In 2008, after his shrewd, entertaining book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood was getting rave reviews, Mark Harris was rooting around for a new story to tell. Pictures is about the five Best Picture Oscar nominees of 1967—films like The Graduate and Bonnie and Clyde whose frankness and narrative audacity fractured Hollywood’s creaking old studio system. The idea that Harris settled on, how World War II affected Hollywood and Hollywood affected it, is the subject of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, which is just out now (we starred the book in the January 1 issue).
Harris focuses on the lives of five directors, all of whom served during the war—John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, Frank Capra and William Wyler (who called his war years away from Hollywood “an escape into reality”). As he did in Pictures, Harris has chosen a subject that lets him roam over all of Hollywood while homing in on revealing details (like the fact that Capra, whose films, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,venerate the common man, thought Mussolini was a pretty swell guy). “I like having more than one story,” Harris says. “I like to cross cut.”
World War II films can feel stolid and starchy to us now. Harris, who used to be an executive editor and columnist for Entertainment Weekly, had shied away from them for that very reason. “I didn’t understand their emotional language, and they seemed corny to me, some of them,” he says. Being a journalist, he investigated his own aversion to them. He discovered that during World War II, Hollywood was producing 150 films a year about the war. But as he started thinking about Five Came Back in 2008, America had been engaged in war for quite some time, and there weren’t many films about war. The difference was stark. “I started to think, ‘this is just a completely different movie universe, a different cultural universe, and I really want to look into that.’ ” (Harris’ editor suggested he write a different book, about William Faulkner’s stint in Hollywood. “What a lovely little book that would be,” Harris thought to himself at the time. “My name and Faulkner’s on the same book cover.” But he didn’t pursue it since there wasn’t much of a story: Faulkner started out in Hollywood, Harris says, “as a disillusioned alcoholic and ended there as an older disillusioned alcoholic.”)
In Five Came Back, Harris makes WWII, which on the face of it feels so overanalyzed, seem fresh. And he makes it perfectly clear how the struggles those five directors faced during WWII gradually changed Hollywood. “Those directors did have an appetite for creative freedom that precipitated the chipping away at the studio system,” he says. “And that chipping away took about 20 years to reach the critical mass I write about in my first book."