Why you should care
Because Mark Harris’s new book, Five Came Back , is a great (unshot) documentary in its own right.
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His first landmark book, Pictures at a Revolution , chronicled 1967’s five Oscar nominees for best picture, transmuting their story into a hinge moment for American movies, the watershed when lumbering, amiable white elephants like Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner began to yield the field to the trailblazers likeBonnie and Clyde . (The Academy split the difference and rewarded In the Heat of the Night .)
As good — or better — is his new one, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War , which irises in on a different quintet: five Hollywood directors who bailed on thriving careers to enlist in World War II. John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra: The war scarred them all, and each in his own way wound up coloring — through the documentaries they shot, through the stories they brought home — how Americans think about war.
Five Hollywood directors who wound up coloring … how Americans think about war.
It’s vintage Harris, a story lying around in plain sight that everybody knew pieces of, just waiting for a gifted journalist to bring it in for a landing. The cast of characters approximates what Pauline Kael once called a classic ’40s-movie bomber-crew cast: the plucky Sicilian kid (Frank Capra), the sensitive Jew (William Wyler), the irascible old Irish colonel (John Ford), the spoiled playboy (John Huston) and George Stevens, a cheerful, can-do Californian who’d always succeeded at anything he put his hand to.
By the time the war ended, other cliches would come true: Together and separately, some of these five would panic under fire, and some would rise to hitherto unsuspected heights of heroism. None would sustain life-threatening wounds except — whether for a year or, sadly, a career — creatively.
A founding editor of Entertainment Weekly straight out of college, married to the writer Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Lincoln ), Harris writes especially well about the psychology of creative collaboration. Check out the masterful way he contrasts Huston’s and Ford’s use of the camera to apprehend the world or fend it off, or his account of the moment Samuel Goldwyn’s team cracked maybe the best WWII movie of all:
“[B]y the next morning he had had a breakthrough. He had decided that the three men, as different as they were, should become comrades and weave in and out of another’s narratives as they collectively discover their paths to renewed hope. He sat down with Goldwyn at the breakfast table and, scene by scene, told him exactly what The Best Years of Our Lives was going to be.”
Sound familiar? Add two extra veterans, and that’s pretty much Five Came Back right there. There’s only one catch: The he of that headlong paragraph, the one who licks the story over trayf at Sam Goldwyn’s breakfast table isn’t Wyler, the picture’s director. No, it’s Robert Sherwood, the movie’s screenwriter, who also found time to win three Pulitzer Prizes for drama and one for biography, write some of FDR’s best speeches and direct the overseas operations of the Office of Wartime Information — all while crippled by an agonizing nerve disease dating to his service in the First World War.
Together and separately, some of these five would panic under fire, and some would rise to hitherto unsuspected heights of heroism.
Not a bad story right there, if only Harris’s five-director, tightly auteurist focus allowed some room for it, but sometimes this great film journalist can read strangely like a virtuoso formalist poet. He hardly ever puts a foot wrong, but his perfect scansion won’t let him digress even on those rare occasions when it might be called for — it’s IMDBic pentameter.
None of that, however, even comes close to interfering with the book’s epic CinemaScope sweep. From the earliest anti-Semitic underpinnings of Hollywood anti-Communism all the way through George Stevens’s filming of the concentration camp at Nordhausen, where starving prisoners had only just left off assembling V-2 rockets, Five Came Back is narrative history at its most outraged and humane.
Whatever Tony Kushner has been learning from Harris about film, Mark Harris may be learning just as much from his husband about America and being Jewish in it. Five Came Back is his Pentateuch.
David Kipen, a former literature director at the National Endowment for the Arts, is a journalist and the founder of Libros Schmibros, a nonprofit lending library in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Boyle Heights.