This fascinating dichotomy—that this dramatized piece of propaganda served as a crucial window onto the theater of war for the American public—is at the heart of Five Came Back, Netflix’s three-part documentary series based on Mark Harris’s book of the same name. Harris, who also wrote the series, and the director Laurent Bouzereau are honoring five Hollywood directors who joined the U.S. military, abandoning their successful careers and putting themselves on the front lines: Frank Capra, John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler, and Huston.
But Harris and Bouzereau are also intrigued by how the directors’ perspectives were changed by the war, what made them so suited to dramatizing the Allied campaign, and the various ways in which the real-life action and horror were filtered through their artistic visions. Five Came Back functions as a celebration of cinema—from the details of how it’s created to its unique power as a populist art form with the immense ability to persuade—and an exploration of the U.S. war effort. Harris looks at the balance the American government struck between brutal truth, somewhat varnished storytelling, and jingoistic propaganda and racism.
What better medium to examine those competing ideals than cinema, which exists both to depict the truth and to mindlessly entertain? Though Five Came Back is about World War II, it’s also about Hollywood’s own evolution, and the industry’s increasing willingness to investigate darker topics and more ambiguous stories in the post-war era. It’s rare that my main complaint about a Netflix series it that it should have been longer, but with Five Came Back there’s just so much territory to explore—before, during, and after the war—that three hour-long episodes almost doesn’t feel like enough.
Each of the five filmmakers’ journey to the camera is narrated by a contemporary director who’s individually suited to him in some way. Capra (Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It’s a Wonderful Life) is bonded to Guillermo del Toro, the Mexican director who shares an understanding of both the magic and the limits of idealism, and the more frightening truths that often lie at the center of fairytales. Capra’s Why We Fight series, his primary output during the war, consists of seven films modeled on the impressionistic power of Leni Riefenstahl’s Nazi propaganda work Triumph of the Will, which Capra both admired and was horrified by. Del Toro and Harris do well to dig into the dangers of Why We Fight’s effectiveness, and the government’s eagerness to depict the Japanese with virulently racist overtones, while stopping short of the same venom for the German people.
William Wyler, the Swiss-American Jew who could find the human core of any major epic, is paired with Steven Spielberg. The latter is rhapsodic about both Wyler’s 1942 Oscar-winning drama Mrs. Miniver (a deeply stirring London-set war film that functions as one of the most impressive pieces of inadvertent propaganda ever made) and his devotion to keeping his filmmaking squarely focused on the soldiers of World War II. Wyler even personally flew on several high-risk missions with the crew of a B-17 bomber in order to make the documentary Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.