There used to be a time in this great land of ours when movie books were a thing. You could go to a bookstore, big or small, chain or indie, and find a whole section devoted just to films. Nowadays, that section has dwindled to one bookshelf or less and shares space with plays, screenplay-writing tomes, and how-to filmmaking courses.
Maybe all the great books about movies have been written, but one author, journalist Mark Harris, seems to have found his own niche when it comes to this genre. Harris was the author of Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, a few years back. That book told the story of the five 1968 Oscar Best Picture nominees (for films released in 1967) and how they represented a sea change in Hollywood. The films were Bonnie and Clyde, Doctor Dolittle, The Graduate, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, and In the Heat of the Night. By examining each of these films and what they meant both collectively and separately to Hollywood, Harris proved that 1968 was a year of major change in the American film industry.
Harris is back again with another “five” book: Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. This time around, Harris looks at five legendary film directors who left Hollywood during World War II to work for the government making propaganda pictures. The five directors were Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, and all five (with the exception of Huston, whose had just started directing) were at the very pinnacles of their careers. While Capra toiled mostly in Washington, DC, the other four directors saw action, particularly Stevens and Wyler. Those two men were also the ones most affected by what they saw and filmed during the war. [SPOILER ALERT] Wyler came back almost totally deaf due to an accident that occurred while filming on a plane; Stevens came back a profoundly changed man after being among the first to see—and film—the horrific conditions at Nazi concentration camps such as Dachau. In fact, the director made official films documenting the camps for the prosecution of war criminals at Nuremberg, films that were incredibly devastating in their truth.
Harris follows all five of the directors month by month through their years in the armed services. All five were frustrated at the bureaucracy and ineffectiveness of the government. In certain ways, all five were censored in the films they made, yet they still were ale to make, in some fashion, the movies they wanted to make. Harris’s honest and thorough portrayal of all five men shows their foibles, egos, and genius that both helped and hindered them in making a different kind of film.
Turner Classic Movies (TCM) is showcasing the films of these five directors each Tuesday during the month of September, featuring Mark Harris as co-host of these five special nights. It all starts tonight at 8:00pm Eastern time with Frank Capra, and follows through the month with John Huston on 9/8, John Ford on 9/15, William Wyler on 9/22, and George Stevens on 9/29. You’ll see not only some of the directors’ most popular Hollywood films, but world premieres of some of their war work, too. Click here for more details on TCM’s special Five Came Back programming in the month of September.