Imagine for a second it’s 2004 and the coverage of the ongoing Iraq war was coming to us not from news anchors but from Captain Christopher Nolan, Major Quentin Tarantino, and Commander James Cameron. Sounds crazy right? Who would leave the cushy world of Hollywood to join the war effort risking not just their careers but their lives as well? Leave it to the greatest generation, because that’s exactly what happened to the generation of filmmakers in the spotlight during World War II. Five Came Back is a documentary series in three parts that you can watch on Netflix right now. Based on the book of the same name the film details the work of John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens during WWII. The documentary stars Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, not to mention narration by Meryl Streep. Legendary filmmakers talking about legendary filmmakers narrated by the most acclaimed actress of our day, obviously, quality isn’t an issue here. The series follows in three parts, first is the ramp up and their initial “official” involvement in the war effort, the second is the war proper leading to DDay and the third follows the coverage of D-Day, the end of the war, and the transition back to their careers (or what used to be their careers) in Hollywood.
Propaganda, and that’s what their films were, is an insanely powerful tool…one could even call it a weapon and it was a weapon with which the Nazi’s were extremely proficient. Josef Goebbels propaganda bureau is legendary…or rather infamous, and lead the German people to believe Hitler’s mission and stand idly by while millions of innocents were killed. This series isn’t about the Nazi’s, and that is one of the reasons I love it so much. WWII docs and films tend to focus heavily on the Nazi’s with the Allied forces as more of supporting cast, it’s because of the pageantry and theatricality that I can understand the focus being shot toward Hitler and his Reich from hell, everything seems it was custom built for the cameras. In Five Came Back it’s quite the opposite, it’s all about the US troops and the filmmakers who covered them. Possibly the most beautiful aspect of this is that the films made by these golden age filmmakers and, by extension, this series is staunchly unbiased, laying it all on the table. on the need for war at the time but also the horrors of that war, there’s coverage of ALL troops with a concerted focus in part 2 toward the film “The Negro Soldier” which was the first of its kind to show actual African American troops and communities instead of the horrible stereotypes that proliferated the day. It doesn’t shy away from pointing out America’s unforgivable errors in judgement when the filmmakers point out that in those famous cartoons from the era the German is shown as just a mean human but the Japanese are literally caricatures based on stereotype and perhaps our worst misstep (which doesn’t convey the right emotion), the Japanese internment camps. Spinning off that subject I was amazed to find the amount of new information one would gather from the series. I’m a self-professed WWII history buff and there were plenty of moments in which I learned something completely new. For instance, those internment camps were supposed to be temporary until the government could relocate the people inside to smaller communities where they weren’t together in large groups but the plan was nixed due to the influence of those cartoons we just talked about. Apparently, these films were so effective that it made the government nervous to put the Japanese out in the public out of fear for their safety as the public viewed them as sub-human. The series finds ways to educate while making you feel both ashamed and proud of your country at the same time. We should know everything, warts and all, and can deal with that realizing that this was a necessary conflict. Hiding the warts only romanticizes the closest this world ever gets to hell on earth.
Check out Five Came Back right now in its entirety on Netflix!