Mr. Capra Goes to War
1942-1945, The National Archives
310 min. / B&W / 1.37:1
Olive Films: BD $29.95, DVD $24.95

A fine collection of documentaries produced during WWII by Col. Frank Capra, introduced and annotated by Capra biographer Joseph McBride, whose analysis and comments are as interesting as the films themselves. The films were requested by the U.S. government and designed as propaganda to inspire the troops, although also shown stateside (generally at Capra’s insistence) to inform the home front, too. (It didn’t hurt that Capra was proud of the films and saw them as Oscar® worthy – which, in two cases, they were.)

Originally designated as part of the “Why We Fight” series, but the films veered off in their own direction and, as McBride tells us, Capra – despite decades of claims to the contrary – did not direct the films per se, but served as what we’d call an Executive Producer. Still, it was his reputation as arguably America’s finest director – when the war broke out, he’d been nominated six times and won three – that enabled these films to be made with the full backing of the War Department.

Films in the Set

Frank Capra: Why We Fight is a half-hour documentary with Mr. McBride giving an overview of Capra’s service and the film series.

Prelude to War (52 min.) explains the rise of Fascism and America’s duty to defeat it on behalf of free people around the world; one of the Oscar® winners in the series.

The Battle of Russia, parts 1 and 2 (83 min.), spotlights the Nazi assault on the Balkans as a path to the heart of the Soviet Union. The film features dramatic battle sequences from not only newsreels (including captured enemy footage) but from Russian historical dramas as well.

The Negro Soldier (43 min.) is quite different; Stuart Heisler (The Glass Key) directs a drama written by Carlton Moss, who plays the earnest narrator/preacher in the film. The Negro Soldier was intended as an enlistment tool for African-Americans to join the armed forces (and features footage of Joe Louis in basic training and Jesse Owens besting German’s finest at the 1936 Olympics).

Tunisian Victory (75 min.) is a bit of a mess; the extensive North African battle footage was lost at sea and so Capra called on editor and director friends, including John Huston, to recreate it for this feature-length film. Burgess Meredith is amongst the narrators. (Most of the films were narrated by Walter Huston to great effect.)

Finally, Your Job in Germany (13 min.), written by of all people Theodor S. Geisel (Dr. Seuss) was a warning against fraternization, shown to Occupational soldiers in Germany after the war. Another Oscar® winner when it was re-edited for the public.

Taken all together, more than five hours of film and commentary on the second Great War; the films have never been copyrighted and have always been easy to find on the Internet or budget discs, but they’ve never looked as good as they do here, although Olive Films didn’t provide a complete restoration on them (but does add those terrific, informative introductions as well as sub-titles for the hearing impaired). Highly recommended.