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Director Frank Capra Goes to War

The making of Why We Fight

Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall had been aware as early as July 1941 that most troops, having grown up in regions with strong isolationist beliefs, didn’t understand the United States’ foreign policy regarding the Axis. With the country still neutral, there was nothing that Marshall could do to inform them why America was preparing for war. But when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Marshall wasted no time in acting.

“With reference to Prelude to War, I wish you would express to Capra my admiration for the superb job he and his associates have done.”

—Oct. 25, 1942, memo from Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Marshall to Chief of Morale Brig. Gen. Frederick Osborn

Though the U.S. Army Signal Corps was good at making training films, he knew the branch did not have the skills necessary to explain to men so recently removed from the civilian world what the war was about – and why Americans had to fight it. When movie director Frank Capra, a naturalized American from Sicily whose credits included It Happened One Night and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, enlisted, Marshall had Capra commissioned a major and assigned to his office, reporting directly to the chief of staff himself.

Frank Capra And John Ford

Directors Frank Capra and John Ford sometime during their military service in World War II. Photo courtesy of the Margaret Herrick Library

Capra had barely settled in when he was called into Marshall’s office. In his autobiography, The Name Above the Title, Capra recalled Marshall telling him that he had “an opportunity to contribute enormously” to America and the cause of freedom. Marshall explained that soon they would have a citizen army more than eight million strong that would be pitted against professional armies with experience in battle and proud of their victories. Marshall told him that the high commands of the Axis powers believed American soldiers to be “too soft . . . too pleasure-loving, too undisciplined” to defeat their armies.

Though Marshall had faith in his troops, he said, “To win this war we must win the battle for men’s minds. . . . I want to nail down with you a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films – the first in our history – that will explain to our boys in the Army why we are fighting, and the principles for which we are fighting.”

“Gen. Marshall, it’s only fair to tell you that I have never before made a single documentary film.”

Capra began to feel helpless. Apologetically he said, “Gen. Marshall, it’s only fair to tell you that I have never before made a single documentary film.”

Marshall fixed Capra with the cold stare that was known to have struck fear into generals as brave as George Patton, and replied, “Capra, I have never been chief of staff before. Thousands of young Americans have never had their legs shot off before. Boys are commanding ships today, who a year ago had never seen the ocean before.”

Why We Fight

A scene from the film “Prelude to War” from the “Why We Fight” series series directed by Frank Capra. U.S. Army photo

“I’m sorry, sir,” Capra said. “I’ll make you the best damned documentary films ever made.”

“I’ll make you the best damned documentary films ever made.”

To learn what he needed to do, he decided to go to the experts – the Nazis. He studied the combat and Nazi Party newsreels issued by Reich Minister Josef Goebbels’ Propaganda Ministry. But the film that impressed him most was Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, about the 1934 Nazi Party rally at Nuremberg. He found it “lethal.” Then it dawned on Capra that everything he needed had been done for him by the Axis. In a brilliant move, Capra decided to use the enemy’s own propaganda films as weapons against them.

Frank Capra

Maj. Frank Capra (center) at a screening of his film, “Prelude to War.” U.S. Army photo

The result was Prelude to War, the first in of seven documentaries, each just under an hour long, in a series entitled Why We Fight. As historian Geoffrey Perret wrote in There’s a War to be Won: “It wasn’t Marshall who told American soldiers why they must fight, it was Hitler; it wasn’t Marshall who told them the war involved principles worth dying for, it was Tojo. . . . There could be no more certain way to arouse young Americans’ wrath than to see and hear foreigners trying to intimidate them.”

“It wasn’t Marshall who told American soldiers why they must fight, it was Hitler; it wasn’t Marshall who told them the war involved principles worth dying for, it was Tojo. . . . There could be no more certain way to arouse young Americans’ wrath than to see and hear foreigners trying to intimidate them.”

Marshall screened Prelude to War in October 1942 and promptly ordered copies made and distributed to bases everywhere. More than 85 percent of the troops saw the series, which was later released to civilian audiences and overseas. Capra, who later rose to the rank of colonel, was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his work. He also received an Academy Award in 1943 for Prelude to War, which in order to conserve metal during the war, was a plaque and not the familiar Oscar statue. Shortly after the war’s conclusion he received a statue.

Why We Fight: Prelude to War can be seen on the Internet at: http://archive.org/details/PreludeToWar

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DWIGHT JON ZIMMERMAN is a bestselling and award-winning author, radio host, and president of the...