Hollywood and history collide in the sterling documentary series Five Came Back, based on the book of the same name by journalist Mark Harris. Across three parts, director Laurent Bouzereau follows the wartime exploits of five acclaimed filmmakers who put their studio careers on hold to make documentary and propaganda films for the US war department following the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that brought America into World War II.
Our subjects are John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), Frank Capra (It’s a Wonderful Life), William Wyler (Ben-Hur), and George Stevens (Shane) – great filmmakers by any yardstick. Appropriately, director Laurent Bouzereau has recruited five modern masters (your mileage may vary on one or two, but let’s go with it) to comment on the events depicted and put them in their historical context: Godfather maestro Francis Ford Coppola, Raiders of the Lost Ark screenwriter turned director Lawrence Kasdan, documentarian turned Bourne action master Paul Greengrass, Mexican fantasist Guillermo del Toro, and Steven Spielberg. The whole thing is narrated by Meryl Streep.
That’s a lot of star power. Let’s face it, Hollywood loves stories about the worthiness and magic of show business, and the power of cinema, and this particular subject is potentially heavy with that kind of self-importance – a little cynicism on the part of the viewer is understandable. However, it soon fades, because in this case the power and the worthiness are real.
Five Came Back takes the time to put the events in their historical context, explaining the importance of newsreels in the days before television news (and the internet), before plunging us into the war, taking us from The Battle of Midway (which Ford recorded) through the North African campaign, the invasion of Italy, D-Day (Ford and Stevens were there, landing at Normandy with the troops) through to Berlin and, with tragic inevitability thanks to clarity of hindsight, Dachau and the other death camps.
Along the way we get plenty of anecdotes – the film benefits immensely from older clips of the loquacious Huston and the thoughtful Capra recalling their wartime adventures – plenty of heroism, such as Wyler flying on bombing missions to make his incredible film Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress; and more heartbreaking moments of sheer, impactful emotion than you could countenance.
What’s more, despite the “print the legend” hagiographic leanings that are almost impossible to avoid in this sort of thing, especially when Hollywood’s tendency to self-aggrandise gets combined with “Greatest Generation” mythologising, Five Came Back is remarkably clear-eyed, never failing to note that these directors were making propaganda to boost the war effort (comparisons with Goebbels and Riefenstahl are made), and also taking the time to comment on the racial issues prevalent during the period, including the internment of Japanese Americans and the disenfranchisement of African Americans – Capra produced the documentary The Negro Soldier in attempt to address the latter. The series is also honest about the times that the filmmakers restaged events to get better coverage than naked reality allowed; indeed, you have to admire Stevens’ moxie in demanding General de Gaulle redo the German surrender of Paris outside in better lighting!
Throughout it all, we get the footage that these men captured, most of it taken from the films they made, some only now seeing the light of day (much of Stevens’ D-Day footage was deemed too horrifying for public consumption, to say nothing of what he captured at Dachau, which was later used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials). It’s stunning stuff – seeing these events, captured with the sure hands of these masterful directors, will leave a mark. Netflix has also made available a selection of the films the five made, including The Memphis Belle, Prelude to War, San Pietro, and John Huston’s long suppressed Let There Be Light, a look at a group of soldiers trying to overcome PTSD and other psychological ailments in the aftermath of the war. Taken together as a whole, all these elements comprise a an incredibly comprehensive look at the role of cinema in WWII.
Five Came Back is nothing less than a masterpiece. Any student of cinema and/or history will already be champing at the bit to see this one, and rightly so. Everyone else is advised to make time as well.