Movies to watch out for: American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally

Meadow Williams as Axis Sally, with her lawyer Al Pacino (left) and her minder Dr Goebbels (right).

The first female American traitor

This 2021 legal drama recounts the intriguing tale of Mildred Gillars played by Meadow Williams with her nickname Axis Sally. She was an American citizen convicted of making pro-German broadcasts from Berlin during world war two. Her US lawyer, played brilliantly by Al Pacino, almost got her acquitted as she was found not guilty on seven of the eight charges.

The prosecution said it was an open and shut case. Axis Sally was a regular broadcaster on Nazi radio with programs which sought to demoralize American troops fighting in Europe by advising them it was pointless to resist the invincible Wehrmacht.  She suggested that their wives and girlfriends back in the USA were being unfaithful, whilst taunting President Roosevelt with his wheelchair status and alleged Jewish boyfriends. “If this isn’t treason, I don’t know what is,” says the government lawyer in the movie.

But public defender Al Pacino explains to the jury that Mildred arrived in Germany in 1934 and worked as a teacher. She fell in love with a German guy who, on the outbreak of war, insisted she remain in Berlin.  Her American passport was cancelled by the Nazi authorities and she was forced to sign a statement of loyalty to the Reich. Trapped, she agreed to do the broadcasts – mostly swing music to appeal to the US troops – and even donned a nurse’s uniform to talk to wounded Americans in captivity and assure their families back home they were safe.

In the movie version, Pacino is enthralling with a dry wit and perceptive questioning style which floors the prosecution witnesses. “How many Americans died as a result of her broadcasts?  Yes that’s right – none!”  He stresses that Axis Sally was just a character, not to be confused with the real-life Mildred Gillars who was threatened with execution or a concentration camp if she did not cooperate.  In the end, the jury found her guilty only of one broadcast in May 1944 which suggested thousands of Americans would be slaughtered if the D-Day landings were attempted. Oddly, that prediction turned out true.

Of course, the movie isn’t a documentary. It presents propaganda minister Dr Goebbels as personally supervising the broadcasts as well as raping Mildred in a fit of pique. Nonsense as they never actually talked face to face. Actress Meadow Williams looks nothing like the real Mildred Gillars who wasn’t nearly so physically attractive. For some reason Miss Meadows wears a different hat in almost every scene, plainly silly, and amusingly reminds us of Imelda Marcos’ shoe collection.

The judge sentenced Mildred to a term from ten to thirty years, but she served only from 1948 to 1961.  She then retreated to a convent and taught music, English and French, dying from colon cancer in 1988.  The movie may lead to other similar treasonable opportunities on the silver screen such as the William Joyce, (Lord Haw Haw) or John Amery, both of whom were hanged by the British. Lots of money still to be made from digging up the Second World War.