Propaganda today has a nasty connotation; it suggests something cheesy, manipulative, in the service of a dishonorable cause.
During World War II, however, cinematic propaganda became an elevated art, practiced with unusual expertise by five great American movie directors: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston,
Hitler threw down the gauntlet with Leni Riefenstahl's "Triumph of the Will" (1935), propaganda so captivating that it impelled even gentle Germans to thump their chests. When Riefenstahl's film appeared, Hollywood was torn between isolationists and interventionists By 1941, however, when the Japanese bombed
In his meticulously researched, page-turning group biography "Five Came Back," Mark Harris, a movie critic for Entertainment Weekly, tells what happened to these five directors — not just during the war but after.
Enlisting was not an easy choice. Most of these men were middle-aged, with family and financial obligations. Yet for reasons more personal than patriotic, each renounced big bucks to bivouac among common soldiers, a decision that affected both support for the war and their own artistic lives.
The first of the five to enlist was Ford, a devout Irish American Catholic with a yen for the seafaring life. He had won directing
Ford was next sent to Hawaii with orders to show how quickly the Navy had returned to fighting strength after the attack on Pearl Harbor. But these challenges did not prepare him for the realities of combat, which he witnessed during the Battle of Midway in the North Pacific. He functioned through the ordeal but emerged with a withering self-awareness: "I am really a coward."
World War II, Harris reminds us, was a man's war.
Wyler fled from this project, but as a Jew whose European family was directly threatened by Hitler, he strongly embraced his propagandist role. Wyler was honored by the film academy as best director for the 1942 picture "Mrs. Miniver," which he had begun before the U.S. entered WWII, and he eventually gave the Army what it needed: "The Memphis Belle" (1944), a rousing documentary about the last bombing mission of a Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress.
Capra, whose reasons for enlisting were as "naïve," "overheated" and "erratic" as the politics in his movie "Meet
Following his "thirst for risk," Huston, celebrated for
Stevens, director of such fluff as "Swing Time" (1936) as well as "Woman of the Year" (1942), was perhaps the most traumatized by the war. He dutifully sent battle footage to Capra for "Why We Fight." But after recording the haunting liberation of the Dachau concentration camp in Germany, he locked this film — unedited — in a storage unit, which remained sealed throughout his life.
Harris charts the fighting chronologically, following each director through his own circle of wartime hell. He ends with the revealing contrast between Wyler's immediate postwar masterpiece,
Where Capra sought to divert viewers with fantasy and fight "atheism," Wyler focused on returning vets, their questioning of institutions, their agonizing re-integration into civilian life. Wyler's first-hand knowledge of the B-17 led to the film's most powerful scene. In a bold portrayal of what we now call post-traumatic stress, Wyler's character visits a graveyard of old planes, climbs into the "bombardier's nest" and breaks down.
Harris' pairing of Wyler and Capra speaks volumes. But I wish he had also lingered on Stevens' postwar work. For example, "Giant" (1956) is a potent critique of discrimination based on ethnicity. It echoes the Nazi persecution of Jews.
During WWII, Stevens was a team player, but he produced his greatest piece of propaganda in 1953. "Shane," ostensibly a western, is in fact a searing plea for pacifism. Stevens translates the enormity of Dachau into a metaphor that audiences can absorb: "A gunshot, for our purposes, is a holocaust," he explained. "And when a living being is shot, a life is over."
Lord is the author of "The Accidental Feminist: How Elizabeth Taylor Raised Our Consciousness and We Were Too Distracted by Her Beauty to Notice."
Five Came Back
A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
Penguin Press: 528 pp., $29.95