Lights, cam­era, ac­tion sta­tions for war­time di­rec­tors

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Bruce Beres­ford

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.

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