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“Bedknobs and Broomsticks” Made Angela Lansbury A #natsec Icon

The 1971 movie makes Lansbury one of the OGs of irregular warfare in film.

Words: Karla Mastracchio
Pictures: Ksenia Yakovleva

Like many kids born in the 1970s and 80s, I grew up on Blockbuster and Friday night Pizza Hut. For a lot of girls, in particular, that meant watching movies like “Girls Just Want to Have Fun,” “Labyrinth,” occasionally some really messed up and highly traumatizing movies, and almost always, Disney. The 1970s and 80s Disney, though, was also a little weird.

We didn’t have Disney princess movies like Rapunzel, Moana, Belle, or The Little Mermaid. We were unfortunate souls, born in the Dark Age of Disney when Disney princesses with the agency hadn’t been drawn yet. For example, Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were popular characters, but they weren’t exactly out there punching Nazis and smashing the patriarchy. But there was one character who did. Her name was Miss Eglantine Price, and the movie was “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.”

Set in London in 1940, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks,” starring the incomparable Angela Lansbury, offers us a mix of live action and animation that’s equal parts antifascist and magic. This movie not only shaped my childhood but, at a young age, gave a lot of girls a genuine sense of the dangers and evils hiding in plain sight and the assurance that these evils could be defeated through patriotism and a little innovation. And I know I’m not alone in feeling this way. It’s a movie about magic on its surface, but it’s also an argument that sometimes the most creative solutions are needed to solve big problems. So, to our collective delight, Disney gave us a magical Nazi-punching hero that taught girls growing up that it was ok and even patriotic to be a little different.

“Bedknobs and Broomsticks” and Angela Lansbury showed generations of kids that patriotism could be magical and women could lead from the front.

Olivia Truffaut-Wong from The Cut sums up the utility of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” quite nicely, writing that the movie is a “Mary Poppins-esque movie musical” where Lansbury’s character is an “unabashedly single witch-in-training before it was cool.” She called it “the strangest Disney film I have ever seen.” The Observer put it as: “Bedknobs and Broomsticks is just as unhinged as it sounds.” It’s indeed a wild little film. Disney made an entire movie about a self-taught witch who learned magic to serve her country. She leads a ghost army to prevent a Nazi invasion, and for the most part, she’s successful. She’s even the commanding officer leading from the front. It’s simply amazing and as good of an information operations campaign as I’ve ever seen.

Unlike the 1950s nostalgia popular in the 1970s, 1940s nostalgia often recenters patriotism and antifascism. The film, set in London in 1940 but released in 1971, also contrasts the highly progressive 1960s Swinging London and counterculture. Its timing and context prove it’s not just a kids’ movie or a subversive argument about gender politics. This film showed generations of kids that patriotism could be magical and women could lead from the front. It’s more than nostalgia and more than a bootleg Mary Poppins. For many women, it’s’ a defining artifact from our childhood. It’s a “how-to” of prerequisites for political activism. More importantly, “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” is an example of a successful antifascist campaign for children in film.


What can information operation planners and those working in strategic communication take from “Bedknobs and Broomsticks”?

First, stories matter but knowing how to tell them matters more. It is important to show that being an antifascist is cool, and Price showed how cool it could be. At its core, it’s a movie about a young, single British woman with a cat using self-taught magic to protect her country. Rebecca Long argues that “it’s undeniably kickass. It doesn’t get much cooler than a film about an anti-fascist witch who pummels Nazis astride her broomstick alongside an army of enchanted suits of armor.” She isn’t wrong.

As The Cut puts it, “Nazis try to invade England but are beaten back by an apprentice  witch on a broomstick and an invisible army of animated armor.” We need more stories that counter important trends. When fascist recruitment campaigns are aggressively targeting young people, and extremist campaigns/misinformation are circulating at scale on public and private platforms, effective antifascist narratives are needed now more than ever. After all, Disney didn’t back down from making “adult” topics accessible for humans of all ages. According to Long, “The refusal to completely shy away from the sociopolitical realities of the film’s setting is a strength. The movie’s age-appropriate acknowledgment of the horrors that impact people, including kids, is what makes Bedknobs and Broomsticks more than just the ‘alt’ Mary Poppins.”

Second, the national security complex needs to understand — and appreciate — that it takes creativity to solve big problems. In this case, the main character not only uses magic but teaches herself magic. When the British are outnumbered, she finds a way to raise an army from scraps of metal. Aside from antifascist propaganda Disney made during World War II, where Disney worked with the federal government to assist the war effort, it’s hard to think of another Disney character other than Price that actually punched Nazis. This makes Lansbury one of the OGs of irregular warfare in film.

The fact that Lansbury’s character was written as a witch was no accident either. James Reynolds reminds us, “Not only are historical witches figures of political resistance, but as Miss Price demonstrates, they are transgressive outsiders, ignoring social norms.” For example, the film starts with an unmarried Price riding a motorcycle and  scorning both societal and magical restrictions of gender in 1940s England.” It’s also a reminder that non-traditional humans are sometimes the best people to find solutions for non-traditional problems. Price is a transgressive political figure leading a resistance: Summoning an army from scraps of old armor is asymmetric warfare and creative problem-solving at its finest.

Lastly, representation matters. It’s true that “you can’t be what you can’t see,” and to see a woman leading an army into battle normalized the idea that many little girls could grow up to do the same. As David Sims wrote in The Atlantic:

“Eglantine Price is a surprisingly complex character for a kids’ film laden with special effects and animated sequences: She’s frosty and resistant to intimacy but not written off as a sad spinster or a dotty loner. Lansbury makes her both funny and sympathetic, giving a fantastical, high-energy movie some needed emotional grounding.”


About every woman I know around my age or older grew up watching “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” until the tape wore out. I’m not kidding. My local video store (run by my childhood friend’s father) ordered more backup tapes of “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” than any other movie in the kids’ section. It’s not hard to see why. Set in World War II, it used a mix of live action and animation to make serving your country and fighting Nazis not just cool but magical.

Price captured the hearts and minds of kids everywhere but especially girls. She — and by extension, Lansbury — just might be the Dana Scully of GenXers. The Scully Effect is about how Gillian Anderson’s X-Files character inspired millions of millennial girls in the 1990s to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. Similarly, many women who ended up working in national security were inspired by Lansbury and “Bedknobs and Broomsticks.” And I am one of them.

If the Department of Defense and the national security community are serious about being able to recruit and retain talent, and if they are truly committed to countering violent extremism and misinformation at home and abroad, then there is a need for more real-life main characters like Price (i.e., Kori Schake and Jen Easterly) and more pop culture role models. More importantly, compelling stories and out-of-the-box characters may just be what the #natsec community needs to meet today’s unique security crises and plan for the future.

Karla Mastracchio is a strategist, writer, and influence professor who lives in Hawaii but knows her way around theme parks and national parks as a fifth-generation Florida native. You can find her talking about national security, rhetoric, and college football on Twitter. Views are her own.

Karla Mastracchio

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