Let’s dole out the superlatives early. Five Came Back is an essential for students of Hollywood and history, easily the best book I’ve read so far this year. In recounting the role of studio filmmakers in the Allied war effort, it represents the rare combination of a story that demands to be told and a writer who is more than up to the challenge.
Frank Capra, who won three Best Director Oscars in the 1930s, didn’t go to war so much as to Washington, his stint as a bureaucrat only underscoring the muddiness of his personal politics. John Ford, who joined the Navy and led the photographic unit of the OSS, would do some of the best work of his career in the heat of battle only to be sent back to Hollywood in disgrace. John Huston had scored his first triumph with The Maltese Falcon in 1941 and initially regarded the war as an inconvenience to his rapid ascent. He blithely staged recreations for his “documentary” The Battle of San Pietro to get the footage he wanted, but the truths he told about the psychological traumas suffered by veterans in his long-censored Let There Be Light proved too hard for the government to hear. William Wyler welcomed these years as “an escape into reality.” His insistence on putting himself in harm’s way to follow aviators on their missions led to permanent injury, material he would then mine for the greatest film about the post-war period The Best Years of Our Lives. And the urbane George Stevens would be unable to return to his métier of comedy after being one of the first American officers to provide an eyewitness account of Nazi atrocities in the wake of the liberation of Dachau; he would go on to compile photograph evidence for the Nuremberg trials.
If the book has a hero it’s Lowell Mellett, the ex-newspaperman appointed as liaison between Washington and Hollywood for the Office of War Information. He played a long game, concerned about maintaining accuracy in what he acknowledged to be propaganda films and bearing the Allies’ eventual victory in mind when addressing issues of racism in how the Japanese were depicted.
Harris strips away any “Greatest Generation” sanctimony, honoring the accomplishments of these individuals while reveling in their humanity, their cantankerousness and foibles. American filmmakers coerced their British counterparts into a lopsided collaboration because U.K. efforts like Desert Victory far surpassed their own. Some things never change: audiences spurned most of these films in favor of newsreels because they craved immediacy and quickly grew bored with a steady diet of war dramas, craving the lighter fare no one felt comfortable making. While the directors lobbied to have their government-bankrolled productions considered for Academy Awards, fearful their careers would be in jeopardy once hostilities ended.
An astonishing array of talent participated in the propaganda campaign, names like Irwin Shaw and Eric Ambler popping up with regularity. Capra’s greatest contribution was an afterthought, approving the “Private Snafu” cartoons spearheaded by Chuck Jones and Theodor “Dr. Seuss” Geisel. I knew Louis Hayward as a serviceable player in lesser noirs like Repeat Performance and Walk a Crooked Mile; I had no inkling he won an Academy Award and the Bronze Star for making the harrowing With the Marines at Tarawa.
But the focus remains on these five men and their films. Even under extreme conditions, they brought their personalities to bear on their work. Ford captured riveting footage for 1942’s The Battle of Midway, but couldn’t resist adding a folksy voiceover by his Grapes of Wrath stars Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell. Wyler’s instinct for drama compelled him to shape The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress around a single B-17’s crew. The impact of those years transformed each of the directors, altering their subsequent films. Capra lost his way in the industry, Ford retreated to westerns, Huston gave vent to his innate cynicism. Five Came Back is a sprawling yet fleet book, compulsively readable and endlessly fascinating.