Sometimes, the greatest weapon to use in a war is not a gun, but a camera. By capturing the grittiness and travesties of battle, war documentarians have the power to shape the story they are telling, subsequently educating and influencing their audiences. This kind of tactic became essential during World War II, when five Old Hollywood filmmakers — John Ford (“The Searchers”), John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon”), George Stevens (“A Place in the Sun”), Frank Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life”) and William Wyler (“Mrs. Miniver”) — enlisted into the army to document American efforts in fighting the menacing Axis Powers. The stories of these famous men, all of whom risked their lives and their status as top Hollywood directors during WWII, are given a documentary treatment of their own in Netflix’s beguiling three-part series “Five Came Back,” based on the book by film historian Mark Harris.
Firing on all cinematic cylinders, “Five Came Back” is enlightening and entertaining even for non-history buffs. The documentary operates as an absorbing take on 1940s filmmaking, a complex exploration of American propaganda and a haunting depiction of post-war milieu.
Meryl Streep (“Florence Foster Jenkins”) narrates the background behind these efforts with natural poise and thoroughness, while five current Hollywood filmmakers — Francis Ford Coppola (“Apocalypse Now”), Steven Spielberg (“Bridge of Spies”), Lawrence Kasdan (“The Accidental Tourist”), Guillermo del Toro (“Pan’s Labyrinth”) and Paul Greengrass (“Captain Phillips”) — discuss the social impact of the films made before, during and after the war. But perhaps the strongest pillar of “Five Came Back” stems from the prolific backbone and perceptive eye of director Laurent Bouzereau (“Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir”), who has produced a plethora of behind-the-scenes documentaries for decades.
Though “Five Came Back” has some difficulty in structuring its formidable subject matter, Bouzereau unfolds enough compelling social context to reflect an entire half-decade of history into three hours. Tracing from the late 1930s to the late 1940s, “Five Came Back” tackles cinema’s importance during WWII-era America, using the work of Capra, Stevens, Huston, Ford and Wyler as examples. Along with being thematically engrossing, “Five Came Back” pleases aesthetically, as well. There’s an inventive title sequence, an epic horn-heavy score from composer Thomas Newman (“American Beauty”) and a gorgeous mix of color and black-and-white archival footage from the 1940s.
With each blistering detail and newsreel, the documentary tracks how the styles and approaches of these five influential filmmakers ultimately shaped their outlook on the war. Capra and Wyler sensed the threatening rise of Hitler and Nazism before Hollywood did, while Ford, Huston and Stevens were simply looking for adventure when deciding to join in the war effort. The differences in incentives to enlist — personal histories versus patriotism — makes the documentary all the more enriching as the directors’ attitudes toward the war change over time.
We observe Capra and Wyler struggle under the weight of governmental pressure and box office failure with their propaganda films. We see Stevens, who was known for directing light-hearted comedies and musicals, grow hardened and alienated by the war when filming in Tunisia. We watch as Ford and Huston were subjected to immense scrutiny from the armed forces they worked with.
On the battlefront, the directors especially struggled much more in trying to combine their artistic vision with their real-war experiences. War propaganda may not have been the most ethical of decisions on Hollywood’s part, but “Five Came Back” shows the manipulation of World War II through film in all of its complexity.
Capra and Wyler initially abandoned and reassembled a film project titled “The Negro Soldier” with African-American playwright Carlton Moss. By subverting the standard negative Hollywood portrayal of Black people, the film gave a realistic depiction of the Black American experience during WWII, as it garnered rave reviews and attracted Black Americans to join the war. At the same time, Capra had created war-themed cartoons with Dr. Seuss and Walt Disney to amuse and motivate American soldiers, but at the expense of drawing racist caricatures of the Japanese. Such irony demonstrates the dynamics of race in WWII America and how film as a medium had a role in perpetuating perceptions of different racial groups.
To see these highly respected directors become grounded by the war is as gripping as it is troubling. As the war pushed these directors to their filmmaking limits, they each found ways to highlight the humanity within the inhumane atmosphere of war, all while taking an emotional and artistic toll by being on the battlefront.
If there’s anything to take away from “Five Came Back,” it’s that the power of film isn’t just in storytelling, but the emotional and social context behind the storytelling. Capra, Huston, Stevens, Ford and Wyler weren’t just great American filmmakers for their compelling movies; they were great because their movies, war-related or not, were deeply rooted in something that was authentic and devastating enough to move audiences.