VD Attack Plan
A Disney film about Venereal Disease
by Skip Elsheimer
I maintain and curate the A/V Geeks educational film archive – more than 8500 films stashed in every nook and cranny in my house. Folks who know about my collection of 16mm films often suggest that I should write a book about some of my favorites in the archive. I assure them that I do have such a project in the works - albeit in the planning stages. I mention that I’d like to write a book about my favorite genre of educational films – the venereal disease film. Most people snicker and don’t take me seriously. That is, until I mention the colorful history of the VD film and how it reflects our society’s views on sex, disease, morality and the role of the individual in the last century. I tell them that I’d like to write about the different films made over the years including a wonderful animated film by Disney called VD Attack Plan. Most folks are incredulous and want to know more (reassuring me that my book idea isn’t so far fetched after all).
Even the marketing department at the Walt Disney Educational Media Company acknowledged that it was somewhat incredible for their company to address such a vulgar subject as venereal disease. The front page of their promotional brochure announces; “Yes, it’s true. Walt Disney Productions has made a significant contribution to the war against VD. VD ATTACK PLAN – A fully animated Walt Disney 16mm motion picture.”
For the record, VD Attack Plan was not the first treatment of the subject by Disney. Like most motion picture studios during World War II, Walt Disney Studios helped create films for the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps. These short films were shown to troops to educate them on map reading, equipment maintenance and other topics important to U.S. Army. In 1944, Disney produced “A Few Quick Facts #7 – Venereal Disease”. Unfortunately, besides the title, we don’t know much about this film except it was aimed towards adult men in the military. Made in 1973, VD Attack Plan was created specifically for teenagers and young adults, but Disney still has a war theme throughout the film.
As VD Attack Plan begins, we hear an air raid siren and an explosion as the letters “VD” flash on the screen. The letters “Attack Plan” are spelled out with machine gun fire. A narrator announces: “This is a war story. It could be anywhere in the world. It could involve anyone. It could only take place within the human body.”
The next scene is of an animated germ wearing a spiked Kaiser helmet, the Sergeant (played by Keenan Wynn – perhaps best known for his role as Colonel ‘Bat’ Guano in Dr. Strangelove) briefing his troops of the Contagion Corps. The troops are syphilis and gonorrhea germs that wear berets with their initials on them (‘S’ and ‘G’).
This scene harkens back to the very beginnings of the venereal disease film – just before we entered World War I. The War Department desperately needed a way to educate hundreds of thousands of troops about the dangers of venereal disease – a disease that could keep a stricken soldier off of active duty for more than a year as he received treatment. The Great War would have soldiers traveling to Europe exposing them to untold temptations and disease. The traditional lecture to the troops on venereal disease was not effective or efficient enough. So together with the American Social Hygiene Association, the War Department produced Fit to Fight – a silent narrative film about five draftees and their misadventures with alcohol and loose women. This film was shown to thousands of men in hope that the soldiers would identify with the characters and be forewarned about the temptations they might face. This film set the tone for venereal disease films for decades to come.
Even the title VD Attack Plan is a playful response to such films such as Fit to Fight, In Defense of a Nation, Health is a Victory, Fight Syphilis and With These Weapons. Since early VD films were first aimed towards military audiences, it was an easy metaphor for troops to swallow - VD is the enemy and we must fight against it. The Disney twist was that the venereal disease germs were ones being lectured for the battle. One of the biggest challenges for a venereal disease film is to present situations or characters that viewers (whether adults or teens) will identify with. A problem with having a film with actors is that film can quickly become outdated and an audience will often shrug off a message delivered by actors with corny dialogue and antiquated fashion. By focusing on animated germs, Disney made a film that is virtually timeless. And not only was this a refreshing change from the traditional venereal disease melodrama – where a hapless teen notices a sore or gets a call from the clinic and spends the next twenty guilt-ridden minutes being lectured on venereal diseases and the toll it takes on the untreated – but it gave the writers an opportunity to use humor to convey the message. The main writer, Les Clark, was a longtime Disney animator (he worked on such films as Steamboat Willie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and Fantasia), so in spite of the subject matter this is has the trademark Disney look and attention to detail. It is this Disney deliberateness that makes this film so remarkable.
While VD Attack Plan addresses all the important points that seem obligatory for any venereal disease film – the symptoms and effects of syphilis and gonorrhea, the importance of treatment while avoiding phony cures and, of course, the graphic pictures of the ravages of syphilis – Disney introduces some surprisingly progressive messages for 1973. One such message that stands out is the mention that venereal diseases is can be spread through same-sex sexual contact – something that wasn’t addressed in other VD films for almost ten years. Once again, we see why this film is still being shown in classrooms today.
Another progressive message not seen in contemporary films is the talk of prevention – particularly condom use. Other films from this time period only mention abstinence as a form of prevention. Most film producers knew that school boards wouldn’t purchase a film that had such a message, thinking it would encourage sexual activity. Disney addressed this by releasing two versions of the film. They might have done this so that the film had a wider appeal – the short version for high school students and the longer version for young adults in college or the military – but the fact they mention condoms at all is still groundbreaking.
Say what you will about Disney’s sugary-sweet, revisionist view of the world and I’ll probably agree with you. However stumbling across a film such as VD Attack Plan showed me that Disney was not only capable of being ahead of its time on matters such as sexuality, but also entertaining and sensitive to a topic such as venereal disease.
(Editor's Note: Be sure to check out Skip's official website for educational film at http://www.avgeeks.com)