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BWW Reviews: FIVE CAME BACK Tells a Remarkable Tale


"But few of them would enter the war as these directors did, with the sense that, in impending middle age, they had found themselves with a new world to conquer, a task that would test their abilities to help win the hearts and minds of the American people under the hardest imaginable circumstances, with the greatest possible stakes." Mark Harris.

In Five Came Back, Mar: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris tells a story so good it's a wonder it hasn't been told before. The "five" of the title are the five most important Hollywood directors who filmed World War II as both propaganda and reality and--as Harris makes plain--forever shaped the way their contemporaries and subsequent generations viewed the war.

Harris follows--and fuses--the stories of these remarkable men (John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler and George Stevens) with admirable fluency. Finding a narrative center amongst this lot, caught up in everything from Hollywood egos to Washington bureaucracies to bombing runs and invasion landings, could not have been an easy task. But find it Harris does and the resulting tale is both acute history and, at times, deeply moving human drama.

The book succeeds in large part because, with the entire world at play--everything from Hollywood labor relations to Jewish movie moguls deeply concerned about their place in America to changing relationships between producers and artists in Hollywood itself and even more volatile relationships between movies and politics (which would include the birth of congressional committees investigating "un-American activities"), not to mention a world at war--Harris stays tightly focused on the five men who ended up having the most to do with how Americans perceived themselves and the conflict at large.

This involved tactics that ranged from almost laughable crudity deployed by outsized egos to the subtlety one expects from great artists but, whatever their individual strengths and weaknesses, this book makes it clear these five were, collectively, the men for the task.

They were certainly a cantankerous lot. Golden Age Hollywood's studio system did not reward shrinking violets in the director's chair.

And those "personalities" came from all over the lot:

The one who was most eager to join put maximum effort in maintaining his grip on a Hollywood future. The one who was least eager to join ended by seriously wondering if he would return to film making at all.

One cut his films in the camera, careful to minimize the footage shot and the control a producer could exercise in the editing room. Another was nicknamed Forty Take--with the reference more likely being to an average than a limit.

One wrote his wife and son nearly every day. Another couldn't even stay faithful to his mistresses.

One was a Sicilian immigrant who had literally defined himself as the poet of small town America, another an Alsatian Jew who left his home because he had been so thoroughly disgusted by the first World War, yet another a first-generation Irishman who often pretended he had been born in the old country.

One took pride in being slovenly during the war, though he was something of a dandy otherwise. Another, famously (almost scandalously) indifferent to his personal appearance in civilian life, was threatened with a court martial because he delayed his own transfer waiting for an extra set of tailored uniforms.

One was garrulous to a fault--had, in fact, been described before the war as someone likely to "never amount to anything more than an awfully nice guy to get drunk with." Another was so taciturn he frequently went hours at a time on his own movie sets without speaking a word.

One had been uncomfortably close to Italy's fascist leader Benito Mussolini. Another spent the first part of the war being investigated by the Army for possible ties to the communist party.

One assembled a team of a hundred and fifty men and began training them to photograph combat well before America entered the war. Another would remain unconvinced that the war was even necessary until he reached the gates of Dachau.

One had been making features since World War I. Another had directed his first film less than eighteen months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.

One made only a single important feature after the 1946. Another made important films well into the 1980s.

One would come no closer to the shooting war than supervising crude "re-enactments." Another would shoot combat and concentration camp footage so harrowing it went unseen for decades.

One screamed vicious Anti-Semitic insults at the man driving his jeep the first time he came under serious fire. Another would receive an official reprimand for punching a man who had screamed similar insults (at someone else) during a dispute over a taxi-cab in front of a New York hotel.

One spent the first year after the war trying--unsuccessfully--to get a documentary on what we would now call PTSD released (it would not be shown publicly for thirty-five years). Another, a fit subject for a PTSD documentary himself, would not make a film for three years.

For all that--and much, much more (part of the fun is wondering what nugget Harris will turn up next)--the war brought them into the service of a common cause in a way that even their exalted status as elite directors in Hollywood had not. And "elite" is, incidentally, no exaggeration--of the twenty-six best director Oscars awarded between 1934 and 1959, these five men won half of them, frequently besting each other. That number likely would have been even higher had they not been knocked out of competition for several years apiece by the war and its aftermath and even a cursory list of the truly classic films they made would fill this review by itself.

That unsurpassed skill would be put to full use.

One way or another, after the attack on Pearl Harbor (the immediate aftermath of which was filmed by the Field Photo Unit Ford had actually assembled months earlier), they were always there, cameras in their own hands or those of carefully chosen expert crews (who had to win behind the scenes fights with the Army's traditional bread-and-butter photography units to even be permitted on the battlefield) ready to put themselves in harm's way and bring the war home.

And bring it home they did. Be it the Doolittle Raid, Midway, the Aleutians (the only place where a foreign power seized American territory), North Africa, slogging up the Italian "boot," at D-Day and, finally--tellingly--at Dachau and Nuremberg.

These events have been described over and over, in film and print, during the long decades since, and, of course, they will continue to be revisited for as long as history retains even the vaguest sort of continuity.

But they've never been reported quite like this, because the directors Harris keeps at his own story's center, had a truly unique perspective. Unlike everyone else, they weren't there to fight the war but to film it. Much of what we now consider "stock" footage--or routine approaches to filming battle scenes even in carefully controlled studio environments--is a direct result of the very real risks they took and the often difficult decisions they made.

Those decisions could be made in an office (Capra's "eureka" moment, born of despair after he was shaken to the core by a viewing of the German propaganda film Triumph of the Will, came when he realized he could turn his shoe-string budget into an advantage by using Triumph's own footage to define the enemy). They could be made under fire (Wyler decided nothing would substitute for flying actual missions with bomber crews, one result being the documentary that made the Memphis Belle legendary and another being the near total loss of his hearing). They could be made purely by happen-stance (Ford pioneered a certain style of hand-held camera "realism" when the particular camera he was holding was knocked out of his hands by the reverberation of an explosion--his decision to leave the shot in became one of the highlights of his Oscar-winning documentary The Battle of Midway). They could even be made by careful consideration after the fact (Huston, driven off from shooting any actual footage during the battle he was assigned to cover, took pains to stage a re-enactment sufficiently convincing to fool many people into thinking his The Battle of San Pietro captured the actual fighting).

Harris' own key decision, however, is what makes the book far more than a compendium of fascinating moments.

In a story with cameos by everyone from Eric Ambler to Walter Cronkite to Darryl Zanuck to Theodor Geisel (later known as Dr. Seuss), the book never once leaves the perspective of the five title characters and, for all their differences, they had enough in common to keep the pace humming.

Though only Wyler and Huston could be called close friends, the five men all knew and largely respected each other. That Stevens, for instance, would be suggested by Wyler to take Capra's place as head of the Director's Guild after already replacing him as Columbia's top director when Capra turned independent, was par for the course. But they also forged common bonds through their collective war-time experiences. All were deeply frustrated at one time or another by bureaucratic infighting. All were beyond draft age. All took massive pay cuts to serve. And all, more or less inevitably, kept crossing paths during the war itself--paths that Harris keeps sharply in focus and meticulously outlined.

And, significantly, all were well aware that, in the words of novelist Irwin Shaw, who served under Stevens, "the possibility of making great pictures was almost nonexistent, because what the Army wanted from us was propaganda to help win the war, and propaganda doesn't make great pictures."

That last leads to perhaps the most telling point Harris makes (and his second compelling narrative thread): The functional, though never cozy, relationship between Hollywood and Washington was by no means inevitable. That propaganda would be made was inevitable. That these distinguished men would put themselves in harm's way or commit themselves so fully, was not. Capra and Ford, especially, helped create a viable working relationship between dream-factory romanticism and hard-headed military practicality largely by force of their indomitable personalities, and all five directors used their skill, personal influence and sheer will to make valuable contributions against long odds.

With this second thread established, Harris is free to take us on a journey that never flags.

That journey begins with John Ford's prescient formation of a the first Field Photo unit--recruiting and training elite behind-the-camera talent on his own initiative months before Pearl Harbor. It moves to William Wyler's heartbreaking return to his home town in Alsace--borrowing a jeep and Ernest Hemingway's brother for a driver so that he could race ahead of the Allied advance, only to be told when he arrived that he should not bother to look for the Jewish friends and relatives he had tried desperately to get out before the war because "You won't find them." And it ends with George Stevens, a decade and a half after the war, in preparation for filming The Diary of Anne Frank, pulling the footage he had shot at Dachau (and which was used as powerful evidence against Nazi leaders at the Nuremberg war crimes trials--evidence so damning that the defendants' own lawyers essentially turned against them), and turning the projector off "after the first minute."

That journey is immensely enlightening in itself. Though one is almost bound to quibble with some of Harris' critical judgments on particular films--especially with what I think are some slightly overdrawn psychological ties between some of those films and their relationships to a given director's personal experiences--it's also bound to be no more than a quibble. Anyone with even a modest interest in either classic Hollywood or World War II will be well rewarded by Harris' account. Beyond that, any fan of these director's films--which will basically include any fan of classic film--is bound to come away with a new perspective on the films each man made after the war.

At times this linkage is rather direct. Ford's They Were Expendable, released near the war's end (after Ford's binge-alcoholism finally caught him out after D-Day and sent him home early), is one of the greatest of all war films--and the only one he would make. Wyler's The Best Years of Our Lives is the definitive "coming home" story, made before he turned--minus most of his hearing--to a career diverse enough to include Roman Holiday and Ben Hur.

Beyond that, however, the war found its way into much of what these men did in far more subtle ways.

I might not agree with all of Harris' individual judgments, but having encountered his history of George Stevens' war means never looking at Elisha Cook, Jr. being blown backward into a muddy street by a pistol fired at point blank range in Shane quite the same way again. Same for James Stewart's dark journey to redemption through the long night of Capra's It's a Wonderful Life or Humphrey Bogart's descent into madness in Huston's The Treasure of the Sierra Madre or the brooding nature of Ford's famous westerns or any of several dozen other era-defining films these already highly accomplished directors "came back" to make.

Though he gives thorough accounts of what they did leading up to the war, Harris doesn't linger on what they did after, giving only brief (though touching) post-scripts. Five Came Back is, as the publishers like to say, a good title. But the author's subject was literally what the directors did in the war and, by sticking to it, he has told a great story exceptionally well. The result is a valuable addition to the history of the war itself and an invaluable one to the history of Hollywood's place in it.

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From This Author John Walker Ross

John Walker Ross is a graduate of Florida State and lives somewhere in the Florida Panhandle where he has variously toiled in advertising and legal (read more...)