***1/2 out of ****
(for some language, adult themes, and real war violence)
Released: Now streaming on Netflix
Runtime: 3 episodes, each @ 1 hour
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
Starring: On-camera interviews with Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan. Narrated by Meryl Streep.
I don’t know if Five Came Back rises to the high bar of required viewing, but it sure comes close.
This certainly is a must for history nerds, World War II buffs, and fans of Old Hollywood. Based on the non-fiction book by Mark Harris, Five Came Back is a three-hour documentary told over three one-hour parts. It tells the story of five legendary film directors who, at the peak of their careers, left Hollywood to serve their country in the Allied war effort, each contributing their skills to tell the story of the conflict to a pre-TV nation.
Using Harris’s text as a guide, it weaves together the journeys of Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler. If you don’t recognize those names, a quick glimpse at their IMDb pages (linked on their names) instantly reveals their legacies.
Their stories are placed into specific contexts – both insightful and personal – by five contemporary filmmakers, who each speak at length in on-camera interviews: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan. Meryl Streep serves as Narrator.
This is a fascinating deep dive, especially for those familiar with each director’s iconic imprint on the art of cinema. Particularly fascinating is how real events turn likely assumptions (well mine, anyway) on their heads. Expecting to hear tales of superior storytellers rising to the occasion when their country calls, in ways that only they can, we see instead how most of these gentlemen – great as they were – simply were not prepared, either as filmmakers or as men, to what the effort would require of them.
For four of the five, their experience revealed not strengths as directors but weaknesses as men. Their times served would be the formative challenge that each man lacked, and needed. The only exception was William Wyler, whose personal character and unshakeable integrity met the war fully formed. His war documentaries – and the public they served – were the better for it.
George Stevens has perhaps the most fascinating arc, entering the war as an auteur of light comedies and musicals, amusing if artful fluff, only for destiny to ultimately require him to record the war’s most heinous, gruesome realities.
As someone who knew plenty about the personal lives of Capra, Ford, and Huston, to learn about Stevens and Wyler were, for me, the greatest discoveries and rewards of Five Came Back. Suffice it to say, my perspective on Stevens’ career (which I already admired) has taken on a whole new meaning and depth, while William Wyler has become my new hero.
Whether binging straight through or, as I’d recommend, over a series of consecutive nights, the Netflix original documentary Five Came Back (streaming exclusively on that provider) is a special, affecting, profoundly involving historical document, best shared and discussed with family and friends, or as a fascinating augment to a high school history class. The true stories of Five Came Back inspire levels of patriotism and emotion that would make even the best purveyors of Hollywood magic salute with pride.