Watching as the legendary Sidney Poitier walked across the stage at the Oscars last night to present an award 50 years after he took home his own historic statuette, the first ever Best Actor award given to an African American, I couldn’t help but be reminded of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. Mark Harris’s enthralling, exhaustive examination of the movies nominated for best picture in 1968—including two starring Poitier, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? and In the Heat of the Night, both infused in some measure by the race relations upheaval of the turbulent 1960s—is a must-read for any movie buff, and one of my favorite nonfiction books ever.
Which is why I was thrilled to discover that Harris is back again with another captivating investigation into Hollywood lore, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Beyond the seriously fascinating behind-the-scenes trivia it offers, what made Pictures at a Revolution so eminently readable was Harris’s exploration of the social, political, and economic factors that shaped the year’s movies—the growing youth movement that informed the disenfranchised hero of The Graduate, the waning studio system influence that was still able to eke out 9 nominations for a dud like Dr. Doolittle.
If possible, Five Came Back points its lens at an even wider stage, tracking five well-known directors (John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens) from the period just before Germany began its relentless march across Europe, to the end of the conflict and beyond.
It’s easy to look back on the movies of the early 1940s and put them in context as natural extensions of the times—a flag-waving war epic here, a blatant piece of propagandistic melodrama there. But Harris is more interested in the whys and the hows, and answering these questions reveals that, at the time, the decision to send the movies off to fight for the cause was anything but clear cut. Fearful of hurting their overseas box office receipts, many producers were reluctant to release films that spoke out against fascism or cast Hitler in a bad light (which is almost funny seven decades later, considering the legion of mustache-twirling Nazi villains that followed—and would be funnier if the cost of inaction wasn’t so damnably high).
For the filmmakers, the choices were more personal, as Wyler resorted to sending boxes of cash to Europe in the hope that family members would be able to use it to bribe their way to freedom. Meanwhile, even at home, the filmmakers had to censor their work to avoid making movies the hardcore isolationists and anti-communists would deem “too Jewish” or “too Red.”
If the widescreen focus gives Harris much more to write about, it also results is a book that isn’t quite as tight as his first, and the dead-serious subject matter means it’s a less breezy read. He’s also working for the most part from archival materials rather than interviews with living actors, directors, and producers, which means it’s less rich in the “juicy gossip” department. But that’s not to suggest it isn’t a worthy follow-up—for the second time in a row, Harris has put together a piece of journalism that I read basically nonstop, and I guarantee I’ll be reading whatever he publishes next.