With 2008's scenes from A Revolution, Mark Harris linked five filmmaking stories in the most elegant and inventive of ways. He picked all the Best Picture Oscar nominees from 1968 and argued that they marked a change in direction for Hollywood just as the nation seemed to be tearing itself apart. His follow-up is a similar feat, but with hugely different subjects.
Harris this time turns to World War II and a quintet of the studio-system era’s biggest directors: George Stevens, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and the grandaddy of the Western, John Ford. “These were men who were way past military age, who were all rather pacifistic,” said screenwriter Irwin Shaw (who also signed up). “They gave up very lucrative and prestigious careers and went right into the army... even though they knew that the possibility of making great pictures was almost non-existent, because what the army wanted from us was propaganda to help win the war.”
Harris is handling the broad sweep of history, and the themes are rich: Hollywood’s fractious relationship with Washington; the ethics of propaganda; real footage versus re-enactment; and, most significantly, the impact of the decision to go to war (or, in the case of Capra, stay in Washington and co-ordinate propaganda) on five influential filmmakers. Wyler, for example, found triumph with his Memphis Belle documentary, but went totally deaf from the constant roar of bomber engines. Stevens, meanwhile, was the only director present during the invasion of Germany; his footage of Dachau became the rawest evidence at the Nuremberg Trials. It also devastated him, and he understandably never settled back into the genre that had made his name: comedy.
The other three come off less well. Ford was a glory hog who couldn’t make a bigger deal of the wound he received while shooting The Battle Of Midway and wound up being dragged out of Normandy, pissed out of his mind; Capra peddled awkward propaganda from behind a desk via his Why We Fight series, always keeping an eye on his career; and Huston faked footage of the battle of San Pietro — although there was redemption via Let There Be Light, which dealt with post-traumatic stress, and which the army suppressed for three decades.
Harris is a lively commentator, and a master weaver of multifarious threads. Five Came Back may not be as Raging Bulls ‘cool’ or as focused as Scenes From A Revolution, but as a portrait of adventurous craftsmen recording the world’s near-end, it’s equally compelling.
Reviewed by Dan Jolin