In his first film since starring in The Irishman in 2019, Al Pacino is now taking on the role of James Laughlin, the lawyer who defended Mildred Gillars, played by Meadow Williams, from charges of treason during World War II.
First reported by Deadline, the true story of American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally comes from William and Vance Owen’s book Axis Sally Confidential, “which was adapted by Vance Owen, Darryl Hicks, and [Michael] Polish. The focus is on Gillars’ and Laughlin’s efforts to redeem her reputation in the post-war trial.”
Alternating between seductress and prosecutor, the American-born Gillars played both friend and foe to GIs, often musing that their wives and girlfriends might be “running around” with the 4-Fs back home and not so subtly pointing out the benefits of surrendering.
While the threat of a Jody was omnipresent, most GIs found Gillars, aka “Axis Sally” to be amusing rather than sinister.
“Doctor Goebbels no doubt believes that Sally is rapidly undermining the morale of the American doughboy,” said Air Corps corporal Edward Van Dyne in 1944. “I think the effect is directly opposite. We get an enormous bang out of her. We love her.”
Born in Maine before moving to Ohio in high school, Gillars had a stint on Broadway before moving to Berlin in 1934 to study music. By 1940 the out-of-work Gillars was recruited to work for the Reich Radio’s British Service. Desperate, she accepted. Within months she had her own show, “playing records and chatting about art and culture—[but] soon found herself in a quandary. By the spring of 1941 the U.S. State Department was counseling American nationals to return home. But Gillars’s fiancé, a naturalized German citizen named Paul Karlson, warned that he would never marry her if she returned to the United States,” writes author Richard Lucas.
Gillars opted to stay.
However, Karlson was sent to the Eastern Front shortly after, where he was killed in action.
A year later, and upon America’s entry into WWII, Gillar’s once apolitical broadcasts began shifting in nature when she was cast by Max Otto Koischwitz in a new show called Home Sweet Home.
It was then that she became Koischwitz’s mouthpiece, spewing Nazi propaganda and anti-American sentiment laced with virulent anti-Semitism.
Meant to make Americans fighting overseas homesick and cast doubts on their mission, Axis Sally tended to have the opposite effect — GIs couldn’t get enough of her.
At the end of the war Gillars attempted to flee but was captured by the Allies on March 15, 1946.
Gillars spent two and a half years in a prison camp at Frankfurt-am-Main without charges before returning to the United States in August 1948 to await trial. Only American citizens could be charged with treason, with a guilty verdict including the possibility of the death penalty.
While on the witness stand, according to a 1949 New York Times article, Gillars stated that she was required to take an oath of allegiance to Germany after the Pearl Harbor attack “in order to live” and keep her Nazi radio job.
The oath, her lawyer Laughlin later contended, amounted to “an act of expatriation” from the United States.
“You could not just go around [Nazi Germany] saying, ‘I don’t want to do this’ and ‘I don’t want to do that,’” she later pleaded.
The jury remained unmoved, however, and Gillars was found guilty in March 1949 and sentenced to 10 to 30 years imprisonment with a $10,000 fine. She served 12 years of her sentence at the Alderson Reformatory for Women in West Virginia before being paroled in 1961.
Gillars spent the rest of her days teaching at a Catholic school in Ohio before returning to her old college, Ohio Wesleyan, where she received a bachelor’s degree in speech in 1973.
The once infamous Axis Sally died June 25, 1988, at the age of 87.
American Traitor: The Trial of Axis Sally is in theaters and available digitally on May 28.