When America entered World War II, some of Hollywood's most celebrated directors enlisted and risked their lives. But they weren't fighting — they were filming combat.
Through the 1930s, Hollywood and the federal government held a mutual suspicion of each other. But after Pearl Harbor, the War Department asked Hollywood directors to make short documentaries that could be presented in theaters before the featured films. The ideas was to show Americans what was at stake, give them a glimpse of what our soldiers were going through and stir up patriotic feelings.
Mark Harris has written a new book about this unusual and unprecedented relationship between the military and Hollywood. It's called Five Came Back: A Story Of Hollywood And The Second World War. Harris focuses on five directors who made movies for the War Department: John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra.
He tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross about the filmmakers' efforts to collect footage of D-Day, and their role in documenting the horrors of Nazi concentration camps.
On Frank Capra's use of Nazi propaganda in his "Why We Fight" film series
Part of Capra's idea to use Nazi propaganda films in the "Why We Fight" series was born out of necessity. There was almost no budget for these movies. He had something like $450,000 ... to make 50 movies. So he was really on a shoestring.
He really couldn't go out and shoot a lot of stuff, but the Treasury Department had seized a lot of foreign propaganda movies. And Capra himself had also gone to New York and seen a print of Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph Of The Will, [which shows a Hitler rally staged for the camera,] at the Museum of Modern Art and he was so stirred by it and was so stunned by it, that he came out of the theater saying, "We're going to lose."...
Triumph Of The Will is pro-Nazi propaganda, pro-Hitler propaganda on a level of intensity that nobody in America had ever tried, because propaganda, even right after the war started, was still kind of a tainted word, whereas it was not in Germany. So Capra's brilliant idea was to take some of these movies — which shockingly were shown theatrically in German communities in New York in local movie theaters to pro-German audience — and turned them against their makers by showing just how dangerous and domineering these people could be.
On the effort to collect footage of D-Day
George Stevens (for the Army) and John Ford (for the Navy) were really the ones that came up with a concerted plan. ... It involved hundreds of cameras, hundreds of cameramen, dozens of cameras fixed to the front of landing vessels.
What is ironic is that most of the footage that was shot at D-Day was destroyed. Many of the stationary cameras didn't function. The cameramen miraculously almost all survived, but a lot of their footage didn't. So there was no way to create a clear narrative, chronological structure of what happened at D-Day out of the footage. What there was was an extraordinary amount of raw footage that was then collected from every camera, and every cameraman, that hadn't malfunctioned. It was all sort of packed up, sent to England and edited, apparently, into several hours of continuous footage that was shown to the War Department back in the United States.
Most of the most shocking footage, the most realistic footage, the best footage, if you will, from D-Day was much too raw and frightening and upsetting to be shown to home front audiences. So while movie theaters across the country advertised for 10 days with signs outside that said, "Ten Days Until First Footage Of D-Day" ... the actual footage that made its way to theaters was a very carefully manicured selection of stuff that was acceptable to show ...
Most of the D-Day footage was not shown until much, much later. And really, you'd have to go forward to the movie Saving Private Ryan, the first part of which is a recreation of D-Day that is in part inspired by that never-seen footage.
On George Stevens' footage of the Dachau concentration camp
What Stevens filmed at Dachau was so painful that he didn't talk about it for decades afterwards. But what we think of now as some of the images of Holocaust atrocity that are burned into our collective consciousness — that's what Stevens saw: bodies in boxcars; starving, dying, skeletal people; bodies covered in snow; body parts; crematoria.
The worst things that we know of what the Nazis did in the death camps and the concentration camps were news to Stevens and his men, and of course to America when he discovered them. Imagine walking into Dachau not knowing what a death camp was and seeing what he saw. So he did the only thing that he could do, which was to record it. At that point, he was no longer interested in making a documentary, what he was doing and what he knew he was doing from the first hour that he was there was gathering evidence.
On how Stevens' Dachau footage was used
The footage that he shot proved to be extraordinarily important in the Nuremberg Trials, where it was compiled into two evidentiary movies, one of which was specifically designed to show Nazi atrocities and the other of which was designed to prove that this had been a long-term plan on the part of the Nazis — essentially to prove intent ...
The defendants were forced to sit there and watch them, and many people feel that they were essentially turning points in the trial ... not in that these guys were ever going to be found innocent, but in bringing home just how horrible what they had done was. Famously, a couple of German lawyers for the defendants said that after seeing the footage that Stevens had compiled, they couldn't even stand to be in the same room with their own clients.
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Suddenly, from behind the clouds, the jets attack.
GROSS: When American entered World War II, some of Hollywood's most celebrated directors enlisted and risked their lives, not to fight, but to film the combat. We just heard a clip from "The Battle of Midway," a film of the actual battle directed by John Ford, who was already famous for films like "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Stagecoach."
Through the 1930s, Hollywood and the federal government were suspicious of each other, but after Pearl Harbor, the War Department wanted Hollywood's directors to make short documentaries that could be presented in theaters before the featured films in order to show Americans what was at stake, give them a glimpse of what our soldiers were going through and stir up patriotic feelings.
My guest Mark Harris has written a new book about this unusual and unprecedented relationship and Hollywood in his new book "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War." Harris focuses on five directors who made movies for the War Department: John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra.
Harris' previous book is called "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. He's a columnist for Entertainment Weekly and Grantland. Mark Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR. This series of World War II movies with a lot of documentary footage gets started with the series "Why We Fight," which is overseen by the director Frank Capra. What are some of Frank Capra's most famous films?
MARK HARRIS: Well, Capra was probably the most successful and famous director in Hollywood at the time the war started. He had made "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," "Mr. Deeds Goes To Town," "It Happened One Night," "You Can't Take it With You," "Meet John Doe." I mean, he was I believe the highest paid director in Hollywood at the time.
He had been on the cover of Time magazine and was just seen as the guy who had his finger on the pulse of American populism more than any other director.
GROSS: And after the war, he makes...
HARRIS: After the war he makes "It's A Wonderful Life," which is in many ways his most personal film, certainly the one that he had the biggest hand in writing.
GROSS: He oversees the "Why We Fight" series, a series designed to tell people why we're entering the war, what's it really about, and - or as it was officially put, making clear the enemy's ruthless objectives, promoting confidence in the ability of our armed forces to win and showing clearly how we would lose our freedom if we lost the war.
HARRIS: Yes, and I should just interrupt you to say that the "Why We Fight" series was not aimed at the American public. It was originally designed exclusively to be shown to soldiers.
GROSS: Was it ever shown to the American public?
HARRIS: Pieces of it were shown to the American public because Capra actually became enraged that some of the directors he was competitive with, like John Ford with "The Battle of Midway" or John Huston, were getting their movies into theaters, where he felt he was stuck doing just training films.
So he said hey, you know, my "Why We Fight" movies are terrific. Why can't they be shown in American theaters and got into a huge bureaucratic power struggle about whether they could get out to theaters. But three of them -three of the seven - ultimately were shown in theaters.
GROSS: Well, he had a really great idea, which might seem obvious in retrospect, but it wasn't then. He wanted to work in Nazi and Fascist propaganda films, use that footage and turn it against the Nazis and the Fascists and show how scary they were.
HARRIS: Yes, and part of Capra's idea to use Nazi propaganda films in the "Why We Fight" series was born of necessity. There was almost no budget for these movies. He had something like $450,000 with which to make 50 movies. So he was really on a shoestring. He couldn't go out and shoot a lot of stuff. But the Treasury Department had seized a lot of foreign propaganda movies, and Capra himself had also gone to New York and seen a print of Leni Riefenstahl's famous "Triumph of the Will" at the Museum of Modern Art.
And he was so stirred by it and so stunned by it that he came out of the theater saying we're going to lose. And out of that despair almost came the idea...
GROSS: And "Triumph of the Will" is Leni Riefenstahl's documentary of a huge Hitler rally basically staged for the camera, very scary, yeah.
HARRIS: Yes, yes, "Triumph of the Will" is propaganda, pro-Nazi propaganda, pro-Hitler propaganda on a level of intensity that nobody in America had ever tried because propaganda, even right after the war started, was still kind of a tainted word, whereas it was not in Germany.
So Capra's brilliant idea was to take some of these movies, which shockingly were shown theatrically in German communities in New York, in local movie theaters, to pro-German audiences, and turn them against their makers by showing just how dangerous and domineering these people could be.
GROSS: What really surprised me, you mention in the book there was a period when Frank Capra had been infatuated with Mussolini.
HARRIS: Yes, everybody thinks that Capra was this blazing populist liberal. That was, sort of, more true of his screenwriters than of him. Capra was actually a conservative Republican who boasted that he never voted for Franklin Roosevelt in any of the four elections. And his own politics were bewildering I think even to himself sometimes.
Yes, he did get infatuated with Mussolini. He was very, very attracted to power and to displays of power. And certainly, you know, Mussolini had that going for him. I think the funnier thing is that Mussolini was also very attracted to Capra and even approached Columbia Pictures at one point before the war about having Capra direct his life story, which he would finance.
HARRIS: You know, Harry Cohn, the man who ran Columbia at the time and was really nobody's fool, thought better of it and, you know, probably wasn't the first time or the last time that he saved Capra from what would have been a disastrous misstep.
GROSS: So do you think Capra was no longer infatuated with Mussolini when he starts making these American "Why We Fight" films?
HARRIS: I do. I think that the "Why We Fight" films and the whole war mission that Capra assigned himself focused his patriotism and his politics, even, in a way that the years before the war could not. The interesting thing is that while Capra was a very take charge guy, he also really liked being given an assignment.
He went into the Army, and his attitude was essentially tell me what you want to get across, give me a mission, and I will fulfill it. And the "Why We Fight" movies, which he framed as a seven-part depiction of what he called the struggle for freedom versus the struggle for slavery, was really a kind of combination of him being tasked to make these movies and of him coming up with his own ideology of the war and what the war was about before the people who were in charge of the war had ever really fully articulated it to him.
So in a strange way, these movies, which were shown to every incoming soldier, made policy. They didn't just depict policy that had been dictated by higher-ups in the War Department; they were the first things to kind of articulate what the goals of the war were in a really clear way.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Harris. We're talking about his new book "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War." And it's the story of the movies that were made by five directors - John Ford, George Stevens, John Huston, William Wyler and Frank Capra - during World War II. These were mostly documentaries of one sort of another, and several of them were documentaries of battles as they happened.
Let's take a short break, and then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Harris. We're talking about his new book "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War." Let's talk about a movie that John Ford made during World War II called "The Battle of Midway." But first just give us some of John Ford's most famous movies.
Ford had been on an incredible winning streak before he went into the war. He had, between 1939 and 1941, made "Stagecoach," "Drums Along the Mohawk," "The Grapes of Wrath," "How Green Was My Valley." If Capra was the most successful American director before the war, Ford was probably the most acclaimed.
OK, so he makes "The Battle of Midway," which is the first film to bring combat footage to moviegoers on the home front. What did viewers see in this movie that had never been seen before?
HARRIS: Well, what was interesting about "The Battle of Midway" was that they didn't actually see the battle itself, which was rather spread out and diffuse. You know, Midway was an important strategic stop, as its name suggests, you know, midway in the Pacific, an important strategic place for the Americans to try to hold.
And Ford, who had been in Hawaii working on another documentary about post-Pearl Harbor rebuilding and then was suddenly taken off the island, put on a ship and taken to Midway without being told that there was going to be a major battle there, Ford was stationed on the top of a power station on the island early in the morning with his cameras and a couple of crewmen who also had cameras.
They had a perfect vantage point to see incoming Japanese flyers in formation. The Americans knew that the Japanese were planning an attack. This time they were ready both with planes of their own that were launching off of aircraft carriers, you know, torpedo squadrons, and with men stationed on the ground at Midway.
So Ford was not in the thick of the battle so much as he was positioned in the doorway to the battle. He could see the planes coming in, and he could pivot around to the island behind him and see the bombs being dropped and the surface-to-air and air-to-ground gunfire.
GROSS: Did he figure out ways to shoot these oncoming planes and to shoot explosions and, you know, planes falling out of the sky?
HARRIS: Well, what's so extraordinary is there was no time really to figure this out. Everything had to be figured out on the spot and on the fly. And also filming wasn't, as far as the Navy was concerned, his only mission. The Navy said we're putting you on the roof of the power station because there's a phone there. We need you not only to film, but we're really interested in you picking up the phone and telling us what you see as you see it.
So Ford had to do that and film at the same time, and "The Battle of Midway" is not a movie of elegant camera angles or impeccable compositions. It's a movie of what Ford was able to capture and what Ford's men were able to capture because a lot of it was not shot by Ford, and when they were able to capture it.
And that kind of on-the-fly quality was one of the things that made it so real and so exciting to American audiences. What Ford famously did in the movie was he kept in a mistake. At one point, a bomb hit so hard and so close to him that the film in his camera was jarred loose from its sprockets. It looks like what happens when, you know, film flies out of a projector.
And ordinarily, up until that point, that was the kind of visual mistake that a director would remove from his movie because it didn't make the movie look smooth. Ford kept it in. And the choice to keep it in was really the first moment at which battle realism was created for American audiences by a specific camera technique.
GROSS: And the Americans won The Battle of Midway. So what was the importance of this movie in the war effort?
HARRIS: Well, the War Department was, at the time of The Battle of Midway, desperate to give American movie-going audiences some good news. We were in the middle of 1942. The war for America was still of course in the Pacific, not yet in Europe. And the news hadn't been good. We were losing. We were rocked back on our heels by Pearl Harbor and had just begun to recover.
And the valor of Americans until that point had been in stalling for time, holding off the Japanese for as long as possible in various engagements so that the Navy could rebuild its fleet. But at the end of those engagements, we would lose. Midway was one that we won, and Ford understood absolutely once he had sat through the battle that even thought we also sustained terrible losses at Midway, and that - the emotional impact of that is something Ford carried with him forever, that the message of the Battle of Midway was that we were going to take it to the enemy and that we were going to win and that that message had to get out to as many people as possible.
Ford was so concerned about doing it right that he essentially took his footage and refused to turn it over to the War Department. He basically had it edited in secret, and that wasn't just because he was controlling or egotistical. It was because he knew how important the message was, and he really believed that he knew how to convey it better than any Army functionary or Navy functionary would.
GROSS: I think this is very moving: He made a separate short film about the loss of a torpedo squadron, a squadron that was lost in that battle, and he made it on eight millimeter film. And he, if I understand it correctly, it was made for the families of the men who were lost, and he gave them copies. Do I have that right?
HARRIS: Yes. Before the Battle of Midway started, just in the days before the Battle of Midway started, Ford for a while, did not know what he was there to shoot. He shot some fun nature footage about Midway. He thought that maybe what he was being asked to do was depict, you know, Navy life on a remote Pacific island. And he shot some of the men of this torpedo squadron, who were just laughing and joshing and proud of their planes.
And he shot them, like, standing next to their planes and pointing to what they had painted on their planes and hanging out on the deck. It turned out that one of the squadrons he shot sustained the worst losses in the battle, and all but one of the 30 young men in the squadron were killed.
That for Ford was his immediate experience of the battle. The news that it was a major American military victory drifted back to Midway Island slowly in the days after the war, but the first thing they understood was this terrible loss. And so after making "The Battle of Midway," Ford compiled the footage of these young men that he had shot into a kind of memorial reel for the families.
And he put it on film that would be accommodated by the kind of inexpensive home movie projectors that were available at the time. He really wanted the families to be able to see it. And he had it hand-delivered to each family.
GROSS: That's such a beautiful gesture.
HARRIS: And by the way, it was not made public for decades. That little film, "Torpedo Squadron 8," was not seen until long after Ford was dead.
GROSS: We were talking about John Ford's movie " Battle of Midway," which was about the Battle of Midway. He was also on Omaha Beach for D-Day and was given the assignment of shooting the D-Day invasion. And I mean, there was such mass carnage in this battle in World War II. Where was he positioned, and what did he and his crew actually get?
HARRIS: Well, unlike Midway, the Battle of D-Day was an engagement that the filming portion of the American military had a long time to prepare for. And George Stevens for the Army and John Ford for the Navy were really the ones who came up with a concerted plan that in this case was not done on the fly. It involved hundreds of cameras, hundreds of cameramen, dozens of cameras fixed to the front of landing vessels.
What is ironic is that most of the footage that was shot at D-Day was destroyed. It was so - you know, many of the cameras, the stationary cameras didn't function. You know, the cameramen miraculous almost all survived, but a lot of their footage didn't. So there was no way to create a kind of clear narrative chronological structure of what happened at D-Day out of the footage.
What there was was an extraordinary amount of raw footage that was then collected from every camera and every cameraman, you know, every camera that hadn't malfunctioned. It was all sort of packed up, sent to England and edited apparently into several hours of continuous footage that was shown to the War Department back in the United States.
Most of the most shocking footage, the most realistic footage, the best footage, if you will, from D-Day was much too raw and frightening and upsetting to be shown to home-front audiences. So while movie theaters across the country advertised for 10 days with signs outside the theater saying 10 days until first footage of D-Day, eight days until first footage of D-Day, six days; the actual footage that made its way to the theaters was a very carefully manicured selection of stuff that was acceptable to show, that was sort of perceivable by untrained eyes, you know, that wasn't, in other words, too shaky or blurry or discontinuous or quick to really work in a movie.
Most of the D-Day footage was not shown until much, much later, and really you'd have to go forward to the movie "Saving Private Ryan," the first part of which is a re-creation of D-Day that is in part inspired by that never-seen footage before there was great public curiosity about what D-Day footage was available.
GROSS: Mark Harris will be back in the second half of the show. His new book is called "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War." I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Mark Harris. His new book "Five Came Back" is about five celebrated Hollywood directors who enlisted during World War II in order to film the war. They worked through the Office of War Information. It was an unprecedented, collaborative relationship between the federal government and Hollywood. These shorts were shown in movie theaters before the featured films to keep Americans informed, show what was at stake and stir up patriotic feelings.
Earlier, we talked about two of the five directors Harris profiles, Frank Capra and John Ford.
Another director that you write about is George Stevens, who had just an incredibly horrifying experience. He was there when the concentration camp Dachau was liberated. And before we go any further in his story, tell us about his most famous movies. What were they?
HARRIS: Well, after the war, George Stevens was really well-known for his '50s movies like "Giant" with James Dean and "A Place in the Sun" and "Shane." Before the war, he was known primarily as a really expert director of light escapist films, like "Swing Time" and "Woman of the Year," with Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy.
GROSS: "Swing Time" is like maybe the best Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers movie.
HARRIS: Right. I mean if you wanted to escape and not think about anything having to do with what was going on in the world, George Stevens' movies before the war were some of the best most entertaining ways to do that.
GROSS: And then another movie he made after the war was "The Diary of Anne Frank." So let's get to what happens in during World War II. He's with his camera crew. And I'm sure he didn't know about Dachau. I mean, who did in America? But how did he end up being there when it was liberated?
HARRIS: Stevens' journey through the war is in a way a journey into the darker and darker recesses of the war. He started out by getting sent to the North African campaign and got there too late to film anything, and spent much of the war incredibly frustrated that he was far from the action. But starting really with the march toward the liberation of Paris, he was really in the thick of the action and filmed a lot, and was around for the Battle of the Bulge and then was among the first Allied camera crews to get into Germany as it was clear that Hitler was going to fall and the war was going to end.
He had been to a camp already called Torgau and had seen enough destruction to realize that the atrocities that were being committed in these camps were far beyond what he or most of the people in the Army or most of the people at home had ever heard about. But when he and his crew went into Dachau, it was I think absolutely a shattering and life-altering experience for him.
GROSS: Do you want to describe some of the things he found there?
HARRIS: Yeah. What Stevens filmed at Dachau was so painful that he didn't talk about it for decades afterwards. But what we think of now as some of the images of Holocaust atrocities that are burned into our collective consciousness, that's what Stevens saw. Bodies in boxcars, starving, dying, skeletal people, bodies covered in snow, body parts, crematoria. The worst things. You know, the worst things that we know of what the Nazis did in the death camps and the concentration camps were news to Stevens and his men and, of course, to America when he discovered them. They - imagine, you know, imagine walking into Dachau not knowing what a death camp was and seeing what he saw. So he did the only thing that he could do, which was to record it. At that point he was no longer interested in making a documentary. What he was doing and what he knew he was doing from the first hour he was there was gathering evidence.
GROSS: And that's how it was used. I mean you couldn't very well show this footage to theatergoers/ It was much too graphic and horrifying, especially for that time. I mean the standards in what you could show in a theater was very different than it is today. But it was just too horrifying. But tell us how that footage was used?
HARRIS: Well, what's remarkable is that Stevens didn't flinch from filming anything he saw. I mean and the roughest stuff he filmed himself and the footage that he shot proved to be extraordinarily important in the Nuremberg Trials where it was compiled into two evidentiary movies. One of which was specifically designed to show Nazi atrocities and the other of which was designed to prove that this had been a long-term plan on the part of the Nazis. It's essentially to prove intent. Those movies were shown at the Nuremberg Trials and the defendants were forced to sit there and watch them. And many people feel that they were essentially turning points in the trial, in that not in that these guys were ever going to be found innocent, but in bringing home just how horrible what they had done was.
Famously, a couple of lawyers - German lawyers for the defendants - said that after seeing the footage that Stevens had compiled, they couldn't even stand to be in the same room with their own clients.
GROSS: How did this exposure to the death camp in Dachau change George Stevens' life?
HARRIS: I think initially, it plunged him into a terrible depression. He - Stevens suffered his own form of what we would now call PTSD - post dramatic stress disorder. He came home. He was depressed. He couldn't think of very much he wanted to do. He went to parties and he spent time with his family, but he started drinking heavily. Two of his fellow directors - William Wyler and Frank Capra - had convinced him to go in with them on a new independent filmmaking company called Liberty, but he couldn't find a project to do. It was not until three years after the war that Stevens was able to even sit himself down and get behind a camera and make another movie.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Harris and were talking about his new book "Five Came Back: A Story Of Hollywood and the Second World War." Let's take a break then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Mark Harris. He's the author of the new book "Five Came Back: A Story Of Hollywood and the Second World War." And it's about five filmmakers and the movies they made during World War II - famous filmmakers - John Ford, George Stevens, John Houston, William Wyler, Frank Capra. And these are mostly documentaries that were made of battles or things like the liberation of the death camp, Dachau. And it's an incredible history. It's incredible period of Hollywood history.
Let's take a brief look at William Wyler. Let's start with the movies he's most famous for.
HARRIS: Wyler made a great set of movies with Bette Davis before the war. They had one of the great actress/director collaborations in Hollywood. They made "The Letter" together and "Jezebel" and "The Little Foxes." Going into the war, he was known as an unbelievably exacting and precise director who made these elegant, smart movies, but would often take 40 or 50 takes of the same scene before he got what he wanted.
GROSS: And what are the movies he made after World War II?
HARRIS: Oh, after World War II, Wyler made "The Best Years of Our Lives" and then went on to make "Detective Story," "Ben-Hur," "Friendly Persuasion." He was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood until he retired.
GROSS: So he made during World War II, a documentary called "Memphis Belle." Tell us a little bit about that one.
HARRIS: Wyler was really eager to get into the war. He was a Jewish immigrant from Alsace, whose family was still there, you know, on the border between France and Germany. He would say that sometimes he didn't know what nationality he was because his town was in different hands at different times. So he was eager to get there and fought hard to get himself posted to London and then to an Air Force base where he conceived the idea of making a movie about what it was like to go on a bombing run. And one of these bombers that were crewed by 10 young men - he settled on the Memphis Belle because there was a thing in the Army Air Force where if you flew 25 missions successfully, you got a break and the guy's got to go home. And so the "Memphis Belle" - which was actually compiled from footage taken by Wyler and two of his crewmen on several different bombing runs - was the first time that Americans really got a look at what it was like to be up in the air trying to drop bombs on targets while German planes were firing at you.
GROSS: And Wyler more or less went deaf as a result.
HARRIS: Well, he didn't go deaf as a result of the "Memphis Belle," but he did go deaf in the air. The "Memphis Belle" was a huge success. The movie had great impact when it was shown in America because the idea of Air Force combat in World War II was still pretty new and, you know, Wyler didn't use any reenactments. There were audio reenactments but what you saw in the movie was really what was shot in the air. So he was very eager to do another film about another set of bombers and while he was shooting footage for that in Italy, he stepped out of a plane one day, it had been terribly, terribly noisy and, you know, he hadn't been wearing headphones or air plugs or anything. He stepped out of the plane and could not hear. His knees buckled, you know, his sense of balance was lost and within a few days, it was very clear that he had done such severe damage to his ears that he was not going to get his hearing back. And his military service was over. He thought his career was over. He was shipped back to the United States immediately and sent to a military hospital and was just devastated. I mean, overnight he had gone from being a filmmaker to he felt being nothing.
GROSS: Did he ever get his hearing back?
HARRIS: He got a little bit of hearing back in one ear and he got enough hearing back so that his main concern was allayed, which was that he would be able to hear the actors enough if speakers were rigged right next to his director's chair to be able to function as a director. But he received a disability check from the military for the rest of his life.
GROSS: And, you know, one of the great films that he makes after World War II is "The Best Years of Our Lives," which is about soldiers coming back from World War II and trying with great difficulty to reintegrate themselves back into their family life or their working life. And it's a very moving film. It's a very difficult film. I mean they're really having a hard time. It's not like our boys are back home and aren't they glad to be back. It's about suffering.
HARRIS: Right. And it was also about, "The Best Years of Our Lives," was about something that America was experiencing at that moment. It wasn't a sort of delayed Hollywood take on something that had happened a few years later. You know, America was in a paroxysm of readjustment. All of these men were coming back. Were they the same men they were when they left? How would they reconnect with their families, with their wives and children? Were they going to have serious drinking problems, which a lot of them did. Were they going to have serious emotional problems, which a lot of them did. Were they going to be able to reenter the workforce? These were questions that America was wrestling with the right when this movie came out and, you know, it was extraordinary for people to get to see the drama of their lives being played out on screen, especially in such a great motion picture.
GROSS: One of the men returning home from the war in "Best Years of Our Lives" is somebody who lost an arm during the war, and it's played by somebody who actually lost their arm in the military in an explosion.
HARRIS: He actually lost both hands.
GROSS: Both hands. That's right.
GROSS: That's right. It's both hands. And I never realized how much William Wyler was probably identifying with him because he lost, you know, (technical difficulties) in the war.
HARRIS: Yes. It's funny because when most people see "Best Years of Our Lives" they think that Wyler was probably identifying with the Frederic March character who was the older officer and family man who has been away for while. He left his very comfortable job at a bank to go to the war and now he's coming back and his children have turned into teenagers who are kind of living their own lives. And he's trying to reconnect with his wife, Myrna Loy. And a lot of what March's character goes through in trying to readjust was drawn from Wyler's own experience seeing his wife for the first time after a long time. But, yes, Wyler also identified very closely with Harold Russell. He really understood as no other returning director did what it was like to be disabled - how you saw yourself differently because you were disabled, how the world saw you differently because you were disabled, and how the world saw you differently.
GROSS: Hollywood and Washington managed to work together during World War II, in spite of the fact that they really distrusted each other. When the war was over, did the distrust return? And I'm thinking, you know, fast-forward a few years, and you have the House Un-American Activity Committee hearings.
GROSS: And, you know, a lot of filmmakers are getting called to these committee hearings. A lot of filmmakers are getting blacklisted. So, you know, the suspicion starts back up again. I'm actually even wondering - I'm sorry, I'm asking you like 100 questions here.
GROSS: But I'm also wondering if any of the filmmakers who risked their lives making these World War II documentaries were later blacklisted.
HARRIS: You know, it's a really - that's a very interesting set of questions. The sort of truce, the idea of a shared enterprise between Hollywood and Washington, did not last long after the war. And, as you said, you know, by the late 1940s, even, the climate had changed so much that William Wyler went on the radio and said: I don't think I would be allowed to make "The Best Years of Our Lives" now, even just a couple of years after I made it. That's how punitive and paranoid Washington is making Hollywood become.
They weren't blacklisted, these directors, and, in fact, many of them were really adamantly opposed to the blacklist, although Ford and Capra's politics tended to veer to the right, and Stevens, Huston and Wyler more to the left. They were a pretty united front, to the point where when Cecil B. DeMille tried to institute an anti-communist loyalty oath for the members of the Directors Guild of America, these five directors, who really hadn't come together for any purposes since World War II, presented a pretty united front and shot him down.
GROSS: Your father was a World War II veteran, right?
HARRIS: Yes, he was.
GROSS: What role does World War II play in your formative years? I don't know how old you are, or, you know...
HARRIS: I'm 50, and my father went into the war when he was 17. He served in Burma. And the truth is that he told a lot of war stories - as all those guys did - when I was growing up, and I was alienated by them and frightened by them. I found it terrifying that someone who was still a boy would go put himself in a position where he would get shot at and be away from home.
It seemed so frightening to me and so - such a thing not to be excited about, that I remember, from a very small age, not wanting to listen to his stories. And, for me, working on this book was a way of, you know, decades later, investigating my own aversion to this subject. I had to go stare into the face of what had frightened me as a child and try to understand who these gruff men were and why they did what they did and why it was so important to them for the rest of their lives.
GROSS: Thank you so much for talking with us.
HARRIS: It's been a pleasure.
GROSS: Mark Harris is the author of "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War." You can read an excerpt on our website, freshair.npr.org. Coming up, Ken Tucker reviews a new album by Chuck Mead, who's best known as the alternative country band BR549. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.