Unpromisingly, Five Came Back, a series that surveys the military service of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler — who cut off their Hollywood careers to serve in the Second World War and were thereafter irrevocably changed both in profession and in life — opens with footage of the Academy Awards. There, in brisk montage, are the five moviemakers, all dressed up and receiving Oscar statuettes, as if upfront evidence of prestigious hardware were required to grasp the attention of fast-scrolling Netflix subscribers. It seems a weirdly superficial entry into a narrative — adapted from critic and journalist Mark Harris’ history Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War (2014) — of carnage, horror and trauma. Harris concluded that exposure to humanity’s capacity for evil challenged these men’s grasp of the world and altered their work. Watching the TV version, you might wonder: Does such a metamorphosis preclude not caring about the Oscars?
For the first of its three hour-long episodes, Netflix’s Five Came Back numbs the strength of its source material with broad-overview contextual introduction and a sometimes navel-gazing quality. (There are a few too many vintage photographs of macho Golden Age directors sucking on cigars.) Beneath the airy seriousness of Meryl Streep’s narration come helpfully colored maps of Europe diagramming the spread of Nazism. We’re subjected to innumerable examples of sounds-good-but-says-nothing generalizations that proliferate in easily consumable televisual series of this mode. When Paul Greengrass, no doubt sincere, observes of Ford’s World War I–themed Four Sons (1928), “What it was was the beginning of Ford trying to address reality,” it seems about as helpful as saying, “The Searchers is a movie with John Wayne.” Greengrass is but one of the coterie of name directors — also Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro — dishing out commentary on his forebears.
Fortunately, as the series progresses, the profit of translating Harris’ thorough and engrossing text into the footage-rich format of the docuseries materializes. If Harris, who wrote the adaptation himself, and Laurent Bouzereau, who directed, gloss over ambiguities in their hurried set-up, their interests snap into focus when their narrative catches up to the war. The U.S. enters the global conflict, and the storied moviemakers dedicate their craft to the cause. Like the day-to-day business of their Hollywood gigs, the men’s wartime work was defined by compromise and negotiation, their artistic aspirations being fought at each step by powerful overseers with concrete interests. The U.S. government had even more restrictive demands than the studio bosses: It wanted short, professional docs made to persuade American boys and men to enter the fight.
The transition into the theater of war also inspires the talking heads. No longer saddled with reciting backstory, the five directors speak with specificity and power about individual movies. Ford ventures into the Pacific and makes The Battle of Midway (1942), a plunge into combat on the open water. Greengrass is marvelous as he relates the power of Ford’s document, speaking of “the image distressing” and emphasizing the “accidental” nature of some of the shots. Huston’s The Battle of San Pietro (1945), at the time presented as legitimate pictures of combat, was years later revealed to have consisted largely of staged re-creations. Coppola comes alive as he explains Huston’s ingenuity in instructing soldiers to look at the lens — a totally artificial gesture that, onscreen, instead produces an effect of reality.
Spielberg delivers sobering testimony regarding Wyler’s Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944), for which Wyler climbed into actual B-17s during air missions to grab footage. Spielberg pauses on a struck enemy aircraft making a “slow spiral” downward, marveling at Wyler’s refusal to turn away from the carnage, the sedate pace of the plane’s descent suggesting something almost dreamlike. Capra and Stevens, while invested in the plight of the soldier, developed work that reaches beyond, into larger international tensions. Capra embarked on his ambitious, seven-part “Why We Fight” series, whose first entry, Prelude to War (1942), cemented for many Americans the intensity of the totalitarian threat. (Another Capra Army project, the 1945 Know Your Enemy: Japan, co-written with Huston, proffers risibly racist characterizations of the Japanese people.) And Stevens, remaining in Europe after the close of the conflict, brought his camera into the grounds of Dachau; his subsequent Nazi Concentration Camps (1945) provided instrumental evidence in the Nuremberg hearings.
The quintet, surrounded by death, faced frequent danger at the front, mostly due to their resiliency in getting close to the action: Ford came out of Midway wounded by shrapnel, while the noise of one of Wyler’s airborne missions left him deaf (his hearing was later only partially restored). That experience shaped their postwar work back in the States. Stevens, in the Thirties a leading progenitor of “light entertainment,” turned to dramas like A Place in the Sun (1951). Wyler made the smash hit The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), one of whose three main characters, each a returning vet, has a hook for a right hand.
Not all their war-informed work was celebrated. Capra’s sometimes-despairing It’s a Wonderful Life (1946) did poorly on initial release, to the grave disappointment of its maker. And while he achieved later triumphs, Huston’s proto-PTSD doc Let There Be Light (1946), now a fixture in university film programs, was disparaged by the government and held from wider circulation until the Eighties. Set in a hospital for returning vets, the movie, in Coppola’s persuasive estimation, exhibits “a bigness of soul.” It also exhibits one of the fresher revelations of Five Came Back, which is that many of classic Hollywood’s greatest directors, when stranded outside the artifice of the backlot, possessed impulses that gel toward the documentary. Huston, like his four contemporaries, was seeing things he didn’t understand, and his response at that hospital was simply to watch.