Five Came Back, directed by Laurent Bouzereau and adapted by Mark Harris from his book of the same name, is a gripping chronicle of art, patriotism, and sacrifice, telling the story of five Hollywood directors—John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston—and how they used their cameras to fight World War II. Some had won Oscars, some were relatively early in their careers, but they put that aside and went into the field, in some cases finding themselves in the middle of a firefight and in others unable to see action no matter how hard they tried.
Even after three one-hour episodes—narrated by Meryl Streep, with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan each serving as guides to a single filmmaker’s story—Five Came Back leaves you wanting more. Reading Harris’ book is one excellent way to get more of the story, but Netflix has also supplemented the documentary by adding more than a dozen of the films mentioned in Five Came Back to it roster—a welcome, if limited, reversal of its recent habit of purging any film more than a few decades old from its rolls. Here’s a brief guide to what to watch next.
Short and staggering, John Ford’s 18-minute documentary was intended as a portrait of routine life on a remote military base but ended up capturing one of the war’s most famous engagements. Ford’s cameras are so close to the action that you can see the force of anti-aircraft guns knock the 16 mm film out of its sprockets, inadvertently pushing into territory that experimental filmmakers would still be exploring decades after the war. Ford eventually employed four different narrators, including The Grapes of Wrath’s Henry Fonda and Jane Darwell, to create an impressionistic, almost hallucinatory mood, but when the battle itself starts, they fall silent, offering only four simple words: “Yes, this really happened.” Ford also directed Undercover: How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines, a training film for Office of Strategic Service agents.
John Huston’s three wartime documentaries tell a story all by themselves. Report From the Aleutians took the rebellious young director as far from the war as the Army Signal Corps could send him, to the remote Alaskan island of Arak. Rather than shy away from the monotony of the soldiers’ existence, Huston underlined it, insisting that the movie be kept at his preferred length of 47 minutes even though that meant it could not be shown as a short before feature attractions and was this doomed to commercial failure.
The Battle of San Pietro did for land combat what The Battle of Midway did for the air, tagging alongside infantrymen as they fought their way through the Italian countryside. Again, the Army objected to Huston’s dogged realism, including close-ups of dead soldiers and images of their bodies wrapped in mattress covers. But it was with Let There Be Light where Huston finally pushed them too far. There was no glorious combat, nor even crushing victory, in his portrait of Long Island’s Edgewood State Hospital, just psychologically broken men who it was clear had brought the war home with them. Huston strived to end the film on an upbeat note, showing them on the way to recovering from their invisible wounds, but the Army had no interest in publicizing the lingering costs of war and kept the film from being publicly exhibited until 1981. It has since attained its rightful status as an invaluable historical document and found a place in the national film archives.
Frank Capra proves to be one of Five Came Back’s most complicated and troubling figures. The director of It’s a Wonderful Life and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington was a master of rousing emotion—Pauline Kael famously wrote, “No one else can balance the ups and downs of wistful sentiment and corny humor the way Capra can, but if anyone else should learn to, kill him”—but he embraced the role of military propagandist with rather too much gusto, especially when it came to dehumanizing the U.S.’s enemies. Germans were cut down on an individual basis, but the Japanese were represented as grossly racist caricatures, both in Capra’s Know Your Enemy: Japan and the Capra-conceived Private Snafu cartoons. (The latter are a stain on the otherwise brilliant careers of Warner Bros. animators like Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng as well.) Five Came Back makes no excuses for Capra’s cinematic bigotry, but it does point out that his unit was also responsible for The Negro Soldier, which notwithstanding its primary purpose as a recruiting tool depicted black men and their communities with dignity and respect. Tunisian Victory was Capra’s answer to the British Desert Victory, about the North African campaign, with Capra and Huston, among others, restaging scenes in order to make up for a lack of documentary footage.
Although it purports to tell the story of a single B-17 bomber’s final voyage, the 25th run after which its crew will be allowed to rotate home, William Wyler’s documentary was shot on several planes over a period of weeks. Filming conditions were difficult, with cameras wound by hand in frostbite-inducing conditions, not to mention the dangers of accompanying airmen on bombing raids in enemy territory. One of Wyler’s cameraman, Harold Tannenbaum, was killed when the plane he was in was shot down. Wyler massaged reality to get the story he wanted, but the aerial footage was captured at great risk, not least to Wyler himself, who was awarded the Air Medal for his five sorties. He was further injured during the shooting of Thunderbolt, going nearly deaf as a result of a flight in an unpressurized B-25, effectively returning home as a disabled veteran of the war.
Only two years after making The More the Merrier, a lighthearted take on wartime housing shortages with Jean Arthur and Joel McCrea, George Stevens was at Dachau, filming the previously unimaginable horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, capturing images that would haunt him for the rest of his life and the rest of the world forever. He “felt he was losing another piece of his own humanity every time he opened his eyes,” Harris writes in his book, but “kept filming, even when his instinct was to turn away.” The footage he captured was compiled into films initially intended only for the Nuremberg judges, but it remains as a stunning, if often almost literally unwatchable, record of one of humanity’s greatest atrocities. With fascism back in fashion and neo-Nazis in all but name prominent in U.S. politics once again, it’s as pertinent, and as horrifying, now as ever.