Sunday 23 July 2017

Streaming - Rod Bishop enthuses over FIVE CAME BACK (Laurent Bouzereau, USA, 2017) the story of Hollywood directors in WW2

The Second World War careers of John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler and George Stevens.
Narrated by Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Laurence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Meryl Streep.

For the USA, documentary filmmaking grew up very fast during the war. These five Hollywood directors, who volunteered for army and naval service, looked back at the head-start achieved in Germany by Hitler and Goebbels, most notably with Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1935). 
As Spielberg suggests, the five Hollywood fiction directors were thrown into the reality of the front lines with “no script and no third act”. Or as Colonel Frank Capra puts it: “I thought documentaries were something rich kooks made”.

This three-part, 196-minute television series from director Laurent Bouzereau plunders the very detailed accounts of these famous Hollywood directors from a book by Mark Harris. The TV series has the added advantage of drawing its visual strength from a plethora of archival footage and clips from both the directors’ wartime films and from the rest of their careers.

Episode 1
In the first part, viewers might be excused for thinking they had stumbled over the History Channel as Bouzereau furiously skates over the period leading to Pearl Harbor with crash-cuts and a pounding, triumphant score. Peter Debruge in Variety called it “somewhat snooze-inducing”, an unfair comment as things improve greatly in the second and third installments, making it more attractive to film buffs.
Frank Capra was an early volunteer, having enlisted only days after Pearl Harbor. He was given the tasks of encouraging civilians to join the armed forces and raising the morale both at home and on the battlefield. Capra contributed 12 films during the war, including the much celebrated seven-part Why We Fight series. In 1942, he directed Prelude to War, one of four films to jointly win the first ever Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature.

Another early enlister and joint winner of the inaugural Oscar for a documentary feature was Commander John Ford, who was wounded by shrapnel while making The Battle of Midway in 1942, his account of that decisive American victory in the Pacific.
The other joint winners of the first Oscar for a documentary feature in 1942 were director Ken G. Hall and cinematographer Damien Parer who delivered Australia’s first Academy Award with Kokoda Front Line! and Leonid Varlamov and Ilya Kopalin for Moscow Strikes Back.

Capra, Huston, Wyler, Stevens, Ford
Episode 2
Earlier on in Part Two there’s a surprising anecdote: discussing the problem of needing to sell the war, but only being allowed to portray “bloodless combat”, mention is made of a survey in Harlem that revealed half the residents thought they’d be no worse off if Japan won the war.
There’s also an interesting, if petty detail. Major William Wyler arrived in London to find John Ford unwillingly to help him – Ford is called a “glory hound”. Ford, meanwhile, had his own personality clashes in Algiers with studio boss Darryl F Zanuck when he was drafted into Zanuck’s Signal Corps. Lieutenant-Colonel George Stevens, meanwhile, took a circuitous route to Africa through South America in 1943 only to arrive days after the North African campaign had been won.

The hot-shot young member of the Five was Major John Huston, initially sent to a remote Pacific outpost where not much was happening, and made Report from the Aleutians (1943). He’d recently completed Across The Pacific (1942), billed as “Boy! When BOGART boffs those Japs…you can feel it ‘across the Pacific’”. Huston was then involved in what sounds like a fiasco, Tunisian Victory. Stung by the Brit success of winning the 1943 Oscar for Best Documentary with Desert Victory, the British filmmakers appear to have been forced into an ill-advised Allied collaboration with Huston, Capra and George Stevens. Tunisian Victory flopped.

However, William Wyler’s The Memphis Belle (1944), shot on Boeing B-17 bombing missions over Germany was so successful, it became the first film ever reviewed on the front page of The New York Times. Spielberg: “it’s one of the most stunning things I’ve ever seen”.

There are fascinating accounts of war racism, including the belief all Japanese were “inhuman monsters”, “rats”, “monkeys” and compared to a colony of pernicious ants. The German people, however, were not subjected to such vilification – it was Hitler who was the enemy. Cinematographer Gregg Toland directed a film about Pearl Harbor that was regarded as too racist to be finished and was later converted into the 30-minute short December 7th: The Movie (1943), co-directed by Ford and Toland. It won an Oscar for best documentary short. Wyler abandoned The Negro Soldier due to the racism he encountered in pre-production. It was later resurrected by Capra.

A film by Louis Hayward With the Marines at Tarawa (1944) finally broke new ground for the war documentaries, being the first to include footage of dead US soldiers.

In Italy, John Huston arrived days after the fight for San Pietro was over and set about restaging the three-day siege as The Battle of San Pietro (1944) using the real corpses still lying on the ground. Huston’s craft was so good, when Spielberg first saw the film, he thought all of the footage was real. A short clip shows Huston claiming he was “under fire a great part of the time”.

John Ford (in front of camera)
Episode 3
Part Three starts with George Stevens and John Ford supervising the huge task of filming D-Day. Harris’ book disputes that Ford ever left the landing craft, but Stevens is certainly visible on Omaha Beach. The D-Day carnage cost 4,000 Allied lives on that first day. Ford reacted with a 3-day alcoholic stupor, he was “belligerent and incoherent” and sent back to Washington. Thus, ended his war service.

Wyler’s success with The Memphis Belle led him to Italy to make a film about the Thunderbolt fighter and to record the liberation of Rome. He went AWOL to find his home town in Mulhouse, Alsace where his father’s old shop was still standing. Spielberg: “When he got back to Mulhouse, there was no one there. The Holocaust had claimed all of them. Hitler’s Shoah, Hitler’s genocide had been so successful, there was no one left”. Wyler suffered such profound hearing loss from his time filming in bombers, he was declared permanently deaf and returned home a disabled veteran.

After D-Day, George Stevens carried on “through the entire European theater”. He filmed the liberation of Paris and then “found himself on a long, cold, hard, brutal, violent slog to Germany”. Tens of thousands of Allied soldiers were either killed or injured in the Battle of the Bulge. Stevens finally reached Dachau where he bore witness to the pitiless horrors of the Nazi extermination camp. He stayed in Germany to complete two films used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials: Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps (1945) and The Nazi Plan (1945). He was never to be the same again.

Capra on Stevens’ return to Hollywood: “It took him quite a while to adjust…he became hard to talk with…maybe he just couldn’t express the horror that he’d been through. But he was a different person. He wasn’t the same George Stevens that left”.

Huston and Capra wrote the final version of Know Your Enemy - Japan in 1945 asking where blame should be aimed – the Emperor, the Japanese ruling class or the Japanese people. They portrayed the Japanese soldiers as “much alike, as photographic prints off the same negative”. Del Toro calls it “brutally jingoistic and horribly racist…a merciless, dehumanizing cartoon view of the Japanese”. The film’s narration: “Defeating this nation is as necessary as shooting down the mad dog in your neighborhood”. Three days after Hiroshima, General MacArthur wouldn’t allow the film to be shown to the troops.

At war’s end, the Five resumed their careers. Coppola: “Each of the five directors who went through the war, some were shot at, Ford was wounded, Wyler lost his hearing, and they saw terrible things and yet, coming out of it, each of them made possibly their greatest film”.

Huston directed the remarkable 60-minute doco Let There Be Light (1946), highlighting Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder before it had a name. He then directed one of his greatest works, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Capra returned and immediately directed one of his greatest films, It’s a Wonderful Life (1945). Wyler also made one of his best, a three-hour saga of service men returning home, The Best Years of Our Lives (1948). He had regained 20% of his hearing in one ear. John Ford directed a fiction version of the Battle of the Philippines, They Were Expendable (1945), a film some regard as his best. Greengrass calls it “as much therapy as filmmaking”. Directing John Wayne, Ford is reported to have yelled “Can’t you salute like someone who’s actually been in service?

Perhaps the most poignant post-war career was George Stevens who turned to serious drama directing A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953) and Giant (1956) before finally completing his war-film The Diary of Ann Frank (1959). It was 15 years since he’d been a witness to the ‘liberation’ of the Dachau death factory.

Before the war, Stevens was a highly respected director of comedies and light entertainment. After the war, he was a changed man. “I was a maker of comedies. I came back and I tried to make a comedy and I couldn’t do it”. He never directed a comedy again.
Still from They Were Expendable (John Ford, USA, 1945)

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