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Advice & More February 2016

Silver Screen, Golden Years

Recruiting, Teaching and Helping Win WW II through Film

By Jacqueline T. Lynch

First Motion Picture Unit (FMPU) was the motion picture industry's greatest and most valuable participation.  We know that many film actors put their careers on hold to join the military during those years, but FMPU was as if the industry itself put on a uniform.

“Hollywood Commandos”  (1997) is a made-for-television documentary that classic film buffs, as well as students of World War II history, should see.  It tells the story of one Army Air Corps unit that profoundly altered the training of troops, how the war was to be fought, and documented the entire military experience of World War II from recruitment, to technology, to combat action, to the grisly discovery of Hitler's concentration camps and the apocalyptic scenes after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  Its home base of operations Hollywood.

This Army Air Corp unit was called the First Motion Picture Unit, or FMPU.  Though the motion picture industry, made many contributions to the war effort in battle and home front pictures to boost morale, in welcoming servicemen at the Hollywood Canteen, and in the promotion of bond selling, FMPU was the motion picture industry's greatest and most valuable participation.  We know that many film actors put their careers on hold to join the military during those years, but FMPU was as if the industry itself put on a uniform.

FMPU had its start when the Warner Bros. studio, a step ahead of the other studios to openly denounce the fascist powers of Europe and acknowledge the coming storm, produced a series of shorts about the different armed services.  Army Air Corps General "Hap" Arnold then requested studio head Jack Warner to make a recruitment film. 

Warner, along with writer/producer (later Colonel) Owen Crump, launched production on “Winning Your Wings.”  James Stewart, who was already in the Army Air Corps as a pilot, was pulled off duty to star and narrate this film.  It was made in 18 days and rushed out to theaters and college campuses.

It had a huge impact: over 150,000 enlistees into the Army Air Corps can be traced directly to seeing this movie.

FMPU was established in June 1942.  The unit soon moved to the old Hal Roach studio.  Where Laurel and Hardy bungled their way through odd jobs, and the Our Gang kids messily marched through childhood, the new 18th Air Force Base Unit churned out training films, recruitment and morale films, and trained combat photographers.

Many Hollywood technicians were called into this unit: writers, directors, cameramen, carpenters, makeup men.  Though most of the actors were starting their careers and were for the most part, unknown, Captain Ronald Reagan was the personnel officer for this unit, and appeared in a few films, including “Recognition of the Japanese Zero Fighter.” In this, he plays a trainee who mistakenly fires at an American plane piloted by Craig Stevens, who is understandably grumpy about it.  This film addressed friendly fire incidents. Stevens also appears as a pilot trainee in “How to Fly the B-26 Airplane” (1944). 

For the most part, Captain Reagan's participation in these films was as a narrator, as in “Wings for This Man” (1945).  It is about the Tuskegee Airmen, first unit of African American pilots and flight crews in the Army Air Corps. 

“Hollywood Commandos” gives a glimpse into the making of these films.  Loaded with archival footage, there are also several interviews with the actors from this unit and many anecdotes told, some quite funny.

Other actors in this unit who later became more well known include Arthur Kennedy, Van Heflin, George Reeves, DeForest Kelly, Don Porter and George Montgomery. Some of the actors in this unit who had already started or were well along in their careers included Alan Ladd, William Holden, and Ronald Reagan.  Clark Gable was briefly attached to the unit and flew combat missions to film documentary footage. Mel Blanc volunteered his distinct cartoon voices in animated segments.

“Hollywood Commandos” has a fascinating segment on a top-secret project to create a huge scale model of Japan, all detail done by hand, and film a virtual "fly over" to educate flight crews who would be sent on missions over Japan. There are dramatic segments on the “Learn and Live” and “Ditch and Live” films that instruct flight crews on how to survive a crash.  These lessons were the forerunners of the U.S. military's later survival schools.

FMPU, and other film units of the various branches of the military, played a huge role in our victory. The rights to this documentary are owned by the AMC cable channel, and unfortunately, they have not released it either on VHS or DVD. You may contact AMC here: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to request that they either broadcast Hollywood Commandos again, or make it available for sale on DVD.


Jacqueline T. Lynch is the author of Ann Blyth: Actress. Singer. Star. and Movies in Our Time: Hollywood Mirrors and Mimics the Twentieth Century, available online at Amazon, CreateSpace, and the author. Website:

Meet Jacqueline