"Five Came Back"
by: Mark Harris
The story of 5 legendary Hollywood directors and their effect on cinema during WWII and the effect of WWII on them.
John Ford John Huston
William Wyler Frank Capra
These five men were not only the directors of some of the silver screen's finest movies, they also played a role, and a large one at that, of Hollywood's contributions during WWII.
In one of the more interesting, concise and thoroughly researched books about classic Hollywood that I have ever read, author Mark Harris defines the way the studio system viewed the war, the politics behind many decisions and bio's of each Director before, during and after the war.
Lead up to war
These directors had careers that were either already established (John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler) or were on their way to stardom (George Stevens, John Huston). The looming crisis in Europe and the buildup to what would become our worlds most important war, was going largely ignored by both Washington and Hollywood. More specifically the Hollywood studios unwilling to alienate foreign box office profits in countries affected by the looming war (Germany, Italy) and unwilling to battle Washington DC and the politics behind censorship of political ideas. Before Pearl Harbor riled up the American involvement in all things war, studios were dubious to showcase any movie that could be deemed propaganda.
Aside from the aggressive support from the Warner's, who's Jewish heritage and links proved to be an integral part of their support for what became the Allied side of the war, most studios relented to government pressure both real and perceived. This frustrated the 5 directors who had screenplays and ideas for movies that made the studios hesitate to green-light the project initially or changed the plot so much that the directors were furious. It wasn't until after the start of the war and more specifically the bombing of Pearl Harbor that the studios relented in their pressure against what they deemed propaganda, and instead embraced all forms of Jingoistic and nationalistic pride, propaganda be damned.
The government which had fought so hard to root out any potential propaganda in the late 30's and into mid 1941, had finally realized the benefits of having a wing of the government producing what amounted to In-house propaganda could provide. Who better to accomplish those feats than the best Hollywood directors at the time.
While not every directors pathway to enlistment went smoothly, they all eventually found themselves with the task of making movies about war... But how would they get this accomplished? It had never been done before and while these directors had experience working with difficult actors/actresses and tough studio heads, they would find their biggest challenges came in dealing with a government that half trusted them, half didn't. Half thought they were red blooded Americans looking to help the war effort and half wondered where their loyalties really were. In all instances they dealt with under-funding and under-appreciation.
William Wyler Filmed on the famous Memphis Belle (no ladies... Harry Connick Jr. was just in the movie made much later)
William Wyler- Made two major films for the government. The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), Thunderbolt! (1947), and also shot a lot of live footage, as did Stevens and Ford which are now widely seen whenever you watch any documentary about WWII. Also made a very important picture The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) documenting some of the atrocities and difficultly of the men who came home and their attempt at transitioning back to home-life.
John Ford- Was the first of the 5 directors to experience the war first hand and interacted with the soldiers. While working for the Office of Strategic Services, he made films for the Navy department. The original films used to present to soldiers upon basic training was laughable at best. Ford was called on to redo these films and made them so entertaining and informative that they were used for many years after the war. Showing real bravery in battle, he was present and filming much of the footage we have today of the battle of the Midway and was present along with George Stevens on Omaha beach on D-Day. He was even wounded in battle.
Frank Capra- Within days of the bombing of Pearl Harbor the enthusiastic Capra wanted to show his love for his country and enlisted. He was tasked with making a series of mini-docs called "Why We Fight". These films were meant to inspire and inform the public as well as the enlisted men on America's morals and reasons for war.
George Stevens- Shot the only color footage that remains from the D-Day invasion. Worked under Capra in a filming and creative role. While on the European front he was with the first group of Allied troops that encountered Dachau, the German concentration camp. This shook Stevens and was something he never quite recovered from.
John Huston- Didn't take it seriously and just wanted to make movies, and sleep around. He did make three very important war films; Report from the Aleutians (1943), The Battle of San Pietro (1945), Let There Be Light (1946), the latter film was influenced by his witnessing of the stresses and post-traumatic-stress disorders that the soldiers went though in their recovery.
After the War
All 5 directors were very supportive veterans, after witnessing the horrors of war first hand. John Ford created a ranch for Veterans to recover peacefully from their Shell-Shock. All were shaken and changed forever by their experiences. George Stevens after witnessing Dachau, took a while to jump back into Hollywood. Each experience, for each man called to duty was a deeply personal one that never left them. Ford, the elder statesman among the 5 directors, returned to work the easiest, but all had their perspectives on filming and storytelling changed forever.
For those interested in this book, I would like to let you know that this is not just a book about war. This book is an interesting peek into the Hollywood system, how politics influenced decisions in film making and how the war changed not only our American psyche but the future of all films that came afterward.
We take for granted as a society now the instantaneous imagery and sounds we see daily of war and atrocities worldwide. But to look back and think that this war provided Americans and the world the first imagery and sounds of a real war, were ground breaking and important moments in our collective history. Without the efforts of these 5 directors and the men and women who helped them along the way, so much important history would have gone un-filmed and would be lost to the history pages.
We have barely scratched the surface on what this very well documented and incredibly interesting book contains. This is the kind of book you tell other people about, hoping that they will read it so you can talk with them about it... and at the end of the day, isn't that the highest compliment you can give a book.
--------------------------------------------Eric and Monique Leckey