Critical Reception of The Moon is Down

The Moon is Down VS

Critical Reception of the Novella

Readers and critics alike were negative in their reviews of The Moon is Down, with the most common complaint being that Steinbeck had been too sentimental in his portrayal of the invading forces. The novella tells the story of an unnamed army occupying a town in Northern Europe during a war between England and Russia. Most reviewers assumed that Steinbeck was describing contemporary German occupations. Thus, Clifton Fadiman denounced Steinbeck in his 1942 New Yorker review for “melodramatic simplification of the issues involved” (Simmonds 80). James Thurber, author of “The Secret Life of Walter Mitty,” criticized the book for being unrealistic as well. He suggested derisively that “Maybe a title like ‘Guts in the Mud’ would have produced a more convincing reality. Anyway, this little book needs more guts and less moon” (“The Moon Is Down - Critical Reception”). In a letter to the editor in the New Republic magazine (published on May 4th, 1942), a French reader angrily wrote: “Let all who dare not like to look truth in the face enjoy Mr. Steinbeck's sugar candy. Let them take comfort from the ‘sad smile’ on the faces of the German officers every time they ‘have’ to order an execution.” He apparently felt that Steinbeck’s humanization of Nazis was naïve rather than discerning (Mirrielees et al. 607). 

In response to criticism that they had been conducting a “totalitarian crusade” against the book after publishing James Thurber’s vitriolic review, the editors of the New Republic maintained that "[Steinbeck] was wrong not to depict any of them as genuine and therefore essentially hateful Nazis." They admonished readers not to believe “that Mr. Steinbeck's Nazis are the people who actually invaded Norway. If they were, the free nations wouldn't need planes, tanks and gasoline rationing to defeat them. The job could be done effectively with dynamite and bon-bons” (“The Moon is Halfway Down” 657). 

The general sentiment of those who disliked the book seemed to be that the Nazis were terrible and inhumane (reviewers invariably referred to the invading forces in the novella as German, despite Steinbeck’s deliberately vague descriptions), and any portrayal of them as anything less than monsters was at best inaccurate and at worst dangerous sympathy with the Germans or dangerous underestimation of a terrible enemy. Many people accused Steinbeck of having “no concept of how desperate life was under Nazi rule” (Simmonds 80).

The Moon is Down title card

The Moon is Down title card

Critical Reception of the Film

The Moon is Down map screenshot

Opening scene of the movie with a German hand reaching across a map of Norway

Many thought that the movie fixed the novella’s problems. Literary scholar Roy Simmonds notes that “By the time Johnson began work on the script, America had been almost a year at war with Germany, and there was no longer any necessity to practice circumspection in the way Steinbeck had felt constrained to do while writing the novel” (89). Because of this, the soldiers in the movie wear Nazi uniforms, swastikas are displayed, German music is played, and angry speech in German can be heard in the opening credits scene as a hand gestures at a map of Norway (Pichel). The brutality of the soldiers is also exaggerated. For example, Bentwick, who is described in the book as “a family man, a lover of dogs and pink children and Christmas” with “a curious lack of ambition,” is instead a cruel officer in the movie who selects five men at random from a crowd of miners to serve as hostages by throwing pebbles at them. These men are then shot on-screen as punishment for rebelling. This scene is not found in the book (Pichel, Steinbeck 19).

The Moon is Down soldiers screenshot

Scene from the movie of German soldiers marching into town

In fact, many scenes that are only alluded to by characters or briefly described in the novella are portrayed openly in the film, which does not shy away from violence. For instance, the filmmakers played up the drama and violence of the military invading town. Steinbeck only provides a brief description of this, saying as “the machine guns clattered for a moment and six of the soldiers became dead riddled bundles…” (Steinbeck 3). More displays of German military power are also added, such as an opening scene taking place on a German naval vessel and German planes flying overhead during the town militia’s picnic (Pichel). Bosley Crowther, in his review for the New York Times, enthusiastically praised the film for these changes, saying that:

"Nunnally Johnson, the playwright and producer of the film for Twentieth Century-Fox, has carefully corrected the most censurable features of the work. He has given definition at the outset to the theme—that the will of a free and noble people cannot be suppressed by violence. He has made Colonel Lanser, the Nazi despot of an invaded Norwegian mining town, a skeptic with respect to brutal measures but a cold and ruthless tyrant none the less."

Cedric Hardwicke as Colonel Lanser

Cedric Hardwicke as Colonel Lanser

Many other reviewers also praised Cedric Hardwicke’s portrayal of Colonel Lanser, stating that he “looks more like a cold-blooded Junker than like the unmilitary officer described by Steinbeck” and lauding his “cold, impersonal intelligence” (Simmonds 91). Richard Oehling, writing thirty years after the premiere of the film, identifies Hardwicke’s performance as one of the beginnings of the stereotypical Hollywood Nazi: a man with “no ethical hesitations about cruelty; it is simply a matter of practicality. The German portrayed in a style which became very common in Hollywood movies: urbane, even genteel, seemingly peaceful. Beneath the surface there is a ruthless and cruel interior” (6). 

Works Cited & Consulted

Clancy, Charles J. “Steinbeck's The Moon Is Down.” A Study Guide to Steinbeck, edited by Tetsumaro Hayashi, vol. 2, The Scarecrow Press, Inc, Metuchen, NJ, 1979, pp. 100–121.

Coers, Donald V. “Introduction.” The Moon is Down. By John Steinbeck. Penguin Books, 1995, pp. vii-xxi.

Crowther, Bosley. “THE SCREEN; 'The Moon Is Down,' the Film Version of Steinbeck's Novel and Play, Starring Sir Cedric Hardwicke, Opens at Rivoli.” The New York Times, 27 Mar. 1943, Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.

Mirrielees, Lucia B., et al. "‘The Moon Is Down,’ Continued." New Republic, vol. 106, no. 18, 04 May 1942, pp. 607-608. EBSCOhost,

Oehling, Richard. "Germans in Hollywood Films: Part III." Film & History, vol. 4, no. 3, Sept. 1974, pp. 6-10. EBSCOhost,

"propaganda, n." OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2017. Web. 27 April 2017.

Rice, Rodney P. “Propaganda and Persuasion in John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down” Beyond Boundaries: Rereading John Steinbeck, edited by Susan Shillinglaw and Kevin Hearle, The University of Alabama Press, Tuscaloosa, AL, 2002, pp. 77–86.

Simmonds, Roy. “The Metamorphosis of The Moon Is Down: March 1942-March 1943.”After The Grapes of Wrath: Essays on John Steinbeck in Honor of Tetsumaro Hayashi, edited by Donald V. Coers et al., Ohio University Press, Athens, OH, 1995, pp. 77–94.

Steinbeck, John. The Moon is Down. 1942. John Steinbeck: Novels 1942-1952. Edited by Robert DeMott, Library of America, 1994. pp. 1-98.

"The Moon Is Halfway Down." New Republic, vol. 106, no. 20, 18 May 1942, p. 657. EBSCOhost,

“The Moon Is Down - Critical Reception.” Steinbeck in the Schools, San Jose State University, 2016, Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.

The Moon is Down. Directed by Irving Pichel, adapted by Nunnally Johnson, performance by Cedric Hardwicke, Twentieth Century-Fox, 26 Mar. 1943.

“Top Grossers of the Season .” Variety, Los Angeles, 5 Jan. 1944, p. 54., Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.


Critical Reception of The Moon is Down