Before I watched Netflix’s Five Came Back I had never considered the experiences of the men behind the cameras that documented World War II. In an age were events do not happen without simultaneous broadcast from Fox News or CNN, it is easy to forget that the grainy footage of D-Day and Pearl Harbor that airs on the History Channel did not occur without considerable sacrifice, daring, and artistry.
A three-part documentary series, Five Came Back focuses primarily on the wartime service of John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston – some of the most accomplished Hollywood directors of their time. Each of those men left the comfort of Hollywood to create cutting edge documentary and propaganda films. Five Came Back also discusses each director’s prewar movies and the eventual impact of the conflict on their postwar work. Later movies like It’s A Wonderful Life, The Best Years of Our Lives, The Diary of Anne Frank, and They Were Expendable all represent a shift in tone from each director. The analysis of much of the filmmaking falls to their contemporary brethren who also provide most of the narration: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawerence Kasdan, and Meryl Streep.
The documentary first highlights some of the pre-1941 output from each director and notes that some of their work was more jovial and lighthearted. By the end of Five Came Back we see that that style was altered by what they had witnessed in Europe and the Pacific. Ford was so affected by what he witnessed at D-Day that he went on a three-day drinking binge and was sent back to America. Wyler suffered significant hearing loss while filming in a B-25 bomber. Wyler, who was Jewish, also dealt with considerable tragedy when he visited his hometown of Mulhouse, France and found that the town had been devastated by the Holocaust. George Stevens experienced particularly harsh wartime service. If trudging through Europe with the Allied army was not enough, he also filmed the Dachau concentration camp. His documentation of the camp was used as critical evidence at the Nuremberg trials.
Before watching Five Came Back I had a preconceived notion that much of the film obtained by these directors had just made its way into newsreels. In fact, between 1941 and 1945 these directors and their film crews crafted several significant movies. Capra’s Why We Fight and The Negro Soldier used unexpected sources that generated a profound effect on the war and society. Nazi and Italian propaganda footage was implemented in Why We Fight to deride Hitler and Mussolini. The Negro Soldier included passages from Hitler’s Mein Kampf to relay Nazi bigotry toward African-Americans. By merely presenting their own words and actions, Capra was able to illustrate the dangers of fascism. The Negro Soldier also portrayed African-Americans in an elevated light that was contrary to then-Hollywood norms.
Huston also pushed the envelope in his piece Let There Be Light. The film, which was suppressed by the U.S. government until 1981, documented soldiers as they attempted to recover from post-traumatic stress disorder. The censorship of this look at PTSD unfortunately covered up what might have been an important study of the psychological effects of war that challenged the societal expectation of silent manliness that prevailed over The Greatest Generation.
As far as documentary style, the roughness displayed in several films that contain combat footage is reflective of the manner in which it was obtained. John Ford’s The Battle of Midway featured a colorized and chaotic look at combat that had not been screened before. Ford and two cameramen shot their footage using handheld cameras as the battle took place over Midway Island. William Wyler’s Memphis Belle also took some daring from the director and his crew as they flew over Europe with bomber crews. Despite great risk to themselves, the director and his cameramen documented a B-17 crew on their journey to complete their twenty-fifth mission and return home (though one of Wyler’s cameramen did die in a bombing raid as he obtained film for Memphis Belle). The film allowed American audiences to obtain an understanding of the treacherous air war over fortress Europe.
Because of the totality of their work and personal risk, Five Came Back completely changed my understanding of how World War II was documented. I had previously just accepted the fact that the film existed and did not consider how it came to be. I now have an appreciation of Wyler, Ford, Stevens, Capra, and Huston shooting with a handheld camera on Midway Island or on a flight above Europe while the war unfolded around them instead of on a Hollywood soundstage where most of their work had previously been created.
By not going into explicit detail of each film, Five Came Back piques curiosity for each director’s wartime contributions. For those wanting to watch these films, Netflix is currently streaming all 13 documentaries discussed in Five Came Back.