Last week I spoke my piece about Edward R. Murrow and his I Can Hear it Now series. Ed’s been dead a long time, but my hunch is that if he were alive, he wouldn’t be doing a lot of hand-wringing about World War II, or the “narrative” to which most of us in America still subscribe. Ed was a man of certainty: he loved democracy, he hated the Nazis (and the Japanese militarists as well), and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he lifted a nice, tall Scotch in honor of victory on both V-E and V-J days. Like virtually everyone in his generation, Ed believed there was a war to be won, and sitting under a rain of Luftwaffe bombing in London probably did nothing to change his mind. His broadcasts provided the audio track that guided the nation into war.
As everyone knows, however, the 20th century was the great age of video. We live on images, vivid scenes that tell us how to think and what to feel. Movies are our window into reality—as much as we tell ourselves that what we’re seeing is an illusion. And if anyone provided the visuals for World War II, it was a man of humble origins, a Sicilian immigrant who championed his adopted country with the zeal of the new convert: Frank Capra.
Capra is a household word in the history of film. He directed two of the most famous movies of all time. It Happened One Night (1934) featured Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert in a romantic comedy that seems charming to us, but struck audiences of the day as scandalous and titillating in equal measure. And who among us has not thrilled to It’s a Wonderful Life, the story of George Bailey and the world as it might have existed had he never been born? Capra stood for the American virtues: family, hard work, and the flouting of conventions.
One of his less well known productions is the series of shorts he produced for the government during the war, designed to explain to U.S. servicemen why they should be leaving hearth and home and going to fight the Axis in a godforsaken backwater like Guadalcanal. Why We Fight, he called them. I’ve spent more time watching these films than I care to admit, and I love them all. My favorite in the series, however, is the first installment, “Prelude to War.”
Talk about certainty! Let us just say that Capra is not a master of nuance. He offers us two images of the globe: “Our World” (bathed in sunlight) and “Their World” (cloaked in darkness). One is freedom, the other slavery. One is peace, the other war. One is love, the other hate. He shows us a map of Fascist Italy that animates into a menacing axe tied in a bundle of rods (the ancient Roman fasces). Japan turns into a dragon devouring its neighbors. And Germany turns into a hideous swastika menacing all and sundry.
The dialog can only be described as lurid. The free world owes its freedoms to the great liberators, “lighthouses” of civilization, Capra calls them, “lighting up a dark and foggy world”: Moses, Confucius, Muhammad, Christ. He traces a direct link between these big four and modern America, especially the Declaration of Independence and the Gettysburg Address. Meanwhile, the slave world worships “rabble-rousers” and “demagogues” like Hitler, Mussolini, and the God-Emperor. “Stop thinking and follow me!” he has Hitler crying. “I will make you masters of the world!” And the German people answer “Heil, Heil!”
Oh, sure, I know what you’re saying: come on, man, don’t believe anything you see on TV or the screen. I’m a 21st century guy, and I know better than to be gullible. After all, we live in the age of MTV’s “Real World,” a show about young adults who live in expensive apartments and have no bills, or “Real Housewives of New York,” who are anything but real housewives. Still, World War II was at least partially a contest of ideas. Capra was a master Hollywood film maker, and my inner historian has to ask: how could the Axis possibly win the war of ideas in the 1940s, an era when Hollywood reigned supreme?
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