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Hollywood's best sent to battle to document, propagandize WWII.

"Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War" By Mark Harris (511 pages, Penguin, $29.95) follows the tales of five Hollywood directors who enlisted in the United States Army in the Second World War.

Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler were all well beyond the age at which they could have been drafted, but decided on their own accord to go against the industry curve and actively join the war effort.

The book opens by painting a peculiar scene: in the late 1930's, the Warner brothers are the only studio heads openly in favor of an American intervention in Europe. A number of factors, including the fact that anti-fascist initiatives in America had roots in socio-communist activism, and disdain for president Franklin D. Roosevelt and his clear left-of-center political alignment, left many studio executives with cold feet when it came to incisive action against Nazism.

Many studio heads were Jewish themselves, and gave generously to Jewish organizations which were involved in anti-Nazi activism. But their status as outsiders (many were first-generation Americans) led them to keep their sympathies mostly private, taking little action to sway public opinion beyond the content of newsreels which preceded the screening of a movie.

Harris explains how the first movie with an explicit anti-Nazi allegory, Juarez, was produced in 1939, when the German seizure of the Czechoslovak Sudetenland was all but inevitable. The first movie to openly reference Nazism, the thriller Confessions of a Nazi Spy, followed later the same year. Both were less than successful in the box office, with the public favoring escapism over geopolitics.

The five directors profiled in this book were left with a clear choice. If they wanted to support their country, they would have to leave Hollywood and go do it themselves.

Frank Capra took the most "direct" route into the war effort. Enlisting at age 44 a few days after Pearl Harbor, he left his role as a headlining director in Hollywood because of what he called guilt, but more closely resembled insecurity stemming from his status as an Italian-born immigrant.

Capra was awarded the rank of Major and was assigned to work directly under Army Chief of Staff George Marshall (who later would become Secretary of State under Truman and masterminded the Marshall Plan). Marshall immediately put Capra to work. Over the course of the war, Capra produced seven documentary films, titled Why We Fight, to be screened to soldiers.

Although doubtlessly of great propagandistic value in terms of their effects on morale, the films also went into great detail explaining the specific social and political situations in Europe and the Far East, laying down in no uncertain terms why, precisely, the American G.I.'s were fighting.

The films were a huge success, both in terms of impact on the troops and in terms of achievement as films. The first in the series, Prelude to War, won the 1943 Academy Award for best documentary. Capra's star power was integral in securing participation from Walt Disney to create animated diagrams, and several Hollywood composers were involved in composing the score; today the films are considered a vital piece of Americana.

John Ford similarly brought his Hollywood skills to the armed forces. Having been the first of the "Five" to enlist, Ford joined the Navy as a major in 1941. The Navy had no film or photography department, and Ford was the right man to found it. His documentary on the Battle of Midway and his propaganda film December 7th would win him two Academy Awards while he was in service.

Of the "Five," Ford's wartime adventures got him closest to the action. He was injured by shrapnel when filming the Battle of Midway, followed the first wave of landings on Omaha Beach, and directed a team of cameramen who filmed from behind beach obstacles.

John Huston was slightly disappointed on having enlisted only to find himself attached to the Army Signal Corps on the Aleutian Islands. This didn't stop him from producing a short but critically acclaimed documentary on the Air Force pilots who repelled the Japanese offensive at Dutch Harbor, dangerously close to the Alaskan mainland, as well as Midway, farther south. Huston found himself on the short end of Army censorship at the time, and his features were either interfered with or outright censored.

The most difficult and traumatizing wartime experiences are tied to George Stevens, and they weren't all in combat. Made commander of the Pictorial Services of the Army, he filmed D-Day and the liberation of Paris, but his most noteworthy work emerged when he entered Dachau Concentration camp with his film crew on its liberation. Following the war, it took him a few years before he would return to directing. He never again worked on a comedy.

William Wyler, who had worked on films exalting British bravery, popular in the years between Germany's invasion of Poland in 1939 and the United State's entry into the war in 1941, enlisted in the Army Signal Corps and was attached to several bombing missions. His subsequent documentaries gained critical acclaim. Memphis Belle, telling the story of a B-17 "Flying Fortress" bomber, was a personal favorite of President Roosevelt, while The Fighting Lady, the story of an aircraft carrier, won the 1945 Oscar for best documentary.

The strength of Harris' accounts lies in their vividness and undeniable historical accuracy. However, Harris, a regular contributor to Variety, is most at home in the earlier parts of the book, when he is explaining the industry's reaction (steeped in the Studio System) to the war in Europe, and the process by which each director decided to "make the jump." Once the "action starts," so to speak, the accounts become rather jumpy, hopping from episode to episode. Five very different stories, not strongly entwined, do not lend themselves to a cohesive sequence of events. However, within these confines, Harris not only does his very best to create a coherent narrative, but is so exhaustive and detailed in describing what could be termed Hollywood's "Finest Hour" that Five Came Back is a must read for anyone and everyone that works around Hollywood. YS
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Comment:Hollywood's best sent to battle to document, propagandize WWII.
Publication:Video Age International
Date:Oct 1, 2015
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