Thursday, March 6, 2014

Five Came Back by Mark Harris - Book Review

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris (Penguin Group, 2014, 528 pages, $29.95) tells the story of the wartime experiences of five of Hollywood's most awarded and successful directors' experiences as they volunteered for service during WW II, forsaking their careers to produce and direct propaganda, training, and documentary films for the Army, Navy, and Army Air Corps. Focusing on the experiences of John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra, Harris details in unsparing yet admiring prose the backgrounds, motives, skills, experiences, productions, and personal costs experienced by these five men as they moved from successful and lucrative careers at the top of the film industry to the demanding conditions of producing film for the military. He also takes a clear-eyed look at the effects of their military experiences upon the kinds of films these men made in the aftermath of the war as well as the political climate affecting the film industry and the nation during this period. It's a fascinating and detailed exploration which sheds light on today's complex social and media environment as well as expanding the reader's film literacy as the internal workings of these film pioneers is examined. Harris has taken on an ambitious agenda and succeeds at the highest level. 

George Stevens in Europe

Throughout the1930's the film industry had remained as apolitical as it possibly could, while individuals increasingly spoke out against the rise of Hitler in non-studio settings. The studio executives, most of whom were Jewish immigrants, were cautious in the face of the pervasive sentiments of Antisemitism in the country and the growing suspicion of Communist influence in an industry dominated by “foreigners,” many of whom had immigrated from eastern Europe. The Hollywood elite sought to avoid controversy, serving up feel-good movies and doing it's best to avoid compromising foreign markets by denying Hitler's danger. The Japanese attack against Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941 changed American attitudes towards both the Japanese and Hitler in one startling attack. Frank Capra, whose success had been built upon light hearted, touching comedies, realized immediately that the war was real, and that the film industry had much to contribute.

John Ford
John Ford joined the Navy even before Pearl Harbor, while the others chose to join various services shortly after the attack. (An interesting sidelight is the picture of John Wayne who became a star in the John Ford western epic Stagecoach, never served but became an icon at least partly as a result of his military roles and well-articulated hyper-Americanism.) Ford developed Field Photo as a publicity and recruiting device for the Navy. The chronological structure of Five Came Back cuts from director to director within the gradual movement away from isolationism toward war, emphasizing the differing viewpoints, ambitions, and capabilities of the five directors. Each learns to cope with the military bureaucracy as he develops ways to portray the goals of the war (Capra), battle scenes (Wyler and Stephens), and progress in their skill at both educating and supporting the war effort. As the war continues, this country becomes less enthusiastic about war propaganda and more hungry for greater realism. Stephens, in his meticulous and detailed fashion captures the epic Battle of the Bulge and is the first major film maker to experience and film the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, changing his life and approach to film making forever. Similarly, Capra found himself unable to make the same quality of films after the war he had made before, while Wyler and Huston learned a new realism they were able to translate into their later, greater films.

Frank Capra

For a reader from nearly seventy years away, the language of both criticism and the films themselves seems stilted and filled with ethnic and nationalistic character since shown to us as both stereotyped, insulting, and inaccurate. No claims of contemporary “political correctness”can contradict this reality. The internment of the large majority of west coast people of Japanese ancestry and the inability of the film makers to depict the contributions, patriotism, and valor of discriminated against black Americans both speak to the level of prejudice and discrimination rampant an American society throughout the forties. Films and the creation American exceptionalist myth receive their greatest development as WW II changes the subject matter and language of the film industry and the country. The War Department became increasingly uncomfortable with the language of propaganda as the country's leaders began to look beyond winning the war to establishing the peace and reconstructing both Europe and Japan. The revelation of the death camps and the emergence of the rivalry with the Soviet Union point inevitably to the next decades of cold war.

Mark Harris
Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution. He formerly edited Entertainment Weekly and has written about pop culture for many other outlets. He graduated from Yale University and is married to playwright Tony Kushner. 

John Huston

Five Came Back is a swell book in the parlance of the times. It took this reader back to his earliest childhood memories as well as those developed from TV and films watched through the eventful 1950's and sixties during the Cold War. It was especially chilling and compelling considering the present situations in Russia and the Middle East. While many of the films are mere shadows of memory, others provoke vivid memories of my childhood and youth, recalling an age thought past, but which, in many ways, predicts and presages our current difficulties. Toward the end of the book, two film makers emerge with particular poignancy. William Wyler's return to his boyhood hometown of Mulhause in France, destroyed by bombing, where he is told not to search for any of his Jewish relatives because “they are not to be found” is heartbreaking. Even more difficult is the portrait of George Stevens almost mechanically detailing the horrors of Dachau while understanding that he is creating a record for later use in the post-war war crimes trials to be held in Nuremberg. Harris takes the time to make clear the difficulty of readjusting the peacetime Hollywood and the effects on each film maker of his war experiences. Today we recognize this syndrome as PTSD.

William Wyler
with the Crew of Memphis Belle - 4th from right 

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywoodand the Second World War by Mark Harris (Penguin Group, 2014, 528 pages, $29.95) explores the role of film during the second world war with thoughtfulness, insight, and a clear eye for detail and nuance. The difficulties of making the kinds of film the government wanted and the interruption of flourishing commercial careers are explored through the examination of five directors who went to war and came home changed forever, as was their country and their industry. It's timely, important, and readable. I received the book as an electronic galley from the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle.

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