There are notable exceptions, like the tireless Gary Sinise and his Captain Dan Band, but it is almost impossible to imagine today’s Hollywood celebrities appearing at War Bond rallies and hobnobbing with average GIs at the Stage Door Canteen. It is even more unlikely any of the top-tier tent-pole directors would put their careers on hold to help the government make their case for war and document the subsequent battles. Yet that is exactly what Frank Capra, John Ford, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston did during World War II. Their wartime experiences are chronicled in Five Came Back (trailer here), a three-part documentary directed by Laurent Bouzereau and adapted by Mark Harris from his nonfiction bestseller, which premieres this Friday on Netflix.
Arguably, Capra, Ford, Wyler, and Stevens were at the top of their games when they joined the war effort, while Huston had just scored his first surprise breakout hit (a little film called The Maltese Falcon). They would lose several productive years, but they were more than willing to serve. Aside from Capra, who was something of a moviemaking field marshal, mostly working in Washington on the Why We Fight series, all risked their lives amid real and frequently bloody warfighting.
John Ford was the earliest into battle, recording the first American victory captured on film in the Oscar winning documentary short, The Battle of Midway. Eventually, Ford and Stevens would combine forces to document D-Day, which incredibly was not the latter’s most harrowing assignment. Huston supposedly documented plenty of action in Battle for San Pietro and Tunisian Victory, but his reliance on recreated scenes raises ethical issues Harris and company do not ignore. However, his long-suppressed PTSD documentary Let There Be Light is presented as a redemptive masterwork. Wyler’s Oscar winning The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress could very well still be the most popular of the wartime documentaries under discussion, but George Stevens’ journalistic record of the liberation of Dachau clearly had the most far-reaching influence. It was even presented as evidence at the Nuremberg military tribunals.
Yet, that is just a part of the story. Harris also traces the lasting influence of the directors’ wartime experiences on their subsequent studio films. To take stock of their legacies, five contemporary directors serve as resident experts on their particular WWII-era filmmakers. Some of the pairings are not exactly obvious, but Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greenglass, Stephen Spielberg, Lawrence Kasdan, and Francis Ford Coppola all have significant insights to offer on Capra, Ford, Wyler, Stevens, and Huston, respectively.