Then the war came: Five Came Back

Grand Illusion impressed John Ford. Here was a film, he thought, that while showing the nobility of a vanished class did not flinch from violence. He wanted an American remake, but Darryl F. Zanuck, president of Twentieth Century Fox demurred. At RKO George Stevens realized his Gunga Din was a pro-war picture. “The film is delightfully evil in the fascist sense,” he admitted. “I really got that film done just before it would have been too late. Another year…and I would have been too smart to do it.” Columbia’s Frank Capra, the highest paid director in America, the Italian immigrant who in 1935 contemplated accepting an offer from Benito Mussolini to write the screenplay for the biopic he wanted Capra to make, entertained delightfully evil possibilities of his own. The Alf Landon supporter couldn’t find a script that synthesized his inchoate popular impulses: he loathed rapacious capitalism and the New Deal. Careening through his twenties fueled by alcohol and women, screenwriter John Huston boasted a couple of high profile credits (Jezebel), a flop (Juarez), and no clue how to carve a career apart from his respected actor father Walter.

Mark Harris’ Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War captures these Hollywood scions and the United States at a moment of crisis. Hobbled by the certainty that Americans wanted no war but wished England all the best in its struggle against Hitler in 1939, the Roosevelt reelection campaign premised its third term run on a promise: no American boys would die in any European war. Then the war came. Ford, fresh off a second Academy Award win for Best Director, was practically rarin’ to go overseas. He would spend the duration of the war making documentaries. The Army had other plans for Capra: to work under chief of staff George C. Marshall as head of his propaganda outfit. The first American president to understand the power and possibilities of radio, FDR envisaged Hollywood as the best instrument to mobilize American public opinion. Hollywood responded:

Overnight the denigration of Hollywood as a subculture of film had lost its currency. Instead, the film business would swiftly come to be viewed as the country’s ‘chief exponent and manufacturer of what Jack Warner had called Americanism, a nebulously defined product that many in both Hollywood and Washington nonetheless hoped could materially contribute to an Allied victory.

Hollywood’s most successful wartime propaganda product could not have been a better distillation of Winston Churchill’s conception of Merrie England. 1942’ss Best Picture winner Mrs. Miniver shows upper classes joining workers, noblesse oblige be damned, to karate chop German paratroopers when they sneak into Greer Garson’s kitchen. Its director William Wyler, best known for a trio of potboilers boasting Bette Davis’ best screen performances to date, would come to rue its artificiality. Given a major’s ribbons, the French-born Jew directed The Memphis Belle and worried about his relevance in the post-war age. Verisimilitude was the new virtue. By the time The Best Years of Our Lives in 1946 became the first film to graze Gone with the Wind’s domestic grosses, it can be said that he atoned for Mrs. Miniver.

Skilled at weaving discrete narrative strands into patterns, Mark Harris has an easier job in Five Came Back: follow the directors overseas on their missions for the armed forces, bring them home. Where Pictures at a Revolution argued for 1967 as the point at which sociopolitical forces penetrated the sort of prestige pictures that have enthralled and bored moviegoers for generations, Five Came Back says little beyond the unspoken conclusion that Hollywood directors were once outspoken about their patriotism. What results is an entertaining but rather breathless race through five discrete but overlapping careers; I almost expected to hear “Meanwhile, back at…” before a cut to the next directory. Without, say, the potency of Sidney Poitier as tragic symbol of the futility of a career as a black actor or the participation of living filmmakers and actors, Five Came Back feels entombed. No member of this pentarchy suffered more grievous psychological wounds than George Stevens. Lauded for marvelous comedies like The More, The Merrier and Alice Adams, Stevens was one of the first directors allowed to film Dachau. Bodies piled six feet high, men and women crawling with vermin tugging at his sleeve, the heat of the crematoriums, the smell of death — so devastated was he that he banished frivolity from his work. In the next few years audiences would get I Remember Mama, A Place in the Sun, and The Diary of Anne Frank: big, safe, Academy Award-winning hits. Aesthetic wounds too then.

To argue that Stevens should have taken the lesson Preston Sturges’ fictional director in Sullivan’s Travels and made’em laugh would be repellent and glib; besides, 1940’s Woman of the Year, in which the intractable Spencer Tracy finally domesticates Katherine Hepburn, hinted at what was to come. Harris doesn’t make too many observations, alas. He’s too busy getting the facts, dates, and documentaries straight. Read the book, but rent or check out of the library what’s available.

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