Why We Fight – The Battle of Russia

Taylor Downing reviews classic war movie The Battle of Russia.

The Battle of Russia is one of a series of documentaries made by the US War Department called Why We Fight. The films were made to explain to newly recruited GIs why they were about to risk life and limb fighting a war thousands of miles from home.

When Stalin saw The Battle of Russia, he immediately ordered that every cinema in the Soviet Union show it, even though it was made by Americans. The producer of the documentary series was the prominent Hollywood director Frank Capra.

Capra was born in Sicily, the youngest of seven children. The family emigrated to the US when he was only five. After school he went to college and bummed around for several years, working as a waiter, a cleaner, and playing the banjo.

Broke, he got a job in a film studio and his sheer precocious talent soon shone through. He started to direct silent film shorts. He quickly adapted to the Talkies, and during the 1930s made a set of films, like It Happened One Night (1934), that one way or another extolled the American Dream.

In another of his films of this period, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (1939), James Stewart plays a senator who fights a corrupt system and wins through, a victory for determined American individualism, while Meet John Doe (1941) follows an aimless drifter played by Gary Cooper who becomes a national star. Capra’s films reflect his own rags-to-riches story, and won countless Academy Awards. Capra himself won three Best Director Oscars.

In 1941, after Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Capra joined the US Army Reserve, even though his career was at its peak and he had been offered a partnership in United Artists that could have earned him millions. A few weeks after Pearl Harbor, he was called up and told to report to Washington. He was commissioned as a major and paid a salary of $250 a month, a sum he said would not even pay his telephone bill!

Great opportunity

Capra was allocated to a rundown office and a new unit called the Morale Branch, where he was to set up a film section. He was the only one there and was singularly unimpressed, writing that he was ‘heading a one-man Film Section in a one-room Morale Branch.’

But it was explained to him that he was there at the personal request of General George C Marshall, the Chief of Staff and most senior figure in the US Army. Marshall was a fan of his films and called Capra in to explain that the Army was about to expand to eight million men. He told Capra: ‘to win this war we must win the battle for men’s minds’. Marshall wanted him to produce a series of documentaries that would be seen by every man in the army in order to explain the reason why they were in uniform, why they needed to fight.

When Capra protested that he had never made a documentary before, Marshall replied ‘I’ve never been Chief of Staff before. Thousands of young Americans have never had their legs shot off before… But you have a great opportunity to contribute to the cause of freedom.’

Capra thought about his momentous task. He watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the record of the 1934 Nuremberg Nazi Party rally, which more than any other film expresses the fascist ethic on screen.

He realised his films had to promote the values of the democratic nations at war. His central idea was to show that the German Nazis, the Japanese warlords, and the Italian fascists were out to destroy the free nations by force of arms and that people everywhere faced slavery if they did not fight to defend their freedom.

Just as Capra’s filmic heroes had to fight the establishment, so Capra now found himself fighting the army establishment that saw the purpose of film simply in terms of producing short training documentaries – how to fire a rifle, load a gun, or treat a wound – and not great and inspiring information films to motivate every member of a new citizens’ army.

But, with Marshall’s backing, Capra gathered around him a team of talented writers, directors, and film editors, and begged, stole, and borrowed the equipment needed to make his films. He called in all sorts of favours across Hollywood, and got Walt Disney to provide a team to produce short animations and maps that became a key feature in every film.

Production of The Battle of Russia began in April 1942 and the film was completed in the spring of 1943, just after the great triumph of the Red Army at Stalingrad. The director was a refugee from Nazi Germany, Anatole Litvak, and original music was by the Russian Dimitri Tiomkin, who also conducted the Paramount Symphony Orchestra performing the Russian classical music featured. Like all the Why We Fight films, it is a highly charged, emotional account, always looking to create maximum impact. There is nothing subtle about Why We Fight.

The film begins with a series of quotes. From General Marshall: ‘The gallantry and fighting spirit of the Russian soldiers command the American army’s admiration.’ And from General Douglas MacArthur: ‘The scale and grandeur of the Russian effort mark it as the greatest military achievement in all history.’

The opening ten minutes are a gallop through history, focusing on all the failed invasions of Russia. The German Teutonic Knights were defeated by Alexander Nevsky in 1242. (This sequence uses clips from Eisenstein’s 1938 epic Alexander Nevsky and music by Prokofiev.) In 1709, Charles XII of Sweden was defeated by Peter the Great. In 1812, Napoleon’s Grand Armée was annihilated in its winter retreat from Moscow. In 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm was beaten back. The implication is that Hitler’s invasion will also end in an inevitable German defeat.

There is then a canter through the geography of the Soviet Union, whose nine million square miles make it more than three times the size of the US. The country is shown as being rich with raw materials, coal, timber, iron, and petrol. Its agricultural lands produce vast quantities of every type of food.

Over stock shots of folk-dancing, the film celebrates the wonderful diversity of the Soviet people, who include Cossacks, Ukrainians, Georgians, and dozens more races, living in deserts, in forests, and in great modern cities. They all love their country and will fight to the death to defend it.

The film introduces the viewer to Hitler’s aggressive plans to conquer Russia. It follows the largest invasion in history, Operation Barbarossa. Dramatic footage shot on both sides shows German conquest and Soviet withdrawal. The Soviets adopt a policy of scorched earth as they lose half a million square miles of territory. ‘What can’t be withdrawn must be destroyed,’ the commentary tells us. Giant dams, factories, and farms are all blown up.

‘Generals win campaigns. People win wars,’ the commentary declares, and the Soviet people line up to fight. A new army of partisans is raised to fight behind the German lines in the giant forests that cover much of Russia.

Men and women, young and old, everyone has a role to play and gets on with it. In factories and farms, on the railways and waterways, the nation pulls as one: ‘Total war means total mobilisation.’ No doubt this was intended to inspire the American people by offering a model of industrial mobilisation.

All of these broad brushstrokes are illustrated by the animated maps produced by Disney. They make sense of the enormity of the battles and the scale of the territory being fought over. The first part ends with the Germans at the gates of Moscow in December 1941.

A total whitewash

It is fascinating to note what the film does not show – almost as interesting as what it does. The word ‘communist’ is never used. It would be entirely possible for a young GI to view this film and have no sense that a completely different political, social, and economic system applied in the Soviet Union. There is no talk of collectivisation, of controls over workers, of centrally run Five Year Plans. Stalin is presented as a popular and caring leader in the FDR style.

There is no mention of the Terror, and no reference to the Nazi–Soviet Pact. The maps of the conquest of Poland show the Germans in the western half of the occupied nation, but not the Soviets occupying the eastern half. There is nothing about the occupation of the Baltic states or of Soviet atrocities. Russian people are shown praying in churches for victory over fascism, just as kindly people might pray at home, without any hint that religion is barely tolerated by the Soviet state.

Stalingrad in the aftermath of the battle there, 1943. The Russian instalment in the Why We Fight series was released later the same year.

The film is a total whitewash. It neatly gets around the problem of how to present a communist, totalitarian regime as a close ally, by never giving the slightest hint that a different political order even exists in the Soviet Union. Uncle Jo, like Uncle Sam, leads a nation which believes in decent, core values and where the Russian people, like the Americans, have a deep love for their country.

The second part of The Battle of Russia is on safer ground. The Germans are defeated at the gates of Moscow. ‘Now it was the turn of the Germans to fight for their lives,’ the commentary tells us. ‘Now for the first time the German army was in retreat.’

As the Soviets recapture territory, so German atrocities are revealed. Thousands of civilians have been massacred. Widows grieve over corpses in the snow. Bodies hang from gallows. Young girls have been raped and murdered. ‘These are not soldiers, and they were not killed in battle.’

Tchaikovsky’s home, now a museum, has been vandalised. Tolstoy’s home has been wrecked. The Russians are said to have declared an oath of revenge, ‘Blood for blood. Death for death.’ And the film strongly emphasises the fact that the legend of German invincibility has been shattered.

This part contains a powerful account of the siege of Leningrad. Like the citizens of London, Rotterdam, and Warsaw, the people dig themselves out of the ruins of their city after being bombed. But unlike these other cities, Leningrad is surrounded and put under a desperate siege. Throughout the winter, the citizens face terrible disease, famine, and death. Supplies are brought in across frozen Lake Ladoga, along a ‘Lake Highway’ on the ice.

With the spring thaws of 1942, the campaigning begins again. This time, the German army drives south into the Caucasus with the intention of seizing the Soviet Union’s oilfields. In order to advance south, they need to capture Stalingrad on the Volga. The Germans advance into the heart of the city but, as the winter arrives, the Soviets fight back ‘inch by inch’. An encircling movement entraps the German VI Army.

Frank Capra, receiving the Distinguished Service Medal from General George C Marshall at the end of the war. Marshall told him he had to ‘win the battle for men’s minds’ with his films.

Using staged Soviet propaganda footage, the encircling Soviet armies are shown linking up and hugging. Field Marshal Paulus signs the surrender agreement; 330,000 Germans go into captivity. The mighty German army has been beaten. To a rising crescendo of music, we are told the people of the United Nations will prevail. And the series logo appears: the letter ‘V’, superimposed on the Liberty Bell.

Part two of The Battle of Russia tells a military story that was still fresh and new at the time of telling. Interestingly, the footage selected by Capra, Litvak, and their editors from the siege of Leningrad and the battle of Stalingrad is the Soviet footage that has been used repeatedly ever since. Having been a documentary filmmaker, I recognise almost every shot! It is powerful material, and there is no doubting it is a heroic and dramatic story. Almost before a single US soldier had fired a shot in the European war, the Germans were fighting for their lives at Stalingrad.

The Why We Fight films are fascinating historical documents, even though they create many myths about the war, several of which have endured. The Battle of Russia has to be seen and judged in its context. It had to persuade young Americans that the Soviet people and the Red Army are their closest allies and share their values. This it does with great bombast. Just a few years later, as World War became Cold War, such views would become an anathema. The Battle of Russia is very much of its time.

To read our special on Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of Russia in June 1941, turn to p.22.

Why We Fight series

Why We Fight was eventually made up of seven feature-length documentaries produced by the Special Section of the US War Department. They were largely edited from newsreel or archive footage, often captured from Germany, Italy, or Japan, produced with a forceful, no-holds-barred commentary, and backed with highly emotive music.

The first in the series, Prelude to War, showed how the aggression of the dictators had led to conflict and how the great choice facing humankind was either to become slaves of the totalitarian regimes or to fight for freedom.

The second, The Nazis Strike, showed the rise of Hitler’s Third Reich, its annexation of Austria and Czechoslovakia, and invasion of Poland.

Then came a set of films charting the early campaigns of the war: Divide and Conquer dealt with the crushing of France; Battle of Britain with the RAF victory in 1940 and the story of Britain standing alone; then came The Battle of Russia.

Later there would be Battle of China and War Comes to America, the latter a graphic visual history tracing how the nation went from non-involvement to total commitment to the world war. Prelude to War won the 1942 Academy Award for Best Documentary.

Although the films were made to explain to young GIs why they were risking their lives fighting to defend peoples on the other side of the world, some of them were given general theatrical releases in the US.

Interestingly, they were not successful at the box office. By the time they were released, audiences were wanting more current films about the battles that were taking place. The films were translated into several languages and shown interna-tionally, including in the UK, where Churchill filmed a special introduction to the series.

In addition to Why We Fight, Frank Capra produced several other films for the US War Department, most notably The Negro Soldier in 1944, a film intended to break down racism in the US military; and, in 1945, Know Your Enemy: Japan, about the militaristic culture that had taken hold of Japanese society.

Capra later came to regard these War Department films as his most important work.

The Battle of Russia
Producer: Frank Capra
Director: Anatole Litvak
A US War Department Special Service

Photos: Wikimedia Commons.