There’s a brief scene just a few minutes into William Wyler’s acclaimed war film The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) when the three lead characters, all veterans returning home, hitch a ride on a repurposed bomber. They’ve just concluded their respective odysseys at the battlefront and are eager to get back to Boone City, a fictional stand-in for pretty much any Middle American town. The fittingly named Homer Parrish, a Navy veteran who lost both his hands in battle and now wears prosthetic hooks (and is played by Harold Russell, a nonprofessional actor who had suffered a similar injury in a training accident during the war), stands alongside Fred Derry (Dana Andrews), a heavily decorated Air Force pilot who flew bombers over Europe, and Al Stephenson (Fredric March), a former Army platoon sergeant in the Pacific. As they get acquainted, Fred asks Al how long it’s been since he’s been home. “Oh, a couple of centuries,” he tartly replies.
Originally given the working title The Way Home, the film struck a particular chord not only with the millions of Americans who lined up at the box office to see it—making it one of the top-grossing pictures of its day—but also with its director, who had served an extended tour of duty in Europe in the Signal Corps, the Army’s communications unit. Like the characters on-screen, Wyler was still trying to reacclimate himself to civilian life; as he once put it, “I spent four years being one of those characters.” Wyler’s story—how he responded to his own experiences during the war and the wider impact they had on his film career—is just one of the lives chronicled in Mark Harris’s Five Came Back, his finely observed and wonderfully detailed portrait of Wyler, John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston and Frank Capra.
Moving more or less chronologically from March 1938 to February 1947, Harris—whose last book, the widely celebrated Pictures at a Revolution, showed how the five films nominated for Best Picture in 1967 helped define the New Hollywood—follows his principals as they balance the competing demands of patriotism and professional commitment. Although Hollywood—in particular its major studios and chief executives—has come under heat recently for its supposed lack of proper engagement during World War II, the story that Harris tells, while not always heroic, demonstrates the kind of complex moral reckoning and personal sacrifice that, until now, has rarely been recognized with such sensitivity and depth.
As Harris notes at the outset, the general mobilization of America’s film professionals was of considerable significance. “Fully one-third of the studios’ male workforce would eventually enlist or be drafted,” Harris writes. “But few of them would enter the war as these directors did, with the sense that in impending middle age, they had found themselves with a new world to conquer, a task that would test their abilities to help win the hearts and minds of the American people under the hardest imaginable circumstances, with the greatest possible stakes.” By the time Pearl Harbor was bombed, Ford had already joined the Navy (“I think it’s the thing to do at this time,” he explained, almost like one of the laconic cowboys that populate his westerns); he held the rank of lieutenant commander, and although he was the oldest of the lot—two years Capra’s senior and a good decade older than the others—he served the longest. Huston and Wyler were quick to follow suit, both joining the Signal Corps, while Capra and Stevens also offered their services to the Army.
Although all five came to believe in the necessity of lending their talents to the war effort, they hadn’t always voiced their support for interventionism. While on a trip to the Soviet Union with screenwriter Robert Riskin in 1937, Capra remarked after witnessing a military procession in Red Square: “We Americans are a peaceful nation. We don’t intend to fight.” Yet only a few years later, Capra would helm one of the United States’ most effective series of training films aimed at galvanizing the fervor of young Army recruits, a series whose very title seems to have been conceived as a rejoinder to his earlier statement: Why We Fight.