An effective film can be used as a weapon and during World War II, America utilized every weapon in its arsenal. As Hollywood directors turned propagandists, John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens, and John Huston understood better than most the incredible power of film. But did they wield it responsibly? Netflix’s three-part documentary series Five Came Back attempts to answer that question by digging into the strange, even ugly period of history when Hollywood directly fed the war machine.

Let’s take a look at the series itself…and what you should watch after you’ve finished it, should you want to see more.

Military Men

Five Came Back (an adaptation of the Mark Harris book of the same name) traces the trajectories of Ford, Capra, Wyler, Stevens, and Huston during World War II. When America entered the conflict, each was either an established icon or an emerging talent. But they all essentially put their film careers on hold to join the war effort, helming several pieces of propaganda for the U.S. military. Some of it was thrilling. Some of it was a technical marvel. Some of it was jingoistic, to put it mildly. Their collective work covers military base life, mission semantics, PTSD, and the uncomfortable current of racism that ran through the “good war.”

Netflix enlisted five modern directors to serve as guides for each of the classic filmmakers: Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, and Francis Ford Coppola. Their interviews provide much of the documentary’s context, but Meryl Streep also drops in with sporadic narration.
There’s a lot of material for Five Came Back to cover in just over three hours, but the multi-part documentary blazes through these stories at a snappy pace, never getting too bogged down in the denser details of war. It keeps the focus firmly on the film industry, spending more time on the “Hollywood Canteen” club that Bette Davis and John Garfield founded than it ever does on The Battle of the Bulge. It’s also bolstered enormously by the obvious affection and enthusiasm each of the modern filmmakers harbors for his assigned director. Del Toro in particular seems like he could talk about Capra for days without pausing for breath.
But this affection can occasionally work against the documentary. While Harris is frank in his book about the problematic aspects of each director’s personality and work, the adaptation sometimes handles its legendary subjects with kid gloves. Ford’s anti-Semitism is barely mentioned, and Capra’s bizarre admiration of Mussolini is similarly glossed over. When discussing the politics of staged recreations – which a few of the propaganda films did, and then deliberately obscured the fact – the new class of directors can even lean towards hero worship. Coppola all but absolves Huston for his fictionalizations, simply citing the “magic of cinema.”

The book might be a little smarter in its framing, but it’s clear how immediately Five Came Back benefits from actual film. Although Harris relays countless interesting anecdotes in his text that didn’t make the adaptation, actually seeing clips from both the propaganda and the directors’ earlier work gives such an immediate sense of their style and film philosophies. This differentiation is key, considering how much the five men collaborated during their service. Simple audio clips are also effective. It’s one thing to read about Capra’s stunned, scared reaction to seeing Triumph of the Will and quite another to hear his shaky voice over Leni Riefenstahl’s ominous images.

Five Came Back is a testament to the power of cinema, and the moral implications that come with it. Was all this propaganda permissible? The documentary is sometimes afraid to truly grapple with that question. But when it does, it’s gripping stuff.

But after you’ve seen the series itself, you should turn your attention to the actual Hollywood documentaries from the war that are now streaming on Netflix. Here’s what you need to know.

Parsing Propaganda

Of course, the most compelling part of Five Came Back is the propaganda films themselves, and Netflix has made 13 of them available to coincide with the documentary’s release. Ford’s The Battle of Midway is a great place to start. The 20-minute short was one of the first propaganda pieces from this class of directors, and it’s clear how influential it was on all the films that followed. The action is genuinely thrilling, as is Ford’s decision to include imperfect shots where the camera shakes from bomb blasts.
Wyler’s Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress is similarly enthralling, offering a glimpse into a typical Air Force mission from start to finish. His footage from the actual planes in flight still has an exciting, powerful effect today – and he creates actual characters for his story through the more relaxed scenes from the ground, and the expletive-laden commands from the pilots’ intercom. Wyler would take a similar approach with his next venture, Thunderbolt, but since he had less aerial footage at his disposal the second time around, the narrative is more muddled. (At one point, he pads the production with shots of soldiers frolicking on the beach with puppies. Which is adorable, but almost comically random.)

Huston’s Report from the Aleutians has the moodiest look of them all, thanks to the thick Alaskan fog that dominates the technicolor footage. It actually ends up feeling like more of a nature documentary than a stirring call to arms. You’ll see more birds than bombers and even the animated maps which plot out the missions lack the cartoonish quality of so many other propaganda pieces.

The two selections from Capra’s Why We Fight series, Prelude to War and The Battle of Russia, fit the most neatly into the wide perception of WWII propaganda. Zealous narrators and boisterous bugles play over the black-and-white footage that Capra directly lifted from foreign propaganda. Whereas the reels from Russia are used to paint a sympathetic picture of an American ally – to somewhat troubling effect, whenever Stalin shows up – the German, Japanese, and Italian propaganda is turned against its subjects. Each film functions as a sort of history lesson, educating audiences about the players in the war and telling them exactly how they should feel about them.

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