War is driven by conflict, and conflict is an endless source for new narratives. So that many of our greatest filmmakers, at some point, find reason to tell a war story makes all the sense in the world. Their greatness and their films’ greatness feels equally preordained. Steven Spielberg made “Saving Private Ryan” and “Schindler’s List”; Francis Ford Coppola made “Apocalypse Now”; Lawrence Kasdan wrote “The Empire Strikes Back”; Paul Greengrass had “Green Zone” and “United 93”; and Guillermo del Toro took war into the future with “Pacific Rim.”
These five filmmakers would have plenty to say regarding the motivations of making war films all on their own, but “Five Came Back” isn’t focused on these five legendary filmmakers. The three-hour documentary written by Mark Harris (and based on his book) features these legendary men paying homage to the legends who preceded them; not only as directors or directors of war movies, but as men who were asked to make a difference with their art during World War II.
The three-part Netflix documentary tells the story of five filmmakers who served their country during the Second World War by making movies. John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens were all in service, enlisted under the United States War Department to create films for American audiences back home between 1941 and 1945. As Spielberg says in the film, “Hollywood realized they had a tremendous tool — or even a weapon — for change, through cinema,” and these five men were called on to use their skills to weaponize movies — mainly, as propaganda.
Narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring archival footage from the men’s films, unreleased footage from their time overseas, telling photographs of the war, archival interviews with the men, and new interviews with the five modern directors asked to help tell the story of their predecessors, “Five Came Back” is a carefully choreographed piece of filmmaking. Never overly reliant on any one element, Harris and director Laurent Bouzereau assemble evocative information in a visually engaging and narratively seamless fashion.
Digging through history from so many different viewpoints could have resulted in a sprawling, unfocused mess, but the film’s adherence to its timeline and knowing balance between fascinating bits of Hollywood trivia (told from the ultimate insiders) and harrowing reflections on how these films shaped the men who made them — and Hollywood in general — makes “Five Came Back” resonate through and through.
It’s also worth noting how debuting on Netflix should help the film be more widely seen; not simply because of the service’s massive subscription base, but because of how the filmmakers divide the three hours of footage into three episodes: The first is a mere 49 minutes, while the following two are over an hour long. Separated like this, a prospective viewer is more likely to get sucked in by the first episode, seeing just a 49-minute run-time, as opposed to staring down the barrel of a three-hour film.
Moreover, the segmentation provides the opportunity for easily identifiable thesis statements. The first episode is about understanding the power of the medium. Part two (which covers the most ground) deals with what kind of films were made and why, incorporating everything from racism within the military (that wasn’t tolerated by Wyler) to secret Oscar campaigns run for the director’s propaganda pictures. (Greengrass describing John Ford as a “glory hound” is particularly charming.) Film snobs may look at is as dumbing down the three-act structure, but the objective here is eyeballs, and this method should deliver more of them.
And that, really, is the point. “Five Came Back” is tailor-made for film aficionados. There’s no way any self-respecting cinephile can resist a documentary featuring untold stories of 10 of the greatest directors of all time, but this documentary holds larger meaning than a filmmaker’s responsibility: It’s a vital account of understanding the medium that affects us all, be it film, television, or whatever we watch in the future. Remember the past to prepare for the future. Lucky for us, “Five Came Back” makes the process enthralling.
“Five Came Back” is streaming now on Netflix and playing at the IFC Theater in New York.