I’m immersed in the wonderful book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by Mark Harris. It is about the wartime effort of five great film directors: John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler, and Frank Capra.
So many good things to say about what I am learning/experiencing as I read this book. Here are a few observations:
Observation number one:
Washington understood that they would need to win the hearts and minds of the American people if they had any hope of winning the war. And, to win the American people, they needed the best story tellers in the country to help tell the stories that needed to be told. These five accepted the challenge – in fact, they energetically sought the challenge.
From the book:
“Filmmakers could not win the war, but Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens, and Wyler had already shown they could win the people.”
Observation number two:
These five men were deeply impacted, for the rest of their lives, by what they saw and experienced – as were all others who fought in the war. From the book:
They returned to Hollywood changed forever as men and as filmmakers….
(near the end of their lives) Privately, they would still count among their most meaningful accomplishments a body of work that most of their admirers had long forgotten or never seen at all. As long as they lived, the war lived in them.
Observation number three:
The war turned them into realists. Idealistic hopes of peace are great, but there are times when reality has to be faced.
One passage in the book captures this really clearly. George Stevens had wanted to make “anti-war films.” The delegation from the studio said to him, as he argued for his anti-war picture, “What about Hitler?” Later, Stevens ended up capturing Dachau on film, and said:
“It was another eight years before I understood that. I got all the way to Dachau before I could say that we should’ve fought Hitler three years before the development…that brought us into it.”
Observation number four:
Maybe this is the big one. Anyone who has something to communicate has to ask: “so, what do I have to say?” The war experiences of these directors shaped their future so completely… George Stevens, who had excelled at directing comedy (especially with Katherine Hepburn) never could direct comedy again after the war.
“After the war, she (Hepburn) urged him to return to directing comedy; he never did.”
Here is part of what shaped their thinking — (at least, Stevens’ thinking) – from the book:
By the time “Women of the Year” was in theaters, Stevens was already thinking about turning his cameras on the war. That winter, he had sat alone in a Los Angeles screening room and watched, with horror and enthrallment, Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary tribute to Aryan invincibility, “Triumph of the Will.” After that, he knew he could not make another movie that could possibly be used to divert anyone’s attention from the war…
Watching the movie, he said years later, he realized that “all film, including his own, is propaganda.”
The war experience helped them realize that their movies were instruments of communication, important communication – and what they communicated had to matter!
Well-written history always has much to say about our current issues and struggles. This book is a slice of very well-written history. I am really enjoying this book — and learning much as I read it.
(I wrote this earlier post after hearing the author on an NPR interview. You might want to read it also: The Great Director John Ford Reminds Us To Think of Your Audience – (Ford’s “Torpedo Squadron 8″). That NPR interview is what led me to read the book, and recommend it to my audiences in local retirement communities.
I am presenting a review of this for the residents of a local retirement community – people for whom the Second World War is a time they experienced, and think back on more often in their “later” years. This is a story that matters to them in a special way.