Utopia Turned Dystopia, That’s Oz: War in THE WIZARD OF OZ

10 August 2014

The Wizard of Oz, one of Warner Borthers’ most successful films, has been adored by audiences since its release in 1939.  Not only is the film a visual treat—particularly for its original audiences who were amazed to see color, vibrant color, flood the screen when protagonist Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) discovers she is “…not in Kansas anymore”— but The Wizard of Oz is also a heroic tale of adventure and escapism designed to pull in moviegoers who are eager for adventure and interested in escaping, if only for two hours in a darkened movie house.

In a snapshot, Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry on their farm in early 20th century Kansas.  Battered by the Great Depression, and the rich, ruthless Almira Gulch who despises Dorothy’s beloved dog, Toto, Dorothy leads and lonely and difficult life. When a “twister” hits the Gale’s farm, knocking Dorothy unconscious, she is transported, farmhouse and all, into a new world, perhaps “somewhere over the rainbow,” as she once wished.  In this new world, a magical place called Oz, Dorothy finds herself in trouble; her farmhouse landed on the Wicked Witch of the East, killing her.  Glinda, a “good witch,” and the munchkins of Munchkinland, thank Dorothy for killing a wicked witch, giving Dorothy the witch’s ruby slippers as a reward.  Unfortunately, the other wicked witch, the Wicked Witch of the West, is upset with Dorothy for killing her sister, and even more upset that Dorothy now has her sister’s ruby slippers.  Afraid of the witch, and desperate to return home to Kansas, Dorothy sets out on an adventure to find her way back home;  advised by Glinda to “follow the yellow brick road,” Dorothy heads to the Emerald City where the Wizard of Oz lives, a magical wizard who can surely help with Dorothy’s seemingly perilous situation.  Along the way, she befriends Scarecrow (who has no brain), Tinman (who has not heart), and Cowardly Lion (who has no courage), and decides to take them all with her to the Wizard of Oz.  Once Dorothy and her new friends arrive in the Emerald City, Dorothy realizes that with one journey’s end comes a new adventure, this one more dangerous and frightening than her travels on the yellow brick road.  With her friends, Dorothy must defeat the Wicked Witch of the West if she wants the Wizard’s help in returning home to Kansas.

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Like many, I saw The Wizard of Oz a time or two in my childhood, but I had not rewatched the film as an adult until recently.  Even as an adult, perhaps with a better understanding of the cinematic significance of this classic, I still enjoy the story, the sights, the music, and, of course, the performances.  Yet, when I rewatched the film this summer, I realized my youthful misreading, a misreading which missed the darker, rather ominous side to The Wizard of Oz.

After Dorothy and her friends reach the Emerald City, but just before they are to see the Wizard of Oz, the Wicked Witch of the West appears in the sky, writing a cryptic message in black smoke: “Surrender Dorothy.”

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As a child, I assumed the Wicked Witch was speaking to Dorothy, telling her to surrender herself, or at least the ruby slippers, if she wants to escape the witch’s evil curse (“I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too!”).  However, as an adult, and recognizing the witch’s smoky message does not contain a comma (direct address), the witch’s message is not intended for Dorothy.  In fact, the witch is addressing everyone except Dorothy, but specifically the people of the Emerald City and their distinguished leader, the Wizard of Oz.  The witch is not threatening one (Dorothy); she is threatening an entire society and its leadership (citizens of the Emerald City) in her attempt to “get” the innocents.

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Importantly, this scene from the film is not in the book The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, from which the film was adapted; this scene was created by screenwriters specifically for the film.  The word “surrender” is military language, and that makes sense in for a 1939 audience.  By the film’s release date, war in Europe was inevitable; the official start to WWII was only months after The Wizard of Oz’s release.  Even though America would not formally enter World War II until after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the world was feeling the threat of war by the late 1930s, specifically the effects of rising Nazi Party.  Undoubtedly, The Wizard of Oz is a story about friendship, growing up, and perseverance, but, because of the historical moment the film was made in, the film also has some rather noticeable undertones, many of which warn of war.  This “Surrender Dorothy” scene and other scenes with the Wicked Witch of the West communicate these undertones, likening the film’s conflict to the world’s impending conflict (WWII), and the film’s antagonist to the world’s antagonist of the late 1930s, Nazi Germany.

When the Wicked Witch of the West tells the Wizard to “Surrender Dorothy,” she communicates a war sentiment and, along with her army-clad flying monkeys, war is inevitably declared between the witch and the wizard, with Dorothy caught in crossfire. All of a sudden, in this fantasy adventure, realism sets in; war is inescapable, even over the rainbow, in the merry old land of Oz.

Taking this point further, in one shot the Wicked Witch of the West sends her flying monkeys after Dorothy and friends; the witch looks down toward the action from a balcony in her castle.  The shot is memorable for two reasons: 1) Victor Fleming (one of the film’s many directors, but the one who eventually received credit for The Wizard of Oz) uses a Dutch angle, a type of shot invented by Germans in the early 20th century, and 2) at the left side of the shot a large statue of a bird looms over the witch’s bidding.  It is not clear what type of bird this is, but it is a bird of prey, strong and stoic.  Moreover, bird statues are often captured throughout the witch’s lair, all similarly predatory birds.  In one of her rooms, as she watches the flying monkeys depart her castle and as she consults her crystal ball, another bird statue is in the left of the frame.

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These bird statues surrounding the Wicked Witch are, perhaps, alluding to the Reichsadler, an “Imperial Eagle” or “National Eagle,” or the Parteiadler, the “Party’s Eagle,” both symbols adopted by the Nazi Party in the 1930s.  Technically, the Reichsadler is an eagle looking to its right and the Parteiadler is an eagle looking to its left, and neither of the aforementioned bird statues from The Wizard of Oz are direct examples of this Nazi symbol, yet the suggestion is there. Filmmakers would not dare use a literal, obvious symbol of Nazi Germany to villainize the Wicked Witch, but creating a symbol for the witch that is similar to a Nazi symbol communicates to 1939 audiences just how evil and maniacal the witch actually is, justifying Dorothy, the innocent protagonist, in killing the “trouble [that she] melts like lemon drops.”

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The Wicked Witch of the West is a terrifying villain.  Not simply because she is green, can fly, throws fire, casts curses, and harms the innocent.  The Wicked Witch of the West is terrifying because her depiction, both consciously and unconsciously, references the world’s greatest threat of 1939, Nazi Germany.  The witch speaks in military language, surrounds herself with flying monkeys wearing fatigues, and decorates her lair with symbols similar enough to Nazi symbols that a likening between the two is evident.

This is not to go as far as saying The Wizard of Oz is a film about the eve of World War II and the Nazi Party, or that The Wizard of Oz is explicitly a war film.  Yet, it is undeniable that war is a part of The Wizard of Oz, and one argument the film makes rather boldly is that war is inescapable, an argument that proved to be correct just months after the film asserted its claim.

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~ by Kate Bellmore on 10/08/2014.

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