Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
Author: Mark Harris
Mark Harris was one of my favorite contributors to Grantland, and his previous book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood was one of my favorite film history books I’ve read. Based on the two, I was anxious to try out Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Much like Harris’s first book, Five Came Back tells five stories simultaneously and mostly chronologically, this time focusing on famous directors and their experiences surrounding World War II.
The five directors spotlighted are Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. My experience with those five directors prior to reading this book varied. On one end of the spectrum was John Ford, a guy who I have watched most of his best known films to John Huston a guy whose movies I had heard of but had never sat down and watched (while reading this book I rectified that with a Maltese Falcon/Treasure of Sierra Madre double feature). The other three guys I’d seen at least a few of their movies, but didn’t have any strong feelings about except for George Stevens directed one of my favorite movies of all-time, Shane.
The book begins with an overview of where each man was in his career with the war began, and quickly proceeds to their enlistment. The bulk of the book is spent in 1941 to 1945, and honestly was a downer of a read for reasons I couldn’t predict. For a book that looks like a glorious tribute to five Americans doing their patriotic duty by making films to support the war effort, most of their time spent in the war was on unsuccessful projects. Also, John Huston and John Ford don’t come off as great people even putting aside all of the other war stuff. Frank Capra’s war experience was spent making educational documentaries, none of which seemed particularly useful or successful in their goals. I’d go so far as to say it read at times that Harris played favorites with his treatment of the directors, sharing as many negative details toward Ford and Huston as possible.
On the flip side, William Wyler and George Stevens appeared like great men, and also had some successes in their film making during this period. Wyler’s documentary following a crew on a bomber plane was by far the film most ballyhooed by Harris. Although only mentioned for a few pages, Stevens’s movies made for evidence at the Nuremberg trials likewise appeared to exactly hit the mark and deliver what was needed. Both men’s personal lives were also frequently pointed out, with loyalty to their wives and families, as well as their sacrifices made when coming back (Wyler’s loss of hearing, Stevens’s emotional trauma).
As a military book, this book has a few moments that are very interesting, namely around the Battle of Midway and D-Day. As a World War II book, the Stevens section at the end discovering the atrocities of the holocaust really stands out. However, those are minor portions of the book, with most of the story about directors struggling to create any kind of useable footage due to adverse filming conditions, enemy gunfire and military bureaucracy. At times that could make for a very frustrating read. Breaking up this book, I’d give the first 75 pages 4 stars, 3 stars to the next 200 pages, and 5 stars to the next 175.