In the late 1930s and early 1940s, Europe and Asia became embroiled in conflict. The American public, remembering the horrors of the First World War, were reluctant to enter into another bloodbath. American military and political leaders needed to make clear what was at stake. So they turned to Hollywood.
“Five Came Back,” a three-part docu-series premiering March 31 on Netflix, tells the stories of five directors who interrupted their lucrative careers to go to the front lines of battle.
In the prewar years, more than half of American adults went to the movies at least once a week, and this quintet of artists — John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston — were responsible for some of the biggest blockbuster films of their time. Their popularity helped drive box office attendance for their war films, which in turn mobilized a divided America to support the war effort.
Rather than use traditional war-related interview subjects, such as historians, family members and veterans, “Five Came Back” takes a novel approach. It pairs one of five contemporary directors — Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan — to each of the five WWII-era filmmakers. The depth of the younger directors’ knowledge about their subjects is impressive, and they reflect on the influence these earlier directors had on their own careers.
“Each of them participates on an epic scale in the grandest interventions and the largest war the world has ever seen,” del Toro says in the film.
This project came out of a long collaboration between Laurent Bouzereau, director of “Five Came Back,” and Spielberg. Bouzereau was tapped by Amblin Television in 1995 to make a documentary for the re-release of Spielberg’s comedy “1941.” The project coincided with the rise of home entertainment, first with LaserDiscs and then DVD, and film distributors were looking for special features to add to the films.
“There was a real need for documentary filmmakers like myself to document older movies and also new productions,” Bouzereau said.
Bouzereau made retrospective documentaries about “Jaws” and “E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial,” as well, and then, beginning with “A.I. Artificial Intelligence,” Spielberg asked him to join him on set to capture the filmmaking process. He also made a documentary about Spielberg’s longtime collaboration with composer John Williams included with a just-released music score box set.
Through Spielberg’s connections, Bouzereau forged his own relationships with filmmakers like Brian De Palma, Roman Polanski and William Friedkin, and has documented more than 150 films.
The Netflix documentary is based on journalist Mark Harris’ best-selling 2014 book “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.” Harris wrote the script for the documentary and took an active role in the making of the film.
“It’s not only about Hollywood, it’s about history. So there’s a real responsibility toward it,” Bouzereau said. “I had to embrace the subject matter and make sure it was faithful to the book, and also cinematic.”
The filmmaker-experts speak directly to the camera. Bouzereau used documentarian Errol Morris’ “Interrotron” technology; it enables the director to shoot through a simple two-way mirror with a video monitor mounted under the camera lens, enabling him to film his subject while making direct eye contact from the exact same angle. This approach adds an additional level of intimacy and drama. Bouzereau resisted using the technology at first but came around to the idea after trying it with Spielberg and seeing the results.
The film is structured chronologically, weaving together the stories of the five filmmakers. Their paths cross at some points, as in the case of the Normandy invasion, when Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, sent George Stevens and John Ford to film the D-Day landing. The images preserved the memory of that historic event, and influenced future films, including Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.”
The series is divided into three parts, each roughly an hour. Meryl Streep provides the narration. Bouzereau and his editing team combed through more than 100 hours of archival and newsreel footage, watched more than 40 documentaries and training films directed and produced by the five directors, and reviewed clips from 50 studio films and more than 30 hours of outtakes and raw footage from their war movies.
Part 1 covers the buildup to the war, including the United States’ hesitation to enter the conflict and the prewar feature films that established these filmmakers as major Hollywood auteurs. It also explained the government’s rationale for wanting to incorporate the directors into their plans, especially to counter the work of Leni Riefenstahl and other Axis-power filmmakers.
“Cinema in its purest form could be put in the service of propaganda. Hitler and [his minister of propaganda Joseph] Goebbels understood the power of the cinema to move large populations toward your way of thinking,” Francis Ford Coppola says in the movie.
Part 2 shows each filmmaker finding his place in the war, doing something that had never been done before: showing American audiences exactly what it was like to serve on the front lines of battle. The films had mixed receptions at the box office, but they showed audiences a gritty portrayal of combat that differed from the glorified battle scenes of earlier feature films. The films revealed how a soldier’s life can be terrifying at times, and at other times monotonous.
Part 3 covers the D-Day invasion and the culmination of the war. It also includes shocking footage inside the Dachau concentration camp. The images are unforgettable: corpses piled up like garbage, survivors in states of shock, and the brutal mechanisms of extermination. George Stevens had to convince his crew to keep filming, to understand that these pictures would serve as an indictment and official record of the Nazi death camps. Some of the films were shown during the Nuremberg trials.
“These documentaries that the five filmmakers made were powerful for American audiences,” Spielberg says in the film. “These filmmakers that came back with footage about the truth of that war were changed forever.”
“Five Came Back” is a stark reminder that when U.S. soldiers went to fight and die for their country, Hollywood went along with them and brought the reality of the war home to Americans. For the first time, the film industry lent its storytelling abilities to a patriotic purpose, and it changed the course of history.