Why We Fight - Film (Movie) Plot and Review

USA, 1943–45

Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, and Anthony Veiller

Production: Signal Services, US Army (Parts 1–4), Signal Corps Army Pictorial Service (Parts 5–7); black and white, 35mm; running time: Part 1—53 mins.; Part 2—42 mins.; Part 3—58 mins.; Part 4— 54 mins.; Part 5—80 mins.; Part 6—64 mins.; Part 7—70 mins. Part 1 compiled in the 834th Signal Service Photograph Detachment, Dept. of the Interior Building, Washington, D.C.; Parts 2–7 compiled in 20th-Century studio facilities, Hollywood. Parts 1–4 released in 1943, Parts 5 and 6 released in 1944, Part 7 released in 1945.


Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Anthony Veiller and Eric Knight; director: Frank Capra; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Alfred Newman.

Why We Fight
Why We Fight

Cast: Walter Huston ( Narrator ).


Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Eric Knight, Anthony Veiller, and Robert Heller; directors: Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Dimitri Tiomkin.

Cast: Walter Huston and Anthony Veiller ( Narrators ).


Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Anthony Veiller and Robert Heller; directors: Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Dimitri Tiomkin.


Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Anthony Veiller; director: Anthony Veiller; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Dimitri Tiomkin.

Cast: Walter Huston and Anthony Veiller ( Narrators ).


Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Anatole Litvak, Anthony Veiller, and Robert Heller; director: Anatole Litvak; editor: William Hornbeck; music: arranged by Dimitri Tiomkin and selected from Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Rachmaninoff, and Rimsky Korsakov.

Cast: Walter Huston and Anthony Veiller ( Narrators ).


Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Anthony Veiller and Robert Heller; directors: Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Dimitri Tiomkin.

Cast: Walter Huston and Anthony Veiller ( Narrators ).


Producer: Frank Capra; screenplay: Anatole Litvak and Anthony Veiller; director: Anatole Litvak; editor: William Hornbeck; music: Dimitri Tiomkin.

Cast: Walter Huston and Anthony Veiller ( Narrators ).



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Bohn, Thomas, An Historical and Descriptive Analysis of the Why We Fight Series , New York, 1977.

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Sklar, Robert, and Vito Zagarrio , Frank Capra: Authorship and the Studio System , Philadelphia, 1998.

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Farber, Manny, "Memorandum to the Makers of Documentary War Movies," in New Republic (New York), 5 October 1942.

Nicholson, Harold, " Battle of Britain ," in Spectator (London), 8 October 1943.

Agee, James, "Newsreels and War-Record Films," in Nation (New York), 24 June 1944.

Isaacs, Hermine, "War and Love," in Theatre Arts (New York), May 1945.

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Katz, Robert and Nancy, "Documentary in Transition, Part 1: The United States," in Hollywood Quarterly , Summer 1948.

Gallaz, Douglas W., "Patterns in Wartime Documentaries," in Quarterly of Films, Radio, and Television (Berkeley), Winter 1955.

Nolan, Jack Edmund, "Anatole Litvak," in Films in Review (New York), November 1967.

Murphy, William, "The Method of Why We Fight ," in Journal of Popular Culture (Bowling Green, Ohio), Summer 1972.

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Denby, David, "It's a Wonderful War," in Premiere (Boulder), vol. 3, no. 5, January 1990.

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* * *

The Why We Fight series was a massive effort on the part of the United States government to indoctrinate the millions of young men and women inducted into military service following the American entry into World War II. The making of this series and other large-scale information and education films, as they were called, was planned and supervised by Frank Capra. One of the most popular Hollywood filmmakers of the late 1930s, he had no prior documentary experience.

Why We Fight was based on the assumption that servicemen would be more willing and able fighters if they knew the events that led up to, and the reasons for our participation in the war. It had to counteract the spirit of isolationism still strong in this country up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In this attempt it offered a gigantic historical treatise from a particular, "liberal" point of view—that is to say the New Deal viewpoint of the Democratic administration, prevalent in the country at the time. (There is an irony here in that Capra's personal politics have always seemed to be conservative Republican, but they rested on a kind of populism that united him with the common effort led by President Franklin Roosevelt.) The historical approach was a frequent one in American documentaries, going back to The Plow that Broke the Plains (1936) and The River (1937). It was scarcely used by the wartime filmmakers of other governments, such as Great Britain or Canada, Germany or the Soviet Union.

The series is perhaps most impressive in the scale of its conception and in the skill of its execution. Almost entirely compiled from existing footage including newsreels, Allied and captured enemy records of battle, bits from Hollywood features, and Nazi propaganda films—it presents a vast and coherent panorama through editing and commentary.

The first three films— Prelude to War, The Nazis Strike , and Divide and Conquer —cover the period 1918 to 1940. They document Japanese aggression in the Orient, the growing menace of Hitler in Europe, and—above all—the changing American foreign policy and public opinion throughout these years. The Battle of Britain, The Battle of Russia , and The Battle of China cover the efforts of the allies, who were in the war before the Americans and continued to fight alongside them. War Comes to America offered a recapitulation and an even more detailed examination of the tremendous changes in American opinions and attitudes, as well as the conflicting impulses and ideologies that shaped them. Picking up and consolidating the themes of the first three films, it was the last one made but was intended to be shown first. Though the seven films were designed for military personnel, their excellence and dramatic power were recognized by the War Department, and some of them were made available for civilian audiences through theatrical exhibition. They were shown to all servicemen; viewing all seven was compulsory before embarkation for overseas duty.

The chief artistic problem for the makers of the films was one of giving structure to vast amounts of unstructured history. In this respect their work was like the work of Shakespeare in his chronicle plays. Dramatic form was given to each of the seven films, with exposition, mounting action, climax, denouement. They can be broken down into acts, in fact. Divide and Conquer , for example, has five acts, like the classical tragedy. Act I contains exposition: Germany has overrun Poland; Britain was now the goal; German strategy is outlined, and the theme of Hitler's lying treachery sounded. The content of Act II is the successful German campaign against Denmark and Norway. Act III deals with the position of France, the Maginot Line, and French weakness. Act IV comprises the German conquest of Holland and Belgium. Act V is the fall of France. The various participant countries are given character; they become characters, like dramatic personae. In this respect, rather than the Shakespearian histories, this film bears a curious resemblance to Hamlet , with Germany as Claudius, the murderous villain, France as Hamlet, DeGaulle and French North Africa as Horatio, and England as Fortinbras. Here, as in Hamlet , things are not what they seem, with the villain protesting friendship and the tragic hero constricted by an incapacity for action.

A considerable variety of visual and audio resources are used in these compiled documentaries—very nearly the full range conceivable. Visuals in The Nazis Strike , for instance, include, in addition to newsreel footage, excerpts from the Nazi's Triumph of the Will, Hitlerjunge Quex , and Baptism of Fire; bits of staged action (the victims of firing squads); still photos, drawings and maps; animated diagrams (animation by the Walt Disney Studio); and printed titles (Hitler's pronouncements). The sound track includes two narrators (Veiller for the factual, Huston for the emotional), quoted dialogue (Churchill, and an impersonation of Hitler), music (by one of Hollywood's best), and sound effects.

Dramatic conflict is obtained by painstaking manipulation of the combat footage. The editing conventions of matched action and screen direction are observed. The German attackers always move from right to left. A synthetic assemblage of diverse material is edited into a cause-effect order: German bombers in formation, bombs dropping from planes, explosions in villages, rubble. The result is as if all of this footage had been shot for these films—under Capra's direction.

The maps and animated diagrams give scope to the live-action sequences, clarify and relate random material for formalized patterns consistent with the actual movement involved. In Divide and Conquer the sequence of refugees on the roads being strafed is especially striking; one reads into the actual what has just been seen in animated representation. In another instance from the same film, the animated arrows representing the armoured Panzer divisions thrust into an outlined Ardennes forest with speed and power. The animation by itself takes on symbolic and rhetorical meaning; again in Divide and Conquer , swastika termites infest the base of a castle, and python-like arrows lock around the British Isles.

It must be admitted that, though the Why We Fight series may be greatly admired on technical and aesthetic grounds, there is some convincing evidence that it was not as effective an indoctrination as was hoped for and even thought to be. The problem, the social scientists inferred from their testings, was with the historical approach. It seemed to have the desired effects only on those with the equivalent of some college education; it seemed to be too intellectual for a majority of soldiers tested. As films, though, Why We Fight offer incontrovertible evidence of very great filmmaking skill and a remarkably full and varied use of film technique.

—Jack C. Ellis

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