Five Came Back
Directed by Laurent Bouzereau
Starring Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, and Guillermo del Toro
Available on Netflix
Many consider Hollywood to be the home of escapist entertainment, but some may not know (or forget) that Hollywood once served a pivotal role in winning World War II.
Five Came Back is a Netflix documentary series, based on the eponymous book by journalist Mark Harris, that explores the wartime service and experiences of five Hollywood directors during World War II. The directors include Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler, who all served alongside Allied forces in the European and Pacific theatres of the war, educating American soldiers and civilians while documenting the war through cinema. Narrated by Meryl Streep and presented with film footage and photographs, the five figures are discussed by contemporary Hollywood icons Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, and Steven Spielberg, respectively. Five Came Back is a fantastic documentary for those wanting to learn more about World War II, Classical Hollywood, or any of the directors mentioned above.
The contemporary directors paint an intimate and detailed study of the personas and legacies of their wartime counterparts. In each of the testimonials, they offer personal details of each director, the behind-the-scenes production of each film, and the overall effect and impact of the films upon the war and themselves. Each of them speaks volumes about the directors and the filmographies that shaped their lives and their careers during their military service. For example, Guillermo del Toro remarks on the ingenuity of Why We Fight in utilizing Axis propaganda films to expose their own absurdity and falsehoods. In another, Steven Spielberg notes William Wyler’s strict adherence to realistically portraying the war in Memphis Belle and how he captured all of war’s idiosyncrasies, imperfections, horrors, kindnesses, and sincerities.
It’s arguable that Five Came Back might put viewers off thanks to some of the self-indulgence the documentary frequently likes to dole out to Hollywood, as it has time and time again. The lack of in-depth detail and scrutiny on each film could also be a drawback, as hungry cinephiles might be wanting more akin to a film analysis or a cultural critique.
Undoubtedly though, Five Came Back explores a fascinating topic for film aficionados and offers fascinating insight into the history of Hollywood before, during, and after World War II. The documentary explores in-depth into the collaboration between the War Department and Hollywood, as well as the personal lives of the directors that is handled quite well throughout. The footage that the five directors managed to capture is nothing short of astonishing, documenting the kinetic raw footage of air combat and ground assaults, the film going out of focus or decoupling from the camera with every nearby explosion, or documenting the traumatizing imagery of the Nazi concentration camps.
What is probably the most powerful moment is the final 20 minutes of the last segment, covering the last years of the war, the aftermath, and the invisible consequences on the directors as well as the broader cultural consciousness of the United States. Huston’s Let There Be Light humanized the effects of PTSD on veterans before the term was even invented. The physically wounded and psychologically scarred veterans could not easily return to civilian life or live in happiness, notions of morality were redefined or thrown out in light of the Holocaust, and the world was politically, socially, and philosophically transformed forever.
While the five directors had returned to Hollywood personally affected, they and their films had reinvigorated their style and later work. They would invoke the feelings that the entire country was still reeling from and explore them to find truth and reconciliation in the new world. Ultimately, the documentary ends on a powerful note about the paradigm shift that World War II had created, with Frank Capra declaring that even though the war might have shown the world to be evil and cruel, there is good in the world and it is wonderful.