Mark Harris’s first book, Pictures at a Revolution, captures the breakdown of the Hollywood studio system through the five movies nominated for Best Picture in 1967. In his second book, Five Came Back, he combines social and film history on a much grander scale. It follows five prominent Hollywood directors as they worked within various branches of the military to create propaganda and documentaries during World War II. The five directors are Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens.
In 2017, Netflix released a three-part documentary version of the book. The script was adapted by Mark Harris himself with Steven Spielberg as one of the producers. Although a three-hour documentary can’t include every detail of a 400-plus page book, the series has the advantage of showing film and interview clips, rather than just describing them. The series uses an additional narrative device of five contemporary directors—huge names like Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro—who each focus on one of the original five. This gives the viewer a deeper understanding of how the work of these men has influenced film today. I particularly appreciate the involvement of Spielberg since he has made some of the most iconic movies about World War II.
In both iterations, I find the stories of William Wyler and George Stevens to be the most compelling. Wyler was a Jewish immigrant from a town near the French-German border. His service involved filming bombing missions with the Air Force, repeatedly putting himself and other crew members in harm’s way. Stevens, who had been a respected comedy director before the war, was present at some of the most significant events in Europe: the D-Day invasion, the liberation of Paris, and the Battle of the Bulge. He and his unit were also at the liberation of Dachau. After that, Stevens turned his attention from documentary to evidence collection. He made two films about concentration camps and the Nazi plan that were used as evidence at the Nuremberg Trials.
The final note of Five Came Back is how each man’s war experience affected the movies that he made thereafter. After witnessing the capacity of human cruelty, George Stevens never directed a comedy again, but he became a respected director of drama. Upon their return to civilian life, William Wyler made a film about the struggles of veterans, and Frank Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life. Their personal journeys reflect how the world changed after World War II, a time that showed the best and worst of humanity. To me these connections signify a successful work of cultural history.
Both projects are epic and, in fact, complement each other. Through the inclusion of contemporary directors, who are also admirers of the five, the documentary takes a less critical stance about the men’s actions during and after the war. In his book, Mark Harris isn’t afraid to point out when the directors exaggerated or downright lied about their own contributions. I was left with mixed feelings toward Ford, Huston, and Capra, but am nonetheless interested in their films. Having already seen a few films by Stevens and Wyler, I hope to watch more with the context given by Mark Harris.