This blog is part of the courses on film, art, literature, and media given by Dr. Hudson Moura, Toronto, Canada.
Friday, April 21, 2017
“Why We Fight” as WWII Propaganda
Review of chapter 12: "Between ‘Information’ And ‘Inspiration’" by Gregory Frame. Routledge Companion to Cinema and Politics, ed. by Yannis Tzioumakis and Claire Molloy
by Joel Tomlinson
Gregory Frame’s Between Information And Inspiration does an incredible job of both summarizing and analyzing Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series of films. Why We Fight is a series of World War II propaganda films produced for the purpose of informing and inspiring American citizens and troops to contribute to the war effort. Frame’s analysis is brilliant in that it does not expect the reader to have seen Capra’s work, it being a work from the 1940s. The series accounts for this by giving a detailed description of what would be seen and heard on screen, allowing the reader to almost “watch” the film in their heads, and once this picture is painted in the mind of the reader, Frame then dives into his analysis of the particular part described.
The structure of this chapter also makes it easy to follow. Frame dissects Capra’s work one film at a time, each time referring back to what was said in his analysis of the previous film. There are seven films in the series, which Frame not only goes through individually, but he also divides them based the intended purpose of each film. For example, the films Prelude to War, The Nazis Strike and Divide and Conquer all serve the purpose of establishing the Axis forces as a formidable and malevolent foe, as well as informing the viewer of the reasons for the war, and the events and reasons leading up to America’s involvement in the war. The Battle of Britain, The Battle of Russia and The Battle of China, on the other hand, show that, although the Axis forces are not to be underestimated, they are not invincible, and these films do that by chronicling the major losses the Axis has had to the Allied forces. Adding onto this, just as the first three films built up the Axis as a dangerous and determined enemy, these three films take time to build up the Allies as nations worth fighting alongside, and it does this by displaying them as nations with similar ideals and values, despite their cultural differences.
Moving from Frame’s analysis of the series to the series itself, as I mentioned before I had never seen this series prior to reading this analysis. Nonetheless, due to Frame’s detailed descriptions and through similar war propaganda films that I have seen, a clear picture of the Why We Fight series has been painted in my mind. It is interesting that, as Frame states, the series was intended to come across as informative and not as manipulative propaganda, especially considering we now look back at this film series and consider it American war propaganda. What the series was aiming for, nonetheless, was indeed accomplished, and at least for the duration of the war, the series was received as an informative and inspirational work. The series strived to rally the American people in a subtler way than was done during the First World War, which employed very blatantly manipulative propaganda that demonized Germans in the eyes of Americans. The only reason we now look back on Why We Fight and view it as propaganda is because, just as Why We Fight was a step subtler than WWI propaganda, today’s propaganda, namely the barrage of advertisements we are faced with on a daily basis, has become multiple steps subtler than Why We Fight ever was. Seeing the impact Why We Fight has had on the American people, one could even suggest that this series laid a lot of the groundwork for today’s advertising.
Why is subtlety so important in propaganda though, and in what ways was Capra’s series subtler than propaganda in WWI? Expanding on what was mentioned in the previous paragraph, Capra’s series hid its manipulative elements by presenting itself as informative and inspirational, and from what I’ve read of the series, it comes across as just that. Why We Fight is indeed an informative and inspirational series, it is exactly what it advertises itself as and that is why it is difficult to see the hidden agenda that lies behind it, to move the American people to take action and participate in the war in whatever way they can. People cannot be manipulated if they know they are being manipulated, and people do not like being manipulated, that is why the best way to manipulate a population is to do it in a way so that they do not even know they are being manipulated.
When I use words and phrases such as “manipulate” and “hidden agenda”, these words and phrases have very negative connotations, but I use them only for lack of better words, because despite my annoyance with the manipulative power of today’s advertising, I think that propaganda such as Why We Fight was necessary to ensure America’s participation in the war. I do not know enough of the history of WWII to know if American participation made the difference between Allied victory and defeat, but focusing specifically on America’s decision to participate in the war and nothing outside of that, I believe that propaganda was necessary if America was to participate in the first place. Without it, I do not believe America could be motivated enough to care for a conflict taking place on the other side of the world, or at least not enough to participate in it. This is something we see a lot even today with all of the conflict going on in the Middle East; it is not until the conflict is brought to American soil in the form of a terrorist attack that the conflict is made real to American citizens. Similarly, I do not see America leaving its comfort to participate in a war, unless that comfort is threatened in some way or another.
Despite the success of Why We Fight in fulfilling its intended purpose, I agree with Frame’s opinion in that the series was far from perfect. Particularly in the films detailing Allied victories over Axis forces, such as The Battle of Russia and The Battle of China, Capra is selective of what he shows of the two nations, choosing only to focus on aspects of each nation that are similar or in line with American ideologies. While this selective information did aid in achieving the overall goal of the series, this is a prominent example of the manipulation still at play here, and proof that this is indeed propaganda, and not just an informative and emotional documentary. The series’ depiction of Russia, for example, neglected to mention anything of their communist government, even going so far as to call the Russians a free people. Mind you Russia’s communist government has nothing to do with the war effort, so many could argue that Capra’s choice to exclude this detail from the film is justified, but if this series was, to put things into perspective, an informative documentary with no hidden agenda behind in, then no information would be deliberately restricted from the film. The film did in fact receive criticism in the years following WWII, both for Capra’s exclusion of this information and for, as a result, painting a false picture of the Soviet Union. Needless to say, this took place during the years of great animosity between the Soviet Union and America.
The films are also culturally insensitive at points, sometimes even outright racist. The films on Britain and Russia depict each people group as little more than cultural stereotypes, which Capra calls “simplifying”. While I understand Capra’s intention, that a detailed background of each individual culture is not necessary in the light of the series as a whole, one could almost say that he was making things simple for himself and not just for the audience, by depicting each nation as their stereotypes suggest. The films do also praise each nation in light of American values, showing audiences how similar they are in values and ideals. While this can be seen as a compliment, it might not be viewed this way by these nations, because even though certain values may be shared between these countries, their ideologies are certainly not American, especially when you look at the likes of Russia and China. If these films are culturally insensitive even to America’s allies, one can only imagine the way in which the Axis nations are portrayed. Surprisingly, they are portrayed rather well; Germany is portrayed by the idea that the Germans have brainwashed slaves to the will and whim of Hitler, similarly with Italy. This is because the method of propaganda used in WWI served the purpose of demonizing the German people as a whole, using blatant racism and hate to rally its people against the enemy. America had learned from these mistakes in WWII, making an apparent effort not to inspire hatred towards the people of the enemy nations. However, Japan is portrayed similarly to Germany’s portrayal in WWI, as power hungry and practically bloodthirsty savages. Why Japan is represented this way and not in a more respectful way such as Germany and Italy, I do not know, but this goes to show that, successful though Capra’s series was, it was certainly not without its flaws.
Overall, I believe that Capra’s Why We Fight was a brilliant, well crafted, and necessary part of the American war effort during the Second World War. The American government’s decision to employ a Hollywood director for this project was a genius one, further cementing this films connection to the people, and distancing it from a government which can be perceived as manipulative. Nonetheless, the series was not without its flaws, flaws which were frowned upon only years following the end of WWII, but as a whole, I applaud Capra’s work in the part it played in America’s war effort, and in the pioneering steps it took toward modern propaganda.
Frame, G. (2016). Between ‘Information’ And ‘Inspiration’. In The Routledge Companion to
Cinema and Politics. Basingstoke: Taylor & Francis Ltd.