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


Edited by Scott Moyers

New York Times Bestseller

The story of the extraordinary wartime experiences of five of Hollywood’s greatest and most legendary directors, all of whom put their stamp on the war and who were changed forever by it.

In Pictures at a Revolution, Mark Harris turned the story of the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967 into a landmark work of cultural history, a book about the transformation of an art form and the larger social shift it signified. In Five Came Back, he achieves something larger and even more remarkable, giving us the untold story of how Hollywood changed World War II, and how World War II changed Hollywood, through the prism of five film directors caught up in the war: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens.

It was the best of times and the worst of times for Hollywood before the war. The box office was booming, and the studios’ control of talent and distribution was as airtight as could be hoped. But the industry’s relationship with Washington was decidedly uneasy hearings and investigations into allegations of corruption and racketeering were multiplying, and hanging in the air was the insinuation that the business was too foreign, too Jewish, too “un-American” in its values and causes. Could an industry this powerful in shaping America’s mind-set really be left in the hands of this crew? Following Pearl Harbor, Hollywood had the chance to prove its critics wrong and did so with vigor, turning its talents and its business over to the war effort to an unprecedented extent.

No industry professionals played a bigger role in the war than five of America’s most legendary directors: Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra, and Stevens. Between them they were on the scene of 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; to the shaping of the message out of Washington, D.C.

As it did for so many others, World War II divided the lives of these men into before and after, to an extent that has not been adequately understood. In a larger sense—even less well understood—the war divided the history of Hollywood into before and after as well. Harris reckons with that transformation on a human level—through five unforgettable lives—and on the level of the industry and the country as a whole. Like these five men, Hollywood too, and indeed all of America, came back from the war having grown up more than a little.

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Praise

“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.” Leonard Maltin

“Mr. Harris has a huge story to tell, and he does so brilliantly, maintaining suspense in a narrative whose basic outcome will be known ahead of time. Five Came Back is packed with true stories that, according to the proverb, are stranger than fiction. Mr. Harris’s story of five particular directors at one particular moment of history tells us much about the motion-picture industry, about the nature of filmmaking and, more generally, about the relation of art to the larger demands of society. Although Five Came Back at first seems to be chronicling a collective enterprise, it turns out to be 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.” The Wall Street Journal

“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.” —The New York Times

Five Came Back, by Mark Harris, has all the elements of a good movie: fascinating characters, challenges, conflicts and intense action. This is Harris’s second brilliant book about movies. Both books demonstrate meticulous research and exceptional skill at telling intersecting and overlapping stories with clarity and power. Five Came Back enables us to watch the films of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens with new insight.” —The Washington Post

“A splendidly written narrative.” The New Yorker

“Can’t-put-it-down history of World War II propaganda film.” San Francisco Chronicle

“Meticulously researched, page-turning.” Los Angeles Times

“I recommend this book for its narrative sweep, its revelation of character, and for the many ironies that attend the idea of ‘documentary.’” —David Thompson, The New Republic

“Mark Harris writes the old-fashioned way. His books are not quick and slick but meticulous. Definitive. In these lush, informative pages, Harris indeed reaffirms his commitment to writing the old-fashioned way, the way that evinces profound respect for his craft, his material and his readers.” —The Cleveland Plain-Dealer

“It’s hardly news that the movies affect and are affected by the broader canvas of popular culture and world history, but Harris—perhaps more successfully than any other writer, past or present—manages to find in that symbiotic relationship the stuff of great stories. Every chapter contains small, priceless nuggets of movie history, and nearly every page offers an example of Harris’ ability to capture the essence of a person or an event in a few, perfectly chosen words. Narrative nonfiction that is as gloriously readable as it is unfailingly informative.” Booklist (starred)

“A comprehensive, clear-eyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.” Kirkus Reviews

“Insightful. Harris pens superb exegeses of the ideological currents coursing through this most political of cinematic eras, and in the arcs of his vividly drawn protagonists…we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities.” Publishers Weekly

“Harris surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here… This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados.” Library Journal

Author Q&A

Excerpt

In the months following Pearl Harbor, the war would reshape Hollywood from the top down, just as it reshaped the rest of America: Fully one third of the studios’ male work force—more than seven thousand men—would eventually either enlist or be drafted. But few would enter the war as these directors did, with the sense that in middle age, they suddenly found themselves with a new world to conquer, an assignment that would test their abilities to help win the hearts and minds of the American public under the hardest imaginable circumstances.

For the Roosevelt administration, it was a remarkable experiment. The recruitment of Hollywood’s greatest directors to record, document, explain, and shape in public consciousness a war whose end was nowhere in sight was a monumental gamble at a moment when the avoidance of risk would have been much easier. The War Department could have turned to the editors, writers, and producers of newsreels, who already had proven experience in getting their crews to far-flung locations and in communicating information with energetic, punchy economy to the millions of Americans who saw their work in movie houses every week. Hollywood directors, after all, could be put to use in Hollywood—and indeed, many of them were quickly deployed on their home turf, studio backlots, where by the end of 1943, they would infuse more than three hundred movies with spirit-building messages that were often hand picked from a list of government-approved suggestions and sewn into scripts on the fly.

But even in the first days after Pearl Harbor, President Roosevelt and the Pentagon believed that for the American people to understand and accept the fact that their world had changed overnight, the war itself would have to be given a narrative, told to them, even sold to them—and that storytellers were therefore the right people for the job. What Frank Capra did in Washington, and John Huston in Italy, and John Ford in the Pacific, and William Wyler in the skies over Germany, and George Stevens at Dachau shaped America’s collective consciousness about World War II. It was, at the outset, exactly the adventure that Huston called it. But by 1945, as they attempted to resume their lives and careers in a business that had gone on without them, the word adventure would represent something else: a distant memory of their own incomprehension. They entered the war with the experience of privates and the confidence of generals, ready to give themselves over, but not yet able to imagine what the next four years would take from them.

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