Mark Harris’ World War II book on film, Five Came Back, reviewed.

Five Hollywood Directors Went to War

Five Hollywood Directors Went to War

Reading between the lines.
March 5 2014 7:59 AM

Hollywood’s Rally ’Round the Flag

Mark Harris tells the story of five great directors who went to war in World War II.

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Most of the directors were already familiar with the pressures and confines of studio moguls; in 1938, Stevens was determined to make the anti-interventionist film Paths of Glory, but he was firmly denied by RKO and “swiftly steered” to make the gung-ho Gunga Din. (Paths of Glory was later directed by Stanley Kubrick.) Now they faced constant interference from the government in their quest to document and present the war; scenes and lines of film were ordered to be cut and censored, and some films, like Huston’s documentary on shell-shocked soldiers, Let There Be Light, wouldn’t be screened publicly for decades.

Capra, the most creatively independent of the directors prior to America’s WWII entry, frequently clashed with Lowell Mellett, appointed by President Roosevelt as the head of the Office of Government Reports. Harris’ depiction of Mellett sets him up as an adversary fueled both by censorship (he frequently railed against films incorporating too many jingoistic elements) and competition. Mellett’s fight over Capra’s stereotypical depictions of the Axis Powers in the highly influential and propagandistic seven-part series Why We Fight is played out carefully and closely: the mediocre reception of Mellett’s own theatrically released war documentary, The World at War, followed by General George Marshall’s suggestion that Prelude to War, the first in Capra’s series, needed to be seen by “every civilian”; Mellet’s angry note to Roosevelt that Capra’s film, originally intended only for soldiers, is “a bad picture in some respects, possibly even a dangerous picture.”

And Harris balances multiple storylines with ease: He offers deep analysis of the films created during this time, canny evaluation of the careers of the filmmakers themselves, and historical context of the public’s constantly shifting feelings about the war. This is unsurprising: As a longtime writer for Entertainment Weekly, Grantland, and other publications, he’s demonstrated a sharp ability to analyze films and the mechanics of Hollywood, past and present. His Vulture piece on the making of Zero Dark Thirty, for which he interviewed director Kathryn Bigelow and screenwriter Mark Boal, is layered with details on the government’s involvement with the filmmaking process (as when a CIA memo urged creating “stronger relationships with CAA”); it’s one of the most in-depth profiles to emerge on that film’s backstory.

Author Mark Harris.
Author Mark Harris.

Courtesy of the Penguin Press


It’s also a hint at what hasn’t changed significantly since WWII; as Harris explains in his book, America’s involvement in that war led to a then-radical collaboration between the government and Hollywood, a “first attempt at a sustained program of filmed propaganda.” It’d be a stretch to suggest Lone Survivor or especially Zero Dark Thirty exhibit anything close to the pro-military sentiment that emerged during the ’40s, but those filmmakers’ experiences do suggest that films that don’t blatantly go against the military line can still gain intimate access to the government. (A few months after Harris’ profile, a newly declassified CIA memo suggested that the government had greater say in Zero Dark Thirty’s creative side than initially thought.)

Five Came Back’s greatest achievement is its revealing portraits of each director, which ultimately serve to demystify their legends to reveal creative men struggling with their desires to simultaneously serve the country and preserve their own filmmaking voices. By the time the war came to an end, each director had been distinctly changed by the war both personally and creatively. “For the first time in his career,” Harris writes, “Wyler became obsessed with realism” while working on what would become his “most personal film,” The Best Years of Our Lives. Stevens, haunted by what he had seen and filmed at Dachau, struggled to find inspiration, never directing another comedy; he once remarked, “After the war I don’t think I was ever too hilarious again.” And Hollywood itself would become more serious and concerned with verisimilitude, as Harris notes, through unprecedented social realism dramas (The Lost Weekend, Gentleman’s Agreement). Other wars have followed, and the studios and the Pentagon have at times held each other at arm’s length and at others embraced. Five Came Back is a fascinating document of their first flirtation and suggests how complicated their relationship will continue to be.