Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Five Came Back: A Review

We may have a hard time understanding the way that Americans approached World War Two.  Everyone was involved in some way.  If you were not in service or did not have a loved one in the military, you probably knew someone who was.  The average citizen was also impacted by rationing and the repurposing of various public services in order to support the war effort.

We also might not to understand why men who were, if not at the top of their careers, at least heading in that direction would be willing to give up their livelihoods in order to serve in the military.  In his book Five Came Back:  A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris writes about five men who were not only willing to serve but actually sought the opportunity.  Directors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens were considered among the top directors in Hollywood prior to the war.  All offered their services to the military and found themselves involved in various projects.

They were a varied group.   Frank Capra, born in Sicily, was the ideologue and propagandist.  He had the most visible role as he worked in Washington to create films to inform servicemen and civilians and to shape public opinion.

John Ford, an Irish-American Catholic, seems to have been motivated to serve out his own sense of machismo.  He sought to build his image as a man’s man, even if it meant recreating key elements of the war films he produced and exaggerating the risks he undertook. 

Likewise, John Houston was seeking to prove his manhood.  The son of actor Walter Houston, he was Hollywood royalty.  The war years were an opportunity for him to pursue his role as a raconteur and ladies’ man and build his reputation in Hollywood.

William Wyler, the only Jew in the group, was perhaps the most heroic, flying bomber missions over Europe to obtain footage for the acclaimed documentary The Memphis Belle.  As a result of his wartime exploits, he lost his hearing and almost sacrificed his postwar career.

George Stevens, who had built his reputation as a filmmaker with romantic comedies and light-hearted adventure films, became the chronicler of the inhumanity of the Dachau concentration camps.  The emotional impact was initially a burden but became a source of creativity in his postwar films.

What drove them?  In the words of Ford, they were ashamed to sit out the war “in mockie-land while the good people are fighting.”  In their own way, each was basically a patriot.

They returned to find that, for the most part, Hollywood had little regard for their service.  They all fought personal demons as they returned to the film industry.  All but Capra did their best work after the way, drawing on their wartime experiences to provide films marked by honesty, complexity, and social consciousness.  Capra’s big film after the war, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” was a dud and he never returned to his prewar stature.

Harris provides an interesting story of these men as individuals as well as the role of Hollywood during the war.  Although they were scattered around the world during their military service, they tried to stay in touch with an industry that often seemed more interested in the box office than in the war.

Five Came Back helps us to understand not only these creative men but the cultural impact of World War Two.  The film industry played a key role not only in entertaining but informing both civilians and serviceman and women.  For the first time, a new form of mass media was important in the war effort and these men played a key role.


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