At first pass, placing Frank Capra into the position of a major figure in the experimental and avant-garde continuum may seem counter intuitive in the context of his feature film output and known political perspectives. Conversely, my 2019 thesis, Tricked into Truth: Frank Capra’s Movements of the Mind,1 seeks to demonstrate otherwise. In it and through the lens of Capra’s World War II Why We Fight series, I examine Capra’s relationship with Soviet theorists and filmmakers, his collaborations with explorers of form such as Joris Ivens and Capra’s forensic grasp of editing and the use of the archive. Intertwined in this is his relationship with audiences and structures that mirror that of Maya Deren, Craig Baldwin, Bruce Conner, Santiago Álvarez and others. This research reframes Capra’s relationship with cinematic form and tradition, to place him as a major and unrecognised contributor to the experimental continuum and in so doing demonstrates a masterful approach to the way meaning is made. While there are a range of entry points in examining this contribution through pattern, montage or cognitive theory, it is notions of geography, geometry and cartography that seem the most tactile and which provide the clearest perspective of the way in which Capra works with the science of meaning. 

Between 1942 and 1945, Frank Capra was commissioned by the United States War Department to produce seven “orientation films”2 designed to educate American civilians and service people about America’s role in World War II. What Capra succeeded in producing was a series of films that transcended the traditional documentary and information form to create a filmmaking style that fused Soviet montage techniques, American documentary and newsreel traditions and avant-garde theories.3 Entitled Why We Fight, the series has been described by film historian and critic Mark Harris “as the single filmmaking accomplishment of the war”.4 Capra’s directorial contemporary William Wyler said of Why We Fight, it “will live longer than Gone With the Wind and will have a greater effect on the development of the medium5, while Thomas Bohn cites it as “one of the single best filmic examples of military orientation/propaganda ever produced.”6

But are the films in the series what they seem? On the surface, they speak laden with dense narration and complex geo-political information delivered in the language of documentary and newsreel: but is their meaning (as opposed to information) conveyed in very different ways to the newsreel form within which it is cloaked? I contend that in Why We Fight, Capra deliberately deployed geometric and scientific principles to create a unique form of experimental pseudo-documentary, whose meaning exists not in the facts and information presented, but in the imaginative spaces between.

Capra’s series marked a significant departure from actuality, or “camera reality”7 documentary seen from Capra’s contemporaries of William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston and George Stevens, whose work in the field is dramatically told in Mark Harris’ excellent non-fiction page-turner Five Came Back.8 Outside of Capra’s work, these traditional and linear forms had their own creative and political impact but were designed to report on actual events chronologically with material that was witnessed from events or reconstructions of it.9 Moving away from reporting on actual events, Why We Fight sought to illustrate the complex historical geopolitics around the events that led to the outbreak of World War II and America’s involvement in the conflict.10 The resulting series was aimed at signposting to American service people and subsequently the broader population, America’s role in World War II and its relationship with those it was fighting with and against. In working with the enormous cultural compression experienced in Why We Fight, Capra not only deconstructs and then reconstructs history, events, chronology and logical progression, but also shuttles forward and backward in time and space.11 

Capra’s Why We Fight series commences with Prelude to War (1942), a broad overview of the immediate lead-up to the events that led to the outbreak of World War II. It introduces the metaphysical theme of Good versus Evil repeated throughout the series, but which is most strongly represented in the first and last films.12 Prelude to War is followed by The Nazis Strike (1943), Divide and Conquer (1943), The Battle of Britain (1943) and what is widely regarded as the most significant artistic and dramatic achievement of the series, The Battle of Russia Part 1 & 2 (1943).13 The two final films in the series are The Battle of China (1944) and finally War Comes to America (1945). Each film in the series deals directly with the immediacy of the war, but also spends considerable time orienting the viewer to centuries-old events and relationships that built the national identities of both the Axis and Allied combatants through revolutionary struggles, sacred texts and political milestones.14 

Notwithstanding animated maps and graphics produced specifically for the series, the Why We Fight films were entirely collage: found footage. They were assembled from existing captured Axis propaganda and information films, Axis and Allied newsreels and combat footage, commercially released feature films and material from “every conceivable source”15 including from the collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art from which Capra took great inspiration. In their structure, the films included the complex use of Soviet montage theory as espoused by Vsevolod Pudovkin and notions of Creative Geography from Lev Kuleshov.16 In this cultural and historical compression that places viewers under tremendous emotional pressure,17 Capra created a series of films that contain a mix of fact, fiction, history, myth, metaphysics and entertainment.18 I argue that the densely and meticulously arranged and assembled impulses, symbols and fragments of evidence selected and collected by Capra, obey geometric principles espoused by theorists such as Eisenstein and Kuleshov and were later adopted by filmmakers such as Bruce Conner and Craig Baldwin through the decades. In so doing, Capra’s series distils and explores film theory in ways previously unacknowledged in historical research and analysis. These theories extend into areas that draw parallels between cinema as cartography, cinema as geometry, cinema as mathematics and cinema as music. 

Yet despite the critical importance in some areas of scholarly research and the parallels Why We Fight had with foundation film theory, the contribution the series had on the development of the avant-garde and found footage form is largely overlooked. The most compelling reason for this may be the difficulty in placing Capra, a filmmaker usually associated with traditional values and a commercial and establishment position, into an experimental context.19 Sitney inadvertently highlights this narrow scholarly perspective by noting “the precise relationship of the avant-garde cinema to commercial films is one of radical otherness. They operate in different realms with next to no significant influence on each other.”20 While a surface view might take this position as read, a deeper analysis exposes many unexplored and nuanced layers within the series and a powerful grasp from Capra of the way in which abstract forms may connect emotionally with mass audiences to create unambiguous and emphatic shapes and forms, despite the abstraction.

Michael Zyrd defines contemporary found footage filmmaking as “a specific sub-genre of experimental (or avant-garde) cinema that integrates previously shot material into new productions”.21 Capra’s ability to have a profound impact on mass audiences of the time with what was essentially an experimental form as Zyrd defines, points to a deep and unacknowledged understanding by Capra of early American and non-American avant-garde cinema production, film theory and principles of psychology, geometry and mathematics. 

When aligned with the microanalysis of Why We Fight, it is valid to assert that Capra’s approach to the structure of the series was deliberately mathematical and geometric, significantly aligning with Capra’s previous experience, studies and ambition.22 McBride’s notes of Capra’s academic work, that he achieved high levels of success in scientifically and mathematically based areas such as geometry, trigonometry, chemistry, physics, American history and later undertaking a Major in Chemical Engineering.23 This scientific aptitude is rarely transposed on to his film career as having any influence or inspiration on his creative output. Whilst not immediately or formally linked in previous research, there is evidence that demonstrates a progression of scientific principles from Capra from his early years and an application of them in Why We Fight

In his autobiography, Capra is clear on this link noting: “film is one of the three universal languages (the other two: mathematics and music)”.24 He speaks at length of his love for the clarity and logic of science25 and indeed in his early years taught mathematics to enlisted personnel at Fort Scott in San Francisco.26 Thus, Capra himself provides us with the basis by which to explore the creative terrain of geometric and science-based connectivity in film in greater detail. 

Capra: The Experimental Propagandist

Written four years prior to the start of World War II, and eight years prior to the production of Why We Fight, Harold Lasswell’s essay The Person: Subject and Object of Propaganda27 makes astute observations about the nature of the propagandist. Underlying Lasswell’s essay, is the concept that effective propaganda is not about politics at all. Kracauer reinforces this notion by observing: “To be effective, propaganda must supplement reasoning power with insinuations and incentives apt to influence the “stomach muscles” rather than “the head”.28 The simplicity of Kracauer’s statement transcends generations and exhibition technologies to remain relevant to propaganda today. In a more recent reinforcement of this thinking, Haifeng Huang quotes Hannah Arendt when she observes: “what convinces masses are not facts, and not even invented facts, but only the consistency of the system of which they are presumably part”.29 

In an observation of the propagandist’s personality that may well be applied to Capra’s production of Why We Fight, Lasswell notes that the propagandist’s approach must be “impressionistic and intuitive”.30 In other words, actuality is not the key, an impression of it is. Capra’s embracing of impressionistic narrative modes that move through time and space rather than linear reports, is viewed as a character and creative flaw rather than a creative positive by Joseph McBride in his exhaustive biography The Catastrophe of Success31 and in much other subsequent literature. The similarity between Lasswell’s observation of a propagandist’s alignment with feelings and emotions over the literal use of material as a documentarian, is not applied beyond a surface level across a range of research regarding Capra and Why We Fight. In this, there is a sense among scholars that Capra’s self-aggrandisement32 makes his creative output hollow and thus devalues the importance and meaning of Why We Fight and Capra’s approach to their production.33 

This literal alignment made by scholars of personal politics/experience and creative output is in itself a limiting perspective. It is not Capra’s personal politics that are important, or even relevant, in examining Why We Fight and its mechanisms and influence, yet these perceived politics are often the milestone by which the films are examined. Rather, it is the understanding of and appeal to elemental emotions that provide the creative and critical key for Capra and avant-garde filmmakers working with found footage post-World War II. Kracauer alludes to the significance of this elemental approach when he observes: “In stripping the events of their excess of common sense, one relieves the spectator from the necessity of judging, bringing him closer to poetic emotion”.34 Girgus moves into this space noting: “that the most essence of human nature consists of elemental instincts, which are common to all men and aim at the satisfaction of certain primal needs”.35 

Addressing these primal needs in government sponsored moving image was not lost on psychologists of the time. Bohn cites Steckel and Appel from the September 1942 issue of the American Journal of Psychiatry who explain what they believe the principle elements of information on a mass-scale should be (my emphasis):

Each soldier should know what he is fighting for.

Each civilian should know what he is fighting for.

We need a slogan.

We must develop anger at the enemy.

We must instill the specific fear of the consequences of defeat.

We must develop in each citizen the willingness to sacrifice himself for the good of the whole.

Develop confidence in self.

Develop confidence in our leaders.

We must use propaganda emotionally36 

In this description, the imparting information or facts is absent. In this context, stimulating emotion over imparting factual information is core to Why We Fight. Conversely, despite information being the lesser imperative, the way in which Why We Fight uses and presents information is where it receives its most strident criticism.37  

Robert Sklar’s perspective speaks to Capra’s skill in mixing myth, shared moral perspectives and dreams.38 Raymond Carney refers to Capra’s ability to explore ingrained prototypical imaginative situations.39 Sam Girgus says of Capra “he chooses to save American democracy by regenerating American character through the transformation of our understanding of what it means to be an American man and woman”.40 He speaks of Capra more generally as having an active role in not just reflecting culture but participating in the drama of the ideology and myth of America.41 These observations point to Capra taking an active role in shaping opinion, identity and character rather than simply reflecting or reporting on official policy or presenting information and opinion, personal or otherwise.

It seems in many instances as if Why We Fight is so unlike its contemporaries that it confuses or defies (denies) deeper analysis. In this, the very material (found footage) and its structure (collage) is where the core of the dilemma may lie for researchers: an experimental form is examined in the context of traditional narrative and documentary modes. More significantly, this dilemma may lie in the way in which Capra ‘camouflages’ the form of the series by the use of other known forms such as the information/newsreel/editorial format seen in The March of Time (1935) in the presentation of a new hybrid one. In its presentation, Why We Fight appropriates the “ritual composite”42 of the newsreel structure that was essentially an image-based collage, but through whose appropriation Capra creates another cinematic form altogether: the “pseudo-documentary”.  

This appropriation of form is mirrored in more contemporary collage forms. In much the same way that Capra masks his experimental structure by appropriating newsreel and documentary conventions, so creating a film that has the form of both but the intent of neither, contemporary found footage filmmaker Craig Baldwin looks toward a similar pseudo documentary camouflage in his film Tribulation 99: Alien Anomalies Under America (1991). 

The pseudo-documentary form was later made well known by works such as Mondo Cane (1962) and Chariots of the Gods (1970). By definition, pseudo-documentary camouflages its form under another so as to take advantage of audience’s expectations of the documentary form: the “implied contract”.43 In this respect and from the outset, Capra approaches the audience with two significant elements of Doherty’s implied contract: trust in the form with documentary as a conveyor of authenticity and trust in the conveyor of that information: Frank Capra, as a champion of “the everyman”.44 Much like the factual information embedded in Tribulation 99, Why We Fight contains information that is fact, information that could be true, information that certainly feels true within the internal logic of the film and information that is utterly false. 

More than simply appropriating content from multiple sources, Capra also appropriated form. In achieving this, Capra compelled audiences and scholars alike to perceive the Why We Fight series as something it was not: an informational-based mix of documentary and newsreel. Rather, Capra was able to use existing conventions of form and relationships with audiences, to put information in the service of emotion and create new ways of making meaning. In this instance and given Capra’s status in the cinema world at that time, much of this relationship centres on what audiences perceive Capra’s politics to be.45 These politics may not actually exist as McBride notes,46 but like the deployment of factual elements, it is the perception or impression of Capra’s politics that is important rather than their actual existence. Bordwell notes that such prior knowledge allows filmmakers like Capra to skate quickly and economically across concepts, leaving audiences to fill in the space created by filmmakers based on what they know the filmmaker likes to say or their consistent thematic approach.47 Similarly, Foucault in Frick observes that individual works from a single artist are intertwined with the artist’s life and what they have said before.48 Lissa sees this occurring in musical forms, with which Why We Fight has much in common, and observes:

If the listener is not acquainted with the work, he will evoke in his imagination familiar sounds of another work by the same composer. The associations will be linked with the composer’s individual style of writing or the musical style of the period.49 

Capra’s existing status as “a known and respected voice of authority for the viewer of the time”50 was not underestimated by his superiors in the military51 and this pre-existing relationship was used to great effect given the challenging interpretative tasks he sets his audience.52 

The exploration of the scientific principles that lie behind Capra’s approach is an important departure from research that in many instances appears to be one-dimensional in their analysis of documentary and the use of actuality therein. The basis in much analysis related to Why We Fight, documentary and the surrounding social and creative environment is that events and actions must be chronological, that personal political biases are reflected in creative output, and they must represent actuality whenever possible. As noted, these linear forms and actuality-based visual elements underpin the works from Capra’s contemporaries such as Wyler, Ford, Huston and Stevens and are referred to consistently across a range of research in documentary generally. Why We Fight is included in this general analysis despite it sitting outside of linear narrative and traditional documentary forms, presenting images that were not “composed chronologically or dramatically, but thematically”.53 

These thematic compositions are seen throughout all the films in the series in what I term “symphonic clusters”.54 These complex montage sequences run anything between one to five minutes and appear once in each of each film’s five acts. Largely devoid of narration, they constitute a “terrific attack on the emotions” in their often thunderous depictions of war.55 In the Why We Fight series, there is perhaps no better example this complexity than a single impressionistic symphonic cluster in The Battle of Russia Pt2. In this cluster, Capra aims to highlight the resilient and heroic character of the people of Leningrad who continued to manufacture weapons under the enormous pressure of an unrelenting German bombardment. A single forty-seven second sequence in the film contains fifty-five vision-edits and is devoid of narration. This represents the introduction of a new shot at more than one per second and an Average Shot Length (ASL) of 0.8secs. In this sequence where transitions are so rapid they are difficult to count manually, the workers become the machines and the machines become the workers. It is in many ways typical of these symphonic structures seen in each act of each film and where narration and information are secondary to poetic structures. How then does Capra use fact: or the sense of it?

It is almost as if “facts” for the viewer are a breath between filmic abstractions that are far more demanding for audiences to interpret than factual information. It is Capra’s use of fact, not as a source of information but potentially as a form of punctuation between these impressionistic statements or symphonic clusters, that is at odds with the traditions of documentary and analysis of form. This operates in much the same way ‘rests’ in music perform this punctuation function.56 I contend that the documentary information, or what audiences perceive as fact in Why We Fight, represents a form of illusion, which in geometric terms may align with notions of the “illusionary contour”. A “factual account” is what Capra wants the audience to see. This, however, is a camouflage that allows Capra to approach audiences with more subtle forms of messaging. 

The Shape of Truth and the Impression of Fact

Of significance in joining these principles is Kuleshov’s notion of creative geography that plays a role in defining the relationship between cinematic time and space and its correlation between the cinematic and natural worlds.57 Of this concept, Kracauer describes it as “a device which dissolves given spatial interrelationships. Pictures of material phenomena taken in different places are juxtaposed in such a way that their combination evokes the illusion of a spatial continuity.”58 Continuity and relationships are thus an illusion. 

Prince and Hensley compare Kuleshov’s experiments in the making of meaning through image arrangement to that of Frederick Taylor, a leading figure in the area of scientific movement management at the turn of the century.59 This movement-management of meaning exploits the shortest and most efficient way in reaching audiences. In Capra’s case it was his standing as a “hero of the everyman”60 that provided the greatest efficiency. This allows Capra to approach audiences with a prefabricated element of the series from where he may explore more difficult conceptual terrain, emotional geography and negative space and where he may begin to deliberately experiment with audience relationships to film, filmmaker and meaning.

In exploring this cinematic illusion, the concept of illusionary contours may be applied. Here, a dominant shape is perceived where in fact that shape is negative space. Illusionary Contours may be defined as “misreadings of visual information by the brain: instead of processing merely the actual information coming from the retina, the brain adheres to preconceptions and assumes what is most likely to be seen”.61 The shape perceived in the negative space is what the viewer “assumes what is most likely to be seen”, or as I term it, ‘the most probable conclusion’. In the figure below, the dominant shape (the most probable conclusion) is a triangle, yet this shape occupies negative space via a perceived outline rather than an actual one.

“The most probable conclusion” seen in the Kanizsa triangle

In continuing the definition using the Kanizsa Triangle above, Fuss, Bleckmann and Schluessel elaborate (with my emphasis): “in the absence of any lines or color changes, this arrangement itself is sufficient to evoke the impression in the viewer of there being distinct contours forming a triangle”.62 

I argue that the dominant shape the audience see in Why We Fight is factual information, therefore it is perceived that the imparting of factual information is the primary driver or ‘shape’ of the series. In part, the viewer is made to believe in the presence of facts via multiple devices. These include earnest and dense narration delivered by well-known voices of the time, the numerous animated maps and diagrams, date titles, shots of newspaper headlines and well-known historical footage amongst other elements. For Capra however, a sense of fact is all that is required, and that ‘sense of fact’ is achieved in significant part by the newsreel form of the series and the implied contract between filmmaker and audience with this form.63 From an audience perspective, the assumption that what is presented in Why We Fight is indeed fact, occurs prior to the audience viewing a single image of the film: after all documentaries “are supposed to be true to fact…whenever a documentary succeeds in swaying the minds, part of its success is due to the spectator’s conviction that he is in the presence of irrefutable evidence”64: Doherty’s “implied contract”.65 

As a specific example, Capra deploys “facts”: things audiences either know to be true or feel to be true as noted by Nichols earlier, at strategically measured distances. Early in Divide and Conquer, Capra deploys a sequence describing how Norwegian forces made small gains against the invading Germans by retaking and holding the Norwegian town of Narvik. Superior Nazi air power proved decisive in the longer-term and the battle was eventually lost by Norway. In reality and as described in the film, the Norwegian army did retake the town of Narvik from invading Germans: a point of irrefutable historical truth. In the film, this statement of fact is followed by a dramatic and extended symphonic cluster, representing the battle of battle of Narvik. It has no narration and is filled with naval vessels of all types and sizes under intense aerial attack. The sequence is underpinned by an ‘audio-carpet’ of screaming dive-bombing aircraft, constant heavy machine-gun fire, constant droning plane engines, firing cannons, explosions and aircraft crashing into the sea. The sequence of one-minute forty-five seconds concludes with an inter-title of a statement by Hitler (English narration and screen titles) proclaiming “Germany never had any conflict with the Northern States and has none today”: another fact deployed and one that bookends the impressionist representation of battle. 

Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Divide and Conquer

Between the two points of fact: the statement the battle took place and Hitler’s assertion of peace, sits the metaphysical symphonic cluster representing the battle of good versus evil. The footage selected by Capra in this example is not necessarily from the actual battle in Norway and the footage itself varies greatly in quality. For the audience however, the ‘sense’ of battle is all that is required: we know that the battle actually took place. We do not have to see the camera reality66 to know it to be true. Likewise, in Divide and Conquer, the same children escaping a devastating Nazi aerial bombardment in Norway may also be seen escaping an equally savage attack on Leningrad in The Battle of Russia in as below. 

The Battle of Russia

Divide and Conquer

Similarly, the same German planes in that same attack in Norway in Divide and Conquer, are also seen attacking Britain in The Battle of Britain

Divide and Conquer

The Battle of Britain

In both instances and in each of the conflicts, we know such moments took place, thus all an audience require in the overall narrative is a ‘sense of’ the moments depicted via this distressing footage from a (not the) actual event. What event the footage actually depicts is unknown. Of this sense or feeling of authenticity, Sitney discusses the audience’s ability to move from one point of fact to another noting “It is enough to know they exist. At least they may be presumed to exist. Having made the assumption, it is possible to go on from there.”67 

Nichols defines this notion of documentary as an artifact of authenticity and by proxy the implied contract, while also placing WWF’s form into a more contemporary context that indicates Capra’s vision of not what documentary is for the time, but what it was to become (author’s emphasis):

Traditionally, the word “documentary” has suggested fullness and completion, knowledge and fact, explanations of the social world and its motivating mechanisms. More recently, though, documentary has come to suggest incompleteness and uncertainty, recollection and impression.68 

In examining illusionary contours in WWF in this way, Capra’s facts give “an impression of learning through the recitation of variable facts and dates”.69 It is not learning per-se but an ‘impression of learning’ in much the same way that the footage selected is not the battle or the refugees, but an impression of them. Capra understands that audiences will join one impression with another to provide the most probable conclusion. It is not the only conclusion, but the most likely and therefore the most common conclusion, or “what is most likely to be seen” as a Kanizsa triangle.70 

In constructing the simplest of illusionary contours or what I term ‘the shape of truth’, Capra need only deploy three points to triangulate a meaning and therefore make a shape appear: form, rhythm and fact. In Capra’s own words, the three points in his Kanizsa triangle are film, music and mathematics71, that when effectively deployed provide the illusionary contour: a sense of fact, or a shape of truth. Therefore, the series contains two primary structural elements: facts which are provided directly to audiences and around which audiences do lesser levels of interpretive work, and impressionistic movements that require a higher level of interpretive interaction from audiences. 

A pattern then begins to emerge where for Capra “fact” may represent punctuation points, or in musical terms “rests”, where simple information is provided to audiences and placed between impressionistic movements. For audiences, these impressionistic movements are more demanding to view and require what I term “associative interpretation”: that is the space where audiences are required to work to make associations between dissociated visual material. The “rests” that precede the impressionistic sequences are simply defined as “the medium within which music is roused…within which music is set into motion”.72 In extending this concept, if “fact” in WWF is the space where audiences are not required to make associations, “fact” can then be seen as the negative space or “rests” in music. Therefore if “fact” is sensed by the viewer as the primary shape, but if this primary shape is an illusion, are audiences being tricked into truth? 

The power of this slight-of-hand was not lost on Capra who explained:

If you want to reach the masses you can reach them through pictures. These new children can be bent and molded as they sit in the dark enrapt before the magic of the mobile screen. There, in the dark, they can be lifted out of their daily servitude. There, they can be bought to the high places and shown the deeps beyond the horizon….Here is a destiny for an art second to none in history. For it is given to the motion picture to save the soul of a civilization.73 

In a variety of academic literature and theoretical discussion, there is critical support for this expansive statement. Kracauer binds Capra’s own feeling regarding the filmmaker’s ability to shape audiences against the spatial relationships between thoughts and words when he says: 

Films, then, tend to weaken the spectator’s consciousness. Its withdrawal from the scene may be furthered by the darkness in movie houses. Darkness automatically reduces our contacts with actuality, depriving us of many environmental data needed for adequate judgments and other mental activities.74

He goes on to say:

The movie-goer is much in the position of a hypnotised person. Spellbound by the luminous rectangle before his eyes – which resembles the glittering hand of the hypnotist – he cannot help succumbing to the suggestions that invade the blank of his mind.75 

The battles and strategies described in the series are after all factual, as was the military intent of the series from the outset.76 It is the space that exists around or between the material statements of fact where audiences give filmmakers artistic license and vice versa. Once audiences have taken the initial step in rounding off unfinished concepts without needing to physically see the evidence, the convention is set. Audiences may see the evidence and hear a representation. Or they may hear the evidence and see a representation. Or they may hear both together in traditional documentary forms. Or they may hear and see neither but potentially “feel” truth by what the filmmaker has traditionally said and what they know about them. Together, a chain of interpretation is developed that may dilute or erase the need for actual physical/audio visual evidence. 

All that is required is a ‘step-down approach’ where the material imperceptibly transitions from fact into the abstract and back. Bordwell distills this in citing the theories of nineteenth century philologist Friederich Ast who noted that the audience must grasp a triangulation of three elements in any text: the letter, the sense and the spirit.77 As this Kanizsa triangulation emerges and transitions are highlighted, theories that examine mathematical or geometric patterns relating to the meaning of abstract works are seen. 

This research demonstrates Frank Capra’s work during World War II for the US Signal Corp represented a sophisticated level of understanding of film theory from Capra and one that had a profound influence on post-World War II avant-garde found footage cinema. Capra’s use of geometric and geographic principles in film succeeded in extending the possibilities and principles of Soviet montage, while also exploring and creating new dimensions of how cinema could be used in making fresh connections with audiences and building a new visual vocabulary. This research positions Capra much closer to the developmental centre of the continuum of avant-garde found footage filmmaking than acknowledged in previous research. It provides evidence of Capra’s ability to synthesise complex filmic, scientific and psychological practices to create an industrial-scale series of experimental films that provide collisions of both content and form.

By exploring the complexity of form in Why We Fight and applying this complexity onto post-World War II forms, new insights are provided in both avant-garde traditions and the mechanisms behind the way in which the films operate are exposed and unified. It is a fertile area populated by figures who work and presence has defined cinema theory and practice internationally and which continue to exhibit surprising linkages and relationships where this research has only scratched the surface.


  1. Richard Valentin Sowada, “Tricked into truth: why we fight and Frank Capra’s movements of the mind”, PhD dissertation, 2019.
  2. Barry E. Cardwell, Film and Motivation – The ‘Why We Fight’ Series (Carlisle Barracks PA, Army War Coll, 1991), p. 58.
  3. J. Dudley Andrew, The Major Film Theories: An Introduction (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 197.
  4. Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. (London: Canongate Books, 2014), p. 382.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Thomas W. Bohn, “An Historical and Descriptive Analysis of the Why We Fight Series” (1970): 0419-0419, p. ii.
  7. Siegfried Kracauer, Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 28.
  8. Harris, Five Came Back.
  9. Thomas Doherty, Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II. (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999), p. 253.
  10. Bohn, “An Historical and Descriptive Analysis”, p. 101.
  11. Doherty, Projections of War, p. 71.
  12. Richard Meran Barsam, Nonfiction Film: A Critical History. Vol. 706. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), p. 181.
  13. William Thomas Murphy, “The Method of Why We Fight”, Journal of Popular Film 1:3 (1972), p. 193.
  14. Bohn, “An Historical and Descriptive Analysis”, p.121.
  15. Jay Leyda, Films Beget Films (New York: George Allen & Unwin, 1964), p. 58.
  16. Stephen Prince and Wayne E. Hensley, “The Kuleshov effect: Recreating the classic experiment”, Cinema Journal 31:2 (1992): 59-75.
  17. Benjamin L. Alpers, Dictators, democracy, and American public culture: envisioning the totalitarian enemy, 1920s-1950s (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2003), p. 179.
  18. Doherty, Projections of War, p. 74.
  19. Sam B, Girgus, Hollywood Renaissance: The Cinema of Democracy in the Era of Ford, Kapra, and Kazan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), p. 58.
  20. P. Adams Sitney, Visionary Film: The American Avant-garde; 1943-2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), p. xii.
  21. Michael Zryd, “Found footage film as discursive metahistory: Craig Baldwin’s Tribulation 99”, The Moving Image 3:2 (2003), p. 41.
  22. Joseph McBride, Frank Capra: The Catastrophe of Success (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2011), p. 55.
  23. Ibid, pp. 55-56.
  24. Frank Capra, Frank Capra: The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (New York: Macmillan, 1971), p.205
  25. Ibid, p. 130.
  26. Richard Glatzer, and John Raeburn (eds.), Frank Capra: The Man and His Films (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1975), p. 49.
  27. Harold D. Lasswell, “The person: Subject and object of propaganda”, The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 179:1 (1935): 187-193.
  28. Siegfried Kracauer,. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), p. 160.
  29. Haifeng Huang, “Propaganda as signaling”, Comparative Politics 47:4 (2015), p. 6.
  30. Lasswell, “The person”, p. 191.
  31. McBride, Frank Capra, p. 481.
  32. Yves Carlet, “Frank Capra and Elia Kazan, American outsiders”, European Journal of American Studies 5:5-4 (2010), p. 4.
  33. Alpers, Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Xulture, p. 177.
  34. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 175
  35. Girgus, Hollywood Renaissance, p. 92
  36. Bohn, “An Historical and Descriptive Analysis”, p. 90.
  37. Claudia Springer, “Military Propaganda: Defense Department Films from World War II and Vietnam.” In The Vietnam War and American Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), pp. 95-114.
  38. Robert Sklar, Movie-Made America: A Cultural History of American Movies (New York: Random House, 1994), p. 214.
  39. Raymond Carney, American Vision: The Films of Frank Capra (Cambridge: CUP Archive, 1986), p. xix.
  40. Girgus, Hollywood Renaissance, p. 80.
  41. Ibid, p. 4.
  42. Erik Barnouw, Documentary: A History of the Non-Fiction Film (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 26.
  43. Doherty, Projections of War, p. 252.
  44. Sklar, Movie-Made America, p. 210.
  45. Girgus, Hollywood Renaissance, p. 58.
  46. McBride, Frank Capra, p. 256.
  47. David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 9.
  48. Peter Frick, Bonhoeffer and Interpretive Theory: Essays on Methods and Understanding (Bern: Lang, 2013), p. 47.
  49. Zofia Lissa, “Aesthetic functions of silence and rests in music”, The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 22:4 (1964), pp. 445-446.
  50. Girgus, Hollywood Renaissance, p. 58.
  51. Harris, Five Came Back, p. 9.
  52. Bohn, “An Historical and Descriptive Analysis”, p. 249.
  53. Lewis Jacobs, “Experimental Cinema in America. Part One: 1921–1941”, Hollywood Quarterly, pp. 5-27.
  54. Sowada, “Tricked into truth”, p. 95.
  55. Alpers, Dictators, Democracy, and American Public Culture, p. 179.
  56. Lissa, “Aesthetic functions of silence and rests in music”, p. 444.
  57. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 48.
  58. Ibid.
  59. Hensley Prince, “The Kuleshov effect: Recreating the Classic Experiment”, pp. 62-63.
  60. Sklar, Movie-Made America, p. 210.
  61. Theodora Fuss, Horst Bleckmann and Vera Schluessel. “The brain creates illusions not just for us: sharks (Chiloscyllium griseum) can ‘see the magic’ as well”, Frontiers in Neural Circuits 8 (2014), p. 1
  62. Ibid.
  63. Doherty, Projections of War, p. 252.
  64. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 161.
  65. Doherty, Projections of War, p. 252.
  66. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 28.
  67. Sitney, Visionary Film: p. 45.
  68. Bill Nichols, “The Documentary Genre. Approach and Types”, p. 8.
  69. Jeffrey Geiger, American Documentary Film: Projecting the Nation: Projecting the Nation (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2011), p. 136.
  70. Fuss, Bleckmann, Schluessel, “The brain creates illusions not just for us”, p. 1.
  71. Capra, Frank Capra p. 205.
  72. Lissa, “Aesthetic functions of silence and rests in music”, p. 443.
  73. Capra, Frank Capra p. 222.
  74. Kracauer, Theory of Film, p. 159.
  75. Ibid, p. 160.
  76. Alpers, Dictators, democracy, and American public culture, p. 179.
  77. Bordwell, Making Meaning, p.15.