Some Disney movies just don’t stand the test of time. Much as we praise Cinderella or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs or The Lion King for being timeless stories that transcend generations, we have to come to terms that some Disney movies just don’t age well.
Make Mine Music was supposed to be a modern Fantasia, but who the fudgeknuckles remembers Benny Goodman or the Andrews Sisters?
Oliver & Company, for all its strengths, is CLEARLY mired in the 1980’s, from the diegetic fashions and culture to the non-diegetic uses of Huey Lewis, Ruth Pointer, and Billy Joel.
The Love Bug is totally groovy, man.
And then there’s…
You know, I’m starting to think I talk about this one way too much.
But these movies have a charm that make them feel like time capsules. They’re depictions of culture. No one’s going to fault Baloo and King Louie for talking like beatniks or the AristoCats for jamming out in psychedelic hues. But Victory Through Air Power does not portray 1940’s culture, at least pop culture. It is not a movie with a plot, nor is it a documentary. It is a movie that didn’t even really have the general audience in mind as its targeted demographic. It is, objectively, pure American propaganda.
Walt Disney read the book with the same name and was so blown away by the logic of using airplanes as weapons of war he felt it was his patriotic duty to make it into a movie. He called in the book’s author, Major Alexander “Sasha” P. De Seversky, to consult, who later appeared as himself in the film. Unsurprisingly, the film lost money on its release, but Walt was hardly fazed. He felt he had to do it. The studio, after all, churned out numerous propaganda shorts, training shorts, and educational shorts to boost morale at home and on the front lines. But this remains their only full-length feature whose sole purpose was to help America win the war against the Axis.
I’d ask by now if this film holds up, but let’s be honest, we all know the answer to that already. But regardless, I propose we press play and present powerful propaganda with the power of planes!
The plot: Like I said, this movie does not have a plot, per se. But here’s a general play-by-play of how the movie presents himself:
The movie starts with the history of aviation, starting with the Wright brothers, in classic Disney animation fashion, demonstrating the first manned flight in Kitty Hawk in 1903. This segment shows how planes went from being a novelty to a functional weapon during the first World War, all the way to showcasing the might of “modern” aircraft and just how far aviation had come in just forty short years.
Seversky steps onscreen and directly addresses the audience, discussing how France prepared for land warfare and Britain readied their naval fleet, but both were soundly trumped by German Luftwaffe. He even goes so far as to discuss the terrifying experience British soldiers endured at Dunkirk.
Switching gears to America, Seversky talks about how despite our strong manufacturing centers, our supply lines are weak, with long distances to cover to supply our troops abroad. With surface warfare, he reasons, fighting Japan or Germany back to their home countries is pointless, and that the best way to defeat them is to fly long-range attacks above their armies and bomb them directly. He even suggests bombing hydroelectric power-producing dams and using incendiary bombs to set of miniature earthquakes for good measure.
In the final scene, a bald eagle repeatedly dive-bombs an inky-black octopus in the head, a metaphor for defeating Japan and its far-reaching grip over the Pacific islands.
How’s the writing?: I’m used to grading three-act structures, character development, and emotional beats. But Victory Through Air Power‘s writing can’t be critiqued that way. I have to look at its goal overall, which is to convince the American public that planes and long-range bombing will win the war. That being said, does it do that effectively? I’d say yes.
Is it accurate, though? I couldn’t say 100%. I’m not an expert in WWII-era technology. I know the Navy had anti-aircraft guns aboard their ships, because research shows 29 out of 353 Japanese planes were gunned down during the attack on Pearl Harbor. A further testament to the might of aircraft power over land and sea? I guess, but just as Seversky urges swift action to further develop America’s air force, one could just as easily demand more effective anti-aircraft weaponry. Would it be a biased argument? Yes, but Seversky was an engineer, a pilot, and served as a Major in the US Air Force, so he’s also biased, even if his arguments are logical and pragmatic.
Really, at the end of the day, one would have to ask if the film is effective in persuading its audiences that airplanes would help win the war, and the answer is yes. It doesn’t waste its viewers’ time with gags or irrelevant tangents. And Seversky doesn’t talk down to the audience. He’s blunt, matter-of-fact, and direct. In this way, you do buy that yes, maybe investing in long-range bombers just might be what we need to kick Hitler and Hirohito in the keisters.
Does it give the feels?: This movie has one emotional goal and one goal only: to stir your feelings of patriotism. With some effective animation and stirring music, particularly in the final animated segment, it’s practically begging for you to sing that song from Team America: World Police. You know the one I’m talking about.
Surprisingly, the stoic delivery of this movie avoids some of the more toxic angles of propaganda in that it doesn’t feed your fear or anger. No warnings of another possible Pearl Harbor, no demonizing of Japan or Germany, not even a mild threat of getting overrun by the axis powers should we fail. It’s like, bro, do you even propaganda?
Instead, the tone is simply informative and rational. If Germany does A, then B is the solution. Since C, D, and E have proven not to work, and F, G, and H would not make sense, B is by far the best option. That’s it. Honestly, it’s kind of refreshing to watch something like this and not feel a rush of ire with emotional and irrational chutzpah. It sincerely presents facts and states its case like a researched thesis. Weird, right?
Who makes it worth it?: It’s pretty obvious Sasha is not an actor. The man is many things, but not an actor. So as the solitary face of the movie, his performance leaves a lot to be desired. That is, however, before you realize just how freaking metal he was.
Born in present-day Georgia (The country, not the state) in 1894, Alexander Nikolaievich Prokofiev de Seversky was enrolled in military school at the age of 10 and graduated to the Imperial Russian Naval Academy at 14. He lost part of his leg during a mission in World War I, and despite doctors insisting he was unable to continue flying, he proved them wrong at an air show. He was arrested, but by insistence of Czar Nicholas II, Seversky was pardoned and back in aerial combat, downing his first enemy aircraft at 20. He broke his good leg less than a year later and still went on to fight in 57 combat missions, recieving four service medals.
Seversky was assigned as an attaché to the United States for the war, but stayed with them rather than return home to avoid the 1917 Russian Revolution. He served as a consultant to general William Kinley, and after the war ended, General Billy Mitchell. Seversky applied his engineering degree and commissioned a patent for air-to-air refueling in 1921, and he wasn’t even thirty yet. He went on to submit 364 patents and was made Major by 1928. He founded his own company, the Seversky Aircraft Company in 1923 (Which still exists today as the Republic Aviation Corporation) which made numerous plane designs and parts, many of which Seversky tested himself and broke numerous records. His novel, which gave us this film, was published in 1942. He would eventually go on to write two more books and would provide lectures with his years of experience, and in 1972, just two years before his death…founded the New York Institute of Technology.
So…yeah. what have you done with YOUR life?
Best quality provided: The part of the movie that’s easiest to be drawn into is the film’s opening sequence, the history of aviation. It’s drawn in Freddy Moore’s animation style and is delightfully playful in adding all sorts of gags to emphasize each milestone. Because manned flight had only been around for forty years by the time the movie was released, they pack a lot in nearly twenty minutes. From Wilbur and Orville’s momentous first flight to the powerhouse bombers of the second World War, they cover a lot of ground.
In particular, I’d like to highlight a very cartoony series of events that led to air warfare. What starts out as a French soldier and a German soldier in reconnaissance missions in biplanes waving at each other…until the Frenchman develops the photograph he took to reveal the German made a face at him. The next time they see each other, a brick is thrown. Then it develops into shotguns, and finally into the use of rapid-fire machine guns as part of the plane’s mechanics! It’s obviously meant to be very silly and corny, but it’s easily the most Disney thing in the entire movie.
What could have been improved: So this is a question that’s difficult to answer to in retrospect. The point wasn’t to make a film to entertain, but to educate. Moreover, its purpose ended August of 1945, when – surprise, surprise – America used long-range airplanes to fly to Japan and cripple them. Of course, even Seversky couldn’t predict the use of atomic bombs.
Some movies cease to be relevant after a certain period of time. Think of how many movies involving missing people would be nullified now that everyone has a smartphone. But there is zero need to watch this movie unless you are an aviation enthusiast or a WWII historian. Or in my case, a hardcore Disney fan with serious hipster tendencies. Still, outside the history of aviation segment, there’s not much to get invested in. It really is that dry. Not to mention ethically disconcerting at times like when Seversky recommends causing bombings that show no concern for civilians.
One part that had me chuckling, though: When Seversky demonstrates the strategy of using ground warfare to get to Japan, he provides several strategies that would spell disaster for the Navy or the Army, further proving his point why long-range bombing is the only real solution. Among these doomed suggestions? Taking the fight to Japan through the French Indochina theater, aka Vietnam. And why is it a bad idea? Because the U.S. would spend years battling through humid jungles and mountainous terrain and have little chance of success.
I mean…cite all the listicles you can find about how The Simpsons predicted 9/11 or the Trump presidency, but c’mon. This should have been a lyric for Alanis Morrissette.
Verdict: When I did my review for The Three Caballeros, I concluded that it shouldn’t be shown to people who are just getting into Disney. And while The Three Caballeros is certainly a gateway to the more esoteric stuff with their abundant use of the title characters, Victory Through Air Power is up there with So Dear to My Heart, Song of the South, and The Reluctant Dragon as a movie that only the hardcore Disney fans would appreciate, or – as I stated – for that one person who is obsessed with airplanes and/or WWII paraphernalia. It’s super dull and dated otherwise. It can be a fascinating piece of history, but only if you’re really into at least one of these things. Absolutely not for general audiences. I give it two B-19’s out of ten.
I’ll stick with watching Der Fuehrer’s Face for now. At least that one gets me laughing.