Capra’s ‘Battle of Russia’ is informative, entertaining

Published on Tuesday, 16 July 2013 22:03 - Written by BY STEWART SMITH ssmith@tylerpaper.com

Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia” is an interesting history lesson, and not just because it informs the viewer of the country’s war-ravaged past.

The “Why We Fight” series was commissioned by the United States government, at first to illustrate to its armed forces why they would be going to the front lines of World War II, but later to persuade the American people to support the war effort. So what we have with these seven films is no-holds-barred, true blue propaganda, and it’s kind of fascinating to me to watch something of this sort.

Propaganda, of course, still exists. Anytime you see a television commercial for the Navy set to chugging guitar riffs or a billboard touting service in the Marines as “FOR OUR NATION. FOR US ALL,” that’s propaganda. Make no mistake, it is far and away minor and mild (especially compared to the sort of thing seen during World War II), but it is what it is.

“Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia” (the fifth in the series and only one I could readily get my hands on) is probably one of the softer examples of propaganda from the era. It doesn’t turn the Germans or Japanese into offensive cartoon characters, and it doesn’t really try to scare anyone into siding with going to war. What it does do, however, is a fantastic job at getting you to understand the plight of the Russians and paint them as a resilient people joined in solidarity by their shared love of country.

We’re given a pretty great history lesson about the nation’s war-ravaged past, and the numerous attempts at conquest that countless outside powers have tried, and all of which have failed. Russia is a country seemingly impossible to topple from the outside, and Capra’s film does a fine job of making the entire nation out to be as noble as it is diverse.

Capra’s cause in elevating this country is helped by using the enemy’s own words against them, showing direct quotes from Adolf Hitler as he touts the supposed superiority of the “Master Race.” It’s effective and direct ,and kind of brilliant, the way Capra uses the Nazis’ own words and footage against them, though it goes out of its way to omit certain things, such as any mention of Communism or even Russia’s involvement in the invasion of Poland or the Winter War.

Does the end justify the means? Perhaps. The United States’ involvement in World War II was vital, and perhaps something like this really was necessary to sway support. It’s an interesting debate to have, for sure.

There’s not much entertainment to be derived from a film like this, but it is interesting to watch Capra craft a film of this sort that is so very effective at delivering its message while also being relatively informative.

Capra certainly is one of America’s most definitive and unique voices in film history, able to craft movies of such sincerity and decency that so much other similar material feels phoney by comparison. “They don’t make ‘em like they used to” applies to this whole era of film, but perhaps most of all to Capra’s style and output.

This wraps up my series on Frank Capra. Next week I’ll begin a new series looking at some of the films of Martin Scorsese, including “Who’s That Knocking At My Door,” “Mean Streets,” “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore,” “The King of Comedy,” “The Color of Money” and “The Last Temptation of Christ.”

Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.

Every week, Entertainment Editor Stewart Smith brings a new entry in “Catching Up On…” an ongoing series attempting to fill in the gaps of his cinematic education.