Mark Harris’ Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War tells the tale of five film directors and their involvement in World War II: John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra.
The impact of the war was felt by everyone in the United States, and those working in the entertainment industry were no exception, despite their power, status, and wealth. Stars sold war bonds, joined the military, performed for soldiers. In the case of these five directors, the best way to contribute their skills to the war effort was to join forces with the U.S. government in the creation of propaganda campaigns, on-location documentary footage, and fictional films with strong messages. Harris tracks their involvement in the war effort and how it shaped both their lives and their careers, the book’s discussions spanning from 1938 to 1947.
Harris’ book was released in 2014, and in September of 2015 he co-hosted a TCM Spotlight series featuring films from the five directors discussed in the book. My first exposure to the book and, to an extent, its topic (which I knew a little bit about, but would never have considered myself even a semi-expert on) was through this TCM Spotlight series. I swiftly added the book to my must-read list and finally picked it up at a local bookstore in January.
If I bought the book several months ago, why am I just now posting about it, in May? Well, I’ve got a few answers to that. The first is that I didn’t start reading it right away. I was in a little bit of a reading slump, and then I got too busy to do much leisure reading. When I finally started the book, it took me what seemed like forever to get through. This is not the type of book you’ll read in a day, or even perhaps a week — not because the pace is slow or any similar complaint, but because it is incredibly detailed. I wanted to soak up every bit of knowledge Harris had to offer, and in order to do so, I read the book in small chunks, often re-reading certain passages before moving on to the next chapter. In the end, it took me a little under a month to finish, with most of my reading confined to the weekends.
My paperback copy of the book clocks in just under 450 pages (not including end notes, bibliography, or index) — not the longest classic film book to weigh down your shelf (Have you seen that Stanwyck bio?!), but not a light read either. There’s a lot to be covered and Harris manages to get through it all, with thorough research and an equally impressive level of specificity, within what I’d consider to be a pretty moderate page length. There are five subjects or main characters here. Five! And no director’s experience is glossed over in favor of heavier detail added to another. The distribution of coverage is fairly balanced, the stories of all of the men blended together chronologically.
I learned so much from reading this book, and can definitely see myself re-reading it several times to catch any stories or elements that didn’t stick with me on first read. Five Came Back gets a high recommendation from TMP!