Mission to Moscow

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Mission to Moscow
theatrical release poster
Directed by Michael Curtiz
Produced by Robert Buckner
Written by Howard Koch
Based on Mission to Moscow (1941 book)
by Joseph E. Davies
Starring Walter Huston
Ann Harding
Oskar Homolka
Music by Max Steiner
Cinematography Bert Glennon
Edited by Owen Marks
Warner Bros.
Distributed by Warner Bros.
Release date
  • May 22, 1943 (1943-05-22)
Running time
124 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $1,516,000
Box office $1.2 million (US rentals)[1]

Mission to Moscow is a 1943 film directed by Michael Curtiz, based on the 1941 book by the former U.S. ambassador to the Soviet Union, Joseph E. Davies.

The movie chronicles the experiences of the second American ambassador to the Soviet Union and was made in response to a request by Franklin D. Roosevelt. It was made during World War II, when the Americans and Soviets were allies, and takes a more benign view of the Soviet government than most Hollywood films. For that reason, it was scrutinized by the House Committee on Un-American Activities.

Source book[edit]

The book is Joseph E. Davies' memoir about his stint as U.S. ambassador to Moscow from November 1936 to June 1938. It was published by Simon and Schuster in 1941 and was a critical and commercial success — 700,000 copies were sold and it was translated into thirteen languages.[2]


The film chronicles ambassador Davies' impressions of the Soviet Union, his meetings with Stalin, and his overall opinion of the Soviet Union and its ties with the United States. It is made in faux-documentary style, beginning with Davies meeting with president Franklin D. Roosevelt to discuss his new appointment as United States ambassador to the Soviet Union. It continues to show the Davies' family's trip by boat to Moscow, with stops in Europe.

Joseph Stalin (Manart Kippen) greets U.S. ambassador Joseph E. Davies (Walter Huston) in Mission to Moscow.

While in Moscow, the movie alternates between Davies' interpretations of Russian politics and communism and his family's impressions of Russian life. It includes a memorable scene with Mrs. Davies at a Russian department store. The movie gives Davies' perspective on various points in Soviet history. It begins with the real ambassador Davies stating, while seated in an armchair, “No leaders of a nation have been so misrepresented and misunderstood as those in the Soviet government during those critical years between the two world wars.”[3] The film then cuts to the film Davies and begins its narrative.

Victims of Stalin's purge trials of the 1930s were portrayed as fifth columnists.

Davies is shown witnessing the famous show trials conducted by Stalin in the 1930s (known as the Moscow Trials), which are portrayed as trials of fifth columnists working for Germany and Japan.

The voice-overs continue throughout the film, interspersing storyline with Davies' opinions. The film's narrative focuses on the journey of Davies and his family. First, their physical journey from the United States to the Soviet Union. And, second, their less tangible journey from skeptics of communism and the Soviet Union into converts and enthusiasts. The narrative of the movie and the book are almost identical.



While the storylines of both the book and movie are practically identical, the movie uses cinematic techniques and dialogue changes to overstate or change some controversial points in the book — changes that were made with Davies' approval. The screenplay adaptation of the book was by Howard Koch. Its musical score was by Max Steiner, its cinematography by Bert Glennon. The extensive montage sequences, which draw on footage from Soviet archives, were supervised by Don Siegel. The picture was produced and distributed by Warner Brothers. Ambassador Davies appears and introduces the film as himself; he is then portrayed by Walter Huston. Ann Harding plays his wife Marjorie Davies, Gene Lockhart is Soviet foreign minister Vyacheslav Molotov, Henry Daniell his German counterpart Joachim von Ribbentrop, and Dudley Field Malone plays Winston Churchill. Most parts, bar those of Davies' family, are taken by character actors who look like the famous politicians they are representing.

The film was the first pro-Soviet Hollywood film of its time and was followed by others, including Samuel Goldwyn's The North Star (1943), MGM’s Song of Russia (1944), United ArtistsThree Russian Girls (1943), Columbia’s The Boy from Stalingrad (1943) and Counter-Attack (1945). Roosevelt himself approved the creation of the film, even meeting with Davies several times (July, October, and November 1942 and March 1943) during the film's production to discuss its progress.[4]

As part of his contract with Warner Brothers, Davies had absolute right of control over the script and could veto any dialogue not to his liking.[5]

During production, Office of War Information officials reviewed screenplay revisions and prints of the film and commented on them. By reviewing the scripts and prints, OWI officials exercised authority over Mission to Moscow, ensuring that it promoted the "United Nations" theme. An administration official advised the film's producers to offer explanations for the Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Red Army's invasion of Finland. After reading the final script, in November 1942 the OWI expressed its hope that Mission to Moscow would "make one of the most remarkable pictures of this war" and "a very great contribution to the war information program".[6]

The OWI report on Mission to Moscow concluded that it would

Government information specialists were equally enthusiastic about the completed print. Judging it "a magnificent contribution" to wartime propaganda, the OWI believed the picture would "do much to bring understanding of Soviet international policy in the past years and dispel the fears which many honest persons have felt with regard to our alliance with Russia". That was particularly so since "the possibility for the friendly alliance of the Capitalist United States and the Socialist Russia is shown to be firmly rooted in the mutual desire for peace of the two great countries".[8]

Prior to its Russian release, the film was screened for Joseph Stalin at a banquet at the Kremlin attended by Joseph Davies and the British legation in Moscow.[9]

Historical accuracy[edit]

The film, made during World War II, shows the Soviet Union under Joseph Stalin in a positive light. Completed in late April 1943, the film is, in the words of Robert Buckner, the film's producer, "an expedient lie for political purposes, glossily covering up important facts with full or partial knowledge of their false presentation".[10]

The movie gives a one-sided view of the Moscow trials, rationalizes Moscow's participation in the Nazi-Soviet Pact and its unprovoked invasion of Finland, and portrays the Soviet Union as a state that was moving towards a democratic model, a Soviet Union committed to internationalism. The book was vague on the guilt or innocence of defendants in the Moscow trials, but the film portrays the defendants in the Moscow trials as guilty[11] in Davies' view. It also showed some of the purges as an attempt by Stalin to rid his country of pro-German fifth columnists.[12] Some fifth columnists are described in the film as acting on behalf of Germany and Japan. The film "defends the purges, complete with a quarter-hour dedicated to arguing that Leon Trotsky was a Nazi agent".[13] In the film, Davies proclaims at the end of the trial scene: "Based on twenty years’ trial practice, I’d be inclined to believe these confessions."[3]

There are anachronisms in the film — for example, the trials of Mikhail Tukhachevsky (June 1937) and Nikolai Bukharin (March 1938) are depicted as occurring at the same time. Tukhachevsky and Timoshenko are shown as marshals of the Soviet Union at the same time, but Tukhachevsky was executed in June 1937 and Timoshenko was not made marshal until 1940.

According to film historian Robert Osborne, "At the time this movie was made it had one of the largest casts ever assembled ... was very successful ... When it was shown in Moscow, despite all the good will, people who saw it considered it a comedy—its portrayal of average, everyday life in the Soviet Union apparently way off the mark for 1943".[14] "When the Russian composer Dimitri Shostakovich saw it, he observed that no Soviet propaganda agency would dare to present such outrageous lies."[15]


Some reviewers despised the film[13] but there have been exceptions. The critic for the New York Times, future McCarthy opponent Bosley Crowther, found the film's attempts to rehabilitate Stalin believable:

Based entirely on the personal observations reported by Mr. Davies in his book, it will obviously prove offensive to those elements which have challenged his views. Particularly will it anger the so-called Trotskyites with its visual re-enactment of the famous "Moscow trials"...For it puts into the record for millions of moviegoers to grasp an admission that the many "purged" generals and other leaders were conspirators in a plot.[16]

Film critic Leonard Maltin gave the film three and a half stars.[13]

Mission to Moscow was not a commercial success. Although Warner Brothers spent $250,000 advertising the film before its release on April 30, 1943, the company lost around $600,000 overall at the final accounting.[17] Mission to Moscow's numerous factual inaccuracies and outright false portrayals of Soviet leaders and events resulted in criticism from those on both the left and the right of the political spectrum.[18]

The film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Art Direction-Interior Decoration in a Black-and-White film (Carl Jules Weyl, George James Hopkins).[19]

Postwar controversy[edit]

The House Committee on Un-American Activities would later cite Mission to Moscow as one of the three noted examples of pro-Soviet films made by Hollywood, the other two being The North Star and Song of Russia.[20] It's been called "unquestionably the most blatant piece of pro-Stalinist propaganda ever offered by the American mass media".[21]

In 1950, the film became an object of attention by members of Congress, who saw it as pro-Soviet propaganda. Davies was largely silent on his role in the film, though he did submit a letter to the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) in 1947.[22] Called to testify under oath before Congress, Jack L. Warner at first claimed that the film was made at the request of Davies, who with the approval of FDR had asked Warner Brothers to make the film (this version of the facts was confirmed by Davies' letter as well).[22] Warner later recanted this version, stating that Harry Warner first read Mission to Moscow and then contacted Davies to discuss movie rights.[22]

Mission to Moscow was one of hundreds of pre-1948 Warner Bros. movies sold for television screenings, but was never included in domestic syndication packages put together by its then-owner, United Artists. It had its U.S. TV debut on PBS in the 1970s and has been shown sporadically on Turner Classic Movies, featured in the January 2010 series "Shadows of Russia" and most recently broadcast on January 30, 2017. The film's ownership has returned to Warner Bros. via its purchase of Turner Entertainment and the title made its DVD debut in October, 2009 as part of the Warner Archive Collection.[23]



  1. ^ "Top Grossers of the Season", Variety, 5 January 1944 p 54
  2. ^ Koppes, Clayton R.; Black, Gregory D. (1987) Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies. Berkeley, University of California Press. P. 190.
  3. ^ a b Mission to Moscow, produced by Robert Buckner, 123 minutes, Warner Brothers, screenplay by Howard Koch.
  4. ^ Bennett, pp. 498–499
  5. ^ Culbert, p. 17
  6. ^ a b Bennett, p. 506
  7. ^ Barmine, Alexander, One Who Survived, New York: G.P. Putnam (1945), p. 208: In reality, during Davies' stay in the Soviet Union, as well as during the war years, the average Soviet worker spent 90% of his income on food, mostly black bread, potatoes, buckwheat, and cabbage. 94% of them lived in one-room apartments, often constructed without electrical sockets. In the winter, many went without adequate heat as well.
  8. ^ Bennett, p. 507
  9. ^ Downs, Bill (14 June 1943). "Giggles in Moscow". Newsweek. p. 88. The Russian premier of 'Mission' was staged at the Kremlin, following a banquet for an international audience of diplomatic elect. Flanked on one side by a translator, and on the other by a beaming Joe Davies (then on his return engagement as missionary to Moscow), Stalin sat poker-faced throughout the two-hour tribute to his people and regime. 
  10. ^ Bennett, p. 508
  11. ^ Brendon, Piers (2007). The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s. Random House (reprint). P. 498. ISBN 978-0-307-42837-0. "Compared to the sophisticated Kennan, of course, Davies was generally crass and credulous. He considered Stalin kindly and trustworthy, a friend to children and dogs."
  12. ^ Bennett, p. 509
  13. ^ a b c Walker, Jesse (2004-04-05) Set Your VCRs, Reason. Retrieved 5 June 2013.
  14. ^ Osborne, Robert (4 June 2013). commentary on showing Mission to Moscow. TCM broadcast in U.S., 1:00–3:15 a.m. EST.
  15. ^ The Dangerous Otto Katz, Miles, Jonathan, Bloomsbury, New York, 2010, p255
  16. ^ Crowther, Bosley (April 30, 1943). "Mission to Moscow, Based on Ex-Ambassador Davies's Book, Stars Walter Huston, Ann Harding At Hollywood". The New York Times movie review. Accessed 1 July 2013.
  17. ^ Bennett, p. 516
  18. ^ Bennett, pp. 501–503
  19. ^ "Mission to Moscow (1943), movie details". The New York Times. Retrieved 2 July 2013. 
  20. ^ Goodman, Walter (February 25, 1996). "How to Learn from the Blacklist". The New York Times, hosted at upenn.edu. Accessed 2 July 2013.
  21. ^ Schickel, Richard; Perry, George (2008). You Must Remember This: The Warner Brothers Story. Running Press. p. 125
  22. ^ a b c Culbert, p. 16
  23. ^ Lumenick, Lou (January 6, 2010). "Mission: Improbable—Hollywood's controversial contribution to the wartime effort" Moving Image Source, Museum of the Moving Image. Accessed 2 July 2013.


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