It was a blast of light with the power to change the world and leave human beings awestruck. In the right hands it could be a boundless force for good, but if wielded by others with a reckless, craven hunger for power, it also had the capacity to inflict unfathomable pain. In the early days of World War II, there were only a few people in the United States of America with the skills to control it.
The weapon was the movies.
Just as the U.S. government rounded up atom-splitting physicists for the Manhattan Project to help build a bomb of devastating might, U.S. military leaders also recruited some of Hollywood’s top directors to harness the technology of modern filmmaking.
The new Netflix documentary series Five Came Back (streaming and in select theaters March 31), narrated by Meryl Streep, tells of five cinematic trailblazers — John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Huston, and William Wyler — who put aside their careers, their families, and their safety to join the fight against the Third Reich and Imperial Japan.
In the early 1940s, the making of movies was still a new art form. Editing was only a few decades old, synchronized sound was just a few years old, and color motion photography was in its infancy. The propaganda potential was limitless.
Germany’s Leni Riefenstahl had already helped Hitler intimidate the world with her 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will, and American leaders believed the right group of filmmakers could use the power of the projector for good, galvanizing the U.S. home front and showing soldiers and citizens alike what they were fighting for — and against.
Based on the best-selling 2014 book by Mark Harris (a former EW executive editor), the three-episode documentary explores not only how movies altered the war but how the sacrifice, tragedy, and atrocities of battle changed the course of moviemaking.
“I think power is always interested in power — and suspicious of power,” Harris says. “Washington viewed Hollywood, then and now, as a power independent of them. Certainly many viewed Hollywood with great suspicion as a business run by Jews and immigrants. But the smart people in Washington really got the fact that movies exerted a powerful hold on the American consciousness.”
Harris, who also wrote the script for the doc, says it wasn’t a natural decision for the military to join forces with show business, but the draw was undeniable. “It seems so automatic now that if there’s a war, oh yes, of course it would be filmed,” Harris says. “But it was not at all a natural decision then. And it wasn’t a natural decision to say we want to entrust this job to Hollywood filmmakers, as opposed to the makers of newsreels.”
The figures in Five Came Back stood out not just because of their ability to point a camera, but for their talents at manipulating and rousing emotion. Today, they’re iconic to any movie buff…
The fighting filmmakers
John Ford was the irascible tough guy known then for Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley. He helped found the Navy’s field photo unit, which made everything from anti-venereal-disease training reels to harrowing battle docs like 1942’s The Battle of Midway, for which he captured footage of the Japanese bombardment while sitting atop a prime target — an Navy power generator.
Frank Capra, an Italian immigrant eager to prove his patriotism, had directed heart-warmers like Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. His primary focus during the war became the Why We Fight series, an attempt to gird soldiers and civilians without stoking them with hatred.
George Stevens was the maker of adventures like Gunga Din and featherlight comedies like The Nitwits and Swing Time, which helped moviegoers escape the grim realities of the Great Depression but did not prepare him for the horrors he would experience overseas, especially documenting the Nazi death camps after the war.
John Huston, the bombastic young director of The Maltese Falcon and screenwriter of Sergeant York, used his signature bravado to paper over the strain he experienced when first capturing front-line battle in Italy. He then recorded the effects of post-traumatic stress on the soldiers who survived the war in 1946’s Let There Be Light, which was deemed too controversial and not released publicly until decades later.
Finally there was William Wyler, craftsman of Wuthering Heights and Mrs. Miniver, who brought a personal stake to the war: He was a German-born Jewish filmmaker with family in Nazi-occupied Europe. He partially lost his hearing and saw a member of his camera crew die in a crash while chronicling America’s bombing raids over Germany for 1944’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.
Harris says the appeal of this project was exploring a time that he, and many movie lovers, may have erroneously thought of “as a gap in [the directors’] résumés, rather than as a crucial thing they did.” Netflix is streaming many of their war films along with Five Came Back.
“I was kind of amazed at how much of the story of the war I could tell just through their experiences,” Harris says. “When you put the five of them together, they were in the Pacific at Midway, they were at D-day, they were in North Africa, they were at the liberation of Paris, they were at the Battle of the Bulge, they were in the Aleutians, they were at Dachau. So it felt like these were the people to follow because they had the most to do. They left the most behind. They had the most clout. They had the biggest careers and biggest personalities.”
Their exploits in battle — not to mention the clashes with American commanders as they tried to release some of the more controversial footage — are difficult to summarize, barely fitting inside a 511-page book, let alone a three-hour documentary.
Telling their tales on screen required an equally formidable team of filmmakers.
Directors on directors
At the helm of the Netflix doc is Laurent Bouzereau, who has spent his life profiling other cinematic storytellers, as in his feature-length documentaries about Roman Polanski and producer Richard D. Zanuck. He has also made dozens of docs for the DVDs and Blu-rays of Steven Spielberg’s films, so when the director of Schindler’s List and Saving Private Ryan came aboard as an executive producer, he recommended Bouzereau. “Laurent read the book and was inflamed with almost a calling to tell the story Mark told in this book,” Spielberg says. “His enthusiasm was undeniable.”
Bouzereau returned the favor by turning the camera on Spielberg, who provides context and commentary on the legends’ wartime work along with four other contemporary filmmakers: Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, and Guillermo del Toro. “I’ve done documentaries on all the great filmmakers, and it was interesting to explore another side of Hollywood, almost a dark side,” Bouzereau says. “What happens when you decide to put your country before your art?”
His idea was to have each living director focus on a World War II counterpart, analyzing his actions, sometimes critiquing his movies, and other times explaining how the war changed that director’s life and work.
Coppola zeroes in on Huston, Greengrass on Ford, Kasdan on Stevens, del Toro on Capra, and Spielberg on Wyler, whom he met decades ago when he knocked on the door of his Malibu home, a 21-year-old newbie director seeking guidance. “Each of us brought a simpatico to the conscience and style of each of the five directors,” Spielberg says.
Spielberg believes that commentary from contemporary directors was useful to help viewers understand the mindset of the five, especially the mix of combativeness and camaraderie that every filmmaker needs in order to get the job done. Without it, the directors of Five Came Back might have never captured the footage they did — and the American military could have chosen to suppress more of it. “They enlisted to serve in the only way they knew how, and they brought [to the U.S. government] the same fierce independence from their battles against studio chiefs,” Spielberg says. “That kind of ferocity of standing for what you believe in is the whole reason we fought in World War II.”
Five Came Back may touch a deep nerve not just in movie fans but in anyone who pursues a creative dream while also using that skill to effect positive change in the world. It’s notable that Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens, and Wyler had all achieved Hollywood success before the war. “All of these guys had made it,” Kasdan says. “And then they volunteered for a real life-and-death struggle and did good work there, and survived it. So now their life story has a different dimension to it.”
Their later work had another dimension too. The five directors made arguably their greatest and most enduring Hollywood movies after the war — even if some of them were initially flops, like Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life — although the price of that wisdom and experience was steep. “What does it mean to survive? That was a big thing for me,” Harris says. “Capra’s career didn’t really survive the war, and Wyler came back with a disability. John Huston pretty clearly had what we would now call PTSD. The war was not what any of them thought it would be.”
In that way, Five Came Back is not just a war story. Not just a story about coming home. It’s about what comes back with you.