Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris

“Five Came Back” brings to light “a fascinating episode in motion-picture history.”

(Penguin, $30)

Five Came Back brings to light “a fascinating episode in motion-picture history,” said Paul Cantor in The Wall Street Journal. In 1941, when World War II called all Americans to duty, prominent actors, directors, and producers eagerly volunteered, including five prominent filmmakers who joined the propaganda effort: Frank Capra headed the Army’s film unit; John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler headed for combat zones. Their experiences, related one at a time, would have been engaging enough. But author Mark Harris “has a huge story to tell and does so brilliantly.” As he interweaves five main strands, his chronicle of collective enterprise reshapes into “an inspirational, if cautionary, tale about the triumph of personal vision over groupthink.”

The book’s five main characters “might have been lifted from the Central Casting call sheet for a Warner Bros. combat film,” said Thomas Doherty in The New York Times. Huston and Ford are the tale’s rich playboy and gruff Irish-American, and they “yield the best wild-men-at-war stories,” of course. Ford even sustained a shrapnel wound while filming the Battle of Midway from a rooftop. But the deepest scars might have belonged to Stevens, who was tasked with gathering evidence of the atrocities committed in the Nazi concentration camps. He continued to direct but never made another of the frothy comedies he’d previously been known for.

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Harris doesn’t canonize these men, said Caryn James in Describing how Capra, Stevens, and Huston restaged all the ground battles for the 1944 documentary Tunisian Victory, he calls the fakery “the most shameful episode” of the propaganda effort. Let’s be fair, though, said David Denby in The New Yorker. This group’s war films weren’t pure documentaries, but they embodied “a precise moral imperative—the public must see and feel what American fighting men endure.” Happily, all five directors also returned eventually to popular filmmaking. Not surprisingly, the work of each man “deepened, or at least got weightier,” changing American cinema for the better as it did.

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