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Five Came Back, Page and Screen

Five Came Back

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.

Five Came Back Netflix

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.


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Best of 2016: Book Edition, Part 1

My reading took a somewhat different direction this year. I read very little in the young adult genre, but a lot of mystery and multiple nonfiction works. There were even a few classics because you don’t just stop being an English nerd. Here are my favorite books read in 2016, numbers 10 through 6!

10. Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood by Mark Harris


My Classic Hollywood education has naturally progressed to reading. Pictures at a Revolution follows the production of the 1967 Best Picture nominees and the breakdown of the studio system. The book could have easily been a confusing collection of names, but Mark Harris makes the stories easy to follow without feeling the need to refer back to earlier chapters. Like the best writers of film history and analysis, he brings immediacy to the rebellious beginnings of films that are now established classics. I stayed interested from start to finish.

9. The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath

The Bell Jar

Esther Greenwood is a scholarship student at a prestigious East Coast college doing a summer internship with a women’s magazine in New York City, during which she experiences mental breakdown. Swap Esther Greenwood for Sylvia Plath, and all of these details remain true to her life. While sometimes stressful, The Bell Jar provides spot-on descriptions of the acute pain of depression. Having read a biography of Plath’s early life in 2014, I enjoyed finding the fictional counterparts to real-life people. It’s a tough but worthwhile read.

8. Prayers for Rain by Dennis Lehane


As mentioned in this post, I’ve been reading Dennis Lehane’s Kenzie & Gennaro mysteries this year. I liked all of the books, but Prayers for Rain stands out as a favorite. Being the fifth book about these characters, the emotional threads start to come together in satisfying ways. Patrick and Angie’s repartee is as sharp as ever, and at this point Lehane has become deft at asking complicated moral questions without being heavy-handed. The psychopathic killer also provides a particularly mind-bending mystery for the detectives and the reader.

7. Me Before You by Jojo Meyes


I avoided reading this book for a few years because of the weepy storyline. Then I took it to Florida with me, and while there are weepy moments, I was pleasantly surprised by the liveliness of the characters and pacing. When the movie came out, many people took issue with the story’s approach to the paraplegic character. All I can say as a reader is that I took his choices as particular to him and not representative of how all paralyzed individuals feel or think. To recommend itself, the book has witty dialogue and a narrator worth loving.

6. Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier

Rebecca Cover

I had a running joke with my mom about how long it took me to read this book. However, the delays were a product of library book interruptions, not a dislike for the book itself. Daphne Du Maurier’s writing reminds me of my favorite Gothic novels. In fact, the setting and plot are somewhat reminiscent of Jane Eyre, which blends the styles of Gothic and Victorian novels. While maintaining its foreboding atmosphere, Rebecca also made me feel a kinship with the narrator. I was glad to take my time with it. (You can read my full review here.)

Come back tomorrow for the top 5!

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