Filmmaker Laurent Bouzereau’s excellent Netflix documentary, Five Came Back, is adapted from Mark Harris’ 2014 book and tells the absorbing story of five Hollywood directors during World War II.
By the early 1940s, Americans were in love with the movies—over half of its adult population went to the cinema at least once a week. When the United States entered the war in December 1941, the War Department partnered with Hollywood to produce documentaries—and propaganda—that could record the conflict as well as sell it to the public. In stepped Hollywood directors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens.
Regardless of the audience’s level of familiarity with the five wartime directors, the series successfully establishes their distinct personalities before following their transcontinental journeys during the war. Fortunately, Harris and Bouzereau focus not only on the men’s professional accomplishments, but also on their personal aspirations, victories, and defeats. Their final work may appear polished, but the process was often messy and continually interrupted by bureaucratic disputes and the unforgiving nature of war.
Each of the Hollywood five had varied experiences, and each was affected in different ways. With Meryl Streep’s narration moving the plot forward, Bouzereau wisely relies on another set of five directors—Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass, and Guillermo del Toro—to analyze their wartime counterparts and their legacies.
In this case, hindsight is important in understanding the lasting impacts of war. George Stevens, originally known for his lighthearted films, had a particularly affecting journey. After recording color footage of the Allied landings at Normandy, the liberation of Paris, and the nightmarish revelations at the Duben labor camp and Dachau concentration camp—which was later used as evidence at Nuremberg—Stevens was forever changed. He remained haunted by his experiences, and, upon returning home, never again wanted to film a comedy.
Audiences may also be surprised to learn of John Huston’s immensely moving Let There Be Light, which starkly depicts a real group of soldiers suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, which was poorly understood at the time. However, as critics and film goers anticipated the film’s premiere, the army pulled the film at the last minute. It remained banned for three decades. [For more on this remarkable film, see Let There Be Light: How a Film on PTSD Worried the Army.]
By necessity, the first episode is the choppiest, as it covers the most ground. Once the series establishes the principal characters and the proper context, it progresses smoothly.
Five Came Back is a fitting companion to Harris’ detailed book, as well as a stellar example of how best to utilize starkly different mediums—what Harris wrote, Bouzereau shows. But the excellent documentary also stands alone, and it will undoubtedly help introduce these wartime films and stories to newer generations.
Film Recon is a web series by Paraag Shukla, Senior Editor of World War II and Aviation History magazines at HistoryNet.
Film Came Back will be available on Netflix on March 31, 2017. Netflix will also make available 13 related wartime documentaries, including The Battle of Midway, The Battle of Russia, The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, The Negro Soldier, San Pietro, Nazi Concentration Camps, and Let There Be Light.
For further reading, see Let There Be Light: How a Film on PTSD Worried the Army, originally published in the March/April 2017 issue of World War II.