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
March of Time as Document
Defining the Radio Show
Form and Function: Radio
Defining the Films
Form and Function: Films
Public Opinion
Censoring Time
Quiz: Spot the Fake!
 Louis de Rochemont

What Are the Films?

A new kind of pictorial journalism

Raymond Fielding lists several attributes that make THE MARCH OF TIME unique compared to other newsreels:

1. The March of Time made no attempt to report up-to-the-minute news. Other newsreels were released twice weekly, while Time was released once a month.

2. While the newsreel dealt with as many as eight or 10 subjects in an issue, March of Time tackled a select few, and eventually just one per issue.

3. The March of Time ran as long as 20 minutes, while other newsreels rarely ran more than 10.

4. The March of Time was interpretive and discursive and elaborated with maps, narration, and supplementary archival footage. Newsreels focused on day-to-day events.

5. The March of Time spent $25-75,000 on each issue, while newsreels spent $8-12,000.

6. The March of Time and newsreels staged or re-enacted events, but The March of Time did so much more, particularly in the early years. The March of Time admitted and even publicized its re-enacted scenes while newsreels did not.

7. The March of Time intended to "create and exploit controversy and to provoke discussion of politically, economically, racially, socially, and militarily touchy subjects. Newsreel producers tried to avoid controversial subject matter whenever possible."

8. The March of Time was sometimes openly partisan; the newsreel rarely so.

Although as Raymond Fielding notes in his excellent history of the March of Time newsreels, March of Time head Louis de Rochemont (above) never considered the films documentaries, primarily because the commercial connotations of classifying it as such meant no one would see the films. Although the staff didn't call their product a documentary, many were familiar with the documentary movement and were sympathetic to it, Fielding says.1 De Rochemont himself called his style of filmmaking "pictorial journalism,"2 firmly linking himself with the tradition of print and radio news.

The format of the newsreel imposes a more linear structure on content; varying voices (other than the narrator's) can't pipe in and out of the ether without being visually established, and the limits of filmmaking necessitated curbing re-enacted content in favor of camera shots of scenery or silent action as the narrator voices the script. Much of the film footage set the stage for what stories could be told, and film changed the kinds of information being sent to the audience. Double-messages were now possible; the narrator could modify the theme of footage with what he said over it. Such was the case with the January 1938 newsreel "Inside Nazi Germany," when mild film footage of Germany was spiced up with forboding narration: "Because of the dissimilarity between the visual material and the narration, politically inclined reviewers found it difficult to determine the exact point of view that The March of Time was taking."3

Although not everyone agreed, New Republic's film critic, Otis Ferguson, felt the film was decidedly anti-Nazi and called it "an editorial with pictures, and editorial for democracy and against suppression, militant nationalism and shoving people around."4 This makes March of Time sound a little bit like Superman, ready to embody red-blooded American values. The description is not unlike William Stott's characterization of social documentary: "These intermediate documents increase our knowledge of public facts, but sharpen it with feeling; put us in touch with the perennial human spirit, but show it struggling in a particular social context at a specific historical moment. They sensitize our intellect (or educate our emotions) about actual life." By showing "life" more realistically—through dramatization or pointed narration—than it could be shown due to budgetary constraints, censorship in foreign countries, and time, March of Time offered a unique view of the world in a way that print journalists could not imitate. March of Time newsreels educated Americans about war atrocities, Depression-era suffering, heroes of the day, the American politics, and more through a kind of story-telling previously unknown and particularly powerful. Most noticeably in international stories, it likely helped define and solidify American values and culture in the minds of audience members by contrasting those values with our potential enemies.5

IDEOLOGY OF THE FILMS

Time's magazine empire was considered conservative, and within the company's bureaucracy The March of Time films and staff were thought of as moderately left-wing. There were a "substantial number of liberal and leftist film makers on the payroll. [But de Rochemont ] himself could not by the wildest stretch of the imagination have been considered part of any left-wing persuasion. And yet, the films that he created were consistently liberal, progressive, and militantly antifascist at a time when it took courage to attack 'prematurely' the totalitarian adventures then under way in Germany, Italy, Spain, and Japan."6

What The March of Time argued and how it made its points is key to understanding its ideology. The show's creators appear fundamentally concerned with civil liberties—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the freedom to associate. De Rochemont may or may not have been liberal in the political sense, but because they relate so closely to their livelihood, almost any journalist or filmmaker would likely hold these values dear. The March of Time repeatedly showed that these were values that Germany, Japan, and Italy all assiduously attacked or undermined.

While The March of Time wouldn't necessarily attack racism, and was in fact a purveyor of it at times when it came to African-Americans or the Japanese, its staff recognized that racism taken to the extremes that Germany carried it was untenable in a "democratic" society. In comparison to Germany, Jews were largely accepted in American society, allowing the March of Time staff to express its horror at Nazis' treatment of Jews without alienating viewers.

1 Fielding, Raymond. The March of Time, 1935-1951. New York: Oxford University Press, 1978. 75.

2 Fielding, 41.

3 Fielding, 197.

4 Fielding, 198.

5 Stott, William. Documentary Expression and Thirties America. London: Oxford U. Press, 1973. 18.

6 Fielding, 35.