Every time I’d walk into my local bookstore over recent months, I'd stare covetously at Mark Harris's Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. The jacket boasted the names John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra, five incredible golden age directors whose assembly elicited an instant Pavlovian response from both myself and, eventually, my wallet.
The further we get from World War Two, the more difficult it is for we in the present to relate to the sense of shared responsibility the world once experienced: that everyone would devote themselves fully to the war effort unless they had a good reason not to. Can you imagine modern day directors and movie stars signing up to the armed forces? Not every one of the directors discussed in this book was necessarily keen to join up, but all felt a strong duty to do so. All five joined not as soldiers, but as part of the film unit, working alongside the troops on the ground and documenting the battles that would later be turned into films to rally audiences back home.
The book itself is a curious mix of straightforward prose and dense research. At first, I felt there was almost too much research: that Harris had taken absolutely every scrap of information he'd found and merely laid it end-to-end. But as it progressed, the style emerged. It was undeniable that the research was impeccable: Harris had gone through and verified or debunked every single scrap of information, every recorded word uttered from one person to another. That which he couldn't verify one way or the other was clearly marked. The sum of these parts was a story that felt all the more remarkable because of its verisimilitude: there is little doubt that what you're reading is an unembellished, unpretentious account of five filmmakers who gave up their careers for a greater good.
I'd anticipated a story about returning soldiers, five directors who returned from the war as conquering heroes, and who, with a fresh perspective on the world, would help transform Hollywood into something that more closely reflected the experience of human life.
The reality was much different. They were all changed by the war, but the manner in which they experienced it, from the battles between Washington bureaucracy and Hollywood business to the reality of being on the ground with the troops as they marched into Germany, created five distinct tales.
Each of these men had completely different expectations going in to the war. Each of them had different experiences. Each of them was changed in markedly distinct ways. This is a story that does not mistake their recording of the war as being more important than the war itself, that does not treat the advancement of their filmmaking careers as the most significant outcome; in doing so, it avoids the mistakes of so many of these tales that put its own interests front and centre. This is a story with a very level-headed perspective on the relative importance of everything it discusses.
That said, the impact that the war had on the directors' careers and the films they made is, nonetheless, incredibly interesting, and the end result is a fascinating, unique account of the complex and tumultuous relationship between Hollywood and World War Two.
We've not yet covered these five amazing filmmakers on the show (soon, hopefully!), but if you're interested in a tremendous piece of writing that illuminates a side of film history rarely discussed in such vivid detail, this is a must read.