After being summoned by General George C Marshall on February the 11th, 1942, Hollywood directer, Frank Capra, famous for ‘It’s a wonderful life’, and ‘You can’t take it with you’, walked into the Pentagon.
Before Capra had received the invitation, he had been in the process of reviewing an offer of a partnership which, in his own words ‘would have made him part owner of “United Artists”. Easily placing him in the multi-millionaire class’1 and potentially exempting him from War time service.
After wrestling with the decision Capra concluded:
Why trade fame, glamour, and wealth for a number stamped on a dog tag?… I was bored with the applause. Furthermore, I had a guilty conscience. In my films I championed the cause of the gentle, the poor, the downtrodden, yet I began to live like the Aga Khan.2
Responding to Marshall’s invitation, Capra went from red carpet to khaki green. Expecting to be assigned to the Signal Corps, he was surprised, and a little annoyed to find, that he had been reassigned to the newly created Morale Branch (Special Services).3 Capra’s appointment was to remind many about ‘the reason why [they were being called to fight], because it was hazy in their minds.’4
Despite being uneasy, tense, and apprehensive.5 His meeting with Marshall went ahead, and it went better than expected. Capra’s straight up honesty and his clear separation from being a typical “Hollywood type” – someone who ‘wouldn’t step on a carpet unless it was red’6 – appeared to have justified Marshall’s choice.
Under Marshall’s authority and at his request, Capra would produce a series of documentary movies that would serve as training videos for Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians and Britain. All to help counter Axis propaganda because as Marshall explained:
The assumption of the Axis powers is that our boys will be too soft, too undisciplined to stand up against their highly trained, highly indoctrinated, highly motivated professional armies. They are sure the spirit and the morale of their individual soldier is superior to ours. He has something to fight and die for – victory for the superman; establishing the new age of the superstate. The spoils of such a victory are a heady incentive.
How can we counter their superman incentive? … Will young, freewheeling American boys take the iron discipline of wartime training; endure the killing cold of the Arctic, the hallucinating heat of the desert, or the smelly muck of the jungle? Can they shake off the psychological diseases indigenous to all armies – boredom and homesickness?
In my judgement the answer is ‘Yes’! Young Americans, and young men of all free countries, are used to doing and thinking for themselves. They will prove not only equal, but superior to totalitarian soldiers, if – and this is a large if, indeed – they are given answers as to why they are in uniform, and if the answers they get are worth fighting and dying for.
That Capra is our job – and your job. To win this war we must win the battle for men’s minds. I want you to nail down a plan to make a series of documented, factual-information films that will explain why we are fighting and the principle for which we are fighting.7
In response to Marshall, Capra said: “I have never before made a single documentary film. In fact, I’ve never even been near anybody that’s made one.”
Marshall countered back: “Capra, I have never been a 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.”
To which Capra replied: “I’m sorry, sir. I’ll make you the best damned documentary films ever made.”
He then turned to resolving the question of how?:
Shortly after General Marshall ordered me to make the ‘“Why we Fight” films for our servicemen, I saw Leni Riefenstahl’s terrifying motion picture, Triumph of the Will…it fired no guns, dropped no bombs. But as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal…
I sat alone and pondered. How could I mount a counterattack against Triumph of the Will; keep alive our will to resist the master race?8
Capra is by far one of my favourite filmmakers from the Hollywood Golden era. In his own words he tells us that he wrestled hard with the issues, and in the end chose to fight propaganda with facts. Capra was what Radiance Foundation founder, Ryan Bomberger would call a factivist. Throughout this initial struggle Capra also credits prayer and the Bible for having inspired his creative direction and determination to see the job done.
‘I needed a basic, powerful idea, an idea that would spread like a prairie fire; an idea from which all ideas flowed. I thought of the Bible.There was one sentence in it that always gave me goose pimples: “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Did this also mean that the truth would make you strong? Strong enough to stop the Axis powers? What was the truth about this World War?
Well, Fascists and Warlords were trying to stamp out human freedom and establish their own world dictatorships…But how could I know that statement was true? Who proved it to me? Why the enemy himself proved it to me, in his acts, his books, his speeches, his films. That was the key idea I was searching for – on my feet in Pentagon halls, on my back in bed, and on my knees in pews.
Let the enemy prove to our soldiers the enormity of his cause – and the justness of ours!9
Why We Fight was the end product of prayer, hard work and careful planning. Seven documentaries were produced, and a new film category called information cinema came into being. These documentaries were Frank Capra’s answer to Leni Rienfenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film, ‘Triumph of the Will‘; something Capra himself called, ‘a blood-chilling super-spectacle; the ominous prelude to Hitler’s holocaust of hate.’ (p.328).
Given the current state of the world and the increasing examples of threats to religious freedom, free speech, freedom of association & freedom of conscience, Capra’s work stands as a clarion call from a bygone era.
Threats posed by excessive political correctness, the militant activism of subscribers to the LGBT religion, the twisting and quest to “own” science, the placement of feelings over facts. Including the appeasement of Islamism by its sympathisers in the West. All pushing for the triumph of their will over others, as they inject their lust for power into theology, biology, society and politics.
Capra’s clarion call rings true today, as much as it did yesterday: “[In the slave world] men insist that progress lay in killing freedom.” (Why We Fight, 1942)
Like Capra, we are confronted with Jesus’ historical and eternal reminder, “You shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32)
And we stand on this, determined to not let the reasons for why we must take a stand, become hazy in our minds or the mind of society. We do this with the same skill, grace and determination because it is: ‘for freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.’ (Galatians 5:1)
- Capra, F. 1971 The Name Above the Title Da Capo Press p.314
- Ibid, p.314
- Ibid, p.318
- Capra Citing Marshall
- Ibid, p.326
- Ibid, p.325
- Ibid, p.325
- Ibid, p.330
- Ibid, p.330