by Rick Bretz
If you watch the Turner Classic Movies Channel and study history, then “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” will fascinate you.
Researched and written by Mark Harris, he is a prolific writer for many periodicals such as Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine as well as the New York Times and Washington Post. His previous work was also a best seller, “Pictures and the Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood.”
The book covers the exploits of five Hollywood heavyweights who hung up their tinsel town regalia to put on a uniform and shoot the combat footage that we see today on the History channel and other documentaries. The title refers to five powerful Hollywood people who could have stayed in their comfortable California surroundings but went to war overseas, survived the experience, and came back alive to produce more classic films.
It covers John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra. These five were responsible for some of Hollywood’s classics. Movies that film historians consider the finest the industry has produced and film school students today analyze shot by shot. These are also classic stories film buffs see each day when movie channels air them at all hour into the early morning.
Here is the short list of the five’s accomplishments.
1. “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” Starring Jimmy Stewart and Jean Arthur
2. “The Grapes of Wrath” Starring Henry Fonda
3. “The Maltese Falcon” Starring Humphrey Bogart, Mary Astor and Peter Lorre
4. “Young Mr. Lincoln” Starring Henry Fonda
5. “Woman of the Year” Starring Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn
6. “Shane” Starring Alan Ladd and Jean Arthur
7. “Mrs. Miniver” Starring Greer Garson, Walter Pidgeon and Teresa Wright
8. “The Best Years of Our Lives” Starring Dana Andrews, Myrna Loy and Frederic March
The book tells the story of five movie professionals and how the war changed them. Once they joined the military, they trained their film teams, coordinated their missions and made sure the public was able to see their productions. These five went on dangerous missions in the air as well as on the ground to capture shots that would tell the story of how the allies won the war and what it cost in lives. They were a key part in keeping morale high on the home front by telling loved ones what their service men and women were doing overseas.
The book also covers the politics involved with creating a documentary and field photo unit with civilians turned officers leading the groups. At the beginning, some government officials were in favor of commissioning these five future officers to be charged with documenting the war while others thought it wasn’t the best idea. The important people, like General George C. Marshal, were proponents of the program.
The book reads slowly at times when Harris outlines the administrative maze that the documentary group had to navigate when confronted with Washington personalities and egos. Once you get past that, the author does a wonderful job of describing how Hollywood directors handle the military life and protocols. The action really begins when Harris describes the harrowing and dangerous missions some of them witnessed while viewing combat through a lens.
John Ford’s unit shot footage of the Battle of the Midway while John Huston and William Wyler went on bombing runs with the Army Air Corps. William Wyler lost hearing in one ear and partially in another from the concussion flak noise while trying to get some aerial combat footage. George Stevens had the unfortunate task of shooting horrific scenes of the liberated Nazi concentration camps. He also produced a film shown as evidence of the atrocities at the Nuremberg Trials to the war criminals and witnesses in the gallery. Stevens was the last to come back and thus through a film lens saw up close the inhumanity people are capable of to other human beings. This experience forever changed George Stevens as the book covers in detail.
“Five Came Back” is an entertaining and informative read, especially if you like history. More importantly, it points out how the Hollywood elite of that era stood up and did their part when asked by the government to contribute.