In 1939, the second world war, and the largest war this world has ever seen broke out across Europe. The Allied powers of the United States and the United Kingdom, along with Russia, faced off against Japan and the massive German war machine. Millions died, and global powers forever altered. You could say it was the real-life equivalent of the Battle for Middle-Earth. In the Netflix documentary, Five Came Back, the lens looking at this time in history is turned on five Hollywood directors who became entwined with the war effort — for better and worse.
“If you make a film that has something to say. Entertaining, of course, is the main purpose of it. But if film can contribute something to the social conscious of your time, then it becomes a source of great satisfaction.” – William Wyler
The United States didn’t enter the war until 1941 when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The public was not interested in another conflict. Everyone was happily distracted by a rising new art form — the cinema. Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, John Ford, and George Stevens were the first wave of great Hollywood directors. During the 30s, these five filmmakers were only just beginning their journey towards creating classics.
Five Came Back takes a look at a time in history when movies were forged by war. Each director used their skills as storytellers on presenting the war to the public. Their paths along the way were wildly different, their motivations swayed by a duty to their country and their integrity. Producers often forced their hand, steering them into propaganda because it’s what sold tickets.
Each director’s journey chronicled by a contemporary equivalent playing narrator. The pairings, like Del Toro speaking about Frank Capra, don’t seem logical at first. The choices aren’t aimed at matching filmographies but matching cinematic philosophies. Capra’s work, like It’s a Wonderful Life, often looks at humanity through a fantastical lens. Del Toro does the same only combining it with a love of monsters.
Other pairings include Steven Spielberg speaking about William Wyler, the three-time Oscar winner behind classics such as Mrs. Miniver (1942) and The Best Years Of Our Lives (1946). Francis Ford Coppola takes care of John Huston’s story. Paul Greengrass handles John Ford and Lawrence Kasdan intones about George Stevens. President Trump’s absolute favorite actress, Meryl Streep, narrates large sections of the doc.
Five Came back on Netflix is a powerful reminder: “Not everybody trusts paintings but people believe photographs.” – Ansel Adams
Five Came Back is based on a book by Mark Harris. As a documentary series with three parts, the in-depth research of Harris’ book comes alive with clips of the films created by Capra, Huston, and the rest. The Netflix doc features some awe-inspiring, and often familiar, footage created by these filmmakers. While the book creates a vivid picture of the time and place, the actual footage only elevates the source material.
The combination of the book’s research, audio, and video makes Five Came Back something special to watch. Listening to Capra explain his logic en route to creating Why We Fight: Prelude to War is captivating. Capra’s re-thinking of propaganda, through the eyes of the underdog, changed the way people in the U.S. looked at Germany — the Goliath antagonist.
Five Came Back is a fantastic Netflix documentary series. The film benefits from being about (legendary) filmmakers, offering incredible visuals like few other docs. For fans of film history or classic movies, it’s a journey into a little-known story about some of the greatest directors in Hollywood history; patriots, propagandists, and artists.