By this point, it is reasonable to assume that we’ve seen and heard just about all there is about World War II. That’s not a swipe at The Greatest Generation; it just means that every third documentary made in the last 40 years seems to have dealt with this conflict. Given that, the average filmmaker really has to be at the top of their game to bring something new. I had that cynicism going into Netflix’s three-part series Five Came Back, the story of five legendary film directors – Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler – who used their extraordinary gifts to film and document the most epic conflict in modern history. What surprised me was how intimate the film is about their experience, both as men and as artists.
Five Came Back is a special film about the power of art as expression. It is no surprise that the Second World War changed the world, but what the film presents is how it changes these five artists personally and professionally. What did their experiences do to their craft, and how did those experiences ultimately shape the way in which the public saw the war? It extols the power of cinema as the most powerful tool of expression and manipulation.
Based on the 2014 book by journalist Mark Harris, this adaptation does a brilliant job of setting us in the terms of the time; a time shortly before the advent of television, when the only visual news medium was the newsreel. Americans were going to the movies every night of the week and amid the pre-feature coming attractions and cartoons were moving footage of the war that they couldn’t get anywhere else. This was a time before the cynicism of the century’s second half took hold, when most Americans trusted their government to get the job done – which was crucial since, at the time, Americans were still mired in The Great Depression. At this moment there was a tight union between Washington and Hollywood and the government who, at first, hired filmmakers for propaganda in order to shine a positive light on the war to keep up morale on the homefront and collect money for war bonds.
That’s really where the film begins; with the build-up of the propaganda machine. We see how the films were constructed and how they were shaped for maximum effect. We see that the propaganda machine was vital in light of the fact that Hitler’s propaganda machine, under the direction of Joseph Goebbles and filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, was proving to be second to none. As Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Wyler enter the European and Pacific Theater their experiences bring a complexity to their work. At home the dynamics of the war begin to shape the perception of what is going on overseas and also at home. It might have been enough to cut and recut footage of aerial combat and ground troops shooting it out with the Nazi soldiers, but the political landscape was shaped as well. There is growing concern with how African-American soldiers are being portrayed (if, at all) and how the public will perceive the Japanese and Germans once the war is over.
Each director joined the service with the intent on documenting the war and they put themselves in the thick of combat in order to give the world the experience of combat in a way that no screenwriter could ever conceive. The most dramatic story is how George Stevens and John Ford landed on the beaches of Normandy on D-Day in order to capture footage of the invasion knowing the they and their cameramen might not come out alive. What they experienced physically and psychologically was a mirror of how the world would be affected by the film they brought home. That’s especially the came with Stevens’ famous film of Dachau which was used against the Nazis at the Nuremberg trial. Those images told a story of man’s inhumanity to man that no book or eye witness could ever tell – it was so disturbing that Stevens himself couldn’t bear to watch it again.
The masterstroke in this film is that Harris and director Laurent Bouzereau allow the story to be told on-screen by five directors who, themselves, are legends in their own time. Instead of a lot of talking heads with scholars and historians, the stories of Ford, Huston, Wyler, Stevens and Capra are told in interviews by Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Francis Ford Coppola and Lawrence Kasden who understand the craft of shaping and editing the footage for maximum effect (it helps that each of these directors has made a war film as well). They understand the craft and so they reveal how the directors used their talent to tell a story. Editing is crucial – cut the footage too short and the battle scenes come across as entertainment; cut it too long and the footage could be demoralizing. There are a surprising amount of scenes shown in this movie that (thankfully) the public never saw. Take D-Day, for example, with the bodies strewn on the Normandy beaches and piles of guts littering the floor of the troop ship.
If there is a weakness in the film it is probably that I wanted the story to continue. The last half hour is dedicated to the post-war experience, of how these directors used their experiences to create films that spoke of their feelings about the state of the world – Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives; Capra made It’s a Wonderful Life and Huston made Let There Be Light, a document of soldiers effected by PTSD that the military kept under wraps for nearly 40 years. This chapter feels a bit glossed over. We understand clearly how the experience effected these men but the film leaves us wanting more. Maybe that’s the value of the story telling here – I wanted more.