Legendary director Frank Capra is perhaps best known for timeless classics, It’s A Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. But his other signature work — done during World War II — was the series of Why We Fight films. These seven films, commissioned by the United States government, explained to American troops just why they were involved in World War II.
While only Prelude to War, the first in this seven-film series, ever won an Oscar, most of the other films in the “Why We Fight” series were positively received and remain classics to date (The Battle for Russia did omit the evils committed by the Soviet Union).
But Capra was responsible for making more than that seven-film series during World War II.
According to IMDb.com, Capra directed or produced several other documentaries for GIs and the American people. Among the other documentaries Capra did were Tunisian Victory, which covered the fighting in North Africa, Here is Germany, about how Germany came to fall under the Nazis, and Know your Enemy: Japan, which tried to explain how Japan ended up starting the global conflict.
Though some of these documentaries haven’t aged gracefully, others are seen as ahead of their time.
Frank Capra received the Legion of Merit in 1943.
For instance, The Negro Soldier, a film intended to recruit African-Americans into the armed forces, didn’t just receive positive reviews. It was a progressive film that showcased the heroics deeds of black soldiers in war. It broke a number of cinematic stereotypes that were popular at the time and instead portrayed African-American service members as dignified troops. By 1944, this film became a mandatory watch for all soldiers in American replacement centers.
Capra directed or produced over a dozen films for the military during World War II.
Other films didn’t fare quite as well. Know Your Enemy: Japan, for example, was mired in a form of “development hell” — the initial director was fired by Capra after submitting his rough draft. The reason for the firing was that the director, Joris Ivens, was too tough on Hirohito. This wasn’t the first time America pulled punches with regards to the emperor.
Capra received the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945, even though some of his documentaries were misses.
Ultimately, Capra received both the Legion of Merit and the Distinguished Service Medal for his service during World War II.
His World War II documentaries are available for download via the Internet Archive, and some stream on Netflix or Amazon Prime.
Check out the Oscar-winning Prelude to War below: