“Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” (Penguin), by Mark Harris
Hollywood was never the same after taking up the fight to defeat Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan — just like the rest of the world. Many of the film industry’s greatest talents put aside their careers to join the military and turn the movies into a weapon for victory.
Films were developed to boost public morale, educate millions of troops and stoke anti-German and anti-Japanese sentiment. The studios cooperated with the government to ensure that dramas and comedies — entertainment polished with propaganda — carried the right message. Besides churning out training films, filmmakers in uniform also sought to tell inspiring stories through documentaries, some of them mostly real and some of them mostly made up.
In his engaging book “Five Came Back,” author Mark Harris follows the wartime experiences of a handful of movie directors to explore this unique intersection of entertainment and war. His compelling narrative is first-rate in all respects, a war story for film fans and a miniseries-like treatment of American history for those interested in World War II.
Director Frank Capra (“It Happened One Night” and “It’s a Wonderful Life”) joined up shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor. His major contribution was the “Why We Fight” series, lessons in history and politics designed to explain to recruits why they were being asked to go to war. As Harris points out, Capra and his colleagues were challenged to come up with persuasive arguments aimed at black recruits given segregation. Their depictions of the Japanese were so racist that even the US government balked at approving such a film, knowing it would complicate the lives of Japanese Americans and postwar relations with Japan.
Director John Ford (“The Searchers” and “The Quiet Man”) was under fire at the battle of Midway Island, getting a memorable documentary out of his color footage, and again at Omaha Beach when the Allies invaded Europe on D-Day. An old habit of going on an obliterating bender between movie assignments could have ended Ford’s military career. In one sorry instance, a few weeks after the Normandy landings, the filmmaker spent three days drunk while bunking at a house along the French coast, leaving his bed only to buy or steal more booze and pick a fight or two.
Ford and director John Huston (“The African Queen” and “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”) shared a penchant for embellishing their personal war stories. Huston went well beyond the accepted practices of the documentarian when he passed off re-enactments for “The Battle of San Pietro” as actual battle footage. He was on more stable ground with his piece on shell-shocked troops and their treatments, “Let There Be Light,” which proved unsettling enough that the government kept it under wraps for decades.
William Wyler learned that he had received an Oscar for the wartime drama “Mrs. Miniver” while serving overseas. He and his film crew flew on B-17 missions over Europe for one of the war’s best-received documentaries, “The Memphis Belle.” Its fakery was forgivable: Wyler used footage from multiple bombing runs and assembled the plane’s crew in Hollywood to record dialogue for the movie because their words couldn’t be heard over the roar of the bomber’s four engines. Wyler (“The Best Years of Our Lives” and “Ben-Hur”) lost much of his hearing while trying to film aboard a B-25 flight.
George Stevens (“Giant” and “Shane”) was less interested in making documentaries than in filming events as they happened to create a record of the war. For example, he was in Normandy for D-Day and in Paris during the celebration of its liberation. Most significant, Stevens and his cameras passed through the gates of the concentration camp at Dachau two days after its liberation. Stevens spent weeks there filming life and death among the tens of thousands still at the camp, footage he later used in assembling two documentaries that served as evidence during the Nuremberg trials.
In Harris’ telling, these directors faced their wartime fears with little more than cameras and courage. Their frustrations were due mostly to a kind of friendly fire. Time and again the indifference of government bureaucracy, including in the military itself, made it exceedingly difficult for them to obtain the equipment and supplies required for them to do their jobs.
Of the five, only Capra failed to recover his footing when he returned to Hollywood, a professional stumble as much about age and changing tastes and times as ability. His colleagues, however, achieved their greatest work after the war. Their movies turned more realistic, more serious and more profound. Like Hollywood and a world once at war, they too were never the same.
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press.