Five Came Back by Mark Harris
Penguin, 2014; 511 pp
Reviewed by Charlie Riccardelli
Long before Vietnam became the first televised war, Americans at home turned to the movies to catch their first glimpses of combat caught on film. In his book, Five Came Back, author Mark Harris chronicles Hollywood’s escalating involvement in World War II, but not from the perspective of the major studios and the war pictures they churned out like Casablanca and Confessions of a Nazi Spy. Rather, Harris uses five of the most famous directors of this era—John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra—as his through line, recounting how each man left their lucrative careers to join the service and make documentaries about the adversity facing troops across the globe.
Many movies produced by the war effort only made if as far as the barracks (like Ford’s Sex Hygiene short film), but the government hoped Hollywood would release some of these pictures to the general public to show the extent of what Americans faced abroad and how they conquered it. Even under the bureaucratic control of the American military, the voices and intentions of the directors still resonated in their work, echoing their various intentions for signing up. For Capra, an Italian immigrant who won celebrity for his rah-rah tributes to the American spirit, it was his opportunity to give back and shape a nation’s entire opinion on the war. Others, like John Huston, saw the war as an opportunity to live out his Hemingway lifestyle properly by adding war stories to his anecdotes. William Wyler and George Stevens found themselves using the war for intense introspection on their roles in life, while John Ford wanted to build up his collection of medals.
Harris weaves the stories of these five men seamlessly together throughout each chapter. As each figure discussed in the book makes their slow march through government red tape and combat zone to combat zone, we too labor with them as they try to cobble meaningful films out of the horrors surrounding them. The crisscrossing narratives do become problematic at times as the roles of these filmmakers change. Capra, for instance, plays a prominent role in the early half of the book but disappears as he adapts to the role of government cog later in the war. In contrast, George Stevens’ presence barely registers for much of the book until late in the book when, in the text’s most harrowing moments, Stevens witnesses the liberation of Dachau and shoots the first footage of the genocide that took place in the concentration camps (Stevens’ footage would late be used in the Nuremburg trials). Ultimately the structure becomes a minor quibble in an otherwise powerful piece of film and war history that often goes overlooked.