Written by Greg Barbrick
Such terror! Such suspense! Such propaganda! Oh, wait, we weren’t supposed to notice that, where we? They Came To Blow Up America (1943) is based on the true story of the failed German Operation Pastorius. Since the details of the black-op were not fully revealed until after World War II, director Edward Ludwig was free to spice-up the story a bit. Maybe the Russian-born director felt it would be a good career move to embellish the tale.
Unfortunately, these obvious exaggerations take the quality of the film down quite a few notches, as they are so transparent. Too bad, because the truth was pretty frightening, and would have made for a very compelling movie. What we wind up with is (at times) laughably overwrought, a picture which gets its point across with about as much subtlety as a sledgehammer.
The actual Operation Pastorius involved eight Germans who had previously lived in America. They were sent back to the U.S. with enough explosives to blow up a number of strategic targets. They were foiled, and the two who cooperated were spared execution. This provides the basis of the film, as the fictitious Carl Steel/Ernst Reiter (George Sanders) is presented here as an American agent working undercover, whose sentence was commuted. In truth, had the plot not been discovered by a Coast Guardsman, they may have succeeded in destroying at least a few of their marks.
As shown in They Came To Blow Up America, the duplicitous Nazis are cartoon villains, who will stop at nothing to achieve their quest. Why they will even “make love” to women to further their goals! Nothing is sacred, and in the great war rooms of the Fatherland, they even have a dartboard of Churchill’s face.
Actually, I though that last touch was pretty funny, although it might have been a little more effective had it been FDR. In this fictionalized version of Operation Pastorius, Carl Steelman is a member of the German-American Bund. He is told by his German superiors to take on the identity of Ernst Reiter, to lead the mission. Carl’s family are good, upstanding German-Americans and are horrified that he has joined the Bund. In fact, when Carl’s father Julius (Ludwig Stossel) hears of it, he suffers what might be considered a stroke, although his ailment is never really explained.
In any case, he is very sick. In a move (apparently) to save Julius’ life, FBI Agent Chief Craig (Ward Bond) tells him that his son is working for the government. Julius immediately recovers, in fact, he jumps out of bed and dances a jig! In his delirious joy, Julius discloses what his son is doing to his doctor, who has made a house call. Dr. Herman Holger (Sig Ramsey) turns out to be a Nazi agent, and immediately informs them of what Carl/Ernst is up to. This leads to our hero almost being caught before he can complete his vital mission.
This FBI “outing” of an agent (even to his own family, which he himself would not do), is a bizarre fiction. In a film which is designed as a propaganda piece through and through, it makes Hoover’s FBI look completely incompetent. There is no way the FBI would disclose such information about a mission of this magnitude. The only purpose it serves here is to instill complete paranoia upon the good citizens of the U.S.. I mean, if you cannot even trust your own doctor anymore, who can you trust? I guess a small black-eye for the Bureau was deemed worth it to make us fear everybody.
Another bit of elaboration comes during the (mostly true) scene where the Germans land at Long Island and are caught by the Coast Guardsman. The unarmed man is told that they are offloading “stuff,” (presumably bootleg booze), and given a bribe of $300 to keep it quiet. The Guardsman runs back to base so quickly he doesn’t even take time to count it. These bad guys are so bad that they have even shorted him $60 on his bribe!
I like how this anti-Nazi film portrays “good” German-Americans, who come complete with their own Aunt Jemima-style “maid.” She might as well be a slave in the old South. And during the car-chase scene, supposedly shot in Germany, we almost catch a glimpse of the old Hollywood-Land sign.
But this 73-minute movie was probably cranked out in under a week, with the main purpose being to sell war bonds at the theatre. That, and to remind us to keep ever-vigilant. If there is one thing that we as a nation know better than anything, there is always a bad guy lurking somewhere in our midst.
Maybe I am reading too much into this newly released 20th Century Fox Cinema Archives film though. They Came To Blow Up America may have been made simply to give Ward Bond something to do that week.