'Five Came Back' explores Hollywood directors who filmed WWII
By ROB LOWMAN | Daily News, Los Angeles | Published: March 30, 2017
Based on Mark Harris‘ best-selling book, “Five Came Back” is a fascinating three-part docuseries about five of Hollywood’s greatest directors — John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens — and their experiences making movies for the U.S. military during World War II.
Along with archival footage, old interviews and clips from the actual films that the five shot, the filmmakers’ stories are told by five of the best directors of today: Steven Spielberg (an executive producer on the doc), Guillermo Del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, Paul Greengrass and Francis Ford Coppola. Meryl Streep does the narration.
“Five Came Back” — from director Laurent Bouzereau — may seem dizzying at first, especially if you are not familiar with Hollywood history. The five subjects, however, made some of Hollywood’s classic films and won 13 best-directing Oscars between them.
The documentary, though, assumes you can keep up. Part I begins with directors and their careers. There were also studio politics and geopolitics to deal with. At the time, there was an isolationist movement in America, and Hollywood was skittish about crossing powerful politicians and worried about its overseas profits.
While making “Mrs. Miniver” — the story of a British family during the first months of World War II — Wyler, a German-born Jew, was warned about making the character of a German airman who had been shot down an evil Nazi.
“We don’t hate anybody,” Louis B. Mayer told him. Halfway through filming, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, and Mayer’s opinion changed.
The five — all with strong personalities — joined the war effort. Washington and the military were suspicious of them, however. They were seen as mythmakers, Spielberg observes.
Ford was sent to Midway, thinking he was going be filming flora and wildlife, but he ended up with the first important documentary of the war, “The Battle of Midway,” which shows the first American victory of the war. In interviews, Ford talks about being a coward in battle but felt it was something he had to do.
Capra conceived “Why We Fight,” a seven-part series, to counter the Nazi propaganda of Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will.”
Huston was sent to the Aleutians. Though he filmed some bombing action — including seeing a gunner killed in front of him — Huston admits “Report From the Aleutians” was somewhat “propaganda” because the War Department wouldn’t let him mention casualties.
While in England, Wyler was told he won an Oscar for “Mrs. Miniver.” The director made perhaps the best straight-ahead combat documentary, “The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress.” It featured great color footage of B-17s on bombing runs over Germany.
Wyler trained so he could go on the missions, and the film shows a chilling crash of one of the planes as the crew tries to bail out. Wyler would later lose much of his hearing while making another documentary.
Part III opens with Ford and Stevens being assigned to film D-Day, which involved hundreds of cameras. An edited film of the invasion was in American theaters within days. (Much of it was too brutal to be shown.) Ford was so shaken by the event that he got drunk for days and was sent back to Washington.
A cameraman himself, Stevens, continued on, filming American G.I.’s as they made their way to Paris and then to Germany. He would be there when they reached Dachau. Despite being unprepared for what he was about to see, he kept filming to document the horror of the concentration camp. Part of what he shot was used as evidence at the Nuremberg trials.
Huston’s last documentary, “Let There Be Light,” was a look at returning soldiers suffering from what today is known as post-traumatic stress syndrome. It was, the Army deemed, too raw and was banned for 30 years.
The last part of the documentary goes into how the war affected the filmmakers later in their careers. Huston made “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” in 1948. Wyler’s first film after the Army was “The Best Years of Our Lives,” an Oscar winner about three veterans returning from the war. (The director regained some of his hearing by then.)
In 1945, Ford would make “They Were Expendable,” a dramatized account of the role of the American PT boats in the defense of the Philippines. It did disappointing box office, and he then returned to mostly Westerns, including 1956’s monumental “The Searchers.”
Stevens — who had made lighthearted films before World War II — would never make a comedy again. He won Oscars for the dramas “A Place in the Sun” and “Giant.”
For his first film after the war, Capra would chose a “Capra-esque” subject, the story of good but desperate businessman who believes life would be better if he never existed. “It’s a Wonderful Life” did tepid box office. It was only when it was discovered on television reruns that it gained its reputation.
“Five Came Back” does not cover any new territory but puts together the story in a new focus. It is not simply about the filmmakers but about what they saw — the indelible images of war. Along with the docuseries, Netflix has started streaming 13 related docs, including “The Battle of Midway,” “The Battle of Russia,” “The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress,” “The Negro Soldier,” “San Pietro,” “Nazi Concentration Camps” and “Let There Be Light.”