Author: Mark Harris

Publisher: Penguin Press HC The; First Edition edition (February 27, 2014)
ISBN-10: 1594204306

ISBN-13: 978-1594204302

While Five Came Back was published this February, it's a book that shouldn't be lost in the avalanche of 2014 publications. As many reviewers have already noted, it's a title that should interest both World War II buffs and anyone interested in the history of Hollywood.

Starting in the years leading up to Pearl Harbor with an epilogue that explores the aftermath of WWII, historian Mark Harris weaves together the wartime involvement of directors John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra. Each story is a study in compare/contrasts not only of these men's personal styles and egos, but the complexity of what Hollywood and Washington expected of them, not to mention the competing interests of British filmmakers. In addition, the government agencies who took responsibility for overseeing both propaganda and training movies had a wide variety of motivations and desires that made the work of these men difficult and sometimes pointless.

In all cases, the five directors, all well above draft age, made real personal sacrifices in order to contribute to the war effort. Several of them literally put their lives on the line to obtain the footage that would bring the war home to the American theatre audience. Ford was wounded while shooting the opening moments of the Battle of Midway from a rooftop, Wyler rode along on bombing missions over Germany, Stevens filmed the horrific scenes at Dachau. Both Stevens and Ford were on the beaches on D-Day. As a result, Wyler suffered permanent hearing loss he feared would end his career and Stevens was severely affected by what he saw at the concentration camps. He shot perhaps the most important footage of them all that was intended for a limited audience—the judges at the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal.

Harris exposes many myths about these men, such as Huston's bogus claims his documentary San Pietro was built from real battlefield footage when it was actually made of reenactments.

While the others went overseas, Capra alone stayed in New York working on propaganda efforts and bound by the frustrations of government bureaus that delayed his work so long that by the time many of his projects were approved, the tone of the times had changed. At the outset, the idea was to drum up support for going to war at all. Then the goal was to encourage preparedness and staying the course. Finally, the moviegoers of America were war-weary and wanted escape, not immersion, in what was occurring in lands far away. Most importantly, these directors found their creative aspirations boxed in by supervisors every bit as frustrating as the studio bosses in Hollywood.

What makes this book so readable and revelatory is not just the research of Mark Harris, but his ability to make the book flow with nuggets and insights on nearly every page, especially placing events in the contexts of the times. With the exception of Capra, who didn't understand the world had changed after the war, most of the personalities are shown to be complex patriots. Ford famously did not like John Wayne, perhaps WWII's most notorious draft-dodger. If anyone really fares badly, it was Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th-Century Fox, who pompously thought he should be called "Colonel" while alienating everyone he encountered.

So Harris explores how a string of films were made, from Mrs. Miniver to The Best of Our Lives, showing how they reflected what Hollywood, the government, and audiences expected. He goes in depth looking at the personal and professional lives of his subjects with a balanced approach with little editorializing. In short, Five Came Back is the best type of film history, having much, much more to show than the average silver screen analysis.

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