Articles

5 Hollywood directors who served and filmed real wars

Before Clint Eastwood's "American Sniper," Hollywood directors "got it right" by serving in the military.

Here are five legendary Hollywood directors who served on the front lines with their cameras:


John Ford

Ford joined the Naval Reserve in the days leading up to America's involvement in World War II. In 1941, he was put in charge of a documentary film unit that took him to battles around the world.

He won back-to-back academy awards for his Navy documentaries The Battle of Midway and December 7th. He won an Oscar every year between 1941 and 1944 for directing two feature films and two documentaries, according to his IMDb biography.

After the war, Ford continued to serve in the Navy Reserve and was activated one last time during the Korean War to film This is Korea!, a propaganda documentary about the beginnings of the war. Ford was promoted to rear admiral upon his retirement.

Ford starting making films in 1914 when he followed his older brother Francis – who became an actor after having worked in vaudeville – to Hollywood. The beginning of his silver screen career was modest, he was his brother's assistant, handyman, stuntman, and double.

After three years in the business, Ford got his first break as a director and went on to direct nearly 60 silent films between 1917 and 1928 before pioneering "talkies."

Ford's Hollywood career went from 1917 to 1966, and he served in the Navy from 1934 to 1951.

William Wyler

Photo: IMDb

Wyler directed three documentaries while serving as a major in the United States Army Air Forces: The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Thunderbolt, and The Fighting Lady.

For The Memphis Belle, Wyler flew over enemy territory on actual bombing missions to capture war footage. Wyler and his crew went on four missions to get enough footage to make the movie. On one of these missions, Wyler's sound man, Harold Tannenbaum, was shot down and killed, according to William Wyler: The Life and Films of Hollywood's Most Celebrated Director.

Wyler won an academy award for best director on The Best Years of Our Lives, a story about three veterans returning from World War II, which he filmed after serving in the military.

John Huston

Photo: IMDb

In 1942, Huston joined the Army Signal Corps as a captain to make films, but most of them were considered too controversial and were either not released or censored. His time in service is described in his New York Times Obituary:

While in uniform, he directed and produced three films that critics rank among the finest made about World War II: Report from the Aleutians (1943), about bored soldiers preparing for combat; The Battle of San Pietro (1944), a searing (and censored) story of an American intelligence failure that resulted in the deaths of many soldiers, and Let There Be Light (1945).

The last, about psychologically damaged combat veterans, was suppressed for 35 years for being too anti-war. It had its first public showing in 1981 and won critical approval.

Huston earned a Legion of Merit for courageous work under battle conditions and retired as a major.

Frank Capra

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Capra enlisted in the Army in 1917 when the U.S. declared war on Germany but was discharged the following year after catching the Spanish influenza. He moved to Los Angeles to live with his brother, and while recuperating, answered an open casting call which landed him on the set of John Ford's film, The Outcasts of Poker Flat.

Over the course of twenty years, Capra became one of Hollywood's most influential filmmakers, winning three Oscars as Best Director. His film, It Happened One Night became the first film to win five Oscars, including Best Picture.

Capra rejoined the Army Signal Corps during World War II and made the Why We Fight patriotic film series.

George Stevens

Photo: IMDb

Stevens also joined the Army Signal Corps and headed a combat motion picture unit from 1944 to 1946. His unit filmed the Normandy landings, the liberation of Paris, and the liberation of Nazi extermination camp Dachau, which was used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials and de-Nazification program after the war.

Many critics claim that the somber, deeply personal tone of the movies he made when he returned from World War II were the result of the horrors he saw during the war, according to his IMDb biography.

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