Entertainment Weekly writer Harris (Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood, 2008) returns with a comprehensive, cleareyed look at the careers of five legendary directors who put their Hollywood lives on freeze-frame while they went off to fight in the only ways they knew how.
“As long as they lived,” writes the author, “the war lived with them.” Arranged chronologically (beginning in 1938), the text generally includes the doings of each of the five (John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra) in each of the chapters, with Harris artfully intercutting events from his principals’ private as well as professional lives. The author also keeps us up to date on Hollywood without his five, showing us the stars who were winning Oscars, how the five felt about the winners (sometimes themselves) and how Hollywood sought to profit from the war. Harris segues seamlessly to scenes all over the world—the Aleutians, England, France, Germany, Italy, the South Pacific and other venues important in the war and in his story. We learn along the way of the involvement in various cinema projects by other considerable talents—e.g., Lillian Hellman, cinematographer Gregg Toland, Theodor Geisl, Mel Blanc and animator Chuck Jones. Some of the five worked together (Capra and Stevens), but others worked separately on feature-length documentaries, short subjects and films for military use only. Among the more enduring productions were The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress (Wyler, 1944) and the powerful, wrenching footage shot in 1945 at the liberation of Dachau by George Stevens’ crew. Stevens was devastated by what he saw and later shot The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). Harris also chronicles the politics, personality clashes (military vs. Hollywood), egos, drinking, carousing and sexual exploits.
As riveting and revealing as a film by an Oscar winner.