If you are interested at all in film history and/or World War II, you have to see "Five Came Back," a new three-part documentary that was released Friday on Netflix. It's a worthwhile subject presented skillfully and entertainingly.
The documentary tells the story of five great directors of classic Hollywood — John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler and George Stevens — and how they set aside their careers to enlist in the military during the war. They made documentaries, instructional and propaganda films. I still remember seeing one of Capra's "Why We Fight" series in a film class when I was in college in the early 1980s.
The documentary shows the struggles the men went through before, during and after the war. Sometimes, the way in which one of these directors wanted to tell a story conflicted with the way the military wanted it told. John Ford was running into some obstacles making "The Battle of Midway," until he arranged for the film to be screened for FDR — and made sure that there was a clip in the movie of FDR's son James, who was serving in the Marine Corps. Roosevelt, after seeing the film, declared that it ought to be seen by every American, and Ford was able to sidestep the military censors.
Some of the directors were comfortable using recreations when the circumstances of the war prevented them from getting actual footage; others weren't.
The documentary shows the challenges and sometimes the great physical risk taken by these directors and their crews in filming some of the critical moments of the war effort.
Stevens was on hand to film the liberation of Dachau — and he realized that he could play an important role in gathering evidence for the war trials which followed.
The documentary filmmakers recruited five modern-day directors — Steven Spielberg (who is also an executive producer of the documentary), Francis Ford Coppola, Benicio Del Toro, Laurence Kasdan and Paul Greengrass — to serve as on-camera interviews, with each of the modern directors assigned, so to speak, to one of the subjects.
The documentary also explores how the war shaped the directors' future output. Each of the directors made one of his greatest movies after the war, although they processed the experience in different ways — from the cheery sentimentalism of Capra's "It's A Wonderful Life" to the honesty of Wyler's "The Best Years of Our Lives" and the cynicism of Huston's "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre." When Ford was filming "They Were Expendable," he wouldn't let John Wayne forget the fact that Ford had served in the war while Wayne hadn't.
This really is worth seeing. It's presented as three episodes, each about an hour long, but I binge-watched all three.