Five Came Back is a look into the wartime experiences of five famous film-makers who took major hiatuses in the middle of their careers to lend their talents to the American war effort during World War II. While their contributions and their exposure to danger varied significantly, each of the five men, Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens made sacrifices and had experiences that would forever alter their films and their lives. It’s a compelling story, which may explain why Netflix had commissioned a documentary series based on the book which is premiering at the end of the month. It was that announcement that prompted me to at long last pick Five Came Back off the to-be-read pile.
Five Came Back made its way onto that pile in the first place because its author, Mark Harris, is to my mind one of the best film writers working today. His previous book, Pictures at a Revolution, on the five nominees for Best Picture of 1967, was an absolutely fascinating look at the film industry at a turning point. However, this followup effort feels a little less sure of itself. The book gets off to a strong start, with the author skillfully describing the dynamics of studio politics in the pre-war era, the controversy over whether motion pictures should have political points of view at all and how pro-war or isolationist they could afford to be.
However, once the war officially breaks out and Harris’s five subjects enlist, the book becomes enmeshed in repetitive scenes and tedious descriptions of army bureaucracy. Harris undercuts his own effort by making it seem like his subjects did more begging for funds and clearer orders than film-making. Though the directors in question shot unprecedented footage and created tremendous non-fiction films for GI audiences and the moviegoing public back home, Harris occasionally makes it seem like they spent most of their time sitting around waiting for orders.
Thought there are interesting tidbits and scenes throughout the middle of the book, including cameo appearances by young officers who were part of the movie propaganda effort who would later achieve greater renown, such as Theodore Geisel, aka Dr. Seuss, it is a bit of a slog until the end of the war. From D-Day on the story becomes a lot more interesting, as between them the directors witnessed the landing at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, the surrender in Berlin and the liberation of the concentration camps.
In a closing section that returns the author to more familiar footing, the directors struggle to resume civilian life and their careers. Each was profoundly touched by their experiences and Harris does a wonderful job explication that idea through close readings of their post-war Hollywood films.
One of the most famous negative reviews of a book is the gloriously pithy, “The covers of this book are too far apart.” Though it is meant to be dismissive, it can still apply to books of worth. There is a lot of valuable information and fascinating history contained within Five Came Back. I just wish there had been less of the other stuff.