Why We Fight (1942)

  • Year: 1942
  • Released: 27 May 1942
  • Country: United States
  • Adwords: Won 1 Oscar. 4 wins total
  • IMDb: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0035209/
  • Rotten Tomatoes: https://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/why_we_fight
  • Metacritics:
  • Available in: 720p,
  • Language: English, German, Italian, Japanese, Amharic, Russian
  • MPA Rating: Not Rated
  • Genre: Documentary, War
  • Runtime: 52 min
  • Writer: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Robert Heller
  • Director: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak
  • Cast: Walter Huston, Victor Bulwer-Lytton, Kai-Shek Chiang
  • Keywords: world war ii,

Why We Fight Storyline

In this first installment of the “Why We Fight” US propaganda film series, the series illustrates a definiton of two worlds. The first is the Free world of the Allies’ nations that honours life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. The second is the Slave world of the Axis nations that honours only tyranny, brutality and unquestioning obedience to the leader and threatens to envelope the entire planet if the Free world does not make a stand.—Kenneth Chisholm

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Why We Fight Movie Reviews

“This is a fight between a Free World and a Slave World”. – VP Henry Wallace, 5/8/1942

With the Memorial day weekend upon us, I decided to take this World War II documentary series off the shelf and watch it in it’s entirety. My father served in WWII, and in recent years I’ve become fascinated with the scope and dimension of the conflict, as it truly did engulf nearly the entire world of the 1930’s and ’40’s. Directed by the legendary Frank Capra, the series of seven films was produced by the War Department in cooperation with the Research Council of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. They were intended to be shown to all new military recruits so that they would have an understanding of the enemy, and how urgent it was to halt the advancing march of Naziism and Fascism across the globe.

The first installment, “Prelude to War”, discusses how Hitler, Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito used their demagogic influence to convince the people of their countries to give up their individuality and become part of a massive human herd, subject to the near god-like decisions of their leaders. It was particularly frightening to see young German grade school children singing “Our Hitler is Our Lord, Who Rules a Brave New World”. Juxtaposing images of American school children at play with those of German youngsters marching in military youth camps drew a striking contrast in ideology and mindset of two vastly different societies, one devoted to freedom against one devoted to blind obedience to a Fuehrer bent on world conquest.

The film spends a good portion of it’s run on that dichotomy – the notion of a Free World in conflict with that of a Slave World, before touching on the opening salvos of the conflict. The War officially began on 9/18/1931, when Japan invaded Manchuria in the northern reaches of China, followed by attacks on Shanghai in 1932. In 1935, Italy began it’s imperialistic designs with an invasion of Ethiopia on the African continent. The segment defers Germany’s entry into the War to the following chapter – “The Nazis Strike”.

Should anyone doubt Adolf Hitler’s resolve to subjugate the entire known world under his direct control, the film reminds us of that intent with Hitler’s own words, describing how he would turn his defeated victims into slaves to enrich the German Master Race. Particularly chilling and even more haunting, Hitler proclaimed – “I want to see again in the eyes of (German) youth the gleam of the beast of prey”.

just hokey enough to be dated, but it never loses its forceful impact for showing why the war happened

I usually don’t watch old propaganda movies, unless it’s meant for fun. The kind that they show on Mystery Science Theater before the main feature are some of those. But Frank Capra had an entire series of films in the second world war educating an American public, whether they knew it or not, about the reasons and and the current fighting conditions, of World War II. Granted, these were made more-so for the US Army as a training film, and in this particular case we get the not-so-subtle look at “Free” vs “Slave” states, the latter being those in Germany and Japan. Did you know, for example, that the Nazis make their schoolchildren pledge allegiance to Hitler every day before school starts and that the Japanese have an unyielding allegiance to their Emperor? It’s that kind of movie.

But there is more than I expected here, which is what is so fascinating and satisfying. Capra is a real filmmaker, he’s not just some gun for hire that the Army would get to make something fast and message heavy without any artistic merit. So even when Capra’s imagery and tactics of narrative devices beat the drum over the head- perhaps for good reason as it was, again, for the US Army- is really does drive the points home as solid propaganda. And, sometimes, as some decent history too about how Germany and Japan got to where they were in the lead-up into the war. On top of this is Capra’s skill in combining documentary footage of Nazis and “the Japs” with various maps showing what the axis powers would do with their far-reaching goals in taking over the road (like an oil-slick it goes over the map), and there’s even some really creative animation used. Plus, of course, some actual interviews and footage of politicians.

Overall, while not subtle in the slightest, Prelude to War is a fine piece of film-making that achieves its principle goal: get the soldiers (or the audience in general) riled up about what has happened up until this point in time, and, of course, to ‘know-your-enemy’ as it were. It’s no less an artistic achievement really than anything else Capra was doing in the 1940’s.

Well-done and educational propaganda

Prelude to War is the first in a series of well-made propaganda films that were co-directed by Frank Capra during World War II with the intention of educating new U.S. soldiers about the war while inspiring them to fight for “what’s right”. Watching them at this point in time, they are fascinating as a glimpse into more or less official propagandistic stances. Of course it’s to be expected that the films go to pains to dehumanize, even demonize, then enemy cultures. Because this specific material is so far removed from our current stances and concerns, it’s instructive to watch and especially to show it to students, because it’s much easier to see through the propaganda tactics, enabling similar tactics to more easily be identified in modern politics.

But perhaps surprisingly, Prelude to War and the other films in the series also contain a good deal of accurate factual information, so that unless you’re a World War II buff, you can learn quite a bit about how the war progressed and at least one side of why it progressed (one of many necessary sides)–if you watch the series with a critical eye.

The series also contains a lot of intriguing historical footage–including films of Axis military campaigns in execution, and some of the more typical newsreel-type shots of the three Axis leaders–Hitler, Mussolini and Hirohito, their right-hand men and their military and civilian support systems. Just as notable now is footage of various aspects of American life that would have passed by without much thought in 1943–such as cars traveling on relatively sparse, newly built U.S. highway interchanges. You can gain as much from Prelude to War by simply watching the images and keeping in mind the historical context as you can by listening to the narration.

There are a couple rough spots–a montage of Axis armies marching like huge, well-oiled machines probably goes on too long 60-something years later, but surely the aim was to put just a bit of fear as well as an increased fervor to conquer into the new U.S. military recruits.

This film isn’t crucial viewing for everyone, but for those who study history, politics, sociology, the military and especially World War II, it is essential.