With Strings Attached: Rice, Murder, and Awkward Communist Puppets
This post was written by Heidi Holmstrom. Heidi works in the Motion Picture Preservation Lab, which is responsible for performing conservation and preservation work on motion picture records held across the National Archives.
Let’s suppose you have a child, and that child loves puppet shows. You might decide to introduce your child to The Muppets Take Manhattan or the Thunderbirds television series. Or, you could introduce them to something much darker: a 1952 United States Information Agency (USIA) production titled Tomas and the Huks.
Tomas and his dog contemplate their share of rice.
Marionettes were fairly popular in early 1950s children’s entertainment. Howdy Doody is perhaps the best known puppet performer, but ornate marionettes could also be found in Christmas specials and fairy tale films. When the USIA contracted with Freedom Films to produce Tomas and the Huks, it’s probably these types of films that they had in mind. However, the story Tomas tells is in no way whimsical or joyful.
Tomas is a young boy living in the Philippines. His best friend is his pet dog, included in the film as (not very successful) comic relief. After Tomas helps a farmer reload his overturned rice cart, he is targeted by the communist Huks for recruitment to their cause. The Huks indoctrinate Tomas, talking for hours until he decides to leave his home and join them. The Huks send Tomas to speak with the farmer about sharing his rice, but this turns out to be a diversion. When the farmer stands up for his rights, one of the Huks stabs him with a machete and takes his rice. As the film ends, Tomas realizes that he has become a murderer and will be trapped in a miserable existence as a Huk forever.
You may be wondering what a “Huk” even is. The Hukbalahap (popularly known as Huks) were a guerrilla group in the Philippines that formed in 1942 to resist the Japanese Army. A CIA Report from 1949 states that the secondary goals of the Huks were “eliminating US influence, and effecting agrarian reforms.” After World War II, the Huks rebelled against the Philippine government. While not all Huks were Communists, most of their leaders were. Even so, the CIA recognized that the Huks had some legitimate grievances, writing “[the Philippine] land system has been historically inequitable and the masses of the peasants live in poverty. Partly because the government is dominated by the landlord class, policies designed to aid the peasants’ lot are ineffective both in formulation and execution.” (Other contemporary CIA reports about the Philippines can be found here and here.)
Even though the Huk fighting force was small (less than 10,000 fighters), the United States saw it as a threat to the Philippine government. The Americans increased military aid to the Philippines in the 1950s but the USIA had already been taking steps to counter Communist propaganda and keep the population friendly to America.
One component of the USIA’s program in the Philippines was the mobile film unit. The USIA produced films to be shown widely in the Philippines, but many of the small barrios did not have theaters or even electricity to run a projector. The mobile film units would bring the show to the barrio, screen, generator, and all. These units were deployed by USIA missions all over the world.
Staff of a USIA-sponsored mobile unit in the Philippines, 1949.
Milton Leavitt, a USIA Public Affairs Officer in the Philippines, spoke about his work there in an oral history interview for the Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training. Leavitt had been captured by the Japanese during the War, and after enduring the Bataan Death March, was imprisoned in some of the same camps as members of the Huk leadership. Because they knew him, these Huks ensured that Leavitt and his teams were not harmed when out with the mobile film units. Most of the films shown were not like Tomas and the Huks. Instead they were “mostly how-to-do-it films, how to build an outhouse, how to build a chicken coop, and so forth.” Leavitt notes that sometimes the Huks even showed these films themselves.
It is unclear how many children saw Tomas and the Huks in the Philippines. It’s possible it may not have been very effective in any case. The puppets are cheap-looking and the puppeteers are not very skillful. In fact, making a film without actors, locations, or a tightly-synced soundtrack was a way for the USIA to turn out a low-cost product.
The simple message of the film is that words and talk can be dangerous. Because Tomas listened to the Huks, he became a murderer (though his culpability for the farmer’s death is debatable). Rather than argue against the ideology of the Huks, the USIA was trying to reach the young generation to ensure that the Huks’ ideas would be seen as so poisonous that people would refuse to listen.
Tomas looks on as a farmer is murdered by the Huks.
The Huk insurgency was defeated by the middle of the 1950s, making Tomas obsolete. You can find this artifact of that conflict in the collections of the National Archives and Records Administration, along with many other films that illustrate US foreign policy throughout the 20th Century. The films of the USIA, unavailable by law in the United States for decades, now may be viewed by anyone at the National Archives.