Mission to Moscow is an American pro-Soviet film. That's not a phrase you read every day, is it?
The movie was created in 1943, during World War II, when the United States and the Soviet Union faced a common enemy in Nazi Germany. The film is taken from a book of the same name by Joseph E. Davies about his experience serving as the U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union in the late 1930s. The real Davies appears as himself in a brief opening scene, giving us a speech about how important his story is and how the U.S. and U.S.S.R. must remain allies when peace comes. In the rest of the film, Davies is played by Walter Huston.
The film's portrayal of Davies' ambassadorship is as follows: Franklin D. Roosevelt thinks that Germany might start another war, but he doesn't know enough about this newfangled Soviet Union to guess what side it would be on in a hypothetical war. Therefore, he sends Davies on a mission to Moscow in order to find out where the Russians stand. But first, Davies stops over in Germany where Those Wacky Nazis are in command and his attempts to talk peace fall on deaf ears. Then it's on to the ol' U.S.S.R., where Davies and his family discover their view of Russia as a backwards tyranny is just silly prejudice. The most objectionable part of the film comes when Stalin's purges are portrayed as a justified investigation against pro-Nazi spies. As hopes for peace deteriorate, the sympathetic characters continuously advocate the same course of action: the West and the U.S.S.R. must stand together against the aggression of Germany and Japan. If only the West had been able to overcome its horrible anti-Soviet prejudice, the film argues, World War II might not have happened. But it does happen. Back in the U.S., Davies leads the charge against isolationist sentiment. Then comes the attack on Pearl Harbor and the film ends in a flurry of pro-Allied rhetoric.
A few years after its release, the Cold War arrived and Mission to Moscow became an Old Shame for all involved. Warner Bros. argued that the film had been an "expedient lie" to help the war effort along and that it had never been meant for posterity. The House Un-American Activities Committee wasn't buying it, so Warner Bros. threw screenwriter Howard Koch to the wolves. Even though he had written the film under contract and had never belonged to the Communist Party, Koch was subsequently put on The Hollywood Blacklist. Since the Red Scare, the movie has largely faded into obscurity, and it's now remembered as one of the all-time Unintentional Period Pieces. Sometimes it's shown, not without controversy, on Turner Classic Movies.
Mission to Moscow was directed by Michael Curtiz and starred Walter Huston as Davies. Compare Gabriel Over the White House, another very odd political film starring Walter Huston. For other examples of American pro-Soviet propaganda made during World War II, see The North Star and Days of Glory.
This work features examples of:
- As the Good Book Says...: The film opens quoting Isaiah 2:4, "They shall beat their swords into plowshares".
- Black and White Morality: You don't expect wartime films to have a lot of moral ambiguity, and this one is no exception. The Germans and the Japanese are bad. The Soviets and the Chinese are good. Good westerners either support the Soviet Union or are willing to be open-minded about it. Bad westerners are either fascist sympathizers or isolationists who have fallen for fascist propaganda.
- Chummy Commies: Probably the most famous (or infamous) WWII example. Davies remains a staunch capitalist throughout the film and is allowed to adopt an Agree to Disagree approach to communist ideology (unlike the people who actually had to live under Stalin's rule).
- Hammer and Sickle Removed for Your Protection: Communism is mentioned, but very little. The movie's approach is to focus on the similarities between the United States and the Soviet Union while treating communism as a non-issue.
- High-Class Glass: The German major who greets Davies at Hamburg wears one, as do various diplomats in Moscow.
- Historical Hero Upgrade: Stalin, Molotov, et al.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: Leon Trotsky and the Trotskyites are portrayed as working for Germany and Japan. Excusing the Soviet invasion of Finland, the film refers to Gustav Mannerheim as "Hitler's friend". Basically, this film would have it that anyone who has a problem with Stalin is secretly in league with the Axis.
- Intro Dump: Several victims of Stalin's purges—Bukharin, Tukhachevsky, and Yagoda—are introduced at a formal ball given for Davies, as is Timoshenko.
- Invisible President: We get to see the back of FDR's head and hear his voice, but that's it.
- The Joy of X: Despite the film's relative obscurity, the title "Mission to Moscow" seems to get referenced a lot.
- Kangaroo Court: Averted. The Moscow Trials were a real-life example, but the movie condenses them into one trial and portrays it as fair. This is a notable difference from the book which contains Davies' personal assessment of the trial in which he notes several inconsistencies in the testimonies and suggests that the outlandish confessions of the accused were extracted under coercion.
- Leitmotif: The film uses "Hail, Columbia" to represent the U.S. and "Polyushko-polye" to represent Russia.
- The Purge: Referred to as a "purge" in the movie, yet still somehow averted. Stalin's purge and show trials are depicted as legitimate proceedings that rooted out traitors and fifth columnists. The movie would have you believe that Bukharin was in league with Ribbentrop. Davies' personal memoirs were more ambiguous about the actual guilt of those accused in the Great Purge, but Mission to Moscow being a wartime film, this ambiguity is removed.
- Real Person Cameo: Not just a cameo—the film actually starts with a prologue in which the real Joseph Davies addresses the camera and gives a little talk, before the Warner Brothers logo appears and the movie proper starts.
- Stock Footage:
- Lots and lots of it, often with Davies providing voice-over narration. At times, the movie almost seems like a propaganda documentary with some dramatized scenes thrown in. The fact that Huston also narrated the Why We Fight series contributes to this.
- Clips from Triumph of the Will are used to illustrate the Nazi takeover in Germany.
- That Russian Squat Dance: Mandatory in a movie about the Soviet Union, right? Here, Davies' daughter sees regular Russian folks indulging in the dance during a skating party at a frozen lake.
- Translation Convention: The movie's approach to this is somewhat confusing. Everyone is always speaking English, so this trope is in effect, right? Except there are a couple scenes where the American characters compliment the Soviet characters on how well they speak English and say they wish they could speak Russian so well. So are the Soviets speaking English in-universe then? What about the scenes where Soviet characters are speaking English to each other without any Americans present?
- Very Loosely Based on a True Story: As noted, it's based on the memoir of a real-life U.S. ambassador. If there's one thing the filmed version got right, it's Ambassador Davies' view of Stalin's Russia, which the movie portrays as accurate and history generally does not. In real life, Davies is usually derided as a political naif and "useful idiot" for the Stalin regime. That view is challenged in Oliver Stone's The Untold History of the United States, which portrays Davies as an unsung hero.
- Yellow Peril: The portrayal of the Japanese, natch. Granted, Imperial Japan wasn't very nice at the time, but did they have to give them all Tojo-style glasses? Averted with the Chinese, who are, befitting WWII, portrayed as innocent victims of Japanese militarism.