John Ford is remembered for his classic westerns, his long professional relationship with John Wayne, and his record-breaking four Best Director Oscars, but nestled among his credits is a short but graphic 1942 documentary called Sex Hygiene used to teach army inductees about the risks of sexual contact with “contaminated” women. In Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris tells a rich and riveting story about how Ford and four of his peers — Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston — abandoned Hollywood at the peaks of their careers to offer up their talents to the war effort.
World War II “marked the government’s first attempt at a sustained program of filmed propaganda,” Harris writes, and movies, from newsreels to documentaries to scripted features, ended up playing a major part in the nation’s perceptions of the war. Given that, it’s “striking how little forethought or planning went into the War Department’s use of Hollywood,” the author notes. Five Came Back alternates among the five directors, tracing their very diverse wartime experiences while also exploring larger themes about the uneasy relationship between politics, entertainment, and propaganda.
Ford, gunning for an assignment more action-packed than a syphilis tutorial, ended up filming one of the most significant naval conflicts of the war, 1942’s Battle of Midway, where he sustained a shrapnel wound to the arm. When the resulting documentary was screened for FDR, the president declared, “I want every mother in America to see this film.” The Battle of Midway had an enormous impact on audiences; as Harris writes, “Ford’s rough-hewn, sentimental, patriotic, and sorrowing version of the battle created a national understanding of what the war in the Pacific looked and felt like.” The director’s service didn’t end there: he and Stevens eventually commanded crews of soldiers filming the D-Day landings in France.
Capra spent most of the war in Washington, overseeing a string of documentaries including the seven-episode Why We Fight series. The director was devastated after watching Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will, lamenting, “We’re dead. We’re gone. We can’t win this war.” He came up with the idea to use Axis propaganda against itself, folding the footage into the Why We Fight films to great effect. “Let our boys hear the Nazis and the Japs shout their own claims of master-race crud and our fighting men will know why they’re in uniform,” said the director, who was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal.
Wyler’s signal wartime achievement was helming Memphis Belle, the celebrated 1944 documentary that followed a B-17 bomber and its crew. By then, audiences were growing weary of the war, but Memphis Belle, shot at enormous risk in extraordinarily difficult conditions during air combat missions over Germany, became a sensation, giving moviegoers, in Harris’s words, “a chance to see World War II from a literally new perspective.” Filming from the belly of a B-25 bomber for a follow-up documentary, Wyler suffered severe damage to his ears and was left almost completely deaf.
Stevens was still in Europe when the Nuremberg Trials began; his mission had changed from filming combat to gathering evidence of Nazi atrocities. He and his unit spent several agonizing weeks at the concentration camp at Dachau — “It was like wandering around in one of Dante’s infernal visions,” he recalled — and the resulting documentaries played a role in prosecuting German war criminals.
Not all of the directors’ work was quite so noble. Harris writes of the “sorriest and most shameful episode” of the propaganda effort, which involved Capra, Huston, and Stevens falsifying footage of the Allies’ North African campaign for the documentary Tunisian Victory after the real footage was lost at sea. Though Huston did some worthy work, he also drank and womanized his way through his service — his behavior toward the end of the war was “so impulsive and erratic,” Harris observes, “that it would now be called post-traumatic.” The director had experienced a close call in San Pietro, Italy, but the combat film he directed called The Battle of San Pietro, released in 1945 and billed as a documentary, was in fact a scripted reenactment of the fighting. The “self-mythologizing” Huston never admitted that his film had been staged.
Harris’s first book, Pictures at a Revolution, was a rollicking look at the five movies that competed for Best Picture at the 1967 Oscars. It was enriched by the author’s incisive interviews with Dustin Hoffman, Warren Beatty, Mike Nichols, and more. This time around, all the principals are dead, but Harris, a longtime reporter and columnist for Entertainment Weekly, proves equally adept at pulling memorable material from archival sources. The book is full of vivid moments, like Huston walking into a makeshift bar at an army headquarters in Italy only to stumble upon Humphrey Bogart, who was in the midst of a goodwill tour and who asked him, “You still shooting pictures, kid?”
The directors’ journals and ample wartime correspondence are put to good use here, demonstrating patriotism and pride, contempt for those who stayed home (Ford was particularly hard on John Wayne), and fear, not just about the war but about losing ground in Hollywood during their long absences. Stevens exchanged tender letters with his young son, who attended the 1944 Academy Awards with his mother, hoping to pick up a statuette for his father’s comedy The More the Merrier. When eleven-year-old George Jr. informed his father of his loss, complaining, “Casablanca stinks, we was gypped,” his father replied, charmingly, “Dem bums weel moider em!”
In later years Stevens would be up for more Academy Awards, eventually winning two, but never again for a comedy. Upon returning home, he turned to darker fare like A Place in the Sun and The Diary of Anne Frank. “He had seen too much,” his friend Frank Capra said. It is Harris’s great accomplishment that he tells not only an important story about Hollywood’s impact on the war but the more intimate one about the war’s profound impact on these five cinematic giants.