george stevens in europe
George Stevens in the combat zone in Europe

Borrowing a title from the 1939 John Farrow film, FIVE CAME BACK is the extraordinary story of the wartime service of five of Hollywood’s top directors.

The home front isolationist policy disintegrated with the bombing of Pearl Harbour and picture makers were keen for their expertise to be enlisted to win the war.

John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra are the five film makers that feature in this fascinating document by Mark Harris that pitches and pictures the importance of propaganda in achieving peace.

Frank Capra, director of Mr Deeds Goes To Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was summoned to D.C to work with the War Department where General George Marshall moved him to the Morale Branch.

As Harris has it, “More than any other senior official in the Roosevelt administration, Marshall had a vivid if still unformed vision of the critical role film making could play in the war. The general had seen the army films made by the documentarians. They didn’t carry the kind of sock he wanted. ‘If I’m sick I go to a doctor. If I want a film made, why don’t I go to the guys who make films.”

Being a Hollywood hot shot, Capra could sequester solid screenwriters, and other creatives who could significantly sophisticate training films to stimulate serving personnel and potential recruits.

Dr. Seuss, the cartoonist then known as Theodore S. Geisel, was commissioned a captain and teamed with a thirty year old animator named Chuck Jones, who had been developing a character called Elmer Fudd, who became the prototype of Private SNAFU in a series of 26 shorts over the next eighteen months, – “the funniest, most original, and unquestionably the raunchiest movies ever produced by the Signal Corps.”

George Stevens who would come back to make Shane and Giant, was a soft-hearted front liner assigned to Field Photo who believed that part of his duty was to ready Americans for a time after combat, to “prepare the civilians by sharing the soldiers experiences, for resuming relationship with men who have been away.” He believed those goals were achievable only if the reality of battle was brought to movie screens as soon as possible. “Construct a celluloid monument to those who have been the ones to go. Show the war!”

That’s exactly the credo shared by John Ford, assigned to the Navy, and William Wyler, assigned to the Air Force.

Ford played the part of a gung ho grog fuelled admiral while Wyler flew with the Memphis Belle.

The youngest of the quintet was John Huston, who used the war to expand his sexual adventurism.

Of course propaganda goes hand in hand with its bedfellow, bureaucracy, and at times FIVE CAME BACK reads like a primer for Catch 22, Wag the Dog and Apocalypse Now.

Photographing under fire, shooting film while being shot at with ammunition, made for confusion in focus and composition, so battles had to re-enacted for clarity.

Huston was flown to the Mojave Desert, the closest visual match for Tunisia and ordered to manufacture the Allied operation in North Africa without ever leaving the United States.

The War Activities committee vetted all pictures intended for theatrical release, and found real life dialogue captured by William Wyler on the Memphis Belle was blasphemous and the mere implication of son of a bitch was taboo.

“The function of the production code is not to be patriotic, it is to be moral” is echoed in Kurtz’s speech in Apocalypse Now forty years later- “We train young men to drop fire on people, but their commanders wont allow them to write “fuck” on their airplanes because it’s obscene.”

FIVE CAME BACK is essential reading, not only for film buffs, but for anyone who has an interest in the machinations of the politics of conflict. It gives readers an excellent excuse to review the films made by these men after their wartime experience and compare and contrast those pictures made by the quintet before the war.

FIVE CAME BACK by Mark Harris is a Canongate Hardback 511pp plus archival photographs. Recommended price $59.99.