Netflix has a horrible habit of creating or producing super high quality content, and then doing nothing on its service to promote it to the masses. It buries top notch TV shows and web series beneath what it relies on as its tent pole productions, like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. It’d make sense if Netflix was a normal production network, relying on box office results or very public analytics to measure its success. Instead, Netflix operates with a unique opaqueness, not even sharing its analytics with the creators it buys its content from, and prides itself on existing as a TV and movie theater killing alternative. I’m not sure if this counter-intuitive process is what has given Netflix its current successes or has rather slowed the death of its competitors, but either way the current system does nothing to benefit the promotion of its platform exclusive content. That’s why I find it’s now necessary to spotlight Netflix content that gets buried by search algorithms and countless Grey’s Anatomy seasons. Today I’m going to spotlight Five Came Back, a fantastic three part documentary that deserves another look.
Five Came Back has what every great documentary needs, which is an amazing premise. The series is based off the 2014 novel of the same name, and centers around the life stories of five legendary American filmmakers who all had to leave Hollywood during WWII and go abroad to make war documentaries for the U.S. government. The directors include John Ford (Stagecoach, Every Good John Wayne Film), Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life), William Wyler (Ben Hur), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon) and George Stevens (The Diary of Anne Frank). If you’re a film buff, all of these names should ring massive bells in your head, and even if you’re not, you’ve surely felt the influence of all these directors if you’ve ever watched a film. For reference, (and because I adore film anecdotes) Orson Welles supposedly watched Stagecoach forty times in theaters to give him inspiration to make Citizen Kane. When asked who he got inspiration from, he said, “The greats. By that, I mean John Ford, John Ford, and John Ford.” As for the other directors, Wyler holds the record for most academy awards won by actors he’s directed (12) and also has 3 best director awards. John Huston famously directed his father, George Huston to winning a best supporting actor Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and his daughter, Anjelica Huston (Addams Family) has won her own Oscar for acting, meaning the Huston family has three generations of Oscar winners. The point is, these guys were the directors who made Hollywood and film culture what it is today, and this documentary not only covers the topic of WWII American propaganda films, but who the men behind them truly were and what they were giving up in the process.
What I’ve failed to mention up until now is that the series has four excellent layers going to effectively tell its tale. On the highest level, we have an informative, yet unobtrusive narration from Meryl Streep, who helps provide necessary context for still photographs or help the transition of one battle to the next. On the second level, we get interviews from three of Hollywood’s current best directors, Steven Spielberg (Indiana Jones, E.T., everything else), Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now, The Godfather), and Guillermo del Toro (Pan’s Labyrinth, Cronos). They act as the voice of authority in the film, giving insight into the director’s actions throughout the war as people who work in the industry themselves. They also humanize every decision, and provide modern day critique of films made decades ago. The layer below that is that of the old interviews from the five directors themselves, whether it be from late night talk shows from early television, or old radio recordings from before their passing. Hearing these primary source accounts from the men themselves humanizes these legendary figures, and also provides the audience with the cool ability to see what the men themselves thought of their own actions. Finally, at the bottom-most layer, is all of the archival footage of the war documentaries themselves, that provide crucial visual aid to how truly gifted these directors were. All of these elements meld beautifully to captivate you in three, one hour long episodes that string together perfectly and act as acts on these men’s war careers.
The structure of the series is also flawless, providing essential emotional beats as the story progresses. The first act serves an expository function, giving the necessary emotional catalysts to each director to give up their successful film careers to go help make propaganda for the war effort. We learn of Wyler’s European Jewish ancestry, and how his desire to get all American’s committed to fighting against the evils of the Axis powers drove him to documentary. We learn of John Ford’s regret of not serving in WWI and how he put his life in harm’s way time after time to capture footage, earning the respect of the unit he was assigned to document. Stories like this play a crucial role in this film, reminding the audience how much every American really had at stake during WWII and why it mattered to so many. The second act consists of the trials and tribulations of wartime documentary making, as none of these director’s had made a documentary before, purely making narrative features. This was crucial to these war documentaries as each director injected his own style into the films, telling the story of these battles in the way Hollywood audiences had been trained to view content. We see how Ford stood bravely at Midway Island and recorded Japanese bombers swooping in, despite the obvious dangers of doing so. We see John Huston make soldiers look at the camera while he filmed, and forced the Army to fire at shelled out buildings to give a gritty guerrilla style to his films. We see the ups and downs these men all faced at the hands of both the government and big studios to produce content that would influence the sleeping giant that was America to go all in on the fight against the Axis powers. Finally the third act covers the emotional ending years of the war, as well as the impact it had on these director’s lives. Obviously they all lived through the war as the title is Five Came Back, but seeing the scars they carried and how it influenced their future work makes the third act one of the most powerful things I’ve seen in awhile. Most devastating to me was what happened to George Stevens, who spent most of his time during the war trapped in a contract with Columbia that made him unable to ship off and make war documentaries like his contemporaries. Stevens was noted as being one of the best comedic directors of his time, that is in the time before he went to war. After finally finishing his contract up he joined the Army and was excited to cover American troops winning the war abroad. Unfortunately for him, one of his first assignments was to cover D-Day. Although now revered as a pivotal and war-winning moment, the amount of lives that were lost that day that Stevens had to cover with no preparation immediately pained him. He then followed troops as they campaigned through Europe, closing in on Germany. Much to Stevens horror, his unit was the first to come across a concentration camp. Stevens saw the full horror the Nazis were committing on the Jewish people, which up until that point were kept hidden from all but Germany and elites in London and Washington. The horror that Stevens and his crew recorded was so much that upon returning to the U.S. after the Allies won the war, he only ever re-watched the camp footage once, and could never bring himself to make a comedy film again.
Five Came Back succeeds at everything it attempts. Not only is it an emotional and educational ride, but it also analyzes historical events with a really fair lens in my opinion. It finds a good balance of criticizing poor actions from some, but also putting other actions into the necessary context of the time it happened in. Seeing this doc in action is really moving, and if you love WWII, classic Hollywood, harrowing tales of war, or a combination of all of them, this series will be right up your alley. Understated, perfectly paced, and will probably leave you with a tear in your eye and a heavy heart. Here’s how I rate Five Came Back:
Recommend: Of course
Theater or Digital: Only on Netflix
Let me know in the comments or by email if you check out this series. Look forward to more recommendations in the near future, and let me know if there’s anything you think got missed out on that you want me to highlight. Other than that, do youself a favor and watch a film from one of these acclaimed directors. If you start one and it feels cliche, recognize that they’re the ones people copied off of and aim to be that cool someday.