Frank Capra's 
"The Nazis Strike"

A Brief Introduction to the Why We Fight series,
 Screening & Discussion

Robert Rowen

June 14, 2002
7 to 9 pm

Graduate Center  
of the
City University of New York
Fifth Avenue
at 34th Street

Newsweek: October  19, 2001 – “In an unusual two-hour meeting held in Beverly Hills Thursday, White House officials and top television executives met to discuss how Hollywood could help support the war on terrorism.”  Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series was mentioned several times in the meeting.

On November 9, in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, Newsweek also reported that, “Illinois Republican Henry Hyde, is calling on movie and advertising executives to gather and plot ways to burnish America ’s image around the world. ….We need a Middle Eastern Frank Capra,” says Hyde, the International Relations Committee chairman. “Someone who can translate our ideals and our humanity into the vernacular of these countries.”

Frank Capra’s “The Nazis Strike” is the second film in a seven film series entitled Why We Fight.  This film was made by the United States Army Signal Corp in 1942 and ’43.  Although there are no screen credits for individuals, some of Hollywood ’s leading figures participated in the creation of this film and the series.

It might be useful to take a moment to recreate the atmosphere in which that film was done:

It is conventional wisdom that the country rapidly united after Pearl Harbor and brushed away the isolationism, the anti-war and anti-foreign entanglement feelings that prevailed between the wars, in reality there was a lively concern that :

In drafting millions of ordinary American citizens into military service, in general the ordinary American didn’t give “a tinker’s dam” about Hitler, Europe or affairs beyond his own local farm or town or neighborhood .

Early in the war, this was apparently in the forefront of the mind of Chief of Staff George C. Marshall. 

Even before Pearl Harbor , the Army was producing hundreds of training films (Personal Hygiene, Military Courtesy and & Customs, Vehicle Maintenance, etc.), but Marshall wanted something different for motivation and morale:

In the first months after Pearl Harbor , a lot of orientation for morale consisted largely of Troop Information officers standing up before troops in training - what we’d call “Talking Heads” today.  Not very compelling.

Marshall ’s directive listed 6 objectives for the Why We Fight series :

1.      To foster a firm belief in the right for which we fight.

2.      To foster a realization that we are up against a tough job.

3.      To initiate a determined confidence in our own ability and the ability of our comrades and leaders to do the job that has to be done

4.      To instill a feeling of confidence, insofar as is possible under the circumstances, in the integrity and fighting ability of our allies

5.      To create resentment, based on knowledge of the facts, against our enemies who have made it necessary for us to fight

6.      To foster a belief that through military victory, the political achievement of a better world order is possible.

In order to achieve these goals, Marshall picked a top Hollywood director, Sicilian-born Frank Capra.  Capra was known for several films which depicted “The Common Man” – the ordinary guy played by Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith Goes To Washington in 1939 or Gary Cooper in Meet John Doe in 1941, both struggling against the oligarchs and cynicism.  And both about the rights of the common man in the wake of the Depression of the 1930s.   Capra’s Populism, neither clearly left nor right-wing, has been a subject for study and discussion.

In 1942, newly-commissioned Major Frank Capra in turn picked some leading Hollywood talent for The Why We Fight series.  The very first narrator’s voice you’ll hear is Walter Huston’s – John Huston’s father and often the avuncular and advisory character you might remember from The Treasure of Sierra Madre where he’s the wise and experienced gold miner to Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt’s newbie prospectors.

A lot of the connecting material, the maps and animation which show, for example,  weak Polish units being surrounded and destroyed by superior Nazi forces like healthy cells being destroyed by predatory bacilli, were produced by the Walt Disney Studios under a general contract by which the government got Hollywood services at cost.  (When I worked for Disney in the 1970s, I’d regularly ask Disney archivist Dave Smith if I could screen some of this out-of-release material, especially Victory thru Airpower which projected the forthcoming B-29 campaign in the Pacific with awesome animation.  Dave would shake his head and say, “…we don’t want to give rise to bad feelings against people who are no longer our enemies…”)

"The Nazis Strike" and the Why We Fight series in general is probably best described as a compilation film rather than a documentary and therefore very much a job of effective editing…and the editor was William Hornbeck, editor of Four Feathers and The Thief of Bagdad before the war and, notably, editor with Frank Capra of the perennial favorite just after the war, It's a Wonderful Life.  Much of the footage Hornbeck cut in was from Leni Riefenstahls Triumph of the Will (Triumph des Willens: Das Dokument vom Reichsparteitag 1934) although documentary footage from films of US Federal programs like the Works Progress Administration is used throughout.

But perhaps there's one most basic and fundamental objective a compilation film used in troop information sessions had to achieve: holding the audience’s attention.


Now, imagine yourself as a not-necessarily-enthusiastic draftee, one of a mass assembled in a dark and warm auditorium.

Additionally, imagine that

  • ·         it’s just after lunch,

  • ·         you took part in a 5-mile run this morning

  • ·         in the midst of days of sweat and fatigue

  • ·         and weeks of barking corporals and sergeants….


We’ll add just 60 years, and a film that may now seem dark and grainy and very black & white.

And finally, imagine the announcement, typical just before Troop Information screenings, that

 “anyone in this room seen sleeping
 will be put on report
 and lose all weekend privileges…”




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