Review: Five Came Back

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

Copy reviewed: Penguin Press, 2014.  Hardcover, 528 pages.

Also available as a Trade Paperback: Penguin, 2015.  528 pages.Cover:  Five Came Back

Five Came Back tells the story not of Hollywood during World War II, but the stories of five directors who left Hollywood to serve and the men who followed them. Each left out of a sense of duty and returned with a different purpose. To set the tone, the book began in 1938 and discusses each directors’ background and last films before the war.

John Ford entered the service first. Beginning before America’s entry into the war, he was an officer in the Naval Reserves. In Hollywood during those years, he trained a group of men called the OSS Field Photo Unit. The Unit’s planned goal would be to film the war as it occurred. He even left for Washington, D.C. for active duty months before Pearl Harbor. During the war, he supervised several documentaries and filmed battled footage at Midway and D-Day and aboard the USS Hornet as the Doolittle Raid began. Upon his return to Hollywood towards the end of the war, he began filming They Were Expendable and the book discusses how his war experiences shaped the film.

Frank Capra joined the Army’s Signal Corp and led many propaganda efforts. He worked with others who left Hollywood to create training films for the draftees and others for general release. These included the Why We Fight and Know Your Enemy series. He also sent other men abroad to film footage to include in documentaries and training films. It was he who hired Theodor Geisel (better known as Dr. Suess) to create the Army’s “Private SNAFU” cartoons to entertain soldiers. After the war, he had the most difficult time adapting to the new Hollywood.

John Huston also became a member of Signal Corps. His first assignment took him to the Aleutians to cover the little known invasion of U.S. Territory for a documentary. Report from the Aleutians* later won an Academy Award. Later, he filmed the Allied invasion of Italy. At the war’s end, he films a documentary about psychologically damage veterans.

William Wyler, a Jewish man originally from Mulhouse, France, started the war more concerned about his relatives in Europe. After joining the Army Air Force, he was assigned to England. While there, he worked on a documentary featuring the crew of the Memphis Belle, an act that included flying missions with the crew. After completing that film, he went to Italy to film a similar documentary about the P-47 Thunderbolt. During that time, he lost hearing in one ear during a mission. When he returned to Hollywood, he worked to create the film The Best Years of Our Lives into which he channeled his wartime experiences, including his disability.

George Stevens was the only director who was not out to make a name for himself creating wartime documentaries. He believed it was his sole duty to film the war as it occurred for posterity. First in North Africa, and then from D-Day until the concentration camps were liberated, Stevens followed the troops. He was also the fist to film Holocaust survivors and their horrid living conditions in the camps. He later used this footage to produce two documentaries for the Nuremberg Trials. After his duty was over, he had the hardest time readjusting to Hollywood.

Others from Hollywood were also discussed throughout the book; many were soundmen and cameramen. 20th Century Fox’s Darryl Zanuck was given a great deal of attending in the early part of the book for his work in the North African campaign. Also covered in detail were the films produced by the men covered just before, during, and after the war. Thus, besides providing the story of the men readers gain an understanding to the production process for the documentaries and many well-known films. I would say that the book was well-research and balanced the stories of the men well. I learned a lot from reading this book, much more than can be given in this overview.

I will say the biggest theme throughout the book was that, with the exception of Stevens, each director wanted to use the footage they filmed to further their careers. They did this by pushing Army-made films for theatrical release; creating unauthorized projects on the side and gaining approval later; or by ignoring orders and doing what they thought best. Another big theme was how each persons’ wartime experiences went on to shape their post-war work.

I received by copy of Five Came Back via a Goodreads First Reads Giveaway.

Do you think you will reading this book?  Or have you already? Have you watched any of the wartime works by these directors?  If so, what did you think?  What would you recommend one see?

*This aired on Turner Classic Movies this month coupled with a Private SNAFU cartoon (link to example here, “The Home Front”), along with many works mentioned in Five Came Back.  This book was the backbone of the Tuesday evening programming.

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