‘Five Came Back,” by Mark Harris, has all the elements of a good movie: fascinating characters, challenges, conflicts and intense action. It follows five movie directors through World War II, when they left Hollywood to make propaganda and training films for the American military. John Ford, at 46 the oldest of the five, had joined the Navy three months before the attack on Pearl Harbor. The attack spurred the other four — Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston and George Stevens — to join the Signal Corps, the branch of the Army responsible for communications and information.

“These were men who were way past military age who . . . gave up very lucrative and prestigious careers and went right into the Army,” said the novelist and screenwriter Irwin Shaw, who worked with Capra on the series “Why We Fight.” “And they put themselves at the disposal of the Army even though they knew . . . that the possibility of making great pictures was almost nonexistent, because what the Army wanted from us was propaganda to help win the war, [and] propaganda doesn’t make great pictures.”

But they swiftly put their experience and professionalism to use. “Why We Fight,” according to Harris, was “the single most important filmed propaganda of the war.”

Ford’s “The Battle of Midway,” the first major film made by one of the five, shows an uneasy mix of documentary and propaganda. Ford had set out not just to record the battle but also to make what he called “a film for the mothers of America.” The movie’s striking combat footage is accompanied by heavy-handed music cues and a scripted commentary by Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell lacking any subtlety. During a scene showing the casualties of the battle, we hear Darwell’s voice pleading, “Get those boys to the hospital,” as “Onward, Christian Soldiers” plays in the background.

Some critics at the time recognized the “corny” excesses of Ford’s film, but it was enormously popular and influential. Its Technicolor footage and the jittery images as cameras were shaken by explosions “created a new standard of realism in which, for the first time, lack of polish was taken as a benchmark of veracity.” In both realism and hokum, Ford’s film influenced the direction of American propaganda films.

’Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War ’ by Mark Harris (Penguin)

As Harris points out, there had been no discussion of the potential conflict between “a documentarian’s duty to report the war with precision and accuracy . . . [and] a propagandist’s mission to sell the war to Americans whatever it took.” The lack of guidelines resulted in what he calls “the sorriest and most shameful episode in the history of army propaganda efforts during World War II.” In 1943, the British released “Desert Victory,” an account of the campaign against Rommel in North Africa, which Time called “the finest film of actual combat that has come out of this war.” But the film also, Harris writes, left “the impression that the British were leading the Allied effort to win the war.” So when the U.S. Army brass heard that the British were preparing a sequel, they tried to intimidate them into scrapping it and instead collaborating on a film of the North Africa campaign that would at least include the American role.

Unfortunately, most of the footage of Americans fighting in North Africa had been lost when the ship carrying it was sunk by a German torpedo. So Huston was called on to stage battle scenes in the Mojave Desert, using dummy tanks and soldiers as extras, and a reluctant Stevens reenacted scenes of the American campaign in Algeria. The British were persuaded to collaborate with the Americans on a film called “Tunisian Victory,” which was, as Harris describes it, “an uncomfortably negotiated hodgepodge of realism and falsification.”

But Harris also documents the real heroism of these five directors, all of whom repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way. Ford, for example, was knocked unconscious and wounded by shrapnel while filming “The Battle of Midway.” He was also present at the invasion of Normandy on D-Day, as was Stevens, who also came under fire during the Battle of the Bulge.

Stevens had joined up in part to counter what he had seen in Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda film “Triumph of the Will.” His filmed documentation of what the Nazis had done in Europe eventually brought him to the liberation of Dachau, the horrors of which contributed to his emotional breakdown. But the films Stevens made became key evidence for the prosecution at Nuremberg.

Like the other four directors, Wyler was profoundly changed by his service. He filmed bomber runs over Europe to create one of the best documentaries of the war, “The Memphis Belle.” Seven of the 12 B-17s that went out during Wyler’s first flight were shot down. On one flight, he blacked out because his oxygen tube had disconnected, and during a flight at the end of the war he sustained permanent hearing loss. “The guy had guts,” said one member of the crew of “The Memphis Belle.”

Before he went to war, Wyler made “Mrs. Miniver,” a glossy picture about stiff-upper-lip Brits coping with German air raids. But though the movie won him his first Oscar, he came to regret its sentimental fakery. Known as a rather impersonal perfectionist before the war, he won his second Oscar in 1947 with the story of three returning servicemen, “The Best Years of Our Lives,” which was deeply informed by his experiences and is perhaps the best film of his career.

This is Harris’s second brilliant book about movies; the first was “Pictures at a Revolution,” about the five best-picture Oscar nominees in 1968. Both books demonstrate meticulous research and exceptional skill at telling intersecting and overlapping stories with clarity and power. “Five Came Back” enables us to watch the films of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Huston and Stevens with new insight.

Charles Matthews is a writer and editor in Northern California.


A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

By Mark Harris

Penguin Press. 511 pp. $29.95