REVIEW: Five Came Back (2017)

Release Poster – Netflix

The following is a recap and review of Five Came Back – A Netflix Documentary Series

Netflix’s Five Came Back is a three-part documentary (narrated by Meryl Streep) about five famous Hollywood directors and their impact on the documentation and presentation of the Second World War and, in turn, how it forever altered their careers as filmmakers.

The five filmmakers in question are John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens. The documentary pairs each of these director’s incredible life stories up with some of today’s greatest filmmakers and influencers. These established filmmakers are Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan, and Paul Greengrass.

The first part – ‘The Mission Begins’ – functions almost as an appetizer for the war, their experiences, and the massive work they all had ahead of them. After having introduced their five subjects and their pre-Second World War passions, as well as thoroughly accounting for William Wyler’s Mrs. Miniver, the documentary finally starts to talk about the production of wartime pictures.

John Ford’s The Battle of Midway represents the first detailed representation of some of the raw documentary drama that Five Came Back presents, and towards the end of this section – or episode – we get to hear about Frank Capra’s reaction to Triumph of the Will, a reaction and response that acts as an intriguing piece of propaganda history.

The second part – ‘Combat Zones’ – is the first section that I feel truly points the finger at some of these filmmakers. The discussions in Five Came Back make it clear that some of the enemy depictions were outrageously racially insensitive, for which the final section, in particular, criticizes Frank Capra (especially for Know Your Enemy: Japan).

Much like ‘The Mission Begins,’ ‘Combat Zones’ pays a lot of attention to William Wyler. In this section, the focus is on Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. What really struck me as interesting about the way they discuss the production of the aforementioned wartime documentary was how dangerous the filming was for Wyler due to his religious background. This part of the documentary definitely underscores that these men were in the middle of danger, and, as the final part of the documentary makes clear, they didn’t return home unscathed.

The final part – ‘The Price of Victory’ – is perhaps the most effective of the three episodes. It is disturbingly awful to watch some of George Stevens’ documentary footage, even after we get the story about how he got real generals to redo a capitulation. This section also shows why so much of the documentary seems to focus on specifically Frank Capra and William Wyler.

Wyler and Capra’s post-World War II experiences were very different. Their honest post-war films were received remarkably different. Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives became a hit, but Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life would only be appreciated by later generations.

Netflix’s Five Came Back both teaches you about film history and the general history of the Second World War. It should be compulsory viewing for all film students, as it works as both a testament to true artistic courage and the ways in which the medium can be shaped to influence behavior and opinion both in your neighborhood and in enemy nations. Both historians and cinephiles are going to fall head over heels in love with this documentary.

I do have two issues with the documentary, but neither of them are particularly dreadful. I think there is a tendency to overlook George Stevens prior to ‘The Price of Victory,’ which is almost all about him. I also think that the atomic bombs thrown over Hiroshima and Nagasaki feel slightly brushed over. But, in spite of those issues, Five Came Back stands tall as a must-watch documentary.


– Jeffrey Rex

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