The Negro Soldier


41m 1944
The Negro Soldier

Brief Synopsis

Documentary cameras capture the contributions of African-American soldiers during World War II.

Film Details

Also Known As
The Negro Soldier in World War II
Genre
Documentary
Release Date
Feb 1944
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
U.S. War Department
Distribution Company
Motion Picture Industry. War Activities Committee
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
41m
Film Length
3,631ft (5 reels)

Synopsis

Inspired by the singing of one of his parishioners, an Army sergeant, a minister of a black church addresses his congregation about the role of black soldiers in contemporary America. To emphasize the importance of America's resistance to Nazism, the minister reads passages from Hitler's book Mein Kampf , in which Hitler decries progress for blacks and calls for the extermination of all who oppose him. Using the 1932 championship bout between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling as a metaphor for the conflict between the United States and Germany, the minister details the participation of blacks in various struggles throughout American history, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Civil War, the Spanish American War and World War I. Specific heroes of those wars--Peter Salem of the Revolutionary War, Thomas Wilson of the War of 1812 and Samuel Washington of World War I--are cited by the minister, as are various black military units, such as the 371st Infantry, which distinguished itself in combat during World War I. After mentioning many prominent blacks of the past and present, including Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, and citing the achievements of black academic institutions, such as Howard University and Tuskegee Institute, the minister recalls the 1936 Berlin Olympics in which black athletes such as Jesse Owens and Ben Johnson defeated their German opponents. As the minister reminds his congregation of the attack on Pearl Harbor and of German atrocities, a woman interrupts and starts to read from a letter written by her son Bob, a recently promoted army officer. In his letter, Bob describes his army training, from his induction to his intensive drilling and preparation for battle. The minister then describes the range of jobs for black men and women in the military, from fighter pilot, to quartermaster, to tank destroyer, to infantryman, to road builder, to anti-aircraft gunner. In a final prayer, the minister enjoins his congregation to participate in America's continuing fight for liberty and justice for all.

Crew

Army Air Forces Orchestra

Music

Leo Arnaud

Orchestration

Sgt. Cecil Axemear

Grip

Sgt. William Birch

Assistant Camera

George Blair

Assistant Director

Col. Frank Capra

Supervisor

Sgt. Edward Comfort

Grip

Sgt. Dean

Assistant Camera

Maj. Charles Dollard

Consultant

Ralph Donaldson

Assistant Director

Haldane Douglas

Church set Designer by

Maj. Eddie Dunstedter

Conductor

Farciot Edouart

Special Effects

Sgt. Hugh Fowler

Assistant film cutter

Sgt. Lloyd Fromm

Assistant Camera

Albert Glasser

Music Composition

James Graham

Music cutter

Sgt. Jack Hageny

Assistant Camera

Jester Hairston

Choir under the Director of

Jester Hairston

Mr. Tiomkin's staff

Cpl. William Hamilton

Sound crew

Sgt. Ed. Hare

Assistant Music cutter

Pvt. Cyril Harper

Sound crew

Maj. Paul Horgan

Music Composition

Calvin Jackson

Mr. Tiomkin's staff

Howard Jackson

Music Composition

Howard Jackson

Mr. Tiomkin's staff

John C. Jackson

Orchestration

Gordon Jennings

Special Effects

Lt. Lee Katz

Assistant Director

Sgt. Harold Lee

Sound crew

Paul Lerpae

Special Effects

Capt. Mort Lewis

2d Assistant Director

P. A. Marquardt

Orchestration

Cpl. Tom Mcadoo

Sound cutter

Ray Mercer

Special Effects

Capt. Maurice Monette

Liaison officer

Lt. William Montague

Chief of Sound

Phil Moore

Mr. Tiomkin's staff

Lt. Holly Morse

Assistant Director

Carleton Moss

Narr

Carleton Moss

Technical Advisor

Carleton Moss

Writer

Capt. Ralph Nelson

Production Manager

Sgt. Jack Ogilvie

Film cutter

Sgt. Howard Roberts

Chief Electrician

Earl Robinson

Mr. Tiomkin's staff

Earl Robinson

Music Composition

Alfred Schmid

Special Effects

E. G. Still

Orchestration

William Grant Still

Mr. Tiomkin's staff

Jo Swerling

Aide in script preparation

Cpl. Dave Tamkin

Mr. Tiomkin's staff

C.p.o. Alan Thompson

2nd Camera

Dimitri Tiomkin

Music Director

Lt. Paul C. Vogel

Camera

Maj. Meredith Willson

Music Composition

Capt. Horace Woodward

2nd Camera

Film Details

Also Known As
The Negro Soldier in World War II
Genre
Documentary
Release Date
Feb 1944
Premiere Information
not available
Production Company
U.S. War Department
Distribution Company
Motion Picture Industry. War Activities Committee
Country
United States

Technical Specs

Duration
41m
Film Length
3,631ft (5 reels)

Articles

The Negro Soldier (1944)


Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers.

It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth.

Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved."

The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked.

More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people."

The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!"

Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation's wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films."

By Sean Axmaker

Sources:
"The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," Thomas Cripps and David Culbert. American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Winter, 1979.
The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra. Macmillan, 1971.
Five Came Back, Mark Harris. The Penguin Press, 2014.
Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster, 1992.
The Negro Soldier (1944)

The Negro Soldier (1944)

Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers. It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth. Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved." The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked. More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people." The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!" Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation's wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films." By Sean Axmaker Sources: "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," Thomas Cripps and David Culbert. American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Winter, 1979. The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra. Macmillan, 1971. Five Came Back, Mark Harris. The Penguin Press, 2014. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

The Negro Solider -


Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers.

It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth.

Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved."

The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked.

More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people."

The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!"

Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation's wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films."

Sources:
"The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," Thomas Cripps and David Culbert. American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Winter, 1979.
The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra. Macmillan, 1971.
Five Came Back, Mark Harris. The Penguin Press, 2014.
Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster, 1992.

By Sean Axmaker

The Negro Solider -

Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers. It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth. Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved." The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked. More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people." The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!" Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation's wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films." Sources: "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," Thomas Cripps and David Culbert. American Quarterly Vol. 31, No. 5, Winter, 1979. The Name Above the Title, Frank Capra. Macmillan, 1971. Five Came Back, Mark Harris. The Penguin Press, 2014. Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, Joseph McBride. Simon & Schuster, 1992. By Sean Axmaker

The Negro Solider (1944) -


Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers.

It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth.

Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved."

The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked.

More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people."

The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!"

Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation's wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films."

By Sean Axmaker

The Negro Solider (1944) -

Frank Capra was one of the most celebrated directors in Hollywood when he was recruited for the war effort. In 1942, Mr. Capra went to Washington with great enthusiasm and ambitious plans for a slate of productions for the Army Signal Corps, which had been in charge of filmmaking within the services since 1929. Military films were notoriously dull. Capra wanted to make engaging production to hold the attention of young and often uneducated soldiers, and not just in terms of training films. There were documentaries about the origins of the war for new recruits, profiles of America's enemies and allies, a newsreel film magazine for the soldiers, and the Why We Fight documentaries that he hoped to get to civilian as well as military theaters. One of his most important projects, however, was a request from General Frederick Osborn, head of the army's Morale Branch, to produce "a 'Negro War Effort' film." Racism was still rampant in the U.S. in general and the south in particular, where segregation was law and Jim Crow laws kept black citizens from political participation, and the armed services were likewise segregated. Few African-American soldiers actually saw combat and most were assigned support positions, like mechanics and cooks. Black communities were wary about enlisting and white enlistees brought their prejudices with them, so this film had to show African Americans why this was their war too and show white soldiers and civilians that African Americans were both fellow citizens and soldiers. It required a sensitive approach and Capra asked William Wyler, a filmmaker who avoided the black stereotypes common to Hollywood films, to tackle the film. In 1942, Wyler and two writers, playwright Marc Connelly (who wrote the black-cast play The Green Pastures, later adapted to the screen) and Carlton Moss (a young black playwright and radio writer that Capra called his "Negro consultant"), went on a research tour of military bases in the Mideast and the South. Wyler found racism endemic to both the civilian and the military culture (Moss had to travel in separate train compartments and stay in "colored-only" hotels) and bowed out of the project, disillusioned by the reality of the situation and unwilling to whitewash the truth. Stuart Heisler, director of the 1940 film The Biscuit Eater about the friendship of a young white boy and a young black boy, took over. Heisler worked with Moss to develop a script that avoided the issue of racism altogether. It was a delicate balancing act. As Capra wrote in his autobiography, "If my film inflamed passions, or hardened existing prejudices, it would be shelved." The reference to "my film" may overstate Capra's creative involvement in the finished film--he was busy with other projects and had assigned Anatole Litvak to oversee the film--but he fought to make it a priority in the face of resistance from military brass. By the autumn of 1943, Heisler and Moss had a first cut to show senior army officers. Their film is framed by a sermon in a black church where a preacher (played by Moss himself) invokes the Joe Louis-Max Schmeling boxing match (seen in newsreel clips). The boxing clip is followed by shots of both Schmeling and Louis in basic training ("Those two men who were matched in the ring that night are matched again, this time in a far greater arena," intones the preacher), followed by a survey of the African American legacy of defending the U.S. that goes back centuries. The history of slavery and oppression is overlooked. More importantly, the film shows black soldiers going through induction and basic training, at rest and play on the army base, even dancing at an all-black USO club. Heisler and Moss had to follow guidelines instituted by the Office of War Information that insisted that "references to racial minorities should avoid showing segregation wherever possible, and not deal too lengthily with sharp contrasts between the conditions of majority and minority peoples." Though the film never addresses those issues directly, it shows black participation in the army without showing any kind of integrated activity. Yet in an era when African Americans on the big screen were invariably subservient stereotypes or caricatured comic figures, this film showed black men as everyday Americans no different than white men, presented with dignity and respect. It was, in the words of Moss, designed to "ignore what's wrong with the Army and tell what's right with my people." The Negro Soldier is a rallying cry aimed at encouraging the black population to enlist, but the film was praised in both the black and white press for its respectful portrait of black Americans. It was so well received by test audiences and military officers alike that it was released to the general public and screened for all soldiers. And while in the South it played almost exclusively in segregated black theaters, it received wider distribution in the rest of the country, playing for white as well as black audiences. The posters read: "America's Joe Lewis Vs. The Axis!" Film historians Thomas Cripps and David Culbert, in their 1979 study "The Negro Soldier (1944): Film Propaganda in Black and White," wrote "Only The Negro Soldier, of all wartime films depicting blacks, actually tried to weave the Negro into the fabric of American life; this characteristic made the Army's film a model for filmmakers wishing to break through ingrained industry stereotypes." Capra biographer Joseph McBride cites the film as an important step in the eventual integration of the armed services: "The Negro Soldier--as mild as it was--played a significant role in the breaking down of the Army's racial prejudice and helped pave the way for the desegregation of the Army in 1948." In 2011, the film was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry with the following statement: "The Negro Soldier showcased the contributions of blacks to American society and their heroism in the nation's wars, portraying them in a dignified, realistic, and far less stereotypical manner than they had been depicted in previous Hollywood films." By Sean Axmaker

Quotes

Trivia

Notes

The film was subtitled "Project 6022; Orientation Film #51." It opens with the following written statement: "In the film you are about to see free use has been made of motion pictures with historical backgrounds. Also, a few authentic incidents have been recreated. All other film comes from official War Department films, newsreels, United Nations sources and captured enemy material." The working title of the film was The Negro Soldier in World War II. According to government documents at NARS, work began on the scenario on June 15, 1942, and the cost of the production was $78,254. In addition to film shot especially for the production, footage was used from American newsreels, U.S. government sources, Japanese newsreels, and a number of feature films including Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, America, Triumph of the Will, The River, Yankee Doodle Goes to Town and Flying Tigers, and the war documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7. In addition to original music composed for the film, the score included a number of popular tunes and spirituals including "Since Jesus Came into My Heart," "Our Boys Will Shine," "This Is the Army, Mr. Jones," "Yankee Doodle Girl," "Sleepy Lagoon" and "Holy, Holy."
       According to Capra's autobiography, the project began with Undersecretary of War Robert Patterson, whose advisor, Truman K. Gibson, showed alarming examples of discrimination against black troops in the South. According to modern sources, the Army's Information and Education Division conducted research on what kind of film could end racial confrontations as a test of social engineering. Capra asked his Research Branch to draw up a code for the depiction of blacks in their films, urging the avoidance of stereotypes and potentially divisive depictions for blacks and whites, by emphasizing the middle class. An early script for The Negro Soldier written by Marc Connelly, author of The Green Pastures, was deemed too dramatic, while a second draft by Ben Hecht and Jo Swerling was regarded as insufficiently factual. Originally the film was to be directed by William Wyler, who did research in Alabama with Moss and Connelly before his transfer to the Air Force, but direction was finally given to Stuart Heisler, who earlier directed The Biscuit Eater, which was filmed in the South and had a black child as one of its protagonists. According to Variety, production of The Negro Soldier lasted over two years, requiring fourteen U.S. Army technicians and the services of black author Carleton Moss, who wrote the script, did research, technical advice, and played the pastor. Modern sources state that the Army rejected his first draft, entitled Men of Color to Arms, and Capra, according to his autobiography, ordered rewrites to take the anger out of Moss's scripts. Unable to mention segregation, Moss, in his script, showed black soldiers as comrades-in-arms while not violating the army's own segregation policy.
       According to modern sources, shooting began in January 1943, with Heisler, Moss, researcher Charles Dollard and a crew traveling to between nineteen and thirty Army camps, virtually every facility where black troops were trained. Modern sources also credit William Hornbeck as editor, and noted that the cast also included jazz pioneer W. C. Handy. According to modern sources, The Negro Soldier was approved for exhibition in January 1944 after an answer print was taken to the Pentagon by Anatole Litvak and examined by five of the top War Dept. officials, who suggested certain changes regarding racial sensibilities. These included the deletion of scenes of black officers, as well as a sequence of a black soldier in the hospital with a white nurse, the addition of shots showing World War I blacks in roles other than at the front lines, and the modification of the portrayal of combat experience of blacks in the current conflict. According to a government document dated January 17, 1944, Capra requested that two unrevised prints of the film be destroyed. A commercial release was undertaken at the urging of Moss and several groups to spread the film's message. The picture was approved by Elmer Davis of the OWI for exhibition in all theaters except such southern centers as Atlanta, and the War Activities Committee planned national distribution. The Army Pictorial Service did not distribute it until it opened in commercial houses. According to modern sources, The Negro Soldier made even less than the meager returns for other government war documentaries, partly because its running time required a change in the length of average programs. Although not receiving as broad a commerical run as the Why We Fight films, The Negro Soldier became popular in nontheatrical circuits. According to government documents, a two-reel shortened version of the film was released in July 1944.