In 2007 alone, as the war in Iraq continued, Hollywood made four films about the war. Films like “In the Valley of Elah”, “Lions for Lambs”, “Rendition” and “Redacted” portrayed the U.S. military at turns as incompetent, corrupt, and murderous. Sometimes the soldiers were victims and sometimes as villains but the politicians and military brass were always stupid and/or evil.
During a Vietnam War, Hollywood made one film about the war, “The Green Berets”, in which the US cause was just and her soldiers were true. The film was widely mocked.
Things were a little different seven decades ago. During World War II, Hollywood was convinced of the justice of the war and was willing to put itself at the service of the government and the military. Nothing bad about the US or her allies would appear on the screen or anything good about Germany, Japan or Italy.
But not only were the studios making films for the cause, some of the best talent of the studios went into the service, some drafted and some volunteers. This book is about five of the best Hollywood directors who choose to join the military and make films assigned by senior officers. For many this wasn’t an easy office job, but they went into the heat of battle to record the fighting for training the troops, inspiring the folks at home and for the sake of history.
John Ford (“Stagecoach”, “The Searchers”) was the first of the major directors who willingly signed up for service. He was at the battle of Midway and held a camera (and dropped it on occasion when the bombs got close.) John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon”, “The African Queen”) went to the Aleutian Island and suffered the cold with the troops to see battles with the Japanese. William Wyler (“Mrs. Miniver”, “Ben-Hur”) was born a Jew in Germany and returned to Europe to observe bombers attack his homeland. George Stevens (“Gunga Din”, “Shane”) was one of the first to Dachau and provided with film the most damning evidence at the Nuremberg trials. And Frank Capra (“It Happened One Night”, “It’s a Wonderful Life”), well, he did pretty much stay behind a desk or directed in studios in the U.S. But along with the others, he put his career at risk while other men continued to advance in Hollywood (Ford for years gave John Wayne grief about staying home.)
The book is full of interesting, sometimes funny stories about the strange meeting of Hollywood glamour with gritty reality. Laurence Olivier tried to serve in the RAF, but after bringing down five planes (his own) during training, it was decided he could serve the Queen best making movies.
Though there is no doubt much good was done by the film makers, but at times they were willing to sacrifice truth for the cause, and depict the enemy with the most vile of stereotypes. But frankly, I have much more respect for Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives” which portrayed the struggle of soldiers coming home to Brian De Palma’s “Redacted” which plays loose with the facts to show American soldiers as sadistic rapists and murderers. Once upon a time, there were true heroes in Hollywood, though they would shun that title.