World War II was the last war in which a significant number of US citizens were actively involved, including many who enlisted or were drafted into the armed services. Many of the artists and technicians of the Hollywood movie industry served, like millions of others who interrupted their careers and lives. Five Came Back is the story of a group of Hollywood directors, each of whom chose to enlist to use their talents in support of the war effort. John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, Frank Capra, and George Stevens at the beginning of the war were already among, or later became, Hollywood’s greatest directors.
Mark Harris, an entertainment writer and historian, has produced an engaging and thorough account of these men’s journeys through the pre- and post-war movie business, with emphasis on their wartime efforts to make movies that served to inform the public (and armed services recruits) about the reasons the US was in the war and who we were fighting (Capra’s Why We Fight and Know Your Enemies series) or to bring home to the public the battles being fought (Ford’s Battle of Midway and newsreel of the launch of the Doolittle raid against Tokyo). Later in the war Stevens, Huston and Wyler each produced documentary films that included footage of bombing raids and ground actions, often filmed at great risk to the directors and their crews. Although the filming exposed these men to grave danger, Ford later chose to diminish his crew’s involvement and to exaggerate his own. Wyler, filming a bombing run by lying in the belly of the bomber, suffered permanent hearing loss that affected his postwar career. Stevens eventually produced probably the best photographic record of battle and the liberation of Europe.
Harris’s book provides insights into the difficulties encountered by each of these directors as they struggled with military bureaucracy, with conflicting and changing purposes, and with finding the right tone for some of the films. Capra especially faced the challenge of how to portray the enemy. As the war turned gradually in favor of the allies, should the Japanese be seen as barbaric, bucktoothed murderers, or as essentially peace-loving people dragged into the war by the emperor and the war-mongering Japanese military?
Likewise, knowing that after the war the US would be helping Germany, Italy, and Japan to rebuild, how should the people of the Axis be perceived? How to reconcile the concentration camps or the Bataan Death March with postwar magnanimity towards the German and Japanese people?
Five Came Back will be enjoyed by film buffs and those interested in the history of the war. After reading the book, watching the movies directed by these five men will likely give the viewer a new and more nuanced perspective on the films.