To coincide with the 100th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party, the powerful Chinese Central Propaganda Department commissioned a blockbuster film that depicts a US defeat in the Korean War.
Under fire from US bombs, the heroic People’s Army fights a brutal ground battle and emerges victorious. Brave Chinese soldiers are caught in a hellish landscape as air attacks riddle the earth all around them. A villainous US Gen. Douglas MacArthur, shot Nazi-style from a low camera, shakes his fist and shouts into a microphone, “I believe we will succeed!” Spoiler: He doesn’t.
This Chinese war entertainment opened the 11th Beijing International Film Festival and made audiences cheer as they flocked to theaters in China. The Battle at Lake Changjin has grossed more than $900 million to date at the box office, making it the second-highest-grossing film in the world in 2021 (beaten only by Spider-Man: No Way Home), and the highest-grossing non-English-language film of all time.
The New York Times (10/8/21) didn’t think much of the movie. It called it “aggrieved, defiant and jingoistic,” and pointed out that depictions of the Korean War have long been a staple of Communist Party propaganda. Despite its big budget—the film came with a $200 million price tag, the most ever spent on a film in China—the film got “mixed reviews,” though the Times acknowledged it was at least better than the “usual agitprop.”
The paper did worry that it was supported by the government, which helped with “script development, production and publicity,” and used “serving soldiers among the movie’s 70,000 extras.” Communist Party support for The Battle at Lake Changjin underscored “the lengths the authorities will go to shape popular culture.”
Chinese authorities, that is.
Them, not us
Each aspect of Chinese propaganda the Times complains about is routinely employed by US media, and they have been for years. But such facts are not mentioned.
There is no doubt that the film is propaganda. A piece pulled from CNN’s international wire (10/4/21) explained that for the 100th anniversary, Beijing ordered filmmakers to “spread propaganda celebrating the anniversary of the Communist Party.” Movies would have to focus on themes of “loving the Party, the country and socialism,” and “singing the praises of the Chinese Communist Party, the motherland, the people and its heroes.”
But in the post-9/11 era, in which US popular culture has been dominated by the military, the main difference between China’s film industry and Hollywood’s is that the China Film Administration openly explains its propaganda goals. In the United States, filmmaking has been subsidized and guided by the Pentagon for years, but that influence is rarely identified as propaganda.
Twenty years ago this month, on November 11, 2001, Bush Administration communications strategist Karl Rove called a conclave in Beverly Hills, and four dozen members of the media industry elite showed up. Rove asked these “dream makers” to help the White House promote the “war on terror.” The industry complied.
Though military influence on film studios dates back to World War I (MRonline, 7/3/21), the military entertainment complex took off in the 21st century, and the long-time head of the Pentagon’s Film Liaison Office, Phillip Strub, became the most powerful man in Hollywood (SpyCulture, 12/11/18).
The Pentagon’s Hollywood power
Roger Stahl’s latest film, Theaters of War: How the Pentagon and CIA Took Hollywood, an educational documentary to be released in 2022 by the Media Education Foundation, examines this media/military merger, and looks at Strub’s influence on hundreds of films. On-camera interviews with journalists, scholars, writers (of which I am one), and even filmmaker Oliver Stone, detail the rules and their consequences.
Professor Trisha Jenkins explains: “The Pentagon is powerful in the film and TV industry because they have expensive toys. They have submarines, they have aircraft carriers,” not to mention helicopters, pilots and extras. Another UK scholar, Matthew Alford, follows with “that is going to give them rights, usually contracted in, to change the script.” Oliver Stone is featured saying, “You can call it censorship, you can call it propaganda—it’s all of these things.” But ultimately, as Canadian professor Tanner Mirrlees argues, “This is more insidious than actually state-controlled and state-produced propaganda, because it passes off as just entertainment.”
Blockbuster films like Iron Man (2008), Captain Marvel (2019) and Man of Steel (2013) are loaded with military hardware and influence. Indeed, the Air Force was very pleased that its personnel “came off looking like rock stars” in Transformers (2007) (American Forces Press Service, 6/21/07), and director Michael Bay “loves working with veterans” on other movies in the franchise (Military.com, 9/12/21).
Media scholars have long understood that stealth tactics of persuasion, able to deliver propaganda messages under the cover of entertainment, enhance those messages’ effectiveness. Not only did active duty Navy Seals star in Act of Valor, but the film grew out of a recruitment advertisement for the military. The previously super-secret SEALs are endowed with almost superhuman prowess; one is said to be “made of granite.” Though dramatically outnumbered, they vanquish every terrorist plot and never seem to miss a shot. And Marvel Comics’ superhero franchises have shilled for the Pentagon for years, creating the illusion of US militarism as a benevolent force.
All the equipment, tanks and army vehicles, crews and pilots so often featured in blockbuster films have earned enormous profits for studios. Meanwhile, many films not aligned with a positive military ethos, or that declined to present the military in a singularly positive light, have been turned down and never made. Previously, scholars estimated about 200-300 films had been made with Pentagon direction. “Then in 2018, we were able to account for about 900 films,” Roger Stahl told FAIR. But recently, with the help of journalist Tom Secker, he uncovered a blizzard of recently released documents that together show about 3,000 films shaped by Pentagon censors. Over the years, militainment has, in the words of Henry Giroux, created “a constant military presence in American life” and forged a civil society “more aggressive in its war-like enthusiasms.”
But the power of the Pentagon’s Film Liaison office and the influence it’s had on Hollywood is rarely discussed in corporate media. US media easily recognizes Chinese propaganda, but the “lengths the authorities will go to shape popular culture” in the US is not on their agendas.
Some papers are more adept at identifying the often-heavy-handed propaganda produced by Hollywood. The British Independent (10/24/21) asked, “If this mega Chinese blockbuster is propaganda, what are Bond and Captain Marvel?” Louis Chilton observed that when “transparent indoctrination is getting called out,” it’s a good thing; “if only we were so ready to spot propaganda when it’s a little closer to home.” He tags Captain Marvel (2019) as a “bare-faced piece of propaganda,” at times mimicking an “unusually elaborate advertisement for Air Force recruitment.”
Captain Marvel as recruitment tool
The review of The Battle of Lake Changjin includes a photo of a little boy saluting for the camera in front of the film’s huge poster, no doubt to illustrate the film’s indoctrination of China’s young people. But consider Captain Marvel. Carol Danvers, Marvel Comics’ superhero, the strong, determined, female warrior empowered by absorbing a super-cosmic light force, was harnessed, pigeonholed and appropriated into a promotional product for the Air Force.
Partnering in the production of the film, the Air Force used Captain Marvel as an elaborate recruitment tool. It began with a photo of the star, Brie Larson, with Brig. Gen. Jeannie M. Leavitt, the first female fighter pilot, atop an F-15 at Nellis Air Force Base in Nevada. Larson joined simulated dogfights at Nellis, and explained, while promoting the film, that at “the core of [Carol Danvers] is the Air Force.”
The Air Force, together with the Navy and Marine Corps, are all short 25% of their pilot billets. The Air Force is on the hunt for the next generation of pilots, having been doling out cash incentives to prevent pilots from defecting to the private sector with little success. A glamorous superhero would be much more persuasive.
The weekend Captain Marvel was released, thousands of screenings included US Air Force ads highlighting female pilots like Carol Danvers: “Every superhero has an origin story. For us, it was the US Air Force.” Air Force personnel were featured at the film’s red-carpet premiere, and the Nellis-based Thunderbirds performed a thrilling flyover at the base.
Bathing in the reflected glow of a superhero, few will pause to consider the harsh realities of what it’s like for women in the Air Force. Just before the movie came out, a Smithsonian Magazine survey (1/19) found that two-thirds of women polled said they experienced gender discrimination while serving, and the same proportion reported being sexually harassed or assaulted. In 2019, the Department of Defense reported the number of sexual assaults at service academies rose from 507 in 2016 to 747 in 2018, a 47% spike. In 2018, at the Air Force Academy, 15% of women reported incidents of sexual assault.
The Pentagon has long claimed that a pillar of script selection is the accurate portrayal of the armed forces, something they can do better than fictional film directors. As one Air Force spokesperson explained, we partner with “any number of entertainment projects to ensure that the depiction of Airmen and the Air Force mission is accurate and authentic.” Touting the film as authentic hides the realities of sexual assault and the fact that women pilots in the Air Force amount to only 6.5 % “and fewer than 3% fly fighters.” In terms of accuracy, Carol Danvers is a fictional superhero, a comic book character with supernatural powers who flies unassisted through space and destroys alien spaceships!
China battles the US
Though US media reviews consistently condemned The Battle at Lake Changjin as Chinese propaganda, they eschewed discussion of the Korean War itself. A few headlines seem to imply that the Chinese and US versions of the war were different in the film, but none articulated how.
A Washington Post review (10/14/21), headlined “Americans Vanquished, China Triumphant: 2021’s Hit War Epic Doesn’t Fit Hollywood Script,” opens with food: US troops eat “roast chicken” and the People’s Army “gnaw on frozen potatoes.” The second paragraph includes Chinese soldiers charging through snow into battle, shouting, “Resist American aggression and aid Korea,” compared to—nothing.
The actual conflict presented seems to be between China’s new commercial film success, which can now challenge Hollywood’s global dominance, “despite a debate over the movie’s historical accuracy,” though no inaccuracies are offered. Other examples make it hard to see how “macho action films” popular in China since 2017 present a different script from US films. No difference is offered between US films and those produced in China, where studios “work closely with the government and army to ensure that their films fit with the official narrative of events.” It’s simply implied that this doesn’t happen here.
In like manner, Chinese soldiers that died in battle in Lake Changjin are “valorized,” or turned into “martyrs,” as if US war films refrain from such blatant genre stereotypes. Even though the Post admits the Lake Changjin battle was a “successful campaign to hold off US troops during the Korean War,” it’s still referred to as a “foundational myth.”
The Hollywood Reporter (6/23/21) does the same. After describing the narrative as a Chinese victory—“the historic battle saw the PLA overcome long odds” to push “US military forces into retreat”—it went on to say, “It glorifies Chinese sacrifices and heroism.” Aren’t glory and heroism the main points of war blockbusters?
Ultimately for the Post, the conflict of this “politically charged debate” is about global film profits, which “underscores the uneasy relationship between Hollywood and China.” A decade ago, US blockbusters dominated the top 10 lists for Chinese ticket sales, but now those spots are often taken by Chinese produced movies. Forbes (10/2/21) and CNN (10/4/21) also picked up the battle of the box office theme, a topic far more suited to corporate film journalism than unpacking film content.
The real Korean War
The Battle at Lake Changjin depicts a Chinese victory over US troops at a place known to the US military as Chosin Reservoir. It was a turning point of the Korean War—or, as the war is known in China, the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea.”
Most corporate media reports on the film repeated these facts. A few outlets interjected that the film failed to mention that North Korea had invaded the South first, a statement that stands as the central justification for the US intervention.
The war in Korea has long been referred to as the “forgotten war.” Big journalism, now as in the past, has failed to pen a coherent narrative of the war, but it was a defining moment for US militarism. The first major combat of the Cold War, the sheer brutality of the US offensive left North Korea in shambles and killed 3 million people on both sides.
The US entered the war in July 1950 and began a relentless bombing campaign. By September 1950, official press communiqués from Gen. Douglas MacArthur announced a “paucity” of targets, as everything had already been bombed. One lamented, “It’s hard to find good targets, for we have burned out almost everything.”
After devastating the country, US forces pushed north toward the Chinese border, where they expected to confront about 30,000 Chinese soldiers. But “faulty intelligence” from the CIA vastly underestimated Chinese resistance, and UN and US forces confronted, instead, a Chinese army over 120,000 strong. The 17-day battle started on November 26 and lasted until December 13, 1950, and turned the war from a US-led rout of North Korean forces to a stalemate that still exists on the Korean peninsula.
When Military.com (10/11/21) reviewed the film, it gave an official US version of the battle: “Chinese forces surprised United Nations troops, and a force of 30,000 was confronted by 120,000 Red Army soldiers.” Nicknamed the “Frozen Chosin,” it’s “a heroic tale of survival against incredibly long odds as US-led forces successfully retreat to the port of Hungnam.” This tale of heroism that presents US forces as victims is made possible by the certainty that it will not be challenged.
Historian Bruce Cumings, a recognized authority on the war, speaking on a BBC documentary titled Korea: The Unknown War (1988), describes the genocidal bombing that killed perhaps 2 million civilians—one quarter of the peninsula’s population. American pilots “dropped oceans of napalm, left barely a modern building standing, opened large dams to flood nearby rice valleys and killed thousands of peasants by denying them food. It was “a conscious program of using Air Power to destroy a society.” Cummings expresses indignation that “this well-documented episode merits not the slightest attention or moral qualms in the United States.”
These sentiments are mirrored in I.F. Stone’s Hidden History of the Korean War. The investigative journalist slogged through MacArthur’s communiqués, characterizing them as “literally horrifying.” Stone noted the complete indifference to noncombatants displayed by the tactic of saturating villages with napalm to dislodge a few soldiers.
Another communiqué from a captain gloated, “You can kiss that group of villages goodbye.” These documents “reflected not the pity which human feeling called for, but a kind of gay moral imbecility utterly devoid of imagination—as if the flyers were playing in a bowling alley, with villages for pins.”
MacArthur wanted to continue to push north and bomb China, but President Harry Truman found the nerve, with some help from Congress, to fire the four-star general who had heckled him in public and challenged his policy. The fighting ended with an armistice on July 27, 1953. It was not won, it was negotiated. In the words of Cumings, “An American army victorious on a world scale five years earlier was fought to a standstill by rough peasant armies.”
‘Upsurge in seeking the truth’
Cai Xia, a domestic critic of the Chinese government and former scholar at the Central Party School, wrote that Lake Changjin’s efforts to incite enmity for the United States had “unexpectedly triggered an upsurge in seeking the truth about the Korean War.” It would be surprising if US reviews of the film had inspired such knowledge-seeking in this country.
As Louis Chilton observed in the Independent (10/23/21), propaganda can look like The Battle at Lake Changjin, but it can also look like Brie Larson strapping herself into a fighter jet in Captain Marvel, or “Bradley Cooper squinting through the sight of a rifle in American Sniper.” Picking and choosing which to recognize “can only end badly.”
A precursor to previous US calls to war, laying the groundwork for full-on demonization of an enemy, has been the charge that the targeted country and its leaders are propagandists. As FAIR (10/6/21) observed, US corporate media have been making that charge with gusto recently, which should be a cause for concern to all of us.