Five Came Back [2017] – An Intriguing and Multi-Faceted Piece of Film History

Five Came Back

Second World War — one of the monumental conflicts that afflicted mankind — features numerous accounts of documentation unlike any other war. Every time we feel that the books and movies have covered most of the distinct perspectives of World War II, a fresh vantage point originates which happens to be nothing short of groundbreaking. In that fashion, Mark Harris non-fiction book Five Came Back, released in 2014, which incredibly chronicles the war effort of five American film-makers who at the height of their careers decided to risk their lives in order to boost the Allied campaign. The five film-makers – John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, Frank Capra, and William Wyler – made both dramatized pieces of propaganda (to recruit young patriots) and sharply painted the brutal realism of war, emphasized with chaos and death. Laurent Bouzereau, one of the prolific ‘making of’ and ‘behind-the-scenes’ creator (for DVD supplements) has adapted the book for Netflix’s 3-part mini-series documentary under the same name. Moreover, Bouzereau’s Five Came Back (2017) found a fascinating entry point to stage its narrative: using five contemporary directors – Steven Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Francis Ford Coppola – to talk about one of the specific war-time directors. Their acute perspectives are edited with traditional archival footage and alongside an elegant voice over from Meryl Streep.

It’s not like the five contemporary directors have similar directorial sensibilities to the five old film-makers. But their perspectives are as much important as the historical recollection. Among the five talking heads, Steven Spielberg was the perfect fit to discuss about William Wyler, who also alternated his career choices between masterful sentimental dramas (The Best Years of Our Lives, Mrs. Miniver, Roman holiday, etc) and brilliant spectacles (Ben-Hur, The Big Country, etc). Francis Ford Coppola was as much a maverick auteur as his predecessor John Huston. He talks about Huston’s realistic yet re-staging of ‘The Battle of San Pietro’ which in a way relates to his masterpiece ‘Apocalpyse Now’. Huston’s post-war documentary about PTSD (when the term PTSD didn’t exist) – Let There be Light – was suppressed by the government for decades before recognizing it as the most important humanist work on war veterans afflicted by psychological trauma. Lawrence Kasdan, the least known of the five contemporary directors, discusses about George Stevens’ legacy before, during and after the war. Stevens had the most gruesome experience among the five. Before the war, he was best known for his highly successful comedies (Swing Time, Women of the Year, etc). But what he saw and filmed during the liberation of Dachau concentration camp – which was later used as evidence in Nuremberg trials – cut short his talent for making light-hearted comedies. Nevertheless, after war Stevens made some of the great serious dramas in the history of Hollywood (A Place In the Sun, Shane, and Giant).

Paul Greengrass, the director of masculine action drama and being a film-maker hailing from documentary background, easily connects with problematic yet genius film-maker John Ford. He admires Ford’s documentary Battle of Midway on how Ford places the camera in the best possible place for the shot (despite the risk for getting really shot at). At few occasions, Greengrass also fittingly criticizes Ford’s streak of pugnacious conservatism. John Ford (and Stevens) was also on the ground filming D-Day (the ghastly Normandy invasion). Fantasy film-maker Guillermo del Toro seems to be the mis-matched of the contemporary directors to discuss about the populist American director Frank Capra. Although Capra’s tightly controlled comedies doesn’t criss-cross with del Toro’s free-flowing film-form, they share certain humanist perspective. There’s also powerful parallels which runs into del Toro and Capra connection, since they both were immigrants who reaped success in Hollywood. Most importantly, del Toro digs a lot into Capra’s wizardry as well as the idealistic limitations (at one point he says, “politically Capra was very confused, but the need to be loved, the need to be saved, was true inside him”). Both writer Mark Harris and del Toro perfectly dissect the effectiveness of Capra’s ‘Why We Fight’ films and the inherent racist overtones in his propagandist portrayal of Japanese population.

Among the contemporary cinephile community, John Ford and John Huston remain as the dominating figures of American auteurist cinema. Capra’s movies doesn’t get much critical love nowadays, except for It’s a Wonderful Life (the film’s failure partially ended Capra’s career). George Stevens and William Wyler are much less celebrated although they made respected post-war masterpieces. While Bouzereau and Mark Harris extremely well-researched and anti-sensationalist presentation compellingly and balancingly outlines the war effort of the ‘old Five’, it is Stevens and Wyler for whom we acquire an extra level of admiration. The unflinching portrayal of vicious realism in ‘The Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress’ and his hard stand against censorious war-department guys speaks highly of Wyler’s integrity. The other estimable episode among Wyler’s war-time experience is his confrontation with the American hypocrisy when he witnessed how black soldiers are harshly subjugated in the South (as a result he walks out of Capra’s idea to bring ‘Negro’ perspective on the war). Despite risking their lives for documentation, Bouzereau and Harris acknowledges the ‘Five’s’ creative ego which was absolutely necessary to withstand competition in Hollywood industry. Some of their war footage (including the staged ones) may not have reflected the contextual reality or may have kindled the jingoistic, racist attitudes among general public. Yet, within their limited war experience the five directors went through a major personal shift. In that manner, Stevens had the biggest perspective shift among the five. After his afflicted journey through North Africa and through Dachau Death Camp, he truly cast aside his film-maker role and transformed into an ‘evidence gatherer’. The fact that Mr. Stevens made splendid humanist films like “Shane”, even after fully committing himself to shoot the unforeseen human atrocities (in Dachau), provokes us to keenly study his Post-War movies.

Frank Capra was perhaps the most renowned film-maker among the five (had already won three Best Director Academy Awards before the war) to foresee American war efforts. He rooted himself within a commonplace industry in Washington D.C. and modeled seven films (known as Why We Fight series) which partly borrowed from the raw propagandistic power of Leni Riefenstahl’s ‘Triump of the Will’ (1935) – the Hitler-worshiping documentary. Bouzereau and Harris never takes the easy route of providing sanitized assumptions on the ‘Five’s’ visionary propaganda films. It is pretty evident especially in the treatment of Capra’s celebrated yet jingoistic efforts. Capra and Ford’s dehumanizing portrayal of the Japanese (relating them to colony of ants or rounding them up as mad creatures with crooked eyes) speaks of the fascism built-into their methods while fighting the same. On the broader perspective, the documentary also touches upon the hypocrisy of designing internment camps for 110,000 Japanese living in the American soil. There’s lot of focus on Capra’s troubled or dual identity. He comes off as both heroic and insecure at the same time. In fact, career-wise, Capra faced very tough time after the end of the war. His career-best effort (It’s A Wonderful Life) was a big flop, which destroyed Capra’s intention to produce films without intervention of big Studio bosses. The ever-green Christmas classic itself is said to reflect Capra’s inquiry about his place in the postwar Hollywood (as del Toro says that George Bailey’s quest boasts ‘an existential quality’ similar to Capra’s).

William Wyler (center) with the crew of B-17 while shooting the documentary ‘The Memphis Belle’. This particular B-17 famous for being the first bomber to complete 25 combat missions over occupied Europe

For all the non-academic cinephiles, Five Came Back perfectly renews interest on the works of these five directors. The complex, sprawling 3 hour-plus output is never afraid to call out the artifice, bland judgments, and amateurishness of the ‘old Five’. Through this thorough, intricate approach, Five Came Back also becomes a fascinating examination of propaganda. How much of realism and truth is allowed in the war propaganda films? There’s the familiar, scripted narrative from War Department to make fighting appealable and heroic to the masses, cutting out nasty realism. Then, there’s the conflict within the five sensational Hollywood film-makers who truly wants to transform themselves to remain more as humanist observer rather than being the supervisor of staged battles. Amidst this conflict, there lies the contemplation on the nature, usefulness, and drawbacks of propagandist pieces.

The interviews are a treat to watch. Everyone from Spielberg to Kasdan, talks about their subjects in a humble, elaborate manner so as to broaden our knowledge on their respective subjects. Director Bouzereau has made the right decision to smoothly cut between each director’s perspective rather than dedicating five parts for five film-makers. At few occasions, the interviewees make an interesting comment on the directors not actually assigned to them. For example, Spielberg takes about his slight disappointment after discovering that Huston’s ‘The Battle of San Pietro’ was re-staged. While discussion about this particular war documentary, Spielberg adds, “I always wondered how Huston knew to turn the camera to the right when that guy fell on the ground”. Spielberg is recalling the staged-death of a soldier which was earlier believed to be real. Such little yet in depth perspectives brings extra layers of profundity to the subjects. Bourzereau and Editor Will Znidaric finds the perfect rhythm delivers the maximum impact while turning the narrative to be informative as well as engaging. The most opulent part of the documentary mini-series is the ending portion of each episode. During these sequences, there’s mish-mashed footage of the five guys’ war journey. In the third and last episode, the footage of the directors’ post-war films and the footage of their war documentaries are blended to deliver a moving tribute. Furthermore, Bouzereau carries an effective message for the mass public who without ignoring past atrocity must do their best to keep up the peace:  “There’s good in the world. And it’s wonderful” says the final Capra quotation.

George Stevens and his crew during the liberation of France

The incredibly moving and complex portrayal of extraordinary old-school American film-makers in Netflix’s Five Came Back — 195 minutes — will highly appeal to cinephiles. It’s an exploration of cinema’s unmitigated power to persuade the masses by alternately conveying brutal truths and instilling falsified notions.


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