2017 | Unrated (PG-13 equivalent) | starring Guillermo Del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Frances Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan | Narrated by Meryl Streep | directed by Laurent Bouzereau | 3hrs 15mins |
In the Netflix original documentary Five Came Back, 5 contemporary film directors talk about 5 directors from the golden age of 1930s and 40s cinema who followed their conscience and took their cameras into the fight in World War 2. Following Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, William Wyler and George Stevens as they work through anxiety with the growing German threat in pre-war films, to actually going to the battlefields and shooting fights or crafting propaganda films to rally Roosevelt’s America to the cause of war. Based on Mark Harris’ book, Five Came Back tells of a time when Hollywood rose to the challenge and proves a lasting example for the influential power of cinema. These five filmmakers were certainly affected by the war and the war may have been affected by them.
Put together by Laurent Bouzereau, Five Came Back tells their intertwining stories in 3 acts, separated into 3 episodes by Netflix. “The Mission Begins” following the director’s pre-war films in which the growing Nazi threat begins to creep into their films. John Huston’s Across the Pacific with Humphrey Bogart and Mary Astor and William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver began addressing the tenuous state of the world, but from a stateside point of view. Act 2, “Combat Zones” follows the filmmakers actively working with the Department of War, Frank Capra recruiting the group and putting together the famous Why We Fight documentaries including “Prelude to War” to shift the nation’s mood. Wyler stationed in an island outpost being told by the War Department to re-edit stories of unsuccessful missions to keep up moral. Stevens in Africa taking a more documentary style while Capra was urging Huston to recreate famous battles in the Arizona desert.
“The Price of Victory”, act 3, follows Ford’s D-Day experience and footage that was captured and then censored, Stevens riding through the French countryside as towns were being liberated and coming across the horrors of the Dachau concentration camps. They return in some cases making post-war films, now infused with a sense of melancholy and hopelessness that wasn’t there before. Stevens will never make another broad comedy, Huston will make arguably his masterpiece, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Ford will make Shane and My Darling Clementine. Capra makes his war statement with The Best Years of Our Lives (and it’s a hit) and his own existential statement with It’s A Wonderful Life (such a bomb it bankrupts the studio).
It’s an incredibly interesting set of stories, all wrapped together to bring out themes in all of them. The footage is pretty incredible, particularly “The Price of Victory’s” accounts of D-Day and Dachau. A George Stevens movie shows a map of European concentration camps that is staggering in number and scope. Old propaganda films showing the differences between the German depictions of evil and the Japanese depictions as a grossly over-the-top stereo-type are illuminating. The movie also features a propaganda film race of sorts between the Americans, the British and the Germans. Capra is first being hit with the compelling power of film after a demoralizing viewing of Leni Riefenstal’s Triumph of the Will, and shaken up by being beaten to war film success by the British’s Desert Victory.
The documentary packs in a ton of details and tracks through each filmmaker clearly using a modern day director to tell their story with narrator Meryl Streep filling in the gaps. Given how notoriously quiet he is about his own work, it is a real treat to hear Steven Spielberg gush about William Wyler, Mrs. Miniver‘s impact and Wyler’s attempts to retrofit cameras to small fighter planes. I won’t lie, I did wonder how Paul Greengrass got wrapped up in all this, but his narration is as good as the rest. Five Came Back is as niche a movie as you can get occupying the overlap between classic film fans and history buffs. World War II is a subject that has been traced and retraced over in film and while Five doesn’t uncover a lot of new ground in terms of the events of the war or make illuminating revelations, tracing through those events through the eyes of these guys and their unique goal proves a fresh take on the topic. It is a simple experience of listening to some of the best filmmakers in the world telling some of the most harrowing stories in the world, and what’s better than that?
There are a lot of arguments as to why World War II is Hollywood’s most frequently revisited war. There is the optimistic, that when done right film can provide a look into living history that can keep us from repeating it. There is the cynical, that the Nazi’s provide very easily identifiable and politically correct villains that became a shorthand for evil. But there is also a cerebral, that this was a period of time when film technology and history collided and these auteurs were able to prove the medium could make a real impactful difference. In the same way that journalists continually bring up The Watergate Scandal, for Hollywood, World War II was one of it’s finest hours. Five Came Back even presents it fairly objectively, recounting tales of racist cartoons, a censoring U.S. government and queasy battlefield recreations alongside moments of filmmaking heroism and an industry that matured in battle. It’s a long presentation, but it’s a rich one crammed with stories and brought to a satisfying conclusion. Worth seeing for it’s niche audience.