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Shrewsbury, Massachusetts- Mark Harris is one of the best media critics working in the journalism world today. When he’s not writing columns for Entertainment Weekly, he writes incredible film history books. His first book, Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of Hollywood, is the best film history book in the last ten years. Six years later Harris has returned for his sophomore venture into another untouched part of history.
In the beginning of the 40’s, Hollywood was in full swing. John Ford was on his way to becoming a beloved director with Stagecoach. William Wyler and George Stevens were making a living directing comedies and Bette Davis pictures. Frank Capra was the highest paid director in Hollywood and a new kid on the block named John Huston was hitting the scene. That all changed when the United States entered World War II and the lives of these men were thrown to the frontlines to document the carnage, leaving them changed forever when it was over.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War is a stellar book, documenting a period of Hollywood history surprisingly overlooked in film history books. Harris has a knack of studying his subjects in fives (in Pictures at a Revolution, he focused on the five Best Picture nominees in 1967) and that works well to his advantage. With the focusing on Wyler, Ford, Stevens, Huston, and Capra, Harris makes the book more personal by exploring the war through these men.
We are transported all around the world as these men were serving various purposes for the American Military. From Capra’s work as a propaganda machine to Stevens’ documentation of D-Day, the scope of Harris’s research is impeccable and he describes it with vivid panache. John Ford’s firsthand witnessing of the Battle of Midway is one of the highlights of the book. While the battles and atrocities that the book recounts, the most interesting bits of Harris’s book concern what happened after the service of these men.
The war changed all five of them irreparably and their careers would never be the same. Men like John Ford, Williams Wyler, and John Huston saw their films have a much more cynical outlook on the world with films like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (Ford), The Best Years of Our Lives (Wyler), and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (Huston). Capra tried to go outside the studio system with Liberty Films, only to never achieve the success he had before the war. But the most interesting of the five is George Stevens who was the first to document the horrors of the Holocaust and that changed his career from making comedies, to darker dramas like The Diary of Anne Frank.
Five Came Back is an incredible account of the war effort at home and abroad. Through the eyes of some of the most iconic directors of the era, Harris paints an authentic picture of war and its effects on humanity. Harris has released another great film history book that should be read by all those interested in film. Harris is one of the top film historians and writers working today and let us hope that we don’t have to wait another six years for his next book.
Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War is available in bookstores everywhere and in the CW Mars Library System.