Five Came Back by Mark Harris (The Penguin Press, $34.95)
By Stuart Nulman
In December of 1941, five of Hollywood’s most prominent film directors were either enjoying lucrative careers, or were on the cusp of fame and fortune behind the camera.
Earlier that year, John Ford won an Oscar for best director for his work on “The Grapes of Wrath”, and his latest film “How Green Was My Valley” was on its way to winning an Oscar for Best Picture; George Stevens helmed such soon-to-be classics as “Gunga Din”, “Penny Serenade” and “Woman of the Year”, and just signed a deal with Columbia Pictures; Frank Capra established himself as a top notch director with such “man-of-the-people” films as “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town”, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and his latest release “Meet John Doe”; William Wyler was about to direct “Mrs. Miniver”, about a British mother who kept her family together during the worst of the London Blitz, which will become a triumph at the box office and the Oscars; and John Huston was the new kid on the block, first as an in demand screenwriter at Warner Brothers, and his feature directorial debut that year, the noir classic “The Maltese Falcon”, would make a major movie star out of its leading man Humphrey Bogart.
All of that changed drastically on the morning of December 7, 1941.
Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, these five movie directors decided to put aside their lucrative Hollywood careers and utilize their filmmaking talents in service to their country (or in the case of Capra and Wyler, their adopted country) by enlisting in the U.S. armed forces. They were ready and willing to use the motion picture medium for propaganda purposes in order to help whip up patriotic feelings amongst the American movie going public. Their intentions were well founded; however, their experiences as moviemaking military men would change the face of Hollywood, and would forever change them professionally and emotionally.
This rarely told aspect of Hollywood during World War II is told with a great deal of depth in Mark Harris’ excellent tome Five Came Back.
The main argument that Harris makes in this book is that these five directors were willing to temporarily forgo their Hollywood careers in favour of producing ambitious film projects to both inform American moviegoers and military personnel about the war, and to boost interest in the war effort. However, Washington didn’t know how to deal with Hollywood. At times, the five were quite under utilized, whiling away their time behind a desk in D.C., or some insignificant overseas posting. And when they finally managed to get behind a camera, their cinematic intentions were severely curbed by the bureaucrats of the Office of War Information, especially its destructive head of the motion picture division, Lowell Mellett. The result was a reduction in the number of documentaries these directors made, and when they finally reached screens across America, it was well after a certain turning point during the war, which almost made them outdated and irrelevant.
However, the small number of films that they did create were memorable, and played a vital role in how the American public perceived what World War II was all about and why it happened. For example, Wyler’s “Memphis Belle” offered some of the first footage of actual combat footage between U.S. bombers and German fighter aircraft over the skies of western Europe; Capra’s “Why We Fight” series offered detailed background into the causes of World War II and the motivations of Germany and Japan towards war; and Huston’s “The Battle of San Pietro”, although most of the footage of the battle were recreations, gave a stark, realistic look of U.S. soldiers fighting in some of the bloodiest skirmishes in the Italian Campaign.
The book also shows how the business of covering World War II through a camera lens had both physical and emotional scars for these five directors. Perhaps the most traumatic example was George Stevens, who had the somewhat enviable task of leading a Special Coverage Unit (SPECOU) film crew, as they followed Allied troops from D-Day to the fall of Nazi Germany, and every bloody battle in between. His crew also filmed the liberation of many of the Nazi concentration camps, and offered the first look at the terrible, tragic legacy of the Nazi’s Final Solution against the Jews of Europe (which led to Stevens producing two documentaries using the footage he and his crew shot at the camps, which was used by prosecutors at the Nuremberg war crimes trial in 1945-46). As a result of what he witnessed, Stevens couldn’t bring himself to direct a commercial film for a year after he returned from Europe, and locked the cans of film footage in a North Hollywood storage unit, in which he only viewed some of the films only once more (to research his 1959 movie “The Diary of Ann Frank”) before his death in 1975.
Harris, who also penned another excellent Hollywood history called Pictures At A Revolution (which explored the five films that were nominated for the Best Picture Oscar of 1967, and how they created modern Hollywood), uses his knack for thorough research to great effect, as he gives a fascinating account of the movie industry during the war, and how it could have contributed greatly towards an Allied victory through Messrs. Ford, Stevens, Capra, Huston and Wyler, and how powerful a movie director can be to tell a story to a massive audience who at a time wanted to be entertained, informed and persuaded.
There are plenty of background stories and anecdotes that are liberally used to construct this story of Hollywood at war. One of my favorite stories actually takes place in 1946, and the battle to get Wyler’s first post-war project, the Oscar-winning “The Best Years of Our Lives”, to the screen from an article in Time magazine about the plight of battle weary soldiers returning home from overseas, to the lyrical novel written by Mackinley Kantor that became the film’s outline, to its eventual box office and Oscar triumph for the film, which is now regarded as a classic about soldiers’ difficulty in returning to civilian life immediately after the end of the war (and in an interesting footnote, the producers wanted the character of Homer to have a spastic, emotional disability, but Wyler found that it would be very difficult for an actor to portray such a disability; their problem was solved when they discovered Harold Russell, a combat veteran who actually lost both his arms in a training accident, and because such a disability was easier to exhibit onscreen, Russell got the part, and earned a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his performance).
Five Came Back is a terrific book of how Hollywood’s most famous directors did their share of wartime sacrificing to win the hearts and minds of their fellow Americans at a time of crisis. And although at times they waged a war with Washington – and themselves – these five directors played a vital role in the Allied victory over Germany and Japan through their own “arsenal of democracy”, and forever changed the role of how important motion pictures can be towards conveying a message to its massive audiences.
Stuart Nulman’s “Book Banter” segment is a twice-a-month feature on “The Stuph File Program” with Peter Anthony Holder, which now has almost 150,000 listeners per week. You can either listen or download it at peteranthonyholder.com, Stitcher.com or subscribe to it on iTunes. Plus you can find it at CyberStationUSA.com, KDXradio.com, True Talk Radio, streaming on PCJMedia.com, and over the air at World FM 88.2fm in New Zealand, Media Corp in Singapore and WSTJ, St. Johnsbury, Vermont.
Stuart can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.