Five Came Back: How a Netflix Series Revives Hollywood’s Impact on World War II

We sit down with Mark Harris and Laurent Bouzereau to discuss Five Came Back, a new series about Hollywood directors going to war.

When George Stevens went to war, he was primarily known as the director of comic frivolities. He was the Hollywood filmmaker who framed Fred Astaire’s sweet “The Way You Look Tonight” valentine for Ginger Rogers, and the celluloid Cupid who introduced Spencer Tracy to Katharine Hepburn in Woman of the Year (1942). After experiencing the horrors of the D-Day landing and bearing witness to true evil at the Dachau concentration camp, he never made a comedy again.

As the new Netflix docuseries, Five Came Back, illustrates with thorough poignancy, Stevens was transformed on an elemental level by World War II, and like the other eponymous four Hollywood directors who volunteered to become documentarians in service of the U.S. military, it had a profound impact on the rest of his life and career. Indeed, it is arguable that all the subjects of the series—Stevens, John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, and John Huston—crafted their best work after the conflict. In Stevens’ case, he made A Place in the Sun (1951), Shane (1953), and, when he was ready, The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). In between he pulled together documentaries like Nazi Concentration and Prison Camps (1945) and The Nazi Plan (1945), and prepared raw footage that was used at the Nuremberg Trials.

It’s kind of remarkable then how few are aware of the directors’ wartime contributions today. That dimming clarity is one of several factors that led Mark Harris, author of Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, to first see the potential in a visual documentary borne from his research.

“When the book went into galleys several months before it was published, I was struck by the number of people who would read it and would say to me things that just made it clear they assumed all these documentaries that I was writing about were lost or unavailable,” Harris recalls while leaning forward in his egg-shaped chair. “And not only were they all available, most of them were on the internet.”

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For Harris, who credits the lack of deference that Stevens and Wyler receive from auteurists as an impetus for even writing the book, this lack of awareness is a clear frustration. 

Hence it’s been a long journey for both him and Laurent Bouzereau, the director and producer of the Five Came Back documentary who, alongside Harris, I chatted with this past week. After all, this project has been in gestation since they first met at the book’s Los Angeles launch party in 2014—by which time the film rights were already in the process of being purchased by the series’ eventual executive producers, Steven Spielberg, Scott Rudin, and Barry Diller.

“That’s the kind of dream phone call you get, and I’ve been lucky to have several of those with Steven,” Bouzereau says while reflecting on the conversation that first broached the idea of turning Harris’ book into a documentary. “I had done a documentary on The Diary of Anne Frank with George Stevens Jr. and I watched all of his footage raw, uncut without any sound. And I’ll never forget that experience. So when I was approached about this project, it was just a gift.”

The docuseries itself is likewise a rare present for cinephiles. No stranger to documentaries that wade into distant history, Bouzereau admits they considered trying to interview family members of the men who worked for all five filmmakers’ units during the war, as well as historians who could elucidate the events. Yet, the context is so curious with Hollywood talent electing to give up their careers and risk their lives in favor of the U.S. government that it provided a unique opportunity.

As Bouzereau puts it while crediting Harris with the idea: “Five filmmakers? We need to get five directors! Because no one else knows better what a director does or is than another director.”

Indeed, the most striking aspect of the film version of Five Came Back is that all of the modern interviews for the series are divided among modern Hollywood directors: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan. Further, each 21st century filmmaker is the primary representative of a voice from cinema’s past, covering one of the documentary’s subjects as a journalist might chase a beat. Spielberg, who opens the documentary by recollecting his meeting with Wyler in the late 1960s, continues trailing The Best Years of Our Lives master for the whole series; Greengrass follows the mythic storytelling of Ford; Kasdan contextualizes Stevens’ transformation; Coppola talks Huston; and del Toro finds an intimate connection with Capra, a fellow immigrant who also dived into the strange waters of Hollywood.

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“Every single one of those directors they pretty much knew [about],” Bouzereau says when asked if any of them requested their subject. “But Guillermo zeroed in on Capra as he identified with him as an immigrant himself. And also Mark reminded me of this beautiful line he has at the beginning the of the piece where [he says], ‘I’ve never cried as much in any movies as in a Capra movie.’ Even though he doesn’t do that type of film—although he does fantasy, and It’s a Wonderful Life is a fantasy film—he had this immense culture and understanding of Capra that blew me away.”

Harris also points out that the conceit is not to find heirs to each filmmaker, but rather find a modern voice that could channel their past.

“The process definitely wasn’t ‘who is the modern day Frank Capra’ or ‘who is the modern day George Stevens?’ It was much more important, in some ways, to let them cast themselves and their affinity and ability to speak about these guys.”

Nonetheless, Bouzereau couldn’t resist noting perceived similarities between John Huston—the hard-living writer-director who gave us The Maltese Falcon (1941) before entering the U.S. Army and The Treasure of Sierra Madre (1948) promptly afterward—with Coppola.

“I remember the release of Apocalypse Now in Europe where I lived, in France at the Cannes Film Festival, where he declared, ‘This was a war! I went through my war!’ And pictures of him with a gun to his head, and I thought, ‘My God, this is the fiery man we need for John Huston!’”

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Bringing the stories of these men and their war to a newer generation is an obvious passion for both Harris and Bouzereau. Like so many people alive even in 2017, their relation to the Second World War—be it from parents or grandparents—is still tangible. Even as it becomes more elusively so with each passing year.

“It affected me personally in that my father was a World War II veteran,” Harris says of his personal experience with it. While his father passed when Harris was still young (a regret for the journalist as he developed a fascination with the period only later), he still recalls how being at Burma affected his parent, and likely influenced Five Came Back.

“I was always really conscious of the fact that my father defined himself, his identity, his masculinity, his personality in many ways by the fact that he had served in the Second World War, as did so many men of that generation.”

Bouzereau, who still remembers a great-grandfather who served even earlier in the First World War, can also touch the lingering aftershocks of both global sorrows from a childhood in France.

“I would go to a house in the north of France where there was still bunkers and still houses destroyed in World War II that were never restored, and I would play in them.” More insidiously, the hatreds and persecutions that gave rise to the ‘30s and ‘40s horrors survived as well.

“I went to Catholic school, but all of my friends were Jewish. And in the school my best friend was Jewish, so it was pretty shocking that we were bullied because of it. Me, because I was friend with a Jew, and him because he was Jewish. And his parents, who were survivors of the Holocaust, had to come and do a speech.” The 54-year-old director then adds after a moment, “I’m fairly young, and I’ve experienced that. The residue of all that.”

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Perhaps it is this ability to still frame the war in their own lives that not only attracted them to material about storytellers in that era, but also ones that were reshaped by its extraordinary, and now increasingly alien, times. In essence, Five Came Back is a documentary about five Hollywood men who became documentarians and propagandists working on behalf of the U.S. military.

During a period where the full power of cinema and mass communication was only faintly becoming comprehensible—and even the likes of Capra could be terrified by the narrative efficiency of Leni Riefenstahl’s iconic Nazi propaganda, Triumph of the Will (1935)—these filmmakers were viewed in no uncertain terms as the American answer to fascist media machines by Gen. George Marshall.

This is grappled with throughout the documentary, including in a novel situation where Huston was required to pass off reenactments of a battle he experienced in Italy’s San Pietro as actual battle footage.

When asked about reconciling the expectations we have now for documentarians with the filmmakers at the time, Harris replies, “I think the question you seized on is one of the reasons I wanted to write the book in the first place, which is it’s a very uncomfortable place to go when you say, as a propagandist, your job is to sell a point-of-view. As a director, your job is to tell a great story. As a documentarian, it is to tell a great story within the context of truth.

“These guys really felt they had an American duty to sell the war and to tell the story the government wanted to people. I think they also had a duty to the truth, and they also wanted to make great movies. And of those three different goals, you can almost never hit all three at once. Sometimes you could hit two; sometimes you could hit only one.”

It’s an open question the series leaves to viewers of how to interpret. Even the “five” director format is momentarily broken as Coppola and Spielberg offer amusingly differing views on Huston’s San Pietro episode.

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Ultimately, Five Came Back provides a unique perspective both on the Second World War and the influential filmmakers whose experiences in it have come to be overlooked. Whether it is Wyler in the B-17 Memphis Belle dropping bombs over France or John Ford standing atop a raised platform during the aerial Battle of Midway trying to capture a god’s eye view of the carnage, the footage remains a remarkable artifact. The docuseries is even able to include some of the film that’s been preserved by the National Archives from D-Day or Dachau (unfortunately, most of the footage from Normandy that led to Ford ending his military career several days later in a drunken stupor of fury has been lost).

“It’s interesting you use the term tangible history,” Harris says to one of my questions. “Because I’m so aware of how intangible it is becoming. I mean there was no one for me to interview for the book who was in a meaningful position with these guys during World War II. So it’s history that I feel conscious of slipping away from us.”

Five Came Back would seem to preserve it for a little longer.

The series is now streaming on Netflix.