“A Curious and True and Dramatic Film”: John Steinbeck’s ‘The Forgotten Village’

The Forgotten Village (1941)

During UCLA’s 2011 Festival of Preservation, Jeffrey Bickel presented a beautifully restored print of a little-known John Steinbeck film: The Forgotten Village (1941). I was deeply touched by the film’s poignant depiction of poverty and generational conflict, as well as the naturalistic, almost raw quality of the cinematography and performances, anticipating post-WWII Italian Neorealism films such as De Sica’s Ladri di biciclette (1948). Unable to shake the power of the film’s message, I became inspired to research the genesis of the film, its role in Steinbeck’s career, and its place in American history. I never could have imagined the wide variety of commercial motivations and political agendas that shaped every frame of the film. —Jessica Fowler

The Forgotten Village is an ethnographic documentary centered on a small, poverty-stricken community in rural Mexico. The film showcases the struggle of one young man, Juan Diego, as he tries to persuade the elders of his village to embrace modern medical technology and put an end to the dangerous healing ceremonies of the past. Despite being classified as a documentary, The Forgotten Village is in fact a highly fictionalized piece of propaganda that was intended to strengthen the bond between the United States and Central and South America against the growing Nazi threat in the early 1940s. Written by John Steinbeck, the film began production amid increasing anxiety regarding the conflict overseas and the potential impact on the Western Hemisphere.

In his correspondence with President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Steinbeck voiced his concern regarding the insidious, potentially dangerous influence of German propaganda and offered to help the American government use “radio and motion pictures…to get this side of the world together.”1 Besides specifically mentioning The Forgotten Village in his letters, Steinbeck recommended that Roosevelt set up a propaganda office solely dedicated to unifying the Americas. While Steinbeck’s suggested propaganda office was never officially formed, both Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt would become unofficial sponsors of The Forgotten Village, even helping to prevent the New York State Board of Censors from removing the film’s scenes of childbirth and breastfeeding.

Despite Steinbeck’s public statements that “[The Forgotten Village does not] editorialize, attack, or defend anything. We only put on film what we found,”2 his private correspondence with FDR and powerful Hollywood figures reveal that the story was largely based on a combination of his own imagination and an amalgamation of stories gathered from residents of small Mexican villages. Using non-professional actors and the backdrop of an isolated village, the film attempts to valorize the United States government and armed forces while urging all generations of Central and South America to embrace and trust the progress and innovation of the U.S.

When assembling the team that would actually produce the film, Steinbeck sought out venerable filmmakers that would give The Forgotten Village the credibility it needed to be taken seriously as a documentary. He finally decided to collaborate with Herbert Kline and Alexander Hammid, a directing team that had previously produced the highly acclaimed documentary Crisis (1939) about the Nazi annexation of Austria. Within the composition of The Forgotten Village, Steinbeck uses several psychological strategies suggested by Dr. Melvyn Knisely to have the audience thoughtfully engage with the content of the film. The most effective strategies include the use of a single trustworthy narrator (Burgress Meredith) to express Steinbeck’s central argument and the use of a highly emotional score (by Hanns Eisler).

In addition to the careful construction of the film during pre-production and shooting, The Forgotten Village also boasted an innovative marketing campaign utilizing multiple platforms to reinforce the film’s identity as a “real” documentary. A novelization (or “story document,” as it was called in early advertisements) of The Forgotten Village was available for purchase prior to the release of the film. In the book’s preface, Steinbeck emphasizes both the reality and universality of the story. Paired with the release of this book, The New York Times featured a number of articles about Herbert Kline, including a diary entry–style article of the director’s experiences on location. The Forgotten Village proved to be a lucrative commercial venture for Steinbeck (who served as the director of the company that produced the film and received a share of the novelization’s profits) and a professional stepping stone for Alexander Hammid (who would go on to create films for the Office of War Information).

A complex but intriguing piece of propaganda, The Forgotten Village is a “limit case” that constantly blurs the line between documentary and fiction. The film calls several issues into question, including the ethics of cultural analysis and ethnography, censorship in documentary filmmaking, the chasm between intention and perception (i.e., the film as propaganda and commercial product vs. the film as an educational tool), and the impact and ethics of using manipulative rhetorical strategies (such as a trustworthy narrator).


1. ^ Steinbeck, John. “Letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt, 24 June 1940.” A Life in Letters. Ed. Elaine Steinbeck and Robert Wallsten. New York: The Viking Press, 1975. Print.
2. ^ Steinbeck, John. The Forgotten Village. New York: The Viking Press, 1941. 6. Print.

Author bio:

Jessica Fowler is a recent graduate of UCLA’s Master of Arts program in Cinema and Media Studies and will be pursuing her Ph.D. in the Fall. She received a B.A. in Film Studies and a B.S. in Psychology from the University of Georgia. Her research interests include Hollywood films produced for the international market during the early sound era and the impact of Top 40 radio on television productions of the late 1960s.

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