The Negro Soldier & Tunisian Victory.
Another two WWII propaganda films with dramatically different things to say.
I’ll be honest, was worried going into this one. I’ve watched six WWII films discussed in the Netflix documentary Five Came Back. And while they’re somewhat more accepting than I expected, they still aren’t free of racism by any means. So when I saw that a film called The Negro Soldier was coming up, I thought, ho boy, what have I gotten myself into.
Instead, aside from the outdated language, the film is remarkably progressive. Especially considering the time period. Another part of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series of films, the 1944 movie tells the story of Black Americans in US wartime history, as well as great Black Americans in general.
It’s told from the perspective of a preacher in a congregation, as he warns his flock against the evils of the Nazis, and then goes on to talk about great black heroes in American history.
In doing so, it eschews any stereotypes that were common at the time. Perhaps the first third is dedicated to famed war heroes. Like Crispus Attucks, the first man to die under the American flag. It then goes through other men and women, black people who played a strong part in building the country. Artists, writers, scientists, athletes, lawyers, musicians. You only need to look at Disney movies at the time to see how non-white people are usually portrayed. That The Negro Soldier shows these men and women picking up and examining Erlenmeyer flasks or conducting orchestras (ok it’s slightly heightened, but whatever) is remarkable.
Of course, the purpose of the film is to convince young Black Americans to join the war effort. Which is a MASSIVE not-so-ulterior motive, and the US Army wasn’t exactly a beacon of equality. But looking at Capra’s movie on its own, it’s unique and influential.
Tunisian Victory is something else entirely. A joint effort between the US and UK armies, it’s a celebration of Allied effort. Frank Capra again leads the directing charge, documenting and telling the story of Operation Torch, part of the North African campaign that liberated Tunis, the capital of Tunisia.
I found the quality and creativity of the shots much more exciting than any of the previous films. They feel more composed, more thought through. Just look a the shot above, where a crowd of soldiers gather to listen to a man tinkling the ivories. The whole frame pulls you towards the centre.
Others are smaller touches. When a narrator talks about a mission in Africa, the camera focuses in on an African map in a soldier’s back pocket. Where previous films just shot the hell out of the scenery and people and used whatever they had, Tunisian Victory is shot with more purpose.
Of course, part of that could be because the film is more composed. Some of the American combat footage was lost when a battleship was sunk. So to keep the American/British ratio even-steven, they brought in American director John Houston (of Report from the Aleutians fame) to re-stage some of the battle scenes.
Many of the scenes stick out like a sore thumb. Gorgeous but clearly staged. Controversial? Perhaps. But it’s hard to deny that it resulted in one of the best looking WWII propaganda films.
At the same time, Tunisian Victory does something else artistically. Along with both US and UK documentary narrators, the film features fictionalised narration from two soldiers — an American and a Brit. The Brit is played by Bernard Miles, and the American by none other than The Penguin/Mickey Goldmill himself, Burgess Meredith.
Personally I found those narrations more engaging than the standard documentary ones. In particular, the American documentary narrator is bit too intense, practically yelling what’s happening on screen. The fictionalised narrations are more introspective and subtle. They also give focus to quite a broad story. Tunisian Victory covers everything from war room planning, to a visit from Churchill, to battlefields, to Christmas dinner on the front line. And lots of graphics of troop movements. Getting on-the-ground perspectives, even if they’re fiction, helps keep the story cohesive.
Tunisian Victory does feel like it’s trying too hard sometimes (again, probably because the directors were!), rather than allowing the war and the people themselves reveal the story. But after eight films, it’s great that there’s still two more completely different ways to portray the war.