During World War II, five top Hollywood directors – Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford, John Huston and George Stevens – put their careers on hold to join the military and make films for the government.
Though these films fall under the umbrella of “propaganda,” much of the output was more nuanced, as the excellent, three-part Netflix documentary series “Five Came Back” – narrated by Meryl Streep and featuring on-camera interviews with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola and Guillermo Del Toro about their fellow directors – makes clear.
Del Toro comes off as an expert on Capra, the famously humanist director who would make “It’s a Wonderful Life” after the war but who, as the filmmaking corps’ de-facto leader during it, had a mixed human-rights record, shepherding both the enlightened-for-its-time “The Negro Soldier” and the racist “Know Your Enemy: Japan.”
Most of the product he supervised was straightforward: Newsreels and documentaries that became Americans’ primary source of wartime visuals in the pre-television era. The filmmakers and their crews traveled to far-flung locations where there were no on-set trailers, and little cover. Ford, the great director of westerns, caught a piece of shrapnel while filming the Oscar-winning, 1942 documentary “The Battle of Midway.”
Wyler, a Jewish immigrant to the United States from once-French, German-annexed Alsace-Lorraine, flew during World War II on the Boeing B-17F he would immortalize in the 1944 documentary “Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress.” As Spielberg, an established World War II nut and this series’ executive producer, points out, Wyler made these trips despite the danger of being shot down in Nazi Germany.
Wyler took to the skies again, for another film, in a P-47 fighter-bomber, and lost much of his hearing due to conditions inside the plane. (His cinematographer, Harold Tannenbaum, was shot down and killed.) Wyler had started his personal campaign against the Nazis before his service, by making “Mrs. Miniver,” the story of a stalwart family in war-ravaged England. It began filming before Pearl Harbor, and was meant to combat isolationist sentiment at that time.
But many of the wartime films lacked an agenda beyond informing. When Stevens and crew happened upon Dachau concentration camp, Stevens immediately saw himself not as filmmaker but evidence gatherer – for posterity and war-crimes prosecution. Though it follows events from more than 70 years ago, this section of the documentary gives us hope a truism exists – that in the worst of times, real news triumphs over fake.
Five Came Back
A three-part documentary on Netflix