'Five Came Back' Review

Netflix docu-series chronicles Hollywood at war

Five Came Back
April 7, 2017

Five Came Back, a solid companion to Mark Harris' excellent book of the same name, chronicles the efforts of five major film directors who stepped away from their careers during World War Two to lend their talents to the Allied effort to beat the Axis Powers.

When war erupted, Hollywood was, in many ways, at the height of its powers: half the population was going to theaters at least once a week, and the newsreels that played before features were the only way to see walking, talking depictions of the day's events. It was from this position of power that John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Huston, and George Stevens stepped away to help create a propaganda and training apparatus that would contribute to victory over the Nazis and Imperial Japan.

"I thought documentaries were silly things that rich kooks made," Capra says in an interview given during the 1970s about his efforts during the war. Capra, of course, would go on to make the Why We Fight series, among the most important documentaries the United States would ever produce. His compatriots would churn out films about the Battle of Midway (Ford), the derring-do of the bomber crew flying The Memphis Belle (Wyler), and the difficulty vets faced upon returning home from the front (Huston's long-suppressed "Let There Be Light").

The Americans understood the power of film all too well. Ford had won three Oscars between 1936 and 1942, Capra three more between 1935 and 1939. It is understandable, then, that Capra's response to seeing Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will was despair. He understood just how powerful and demoralizing the images onscreen would be for any individual seeking to muster the courage to go up against Hitler's Wehrmacht.

Director Laurent Bouzereau assembled a top-notch team of modern directors to discuss the wartime careers of the greats, scoring sit-down interviews with Steven Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan, Guillermo Del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, and Paul Greengrass. They help place the films not only in historical but also artistic context. Spielberg, for instance, helps us understand the power of Wyler's Memphis Belle, which showed bombers being shot down—a rarity in the frequently sanitized Allied propaganda. And there's something poignant about Del Toro's discussion of Capra's place in the industry—and the nation writ large—as an immigrant telling stories about the hopefulness of the American ideal.

Those who are truly interested in the subject matter simply have to read Harris' book, which goes into far greater detail than a mere three-and-a-half hour documentary series can muster; there we see more of the petty fights and feuds and the various obstacles faced by each of these great directors in getting their projects off the ground.

That being said, it's extremely useful to have some visual references to go along with Harris' deeply researched writing. It's one thing to read about Dachau, another to see Stevens' footage from the killing factory—footage that would go on to be used at Nuremberg and ensure the monsters behind that house of horrors got their due (and their place in the dirt). The inhumanity of the Holocaust is easy to question when people are reduced to statistics. It's much harder when the pictures of corpses piled up are pushed right into your face.