Written by Mark Harris
Narrated by Andrew Garman
Publisher: Recorded Books/Penguin
Run Time: 20 hours 1 minute
Amid the glitz and the glamour of Hollywood's Golden Age, the war that spanned the globe called five men to act.
Five Came Back is a very thorough, completely engrossing and stellar history of five Hollywood directors who were compelled to get involved in World War II, even as America was slow to follow. The Hollywood of the late 1930s and early 40s was one of powerful studio titans with vice grips on actors and actresses, a government-mandated production code that creatives hated and an industry that some in Washington feared had too much of an ability to influence.
As Nazi Germany continued to invade countries in central and western Europe, Hollywood was getting concerned about what was almost exclusively referred to as "the war in Europe." Some directors sought to make movies about the war, but isolationism in America dictated the box office. Few studio bosses wanted to be seen as war mongers. While not referenced directly in Harris' book, I suspect that these directors and screenwriters that wanted to spotlight "the war in Europe" thought and acted like Humphrey Bogart's Rick in Casablanca when he says, "I bet they're asleep in New York. I bet they're asleep all over America."
And then, the attack on Pearl Harbor changed most everyone and everything. Few isolationists retained their pre-December 7th views and America was at war.
Directors John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra all joined the military and offered their expertise in making movies in service to the war effort. Each director and their contributions to the war effort, at a time when countries waged "total wars," are remarkably researched and delineated from each other by Harris. For example, Ford was the gung-ho type who served in the Navy and directed this film on the Battle of Midway:
The directors went to both the Pacific and European theaters of war, all while chronicling both the experiences of soldiers as well as their own ordeals. Capra opted to make a series of informational videos, known as the Why We Fight series:
Heading into the book, I was most familiar with Ford and Capra's work, thanks to Stagecoach and It's a Wonderful Life, my favorite Christmas movie. Wyler, however, turned out to be my favorite of the five that Harris follows in his book. The director, an immigrant from the often fought over Alsace-Lorraine region of France that borders Germany, wanted to make a difference for both his adopted and native lands. Wyler, like many of the men who returned from World War II, suffered physical and mental anguish as a result of his time in Europe. Arguably, he had the greatest tragedies and triumphs in the book.
Other cultural and historic icons make their way into Harris' pages, including a humorous portion involving Theodore Geisel, the man who would later be better-known as Dr. Seuss. Also, Harris documents the five directors' time before and after the war so well, including Capra's making of It's a Wonderful Life and its subsequent flop at the box office, that they were part of the natural ebb and flow of the story. I was as invested in these sections as I was the descriptions of the filming in combat.
The book is one of the best nonfiction titles I've read. While a knowledge of early cinema is helpful, it isn't required to enjoy the book and as a result, caters to a wider audience than some would think. Earlier this week, the book was named as a finalist in the history category of the Los Angeles Times Book Prizes of 2014.
I had initially opted to hold out for the paperback version, but after hearing rave reviews from family and the online film community, I snagged the audiobook. Garman does an admirable job of showcasing the material and helping give each person a distinct narrative.
I cannot recommend this book enough. 5/5 stars.
Five Came Back is available in hardcover, ebook, audio and a just-released paperback edition.