Five of America’s most prominent Hollywood directors volunteered to put their art to use producing documentary, training, and propaganda films in the Army and Navy during World War II. Feeling certain that war was coming to the United States, and wanting to do something about it, John Ford went first, joining the Navy in September 1941.
After Pearl Harbor, Ford was followed by Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens, each of whom contributed his services to the Army Signal Corps. Mark Harris tells the collective story of these five men in Five Came Back, a book that must easily rank as one of last year’s best. Harris tells an incredibly powerful story and mostly lets the story do the talking. Terry Teachout paid tribute to the book’s artistry in his review for Commentary.
With Harris’s assistance, TCM has turned its September Spotlight on the work of these directors falling within the ambit of Harris’s purview. During prime time each Tuesday evening this month, Harris and TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz introduce a selection of the relevant films. Last night, for example, was devoted to Ford’s work:
In addition to his many classic Westerns, Ford directed such war-related films as The Long Voyage Home (1940), They Were Expendable (1945) and Mister Roberts (1955). Ford saw wartime service as a commander in the U.S. Navy and, as head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services, filmed Navy Department documentaries.
Ford won an Oscar for the semi-documentary The Battle of Midway (1942, TCM premiere), which includes actual battle footage as the Japanese attacked the island in the Pacific Theater. He was injured in the arm by shrapnel while filming the attack. Another Oscar came Ford’s way for December 7th (1943), an account of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Also screening, in its TCM premiere, is Ford’s How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943), a training film for OSS agents.
All the September Spotlight films can be viewed on TCM’s application; the documentaries can also by and large be found on YouTube as well, though without the introductions. YouTube has collected Capra’s seven “Why We Fight” documentaries on the linked playlist. Huston’s long-suppressed “Let There Be Light” is also posted. I’ve found all the featured documentaries for which I’ve looked on YouTube.
The next two Tuesdays feature the work of William Wyler (Sepbember 22) and George Stevens (September 29). TCM’s September Spotlight lineup is posted in its entirety here. I’ll revisit Harris’s version of the highly improbable story behind Wyler’s Best Years of Our Lives next week.