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
a three-part documentary directed by Laurent Bouzereau and adapted by Mark
Harris from his nonfiction bestseller, which premieres this Friday on Netflix.
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.
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.
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.
There is some pretty amazing footage in FCB (and almost all of it is totally
legit, notwithstanding Huston’s occasional fudging). Having distribution through
Netflix also allows Bouzereau sufficient time and flexibility to fully tell the
five men’s stories. As a result, the complete series actually exceeds three
hours, with the individual episodes clocking in at fifty-nine, sixty-seven, and
sixty-nine minutes. The contemporary directors also engage in some respectable
film criticism, which is certainly not a pursuit for the faint of heart. Yet,
what is most refreshing about FCB is
the unabashed patriotism of its subjects. These were men with larger-than-life
personalities and a great love of country, who were not afraid some snide
hipster might call them “jingoistic.” Very highly recommended, Five Came Back starts streaming this
Friday (3/31) on Netflix.
Labels: Documentary, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Ford, John Huston, Netflix, William Wyler, WWII Cinema