• Mr. Capra Goes To War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries (Olive Films) Blu-ray Review

    Released by: Olive Films
    Released on: November 6, 2018
    Director: Frank Capra (credited)
    Cast: Various
    Year: 1942-1945
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    Mr. Capra Goes To War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries - Movie Review:

    Frank Capra is often held up as a preeminent example of The American Director in film history circles. A long-time Hollywood veteran he began his career during the Silent Era and progressed into the sound era, writing and/or directing a series of popular films in that time. He even picked up three Academy Awards during that stretch as well as enjoying great commercial success. So when the U.S. decided to get involved in WWII Capra was one of a select few big-name directors who lended their expertise to that effort.

    As the opening introduction in this collection, Frank Capra: Why We Fight, notes, Capra had enlisted for WWI but came along in August of 1919, just a couple of months before the war actually ended. He was a bit dismayed by that and so he was enthusiastic about getting back at it for the Second World War. He gave up his massive Hollywood salary for a drastically-reduced military paycheck. But, as the introduction lays out, he may have given up more than just pay as his career never really lit up after the war like it did prior.

    Dr. Joseph McBride, who interviewed Capra in 1975 for his biography, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success, provides the narrative for the opening introduction for this collection as well as shorter, specific introductions for each film in the series presented here. McBride might seem a bit professorial initially but he’s quick to offer up a wealth of information about Capra, the U.S. effort with films during the war, and all the surrounding elements that impacted the on-screen results. He’s also quite honest about his assessment of Capra and these films in particular which makes his insights that much more enjoyable.

    For example, he points out that Capra was a lifelong Republican and how that’s seemingly at odds with his on-screen characters who are often seen as much more left-leaning types. But his stories of the common man striving for something better struck a universal chord, it seems, since McBride points out that both Hitler and Mussolini were fans of Capra’s work.

    In these films McBride notes that the budgets were exceedingly small such that the production had to rely solely on found-footage and re-enactments. Fortunately, Capra had the talents of other war-time directors to rely on, such as John Huston and George Stevens. They were able to also use the talented animators at Disney to provide the numerous animations used in these films (mostly on maps showing flows of battles, invasions and the like).

    For these films Capra was basically the executive producer, directing how they should be made but relying on a staff of 150 people to realize this vision. He was a favorite of the general in charge of the overall effort as well so that helped him get things done his way.

    These films were made for fresh recruits in the U.S. armed services so each one has its own unique agenda for preparing or informing new soldiers on the war, what they might be facing and why, as well as defining broader efforts from U.S. allies.

    First up is the Prelude To War. This film seeks to sell the idea of the U.S. reasons for entering WWII. Set up and billed like a gangster film, Prelude identifies all the villains and good guys, using two globes - one light, one dark - to demonstrate the nature & scale of the conflict. The tone then is very deprecating to the Axis forces while vilifying the Allies. It calls to the patriots to defend freedom, in the best propaganda manner possible.

    Next is Battle For Russia, a two-part film on what the Russians have gone through and, most importantly here for propaganda purposes, what the Russian army achieved against the German war machine. The footage used here was all shot (or captured) by the Russians so the results are quite stunning and, in some cases, very brutal. In his introduction to this McBride notes that Capra was most unsettled after the war with his involvement in this film as it comes across as very pro-Soviet, ignoring Stalin as cruel dictator in favor of celebrating the Russian fighting spirit.

    The first film summarizes the history of the defense of Russia, even sneaking in some footage from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky to boot. The events in the first part detail this defense in the current era, leading up to December 1941.

    The second part examines their further stand (from 1942 onward) and eventual hard-won victory over the seemingly unstoppable German army, reclaiming all the Western territory they’d lost previously to the Nazis. The Battles of Leningrad and Stalingrad get close attention here, too.

    The next film is The Negro Soldier, aimed at selling the war to African-Americans as well as demonstrating to white soldiers how important black soldiers are and have always been to the U.S. war effort. Written by Carlton Moss, he also takes the role of the Sunday morning preacher that servers as the narrator for this film. Recreational footage shows black soldiers in every major U.S. engagement in the country’s history, from the Boston Massacre and its first casualty, Crispus Attucks, through the Civil War (completely ignoring ANY mention of slavery) and up to WWI. During his narrative, in the church setting, a mother reads a letter from her son who’s now serving in the Army and that serves as the source for the core of the film here. He’s shown going through enlisting, training, and even through officer school. The point here is that Germany is the menace for all freedom-loving people and that’s what every American should be focusing on.

    The film is interesting further in that Moss is not a stereotypical (for the time) black minister, being very even-toned in his appeal to his congregation’s patriotism. The film also shows African Americans from all walks, successful and middle-class, even, which was highly unusual for Hollywood films at the time (even though there was a strong film history showing such amongst the African-American community).

    Tunisian Victory is the next film and, by McBride’s admission, it’s a bit of a mess. Aimed at selling the Battle for Africa to U.S. audiences the filmmakers actually forcibly took much footage from their British filmmaking counterparts for this one. The end result is something making the campaign look like the U.S. was the major reason for victory rather than the reality of the hard-fought British forces overcoming great odds. This film is overly long and pretty dry, feeling more like what the History Channel used to fill its programming schedule with.

    The final entry in this series presented here is Your Job in Germany, an orientation film for new troops heading to occupied, post-war Germany. This film primarily lays out how the troops should behave as the U.S. suspected another Nazi uprising was just in the shadows and could flare up at any moment. And so this film details the history of German military aggression followed by brief periods of peacefulness, starting as far back as 1860 and through WWII.

    This film was apparently a companion piece to another film detailing Nazi concentration camp atrocities, which was shown first to further drive home just how evil apparently all Germans are. But perhaps the most interesting thing about this entry in particular is that it was written by Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel and it is incredibly heavy-handed and clear in its condemnation of the German people, basically stating, “Once a Nazi, always a Nazi. So never trust them!”

    Mr. Capra Goes To War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries - Blu-Ray Review:

    As this is a collection of short-ish films the aspect ratios range from 1.33:1 and 1.78:1 and the material is presented in both b&w and color, although that last bit relates solely to each pre-film introduction by Dr. McBride. These are part of the National Archive as well. Being that there’s so much found footage in use the quality is fairly dirty, with many scratches and stray hairs littering the majority of the films. This is especially true for the Russian footage and that which was captured from the Germans. However, at this point in film history, much of that is to be expected so, to be honest, it’s not much of a distraction at all. The BD quality does its best to clean up what it can, seemingly upscaling a good deal of the black & white footage so that it’s presented far more evenly and less muddy than one might expect as well. The content is spread across two discs, the transfer are in AVC encoded 1080p.

    The audio is quite good for the most part, presented in English (only) DTS-HD 2.0 mono at 48kHz. The only time it falters is when the source material’s soundtrack isn’t that great which, here, is really just limited to the final film, Your Job In Germany. Overall quality, though, is quite sharp, allowing each propaganda-heavy sentence to get its full jingoistic weight. English subtitles are the only other setup option here as well.

    Mr. Capra Goes To War: Frank Capra’s World War II Documentaries - The Final Word:

    Despite the tone of the U.S. propaganda here the overall effect is still insightful for defining the time these were made. These films are also interesting for both film history and WWII buffs alike as it provides a bit of “behind the curtain” footage that typically doesn’t appear in such films.

    This collection also does a great job of relating this effort to Capra and his career, thanks primarily to Dr. McBride’s insightful introductions to each film. Collectively, then, these allow a fuller picture of Frank Capra and the U.S. war effort to take shape in fitting historical context.

    Click on the images below for full sized Mr. Capra Goes To War Blu-ray screen caps!