On September 1, 1939 German troops swarmed across the Polish border and unleashed the first

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Documentaries Go to War

On September 1, 1939 German troops swarmed across the Polish border and unleashed the first Blitzkrieg the world had seen.
Britain and France had sworn to defend Poland.

  • Honoring these obligations, the two countries sent ultimatums to Hitler demanding his withdrawal from Poland.

  • Hitler declined to respond.

  • On September 3, Prime Minister Chamberlain went to the airwaves to announce to the British people that a state of war existed between their country and Germany. World War II had begun.


At the time Britain declared war on Germany in 1939,

  • the General Post Office was still cranking out factual films…

  • although govt support for the enterprise had been waning for sometime.

The need to ramp up Britain's war machine re-intensified govt interest in film as a medium of proganda and eduction

  • altho early on there was a fair amount of govt suspicion about the old Grierson crew within the GPO--an uneasiness about their progressive politics.

With the outbreak of the war, the GPO became the Crown Film Unit under the direction of a newly created Ministry of Info.

In the first years of the war, attention of govt sponsored film was on what was called "spiritual arming of the people" -- on projecting a unified national image.
By the summer of 1940--the tides had turned in Europe.

  • France fell to the Nazis; and the greater part of Europe had been overrun by the Germans.

  • In Britain, German airstrikes had largely been on strategic military sites, but on the afternoon of September 7, 1940, German bombers began what was to be a systemmatic bombing of London. The war shifted into high gear.

Within the Crown Film unit a number of new stars arose.

One of these was Humphrey Jennings--who came to film as a painter with a vigorous interest in modernist art, particularly surrealism.

Jennings eventually fell in with the GPO film unit in 1934, contributing miscellaneous work with the GPO and Grierson as actor, scene designer.

Around the same time he was involved in a project known as "Mass Observation." With anthropologist Tom Harrison and the poet and sociologist Charles Madge.

  • the aim of which was to look at British society from a scientific, ethnographic viewpoint…

  • The group photographed and kept detailed records of British populations

In the early 40's Jennings (in collaboration with Harry Watts and Stewart McAlister) emerged as one of the most unique and moving cinematic voices of the Crown unit


London Can Take It (1940) (Jennings and Harry Watts)

Listen to Britain (1942) (Jennings, Stewart McAllister)
--Vignettes of human behaviour under extraordinary duress…Bravery and stoicism under fire.

--Don't exhort, they observe…don't explain

For Jennings, the sights and sounds of wartime Britain were especially rich in 'coincidences',

  • as the landscape itself had undergone radical metamorphosis, and his finest wartime works present us with a Britain both strange and familiar.

  • But he was by no means simply a recorder of striking images,

  • with the help of his regular editor, Stewart McAllister (who received co-directorial credit on Listen to Britain (1942)) he was able to assemble those images with remarkable imaginative power

--which modes employed? Poetic (Listen to Brit)

--Listen to Brit: in the lineage of City Symphonies?

--How LTB different from earlier GPO films -- Grierson in particular?

Notion of personal vision rather than more detached/impersonal state vision? (eg Capra?)

Poetry/aesthetic enjoyment vs social utility --Is there a clear distinction between the two (as Grierson thought)

--What is the intent or aim of the filmmaker? Is it the same in both films?

--Are these propaganda films? How is "The Enemy" treated or portrayed?

--Jennings believed that the task of the documentary filmmaker was to capture the distinctive 'legacy of feeling' of the nation.

--Attempt to enforce the "British Imperial Myth" (homogeneity, unambigious political unity of British wartime society. Jennings is complicit with myth that created the illusion that Brit class system had been swept away and sought to dupe the people into believing that no further social change would be required once the war had been won)

--What things aren't revealed in these films? British class system…

--Why isn't there a spoken narrative in the latter film? Is one needed? How compare this with earlier docs using Voice of God narrator?

--How do the images and narrative work together in London Can Take It? Why did he select particular images that he did?

LTB comprises over 200 shots in 17 sequences of varying lengths: What is the organizing logic of the images in LTB? Why were these images put together in the way they were? Is the organization logical? Random?

--Does Jennings' interest in surrealism figure into this film?
--For Jennings, the sights and sounds of wartime Britain were especially rich in 'coincidences', as the landscape itself had undergone radical metamorphosis, Jennings as surrealist….

--Making the commonplace significant. War has made the everyday significant…given it a new significance. Focus the attention of the audience on this significance -- social aims…

--How is sound used in Listen to Britain…what function does it serve?

--Listen to Brit: Is this propaganda? What's it trying to do?

--How does the filmmakers voice come thru?
--What's the message? The point of view?

--How are disparate images used to forge a cohesive mood and point of view?

--How does filmmaker use particular scenes to say something more universal?
Jennings' poetic, unaggressive style--his early defensive view of British involvement in the--was not universally loved (Grierson himself had doubts).
Edgar Anstey, one of Jennings' colleagues in the Crown film unit dismissed the film as a work of great beauty which "will not encourage anyone do anything at all."
Target for Tonight, produced by Harry Watt for the Crown Film Unit in 1941 offers a different documentary approach…Marked a turn toward films of what Barnow calls "victorious action"
--use of real airmen in recreated roles in staged recreation--what the Brits came to term "semidocumentary.". Documentary elements: real airfield location; procedures and processes…to show fighting men in action.
--How does Watt make us identify with individuals? How are the individuals representative for larger "types" or endeavors?
From 1939 to 1941, while Britain was firmly engaged with Germany, the US sat on the sidelines. There was a strong current of isolationism in the US--a reluctance to get dragged into war. The bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7th 1941 and the declaration of war against the US by Germany four days later didn't change this sentiment overnight.
A selective service act had been implemented in September 1940, but, as there was growing concern about the motivation and morale of new conscripts.
As Kansas newspaper editor William Allen White noted, soldiers of a draft army "haven't the slightest enthusiasm for this war or this cause. They aren't grouchy, they are not mutinous, they just don't give a tinker's dam."
In 1941, Army Chief of Staff, General George Marshall, read an article published in The Atlantic Monthly, titled, “Wanted: A Faith to Fight For.” The article expressed the worry that while German soldiers had a cause to die for, the American soldiers did not. Marshall said, “We’ve got to tell our young men why they’re in uniform. They’re going to fight seasoned soldiers who’ve got a thing going for them, a superman thing, and the soldiers believe it. And we haven’t got that.”
An Army Morale Branch had been established earlier to provide military indoctrination -- but failed make any inroads due to what Marshall cited as "the deadly effects of prepared lectures, indifferently read to troops." Marshall claimed that "Troops found these lectures to be “baffling, bewildering, or just plain boring.”
Films had been used by some branches of the military in the past, but

between the outbreak of the war in Europe in 1939 and the attack on Pearl Habor, the US govt made no real organized attempt to produce propaganda or counter-propaganda either for the military or the public in general. The most it spooled off were sundry hygiene films, films on military protocol, and other general educational works geared to troop indoctrination.

In 1941, Frank Capra--a leading light Hollywood director and now a major in the army was assigned to the Morale Branch--ordered by George Marsall to make a series for factual films--"orientation films" to put the way into historical, moral, and political context. The Morale Branch and Capra's film unit were later subsumed under a much more ambitious propaganda and education organization created by Roosevelt in 1942--The Office of War Information. (Roosevelt told an aide privately in 1941 that, “I am perfectly willing to mislead and tell untruths if it will help us win the war.”)
Capra was tapped for the job for a number of reasons: his stature in Hollywood (he'd had an amazing string of hits in the past decade); and the nature of his films. Capra was an unparalleled storyteller. Most of the stories he chose to tell are unabashed advertisements for populism and the American Dream--filled with myths of small town america, and an unshakeable faith in democracy and the dignity and power of the "little man."
In other words, just the guy to inspire war time audiences for diverse backgrounds.
SHOW PP Slide: Marshall's directive
Capra produced a series of seven films collectively known as Why We Fight which was ultimately seen by over 9 million American in uniform and eventually a tremendous number of individuals outside of the military also.. Capra--no shrinking violet when it came to self-promotion--was later to contend that the series not only "stated but, in many instances, actually created and nailed down American and world pre-war policy."
In undertaking this project Capra had no experience whatsoever with factual films… To brief himself on documentary form he screened Leni Riefenstahl's paen to Nazism, Triumph of the Will (which we'll discuss at length next session)
Capra was bowled over. It was a film that "fired no gun, dropped no bombs, but as a psychological weapon aimed at destroying the will to resist, it was just as lethal." "It scared the hell out of me," he said…Capra would borrow a number of Riefenstahl's techniques in his own films.
In pulling off the work of his film unit, Capra begged borrowed and stole as much talents and as many resources as he could get his hands on…

He enlisted a group of seasoned Hollywood writers and production staff… and even obtained the services of Walt Disney studios for animation and effects.

The series is based almost exclusively on carefully-edited newreel footage, confiscated enemy war cinematography and propaganda film, and other stock footage--very little original footage was produced by the Capra unit. Capra had neither the time, nor the funding (nor probably the inclination) to shoot his own film from scratch. (All seven Why We Fight films were made for about one-fifth the cost of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington). Let editing and narration tell the tale…create the history.


First three films (Prelude to War (1942), Nazi Strike(1942), and Divide and Conquer(1943), chronicle the rise of German, Italian, and Japanese aggression and explain our entry into war. The second three films in the series (The Battle of Britain (1943), The Battle of Russian (1943) and the Battle of China (1944) cover the war efforts of US allies. The last film in the series (War Comes to America (1945) recaps the information in the first six films and provides and overview of changing American attitudes toward war.
--What's the organizing principle behind this film? Highly emotional history lesson (How is it similar to films of the Depression: Plow that Broke the Plains, etc.)
--How does Capra go about attempting to persuade the audience? What evidence does he bring to bear in make his arguments? What's he trying to persuade the audience to do or think?

1. Destroy faith in isolation 2. Build up a sense of power, evil, and stupidity of the enemy 3. Emphasize the bravery of America's allies

--Use of dualities (Slave vs Free) Thirty-seven percent of American fighting men had less than a high school education and Capra believed that “this ‘free-world, slave-world’ [approach was] the only way you could reach that guy at that moment. You give him a lot of ‘but-on-the-other-hands’ and you confuse him completely.”
--What's the filmmakers "Voice" -- his tone: when discussing the allies; when discussing the Axis?
--What techniques did Capra learn from Newsreels and travelogs (faces of the common man--the essence or face of nations and individuals in them)

--How do image and narration function? Could the image stand alone? What would the images "mean" alone?

--What is the style of the narration: who is the narrator addressing and in what manner?
--What does Capra choose not to address in his film?

--I (the voice of god narrator) speak to you (the American people) about them (enemy) and about US

"Humanist" documentary form -- "as eclectic and romantic in its way as Riefenstahl --

Capra--would talk to his audience as peers in a democracy: Capra's vision of small-town America and small town heros -- the common man worked out in feature films -- same voice was used in WWF.

Rief - wanted to sweep her audience away with Nuremberg's grandeur --to create awe for hitler as a kind of divine embodiment

Glorification of war and the power and glory of the state

--Capra was firmly rooted in Hollywood ("To me documentaries were ash-can films bade by kooks with long hair").
Want to show you a clip from one of Capra's Hollywood films, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington -- How could you tell that this and WWF were made by the same filmmaker? What's the influence of Hollywood storytelling on WWF?
While WWF series was being shot, the Capra film unit also spooled out numerous other indoctrination films…including The Negro Soldier (Directed by Stuart Heisler 1944) intended to engender tolerance and appreciation of African American accomplishment; and promote wartime unity.
Capra's unit also turned out films attempting to explain (stereotype, actually) the national character and psychology of both enemy and allies, including Know Your Enemy Japan, . This is Germany, and Know Your Ally--Britain.

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