Dorothy Thompson: Still adrift (2-2-44)

Reading Eagle (February 2, 1944)

Dorothy Thompson1

Still adrift

By Dorothy Thompson

Although reluctant to belabor a point at a time when there is much to discuss, I feel compelled out of alarm and a sense of duty to return to the question of the film Lifeboat.

Whether the public as a whole shares the opinion of the hostile critics, that the film is defeatist and pours contempt upon democratic society, the past week has revealed that American opinion is certainly divided.

This week, Life devotes six full pages to stills from the film and comments:

Most people will doubtless accept Lifeboat as a good authentic account of what really happens under such circumstances… There are others, however, who profess to detect grievous sins… Their loud misgivings make it one of the most controversial movies of recent years. These critics… point out that the German submarine commander who… gets the upper hand is the only “nice guy” in the picture.

That the film is controversial is evidenced by letters to the Times apropos Mr. Crowther’s criticisms. Whereas some support the film, others share the opinion of the unfavorable critics and the most outraged of the letter-writers is a sergeant in the Armed Forces, who calls it an “example of the weasel-minded fear of clearly selling our side of the story in this worldwide war for the minds and bodies of men.”

If the controversy about the film were whether it was artistic or inartistic, or faithful to technical details of existence in a lifeboat, the matter would be unimportant. But despite the remarkably feeble excuse of the producer, Mr. MacGowan, that the film, as it were, just grew, and the theme developed as they went along, this is a political picture. The controversy in the film is between Nazism, as represented in the figure of the submarine commander, and American democracy, as represented by the other passengers in the boat. If the film creates any controversy at all over whether Nazism or American democracy is the more effective way of life, it is certainly dubious. And if some Americans think that it definitely scores up for the Nazi, its effect on an incalculable number of people, however small or however large, is that of Nazi propaganda.

But apart from its effect on domestic morale, there are other factors of serious importance. Its producers plan to export it. What will be its effect in Latin America?

On this question I have no doubt whatsoever, nor have numerous experts on Latin America with whom I have consulted. Most Latin-American countries contain great numbers of influential people who are highly prejudiced against North America. The official Nazi propaganda always refers to us as a plutodemocracy, in which the strings are pulled by a few great magnates; as a land in which the people are doped with boogie-woogie and ball games, care only for money, have no culture, and are incapable of integrated effort even in the greatest need. And this film completely supports every one of these arguments.

Just why we should be backing the Nazi description of ourselves in foreign countries is beyond my comprehension.

And imagine the effect in Britain! British visitors to America are astonished by our luxury in time of war and find it difficult to grasp the miracle of the American production system. Nearer the war and having suffered greatly, the question in their mind is: Are Americans serious about the war? And what is the state of American democracy?

Now, though the director, Mr. Hitchcock, is an Englishman, he could never have produced this film showing British passengers in this light, and gotten away with it in Britain. Compare it with Mrs. Miniver! Mrs. Miniver is a picture of an easygoing and divided society turning to a close unit and overcoming the Nazis. Lifeboat is a picture of a drifting, compassless society accepting defeat – until saved by a miracle. Is this the way we are, and the way we want to present ourselves to the world?

When I saw the film, it was followed by a newsreel featuring the face of a young American aviator who had shot down a great number of Jap planes. His face was an answer to the film. Strong, young, purposeful and humane, he, in real life, was a real American type who never could have behaved as the wretched creatures do in Lifeboat.

And since I saw the film, we have had the Army and Navy report of our prisoners of war left in the Philippines. It is a story of fortitude, endurance and pride under the most unconscionable suffering and the armies that took that were just a cross section of American men.

Pride in our country demands that we do not send this film abroad in its present form, to soil our own nest.