‘The reason why was hazy in their minds[i]’
After being summoned by General George C Marshall to meet with him on February the 11th, 1942, Frank Capra, of ‘It’s a wonderful life’, and ‘You can’t take it with you’ fame, 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’[ii] and potentially exempting him from War time service.
In wrestling with the decision Capra wrote:
‘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.[iii]’
Responding to the 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 he had been reassigned to the newly created Morale Branch (Special Services)[iv].
Despite being uneasy, tense, and apprehensive[v]. His appointed meeting with Marshall on the 11th of February went ahead better than he’d expected it to. 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’ [vi] – appeared to have justified Marshall’s choice.
Under his 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, to help counter Axis propaganda.
Marshall explains why:
‘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’’[vi]
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?’ [viii]
‘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 proveto our soldiersthe enormity of his cause – and the justness of ours!’ [ix]
Why We Fight became the end product of this prayer filled decision. Seven documentaries – or information cinema – were produced. They 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.
Threats posed by excessive political correctness, militant LGBT activism, the twisting and quest to “own” science, the placement of feelings over facts, Islamism and its sympathizers in the West; all pushing for the triumph of the will, the will-to-dominate; to satisfy the libido dominandi and it’s lust for power. All tell us that Capra’s work here is not something that should be easily mocked or dismissed.
We can hear the tone his work resound in our ears today reminding us that:
“[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’
(Paul to the Galatians 5:1, ESV)
[i] General George C Marshall, 1942 cited by Frank Capra, 1971
[ii] Capra, F. 1971 The Name Above the Title Da Capo Press p.314
[iii] Ibid, p.314
[iv] Ibid, p.318
[v] Ibid, p.326
[vi] Ibid, p.325
[vii] Ibid, p.327
[viii] Ibid, p.330
[ix] Ibid, p.330
Poster for IAWL (Wikipedia)
Photo of Frank Capra receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from U.S. Army Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall (Wikipedia)