There is no shortage of books written on the subject of Hollywood and its relationship with World War Two, nor is there a lack of material on the lives and work of the period’s most prominent filmmakers. Titles such as Thomas Doherty’s Projections of War examine the film industry’s involvement in the war effort, covering “the social, political, and economic forces that created such genre classics as Mrs. Miniver, as well as comedies, musicals newsreels, documentaries, cartoons, and army training films”. There are also “remarkable biographies” of the five directors that are the subject of Harris’ s latest release and to which the author acknowledges his indebtedness. Yet Five Came Back is that rare combination of ensemble biography and social history which is both academic in scope and accessible in style.
Beginning in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbour, Harris traces the interwoven careers of five of Hollywood’s most prestigious wartime filmmakers: John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, William Wyler, and Frank Capra. He establishes the context for his book by summarising the work of the eponymous five in the lead up to WW2 before embarking on a thoroughly researched and detailed account of the ways in which the war impacted on their personal lives, their careers, and Hollywood itself. Drawing heavily on documents held by the filmmaker’s respective estates, correspondence and existing biographies, Harris charts the men’s rise to fame, their efforts to aid their country with the production of propaganda films and escapist fantasies, and the effects of what they saw and experienced during their military involvement on their mindsets.
Although he lists an extensive bibliography and provides a wealth of notes in accompaniment to each chapter, Harris does not pitch only to academics or experts. He writes in a style which is in equal parts lucid, humorous and informative, and assumes only a general knowledge of the period, providing any necessary contextual information with a sense of brevity which feels organic within his narrative. Thus despite being a book which deals with a specific historical period, Five Comes Back avoids broaching territory which is already extensively documented by existing history books, remaining focused on painting a vivid portrait of the five personalities around which it is based. However, some readers, particularly those of an academic bent, may find issue with Harris’ decision not to reference his quotations; he makes liberal use of the documentation available to him, but the source from which draws each individual quotation is never made clear. Additionally, many of these quotations are abridged or paraphrased, and although his portrayals of the five directors seem to be largely substantiated, one might wish to have the original material clearly identified in order to gain a more complete picture of the context in which the words were originally spoken.
This is a relatively minor complaint however, and given that Five Come Back is researched like an academic text but written as a popular biography, it is perhaps an allowable omission. Clocking in at 512 pages, with some 430 pages and a number of glossy inserts, Harris’ book is an impressive work both physically and textually. Straddling the genres of biography and history book, Five Came Back is a thoroughly enjoyable read, expansive in scope and thorough in detail, suitable for both casual readers and academics alike.