Frank Capra was one of the most successful Hollywood directors in the 1930s. By the time World War II began, he was a three-time Oscar winner.
Shortly after America’s entry in the war, Capra went to Washington, D.C. to make Training (read: propaganda) films for the U.S. military. While other Hollywood directors, such as John Ford and George Stevens, travelled with armed forces, Capra was assigned to the Morale Branch of the Special Services Division.
He became, according biographer James McBride, author of Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, “the Louis B. Mayer of the unit”, meaning he was the executive producer of military information films.
Hooray. A desk job.
But he was good at it. According to Mark Harris, author of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Capra oversaw a number of projects for the military, the most notable of which was a series of propaganda films, entitled Why We Fight. There were seven films in the original series, and five of them have just been released on disc by Olive Films in cooperation with the National Archives.
These were not easy films to make. McBride says the budget for these films was $400,000, which is little more than $57,000 per film. Capra was reduced to scrounging for war footage instead of sending his own cameramen overseas to record the action.
Ideology was another frustration. Nazi Germany had well-defined dogma; the United States did not. Therefore, the Why We Fight films became a means to instruct and boost the morale of American soldiers (and – *cough!* – win Capra a couple of Oscars).
These films are stirring, infuriating, cringing, touching, and maddening. They’re not always truthful, but they’re also not dull.
They tell the story of war, and to tell this story, it was only natural for the U.S. military to turn to Hollywood.
The Olive Films’ release features an introduction by McBride, who provides an overview of Capra’s life, as well as an introduction to each film, giving much-needed context.
The series begins with Prelude to War (1942), an answer to the question Why: “This is a fight between the free world and a slave world.” According to the film, “the march of history is reversing itself” in Europe, where people exchanged individual liberties for German National Socialism (Nazism) and Italian Fascism. The film concludes, “It’s us or them. The chips are down.”
According to McBride, next two films in the series, The Battle of Russia (Parts I and 2), released in 1943, made Capra nervous during the later McCarthy Era. He was right to be worried. Although the U.S. was an uneasy wartime ally of the U.S.S.R., you’d never know there was tension between the two nations by watching these films. We see fascinating Soviet footage while the narrator says, without irony, there are no complaints in this “one great nation”. While the film remains silent on Soviet atrocities, it does offer an inspiring look at Russian citizens and their wartime sacrifices.
The Negro Soldier (1944) had two goals, says McBride: (1) to educate white soldiers about black soldiers; and (2) to convince black men to Sign Up. In discussing American black history, the film slides right by slavery, but it does avoid Hollywood’s black stereotypes. According to McBride, black officers were paid more respect after this film was shown to troops.
Tunisian Victory (1944) is an odd film. It’s a joint production between American and British filmmakers, and it feels like it’s trying too hard. (McBride calls it an example of a “propaganda film gone wrong”.) This film features battle reenactments, directed by John Huston, because actual war footage sank with a military ship.
The last film in the series, Your Job in Germany (1945), is suspicious in nature and is geared to allied forces occupying Germany immediately after the war. It was written by Theodor Geisel (a.k.a. Dr. Seuss), and its main concern is underground Nazism. “The German lust for conquest is not dead,” says the film. “It’s merely gone undercover.”
Ultimately, the films reveal more about the American government’s attempt to shape public perception than the war itself.
This series, as presented by Olive Films, is 310 minutes. Is it worth it?
Yes. These films do not present a comprehensive view of WWII, but they do show us how events can be framed to promote an objective.
They also show us the power of a story, and how stories influence nations.
Disclosure: Olive Films sent us the DVD set in exchange for an unbiased review.
Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries 1942-1945, ©2018 Olive Films, presented in cooperation with The National Archives, and featuring Joseph McBride.