Mark Harris, like all native New Yorkers, talks real estate with zest and rue. He points out the picture window of his 26th-floor apartment on Manhattan’s West Side, the view about to be ruined by construction across the street. He traces the apartment’s history: when he was growing up, it was a a rental, but then the building went co-op and his mother purchased the unit “at those ridiculous insider prices”; later he consolidated it with a studio next door after he inherited the main apartment, so that he could have a home office. (His husband, playwright Tony Kushner, has separate office space uptown.) Harris gestures in the direction of the now-defunct Regency Theatre, where “my parents were always taking us to one of 900 variations on The Wilderness Adventure of Frontier Pete.” He notes, “I was born in’63, so I saw a lot of those live-action nature movies. Being a city kid, I watched them and thought, ‘Where does he go to the bathroom? Didn’t he have a TV?’ ”

Readers of Harris’s columns in Entertainment Weekly will recognize the wry humor. He was on the magazine’s staff for 15 years, leaving in 2004 to write Pictures at a Revolution, his cultural history of the birth of New Hollywood as revealed through the 1967 Oscar nominees for Best Picture. Harris’s new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, examines another key era in the history of America and the movies, using as a lens the experiences of five directors who took time from successful studio careers to make documentary films for the military. The book, which will be released by Penguin Press on March 3, follows John Ford, who served in the Navy’s Field Photo unit, as well as Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston, who all worked in the Army’s documentary division, headed by Capra.

“The initial proposal was for about 14 characters—not just directors but actors, émigrés, and studio executives,” Harris says. “My proposals are always for 2,000-page books, and then at some point my editor helps me see reality, very gently and always at just the right moment. I realized pretty quickly that the directors were a fascinating story by themselves.”

The editor in question is Scott Moyers, who, in between working on Pictures at a Revolution and Five Came Back, served as Harris’s agent. “Scott was the editor of my first book, then very soon after editing it, he quit to become an agent for Andrew Wylie,” Harris says. “Because I had developed such a great working relationship with Scott, he became my agent. I said to him, jokingly, ‘Okay, your first job is to solve a crisis: my editor at Penguin Press has left before my book is published!’ Scott was a wonderful agent: he helped me develop the idea for this new book, sold it to Penguin, and then quit agenting, went back to Penguin, and became editor of this book.” Moyers returned to Penguin Press as publisher in 2011, in order to facilitate president and editor-in-chief Ann Godoff’s planned expansion of the list. “In the acknowledgments, I say Scott played many roles,” remarks Harris, “and I really mean it!”

Five Came Back had its origins, Harris says, in “the consciousness that we were wrapping up a decade of two wars, and that you could count on the fingers of both hands the number of movies that dealt with those wars. I was fascinated by the prospect of looking at an era in which 150 movies a year dealt, in some way, with the reality of living during a war. Also, I was aware that, of all the eras in American filmmaking, this was one I had avoided. My father was a World War II veteran, and I remember not listening to his war stories, because they freaked me out; the idea of going off to war at 17 and possibly getting killed was terrifying and inexplicable to me as a child. Another thing I wanted to explore was the question of ‘propaganda’ and ‘documentaries’—how those words had different weights and meanings than they do now. And I was engaged by the challenge of trying to bring to life a set of characters and conflicts solely from archival research, without the benefit of doing interviews, as I did with Pictures at a Revolution.”

Unifying these diverse strands was the impulse that drives all of Harris’s writing. “I was looking for a narrative—that’s what’s most important to me. I have to find a story I believe in, and I believed in this. I knew that if I walked into the story with these men in 1938 and walked out with them in 1946, that each one of them would have taken a really fascinating journey, that each of the journeys would be different, that there was also a journey that Hollywood was taking at this time, and a journey that America and the world were taking.”

In large part, Harris’s book is the story of a nation and an art form growing up. Documentaries like Ford’s The Battle of Midway and Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro gave American audiences a new concept of realism in film and paved the way for grittier, more challenging Hollywood movies in the postwar years, like Wyler’s masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives and Stevens’s A Place in the Sun. The irony, Harris notes, is that several of the documentaries contained scenes staged for the camera—most notoriously San Pietro, which was composed almost entirely of reenacted battles. “That’s the most troubling movie I write about in the book, because it’s an extraordinary film,” Harris says. “It probably conveys more of the realities of battle than almost any other film of the time, and it conveys those realities by faking them. When you’re restaging a battle for purely propagandistic ends, you’re crossing a line. Yet San Pietro helped create a film language that we still think of as realistic, and it wasn’t alone. The film coming out of the sprockets in The Battle of Midway—which is not faked, but which is used for dramatic effect—is the great-great-grandfather of every jerky-camera piece of post-20th-century neo-neo-realism that we now see in indie movies.”

Perhaps the indie generation will be the subject of his next book? “I think this coming year will be a time for me to root around in my own head and see where I land,” Harris replies. “I don’t have any shortage of ideas, but it always takes me a long time to find an idea that can attach itself to a narrative. I’m sure that in the next six months I will go whining to Scott, asking, ‘What should I do?’ He put me on the road to this book by asking, ‘Why don’t you look at William Faulkner’s screenwriting career?’ Scott sent me backward to Faulkner, and that sent me backward to World War II. Sometimes, something really unlikely that you don’t end up doing will point you in an interesting direction.”