Birdwell's "Celluloid Soldiers" tells saga of Hollywood, Nazis and Alvin C. York

Can Hollywood really affect American attitudes and behaviors?

Harry Warner thought so. And anyone asking the question today can look to Warner's history in Hollywood for his deep conviction.

Before World War II, the patriarch of Warner Bros. Studios risked reputation and fortune to make movies informing Americans about the insidious and global threat of Adolph Hitler, standing virtually alone among Hollywood moguls in the 1930s and '40s.

In Celluloid Soldiers: Warner Bros.'s Campaign Against Nazis (New York University Press, 1998), Tennessee Technological University history assistant professor Michael Birdwell examines Warner Bros.'s pre-war calls for American intervention, illuminates Warner's personality and influence, and details Tennessee war hero Alvin C. York's transformation from a pacifist to a belligerent as a result of his association with Warner.

A highly devout Jew devoted to his family, Warner believed in making heartwarming, moral films.

"Many Warner Bros. features rooted for the 'little guy,'" said Birdwell. "It was the only major studio to construct plots around ordinary people's lives and deal with topics like the Depression, crime, racism and religious intolerance."

Hitler's intolerance ignited Warner's moral passion before most Americans realized the far-reaching effects of Hitler. Warner's decisions always reinforced his urgent message Ñ "It can happen here." His crusade clashed with the federal government and Hollywood and cost him box office dollars. Warner Bros. stood alone when it stopped doing business with Germany after 1934.

"The German market was indispensable to the survival of major studios," Birdwell said. "I find Warner incredibly refreshing Ñ someone in Hollywood with a conscience and not driven by the bottom line."

In the face of public indifference to the Nazi threat, Warner made a film showing Americans were vulnerable to the same hate mongering practiced by Nazis. "Black Legion" featured a kind of homegrown Nazism, and Birdwell's details of Warner's research are hauntingly similar to news report details of hate groups in the today's high schools.

In 1939, in the face of Hitler's blaming "Jewish propaganda films" for the deterioration of U.S. and German relations, Warner Bros. produced "Confessions of a Nazi Spy." The film ran counter to U.S. neutrality, angering the German consul in Los Angeles and studio owners trying to hang on to the German market. But it was the first major production to point an accusing finger at Nazis and establish the stereotype of the cold, calculating, sadistic Nazi.

Later that year, the U.S. government temporarily banned all studios from producing anti-Nazi films, sending Warner in search of a story to serve as a call to arms. He found it in former conscientious objector Alvin C. York.

Jesse Lasky of Warner Bros. saw the parallel: America and York had to be convinced that war was not only justifiable, but sometimes necessary. Lasky forged a trust with York, an anti-interventionist who believed movies were inherently sinful. Lasky had to convince York that the "devil's tool" could be used for good.

Released in July 1941 to glowing reviews, "Sergeant York" was touted as Warner Bros.'s most important interventionist film. But the film was pulled in September 1941 for violating U.S. neutrality, and Warner and York were labeled warmongers.

The controversy came to a head in U.S. Senate hearings. One senator said Warner Bros. had made "more hate producing films than any other company in America." The hearings were interrupted when the United States joined the war in December 1941, and Warner's pre-war stance was eventually vindicated when Washington asked the industry for help in wooing cooperation for the war effort.

"Not only did movies help instruct soldiers and civilians about life in wartime, but they also unified America in new and unprecedented ways, preaching community sacrifice, individual honesty and integrity," said Birdwell.