In 2014, journalist Mark Harris wrote Five Came Back, a retelling of the incredible journey that five Hollywood directors made to the front during World War II to capture on camera the reality of that conflict. The assignment was undertaken on the orders of the US military, which believed that the American public needed to see what the soldiers underwent in the trenches.
Harris has now adapted his book for television, resulting in the Netflix documentary of the same name. Directed by Laurent Bouzereau, the French filmmaker who has earlier made films on the lives of directors Roman Polanski and Steven Spielberg, the three-part series captures the trials and tribulations of the panoramic effort mounted by five legendary directors – Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler.
Spielberg, who has executive produced the series, worked with Bouzereau to figure out the best way to narrate these fascinating stories. Ultimately, they decided on having five contemporary directors tackle each of the five forerunners whose Hollywood work laid the foundation for their hiring for this uber-nationalist project.
Spielberg chose to speak on camera for Wyler, whose The Best Years of Our Lives is a favourite of the director of ET, Jaws and Saving Private Ryan. Francis Ford Coppola discussed Huston, Guillermo del Toro Capra, Paul Greengrass Ford, and Lawrence Kasdan Stevens. With such heavyweight names and narration by Meryl Streep, Five Came Back was already on the front foot, regardless of its magnetic subject matter.
The documentary more than fulfills its enticing promise. From Stevens, whose footage of the Dachau concentration camp was shown at the Nuremberg trials, to Ford, who braved shrapnel to film the Battle of Midway in the Pacific, each of the directors exposed himself to grave physical and emotional peril. Wyler partially lost his hearing while accompanying crew on the Memphis Belle aircraft that the US military deployed during air raids over Germany.
But the real story here is the power of film not only to seize a moment but to sway the audience to a particular viewpoint. For too long into the war, America – both the leaders and the general public – was non-committal. Even as reports of atrocities from Europe trickled in, the popular mood was against joining the war effort. Pearl Harbour changed that, but what also helped, Five Came Back reminds us, was the sinister attraction of the propaganda unleased by the Nazis.
Leni Riefenstahl’s documentary Triumph of the Will was infamous in Hollywood circles for its valourising of the Aryan race. It had deeply disturbed Capra, who was one of the few Hollywood directors at the time to openly rally against racism. He was thus the natural choice for filming the seven-part Why We Fight when the US entered the war. Propaganda may be a dirty word, but to these directors, speaking up for freedom was an immediate necessity.
At a time of hyper-nationalism, the celebratory nature of Five Came Back may appear jarring. But by chronicling the death-defying escapades of a bunch of men unaccustomed to danger, the documentary pays rich tributes to the enduring capacity of the moving image to not just make us laugh and cry but to galvanise us to resist bare-faced wickedness.