Controlling malaria was a priority for the United States army during World War II, but convincing soldiers to use antimalarial drugs was a huge challenge. So the US War Department commissioned the team behind cartoons like ‘Bugs Bunny’ and ‘Daffy Duck’ to create an amusing animated film that aimed to persuade soldiers to take malaria seriously.
‘Private SNAFU vs. Malaria Mike’ was a short film made by Warner Bros. exclusively for the US War Department, one of a series of animations featuring the soldier SNAFU. The films were produced during what’s become known as the “golden age of American animation”, and the team working on them included cartoonist Chuck Jones, voice actor Mel Blanc and composer Carl W Stalling.
SNAFU is an acronym for “Situation Normal: All Fucked Up”. Central to almost every film in the series is an emphasis on personal hygiene, without which Private SNAFU will die and the war will be lost. Using humour and simple language, ‘Private SNAFU vs. Malaria Mike’ features destruction, speed and sex, themes often associated with Warner Bros. cartoons during the 1940s.
Malaria was already known as the “unexpected adversary”, causing more casualties than the conflict itself before 1940. But the US War Department found it challenging to control the disease in malarial combat zones. Ordinary men, who were already suffering the consequences of fighting a devastating war, knew how distressing the side effects of drugs like quinine could be. ‘Private SNAFU vs. Malaria Mike’ was an animated attempt to challenge soldiers’ animosity towards antimalarials.
Quinine was first isolated in 1820 from the bark of the cinchona tree, becoming the first and most-used antimalarial drug during World War I. Soldiers, however, faced side effects including dizziness, impaired vision, nausea and depression. Despite all these drawbacks, quinine was the only effective treatment for malaria at the time.
When Germany invaded the Netherlands in 1940, it took over Kina Bureau, a factory that controlled the global quinine trade. The situation became even more complicated when the US lost its raw supply of cinchona in 1941, when Japan occupied Java and the Dutch East Indies. This pushed the Allies to undertake research on the synthetic production of quinine. Quinacrine, also known by its brand name Atabrine, quickly replaced quinine for the Allies, as Germany had cut off the supply lines to quinine and cinchona.
Regrettably, Atabrine had many alarming side effects, although medics eventually realised that lower doses were less likely to cause these problems. The most frequently observed included headache, nausea and diarrhoea. In extreme cases, Atabrine triggered nightmares, anxiety and psychosis. These side effects were demoralising enough for troops to reject the drug.
In ‘Private SNAFU vs. Malaria Mike’, a mosquito called Mike tries to infect the soldier SNAFU with malaria. On Mike’s first attempt, SNAFU is seen bathing in a stream “naked all over”, in the mosquito’s words. Mike is able to identify SNAFU from his buttocks alone. “Why, it’s SNAFU!” Mike exclaims, looking at the private’s bare bottom. “I never forget a face.”
Mike sets out for a second try, only to infect a tree by mistake. “Jeez, I sucked the wrong man,” he says regretfully. The tree, which was not taking antimalarial drugs, instantly contracts malaria. After exhibiting all the symptoms – high temperature, muscle pains, headache and shivers – the tree withers and dies (or is “put out of action”).
As Private SNAFU gets ready for bed, he comes across some mosquito repellent but chooses not to use it. He then decides to caress his girlfriend’s portrait before putting on his clothes. This is when Mosquito Mike makes his third strike, with fatal consequences for the reckless soldier. Women in the SNAFU films, and in military propaganda more generally, were often portrayed as sex objects, traitors, or both.
SNAFU is shown as a foolish soldier who ignores military instruction. Consequently, his head ends up mounted as a trophy in Mosquito Mike’s house. SNAFU posthumously returns to give the moral of the story: “Just a moment, please: this programme has come to you through my sponsors, the United States Army, distributors of GI Repellent, mosquito nets, Atabrine tablets, and good old-fashioned horse sense. Gee, I wish to hell I’d used ’em.”
About the author
Perside Ndandu is a recently graduated master’s student from South Africa who received a Wellcome Trust scholarship to study at the University of Strathclyde, Glasgow. Her research interests include health in colonial Southern Africa, media and health, and transnational migration.