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‘Five Came Back’: How the Story of Hollywood Directors In World War II Became a Great Netflix Series

Documentarian Laurent Bouzereau and writer Mark Harris matched up 5 contemporary directors with 5 top auteurs who documented the war.

John Ford

Entertainment journalist Mark Harris followed up his well-reviewed 2009 “Pictures at a Revolution” with an even better and more accessible book, the dramatic story of five top Hollywood directors and their roles in producing WWII propaganda films, told over 500 pages: “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. The first book was doomed not to become a movie due to prohibitive clip costs. But the urge to open up Harris’s exhaustive research on “Five Came Back” via dramatic documentary shorts shot in the global arena was irresistible — and they were free.

READ MORE: ‘Five Came Back’ Review: A Cinephile’s Dream Documentary Becomes Enthralling for Everyone on Netflix

There’s plenty of rich footage to choose from: Frank Capra’s “Why We Fight” propaganda, John Huston’s re-enacted “The Battle of San Pietro,” John Ford and William Wyler’s live footage of the D-Day invasion from sea and air, respectively, and George Stevens’ investigation of the concentration camp Dachau, which aided the Nuremberg trials.

“It’s a Wonderful Life”

Executive producers Scott Rudin and Steven Spielberg (Shoah Foundation activist and director of Oscar-winning “Schindler’s List”) first grabbed the movie rights to “Five Came Back” before its 2014 publication, and then Barry Diller came on board. Spielberg’s Amblin TV brought the three-part documentary to cinematic life for Netflix, with Passion PicturesJohn Battsek producing and star DVD extras producer-director Laurent Bouzereau at the helm. Spielberg contributes commentary as one of five contemporary A-listers matched with their Golden Age of Hollywood counterparts.

Cinephiles and war mavens alike will want to tune into Bouzereau’s fine documentary, written by Harris and currently available on Netflix in three installments, along with 13 war documentaries, listed below.

(Read the IndieWire review here; the movie opened this weekend in theaters in New York and Los Angeles to qualify for the Oscars.)

All five men returned from the war physically healthy but dramatically changed. Wyler was rendered deaf from filming without earmuffs in a B-25 bomber, but returned to directing with the searing post-war Oscar-winner about the impact of the war on veterans, “The Best Years of Our Lives.” After the war, Ford directed “They Were Expendable” with Navy PT-boat veteran Robert Montgomery — giving him three days to gird himself to board the vessels again — along with his stalwart John Wayne, who was harassed by his director for not having served in the armed forces. The once light-hearted Stevens (“Swingtime”) never made another comedy, instead delivering such Oscar-winning dramas as “A Place in the Sun,” “Giant,” and “The Diary of Anne Frank.” Capra filmed his misunderstood not-yet-classic “It’s a Wonderful Life,” starring a darkened James Stewart. Huston delivered what many consider to be his best movie, for which his father Walter won an Oscar: the scabrously nasty “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

The filmmakers debated how to structure the documentary, which proved to be too unwieldy to squeeze into two hours and naturally fell into three parts. “Part One is the pre-war introduction to the five guys and their entry into the war,” said Bouzereau. “Two is their experience in the war and Three is about the end of the war and their return home.”

Through many drafts from start to post-production, Harris insisted on retaining the cross-cutting narrative among the five directors and their very different approaches to covering the sprawling global conflict. Their goal: propaganda for the American war effort. “What those guys did,” said Bouzereau, “to leave their homes and careers behind to serve their country and document the war, is something that had never happened before or since.”

The moviemakers found five well-suited commentators to steep themselves in their directors in order to illuminate each man’s wartime experience and its aftermath through lengthy interviews with Bouzereau. “There’s an empathetic quality of directors talking about directors,” said Harris. “My whole focus was on telling the story, scrupulous accuracy and juggling the five guys, making sure they were all getting their due.”

The director did film Harris too, but decided to stick with the five commentators and archive footage, and at the end of the process, added Meryl Streep as narrator. It didn’t hurt that she was starting to work with Spielberg on “The Post” and had done several films for Rudin.

Harris emailed her a letter, “telling her the truth: that I had her voice in my head when I was working on the narration. She’s got the authority, the intelligence, the warmth. Every other voice was male. It was good to have the narrator be isolated. She came in to the studio in New York 45 minutes after getting the Oscar nomination. She was cheerful and delighted, rolled up her sleeves and got to work. She did seven hours in one day. She had some good on the spot suggestions that went straight into the movie.”

Here’s a look at how the filmmakers wound up pairing modern-day directors with the Hollywood giants of yesteryear.

Five Came Back Steven Spielberg

Steven Spielberg

Courtesy of Netflix

Steven Spielberg and William Wyler

It makes sense that Spielberg would have an affinity for the Jewish German emigre who rose to the top of the Hollywood studio pyramid as one of the great exemplars of what Spielberg does best — captivating and emotional mainstream dramas. Wyler’s greatest Academy Award competitor was John Ford, who won four Oscars to Wyler’s three.

The director had also met Wyler. “He talks about when he first met him over 20 years ago,” said Bouzereau. “He was blown away by how kind and generous he was, regardless of his status, no matter how successful he was.”

Wyler’s last film before the war was timely Oscar-winner “Mrs. Miniver;” while he was in the service he followed the fighting from the air, most memorably in immersive cinema verite “Memphis Belle: The Story of a Flying Fortress.”

Producer Spielberg also kept his eye on the documentary big picture. “Spielberg was really great about saying to me at different points, ‘keep your eye on the guys,'” said Harris. “These are five different people with big spiky complicated personalities, which we wanted to bring to the forefront.”

“Steven was present constantly,” said Bouzereau, “while we were cutting he was so helpful, watching cuts immediately and giving amazing feedback. He’d say to me, “‘slow down that shot, take out four frames here,’ ‘this is too long here,’ ‘this feels like a gimmick.'” Everything is very precise.”

Paul Greengrass

Paul Greengrass and John Ford

While this match-up may not seem obvious, Greengrass is a huge fan of one of Hollywood’s greatest directors, and having come from a documentary background, examines Ford’s war films with great insight. In “The Battle of Midway,” for example, he respects Ford’s choice to place the camera high above the action as bombs were flying — which made him vulnerable to enemy fire.

“Greengrass was able to talk about Ford as if he had been standing there next to him,” said Harris. “You can’t manufacture that.”

Frank Capra

Guillermo del Toro and Frank Capra

Again, it’s not his genre bonafides that link Del Toro to one of Hollywood’s most humanistic directors, but rather their shared immigrant status. Born in Sicily, Frank Capra achieved great heights in Hollywood with such heart-tugging Oscar-winners as “It Happened One Night,” “Mr.  Deeds Goes to Town,” and “You Can’t Take It with You,” but still felt like an outsider. He wanted to prove his American anti-Nazi fervor and produced the “Why We Fight” series using all the tools of the trade, from breathless news-reel narration and epic battle reenactments to animated maps and cartoons.

Capra of course wrote his own autobiography, but Harris didn’t always trust his recollections. In many of the archive interviews conducted decades after the war, Harris realized, the directors were amplifying their war stories: “Half of them are made up.” Harris kept asking himself, “are we oversimplifying or oversampling?”

One difference between the book and the movie is that Del Toro is much fonder of Capra than Harris. “A lot of people came to me and said, ‘you really hate Capra,'” Harris admitted.  “I don’t. I do realize I was hard on him, but as even Guillermo said, his politics [were] complicated.”

John Huston

Francis Ford Coppola and John Huston

As the patriarch of one storied Hollywood family, Coppola understands the pressures that were placed on bad-boy Huston, who like him, found his career in Hollywood first through screenwriting (working with Wyler on “Jezebel” and “Wuthering Heights”) and then sought to control his stories’ final outcome, as Coppola did, by directing them. He had just completed his first film “The Maltese Falcon” when he joined the armed forces, documenting “The Fall of San Pietro” and the emotional and physical toll on veterans in “Let There Be Light.”

During the making of “Apocalypse Now” Coppola memorably compared filmmaking to being in a war, and sure enough, “relates the experience of Huston to his own experience,” said Bouzereau. “The directors bring their own POV and perspective. We matched him with Huston who also had a crazy approach to making a movie, like going hunting while making ‘The African Queen.’

There was no shortage of interview footage of Huston. “He was so used to being on camera,” said Harris. “I’d never turn down the chance to listen to John Huston’s voice.”

“Five Came Back”

Courtesy of Netflix

Lawrence Kasdan and George Stevens

Talk about one picture being worth 1000 words. The most dramatic footage was shot at the end of the war when Stevens drives into the concentration camp at Dachau and records horrors that no one was expecting to find there. “With the Dachau footage we were all conscious of wanting to be careful how we used it and presented it,” said Harris. “It’s still shocking and horrible to look at, but we wanted to honor that.”

“It’s one thing to talk about the camps,” said Bouzereau. “This man was walking into the camps not having the vocabulary of the holocaust in his mind at all. His reaction to it is to turn from documentary filmmaker to evidence gatherer for a trial to show the humanity of what happened.”

Of the five directors, Stevens was the least documented on video. “We were happy to have found audio recordings,” said Harris. “I don’t think people know him as well; a lot of what he says about the camps is powerful and moving.”

The Shifting Zeitgeist

What has changed since 2014 is that as resonant as this historic war still is, having Donald Trump as U.S. president with a nationalist, isolationist, anti-trade and anti-immigrant agenda does ring warning bells. “We were originally hoping to release the film before the election,” said Bouzereau. “We became conscious of the message it carried, the knowledge of the history of what had happened, the relationship of government to cinema and propaganda.”

READ MORE: ‘Five Came Back’ Trailer: Netflix and Steven Spielberg Reveal The True Story of WWII Filmmakers Who Served With Cameras

As the filmmakers were working intensely through campaign season, the election and Brexit, said Harris, “the world in many ways was turning upside down. We didn’t check with each other, it wasn’t like, ‘Should be change this?’ It was more like, ‘Are we nailing down the complexities here?,’ as we were talking about demonstrating the danger of propaganda, how high the stakes are, the complexities that arise when the government decides it wants to control the information stream, and wants to stop people from outside from doing it. I don’t think any of us wanted to shape the story in order to draw some overstated parallel with what was going on at the moment, but we did want to make sure that there were useful discussions to be had about how the world isn’t want it was in 1942 and also, how things in 1942 and 1943 do find themselves echoing strangely 75 years later.”

Netflix is streaming the five directors’ 13 war documentaries throughout April:

“The Battle of Midway” (1942, John Ford)

“Prelude to War” (1942, Frank Capra)

“The Battle of Russia” (1943, Frank Capra)

“How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines” (1943, John Ford)

“Report from the Aleutians” (1943, John Huston)

“The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress” (1944, William Wyler)

“The Negro Soldier” (1944, Stuart Heisler; produced by Frank Capra)

“Tunisian Victory” (1944, John Huston)

“Know Your Enemy — Japan” (1945, Frank Capra)

“San Pietro” (1945, John Huston)

“Nazi Concentration Camps” (1945, George Stevens)

“Let There Be Light” (1946, John Huston)

“Thunderbolt” (1947, William Wyler)

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