Filmmaking, as an art form, can be something more when wielded as a weapon. But what is that something more? In Five Came Back, a three-part docuseries based on Mark Harris‘ bestselling book about five directors — John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens — who served in World War II to capture the carnage and crises close up, the answer turns out to be devastating and profound.
And absorbing. Director Laurent Bouzereau, best known for creating “making of” documentaries for Steven Spielberg’s films, expertly crafts a story that takes the viewer from the filmmakers’ antebellum careers to their post-war work, weaving their five tales together using interviews with five of today’s most notable directors: Spielberg (also an executive producer), Guillermo Del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass, and Francis Ford Coppola. Oh, and having the whole Herculean effort narrated by Meryl Streep doesn’t hurt.
Still, it takes Five Came Back a little while to start asking the tough questions about the role of Hollywood — an industry of escapism and celebrity — in depicting war and devastation. The uneven Part I splices together footage and talking heads with ease, but without rhythm. One minute, Del Toro is looking back at Capra’s emotional acuity; the next, archival footage of a BBC interview with Ford plays as a way to demonstrate his rebel personality. Much of it feels like a college lecturer trying to deliver as much context as possible, before getting to the good stuff.
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But for all of Part I’s awkward, repetitive structure, the series quickly establishes its depth. Just as “making of” documentaries assume the viewer has seen the work in question, Five Came Back assumes viewers have either read Harris’ tome or are already invested in the stories of these five men. That assumption allows the series to go deeper in its ambition, and the first hour delves into the patriotism of the early years of war: Ford speaks of being dazzled by FDR’s speeches, Greengrass reflects on Ford’s “instinct” to remain on Midway Island to chronicle a Japanese attack, and Capra explores how Nazi propaganda opened his eyes on the way cinema could be used to affect the public’s thinking.
Changing people’s perception through films and news reels becomes the focus of the thought-provoking — and relevant — Part II, a tighter, more engrossing installment than the first. It’s an hour that doesn’t shy away from painting its subjects as flawed and their films are at times uncomfortably immoral: Capra and Huston knowingly dramatized certain portions of their films, and Capra struggles with how much German propaganda affects him. The issue — how propaganda should be used without going to Axis-like extremes and without turning patriotism into brutal nationalism — torments these filmmakers as Five Came Back takes a closer look at how images can distort the understanding. One segment looks back at how racist portrayals of Japan (compared to the caricature-free portraits of Germany) with the Japanese shown as inhuman monsters referred to as “rats or monkeys” resulted in part in the creation of internment camps. Coppola in particular understands the blurred line between using battle images to provoke and portray the same to underline human nature: Toward the end of Part II, he talks of Apocalypse Now and the excitement he felt making it and the same thrill it inspired.
That reflection transitions to Part III, the docu-series’ best chapter. It packs an emotional punch, first showing D-Day newsreels then moving on to show the footage Stevens gathered from concentration camps. The shots are uncomfortable to examine as Five Came Back lets them linger on screen, but they’re some of the series’ strongest material. Stevens talks of “the horror and the revulsion and the exposure to things I couldn’t believe was part of a human existence,” and Streep narrates as we watch Stevens and his crew no longer treat their work as documentary or propaganda, but as evidence that would later be used in the Nuremberg Trials. Capra speaks of being left “speechless, colorless, bloodless.” Del Toro reflects on how the enormity of the task was ultimately “worth it.”
The war eventually ends, but there’s obviously much more to be said — and Part III moves on to even more powerful evidence as it enters its final minutes. All five filmmakers returned home deeply affected by what they saw in the war. Stevens, in particular, abandoned his comedic taste and reemerged as a director of dramas like Shane and The Diary of Anne Frank. His despair can be felt through Streep’s retelling of how Stevens attempted to look at the footage he gathered from concentration camps, only to stop and lock them back up again.
Capra, meanwhile, went on to make It’s a Wonderful Life, which — despite its place now as a hallmark of Christmastime films — is still about a character going through an existential crisis. Five Came Back depicts Capra and William Wyler, who made the PTSD-centric The Best Years of Our Lives, as filmmakers haunted by their experiences abroad, but who chose to embrace the tragedy and create some of the best cinematic experiences of all time. It’s a bittersweet ending to Five Came Back, a fascinating, thorough history lesson that overcomes its early hiccups to tell a stirring tale well worth a binge. B+
(For those interested in studying the films explored, Netflix has also made 13 documentaries discussed in the series available to stream, including Ford’s The Battle of Midway, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Huston’s Report from the Aleutians, Capra’s The Battle of Russia, Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps, and Stuart Heisler’s The Negro Soldier.)