Why We Fight, The Battle of China

The Battle of China (1944) was the sixth film of Frank Capra’s Why We Fight propaganda film series. Following its introductory credits—displayed to the Army Air Force Orchestra’s cover version of “The March of the Volunteers”—the movie opens on footage of the Japanese invasion of China. It then briefly introduces the history, geography, and people of China. It contrasts the peaceful development of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen against the militarized modernization of the Empire of Japan. Japan’s invasions of China are explained with reference to the since-largely-discredited Tanaka Memorial:

“Here was their mad dream:
Phase One – the occupation of Manchuria for raw materials.
Phase Two – the absorption of China for manpower.
Phase Three – a triumphant sweep to the south to seize the riches of the Indies.
Phase Four – the eastward move to crush the United States.”
It is claimed that Japan moved piece by piece in order to avoid external interference but accelerated its actions in response to China’s growing unity and development under the Republic. Contrary to many modern timelines of the war, the film downplays Chinese resistance in Manchuria and presents the Marco Polo Bridge Incident as a largely peaceful and foregone conclusion. Instead, the Battle of Shanghai is presented as the beginning of real hostilities. The aerial bombardment which produced the “Bloody Saturday” photograph is called the first such attack on civilians in history. (Although the photograph itself is not used, the then-famous image is alluded to in footage of the child being carried across the ruins of the old Shanghai South Railway Station.) It then includes graphic footage of the aftermath of the Rape of Nanking, said to have been smuggled out of occupied China by a hospital worker. The narration calls the death toll unprecedented, although its figure of 40,000 is far lower than most modern estimates.

The Chinese communists are only mentioned obliquely through the film’s repeated reference to China’s division and factions. The Xi’an Incident is similarly omitted; instead, the country is said to have finally united in the face of the atrocities in Nanjing. The relocation of personnel and resources to Chongqing is covered. The attendant scorched-earth policy is given only oblique reference or the immolation of Changsha, although the Japanese bombing of Chongqing (“Chungking”) is dwelt on. The expansion of the National Revolutionary Army is described, including footage of their drills and of a young girl training with a machine gun. The “Flying Tigers” are mentioned, along with their record of 20 kills for each lost plane, but as a supportive group of volunteers and without attempts to downplay China’s own mobilization and efforts at self-defence.

The Japanese—often referenced as “Japs” and less often as “Nips”—blockading and occupation of China’s ports is discussed and the rebuilding of China’s destroyed rail system called the work of “slave labor”. “New China”—here used to reference the Republican government-in-exile in Chongqing—is shown as connected to the outside world only through the “narrow-gauge” Indo-Chinese railway and the “camel caravans” from Russia across the Gobi Desert. (The railway is described as “limited” and “too near Jap territory to be safe”, with French compliance in closing the line for Japan omitted.) The construction of the Burma Road between Lashio in Burma and the truck road to Kunming is then described. A task said to have needed seven years with the most modern machinery is shown being constructed with simple laborers in less than 12 months. Japan’s assault on the junction of the Pinghan and Longhai Railways at Zhengzhou (“Chengchow”) is shown being prevented by the induced flooding of the Yellow River, although the immense death count involved is quickly passed over as another example of trading space for time. The guerrilla warfare behind Japanese lines is lionized and treated as nearly unique in the war.

Bogged down, but freed from worry of Russian interference by Germany’s invasion and British interference by its naval commitment to the Battle of the Atlantic, Japan is shown attacking Pearl Harbor before the Americans could complete their planned two ocean navy. (The necessity of controlling the oil fields of Indonesia passes unmentioned.) The film admits that a series of defeats—in Malaysia, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Corregidor—long left the Chinese isolated from their new allies, all the more so after the loss of the Burma Road. The worsening situation then serves to make the film’s extended treatment of the Chinese victory at Changsha in 1942 all the more impressive. The film then shifts to 1944 and the American forces sweeping westward across the Pacific to China’s defense. The Allied forces massed in British India are shown flying Chinese troops southwest to train, equipping them with modern weaponry and tactics, and working to construct the Ledo Road. Footage of the The Hump airlift is shown to the tune of the “Army Air Force” anthem. Before an American flag, Soong Mei-ling, “Madame Chiang Kai-shek”, is shown announcing in English,

“We in China want a better world not for ourselves alone… but for all mankind. And we must have it.”

to a standing ovation by the United States Congress. The montage of the marching armies of China are then shown while a Chinese chorus sings “The March of the Volunteers”. Against the end of the anthem, the film ends, like the other in the series, with General Marshall’s admonition that “The victory of the democracies can only be complete with the utter defeat of the war machines of Germany and Japan” and a large V displayed over the ringing Liberty Bell.