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During WWII, famous Hollywood director Frank Capra filmed motivational documentaries for American soldiers

Domagoj Valjak

Frank Capra was one of the most prominent Hollywood film directors of the pre-World War II era.

In the 1930s he won three Best Director Academy Awards for his universally acclaimed films “It Happened One Night” (1934), “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town” (1936), and “You Can’t Take It with You” (1938). Along with actors Clark Gable and Claudette Colbert, he became a symbol of exquisite Hollywood cinema.

Capra was born in a village near Palermo in Sicily, Italy, and moved to Los Angeles in 1903 when he was five years old. His family sought to find work in the United States and flee from the destitution which plagued their homeland. Unfortunately, their existential troubles continued in America; Capra’s youth was a time of poverty and struggle.

Frank Capra, ca. 1930.

Frank Capra, ca. 1930.

He managed to become a prominent silent film actor in the early 1920s, after writing several books and publishing them through the publishing company of the American philosopher Elbert Hubbard. At that time, Capra received his American citizenship and adopted the middle name, Russell.

Frank Capra receiving a Best Director Academy Award in 1938.

Frank Capra receiving a Best Director Academy Award in 1938.

Capra quickly rose to fame in the late 1920s and acquired enormous wealth. After he pulled his family out of the existential gutter, he frequently praised the United States as the land of opportunity. Many young people saw him as a role model and an embodiment of the American dream, and many of his films were filled with the motives of American individualism and exceptionalism. His rough road to success inspired countless immigrants to try and follow his path

Gable and Colbert in the trailer for Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934).

Gable and Colbert in the trailer for Frank Capra’s “It Happened One Night” (1934).

Since his youth in the U.S., Capra emphasized his conservative ideals and supported the Republican Party. He proved his avid devotion to the country in December of 1941, immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Namely, he stunned audiences around the world by quitting his enormously successful directing career, resigning from the position of president of the Screen Directors Guild, and joining the U.S. Army. He was 44 years old at the time and the law didn’t require him to enlist, but, as his biographer Arthur Friedman points out, he “had an intense desire to prove his patriotism to his adopted land.”

Capra quickly rose to the rank of major and served under Chief of Staff George C. Marshall, who was later awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his so-called “Marshall’s Plan.” Marshall wanted to create a series of documentary propaganda films for American soldiers. He wanted the films to be innovative and more objective than most of the propaganda films of the time, and Capra proved to be the ideal man for the job.

Major Frank Capra editing film during WWII.

Major Frank Capra editing film during WWII.

Since he was a skilled director, Capra immediately began filming intense and groundbreaking war films which were intended to inspire American fighters overseas and their families back home. He directed five standalone war documentaries, and a series of seven films entitled “Why We Fight,” which explores the political implications of the Nazi ideology and depicts the struggles of soldiers, resistance movements, and innocent civilians on the battlefields of Europe and Russia.

The films were immensely successful and ended up being shown in cinemas across the U.S. and Great Britain. Several prominent figures of the U.S. movie industry joined Capra and perfected the films: Walt Disney and his team created animated sequences, and the music was contributed by prominent film composers Alfred Newman and Dimitri Tiomkin.

Frank Capra receiving The Distinguished Service Medal from General George C. Marshall, 1945.

Frank Capra receiving The Distinguished Service Medal from General George C. Marshall, 1945.

“Prelude to War,” a film which was a part of the “Why We Fight” series, won an Academy Award for Documentary Feature in 1942 and became an instant classic of 20th-century documentary cinema. Nowadays, the whole “Why We Fight” series is universally regarded as a masterpiece because of its realism, objectivity, outstanding direction, and attention to detail. Although Capra is known more for his feature films, he considered the “Why We Fight” series his most important work for the rest of his life because it inspired countless soldiers and indirectly contributed to the Allied victory.

After the war, Capra returned to commercial filmmaking and directed several critically-acclaimed films, including “It’s A Wonderful Life,” which was ranked as the 11th-best American movie of all time by the American Film Institute in 1998. However, he retired from commercial directing in 1951, after being disillusioned by the American post-WWII cinematic scene, and concentrated on filming science documentaries for the California Institute of Technology.

Colonel Frank Capra (right) of the US Army Signal Corps confers with Captain Roy Boulting of the British Army Film Unit on the editing of the film ‘Tunisian Victory’ in February 1944.

Colonel Frank Capra (right) of the US Army Signal Corps confers with Captain Roy Boulting of the British Army Film Unit on the editing of the film ‘Tunisian Victory’ in February 1944.

Despite being a conservative Republican throughout his life, Capra gradually started losing faith in American conservatism after WWII. In 1950, he was still an enthusiastic patriot and wanted to rejoin the U.S. Army to fight in the Korean War, but he was rejected because he was 53 years old at the time.

Read another story from us: Jasper Maskelyne: A career magician used his craft to help the Allies during WWII

Five years later, Capra was appalled by the U.S. military’s actions in Vietnam. He proclaimed himself a pacifist and started openly condemning the unnecessary slaughter of innocent civilians and the omnipresent anti-Vietnam propaganda. He remained an outspoken anti-militarist for the rest of his life.