Usually my colleague Dominic Patten covers the TV review beat, but he graciously let me steal this one from him since it really is all about movies and their directors. Netflix’s new three-part, three-hour documentary series Five Came Back chronicles the not-so-well-known efforts of five extraordinary Hollywood directors who put their careers on hold to join with the U.S. government in creating propaganda films during World War II.
The five iconic helmers, Oscar winners all (before and/or after), were William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens, Frank Capra and John Ford. What is remarkable is that they gave up their livelihood and stellar careers, put on a uniform and served their country in a way only they really could. Can you imagine the government (especially our current one) ever teaming with Hollywood to create movies under the auspices of the military or vice versa? Based on Mark Harris’ excellent 2014 book Five Came Back: A Story Of Hollywood And The Second World War, which Harris has adapted for Netflix, the series details these five very different personalities who became guns for hire in the war effort and made very different kinds of films than they ever had before.
As I say in my video review above, many of these movies would go on to be nominated or become winners at the Oscars, but their greatest achievement was in showing people on the home front what was going on during the war, or serving as primers for the military and their troops. What the book, densely detailed as it is, could not do is let us see this extraordinary footage while giving the backstories behind each one. In a brilliant stroke, Five Came Back director Laurent Bouzereau and Harris employ five contemporary directors to comment on the individual achievements of these legendary filmmakers during the war. Each acclaimed and currently working director gives a distinct point of view on these men, thus Steven Spielberg talks about Wyler, Paul Greengrass about Ford, Guillermo del Toro about Capra, Lawrence Kasdan about Stevens and Francis Ford Coppola about Huston.
Their insights add a layer of depth not normally seen in behind-the-scenes docus, especially as some have made classic war movies of their own (i.e., Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now). Spielberg also adds his own personal touches with anecdotes of the war told to him by his father, but each of them makes this a much more intimate portrait than it might have been otherwise.
During the course of the series we learn that Wyler became deaf due to the unbearable sound in one of the fighter planes and thought his career was over; Huston actually re-created the footage in San Pietro after arriving too late to film the actual battle for that small Italian town; Stevens became the first to film, and show positive proof of, Hitler’s extermination of Jews in concentration camps throughout Europe; and Ford was so devastated after filming the carnage of the D-Day invasion that he went on a three-day bender and never returned to the war again. The docu-series does not sugarcoat any of these efforts, or the complications in having creative geniuses like these five working directly for the government while trying to stay true to their own artistic vision in bringing these films to fruition.
The footage from the films on display is riveting and includes priceless material from the Why We Fight series supervised by Capra; Nazi Concentration Camps, D Day, The Battle Of Midway (Ford); Report From The Aleutians (Huston); and Wyler’s classic The Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress, among many others. In addition to the docu-series itself, Netflix will be making several these films available for viewing as well.
One incredibly moving and effective docu among this group was Huston’s Let There Be Light, his final war effort, and showed the effects of battle on the soldiers after they came home. The U.S. military, however, banned it, thinking it was not good for morale or recruitment, and the film was kept locked up for more than three decades until finally seeing the light of day in the early 1980s. It’s now considered a classic.
Part 3 of the series is also fascinating in showing the effect of their war service as these directors returned to making movies in Hollywood as well as the distinct choices they made for their careers post-WWII. Stevens, who was known for Fred Astaire musicals and light comedies before the war, did only heavier dramas afterward, including the 1959 holocaust story The Diary Of Anne Frank. Capra came back not wanting to deal ever again with war material and made It’s A Wonderful Life, his greatest film and now a perennial — but a flop when first released in 1947, forcing Capra’s company Liberty Films out of business and followed by only a handful of other movies until he retired in 1961. Wyler made many classics including 1946’s The Best Years Of Our Lives, the Oscar-winning story of veterans returning home that Spielberg says he has watched annually for the past 30 years. Ford made the WWII-set They Were Expendable but mostly moved on to Westerns and other types of films. Huston managed to pick up right where he left off and turned out his Oscar-winning masterpiece The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre in 1948.
But it is those remarkable documentaries these men made that still make an indelible impression today and, thanks to Five Came Back, now will reach new generations that never had the opportunity to see the level of sacrifice and service from some of our greatest filmmaking talents. Netflix debuts the series on March 31. A number of production entities are credited including Spielberg’s Amblin Television and numerous executive producers including Scott Rudin. John Battsek, Bouzereau, and Diane Becker were the producers. Meryl Streep provides the sober narration throughout.
Do you plan to watch Five Came Back? Let us know what you think.