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

Mark Harris. Penguin Press, $29.95 (508p) ISBN 978-1-59420-430-2
American filmmakers undergo their baptism of fire in this insightful if sometimes chaotic war saga. Journalist Harris (Pictures at a Revolution) profiles five leading directors—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens—who ditched stellar careers to join the military and craft propaganda, battle documentaries and training films. (Ford’s first Navy assignment was an explicit primer on venereal disease.) Harris’s story is often simply Hollywood on steroids: generals and political strictures replace studio moguls and the Hays code; location hardships include getting shot at; the blurring together of authenticity and fakery deepens (some of the most acclaimed and innovative combat “documentaries” were staged reenactments). The fog of war sometimes obscures the big picture here; even more than civilian making-of epics, the author’s narrative of military movie production is a welter of confusion and misfires, turf struggles, budget constraints, and grand artistic impulses thwarted by philistine bureaucracies and petty happenstance. Still, 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—especially Stevens, whose camera took in the liberation of Paris and the horror of Dachau—we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities. (Mar. 3)
Reviewed on: 01/13/2014
Release date: 02/27/2014
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 528 pages - 978-0-14-312683-6
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