Because everyone went to the movies during World War II, the American government found the film industry to be more helpful in propagandizing the populace than at any time before or since. Americans were movie-mad and generally believed whatever they saw at the local theater. As part of the war effort, the Roosevelt administration enlisted the services of numerous major film directors who had volunteered for military service, and it’s interesting to look at these (mostly) documentaries from an auteurist standpoint. For example, John Ford’s The Battle of Midway (1942) strongly reflected Ford’s personality in its sentiments, its visuals, and its use of actors like Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, who were closely identified with Ford’s great The Grapes of Wrath. Ford was injured in the Japanese attack on Midway, but continued his filming with a 16mm camera. Directing doesn’t get much more personal than that. Similarly, John Huston’s Report From the Aleutians (1943) and San Pietro (1945) reflected the virile simplicity of style Huston had displayed in The Maltese Falcon and would display in many of his postwar films, perhaps most notably in his butchered Civil War epic, The Red Badge of Courage.
Hollywood’s most ambitious project was the series of seven films designated Why We Fight, the first two of which are included in this program. The U.S. War Department under General George Marshall chose Major (eventually Colonel) Frank Capra (1897–1991) to produce these films. Capra, a naturalized American from Sicily, had already been a successful Hollywood director for 20 years, with credits that included It Happened One Night, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Lost Horizon, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. He had never made a documentary, but none questioned his patriotism. From the content of his fiction films, one could interpret his political views as ranging from proto-fascism to collectivism, but war and talent transcend consistency. He had held many important positions in the Motion Picture Academy and the Screen Directors Guild, and Why We Fight won him the Distinguished Service Medal. Prelude to War received an Oscar.
The films themselves (“emotionalized history lessons” as film historian Erik Barnouw called them) remain extremely watchable. Capra had access to plenty of Hollywood’s best talents, including the narrator for the series, Walter Huston, who was fast becoming Hollywood’s favorite wise old man and who conveyed the kind of reliability and credibility that Walter Cronkite lent to the Vietnam television generation. Capra also borrowed techniques and footage liberally from Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will. Like so many films of the period, Why We Fight presents a dogmatic portrait of Axis fanaticism and, with respect to Japan, is tinged with racism. Although these views may have seemed extreme at the time, subsequent revelations (the Holocaust, death marches, comfort women, etc.) suggested these portrayals didn’t go far enough. In any case, Capra, like the Axis powers, was not known for his subtleties. It may be hard for today’s cynical generation to fully grasp, but Americans were never before or since so united behind a cause. Given the isolationist spirit of the 1930s, Capra and his colleagues deserve a lot of credit for making America the main cog in the machine that saved civilization. Of course, corners were cut, and much was glossed over. Stalin inevitably emerges as some kind of hero, as does Chiang Kai-shek. The Allied alliance would soon unravel when the war ended, but the movies had never been used so effectively to bring diverse people together for what was essentially a noble purpose. Capra had promised Marshall, “I’ll make the best darn documentary films ever made.” He came pretty darn close.