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By Phil Hall | June 15, 2007

BOOTLEG FILES 185: “Hemp for Victory” (1942 U.S. government propaganda film encouraging the wartime cultivation of wacky weed).

LAST SEEN: The entire film is online at several web sites.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: Only as part of anthologies featuring weird old propaganda flicks.

REASON FOR DISAPPEARANCE: The government insisted the film didn’t exist!

CHANCES OF SEEING A DVD RELEASE: Nope, because it is a short film doomed to public domain hell.

During wartime, moral priorities have a strange way of being bent and twisted. Look at today’s alleged war on terror – secret jails, torture, ignoring the Geneva Convention, and other atrocities that run counter to American traditions. But things were even stranger back in World War II – to the point where the federal government did a sharp 180 and encouraged farmers to grow a certain crop that was previously banned from American soil.

The crop in question was hemp, which most party boys know as the source of a highly entertaining narcotic. But in World War II, the government didn’t need hemp for getting high. Instead, the industrial non-narcotic use of hemp was sought after to provide much-needed cordage for the American naval fleet.

This abrupt change of policy caught many farmers off-guard, since they knew little (if anything) about growing hemp. Thus, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) created a 16-minute film called “Hemp for Victory,” which detailed why there was a sudden desire for hemp and explained how to successfully cultivate this crop. The film was not meant for theatrical presentation, but was shown to farmers who stayed stateside and helped the war effort by working the fields.

I’d like to state that “Hemp for Victory” falls into the category of campy, nutty old-time government propaganda flicks. Unfortunately, the film is a serious, straightforward and fairly dull educational movie that gets its point across with nary a trace of unintentional comedy. If you’re not a farmer, you’ll probably find this film monotonous. (And if you are a farmer, you still might consider this a bit of a bore.)

“Hemp for Victory” opens, incongruously, with a shot of the Acropolis. The narrator informs us: “Long ago when these ancient Grecian temples were new, hemp was already old in the service of mankind.” This is strange, since hemp is not a Greek crop. The narrator quickly gets his geography right by continuing: “For thousands of years, even then, this plant had been grown for cordage and cloth in China and elsewhere in the East. For centuries prior to about 1850, all the ships that sailed the western seas were rigged with hempen rope and sails. For the sailor, no less than the hangman, hemp was indispensable.”

Okay, don’t ask how the hangman got out to sea. The narrator keeps droning on: “A 44-gun frigate like our cherished Old Ironsides took over 60 tons of hemp for rigging, including an anchor cable 25 inches in circumference. The Conestoga wagons and prairie schooners of pioneer days were covered with hemp canvas.” That last sentence is accompanied by a shot of a Gabby Hayes lookalike carrying a musket while accompanying a covered wagon along a dirt road.

More narration: “Indeed the very word canvas comes from the Arabic word for hemp. In those days, hemp was an important crop in Kentucky and Missouri. Then came cheaper imported fibers for cordage, like jute, sisal and Manila hemp, and the culture of hemp in America declined.”

Admittedly, the narration seems to be wandering all over the place – particularly away from the fact that hemp cultivation was banned by federal legislation. That’s only hinted at the screen shows a federal license to produce “marihuana” and the narrator reminds us: “This is hemp seed. Be careful how you use it. For to grow hemp legally you must have a federal registration and tax stamp. This is provided for in your contract. Ask your county agent about it. Don’t forget.”

The remainder of the film is pretty much an examination of everything you ever wanted to know about growing hemp. We learn what kind of soil is best suited for the crop. “Hemp demands a rich, well-drained soil such as is found here in the Blue Grass region of Kentucky or in central Wisconsin,” we are told. “It must be loose and rich in organic matter. Poor soils won’t do. Soil that will grow good corn will usually grow hemp.”

We also learn how to plant the hemp seed, how to recognize when it is ready for harvest, how it should be readied for shipment, and what becomes of the sewn hemp (there’s a quick tour of a factory and an excess of stock footage of battleships sailing off to fight the Japanese).

The goal of “Hemp for Victory” is clear: a 1943 bumper crop of 50,000 acres of seed hemp planted for the war effort. Or as the narration insists: “Hemp for mooring ships! Hemp for tow lines! Hemp for tackle and gear! Hemp for countless naval uses both on ship and shore! Just as in the days when Old Ironsides sailed the seas victorious with her hempen shrouds and hempen sails: hemp for victory!”

Well, the hemp played some role in the ultimate victory. But once the Japanese waved the white flag, the government’s policy on hemp production swung back to the old attitude. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has been the only country in the industrialized world that outlawed the growing of hemp.

After the war, “Hemp for Victory” disappeared – literally. Whenever film scholars or marijuana legalization activists would inquire at the USDA to see a print of the film (which should’ve been provided, as all federally produced wartime films were public domain), the USDA insisted that no such movie ever existed. It is not certain whether the USDA intentionally destroyed the prints or just buried them in a vault.

In May 1989, a trio of tenacious advocates for legalizing marijuana – Jack Herer, Maria Farrow and Carl Packard – combed the Library of Congress’ motion picture and filmstrips records in Washington and the USDA library at Bettsville, Maryland, to locate evidence that there was a movie called “Hemp for Victory.” While the USDA library offered no leads, the certification of the film’s existence was confirmed in the Library of Congress. Based on that discovery, the trio was able track down a print and transferred it to video. They donated copies to Library of Congress (which, I assume, was less than eager to be told it was in error).

As a public domain film, “Hemp for Victory” has been widely duped by both marijuana rights activists and devotees of old-time propaganda. It can be easily located on many web sites and it has been included in several anthologies of wartime movies.

Whatever importance “Hemp for Victory” may bring to the cause of hemp production, its position in film history is strictly a footnote blip. Anyone looking for cannibas-fueled movie fun should dig out copies of “Reefer Madness” or the Cheech and Chong canon. It’s hard to imagine anyone getting a high on this little film.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: The unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material is not widely appreciated by the entertainment industry, and on occasion law enforcement personnel help boost their arrest quotas by collaring cheery cinephiles engaged in such activities. So if you are going to copy and sell bootleg videos, a word to the wise: don’t get caught. The purchase and ownership of bootleg videos, however, is perfectly legal and we think that’s just peachy! This column was brought to you by Phil Hall, a contributing editor at
Film Threat and the man who knows where to get the good stuff…on video, that is.

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