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Part Five: Overseas

Many documentary shorts and features made during World War II used actual combat footage shot on the front lines. Highly trained combat cameramen recorded images of field troops in ground battles, American war planes dropping bombs, and gunners on aircraft carriers shooting down enemy planes, while other footage was captured by motion picture cameras mounted on bombers and ships. When combat footage was authorized for use in documentaries, it advanced the U.S. government’s campaign to keep the American public engaged and supportive of the war, no matter how long it took to attain victory.

After the United States entered the war in December 1941, combat documentaries showing American soldiers fighting the enemy, such as John Ford’s “The Battle of Midway,” validated the necessity of entering the war and stirred patriotism. The strategy changed after V-E Day on May 8, 1945, when war shorts such as “Two Down and One to Go” were made to encourage the war-weary public to continue supporting the military as it battled to defeat Japan.

The exceptional motion picture record of World War II would not exist without the contributions of hundreds of film industry professionals who set aside their Hollywood careers and joined the government filmmaking effort. One of the first directors to offer his services was John Ford, who was commissioned by the U.S. Navy and reported for duty in September 1941. Frank Capra, another of Hollywood’s most successful directors, headed up a documentary unit for the government, while filmmakers like John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler captured indelible images of active combat and its aftermath.

War Films

Calling All Workers
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"The Battle of Midway" (1942)

Shot in color by U.S. naval cameramen, including Commander John Ford with his handheld 16mm camera, “The Battle of Midway” is the quintessential example of a wartime combat documentary. It is a stunning visual record of the U.S.’s vital win in the Pacific, with moving narration describing the sacrifices that come with victory.

Recipient of a 1942 Special Award for “the historical value of its achievement in offering a camera record of one of the decisive battles of the world – a record unique both for the courage of those who made it under fire, and for its magnificent portrayal of the gallantry of our armed forces in battle."


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Brought to Action
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"Brought to Action!" (1944)

Produced in cooperation with the U.S. Navy, “Brought to Action!” combines U.S. air and sea combat footage with captured Japanese footage to chronicle the crucial Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944, from preparatory strategy sessions through the action of the days-long battle.


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Two Down and Two to Go
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"Two Down and One to Go" (1945)

Distributed by the Office of War Information, this film uses combat footage and dramatic animation sequences to illustrate General George Marshall’s explanation of why the U.S. fought Axis forces in Europe before conducting an all-out campaign in the Pacific, and why the war cannot be considered over until Japanese forces are vanquished.


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These war short films contain language and cultural references that will seem inappropriate to a contemporary audience. Please consider the historical circumstances that influenced their creation.

John Huston Lecture Series

San Pietro
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Highlights from the Academy's John Huston Lecture on Documentary Film

Director John Huston's documentary work during service in the Army Signal Corps in World War II produced three unique portraits: "Report from the Aleutians" (1943), "San Pietro" (1944, withheld from release until 1945) and "Let There Be Light" (1946, suppressed from public release until 1980). These highlights from the Academy's 2008 "John Huston Lecture on Documentary Film" include outtakes from "San Pietro" (no audio) and remarks from the director's son, Tony Huston. (Video courtesy of the National Archives.)

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