1941 was the year that World War II became a global war and not just one confined to Western Europe. England had just entered the war effort and was now experiencing the Blitz. Germany invades Poland and France, expanding their empire and influence. America is attacked by the Japanese at Pearl Harbor, forcing their hand by making them choose a side. In order to keep the general population of all of these countries involved and focused on the war effort, they harnessed an aspect of culture that had grown so ingrained into everyday life: film and going to the movie theatre. Propaganda films became an important tool in 1941 to motivate and keep people in line with the ideals of a country. Propaganda is an interesting thing to study when you cross-reference many different countries’ ideals and motivations. For instance, Germany was putting out documentaries where you saw the charismatic leader at his best (Triumph of the Will) while Japan was putting out movies that showed unquestioning obedience and self-sacrifice (There was A Father). Britain didn’t shy away from the propaganda machine, but they took another approach. They framed World War II as a fun caper that every proper gentleman must get involved in. A great example of this is Man Hunt directed by Fritz Lang.
Man Hunt stars Walter Pidgeon (a very British gentleman who was actually Canadian) as a famous big game hunter named Thorndike. He is in Bavaria right before World War II, stalking a prey. He finally seems to have it in his sights and brings out his rifle to shoot it. He takes aim and peers into the scope where the audience see that he is hunting one of the most protected men of the time, Adolf Hitler. He squeezes the trigger but nothing comes out. This all seems like a game to him. As he is pulling out a bullet to put into his chamber, he is caught by a German guard and is taken to be questioned by Major Quive-Smith (George Sanders) who has heard of his exploits in various parts of the world as he is also a big game hunter. He wants Thorndike to sign a confession saying that he was on a mission from the British government to assassinate Hitler. Thorndike refuses several times even after being severely beaten. Eventually Quive-Smith realizes that Thorndike won’t give in so he plots a scheme to throw Thorndike off of a cliff to his death and then “discovers” him the next day. But he is not there. A vicious and drawn out man hunt ensues that takes them to England and throws Thorndike into the arms of a cockney woman.
Thorndike can be held up easily as an ideal British gentleman. He isn’t afraid of a little bit of danger. He is self-effacing without ever really ribbing himself. He takes everything as it comes and is incredibly easygoing given his perilous situation. Whereas Major Quive-Smith is a monstrous human being hell-bent on destroying this one man purely for propaganda reasons. He just will not stop and employs men that are equally as devious (including a menacing John Carradine) to carry out his mission in places he cannot go as he is an officer in the German military. There is never any grey area here. It is clear from the beginning that Thorndike will always be the good guy in this story and Quive-Smith will always be the bad.
What is grey is the treatment of Thorndike’s situation. It seems like an intricate game for him that has no real serious consequences until the end of the movie. Only towards the end when Thorndike’s cockney girl is threatened and presumed dead, does the stakes actually become palpable. At one point Thorndike even laughingly explains his situation to the cockney woman whom he had just met. This treatment as well as the absurd amount of plot twists in this movie prevents it from being a great one despite Lang’s very real efforts to make it one.
As a chase thriller, the movie falls flat. But if you see it as a propaganda film designed to give people hope for the British side in the war, then it is infinitely interesting.