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.

An image from the Battle of Midway.
A still from John Ford's The Battle of Midway, the first film to bring combat footage to moviegoers on the homefront.

Courtesy of the Penguin Press

Lone Survivor, based on the real-life account of a fatal Navy SEAL mission during the war in Afghanistan, was a passion project for director Peter Berg. Not only did he negotiate a distribution deal with Universal under the agreement that he would first helm the big-budget flop Battleship, but he also spent several months embedded with an active SEAL team for research—a first for a Hollywood civilian.

Aisha Harris Aisha Harris

Aisha Harris is a Slate staff writer.

While in western Iraq with the team Berg wasn’t allowed to shoot any footage, but he did have “a proximity to a lot of violence,” he said. “I never felt like I was in danger, with 20 Navy SEALs. After I looked at where I'd been, I realized I'd been in more danger than I thought. They were extremely competent guys and created an environment that felt secure.”

As military bloggers Michael and Eric Cummings explained in Slate, the film’s historical accuracy in the depiction of the Operation Red Wings mission is shaky, taking creative liberties with the details of what took place. But Berg’s unprecedented access to the military paid off in one respect, at least: Lone Survivor’s careful attention to the overall “realities of war” have given it a notable quality of “verisimilitude”; the action sequences have been described as “bloody, intense, and precise.”

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Like Berg, the five Hollywood directors Mark Harris examines in his immersive new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, worked closely with the U.S. military and used their experiences to inform their filmmaking. Unlike Berg, however, all of them enlisted in the armed forces with the intent of producing films that would help sell the war to the American public. Four of them—John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston—saw a significant amount of action, on the scene for some of the most important battles and events of WWII. And as all of them learned, and Five Came Back makes clear, being in the thick of war and depicting it as it’s experienced are two very different, difficult things to do—especially when the government gets involved.

Harris carefully illustrates each director’s reason for joining the cause. For Frank Capra, who served his time in Washington, D.C., overseeing the production of propaganda films, his Sicilian immigrant background made him eager to prove his patriotism. Wyler was an émigré Jew who saw the making of Mrs. Miniver as “a small contribution to the war effort.” Stevens, who shot critical footage inside the Dachau concentration camp (used as evidence during the Nuremberg trials), was spurred to action after viewing Leni Riefenstahl’s inflammatory Nazi propaganda film, Triumph of the Will. It was then that he had the epiphany, Harris writes, that “'all film,' including his own, 'is propaganda.'”

It’s these motivations, along with those of fellow filmmakers Ford and Huston, that lead the charge of Harris’ narrative of Hollywood’s complicated collaborative effort with the government during the war. This is vast and complicated subject matter, which has been written about in the past through the broader lens of the Hollywood studio system or the industry’s post-war output, particularly film noir. But by framing his study around five legendary directors, Harris provides a unique entry point into the two institutions’ tempestuous relationship. Culled together and interlaced are stories of the directors’ active participation in some of the war’s most important battles, including the Battle of Midway (Ford) and the Normandy landings (Ford and Stevens). As the accounts of the directors’ military experiences unfold and, at times, overlap with one another, Harris effectively places them in historical context via personal accounts, government documents, and newspaper clips.

It’s a structural device similarly employed by the author in his impressive debut Pictures at a Revolution, which looked at the five Best Picture nominees from 1967. In that book, Harris pinpointed a turning point in both cinematic and American tastes and compellingly told each film’s long, troubled journey to Oscar night from social, political, and economic angles. Five Came Back harbors subject matter of an even grander variety, but the execution is no less detailed and fascinating to read. Through each of the five men’s experiences, Harris unravels the difficulties of mixing Hollywood with politics.