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When Hollywood Went to War

‘Five Came Back’ looks at front-line directors during World War II

May. 9, 2014
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Mark Harris’ terrific new book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin Press) explores how a handful of Hollywood’s most prominent directors put lucrative careers on hold to take part in World War II. The unity of spirit that determined the motivations of these famous men provides an inspiring, moving testament to the ideological conviction underscoring the national mood during that war. In the hands of this talented writer, the narrative jumps back and forth between chronicles of each man’s experience, giving this remarkable book a spiky feeling of urgent continuity.

Their goals may have varied but their purposes were the same. John Ford at age 44 needed a sense of a new adventure. Frank Capra and George Stevens felt Hollywood needed exposure to the real world and, perhaps unfairly, minimized their own prior achievements such as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Woman of the Year. John Huston, the youngest of the group at 35, could not ignore the challenge of an upcoming war. The great William Wyler was Jewish and had been trying to rescue family members from Germany for some time. Whatever their motivations, they left the comforts and high salaries of home to enlist, not realizing what was in store for them.

The War Department needed Hollywood. The Signal Corps wanted accurate documentation of combat to inform a complacent public and hoped to produce short films shown in theaters alongside regular Hollywood fare. The directors were in the midst of the fray. Ford was struck by shrapnel while filming The Battle of Midway and received a Purple Heart. Both he and Capra were shooting film at D-Day with cameras mounted on landing craft, but much of the film was destroyed; what remained was considered too graphic for moviegoers. Stevens filmed the Battle of the Bulge, living under the same conditions as the troops despite frequent asthma attacks. Wyler lost most of his hearing from the horrendous noise while lying on the underbelly of  heavy duty bombers to obtain more graphic shots. He never completely recovered.

Capra wanted to produce a series of historical films titled “Why We Fight,” but the government felt that what was required were upbeat morale builders emphasizing success under fire. Only the first, Prelude to War, was completed. The same fate befell Huston’s Let There be Light, a documentary filmed in a psychiatric hospital about soldiers suffering from trauma. Considered an invasion of privacy plus providing too negative an image of the aftermath of battle, it was suppressed for decades. Stevens was among the first to film the horrors of Dachau, which haunted him the rest of his life and influenced his post-war work in Hollywood. He produced the successful but curiously lackluster The Diary of Anne Frank.

The author’s emphasis on the tenacity and determination of these five Americans to “see things through” to the bitter end of victory in hopes of a better world provides a poignant coda to this inspiring volume.


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