Hollywood loves nothing better than celebrating itself, and the new three-part Netflix documentary Five Came Back is a veritable orgy of self-congratulation. The noteworthy thing is, all the love is well deserved.
With a screenplay by Mark Harris based on his excellent book of the same name, Five Came Back tracks the efforts of five great American directors who put their careers on hold and went to work for the Pentagon during World War II.
John Ford, George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler, and John Huston all became commissioned officers in the war, and all shot footage or complete documentaries supporting the war effort. The films they made were not what we would call documentaries, which is to say, they made no effort to be impartial. Those films weren’t even “just this side of propaganda.” Quite often they were propaganda (unless you believe that propaganda is only something the other side does). But there is no disputing that these filmmakers contributed mightily to the war effort and in some cases made movies so vivid that even today they continue to move us. For their deft, heartfelt, and always intelligent documentation of this achievement, Harris and company deserve a rousing cheer (full disclosure: one of the doc’s producers is Barry Diller, whose IAC is the parent company of The Daily Beast).
Nothing, really, can diminish the achievements or the sacrifices those artists made on behalf of their country (Ford was wounded while filming the battle of Midway, and Wyler permanently lost his hearing after going up in a bombing run over Europe). Nor does it overshadow the equally real, albeit less life-threatening, conflicts these volatile men endured in their battles with the military brass.
Had it been left up to the generals, all the films would have been propaganda and not even very good propaganda at that. The military was always willing to lie when it came to leveling with the American people about what soldiers were enduring on the front lines. The filmmakers, on the other hand, wanted desperately to show the bravery and suffering they saw first-hand in Europe and the Pacific. And based on the evidence they got on film, they were absolutely right.
One of the finest things about Five Came Back is the way in which it gently schools us about how different life was in America during the war era. The best example comes early in the first installment of the documentary, when we are reminded that in the ’40s, Americans got their filmed visual news from one source: the newsreels that played before the cartoons and features in movie theaters. In our media saturated age, it’s hard to imagine such a world, much less fathom the enormous power movie makers had back then to sway public opinion. Five Came Back wonderfully illuminates that distant reality.
The audiences who saw Ford’s Battle of Midway had rarely if ever seen footage of men badly wounded or dead. They had never even seen combat footage in color, or footage where the cameraman gets jolted sideways by an artillery explosion and the film in his camera comes loose from the sprockets. Ford, mindful that what he was showing a naïve American audience might well strain credulity, inserted a line in the script at the moment an American flag is being raised in the midst of battle: “This really happened.”
Ford’s film, marred only a little by its gung ho narration, survives as one of the best films made by the five directors, none of whom had any experience shooting documentaries, much less filming while under fire—Capra admitted that he had never even seen a documentary before he went to work creating the seven movies that made up Why We Fight. But their inexperience was in fact an asset: In Midway, for example, no attempt is made to corral the chaos and confusion of the battle being filmed—chaos and confusion become the subject, in fact, which is the only honest way to shoot a battle.
Shaking cameras and all the rest of war’s messiness are also present in Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro, but there was just one problem: Huston faked the whole thing. He arrived at the Italian village after the battle was over, and then proceeded to recreate it, accurately enough that for years people mistook his film for the real thing. Admirably, those who made Five Came Back address this issue head on and the talking heads who guide us through the story (directors Steven Spielberg, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Guillermo del Toro, and Francis Ford Coppola) are equally candid about their misgivings. In the end, the film leaves it to the viewer to decide if Huston was justified.
A more clear-cut problem arose concerning another Huston film, Let There Be Light, surely the first movie ever made about what we now call PTSD. No one has ever accused him of faking any of that heartbreaking footage, but then again, no one saw the film for 30 years because the military took the footage away from Huston and shelved it. The consequences of war were not deemed suitable for the public in the eyes of the Pentagon.
Five Came Back makes no grandiose claims for the effects of the filmmakers’ efforts, with one exception: George Stevens filmed the liberation of Dachau and remained there for weeks filming survivors and taking their testimony, and when that footage was shown at the Nuremberg trials, it was said to be the crucial piece of evidence that convinced the judges to convict.
Perhaps the war’s greatest impact was on the five directors themselves. The war changed all of them, darkening their vision and honing their determination to make movies that told the truth. Stevens never made another comedy. Ford immediately made They Were Expendable, an underrated masterpiece about the loss of the Philippines. And Wyler made The Best Years of Our Lives, a movie so agelessly potent that Spielberg says he makes a point of watching it at least once a year. So, in a sense, the wartime service of five very talented men bore directly on the maturation of American cinema, so much so that even if you have never seen any of the films they shot during the war, you have felt the impact of their service through the timeless films they went on to make in peacetime. Explaining how that all happened, Five Came Back supplies an invaluable chapter in the history of American moviemaking—and American life.