That The Second World War changed the world forever is an unquestionable fact. This book explores one of the less obvious impacts – on Hollywood. Mark Harris’ Five Came Back is a fascinating snap shot – or should that be reel? – of how five of Hollywood’s most talented, successful and notorious directors – John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra, were affected by their active participation in WW2, working for the US government.
History tends to paint propaganda as something insidious carried out by enemy forces, but of course in reality it’s a vital part of any countries war effort, even if it might be known by something less sinister-sounding – like the ’Morale Branch’ we find here. It was to the task of producing propaganda that Ford, Capra, Stevens, Huston and Wyler were all set. They were all keen to do their patriotic duty, despite in most cases their physical unsuitability to active service. In the creation of these films to show both army recruits and the American public, they could – at first at least – be sure they were using their talents in the best possible way to help the war effort.
Their experiences were wide and far-ranging; while Capra remained for the most part desk-bound in Washington, overseeing filming units from afar, others saw more action. Heading up the US Navy’s Field Photo Unit, John Ford filmed the pivotal Battle of Medway in 1942. His film was the first to bring the realities of WW2 conflict to the American public – even if in later years, and in true showbiz fashion, he did manage to airbrush his cameraman’s heroics out of the picture, and exaggerate the extent of his own injuries sustained while filming.
All five men struggled with their new wartime roles in different ways, yet perhaps with one common theme – these were all men used to being in absolute control – as much as they could wrest from the all-powerful studios anyway – and every single one of them therefore struggled with the unquestionable chain of command exercised in the US forces. John Ford was reduced to smuggling his own rushes back into the country to cut them secretly to his own taste, and John Huston fell into an alcohol-fuelled depression over the army’s verdict that his film on returning soldiers’ mental health was too controversial to show.
Some of the most important war footage ever shot – from Wyler’s heroic and morale-boosting Memphis Belle, to George Stephen’s horrifying footage of the liberation of Dachau, used in the Nuremberg trials – was filmed by these men. This material stands testament to how Hollywood and WW2 became intertwined, but the union had other consequences after the conflict ended. Capra was arguably never able to adapt to the public’s new, grittier post-war mood, while Stevens, unable to reconcile his experience of evil in the concentration camps, never felt able to make again the light hearted comedies for which he had been known prior to the war. For others such as Wyler, the consequences of WW2 were to prove even more far-reaching.
Harris’ compelling attention to detail and character is richly rewarding. Five Came Back is a riveting account of what happens when creativity and conflict collide – and how the results can be both inspirational and life-changing.