I just loved the new Mark Harris Hollywood history “Five Came Back,” an account of the American film industry’s response to World War II as seen through the actions of five filmmakers who joined up, did their patriotic duty and documented the war.
Anybody who knows anything about Hollywood from that period knows that Frank “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” Capra went to Washington, oversaw military movie making, came up with the inspiring “Why We Fight” and the more pointed “Know Your Enemy” documentaries and came out of the war and made the dark classic “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Which flopped.
You know the flag waving sentimentalist John Ford went in (BEFORE Pearl Harbor, mind you) and oversaw Navy film units and filmed The Battle of Midway, a much-honored documentary shot during the battle, with Ford himself on the island. He got out to make his own downbeat failure, “They Were Expendable.”
Maybe you know William Wyler filmed “The Memphis Belle” and came back to make “The Best Years of Their Lives.” But did you know he lost most of his hearing, making films swallowed by the deafening roar of airplane engines?
George Stevens was on the ground in North Africa, Italy and Western Europe, and went from being a pre-war director of all manner of films, to a post war drama specialist, at least in part because of the months he spent documenting the horror of German concentration camps.
And there was John Huston, who interrupted a just-then-soaring career to serve, but who barely let the war interrupt his pathological womanizing, and who made three controversial documentaries — about the Aleutians Campaign, The Battle of San Pietro and men suffering from what we today call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, “Let There Be Light.”
But did you know that Ford didn’t actually hold the cameras at Midway, that his alcoholism and raging benders got him shoved out before the war was over? You can’t read any John Wayne or Ford bio without stumbling into accounts of Ford’s outrage at Super Patriot Wayne’s incessant draft dodging, his many offers to join Ford in doing war related filmmaking. Wayne the careerist was not having it, and with much of the pride of Hollywood in uniform, he cashed in while Stewart and Gable and the rest were off serving their country. Wayne’s only punishment for this was Ford’s needling him for the rest of his life, which Wayne over-compensated for by making war films and wrapping himself in the flag.
Huston recreated “The Battle of San Pietro,” rather than capturing the actual combat, which he was too late to see. Wyler’s slow style of filmmaking didn’t derail “Memphis Belle,” but it pretty much kept his other work from being finished before the war was over. Capra was anxious to get out, could never get a handle on his “Know Your Enemy” films until they were too late to be of much use as training films, and had issues with his own confused and confusing politics as the war went on.
Harris produces revealing anecdotes about Daryl F. Zanuck, Harry Cohn, the Warner Brothers (first to make Hollywood entertainments about the Nazi threat).
Wyler’s “The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress” is there as well. Search youtube for “Why We Fight” and all those documentaries show up.
And then there is Stevens. He was on the beaches on D-Day, and in the camps at war’s end. He compiled films for use at the Nuremberg trials for German war criminals, some of which didn’t see make it before the general public for decades. A lot of that stuff was government financed and is now in the public domain, dutifully uploaded to Youtube by film fans and history buffs.
Battles and jungle training footage were recreated in Orlando, more of a swampy jungle then than it is now. Ford shot his PT boats drama “They Were Expendable” in Key Biscayne and environs. Huston became an expert on combat recreations making “Battle of San Pietro” and used that expertise in “The Red Bad of Courage,” but didn’t go around reminiscing about the war the way Ford did.
And Wyler and Stevens were darkened by the experience most clearly, and let that sober up their work after the war.
So track down “Five Came Back” for the film fan and history buff you’re shopping for this Christmas. And be sure to point out how much of the footage described in it, films that often put film crews in great danger to obtain, is up on Youtube, a great resource for reminding you how some of Hollywood’s finest spent their war years.