How the U.S. Army Served its Movie-Mad GIs during World War II

This post was written by guest blogger Tanya Goldman. Goldman is a PhD Candidate in Cinema Studies at New York University.

The ease with which most of us stream movies and television makes it hard to envision the labor of media distribution. Before home video and streaming, transporting films as physical objects demanded careful logistical coordination. These efforts became even more complicated when transporting film reels into overseas war zones. Movies at War, a short film produced by the U.S. Army Signal Corps as part of its “Film Bulletin” series, showcases the military’s efforts to produce and bring films to soldiers overseas during the Second World War.

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An animated map shows the global reach of the U.S. Army Film Service. Clip from Movies at War (Local Identifier: 111-FB-107).

For America’s troops, films served an array of tactical and leisure functions, including: molding raw recruits into soldiers, instructing them how to use machinery, and offering Hollywood entertainment as a respite from the stress of combat and the monotony of army base life. The military went to tremendous lengths to supply a steady diet of fiction and nonfiction film to its troops with great speed.

02_Inside the Repository

Inside an army film library. Still from Movies at War. (Local Identifier: 111-FB-107)

By war’s end, the U.S. Army operated one of the most sophisticated and expansive movie distribution networks in the world, coordinating the transport of thousands of film reels from its 260 film libraries to 60 military bases on six continents. Films arrived to bases worldwide by boat, plane, train, automobile, motorcycle, and even camel caravan and Arctic dog sled. In the words of the narrator of Movies at War: the army’s efforts propel “entertainment unreeling to span the universe!”

Film transported by plane, jeep, dog sled, and camel caravan. Stills from Movies at War. (Local Identifier: 111-FB-107)

Movies at War also shows us what happens after the films arrive, becoming an ode to the emotional power of the moving image. Troops stationed in the desert welcome mobile screening units with open arms. In the jungles of the South Pacific soldiers construct benches from palm trees for seating and hang a white sheet from branches. At larger bases, we peer inside more permanent screening spaces that offer army educational shorts and Errol Flynn on a single bill.

07_Outdoor Theater

GIs congregate for an outdoor screening. Still from Movies at War.

Once the film projector rolls, we watch as service members smile in reaction to the images that flicker before their eyes. In watching soldiers laugh at screwball comedies, swoon to Frank Sinatra, and gaze longingly at Jennifer Jones, might it be a stretch to think movies mattered to troops as much as munitions? Movies at War closes as the narrator describes the typical GI’s passion of film. “He likes them. He wants them to keep on coming more—and more often.” When it comes to movies, don’t we all?

While NARA cannot make the complete film available in our online catalog because it contains clips of copyright-protected films, this clip contains most of Movies at War.

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