Immigrants and Movies and Immigrants

Netflix just released a three part movie documentary by Steven Spielberg called Five Came Back. It’s highly recommended. It’s the story of who were probably the five best known directors in Hollywood at the start of World War II. The five, John Houston, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Ford were all at the height of their profession. All five left that profession and joined the Armed Forces.

They walked away from their successes to risk their lives filming the war. They walked away knowing that Hollywood had (still does?) a very short memory and the longer the war lasted the iffier their return to prominence.

This is all fascinating in its own right – Ford filmed the Battle of Midway and D-Day, Capra was everywhere, Stevens was in the vanguard through the Battle of the Bulge and liberation of concentration camps, Wyler flew dozens of air combat missions, Houston was in the front lines in Italy.

There was, however, something else that really struck us watching this. At times, overpoweringly so. Frank Capra and William Wyler were immigrants. As the documentary makes very clear, Wyler and Capra’s works before the war were suffused with sentiments entirely attributable to their having been immigrants. They had a view of America somewhat different than their natural born counterparts. They put that view up on the screen.

Capra with Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Wyler with Mrs. Miniver brought a different type of sensibility to ‘big pictures.’ They were important – at a time when the movies were the most important popular culture in the world. Their immigrant experiences led them to identify the Nazi threat long before most people, certainly those in Hollywood. This also at a time when the United States was becoming more isolationist – it was so bad by 1940 that Wyler was called on the carpet for portraying a Nazi character in Mrs. Miniver in a poor light.

All this is fascinating enough, but it’s only the prelude to the real story. Frank Capra joined the Army and was responsible for a slew of films, all designed to inform an American public that had been anti-war about why the US was fighting. At the same time he tackled racism head-on in a way American born Hollywood directors and executives never had.

William Wyler also joined the Army. He flew in B-17s over Germany and B-25s over Italy. Wyler was internationally famous. He was also a Jew. He was terrified that if forced to parachute out and captured by the Germans he would be sent to a concentration camp. He flew anyway and produced some of the most stunning aerial photography of the war. In 1944, Wyler was one of the first soldiers to enter the French town he was born in. The town was virtually deserted, most of the residents had been transported to the camps.

When the war ended, they came home – Wyler a disabled veteran, he had lost a large portion of his hearing in a B-25. This last section of the documentary was most affecting. All five directors had been changed by their war experiences, just like the men they had been filming through it all. Wyler made The Best Years of Their Lives, one of the greatest movies ever made about men coming home from war. When you know his story, including being an immigrant, you can see it in the movie. A movie that swept the Academy Awards.
Capra returned and made It’s a Wonderful Life. A critical and commercial flop on its release. Now, of course, it’s … well, It’s a Wonderful Life. This classic, iconic film reflects Capra’s immigrant and war experiences. One thing I can guarantee – after you watch this documentary, you’ll see It’s a Wonderful Life in an entirely new perspective.