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Prelude to War

Four days after Pearl Harbor, Frank Capra walked away from Hollywood and marched into World War II. Enlisting alongside many a fellow American, he soon was assigned a unique mission: heading up a film unit to explain to American soldiers, in his words, "why the hell they're in uniform." The project was described as General George C. Marshall's "own baby," with the nursery right next to his Chief of Staff's office. Marshall also realized that even though Japan's attack sealed America's entry into the war, there remained pockets of isolationist sentiment. Hitler invaded Europe in 1939, and even after the Luftwaffe began bombing England in 1940, America dragged its feet about entering the war. To change recalcitrance to urgency, Marshall and Capra added film to America's arsenal. The result was a seven-film series, Why We Fight (1942-1945), directed by Capra and Anatole Litvak. The first, Capra's Prelude to War (1942), got the series off to a rousing start.

Just as he fired the first shots of the war, Adolf Hitler fired the first salvo in the propaganda war, Leni Riefenstahl's landmark documentary, Triumph of the Will (1935). With its rigidly geometric masses of uniformed ranks fervently consecrating themselves to Hitler, it wasn't just an exercise in glorification. Its visually epic Wagnerian dimensions on the big screen made it an exercise in intimidation as well. Its message was clear -- we are the Master Race, and you better not mess with us. Capra's job was to mess with Hitler and his Axis allies. Born in Sicily, raised in a Los Angeles ghetto, Capra wrote that he was daunted by Riefenstahl's film. He came up with the idea that the best way to fight it was not to make an Allied counterpart, but to throw its Nazi self-glorification back in its face.

It was a bold conception that only worked because Marshall obtained for him entrée into the files of the Office of War Information. There he found the Axis footage he was looking for - Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito proclaiming themselves supermen, gods, as thousands cheered and multitudes in the countries they invaded died. But to what end? This was the question Capra used to flip the Axis propaganda. And, in doing so, remind us that images draw meaning from the context in which they're presented to us. Prelude to War is mostly devoted to insuring that we come away from it with a picture of the Axis leaders as the bad guys. Repeatedly, it labels Germany, Italy and Japan slave states.

By the skillful use of parallel editing, Capra (and William Hornbeck) establishes a stark, vivid contrast between the slave states and our freedom, escalated to a life-and-death struggle. Using the enemy's own footage adds authenticity (some sequences unavailable archivally were staged) and frames the conflict as the primal one between good and evil, in which the U.S. has no choice but to fight. Animated graphics, often depicting the spread of Axis domination as ink spilling across the globe, obliterating national boundaries, were contributed by Disney's studios. One, depicting waves of propaganda labeled LIES, being emitted from a giant radio tower, seems a political cartoon of the RKO logo! Another, a map of Japan morphing into a dragon devouring the Pacific - a sort of Godzilla in reverse - could have been an out-take from Fantasia (1940).

Before images of World War II atrocities had been widely propagated, this film was many Americans' first encounter with images of rows of civilian corpses, pieces of China, Belgium, Greece and Russia torn up by Axis bombs and cannons, columns of German troops goose-stepping through the Arch of Triumph in Paris, and American warships sinking amid smoke, destruction and chaos in the wake of Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor. The shock value must have been considerable, especially when posed against an infographic stating that America had scrapped its weapons after World War I and shrunk its army to 136,000. A voiceover (by Walter Huston) reminding us that in America John Q. Public can go to any church he pleases is contrasted with newsreel images of Germans jailing Christians as well as Jews, and photographs of Nazi proclamations forbidding public assemblies of more than five people.

If, ultimately, the crimes of Italy and especially Japan get more screen time in Prelude to War than the atrocities of Hitler's Germany, it's because Hitler's Nazis get the second film in the series - The Nazis Strike (1943) - all to themselves. This first installment nails the run-up to the war forcefully with the three Axis dictators flexing their muscles while America sleeps. If ever a film was a wake-up call (to a nation that, it seems incredible in hindsight, still needed one), Prelude to War is it. The films that followed - Divide and Conquer (1943), The Battle of Britain (1943), The Battle of Russia (1943), The Battle of China (1944) and War Comes to America (1945) - all could be regarded as missions accomplished. But they might never have got off the ground if Prelude to War hadn't launched the series so effectively.

Following an endorsement by General Marshall, Prelude to War ends with a bold V for Victory superimposed on a ringing Liberty Bell. Capra called his own postwar film company, for which he shot It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Liberty Films. Its overarching concept is indelibly brought home in a contrast between Hitler as a false god and Franklin Delano Roosevelt as a populist problem-solver. An angelic-looking chorus of German school kids singing "Hitler is lord, Hitler is our savior" is played against FDR signing into law Social Security and the job-creating Civilian Conservation Corps, crystallizing the difference between slave state dictators and free world presidents. Roosevelt was so impressed with Prelude to War that he insisted the general public see it, too, not just military personnel. Being national property, the series always has been in the public domain, has been translated into French, Spanish, Portuguese and Chinese, to this day keeps reappearing on TV and in classrooms, and remains available via multiple sources. Much can still be learned from it. Its rhetoric may be standard issue, but its recontextualization of found material is often potent and immediate, testifying to the life of imagery.

Producer: Frank Capra (uncredited)
Director: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak (both uncredited)
Screenplay: Williband Hentschel (article, uncredited); Adolf Hitler (book, uncredited); Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Robert Heller, Eric Knight, Anthony Veiller (all uncredited)
Cinematography: Robert J. Flaherty (uncredited)
Music: Hugo Friedhofer, Leigh Harline, Arthur Lange, Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman, David Raksin (all uncredited)
Film Editing: William Hornbeck (uncredited)
Cast: Kai-Shek Chiang, Walter Darré, Otto Dietrich, Hans Frank, Josef Goebbels, Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, Adolf Hitler, Saburo Kurusu, Robert Ley
BW-52m.

by Jay Carr
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