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

harris -- five came backA book about five Hollywood directors in World War II?

Well, OK.

It was a book selected by one of my book clubs so I got a copy of Five Came Back by Mark Harris, but I didn’t expect much.

After all, there have been thousands of books written about the Second World War. Books about D-Day, books about Hitler and the Nazis, books about Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Britain and the Battle of the Bulge and George Patton and Winston Churchill and the Russian front and U-boats and the occupation of Paris. And books about the Final Solution.

What could a book about five well-to-do, American movie-makers add? Actually, a lot.


In Five Came Back, Harris, a thoughtful, lively and rigorous writer, tells the story of the war through the experiences of John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler and George Stevens. They are famous and talented, and, in his story, they are also Everymen.

Frank Capra, John Huston and John Ford
Frank Capra, John Huston and John Ford

Make no mistake. Their experiences in the military bureaucracies and on the battlefield weren’t typical for the United States soldier and sailor in the conflict. But, then, what five veterans of the Armed Forces had “typical” experiences?

Harris makes Five Came Back into a version of The Best Years of Our Lives, the drama that Wyler filmed in 1946 — and won an Oscar for — about three returning veterans, one from each arm of the military services, and their discoveries of how the war had changed them.

Of the directors, perhaps none was more shaken than Stevens who, with his camera crew, accompanied the first American troops to enter German concentration camps. Harris writes:

It was almost May, but patches of snow and ice still covered much of the frozen ground behind the fences. Stevens and his men bundled themselves in greatcoats that had been taken from SS guards and drove through the gates. What Stevens saw there would change his life and work, and profoundly alter his understanding of his own nature. “It was,” he said, “like wandering around in one of Dante’s infernal visions.”

William Wyler and George Stevens
William Wyler and George Stevens


Unlike The Best Years of Our Lives, Harris doesn’t focus on the aftermath of the war. Following a few chapters about what the five men were doing in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor, he spends most of the book on their never smooth, often frustrating and sometimes dangerous efforts to film the war for propaganda uses.

“Propaganda,” in this context, is a complex word.

At heart, it seems, each of the men saw his job, in some way, as recording history as it happened, such as Stevens working to find a way to be able to film the liberation of Paris:

Stevens believed more than ever that his role was to document what happened as it happened, and knew that this time he would have to fight simply to make sure he had his…cameras in the right place at the right time.

Alone among his colleagues, Stevens did not make a feature film for screening to U.S. troops or home audiences. For the most part, the images and scenes that he and his crew captured were sent back to headquarters for general use in other movies.

The one exception was Nazi Concentration Camps, a brutal, damning hour-long tour of the killing prisons in which a narrator and occasionally a survivor details the horrifying brutality and the senseless murders. This film, though, wasn’t meant for the public or the troops. Stevens made it solely to be viewed by the judges at the Nuremburg trials of the German war criminals.

Away from the battlefield

Capra was the only one of the five who was never near a battlefield or in harm’s way.

He spent most of the war in Washington overseeing the production of Why We Fight, a series of seven documentary films that sought to explain to soldiers and the U.S. citizenry the need for American participation in the war. This was particularly important early in the war when the significant bloc of isolationists still needed to be won over.

He also enlisted an editorial cartoonist from New York City, Theodor S. Geisel — later better known as Dr. Seuss — to produce what Harris calls, “the most popular series of training films” in the war.

[Capra] came up with a character called “Private SNAFU,” a grumbling, naïve, incompetent GI who would be featured in an ongoing run of short black-and-white cartoons in which — usually by catastrophically negative example that more than once ended in him being blown to bits — he would inform young enlistees about issues like the importance of keeping secrets and the need for mail censorship, as well as the hazards of malaria, venereal disease, laziness, gossip, booby traps and poison gas.

These cartoons were — and still are — hilarious and give hints of the Dr. Seuss stories to come. Because they were designed only to show to troops, they were also fairly raunchy, all the better to grab a soldier’s attention.

In addition, there was The Negro Soldier, a forty-minute film that Capra shepherded through the many twists and turns of the military bureaucracy (and bias). Aimed at increasing African-American enlistments, the film featured “the most crisply spoken, uncaricatured black preacher ever seen in an American film up to that point” and “black men in military service … being portrayed straightforwardly and uncomedically.”

Richard Wright, author of Native Son, went to a screening and scribbled a list of 13 black stereotypes on the back of his program, planning to put a check by each for an occurrence in the film. He made not a single mark.

Not toothpaste

All of these were propaganda. None was simply and clearly and freely the vision of Capra and the people he worked with.

Of course, a Hollywood movie isn’t simply the vision of the director. Producers, actors, writers, technicians and the expected audience also shape the film. It’s the vision, if you will, of the group.

The difference with the films that Capra, as well as Ford, Huston and Wyler, made during World War II is that they had a product to sell — the nation’s involvement in the war. Just as the art-types working for a corporation try to convince their audiences to buy a new toothpaste, these four directors wanted to persuade American soldiers and citizens that the war was worth waging.

Yet, it wasn’t the same as toothpaste.

Deeply human

Capra et al weren’t given a script or a manifesto to use in selling the war. They had to reach down deep and, through trial and error, come up with their own scripts. With their own vision.

In truth, the United States entered the Second World War for a great many reasons, and the task of the directors was to figure out the story of the conflict. To develop a narrative to make the war understandable to those fighting the battles and those at home supporting the troops.

They didn’t have a free hand. No question. They were hamstrung by military expectations, prejudices and agendas.

But it was their art — their vision — that, most often, rose to the top and enabled them to tell a story that rang true to the American spirit. They were great artists, and, for all the bureaucratic shackles they had to endure, they were often able to make films that were multi-faceted and deeply human.

An individual stamp

So, yes, they were creating propaganda, but it was propaganda with an individual stamp. And none of the directors shared the same individual stamp.

Many of these films, including those overseen by Capra, still resonate today and will do so on into the future:

The Battle of Midway by Ford who was not only in the middle of the fighting of the first great American victory of the war but also suffered a minor wound.
The Memphis Belle by Wyler who risked his life to accompany the crew of a bomber over Germany to film air combat (and later, in a similar effort in Italy, lost virtually all of his hearing for the rest of his life).
Report from the Aluetians by Huston, a prose poem to the life of fighters at a far corner of the world.
Let There Be Light, also by Huston, a long-suppressed look at the treatment of shell-shocked soldiers in a psychiatric hospital.

“Shameful episode”

There were failures, too, in artistic and human terms. Harris details a thread of anti-Japanese race-baiting and stereotyping that some military and civilians leaders fought to keep out of the films.

And he tells the story of Battle of San Pietro which he terms “the sorriest and most shameful episode in the history of army propaganda efforts during World War II — a misbegotten project that ended up consuming and compromising three directors [Capra, Stevens and the director Huston] on three continents …”

Essentially, the movie was made with film from other battles and from a massive recreation staged by the Army. It was a sham.

Honorable and compelling

Still, even in telling this story of violated art and truth, Harris gives the reader an insight into the reality of trying to film on a battlefield, even as the enemy is in retreat.

When [Huston and his crew] had almost reached [San Pietro], Huston stopped suddenly. He and [novelist Eric] Ambler turned and saw a GI kneeling by a tree, aiming his rifle. “For an instant, he looked alive, but only an instant,” Ambler wrote. “A mortar bomb fragment had sheared away the whole of one side of his head.”

The war changed Huston and Capra and Ford and Wyler and Stevens. Just as it changed my father and millions of other Americans who served in the Armed Forces.

Five Came Back is an honorable, compelling, sensitive look at those five directors.

And, in a real way, at my father and all those other troops.

Patrick T. Reardon

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