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Know Your Ally: Britain

Know Your Ally: Britain(1943)

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Know Your Ally: Britain (1943)

Of the seventeen documentaries supervised by producer-director Frank Capra for the United States government in the 1940s, the best-known entries were the seven that appeared under the umbrella title Why We Fight. They were designed to teach American soldiers about the reasons for World War II and rally their enthusiasm for the struggle of democracy against dictatorship.

Another series that Capra oversaw during the war years is less celebrated. It was planned as a set of six informational films under two headings - Know Your Allies and Know Your Enemies - but only five pictures were completed, and just two of them had the original headings in their titles. Know Your Ally: Britain arrived first, in 1944, followed by Know Your Enemy: Japan in 1945. Here Is Germany and Your Job in Germany also appeared in 1945, and Our Job in Japan wrapped up the project in 1946. The disappearance of the original headings isn't surprising, since neither Germany nor Japan was either an ally or an enemy when the war drew to a close.

Know Your Ally: Britain looks conspicuously old-fashioned today, and it seemed equally outmoded when it was new. Capra initially hoped to make nearly a dozen films under the Know Your Allies and Know Your Enemies rubrics, but various hurdles intervened, some of them insurmountable, others just time-consuming and stressful. By the time Know Your Ally: Britain was finished, "it felt so out of date that it was virtually useless as propaganda," according to Mark Harris's 2014 book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.

The film's subject is British bravery, fortitude, and pluck in the face of merciless foes. This was a familiar topic - movies had been portraying it throughout the war - yet here was a picture that started by calling Brits the hardest of the Allies to understand, not because they're so different from Americans but because they're so similar. That's an odd argument, and the film adds little clarity with its superficial comparison of (exciting) baseball and (boring) cricket, its teasing jokes about British accents and the quality of British coffee, and its insistence that Brits live in a crowded "sardine can" compared with the spaciousness of North America.

Silly stereotypes kick in almost immediately, when the Allied countries (identified with the United Nations, a government preference at the time) are personified as John Britain, Big Joe Russia, "the tough little guy from China," and "a guy called Yank," each as bold and feisty as the backs on a winning football team. When it discusses the likenesses between Americans and Brits, the film stresses points that are valid enough but could hardly have been news to any GI with a basic education: both nations are democracies, both have wartime rationing, a Brit saying "the queen" is like an American saying "the people." The tone is generally condescending - when John Britain was in a "tough spot" in 1941, the US government "saved his skin" with the lend-lease program - and the only unexpected bits are the occasional "damns" in the voiceover.

Capra's muddled politics must shoulder some of the blame for the film's lack of originality and oomph. Looking at his pre-war Hollywood features in a 1974 book, critic Donald Willis finds him to be "apolitical, antipolitical, or, based on Meet John Doe [1941], a nihilist," making movies "with a vaguely-defined 'public' in mind, not a party or an ideology." Harris quotes a harsher verdict from the author and screenwriter Irving Wallace, who said that Capra's only clear idea was "America had been good to him" and that his foreign policy boiled down to "The only good Jap is a dead Jap." If that's literally true, it's beyond outrageous.

But forces larger than Capra were also at work. One reason why Know Your Ally: Britain took so long to complete, and why Know Your Enemies never made it to Germany or Italy when they were enemies, is that Know Your Enemy: Japan got bogged down in controversy. Capra saw himself as a man of action and was particularly excited at the prospect of attacking Hirohito's ruthless militarism through motion pictures. "This is a total war fought with every conceivable weapon," he told a group of colleagues in 1942. "Your weapon is film! Your bombs are ideas! Hollywood is a war plant!"

Hollywood's war plant wasn't working very well, though, as Harris shows after quoting those words. Just when Capra was plunging into the Allies/Enemies project, Japan-related events at a couple of major studios upset the Office of War Information, where Bureau of Motion Pictures chief Lowell Mellett saw complexities in wartime filmmaking that many in Hollywood hadn't considered. One involved Capra's fantasy Lost Horizon, which had lost money for Columbia Pictures in 1937; now the studio tried to transform it into propaganda, adding a prologue that set it during the Sino-Japanese War and shortening the rest by almost half an hour. Just as bad, Twentieth Century Fox released a 1942 cheapie titled Little Tokyo, U.S.A., in which a Los Angeles police officer battles a vast conspiracy of Japanese Americans, depicted as "half-pint connivers" who serve as "volunteer spies" for their treacherous leaders across the sea.

Such blatant bias shocked even the organizers of the US government's Japanese internment camps. Mellett, knowing that Americans and Japanese would have to share the planet when the war eventually ended, angrily reminded Hollywood that the Bill of Rights was one of the things Americans were fighting to defend. With things like these in the air, work on Allies and Enemies slowed to a crawl, mired in what Harris describes as "diplomacy and red tape."

Hardly anyone saw Know Your Ally: Britain when it finally wrapped, and plans for Allies pictures focusing on France, Canada, and Australia were scrapped. Capra produced other War Department films, including The Negro Soldier, directed by Stuart Heisler, who shared his deeply held conviction that African-American service members deserved far more acclaim than they had received. And after the war Capra segued back to big-star commercial vehicles with It's a Wonderful Life (1946) and State of the Union (1948), both produced by Liberty Films, his short-lived production company. Capra took considerable pride in his documentaries, and while Know Your Ally: Britain is far from the best, it gives a revealing glimpse of the challenges and snafus that the most skilled and experienced Hollywood hand could encounter in the volatile fog of wartime filmmaking.

Director: Robert Stevenson
Producer: War Department Special Service Division, Army Service Forces, in cooperation with the Signal Corps
Screenplay: Eric Knight, Anthony Veillor, Jo Swerling
Film Editing: William Hornbeck
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Army Air Forces Orchestra
With: Walter Huston, Anthony Veillor, Orson Welles

by David Sterritt

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