Friday, September 13, 2019

Why We Fight (1942-1945)

Prelude to War (1942); The Nazis Strike (1943); Divide and Conquer (1943); The Battle of Britain (1943); The Battle of Russia (1943); The Battle of China (1944); War Comes to America (1945), USA, 422 minutes, documentary
Directors: Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, Anthony Veiller
Writers: Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, Anthony Veiller, Robert Heller, Williband Hentschel, Adolf Hitler, Eric Knight, S.K. Lauren, Anatole Litvak, John Sanford, Confucius, Emma Lazarus
Photography: Robert J. Flaherty
Music: Dimitri Tiomkin, Hugo Friedhofer, Leigh Harline, Arthur Lange, Cyril J. Mockridge, Alfred Newman, David Raksin, Anthony Collins, Louis Gruenberg, John Leipold, Roy Webb, William Lava, Howard Jackson, Max Steiner
Editors: William Hornbeck, William A. Lyon
With: Walter Huston, Anthony Veiller, John Litel, Frieda Inescourt, Lloyd Nolan, Elliot Lewis, Harry von Zell

At the moment, it's not hard to understand the monumental task of the United States and the democratic nations in 1942 converting the Greatest Generation into the original Antifa. It took some prodding. As we are currently living through a period of nearly perfect amnesia about fascism it's instructive to see, as documented in this series of instructional films, that Madison Square Garden could be filled in the late 1930s with Nuremberg-style rallies for American Nazis, swastikas blazing and thuggish beat-downs for anyone raising objections to the usual toxic swill. Sad (and obvious) to say, the only difference in today's "Lock her up" "Send her back" rallies is that they are shot in color, and they're not yet so brazen with the swastikas (though they think it's funny to say "Hail Trump").

But a monumental task was met with a monumental propaganda film project, appropriately preserved now in stained, scratched, and iffy prints, cheaply available in libraries, on YouTube, cable-TV channels, Amazon Prime, DVD, even VHS (though no longer cheap in that format). Why We Fight set out to be our Triumph of the Will. Even today it remains as stirring, entertaining, and inspiring as a seven-hour seven-part movie can be. Sometimes, as in the studious prologue of the first episode, Prelude to War, it can be dull with didactic explanation. We're still a little bored with Manchuria going down in 1931 and Shanghai and Nanking in 1937, even with the Japanese altogether (other than Pearl Harbor and the A-bombs). These anonymous filmmakers expertly manage our expectations. They know it's German Nazis we want and it is German Nazis we will get. They just make us sit through some instruction first. As they put it, at the end of every episode, with words it is good to remember now (their italics, but my emphasis too): "The victory of the democracies can only be complete with the utter defeat of the war machines of Germany and Japan."

Things pick up in the second episode, The Nazis Strike, when the preening rock star of this epic, Adolf Hitler, finally takes the stage. Even there we must bear with the steady but voracious nibbling that started in 1938—Austria, the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, until finally arriving at Poland in September 1939. The momentum really kicks in with the next two episodes, Divide and Conquer and The Battle of Britain, as the German bid for world domination gets underway in earnest. I know how hackneyed it might sound to say "bid for world domination," and perhaps I'm under the influence of Why We Fight, but it does appear to be what the Germans and Japanese intended (Italy and the buffoonish Mussolini were more like along for the ride out of respect for getting to actual fascism first).

Directors and cowriters Frank Capra, Anatole Litvak, and Anthony Veiller clearly knew what they were doing. Capra appears to be the principal here—it has his freewheeling plain-talkin' bone-American sense nearly every step of the way. The first two parts are slow but lay the groundwork for understanding the enormity of the Nazi project (or, given that this is propaganda and we should not forget it, the enormity depicted, which in fairness is close enough for me). Most of this long documentary alternates between montages of historical footage from numerous sources, including scenes of war, along with diagrammatic presentations that lay out the story with maps and arrows. It's a good way to do it—compare the opening exposition sequence of Casablanca. You can milk a lot of mood and drama out of montages and maps and arrows.

In high school I was weaned on Kurt Vonnegut and his public working out of the trauma of living through the Allied firebombing of Dresden. I did not know, however, and I don't recall it being taught in high school or mentioned in Vonnegut's novels, some of the specifics about German Nazi treatment of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and Britain. Dresden was an atrocity (and so was the Allied firebombing of Tokyo, and so was Nagasaki), and my antiwar sympathies are still with Vonnegut, but Why We Fight (propaganda that it is) helps me see there was a context for Dresden. In Rotterdam, for example, on May 14, 1940, 30,000 men, women, and children were killed in 90 minutes—after the Dutch had surrendered and accepted terms.

The best parts of Why We Fight tend to be the tactical show-and-tells, explaining how Russia successfully defended Moscow, why Germany invaded Norway and not Sweden, how the Maginot Line was thwarted by surprise, stealth, and, it must be acknowledged, brutal courage. The German Nazis, as depicted, were dark geniuses of war. In Belgium, they strategically bombed a series of villages and hamlets, then herded the refugees by strafing onto the highway staging routes used by the military, hopelessly snarling them all up. It was diabolical.

Or that's what this long picture would have us believe, and I admit I am inclined to believe it, having no sympathies for fascists. It also makes for a great underdog story, with the invincibility of Nazis and fascists ultimately broken on the anvil of democracy (so to speak). And the anvil of communism too, we shouldn't forget, as the USSR played a crucial role in all of this. One of the interesting sidelights of Why We Fight is watching the filmmakers thread the needle of anticommunism (already quite virulent in the US) with the necessity for an alliance with the USSR, which is mentioned by name only about twice. Otherwise it's "Russia," full of brave warriors and homely colorful folkways, oh and churches too so they get their anticommunism digs in slyly like that.

The only time the propaganda aspect really rankled for me was in the seventh part, War Comes to America, which is dated 1945 and full of triumphalism. The basic argument Why We Fight advances from the start—again, the genius here is keeping it simple—is that World War II was a conflict between "freedom" and "slavery." They make a decent case for it from what became of the nations overtaken by fascists, who arguably converted workforces into slavery (certainly it's what happened in Central Europe to dissidents, Jews, and other undesirables). When it comes to US history, however, presented here only in the most glowingest of terms, there are objections to raise. The Revolutionary War is romantically cast as the beginning of freedom for humanity writ large, but some glaring aspects are overlooked with the presumption that the US is and has always been on the side of freedom and not slavery. Certain districts in Alabama would beg to disagree—even today, as much as 1945, and as much as "antebellum."

But the hearts of these filmmakers are in the right place as far as fascism and Nazis go, right? So forget it, Jake. It's Capra. And it hits notes people today should pay attention to, such as a reading of "that poem," as American fascists now want to call it, at the base of the Statue of Liberty, which is quoted at length here with orchestra soaring and bells of freedom ringing. Listen up, fascists! Democracy is coming to the USA. There's also a montage that makes me certain Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue is the greatest piece of 20th-century music that exists. For a Reader's Digest version of Why We Fight, make it The Nazis Strike, Divide and Conquer, and The Battle of Britain. But you can't go wrong with the whole thing.

Top 10 of 1942
1. Casablanca
2. Why We Fight (1942-1945)
3. To Be or Not to Be
4. There Was a Father
5. I Married a Witch
6. Now, Voyager
7. Cat People
8. The Talk of the Town
9. The Ox-Bow Incident
10. For Me and My Gal

Other write-ups: The Magnificent Ambersons

1 comment:

  1. I was struck by the almost sympathetic tone towards communists, in Russia and China. One that would no way have been possible five years later.