Trust the buzz: Laurent Bouzereau and Mark Harris‘ Five Came Back (Netflix, 3.31), a three-hour doc based on Harris’s 2014 book of the same title, is a knockout. Or at least it was for me. Call it an incisive, emotionally stirring, highly insightful saga of World War II, or rather the filming of it but in a broader sense the bruising reality of it. Like any good film Five Came Back swirls down, under, all around.
It focuses on five big-name Hollywood directors — John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens and John Huston — who put their Hollywood careers on hold during World War II in order to make propaganda-like documentaries (or doc-like propaganda films) for the U.S. War Department.
But it didn’t turn out that simply. While Capra devoted himself to producing several gung-ho esprit de corps films under the title of Why We Fight, Stevens, Ford, Wyler and Huston wound up capturing (and in a couple of instances recreating) harrowing scenes of real-life battle and carnage that not only shook them personally but led to periods of post-war melancholia as well as re-assessments of who they were and what kind of cinema they wanted to make. It also led to the making of their finest films, particularly in the case of Wyler (The Best Years of Our Lives), Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life) and Huston (Treasure of the Sierra Madre).
We’ve all have our impressions of World War II from this and that visual source (movies, docs, endless photos), but Millenials and perhaps even younger GenXers probably regard it as something that happened so long ago it’s in the same musty box as the Civil War. Five Came Back somehow makes this earth-shaking conflict seem more fierce and first-hand than it has since Saving Private Ryan (which is nearly 20 years old now, believe it or not).
This is largely, I feel, because of five present-day helmers — Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Coppola, Larry Kasdan and Paul Greengrass — passing along thoughts and musings about this great saga, each focusing on a specific director and storyline (Spielberg on Wyler, Kasdan on Stevens, Del Toro on Capra, Greengrass on Ford, Coppola on Huston). These guys sell the shit out of this thing, and you can only do that with conviction, intelligence and empathy.
All five of the WW II-era directors suffered wounds, bruises and traumas of one kind of another…nobody came out of it without some kind of limp.
Ford, who incurred the wrath of his military superiors after descending into a three-day alcoholic bender after witnessing the bloody D-Day slaughter (4000 Allied troops died on 6.6.44), became less of a Grapes of Wrath or Informer-styled social realist and increasingly devoted himself to Western myths, which could be seen as a kind of sentimental retreat.
Stevens, whose post-liberation footage of Dachau was used in Nuremberg war-crimes trials, wound up brooding for three or four years before finally getting back behind the camera to create his great American trilogy — A Place In The Sun (’51), Shane (’53) and Giant (’56) . He waited until the late ’50s to direct a WWII drama, The Diary of Anne Frank, that channeled or reflected his war experience.
As Harris noted in a 2014 interview, these directors were involved “in a three-way struggle…they wanted to make great movies, they wanted to help the war effort, and as men they were interested in telling the truth.” But their war experiences, as you might expect, sunk in and stewed in their systems for the rest of their lives. It defined them as much as they defined it. And now Five Came Back has re-defined them yet again and brought to light what they went through.
Here’s what I wrote to some critic friends this morning:
“I binge-watched it last night on my Macbook Air, three hours on the couch…a brilliant, moving, world-class experience…I especially loved [director Laurent] Bouzereau‘s final montage that sums it all up, the horror, sadness and struggle, and capped off with Frank Capra‘s line “it’s good to be in the world…it’s wonderful.” Yes, it is.
“I’ve always thought of Bouzereau as a bit of a snob, but he’s a genius-level Hollywood documentarian …the absolute best we have right now…he’s been nailing doc after doc…that making of Jaws doc he did in the mid ’90s is one of the best ever.
“Thomas Newman‘s fanfare theme, which is heard over the opening and closing credits, lifted me out of my seat…great stuff in the tradition of Jerry Goldsmith‘s Patton score, Richard Rodgers‘ Victory at Sea and John Williams‘ Olympics theme.
“I felt more respect and affinity for Spielberg during this doc than I have in many, many years…his narration is heartfelt and eloquent…he really gets what Wyler’s journey was all about, where his heart was, how he felt…beautiful stuff.
“And I love Kasdan’s observation about Stevens telling DeGaulle and several other bigwigs to exit that Montparnasse church and come out into the sunlight for the filming of the German signing of the surrender…”THAT is a director,” Kasdan notes, explaining that “nothing is more important than getting the shot.”
“And I respect Greengrass’s acknowledgment that at least on one occasion Ford “had his petty side.” It happened when Wyler came to him for help in London with some kind of logistical challenge, and Ford didn’t help him out of competitive spite or what-have-you…asshole.
“And I get what Coppola was saying about Huston and the disappointment he felt when he learned that Battle of San Pietro was mostly re-enacted, but real footage of the dead and wounded were integrated and it told a kind of brutal truth anyway so where was the real harm?
“After I watched it I wrote Guillermo del Toro about his commentary about the war and Capra in particular: ‘Your commentary & narration in Five Came Back is far and away the wisest and most eloquent…it just cuts right through and touches truth, and is very kind & understanding & compassionate to boot. It sounds like you — I presume you wrote most of it, right? It has your sound, your voice.”
And he wrote back, “Yes, of course! They just interviewed us. Each separately. The genius of Capra was to see Triumph of the Will and react with the equivalent of Ukulele Ike. His instinct to enthrone the decency and emotion over the grandeur. The patriotic individual over the Motherland structure. It was Gershwin vs Wagner.”