Five Came Back and the Frightening Power of Propaganda

Netflix’s new three-part documentary series celebrates and analyzes the efforts of major Hollywood directors who depicted World War II.


When the director John Huston arrived at San Pietro in southern Italy to film a crucial World War II battle in 1943, he was greeted with its aftermath. The small mountain town had been completely obliterated by invading Allied troops and the retreating Nazi army; more than 1,600 American troops lay wounded and dead as a result. Huston turned his cameras on the fallen soldiers, filming shocking footage of the war’s actual cost, but his plans to capture the actual conflict were dashed. So he did what any great director might do—he recreated it from scratch, having U.S. soldiers shell this already destroyed terrain, fight imaginary enemies, and mimic the horror they had just experienced.

The resulting 32-minute film, The Battle of San Pietro, was one of the most pivotal war documentaries produced by the U.S. during World War II. Its brutal realism and unflinching depiction of the death, chaos, and sacrifice of the Allied campaign, was controversial enough that the U.S. Army tried to prevent soldiers from seeing it. Only when General George Marshall praised the film as a necessary work that would prepare new enlistees for what awaited them in battle was its reputation salvaged. Watching it today, you’d never imagine that the scenes were staged.

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.

Huston’s work (which tried to find the gritty realism of combat, even if it had to be faked) is narrated by Francis Ford Coppola, who would try to do the same decades later in Apocalypse Now, which was originally planned as a Vietnam War documentary. John Ford, the old-fashioned, hard-charging visionary of the American West, is attached to Paul Greengrass (United 93, the Bourne films), who both admires and critiques Ford’s hard-bitten conservatism. George Stevens (Shane, Woman of the Year), who filmed crucial footage of the Dachau concentration camp as he followed American troops into Germany, is paired with Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill, Silverado).

Each narrator has an obvious love for his forebear, but is unafraid to speak candidly about the limits of their films’ usefulness, and the dramatic liberties sometimes taken in making them. Harris’s book recognized that Hollywood often shapes our perception of reality more than we know, and that the recruitment of these directors by the U.S. military intertwined the film industry with sometimes-dangerous assumptions of truth and realism. Five Came Back is, in the end, a compelling examination of propaganda—its purpose, its effectiveness, and its drawbacks. These are all things that are worth keeping in mind in 2017, just as they were many decades ago.