Journalist and author Mark Harris’ “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War,” a 500-page examination of five filmmakers — Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler — and their documentary exploits during World War II, was born out of a personal connection and a professional curiosity.
“My father had been a World War II veteran — he died when I was young,” Harris recalls. “As I got older, I realized I had ignored his war stories. And I came to realize World War II and World War II movies were my weak spot, my big gap in American history.”
His first instincts were as a film historian, peeling back the layers of five men changed by global conflict, who created vital work on the front lines and then came back to America to produce the deepest, most profound work of their careers. But he also couldn’t help but see the potential for a documentary handling of the material.
On March 31, three years after the book’s publication, Netflix will premiere a three-part adaptation of the tome, directed by Laurent Bouzereau. Five modern filmmakers serve as proxy guides for the classic quintet: Guillermo Del Toro (Capra), Paul Greengrass (Ford), Francis Ford Coppola (Huston), Lawrence Kasdan (Stevens) and Steven Spielberg (Wyler). The series is narrated by actress Meryl Streep.
Harris was unsure how to begin adapting such a work for a documentary, so he started as plainly as possible, knowing he would heavily revise: telling the whole story via narration. Bouzereau in fact filmed Harris just talking through the story beat by beat for upwards of six hours. “He kind of elicited it from me so he would have it in his own narrative form that would make sense to him,” Harris says.
From there, the author plugged away at structure, finding a path from one director to the next as the story unfolded, while also maintaining the nature of the book, which is more of an interlocking stew than five threads played out separately from beginning to end. Some of the notes he received at this stage, particularly from executive producer Scott Rudin, focused on making sure Harris was allowing the directors’ personalities to shine through.
Bouzereau, who has extensive experience interviewing directors on camera, came up with the idea of bringing in five film personalities to help tell the story. And each of them reveals deeply felt artistic connections to their respective subjects.
“It ended up feeling organic,” Harris says of the talking head approach. “We decided we’d see what parts of the story they felt comfortable guiding us through, and what dovetailed nicely with their insights into who these directors were. For instance, I knew when Spielberg was reading the book in galleys how much he was connecting with Wyler’s story. We were lucky he consented to do it. And I just love listening to Del Toro talk about Capra. This was a big ask for these guys. We couldn’t have them sit down in front of a backdrop and rattle it off in 10 minutes. They had to take time with this.”
Streep recorded her final narration on Jan. 17, not 45 minutes after she earned her 20th Oscar nomination, for “Florence Foster Jenkins.” Harris couldn’t help but pinch himself over the fact that his words would be read by such an icon.
“I mean, yeah,” he says with a giggle. “Including doing some on-the-spot rewriting when something didn’t sound right and getting to say to Meryl Streep, ‘What about if we did it with these three words instead?’ That’s crazy bucket list stuff for any writer.”
So which of the five classic filmmakers’ World War II journeys does Harris find the most amazing? He’s settled on a tie between Stevens and Wyler.
“I like the story of Stevens, this very lighthearted Californian family man who wasn’t even sure about the war in Europe and why we were paying attention,” he says. “He gets more and more compelled by the idea that he’s there to tell the truth. He goes deeper into harder places in worse conditions than any other director. And what really moves me about the Wyler story is the stakes for him were very high and very personal from the beginning. He ends up a disabled veteran, really shattered, and out of that makes his greatest film, ‘The Best Years of Our Lives.'”
And that’s what it comes down to for Harris, ultimately — the chance to not only explore an incredible slice of Hollywood history, but also to explore more deeply, and ultimately to share, the films of American cinema’s titans. “Part of the whole point [of the documentary] was to get these movies I had written about in front of someone’s eyes,” Harris says.
To that end, Netflix will be making 13 of the quintet’s World War II documentaries available to stream in conjunction with the launch of “Five Came Back.” They are:
“The Battle of Midway” (1942, John Ford)
“Prelude to War” (1942, Frank Capra)
“The Battle of Russia” (1943, Frank Capra)
“How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines” (1943, John Ford)
“Report from the Aleutians” (1943, John Huston)
“The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” (1944, William Wyler)
“The Negro Soldier” (1944, Stuart Heisler; produced by Frank Capra)
“Tunisian Victory” (1944, John Huston)
“Know Your Enemy – Japan” (1945, Frank Capra)
“San Pietro” (1945, John Huston)
“Nazi Concentration Camps” (1945, George Stevens)
“Let There Be Light” (1946, John Huston)
“Thunderbolt” (1947, William Wyler)