Private SNAFU – [Classified] Educational Military Films

Thoughts On: Select Private SNAFU shorts and other educational U.S military films

Today we will be looking at films made exclusively for military personnel.

Private SNAFU poster

In 1914, the world changed forever. With WWI, human civilisation would be taught of a destructive power that mere decades or years before no one could have envisioned people wielding. Alongside technological advancement came the mobilisation of millions upon millions of troops: national armies on a scale that most nations had never even come close to amassing. One of the biggest issues that these armies would face would be the preparation and education of troops. Thus, nations would often call upon teachers to train soldiers to higher educational standards than would usually be expected in public schools. This is of course because using the military equipment of, and surviving in, WWI was not like other wars, and it was far removed from civilian life. In Britain, before the war began, most young people would be prepared for basic labour in lower education and be quickly sent to work in factories as unskilled workers, or move onto other simple jobs such as milk boys or lorry boys. Following WWI, and the educational evolution that had to occur throughout, British civilians felt the effects of this in public schools with educational reforms and acts being put into place.

With WWII, a war on an even greater scale with even more immense technological advancement, came the educational dilemma again. In the 1940s, unlike the 1910s, cinema was an established industry and art that military institutions could rely on for more than newsreels and propaganda. As could then be expected, films became apart of military educational programmes. Within the U.S, Hollywood was then called upon to become ‘teachers’. As most would know, companies such as Disney would then be selling the war to the public with propaganda such as Der Fuehrer’s Face (which we’ve briefly covered before). Coming into direct contact with troops, however, would be educational films that were classified and so barred from the public eye. But, these films are now in the public domain and declassified.

Educational films for the army, navy or air force, as you could expect, would cover a vast range of topics. Take, for example, this 1944 film about “the conduct of a bombing mission with the Norden Bombsight”:

This film, as I’m sure you quickly discovered, is not very engaging despite its interesting subject matter. Training films of this kind often were tedious and boring. Understanding this, filmmakers would sometimes disengage the slow and slightly patronising tone of this film, often using animation to illustrate difficult topics. We can see this with a later educational film from the Cold War period (1955) on Hydraulic Steering:

Despite the better approach with animation, this is still quite tedious. However, because of the nature of these films, this is an inevitability: military lessons aren’t supposed to be fun. Well… are they? To keep soldiers’ attention, filmmakers would often employ a few tropes, for instance, music, jokes, a light tone, casual, simple language and, of course, partially naked women. These can all be found in this educational short from 1963 on the Principals of Refrigeration:

More like the one entertaining maths teacher you actually enjoyed learning from, this is quite a bit more engaging than everything we have thus far seen. This is about as light as these complex educational videos came. However, the military and their contracted filmmakers had more free range with less complex educational topics. When it concerned morality, animated fables were then often constructed. An example of this would be The Sailor and The Seagull from 1949:

This was of course used to get Navy troops to re-enlist and to appreciate their standards of living in comparison to civilians. As some would argue, the tactics used to communicate this idea were highly manipulative and tantamount to propaganda. Nonetheless, the primary trope that these narrative films took from the already established form of the educational military film was the idea of “how not to do things”. This is demonstrated perfectly by a film such as How To Deal With Brunettes from 1967, which taught Navy sailors dating etiquette by demonstrating how to, and how not to, do things.

Whilst all of these films are like a treasure trove of history that we weren’t supposed to see – don’t forget that these films remained classified for decades – the greatest diamond in this cave of weird wonders has to be one of the pioneering series of this kind centred around Private SNAFU.

The Private SANFU series was made up of short narrative fables in the same vein as The Sailor and The Seagull (in fact, this short is very derivative of Private SNAFU) that were produced between 1943 and 1945. These films were essentially raunchy Looney Tunes shorts that taught soldiers how to conduct themselves and how to behave through a comedic demonstration of how not to do things. By making the parallel to the Looney Tunes, I don’t just mean this aesthetically or structurally. Warner Bros. were contracted to make these shorts after they underbid Disney. It was then their directors and animators, such as Chuck Jones, who made these films. What’s more, Mel Blanc, who voiced almost every Looney Tunes you could name; Porky Pig, Yosemite Sam, Pepé Le Pew, Sylvester The Cat, Tweetie, Daffy The Duck and Bug’s Bunny amongst so many others… it was Blanc who voiced SNAFU himself.

Private SNAFU was created by, and here’s another name you might recognise, Frank Capra, chairman of the U.S. Army Air Force First Motion Picture Unit and director of classics such as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington, It Happened One Night and It’s A Wonderful Life. The name SNAFU is a military slang acronym meaning, Situation Normal: All Fucked Up. This was sometimes suggested to mean “Fouled Up”, but the explicit alternative is clearly the fitting one. In meaning that everything is awry, but that such is a normal situation, this acronym defines Private SNAFU as always in the wrong and on the brink of destruction.

To taint a little more of your childhood, the majority of the shorts that SNAFU would appear in were written by children’s writers such as Munroe Leaf, Phillip Eastman and Theodor Geisel, a.k.a Dr. Seuss. It is even suggested that the style of fable writing present in Private SNAFU greatly influenced these figures and in turn children’s books in the post-war era, making them curt and straightforward, but nonetheless expressive.

To begin looking at these films we’ll start with It’s Murder She Says. In teaching soldiers about, and the reason for, malaria precautions, It’s Murder She Says is a fable that has many allusions to prostitution and sexual disease. What this then serves as an example of is how technical details were exposited by the Private SNAFU shorts through sexuality and tongue-and-cheek comedy that understood and embraced the fact that soldiers were estranged from female contact. The suggestive nature of this short of course couldn’t have gotten past film censors of the time – and it didn’t. The Warner Bros filmmakers only reported to the War Department, getting the “ok” on their scripts and storyboards from them. In understanding their men and their objective – and relying on the fact that these shorts would not be seen in public – the War Department then allowed this sexuality quite leniently. So, whilst you will never seen animated full nudity or bare breasts, you will see a lot on posters in the backgrounds and of course a generous dosage of soft core suggestions. With that said, here’s It’s Murder She Says:

Beyond teaching (hopefully reminding or reinforcing) soldiers about basic precautions and practices, the Private SNAFU shorts would also send warnings or lessons of etiquette in how to conduct yourself in regards to the public. We would see this in a film such as Going Home, which is about keeping your mouth shut when it concerns routes, strategies, causalities, equipment, installations, secret weapons, etc. as leaks of this sort can compromise the military and kill fellow soldiers. The style taken here is, as could be expected, a satirical showing through error. This kind of approach would reverse the patronising tone of more rigid educational films by assuming soldiers already knew these things and by poking fun at them if they didn’t. The result of this was entertaining, direct and straightforward lessons. However, despite this being an exemplary short, it was never released to soldiers. This may have been because it was too explicit or negative, or because the character of SNAFU was changing into a more competent soldier in his last year (this was made in 1944). Very reminiscent of Censored, this is nonetheless a good example of the satirical approach to lessons in etiquette taken in this series.

The final short we will take a look at today is The Home Front. This is one of the more serious Private SNAFU shorts that is focused on maintaining the morale of soldiers with a stern, satirical, yet understanding, approach. In such, it reminds soldiers what they are fighting for and that the people at home haven’t got it as easy as they’d like to think, instead, that they are in fact making war possible. What this short then characterises the U.S military educational system to be, in a certain sense, is a crass, firm-handed, soft-hearted father that is sure to remind you of your errors, your manners and how to handle yourself (in regards to his agenda and his ideals). However romantic, untruthful or questionable the messages and the content of these films are then seen to be, this is certainly one thing that is quite clear. So, whilst this is present in most of the SNAFU shorts, The Home Front is probably the best example of this:

There is much more to discover with the Private SNAFU films – more comedy, more sexuality and questionable content such as (what would now be considered) racist caricatures of enemies as well as sexism. However, I will leave you to find more from Private SNAFU and educational military films as many of them are readily available on YouTube. Hopefully having highlighted a fun piece of film history, I’ll then leave by asking, what are your thoughts on all we’ve covered today?



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