It is almost unimaginable: five men past the age of 35 (one nearing 50), among the most successful and garlanded professionals in their field and at the height of their earning powers, leaving their jobs and their families to produce government propaganda. The experience was frustrating and often profoundly unsatisfying. Underequipped and trapped in layers of bureaucracy—their work mired in red tape and kept from public view for excruciatingly long periods of time by jealous pedants—they were never quite sure what they were doing. And that’s when they weren’t being shot at. Three of them developed what today we would call post-traumatic stress disorder; one lost his hearing.
But they had chosen to subsume themselves in the greatest national mission this country has ever known for the highest of reasons—and, perhaps, to save themselves from the haunting notion that they had been frittering away their talents on frivolity at a time when civilization itself was at stake. It was, one of them later said, an “escape into reality.”
This is the story Mark Harris tells in his wonderful new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Imagine if, after 9/11, Steven Spielberg, James Cameron, Quentin Tarantino, Martin Scorsese, and George Lucas had all volunteered for military service to film documentaries about the war on terror. In a way, that is what happened at the outset of World War II.
John Ford, who had won three Oscars in six years for directing, was already an officer in the Naval Reserve and was called up to active duty immediately after Pearl Harbor. Frank Capra, the most famous director in America, became head of the Army’s film unit. William Wyler, the famously meticulous helmer of Dodsworth (1936) and Jezebel (1938) and Wuthering Heights (1939) and The Letter (1940), went into the Army Air Forces. George Stevens, then considered perhaps the most inspired director of comedy in Hollywood, was part of the Army Signal Corps. So was John Huston, whose triumphant directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon (1941) came only months before Pearl Harbor.
The analogy to recent history is inexact, of course. The entirety of the nation wasn’t mobilized in 2001 as it had been after Pearl Harbor; and even before, the America Firsters who opposed U.S. entry into World War II were already on the run. Harris offers a hilarious chronicle of the last gasp of the isolationists, a September 1941 hearing into the evils of war-promoting movies that blew up in the scowling faces of senators Burton Wheeler and Gerald Nye.
Once war broke out, the pride all five directors felt in their own self-sacrifice was mirrored in the universal respect they were accorded. Capra, tasked with making a series of national morale-boosters collectively called Why We Fight, won an Oscar for the first one, Prelude to War (1942). That year the documentary category was expanded so that Ford could win one as well, for his film on Midway; he’d win another the next year for a rabble-rouser called December 7. Wyler won his first Oscar in 1942 for the last film he made in Hollywood before his enlistment, a celebration of British gumption called Mrs. Miniver. In general, the nonfiction fare all five men produced was hailed uncritically, as though the movies were analogues to the brave soldiers and sailors fighting the war.
The commitment of the lions of American popular culture to the war effort went beyond these directors. Actors like James Stewart, Clark Gable, Henry Fonda, Mickey Rooney, Tyrone Power, and Ronald Reagan all went into active duty at the paramount moments of their careers. (Reagan did not see action because of his imperfect eyesight.) John Ford never forgave his protégé John Wayne for keeping out of the fray. The first movie Ford made after his service, the powerful They Were Expendable (1945), starred Wayne as a naval officer alongside Robert Montgomery, who had actually captained a PT boat on D-Day. Ford, a difficult man who always picked out a cast or crew member to abuse during the making of a picture, was vicious to Wayne: “Duke,” he screamed, “can’t you manage a salute that at least looks as though you’ve been in the service?” Montgomery, who was in every way a remarkable human being, demanded that Ford apologize to Wayne—and made Ford cry.
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.