Nov 15, 2018

On Blu-ray/DVD--Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra's World War II Documentaries

At the peak of his career, director Frank Capra set aside his Hollywood work to make films in support of the US World War II effort. As a unit producer, director and advisor, he helped to craft a series of propaganda films to boost soldier moral and educate about the meaning of war. Olive Films has compiled five of these productions in a new collection hosted by Capra biographer Joseph McBride.

One of the most remarkable things about this collection is the variety of tone and focus in Capra’s work. The Academy Award-winning Prelude to War (1942) is an upbeat call to action, with a practically cheerful narrator, though it motivates by evoking terror of marching armies of Nazis. The two-parter The Battle of Russia (1943) takes a more somber tone, acknowledging the massive loss of life the country experienced during wartime. The Negro Soldier (1944) is pure propaganda, speeding past the reasons for the civil war, US racial tensions, and the segregation of the Army to ensure young black men of their value to the effort. One of the more cinematic efforts, Tunisian Victory (1944) had a score by film composer Dimitri Tiomkin, voice work by actor Burgess Meredith and input from director John Huston. The starkest film of the bunch is Your Job in Germany (1945), which sternly warns soldiers to remain wary of German citizens post Nazi defeat.

In addition to hosting the short documentary Frank Capra: Why We Fight, McBride provides low-key introductions for each film. I found these intros useful in understanding the context, reception, and meaning of each production. Apparently some of the intense battle scenes and footage of masses of marching Nazis were almost too effective, inspiring terror instead of the fire to fight in some of the enlisted men in the audience. Capra was aware of the effectiveness of his work, and so proud of his results that he wanted the films to be released to theaters so that he could get the praise he felt due to him.

McBride began his study of Capra because of contradictions he observed when meeting with the director and the skepticism those observations inspired in him give his analysis of the man an interesting edge. While acknowledging his talent, he also notes how Capra’s ego and hypocrisy played a role in his wartime work and film career before and after. The result is a revealing, fascinating portrait of the filmmaker.

As a package, this is as interesting a portrait of Capra as it is a rich historical document. It’s a great starting point for exploring the works of the Hollywood directors, also including John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Ford, who created cinema to support the war effort.

Many thanks to Olive Films for providing a copy of the disc for review.

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