvels over the prowness of the Red Army; Davies discounting Soviet espionage in the embassy; Davies (and his family) taking in Russian culture. The film repeatedly makes several points about the strength of Soviet industry, agriculture, military, and it's people, even taking special pains to point out the equality of women in the USSR (women are train engineers, coal miners, members of parachute residents, and the comissars of the State cosmetics industry). Pre-war Moscow is a hotbed of diplomatic intrigue. Davies meets the French, British, Polish, Italian, German, Chinese, and Japanese ambassadors at a diplomatic ball (one funny moment, the Italian ambassador starts to eat some olives and inquires "Italian olives?" and the Russian host says "No, Spanish," and the Italian ambassador almost chokes on his olive). The centerpiece of the white-wash is the show trial; see the Russian purges were actually justifiable and fair legal procedures; Trostkyite factions were colluding with the Axis powers to overthrow the Stalinist regime, and after the conspirators arrest, they confessed without coercion or duress, because it weighed on their conscience, even though it meant a death sentence. After watching some more interpolated stock footage of the 1938 May Day military parade (which kind of looked like the German military parades), Davies is about to leave Russia for the US when he meets with Stalin, who is a cuddly, pipe-smoking man who warns Davies that if France and the UK don't make a pact with the USSR, the USSR will have no choice but to make an anti-agression pact with Germany (the Poles are conveniently left out). Davies heeds his warnings, and travels across Europe to gather support, which he finds in Winston Churchill (a pudgy man with a fading British accent).
Davies returns to the US where his report, while received sympathetically by the FDR adminsitration, is resisted by the overwhelming isolationist sentiment. It is then followed by a brilliant piece of montage, courtesy of the brilliant Don Siegel (the rest of the film was directed, in a rather perfunctory manner by Michael Curtiz, who asides from using a lot of shadowy silhouettes, doesn't show much flair like he did in such films as Casablanca
or Mildred Pierce
), telescoping several years of conflict between Davies and isolationist ideologues, before Pearl Harbor cuts short the discussion, and validates Davies point of view. The final shot is a matte painting of a shining beacon the hill, as the film, while supporting those Godless Commies, concludes with a bit of Christian utopian populism. "We are our Brother's Keeper."
An interesting coda. While the film was commisioned by the executive branch of the government, a few short years later, another branch of the government, the legislative branch, more specifically HUAC, utilized Mission to Moscow
as proof of Communist subversion in the film industry. With the collusion of Jack Warner, Howard Koch, Oscar wining screenwriter of Casablanca
, was blacklisted for writing Mission to Moscow
, even though he had to be talked into writing the screenplay by Jack and Harry Warner.