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. Harris tells an incredibly powerful story and mostly lets the story do the talking. Terry Teachout noted Harris’s narrative artistry in his review of the book for Commentary.
Harris has now turned his book into a three-part documentary (about three hours in total) that was posted on Netflix this past Friday. I watched it over the weekend. Like the book, it is an incredibly moving and powerful piece of work. The series adds a visual dimension and more to Harris’s otherwise outstanding book (Netflix trailer below).
My attention was drawn to the series by John Anderson’s astute review in Friday’s Wall Street Journal. Anderson explains that the series uses the device of commentary by five living directors, each of whom is assigned one of the series’ subjects: Steven Spielberg (Wyler), Paul Greengrass (Ford); Lawrence Kasdan (Stevens), Francis Ford Coppola (Huston) and Guillermo del Toro (Capra). The device works ingeniously.
By my lights, Anderson also correctly observes that “the hero of the piece is Wyler, a filmmaker of humanity and precision, an immigrant Jew and a native of the Alsace town of Mulhouse who had been bringing his relations to America for years before the country actually entered the war….He would be abroad when he won his first Best Director Oscar for the last movie he made stateside—’Mrs. Miniver,’ among the most important films of the war years, one that sanctified middle-class English life in the minds of everyday Americans, and made their fight our own.” Anderson adds this note: “While all the directors faced danger, Wyler’s was different: Had his B-17 been shot down during the filming of 1944’s ‘The Memphis Belle,’ he wouldn’t have been a prisoner of war. He would have been sent to Dachau.”
Harris’s book reconstructs the highly improbable story behind the making of Wyler’s classic postwar film The Best Years of Our Lives when Wyler came back. The third episode of the series discusses how Wyler went deaf flying in the course of his service. Wyler partially recovered his hearing in one ear, but his deafness obviously put his career at risk.
In the book Harris relates that the idea behind The Best Years of Our Lives was Samuel Goldwyn’s; Goldwyn commissioned MacKinlay Kantor to write a screenplay telling the story of returning veterans. Instead Kantor turned in a treatment in blank verse.
Goldwyn somehow thought to solicit playwright and Rooosevelt confidant Robert Sherwood to draft a screenplay based on Kantor’s treatment. Sherwood declined, but Goldwyn persisted. Goldwyn also turned to Wyler. Wyler enlisted the great cinematographer Gregg Toland to film it, and Toland’s contribution was invaluable.
Wyler jumped at Goldwyn’s offer. He worked intensely with Sherwood to shape the screenplay. Indeed, as Harris demonstrates, Wyler poured himself into the film and each of its three leading characters. “As they collaborated,” Harris writes, “The Best Years of Our Lives gradually evolved into Wyler’s own story.”
If you’ve seen the film, you haven’t forgotten the performance of Harold Russell. While serving as an Army instructor, Russell had lost his hands handling explosives in a training accident. In The Best Years of Our Lives Russell’s efforts to return to his prewar life give physical form to the challenge confronting the film’s other protagonists representing veterans who “came back.”
Goldwyn doubted that they would be able to find an amputee to play the role and said so in his pungent style: “You can’t have a Jew playing a Jew, it wouldn’t work on screen.” The disabled veterans visited by Wyler in search of the right man to play the part shared Goldwyn’s skepticism.
Wyler found Russell in a documentary made during the war. (The documentary is posted online here.) Harris quotes Russell’s words in the documentary: “I got [my injury] on D-Day, all right, but it was in North Carolina when half a pound of TNT exploded ahead of schedule. I didn’t have a German scalp hanging from my belt. I didn’t have a Purple Heart. I didn’t even have an overseas ribbon. All I had was no hands.” It wasn’t long before he had an Academy Award (actually, two of them) for his performance in the film, which swept the Oscars for 1946.
Giving the film its due in the third episode of the Netflix series, Spielberg says that he watches The Best Years of Our Lives at least once a year. He explains that he likes to invite guests who haven’t seen the film before so he can watch it through their eyes. Spielberg’s commentary on the film is excellent. Like much else in the series, it adds something to the story Harris tells in the book.
Like the book, the series pays tribute to five patriotic directors of enormous distinction who deserve to be remembered for their service in their own right. And like the book, the series prompts reflections on Hollywood (and our culture) then and now to the detriment of Hollywood (and our culture) now.