Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Book Review: Five Came Back

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014) by Mark Harris

I had incredibly high expectations for Mark Harris' latest book on film history. His previous work, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, was one of the most praised books of 2009. I have vivid memories of buying it for my mom for Christmas, thinking to myself, "It's about movies in 1967, Mom was a young woman in 1967, she'll like it." Well, it wasn't two hours after Mom unwrapped it that I ended up being the one sitting cross-legged under the tree and reading away, utterly engrossed. Eventually, I did let her read it, but then I promptly stole it back. It's now got a permanent place of honor on my bookshelf. I've also been reading Harris' Grantland articles for some time; he's one of the few film critics I've found who can dissect Oscar races without sounding like a jaded traveler on the world's longest and most boring tour bus. So when I found out that Harris was going to be tackling a new full-length subject in Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, I marked my calendar. Expectations like that have crushed books far less modest than this one. So I'm happy to say that Five Came Back is every bit the book I hoped it would be.

Like Pictures at a Revolution, Five Came Back zeroes in on five very different subjects, weaving their histories together and giving full weight to the dreams and ambitions that drove them. But Pictures at a Revolution was the story of a competition; it was the battle between five Best Picture nominees and their radically different attempts to reach out to the audiences of 1967. Here, Harris once again goes back to the number five, giving us the tale of how five Hollywood directors walked away from successful careers and into World War II: John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens. But while there was a spirit of friendly competition between these men, it paled next to the camaraderie and artistic respect they all shared. Five Came Back is one of those rare books about Hollywood that can look unflinchingly at the foibles and ambitions of its insiders and lets you walk away feeling more fond of them, not less.

The opening chapters of Five Came Back invite irresistible comparisons to those "assemble a crack team" montages that you would get in a caper film. Even the directors' personalities easily graft onto the old archetypes. You have John Ford, the crotchety mentor figure, dropping paternal and ever-contradictory bits of wisdom. Frank Capra, the energetic and ravenously ambitious promoter. William Wyler, the cerebral perfectionist and, as a European Jew, the only one with a personal connection to the war. John Huston, the hard-drinking, cocksure daredevil, looking to prove himself in battle. George Stevens, the thoughtful and quietly troubled introvert. All of these men voluntarily left Hollywood, putting their own viability and reputation as artists on hold, in order to go overseas and document the war.

World War II was the first time in American history that filmmakers were enlisted in the art of packaging a a war for the American public. It was their images that brought home to viewers the reality of the situation abroad, even as that reality was pressed and molded into a patriotic vision. All of them knew and embraced the fact that they were enlisted in order to make propaganda. Before he started work on his series of wartime documentary films, Frank Capra watched Triumph of the Will and walked away shaken to the core. "I could see where the kids of Germany would go to any place, die for this guy...they knew what they were doing--they understood how to reach the do I reach the American kid down the street?" The challenge of wartime filmmaking was always to find that perfect combination, balancing the need to educate with the need to entertain. If filmmakers were too brutal with their imagery, the Army protested and refused to let the films be released. If they resorted to reenactments and corny dialogue, the increasingly-jaded audiences back home would jeer at them.

One of the more fascinating and endearing elements of Five Came Back is watching these men forget the demands of the war and succumb to their own artistic instincts. William Wyler, no one's idea of a reckless he-man, ended up risking himself time and time again crouched in a bomber plane, angling for the best shots. It would eventually cost him the hearing in one ear. John Huston was criticized by the War Department because his groundbreaking war film, The Battle of San Pietro, with its emphasis on death and destruction, was "anti-war." Huston snapped back that if he ever made a film that was pro-war, he hoped someone would take him out and shoot him. No matter the physical danger or the army bureaucracy or the interests of the public. Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens found ways to practice their art.

Despite his full-throttle devotion to the war and the acclaim given to his documentary series Why We Fight, Frank Capra emerges as the only director whose career never recovered from the war. He was the only one of the five who never actually got to film anything on the front lines. Instead, his Army career was spent organizing, wrangling resources, and fighting with government officials. It's hard to feel sorry for anyone as endlessly bombastic and self-aggrandizing as Capra but after reading Harris, I couldn't help but sympathize with the man. Unlike the rest of his colleagues, Capra's post-war career was a straight slope down, fulfilling all his secret insecurities. His bag of tricks no longer charmed audiences. The new interest in realism and soul-searching had no place in Capra's fables. Harris pointedly makes a comparison between the first films Wyler and Capra made after their return. Wyler made a strikingly realistic film about the toll of war on ordinary people. Capra made a fantasy about a man who's lost his youthful dreams and craves the assurance that he's still needed by the world.

George Stevens, despite being somewhat neglected by critics over the past several decades (Stevens is the only director featured here with just one full-length biography to his name) stands out as perhaps the most fascinating character in Five Came Back. Stevens had built up his name as a director of sophisticated comedies, working his way up from Laurel and Hardy shorts to Fred Astaire musicals (including the indelible Swing Time) and polished romances like Vivacious Lady, Woman of the Year, and The More the Merrier. Despite his gift for humor, Stevens in person was contradictory and taciturn. He had a habit of falling into a trance-like state on his movie sets while he pondered what had gone wrong. Carole Lombard memorably summed it up: “I just (realized) what that pacing and thoughtful look of Stevens’ means—not a goddamn thing!"

Unlike Huston and Ford, Stevens went into the war without really craving adventure or a test of manly hardship. He was an asthmatic and a family man (Harris quotes extensively from Stevens' affectionate letters to his son back home and it's hard not to like Stevens after reading them). Yet it was Stevens who ended up taking his cameras into the unforeseen horrors of Dachau. It was Stevens who kept his eye to the lens, compulsively recording everything he saw, allowing nobody else to relieve him. "You can send three or four guys out with some weapons to do something, but I couldn't send anybody into the goddamn boxcar," Stevens remembered later. "I had to do it." Audiences of the time would barely get even a glimpse of Stevens' footage. Instead, the reels would be played for the judges at Nuremberg. As for Stevens, after he returned, he never watched the Dachau films again. And he never made another comedy.

The title of Harris' book is Five Came Back, not Five Went to War, and the distinction is an important one. When Wyler, Ford, Capra, Stevens, and Huston came back home, they were irrevocably changed from the men they'd been before. They'd played many roles throughout the war. Sometimes they'd been the decorated officers and sometimes they'd been the lonely cameramen, scrambling for just one perfect shot. They were the stoic witnesses to suffering and the impassioned artists demanding attention. None of them were saints. None of them were born soldiers. But they went to the front anyway and the images they saw would stay with them for the rest of their lives. And fortunately for us, they used what they learned, came back, and gave us some of the greatest movies ever made.

Final Six Words:

Reasoned and just, entertaining and essential

Note: I received an advance copy of this book from The Penguin Press (Penguin Group). It is available for purchase from Amazon and Barnes & Noble


  1. Nice review Aubyn for this important book. I'm surprised such a book was not written years ago. Most classic film fans don't know how much WWII affected the outlooks of the film directors (and other Hollywood participants). If we know anything we assume they had cozy Army or Navy jobs behind desks in Washington. This book makes it clear that they also suffered to draw the picture for "Why we Fight."

    1. Thanks for the comments, Christian. I agree, it's rather surprising we didn't get a version of this book years ago (or maybe we did, I admit I haven't researched the topic before). But then, I think the timing of the book is rather fortuitous since it gives one more stinging rebuttal to the whole "Hollywood-Hitler-collaboration" stuff that's been circulating since Ben Urwand's book. Harris doesn't shy away from the uglier aspects of the propaganda work (the racism in particular is appalling), but he paints a just, balanced portrait of people trying to do their best for their country.