POSTED March 8 2014

Five Came Back: How World War II changed American filmmakers and American film

Unknown-1They weren’t expendable, writes Mark Harris of filmmakers Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler in Five Came Back, a can’t-put-down account of propaganda movies they made for the Signal Corps and armed forces during World War II. [Read my review in the San Francisco Chronicle here.]

Harris’ thesis is deceptively simple: War changed them, their war films changed movie syntax — and us. His writing is complex, asking century-old questions of what constitutes documentary.

Discussing Huston’s battle-scene reconstructions in The Battle of San Pietro, Harris talks about how the filmmaker achieved a “ragged-edged verisimilitude that helped create a general understanding — one that persisted long after the war was over — of what a ‘real’ war film is supposed to look like. When guns were fired or shells exposed, he made sure the image jolted as if the ground had shaken of the cameraman had been taken by surprise.” Understand that San Pietro was almost entirely scripted, acted and directed, with fewer than two minutes of actual documentation.

His fine book made me think about other ways movies changed after World War II. There was a rise in movies about the specter of communism — as in The Stranger, My Son John, Walk East on Beacon. A newsreel look (one might call it American neo-realism)  pervaded American movies, especially those produced by Louis de Rochemont or directed by Elia Kazan and Howard Hawks.  With the exceptions of Joan Crawford, Bette Davis and Katharine Hepburn, actresses who had been popular before and during the war incrementally disappeared from the screen, making way for June Allyson, Linda Darnell and Grace Kelly.

How else did the second world war change American film?


  1. Jack Fields says:

    I think WWII created an unavoidable cynicism in many Americans which was then reflected in the movies. Even “It’s a Wonderful Life,” which is now remembered as one of the most uplifting films ever, has moments of darkness. MGM may have tried to counter this trend by inflating their musicals with fantasy, sometimes even more than was necessary until they reached absurdity:
    “Yolanda and The Thief” “Till The Clouds Roll By” “Words and Music”
    When looking at the first years following the war, the films seem mostly made up of a cross between the dark and dismal:
    “The Lost Weekend” “Johnny Belinda” “All The King’s Men”
    and the light and whimsical:
    “Easter Parade” “The Yearling” “Little Women”
    Perhaps America needed to have such a dramatic contrast of reality and fantasy available to them because it was just the thing to cinematically cure their kind of ptsd…

  2. wwolfe says:

    There was a greater awareness of people’s capacity for corruption – a kind of moral laziness – because of the war. I think this doomed Louis B. Mayer’s version of America on screen.

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