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WWII: Why We Fight

 Time: 441 minutes. B&W/Color. $49.99.

 In 1942, Gen. George C. Marshall ordered Frank Capra, then a major in the army’s Morale Branch, to create a new sort of training film that would educate GI Joes about the cultures of allies and enemies and explain the war’s background and battles. Capra mustered Walter and John Huston, William Shirer, William Wyler, Anatole Litvak, and Walt Disney (for animated maps). The films were so effective they were later shown in theaters (by 1945, to over 54 million Americans), won a 1944 New York Film Critics Award for Best Documentary Series, and became classics.

No wonder. They skillfully sketch the subject’s sprawling complexity while keeping faith with the all-American little-guy perspective Capra immortalized in Meet John Doe and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Challenged by Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi extravaganzas (Triumph of the Will, Olympia), Capra slyly inverted her editing and shooting techniques and grandiose messages— visually emphasizing individuals, for example, rather than monolithic groups and cloned Ubermenschen. He cut propaganda, news, and movie footage from the Axis and Allies into remarkably fluid narratives that pack a powerful punch.

As history, the movies range from surprisingly acute to reductive, sentimental, or propagandistic. Still, Why We Fight, the third boxed set from the National Archives vaults, is this series’ outstanding entry. Narrated by Walter Huston, Prelude to War uses Axis propaganda to depict the unraveling peace. War Comes to America, laced with period-piece racism, recounts prewar tensions and Pearl Harbor. The Nazis Strike runs chillingly from 1934 through 1939. Divide and Conquer details Poland, Norway, Denmark, the Low Countries, and France. The Battle of Britain is horrific and stirring. Using footage and techniques from film masters like Sergei Eisenstein, The Battle of Russia portrays Stalin’s autocracy as a multicultural “democracy” while conveying the eastern front’s vast scale. The Battle of China reflects America’s confused obsession with Chiang Kai-shek. Historical warts and all, though, Capra’s movies more than stand the test of time: they transport you back to theirs.


Originally published in the May 2009 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here