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Film / Prelude to War

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Prelude to War is a 1942 documentary feature (barely, 52 minutes long) directed by Frank Capra.

It's the first film of the Why We Fight wartime propaganda series. Prelude to War documents the rise of fascism in Europe and Japan and the aggressive posture of Germany, Italy, and Japan in the 1930s. The "slave world" powers oppress and persecute their own citizens before attacking the "free world" powers and bringing on a world war.

Six more Why We Fight films followed. All of them, as products of the U.S. government, are in the public domain.



  • Barefoot Poverty: The underdog status of poverty-stricken Ethiopia, before the Italians attacked, is demonstrated with a shot of Ethiopian soldiers marching down a dirt street, without shoes.
  • Beware the Silly Ones: The narrator warns that while the militaristic displays and bombastic rhetoric of the Axis powers may seem ridiculous, their intents are deadly serious.
  • Black-and-White Morality: Well it is a wartime propaganda film. But the contrast between the "free world" and the "slave world" is illustrated with a picture of two worlds, one light-colored and one dark-colored.
  • Blatant Lies: The Axis nations weaponized these, as a preliminary step to conquest, in the form of propaganda designed to confuse, divide and soften up their victims and thus make them easier to attack when the time came. This is visually represented by a radio tower, from whose broadcast waves have the word "Lies" emanating, while Walter Huston narrates dramatically ...
    "Put them on the defensive! Scream you're abused! Shout you're oppressed! The world is wrong, you are right! If you shriek it loud enough and often enough, they'll believe you. Above all, use their free press and free speech to destroy them."
    • In particular, the Axis leaders cried that their lands were overcrowded — even as they awarded mothers for bearing vast numbers of children. They also howled about how they had no raw materials, that they were the have-nots and the democracies was the haves — even as they were building the greatest war machines the world had ever known, with Nazi Germany in particular spending $80 billion(!!!) on rearmaments. Again, Huston describes this dramatically...
      "The Nazis alone assembled a striking force of 30 panzer divisions, 70 motorized divisions, 140 infantry divisions, plus the Luftwaffe, the world's largest air force — and they had no raw materials. Think of the bread, the automobiles, all the good things of life that the German, Italian and Japanese leaders might have given their people if they had spent this money for peace instead of war. You know what billions we are now spending to match their military force. No. No, these arguments were all smokescreens. When war came, the democracies proved to be the have-nots, and our enemies the haves."
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    • After the Lytton Report, which condemned the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Japanese delegate Yosuke Matsuoka's statement to the League of Nations is shown (and is followed by Japan abandoning the League).
      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.
  • Book Burning: A Real Life Nazi book burning is shown.
  • Cassandra Truth: 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 aggression now, the West will perish. As the film notes, the League of Nations was 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.
  • Contrast Montage: A montage shows American children splashing around on the banks of a river, playing football, having fun on a playground. This is followed by a montage of children of the Axis nations practicing loading cannon shells and close infantry drill.
  • Cult of Personality: Ones surrounding Mussolini, Hitler and Hirohito are explored in some detail.
  • Dated History:
    • 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 conquered, which everyone in Japan knew was completely beyond Japanese capabilities).
  • Day of the Jackboot: The movie explores how Italy, Japan and Germany became dictatorships.
  • Documentary: A wartime documentary meant to fill American audiences with patriotic fervor.
  • Narrator: Walter Huston, whose twangy middle-American voice (despite the fact that he was Canadian!) lent itself perfectly to a wartime propaganda documentary.
  • Playing the Victim Card: The Axis Powers try to justify what they do by claiming that they were wronged in one way or another.
  • Rule of Three: "They say trouble always comes in threes", says Walter Huston as the film shows pictures of Hitler, Hirohito, and Mussolini.
  • Sequel Hook: Having already discussed the pre-war aggression of Japan in East Asia and Italy in Africa, in "our next film", we'll look at the pre-war aggression of Hitler and the Nazis. (That was the second film in the Why We Fight series, The Nazis Strike).
  • Spreading Disaster Map Graphic: Used throughout the Why We Fight series to illustrate Axis aggression. One imaginative use of this trope in this film shows the Japanese conquest of Manchuria, as a series of beams extending out from a central circle—namely, the Imperial Japan Rising Sun flag. Then after the beams reach the borders the rest of Manchuria is filled in.
  • Stock Footage: The whole movie, consisting of newsreel footage and clips from films like Triumph of the Will.
  • Take Over the World: An animation 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.
    "All they'd left us with is Shangri-La, and they'd claim that, too, if they knew where it was."
  • 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.