In 2008, before my time taking part in the Cannonball Read, I read and loved Mark Harris’s Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. For those that are interested, that book covers the 1967 Best Picture Oscar race, cataloguing how that year’s nominated films – Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Graduate, In the Heat of the Night, and Bonnie and Clyde each highlight the changes both in Hollywood and in the culture. I suggest it wholeheartedly. When I saw via Goodreads that Mark Harris had a new book out, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, I got it from my library and (eventually) dug in.
Unfortunately, this one just didn’t sing for me in the way that Pictures at a Revolution had. In Five Came Back Harris tells the story of five Hollywood directors who joined the war effort in World War II to be of patriotic use, and to document the war. We meet and follow John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens as they leave behind a Hollywood system experiencing both highs and lows and enter a world to which they are unfamiliar. Between them these five men were the scene of almost every major moment of America’s involvement in the war. They served in every branch of service—army, navy, and air force and all theatres of war. They were present at the biggest moments in the American campaign from Midway, Normandy, to the fall of Paris and the liberation of the Nazi death camps or stateside in the shaping of the message out of Washington, D.C. and chronicling the effects of the war on its soldiers once they returned home. As it did for so many others, World War II divided the lives of these men into before and after. However, as a reader I became less and less interested in some of these narrative threads and instead wished to hear more about Wyler and Stevens.
The beginning of this work was simply far too detailed to pull me into the book. I understand that Harris is after giving the reader the general feeling of the time, but it just dragged and dragged – for nearly 150 pages. When it comes to drawing in a reader for a work of non-fiction I often think its best start broad with big sweeps of information to draw the reader into your preferred level of detail. Just because we the reader are interested enough to choose to read your book does not mean we are interested enough to be as informed as you assume we should be, just saying. Other than that issue, and the general slow pace of the text, and my disinterest in half of its main characters are leaving me rating this a three, but it keeps all three because what worked for me worked well.