Why We Fight: Prelude to War, America’s Crash History Lesson

Why We Fight stands among the most ambitious and successful film projects ever undertaken by the United States government. Over the course of seven films, released from 1942 to 1945, director Frank Capra and his team argued forcefully for American service-people and civilians to unite in the massive labor of defeating the Axis Powers and defending American values. All seven films, restored with funding from the National Film Preservation Foundation, are available on the National Archives YouTube Channel.

Screenshot from Prelude to War, 111-OF-1

General George C. Marshall recruited Capra, already a successful Hollywood director, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. The filmmakers in the Office of War Information (OWI) faced an uphill battle in countering the German, Italian, and Japanese propaganda machines, which had already been turning out militaristic films for a decade.

Capra was shook upon viewing Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, a work of grandiose aesthetics and shameless Hitler-worship. In the arena of propaganda, a democracy could not fight fire with fire. Rather, the trove of enemy films collected by the United States served as material for cinematic dissection and counterpoint. It damned the Axis Powers with their own images and words, just as prosecutors later did at Nuremberg.

The first installment in Why We Fight, Prelude to War, traces the origins of the Second World War back to Mussolini’s March on Rome in 1922, Hitler’s Beer Hall Putsch in 1923, and Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931. In attempting to document such a vast scope of time and space, the film draws upon an eclectic variety of foreign sources and newsreels and includes some original footage, including reenactments. The film also incorporates animations by the personnel of Walt Disney Studios, particularly in the area of maps. In fact, the film received a prominent full-page promotion on the back of the War Department’s Newsmap of November 16, 1942.

Newsmap – Volume 1, Number 30 (26-NM-1-30b)

Many of these events seen in the film were documented by newsreel companies. Prelude to War includes some footage of Italy’s invasion of Ethiopia identical to that which appears in a Fox Movietone newsreel held by the National Archives, https://catalog.archives.gov/id/29551. The only footage in the film which appears with a visible source citation is a series of vox pops from a Pathe newsreel in which Americans voice their opinions for or against joining the war in Europe.

Screenshot from Prelude to War, 111-OF-1

In addition to featured films, the United States’ enemies often created their propaganda in the form of newsreels such as Italy’s Giornale Luce and Germany’s Die Deutsche Wochenschau. The National Archives holds several examples of such works, two of which can be seen at https://catalog.archives.gov/id/43608 and https://catalog.archives.gov/id/78918.

Some of the scenes in the film are recreations, which the film does not indicate. This may fall short of the journalistic standards of today, but Capra and his team had a war to win. The footage of the murders of opponents of the Axis powers is clearly staged, particularly as the murder of Japanese Viscount Sait? Makoto is seen from the point of view of the victim!

Screenshot from Prelude to War, 111-OF-1

And while the song the children sing at 18:20 praising Hitler is real, (American journalist Gregor Ziemer reported the song in his book Education for Death: The Making of the Nazi, and it was incorporated into the Nuremberg trials,) the footage is an American imagining of such a scene.

In undermining the messages originally intended by the Axis footage, Capra employs dramatic contrasts between the militaristic imagery and Walter Huston’s narration. Written by screenwriter Anthony Veiller and Lassie creator Eric Knight, the narration lays bare authoritarian lies through point-by-point rebuttal, but it also appeals to the viewer’s presumed senses of patriotism, peacefulness, faith, and love of family. More bluntly, the film sometimes places dictatorial speeches in montage with the simple animation “Lies Lies Lies”.

Clip from Prelude to War, 111-OF-1

But the film also offers original images of Americana and things worth fighting for, as opposed to against. The last film in the series, War Comes to America, would explore this further. Among the new scenes created for Prelude to War is Capra quoting his own Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. Just as Jefferson Smith visits the Lincoln Memorial and views the inscription of the Gettysburg Address, so too does Prelude to War feature the words “that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”