IULMIA’s expanded WWII Films and IU: Audiovisual Production, Distribution, and Education exhibit includes an extensive selection of films on food production, agriculture, and natural resource conservation produced and exhibited for civilian audiences during wartime. Our earlier post on the 1942 Federal Security Agency-produced You Can’t Eat Tobacco profiled the role of government sponsored films promoting federal public health and food policy. This week’s post showcases another wartime food and agriculture film appearing in the expanded exhibit, the 11 minute Farmer At War released March 11, 1943 by the Office of War Information Bureau of Motion Pictures, and Columbia Pictures, under the aegis of the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry.
The November, 1943 issue of Educational Screen advised readers in the audio-visual education field of the Office of War Information’s current themed propaganda campaigns: November was “Food For Freedom” month, and December’s campaigns included “Farm Production Goals” (along with “Don’t Travel” and “Security of Military Information”). A list of OWI produced and distributed 16mm films relating to food and agricultural subjects supported these campaigns, including World of Plenty (included in the IULMIA’s original WWII films exhibit), and Farmer At War, the short to be discussed in detail here.
As publicity and reviews frequently pointed out, Farmer At War is notable for its use of “actual farmfolk” – farm families of Lancaster County, Pennsylvania – filmed in a documentary style unlike many of the other propaganda shorts of the period.
The farms of Harry Schaeffer and Moses Zimmerman, both identified as being of “Pennsylvania Dutch” (German) ancestry are profiled, as well as a meeting of a farmers’ cooperative group discussing shared use of equipment and resources. While the overt message of the film’s narration is motivation and patriotism, showing a model of American hard work and resourcefulness as these farmers increase food production despite a scarcity of labor, Farmer At War also stands as a document of the role of Mennonite and Old Order Amish pacifist religious orders in WWII.
Earlier this spring IULMIA digitized in 1920×1080 HD over eighty films originally distributed by the IU Bureau of Audio-Visual Aids during the war years to be included in the expanded WWII Films and IU exhibit, including a 16mm print of Farmer At War . Exact dating of this print on DuPont film stock has not been possible, but is believed to be at least 70 years old. The print held by IULMIA was made with a variable density optical soundtrack, which, combined with slight warping of its aging cellulose acetate base, contributes to the noisiness of the sound in the first few minutes.
The Office of War Information, Bureau of Motion Pictures
In June of 1942 President Roosevelt established the Office of War Information (OWI) as a centralized agency supervising all print and broadcast media, with a goal to “facilitate the development of an informed and intelligent understanding, at home and abroad, of the status and progress of the war effort, and of the war policies, activities, and aims of the Government.”¹ The Bureau of Motion Pictures was formed as part of the Domestic Branch of the OWI, both to produce short, quickly made short informational films, and to liaison with Hollywood studios for the production of government-ordered films. Farmer At War was one of the dozens of films created in the first year of OWI production (other OWI productions from this period viewable in IULMIA’s exhibit include Salvage and Paratroops).
After this initial year OWI’s film work shifted to its Overseas Branch, with a mandate to create movies for audiences outside the Western hemisphere, while Hollywood assumed more complete control of domestic film production for the remainder of the war through the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry.
Our previous post on filmmaker Irving Jacoby overlaps with the OWI’s shift of movie making from the Domestic to the Overseas branch: this change coincided with Jacoby’s start as director of non-theatrical distribution for the Overseas branch in 1943, bringing on dozens of leading documentary filmmakers from Europe, Canada, and New York City. The 1943 Swedes In America (with Ingrid Bergman) is an excellent example of an OWI Overseas Branch production newly available in IULMIA’s expanded WWII exhibit.
The War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry
The Hollywood motion picture industry during the war years was the epicenter of expert artists and technicians of filmmaking in the U.S. The urgent need for propaganda, motivational, training, and instructional films during wartime caused the government to call upon this national resource of talent to do its patriotic duty. Coordinating the roles of the Hollywood studios, theatrical exhibitors, distributors, newsreel producers, publicists, and the trade press in the war effort was the War Activities Committee of the Motion Picture Industry. Representatives of the major studios and dozens of other leading businesses in the movie industry made up the committee. Thousands of employees of the movie industry turned from feature film production to work on educational and inspirational films for both military and civilian audiences.
Film scholar Thomas Doherty, in his excellent history of Hollywood during WWII Projections of War, emphasizes the tensions arising from the government’s attempt to oversee the Hollywood film industry’s production of patriotic propaganda and motivational shorts. Many “Victory shorts” of the war years bear credits of individual studios, the OWI Bureau of Motion Pictures, and the blanket sponsorship of the War Activities Committee. Roles of production and distribution differed among Government and the film industry for various titles, but Doherty reports that Victory shorts such as Farmer At War achieved a degree of saturation in the American public matched only by the most successful feature films. A War Activities Committee survey found that 94 percent of theaters were including a Victory short in every show, and WAC vice-chairman Francis Harmon is quoted stating that “only eighteen to twenty four weeks is are now required for one of these war information reels to appear on more than fourteen thousand screens.”
As one of many non-theatrical distributors, the IU Bureau of Audio-Visual Aids contributed to even greater exposure to war information films such as Farmer At War through impromptu screenings using portable 16mm sound projectors in classrooms, community groups, and churches.
Pacifist Religious Orders in Wartime
Though Farmer At War presents the work of Pennsylvania Dutch farmers in terms of the contribution to the War effort by those too young or old for military service, it also provides a much rarer glimpse the role traditionally pacifist communities during wartime through its documentation of Mennonite and Amish communities of Lancaster county.
Historian and scholar of Amish history Steven Reschly has written on depictions of Lancaster county pacifist religious orders in wartime propaganda, and particularly on Farmer At War as a document of the role played by members of Mennonite and Amish religious groups in the national war effort. Though the film never identifies religious affiliation of its subjects, Reschly identifies Moses Zimmerman as “a plain farmer whose wife wears a head covering,” referring to the plain dress customs of those religious groups descended from the Christian Anabaptist tradition.
While members of these historic peace churches were entitled to exemption from military service as conscientious objectors, Farmer At War depicts their cooperation in the nation’s war effort through increased food production.
In addition to images of plain farmers appearing in Farmer At War, the Farm Security Administration and the Office of War Information produced photographs and posters using images of old Lancaster county farm families as part of domestic propaganda campaigns. OWI leadership called for morale-building, pro-America pictures, and photographers John Collier Jr. and Irving Rusinow travelled to Lancaster county to produce them. Images of the Lancaster county Amish served as “wartime symbols of American comradery and abundance.”²
The use of synchronous sound in Farmer At War also sets it apart from many of the similar Victory shorts in IULMIA’s exhibit.
Instead of the usual narration and music added to silent camera footage or compilations from stock footage libraries, this production evidently brought cumbersome field sound equipment to Lancaster county to record Schaeffer, Zimmerman, and the voices of the farmers’ cooperative. Most notable is the closing Thanksgiving prayer delivered in an unbroken 90 second take by Moses Zimmerman, summarizing the film’s message: calling for aid to the Allied nations and particularly for the nation’s farmers as “doubtless this coming year we will have less help, less machinery…”
Release of the new WWII Films and IU exhibit
On June 6, the 71st anniversary of the 1944 D-Day landings at Normandy by the armies of the Allied nations in World War II, IU Libraries Moving Image will release its expanded World War II Propaganda Films and IU online exhibit. More than two hundred 16mm wartime films from IULMIA’s collections, originally distributed for classroom and non-theatrical exhibition by Indiana University during the war, will be available for streaming viewing through the exhibit, here:
1. Larson, C. (1948). The Domestic Motion Picture Work of the Office of War Information
Hollywood Quarterly. 3(4), pp. 434-443. http://www.jstor.org/stable/1209318
2. Reschly, S. D., & Jellison, K. (2008). Shifting images of Lancaster county Amish in the 1930s and 1940s. Mennonite Quarterly Review, 82(3), 469-483.
Harmon, F.S. (1944). Movies As Propaganda. In The Command Is Forward (pp. 8-13). New York, NY: Richard R. Smith.
Reschly S.D. & Jellison, K. (2014). Picturing World War II on the “Garden Spot” Home Front: Images and Memories of Mennonite Farm Families in Lancaster County. Pennsylvania Mennonite Heritage 37(4), 114-118.