Author Interviews
6:03 am
Sat February 22, 2014

Hollywood Goes To War In 'Five Came Back'

Originally published on Wed February 26, 2014 1:43 pm

Hollywood helped win World War II — and by that, we don't mean John Wayne, but five of the country's most celebrated film directors, who went to work making films for the War Department that showed Americans at war, overseas and in the skies, living, fighting, bleeding and dying. Those films changed America — and deepened the men who made them, including John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens, and Frank Capra.

Author Mark Harris follows the wartime careers of these men in Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. He tells NPR's Scott Simon that Huston and Wyler could easily have ducked serving. They both felt a patriotic duty to sign up, but more than that, "it was a new world to conquer ... they did not want to miss out on this adventure."


Interview Highlights

On Wyler's 1944 film The Memphis Belle

Memphis Belle was the first American movie, nonfiction movie, to depict what it was like to go on an airborne bombing run ... it was the story of a single bomber that was crewed by 10 young men, and was on its 25th mission, which was really crucial, because after 25 missions, the guys got to go home and take a break. So if they could pull off this one last mission, they would really be covered in glory — and for American audiences, who saw this movie, this was really a chance for the military to articulate its might in the air to a country that really needed good news about the war in Europe.

On Huston's 1945 film The Battle of San Pietro

San Pietro was seen as a new pinnacle of realism. In some ways, it was, in that John Huston's faked war footage looked more like what we now think of as war footage than anything that Americans had seen. He realized that you needed to had a shaky camera. He knew what a kind of verite style for war footage should look like. But the fact is, it was all faked. He and his crew got to the battle after it was over ... so the movie that became San Pietro was a restaged version of the battle that was shot over the next six weeks.

On the relationship between San Pietro and films like Saving Private Ryan

You know, the first 25 minutes of Saving Private Ryan probably owe more to George Stevens and John Ford, and the actual footage that their men shot at D-Day than to San Pietro. But I do think that San Pietro and the style that Huston helped create in it was enormously influential. And perhaps you can't trace it to Saving Private Ryan, but I think you can trace it down to Oliver Stone's Platoon. And perhaps even The Hurt Locker.

On the difficulty of returning to Hollywood after the war

There might be a sense that [Huston] was rather casual about creating reenactments — but he saw his share of horrors in Italy when he was there, and he did put himself in harm's way. And it's very clear when you read interviews with him at the time, and his own autobiography — which was written decades later — that when he came back to the United States he was suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder ... the emotional effect and the traumatic effect on Huston was so powerful that it really, directly influenced his desire to make what turned out to be his final war documentary, Let There Be Light, about emotionally and psychologically injured veterans.

On whether the war changed Hollywood

All of those directors who came back after the war was over came back with a spirit of independence, and a determination not to be slaves to the studio system that had really not been the case before the war. And so did a number of actors. So in a way, Hollywood was changed, because after the war, we started having more movies like The Best Years of Our Lives, with social realism and attention to social issues and problems. Movies got darker to some degree, but also, it was the beginning of the era in which directors became king.

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Hollywood helped win World War II. I don't mean John Wayne here, but five of the most celebrated film directors in America who went to work making films for the War Department. Their films showed Americans at war, overseas and in the skies; living, fighting, bleeding and dying. Those films changed America, and deepened the men who made them - including John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens and Frank Capra. Mark Harris' new book is "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War." Mr. Harris, whose previous book was the highly acclaimed "Pictures at a Revolution," joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

MARK HARRIS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: Five directors, who we named, but for the purposes of convenience - or coherence - we're going to try and narrow the discussion to just a couple. And conveniently for us, these are the two who are playing tennis on the morning of Sunday, Dec. 7th, 1941. They're in Beverly Hills; Pearl Harbor is bombed.

HARRIS: Well, the tennis players you're talking about were John Huston and William Wyler. The two of them were pals, and they were playing tennis at Wyler's house when Wyler's wife came out onto the court with the news that the Japanese had just bombed Pearl Harbor.

SIMON: And here they were, both in their 30s. They probably could have ducked military service. Why did they both choose to sign up?

HARRIS: Yes, it's true. But I think they felt that first of all, it was a patriotic duty to go and second - and I think this is particular to them - it was a new world to conquer. You know, Wyler was already really something of a titan in Hollywood, and Huston was about to be the next big thing. And I think they really just - they did not want to miss out on this adventure.

SIMON: Did they both discover that getting a film made for the War Department could be as difficult as any film they ever tried to make for a Hollywood studio?

HARRIS: Yes. They got to Washington, and they discovered that the bureaucracy of the War Department was as maddening as any kind of interference from Jack Warner or Sam Goldwyn would ever have been.

SIMON: Let me ask you about one of the films Wyler wound up making: "The Memphis Belle," a story of a flying fortress; 1944, Eighth Bomber Command. What did this film show Americans they hadn't seen before?

HARRIS: Well, "Memphis Belle" was the first American movie - nonfiction movie to depict what it was like to go on an airborne bombing run.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "MEMPHIS BELLE")

UNIDENTIFIED SERVICE MEMBER #1: Watch that fighter coming in at 3 o'clock.

UNIDENTIFIED SERVICE MEMBER #2: He's coming in in a half a roll. Pull her up, chief. Pull her up; hurry.

(GUNSHOTS)

HARRIS: The movie that Wyler made was actually compiled from footage shot not only by him but by several of his men on different bombing runs. But it was the story of a single bomber that was crewed by 10 young men and was on its 25th mission. So if they could pull off this one, last mission, they would really be covered in glory. And for American audiences who saw this movie, this was really a chance for the military to articulate its might in the air. to a country that really needed good news about the war in Europe.

SIMON: Let me ask you about John Huston now. He spent, apparently, much of the war anxious about whether he would ever make a film again, although he did find the energy to have an affair with a beautiful German agent.

HARRIS: I think on the worst day of John Huston's life, he seems to have found the energy to have affairs with at least four different women simultaneously. I mean, the war did not slow him down in that regard, at all.

SIMON: He, of course, made what's still a pretty famous film, "The Battle of San Pietro."

HARRIS: "San Pietro" was seen as a new pinnacle of realism. In some ways, it was, in that John Huston's faked war footage looked more like what we now think of as war footage than anything that Americans had seen. He realized that you needed to have a shaky camera. He knew what a kind of verite style for war footage should look like.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM "THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As announcer) Both times, they come up against a wall of automatic weapon, mortar and artillery fire.

(EXPLOSIONS)

HARRIS: But the fact is, it was all faked. He and his crew got to the battle after it was over. They had gone to Italy with the assigned mission to find a town that the allies were about to liberate; and to film the victory, the liberation of the town, and the joyous return of the villagers. And when they got to San Pietro, what they found instead was an abandoned town that had been shelled to bits, the Germans already in retreat, corpses of American soldiers all over the place, and mines and booby traps everywhere they looked. So the movie that became "San Pietro" was a restaged version of the battle that was shot over the next six weeks.

SIMON: Was it hard for people who had seen, even as they sometimes shot re-enactments, people who had seen war - suffering, dying, close-up - is it hard for them to go back to Hollywood after that?

HARRIS: Oh, absolutely. And I think Huston was no exception to that. There might be a sense that he was rather casual about creating re-enactments, but he saw his share of horrors in Italy when he was there, and he did put himself in harm's way. And it's very clear when you read interviews with him at the time, and his own autobiography - which was written decades later - that when he came back to the United States, he was suffering from what we would now call post-traumatic stress disorder but which then really had no label. And the emotional effect and the traumatic effect on Huston was so powerful that it really, directly influenced his desire to make what turned out to be his final war documentary, a film called "Let There Be Light," about emotionally and psychologically injured veterans.

SIMON: So William Wyler gets home and makes what I think some of us consider the best American film ever made. And this is "The Best Years of Our Lives," 1946.

HARRIS: It is a great, great movie that I think only grows richer with time, and richer with repeated viewing.

SIMON: Where did this come from?

HARRIS: Where the movie came from 100 percent Wyler. He figured out a way to turn each of these three men - a middle-aged returning officer, an angry soldier who had seen a lot of ugliness in combat, and a young man who had lost both of his hands in an accident during the war - into facets of himself. So the movie is a deeply personal movie and a really unusual one, in that Wyler was able to fracture himself into three pieces and make all of them real.

SIMON: Was Hollywood changed by their experience?

HARRIS: Yeah, I think Hollywood was changed in an extraordinary number of ways. For one thing, all of those directors who came back after the war was over came back with a spirit of independence, and a determination not to be slaves to the studio system; that had really not been the case before the war. And so did a number of actors. So in a way, Hollywood was changed because after the war, we started having more movies like "The Best Years of Our Lives," with social realism and attention to social issues and problems. Movies got darker, to some degree, but also it was the beginning of the era in which directors became king.

SIMON: Mark Harris. His new book is "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood in the Second World War." Thanks so much for being with us.

HARRIS: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.