To most, the image of a man in military fatigues, trudging into a heated war zone holding not a gun, but a film camera might seem strange, and justifiably so. In a situation like that, where everything is at stake, it’d be understandable if the last thing on someone’s mind would be to film it. But exactly what did happen in Word War II, during some of the most memorable and important battles in the history of the world.
Normandy on D-Day was filled with hundreds of men holding cameras, trying to document as much of the action as they could — and the world was never the same as a result.
In the early 1940’s, when Hitler was on the rise and the most fascist nations in the world seemed relatively unstoppable, five of the most powerful and talented directors in Hollywood took it upon themselves to bring the horrors of the war to the American public. Some would find themselves standing on Naval platforms during the Battle of Midway, among the first Americans to ever encounter the tragedies of the Nazi-run concentration camps, or thousands of miles up, filming powerful bombs as they dropped from the sky. None of it was safe; all of it was important.
That’s the story at the heart of “Five Came Back,” Netflix’s brand new 3-part documentary series about Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, John Ford, and John Huston. Narrated by Meryl Streep, directed by Laurent Bouzereau, and based on the book of the same name by Mark Harris, the documentary shines a light on the courageous actions of those five men, synonymous and iconic to any well-educated film buff, when they decided to use their talents as filmmakers to bring home truth, often from the actual front lines.
Bouzereau and his team bring on five of the most talented and passionate filmmakers working today to talk about and marvel on the achievements of the five masters who came before them. Each present-day director is more or less paired with one of the five titular filmmakers: Steven Spielberg proclaims passionately his love for William Wyler, Guillermo del Toro demonstrates how in tune he is with Frank Capra, Francis Ford Coppola compares his work to that of John Huston, Paul Greengrass shares his admiration of John Ford, and Lawrence Kasdan opens up about the filmmaking genius of George Stevens.
This framing device benefits “Five Came Back” in a number of ways, most notably since it will undoubtedly make it easier for present day, uneducated filmgoers to truly understand who the five classic directors were, by having five of the biggest names in cinema today go into detail about the unparalleled brilliance of their work. And it’s always better, of course, to be taught something from someone who is blatantly geeky and in love with their subject: Spielberg, del Toro, Greengrass, Kasdan, and Coppola are some of the biggest film history encyclopedias the form has ever seen.
The decision to split “Five Came Back” into three parts gives the documentary something special: A three-act structure similar to a traditional film narrative. The first part details just where Capra, Stevens, Wyler, Huston, and Ford were in their careers when the war started, and what led each of them to joining the service; the second goes into their actual work in the war; and the third spends more time focusing on how they left the war, and how that time went on to affect them and their work later in life.
Each chapter is intriguing and interesting in its own right, but none pack quite the punch of the third installment: It touches on the effects of WWII on each of the five filmmakers with a gentle insight that will bring even the most casual of moviegoer to the brink of tears.
The fact that each of the directors went on to make their best films immediately after WWII (Capra’s next film was “It’s a Wonderful Life,” Wyler’s was “The Best Years of Our Lives”), is fascinating enough as it is. But it’s impossible to prepare for the devastating realization that, for example, after being the only one of the five to document the horrors of the concentration camps up close, George Stevens went on to make nothing but deeply personal and mournful films like “Giant,” “Shane,” and “The Diary of Anne Frank” — after an early career being loved and lauded for working on some of the most successful comedies of the time… Or how William Wyler lost 80% of his hearing because his ears were unprotected while filming inside of a B-25, and how his films became infinitely more visual because of it.
More than anything else, “Five Came Back” works because it touches on just how powerful and meaningful film can be when used right. It’s easy to forget, in a world convinced that it has 24/7 insight, that — until relatively recently — there was no actual way to know what was happening in the world. Even by WWII, there weren’t televisions, and the only way to hear about the news was through the radio, in the newspapers, and most notably, in the small featurettes played at the cinema before movies.
But that’s what Capra, Stevens, Wyler, Huston, and Ford all realized that no one else did: That the best way for the American public to truly understand the dangers of the war, and Hitler, was to show them: Up close and personal. None of these men were documentarians, they were storytellers. Maybe that’s how they knew the most important story of their time was happening just across the Pond, where fascism and white supremacy were growing by leaps and bounds, devouring Europe. And being storytellers, they knew what they had to do next.
As a result, their legacies were forever written in stone, as the five directors who went to bring the truth of the war to as many people as they could, and who came back changed in ways they never could have imagined.
All three installments of “Five Came Back” are available on Netflix now.