Journalist Mark Harris has a talent for identifying and dramatizing the clash that exists between the personal and political dimensions of pop culture, from its production to public consumption. Harris’s 2014 nonfiction bestseller Five Came Back revels in this preoccupation with the friction between the micro and macro of society, telling the respective stories of five legendary filmmakers—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston—as they helped to shape America’s perception of World War II, reinventing media’s representation of war in the process. I chatted with Harris earlier this week to discuss Five Came Back and its forthcoming Netflix film adaptation, Hollywood past and present, and the cyclic nature of trends in politics and entertainment. Our conversation ran the gauntlet from John Ford to Oliver Stone to Takashi Miike to the parallel existing between contemporary television and 1940s-era filmmaking. Throughout, Harris was erudite, passionate, friendly, and encouragingly optimistic about the state of the contemporary American film industry.
When you’re working on a big project, like Pictures at a Revolution or Five Came Back, do you do all the research first to find the narrative? Or are you writing and researching simultaneously?
No, it’s much more the first thing. I can never pull this off 100 percent, but I want to have tried to have done all the research and outlined it and thought about it as extensively as possible before I start to write. Because, once I’ve started to write, I hate to be interrupted by feeling that I have to kind of chase something down. And you know I always do, anyway. You can never nail everything, but I really like to research first.
Is there ever that moment where you fill in an initial draft with further research?
Sure. Although, again, I like to have all the facts at my fingertips before I start to write. I went into both of those books with certain ideas about what they might be, but I also tried to not get into a trap where anything I might find out would thwart my narrative. I don’t want to come up with a thesis that’s demolish-able by actual information. I want my idea to be open enough so that anything I find out can feed it, and I don’t find myself trapped in a place of saying “Oh, well that’s very interesting, but unfortunately it contradicts the arc that I’ve created so I can’t use it.” I think that’s a dangerous approach, and so I always want to be open to revising what I think my narrative is, if the facts demand it.
Were there any narrative bombshells for you while researching Five Came Back?
I wasn’t completely, deeply versed in this history when I started, so a lot of things were revelatory to me. I had read an academic paper that suggested that most of The Battle of San Pietro was staged. But going to the National Archives in Maryland and actually watching, the, I guess you’d call them outtakes, from the filming of San Pietro, the stuff that John Huston discarded because it looked too stagey or too fake was really revelatory for me in terms of understanding his process and in terms of understanding that he was actually not trying to put something over on people so much as he was, in his way, striving after a particular kind of visual realism, whether it was staged or not. The bombshells were when I opened a box or a file in somebody’s archives and it’s full of letters to someone’s wife or their kids. It was much harder for me to find out who these men were than it was for me to find out what they did. And so the revelations for me were whenever I could find out something really personal.
In the book, I find John Ford’s letters very moving.
Yeah, it’s thrilling to write about a time in film history when people wrote letters, because that was the way they had to communicate. For Ford, I think in particular, his letters to his wife, Mary, are so personal they’re almost like diary entries. [Ford’s letters] are much more sort of gentle and courtly than his public statements are. So it was really great to have that side of him.
The paradox of Ford is so fascinating. As presented in both your book and the film, he wants so badly to fit into Hollywood and the military…as an iconoclast.
It’s really kind of a losing game, isn’t it? [laughs] So much of what Ford did is reactive in a way, you know. He goes into the War Department and he can’t stand the indifference of people who don’t think there’s going to be a war. He drifts toward the hard anticommunist ideology because he hates communists, but then he fights Cecil B. DeMille in 1950 on the anticommunist DGA loyalty oath because he hates bullies. And, yet, sometimes he’s bully. He’s really a fascinating mass of contradictions to me.
A bombshell for me, as a reader of Five Came Back and as a viewer of the documentary, was the intense pathos of Frank Capra’s story.
He was the director of the five I would say I had the hardest…it took me the longest time to understand him. Because Capra doesn’t track easy in terms of his politics and in terms of his passions, he’s so…he can whip himself into a frenzy over nothing or over something false. But I think pathos is a good word, because it’s quite heartbreaking. Capra really was the most celebrated of any of those five filmmakers after the war. William Wyler, when the war ended, said he thought that the Why We Fight films would outlast anything released during the war, fictional or nonfictional. That didn’t happen, but that was the esteem in which Capra was held. And then [for him] to have this, really, I think, an exciting impulse—[insisting] that this was the time for directors to declare their independence from studios and strike out on their own, founding this company, and then to have it crash on the rocks of It’s a Wonderful Life flopping. That destroyed his confidence and his career, and then he lived long enough to see it become his most celebrated and beloved film. It’s an extraordinary story.
I love Guillermo del Toro’s advocacy for Capra in the documentary.
It was such an exciting and surprising thing to me, that that particular kinship turned out to be present. Laurent Bouzereau, our director, felt that, as [both men are] immigrants, del Toro would have an affinity for Capra on one level, but those interviews were gambles. And to hear the passionate and affecting idiosyncracy with which del Toro talks about Capra was a huge joy for me.
A similar surprise for me: If you’d told me that Steven Spielberg was going to be in this film, and I hadn’t seen the film, I would’ve assumed that he would be speaking about Ford, as I see so much of Ford in Spielberg’s work.
You know, Spielberg has immense affinity for William Wyler. To me, I thought “maybe he’ll go for Wyler, maybe he’ll go for Ford, or maybe he’ll even go for Stevens.” But, for Steven, there was no question in his mind from the beginning that Wyler was the director that he wanted to talk about. And since, almost 50 years after Andrew Sarris’s book [The American Cinema], Wyler is still given short shrift by a lot of auteurist critics, it really made me happy that Steven wanted to talk about Wyler, because I think he’s a great director.