When the United States entered World War II, legendary filmmaker John Ford had already been a member of the Navy for months. Aware the war effort could be helped, and documented, by men from Hollywood, the director of Stagecoach and The Grapes Of Wrath spent much of 1941 preparing for what was to come. His footage from the Battle Of Midway remains a groundbreaking feat for American filmmaking. While Ford was the first director to enlist, luminaries such as Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life), William Wyler (Ben-Hur), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), and George Stevens (Giant) all became part of the war effort after Pearl Harbor.
Five Came Back chronicles the lives of these men throughout the war, from the early days of enlistment and the founding of the Office Of War Information, to their return home from the terrors of D-Day and Dachau. Skipping from one director to the next, Mark Harris weaves a fascinating narrative that remains insightful and propulsive even as it switches focus. The book manages to be a history of Hollywood, American propaganda, and a biography of five men without ever dragging or feeling overstuffed.
The men at the center of the book provide its thrust, and Harris manages to translate the largesse of war and filmmaking into personal terms. By laying out each man’s life in tandem, Five Came Back reaches a gripping critical mass. Capra and Ford were heavyweights by the time the war came, with more clout (and money) than their colleagues. Capra’s cachet in Hollywood translated to a prominent role inside the Army’s propaganda wing, where he sought to educate the American people in a similar way to his peacetime films. Ford, who pioneered outdoor shooting and may be the greatest director of Westerns, was a man who felt the need to prove himself heroically, and was burdened by the fact that he had not participated in the Great War. Wyler, a Jew from Alsace, felt a personal responsibility to help the war effort, and Huston, his protégé, saw a chance to expand on his blooming career. Stevens was known for his comedies, but the terrors that he saw in war lead him to make masterpieces such as Shane and Giant.
Stevens’ journey may be the most riveting (though none of the men’s stories could be considered boring). His time spent at D-Day and the march through France, ending with his filming of the destruction of human life at Dachau is harrowing to read, but his bravery in the face of such evil is stirring. He came back to America a changed man, his previous life destroyed by what he’d seen.
Harris writes in a spare, vigorous style, but is more than up to the challenge of describing both the composition of some of the greatest shots of film history, and the fractured psyches of men returning home from war. Although Capra never really left Washington, the other four men found themselves in the middle of combat, or worse, and Harris tackles their issues of post-traumatic stress empathetically without ever falling into melodrama.
Five Came Back is a welcome addition to film history, and well worth reading for anyone interested in film, World War II, or the use of propaganda in American life. Mark Harris has done a superb job winding the separate narratives of five of America’s greatest directors together, and his poise in tackling so vast an epoch is a joy to read.