World War II taught the world to be distrustful of propaganda, as the public came to realize just how effectively cinema could be used to spread anti-Semitism and a lock-step, sieg-heil conformity to demagogues. And yet, among the many insights of Mark Harris’ richly researched book “Five Came Back” — which fleshed out an oft-overlooked chapter of Hollywood history while shading a far more over-scrutinized one in the vast military history canon — was director William Wyler’s view that “all film is propaganda.” Like a loaded weapon, the power and world-changing potential of a camera is all in who’s holding it, and where that person chooses to point it.
Now, Harris’ terrific book has inspired a glossy, if somewhat snooze-inducing Netflix miniseries, “Five Came Back,” directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Simultaneously released in New York and Los Angeles theaters for an Oscar-qualifying run (offering fodder for those awards prognosticators looking for another “how Hollywood saved the day” contender, à la “Argo”), the B-roll-driven doc benefits from being seen as a single big-screen presentation, recounting how five studio filmmakers — Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston — agreed to join the war effort, shipping off to shoot some of the most iconic imagery of WWII.
Though it strips away 95% of the detail Harris uncovered for the book, this clip-heavy, Cliff’s Notes version offers one distinct advantage: It incorporates examples of the films these directors made for the War Department, allowing audiences to immediately witness the fruit of their service (even if it’s not always clear what the source of the B-roll is much of the time).
With its swollen, calling-all-patriots score and post-production-enhanced sound mixing, the three-part, three-hour presentation would be right at home on the History Channel (like much of that network’s war-themed programming, it reliably put me to sleep two nights in a row) were it not for the rather unique set of relationships Bouzereau has made over the course of his career. As a quarter-century veteran of the home entertainment sphere, Bouzereau has overseen some of the A-listiest special-feature packages ever produced, making him uniquely positioned to enlist five of contemporary cinema’s leading talents in retelling the highlights from Harris’ book, starting with executive producer Steven Spielberg.
As a result, we learn about these five legends from not only the “Schindler’s List” director, but also such impressive peers as Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan. Each has read Harris’ book and comes ready to summarize, serving almost as surrogates for the helmers themselves. They show up elegantly dressed against a black background, looking directly into the camera — and by extension, the audience’s eyes, via the equivalent of Errol Morris’ Interrotron — as they share, in their own words, colorful personal insights into the directors’ careers and personalities (as talking heads go, del Toro has never looked more handsome, though the setup flatters them, while occasionally boring us). Rounding out this starry sea of voices is none other than Meryl Streep, who fills the gaps between the filmmakers’ testimony and a handful of archival interviews in which the subjects themselves were asked to look back.
Why these five and not, say, Ford biographer-turned-helmer Peter Bogdanovich or anyone who might have served alongside the directors? The answer surely has to do more with packaging than practicality (billboards tout the names of the five director-guides, rather than those of the ones who actually “came back”), since these interviews constitute the only original material in a documentary that otherwise omits so much of the book’s rich detail. Ideally, any book-to-film adaptation takes on a life of its own, though most ultimately leave audiences’ curiosity tickled enough to go back and investigate the source material. That’s certainly the takeaway of “Five Came Back,” which seems positioned to appeal more to military enthusiasts than film buffs, opening a potential new avenue for those who thought they knew everything about WWII to explore.
And that’s where it differs most from Harris’ book, which would be more appropriately shelved in film sections than among the expansive realm of military history tomes. What the Netflix miniseries lacks most is the vivid Hollywood-specific color Harris uncovered in his research, most notably why these five men — who had effectively been generals of their own domain, pushing back against the pressure of studio bosses and producers — chose to get involved in the war effort, and how they adjusted to the “demotion” of answering to a new boss: the U.S. government (each was given the rank of officer, despite never having served a day in his life).
The filmmakers had vastly different personalities, and the doc’s hosts do their best to convey them within relatively tight time constraints. Del Toro begins by celebrating Capra’s gift for sentimentality and setting up “It’s A Wonderful Life” (which will later be dubiously used to illustrate how his sensibility was shaped by his war experience), while Kasdan describes how Stevens’ plans to adapt the anti-war novel “Paths of Glory” was shut down in favor of the flag-waving adventure “Gunga Din.” Spielberg describes how Wyler’s background as a German Jew shaped his voice, and Coppola celebrates the success of “Sergeant York” (co-written by Huston), which fueled hearings in Washington over Hollywood’s role in fanning the flames of war.
It all makes for a rather straightforward first episode, in which directors who’d “climbed the mountain” making narratives adjust to the assignment of helming documentaries for the government. (If you’re still reading, you’ll do fine.) “I never saw a documentary. I thought documentaries were silly things that rich kooks made,” says Capra, whose Italian past complicated his new role making the “Why We Fight” series of propaganda films (and whose relatively conservative stance as the creator of “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” let loose considerably for a series of racy “Hey, Soldier!” cartoons featured in the second episode, alongside the Capra-created “Private Snafu” character).
For a vast segment of the audience — specifically those who served in the armed forces themselves — “Five Came Back” may be the first time they’ve ever considered who made the films that formed the fabric of their military service (the miniseries makes no mention of the John Ford-directed “Sex Hygiene,” a practical and explicit tutorial on the dangers of contact with a “contaminated woman” kept in rotation until the Vietnam War). For others, it could well be the first time they’re seeing documentary work by directors whose more Oscar-friendly output they know quite well.
Certainly, it’s fascinating to hear Greengrass (who hails from nonfiction roots himself) comment on how these fabled directors adapted to the format, but like his fellow hosts, he dances around the hard truth: These early documentaries are mostly terrible, frequently racist, and more well-meaning than well-made. None comes close to Leni Riefenstahl’s “Triumph of the Will” for sheer filmmaking audacity, and many are marred by the fact that much of the directors’ “documentary” footage was scripted or staged entirely — though Coppola’s appreciation for Huston’s re-creation work on “The Battle of San Pietro” offers a mini-master class in techniques still used to lend authenticity to action sequences today.
It’s not until the third and final hour that “Five Came Back” really hits its stride, as the five directors begin to engage with the war itself, including spectacular coverage of the D-Day invasion “directed” by Stevens and Ford that no doubt directly informed Spielberg’s intense, in-the-trenches recreation of the Normandy Beach landing for “Saving Private Ryan.” Here, we come to recognize what it meant to have real filmmakers — men with an eye for drama, an instinct for humanism, and the compulsion to record all that they could — bear witness not just to battle, but also to the joys and unexpected horrors of liberation. For it was these men who would ultimately bring some of the first and most shocking images of concentration camps to the world’s attention. (Not mentioned, since his own filmmaking career was still to come, infantryman Samuel Fuller used the money earned from the publication of a pulp novel to buy a 16mm camera, which he used to document the liberation of a death camp in Czechoslovakia — among the earliest footage he ever shot, later featured in the documentary “Falkenau, the Impossible.”)
Netflix has taken the extra effort to make available many of the films discussed in the documentary, including Stevens’ “Nazi Concentration Camps” and Huston’s long-suppressed and deeply empathetic study of PTSD, “Let There Be Light.” What the streaming service hasn’t bothered to do is offer any of the other films by these important directors. If the miniseries does its job, it will not only inspire people to go back and read Harris’ book, but also to explore the full oeuvres of these important directors. Just don’t go looking for them on Netflix, where you can’t find a single feature by three-time Oscar winner Capra, much less Wyler’s “The Best Years of Our Lives,” the film that best reveals how profoundly military service transformed the five directors who not only came back, but came back profoundly changed by their experience.