Five Came Back review – great Hollywood directors and the second world war

Mark Harris's study of the interwoven war careers of Ford, Wyler, Capra, Stevens and Huston impresses Philip French

The two most remarkable film books of last year were both about the ways – mostly craven and temporising – that the American cinema responded to the rise of Nazism: The Collaboration: Hollywood's Pact with Hitler by Ben Urwand and Hollywood and Hitler 1933-1939 by Thomas Doherty. By a useful coincidence, the first important movie history so far this year, and likely to prove one of the most memorable, is Mark Harris's Five Came Back. His complementary work picks up Urband's and Doherty's studies at that crucial point where the bombs fall on Pearl Harbor on 7 December 1941 and Hollywood rolls up its sleeves and swaps the diplomatic velvet glove for a patriotic steel fist. As in his impressive first book, Scenes from a Revolution, a long, detailed study of five 1967 movies that announced "the birth of the new Hollywood", Harris takes five exemplary film-makers, each well established and approaching the peak of his career, and sees how they reacted to the coming of war and, more briefly, how they responded to the challenge of peace.

The five men resemble those ethnically balanced infantry platoons or carefully selected aircrews in morale-boosting wartime action films: the Irish-American John Ford; the Jewish immigrant William Wyler; the Italian-American Frank Capra; and two middle-class Wasps from successful theatrical families, George Stevens and John Huston. Four were settled family men, reluctant to leave home but eager to serve their countries; the first and youngest was Huston, a recently married, unsettled amorist and adventurer. John Ford, having joined the navy reserve in the 1930s, was the oldest; the first into uniform some months before Pearl Harbor, he'd just made the film that was to bring him the third of his four Oscars as best director. George Stevens was the last to join up and the last to leave, hanging on to complete the two harsh documentaries on Nazi atrocities that were shown as key evidence at the Nuremberg trials.

They made considerable financial sacrifices to enlist but, except for Huston, were extremely well off and all advanced rapidly to the rank of colonel or the equivalent. All were made welcome by the military, especially Capra, the most widely admired prewar director, who was put in charge of Why We Fight, General George C Marshall's favourite instructional film series. But very rapidly they discovered that working under military men wrapped up in red tape and drawn into overlapping command structures could be quite as difficult as making films for Hollywood's meddlesome movie moguls.

Harris follows the interwoven paths that took them from the Aleutians to Algiers. Ford's 1942 coverage of the battle of Midway in the Pacific won him a documentary Oscar, took him into harm's way and got him wounded. Wyler flew on bombing sorties over enemy territory, camera in hand, which resulted in the enduringly celebrated Memphis Belle and ultimately led to the loss of his hearing. While in London both politely declined Laurence Olivier's invitation to direct his big morale-boosting project, Henry V. They faced many problems and hazards, not least the constant preoccupations with the professional and artistic ethics of reconstructing battle sequences. Huston's celebrated Battle of San Pietro, for instance, was entirely restaged weeks after the event, while The Memphis Belle had its soundtrack created in Hollywood. On the other hand, Huston's honest, moving Let There Be Light, a documentary set in a military hospital for soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress, was considered too nakedly realistic and intrusive and was shelved for 35 years.

Away at war, they were affected physically, psychologically and morally by their experiences. They thought of the future and worried about losing the best years of their lives and being overtaken by a new generation of film-makers. Having made the highly popular but deeply dubious propaganda entertainment Mrs Miniver as his last prewar movie, Wyler directed the frank, unpretentious The Best Years of Our Lives as his first postwar movie. His greatest picture, it spoke in a real sense for the shared hopes and regrets of them all. None made a more direct and subtle statement about the prospects before them. They had returned to find the public suffering from cinematic battle fatigue and an industry little interested in war movies. But only Stevens (as a documentary made by his son demonstrated) consciously set out to turn away from the sophisticated social comedies and musicals that had been his metier and concentrate on pictures with serious, not to say uplifting themes. All at various times made movies of an explicitly religious kind but rejected for the most part serious films with a wartime background. Stevens's Diary of Anne Frank is the major exception, though Ford went on to reach the rank of admiral and to direct documentaries on the wars in Korea and Vietnam.

Hollywood was in transition when they returned, the major studios being broken up by order of the supreme court. None, however, made a real success as an independent producer, and this excellent book is ultimately a tale of disappointment and disillusionment. But there is a heartening moment in 1950 at the height of the McCarthy era, as vindictive rightwing investigators descended on Hollywood. The deeply conservative Cecil B DeMille and his reactionary cronies from the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals attempted to depose the liberal Joseph L Mankiewicz as president of the Screen Writers Guild and impose a loyalty oath on all members. Wyler, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Capra came together in a grand reunion to oppose the move and they carried the day. This was the famous meeting at which Ford stood up and began by identifying himself: "My name is John Ford and I make westerns. I don't think there's anyone in this room who knows more about what the American public wants than Cecil B DeMille – and he certainly knows how to give it to them… But I don't like you, CB, I don't like what you stand for, and I don't like what you've been saying here tonight."


Philip French

The GuardianTramp

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