"Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War" examines the impact that the Second World War had on the Hollywood film-making community in general, and five top directors – William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – in particular. It is a well-researched volume with considerable detail (sometimes too much, frankly) which brings to light aspects of the uncomfortable alliance between civilian filmmakers and their military counterparts that most readers, even WW II aficionados, might not be aware of.
The partnership between the Hollywood community and the military film-making establishment that was forged in hurried fashion when the United States was plunged into war on December 7th, 1941 was never an easy one, and the varied wartime careers of the five notable film directors around which the volume is structured brings this fact to light.
Treading carefully with government and military information establishments which often viewed them as slightly untrustworthy, liberal-tending dilettantes, these five men brought their own personal and political baggage to the task of making training films and morale-boosting documentaries for the civilian and military populations. John Huston was a thrill-seeking adventurer who firmly supported the war, Frank Capra was a timid sort whose beliefs wavered with the current political wind – his only true conviction the fear of being ostracized.
While some went to the front, in harm's way – notably John Ford and John Huston – others contributed from the home front; Frank Capra, for example. For all the trials and tribulations these five men encountered, the over-arching impression that I came away with was that they didn't really accomplish much. For example – Capra began laboring over a series of "Why We Fight" documentaries early in the war, but his "Know Your Enemy – Japan" segment wasn't finished until just before the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki effectively closed out the war in the Pacific.
Internecine squabbles between the Signal Corp and the Office of War Information (OWI) reduced the effectiveness of the effort, and these newly-commissioned Hollywood officers, unused to navigating the labyrinthine military bureaucracy, floundered about while trying to obtain equipment and supplies, not to mention clear direction for the films they were to produce. Complicating the picture was the ongoing conflict between men who were used to going their own way and a military establishment which wanted them to do things the military way.
Overall, "Five Came Back" is an interesting look at a little-explored aspect of the American war effort during the Second World War, but it occasionally gets bogged down in a veritable morass of information, and the structure of the book – which hops back and forth between activities of the five men with whom it is mainly concerned – is sometimes confusing. A clearer expostulation of the timeline of the war's events, in relation to the activities of Capra, Huston, Wyler, Ford, and Stevens, would, in my mind, have made it easier to follow along.
This book has some shortcomings, but it is, in general, a notable addition to the body of historical knowledge on the Second World War, exploring as it does a subject that has been little touched upon (though I never did quite figure out the reasoning behind the title…).