The Brilliance of "Five Came Back"

By Laya MaheshwariAugust 24, 2014

Five Came Back by Mark Harris

IN THE PENULTIMATE episode of Band of Brothers, the award-winning World War II miniseries from Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks, the soldiers of Easy Company, an infantry company in the United States Army, stumble onto a concentration camp. They are shocked and subdued by the squalor they witness. Over the course of the series, we have seen these soldiers endure relentless attacks by the Axis forces, and defend themselves in ways that they (and we) are ashamed to watch. After bearing witness to these actions, we wonder: why is it that only the Nazis are the bad guys? What makes the soldiers of the Easy Company so good? The episode, aptly titled “Why We Fight,” answers the moral dilemma facing the viewers (and some characters) by pointing out the level of cruelty displayed by Hitler’s forces. More important, under David Frankel’s detached gaze, the episode shows us what it must have been like for these individuals, hitherto unaware of the true extent of Nazi brutality, to discover irrefutable evidence of it. It is a great hour of storytelling, one that has remained ingrained in my memory since I first saw the series.

It has now been six weeks since I finished reading Mark Harris’s new book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, and I have been unable to shake a similar kind of encounter. Towards the end of Five Came Back, director George Stevens and his crew join the British and American forces sweeping through Germany, tasked with filming whatever they come across. An Allied victory is on the horizon. Stevens has just shot footage of the handover of Paris and whimsical, joyous scenes on the streets, and is having a grand old time. Then, he’s ordered to proceed to Dachau, rumored to be the site of a Nazi prisoner camp. His role changes from “combat photographer” to “gatherer of evidence.”

Stevens’s abrupt shift from Parisian reveler to Holocaust witness is emblematic of Harris’s narrative style throughout Five Came Back. Harris follows Stevens’s thoughts and feelings as he collects his equipment and gets in the army truck, waiting to reach his destination. Once inside the Dachau camp, Stevens starts filming the plight of the prisoners, alive and dead, accumulating evidence for the future investigation of the Nazi officials. Here, Harris explains the director’s style of filming, his preferred length of takes, and his ideas for the finished product. “Sometimes he would not move the camera or cut away,” Harris writes. “[H]e would simply hold fast on a single image until his film ran out.” The action shifts to Germany, where the Nuremberg trials are underway and Stevens’s documentaries are screened as part of the prosecution’s argument. In the mold of a historical nonfiction document, the story catalogs the effect Stevens’s work had on the trial. (One defense counsel said it had “become intolerable to sit in the same room” as the men they were representing.) Finishing this thread is a description of Stevens’s career once he returned to America, and his place in postwar Hollywood, a textbook finish that brings the reader back to the industry at home.


Five Came Back is a hard book to classify. The 528-page hardcover, published by Penguin Press, is billed as a “work of history and collective biography” in the author’s notes, but is alternatively a collection of film criticism and more. It picks five American directors — John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and Stevens — and through their careers and lives depicts the part that Hollywood played in World War II. In this way, Harris’s second bookis similar to, yet more ambitious than his first, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which followed the tumultuous production of the five movies nominated for the Best Picture Oscar in 1967 to paint a portrait of the cultural revolution of the ’60s.

In Five Came Back, a prologue set during Pearl Harbor establishes the Japanese attack on December 7, 1941, as the fulcrum of the narrative, splitting everything else into “before” and “after.” Painting a picture of Hollywood, Washington, and the directors pre-Pearl Harbor, Harris then moves to the War itself. The first few months reveal that the lack of hierarchy in the army and overbearing bureaucratic hassles prove to be obstacles as big as the Nazi threat. Soon, the directors are assigned different tasks and, as they split up across the world, the narrative follows them around.

Over the years, they bear witness to major World War II conflicts, such as the Battle of Midway and the Battle of San Pietro, while using their cameras to assist the Allied campaign. As the Axis powers are slowly pushed to defeat, the propaganda effort enters its “darkest and most troubling days.” The effect of this calamity on the American filmmaking industry, and especially these individuals, comes to the fore. As the book’s blurb claims, “Like these five men, Hollywood too, and indeed all of America, came back from the war having grown up more than a little.”


Harris could have selected various other individuals to structure his narrative, given the all-encompassing nature of World War II. Studio mogul Darryl F. Zanuck, like the heads of some other Hollywood studios, was commissioned as a colonel in the Army Signal Corps and traipsing around Africa, shooting his own documentary. Academy Award-winning cinematographer Gregg Toland wanted to make his feature-length directorial debut with a movie based on the Pearl Harbor attacks. Yet, the choice of these five filmmakers as protagonists aids the book because of the variety of socioeconomic milieus, professional standings, and genre specializations covered.

On the one hand is the much-feted John Ford. The Irish-American veteran was in the midst of a purple patch — having directed Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, and Drums Along the Mohawk all in a row — and saw answering his country’s call as the “next chapter” in his success story. On the other is George Stevens, the introverted upstart who was told by his agent that enlisting would mean he was “finished as far as the films are concerned.” A figure like the fastidious craftsman William Wyler, a loving family man, is easily contrasted against maverick John Huston, a brash playboy and habitual philanderer. Wyler’s status as the only Jew of the five adds stakes and sadness to the anti-Semitism later depicted by Ford. As the War ends, he visits the Alsatian town of his childhood in a “brief and heartbreaking” visit.

The postings of these individuals and their accomplishments during the War give us the kind of global vantage point on the War to which few books before Harris’s have aspired. Ford was embroiled in the Pacific theater, trying to preserve his life while filming the Battle of Midway. Meanwhile, Wyler was ensconced in the European theater, witnessing London air raids and documenting flying missions over Germany. As the War ended, Huston was in New York, following American soldiers recovering from depression, while Stevens was cataloging Nazi concentration camps and preparing evidence for the Nuremberg trials. Throughout all this, Frank Capra stayed back in the US, wrestling his own set of problems to create the Why We Fight series.

The book weaves in and out of the stylized world of Los Angeles, the fictitious universes of the filmmakers’ movies and the realpolitik environment of the Senate and the battlefield. The action travels from the life-threatening production of a new propaganda film at the front to the reaction it evoked in the White House and then to the audience’s opinion of it after release. Harris interlaces the professional standing of any individual with their personal life at that moment. Often, one acts as an explanation for the other. This means Five Came Back is the kind of book that can — and does — include in its critique of It’s A Wonderful Life a rundown of Frank Capra’s aimlessness and vocational insecurities.

The teaming of these five directors, untested until now, gives Harris a unique ambit. It allows the book to cover issues that would be out of place in a work devoted to any single director. Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford may help a reader understand the work the director put into making How Green Was My Valley. However, Five Came Back can describe Ford walking up the stage to collect an Oscar for the film and then segue to the pain felt by fellow nominee William Wyler, also present in the room, since he was initially supposed to direct the film. The multiple protagonists also ensure that one event can be examined through different perspectives, adding more information to the picture and neutering any rose-tinted or myopic lens. The Name Above The Title, Frank Capra’s autobiography, does not describe how desperately the filmmaker wanted to wrangle an Oscar nomination for his work on Why We Fight. John Huston’s autobiography, An Open Book, is an unreliable read mainly because it is prone to self-aggrandizement, like so many other autobiographies.

The work these directors put in to the war effort led to them collaborating with several notable artists on the way. When Frank Capra wanted to create Private SNAFU, a series of comic shorts to educate young enlistees on issues like the “importance of keeping secrets” or the “hazards of malaria,” he recruited a cartoonist called Theodor S. Geisel (perhaps better known today as Dr. Seuss). When Stevens was dispatched to shoot a British-American co-production called The True Glory, he realized that Paddy Chayefsky, winner of multiple Academy Awards in the future, was already writing the script. Such connections and encounters help establish that the contributions of our protagonists did not exist in the hermetic studio system alone — their lives were diaphanous. Harris illustrates how an event as traumatic as a war spanning the globe can lead to inspiration for beautiful, enriching art; how several individuals who defined the 20th century — and whose work we still cherish today — owe their experiences in the War for shaping them as artists and creators. Not to mention that when the reader reads about Huston bumping into Humphrey Bogart in a makeshift bar in Italy, the joy on the page feels contagious.

Harris does not let such cameos derail his storytelling. The five years of research he undertook for this book must have given him a surplus of information. He did see all 14 unedited reels of footage Huston shot at San Pietro (stored at the National Archives) and read the comment cards filled in by test audiences of Stevens’s The Talk of the Town. Yet, such information is restricted to minor tangents, relegated in favor of Five Came Back’s propulsive narrative; the War forges ahead, and our protagonists move along with it.

Harris’s writing is crisp, unobtrusive, and evocative. He has a good sense of imparting time and place. His accounts of events like the Nuremberg Trials or the Nye Committee hearing are gripping, unerringly bringing to life incidents and conversations that occurred in a different and distant era. When he wants to convey the effect of the first screening of Stevens’s Dachau documentaries, he devotes four paragraphs before that for describing the mood in the courthouse. As the “hall [is] darkened,” Harris summarizes the “vermin-infested” highlights of the footage, noting the reactions of the “shattered” defendants so that his final statement on the issue earns its weight: “[Stevens’s] films had done what weeks of testimony had not: It had made their crimes irrefutable, and their fates inevitable.”

There is no ambiguity over the outcome of World War II, and the careers of these protagonists are hardly unknown. Five Came Back, thankfully, doesn’t pretend that it’s uncovering anything new, which makes its compulsive readability all the more astonishing. Forewarning heightens anticipation; in his writing, Harris capitalizes on our knowledge of history to keep teasing us. We know William Wyler made The Best Years of our Lives, one of his career’s biggest successes, after coming back from the front. So, Harris wallows in the pit of misery the director was in during the War’s last days. He wrings all possible pity out of Wyler’s indecision regarding his comeback project, before hinting at The Best Years of our Lives. It’s a nakedly manipulative move, but one that works because we care about Wyler by then. The same principle is followed when detailing the work Wyler put in on How Green Was My Valley, eventually in vain, or the self-doubt Capra was reeling from before It’s A Wonderful Life.

The prose is benign and bemusing when describing a trifle character moment, such as the soldiers’ reaction to Wyler filming amidst them: “The gunners and navigators weren't sure what to make of the slightly rotund, bespectacled, vaguely foreign-sounding man almost twice their age who had no fixed position and was manning not a gun but a camera.” Meanwhile, it gets incisive, even acerbic, when probing someone’s work. For example, Harris pauses at the release of Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to explain Capra’s (lack of) understanding of nuanced politics, producing this indictment of a running theme in the director’s work: “A veneration of the little guy but a deep distrust of a bunch of little guys once they coalesce into a mob, a pronounced contempt for the intellectual elite intermingled with a hyperpatriotic montage of monuments to great political thinkers.”

I’m not so fond of the cliffhangers that end each chapter. They work sometimes, like when it is revealed that Ford has just filmed the Battle of Midway or that some filmmakers are about to be investigated for Communist ties. More often, however, they feel like they belong in a cheap serialized work, not an otherwise-polished narrative. Sample the hook that ends the fourth chapter: “The resulting showdown would change the balance of power between Hollywood and Washington for the duration of the war.” Another round of proofreading wouldn’t be remiss, since it would resolve errors like: “[Stevens] enjoyed a reunion with Bert Wheeler, the vaudevillian had who starred in some of the first comedies he had directed a decade earlier.” Nevertheless, these are minor flaws and don’t detract significantly from the reading experience.

The use of propaganda, especially when on sketchy legal and administrative territory, has intrigued many for eons. For them, the intertwining of Hollywood and World War II in Five Came Back will be fascinating. Even if one just wants to study the era or the directors mentioned, the book offers a wealth of information, some of which is revelatory. What makes it truly special, though, is that it’s an enjoyable and moving read even for novices. Subconsciously, I had become invested in the fates of these artists as human beings, and was undeniably emotional by the end. Perhaps, just as John Ford and William Wyler and Frank Capra left a bit of themselves in World War II, I had left a bit of myself in the pages reliving their adventures.


Laya Maheshwari is an Indian journalist who specializes in writing about cinema and culture.

LARB Contributor

Laya Maheshwari is an Indian journalist who specializes in writing about cinema and culture. His work has appeared in publications such as Hindustan Times, The Times of Israel, Film Comment,, along with many others. You can read about his titanic struggles with everyday life (and keep up with his writing) by following him on Twitter: @lazygarfield.


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