Mark Harris: Five Came Back

Unlike 405,399 of their fellow American servicemen (according to the Department of Veterans Affairs), John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra did return from the trauma of the Second World War. But they were, like all of the “greatest generation” soldiers, profoundly changed by the experience.

Two of the five had been wounded. Only one, Capra, never saw combat, serving instead as an administrative officer in Washington, D.C., and ironically, he was the one whose directorial career became a casualty of the war. Wyler, already a director of esteemed dramas, made a postwar film that is regarded as one of the greatest of all American war films, though it takes place on the home front and after the Armistice. The Best Years of Our Lives won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Director; it marked the sixth and final Oscar nomination for cinematographer Gregg Toland, who photographed films for Ford and Wyler before the war. Toland directed a documentary of the attack on Pearl Harbor under Ford's supervision; Ford took it over, recut it, and claimed principal screen credit for himself.

2. the best years

At age 46, Ford was the eldest and the first of the five directors to enlist, months before the Dec. 7, 1941, attack. He was also the first to leave the war, after an ignominious three-day drunken binge a week after D-Day. He was found nearly comatose in a tavern cached among the hedgerows of Normandy.

Wyler became deaf as a result of painful engine noise and wind during a bombing raid over Italy that he photographed with his Eyemo — ironically, after having completed The Memphis Belle. Toland devised a jerry-rigged hearing aid for his friend during the making of The Best Years of Our Lives, their fifth and final film collaboration.

Stevens fought and filmed in color from the D-Day landing in Normandy to the mad dash to liberate Paris. He was forever changed when he and his unit liberated Dachau. The unbearably tragic footage we have seen of starved prisoners with sunken, dead eyes is his.

Huston alternately partied and fought, much in keeping with his bad-boy image, but he hunkered down and made San Pietro, about one of the most closely observed battles of the war. (The film was not made under fire; its action was totally recreated shortly after the actual battle had been won at great human cost.) The Memphis Belle, Wyler’s deeply moving film, was photographed mainly by Bill Clothier, who shot several Westerns for Ford after the war.

Battle of San Pietro

These are just a few of the hundreds of detailed anecdotes and interlocking ironies that Mark Harris recounts in his revelatory book Five Came Back.

You may think you’ve already read enough about WWII, but this book provides intimate perspectives of five of America’s greatest directors and dozens of cinematographers during the conflict; it is a corrective to the old saw that Hollywood stayed home and made make-believe war on its soundstages. Harris' book also fills in crucial blanks in the careers of these five filmmakers, whose subsequent work will now be seen in a fresh light. And it’s entertaining: Harris has a flair for suspense, always keeping you inside the moment-to-moment danger and urgency that framed those years. He doesn’t avoid Hollywood on the home front, either. One chapter begins with the story of Bette Davis’ brief stint as president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. She resigned her position after several months, prior to the 1942 Academy Awards, in a dustup with the Academy's Board of Governors, who brought no honor to themselves a few months after the start of the war.

Capt. Roy Boulting (left) of the British Army Film Unit and Lt. Col. Frank Capra, British Film Unit, February 1944.
Capt. Roy Boulting (left) of the British Army Film Unit and Lt. Col. Frank Capra, February 1944.

This past June, I met Mark Harris for breakfast in New York City at my local eatery, Old John’s Restaurant on West 67th and Amsterdam. Mark lives just a few blocks away. I had approached him earlier that week after a screening at Film Forum that he introduced. Bruce Goldstein, the Forum’s éminence grise, had booked Wyler’s Memphis Belle and Huston’s San Pietro, and Mark signed copies of his book in the lobby after the screening. Although I already knew both documentaries, seeing them anew in film prints was a shocker; I experienced them in a wholly new context, on a big screen with an audience, just as wartime audiences had in their own neighborhood movie houses. I had just finished reading Mark’s book, and his engrossing study of Capra, Wyler, Ford, Huston and Stevens at war, and how their lives and careers were irretrievably altered by the traumatic events they witnessed and/or participated in, had kept me up late, spellbound at the unfolding drama.

Mark, being much younger than I, had never met any of these cinema titans, so I told him about my encounters with three of the five: Capra, Ford and Huston. I was barely out of film school when I was on a BBC camera crew that was interviewing Capra and Ford; I met Huston a decade later when I was a camera operator on Winter Kills, in which he was an actor. But I didn’t reveal to Mark how I ended up with one of Ford’s etched Pilsner beer glasses. I just sent him a link to my post “My Morning with John Ford."

I have a feeling Mark and I will have much to talk about in coming years, meeting up at Old John’s, swapping stories like habitués at their Middle European cafe Stammtisch. This unassuming neighborhood eatery is one of the few such places left in the Lincoln Center area since Carol and I moved to West 67th Street more than 30 years ago. As we chatted, Mark agreed to respond to a few of my many burning questions:

After ‘Pictures at a Revolution,’ your book about the Oscar-nominated films from 1967, what led you to choose the subject of ‘Five Came Back’?

Mark Harris: I was roaming through film history, looking for a new subject, and I suddenly became aware that the movies made during World War II, and the careers of the directors who made them during those years, were something I knew very little about and had always avoided, so I wanted to investigate my own fear of tackling such a big subject. At the same time, as I was conceiving the book, we were years into two wars, and I was aware that Hollywood’s attention to them, let alone participation in them, was almost nonexistent. The prospect of looking at the industry at a moment when it was both startlingly different than it is now and startlingly familiar really excited me.

5. memphis-belle

Until now, the WWII years of the five filmmakers you profile have not been given close attention by film historians. Why did you decide this brief period was crucial to understanding their work?

I refer to it only half jokingly as ‘the IMDB gap.’ We all tend to think that a filmmaker’s career can be understood by just systematically working through his feature-film credits, but sometimes what didn’t happen, what you don’t see on that list, or the length of the gap between movies tells a crucial part of the story. When you look at Wyler or Stevens, there’s a real divide between their pre- and postwar work, so it made sense to me to look at the divide itself. Everyone I’ve ever met of my father’s generation who served in the Second World War said it was a defining experience for them. Why wouldn’t that be true for directors as well?

Each of the five directors was profoundly affected by his wartime experiences, both as a filmmaker and as a man. What most surprised you about each of them?

Rather than give a different answer about each director — and give too much of the book away! — I’ll offer one answer that I think applies in different ways to all five of them. Ford, Wyler, Huston, Capra and Stevens all went into the war as much older men than the average draftee; they already had distinguished careers, they were in their 30s and 40s, and they entered as officers. I think what surprised me most was the profound level of trauma — sometimes physical, but more often psychological — that each of them experienced. The war wasn’t what any of them expected it to be, and what they experienced reverberated through the rest of their lives and careers.

Which of the five was most altered for good or bad by his wartime experience, and how so?

I’m not sure that war alters anyone for the better. Wyler lost his hearing in the war, and Stevens, in a way, lost his innocence at Dachau, and both of them did what great artists do, which is to try to reach into themselves and bring their deeper understanding of the world to their art. I wouldn’t say Capra was altered for the worse, but he certainly had the hardest time after the war. He was the only one who was really unable to regain his balance, professionally speaking.

6. why we fight

Beyond the obvious propaganda value of films such as the Capra-supervised ‘Why We Fight,’ which of the wartime and war-influenced films continue to have the greatest value today?

One of the happiest experiences I’ve had since the book was published has been showing some of these movies to audiences and seeing that I’m not alone in feeling that The Best Years of Our Lives deserves recognition as one of the greatest American films ever, period, end of subject. But I’ve also been very excited about steering people toward some films they may not have seen, like Stevens’ The More the Merrier or Ford’s They Were Expendable, or that they may have dismissed as inconsequential or out of date, like Mrs. Miniver. I hope the book encourages readers to look at the work of all five men from a more understanding vantage point. Even It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie I don’t love the way many people do, becomes, I think, a much richer film if you know a little bit about the context in which it was made and about Capra’s journey to making it.

Are any of these wartime films a window into the personal themes and obsessions of the directors?

That’s a hard question. I try to resist over-determined psychoanalytic readings of movies because they don’t emerge fully hatched from the subconscious minds of their directors. The other people involved, and coincidences and practicalities and money issues and circumstantial oddities, shape movies at least as much as conscious or subconscious intention does. But you can’t look at The Best Years of Our Lives or They Were Expendable without seeing the passion or the personal experience of Wyler and Ford reflected in them.

7. the memphis belle
The Memphis Belle crew.

The photographic styles of two of the most famous WWII documentaries, Wyler’s Memphis Belle and Huston’s San Pietro, really surprise me as contrasts. Wyler’s film features footage of real bombing missions over German skies, while Huston’s film is about a battle already fought near Naples and was almost totally recreated. The camera style and narrative structure of each film seems to suggest otherwise. What are your thoughts on this?

Re-enactment and outright falsification were not unheard of in WWII documentaries. San Pietro is probably the most extreme example of it, but it would be a mistake to assume that Huston staged the battle because he was lazy or trying to get away with something. He was essentially following his orders, which were to deliver a firsthand documentary about the liberation of a small Italian village. The early vérité camera style Huston used is there because he wanted to convey truth, the truth of what he thought combat looked and felt like. Wyler, by contrast, refused to stage anything; all of the aerial footage in Memphis Belle was shot by him or one of his two cameramen during actual bombing missions. That, of course, means that some of the footage is compromised, because shooting in a freezing, unpressurized bomber during a mission turned out not to be that easy! I think one result of writing the book is that I’m now much warier about using the word ‘realistic’ when I describe a movie. Am I talking about the circumstances of its making, a conscious style choice, its ability to persuade viewers, or none of the above?

The notions of bravery and manhood under fire in ‘Five Came Back’ are dramatic without ever being explicit. How Wyler and Ford experienced the war’s trauma poses a stark contrast to how they often spoke about it in later years.

As extraordinary as these men were, they were all, also, inevitably, men of their time and era, and part of a generation that would have thought it weak or unmanly, in a way, to talk about their war experiences in terms of personal trauma. Ford alluded to it very briefly a couple of times, but it was almost 20 years later. Wyler, Stevens and Huston were more candid, I think, about their experiences, but again, it took many years. In a way, Capra is the most fascinating case. His autobiography, The Name Above the Title, is full of embellishment and outright lies, but it also has passages in which he writes with real candor and is absolutely unsparing of himself. I think they all spent the rest of their lives trying to figure out what, exactly, the war meant to them — as did many people who served and survived.

John Huston (second from left) and Frank Capra (right), London, August 1943.
Posing in London in August 1943 are (from left) Capt. Anthony Veiller, Capt. John Huston, Maj. Hugh Stewart and Lt. Col. Frank Capra. Veiller was a screenwriter who worked with Capra on Why We Fight and, later, with Huston on Moulin Rouge. Stewart commanded the British Army Film Unit. (Photo: Bettmann/CORBIS)

Both of your books are more than historical accounts; they’re revealing examinations of times we thought we already knew. Does your perspective take shape at the start of your research, or does it surprise you in its development?

Definitely the latter. I love being surprised. I’m a journalist, and I didn’t go into these books with any sort of thesis, like ‘most World War II propaganda films were falsified’ or ‘the war damaged all of these men.’ That would require me to leave out interesting information that I uncover because it doesn’t happen to fit my point of view. I enter these projects with questions. For Five Came Back, I wanted to know how these men got from Point A to Point B, and with them the movie industry, and with them the country. They’re fascinating men and great directors, and the stakes can’t get much higher than a world war, so I was open to telling whatever story I found. As I researched the book, I’d sometimes struggle with the fact that I didn’t particularly like one or another of them as I found out what they had done. That was my failing and something I knew I would have to get past — and I always did, eventually. My journey through the book was a journey toward understanding all five of them as deeply and personally as I could.


Both The Memphis Belle and San Pietro are available on YouTube. Wyler’s film does, in fact, look a lot like a scripted and staged Hollywood movie, but it was shot in combat (except for the tacked-on royal visit at the end).

The action in Huston’s film, shot in a handheld, long-lens documentary style, was recreated except for a few shots done under fire a short time earlier. In his review in The Nation, James Agee wrote,

No war film I have seen has been quite so attentive to the heaviness of casualties, and to the number of yards gained or lost in such an action; none has so levelly watched and implied what it meant, in such full and complex terms.

The film’s narration is by the director.

Mark Harris is an editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly and contributes to Grantland. Two years ago he authored Entertainment Weekly’s cover story on coming out in Hollywood. In the summer of 2008, he married playwright Tony Kushner at Town Hall in Provincetown, Mass., five years after their commitment ceremony at another Upper West Side eatery, the spacious Gabriel’s, on West 60th just off Columbus Circle.

Mark Harris
Mark Harris

NEXT: The dazzling urban time lapse videos of Rob Whitworth.

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