The Oxford Biblical Studies Online and Oxford Islamic Studies Online have retired. Content you previously purchased on Oxford Biblical Studies Online or Oxford Islamic Studies Online has now moved to Oxford Reference, Oxford Handbooks Online, Oxford Scholarship Online, or What Everyone Needs to Know®. For information on how to continue to view articles visit the subscriber services page.
Show Summary Details

Page of

PRINTED FROM OXFORD REFERENCE (www.oxfordreference.com). (c) Copyright Oxford University Press, 2021. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single entry from a reference work in OR for personal use (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 13 August 2022


A Dictionary of Film Studies

Annette Kuhn,

Guy Westwell


A film or films actively propagating certain religious, political, cultural, or commercial messages. Propaganda takes a variety of forms (documentary, newsreel, feature film) but is produced in the belief that it will evoke an attitude in its viewers that will prompt action. A popular assumption, though one that scholars approach with circumspection, insists that propaganda is founded on a concealment or veiling of the truth.

The propaganda film has its antecedents in religious art of the Renaissance and the communications revolution of the 18th and 19th centuries, when the development of print media enabled fast and widespread communication. Cinema was regarded as particularly suited to propaganda because of its ability to use visual language to communicate with illiterate audiences; to appeal to the individual as a member of a group; and to call on instinct and emotion, often without the viewer's awareness. Stalin described film as ‘the greatest means of mass agitation’, and its ability to propagandize quickly attracted political leaders seeking to motivate and manipulate their subjects. The Spanish-American War, the Boer War, and World War I were crucibles in which the techniques of film propaganda—simplification, the prejudicial construction of racial difference, repetition, unanimity—were forged. Elements of propaganda have also been identified in 1920s government health films and in the 1930s in films made by the British Documentary Movement and the National Film Board of Canada, as well as documentaries made in support of the New Deal (see usa, film in the). Some early social problem films were deemed propagandist and unsuitable for commercial exhibition. During World War II, film was considered an essential tool in mass mobilization. As part of the war effort, film imports were strictly controlled and national film industries were set the task of producing propaganda, with the newsreel and the war film paramount. The different propaganda strategies of Britain, Germany, the USSR, and the US have been key areas of study for film historians. After the war, totalitarian regimes in the USSR, Eastern Europe, and elsewhere continued to produce propaganda films along wartime lines, while in the US and Western Europe propaganda merged with the forms of persuasion pioneered by the advertising and marketing industries.

Within film studies, work on the propaganda film has mainly been undertaken by historians and has tended to focus on wartime propaganda. Approaches rooted in communication studies and media studies debate the hypodermic model, whereby single media texts are said to inculcate a specific response in the viewer. Within this discussion, it is generally claimed that propaganda works to amplify pre-existing understanding rather than sowing the seed for radically different points of view to emerge. Propaganda is also an adjunct to discussions within film studies and film theory relating to cinema and its cultural, political and ideological effects; here the operations of the classic realist text are said to function in ways equivalent to propaganda, making the usefulness of the term open to question (see ideological criticism; politics and film).

Further Reading:

Combs, James E. and Combs, Sara T. Film Propaganda and American Politics: An Analysis and Filmography (1994).Find this resource:

Culbert, David (ed.), Film and Propaganda in America: A Documentary History (1990).Find this resource:

Neale, Steve ‘Propaganda’, Screen, 18 (3), 9–40, (1977).Find this resource:

Pronay, Nicholas and Spring, D.W. Propaganda, Politics and Film, 1918–45 (1982).Find this resource:

Taylor, Richard Film Propaganda: Soviet Russia and Nazi Germany (1998).Find this resource: