Another in the series. This post took a long time to type, but it was worth it. Please forgive typos.
The only question about Five Came Back is what took so long to tell the story? In print and film, Mark Harris has produced an account of five award-winning movie directors who interrupted their careers to serve in the military and use their talents in aid of the Allied cause. It is an endeavor worthy of the geniuses he portrays.
At 528 pages, the book is a massive work but reads like a fast-paced novel. The film turns the best of those pages into a three-hour Netflix original documentary. It is more than worth the time.
Before I read the synopsis about the book, I wrote in my journal that they changed the war, and it changed them in profound ways.
There is the hard-drinking John Ford (Grapes of Wrath) whose fame grew with The Battle of Midway for which he filmed on a platform as the Japanese planes flew overhead dropping bombs.
The Jewish William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver) offers the most pathos as he struggles to return to his home in Alsace, where he finds nothing but empty buildings. The Nazis had exterminated the entire population.
John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) was part of the film dynasty (father Walter, daughter Anjelica whom he directed in Prizzi’s Honor). He and Wyler stood up to HUAC.
The most enigmatic of the group is Frank Capra, who at one point admired Mussolini and couldn’t always decide on what message he wanted his films to convey. He also shouldered the massive task of the Why We Fight series to convince the American public of the need to go to war.
George Stevens (Woman of the Year) offers the greatest contrast in his movie making. Before the war, he was known for fluffy comedies. He arrived at Dachau with the liberators. What he saw horrified him so much it shut him down for a time. He did have an advantage over his fellow soldiers: He turned his camera on the devastation. What he shot became evidence at the Nuremberg trials. After the war, Stevens never made another comedy and later became known for the film adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank.
Five Came Back contains some of the most vivid accounts of the segregated military; and it has footage of a long-suppressed documentary about the attempts to help returning servicemen deal with what we now call PTSD.
There are a couple of annoyances. Harris says, “War would come,” or so-and-so “would got on to direct…” One or two of those are fine, but the whole work sounds conditional.
Even though his focus is the directors, it would be helpful to have more information the moguls. With the exception of the Warner brothers, they hesitated until the very last to cut ties with Germany. Was there more to their decisions than just money?