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.