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

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

by Mark Harris

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Now a Netflix original documentary series, also written by Mark Harris: the extraordinary wartime experience of five of Hollywood's most important directors, all of whom put their stamp on World War II and were changed by it forever 

Here is the remarkable, untold story of how five major Hollywood directors—John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra—changed World War II, and how, in turn, the war changed them. In a move unheard of at the time, the U.S. government farmed out its war propaganda effort to Hollywood, allowing these directors the freedom to film in combat zones as never before. They were on the scene at almost every major moment of America’s war, shaping the public’s collective consciousness of what we’ve now come to call the good fight. The product of five years of scrupulous archival research, Five Came Back provides a revelatory new understanding of Hollywood’s role in the war through the life and work of these five men who chose to go, and who came back.

“Five Came Back 
. . . is one of the great works of film history of the decade.” --Slate

“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.” --The New York Times

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780698151574
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 02/27/2014
Sold by: Penguin Group
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 453,294
File size: 17 MB
Note: This product may take a few minutes to download.

About the Author

Mark Harris is the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, which was a New York Times notable book of the year and was named one of the ten best nonfiction books of the decade by Salon. An editor at large at Entertainment Weekly, a columnist for Grantland, and a contributing editor at New York Magazine, he has written about pop culture and film history for many other publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostTime, and GQ. A graduate of Yale University, Harris lives in New York City with his husband, Tony Kushner.

Read an Excerpt


“The Only Way I Could Survive”


In the spring of 1938, Jack Warner hosted an industry dinner for the exiled novelist Thomas Mann. A Nobel laureate whose outspoken opposition to Hitler and his policies had led to the revocation of his German citizenship, Mann was then Germany’s leading anti-Nazi voice in the United States. His presence at a Hollywood event was, if not a call to arms, at least a call to wallets. It was also a political coming-out of sorts for Warner and his older brother Harry, who, just three weeks after the Anschluss, were ready to commit themselves—and, more significantly, the company they and their brothers Albert and Sam had founded in 1923—to the fight against the Nazis. The day before the dinner, the studio had shut down its offices in Austria. It had stopped working with Germany four years earlier.

The fact that Warner Bros. was at the time the only studio to take such a step suggests the extreme uneasiness that characterized the behavior of the men, almost all of them Jewish, who ran Hollywood’s biggest companies. Freewheeling and entrepreneurial within the confines of the industry they had helped to create, they approached politics only haltingly and after agonized deliberation. While bottom-line imperatives were unquestionably a part of their calculus, their trepidation also emanated from an accurate understanding of their fragile place in American culture; to confront any national or international issue that might turn the spotlight on their religion was to risk animosity and even censure. The motion-picture business was still just thirty years old; most of the people who had built it were first- or second-generation Americans who were still viewed warily by the large portion of the country’s political power structure—to say nothing of the press and public—that had in common a tacit and sometimes overt anti-Semitism. The moguls knew they were perceived as arrivistes and aliens whose loyalties might be divided between the adoptive nation that was making them wealthy and their roots in their old homelands.

As Hitler consolidated his power in the 1930s, studio chiefs tended to express their Jewish identity in personal, one-on-one appeals and in the quiet writing of checks to good causes, not in speeches or statements, and certainly not in the movies they oversaw. Mostly, they stayed quiet; the decorous country-club discretion of MGM’s Louis B. Mayer was much more the norm than the recent behavior of the Warners (real name: Wonskolaser), Jewish immigrants from Poland who didn’t tiptoe around their hatred of Fascism and of Hitler and were increasingly unafraid to go public and to use their position to influence others. The Warners were ardently pro-Roosevelt (unlike most of the other studio czars, who were business-minded antilabor Republicans), and Harry, who was the eldest and very much the voice of his studio, had recently urged all of his employees to join the Hollywood Anti-Nazi League for the Defense of American Democracy, the movie industry’s first and strongest anti-Hitler rallying and fund-raising organization.

Table of Contents

Prologue: Pearl Harbor 1

Part 1

1 "The Only Way I Could Survive" 15

Hollywood, March 1938-April 1939

2 "The Dictates of My Heart and Blood" 31

Hollywood and Washington, April 1939-May 1940

3 "You Must Not Realize that There Is a War Going On" 58

Hollywood, June-September 1940

4 "What's the Good of a Message?" 69

Hollywood, Early 1941

5 "The Most Dangerous Fifth Column in Our Country" 83

Hollywood and Washington, July-December 1941

Part 2

6 "Do I Have to Wait for Orders?" 101

Hollywood, Washington, and Hawaii, December 1941-April 1942

7 "I've Only Got One German" 117

Hollywood, December 1941-April 1942

8 "It's Going to Be a Problem and a Battle" 130

Washington, March-June 1942

9 "All I Know Is That I'm Not Courageous" 145

Midway and Washington, June-August 1942

10 "Can You Use Me?" 172

Washington and Hollywood, August-September 1942

11 "A Good Partner to Have in Times of Trouble" 172

England, North Africa, and Hollywood, September 1942-January 1943

12 "You Might as Well Run into It as Away from It" 186

The Aleutian Islands, Hollywood, Washington, and North Africa, September 1942-May 1943

13 "Just Enough to Make It Seem Less Than Real" 199

England, Hollywood, and Washington, January-May 1943

14 "Coming Along with Us Just for Pictures?" 213

Washington, England, and New York, March-July 1943

Part 3

15 "How to Live in the Army" 231

North Africa, Hollywood, Florida, and Washington, Summer 1943

16 "I'm the Wrong Man for That Stuff" 244

Washington Hollywood, And England, June-December 1943

17 "I Have to Do a Good Job" 257

England and Italy, October 1943-January 1944

18 "We Really Don't Know What Goes On Beneath the Surface" 271

Washington, the China-Burma-India Theater, Italy, and New York September 1943-March 1944

19 "If You Believe This, We Thank You" 286

Hollywood and England, March-May 1944

20 "A Sporadic Raid of Sorts on the Continent" 299

Hollywood, Washington, and New York, March-May 1944

21 "If You See It, Shoot It" 310

France, June-July 1944

22 "If Hitler Can Hold Out, So Can I" 324

Hollywood and Washington, July-December 1944

23 "Time and Us Marches On" 338

France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, and England, July 1944-January 1945

24 "Who You Working For-Yourself?" 352

Hollywood, Florida, Italy, and New York, February-May 1945

25 "Where I Learned About Life" 366

Germany, March-August 1945

26 "What's This Picture For?" 378

Washington and Hollywood, Summer 1945

27 "An Angry Past Commingled with the Future in a Storm" 391

Hollywood, New York and Germany, 1945

28 "A Straight Face and a Painfully Maturing Mind" 405

Hollywood, New York, and Washington, December 1945-March 1946

29 "Closer to What Is Going On in the World" 419

Hollywood, May 1946-February 1947

Epilogue 439

Note on Sources and Acknowledgments 445

Notes 449

Bibliography 489

Credits 495

Index 497

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

The Wall Street Journal:
“Mr. Harris has a huge story to tell, and he does so brilliantly, maintaining suspense in a narrative whose basic outcome will be known ahead of time. Five Came Back is packed with true stories that, according to the proverb, are stranger than fiction. Mr. Harris's story of five particular directors at one particular moment of history tells us much about the motion-picture industry, about the nature of filmmaking and, more generally, about the relation of art to the larger demands of society. Although Five Came Back at first seems to be chronicling a collective enterprise, it turns out to be an inspirational, if cautionary, tale of the triumph of the individual over the collective, of personal vision over groupthink, and ultimately of art over propaganda.”

The New York Times:
“A tough-minded, information-packed and irresistibly readable work of movie-minded cultural criticism. Like the best World War II films, it highlights marquee names in a familiar plot to explore some serious issues: the human cost of military service, the hypnotic power of cinema and the tension between artistic integrity and the exigencies of war.”

Leonard Maltin:
“In addition to being a prodigious researcher and a knowledgeable film buff, Harris is a graceful writer whose prose brings the world of wartime, at home and abroad, to vivid life on every page. I tore through this hefty book as if it were a novel and can’t recommend it highly enough.”

The Washington Post:
Five Came Back, by Mark Harris, has all the elements of a good movie: fascinating characters, challenges, conflicts and intense action. This is Harris’s second brilliant book about movies. Both books demonstrate meticulous research and exceptional skill at telling intersecting and overlapping stories with clarity and power. Five Came Back enables us to watch the films of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens with new insight.”

The New Yorker:
“A splendidly written narrative.”

San Francisco Chronicle:
“Can't-put-it-down history of World War II propaganda film.”

The Los Angeles Times:
“Meticulously researched, page-turning.”

David Thompson, The New Republic:
“I recommend this book for its narrative sweep, its revelation of character, and for the many ironies that attend the idea of ‘documentary.’”

Cleveland Plain Dealer:
“Mark Harris writes the old-fashioned way. His books are not quick and slick but meticulous. Definitive.  In these lush, informative pages, Harris indeed reaffirms his commitment to writing the old-fashioned way, the way that evinces profound respect for his craft, his material and his readers.”

Booklist (starred):
“It’s hardly news that the movies affect and are affected by the broader canvas of popular culture and world history, but Harris—perhaps more successfully than any other writer, past or present—manages to find in that symbiotic relationship the stuff of great stories. Every chapter contains small, priceless nuggets of movie history, and nearly every page offers an example of Harris’ ability to capture the essence of a person or an event in a few, perfectly chosen words. Narrative nonfiction that is as gloriously readable as it is unfailingly informative.”

Kirkus Reviews:
“A comprehensive, clear-eyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how. As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.”

Publishers Weekly:
“Insightful. Harris pens superb exegeses of the ideological currents coursing through this most political of cinematic eras, and in the arcs of his vividly drawn protagonists…we see Hollywood abandoning sentimental make-believe to confront the starkest realities.”

Library Journal:
“Harris surpasses previous scholarship on the directors who are the focus here… This well-researched book is essential for both film enthusiasts and World War II aficionados.”

Customer Reviews