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Netflix's Five Came Back turns a great Hollywood history into an absorbing documentary

The new three-part film heads into the heart of World War II with five of classic Hollywood's greatest directors.

Five Came Back
Five Came Back chronicles the Hollywood directors who captured World War II.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For such a massive, globe-spanning conflict, World War II boasts a surprising amount of film documentation. Some moments were staged by necessity (the light was wrong, or something hadn’t been captured quite right), and a few real events were even recreated on soundstages.

But filming many of those moments required death-defying work from directors who had never made documentaries before. And these directors weren’t no-names — they included some of the biggest names in Hollywood at the time.

Yet less attention has been paid to the men behind those cameras than you might expect, given Hollywood’s constant stream of self-congratulation. So Mark Harris’s book Five Came Back, when it was released in 2014, served as a fascinating chronicle of the five directors whose images of the war best captured it for Americans back home.

Naturally, any book about the movies is crying out for supplemental footage, and that’s exactly what Netflix’s Five Came Back, a solid three-part adaptation of the book — which captures most of its highlights — offers.

There isn’t anything revelatory here for fans of the book, but simply getting to see footage from the films the book described will likely be enough, especially in the series’ moving final hour, which contrasts the heavy burden of depicting the war’s end, the discovery of the Nazi concentration camps, and Hollywood’s shift toward the more ambivalent films of the 1950s and ’60s.

Five Came Back has a great story — and the right interview subjects to flesh it out

The first thing you might notice about Five Came Back is its stacked list of talking-head interview subjects. The documentary roster of commentators boasts Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and other current Hollywood legends; its narrator is none other than Meryl Streep. (The impressive scope of that list becomes easier to understand once you realize Spielberg’s Amblin Entertainment produced the documentary.)

But these talking heads are present for more than just color quotes. They fill in necessary detail about the lives of Five Came Back’s subjects and the movies they made before, during, and after the war. Hearing Spielberg talk about William Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives (which he has clearly studied in great detail) or del Toro dissect Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life would be enough to make the documentary worth watching, even without all the rarely seen combat footage.

But it’s that combat footage — drawn from the five directors’ World War II documentaries and outtakes from the same films — that makes up the bulk of Five Came Back, and with good reason. Capra, Wyler, George Stevens, John Ford, and John Huston were perhaps the five most successful directors of their generation, with 13 Oscar wins for Best Directing among them. (Huston also won for screenwriting.) And all five put hugely promising careers on hold — often at the peak of their powers — to document the American war effort, at the commission of the government.

Five Came Back
John Ford shoots one of his war documentaries.

Five Came Back sometimes bounces too haphazardly among the five as they crisscross the world to make their documentaries, but it has a loose protagonist in Capra, who remains stateside to coordinate the directors’ efforts and act as a go-between with the US government.

Terrified by the raw power of Leni Riefenstahl’s Hitler-glorifying 1935 documentary Triumph of the Will, Capra decided the US was leaving its own powerful propaganda efforts on the table — after all, who made better movies than Hollywood? — and launched his own foray into producing films meant to explain the war and propagandize for its necessity to his countrymen. (Capra, who immigrated to the US from Italy when he was 5 and had been referred to in a 1930s magazine profile as “the little wop,” hoped desperately to be accepted by his country, hence his pitching in on the war effort.)

And yet Capra, who reigned as king of Hollywood in the 1930s, would largely see his career demolished by his efforts. He released only one major film after the war (albeit perhaps his best: 1946’s It’s A Wonderful Life) and largely fell out of favor in the years that followed it.

Five Came Back also lavishes time on Wyler and Stevens. The former, a Jewish man whose safety was in especially grave peril should he be shot down over Nazi-occupied Europe, nonetheless insisted on continuing to go on combat flights to capture the images he needed; the latter’s long, winding journey through the war culminated in his capturing of footage from Dachau that was vital to the Nuremberg war trials.

As such, Ford and Huston receive slightly shorter shrift, which throws Five Came Back off balance, but only a little. And Huston’s postwar documentary Let There Be Light, which identified PTSD as a major concern for returning vets long before there was a name for the condition and was suppressed by the government for decades (due to its suggestion of psychological trauma in returning veterans), receives some attention as well.

As a relatively speedy tale of five men who risked their lives to capture the emotions and images surrounding the most significant conflict in human history, Five Came Back is a beautifully constructed film, with a surprisingly moving denouement, as all five return to Hollywood, changed by their time at war, hoping to find a new place in an industry that has moved on without them.

And that, in its own way, is the story of World War II in a nutshell — everything changed for those who fought it, and by extension, the world, the country, and the movies changed too. Five Came Back sometimes strays from that central thesis, but when it stays true to it, it’s very powerful indeed.

Five Came Back is streaming on Netflix.

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