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Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War Hardcover – February 27, 2014
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*Starred Review* It’s hardly news that the movies affect and are affected by the broader canvas of popular culture and world history, but Harris—perhaps more successfully than any other writer, past or present—manages to find in that symbiotic relationship the stuff of great stories. He turned that unlikely trick in Pictures at a Revolution (2008), about the five Best Picture nominees in 1967 and how they defined a sea change in Hollywood and in society at large, and he does it again here. The number is once more five, but this time it’s five acclaimed directors who went to war in the 1940s to make propaganda films and came home changed by what they saw and what they did. The stories of what John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra did in the war are dramatic (Ford filming the opening salvo in the Battle of Midway from a rooftop; Wyler riding along on bombing missions over Germany; Stevens filming the horrific scenes at Dachau), but they are also stories of personal redemption, frustration, and even dishonesty (Huston receiving acclaim for the authenticity of his documentary San Pietro, which was made up almost entirely of reenactments). Every chapter contains small, priceless nuggets of movie history (Joseph Goebbels thought Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver was “an exemplary propaganda film” and hoped the Germans could copy it), and nearly every page offers an example of Harris’ ability to capture the essence of a person or an event in a few, perfectly chosen words (describing Huston as a “last-call bon vivant”). Narrative nonfiction that is as gloriously readable as it is unfailingly informative. --Bill Ott
The Wall Street Journal:
“Mr. Harris has a huge story to tell, and he does so brilliantly, maintaining suspense in a narrative whose basic outcome will be known ahead of time. Five Came Back is packed with true stories that, according to the proverb, are stranger than fiction. Mr. Harris's story of five particular directors at one particular moment of history tells us much about the motion-picture industry, about the nature of filmmaking and, more generally, about the relation of art to the larger demands of society. Although Five Came Back at first seems to be chronicling a collective enterprise, it turns out to be an inspirational, if cautionary, tale of the triumph of the individual over the collective, of personal vision over groupthink, and ultimately of art over propaganda.”
The New York Times:
“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.”
“In addition to being a prodigious researcher and a knowledgeable film buff, Harris is a graceful writer whose prose brings the world of wartime, at home and abroad, to vivid life on every page. I tore through this hefty book as if it were a novel and can’t recommend it highly enough.”
The Washington Post:
“Five Came Back, by Mark Harris, has all the elements of a good movie: fascinating characters, challenges, conflicts and intense action. This is Harris’s second brilliant book about movies. Both books demonstrate meticulous research and exceptional skill at telling intersecting and overlapping stories with clarity and power. Five Came Back enables us to watch the films of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens with new insight.”
The New Yorker:
“A splendidly written narrative.”
San Francisco Chronicle:
“Can't-put-it-down history of World War II propaganda film.”
The Los Angeles Times:
“Meticulously researched, page-turning.”
David Thompson, The New Republic:
“I recommend this book for its narrative sweep, its revelation of character, and for the many ironies that attend the idea of ‘documentary.’”
Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Mark Harris writes the old-fashioned way. His books are not quick and slick but meticulous. Definitive. In these lush, informative pages, Harris indeed reaffirms his commitment to writing the old-fashioned way, the way that evinces profound respect for his craft, his material and his readers.”
“It’s hardly news that the movies affect and are affected by the broader canvas of popular culture and world history, but Harris—perhaps more successfully than any other writer, past or present—manages to find in that symbiotic relationship the stuff of great stories. Every chapter contains small, priceless nuggets of movie history, and nearly every page offers an example of Harris’ ability to capture the essence of a person or an event in a few, perfectly chosen words. Narrative nonfiction that is as gloriously readable as it is unfailingly informative.”
“A comprehensive, clear-eyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.”
“Insightful. Harris pens superb exegeses of the ideological currents coursing through this most political of cinematic eras, and in the arcs of his vividly drawn protagonists…we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities.”
“Harris surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here… This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados.”
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Top Customer Reviews
Maybe I am one of the oldest reviewers so my
perspective is different. The Second World War affected me as a child to the
point that I had to write a book about it myself, from that childhood point of
view. It was something I could not forget all my life . I saw 'the great movies'
as a child and yes, I mentioned them in my books. They too, affected me as a child.
The generations since, can only try to understand what it was like. Harris
himself may not know the collective consciousness of the time but his excellent
book brought it back to me.
Through the patriotism that infused the
directors I felt the message we got in the news shots of war in theaters of the
time. Through the thoughts they had about the " total waste of war" and the
damage it did to our souls , I could feel the thoughts I had between the age of
7 and 11.
My uncles came alive again as the Directors moved through the war
with the different branches of service. When the war ended, luckily all my
uncles and other relatives came home, at least two wounded, but alive. I knew
Harold Russell and his family.
Filming the atrocities of war so we could see it on the big screen on Saturday
matinee made us all aware of the tremendous sacrifice of life. For what? For
one man to rule the world , I often thought .
It was the pictures of the
souls in the death camps that raised the hackles! The final sickening straw!
How , why ?
The damage done to Director George Stevens who saw photographed ,
and experienced, was so real and profound . I visualized once again those
horrors. One can only imagine the soldiers who stepped up to soothe, calm, and
comfort the barely living survivors who rose from among stacks of dead bodies.
I screamed once again inside me at the utter horror of evil men who walked the
earth with us.
The horrid cruelty of prisoners and the Red Cross by the
Japanese came back and I remembered asking why the Emperor got away with this ?
Harris answered that question after all these years. I still think the Emperor
should have done something to stop the war and should have paid a price for
Through the lives of five men , the war came back and though these men
where older than me by 39 plus or minus years , we shared a common collective
consciousness . I wonder if this is proof of that and how we make our
I know none of us wanted war, but once we were in it we all were in it
to win. Yes, when it was over we "had enough ".
Yes, a great narrative ,
stirring and so enveloping about the time. The investigation into Communism in
Hollywood and more are all there.
Yes, a few tears peeked out as I closed the
book for the last time and put the era back to sleep in my mind , but not before
I had made comparisons about the rise of Hitler with the rise of terrorism.
History is repeating itself !
I came into Five Came Back with a pretty sketchy idea of who these five directors were (Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, William Wyler, George Stevens). I remembered Capra did It's a Wonderful Life and John Ford did westerns, or was that John Huston? So, to be honest, I was ready to bail out if it turned out to be for insiders.
Once I started the book though, I was hooked. Mark Harris did a tremendous amount of research to track down the stories of the five. There's a fair amount of personal information and some gossipy bits, but mostly it's the story of the movies they made while they were in uniform. Since they were working for Uncle Sam and not for a movie studio or a news outlet, most of what they did was propaganda and training films. But because these were talented and creative men, they didn't churn out standard issue films.
While all the stories are fascinating, that of George Stevens is the most gripping. He was with the first Allied unit that entered the Dachau concentration camp after the Germans had fled. No one was prepared for the horror. And as an army unit, they were unable to do much right away for the many inmates who had survived to that point. Stevens filmed as much as he could, and his film would be used as evidence during the Nuremburg Trials. The experience shattered him though, and it took years for him to recover enough to make movies again.
Another overwhelming episode was Frank Capra's filming of the invasion of Normandy on D-Day. According to Harris, it was so huge that it was impossible to capture on film. Capra had numerous cameramen along the beaches and with the soldiers, but capturing sheer numbers of men along the miles of beaches was mind-numbing. Capra's skill as a director couldn't overcome the limitations of film.
An interesting theme that runs throughout is that of the nature of propaganda. All the directors were tasked to make propaganda films, and this was not considered a devious or dishonest thing to do. It was considered a necessary morale booster for both the military and civilian populations. Some of the directors wanted to keep the films as honest as possible, but others (especially Capra) had no qualms about "recreating" events or enhancing them for effect. Leaving out scenes of death or cruelty was another kind of avoidance of truth in the name of keeping morale up.
When the war was over and the directors resumed their Hollywood careers, they found that they had a hard time getting back into the swing. Time hadn't stopped while they were away and those directors and actors who had not left Hollywood had profited nicely. John Huston never forgave John Wayne for staying out of the army while making a lucrative career of playing war heroes.
The side-by-side stories of Frank Capra and William Wyler's first post-war films illustrated the difficulty in returning to civilian life after four years of war. Capra made It's a Wonderful Life, an old-fashioned film that audiences had no patience for. It was not a popular movie. But Wyler's The Best Years of Their Lives, abut three men having difficulty returning to civilian life resonated with audiences. It won the Academy Award. Odd that now, Capra's film is better known.
A well-researched and very well-written account of an unusual period in movie history.