"...victory of the democracies can only be complete with the utter defeat of the war machines of Germany and Japan."Why We Fight
— George C. Marshall, shown at the end of each film
is a seven-part series of World War II documentaries directed by Frank Capra
(of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
fame). Created during the war, they served the dual purpose of educating American troops about the enemy and the causes behind the war, and raising morale. The basic idea Capra had was that Nazi propaganda films like Triumph of the Will
was so effective that he decided the best way to answer them was to take those films, and twist them in such a way as to use the Axis' own messages to support the Allies.
The films were quite effective, and were eventually released to the general public. The first, Prelude to War
, received an Academy Award
The films are still interesting today for different reasons. On one hand, they provide genuine and valuable lessons on the origins and progress of the war. On the other hand, the movies are also a good example of old-timey racism and wartime paranoia as a well as a classic historical example of film propaganda.
As works of the US government, the movies are in the public domain, and available online:
This series provides examples of:
- All-Star Cast: Directed by Frank Capra, animations done by Walt Disney, narration by Walter Huston, and with serving generals and secretaries providing commentary.
- Asian Buck Teeth:
Narrator: At the same time, start a course from the Scandinavian countries, to hook up with [Hitler's] bucktoothed pals coming over from Siberia, to join in the conquest of the United States.
- Awakening the Sleeping Giant: War Comes to America details how America slowly comes of outs isolationist attitude. As the opinion of the American public changes in response to Axis aggression, the United States moves from nominal condemnation of the Axis to arms dealing with the Allies and rearmament, culminating in a full entry into the war after Pearl Harbor.
- Bilingual Bonus: Axis politicians are sometimes shown speaking untranslated, with the narrator usually characterizing what was said afterward. Those who speak German, Japanese or Italian will note they don't always match up.
- Blatant Lies:
- Prelude to War: After the Lytton Report, which condemned the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Japanese delegate Matsuoka's statement to the League of Nations is shown.
Yosuke Matsuoka: It is a matter of common knowledge that Japan's policy is fundamentally inspired by a genuine desire to guarantee peace in the Far East and to contribute to the maintenance of peace throughout the world.
- In War Comes to America, a Japanese delegation hands American Secretary of State Hull a document accusing the United States of a litany of aggressions against Germany, Japan, and Italy. Hull recalls how he skimmed the document and called the Japanese delegation out on this trope:
Cordell Hull: I have never seen a document that was more crowded with infamous falsehoods and distortions, on a scale so huge that I never imagined that any government on this planet was capable of uttering them.
- Cassandra Truth: In Prelude to War, Italy invades Ethiopia in the years before World War II. Haile Selassie, the Emperor of Ethiopia, gives a speech to the League of Nations saying that if they do not stop the aggressor now, the West will perish. As the film notes, the League of Nations is unwilling to listen to Selassie and use force to stop Italy, just as it hadn't intervened in Manchuria, allowing World War II to happen.
- Chinese Civil War: Briefly mentioned. In The Battle of China, China is mentioned as being able to poorly mount resistance because it is not a united nation, but later the tide turns and a united China (i.e. the Second United Front) fights back against the Japanese invasion.
- Chronic Backstabbing Disorder: The basic set-up of Divide and Conquer. In the opening of the film, Hitler is said to have made promises of peace or non-aggression pacts with various countries. As each is invaded by Germany, the audience is reminded of the promises Hitler had made mere months earlier.
- Climactic Music: Each film ends with some form of patriotic music during the final summary.
- Curb-Stomp Battle: How the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, the Italian invasion of Ethiopia and Germany's invasion of everything (except Russia) is portrayed.
- Dark Is Evil: The series is the Trope Codifier for representing Axis forces as pure black. Axis influence is literally shown oozing into other countries.
- Dark Reprise: In War Comes to America, a instrumental version of My Country, 'tis of Thee is played over an explanation of US history. Later, a dark version is played over scenes of a burning Pearl Harbor, morphing into a Triumphant Reprise during FDR's "Date of Infamy" speech.
- Documentary Of Lies: Mostly averted. The films are obviously biased, but teach real lessons and use the enemy's own propaganda to show their evil. In hindsight, the series is wrong about a few things, like the Tanaka Memorial (now believed to be a forgery).
- Eagle Land: Flavor one, of course.
- Enemy Mine: The United States and the USSR in real life, of course, but especially noticeable in The Battle of Russia, where the USSR's struggle against Germany is glowingly endorsed.
- Hammer and Sickle Removed for Your Protection: The Battle of Russia is shows the determination and strength of Soviet Russia, America's loyal ally. Not at all indicative of the coming Cold War, the C-word isn't dropped once.
- History Marches On:
- The Tanaka Memorial was widely believed to be real in the 30s and 40s, and the films portray it as such, but it is now commonly believed to be a forgery. On the other hand, Japan did basically follow its scheme.
- Admiral Yamamoto's claim that Japan would dictate peace to the US in the White House was seen as a jingoistic boast in the US (and the admiral is misquoted to that effect), but we now know Yamamoto was actually warning against starting a war with the United States, because the US would never be willing to make peace unless terms were dictated to them in the White House (i.e. unless they were totally defeated).
- The Home Front: An entire movie dedicated to it, The Battle of Britain.
- Idiosyncratic Episode Naming: Film #4 began the The Battle of ... naming system, but the seventh movie broke the pattern.
- Imperial Japan
- Invaded States of America: The films posit this as the inevitable result of American defeat in the European and Pacific theaters.
- Japan Takes Over the World: According to the films, Japan's ultimate goal was to conquer all of Asia, before turning east to link up with the Nazis in the Americas.
- Nazi Germany
- Opposing Combat Philosophies: Dive and Conquer proposes this as one of the reasons for France's quick defeat at the hands of Germany. Germany's commanders believed in concentrated, highly mobile assault forces. France's commanders believed in building massive, static fortifications on the border. When German forces puncture the defensive lines by going through the Ardennes, France is lost.
- Perfectly Cromulent Word: The title cards read "information film", where people today might say "documentary" (or "propaganda").
- Propaganda Machine: Japan, Italy, and Germany's propaganda machines are covered in detail. Arguably, America's own Office of War Information.
- Public Domain
- Soundtrack Dissonance: After explaining the way of life in the Axis countries, Nazi marching scenes from Film/Triumph of the Will are shown with a repetitive military march playing. After the melody has repeated a few times, the whole affair starts looking very silly.
- Similarly, in The Battle of China, the soundtrack makes liberal use of The March of the Volunteers, which was a Communist marching song (and now the national anthem of the People's Republic of China) in a film mostly lionizing Chaing's Nationalists.
- Stock Footage: The films make use of footage from enemy propaganda films, and historical footage, so many shots are necessarily reused.
- Take Over the World: An animation in Prelude to War shows the world divided into a half controlled by Japan, and a half controlled by Nazi Germany, and posits that this is the Axis' overall plan.
- Talking Heads: These are occasionally brought out, such as Secretary Hull explaining diplomacy (or lack thereof) with the Japanese.
- Triumphant Reprise: See Dark Reprise above, which it is coupled with.
- Trojan Horse: Divide and Conquer accuses Nazi Germany of doing this in Norway. The Germans sent merchant ships to Norwegian ports that were secretly loaded with troops and supplies.
- Un Installment: War Comes to America was slated to be a two-parter, and the title card still includes "Part One". However, it was felt that a second part covering America's part in the war would be unnecessary, as people already knew about it from the news, World War II ended two months after the first part's release.
- V Sign: Each film ends with a large V (for Victory) being displayed, sometimes accompanied by Beethoven's 5th, the opening notes of which can be interpreted as Morse for the letter V.
- Yellow Peril: Interestingly, this is played straight for Japan, characterized as a menace and racially insulted, yet averted for China, which is shown to be a heroic people with a great and traditional society.