Friday, July 18, 2014

Five Came Back: How the Second World War Changed Five Directors

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War marks the second time in a row the film critic and historian Mark Harris has got hold of a great book subject. His 2008 volume, Pictures at a Revolution, uses the five movies nominated for the 1967 Best Picture Oscar – Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner and In the Heat of the Night – to talk about the death of the old Hollywood, which still believed in the values of the big-studio era of the thirties, forties and fifties, and the shift to the new Hollywood, with its link to counterculture audiences. Harris’s strategy is ingenious, and the book is one of the best historical studies of a movie era ever published. In Five Came Back – another quintet – he turns to the work that John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra, “the most influential and imaginative American film directors to volunteer for service,” did for the Armed Forces during the Second World War.

Hollywood was slow to get juiced by the events in Europe in the late thirties, partly because America itself was isolationist for so long and partly, to its shame, for business reasons: the studios didn’t want to alienate their foreign markets. It wasn’t until 1939’s Confessions of a Nazi Spy, a melodrama with Edward G. Robinson as a G-man who manages to infiltrate a Nazi spy network operating clandestinely in the U.S., that Nazis were even alluded to in Hollywood movies. Confessions is an awful movie but a fascinating artifact: there are no credits, and an unidentified voice-over gives the impression that we’re watching a newsreel, even though it wouldn’t take an audience of the era long to recognize Robinson and George Sanders, in a ridiculous brush cut and a fatuous German accent, as one of the Nazi villains. Harris points out that the Galician-Jewish √©migr√© Billy Wilder’s script for Arise, My Love in 1940 was the first to suggest that American apathy about Hitler was a moral evil; by early 1941, when Wilder won the Oscar for Best Original Story, U.S. solidarity with England as it moved toward the end of its second year at war with Germany was an established theme in Hollywood. (It was certainly a theme of the Oscar ceremonies.)

Author Mark Harris.
Howard Hawks’s Sergeant York celebrated Alvin York, the pacifist turned WWI war hero – played by Gary Cooper, in a gee-gosh performance that won him his first Academy Award – to prepare the way for American militarism. Then when the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor pulled America into the war, all bets were off. The complaints by isolationist Senators that Hollywood was propagandizing against Germany disappeared, of course, along with the general moralizing – mostly from Catholic groups and women’s groups – that Hollywood was a den of iniquity exerting a sinful influence on American children. Suddenly it was at the forefront of the propaganda machine. And – with Ford entering the Navy and creating the Field Photographic Unit in collaboration with “Wild” Bill Donovan, the head of the Office of Strategic Services; Wyler relocating to England and embedding himself with the Air Force so that he could put together documentaries about the heroes who flew missions; Capra setting out to make a series of films (the Why We Fight series) to educate audiences on the home front; Huston releasing Report from the Aleutians followed by perhaps the greatest of all war documentaries, The Battle of San Pietro; and Stevens filming the liberation of Paris for newsreels – suddenly Hollywood was on the front lines as well.

Four of the five directors whose wartime activities Harris covers were at the peak of their careers when they volunteered for service. Ford, whose home studio was 20th Century-Fox, had been making pictures since the late silent era – one of his early works, Four Sons (1928), was an anti-war film set during the Great War; the movies he released in the couple of years before he went to work for the army were Stagecoach, Young Mr. Lincoln, The Grapes of Wrath, The Long Voyage Home and How Green Was My Valley, two of which (The Grapes of Wrath and How Green Was My Valley) won him his second and third Oscars for directing. Stevens, under contract at RKO, was one of the most confident and skilled directors of high-class entertainments in the business: his disparate output in the thirties included Alice Adams with Katharine Hepburn, Annie Oakley with Barbara Stanwyck, Swing Time, the best of the Astaire-Rogers musicals, and Gunga Din, a swashbuckler inspired by the Rudyard Kipling poem. William Wyler, employed at both Goldwyn and Warners, was a magnificent but remarkably subtle technician who was as famous for the performances he’d drawn – especially from Bette Davis, in Jezebel and The Letter – as for the films in which they were featured. Capra’s It Happened One Night had saved Harry Cohn’s poverty-stricken Columbia Pictures in 1934 and become the first movie to sweep the top five Academy Awards (Picture, Actor, Actress, Director and Screenplay) – a trick that only two movies have ever pulled off since. His subsequent thirties movies, beginning with Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and proceeding through Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, were huge box-office successes largely because of their appealing to some, appalling to others, brand of populism. Only Huston was still a novice, at least as a director. He’d been writing screenplays since the early thirties; he wrote Sergeant York as well as the movies that turned Humphrey Bogart into a leading man, High Sierra and The Maltese Falcon, both released in 1941. And he made the leap when Warners hired him to film the second. Alongside Citizen Kane (made the same year), it was the most extraordinary debut by any filmmaker of the decade.


Here’s Harris on the moment when these five gifted men turned their hands to war work:

“They saw their time in the military as the next chapter in the success stories they had all become – a testing ground and a proving ground. Huston imagined that the war might finally slake his thirst for risk and danger. For Ford, naval service represented the last chance to live the seafaring life he had always dreamed of, and a long-deferred opportunity to discover and measure his own bravery. Capra, the immigrant made good who still himself as an outsider, responded to the call to duty as a chance to define himself as the most American of Americans and win the respect he still felt eluded him. Wyler – the only Jew among the men, and the only one of the five with an imperiled family in Europe – wanted the chance to fight the Germans that he had never had as a boy. And Stevens, a skilled manufacturer of gentle diversions, hoped to trade in fantasy for truth, to use his camera, for the first time, to record the world as it really was.”

Harris chronicles their frustrations – Wyler stuck in England without supplies or the funds he needed, Stevens arriving in Algiers after the campaign against Hitler was over – and their successes. If you read the book while taking a look (or second look) at what they produced in those years, his exploration, trenchant and broad-based, is even more vivid. Capra’s Why We Fight series, seven movies that he co-directed with Anatole Litvak (none of the films carries a directing credit), are simplified lessons in current events, each one of which focuses on a single theme. Prelude to War, for instance, which is the most famous and most effective of them, moves through Hitler’s campaigns against each of the countries he conquered until England and France declared war on him in 1939; the motif of the voice-over narration, read by John Huston’s father, the great actor Walter Huston, is “Poland [or Norway or Austria] won’t forget” his treachery. Capra had watched Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, the propaganda film she made for Hitler, and at first he found its brilliance depressing; it made him think that the Allies were sunk. His second response stirred him into action; he determined to “turn Nazi filmmaking against itself.”

Beginning only three weeks before Pearl Harbor, Wyler made one of the most shameless and maudlin Anglophile war melodramas, Mrs. Miniver, with Greer Garson in an insufferable performance as a woman who shepherds her family through the Blitz with an unquivering upper lip and a relentlessly noble carriage. (It’s the worst thing he ever directed, though he and Garson both won Oscars, along with featured actress Teresa Wright and the quartet of screenwriters that included novelist James Hilton.) By contrast, The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress, which came out two years later, is a visually detailed and sometimes harrowing account of the career of a bomber plane, one of two Wyler flew with – he almost got killed filming in the nose of the other, the Our Gang, before he could reattach his breathing tube, and he lost hearing in one ear during one mission. Huston may have reckless by nature (Harris calls him “devil-may-care”), but Wyler turned out to be the most courageous, an authentic war hero. His other war doc, Thunderbolt, was held up during the end of the war and didn’t make it into theatres until 1947. (I couldn’t locate a copy.)

Huston’s San Pietro (1944), the second of his three pictures for the Forces during these years, still poses a challenge when we try to define the term “documentary.” Huston watched the battle and then restaged it; as Harris confirms, the movie “contained barely two minutes of actual, unreconstructed documentation.” Yet it’s a masterpiece of documentary-style realism. “Huston worked to achieve a kind of ragged-edge verisimilitude,” Harris writes, “that helped to create a general American understanding – one that persisted long after the war was over – of what ‘real’ war film is supposed to look like. When guns were fired or shells exploded, he made sure the image jolted as if the ground had shaken or the cameraman been taken by surprise. He slowed the action down, shooting soldiers belly-crawling over rocky terrain under mortar fire or advancing through treacherous passes by halting, jittery fits and starts rather than at a steady pace. And he even allowed a couple of the soldiers to notice the camera, just as they would under actual battle circumstances, catching its ‘eye’ for a split second, then expressionlessly turning back to their business.” If the enterprise makes you uneasy, you might reflect on the fact that Robert Flaherty, who invented documentary film in the 1920s, took the same approach when he made Nanook of the North and Man of Aran.

It was Ford, though, not Huston, who pioneered the style Harris describes, in The Battle of Midway (1942), which James Agee wrote in The Nation “is a first-class failure to film the most difficult of all actions – a battle – but a brave attempt to make a record – quick, jerky, vivid, fragmentary, luminous – of a moment of desperate peril.” Ford also intervened when his right-hand man in the Field Photographic Unit, the cinematographer Gregg Toland – Wyler’s DP on Wuthering Heights and Orson Welles’s on Citizen Kane, the cameraman who was responsible for importing deep focus to Hollywood – turned the project Ford had entrusted him with, the Pearl Harbor doc December 7th, into a virulently anti-Japanese tract. What remains is still quite incendiary, but evidently it was considerably worse. It’s a terrible movie, and though Harris’s description of the whimsical coda, excised by Ford, where Dana Andrews, as a Pearl Harbor casualty, converses with men who died in other American wars, is jaw-dropping, what remains is almost as embarrassing. Ford was also on the beach at Normandy; miraculously, no one in the unit was killed, but the cameras were ruined and much of the film destroyed. What footage he and his cohorts were able to salvage never got released, presumably because the War Department deemed it too horrifying.

Stevens was the only one of the five whose footage of the war (or, in Capra’s case, about the war – the Why We Fight films were “scissors and paste” efforts that relied heavily on stock) either surfaced only as newsreel clips or not at all. His entry on imdb.com lists something called George Stevens World War II Footage, but his major contribution was to help bring the Nazi murderers to justice at Nuremberg by shooting the liberation of Dachau, his camera providing indisputable testimony. Recording what he saw at Dachau became a sacred trust. Reporting on the film he shot there, Harris writes eloquently, “Sometimes he would not move the camera or cut away; he would simply hold fast on a single image until his film ran out, as if all of the deep and essential proofs that anyone could possibly require resided in the faces, or the bodies, or the bones themselves.”

Harris doesn’t spend much time on the movies Hollywood was turning out at the same time on the subject of the war, and most of them aren’t worth looking at. I watched or returned to a handful of the ones he alludes to – the patriotic musical This Is the Army (based on the Irving Berlin stage show); Hawks’s Air Force, which helped enshrine the contributions of bomber crews for American audiences; Jimmy Cagney in the anti-Japanese action picture Blood on the Sun. This last is as far removed from reality as, say, an Arabian Nights fantasy with Sabu or Maria Montez. Or as far removed as the hearty, cheerleading costume pictures Hollywood made about the noble Russian or Scandinavian peasants sacrificing themselves in the struggle against the marauding Nazis, like The Moon Is Down or the notorious North Star, which some distinguished people (Lewis Milestone, Lillian Hellman, Aaron Copland, Ira Gershwin) embarrassed themselves by getting involved in. The glaring exception among Hollywood’s wartime output is William Wellman’s The Story of G.I. Joe, released in the final year of the war – an attempt to look at battle unsentimentally and without a patriotic agenda. It stands, nearly three-quarters of a century later, as one of the finest war movies ever produced in this country.

My favorite section of Five Came Back is the final one, in which Harris talks about what the five did in the immediate aftermath of the war, and thus how they were affected by it. Ford made the melancholy They Were Expendable, set in the early days of the Pacific War, with Robert Montgomery (whom he revered for his battle service) and John Ford (whom he made his whipping boy – as apparently he often did, but this time because he resented him for not having served). It provided a taste of the slower, more somber, more pensive kind of filmmaking he would fall into: the Cavalry westerns, The Searchers – movies I am not drawn to by taste or temperament. (They Were Expendable, which I’d never seen before, made me restless; I had to keep getting up and walking around my apartment.) Stevens’s work changed, too, and given what he saw and shot at Dachau, it’s hard to imagine it wouldn’t have. The More the Merrier, his romantic comedy set in D.C. during the wartime housing crisis, which came out in 1943, turned out to be the last light entertainment he ever worked on; even I Remember Mama, the nostalgic family drama-cum-coming-of-age story that was his first post-war effort (in 1948), was a prestige picture, with a glossier, more elegant finish than the thirties comedies and musicals and swashbucklers that, beautifully crafted as they were, always felt tossed off. I love I Remember Mama, and I love A Place in the Sun, which he made three years later with Montgomery Clift and Elizabeth Taylor, but they’re so different from his early Hollywood movies that they hardly seem to have been made by the same director.

John Huston's Let There Be Light.
Huston spent some time on the third and last of his docs, the unforgettable Let There Be Light, about the psychiatric ward of Mason Army Hospital. But the War Department refused to release it, first because of some (manufactured-sounding) copyright problem involving the musical score and then on the pretext that though the vets depicted in the film had signed waivers permitting the scenes of them in therapy to be included, they were “in furtherance of the war effort” only and now were null and void – that to show the picture anywhere other than army hospitals, VA and navy facilities and army libraries would constitute an invasion of privacy. (Years later, Frederick Wiseman’s efforts to release his documentary about a psychiatric facility, Titicut Follies, were railroaded with precisely the same legal argument.) James Agee wrote in The Nation in May 1946: “John Huston’s Let There Be Light, a fine, terrible, valuable non-fiction film about psychoneurotic soldiers, has been forbidden civilian circulation by the War Department. I don’t know what is necessary to reverse this disgraceful decision, but if dynamite is required, then dynamite is indicated.” But the movie wasn’t shown publicly for another thirty-five years. I was in graduate school when it finally got released, and I remember watching almost all of it through tears and not being able to find my voice when I left the theatre.

Harris’s most imaginative section is the one in which he contrasts Wyler’s and Capra’s first post-war movies. Wyler, working with the playwright Robert Sherwood, adapted a treatment about homecoming vets that Mackinlay Cantor had done for Goldwyn, Glory for Me, that got away from him and turned into a verse novel. It became The Best Years of Our Lives, a three-hour film that overlaps the stories of three men who come home to a small Midwestern city and try to jump-start their interrupted lives. Committed to a greater realism, the kind that he believed audiences had come to expect from their experience of the war (and, at the movie house, of newsreels and war documentaries), Wyler sent his two leading ladies, Myrna Loy and Teresa Wright – playing the wife and grown daughter of one of the three vets, a banker played by Fredric March – to buy their clothes off the rack at a local department store. And he hired one of the first casualties of the war, a young man named Harold Russell who had lost both his hands in battle, to play one of the other two. (Dana Andrews, giving the performance of his career, played the third, a bombardier who has nightmares about one of his missions.) The movie wasn’t like anything Americans had seen before: Wyler brought to it a combination of his peerless narrative technique – perhaps no one since D.W. Griffith had been able to tell a story on film so commandingly – and all the emotions he’d stored up during his time in the service. Harris offers a superb analysis of the movie in the context of Wyler’s own war experiences.


Capra, on the other hand, made It’s a Wonderful Life, a movie no one else much wanted (including audiences; it didn’t become the popular classic it is now until the seventies), going through half a dozen major screenwriters before taking over the writing himself. It was as personal a venture for him as The Best Years of Our Lives was for Wyler, but his concerns were far more parochial. “For Capra,” Harris theorizes, “who was returning to an industry that he felt had recently erased him from its history, a what-if story about a man’s feelings of inconsequentiality and his dark fears of nonexistence felt autobiographical. It’s a Wonderful Life was a project driven by fears, desires, and wounds that he could no longer keep private.” That may explain why the movie is so weird and (to me at least) unpleasant, Christian-redemptive and Dickensian-sinister in equal parts that seem to be in constant battle with each other – and why, in another way, it’s so powerful a piece of filmmaking. Harris suggests, “If Capra could not follow [the other four directors] – if he could not even find a way to follow his own heart – it was in part because, alone among his colleagues, he never imagined that the war would change him, or the world. He had always assumed it would be an interruption – a long, ghastly pause after which everything would return to a normalcy that he instead discovered had vanished.” The book ends on Stevens – on the concentration-camp footage he eventually put in storage – but it’s this strange portrait of Capra, disappearing into himself as he became a Hollywood dinosaur, that lingers when you put it down.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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