Lights, camera, action stations for wartime directors
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
By Mark Harris Canongate, 511pp, $59.99 (HB) JOHN Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, Frank Capra: I’m not sure anyone except old film buffs will have heard of any of these directors today but they were undoubtedly outstanding talents of the 1930-70 era and have an enviable stack of Academy Awards to prove it.
Mark Harris, author of Scenes from a Revolution (2008), which considers the best picture nominees from 1967 to argue that was a pivotal year for Hollywood, has again dived into a staggering amount of research, including diaries, private letters, the memories of friends and relatives, and government reports. He has the ability, fairly rare these days, of being able to distil the information into a coherent, vivid narrative.
There were few anti-Nazi films made in Hollywood until the late 1930s. Up to that point
May 10-11, 2014 it was felt that Hitler was so extreme the Germans eventually would reject him. Further, the German market was a big one for American films and anti-German films could imperil it.
By 1938 Washington realised Hitler was entrenched and it was necessary to produce films that created an awareness of the Nazi and Japanese threat, as well as ones sympathetic to the British, who were regarded with ambivalence verging on hostility — an attitude that changed rapidly with films such as Mrs Miniver, a sentimental and idyllically inaccurate portrayal of British life, by Wyler (a Jew born in Alsace).
All five of the directors were past recruitment age when the war began and all were earning telephone number salaries. Ford was known for, among other films, Stagecoach, The Informer and How Green was My Valley; Stevens for several comedies and the action epic Gunga Din; Wyler for Wuthering Heights and The Letter; Capra for optimistic comedies including It Happened One Night and Mr Deeds Goes to Town. Only Huston was at an early stage of his career with several script credits. His first film as director, The Maltese Falcon (1941) was a huge success.
Capra, despite being Sicilian-born and technically an enemy alien, was in charge of the group and spent most of the war in Washington, where he produced the Why We Fight series designed to explain to the troops the reasons for the war and America’s involvement in it.
The four others, all of whom had to give up their Hollywood salaries and work for pay of $4000 a year, were engaged on various fronts. Ford made The Battle of Midway in the Pacific and edited the material secretly so the military couldn’t influence the final shape of the film. In fact, all five directors, well versed in dealing with interfering Hollywood producers, were adroit in handling Washington brass.
Wyler, displaying extraordinary courage, flew several missions in Lancaster bombers to shoot material for his documentary The Memphis Belle. Pilots were astonished when he asked them to fly closer to the flak so he could get better shots. He eventually went almost completely deaf in the freezing and unpressurised planes and after the war had to direct feature films with earphones so he could hear the actors.
Huston’s celebrated documentary The Battle of San Pietro was, Harris reveals to my amaze- ment, a total reconstruction. War footage of advancing troops is difficult to film for obvious reasons. Huston, re-creating the battle once it was over, set the template for “actuality” footage: handheld cameras, awkward compositions and shaking images when explosions were nearby. His skill at handling actors was a plus with the soldiers chosen to re-fight the battle.
Stevens accompanied the first Allied troops into Dachau and was devastated by the horrors. His film Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps was screened at the Nuremberg trials and annihilated any credibility of the Nazi hierarchy on trial. Even their defence lawyer said the film “would rob its viewers of sleep … it was intolerable to sit in the same room with the men being represented”.
All five men, not surprisingly, had their lives changed by their experiences. Only Capra failed to make a comeback as a major director after the war. He directed a further six films but his political naivety and idealistic heroes were well out of fashion. He was stunned by the critical and commercial failure of It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), a film now often revived and regarded as a masterpiece.