Book review: Five Came Back by Mark Harris

Planes get ready for take-off in John Ford's 1942 documentary The Battle of Midway
Planes get ready for take-off in John Ford's 1942 documentary The Battle of Midway
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FIVE directors in the Second World War revolutionised the way we look at film, writes Thomas Docherty

Five Came Back

By Mark Harris

Canongate, 529pp, £25

The five directors Mark Harris picks to prove his thesis that the Second World War transformed the way in which we look at films could hardly be a more disparate bunch if they’d been picked by Central Casting. There’s John Ford, the gruff, hard-drinking Irish-American; Frank Capra, the Sicilian-born upstart whose sentimentality masked fierce ambitions and gnawing insecurities; William Wyler, a meticulous craftsman in an assembly-line industry; John Huston, the reckless rich boy and compulsive ladies’ man; and George Stevens, a specialist in romantic comedy and lighthearted adventure films.

Harris deftly threads the story of each man into the wider canvases of Hollywood and the war. Predictably, the incorrigible Ford and Huston yield the best wild-men-at-war stories, but the steady and responsible Wyler and Stevens are the guys you’d probably prefer to share your foxhole with.

When America entered the war, Ford had already signed up. As a lieutenant commander in the US Navy, he was on Midway Island during the most crucial battle of the Pacific War, manning a 16mm camera loaded with colour film, as Japanese Zeroes strafed the beaches. A shell fragment wounded him in the arm, and the concussion blew the film out of its sprockets, a shot he retained for his elegiac combat report The Battle of Midway (1942). The cinematic glitches that were anathema to Hollywood perfectionism – shaky camerawork, skewed perspectives and blurred focus – became the hallmarks of documentary reality, a reality that suddenly was providing a more compelling spectacle than studio make-believe.

If Ford is the most colourful character in Harris’s squad, Capra is the most influential. The only one of the five not to experience combat, he supervised what Harris calls “the single most important filmed propaganda of the war,” the Why We Fight series (1942-45), required viewing for members of America’s armed services. The series imprinted a set of principles – teamwork and tolerance are essential for victory, aggression undeterred is aggression encouraged – that the wartime generation would never forget.

Wyler, who tends to get short shrift from the critics, receives an especially respectful salute from Harris. After fortifying British-American relations with Mrs Miniver (1942), he enlisted in the US Army Signal Corps and was soon flying on bombing missions over Germany. His remarkable documentary, The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), blends a suspenseful hook – will the crew survive its 25th and final mission? – with a you-are-there immersion in the terrors of aerial combat. At a White House preview, President Roosevelt told him: “This has to be shown right away, everywhere.”

The dapper Huston interrupted a white-hot career streak – and an affair with Olivia de Havilland – for a drab first assignment in the Aleutian Islands. He finally saw the action he both craved and dreaded in Italy, where he made one of the most memorable combat films of the war, the grim – and totally stage-managed – The Battle of San Pietro (1945). Back home, he put his heart and soul into Let There Be Light (1946), a documentary about soldiers being treated for what was then called “battle neurosis” or “psychoneurosis” – a portrait so painfully raw that it was suppressed for 35 years.

It was Stevens who confronted – and recorded for the ages – some of the most horrific scenes to emerge from the war, with the liberation of Dachau. Stunned and sickened, he walked amid the corpses and skeletal survivors, compulsively shooting film, duty bound to capture on camera a spectacle beyond belief. Stevens and his crew “would no longer be combat photographers,” Harris writes, “they would be gatherers of evidence.”

Harris handles such moments with the sure sense of a dramatist who knows that quiet understatement strikes home harder than blaring trumpets. Though admiring of the men and their missions, he never succumbs to the triumphalism of so many Hollywood-at-war stories. He is particularly hard on the duplicitous re-enactments that blemish the record of the wartime documentarians – as in the notorious case of Tunisian Victory (1943), shot in Florida and the Mojave Desert.

After years away from the fickle studio system, Ford, Huston and Wyler regained their footing with surprising agility, the wartime passage infusing their work with greater depth and darker textures. The traumatized Stevens was artistically paralysed for a long time, but eventually returned to form, though never again to effervescent comedy. Intriguingly, Capra, whose war work had kept him out of harm’s way, was the only one who lost his instinctive bond with the popular audience.

At the end of 1946, he and Wyler both came out with films which were diametrically opposed. Crowds stayed away from Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life, and flocked instead to Wyler’s Oscar-laden The Best Years of Our Lives, an unblinking look at the impact war had made on those who had fought it. Before the outbreak of war, such a film – wildly popular in the UK too, where it sold a near-record 20 million tickets – would have been unthinkable.

Like the five who came back, the war had also transformed cinema.