Five Came Back; A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris. Penguin, 2015, paper.

 Many professional actors and film makers working in the Hollywood industry volunteered or were drafted to serve in World War II. They were recruited into units that made documentary films for the War Department. Mark Harris tells the stories of John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra. They were all film directors with a reputation, all in their late 30s or 40s.

Most of the films that Hollywood produced during the War were training films. Some, like the “Why We Fight” series, were, however, efforts to explain the War to recruits and draftees. Eventually Hollywood also produced films intended for an American theater audience. They were part history and part propaganda but always intended to gain support for all-out warfare and final victory.

These directors wanted their productions to be interesting, adding plot, characters, and humor where possible. One element missing was romance, for which Hollywood films were famous. Shouldn’t remind soldiers of what they were missing.

The five biggest studios in the decade of the 1930s and into the 1940s: Warner Brothers, Twentieth Century Fox, RKO, Metro Goldwyn Mayer, and Paramount. Along with three smaller companies: Columbia, Universal, and United Artists, they dominated the industry. They had the major directors and actors under contract, plus production facilities and thousands of employees. They also controlled theater distribution. So they brought considerable organization to the task of producing movies for an America at war. The film industry was willing to do their share in supporting the war effort. Yet little planning, Harris contends, went into how the War Department would partner with the film industry.

This wartime partnership began with an adversarial relationship between the film industry and American political elites – Hollywood and Washington. While the Japanese were planning their attack on Hawaii, a House committee was holding hearings to discover levels of corruption in the industry, but moving on to the undue influence of foreigners, and particularly European Jews. Hollywood was leftist, even “proto-communist.” Un-American, the House committee thought.

Rivalry? In 1940 sixty million people, more than half the adult population, went to a movie at least once a week. Nowhere in the American political system could you find such enthusiasm.

The theater experience began with Fox Movietone News or a competing newsreel, followed by a cartoon for the kids, then a series of “shorts” from five to twenty minutes long, followed by the “main feature.” Much of the industry’s wartime production was aimed at creating these newsreels and shorts.

One dilemma discussed throughout Harris’s book was the use of actual combat footage shot by a Field Photo Unit, versus reenactments. Frowned on by all film directors, reenactments were often necessary to convey the full story. On the other hand, live coverage of the battlefield had to be carefully planned to have the right filming equipment and personnel in the right place at the right time. Not easily accomplished on a battlefield. Of course, the narrative voice and the sound tracks were always added in the studio.

Many of the films in production in December 1941 seemed trivial at best and at worst a betrayal of our fighting men and the American public, now turning their backs and minds to war production. But we still needed Hollywood to entertain us. One solution was to place Hollywood preoccupations – romance, adventure, family – in a war setting. “Mrs. Miniver” (MGM 1942) involved a Britain struggling to deal with the erosion of traditional class barriers set in the first months of World War II.  

The Roosevelt Administration had created an “ABC” of regulatory agencies to deal with the Great Depression. It regulated the flow of war information by the creation of yet another agency. The Bureau of Motion Pictures had to approve a film before it was released for theater distribution. According to Harris the Bureau was more cautious than Hollywood thought it ought to be.

John Ford enlisted in early 1942 and was put in charge of film production for the Office of Strategic Services, our intelligence agency during the war. Harris notes the rightward drift of Ford’s politics, and that made a difference in how Hollywood covered the war, particularly Russia’s role. George Stevens was part of the U.S. Army film unit that photographed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in 1945, later used as evidence against Nazi bigwigs at the Nuremberg trials.

Perhaps the three best wartime films were released as the war ended. “Best Years of Our Lives” (Warner Brothers 1946) directed by William Wyler, was about the problems of returning veterans. It followed three soldiers and their ordeals of adjusting to civilian life while suffering from battle fatigue (PTSD). Frank Capra’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” was also about the difficulties faced by a returning navy pilot (Liberty Films 1946). “They Were Expendable” by John Ford (MGM late 1945) was about a torpedo boat squadron defending the Philippines against the Japanese invasion in 1941-1942. The Battle of the Philippines was a major military defeat for the Allied forces stationed there. Their commander, Douglas MacArthur, decamped to Australia.

John Huston’s “Battle of San Pietro” (1945), critical of American intelligence during the Italian campaign, was thought too revealing for a wartime audience, and only premiered at the end of the war. Much of the documentary footage produced during the war by Huston and his colleagues only became available after the war. A ten-year-old boy growing up in Garwin, Iowa, going to movie, and watching early television saw lots of it.

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