In 1941 William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens and relative newcomer John Huston were considered in the top echelon of Hollywood directors. All five volunteered their film making talents to the U.S. military in support of the war effort. Mark Harris' excellent account, Five Came Back, tells their story and of the impact their wartime experience had on their lives and movie making after WWII.
All saw action, particularly Ford, who was wounded at Midway in 1942, landed in Normandy shortly after D-Day, and followed the hedgerow fighting of the next few weeks, Wyler, who flew several bombing missions over Germany, losing most of his hearing on a bomber flight in Italy, and Stevens who landed on D-Day and also filmed the hedgerow fighting.
Over the course of their careers the five directors accumulated 33 Oscar nominations for Best Director and won 13 times, while Huston added eight best screenplay nominations and one win.
Five Came Back takes us back to a different time, when most of America made a weekly trip to the movies where they would watch double features, newsreels, and cartoons, making a day of it at the theater. Many of the directors films were made to be shown as 15-40 minutes movies in between or before feature films.
Ford was first up, volunteering his services to the Navy a year before Pearl Harbor and beginning to select and train a film unit in anticipation of America entering the war. Born in 1894, Ford began his directing career in 1917, directing Spencer Tracy and Humphrey Bogart in their first films and "discovering" John Wayne, making him a star in Stagecoach (1939). By the time of Pearl Harbor he'd already collected three Best Director Oscars for The Informer (1935), The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and How Green Was My Valley (1941). On Midway atoll in June 1942 he was hit by shrapnel from Japanese bombers. The Midway film, eventually shown in more than 75% of movie theaters, provided audiences with their first realistic view of combat. He and his team also took the memorable footage of the 32 members of Torpedo Squadron 8, all but one of whom died in the attack on Japanese carriers. This footage was later made into by Ford into a short film and hand delivered given to the families of the crew members (the movie was not seen publicly until the 1990s).
William Wyler directed Wuthering Heights (1939) and Jezebel (1938) and his last film before joining the military was Mrs Miniver, the tale of a stiff upper lip English family and community resisting the Germans, for which he won the Oscar for Best Director. Wyler and his team flew several bombing missions from airfields in the UK over Germany including on the Memphis Belle, the subject of his 1944 film. A Jewish immigrant from Alsace, who attempted to get his relatives out before the Nazis came, Wyler revisited his home town after it was liberated and found all his relatives "gone". In 2019, recently restored footage taken by Wyler and his team, was released in a new documentary The Cold Blue.
Wyler's good friend, John Huston, already had a long career as a screenwriter including films such as Sargent York and High Sierra and had just directed his first movie, The Maltese Falcon, making Humphrey Bogart a star in the process. Huston saw action in Italy in late 1943. His film, The Battle of San Pietro, is mostly a recreation done with the assistance of the army, but provided a somber and unflinching account of combat shown to the American public in 1945. San Pietro is also the battle that inspired the most famous column of Ernie Pyle's career, The Death of Captain Waskow. Returning to the U.S later that year, Huston was given access to military hospitals where he made a documentary, Let There Be Light, about traumatized and psychologically disturbed soldiers and of how some of them recovered. After obtaining initial approval from the military, after viewing the end product permission was revoked (in part because of understandable privacy issues) and the film suppressed until it was finally shown in 1981.
At the time Frank Capra was the best known of the group having already amassed six Best Director nominations and three wins, for You Can't Take It With You in 1938, It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr Deeds Goes To Town (1936). Other films include many still frequently shown on Turner Classic Movies such as Lost Horizon (1937), Mr Smith Goes To Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941). Capra spent most of the war in Washington DC fighting the military bureaucracy and directing much of the work of the other directors. He oversaw a series of films entitled Why We Fight and designed to be shown to all soldiers in training, and also, again much opposition, created The Negro Soldier (1944).
While all the directors were affected by their wartime experience it was probably George Stevens on whom it had the most impact. Before the war, Stevens specialized in light comedy and stylized action, directing Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers in Swingtime (1936), Gunga Din (1939) and collaborating with Katherine Hepburn on three films, including the first Hepburn-Spencer Tracey pairing, Woman of the Year (1942).
Stevens landed with the British on D-Day and experienced the brutal hedgerow fighting in Normandy. He and his crew followed the Allies across Northwest Europe. Seeing combat up close led to him to regret making Gunga Din which he felt romanticized war. In early 1945, Stevens accompanied the first troops to enter Nordhausen, the underground factory where V-2 rockets were produced by slave laborers working under horrible conditions. But it was his final experience that was the most harrowing. In April 1945 he accompanied the U.S army when it liberated Dachau. He saw the stacks of bodies everywhere, prisoners dying even as they were freed and the skeletal conditions of the survivors. Stevens felt he could not ask any of his crew to go into the boxcars full of the dead, so he did it himself in order to ensure it was documented for posterity. Stevens and his crew stayed at Dachau for two months, documenting everything, interviewing survivors and trying, as best they could, to help. Harris spares no details in describing what they witnessed.
Only a small portion of what Stevens filmed was deemed suitable for American newsreels but edited his footage into a documentary that was used in the Nuremberg war crimes trials of the leading Nazis and it is this footage that most of us have seen in all the TV show documenting the horrors of the concentration camps.
Frank Capra never regained his popularity after the war. His first film was It's A Wonderful Life, a tonally difficult movie starring Jimmy Stewart, who was still suffering post-traumatic stress after his stint as a bomber pilot and deputy wing commander. The film received mixed reviews and was a financial failure, though today regarded as a classic. Capra made only five more films, none commercially successful, before retiring in 1961.
John Huston went on to a long career, making films into the late 1980s, usually reflecting a rather sardonic and incriminating view of human nature. His first film after the war was Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) and other well-known ones include Key Largo (1948), The Asphalt Jungle (1950), The Red Badge of Courage and The African Queen (both from 1951), the glorious The Man Who Would Be King (1975) and Prizzi's Honor (1985). He also carved out a niche as a character actor, most notably as the malevolent Noah Cross in Chinatown (1974).
John Ford was the first of the directors to return to Hollywood, making They Were Expendable, a grim and fatalistic tale of a PT boat crew trying to survive the Japanese onslaught in the Philippines in early 1942. The movie starred John Wayne and Robert Montgomery. During the initial phase of filming Ford was brutal to Wayne, who had not served, until Montgomery, who had seen combat, intervened and told Ford to stop. Ford went on to make many more films with Wayne, winning another Best Director Oscar for The Quiet Man (1952). The theme of the two finest Ford/Wayne Westerns, The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962) is of the need for tough, reckless and even lawless men to bring civilization about and how those men, because they remain barbarians, can never fit into that civilized life themselves.
William Wyler made the most acclaimed of post-WWII films, The Best Days of Our Lives (1946) which swept the Academy Awards (this is a very good interview with Mark Harris about the film). Reflecting Wyler's own experiences, it is an attempt to honestly deal with the struggles of returning veterans to daily life. If you have not seen it, you should do so. His other best known post-war film was Ben-Hur (1959) winner of twelve academy awards.
George Stevens refused to return to comedy. Drinking heavily after leaving Dachau, he had difficulty adjusting upon his return to Los Angeles, initially expressing no desire to make movies. His wife explained, "You can never be right after you've seen things like that. He was just shocked. He never got over it." Stevens directed only eight films after the war, all with strong moral themes, including A Place In the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), Giant (1956), The Diary of Ann Frank (1959), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965).
Five Came Back is highly recommended. This summary barely touches the complexity of the story and the challenges each director faced in their work during the war, including the obstacles from the military bureaucracy (though both FDR and George Marshall were very supportive of releasing their work to the general public). My only criticism of the book is, unfortunately, an all too common one with newer books about this time period - the misunderstanding of the seriousness of communist activity in the United States prior to WWII and during the war years.
The book dismisses anti-communists as a general matter and in doing so commits three errors.
First, it erases the fact that in the 1930s there was a socialist left that was anti-communist. Norman Thomas, leader of the Socialist Party was strongly anti-communist because the Communist Party was anti-democratic and run by a foreign power hostile to the U.S.
Second, it ignores the vexing period from August 1939 to June 1941 when American communists, under party discipline, campaigned vigorously against American involvement in the war against the Nazis and even against providing aid to Britain in its lonely struggle against Hitler, all because Stalin was an ally of Germany.
Third, it confuses the McCarthy period (1950-54) when the internal communist threat was highly exaggerated by the reckless Wisconsin Senator with the earlier period when the American Communist Party was a stronger force and there was extensive infiltration of the government and industry by commie spies.