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TCM Spotlight: Five Came Back
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TCM Spotlight: Five Came Back

During World War II, Washington called on Hollywood to help in the war effort by promoting the Allied cause and stirring up patriotism on the home front - not only through fictional films but with documentaries created by some of the industry's top filmmakers. This month's "Spotlight" focuses on five acclaimed directors who spearheaded the government's film propaganda program, and the ways in which their wartime experiences changed and deepened them. Of the 47 films being shown, 27 are TCM premieres; each night will focus on a different director.

The programming is based on the 2014 book Five Came Back by Mark Harris, who serves as co-host for each evening. Harris is an American journalist who has written for Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times, and is the author of the highly regarded 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood. Critic Matt Zoller Seitz described Five Came Back as a "detailed chronicle of artistic and social change during a crucial period of history, as well as a big-tapestry ensemble drama about five talented, complicated men making their way in the world."

September 1 - Frank Capra (1897-1991): Capra, whose love of country had been reflected in such films as 1941's Meet John Doe, enlisted as a major in the U.S. Army shortly after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor later that same year. He worked for a special unit creating films aimed primarily at servicemen and explaining, as he put it, "Why the hell they're in uniform." For his work, Capra would be awarded the Legion of Merit in 1943 and the Distinguished Service Medal in 1945.

Capra worked under Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall and directed war-information documentaries including the seven-part "Why We Fight" series. Prelude to War (1942), part of that group of films, won an Oscar as Best Documentary Feature. Other films from that series showing on TCM are The Battle of Russia (1943), The Battle of Britain (1943) and War Comes to America (1945).

With other directors including John Huston, Capra created Tunisian Victory (1943), about the victories in the North Africa Campaign. TCM premieres among Capra's other wartime films include The Negro Soldier (1944) and Know Your Ally: Britain. Capra assisted actor Louis Hayward, the uncredited director of With the Marines at Tarawa (1944), in putting together this film about the battle for that Pacific Island. The film won an Oscar as Best Documentary Short Subject.

Capra created a popular cartoon character called "Private Snafu" who appeared in a series of humorous black-and-white shorts that appeared during the period 1943-45. These cartoons were designed to improve troop morale while instructing soldiers about security and other military matters. Mel Blanc voiced the title character, whose name was derived from a popular Army acronym that could be politely transcribed as "Situation Normal, All Fouled Up." Chuck Jones, Friz Freleng, Bob Clampett and Frank Tashlin were among the directors.

"Snafu" titles playing during the Spotlight include Coming!! Snafu (1943), Gripes (1943), The Goldbrick (1943), Spies (1943), The Infantry Blues (1943), Fighting Tools (1943), The Home Front (1943), Booby Traps (1944), Private Snafu vs. Malaria Mike (1944), A Lecture on Camouflage (1944), Snafuperman (1944), Going Home (1944), Censored (1944) and In the Aleutians -- Isles of Enchantment (1945).

September 8 - John Huston (1906-1987): Director of the WWII adventure Across the Pacific (1942) and later classics including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), The Red Badge of Courage (1951) and The Man Who Would Be King 1975), Huston was activated by the U.S. Army in 1942 and given the rank of captain to create documentaries for the Army Signal Corps. Because of his outstanding service he would later be promoted to the rank of major and receive the Legion of Merit award.

Two of Huston's wartime films are TCM premieres: Report from the Aleutians (1943), and The Battle of San Pietro (1945). The screening of the last film, a graphic account of a key battle of the Italian campaign, marks the premiere of its unedited version. During the war years it was censored by the Department of the Army. Also showing is Let There Be Light (1946), a study of psychologically damaged veterans that also was censored for many years.

September 15 - John Ford (1894-1973): In addition to his many classic Westerns, Ford directed such war-related films as The Long Voyage Home (1940), They Were Expendable (1945) and Mister Roberts (1955). Ford saw wartime service as a commander in the U.S. Navy and, as head of the photographic unit for the Office of Strategic Services, filmed Navy Department documentaries.

Ford won an Oscar for the semi-documentary The Battle of Midway (1942, TCM premiere), which includes actual battle footage as the Japanese attacked the island in the Pacific Theater. He was injured in the arm by shrapnel while filming the attack. Another Oscar came Ford's way for December 7th (1943), an account of the attack on Pearl Harbor. Also screening, in its TCM premiere, is Ford's How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943), a training film for OSS agents.

September 22 - William Wyler (1902-1981): Wyler had directed the Oscar-winning Mrs. Miniver (1942), considered one of the most powerful propaganda films of the WWII era, before he served as a major in the U.S. Army and made a series of highly regarded documentaries. Returning from wartime service, he directed The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), a highly personal study of the problems of servicemen returning to civilian life. In both cases, the films won Oscars as Best Picture and for Wyler as Best Director.

The three government-produced documentaries directed or co-directed by Wyler are TCM documentaries. Wyler collaborated with noted photographer Edward Steichen in creating The Fighting Lady (1944), an hour-long look at the lives of seamen aboard an aircraft carrier as it sails the Pacific and finally sees action at Marcus Island in 1943. The carrier, anonymous in the film for security reasons, was later identified as the USS Yorktown. The film is narrated in English by Robert Taylor (then a lieutenant in the U.S. Navy), with Charles Boyer taking over in a French version.

Perhaps the most famous of all WWII documentaries, Wyler's The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944) is a 45-minute color film telling the story of a Boeing B-17 and its U.S. Army Air Force crew as it flies a final mission over Germany in May 1943. Wyler and his crew worked at great personal risk by filming during the actual bombing. Thunderbolt! (1947) runs 44 minutes and documents the aerial exploits of "Operation Strangle" by a P-47 fighter-bomber squadron in the Mediterranean in early 1944. In making this film, Wyler was exposed to such loud noise on the plane that he was made deaf, although he later recovered partial hearing.

September 29 - George Stevens (1904-1975): A prewar specialist in such comedies as The More the Merrier (1943) and other light-hearted fare, Stevens was profoundly changed by his wartime experiences and later made much more serious films, including The Diary of Anne Frank (1959).

Joining the Army Signal Corps, Stevens headed up a combat motion picture unit in the U.S. Army Signal Corps from 1944 to 1946. Under orders from General Dwight D. Eisenhower, Stevens' unit shot footage in black-and-white and color, documenting such events as D-Day, the Allied march through France and the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp.

Both of the Stevens wartime documentaries in our Spotlight are TCM premieres. That Justice Be Done (1945) is a one-reel propaganda film produced by the Office of War Information for the U.S. Chief Counsel at Nuremberg and the War Crimes Office. It outlines the atrocities of the major Nazi war criminals and advocates a trial that would judge them. The Nazi Plan (1945) utilizes Nazi propaganda and newsreel images and was shown in evidence at the Nuremberg trials, which were held between 1945 and 1959.
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