If war is hell, then hell is indescribable. No one can get war quite right on the page, in part because war is so many different things in itself—horrible, glorious, disciplined, chaotic, exciting, boring, lethal, regenerative, serious, and absurd, to name a few. Many thousands or millions of people affected by a major conflict also see or miss those aspects of war in varying degrees, compounding the problem of getting the perspective right.
With the invention of photography came the hope that people far removed from battles and their aftermath at least might be able to see exactly what war looked like, but progress was slow. Early cameras were bulky and required subjects to stay still for up to a minute. Given the logistics required to take a single picture, 19th Century war photographers like Matthew Brady left nothing to chance. They staged the living and the dead after the guns went silent to produce photos that were like war but more like a particular idea of war.
Smaller, more easily operated cameras brought photography closer to the direct experience of combat. During World War I, strict government censorship on all sides barred most professional reporters from the front. But Kodak sold 1,750,000 of its vest-pocket cameras during the war at prices many soldiers could afford. They created some of the most memorable and revealing images of the war, although amateur photos of troops under fire and the Christmas Truce of 1914 spooked military officials enough for them to criminalize the possession of cameras in 1915.
Three developments during the interwar period finally promised to bring the public more realistic pictures of war: a backlash against excessive government propaganda and censorship, technical improvements in still photography and cinematography, and evolving journalistic standards of objectivity. The photographer Robert Capa’s Slightly Out of Focus and Mark Harris’s Five Came Back show how that promise was both fulfilled and broken during World War II.
Capa’s 1947 memoir is one of the best to come out of the war in terms of sheer style. Even if it plays loose with the facts of his experiences, nearly every page brings readers small truths in ways we usually see only in the best fiction. Capa gets the inherent tensions right. Being at war requires you to not think about yourself, which only increases the power of fear and longing when those thoughts inevitably come back. War is made of moments of reflexive courage, overwhelming terror, and sudden, deep empathy. It can also be a series of desperate grabs at joy—epitomized by Capa’s race to beat Ernest Hemingway to the best hotel rooms, food and drinks available in liberated Europe.
Five Came Back, which Netflix adapted into an excellent three-part documentary, is a well-written but more conventional group biography. It tells the story of five successful or emerging Hollywood directors—John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston—who enlisted in the U.S. armed forces to make war films. The book and series are fascinating studies in how war shapes both propaganda and art.
Though Capa’s memoir and Harris’s popular history are life stories, they’re filled with important lessons for students of war and media. First among them is the way real conflict blurs distinctions between information control and press or artistic freedom, with military officials and creatives departing from the roles we traditionally assign to them.
As a Hungarian-Jewish refugee without travel papers and sometimes without an employer to back him, Capa’s access to battlefields in North Africa, Italy, France, and Germany depended on the indulgence of government and military officials—particularly the Army public relations officer Chuck Romine (protected by the pseudonym Chris Scott in Capa’s memoir). Romine’s friendly support of Capa—ending with the officer’s marriage to Capa’s wartime lover—is what allows the photographer to shoot the most impressive collection of stills produced in the war. Although Capa is best known for his 11 amazing photos of the Allied invasion of Normandy, his pictures of hospitals and civilians on the Italian front, the joy and revenge of liberated French citizens, and the resignation of German prisoners of war provide a more comprehensive window On extreme times and places.
The directors who agreed to make training and propaganda videos for the U.S. military had rougher going, since film combined more objective picture-taking with subjective narratives. There were lines the creatives would not cross, as when Wyler refused a project on African-American soldiers under guidance from Washington to downplay those “most Negroid in appearance” and avoid praise of any race leaders. Still, for the most part, the directors understood they had a job to do.
In most cases, realism proved the best form of propaganda. The first film in Capra’s Why We Fight series, “Prelude to War,” is often considered a propaganda masterpiece—a brilliant jujitsu move that took powerful fascist images from sources like Leni Reifenstahl’s Triumph of the Will and deflated them with Walt Disney animation and a mocking, populist script. To avoid motion picture magnates who at first were understandably concerned about being co-opted by the government (and more perversely concerned about losing audiences in German-controlled European markets), Capra secretly screened “Prelude to War” for Academy voters, and it won honors with Ford’s Battle of Midway.
But Capra’s film flopped. Far more popular were the films like Wyler’s Memphis Belle or Capra’s own “Battle of Russia,” which relied on authentic war footage. Huston understood this principle so well that he faked combat realism in his Battle of San Pietro by shaking the camera, instructing soldiers to look at the lens rather than ignore it, and editing in real casualty photos.
Many War Department officers walked out of the Washington screening of Huston’s film, but General George C. Marshall thought the faux realism would help the public prepare for the tough fight ahead. The release of the film was a critical and box office success.
Indeed, although the first reflex of bureaucrats might be to remove the bloodiness from the war, censorship of Capa’s photos and the films produced by the directors Harris profiles was often about keeping the nasty bits in.
The appearance of American casualties in newspapers and movie theaters may have been about stoking rage against the enemy. The first U.S. propaganda film to show real casualties, Marines at Tarawa, coincided with a greater focus on the Pacific theater, accompanied by cartoons and films like Ford’s December 7th and later Capra and Huston’s “Know Your Enemy: Japan,” which sought to dehumanize enemy troops and civilians with crude Asian stereotypes.
It is equally clear, however, that realism was also about documenting truths. Although he struggled to catch up to the fighting, Stevens wound up collecting incredible scenes of the liberation of Europe and, more importantly, concentration camp footage that became a turning point in the Nuremberg trials.
In the end, the job of picturing war changes people. After going in with the first wave of the Normandy force, Capa broke down and fled Omaha Beach on an evacuating ship. After the war he kept chasing the action, though, right up to his end in 1954, when he stepped on an antipersonnel mine while photographing French soldiers on patrol in Indochina.
Ford’s own intense experience on D-Day, which saw nearly half of his cameramen killed, wounded, or captured, launched him on a drinking binge that ended his involvement in the war. His fellow directors hung on, but each left the service to produce some of their best work—informed by the costs of war, like Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, or the darker side of human nature, like Huston’s The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Remembering that Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life came out in 1946 after the director had used his talents in defense of his country brings a deeper understanding to one of the weirdest feel-good films ever made. An exhausted man driven to suicidal thoughts is spared by a vision of how his family and community would suffer under the heel of a powerful tyrant if he was wiped out of existence. George Bailey wanted to escape a personal hell created by bad men. His creator’s experience with picturing war created a more convincing vision of what a larger hell without good guys might look like.