Netflix’s ‘Five Came Back’ is a Treat for Film Buffs and Historians Alike

Like a mash-up of TCM and The History Channel – good film history *and* good world history.

The main reason Mark Harris is one of our most valuable film historians is that he’s not just digesting and regurgitating history – he’s a storyteller, one who finds the narratives in that history and uses them as his framework, rather than just facts and dates. His first book, Pictures at a Revolution, is an essential portrait of the transition from the studio system to the “New Hollywood” of the 1970s. His second, Five Came Back, tells the less-known tale of how five big-time studio directors – John Ford, John Huston, Frank Capra, William Wyler, and George Stevens – put their careers on hold to volunteer during World War II, making newsreels, documentaries, and propaganda films to assist in the U.S. war effort. The first thing I wanted to do after reading that book was to hunt down those films, which was not always the easiest task; luckily, Harris and director Laurent Bouzreau have now adapted it into a three-part, roughly three-hour documentary mini-series for Netflix, which not only tells that story, but supplements it with said clips, outtakes, and interviews new and old. The result is like a mash-up of TCM and The History Channel – good film history and good world history.

The films these five masters were deployed to make served multiple purposes. Some were geared towards the public, to rally them behind the troops (and to get them to buy war bonds); some were for the troops, to better clarify how to fight, and what they were fighting for. The story Harris ends up telling, in both the book and the film of Five Came Back, is also dual-tracked: how those filmmakers influenced the public perception of the war, and how the war changed them, as artists and people.

The main addition Bouzreau makes is an unsurprising one, considering his pedigree – he’s a film historian of note himself, known mostly for his outstanding supplemental materials to home video releases. Those mini-documentaries rely heavily on the talking-head interview, and Five Came Back’s work around for its deceased subjects is ingenious: they pair each of the five directors with a contemporary counterpart, who holds forth on that filmmaker and his specific gifts. So we have Guillermo del Toro on Capra, Steven Spielberg on Wyler, Francis Ford Coppola on Huston, Paul Greengrass on Ford, and Lawrence Kasdan on Stevens – a way of not only contextualizing their influence, but of marshaling and focusing the vast amount of material Harris and Bourzreau are trying to cover.

After all, they have three hours, but there’s a lot to talk about; you could obviously spend much more than that just on the war (ask the aforementioned History Channel), and could devote three hours to each of these directors. Yet Five Came Back neither hurries nor short-changes. Time is well-spent early on comparing and contrasting their vastly divergent backgrounds, interests, styles, and ambitions, and analyzing how those backgrounds all fed into their need to serve, some more directly than others. Each was forced to deal, in their own way, with the tension between creating propaganda and telling truthful stories, and the resultant battles over length and content; amusingly, they ended up having the same fights with the government they’d been having for years with studio bosses.

It would be easy, either on the page or on screen, to reduce this story to flag-waving and greatest-generation praise. But Five Came Back is thankfully not, well, propaganda. As in the book, Harris (who also penned the adaptation) insists on engaging with the troubling aspects of this mission, and the work it created: the problematic portrayals of Japanese villains (particularly compared to their German counterparts), the horrible racism of some of those films (having Del Toro discuss the particularly loathsome “Know Your Enemy: Japan,” directed by his beloved Capra, is especially effective), the questions raised of honesty in war reporting, and the thorny issues of staging and manipulation. These were, after all, dramatists learning to be documentarians, and some – particularly Huston, whose lies through his teeth in an interview clip about the dangers of filming the almost entirely reenacted Battle of San Pietro – had no qualms with dramatizing these events, and not presenting them as such.

But most resisted that urge, at great personal risk. John Ford famously shot the Battle of Midway from about the most dangerous vantage point imaginable, resulting in a film that is terrifyingly immediate and accidentally groundbreaking; the shaky camerawork and rattling frames of his Battle of Midway ended up, ironically enough, informing the staging of Huston’s Battle of San Pietro. Using deftly chosen clips from the films they made, we see that not only were these Hollywood filmmakers creating, on the fly, much of the visual language of contemporary non-fiction film; they ended up also crafting the mock-doc aesthetic still used (by filmmakers like Greengrass, even) in fiction.

Hats off as well for the stunning handling of the book’s most haunting section, detailing George Stevens’s arrival, camera in hand, at Dachau – capturing the first footage the world saw of the Holocaust, basically as he saw it the first time himself. It’s easy to forget, from our vantage point, that the true horrors of what the Nazis had done were not widely known, or seen, until the war was very nearly over; Stevens trained his lens on these brutal, nightmarish images of death, torture, and starvation, and forced himself not to look away. “He realized his task had changed,” notes Meryl Streep’s narration. “He would now use the camera to gather evidence.” That he did, but the experience changed him; after he returned to the States, he was no longer the director of light entertainment he had once been.

As did the book, Five Came Back thankfully continues past the end of the conflict, exploring how these experiences affected the filmmakers’ post-war work – specifically, Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives, Ford’s They Were Expendable, Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Stevens’s The Diary of Anne Frank, and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life. And here, somewhat surprisingly, is where the documentary version of this material truly flourishes as its own, separate being; it may only have flashes of Harris’s elegant, energetic prose, but in its place we have those powerful clips, and the insights of some very smart filmmakers. And their words are particularly valuable here, with Del Toro eloquently explaining the power of It’s a Wonderful Life, or Spielberg brilliantly breaking down the craftsmanship of The Best Years of Our Lives.

But there’s more, much more; Five Came Back is full of fascinating side stories that, taken together, end up making it about more than just its main subject. It’s not merely about World War II; it’s also about service, racism, stereotyping, war reporting, and truth. And ultimately, it’s about the power of popular art to take a nation’s temperature – and perhaps to shift it a few degrees.

Five Came Back is now streaming on Netflix.