The films of legendary director Frank Capra are known for their overt sentimentality and embodiment of American ideals. As an immigrant from Italy, Capra fully committed himself to his adopted nation, and his filmmaking career reflected that in classics such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The Oscar-winning director abandoned his glamourous life as a Hollywood figure in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, and the legendary filmmaker joined the United States Army Signal Corps to oversee American filmmaking to combat the propaganda blitz of the Nazis and their Axis allies. The documentary films by Frank Capra during World War II now land on Blu-ray in a new edition from Olive Films entitled Mr. Capra Goes to War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries. While Capra’s World War II documentaries aren’t his finest works as a filmmaker, they’re a fascinating historical document that further emphasize the filmmaker’s passion for the American ideal under the most trying of times.
Capra and the rest of the Signal Corps under the command of Major General “Wild Bill” Donovan were placed in precarious situation. The war would not just be fought on the battlefield. There was a war for minds going on and the Nazis had fired first on that battlefield with Triumph of the Will, the infamous propaganda film by Leni Riefenstahl. The grotesque glorification of the Nazi war machine was an effective tool for Joseph Goebbels, and Riefenstahl employed expert craft in service of evil. Neither President Franklin Delano Roosevelt nor “Wild Bill” Donovan wanted to match the Nazis on the propaganda front, each declining to institute a set of hard guidelines for Capra and the other filmmakers in the Signal Corps.
But how to fight Triumph of the Will? Capra knew he couldn’t match Riefenstahl’s film with its meticulously staged displays of military might and message of Aryan superiority, nor did he want to. Necessity being the mother of invention, Capra devised a genius way to fire his first salvo on the propaganda front. Don’t try and match Riefenstahl and Goebbels’ grotesque propaganda. Instead use their propaganda against them. That’s exactly what Capra did in his first documentary for the Signal Corps, the first in his series entitled Why We Fight, Prelude to War. Capra used the propaganda coming from the Nazis, Mussolini’s Italy, and Imperial Japan to illustrate the difference between Aliied and Axis forces. It’s Capra’s finest hour as a propagandist, a vital entry in his filmography as he once again embraces the ideals of his adopted homeland and draws a cinematic line in the sand against the nation’s fascist foes.
Other films overseen by Capra in his role within the Signal Corps include Tunisian Victory, a look at the battle in North Africa co-directed by John Huston; The Battle of Russia, a look at the attempts of the Nazis to invade Russia and narrated by Walter Huston; Your Job In Germany, a short film for soldiers written by Theodor S. Geisel, who you would know as Dr. Seuss. Finally, there’s the famed film The Negro Soldier, where Capra once again taps into his American idealism to encourage black men to enlist as they face a threat more insidious than the typical institutionalized racism of America in the ‘40s. Each of these films offer an illuminating look at the war for hearts and minds going on amidst the war that determined the fate of western civilization in the 20th century.
Film historian and Capra biographer Joseph McBride provides introductions for each of the documentaries available on Mr. Capra Goes To War as well as a lengthy analysis of Capra’s foray into propaganda filmmaking. McBride offers fascinating insight into the history behind each production as well as information as to how each work reflects (or doesn’t reflect) Capra’s personal politics. McBride’s input on Capra and his work is invaluable to this edition, giving the films so much more depth than that of just a simple historical curiosity for film lovers.
Mr. Capra Goes To War is a fascinating glimpse at a moment in history, a moment so great that Capra, John Huston, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Ford abandoned their life in Hollywood to join the fight in the best way they knew how – with a movie camera. This Blu-ray edition from Olive Films is a wonderful companion piece to Netflix’s great documentary series Five Came Back, based upon the equally great book by Mark Harris. Capra’s Hollywood films may not have always reflected his own personal politics, but when duty called the legendary director didn’t shy away. He stepped up to fight for the land that he loved.
Mr. Capra Goes To War
Olive Films brings legendary director Frank Capra’s World War II documentaries to Blu-ray with Mr. Capra Goes To War, a collection of fascinating propaganda films from a Hollywood legend who left behind the glamour of Tinseltown to serve a nation at war.