In 1918 on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, hostilities officially ceased and World War I came to an end. A year later President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed that the U.S. would observe Armistice Day on November 11. By 1954, in the U.S., Armistice Day had evolved from a day of gratitude for peace and remembrance of fallen soldiers into a day to celebrate and thank all veterans. So, this day – 11/11/14 — we observe Veteran’s Day and offer our sincere thanks, admiration and respect to all who’ve served honorably.
Earlier this year I read Mark Harris’s remarkable book, FIVE CAME BACK – A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. This is much more than an account of films made in Hollywood during World War II. It is an amazing account of five directors — all at the top of their game — who actively served during the War — several of them in harm’s way on more than one occasion. John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra each left the confines and comforts of Hollywood to lend their skills and expertise to inform and inspire both soldiers and civilians. More than a few of the films they made were not seen by the public until many years after the war. Ford had crews shooting real combat footage on Midway. Their film crews were on the beaches of Normandy. And Stevens’s ghastly footage of the freshly discovered death camps in Germany was used in case against the Nazis at the Nuremberg trials.
Harris’s FIVE CAME BACK is as engaging as it is revelatory. Among the dozens of moving accounts gathered here is the story of how the groundbreaking, post-war, Oscar-winning film, THE BEST YEARS OF LIVES, came to be made by WWII vet, William Wyler. That film — which Wyler’s peer, Billy Wilder called “the best directed film I’ve seen in my life” — was a cathartic extension of Wyler’s own harrowing experiences during the war and his peacetime re-entry. Mark Harris spent five years researching and writing this incredible book. It is at once a steely eyed look at the vagaries of war and human foibles as it is a mediation on compassion, courage and honor.
FIVE CAME BACK (A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War), by Mark Harris, 511 pgs, Penguin Press