The Bootleg Files: The Battle of China

BOOTLEG FILES 748: “The Battle of China” (1944 documentary in the “Why We Fight” series).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.

AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: On public domain labels.

REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: It never had a copyright, so anyone can make a crummy dupe.

Condemned to public domain hell.

In 1942, the U.S. government commissioned Oscar-winning filmmaker Frank Capra to create a series of films that would explain the nation’s involvement and goals for World War II to both the American public and the servicemembers being sent into battle. The “Why We Fight” films became a seven-part series that primarily focused on the threats that Nazi Germany posed to the U.S. and to its British and Soviet allies.

It wasn’t until the sixth film in the series that “Why We Fight” took aim across the Pacific to consider the contributions of China, the Allies’ major partner on the Asian continent. The belated production of “The Battle of China” mirrored how the U.S. government and public was primarily occupied with liberating Europe from the Nazis and gave much less priority to China’s struggle against Japan. And while the film has more than few gaps in its presentation of the Asian conflict, it nonetheless offers a rare glimpse of World War II history that rarely gets attention.

“The Battle of China” goes far out of its way to praise the Chinese people for their history, culture and indefatigable spirit. The film praises the establishment of the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen as a beacon for democracy and vilifies the rise of Japanese militarist leadership. Oddly, the film only briefly covers the 1931 Japanese invasion of Manchuria and instead rewrites the dawn of the conflict as the 1937 Battle of Shanghai, with the Japanese air force dropping bombs on the city’s defenseless civilian population.

The film repeatedly cites the so-called Tanaka Memorial, attributed to Japanese Prime Minister Tanaka Giichi as a blueprint for world domination via the conquest of Japan. While that document would be rejected by historians after the war as a fake, “The Battle of China” holds it up as evidence that the Japanese invasion of China was the first step by Japan’s military to become the occupying force across Asia and then elsewhere in the world.

“The Battle of China” offers a somewhat incomplete overview of why China, with its massive population and land mass, was unable to fight back against Japan, a much smaller nation. Missing from the film is the fact that the Nationalist government of Chiang Kai-shek was in conflict with the Communist movement directed by Mao Zedong – the disunity created by this borderline civil war between the factions played a key role in enabling the Japanese to march across China. The film ignores the December 1936 Xi’an Incident where Chiang’s generals forced him to make peace with the Communists in order to fight against the Japanese. Mao is seen for a few seconds in “The Battle of China” but is not identified by name or political ideology. And while the U.S.-backed Flying Tigers aviation initiative is given a bit of screen time, the film carefully avoids criticizing the frailty of the Chinese military preparedness in the face of the Japanese onslaught.

“The Battle of China” offers an uncensored view of the brutality that the Japanese brought to China, particularly in its assault on Nanking and the unprecedented horror that the invaders inflicted on civilians. The film also explains the logistics challenges in the creation of the Burma Road to bring Allied military supplies into China and the extraordinary migration of the Chinese population to the temporary wartime capital in Chongqing. It also offers a frank admission that Allied loses along the Pacific Rim in 1942 would isolate China from its anti-Japanese allies.

As wartime propaganda, “The Battle of China” constantly refers to the enemy forces as “Japs” while showing Americans and Chinese training together as equals – a very rare glimpse of white American servicemembers working in full partnership with nonwhites. Madame Chiang Kai-shek, the wife of the Chinese leader, closes the film in newsreel footage when she addresses the U.S. Congress in English calling for a “better world.”

Admittedly, this is not the best vehicle to educate anyone of what took place in China during the 1930s and 1940s – even by the shaky propaganda of the “Why We Fight” standards, the film is surprisingly incomplete in offering the truth of the conflict. Frank Capra and Anatole Litvak were the uncredited co-directors, so much of the blame could be aimed at them. Still, the Japanese invasion of China is rarely considered in most World War II documentary presentations, and a great deal of the footage in “The Battle of China” rarely gets included in contemporary documentaries about the war.

As with the other “Why We Fight” films, this government-produced film never had a copyright. As a result, endless public domain dupes are circulating. But unlike the other and better-known “Why We Fight” films, “The Battle of China” rarely gets much attention. Despite its flaws, it deserves to be seen, if only as a launching pad for someone who is serious about learning about World War II and the Pacific Rim.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to the award-wining podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud, with new episodes every Monday.