“Five Came Back” (Netflix)
The breadth and proliferation of World War II documentaries make it almost impossible to find one that has a different story to tell…especially since one of the oldest, “The World At War”, does such a good job all on its own. But “Five Came Back” is not a typical WWII history lesson. In fact, there is very little chronological war history in it. Instead it tracks the involvement of five of Hollywood’s greatest film directors in the shooting (film camera shooting) of the war effort…Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. In its three one-hour+ episodes, both their involvement prior to and during the War, and the long-lasting post-War effects on them, are examined with great care by five of the most influential living directors; Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg and Guillermo del Toro.
Combining talking heads, clips from their films, older interviews and some of the most startling WWII footage (both previously seen and unseen), we get a detailed glimpse in to the artistic psychology of these five giants of cinema. And not just what they did, but what they hoped to accomplish, how they were thwarted, how they adapted, and how the horrors they witnessed (especially Stevens – who was the first to enter one of the Camps with a camera – Dachau), changed their way of making films going forward. As a result, it is required viewing for anyone who has ever seen and appreciates or respects “It’s A Wonderful Life” (Capra), “The Best Years of Our Lives” (Wyler), “Shane” (Stevens), or “They Were Expendable” (Ford). Interestingly, and I suppose, predictably, the film also discusses the reaction at home (both critically and at the box office) to the different documentaries each of these men made and how even that affected both their choice project and ability to create them. All this adds up to something intensely interesting.
Considering its short length, it is incredibly detailed, and I never found myself wishing they had gone in to more depth at any point. Mostly I sat in stone silence as these unseen images unspooled. And I wondered how anyone could remain undamaged from what they viewed. That they weren’t undamaged is what gives the film its meat. And their unique understanding of what the returning combat vet went through led to some of the most ahead-of-their-time films ever made…none more so than Huston’s “Let There Be Light”, the first documentary to expose the effects of PTSD, long before there was a name for it.
While Thomas Newman wrote the indistinguishable theme, Jeremy Turner wrote the score, which is quite good and more than adequately fits the subject matter. It is edited well and sticks to its premise throughout, but I would be derelict not to add that the first episode drags – even if the next two more than make up for it. Finally, using Meryl Streep as the show’s narrator seems like a waste. She performs it as it should be, without adding emotion, since the subject does all that for us, so, as a result, I was left wondering, what was the point of using her? It’s a little distracting.
Regardless of my small criticisms, this is a remarkable doc which accomplishes something almost impossible at this point…illuminating aspects of that War that we were unaware of AND that matter in the modern context of our personal, cultural and historical lives.
An important note…it is not for the squeamish. There are several scenes of unseen footage that the censors could have never allowed, and with good reason. They are brutal, and were shot for effect in a way that only a brilliant lenser could manifest.
I hope you will give it a watch. It’s worth it.
The trailer is a little too obvious, so utilize it only as an appetizer…the imagery and subject matter of the entire program are much more intriguing than the trailer suggests!
Written on 4/12/2017