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, Frank Capra and George Stevens.
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 Pearl Harbor, the isolationists shut up. Hollywood and the War Department realized: President Franklin D. Roosevelt needed his own Reifenstahls — American directors who could rally U.S. citizens with film.
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 Oscars for "The Grapes of Wrath" and "The Informer." Unlike the others, he was not a womanizer, which probably served him well on his first assignment: "Official Training Film 8-154," a.k.a. "Sex Hygiene," intended to scare soldiers from fornicating without condoms. His details — "frontal nudity and grotesque close-ups of penile cancroids" — were persuasive.
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. The Army sought Hollywood's "manpower" and "salesmanship," gendered terms appropriate to a world where women were excluded from combat. It was also largely a white man's war, as Wyler discovered when he began work on a movie about segregated African American units. Despite the proved bravery of these troops, an official War Department report characterized them as "careless," "shiftless" and possessing "a musical nature and a marked sense of rhythm."
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 John Doe" (1941), did not at first seem a likely candidate to transform the footage of his fellow directors into "Why We Fight," the most potent series of anti-fascist propaganda films to emerge from the war. In the 1930s, Capra was charmed by fascism: supporting Franco in the Spanish Civil War and worshiping Italian dictator Benito Mussolini. (Only fierce objections from Columbia Pictures President Harry Cohn had stopped him from shooting a glowing Mussolini biopic.) But Pearl Harbor shook Capra; he was able to channel his concern for the little guy into support for the democratic Allies.
Following his "thirst for risk," Huston, celebrated for "The Maltese Falcon" (1941), stumbled through the war in the same haze of booze and adultery that marked his Hollywood life. He filmed fighting in Italy, but the Army deemed his work too "anti-war" to be released.
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, "The Best Years of Our Lives" (1946) and Capra's concurrent flop, "It's a Wonderful Life." (Full disclosure: I have always hated "IAWL" because Capra posits that the greatest horror that can befall a woman is to become a librarian.)
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