Netflix recently released a new documentary series called Five Came Back, about the participation of five legendary Hollywood directors in the Second World War. Each of the five directors – Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler – left the comfort of their Hollywood lives behind and joined the U.S. military to help capture the war on film.
The series telling their story is adapted from a 2014 book by Mark Harris called Five Came Back: A Story Of Hollywood And The Second World War. This Netflix adaptation is comprised of three episodes, with each episode hovering around the one hour mark.
The real life account of the five legendary directors is told through narration by Meryl Streep, audio recordings and interviews from the men themselves, and commentary from five contemporary directors of high repute. Each of these contemporary filmmakers is matched up with one of the legends, so as to better focus their insights. Steven Spielberg is matched with Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola is matched with Huston, Guillermo del Toro with Capra, Paul Greengrass with Ford, and Lawrence Kasdan with Stevens. The result is a series of brilliant analyses about these classical directors and their efforts to further the Allied cause in the war.
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What makes this series really shine are the actual clips taken from the documentaries that Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens, and Wyler filmed. Each episode stitches together a tapestry of spectacular footage – and one gets the sense, watching these clips, of being shoved back into the very heat and tragedy of the global conflict.
In footage taken from William Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story Of A Flying Fortress, we see an American B-17 bomber spiral out of the sky and watch as parachutes open up around it. Each parachute represents a man getting out of the bomber safely. But it’s clear there are fewer parachutes opening up than there ought to be. You can overhear some pilots, who are watching the scene unfold from another aircraft, exhorting the rest of the men to get out. One pilot says in a soft voice, “Eight men still in that B-17.” Another one, more urgently, “Come on, the rest of you guys.”
We see excerpts documenting the D-Day invasion, and disturbing sequences by George Stevens, bringing you inside the Dachau concentration camp. But with the bad comes some good as well, as we also get to witness the jubilant celebrations of a recently liberated Paris and the surrender of German officers.
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Five Came Back does an excellent job of showing how each of these directors participated in the war effort. But one other captivating aspect of the series is its commentary on the way WWII influenced these men and the films they later directed.
It shows how Capra’s war-time experiences shaped It’s A Wonderful Life, how Stevens gave up writing comedies altogether, and how Ford’s cinematic output became much more cynical.
Movie buffs interested in classical films will likely enjoy this series, as it offers some eye-opening insights on five Hollywood film titans, along with a new way of reading their work. History buffs will likely appreciate it as well, seeing as it shows the Second World War from a new angle.
The footage, the interviews, and the composition of the series make for a polished final product. Five Came Back ultimately leaves you with a fuller sense of war and cinema, and how the two can sometimes converge in powerful ways.
[Featured Image by Mike Coppola/Getty Images]