“Tunisian Victory”: Operation Torch Gets the Hollywood Treatment

This post was written with Heidi Holmstrom.

In the spring of 1943, Frank Capra, Hollywood director and colonel in the Army Signal Corps, began work on a film about the Allied campaign to take North Africa. The stakes were high—the film needed to demonstrate the strength of the Anglo-American relationship and build support among the American public for both the war and the alliance. The production was not without strife. The resulting documentary, Tunisian Victory, took nearly a year and a half to complete.

On November 8, 1942, American and British forces began Operation Torch, a joint amphibious landing of over 100,000 troops in North Africa. Allied forces arrived in Morocco and Algeria with an objective of defeating Axis forces in Vichy French North Africa, helping halt the spread of Axis control and allowing the Allies to gain control of the Southwest Mediterranean Sea. By May 19, 1943, the Allies would take Tunisia, allowing for the invasion of Sicily later that year.

Tunisian Victory was produced as a sequel of sorts to the British film Desert Victory, which largely focused on the Allied battles at El Alamein. Desert Victory was and is considered a quintessential war documentary, but there was one problem from the Americans’ perspective—the United States military was nowhere to be seen. The new film would need to depict a true joint effort.

Of course, producing a film in a war zone is more complicated than on a Hollywood backlot. Film crews were sent out over the region to record the operation, including a major initial battle in the Moroccan port city of Casablanca. Unfortunately, the Germans sank the ship carrying the footage and left Capra without coverage of some of the Americans’ most significant action.

With holes in the visual coverage, Capra turned to stock footage and re-creations to fill in the gaps. In June, Capra tasked director George Stevens, stationed in Algiers at the time, with shooting the re-creations. Stevens spent two weeks filming tanks, artillery, and infantry at the coast. With those scenes wrapped, Capra handed the project off to John Huston, who filmed planes and dummy tanks in Orlando and the California desert with a cast of GIs awaiting deployment.

Stills from Tunisian Victory (Local Identifier: 111-M-1012).

When complete, Tunisian Victory featured alternating British and American narrators, who repeatedly emphasized the joint nature of the venture, calling it the “greatest of combined operations,” and providing the image of “British and American officers [placed] at adjoining desks.” After a months-long struggle between the British and American war information units over who would tell the story, Capra gained full control over the production and released Tunisian Victory to theaters March 16, 1944.

Unfortunately for Capra, Tunisian Victory was old news by the time it was released. The incidents in the film had concluded nearly a year earlier, and two weeks before its release, With the Marines at Tarawa hit American theaters. For contemporary audiences, compared to Tarawa, Tunisian Victory lacked both the immediacy of authentic battle scenes and the relevance of more current events. The film may not have been successful at the box office, but it holds up well today as a tribute to the Anglo-American alliance.

Sources consulted:

Mark Harris, Five Came Back, (New York: Penguin Books, 2014).

Frederic Krome, “Tunisian Victory and Anglo-American Film Propaganda in World War II,” The Historian, Vol. 58, No. 3 (Spring 1996), p. 517-29