When the news came that Pearl Harbor had been bombed, John Ford was having Sunday lunch at the home of Rear Admiral Andrew Pickens in Virginia. Like a true Southern hostess, Mrs. Pickens tried to make sure no one’s lovely meal would be ruined: “It’s no use getting excited. This is the seventh war that’s been announced in this dining room.”
Hollywood for years had brought everyone many more wars than that, wars that on film were often, as Peter Pan enthused about death, “an awfully big adventure.” John Ford and four of his fellow directors — Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston — had, like the rest of the world, been primed for this particular war for quite some time. Or so they thought.
This week sees the publication of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Mark Harris’ stunning book about the wartime experiences of these filmmakers. They knew, respected, worked and occasionally clashed with one another.
John Ford earned a Purple Heart shooting footage of The Battle of Midway. John Huston, already a notorious hell-raiser, packed his bags for Alaska and later Italy, only to come back with experiences that kept him awake no matter how hard he tried to party them away. Capra spent much of his time supervising the Why We Fight series, engaged in constant back-and-forth with the U.S. government he fiercely wanted to support. When still in the States, the Alsace-born Jew William Wyler tried with mounting desperation to help people get out of Europe; when in Europe, he flew and filmed combat missions that eventually cost him much of his hearing. And George Stevens, Wyler’s good friend who’d made his name with wise, humane comedies, filmed Dachau after the camp was liberated, footage intended only for use at the Nuremberg trials. In later years, Stevens himself couldn’t bear to watch it.
The author's done impressive research and uncovered much that was new to the Siren. Harris knows all about the directors' art as well as their lives, treats them all with fairness, and he doesn’t neglect their humor, either.
The Siren devoured an advance copy. Then she got in touch with Mark, with whom she’s friendly, and asked if he’d answer a few questions via email for the benefit of her patient readers. He kindly agreed.
The Siren has, where possible, linked to the films that are available free on the Web. Mark also writes a column for Grantland and dispenses wit and wisdom on Twitter under the handle @MarkHarrisNYC. Meanwhile, you definitely want Five Came Back.
Your previous book, Pictures at a Revolution, had a similar five-way structure, built around the five Oscar nominees for Best Picture in the watershed year of 1967. What attracts you to this type of construction? Was Five Came Back harder?
The “rule of five” similarity is mostly an accident, I swear! My books tend to start with wildly overreaching proposals for cast-of-thousands narratives that, if executed according to plan, would run about 2500 pages each. Then, in the first stages of research, I narrow what I’m doing considerably when I realize what I want my real narrative to be. So Five Came Back began in my head as a book about 13 or 14 people—including producers, studio heads, actors, writers, emigres—and I very quickly figured out that I wanted to tell this particular story through the lives of directors, and that almost everyone else I was interested in would end up as supporting characters in their stories. I cringed a little when I realized there were five—but there wasn’t one I could naturally add or omit, so five it was.
The part of this structural similarity that isn’t an accident or a coincidence is that I like to have a large group of people to play with, and I really enjoy working on multiple narratives that not only interweave but occasionally intersect. In both books, I think readers might start out thinking that they’re reading five different stories, but the deeper they get into the narrative, the more they come to feel (I hope) that they’re actually reading one big story with many characters, which I feel this is. It’s the story of five directors, but they collaborate, and compete, and occasionally collide. And I couldn’t tell the full story of how Hollywood moviemakers reacted to the war without discussing all of them.
Much of the book deals with the wartime documentaries made by these directors. Some of those films included extensive re-enactments, a technique that is controversial to this day. Did you draw any fresh conclusions about the ethics of re-enactments, both during World War II and our own time?
When you write about the early 1940s, you’re writing about the documentary form in or near its infancy—it was a time when the ethics of documentary or journalistic filmmaking had not been the subject of all that much discussion or judgment. In talking about re-enactments, which are an important part of this story, I tried very hard to strike a careful balance. On one hand, I don’t enjoy reading histories that use the smug perspective of present-day knowledge as a bludgeon to abuse their subjects; on the other hand, it’s sometimes too easy to wish away ethical or moral deficiencies via the umbrella exoneration, “Well, those were different times.” Yes, they were different times, but these ethical questions were not foreign to the men I was writing about.
The truth is that John Huston and George Stevens were both profoundly uncomfortable with their roles in foisting false footage on both the Allies and the public—those were instances of clear-cut wrongdoing, and I write about them. But did William Wyler err by recreating a soundtrack for The Memphis Belle? And what are we to make of Huston’s restaging of battle scenes of San Pietro, which were acclaimed as examples of unprecedented realism even though they were faked? In the book I try to be as detailed as possible about how and why these decisions were made and executed, but I think different readers may reach different conclusions. I am surprised at how resonant the question has turned out to be. Two of last year’s strongest documentaries, Stories We Tell and The Act of Killing, made extraordinary and inventive use of re-enactments and made some of the ethical issues surrounding them explicit, so it’s clearly something with which we’ll continue to wrestle.
What are the best films these directors made during the war?
I’ll have to stretch the definition of “during” in both directions a little to answer that. Wyler’s two wartime movies, Mrs. Miniver, which often gets dismissed as cloying or sentimental but which is astonishingly effective and affecting, and The Best Years Of Our Lives, which is just one of the all-time great American movies, would have to head the list, and his wartime documentary The Memphis Belle is very strong. Ford’s They Were Expendable, which he made in 1945 immediately following his Navy service, is excellent, deeply personal and revealing. Huston was the least experienced of the five directors at the time war broke out—he had just made his directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon—and when you watch his three wartime documentaries, Report from the Aleutians, San Pietro, and Let There Be Light, you can see him developing as a director in fascinating and idiosyncratic ways. Stevens didn’t make any theatrically released documentaries during the war, but The More The Merrier, which he made just before joining the Army, is sophisticated, funny, and romantic—one of the best wartime comedies. And Capra’s Why We Fight series is certainly of huge historical interest (by the way, like just about all of the war-era documentaries, you can see those movies for free on any number of streaming services).
These directors were all stars themselves in some sense, with public personas that affect the perception of their work to this day. Did spending so much time with these artists alter your take on what they were like as men?
I spent almost five years on the book, and for me those years were a process of trying to get to know those five men. I was very fortunate that in all five cases, their papers had been archived. Without that, and without the archiving of war papers in the National Archives, I don’t think I could have done the research that made writing the book possible. There’s something deeply intimate and also very humbling about sitting in a library holding a letter from a father to his son or a husband to his wife or a diary that was written 75 years ago, or seeing the rough draft of a speech or a chunk of narration, a piece of paper on which one of these directors had scratched out words over and over again while looking for the right way to express himself. You really do feel like you’re the custodian of their thoughts at that moment, and it’s a trust you’d better not break by distortion or manipulation. I didn’t want this book to be an act of hero worship, because while I do find a couple of the directors heroic, many of them were also problematic, flawed, tormented people, and I wanted to convey those truths as well. By the end of the process I thought I understood more about, say, Huston’s bravado or Ford’s taciturn quality than I did when I started. It would be arrogant to say I “know” them, but I feel I got as close to understanding them as men as I possibly could.
Did writing Five Came Back affect your view of the films of Huston, Ford, Stevens, Wyler and Capra, especially the ones they made afterward? If so, how?
Some more than others—and that was something I felt I wanted to kind of bite my tongue about in the book, which is a narrative history, not a critical essay, and which (more to the point) ends in early 1947. It wouldn’t have felt right to me to end the story by saying “…and therefore, here is how I think you should look at The Searchers.” That said, I very much hope that readers go look at The Searchers! I’d love them to feel inspired not only to go watch some of the movies I mentioned above—movies that I deal with directly in the book—but the later movies as well. I certainly look at Stevens’s Shane, which he called his “war movie,” differently as a result of the years I spent on the book, and the same is true of how I comprehend Ford’s relationship to defeat and lost causes in his Westerns. And I think I have a better understanding of why social realism and noir both flourished after the war. But that’s for another book!
Lou Lumenick at the New York Post writes about how John Huston faked parts of The Battle of San Pietro.
George Stevens’ The Nazi Plan, which was screened at Nuremberg, can be watched here.
Letters, photos and other materials relating to one of the dozens of historical figures in this book, novelist and screenwriter Irwin Shaw, are available here.
Photos from top: William Wyler (in the middle, with hands in pockets) and most of the crew from the Memphis Belle; John Huston in his Signal Corps uniform attends the 1943 Academy Awards with Olivia de Havilland; John Ford films They Were Expendable in Florida in 1945; Frank Capra receives the Distinguished Service Medal from General George C. Marshall; George Stevens filming in Europe after D-Day.