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

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Reviewed by Victoria

In this outstanding work of cinema history, Mark Harris follows the fortunes of five big name Hollywood directors who enlisted in the wake of Pearl Harbour to bring their unique talents to the crisis. They joined up out of patriotism and a desire for adventure, but also because they realised that ‘their movies would be of significantly less interest to audience than the newsreels preceding them’ and because ‘they were reaching for relevance in a world that had become rougher and more frightening than anything their studio bosses would allow them to depict on film.’ For the next four years, they would risk their lives, and in some cases their sanity, on filming the new and brutal reality of war, and time and time again, they would be forced to battle against the military authorities who wanted only propaganda from men who were beginning to understand what integrity really looked like.

The five directors had all crafted films that had entered cinema history by the time the war reached America. John Ford had Oscars for both The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley, Frank Capra, Hollywood’s richest director and an Italian immigrant with the immigrant’s desire to do right by his country, had created popular comedies like You Can’t Take It With You and Mr Smith Goes To Washington. William Wyler, a Jewish immigrant whose home town had been liberated by the Americans in the previous war, made Mrs Miniver, the film that took the public by storm in the earliest days of engagement, and which he would come to dislike for its inaccuracies. John Huston had recently broken through with his remake of The Maltese Falcon, and George Stevens was a moody and introverted man who made light romantic comedies like The More The Merrier.

War would change them all irrevocably, and for each there would be triumphs and disasters. In the early days of American engagement, John Ford in the Navy made The Battle of Midway, filmed by himself and his crew from the thick of the action, and similarly William Wyler in the Air Force made The Memphis Belle, a documentary of a heroic plane that made 25 successful sorties. They brought a whole new shocking realism to the cinema screen and altered forever the way that war would be portrayed. But war took its toll on both of them, Ford sent home after a monstrous drinking binge in the aftermath of D-Day, Wyler eventually invalided out after losing his hearing in the belly of a fighter plane.

John Huston had a less auspicious time of it, initially. Although he came into the least real life-threatening danger of any of the directors, he suffered the most noticeably from shock and anxiety. His mission to film a recently liberated Italian village ended in farce, the situation they had hoped for of smiling villagers greeting their saviors replaced in reality by piles of G.I. corpses in a town so destroyed there was scarcely a roof to shelter under. Unexpected enemy fire put an abrupt end to their visit and so in the end, Huston made his film entirely out of re-enactments, an expensive and time-consuming illusion that was not admitted to the general public.

Capra, meanwhile, had been commissioned to produce a series of information films for the armed services, brief history lessons about their allies and enemies that would use old footage and new techniques of animation. These turned out to be very difficult to script, with xenophobia and tired racist stereotypes threatening to undermine hopes of resuming cordial relations once the war was over, and of articulating the wrong message. As Capra struggled to get the resources and the scripts, war was altering the face of the world so fast that his films were often obsolete before they were finished.

The director whose fate touched me most deeply was George Stevens, the taciturn director of comedy romances who filmed the allied conquest of France and Germany from the D-Day landings to the moment when Germany finally fell. He was the first American with a camera to enter Dachau, and what he saw there marked him forever. With the unflinching eye of a professional, he filmed the unimaginable atrocities, the skeletal prisoners, lying amongst and barely distinguishable from dead bodies, the crematorium, the filth and squalor. ‘”We went to the wood pile,” he said, “and the wood pile was people.”’ Whilst the other directors squabbled over distribution of their films, arguing hard for their release in movie theatres as well as official military venues, Stevens quietly made his documentaries for one showing only: the Nuremberg war crimes trials. Their irrefutable evidence carried the day.

I can’t stress enough how brilliant this book is. It is a gripping and moving portrait of five complex men trying to capture the reality of a complex and brutal time. They all gave their finest qualities to the work they did, and they all suffered, and from that indelible experience they returned with a very different vision of what film-making should be. William Wyler, who felt he had learned and grown the most from wartime declared that:

“Somebody should be on fire about any picture made, or it shouldn’t be made. If someone doesn’t feel that certain thing, the miracle never happens …. The trouble with Hollywood is that too many of the top people are too comfortable and don’t give a damn about what goes up on the screen as long as it gets by at the box office. How can you expect people with that kind of attitude to make the pictures the world will want to see?’

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Victoria Best is one of the editors of Shiny New Books

Mark Harris, Five Came Back; A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Canongate: London, 2015). 978-1847678560, 560 pp., paperback.

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