Amid all the moreish dramas, single-cam comedies, limited event miniseries and true-crime investigations that define our era of Too-Much-TV™, the Netflix documentary “Five Came Back,” about five classic Hollywood film directors and their experiences of filming for the War Department during World War II, is an unexpectedly refreshing change of pace. Unflashily presented, and surprisingly — for want of a less off-putting word — scholarly, it is cleverly, compactly written by Vulture film critic and author Mark Harris (it’s based on his book of the same name), directed by Laurent Bouzereau who is probably the highest profile “Making-of” and “Behind the Scenes” featurette director, and runs to a manageably bingeable 3 hours 15 minutes in total, broken into three distinct but complementary, roughly chronological chapters. But what sets it apart is how little it panders: fairly traditional in format, with talking head segments, crisply edited archival footage and Meryl Streep‘s grave, elegant voiceover narration doing the storytelling, it is a show that tells — less concerned with being formally groundbreaking than with the faithful recounting of a little-appreciated area of cinema lore. As a result, it’s hard to see it playing particularly well outside of a relatively niche audience of film and WWII buffs, but it makes it catnip to cinephiles with an interest in history, which, hello, it me.
The five directors whom Harris focusses on are Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Ford, George Stevens and John Huston. But as much as the title (borrowed from an otherwise unrelated, terrific 1939 B-movie directed by John Farrow, father of Mia Farrow, by the way) suggests a kind of unity, as though this were the origin story of an unlikely motley crew galvanized by shared experience, actually they represent a plurality of motivations for, and approaches and responses to the demands of shooting films under wartime conditions. In an inspired move that helps the book-to-screen transition feel springier, the five men are further differentiated by relating each one to a different modern-day director, who then appears on camera as part surrogate, part advocate and part critic of their chosen counterpart.
The pairings are starry and unexpected, and for those of us familiar with the output of all 10 men, they throw off certain sparks of metatextual provocation on their own. The possibly counter-intuitive coupling of Steven Spielberg (also the film’s executive producer) with William Wyler makes increasing sense when you think about how Wyler was, as Spielberg is, master of both spectacle and sentimental melodrama. It lends added credibility that Paul Greengrass, a director with a background in documentary who more recently reinvented the masculine/action genre with his docudrama aesthetic, should be the one to talk admiringly (but never uncritically) of problematic genius John Ford. Francis Ford Coppola tackles the wartime legacy of John Huston with an unabashedly auteurist defense of the maverick Huston’s restaging of some of the most dramatic sequences in his “The Battle of San Pietro” in a way that is directly related to Coppola’s own “Apocalypse Now” but also indirectly, more generally, illuminates Coppola’s own outlook on filmmaking. Guillermo del Toro, probably the film’s latter-day talking head MVP (I really could have listened to him speak for the whole 3 hours) may be more famous for fantasy than for the tightly scripted comedies that Frank Capra was known for, but they share a certain humanism and perspective as emigres who enjoyed major Hollywood success. And perhaps there’s even a little slyness in how it’s Lawrence Kasdan, the least name-brand-y auteur of the modern 5, who stumps for George Stevens, whose own legacy is probably the least high-profile of the classic 5, despite a clutch of powerful films and a WWII story that is the most dramatic of all (Stevens was the one who filmed the liberation of the death camp at Dachau, footage from which was used in evidence at the Nuremberg Trials).
These parallels and sparky cross-generational reflections are, however, largely left for the viewer to decipher, as the modern filmmakers almost never refer to their own work in eulogizing or castigating that of their predecessors. This reticence is to be admired — one can easily imagine a much brasher, more gossipy version in which the contributions of Ford et al are reductively defined largely in terms of their influence on others to come. But again, one does wonder how many casual viewers this somewhat ascetic approach might cost the documentary, especially when at times “Five Came Back” almost seems to swerve to avoid the obvious comparison. It seems odd, for example, that there should be so little discussion of the famously effective Omaha Beach sequence from “Saving Private Ryan” when you have that film’s director at your disposal and are elsewhere discussing the difficulties faced by Ford and Stevens who were actually on the ground filming the Normandy invasion. On occasions like this, the respectful anti-sensationalism of the film’s approach can feel a little like a lack.
Mostly, though, this is a fascinating, extremely well researched program that, while it’s especially rewarding to those with a basic familiarity with the era and its filmmakers, is still a stand-alone documentary with no prior knowledge needed. The first episode sets the scene and largely comprises a quick yet uncondescending précis of each of the five’s pre-war Hollywood careers. The second then recounts their wartime experiences, while the final, most compelling part outlines their end-of-war and post-war output. How difficult it was for George Stevens to readjust after the horrors he’d witnessed in Dachau; how disappointing the failure of Capra’s masterpiece “It’s a Wonderful Life” was for the Italian-born director; how remarkable William Wyler’s “The Best Years of our Lives” turned out to be as an example of exceptional filmmaking dealing with issues that were raw as an exposed nerve in the American psyche; and so on.
But what is perhaps most impressive about “Five Came Back” is the very many ways Harris’ obvious enthusiasm for his subject, and the uncompromised intelligence of the approach, encourages further study and opens up relatively arcane avenues of discourse for the non-academic cinephile. It is defiantly anti-simplistic, not only refusing to force the sprawling five-headed hydra of its subject matter to conform to a one-size-fits-all narrative, but unafraid to call out the blatant racism, jingoism and even amateurishness of a lot of the era’s filmic output. It questions the idea of artifice in documentary filmmaking and presents different judgments on that (Spielberg was initially “disappointed” to discover that Huston had “faked” some of his footage, where Coppola is admiring of the craft involved). It implicitly investigates the idea of the prickly, competitive creative ego necessary for sustained Hollywood success in the mid-20th century being put in the service of the bureaucracy and committee-led approvals process of the war effort. And it acknowledges the shifting contextual reality that means that one person’s wartime newsreel documentary is another person’s blatant propaganda.
It’s asserted in part 3 that Stevens, upon encountering the indescribable horror of Dachau, immediately realized that his role was no longer that of a filmmaker, but that of a gatherer of “evidence.” But this documentary makes the compelling case that, with time, all documentaries become “evidence” — of the mores and standards of the time, and of the personalities of the people who made them, perhaps even more than of the events they depict with a greater or lesser degree of fidelity to the truth. “Five Came Back,” marred only by a jarring score that feels overly bombastic amid so much restraint, compiles that evidence into an erudite, well-edited, and mature portrait of Hollywood at war, through the stories of five men with wildly contrasting ideas of what the role of a wartime filmmaker should be. Huston searched for adventure, Capra was a problem-solver, Stevens was the impatient humanist, Wyler the intimate storyteller and Ford the epic, long-view mythmaker. It is a mark of the extraordinary, defining times they lived through, and the extraordinary filmmakers they were, and that they were all, in their separate ways, equally right. [B+]