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‘This motion picture is dedicated to France. More than 300 years ago French missionaries were sent to Indochina to teach love of God and the love of fellow man. Gradually, French influence took shape in the Vietnamese lands. Despite many hardships they advanced their way of living and the thriving nation became the rice bowl of Asia. Vast bridges were developed under French guidance until 1941 when Japanese troops moved in…’
These were the opening words of the 1957 film China Gate, a film on the French Indochina war, over a panoramic shot of Vietnamese rice paddies. Roman Gary, the French Consul-General in Los Angeles at the time telephoned the film’s director, Samuel Fuller, and told him that he thought the film was not ‘pro-French’ enough and would therefore be banned and never released in France. Such was the tightly controlled and censored nature of propaganda in 1957 in France, three years after the French removed themselves from Indochina after the battle Dien Bien Phu. While France may have feigned amnesia after the First Indochina war as a way of dealing with its colonial past, the USA chose a different approach to their dealings in the East. Already in 1956, President Kennedy expressed fear of the domino effect of the ‘Red Tide of Communism’ in Vietnam, in a speech delivered to the American Friends in Vietnam. China Gate was clearly referring the political climate and the foreign policies being adopted at the time of its making. It was an attempt at explaining the noble reasons for French presence in Vietnam and, most importantly, it promoted the American values of freedom and liberation personified by Angie Dickinson’s character, the protagonist in the film.
Reflecting on historical propaganda reminds us that visual, easily-accessible entertainment and, in particular, Hollywood glamour, plays no small part in designing these moral manifestoes into products of Zeitgeist desire. We assume that, sixty years later, such crude and strategic propaganda would be rejected by a general public with values of inclusion and democracy, which believes in peaceful solutions to potential colonial forces. We’d like to think that partisan persuasion would not interfere in the culture we consume on a daily or weekly basis, as it might have done in the past. However, a cinema trip on a Friday evening is all it takes to shock us out of this illusion. In comparison to Fuller’s China Gate propaganda film, a film like Guardians of the Galaxy, Vol. 2 may, on the surface, appear as an innocent Hollywood blockbuster, but in fact contains subliminal messages worthy of the propaganda label.
A particular guerrilla scene in China Gate focuses on a French soldier. This simple man heartily tells his companions the story of how he came to be a soldier, and concludes that constantly having to obey orders makes him happier than he has ever been. The atmosphere of this scene is comforting, confidential, as the soldiers bond in a moment of good will and mutual respect. And just as the soldier concludes his final sentence, in a moment of melodramatic irony, he is shot multiple times at the hands of a Viet Minh shooter hiding in the bushes. This traumatizing scene offers the viewer a chance to sympathise with a character before violently ripping that moment away. It reproduces the absurdity of death in war and the paranoia of guerilla warfare, while also giving the enemy and evil a face, exposing a clear culprit. This may be a propaganda film with baddies and goodies, but its obvious political message indicates to the viewer how they should view the current political conflict, in which there are winners and losers, which America may or may not be.
In Guardians of the Galaxy, the guardians are personifications of an ideal society, a future America. The battle scenes do not always take narrative form and instead are montaged, victory being a secure fact before, during and after it takes place, no strategy or succession but a slow-motion poster of victory. One such battle scene takes place on another unknown planet, set against the backdrop of an orange sunset, a carnival of enemy carcasses pulsating upwards like fireworks to the rhythm and glory of Fleetwood Mac. In contrast to China Gate, Guardians of the Galaxy does not dwell on defining the enemy its heroes are fighting. In this case, the enemy less important than the glorifying and aesthetical image of victory. In fact,
the real world or a real war is never referenced or mentioned, creating the illusion that the film’s dealings of power and conflict are completely removed from reality.
Like most recent Marvel films, the Guardians of the Galaxy films are pure entertainment. However, under the guise of an all-ages comedy, a legitimization of war is taking place. Unlike China Gate, war is not displayed here as the traumatic height of madness but a necessary and exciting constant.
It is not news that contemporary war images or information on war or Western military action in the world is censored and manipulated, especially compared to the war images of the Indochina wars. Just as China Gate exists as an insight into French and American ways of remembering the past in order to control the future, films like Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 exist as forms of contemporary mythology subliminally promulgating political views. As Benjamin Storra, in his historical account of the imaginaries of the Vietnam and Algerian war argues, even defeat does not affect a culture’s faith in war:
“The mythical position of belief in the armed forces moves the impact of affect in societies, converting all possible political diversity in a strict cultural homogeneity.”
What strengthens this faith? Not official news images and or political speeches performed by government officials, but the flashiness and beauty of stories, whic seemingly provide an escape from the conflicts of reality.