In Five Came Back, MARK HARRIS chronicles how five famous Hollywood directors brought the realities of World War II home for American moviegoers.


It’s a classic Hollywood image: A director shouts “Action!” and sets a fictional world in motion. During World War II, five of Hollywood’s most famous directors — Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and ­William Wyler — instead answered a call to action. They traded Tinseltown for Washington, D.C., and distant battlefields to capture real-world events on film as they unfolded. Author Mark Harris follows these five complex characters on their captivating journeys in his riveting new book, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (The Penguin Press, $30).

“As a film historian, I’m always fascinated by periods of great flux and transition,” Harris tells American Way. “In this book, which goes from 1940 to 1945, we watch these filmmakers leave one Hollywood and one America and come back to another. Not only had they changed as men, but their industry and their world had changed too.”

All five directors were prolific diarists and correspondents. Their voluminous paper trail enabled Harris to create not just a detailed timetable of their service in far-flung theaters of war but also incredibly intimate portraits of each man. “They had five different journeys into and out of the war, in their ways all very troubling,” Harris says. “No one had the perfect triumphant arc that they might have imagined or that Hollywood would have scripted for them.”

George Stevens had made his mark in Hollywood with comedies, particularly Laurel and Hardy films. But after he witnessed the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp near Munich, a dark cloud remained over both Stevens’ films and his personal life. Daredevil Huston put himself in harm’s way in Italy and afterward spiraled into self-destructive behavior that modern therapists would label PTSD. And Capra’s fear that his wartime work went unnoticed creates a whole new context for his beloved film It’s a Wonderful Life.

Harris argues that the works of Capra and the others had a tremendous impact on both morale and awareness back home. “This was completely new ground, to create the war on film for American soldiers and moviegoers,” he says. “The fact that they were winging it as they went along makes their achievements all the more remarkable.”