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'Five Came Back' chronicles filmmakers in WWII

Major Frank Capra, movie director, at his desk

Major Frank Capra, movie director, at his desk in the War department in Washington, D.C, March 6, 1942. Credit: AP

FIVE CAME BACK: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, by Mark Harris. Penguin Press, 511 pp., $29.95.

The Five were the top writing and directing talent of American cinema's prewar Golden Age: John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and a charger named John Huston, who wowed Tinseltown with his first directorial effort, "The Maltese Falcon" (1941). Capra, the highest paid of the lot, racked up Oscars for such classics as "It Happened One Night" (1934). Ford wasn't far behind in pay or awards, notching three best director wins between 1936 and 1942. Wyler was a genre all-rounder who helmed everything from low-budget westerns to literary adaptations like "Wuthering Heights" (1939), while Stevens was known for comedies that traded on sass and urban sophistication.

In his new book, "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and The Second World War," film historian and Entertainment Weekly columnist Mark Harris chronicles this formidable quintet's wartime experiences as soldier-filmmakers who strove to bring World War II to the screen. Advancing into middle age, they took pay cuts when they signed up; during the war, they made everything from documentaries to training films to cartoon shorts.

Harris deploys the same reportorial diligence that powered his previous book, "Pictures at a Revolution," about the 1967 Oscar race for best picture. His style is dry at times, but succinct. Mining memoirs, government documents, trade periodicals, film criticism, letters and scripts, Harris painstakingly chronicles how Hollywood collaborated with the U.S. government as it waged war against Japan and Germany.

"They would honor their country, risk their lives, and create a new visual vocabulary for fictional and factual war movies," Harris writes of his subjects. "Some of them would also blur the lines between the two, compromising themselves in ways they would spend the rest of their days trying to understand, or justify, or forget. By the time they came home, the idea they had once held that the war would be an adventure lingered only as a distant memory of their guileless incomprehension. They returned to Hollywood changed forever as men and as filmmakers."

Over 29 chapters, Harris backs up these words. The always raring-to-go John Ford was already in a U.S. Navy uniform when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. He created the Field Photo Unit, for the "over-age and rich, people who could never have been drafted." He was in the thick of things at the Battle of Midway, filming some of the most dramatic footage of the war (in color) for his documentary of the same name, sustaining a shrapnel wound in the process.

In Washington, D.C., Capra, a major in the U.S. Army Signals Corps, spearheaded the famed "Why We Fight" films, a seven-part series highlighting America's allies and the roots of the war, which became required viewing for all GIs. He also employed Theodore Geisel (aka Dr. Seuss) on cartoon shorts about the misadventures of Private SNAFU. Wyler, the only Jew of the five, made a harrowing account of the airmen of the Memphis Belle, a B-17 bomber, joining the crew on dangerous missions over Germany. His footage was powerful, raw and kinetic, capturing attacking German fighters and burning aircraft. Huston was dispatched to the far reaches of Alaska, and later made "The Battle of San Pietro" during the Italian campaign. Stevens filmed the liberation of Paris, traveling with the Allies as they pushed on to Germany.

The relationship between the filmmakers and the armed services was often tense, confused and contradictory. Authenticity was key, but dramatization often won out and re-enactments became a necessary evil. After footage was lost during the North African campaign, Capra had Stevens shoot staged battle scenes that would go into "Tunisian Victory." Huston fancied himself a front-line warrior in the thick of action, but, as Harris writes, "'The Battle of San Pietro' was a scripted, acted, and directed movie that contained barely two minutes of actual, unreconstructed documentation."

Still, the war took its toll on these men -- Huston battled post-traumatic stress disorder, and Ford drank like a fiend. Perhaps none suffered more than Stevens. At the end of the war, this director of smart, sprightly films -- he guided Hepburn and Tracy -- found himself in Dachau, his spirit nearly destroyed. He filmed footage of bodies stacked high, and survivors who were not recognizably human. "After the war, I don't think I was ever too hilarious again," Stevens said. Five came back, and nothing was ever the same.

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