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It was the best of times and the worst of times for Hollywood before the war. The box office was booming, and the studios’ control of talent and distribution was as airtight as could be hoped. But the industry’s relationship with Washington was decidedly uneasy—hearings and investigations into allegations of corruption and racketeering were multiplying, and hanging in the air was the insinuation that the business was too foreign, too Jewish, too “un-American” in its values and causes. Could an industry this powerful in shaping America’s mind-set really be left in the hands of this crew? Following Pearl Harbor, Hollywood had the chance to prove its critics wrong and did so with vigor, turning its talents and its business over to the war effort to an unprecedented extent.
No industry professionals played a bigger role in the war than America’s most legendary directors: Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens. Between them they were on the scene of almost every major moment of America’s war, and in every branch of service—army, navy, and air force; Atlantic and Pacific; from Midway to North Africa; from Normandy to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi death camps; to the shaping of the message out of Washington, D.C.
As it did for so many others, World War II divided the lives of these men into before and after, to an extent that has not been adequately understood. In a larger sense—even less well understood—the war divided the history of Hollywood into before and after as well. Harris reckons with that transformation on a human level—through five unforgettable lives—and on the level of the industry and the country as a whole. Like these five men, Hollywood too, and indeed all of America, came back from the war having grown up more than a little.
The New York Times:
“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.”
The Washington Post:
“Five Came Back, by Mark Harris, has all the elements of a good movie: fascinating characters, challenges, conflicts and intense action. This is Harris’s second brilliant book about movies. Both books demonstrate meticulous research and exceptional skill at telling intersecting and overlapping stories with clarity and power. Five Came Back enables us to watch the films of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens with new insight.”
The New Yorker:
“A splendidly written narrative.”
San Francisco Chronicle:
“Can't-put-it-down history of World War II propaganda film.”
The Los Angeles Times:
“Meticulously researched, page-turning.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Mark Harris writes the old-fashioned way. His books are not quick and slick but meticulous. Definitive. In these lush, informative pages, Harris indeed reaffirms his commitment to writing the old-fashioned way, the way that evinces profound respect for his craft, his material and his readers.”
“It’s hardly news that the movies affect and are affected by the broader canvas of popular culture and world history, but Harris—perhaps more successfully than any other writer, past or present—manages to find in that symbiotic relationship the stuff of great stories. Every chapter contains small, priceless nuggets of movie history, and nearly every page offers an example of Harris’ ability to capture the essence of a person or an event in a few, perfectly chosen words. Narrative nonfiction that is as gloriously readable as it is unfailingly informative.”
“A comprehensive, clear-eyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.”
“Insightful. Harris pens superb exegeses of the ideological currents coursing through this most political of cinematic eras, and in the arcs of his vividly drawn protagonists…we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities.”
“Harris surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here… This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados.”
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.
Barbara Spindel has covered books for Time Out New York, Newsweek.com, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.
Reviewer: Barbara Spindel
Posted June 6, 2014
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Posted December 12, 2014
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Posted March 1, 2015
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