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

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
Mark Harris
Penguin Books, 2014, 511 pg

I once proposed you could find in the propaganda films of World War II the answer for the increasing post war militarization of the United States. I spent 120 pages and six months doing it. I have since concluded that’s impossible. However, ever since then I’ve had an abiding love for World War II era films (and for that mater, ephemera) and an interest in their creation. Koppes and Black’s work in the late 80’s and early 90’s covered much of this. While in Five Came Back, Harris focuses on the directors Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens, he also touches on much of the politics that surrounded the five men. In many ways, Five Came Back is a detailed examination of Hollywood during the war that uses the five directors as its focal point. It is a fascinating portrait that is both detailed and critical.

In focusing on the five directors, Harris is trying to tell the story of the men, the war, their art, and the aftermath of the war. That last element is key to the book, as Harris is interested in more than the war, or the politics of it, but the human toll. It is that focus that makes the book more than a history of the war, but a history of the effects of the war. Following the five men, also allows Harris to show all flaws and egos of the men and how that fit into the larger narrative of the war. It is that human element that is often missing from histories of the subject, which is too bad, because given the grandstanding the Ford, Capra, and Huston did makes one wonder how the war was ever won.

Harris definitely admires Wyler and Stevens and I think respects Huston as a solder-film maker. Wyler and Stevens in particular did not grandstand, took their work serious and were effected by the war, Wyler both physically and emotionally, and let that flow into their work. Huston might get that respect, but he was also busy chasing skirts and like Ford and Capra, also very interested in turning the movies they made for the government into their personal projects, ones they could show in theaters and get credit, perhaps even an academy award. Wyler and Stevens, on the other hand, stayed in the military for the duration, risked their lives, especially Wyler when he went out on B17 missions, and did not use their films as a chance for personal glory. The Memphis Belle is perhaps the most emblematic of the war-time documentaries and is perhaps the best. It is about the men and, unlike many of the others that came out at the time, does not use reenactments, something that put Wyler at great risk to create. Eventually, Wyler would lose most of his hearing while flying in Italy.

Ford and Capra come in for some heavy criticism. Both of the men were higher ranking then the other three and definitely interested in personal glory. Ford, for example, took all the footage he shoot during the Battle of Midway and secreted it to the mainland and created his own documentary outside of government channels. He then wanted it released, much like Capra would with his Why We Fight series, to the general public, in part so they would be illegible for an Academy Award. This kind of behavior brought them into conflict with their military superiors, but more importantly with the head of the Bureau of Motion Pictures (BMP) a division of the Office of War Information (OWI). The head of the BMP was a territorial man and the antics of the directors along with his other conflicts with Hollywood caused many problems. The politics of it are complicated, but the self-serving nature of Ford, Capra, and to some extent, Huston, was a source of continual friction.

Although the book makes for fascinating reading, it does help to see the films, especially since Harris describes the creation of many of them in great detail. Many of the films, Harris notes, were completely staged. Most of the film crews of the five directors were behind the front lines. It was the signal corps that often did the front line filming. John Huston’s Battle of San Pietro is a masterwork in recreating supposed war footage. Fortunately the internet makes many of these available and anyone who is interested in the work of the five directors should really see what they created.