Book review: Five Came
Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris (The
If you’ve read biographies and memoirs of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, or seen documentaries about their storied careers, you may feel you already know about their sojourn making films for the Armed Forces during World War II. It turns out there is more to their experience than you might realize, part of a multilayered tale of Hollywood’s relationship with the U.S. government. Mark Harris, author of the essential book Pictures at a Revolution, has dug into primary (and private) source material to divulge the full story as no one has before.
He artfully evokes the personalities of these five talented but disparate men before, during and after their wartime service, and helps us understand why they responded as they did to the regimens and frustrations of working for Uncle Sam. “Frustration” seems to be the key word in describing Capra’s experiences. While he held a position of great authority, he repeatedly ran into brick walls—both in Washington and in his own ranks with some of the Hollywood professionals he hired. Ford, the most quixotic of the group, was overly (and overtly) fond of pomp, ceremony, and official recognition. Huston lived up to his reputation as an uncontrollable maverick, although even he and several of his distinguished cohorts were forced to stage re-creations of battle scenes for Capra and pass them off as genuine, against their better judgment.
The taciturn iconoclast Stevens and the indomitable storyteller Wyler come off best, as they managed to realize at least some of their goals. Even so, Harris documents how much of their time was misspent and their talent squandered. Excerpts from their letters home also reveal the heartache of being separated from loved ones for long periods, with no way of communicating except hand-written correspondence.
In addition to being a prodigious researcher and a knowledgeable film buff, Harris is a graceful writer whose prose brings the world of wartime, at home and abroad, to vivid life on every page. I tore through this hefty book as if it were a novel and can’t recommend it highly enough.