Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, by Mark Harris.  New York: The Penguin Press, 2014.  511 pages.   

Reviewed by William Wade
The title, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, by the accomplished movie historian Mark Harris, is not very descriptive of what is between the covers of this book.  It is specifically a collective biography of five well-known and accomplished movie directors, who left their studios to join the military service and help film World War II.  The five are Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Weyler.

These five, all well aware of the impact movies could make on the general public, felt a strong desire to do their part by using their talents to tell the story of the American role in World War II.  They came from a variety of backgrounds.  Ford had been speaking against Nazism for years before Pearl Harbor.  Frank Capra, probably the best known, was a Sicilian immigrant who had mixed feelings, but was persuaded by a meeting with President Roosevelt to become an interventionist; William Weyler had grown up in Mulhouse, a town on the Franco-German frontier.  And although the military services welcomed their talents, the army and navy brass hardly knew how to fit them in with their regular corps of photographers.  Roosevelt wanted them to make war movies that would boost public morale.

Ford was one of the first to see action after Pearl Harbor.  Receiving an order to prepare to leave Hawaii he found himself on the carrier Hornet heading toward Japanese waters for the launching of the Doolittle raid on Tokyo.  General George C. Marshall told Capra he wanted a series of films that would tell the soldier and the sailor why they were fighting, and from that was developed the Why We Fight series, films that were also shown to the public.

One would expect that the Normandy invasion in June 1944 would have been a photographer’s dream, and both Ford and Stevens were present on the occasion with their staffs and a world of film.  But as it turned out the D-Day landings were so frenetic and action was scattered over such a wide scale, the films failed to provide an overall picture.  Much film was ruined by contact with the sea, and clips showing dead servicemen on the beaches were ruled unacceptable for American audiences.  Stevens’ best work came as he accompanied Patton’s army across France and into Paris.  He remained with the army as it neared the German border and got some harrowing pictures as the Americans were thrown back in the initial stages of the Battle of the Bulge.

This is a big book, and there is far more between its covers than can be told here.  It’s an aspect of World War II that most of us are unfamiliar with, and the story of the inter-relationships between the military staff and these five directors is a lively chronicle.  The title of the book apparently comes from the fact that all five returned unharmed, but they were also changed individuals.  It’s one thing to direct a movie with a fight between the Indians and the U.S. cavalry, but it’s another thing to be an active witness in a real war.  And these five knew the difference, and it affected their personalities and their later work.

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