When their country needed them, five of America’s most powerful and influential film directors left behind the glamor of Hollywood to risk their lives and careers on the battlefields of World War II.
For each director-turned-soldier, the experience of the war, and the footage they captured, not only changed their lives forever, but also influenced the way in which the American public would understand the Second World War for generations to come.
The three-part Netflix docuseries Five Came Back, based on journalist Mark Harris’s expansive book of the same name and narrated by Meryl Streep, brings the story of each director — John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens – to life through a wealth of incredible archival footage and insightful interviews with contemporary directors like Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro and Lawrence Kasdan.
“It’s almost like these directors are crossing a river of decades to have conversations with their colleagues from 75 years ago,” Harris tells PEOPLE. “We’re dealing with movies that are quite old now, and I think there’s a temptation to see these films as museum pieces when they’re not. The blood, sweat and creative effort put into them has flowed through movies in the decades since.”
In the film, each modern director is paired with one of the five, giving his own unique insight into his counterpart’s art and persona. “We had a wish list of directors, and it wasn’t just, ‘Who is the modern Frank Capra?’ or ‘Who is the modern John Huston?’ We paired them by sensitivities, ideas, and themes,” explains the film’s director, Laurent Bouzereau.
Del Toro, who was paired with Capra, gives an especially fascinating perspective on the filmmaker’s scrappy immigrant persona. “Everybody who was in the room for Guillermo’s interviews were basically moved to tears, if not literally in some cases, by his delivery and his appreciation of Capra,” adds Bouzereau.
Through the interviews, archival footage and Harris’s extensive research, the film breathes life into the five larger-than-life directors. “They’re five very different men with huge personalities,” Harris explains. “They were competitive, they were colleagues, they had big egos and they were the kings of Hollywood. They had some swagger to them. So we really tried to bring that forth, because this is a story with five main characters and those characters have to come to life. “
For the five directors, joining the war effort was an opportunity to shed the shackles of the Hollywood studio system for the needs of the War Department, which in some ways allowed them more creative freedom, while also presenting its own unique creative and ethical challenges. “When these guys joined the war, they weren’t just making films as civilian liaisons,” says Harris. “They were in the Army — or in Ford’s case the Navy — and they were serving something other than their own aesthetic beliefs or commercial aspirations; they had a specific job to do.”
And it was no secret that job meant creating propaganda. From Capra’s influential and often-racist Why We Fight series, to Huston’s slyly reenacted Battle of San Pietro, each director created films aimed at boosting morale back at home. But as Five Came Back illustrates, when it came to documenting the war, the artists and the Army were forced to figure it out as they went along. While much of the resulting work formed the foundation for modern day documentary filmmaking, not all the films were equally successful in capturing reality. In fact, the directors themselves wrestled with the same ethical quandaries documentarians debate to this day in terms of marrying reenactments with real war footage.
“If you feel uncomfortable about what you’re seeing and feel uncertain as to where you land on it, then I think we’ve done our job,” Harris says. “As you see in the documentary, even Spielberg and Coppola do not agree entirely on reenactments. It’s really tricky because documentary standards were not what they are now. People expected some degree of reenactments because it was a war documentary and they figured the cameras couldn’t possibly capture everything. On the other hand, you can’t excuse everything by saying times were different.”
In the Battle of San Pietro, Huston ingeniously disguised reenactments using a series of tricks that came to form the visual vocabulary of war documentaries for generations to come. For example, Huston purposefully used shaky camera footage, unheard of at the time, to give the illusion of real-time danger. He also had soldiers look into the camera as if by accident, because professional actors are trained to avoid looking into the lens.
“The reenactment of that battle comes from Huston’s desire to show as authentic and realistic a battle as he could without actually haven been there,” explains Harris. Yet in the years following its release, neither Huston nor the Army ever conceded the footage was staged. “I think the fact that in the decades afterward he never admitted it was recreated, shows you probably a degree of his discomfort over what had been done.”
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But the biggest change in the director’s styles came after the war, according to Harris, who notes that all five had “come back to a Hollywood that had changed considerably over the war years.” No longer “interested in being enslaved by the studio system,” Harris says going to war gave the artists “a taste for independence and an appetite for more challenging movies that reflected the realities that they had come to know in the last few years.”
He adds, “None of them, except for Capra, came back with an appetite to do escapism or nostalgia. And when Capra did do that with It’s a Wonderful Life, as much as a classic as that movie is now considered, it really derailed him professionally, bankrupted his company, and he was never able to really get his footing back as a director.”
While Harris believes the directors probably did more good than harm in their coverage, he says he’s glad “we no longer need to recruit the makers of fiction to tell the story of a real war, especially when we have filmmakers who have devoted their whole lives to documenting the truth.”
The five who came back left future generations “with incredibly important historical material,” but Harris says, “I would not like to see this reproduced, and here’s to hoping there’s no need for it.”
Five Came Back is available on Netflix now.