This review may read like a panegyric. To be fair, Five Came Back is worthy of one. Mark Harris’ new book, “a Story about Hollywood and the Second World War,” is a magisterial work. It’s not just about what the film industry went through in those traumatic five years, or how much the Allied forces was infiltrated by filmmakers eager to document mankind’s largest war yet. It covers those territories efficiently, but it also finds time to ruminate on things war does a person, the depths to which shallow career pursuits can pervade someone’s mind or the questionable intermingling of news with propaganda. Oh, and that Darryl F. Zanuck, because of his restive nature, was called “Darryl F. Panic” by John Ford.
The book’s narrative covers the five years of World War II and moves chronologically, except for a prologue set during Pearl Harbor and an epilogue closing the open threads on all principal characters. John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston—five major American directors who left flourishing or promising careers back home to help their country however they could—are the protagonists in Harris’ narrative. Through their actions (and the reactions these actions evoke worldwide), Five Came Back travels the world, flitting from Hollywood to Washington, Normandy, London and more. By the time the War ends and the book moves back to Los Angeles to say goodbye to its characters, a reader is spent but satisfied. More than five years traversed in less than 500 pages.
For long I’ve been fascinated by the confluence of cinema as an art form, as a product arising out of a certain society and as heritage from a particular era. Five Came Back analyzes cinema from all three perspectives. Harris is a historian; his previous book, Pictures at a Revolution, used five movies from 1967 to depict the growth of a “new Hollywood.” This task seems like a cakewalk compared to Five Came Back, where he covers the most cataclysmic event of the twentieth century. His research is thorough and that comes across in the writing. This book can tell you what James Stewart said to friend and colleague Frank Capra after the flustered director made an unflattering pitch to him for It’s a Wonderful Life. (Answer: “Frank, if you want to do a movie about me committing suicide, with an angel with no wings named Clarence, I’m your boy.”)
The treasure trove of information that Five Came Back contains—such as the anecdote above—make it priceless for cinephiles, especially those interested in the era or the directors. Wouldn’t you want to read the prologue that may have started The Memphis Belle, William Wyler’s masterful-as-propaganda documentary?
However, this should not overshadow the fact that Harris is an incisive and erudite critic too. In fact, the film criticism in Five Came Back is so neatly ensconced in the narrative that I often became so immersed in the history lesson I didn’t realize I was essentially reading a review sans-headline. By virtue of the book’s subject, any critique of any title comes contextualized within the real-world situation and the narrative until then. For example, when writing about They Were Expendable, the first film Ford made after the War ended, Harris extrapolates about the inspiration behind various elements of the film. He brings into the discussion what Ford’s experience in the Army taught him, the strain of his relationship with star John Wayne and the public mood post-War. The analysis of any scene has more gravity to it; each decision taken has more meaning to it.
The book is a page-turner at every stage, but by no means is it light reading—due to the shocking nature of the incidents themselves. The characters’ travails take them to the most gruesome sights of the War, and Harris’ writing is strong enough to carry the weight of the event. George Stevens ended up going to the Dachau concentration camp, and his first meeting with a prisoner left me with a lump in my throat. The camp was “where [Stevens] learned about life.” (He went into depression soon after.) The footage he gathered was shown at the Nuremberg trials as evidence, after which one defense counsel said it had become intolerable to sit in the same room with the men they were there to represent. And this is just one subplot, from one character’s journey.
I may be slightly lenient on this book. World War II, the studio system and cinema-as-propaganda have intrigued me for long. Thus, I could easily pardon things like chapter-ending hooks that are naked attempts at cliffhangers. However, these are minor flaws, and they detract little from the book’s formidable strengths. Five Came Back is one of the best books on film I’ve read in a long time, and that’s because it’s so much more than that.