Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War [NOOK Book]


In Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris turned the story of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 into a landmark work of cultural history, a book about the transformation of an art form and the larger social shift it signified. In Five Came Back, he achieves something larger and even more remarkable, giving us the untold story of how Hollywood changed World War II, and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the prism of five film directors caught up in the war: John Ford, William Wyler, John ...
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Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

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In Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris turned the story of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 into a landmark work of cultural history, a book about the transformation of an art form and the larger social shift it signified. In Five Came Back, he achieves something larger and even more remarkable, giving us the untold story of how Hollywood changed World War II, and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the prism of five film directors caught up in the war: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens.

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.
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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times - Thomas Doherty
Five Came Back…is 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. Mr. Harris shows how—more than Technicolor, CinemaScope or even the collapse of the Production Code—World War II changed the way Americans looked at the movies.
The New York Times Book Review - Andrew O'Hehir
…[a] must-read for movie buffs and World War II aficionados alike…
Publishers Weekly
American filmmakers undergo their baptism of fire in this insightful if sometimes chaotic war saga. Journalist Harris (Pictures at a Revolution) profiles five leading directors—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens—who ditched stellar careers to join the military and craft propaganda, battle documentaries and training films. (Ford’s first Navy assignment was an explicit primer on venereal disease.) Harris’s story is often simply Hollywood on steroids: generals and political strictures replace studio moguls and the Hays code; location hardships include getting shot at; the blurring together of authenticity and fakery deepens (some of the most acclaimed and innovative combat “documentaries” were staged reenactments). The fog of war sometimes obscures the big picture here; even more than civilian making-of epics, the author’s narrative of military movie production is a welter of confusion and misfires, turf struggles, budget constraints, and grand artistic impulses thwarted by philistine bureaucracies and petty happenstance. Still, 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—especially Stevens, whose camera took in the liberation of Paris and the horror of Dachau—we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities. (Mar. 3)
Library Journal
★ 03/01/2014
Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood) surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. These Academy Award-winning directors were at the top of their careers when they volunteered for military duty in World War II. Several joined the Signal Corps and the Field Photo Unit; Wyler documented flying missions of the Memphis Belle. This is also a well-documented analysis of how Hollywood moguls (the majority being Jewish) and film celebrities became divided on the issue of prewar U.S. isolationism vs. interventionism. Accusations were thrown at Hollywood for either being in collusion with the Roosevelt administration or being anti-American and communist sympathizers. These directors were responsible for creating effective propaganda and training films for new recruits, as well as documenting the realities of a devastating war. Their work took them everywhere from the Aleutian Islands to the South Pacific. After the war, they brought their experiences back home, each being affected both personally and professionally. While Wyler and Huston found new pride in Hollywood and the country they loved so much, Stevens became painfully withdrawn from the world after having filmed the horrors of Dachau in preparing evidence for the Nuremberg trials. VERDICT This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados. [See Prepub Alert, 9/1/13.]All five directors are featured in individual titles as part of the University of Mississippi's "Conversations with Filmmakers: Interviews" series. Other books to consider: Thomas Doherty's Projections of War: Hollywood, American Culture, and World War II ([Film & Culture] Columbia Univ. 1993); Clayton Koppes & Gregory D. Black's Hollywood Goes to War: How Politics, Profits, and Propaganda Shaped World War II Movies (Free Pr. 1987); Frank Capra's The Name Above the Title: An Autobiography (Macmillan. 1971; Da Capo. 1997); Joseph McBride's Searching for John Ford (Univ. of Mississippi. 2011); John Huston's An Open Book (Da Capo, 1994); Marilyn Ann Moss's Giant: George Stevens, a Life on Film (Univ. of Wisconsin. 2004); Gabriel Miller's William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director ([Screen Classics] Univ. of Kentucky. 2013); Jan Herman's A Talent for Trouble: The Life of Hollywood's Most Acclaimed Director: William Wyler (Putnam. 1996).—Richard Dickey, Washington DC
Kirkus Reviews
★ 2013-12-14
Entertainment Weekly writer Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, 2008) returns with a comprehensive, cleareyed 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 long as they lived," writes the author, "the war lived with them." Arranged chronologically (beginning in 1938), the text generally includes the doings of each of the five (John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra) in each of the chapters, with Harris artfully intercutting events from his principals' private as well as professional lives. The author also keeps us up to date on Hollywood without his five, showing us the stars who were winning Oscars, how the five felt about the winners (sometimes themselves) and how Hollywood sought to profit from the war. Harris segues seamlessly to scenes all over the world--the Aleutians, England, France, Germany, Italy, the South Pacific and other venues important in the war and in his story. We learn along the way of the involvement in various cinema projects by other considerable talents--e.g., Lillian Hellman, cinematographer Gregg Toland, Theodor Geisl, Mel Blanc and animator Chuck Jones. Some of the five worked together (Capra and Stevens), but others worked separately on feature-length documentaries, short subjects and films for military use only. Among the more enduring productions were The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (Wyler, 1944) and the powerful, wrenching footage shot in 1945 at the liberation of Dachau by George Stevens' crew. Stevens was devastated by what he saw and later shot The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Harris also chronicles the politics, personality clashes (military vs. Hollywood), egos, drinking, carousing and sexual exploits. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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,, Details, and Spin. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.

Reviewer: Barbara Spindel

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780698151574
  • Publisher: Penguin Group (USA)
  • Publication date: 2/27/2014
  • Sold by: Penguin Group
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 528
  • Sales rank: 18,488
  • File size: 17 MB
  • Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

Meet the Author

For fifteen years, Mark Harris worked as a writer and an editor covering movies, television, and books for Entertainment Weekly. He is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. A graduate of Yale University, he lives in New York City with his husband, Tony Kushner.
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