Animating Peace Messages — Part 1

Karl F. Cohen takes us into the first leg of his journey through animated films that expound a message of peace.

The great non-violent animated feature, The Iron Giant, bombed out at the box office. All Iron Giant images courtesy of and © 1999 Warner Bros.

Peace isnt a popular theme in Hollywood or TV productions as it doesnt sell a lot of tickets, toothpaste or spin-off toys. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent by fans that love seeing Darth Vader threatening the existence of the universe, but Iron Giant, a great non-violent animated feature with a peace message, languished at the box office. While hostility, aggression and violence sells, fewer Americans are willing to purchase theater tickets or support advertisers of TV shows that depict people or animals living in harmony with each other.

Films about peace are generally made for idealistic reasons, and that job is usually left to independent animators and filmmakers. Since the artists making the films are often passionate about the subject, many animated films with peace messages in them are memorable works. One of the defining moments in my life was seeing three films by Norman McLaren when I was 12 or 13. For the first time I saw animation that wasnt from Hollywood. I was delighted to see Fiddle De De (1947) and Hen Hop (1942), but the film that made the greatest impression was his Neighbours (1952). The use of pixelation amazed me and the Love Thy Neighbor message got through to me.

When I first told Animation World Magazine I wanted to write about peace, a war was just about to start in the Middle East. I didnt rush into this project, as I wasnt sure how one could best express peace in a film. After considerable research and thought, the following was organized around the different story structures of a few exceptional films.

Films About Cataclysmic Disasters

The most common plot structure of peace films has been films that show either total destruction or films that take us to the brink of a worldwide disaster. In Neighbours the two male neighbors fight over ownership of a flower that has a fabulous aroma. It grows on the imaginary property line between their adjoining front yards. Rather than sharing the experience of sniffing the flower, they fight over who owns the plant. They end up destroying each others homes, family (cut from most 16mm prints distributed in the U.S.), the plant and ultimately themselves. The film ends with new plants growing on their adjoining graves. The end titles spell out Love Thy Neighbor in 15 or 20 languages. McLaren said the film was made as his response to the horror of the Korean War.

The film won numerous awards including an Oscar for best short film. The short is available on several VHS tapes from the NFB (Best of the Best: Strange Tales of Imagination, Hollywood Salutes Canadian Animation and Selected Films of Norman McLaren)

An equally powerful film experience is the Hugh Harman and Rudolph Ising short Peace on Earth (MGM, 1939, directed by Harman). It begins in a picturesque village and a chorus of cute animals singing part of Hark! The Herald Angels Sing. When Grandpa squirrel goes indoors singing the refrain Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men, he is asked by a grandchild, what are men? He explains there arent any more men in the world, and then tells how they were always fighting about one thing or another (one sequence shows the vegetarians going to war against the meat-eaters). Somber images of giant war machines destroying everything are shown.

Finally only two men are left alive. They shoot each other (we see the bloody hand of one man sink into a pool of nasty looking ooze), leaving the planet to the animals. When the animals come out of hiding, they find a bible. A wise old owl reads them a passage ye shall rebuild the old wastes and they do so using military helmets for house roofs, etc. The film ends with a long pan over the snow covered village and grandpa saying, and thats why we say peace on earth, good will to men.

The film leaves a powerful impression on people. It was nominated for an Oscar and has the unusual distinction of being the only cartoon to ever be nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize. Although it didnt win either award (Disneys The Ugly Duckling was chosen as the best cartoon of 1939) it was honored by Parents Magazine with a medal, and was remade as Good Will to Men in 1955 by MGM for widescreen CinemaScope theaters.

Mike Barriers interview with Hugh Harman was published in ASIFA-Hollywoods Graffiti Volume 5 number 1, Spring 1984. Hughs comments about Peace on Earth were, They tried to stop me from making that. Barrier: What was their argument? Harman: That it was too serious. It made more money than any picture we ever made. Fred Quimby, who was sort of a business manager at MGM tried to stop it. Then when it was finished, I think he wanted to take all the awards for it himself. Peace On Earth was a tough one to animate and to write. We shouldnt actually have made that as a one-reeler, we should have made it in about three to five reels. We cut it and cut it and cut it; we didnt cut footage that was animated. Nobody in his right mind does that, unless its bad. But [by] cutting the storyboard and switching [it] around [we shortened it].

It has some flaws. I just got tired of it near the end. Thats always been a weakness with me. That I get so fed up on it at the end of a picture that I would just as soon turn it over to the Girl Scouts to make. Unless it was a feature that would warrant going on with costs forever. Ive observed that as a weakness in myself, that I often end up with a weak, unsubstantial ending for a picture.

While Peace on Earth must have resulted from a concern over the growing war in Europe, fear of atomic weapons and the cold war resulted in an equally memorable film, Peter Foldes Short Vision (1955, Great Britain). It has a relatively simple narration that tells us how an unnamed flying thing (possibly a bird or a plane, we dont know what it is) flew over the world. The animals looked up, but it was too late. It flew over our cities and some people saw it, but it was too late. It destroyed all who saw it and all who didnt. Finally, all that was left of our planet was a small glowing light and it now looked like there was a moth dancing around a flame. And then the flame went out.

Foldes accompanied his somber message with strong, but simple visuals. It wasnt highly polished cel animation like Harmans film. Instead he used cutouts, gauche and pastels for his painterly work. We see people looking up and then the image dissolves to a skeleton looking up. Lory Ringuette, who runs Loonic Video, introduced me to the film. He feels Short Vision is the film that comes closest to giving him a real feeling of horror. The film used to be available for rent in 16mm from a non-theatrical distributor. Unfortunately the distributor is no longer in business. Hopefully somebody will distribute it on tape or DVD someday.

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A beautiful flower leads to all-out war in Norman McLarens Neighbours/Voisins © 1952 National Film Board of Canada.

Ishu Patel from India has made several films at the National Film Board of Canada that are social/political message films. His Bead Game, (1971, N.F.B., Oscar nomination) traces the evolution of life on Earth from one-cell organisms to modern man. At each step of the way, he shows the stronger form of life devouring the weaker. When his film refers to the middle of the last century, he suggests the power of the atom and leaves the next step on the evolutionary chain for the films viewers to contemplate. It is a fascinating and sophisticated work and hopefully the next step in the evolution of life on Earth will be a positive one.

Bead Games technique is unique. It is a stop-motion work made out of thousands of tiny beads. It starts with one or two beads and slowly the images become more complex. The organisms grow in size and complexity as the camera pulls back. At first the beads are quite close to the camera lens, so the small, simple forms of life can be seen clearly on the screen. By the end of the film, the camera is a lot further away from the beads and individual beads can barely be made out.

Another approach to structuring a film about peace that drives home the horror of war is seen in Haka (Grave of the Fireflies) directed by Isao Takahata, Japan, 1988. The film begins with the death of a homeless teenager, the victim of the American firebombing of Japan during WWII. His soul becomes a mass of red lights and through flashbacks, we are told his story and the story of his younger sister. Some anime fans consider this work to be one of Japans greatest films.

An impressive cataclysmic disaster film with a complex structure and several levels of meaning is The Iron Giant (1999, directed by Brad Bird for Warner Bros.). While kids can view it as an exciting boys adventure, it is also a complex cautionary tale warning us not to provoke great powers of destruction and not to trust the military to search for peaceful resolutions to potentially devastating situations. While the ending offers a suggestion of hope, most adults probably realize there are not too many kids in the world like Hogarth, the giants co-star. There are a lot more people who would rather shoot first and ask questions later.

The story uses simple means to demonstrate the giant is a robot capable of being taught the values of good and bad, and that he can learn to distinguish between friends and enemies. We also see him experience grief when a hunter kills a deer. Hogarth gets him to override his natural instincts to defend himself from violence with his built-in devastating weapon systems. The giant is ultimately faced with a complex situation that requires him to act quickly to avoid seeing the town and his friends destroyed. If you havent seen Iron Giant, it is available on DVD and tape.

Post-Nuclear Disaster Films

In Japan, the only country with firsthand knowledge of what it is like to be on the receiving end of the atomic bomb, the nuclear weapon looms large in several animated features. One of the most impressive and disturbing peace messages is to be found in Barefoot Gen, directed by Mamoru Shinzaki, 1983. It is based on the comic strip/graphic novel by Keji Nakazawa about his experience when he was six, living a mile from ground zero in Hiroshima. The autobiographical book was written as a memorial to his mother who died slowly from exposure to the fallout. Nakazawa doesnt dwell on who is to blame, but says, No one should ever have to experience this. There must be an alternative to war. It was first published in 1973 and, since then, it has appeared in many languages and editions around the world. Last Gasp has just published a new U.S. edition.

The movie shows how harsh life was during the war for the family, and then the bomb explodes. The bomb kills everyone in the family except for Gen and his pregnant mother. It shows the black rain, people with radiation burns/poisoning and many other disturbing images. It leaves you with hope for the remaining survivors. Hopefully you will also question whether the weapon should ever be used again. The film is available on VHS tape from Streamline, Orion Video and on DVD from Image Entertainment.

Another powerful feature that depicts life before and after the bomb explodes is When the Wind Blows (1986) directed by Jimmy Murakami and produced by John Coates in England. It tells what happens to a charming retired couple after a nuclear explosion. They are a deeply patriotic couple believing that their government and living in a lovely rural English setting will protect them. Besides, they have a simple do-it-yourself government publication on how to protect oneself and survive, and they have followed the instructions carefully. Memories of the films depictions of life after the explosion remain as a disturbing reminder that we should do everything possible to see that no one ever experiences the consequences a nuclear war.

It was a pleasure to have been on the jury at the Los Angeles Animation Celebration that awarded When the Wind Blows the first prize for animated features and it was an honor to have interviewed John Coates about his long career as a producer for Animation World Magazine in 1998. Unfortunately, the film was not seen widely in the U.S. despite it featuring the voices of David Bowie, Peggy Ashcroft and John Mills. It was simply too somber for an audience used to animation being wholesome stories for kids. This film isnt full of cute happy animals. The film is available from IVE on VHS. One line on the tapes box says, gives you the shivers.

Good and evil clash in Ralph Bakshis Wizards.

Science-fiction writers have contemplated what life might be like if nuclear powers ever unleash their weapons of mass destruction. These films can serve as a disturbing reminder of what could happen; however most skirt anti-war/peace messages and concentrate on the actions of their characters.

Ralph Bakshis feature Wizards is a better example of the animated post-nuclear science fiction film. In it, animal life has been changed into good fairies who live in the woods that remain on our planet, and bad mutant fairies who live in the ruins of modern civilization. Life in the woods is idyllic while life in the ruins is harsh. The films climax is a battle between good and evil.

In the second part of this article, to be published next month, we will explore works that dont approach peace by showing the horrors of war and violence. There will be a discussion of peace messages in films by John and Faith Hubley, a look at three non-verbal conflict resolution films, a discussion about new work on the Internet and other approaches. Perhaps the most unusual work that will be discussed is a pacifist message that won an Oscar. If you dont know what the film is, you will be pleasantly surprised. You are probably quite familiar with other works by this studio.

Karl Cohen teaches animation history at San Francisco State, is the author of Forbidden Animation: Censored Cartoons and Blacklisted Animators (McFarland, 1997), is president of ASIFA-SF and is a frequent contributor to Animation World Magazine. In 1984, he directed, shot, edited and did the effects for an anti-nuke film Speak Up! Uncle Sam is Hard of Hearing. This short includes an animated/special effects sequence and is distributed by Canyon Cinema.

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