The March Toward War: The <em>March of Time</em> as Document and Propaganda
Introduction The Time Empire MOT as Document Marching into War Voice of Conscience Timeline/Index
Voice of Conscience
America's Hometown
Toward War
Baptism of Fire
Defining America
 Ramparts We Watch scene
(1) A shift to 1940 and (2) Germany is at it again.
Germany's war machine on the march
Nazi film reel
(3) A re-enactment of the recovery of the war propaganda
Baptism of Fire
Democracy is a monstrosity born of filth and fire
(5) "Democracy is a monstrosity born of filth and fire." (6) An ominous headless Hitler floats above a map of Germany.
Hitler poster
Pilot's view
(7) A pilot's-eye view of a bombing attack. (8) Germany's numerous armaments.
German arms
German troops
(9) Confident and pleased German soldiers are greeted by (10) "friends" who worked for Germany from inside the enemy territory.
Nazi conspirators

Baptism of Fire

"Ramparts" shifts to 1940 (1) and portrays the threat posed by Hitler as akin to that of World War I. His opus, Mein Kampf, is "a blueprint for world conquest"—the same book that calls democracy a "monstrosity born of filth and fire" (5).

Germany sets out to conquer a country by demoralizing the enemy and breeding terror—one of the prime propaganda instruments being a film called Feuerteufe or "Baptism of Fire" (4), used to "soften up resistance in the European nations he was about to destroy." The original propaganda film from which the footage was pulled, Feldzug in Polen, was an account of the invasion of Poland in 1939 shown to leaders in neutral nations as well as the French and British, and later released in America by UFA, a German film company.1 March of Time Producer De Rochemont could not secure rights to the film unless he included the original narration, so instead he secretly made a copy of it, editing the film from 80 to 10 minutes. For reasons that are unclear, de Rochemont used a copy from the National Film Board of Canada and returned the UFA copy. He later claimed to have made a copy by having his technicians duping reels one at a time while he watched the film with German consular officials.2 Whatever his means of obtaining the film, de Rochemont reported to the press that the footage came from a copy seized in Bermuda by British authorities (3).3 The film would offer a powerful bookend to "Ramparts."

The film consists of German war footage showing total destruction of the enemy. The German-accented narrator supplied by The March of Time (an actor, naturally) begins by noting that "total war is a science that Germany has mastered." What follows is a step-by-step explanation of what happens when Germany decides to conquer an enemy. First, the German Air Force attacks. This is dramatized by a harrowing pilot's-eye view of a plane dive-bombing airfields from thousands of feet up to a few hundred yards away (7). It cuts away to show the bomb hitting the ground from a distance. Although the enemy may bomb or destroy their bridges, Germans can continue across—nothing will stop them. As part of the "lightning attack," parachute troops can cause panic among citizens while mobile mechanized units take the cities (8). If cities can't be taken with light artillery, enemy troops' hiding places are sprayed with gasoline and set on fire. The infantry follow the initial forces, and at a pace of 30 to 35 miles a day, soon reach the capital (9). When the enemy does not surrender, his capital "must, unfortunately, be destroyed. ...Nations which make war upon Germany must be prepared to face the consequences of their act," the narrator says. The music intensifies as the narrator notes that terms will be less lenient for those who resist. Germany is greeted by friends and admirers—"in every country Germany has such friends"—who can identify those who have persecuted them (in 10, conspirators welcome the troops). Persecutors of German friends "will be shot."

The film's narration directly challenged American values of freedom and individuality. "Under German supervision, many of [the enemy's] men will do useful work for the first time in their lives." In a country where men are free to choose their occupation, "Baptism" implies, their work is meaningless. The state therefore must triumph over the individual—an antithetical idea to Americans. Showing a scene of total destruction, the narrator says "The enemy is no more," as if his individuality and uniqueness are no more as well.

Baptism of Fire Play movie


Of all parts of the film, "Baptism of Fire" drew the most controversy, newspaper accounts show, primarily because Pennsylvania censored the film: "The [Pennsylvania] censors approved the film in its original form, but objected to its exhibition when the producers replaced the original ending with German-made newsreel shots from 'The Baptism of Fire,' which was confiscated by the British. Later it was hinted by the censors that they had objected to the Nazi material because it was inserted after they had approved the original version of the preparedness document."4

However, an earlier article published in September 1940 suggested the censorship was about more than a bait-and-switch of endings:

"'Fear of the terrifying effect upon the masses' led the Pennsylvania Board of Censors today to refuse to lift is [sic] ban on sixteen minutes of film near the end of the movie, 'The Ramparts We Watch.'

The decision was made after a closed two-hour session at which the film was reviewed again in the presence of Louis de Rochemont, producer of the March of Time. He repeated his assertion that only the Pennsylvania censors and the Nazis seemed to want to prevent the picture from being exhibited.....'We are not afraid,' he asserted. 'The thing you are doing is promoting appeasement—surrendering to fear—the most dangerous thing facing America today.'"5


The article suggests that de Rochemont in fact had a strong point of view—that America should not sit idly by or appease Hitler out of fear. It's clear from the film that de Rochemont does not view Germany as kindly as he does the Allies, and Pennsylvania's censors read that into the film as well. While ostensibly censoring the film because they did not see the new ending, it seems plausible that Pennsylvania wanted to censor the film because of its large German population—either because it would upset them or because the segment about German "friends" within nations outside Germany would upset non-German Pennsylvanians.


The March of Time and distributor R.K.O. lost their appeal of the censorship to Pennsylvania's Common Pleas Court and they later dropped a further appeal to the state supreme court.6

"Ramparts" also caused a fury among German officials, who on August 17, 1940, shortly before the release of the film, banned all American movies from Germany and German-held territories, including France.7

1 Fielding, Raymond. The March of Time, 1935-1951. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 246-47.

2 Fielding, 247-48.

3 Fielding, 248.

4 Pryor, Thomas M. "Looking Back At It All/The Films Encountered Many of the Same Old Problems Again in 1940." The New York Times. Dec. 29, 1940: X4.

5 "Censors Stand Pat on 'Ramparts' Film/Fear of its 'Terrifying Effect on the Masses' Caused Cut in Movie in Pennsylvania/Court Fight is Next Step/Producer Asserts Board Does Not Know Americans as He, an Ex-Navy Man, Does." The New York Times. Sept. 20, 1940: 23.

6 Fielding, 250.

7 Fielding, 249.