Netflix’s new docuseries weds stunning archival footage with insight into five of the era’s most enduring directors.
[General Marshall] wondered how we could put into the minds of these young kids the necessity of why they were in uniform. He had tried it with lectures. He had tried it with books. It wouldn’t work. They wanted something that boys knew about. Now, boys liked films.
Imagine that World War III has broken out. (Maybe it’s not that hard to imagine.) The country unites in a way we haven’t seen in decades. That includes the entertainment industry, where artists see an opportunity to do their patriotic duty while telling compelling stories. A handful of spry directors take their cameras to the front lines: Steven Sodebergh. Kathryn Bigelow. Ava DuVernay. Ryan Coogler. Managing the distribution stateside, Steven Spielberg.
That’s the world of Five Came Back, when Hollywood mounted an extraordinary effort to document WWII for the American people –part newsreel, part propaganda. Some of its brightest lights led the charge: the idealistic Frank Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington), crusty John Ford (big sky Westerns and The Grapes of Wrath), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), William Wyler (Mrs. Miniver), and George Stevens, who had almost exclusively done comedies and musicals like Swing Time. Tellingly, each of these men — all of whom had done exceptional, even award-winning work — would go on to make their greatest films in their post-war careers, after reclaiming their places in an studio system that had nearly left them behind.
This unexplored angle of the war made a fascinating subject in Mark Harris’s 2014 book, and now Frenchman Laurent Bouzereau (the king of the “making of” documentary, with over 150 credits to his name) tells the story in this three-hour series for Netflix. Through the eyes of these five directors, we get to see every theater of the war: the raging battles in the Pacific; a lonely outpost in the Aleutians; the sands of Egypt, the viscera of the D-Day landing; the campaign into the heart of Nazi Germany itself. It’s compelling stuff, and not just for the horror and wonder depicted in the archival footage, but for the meta-story of internal messaging squabbles and artistic sacrifices that plagued the filmmakers, and how their experiences changed them forever.
It starts in 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the United States finds itself drawn into a global conflict much of the country had previously wished they’d stay out of. The initial protagonists are Capra and Ford; the latter enlisting in the Navy and quickly forming a documentary crew, and the former working with the War Department to create what would become the seminal Why We Fight series. The origin of that comes from Capra’s viewing of Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will; that film’s effectiveness at giving Hitler godlike status nearly sunk Capra into despair until he realized he had all the footage he needed to inspire “our boys.” Initially designed as training films for new recruits to define the enemy and why what they were doing mattered, they turned out so successfully that FDR’s administration had them screened for the public.
Soon Huston, Wyler, and Stevens would join Ford overseas in documenting events, releasing their work in theaters with a few months’ turnaround. Several of these films, including the first installment of Why We Fight (Prelude to War) and Ford’s The Battle of Midway, would also win Oscars in the Academy Awards’ new Documentary categories. Wyler’s Memphis Belle, about the crew of a B-17 bomber, would capture the public imagination; Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro, which included some cleverly “re-staged” footage, is nevertheless widely praised for its on-the-ground verisimilitude. The choices of Ford and others to include “mistakes” like a cameraman losing his balance or dislodged sprockets scrubbed out any glamour; there was heroism on screen, but brutality as well.
All of this is elegantly explained by both Five Came Back’s narration (from Meryl Streep), and via interviews with contemporary set of five filmmakers: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, and Guillermo del Toro. Each chooses one of the five to focus on (Spielberg has deeply studied Wyler’s work, for example), but there’s enough cross-coverage that Bouzereau is able to weave a compelling narrative while jumping back and forth across the oceans. The series’s first hour, “The Mission Begins,” largely covers the creation of these film units and the sacrifices the directors made in temporarily abandoning their careers; the second, “Combat Zones,” finds them in harm’s way while also struggling to get their artistic visions through to military bureaucracy. Stevens, for example, quickly bails on a project centering on black soldiers when he’s told he won’t be allowed to address the prejudice they face on a daily basis.
If there’s a “main character,” it’s Capra, juggling the responsibilities of a filmmaker and propagandist as his compatriots ship footage back from the front. It doesn’t always succeed — 1943’s The Battle of Russia is panned for its obviously staged footage, and for playing fast and loose with the facts. (It would get nominated for an Oscar anyway.) Time hasn’t looked kindly on some of his co-productions with Warner Brothers animators, either, especially their blatantly racist depictions of the Japanese. Five Came Back doesn’t shy away from these troublesome issues, any more than it gives John Ford undue credit for madness disguised as courage in “getting the shot” at Midway Island, or his descent into depression after Normandy. These men all had their rough edges, though the series largely keeps the focus on what they did instead of how they acted. If I can fault the series for skimming the surface on anything, it’s here.
But it’s the series’s third installment, “The Price of Freedom,” that is the most compelling, covering the D-Day assault all the way through the filmmakers’ careers after the war. Here Bouzereau doesn’t spare us the horrifying reality; Stevens’ footage from the liberation of Dachau, used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials, is wrenching. Equally profound is Huston’s work on Let There Be Light, which documented PTSD in soldiers before that was even identified as a legitimate condition. The film was banned for decades, but Netflix has made the genius move of making Light, and most of the other films discussed in the series, available for streaming. Some of it is full-color WWII combat footage you simply can’t see anywhere else.
I was also struck by Five Came Back’s epilogue, where Streep’s narration and Bouzereau’s interviews illuminate the new perspectives these filmmakers brought to their work. Capra, as most know, attempted to start his own distribution company (Liberty Films) — which closed after its first release dramatically flopped: a little film called It’s a Wonderful Life. Some like to deride Capra’s work as corny, myself included, but it’s easy now to appreciate his deeply humanist view of the world through the prism of his wartime experiences, not to mention the self-doubt he wrestles with as a Sicilian immigrant.
Others, like Wyler, sought to accurately represent the men they had served alongside, like in his multi-Oscar-winner The Best Years of our Lives. (He would later go on to direct Ben-Hur.) Huston and Ford would take a darker view in Treasure of the Sierra Madre and The Searchers, respectively, but both films are routinely ranked among the all-time greats. My favorite story, however, was of George Stevens, who was so transformed by what he witnessed at Germany’s extermination camps that he never directed another fizzy studio comedy. Instead he gave us Shane, Giant, and — in his most personal work –1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank.
Five Came Back is an engrossing piece of cinema history, movingly told. The footage is awe-inspiring, but it’s the personal stories of these filmmakers that stick with you. If anything, I wanted it to be longer. Whether you’re a WWII buff or a fan of classic Hollywood cinema, I can’t recommend it enough.