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Review: Five Came Back (2017)

Five Came Back (2017)

Directed by: Laurent Bouzereau

Premise: A documentary about Hollywood moviemakers John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Huston, and George Stevens who joined the United States military during World War II and produced documentaries and propaganda films.

What Works: Hollywood and the United States military have long shared a symbiotic history. The entertainment industry’s liberal public image bellies the degree to which Hollywood and the armed forces have advanced each other’s interests, with the military granting filmmakers access to technical advisors and equipment in exchange for Hollywood pictures that valorize service and mythologize militarism. This association traces back to World War II when Hollywood worked in cooperation with the government’s Office of War Information to create narrative features and documentaries that would mobilize the public, encourage enlistment and the purchase of war bonds, and support morale. Several major directors including John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra, John Huston, and George Stevens stepped away from the comforts of the Hollywood backlot to enlist in the military and they were specifically assigned to produce films. Five Came Back is a documentary about those filmmakers and the work they produced during the war and the way those films impacted the audience and the directors themselves. The documentary takes the audience chronologically through the war while exploring the films that Ford, Wyler, Capra, Huston, and Stevens made during this period and the way they struggled not only with the difficulties of being in country but also with the military bureaucracy. Five Came Back is also about the way in which these filmmakers tried to create artistry without the resources of a Hollywood studio and the sometimes deceptive techniques they employed, including restaging events for the cameras and passing it off as authentic. Five Came Back is also a vivid example of the power of cinema and the way in which it can be used to mobilize the public and shape opinions. The sequence recounting the first Allied troops arrived at the Dachau concentration camp illustrates this vividly; George Stevens was among the first to document the war crimes of the Nazi regime and his footage was instrumental in the Nuremberg trials and in conveying to the public what had happened. Five Came Back was directed by Laurent Bouzereau who has a distinguished filmography of making-of documentaries and this film is very effective not only in delivering information but in holding the audience’s attention. It’s well edited and briskly paced. The documentary unfolds with a sense of urgency and the story of the war and these filmmakers is as compelling as any drama.

What Doesn’t: Even at three hours, Five Came Back has a lot of material to cover; Frank Capra’s Why We Fight series alone would be worthy of its own making-of documentary and Five Came Back is not only about the films that were made during the war but also how their directors were changed by the experience. It covers everything well enough but Five Came Back it limited to presenting the material in broad strokes. The commentary of Five Came Back is primarily provided by filmmakers of the post-war generation: Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, and Lawrence Kasdan. These filmmakers know cinema and their perspective is worthwhile but the credibility of Five Came Back might have been stronger if it had included historians or commentators with related qualifications.

DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.

Bottom Line: Five Came Back is an excellent documentary. It will inform and entertain in equal measure and it is a thoughtful examination of the relationship between Hollywood and the military as well as a compelling biography of five filmmakers at a critical point in their lives.

Episode: #801 (May 24, 2020)