As much as World War 2 continues to be discussed and studied and analyzed today, it's hard for modern generations who never lived through it to fully understand the everyday reality of it, whether as a civilian or a serviceman, which is a big reason why we have it recorded on film. Life as a filmmaker during the war is not something that's commonly talked about. We don't realize that all those images of fighter planes and marching soldiers and ships at sea came at great risk. While much of it is newsreel footage, made by filmmakers trained in the field for years, Hollywood also contributed in bringing those images to worldwide audiences.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris spotlights five prominent directors who gave up prestigious positions within the industry to serve their country in the war: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. By interweaving their individual stories within each other, Harris creates a narrative that begins just before Pearl Harbor, follows the five men around the world as they brought their cameras into the heart of battle, on land, sea and air, and ends with the end of the war, and a little bit beyond.
One thing that stood out for me within this book is seeing the mentality that drove these men into battle. For various reasons, they saw it as their duty to lend a hand to the war effort by providing footage of battle, and that's understandable, but some of them also seemed to get a visceral kick out of participating, as if they saw it as an opportunity to test their manhood. In this modern time, where the reasons for going off to war are often far less clear-cut, this can be a difficult attitude to understand. It's less a part of the cultural zeitgeist, thanks to changing times and greater knowledge of American foreign policy, but during the era of the "greatest generation," it was more of a thing, and we see it played out throughout the narrative.
Another element that resonated for me was how the filmmakers saw their time in the service as a way towards a greater sense of artistic freedom. Under the studio system, filmmakers were subject to the demands of the studio heads, but during the war, they answered to Washington, and while they had to often butt heads with their superiors there, for the most part they were able to tell the stories they wanted. Five goes into the feelings of liberation this engendered, and how it shaped the directors' post-war plans.
The five directors were very different men. Wyler, a European Jew, was deeply concerned about the fate of his hometown. Of all the five, he perhaps paid the greatest cost physically. Stevens was a family man who was not only part of the D-Day invasion, but the liberation of the camps at Dachau as well. He paid the biggest cost mentally. Capra was based in Washington. He was on top of the film world when he signed up, and he believed he could stay that way after the war's end. I was most interested in their stories. Huston was a ladies man carrying on affairs behind his wife's back. It was harder to "root" for him, but his contributions were no less than the others.
And then there was John Ford. One of the medium's most gifted and most feted directors, Five shows how much of a difficult human being he was, too. He was obsessed with naval culture and wanted so badly to be recognized as someone who made a difference to the war. He was also an alcoholic and could be a bully on the set, especially to his biggest star, John Wayne. And yet how can you knock someone who not only risked his life to make a short film like The Battle of Midway, but changed the way war films were made in the process?
Five is a testament to the evolution of film. Scrutinized and viewed with suspicion before the war, it emerged as a powerful communication medium that influenced millions of lives worldwide - and still does.
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