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‘Five Came Back’: The True Story of How Hollywood Helped Win World War II

How a new Netlfix doc on directors who filmed on the frontlines (and made propaganda) sheds light on a forgotten chapter.

Several years ago, Mark Harris began feeling a little self-conscious about a gap in his film-history knowledge. As a journalist for Entertainment Weekly, New York Magazine and the late, lamented Web site Grantland, among others, he’d covered the waterfront of contemporary moviemaking. As an author, his book Pictures at a Revolution dissected the moment in the late 1960s when the last gasp of the Golden Age studio system gave way to what become known as “New Hollywood.” Ask him about the works of legends like, say, John Ford and Frank Capra, and he could rattle off their respective rises and falls within the industry. But ask Harris about the time these men spent working for the government during World War II by making propaganda, however, and he would draw a blank.

“I had suddenly become aware of how I had avoided movies about the war,” he says. “Especially ones made during WWII. It wasn’t my thing. Even when I was thinking about these directors, I always thought of those years as a gap between the movies of theirs I was interested in.” Harris realised he’d been going out of his way to ignore that particular chapter in the lives of several big-name filmmakers. So he decided to do the journalistic equivalent of an acrophobia learning to skydive: He’d write a book about the subject.

Three years of research, countless hours inside libraries and archives and many, many “Why We Fight” viewings later, Five Came Back – which focused on the federally sanctioned work that Ford, Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston did to help sell the war effort to U.S. citizens – hit shelves in early 2014. The book became a bestseller; Quentin Tarantino namedropped it in interviews. And now, thanks to a three-hour documentary based on Harris’ work that was released on Netflix on April 1st, viewers will get a visual companion that helps detail the triumphs and near-terminal experiences this quintet went through to serve their country 24 frames per second. “I can tell you how something like The Battle of Midway looks like a John Ford movie,” Harris says, referring to the director’s short on the famous firefight. “But it’s better if you can just see it for yourself.”

The film traces how each of these successful, top-tier Hollywood players ended up going from studio sets to the frontlines. Ford, the first to join up, would find himself right in the middle of a deciding stand-off in the Pacific, capturing dogfights and catching shrapnel as he filmed Midway while bombs rained down around him; he gave audiences the first chance to see the war in colour. Capra, a first-generation immigrant from Sicily, mounted the multi-part “Why We Fight” series to explain what was on the line; he also produced The Negro Soldier, which offered a look at the unique, conflicted experience of African-American troops. Wyler, coming off his Oscar-winning British-homefront drama Mrs. Miniver, tagged along on air raids over Germany, chronicling the crew of the famous Memphis Belle and partially losing his hearing in the process. Huston would draw fire for recreating scenes for The Battle of San Pietro and redeem himself with a controversial (and long-banned) look at shellshocked vets, Let There Be Light. And Stevens, a maker of frothy comedies, suddenly found himself staring at corpses on the beaches of Normandy and greeting prisoners at the gates of death camps.

Though many of the movies mentioned in the book have long been available to view if you knew where to look, Five Came Back offers a chance to see the footage as part of bigger-picture context involving Hollywood, American history and life during wartime – a notion that appealed to Harris even before producers Scott Rudin and Steven Spielberg approached him about adapting it into a doc. He took on screenwriting duties, and after discussing everything from a 90 minute feature to a five-hour miniseries, decided that a three-part format worked best. It was the Saving Private Ryan director who suggested Laurent Bouzereau, a prolific making-of documentarian who’d worked with Spielberg on numerous occasions, as the perfect person to run point. And it was the French-born Bouzereau who came up with one of the more ingenious ways of connecting the various storylines to the present moment.

“He’s the first filmmaker to see something that no one had ever conceived of. The footage he shot at Dachau was shown at the Nuremberg trials – even the Nazis weren’t prepared for what they saw.”
— Lawrence Kasdan on George Stevens

“One of the first things Steven said to me was, ‘We need to think outside the box here,'” he says. “I had contacted historians, family members of the filmmakers … the usual people you’d go to for interviews for something like this. We knew we’d have clips, a chronology and some sort of narration [provided in the movie by Meryl Streep]. But we started looking into to how we could distinguish this a bit, playing around with all these different ideas; at one point, we were going to have actors on a stage, reading Mark’s script in between clips. Nothing was working.” Then Bouzereau was struck with an idea: “What if we recruited five working directors and had them each talk about one of the subjects throughout? So much of this is about being a director and finding yourself in the middle of these unbelievable situations … who better to speak about this than other filmmakers?”

Already on board, Spielberg quickly signed up as a talking head, choosing to tackle Wyler (“I watch The Best Years of Our Lives at least once a year,” he claims in the film). Someone suggested Francis Ford Coppola, who Bouzereau a lifelong Apocalypse Now fan, thought would be perfect for Huston. They found out that Guillermo del Toro was a huge Capra fan; given his scholarly knowledge on the It’s a Wonderful Life creator and the fact that, like Capra, the Mexican filmmaker is a Hollywood immigrant, they quickly signed him up. And Greengrass, the British filmmaker best known for doing most of the Bourne movies, was happy to pull the John Ford straw. “He started in documentary filmmaking,” Bouzereau says of Greengrass, “and he immediately started talking about how, if he’d been at Midway, he’d have been up there on a platform filming the bombing next to John. That clinched it.”

The last one to sign on was Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter behind Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Empire Strikes Back (and the upcoming Han Solo solo film) and director of The Big Chill, Body Heat and Silverado. Like Spielberg, he’d known Bouzereau for ages and had worked with him on several behind-the-scenes projects. More importantly, he was died-in-the-wool George Stevens fan, and understood why, of all of the five who came back, this particular filmmaker was the one most affected by what he’d seen.

“I knew there were two George Stevens,” Kasdan admits, “I mean, the comedies he was making before the war are nothing like the serious movies he starts making after it. But it wasn’t until I read Mark’s book that I figured out the why of it. He’s at D-Day and witnesses absolute carnage. Then he figures okay, it can’t get any rougher than this. And he ends up being there when they liberate the concentration camps. He’s the first filmmaker to see something that no one had ever really conceived of. The footage he shot at Dachau was shown at the Nuremberg trials – even the Nazis weren’t prepared for what they saw. It haunted him.” Five Came Back recounts how, when Stevens was prepping his adaptation of The Diary of Anne Frank years later, he retrieved his wartime reels and went to view them in the name of research. He was able to get through five minutes before, shaken, he turned the projector off. He would never watch a frame of any of it ever again.

For Harris, seeing these working auteurs tracing the arcs of their predecessors felt like he was witnessing “a conversation between directors that spans over 75 years. I like the idea of film history as this river that just keeps flowing.” More importantly, they helped connect the themes of Five Came Back – how to serve your country as an artist and a journalist, standing up for what you believe in, how patriotism can be manipulated and/or willingly morphed into propaganda – to a particularly fraught contemporary moment.

“We were shaping this right as the election was happening, and I don’t want to glibly claim relevance,” Harris says. “But you’re looking back at a moment in which these men were using their cameras not just to sell the war but to document what was going on … and we’re now at a moment when people who report on what happens are considered the ‘opposition party.’ When we first looked at Huston recreating those scenes in Pietro, we had no idea that the concept of fakery would be in the headlines every day.

“If what’s happening in the news right now did anything, it was to push us to make sure we did not soft-peddle anything,” he adds.”It’s very tempting to simply view these men as heroes – and they were. But they were also human beings, who made mistakes and did some questionable things during the war. It’s important to be truthful and not sweep things under the rug. Then or now.”