Book Review: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris
Mark Harris weaves an intriguing story of five top-notch motion-picture directors that abandoned their careers in Hollywood and joined the military to help win World War II by producing documentary, propaganda, and information films. He has integrated numerous moving parts into a coherent tale with keen interest. It’s a heavy book that deserves a careful read. Loaded with key information, and a comprehensive index, Five Came Back is essential for the cineaste, WWII aficionados, and those of my generation who recall the great films of these five directors and the details of the war. After the read, this book goes into one’s library as a great reference book re Hollywood and the War effort. The directors are:
I have two concerns. First Harris changes gears all too often without a transition. For instance, in one paragraph he writes about one director and in the following chapter he talks about another director and there is no apparent relationship between these two chapters. Nonetheless, a linear structure where he would discuss one director a time would be a disaster. Often times there were relationships between two of the directors. Secondly, I’ve spotted eight technical errors. The list is at the end of this review—some significant, others nit picks.
The Office of War Information and General George C. Washington tasked Major Frank Capra to produce a series of film to inform our soldiers and civilians about the righteous of our involvement in the war. He fought army bureaucracy for most of the war to produce and distribute the Why We Fight series of seven films. The first picture in this series of documentary films, Prelude to War earned the Academy Award in 1942. By the war’s end, all seven films were released.
The army tasked (then) Lieutenant Colonel Frank Capra, to coordinate all army combat photographic efforts. Accordingly, he commuted between Washington, DC and London through the War.
In discussing the power of propaganda films and the value of realism Capra said, “No war documentary can be made with absolute integrity and truth.” Capra supporting John Houston’s staging and restaging the battle scenes in the The Battle of San Pietro. Capra’s comments reflected his understanding of the documentary film movement. John Grierson, father of the documentary film, averred that the documentary film is a restaging of reality. Eric Ambler (English novelist) commented on the staged battle scenes of San Pietro, “That nothing but falsification would be of any use, or even possible.” He reinforced his countryman’s philosophy re the documentary film.
In May 1945 the war in Europe was over: Capra was discharged, and General George C. Marshall pinned the Distinguished Service Medal on his blouse.
John Huston had conceived, staged, and restaged almost the entire film The Battle of San Pietro. Houston, perhaps overprotective of his cameramen, was reluctant to have them in danger on the front lines. Accordingly, he convinced the Army to supply the men and equipment he needed to produce this film. It was a reasonably faithful reproduction of the actual battle. Harris says that, “Houston would do most anything that would fit the army’s propaganda needs.” Several years later, Houston would haggle with the Army to release his film Let There be Light. This film dealt with the psychological problems of the returning serviceman. The Army thought it to be too negative and reflect poorly on the soldier,
Lieutenant Commander John Ford, a naval reservist, was called to active duty shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941. Tipped about the coming battle at Midway, he and his combat cameramen (mostly from Hollywood) deployed to the island. During the battle, Ford documented some of the fiercest action with his handheld, 16mm camera. His footage of the battle was captured totally impromptu. Ford was filming the battle while standing near the Midway power house. He was wounded slightly in the arm when a Japanese bomb exploded near power house. He assembled the raw footage and with keen filmic design techniques produced the Academy award-wining film (1942), Battle of Midway.
Ford was present at Omaha Beach on D-Day (6 June 1944) directing Coast Guard cameramen. No motion picture was made of the footage. In a 1964 interview, Ford explained that the U.S. Government was “afraid to show so many American casualties on the screen.” At war’s end the navy awarded John Ford the Legion of Merit. He remained in the Naval Reserve and the Navy promoted him to Rear Admiral in 1952 when he retired.
Ford’s relationship with the Office of Strategic Services (Forerunner of the CIA) and the Navy is unclear. He seemed to be serving two masters. What was the purpose of this dual chain-of-command? Early on he said, “I am in command of the field photographic branch of the Office of Strategic Services.” And, why was the OSS producing documentary film?
John Ford had contempt for actor John Wayne because Wayne had broken one vague comment after another to join the Armed Forces. Wayne never joined. I reckon they reconciled after the war: they collaborated on a number of films, such as The Searchers.
Harris weaves an intriguing tale of William Wyler’s producing and directing the groundbreaking film The Memphis Belle—probably the “best” documentary film for the war. Actually, it is a composite of several Eight Air Force, Boeing B-17 missions over Germany. It’s suffused with real-time combat photography that is thrilling, chilling, and engrossing—much shot by Wyler. It’s the story of the crews twenty-fifth mission—this time over the submarine pens at Wilhelmshaven. On return, the Queen of England greets the crew, medals awarded, and their commanding officer reads their orders to return to homeland to train bomber crews for future raids on Germany. What the film fails to discuss is the appalling loss rate of our B-17 and B-24 bombers: German interceptor aircraft, anti-aircraft “flack,” and foul weather took a terrible toll. On average, the loss rate per raid was about fifteen percent. Over Schweinfurt, the loss rate was fifty-percent.
George Stevens joined the Army Signal Corps. His personal use of film cameras to document the historic event in Europe is one of the most interesting tales in this book. For example, the scenes that Harris that tells about Stevens shooting film and directing his combat cameramen at Omaha Beach on “D Day,” the push through the hedge rows of Normandy, the Liberation of Paris, Stevens’ using a film camera to documented the army’s advance through France and Germany; and the liberation of the notorious concentration camp Dachau. The horror of the scene at Dachau, affected Stevens deeply for the rest of his life. On his discharge from the Army he was awarded he Legion of Merit.
The five directors resumed their careers after the war: some more successful than others. Their experiences in the war inscribed deep emotional scars that were harder for some to overcome than others were. Nonetheless, all resumed successful careers in the fast-changing Hollywood environment.
Here are the errors I’ve spotted.
- Calls the USSR “Russia” in Frank Capra’s trip in 1935.
- Incorrectly refers to the 1935-1936 Second Italian-Ethiopian War as starting in 1933.
- States that Newfoundland in 1943 was part of Canada. No so. At that time, Newfoundland was a Dominion of the British Empire—not a part of Canada.
- He says, “The Navy was still putting the crew (of the Boeing B-17 bomber dubbed “Memphis Bell”) through its paces…” The crew of the “Memphis Bell” were in the Army Air Corps—not the Navy.
- Notes that “The Americans, who were then pouring all of their manpower into the war in the Pacific.” Not so. President Roosevelt and Five-star General George Marshall, General of the Army, had decided that their first priority was to defeat Nazi Germany in Europe. The Pacific war was clearly secondary.
- Discussing the film The Negro Soldier–the telling of the black soldiers’ participation in the war—he notes that the army soldiers were dancing with the Navy’s WAVES (Women Accepted for Emergency Service). I suspect that he meant to write “WAC” (Woman’s Army Corps).
- In the scene in which Harris discusses the capture of the Ludendorff, single-track railroad bridge across the Rhine River, he states, “…the allies captured three bridges (across the Rhine). Actually, Hitler ordered all bridges across the Rhine destroyed and all were except the bridge at Remagen. It was the lone bridge still standing across the Rhine. Elements of the 27th Armored Infantry Battalion captured this bridge intact on the 8th of March 1945, and soon General George Patton’s tanks were on the east side of the river and Berlin was his target.
- Discussing William Wyler’s 1946 film The Best Years of Our Lives, Harris pens that the character Fred Derry (played by Dana Andrews) walks among “…an airfield of now useless fighter planes.” Actually, Fred is in the aircraft bone-yard for the Boeing B-17 bombers.