The cinephile must-see documentary of 2017 is not showing in theaters -- it’s streaming on Netflix. However, the three-part series “Five Came Back” is so involving, so powerful, and so breathtakingly insightful that even non-film buffs will be enthralled.
This story of how five Hollywood filmmaking giants contributed to the propaganda battle of World War II is, quite simply, a riveting experience.
Title: “Five Came Back”
Year it began: 2017
Where it can be seen: Netflix
Who’s in it: Meryl Streep (narrator), Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg
Typical episode length: 59 to 69 minutes
Number of episodes to date: 3
Brief plot description: This three-part documentary series based on Mark Harris’s 2015 book “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War” looks at the World War II contributions of five legendary filmmakers -- Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler.
Narrated by Meryl Streep, the film features interviews with directors Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Lawrence Kasdan, Guillermo del Toro and Paul Greengrass.
Why it’s worth watching: Even casual film fanatics are likely familiar with the most famous works of Capra (“It’s a Wonderful Life,” “It Happened One Night,” “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”), Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath,” “The Searchers”), Huston (“The Maltese Falcon,” “The African Queen”), Stevens (“Shane,” “Giant”), and Wyler (“Ben Hur,” “The Best Years of Our Lives”). But the wartime work from these cinema titans is less well known. These men left the comforts of Hollywood for the frontlines of war, and their lives and careers were never the same.
As del Toro astutely observes, each of the five directors approached his documentaries differently: “You have Ford, who approaches it on a mythical, epic scale. You have John Huston going at it almost like an adventure. Wyler and Stevens approach it from an incredibly human point of view. And their experiences are different from Capra, who approaches it very much as a concept problem-solving point of view.”
The latter is perhaps the film’s most fascinating subject. “When the immensity of World War II comes in,” del Toro explains, “[Capra] is given to a single sentiment: Why we fight.” Director Laurent Bouzereau brings together archival footage, scores of clips, and insightful interviews to create something genuinely enthralling. (The third and final episode is especially moving.)
Interestingly, while the classic movie list on Netflix tends to be pretty weak (it’s sure not Turner Classic Movies), the streaming service currently has 13 of the documentaries featured in the film. This includes Capra’s “Prelude to War,” “The Battle for Russia,” and “Know Your Enemy: Japan”; the Capra-produced “The Negro Soldier”; Ford’s “Battle for Midway,” and Stevens’s still stunning “Nazi Concentration Camps.”
Watch “Five Came Back,” follow it with those 13 documentaries, and ponder a time when cinema opened the eyes of Americans to the horrors of combat.