DVD Review Of Why We Fight, by Frank Capra

Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 5/18/06


  There has been a political documentary, of recent vintage, called Why We Fight, which tries to examine the infamous Military Industrial Complex and its grip on this nation. It is considered both polemical and incisive in making its case against both that complex and the war fiasco we are currently involved in in Iraq. Yet, a far more famous series of films, with the same name, was made during World War Two, by Hollywood director Frank Capra. Although considered documentaries, and having won Oscars in that category, this series of seven films is really and truly mere agitprop, more in the vein of Leni Reifenstal’s Triumph Of The Will, scenes of which Capra recycles for his own purposes. That said, that fact does not mean it does not have vital information that subsequent generations of World War Two documentaries (such as the BBC’s lauded The World At War) lacked, nor does that mean that its value as a primary source is any the less valuable. They are skillfully made, and after recently purchasing some used DVDs at a discount store, I found myself with the opportunity to select a free DVD with my purchase. I chose Goodtimes DVD’s four DVD collection of the series.

  Rarely has something free been so worth invaluable. While there are no extras on the DVDs, and the sound quality of the prints varies, these films provide insight into the minds of Americans two thirds of a century ago, when racism was overt (as in many of the classic Warner Brothers pro-war cartoons of the era), and there was nothing wrong with blatant distortion of facts. The seven films, produced between 1942 and 1945, are Prelude To War, The Nazis Strike, Divide And Conquer, The Battle Of Britain, The Battle Of Russia, The Battle Of China, and War Comes To America.

  The first film, Prelude To War, is blatantly propagandistic, yet it gives much needed background to the war, however one-sided. For example, little is made of the harsh terms that ended World War One, nor the racist and punitive policies that European nations dealt with Japan, although the Japanese are referred to as ‘Hitler’s buck-toothed pals’ in world conquest, while the Nazis and Fascists are only called ‘gangsters’. However, the film correctly pinpoints the date for the war’s start not with the invasion of Poland, nor the bombing of Pearl Harbor, but with the Japanese invasion of Manchuria on September 18th, 1931. This is a very interesting and broadminded approach to a propaganda film, and one wonders just what balancing acts Capra had to pull in order to show some balance like this. Other points that stuck with me in watching this film was how many references to God there were, as well as the strains of Onward, Christian Soldiers constantly being evoked. A relevant point that presages Orwellian Newspeak comes when the narrator, Walter Huston, refers several times to ‘the free peoples of Russia’, who were then dying by the millions in Gulags, in numbers that dwarfed Hitler’s own death camps. Just a few years earlier Commies were seen as worse than the fascists, and a few years later McCarthyism would hold sway, but, during the war, Uncle Joe Stalin was a heroic leader.

  In the second film, The Nazis Strike, we get the portrayal of Germany as a psychotic nation, bent on war since 1870. Talk of their ‘maniacal will’ and ‘insane passion’ dominates. Two interesting points that stayed with me were the detailed military analysis of the German offensive into Poland, and the relative lack of emphasis on the death camps, in general, and Jews in particular. When religion and Nazis are mentioned, Protestants, Catholics, and Jews are all said to have been persecuted, and tossed into concentration camps with dissidents, opponents, and unionists. No mention of Kristallnacht appears in the seven films. Divide And Conquer, the third film, details the war in places given little attention- such as Denmark and Norway, as well as tactics the Nazis used to their advantage- like bombing small villages to drive Belgians onto main roads, slowing down French and British counter-offensives, as the Germans plowed through the Ardennes Forest to take France. Hitler is compared to John Dillinger, as an international gangster, and one senses something that laterdocumentaries on the war lack, a palpable air of uncertainty that the war was winnable. We really do come in media res to this world at war.

  The fourth film, The Battle Of Britain, is blatant agitprop, and the recreations, from British films, make this the weakest film of the series. During the blitz, an actor calls for his buddy, who appears and assures his pal the Nazis can’t get him because, ‘I had me fingers crossed.’ Metaphors like England’s being Jonah, and Nazi Germany being the whale, are strained, to say the least, and the rooting for Britain is as blatant as a home team baseball announcer’s. More sweeping generalizations about ‘the German mind’ abound, as does ominous and over the top musical scoring. This film ends at Christmas, 1942. The fifth, and longest, of the films is The Battle For Russia, in two parts. Having lived through the Cold War, it’s amazing to see how laudatory this film is of both Stalin and Russia, or The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics, as the film grudgingly admits, in a callow attempt to cover up the fact that the Russians were Communists, once and future bogeymen to us. Now, however, all Russians are gallant, and a hagiography of Russian historical bravery begins- starting with Alexander Nevsky, continuing through Napoleon’s failures, and ending in World War One. Somehow, the Communist Revolution was left on Capra’s cutting room floor. On the plus side, the film details how Tostoy’s and Tchaikovsky’s homes were razed, and many of the ethnic groups that lived in the Soviet Union, but I had to laugh when narrator Huston said they all were ‘free and united’, that Russia allowed religious freedom, and that the poor Russian industries (under Stalin, mind you!) had been ‘designed for peace’! The details of the fluid German-Russian front were well explained, but Stalin’s crimes are never mentioned. Nor is the fact that many people in the Baltics, Belarus, and Ukraine, welcomed the Nazis as liberators! Through the first five films, the focus is on Hitler and the Nazis, even though it was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that excused us into the war. I find this odd, but think that perhaps Americans didn’t view the ‘racially inferior’ Japanese as a real threat, merely sidekicks to Hitler: his ‘buck-toothed pals’, as the film calls them.

  The last two films, however, focus on Japan. The Battle Of China, the penultimate film, is one of the best, for it really details many facts long since glossed over in both history books and later documentaries, and focuses exclusively on then-current non-white interests- such as the Rape Of Nanking and the building of the Burma Road, although it has many drawbacks, such as the pervasive racism of calling the Japanese ‘The Japs’, and referring to ‘the yellow flood’ and ‘little yellow men’, plus it ends with an odd appendix, as apparently the print of the film that this DVD company used was shown in Australia, and exhorts on their soldiers, as well. There are also blatantly ahistorical assertions as bad as those in the film on Russia, such as calling the bloody dictatorship of Chiang Kai-Shek a ‘culture of peace’, asserting that a known forgery (even then) called The Tanaka Memorial was a Japanese version of Mein Kampf, detailing Japan’s vision for world conquest, and that in a four thousand plus year long history the Chinese had never waged a war of conquest. I guess the peoples of Indochina, Korea, and Tibet were not queried on that last claim. The seventh and final film, War Comes To America, is the most blatantly propagandistic, and historically suspect, but, for that reason, the most valuable record of the true attitudes of the time. The first things that jumped out at me were that the film is addressed to prospective soldiers, and also a shot of schoolchildren reciting the Pledge Of Allegiance, sans the words ‘under God’, which few people know was added only a decade later. A Gershwin score thrums through scenes of Americana, and an American history that lacks any references to slavery, the Civil War, Jim Crow, the Indian Wars, the then-current Japanese-American internment, and only shows the smiling ‘Negro harvesting cotton’. America is not perfect, though, as Huston admits Prohibition was a mistake. More racism, such as Ambassador Kurusu having a ‘toothy smile’, and revisionism abound- such as the portrayal of the pre-war American Army as weak, but that’s balanced out by interesting tidbits from Gallup Polls before and during the war, such as the fact that a 1936 poll showed 95% of Americans were against getting involved in a war in Europe.

  Overall, the film series is well worth watching, not only for the obvious reasons, but for the subtle things it reveals, such as the use of the plural for terms like X millions when referring to dollars, rather than the modern singular, or the most overused graphic in the whole series- a Japanese sword piercing the center of Manchuria. Yet, it also shows the complexities of trying to apply past standards to current wars. The lesson of World War One (avoid foreign entanglements) was not applicable to World War Two, whose own lesson (act early against dictatorships) has not been applicable in the three major wars America has fought since: Korea, Vietnam, nor Iraq. The fact that much of this series teeters on the uncertainties of the times it was made in only underscores its historic value in today’s information-clogged times. It may not help you sort out the truth from the lies and propaganda of today, but at least you’ll realize you are not the first to be in such a tenuous position, nor will you be the last.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]

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