Great Movie Directors During Wartime: Hitchcock, Capra, Huston & Their WWII Films

Frank Capra, Alfred Hitch­cock, Howard Hawks, John Ford and John Hus­ton. They were some of the most impor­tant film­mak­ers dur­ing Hol­ly­wood’s Gold­en Age. And they were also part of “The Great­est Gen­er­a­tion,” the gen­er­a­tion that scraped and strug­gled to bring vic­to­ry to the Allies dur­ing World War II. Like many oth­ers, these direc­tors put com­mer­cial aspi­ra­tions aside for a while, and worked with the gov­ern­ment to pro­duce pro­pa­gan­da films that gal­va­nized sup­port for the war at home. You can find these films host­ed at the Inter­net Archive with­in the Cin­emoc­ra­cy sec­tion, and below we have high­light­ed some of the more impor­tant ones. For many more clas­sic films, don’t for­get to see our long list of Free Movies Online:

  • Frank Capra brought us some of Amer­i­ca’s great feel good films: It Hap­pened One Night (1934), Mr. Smith Goes to Wash­ing­ton (1939), and It’s a Won­der­ful Life (1946). (Find them here.) But, once WW II broke out, he was com­mis­sioned by the US gov­ern­ment to direct a sev­en episode series of films called “Why We Fight.” This includ­ed Pre­lude to War, The Nazi Strike, The War Comes to Amer­i­ca and oth­ers.
  • John Hus­ton — The Mal­tese Fal­con (1941), The Trea­sure of the Sier­ra Madre (1948), Key Largo (1948) — served in the U.S. Army Sig­nal Corps in 1943 and direct­ed an Acad­e­my Award win­ning doc­u­men­tary, Report from the Aleu­tians. The film, which Hus­ton helped nar­rate, fol­lows the dai­ly lives of Amer­i­can sol­diers serv­ing in the Aleut­ian Islands (off the shores of Alas­ka). Hus­ton also direct­ed anoth­er wartime film, The Bat­tle of San Pietro (1945).
  • John Ford, famous for his west­erns Stage­coach (1939) and The Searchers (1956) and for his adap­ta­tion of Stein­beck­’s The Grapes of Wrath (1940), also got into the act of shoot­ing wartime films, direct­ing The Bat­tle of Mid­way, an account of the Japan­ese attack of Amer­i­can ships at Mid­way. The film uses most­ly authen­tic footage from the bat­tle and is nar­rat­ed by Hen­ry Fon­da (who starred in The Grapes of Wrath). The oth­er notable pro­duc­tion was Decem­ber 7th, a film doc­u­ment­ing the Japan­ese attack on Pearl Har­bor.

Of course, it was­n’t just Amer­i­can direc­tors who made these pro­pa­gan­da films. The great Alfred Hitch­cock was the force behind Bon Voy­age and L’aven­ture Mal­gache (1944), two French lan­guage films backed by the British Min­istry of Infor­ma­tion. Both were trib­utes to the French resis­tance move­ment. And then there’s Death Mills (1945), the dis­turb­ing Ger­man-lan­guage doc­u­men­tary direct­ed by Bil­ly Wilder (Dou­ble Indem­ni­ty, Sun­set Boule­vard and Some Like it Hot) that showed Ger­many the hor­rors the Allies encoun­tered when they lib­er­at­ed Nazi exter­mi­na­tion camps. Some of these films can be found in our col­lec­tion of Free Movies Online.

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