- The Washington Times - Friday, May 28, 2004

It has not escaped general notice that the ranks of those with vivid, first-hand memories of World War II are thinning. The 60th anniversary commemoration of D-Day in Normandy is regarded as a “last hurrah” for many participating veterans, most of whom are now in their 80s. The dedication of a World War II memorial on thedisc two. This disc begins with a pair of instructional shorts — “Four Methods of Flush Riveting,” intended for factory workers, and “Stop That Tank,” which demonstrates the operation of an antitank gun for Canadian soldiers. It then revives Disney’s major propaganda project of the war years, “Victory Through Air Power,” now a fascinating and invaluable historical relic.

The U.S. Army simply commandeered a portion of the Disney studio on Dec. 8, 1941, using a soundstage as headquarters for an antiaircraft unit. A Lockheed aircraft factory specializing in P-38 fighters and B-17 bombers was located a short distance away in Burbank. So many planes patrolled the skies during the day that the live-action scenes in “Victory Through Air Power” — lecture interludes with Maj. Alexander de Seversky, the author of the source material, a best-selling military polemic of 1942 — were shot after dark.

The studio was just recovering from an internal conflict — a prolonged and bitter union organizing strike — at the time the United States entered the war. The Army’s intrusion was fleeting, and the Navy took the lead in enlisting Disney as a contractor for instructional films, starting with a series on airplane spotting. Typically, the government productions were made at cost plus a 10 percent profit on deadlines of about 90 days.

The titles collected for “On the Front Lines” merely scratch the surface of an inventory that mounted into hundreds of films annually. In his 1968 history of the company, “The Disney Version,” Richard Schickel calls attention to a range of examples that could justify supplementary anthologies. “Disney had contracts for all sorts of educational films,” Mr. Schickel wrote, “directed at pilots, navigators, nurses, technicians of every kind. He did four hours’ worth of films on the care and use of the Norden bombsight alone, a series on the topography of the islands to be hit by the Marines in the South Pacific campaign, another on the causes and preventions of airplane crashes.”

If military personnel became accustomed to Disney animation as an educational staple during the war, so did a subsequent generation of schoolchildren, who frequently saw unclassified examples of Disney wartime edification on subjects such as health and nutrition.

The studio lost some manpower to the war effort, and it was obliged to postpone animated features as auspicious as “Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs” or “Pinocchio” for the duration. But government contracts did provide a steady source of income for a movie studio that was overspecialized by definition, while encouraging a level of productivity and precision that sharpened the skills of illustrators and story editors.

The decision to create a timely animated feature around the Seversky book reflected an urgent patriotic impulse on the part of Walt Disney. It was a one-of-a-kind beau geste. The movie dated so fast that it has never been revived theatrically, although fragments turn up in other Disney formats.

The author’s ultimate argument, that long-range strategic bombing (preferably from Alaskan bases) would be essential to cripple the Japanese war industry, was controversial at the time and seemed irrelevant by the close of the war, which ended with the impact of two superweapons. Nevertheless, a good deal of “Victory” remains defensible as an entertaining history of aviation in general and military aviation in particular right up to the period of the movie’s production (1942-43).

At this late date, even the fallacies are edifying and pricelessly evocative. Moreover, the underlying motive — to hasten Allied victory — excuses miscalculations in a way that eludes the climate of argumentation and controversy stirred by the current war in Iraq. “Victory Through Air Power” clearly has a stake in victory, even while making dubious and exaggerated claims for air power of a certain kind.

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