Monday, November 12, 2018

Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries



You may be familiar with Frank Capra's Hollywood films but how much do you know about the propaganda documentaries he made during WWII? The Sicilian born Frank Capra emigrated to the US in 1903. Here he developed a fervent patriotism that helped chart the course of his life and career. After failed attempts at becoming a chemical engineer and later a screenwriter, he found his talents for directing film suited him best. In Hollywood he made hits such as It Happened One Night (1934), Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (1936), Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939), and Meet John Doe (1941). Before re-enlisting in the Army in 1941, he made Arsenic and Old Lace (1944) hoping that its release would secure finances for his family while he was away. When the war ended and Capra came back to Hollywood, much had changed not only in the industry but with Capra himself. He made the independent film It's a Wonderful Life (1946) which wouldn't become the beloved classic that we know today until much later. Capra would make 5 more films over the next decade and a half but couldn't recapture the magic of his pre-war career.

While Capra was in the Army, his contribution to the war effort was primarily propaganda filmmaking. He served as executive producer and co-director on several different documentaries. Seven of these films made up his Why We Fight series.

New from Olive Films is Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries and Blu-Ray (and DVD) that features five of these films, 2 of which are from the Why We Fight series. In addition, Joseph McBride, Frank Capra biographer (Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success) is featured in an original documentary about Capra's life and career with a particular focus on his work during WWII. He also makes a 4 minute introduction to each of the 5 films.

This new one disc set contains the following:

Frank Capra: Why We Fight
31 minutes

Capra biographer Joseph McBride covers the scope of Frank Capra's life and his filmmaking career. Capra served in the Army for both WWI and WWII. We learn about his patriotism, conservative politics and personal conflicts. Confused with the changing ideologies of America during the war, Capra tried his best to make sense of this to make documentaries that would serve to help with the war effort. Capra received the Distinguished Service Medal for his contributions but was very ambivalent about the films he made during this time with the exception of The Battle of Russia. McBride speaks throughout this doc and unfortunately has a very monotone and dry delivery. The subject matter is interesting enough to make it worth your while. I was particularly fascinated by Capra's post-war career and his struggle to transition back into the industry.


Prelude to War (1942)
dir. by Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
52 min

This is the first of Capra's Why We Fight films and it starts off with the following:

"This film, the first of a series, has been prepared by the War Department to acquaint members of the Army with factual information as to the causes, the events lead up to our entry into the war and the principles for which we are fighting."

The film drives home its message of freedom and equality by comparing and contrasting the United States with the fascist regimes of Germany and Japan. These are presented as two separate earths and begs the question: which one would you want to live on? I was particularly fascinated by the propaganda messaging against the suppression of religious freedom and exploring the dangers of not taking the war seriously.


The Battle of Russia Part 1 (1943)
36 min
The Battle of Russia Part 2 (1943)
47 min
dir. by Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak

Russian born director Anatole Litvak joined forces with Frank Capra to direct this two part documentary, another entry into Capra's Why We Fight series. This propaganda film was pro-Russia and served to support our ally in the fight against the Nazis. Along with the pro-Soviet sentiment is quite a bit of anti-Nazi messaging. The first part focuses on Russia's military battles leading up to the WWII and the second part follows their battles against German invasion. It also clearly depicts Russia's successes in either defending or recapturing their borders. A hit upon its release in the US, the film didn't age well in the post-war McCarthy era.


The Negro Soldier (1944)
dir. by Stuart Heisler
produced by
40 min

After reading Mark Harris' book Five Came Back, I was most interested in seeing Heisler and Capra's film The Negro Soldier. This propaganda film had two purposes: 1) as a means to convince white people that it was crucial to have black people fight in the war and 2) as a means to recruit said black people. Carlton Moss wrote the script and also appears in the film as the black priest delivering a message to his parish about the importance of service. The film depicts the history of African-Americans in battle but also explores their contributions to American culture and their potential to contribute to the war effort.


Tunisian Victory (1944)
dir. by Frank Capra, John Huston and Hugh Stewart
76 min

During the war, American and British forces banded together to free Tunisia from the Nazis.  Although united in the battle, the Americans and Brits didn't see eye to eye and their union was fraught with tension. This spilled over to the documentary. The Brits had real footage which they used in their film Desert Victory. The American filmmaking team had their own footage as well but due to an unfortunate accident it was forever lost at sea. The British weren't about to give up their footage so Capra, Stewart and Huston joined forces to recreate the scenes with actors. Because of the reenactments, this one has the most cinematic feel of all the films in the set. It also feels the most contrived.


Your Job in Germany (1945)
dir. by Frank Capra
13 min

"The problem now is future peace — that is your job in Germany."

Made specifically for the American occupation troops in Germany to teach them how to treat the German people and what to be wary of, Your Job in Germany was written by Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss. This documentary short stands out in the set because it served to educate G.I.s rather than inform the public. Warner Bros. repackaged the film the following year and released it as Hitler Lives. McBride points out in his introduction that all of these war films were in the public domain because they were made with taxpayer money and not for profit.



Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries is available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Olive Films. The disc includes English subtitles and the option to play McBride's introduction before each film. This is a fantastic one disc set and is a must for WWII buffs and film history enthusiasts alike. 


Thank you to Olive Films for sending me a copy of the Blu-Ray for review. 
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