Once upon a time-- 1939, to be exact-- FIVE CAME BACK was the title of a now-long-forgotten melodrama about a bunch of plane crash survivors who are stranded in a jungle. One of its cast members was a very pre-I LOVE LUCY Lucille Ball.
But FIVE CAME BACK also is the title of an outstanding new documentary, a three-part Netflix original. It follows the lives of five legendary Hollywood filmmakers and how they were impacted by World War II. They are Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. Upon America’s entry into the war, each abandoned their Hollywood careers and became immersed in making war-related documentaries for the U.S. military: films in which there were no scripts, no final acts, and no happy-ever-after endings.
FIVE CAME BACK, which is written by Mark Harris and based on his book of the same name, chronicles the personalities of each filmmaker: the projects they were involved with pre-Pearl Harbor; the films they made during the war; and how their experiences impacted their lives and the choices they made after the war. Refreshingly, there is no Hollywood hype. The five are presented as talented but flawed, three-dimensional individuals. John Ford, for one, may have been a brilliant filmmaker but, both on and off the set, he also could be extremely petty.
However, each filmmaker paid a deeply personal price for his war service. As the film so astutely reveals, this price transcended the safety and security of remaining under the umbrella of Hollywood after Pearl Harbor. A number of current (or at least more contemporary) filmmakers appear on-camera and offer insight into the five. They also number five, and they are Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Coppola, Paul Greengrass, and Laurence Kasdan. And FIVE CAME BACK, which is narrated by no less a name than Meryl Streep, is loaded with clips and outtakes from their subjects’ Hollywood films along with decades-old interviews with each.
But the highpoints of FIVE CAME BACK are choice footage from their wartime documentaries and the facts surrounding how they came to be made. Needless to say, the best of them-- from Ford’s THE BATTLE OF MIDWAY to Wyler’s MEMPHIS BELLE and Huston’s THE BATTLE OF SAN PIETRO and LET THERE BE LIGHT-- include in-your-face footage that collectively captures the reality of men in war.
FIVE CAME BACK is crammed with information. For example, in the late 1930s, George Stevens wished to film PATHS OF GLORY, the anti-war drama based on the Humphrey Cobb novel. In the mid-1950s, Kirk Douglas and Stanley Kubrick filmed PATHS OF GLORY and their version is a bona-fide classic, one that I take pleasure in introducing to film students. One only can ponder what Stevens would have done with the material. Also, MEMPHIS BELLE was judged to be such an important film that it was reviewed on the front page of the New York Times. And Frank Capra conjured up the idea of employing images from German propaganda films-- the most notorious is Leni Riefenstahl’s TRIUMPH OF THE WILL-- to parody Hitler and Mussolini as clowns and fools.
The wartime films also mirror the time in which they were made. A textbook example is the well-intentioned THE NEGRO SOLDIER, one of Capra’s “Why We Fight” films, which reflects on the casual everyday racism of the era. Ultimately, so much more can be said about FIVE CAME BACK: a film that is well-worth discovering.
Rob Edelman has authored or edited several dozen books on film, television, and baseball. He has taught film history courses at several universities and his writing has appeared in many newspapers, magazines, and journals. His frequent collaborator is his wife, fellow WAMC film commentator Audrey Kupferberg.
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