FIVE CAME BACK: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

By Mark Harris

Reviewed by M. J. Moore


A sea change has occurred in American life.  It is demographic.  It is chronological.  It is important.  

The Second World War is fast receding into the mists of history.  The veterans of WW II who are still alive are all close to age 90.  Or even older.  Do the math.  If a young vet was 20 when the war ended in 1945, he has to be going on 90 now.  And most veterans were closer to their mid-20s at war’s end.  

In a few short years, World War Two will seem as remote as the First World War (which was never memorialized and highlighted in our culture with anything like the perennial recapitulations of 1941-1945).  This is all the more reason to celebrate Mark Harris’ majestic new work of historical biography.  Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War is a vital, bracing, revelatory work of narrative nonfiction. 

Of course the book’s formidable title goes on to name the individuals alluded to via Five Came Back.  Those five were John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra.  

Each of those men was an established, middle-aged, highly regarded film director in Hollywood when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in 1941. 

Sad but true: Although the war began in 1939 and immense suffering was underway long before December 7, 1941, the fact is that for most Americans the war didn’t really commence until after the debacle at Pearl Harbor led to FDR’s declaration of war against Japan.  Within the same week, Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy declared war on the USA as a show of solidarity with their Axis ally Japan.  And, finally, we were in it all the way. 

Amazingly, for deeply personal varied reasons, each of the five famous movie directors whose wartime odysseys are recounted and assessed in this superb volume enlisted when age, or high-level connections would have made it a cinch to avoid service.  But just as actor Clark Gable at age 41 and bandleader Glenn Miller at age 38 traded their tuxes for khaki, so too did this quintet of Hollywood mavericks.

None of these five men had a personal agenda.  Their enlistments were examples of public service in its authentic sense, because they all understood that their skills as filmmakers were being recruited most of all.  After years of acrimonious relations between Washington, D.C. and Hollywood (long before the blacklists of the 1950s or the Hollywood Ten scandal of the late 1940s, there were toxic issues causing tension and mistrust between America’s seat of government and the Dream Factory on the West Coast), there was a period of wartime cooperation.   

From President Roosevelt on down, the consensus was that no other medium had the persuasive force and the artful power of motion pictures.  Thus it was imperative that seasoned filmmakers be able to create works that would serve as morale-boosting propaganda pieces, as well as informative cutting-edge cinematic works.  All five men delivered.  Big-time.

John Ford (most famous even now for his slew of major films starring John Wayne) was 46 when he joined the Navy three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor.  He was 50 when his service ended.  

Author Mark Harris does an excellent job of telling the tale of how Ford’s specially commissioned documentary (a brutally honest film called Sex Hygiene) visually stunned millions upon millions of men in uniform, with its close-ups of ravaged genitalia thanks to syphilis and gonorrhea.  Frontal nudity included.  Plus endless warnings about the dangers of unprotected sex; or, for that matter any sex in the midst of a worldwide war with desperation in all parts of the globe.  Soon thereafter, Ford’s documentary The Battle of Midway (from 1942) was the first movie to show bona-fide combat film footage to Americans back at home. 

Although Frank Capra is usually remembered as the man who created the seven-volume series of informational films collectively known as Why We Fight, he also helmed a documentary about the apex of the campaign in North Africa.  Capra’s Tunisian Victory won’t ever be as beloved as It’s a Wonderful Life, his postwar classic, but Harris makes a convincing case that the deeply psychological tone of It’s a Wonderful Life would never have emerged if not for Capra’s wartime crucible.

The same could be said for all five men.  Each one was affected—traumatized, even—by the mayhem, the violence, and the sheer brutal horrors witnessed.

None of them, however, was more exposed to the war’s insane extremities than George Stevens.  It was his fate to be in charge of a crack unit of top Signal Corps personnel, and their ultimate task was to film the liberated concentration camps at Nordhausen and Dachau.  Because of George Stevens, who instinctively understood that black-and-white films would make it that much easier for evidence of the camps to be consigned to history’s dustbin, we have color films documenting the ineffable evil revealed at Dachau.  It was a shattering experience for the director and his men.

“Stevens felt bound to use his camera to make the unspeakable manifest, even as he felt nothing but endless despair,” Mark Harris eloquently writes.  And Harris is just as eloquent about John Huston’s work in Italy, where The Battle of San Pietro proved to be Huston’s trailblazing documentary.  Similarly, he is equally expressive when telling the story behind the creation of The Memphis Belle by William Wyler.

All five of the directors whose wartime stories flesh out this powerful book went on to create lasting, innovative movies after the war.  But the great value of this new work is that their wartime films receive a respectful, necessary, fresh evaluation.  Now more than ever, we need this chronicle.

(M. J. Moore is a frequent contributor to the Neworld Review.)

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