The Magazine

Why They Filmed

The Hollywood response to the challenge of war.

Mar 24, 2014, Vol. 19, No. 27 • By JOHN PODHORETZ
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Perhaps the greatest and most influential of all sound-era directors, Ford found himself inventing a new visual language for documentary film as well. He accompanied Colonel James Doolittle on the first American retaliatory bombing raid on Tokyo and was there for the first great American naval victory, at Midway—and the raw, shaky, you-are-there footage he produced helped set the standard for the way the world still sees war when it is not on the battlefield.

Capra’s confused efforts to create thematic propaganda from his office in Washington and Ford’s efforts to bring the war home to America dominate the first half of the book. But it is in the descriptions of the travails of Wyler and Stevens that Five Came Back achieves its greatest power. Wyler’s The Memphis Belle (1944), about a B-17 bombing raid, remains the best of the films Harris chronicles. Wyler crawled through the plane on his hands and knees into the bombing turret, in a plane that was “uninsulated, unpressurized, and so cold that frostbite was taking a substantial number of flyers out of the action.” As Harris writes, “The gunners and navigators weren’t sure what to make of the slightly rotund, bespectacled, vaguely foreign-sounding man who had no fixed position and was manning not a gun but a camera.” 

Two years later, filming in the belly of a B-25 over Italy as the war was winding down, Wyler went deaf.

Stevens had the worst and least productive war experience of the five—until he found himself on the scene at the liberation of Dachau. What he filmed could not be shown in American theaters; what he saw could not be unseen. He simply began recording faces, corpses, interviewing survivors. He would place reels in film cans with notations for the War Department of what was inside: “More dead bodies—closeups of their heads”; “Shot of naked prisoners shivering with the cold.” It was not footage, but evidence, and eventually Stevens made two films solely to serve as part of the case for the prosecution at the Nuremberg trials.

The work produced by Wyler and Capra after the war was entirely informed by their experiences. Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), which was not recognized at the time as the transcendent work of popular culture we now know it to be. Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), the peerless portrait of three veterans coming home after the war, and one of the four or five greatest American films.

Stevens’s last film before going into the Army was a Washington-goes-to-war romance called The More the Merrier (1943), a sparkling and joyous piece of work. Returning home after Nuremberg, the man who had made his reputation as a cameraman for Laurel and Hardy, and at the helm of the two best Astaire and Rogers movies, never directed another comedy.

John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.