“You guys have been looking for a war,” says Rick (Humphrey Bogart). “That’s right,” comes the reply. That’s the sound of Casablanca, the golden age of Hollywood. But that golden age was also part of another era of the movie business: a time of war, patriotism and propaganda. Netflix unpicks the passion, principles and compromises involved in its engrossing, informative and brilliant new documentary series.
Borrowing its title from a 1930s melodrama, Five Came Back charts the military service of five key Hollywood players: William Wyler, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford and John Huston. All joining the armed forces and, signing up to make films for the war effort, they put their cinematic skills to work for the country. Each found their own challenges, inspiration and repercussions, as they left the traditional studio system for another, altogether more complex chain of command and responsibility. Huston, for example, was forced to go to Japan’s Aleutian islands, leaving his movie Across the Pacific to be finished by another director.
This is dense, rich material, and writer Mark Harris mines his own non-fiction book for every nugget of gold he can fit into three hour-long episodes. The adaptation condenses the wealth of knowledge into something easy enough to digest but substantial enough to keep you hooked – the parallels between being a director on set and a general in the battlefield alone would be enough for a film, but are here superbly summed up in the slick opening credits (scored by Thomas Newman), which move seamless between cameras and guns, soldiers in line and audiences in cinema rows, microphones and tanks.
The series neatly matches its five veterans with five modern directors who have been influenced or share some affinity with their forebears. Those pairings allow the programme to dart back and forth across the global conflict without losing momentum or clarity, while also contrasting each individual artist’s role in the US military endeavour.
The documentary is stuffed with shrewd observations. The in-depth insight it gives into a period of history that’s not been explored much on screen is fascinating enough, but it’s watching cinephiles rediscover their love of another artist’s work that really elevates this to excellent heights.
Steven Speilberg is magnetic when he talks about William Wyler’s work, from 1944’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (the first movie to be reviewed on the front page of The New York Times) to 1946’s The Best Year of Our Lives. In the former, he praises Wyler’s eye for aerial sequences, with his cameras planted all over the planes and his poetic far shot of a B-17 spiralling slowly out of the sky; in the latter, he zooms in on one crucial shot halfway through, when a pilot is sitting in a plane that he once flew during the war, only for the previously static frame to track through the inside of the craft and close up on his haunted face.
Guillermo Del Toro is as generous as you’d expect in his praise of the similarly minded Capra, but brings out the more personal impact of the conflict upon the director, who began making a pro-American series, Why We Fight, to inspire new recruits, and ended up having to produce Know Your Enemy: Japan, a horrible anti-Japanese film that compares them to rabid, wild dogs and claims they all look the same. (By the time the movie was released, the bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima, and the film was deemed unnecessary.)
Our own Paul Greengrass is eloquent and entertaining as he waxes lyrical about cinema and history, and that engaging enthusiasm is put to excellent work by asking him to examine the work of John Ford. Posted to Midway Island, Ford began to shoot a sedate documentary about the everyday life of soldiers on a base, only to find himself having to shoot the base’s defence against a Japanese attack on the fly, with 16mm stock. There’s a visceral danger to the striking colour footage, and to the position of the cameras amid the fray – the kind of thing that you can imagine influencing the Bourne franchise director.
Huston is perhaps the most fascinating of all, as Francis Ford Coppola talks of how he never quite fell in favour with the establishment – in one inspired response to being told off for making an anti-war film, he reportedly replied that if he ever made a pro-war film, someone should shoot him. That conflict between the bureaucracy of a nation controlling its image and the vision and ideals of individuals raises the intriguing question of censorship and honesty. When shooting in the Aleutians, Huston was asked to film a bombing mission and report that nine planes made it home, even when that wasn’t the case. Later, though, his 1945 documentary The Battle of San Pietro was hailed as being utterly truthful – despite the fact that several scenes in it were staged. Coppola’s visible joy, as he singles out Huston’s decision to get the soldiers to break the fourth wall and look straight down the lens (a ploy to make those artificial sequences seem more realistic), is almost worth tuning in for alone.
Later, Huston went on to make a film about the effects of war upon the soldiers themselves – a study of PTSD, before the condition was even invented. That, however, was so honest a depiction of the psychological fallout of war that the military refused to release the film at all until the 1980s.
Underlying it all is that ongoing theme of how war was not only shaped by these filmmakers, but also how it shaped them, how that exposure to violent and barbaric acts influenced their later work. In turn, their work has, of course, influenced audiences, not just at the time but also today; these five men have become part of the narrative through which we view war, a narrative that has become more cynical decades after WWII. In a way, this is a piece of propaganda for cinema’s own importance (we start with footage of the Oscars), but the programme makes a convincing case for the undeniable impact art can have upon the world. Even the least discussed of the five subjects, George Stevens (who went on to make A Place in the Sun and Shane), had a vital part to play in history: Lawrence Kasdan examines how Stevens ultimately filmed at Dachau to make 1945’s Nazi Concentration Camps, a movie that went on to become central evidence in the Nuremberg trials.
Director Laurent Bouzereau juggles these strands and themes with academic precision and accessible style. It’s all laced together with silky narration from Meryl Streep (a welcome counterpoint to all the blokes on screen), while editor Will Znidaric (who also worked on the similarly complex Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom) expertly cuts together the archive clips and new talking heads to illustrate points and echo others. The result is an intelligent, absorbing dissection of Hollywood’s intricate relationship with history – a piece of filmmaking that leaves you wanting to watch as many of the movies featured as possible. The good news? Netflix has got most of them too. (See below for a full list.)
Five Came Back is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of £7.49 monthly subscription.
Also available on Netflix UK
The Memphis Belle
Prelude to War
Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia
Know Your Enemy: Japan
Nazi Concentration Camps
The Battle of Midway
Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines
Let There Be Light
World War 2: Report from the Aleutians
Nazi Concentration Camps