During World War II, five Hollywood directors considered to be at the top of their game left Tinsel Town to enlist in the US Armed Forces. Their task: to produce propaganda films to embolden US soldiers and the American public to fight following Pearl Harbor. All five had seen the masterful propaganda films released by Nazi Germany, and knowing first hand the power of film they became terrified that the Allies would lose the war for the heart of man. The Netflix Original documentary “Five Came Back” tells the story of John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens going to war.
At least ostensibly that is the story it tells. In reality it does so much more. With the accompanying commentary of five legendary modern directors – Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan – we receive a perspective on the careers of these men and the great sacrifices they endured for love of country. Hearing these five modern greats talk about the five WWII directors conveys a sense of suppreme love and respect, the kind that can only come from a camaraderie of shared profession. Through their emphatic respect we come to appreciate the accomplishments of these men all the more.
In the three part documentary series, totaling just over three hours, we learn who these men were before, during, and after the war; no prior knowledge is necessary to understand either the history or the men involved. One of the most powerful moments of the film is when the directors learn that Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces, General Dwight D. Eisenhower (who later became President Eisenhower) made the unprecedented decision to have the most Top Secret military operation in human history filmed for posterity. Thus it came to pass that these five directors found themselves at D-Day. No man that set foot on that beach left it the same as he arrived, and these five men tasked with recording the event were no exception. Their orders were to see it all and document it all, so that the world could bear witness. They accomplished their goal, and a film was made that showed the world a sanitized – yet still brutal – portrait of that day. John Ford spent three days immediately after the invasion in a drunken stupor.
Following D-Day, George Stevens was part of a unit that liberated Dachau. There had been stories of the concentration camps, but nothing of the nature that matched the truth. Expecting to find forced labor camps, the soldiers were entirely unprepared for the death camps that spread before them. Stevens realized that he was no longer making war films but was instead documenting a crime scene. He insisted they film everything, accompanying his film crew everywhere; he would not ask them to see anything that he wasn’t willing to see himself. He kept meticulous notes, and later produced two films for the Nuremberg Trials. News reports at the time say that Stevens’s evidence was a tipping point in the trial. The pain and suffering inflicted upon man by man was so inconceivable that only to see it could it be believed.
Returning to Hollywood after the war, the five found themselves unknown by their peers. This state would not last though, as the first films made after their return are generally considered to be the best of their careers. From existential questions of the worth of a single man contained in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” to the sacrifices war calls for in “They Were Expendable,” to the horrors of “The Diary of Ann Frank,” these men shaped the cultural landscape of a generation post-WWII. In “The Best Years of Our Lives” William Wyler delivered a powerful tale of a return home that was critically acclaimed as a cultural masterpiece and became the second highest grossing film of all time. As he stated in an interview, “It was about three returning veterans, and the difficulties they had returning to civilian life. Of whom one was hurt, and supposedly the others were not. Because they were physically not hurt but they were emotionally hurt.” Wyler portrayed PTSD years before PTSD was a recognized problem. The five that came back knew what it was to see true horror because, as a result of their occupations, they saw some of the worst parts of that war. An artist can not experience something like that without coming home with new perspectives and new stories to tell, and these men exercised their demons the only way they knew how: through film.
With “Five Came Back” Netflix continues to cement itself as a producer of innovative and original documentaries. Thirteen of the films mentioned in the series are also available to Watch Instantly, a coup that only Netflix could pull off. I for one will be keeping my eye on any Netflix Original documentaries that pop up in the future, and you can watch this space for reviews.