Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
By Mark Harris
In his acclaimed 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution, pop-culture critic Mark Harris used the story of five movies to present a near-epic look at the movie industry in the ’60s. In this, his second book, he returns to the magic number five, but for an even more ambitious project. Through the intertwined experiences of five great movie directors who put their careers on hold to make morale-boosting documentaries for the military in the Second World War, Harris examines the uneasy relationship of the motion picture industry and the U.S. government, and the effect the war had on people who served.
Each director brought his own style to war films, from Frank Capra’s trademark optimism in his Why We Fight series to John Huston’s dark look at a psychiatric institution in Let There Be Light. But they, in turn, were changed by the war, and returned to a new Hollywood where—like many returning veterans—they weren’t sure of their place.
The directors signed up, hoping to get away from Hollywood fantasy and use their talents to help their country. While some important films came out of their experience, including George Stevens’s films of liberated concentration camps (which changed his world view so completely, he was never able to direct another comedy), we also read how they ran into bureaucracy and ethical compromises, including the use of dramatic re-enactments passed off as documentary footage.
Their adjustment to military life conveys the everyday world of men at war—the boredom, frustration and financial troubles, not just the danger, though there’s plenty of danger, too: While filming during one mission, William Wyler was rendered almost completely deaf for the rest of his life.
Like many true war stories, Five Came Back doesn’t build to a natural climax and seems to arbitrarily stop rather than end. That only emphasizes, though, how rich the story is. Through in-depth research, Harris sketches each director’s personality beautifully: Wyler, often dismissed as a mere craftsman, gets his due as a man and a filmmaker of passion, and Harris presents perhaps the best portrayal to date of the enigmatic John Ford, the only one to enlist before the U.S. entered the war, but who sometimes seemed to be play-acting at being military. It’s the men’s very real achievements—as well as their flaws and insecurities—that come across most strongly in this important book.
JAIME J. WEINMAN