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Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War [Hardcover]

Mark Harris
4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
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Book Description

20 Feb 2014

Five Came Back tells the untold story of how Hollywood changed World War II, and how World War II changed Hollywood.

Before the Second World War the Hollywood box office was booming. But government investigations into allegations of corruption and racketeering were rife. A feeling hung in the air that the business was too foreign, too Jewish, too 'un-American' in its values and causes. Then the war changed everything. With Pearl Harbor came the opportunity for Hollywood to prove its critics wrong by turning its talents to the war effort.

No industry professionals played a bigger role in the war than America's most legendary directors: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. Between them they were on the scene for almost every major moment of America's war, and in every branch of service - army, navy, and air force; Atlantic and Pacific; from Midway to North Africa; from Normandy to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi death camps.

With characteristic insight and expert knowledge of these five incredible lives, Harris looks at the ways in which the war changed the history of film forever.

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 528 pages
  • Publisher: Canongate Books; Main edition edition (20 Feb 2014)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1847678556
  • ISBN-13: 978-1847678553
  • Product Dimensions: 15.3 x 23.4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (1 customer review)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 134,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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The bombs fall on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and Hollywood rolls up its sleeves and swaps the diplomatic velvet glove for the patriotic steel fist . . . A story well worth telling (Observer)

A captivating history . . . makes you want to revisit many of the films (Daily Telegraph)

Mark Harris conducts a fastidious investigation into the five top filmmakers who put their careers on hold to help the war effort . . . Fascinating (Total Film)

Harris deftly threads the story of each man into the wider canvases of Hollywood and the war (Scotland on Sunday)

Gripping . . . reveals how an elite squad of Hollywood's greatest directors recorded the bravest - and bloodiest - actions of World War II (Mail on Sunday)

Tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable (New York Times)

Can't-put-it-down history of the World War II propaganda film (San Francisco Chronicle)

Harris has a huge story to tell, and he does so brilliantly . . . an inspirational, if cautionary, tale of the triumph of the individual over the collective, of personal vision over groupthink, and ultimately of art over propaganda (Wall Street Journal)

Harris is a lively commentator, and a master weaver of multifarious threads (Empire)

Impeccably researched and irresistibly entertaining (Belfast Telegraph)

Full of colourful anecdotes about the golden age of Hollywood as well as unflinching descriptions of what the directors faced on the frontline, the 500-plus pages just fly by. This would make a great movie... (Aberdeen Evening Express)

This is as epic an undertaking as those historical Hollywood sagas of the '30s and '40s, including anecdotes from this golden age of film (Good Book Guide)

I enjoyed the honesty of this book. It opened my eyes (The Truth About Lies)

Book Description

A fascinating and meticulously researched history of Hollywood and WWII

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Hollywood directors. 8 May 2014
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
A well researched book on the Big Five directors of Hollywood's
golden era. Follows how they all tried to 'do their bit' for the war effort
and the rivalry along the way!
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72 of 78 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Best Years of Their Lives 10 Dec 2013
By takingadayoff - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Five Hollywood directors volunteered for active duty after Pearl Harbor. They ranged in age from mid-thirties to late forties and had families to support. They were in no danger of being drafted at their age, and taking an indefinite leave from their careers was risky. They took huge cuts in pay to join up. They all accepted commissions and spent the war doing what they did best -- making movies.

I came into Five Came Back with a pretty sketchy idea of who these five directors were (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, George Stevens). I remembered Capra did It's a Wonderful Life and John Ford did westerns, or was that John Huston? So, to be honest, I was ready to bail out if it turned out to be for insiders.

Once I started the book though, I was hooked. Mark Harris did a tremendous amount of research to track down the stories of the five. There's a fair amount of personal information and some gossipy bits, but mostly it's the story of the movies they made while they were in uniform. Since they were working for Uncle Sam and not for a movie studio or a news outlet, most of what they did was propaganda and training films. But because these were talented and creative men, they didn't churn out standard issue films.

While all the stories are fascinating, that of George Stevens is the most gripping. He was with the first Allied unit that entered the Dachau concentration camp after the Germans had fled. No one was prepared for the horror. And as an army unit, they were unable to do much right away for the many inmates who had survived to that point. Stevens filmed as much as he could, and his film would be used as evidence during the Nuremburg Trials. The experience shattered him though, and it took years for him to recover enough to make movies again.

Another overwhelming episode was Frank Capra's filming of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. According to Harris, it was so huge that it was impossible to capture on film. Capra had numerous cameramen along the beaches and with the soldiers, but capturing sheer numbers of men along the miles of beaches was mind-numbing. Capra's skill as a director couldn't overcome the limitations of film.

An interesting theme that runs throughout is that of the nature of propaganda. All the directors were tasked to make propaganda films, and this was not considered a devious or dishonest thing to do. It was considered a necessary morale booster for both the military and civilian populations. Some of the directors wanted to keep the films as honest as possible, but others (especially Capra) had no qualms about "recreating" events or enhancing them for effect. Leaving out scenes of death or cruelty was another kind of avoidance of truth in the name of keeping morale up.

When the war was over and the directors resumed their Hollywood careers, they found that they had a hard time getting back into the swing. Time hadn't stopped while they were away and those directors and actors who had not left Hollywood had profited nicely. John Huston never forgave John Wayne for staying out of the army while making a lucrative career of playing war heroes.

The side-by-side stories of Frank Capra and William Wyler's first post-war films illustrated the difficulty in returning to civilian life after four years of war. Capra made It's a Wonderful Life, an old-fashioned film that audiences had no patience for. It was not a popular movie. But Wyler's The Best Years of Their Lives, abut three men having difficulty returning to civilian life resonated with audiences. It won the Academy Award. Odd that now, Capra's film is better known.

A well-researched and very well-written account of an unusual period in movie history.
24 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars You can't go home again. 26 Dec 2013
By Steven Schwartz - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
Five top Hollywood directors -- John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens -- enlisted in the armed services for World War II to offer their skills in documenting the conflict. Ford, the most prescient of the five, actually joined the Navy several months before Pearl Harbor. All had made classic films before the war. All of them put their very lucrative careers on hold, with no guarantee that they would or could resume them afterward. Except for Capra, all of them saw action. Capra stayed in the US to help organize Hollywood's war effort and the army's propaganda.

James Agee remarked in one of his film essays that most of these men's work deepened after the war, and this book shows you why. Harris also paints a detailed picture of the complex relationships among the studios, the military, and the movie-going public.

Ford, famously, was wounded during the Battle of Midway. Wyler risked his life filming bombing runs over Germany and actually lost his hearing trying to get a particular shot. Ford and Stevens filmed the D-Day landings at Omaha and Juno beaches, respectively. Stevens documented (he realized immediately that his footage would be used as evidence) the liberation of Dachau. He would not allow his men to film the worst of it, but shot the crematoria and other footage himself. Huston worked mainly in Italy. Capra spent his war mainly creating the Why We Fight series, in the process coming up with many narrative innovations that we now take for granted.

Harris also contrasts these men with other Hollywood people who served. Darryl F. Zanuck, the head of 20th-Century Fox, strutted like a popinjay in his tailored uniforms and insisted on being addressed as "Colonel." He squandered resources and produced nothing usable. The great cinematographer Gregg Tolland saw the war as his chance to direct. He made a sincere effort, but the army refused to release his re-enactment of Pearl Harbor. Director Anatole Litvak did mainly what was required of him competently -- not always a given within the film units.

Most of these men knew they were not making movies about war but movies of war. In the age before instant 24/7 news, the public craved footage of the real thing. Nevertheless, some directors used re-enactments. The battle of San Pietro was over by the time John Huston got there to make the documentary. Huston consciously tried to fudge things to give his re-enactment footage an "authentic" look. Capra approved re-enactments over actual live footage, especially in the cases where American units had missed the real thing. This caused -- and continues to cause -- controversy. The British more or less won the documentary competition with their insistence on live footage in such films as Desert Victory, but then the British had a much stronger documentary tradition than the Americans.

From the American standpoint, however, the British work was unsatisfactory because they not unreasonably played up Britain's role in the conflict. Nevertheless, Ford, Wyler, Huston, and Stevens produced outstanding work: Ford's Battle of Midway (in color, yet), with its famous shot of the camera dropped by Ford after shrapnel hit him and then picked up again, astonished audiences; Wyler's Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress; Huston's Let There Be Light (about the psychiatric trauma suffered by soldiers and its treatment -- the army was so skittish of this that it not only refused to release the film, it tried to seize all copies); Stevens's Nazi Concentration Camps and Let Justice Be Done, both important and horrifying.

How did the war change these men's work. The most dramatic change was in Stevens, who also suffered, I think, the most psychological trauma over what he had seen. Known mainly as a director of light comedies with the occasional action picture thrown in (Damsel in Distress, The More the Merrier, Gunga Din, Woman of the Year), he went on to direct such powerful works as Shane (where the individual killings are actually shocking), A Place in the Sun, The Big Country (which features just about the only realistic fistfight in the movies), and The Diary of Anne Frank. Ford made masterpieces before the war -- like Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums along the Mohawk -- all filled with a boyish sensibility. His first film after the war was They Were Expendable, an elegy to the men who stayed behind in Bataan to delay the Japanese and give the US a chance to rebuild the fleet destroyed at Pearl Harbor. There's a more complicated sense of uplift in the postwar films -- a kind of triumph mixed with keenly-felt damage and cost -- missing in the earlier ones. Huston's superb Maltese Falcon and the less-than-superb Across the Pacific, done before Huston entered service, are essentially blood-and-thunder thrillers, no matter how well done. Again, his films after the war often take up the theme of courage in a complicated way. Key Largo, for example, has the structure of a thriller, but Bogart's portrayal of a war veteran who has seen too much and Edward G. Robinson's casually cruel gangster take the story into a more complicated neighborhood. I've never particularly cared for Wyler's work. Other than The Westerner (a marvelous film), his pre-war work consisted notably of dramas which featured Bette Davis Acting. I will say that The Best Years of Our Lives, about the problems returning veterans face re-establishing family life and their sanity and dealing with horrid body damage, is probably his masterpiece.

Capra's postwar movie career seemed to follow the pattern he established during the war. His documentaries mostly arrived too late to be relevant to events. His postwar movies seemed behind the times as well. He could make really only a Capra Movie, better than anyone else, but a genre that didn't fit postwar realities. I think more of Capra's movies than Harris does. The postwar It's a Wonderful Life, despite its corn, has a truthful emotional center, as does prewar Meet John Doe, a film touched by the darkness of Fascism. As Harris amply demonstrates, Capra was no political thinker, but a great artist needn't necessarily be intellectual. It's a Wonderful Life, despite its initial failure at the box office, finally resonated with the public to such an extent, we think it was always revered. That the public found it again indicates that it's not entirely irrelevant. Nevertheless, its failure spooked Capra, and the rest of his postwar work, with the exception of State of the Union, never reached the levels he had established. He retired early.

Obviously, this is a complex story, and Harris shapes it clearly, handling his large cast of characters surely through at least twenty-five years of events. That in itself is a terrific achievement. Furthermore, Harris's research runs both wide and deep. It's not only a good book, it's shows a high level of conscientiousness and discipline infrequently encountered. Among other things, he actually goes to the trouble of identifying major themes and having them guide the narrative. This is not "this happened, then that" history. I do quibble with some of his assessments of various directors, but who cares? It's vanilla vs. chocolate all over again. The prose suits the story and Harris handles both tragedy (the Stevens passages especially) and comedy (Zanuck and Huston) with equal skill. The book also moved surely, and I finished it without a sense of undue effort.

I should say that I read an uncorrected proof, without the usual bibliographic apparatus -- index (an absence I keenly felt), acknowledgements, numbered endnotes, and so on -- but I'm sure the publisher will supply them when the book debuts on shelves, both actual and virtual.
24 of 28 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars In-depth look at the impact of WWII on the movie business, and vice versa 3 Jan 2014
By Gary K. McCormick - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
"Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War" examines the impact that the Second World War had on the Hollywood film-making community in general, and five top directors – William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – in particular. It is a well-researched volume with considerable detail (sometimes too much, frankly) which brings to light aspects of the uncomfortable alliance between civilian filmmakers and their military counterparts that most readers, even WW II aficionados, might not be aware of.

The partnership between the Hollywood community and the military film-making establishment that was forged in hurried fashion when the United States was plunged into war on December 7th, 1941 was never an easy one, and the varied wartime careers of the five notable film directors around which the volume is structured brings this fact to light.

Treading carefully with government and military information establishments which often viewed them as slightly untrustworthy, liberal-tending dilettantes, these five men brought their own personal and political baggage to the task of making training films and morale-boosting documentaries for the civilian and military populations. John Huston was a thrill-seeking adventurer who firmly supported the war, Frank Capra was a timid sort whose beliefs wavered with the current political wind – his only true conviction the fear of being ostracized.

While some went to the front, in harm's way – notably John Ford and John Huston – others contributed from the home front; Frank Capra, for example. For all the trials and tribulations these five men encountered, the over-arching impression that I came away with was that they didn't really accomplish much. For example – Capra began laboring over a series of "Why We Fight" documentaries early in the war, but his "Know Your Enemy – Japan" segment wasn't finished until just before the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively closed out the war in the Pacific.

Internecine squabbles between the Signal Corp and the Office of War Information (OWI) reduced the effectiveness of the effort, and these newly-commissioned Hollywood officers, unused to navigating the labyrinthine military bureaucracy, floundered about while trying to obtain equipment and supplies, not to mention clear direction for the films they were to produce. Complicating the picture was the ongoing conflict between men who were used to going their own way and a military establishment which wanted them to do things the military way.

Overall, "Five Came Back" is an interesting look at a little-explored aspect of the American war effort during the Second World War, but it occasionally gets bogged down in a veritable morass of information, and the structure of the book – which hops back and forth between activities of the five men with whom it is mainly concerned – is sometimes confusing. A clearer expostulation of the timeline of the war's events, in relation to the activities of Capra, Huston, Wyler, Ford, and Stevens, would, in my mind, have made it easier to follow along.

This book has some shortcomings, but it is, in general, a notable addition to the body of historical knowledge on the Second World War, exploring as it does a subject that has been little touched upon (though I never did quite figure out the reasoning behind the title…).
9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Book for Film Buffs and Military History Fans! 9 Feb 2014
By David Hall - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Vine Customer Review of Free Product (What's this?)
As a "Baby Boomer" born in the early 1950s, I was raised on a steady diet of classic motion pictures from legendary directors such as Frank Capra, John Ford, and William Wyler. I'm a military history buff as well, so I was somewhat familiar with John Ford's role in documenting the Battle of Midway and D-Day. Despite that interest and awareness, I found "Five Came Back" to be truly educational, enlightening, and highly entertaining...My understanding of that era greatly increased.

Although politics has always intruded upon cinematic art, I didn't realize the full extent governments influenced the content and release strategies of feature films before, during, and after World War II. The same goes for documentaries produced in that era; competition between the Allies over who could produce the best battlefield films? I was surprised to learn how many of those documentaries were chock full of re-staged battle scenes.

One of the facts which surprised me the most was the deep-seated antipathy director John Ford had for one of his biggest stars, John Wayne, over Wayne's avoidance of military service during the war. Yes, the same John Wayne who so many folks today hold up as a "Great American Hero", likely based on all of his military film roles, actively kept himself out of "Harm's Way" for a variety of bogus reasons. When compared to the group of middle-aged directors who served with their combat camera crews on multiple bombing missions, hitting the beach at Normandy or Tarawa, or during the Battle of the Bulge, John Wayne was anything but heroic. Ford seemed to take great satisfaction in publicly calling out Wayne on movie sets for being a shirker.

I truly enjoyed learning the back stories behind Oscar-winning films, and how "Dr. Seuss" got his start making raunchy training films for G.I.s. Even more intriguing, most of the directors who went to war experienced varying levels of PTSD, which had a marked effect on their postwar films.

"Five Came Back" is very well-written and also thoroughly documented, which doesn't always occur in books of this type. Author Mark Harris is very adept at smoothly switching subjects, and maintained a functional chronology in his narrative, which enhanced readibility. I highly recommend this book!
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars How the War Was Fought on Film 7 April 2014
By C. Peterson - Published on
You would think that a book about 5 great Hollywood directors who set out to film World War II would be fascinating, and large chucks of this book are. On the other hand, a story of 5 directors being endlessly frustrated by military and political bureaucracy is much less fascinating. There is too much of the latter for this book to earn more than 3 stars.

Each of the 5 directors featured in the book (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler) enlisted early in World War II as a filmmaker. They were assigned to make a variety of pictures, some as training films for the troops, some for theatrical release. Their experiences were occasionally exhilarating and often frustrating, a problem with the pacing of the book as a whole.

There are interesting stories here: filming the Battle of Midway from the middle of the fighting, a feat for which John Ford took far too much credit; John Huston being unable to get real footage for the liberation of an Italian town and then shooting the entire "documentary" using recreations; the inspired collaboration of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Chuck Jones (Looney Toons) in the production of a series of raunchy training cartoon shorts; William Wyler lying flat in the belly of a B-17 so he could get footage through the ball turret, a position that could have gotten him killed in a bad landing.

Each of these men was stymied at some point, because the film they wanted to direct was rejected by military brass or politicians as inappropriate. Sometimes the images were too stark, sometimes the message was not sufficiently uplifting, sometimes the government reversed course after a film was done and refused to show it. Sometimes the government simply didn't know what it wanted to tell the troops or the American people about the war they were fighting. It made for seemingly endless rewrites and re-edits. The bureaucratic fights become repetitive, and finally boring.

The shifts from one director to another are abrupt and disjointed, and give the book as a whole a jumpy, disorganized feeling. The book's photos would have been better chosen to show fewer shots of the directors and the stars they worked with before the war, and more stills from the actual films they made during the war.

This is not a bad book at all. It just gets bogged down in between the good stuff.
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