1. Oscar’s Docs 1941-1942

This is the first in a series of writings about the first twenty years of Academy Award winning documentaries.


1941 was the first year the Academy recognized the documentary with its own category for Oscar. Dutch born documentarian Joris Ivens wrote “I am so very glad that at last we are recognized by the Academy and that the documentary film has become one of the ‘decent’ branches of the Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.” The Academy did, however, award a handful of documentaries during the first 14 years of Oscar, but the films were lumped into other categories, not their own.

With WWII on the rise doc filmmakers had their subject and were ready to shoot. There were 11 nominations for best documentary short subject in 1941. Only two of them were not about the war, Life of a Thoroughbred and Adventure in the Bronx. Churchill’s Island (22 mins), produced by the Canadian Film Board and narrated by Lorne Greene took home the first official documentary Oscar statuette. The awards took place at the Biltmore Bowl of the Biltmore Hotel on February 26, 1942, just two months after the attack on Pearl Harbor and America’s declaration of war.

After coining the term “documentary” and ushering in the doc movement in the UK, John Grierson (1898-1972) became the first commissioner of the Canadian Film Board. He defined documentary as, “the creative interpretation of reality,” and its purpose “to exploit the powers of natural observation, to build a picture of reality, to bring the cinema to its destiny as a social commentator, inspirator and art.” Churchill’s Island was one film among many produced by the CFB. Over the course of the war, 6.5 million feet of film were shot by 700 cameramen, 32 of whom were killed, 16 reported missing and 101 wounded.


1942 brought 25 nominees and 4 winners to the Best Documentary category. Prelude to War (U.S.), Moscow Strikes Back (Russia), Kokoda Front Line! (Australia) and The Battle of Midway (U.S.), all 4, war movies.

The films all have the same feel. They were reporting the news, using newsreel footage, music with strategically placed swells, montages and artful animations. The film quality is good and also sometimes gritty giving the feeling that these scenes are taking place right now! Strangely enough, however, taking the films out of context and watching them as movies and not as accounts of a brutal war also works. Part of that is the film quality. As a person writing this in 2005 I can safely say that we are used to watching news that was shot on video and that this characteristic of film is generally placed on movies. I had to keep reminding myself that these were REAL events and not fictional stories. It’s also important to note the overtly biased attitudes of the films themselves. Today people get all up in arms when a filmmaker blatantly uses bias as a way to further the story. But in the days of war everyone was on the same page, keep the bad guys out whether they were “Japs”, Nazis or Fascists.

Prelude to War (53 mins) was produced by US Army Special Services and directed by Lieutenant Colonel Frank Capra as part of the Why We Fight series. Prelude was released to the armed services on October 30 and made required viewing for all troops overseas. In order to secure theatrical release for the picture Capra submitted it to the Academy for consideration for Oscar. In May 1943, 250 prints were made available free of charge to theaters nationwide. The ad campaign suggested exhibitors had a moral obligation to present the film. “If a fallen soldier could speak,” it stated under the picture of a dead G.I., “he’d ask you to book ‘Prelude to War’…he gave a lifetime. Mister can you spare 55 minutes of screen time?” Brutal. Prelude is considered one of the most widely seen documentaries produced in the U.S. during wartime.

Moscow Strikes Back (55 mins) distributed by Artkino, produced by Nicholas Napoli and narrated by Edward G. Robinson details just how Russia repelled the German army in the winter of 1941 by acting as a single, cohesive entity made up of civilians, partisans and soldiers. The film is heartbreaking. “Soviet camera-men began to show something the world had not seen: captured Nazi soldiers, weary and disheveled, trudging through Russian snow,” as stated in Erik Barnouw’s book Documentary: A History of Non-Fiction Film.

Kokoda Front Line! (10 mins) distributed by the Australian News Information Bureau and hosted by official cameraman Damien Parer. The Japanese had invaded New Guinea and Australia was under direct threat of invasion for the first time. The film begins with a heartfelt introduction by Parer, “an experienced and qualified observer.” His presence seems a little hokey now – but to the 1940s eye he was the voice of truth and news. Sadly, he was unable to accept the award himself because he was killed on the front lines, shot down by a Japanese gunman while filming American Marines in action.

The Battle of Midway (18 mins) distributed by the U.S. Navy and 20th Century Fox, directed by Lieutenant Commander John Ford and narrated by Henry Fonda, Jane Darwell, Donald Crisp and Irving Pichel. Shot in Technicolor The Battle of the Midway employs great photography and patriotic music to achieve a triumphant feel and tone. Ford makes common men heroic in this classic tale of the 4-day fight between the Japanese and United States at the island of Midway. After this battle the Americans and their Allies took the offensive in the Pacific.

People were making films about news and what affected them imminently. It was a serious job to make these movies as audiences of the time really accepted the content as truth in reporting. WWII provided the backdrop for the documentary genre and it would only continue to grow.

Next week read about 1943 and 1944.

Research compiled from notes by Ed Carter, Arnold Schwartzman, Chuck Wolfe, Chris Fedak, Kate McLoughlin and Charles Silver.

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