When Hollywood Went to War

Public Domain

A still from Frank Capa's Why We Fight series (1945)

Even though George W. Bush relished comparing Saddam Hussein to Hitler, the mind boggles at imagining Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Martin Scorsese, and Quentin Tarantino all donning uniform for the duration to make films championing the Iraq war's righteousness. That their very approximate 1940s equivalents did just that—generally for a fraction of their peacetime pay—is a trenchant reminder that World War II was different. How Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston's lives and careers were altered as a result is the subject of Mark Harris's first-rate Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (Penguin, $29.95). 

Harris's first book, 2008's Pictures at A Revolution, used the Oscar nominees for Best Picture of 1967 to capture a Hollywood on the uneasy verge of changing times, with Bonnie And Clyde and The Graduate representing the new generation's brooms and Stanley Kramer's earnest Guess Who's Coming To Dinner and Fox's wretched, costly Dr. Dolittle leading the rear guard. (The eventual winner, In The Heat of The Night, split the difference.) But Five Came Back is a more ambitious piece of cultural history. While the book isn't perfect—Harris's grasp of the actual war isn't everything it might be, and minor missteps like his use of the anachronistic "Beltway" as shorthand for Washington do grate—it's the richest and most comprehensive version of this story we've had yet.

Despite the constant tension between their essential function as propagandists and their new responsibilities as documentarians, all five directors certainly managed to keep busy and even do good work. Peppy as ever, Capra oversaw the Why We Fight series and rode herd on those of his fellow filmmakers who were also attached to the U.S. Army's Signal Corps. Ford, the lone exception, joined the Navy and got a shrapnel wound while filming the battle of Midway. His waywardness undimmed by working for the Pentagon, Huston shot three documentaries—Report From The Aleutians, San Pietro and Let There Be Light—uncompromising enough to horrify the brass, the reason the last of them, about the rehabilitation of shellshocked GIs, was suppressed for decades. 

Yet I only learned from Harris that San Pietro, whose depiction of apparently authentic combat in Italy wowed critic (and future Huston collaborator) James Agee, consisted almost entirely of re-enactments photographed well after the battle in question. Anyone looking for the roots of Huston's fabled cynical streak might as well start here. Meanwhile, Wyler went to England, where he was dismayed to learn how much his movie Mrs. Miniver—an ode to British middle-class pluck in wartime that won the Best Picture Oscar for 1942—had gotten wrong. "I had Greer Garson running out on an airfield in Britain to wave her son tearfully goodbye as he flew off in a Spitfire," he later moaned. "Ridiculous!" 

But Wyler redressed the balance by making Memphis Belle, a documentary about the same B-17 bomber whose final mission was depicted in a more Hollywoodized fashion 40-odd years later. As for Stevens, after committing some fakery of his own—arriving in North Africa just as the campaign there came to an end, he restaged some of its action at Capra's behest—he ended up taking a camera crew across Europe after the D-Day landings. Ultimately, he filmed the liberation of Dachau, whose sights left him shaken to the end of his days. 

Until the war, Stevens had been primarily known as a director of comedy. But afterward, his work took an impressive (if not always welcome) turn toward solemnity: A Place in The Sun, Shane, and Giant. Strikingly, with the exception of directing 1959's The Diary of Anne Frank, he never made a movie about World War II, a falsification presumably better left to those who hadn't been on hand for the real thing. Huston never went near the subject either, though his adaptation of Stephen Crane's The Red Badge of Courage probably transposes some of what he'd seen and experienced to the Civil War instead. Though Harris doesn't mention it, one big hint is the inclusion of two of World War II's best-known enlisted men—Medal of Honor winner Audie Murphy and cartoonist Bill Mauldin—in the cast.

Before turning to material as charming as Roman Holiday and as turgid as Ben-Hur, Wyler confined himself to directing The Best Years of Our Lives, whose unusually complex and honest portrait of returning veterans—including ex-serviceman Harold Russell, playing the double amputee he was in real life—holds up remarkably well today. And Ford, the only one of the five to make a movie directly about the war (1945's They Were Expendable) went back to his metier as a director of Westerns, though Rio Grande, Fort Apache and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon can be parsed as a trio of disguised reflections on America's new imperial role in the world. Yet he'd loved his Navy uniform every bit as much as Huston had hated his Army one, and regularly hosted reunions of his Field Photo unit that featured two of his other favorite things in life: all-male cronyism and serious boozing. 

If Stevens ended up as the most war-haunted of the five, Frank Capra comes off as the book's most forlorn figure. Unlike the others, he'd never been anywhere near a battlefront, and had expected to simply pick up his smashingly successful civilian career where he'd left off. But he found he'd lost touch with what the postwar audience wanted: "He had barely left the country," Harris writes, "but he could no longer recognize it." With the obvious exception of It's A Wonderful Life—whose sentimentality appealed more to later generations than it did to 1947's moviegoers—his later movies (and he didn't make many) don't rate high even among his fans. 

Recognizing that the director's gift for "Capracorn" was one of World War II's odder casualties is typical of Harris's perceptiveness about the war's effect on all five men. His major accomplishment is that, after reading Five Came Back, movie buffs will never think of any of these filmmakers in quite the same way again. 

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