The story of Hollywood’s attempt to capture the realities of North Korean indoctrination in a now-forgotten movie called Prisoner of War, starring future president Ronald Reagan.

Phil Tinline examines what this movie’s fate tells us about the evolving meaning of ‘brainwashing’ in Cold War America, while exploring the power of film to shape our memory of the past and its actors.

Director
Phil Tinline
Production Date
2017

Synopsis

In late summer 1953, Americans were growing anxious about what had been happening to those luckless US soldiers held as POWs by North Korea.  Were they being ‘brainwashed’? A reporter-turned-MGM screenwriter was dispatched to Fort Mason, San Francisco to meet the newly-released American prisoners as they finally returned home. His mission: to turn the POWs’ stories into a movie. The Pentagon assigned an ex-prisoner called Captain Robert Wise to Hollywood as Technical Adviser. The movie, Prisoner of War, was shot and cut in record time, to keep it as topical as possible. Its star, one Ronald Reagan, filmed a trailer declaring that it told the real story of the ‘brainwashing’ inflicted on the POWs. But by the time the movie opened in spring 1954, the Army had dropped it, and insisted that Captain Wise’s name be taken off the credits.  Prisoner of War sank almost without trace. Why?

In ‘Every Man Has His Breaking Point’: Reagan, Brainwashing and the Movies, Phil Tinline talks to historians Susan Carruthers and Charles Young, and to Captain Wise’s daughter Nancy Merkle, to find out what really happened. He pieces together accounts of North Korean re-education techniques from the POWs whose experiences informed the movie. He plays the extraordinary footage of US airmen giving coerced, false confessions of dropping germ bombs – and explores how the film-makers attempted to restage all this on screen. The film traces how Reagan’s position on whether the Korea POWs were victims or weaklings kept changing, all the way to the White House. And, Tinline asks, what might the sorry fate of Prisoner of War tell us about what ‘brainwashing’ has come to mean in America to this day?

About the filmmaker

Phil Tinline is a documentary-maker based in London.

Cast & Crew

Camera operators: Ricky Barnes, Edmund Bolger, Matt Johnson

This film features interviews with Susan Carruthers, Nancy Merkle, Sergeant Lloyd Pate, and Charles S. Young.

Produced by the Hidden Persuaders project, and funded by the Wellcome Trust.

Related Sources

Susan Carruthers, Cold War Captives: Imprisonment, Escape, and Brainwashing (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2009).

Charles S. Young, ‘Missing action: POW Films, brainwashing and the Korean War, 1954-1968’ Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television 18 (1998): 49- 74.

Charles S. Young, Name, Rank and Serial Number: Exploiting Korean War POWs at Home and Abroad (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).