Netflix’s Startlingly Timely World War II Miniseries ‘Five Came Back’ Revisits How Hollywood Fought Fascism

“Believe in yourself,” Frank Capra urged in his 1982 AFI Life Achievement Award acceptance speech. “Because only the valiant can create, only the daring should make films and only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow man for two hours and in the dark.”

Sentiments like this are practically obligatory at events where the entertainment industry celebrates its own achievements, and they often sound hopelessly self-aggrandizing. But placed near the end of Five Came Back, director Laurent Bouzereau and writer Mark Harris’ documentary about five Hollywood filmmakers who volunteered their skills to support America’s World War II effort, Capra’s speech resonates as a call to action. Like Harris’ 2014 book of the same name, the three-part Netflix miniseries is first and foremost a historical account of four years that would alter each director’s life and work in ways none of them could have anticipated. Embedded in that story, though, is a subtle, timely argument that artists living in moments of great political upheaval have a moral obligation to engage with current events.

After Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in late 1941, Capra enlisted in the Army and started building a propaganda movie department. John Ford, George Stevens, William Wyler and John Huston followed. Each was already an acclaimed filmmaker. While Capra was a crowd pleaser who’d recently created a classic of political cinema in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Ford’s social dramas The Informers and The Grapes of Wrath had earned him Oscars. Huston had just made a remarkable directorial debut with The Maltese Falcon. Wyler, a notorious perfectionist, excelled at adaptations like Wuthering Heights and The Little Foxes. Perhaps the least likely recruit of the bunch, Stevens made light comedies starring Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers and Katharine Hepburn. Overnight, they all became war documentarians.

The directors’ intersecting stories unfold through interviews, archival footage, montages of their film clips and Meryl Streep’s ruminative narration. Best known for his 2011 feature Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, for helming TCM’s A Night at the Movies, and his many DVD and Blu-ray documentaries, Bouzereau privileges narrative clarity over stylistic flourishes in Five Came Back — a wise choice, considering how much Hollywood and war history he needed to convey.

His innovation is to replace talking heads with contemporary A-list filmmakers, pairing each with a predecessor whose career he is uniquely suited to interpret. In an interview with Uproxx, Bouzereau explained that he matched Lawrence Kasdan and Stevens because both began their careers as writers; asked Guillermo Del Toro to discuss Capra because they share a fantastical sensibility and immigrant identities; and assigned Steven Spielberg to Wyler because the two had met early in the younger director’s career, and Spielberg was best equipped to draw out this exacting artist’s humanity. “Paul Greengrass was a documentary filmmaker himself, so I think he understood John Ford, when Ford stood on the platform in the middle of a battle and bombs were falling,” says Bouzereau. And he saw echoes of Huston’s boldness in Francis Ford Coppola, citing his famous press conference at Apocalypse Now’s Cannes premiere.

Particularly in its standout final episode, which covers the last years of the war and its aftermath, Five Came Back positions its subjects and their work as conduits for the emotional experience of war. Wyler was a Jewish immigrant; the miniseries recounts his unscheduled visit to his home village in France, after the country’s liberation. He found it entirely emptied out by the Holocaust. Ford and Stevens were dispatched to film D-Day, and Bouzereau devotes several wordless minutes to the footage they collected of the carnage in Normandy. Much of it was judged too graphic to show the American public at the time. A traumatized Ford retreated into alcohol.

Beyond Axis atrocities and American heroism, Five Came Back tackles America’s own racism. Wyler eagerly signed up to collaborate with the African-American playwright Carlton Moss on a film called The Negro Soldier, designed to make black recruits, who were understandably hesitant to fight for a country that treated them so terribly, feel included in the war effort. But when his superiors issued offensive guidelines for the project (urging him to avoid soldiers with excessively “Negroid” features, for example), Wyler quit. The story ends with an utterly contemporary twist: Although Stuart Heisler replaced Wyler as director, it was Moss who ultimately took ownership of the project and shaped it into an honest, powerful feature.

“I was worried aboutThe Negro Soldier, because it’s one of the few documentaries we deal with that is not directed by one of our five directors. But the story of Wyler [volunteering] and then dropping out and refusing to make it — as well as the movie itself and the story behind it — were really interesting. The fact that it did get completed was testament to Capra’s perseverance with it,” says Harris. “At the beginning of the [adaptation] process, I thought, ‘If we can get this all the way to the final cut, that will mean I got all the big, emotional beats I wanted.’”

Harris and Bouzereau shrewdly forge a connection between Japanese internment, the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the dehumanizing propaganda filmmakers created during the war. Although Germans were often depicted as regular people under the influence of an evil dictator, the Japanese were reduced to racist caricatures. “It mattered to me that we included some of the stuff about the depiction of the Japanese in [Capra’s] Know Your Enemy: Japan, and in Hollywood movies,” Harris explains. “As much as we wanted to celebrate the work of these five directors, it’s not an entirely celebratory story. There are dark aspects to it.”

Unfortunately, Five Came Back often seems to be rushing through these thorny topics. Tasked with condensing a 450-page book that would’ve easily merited a six-hour miniseries into just 200 minutes, Bouzereau doesn’t find much time for substantial excerpts from his subjects’ documentaries. Instead, isolated shots and montages are frequently paired with Streep’s narration or interview audio. (Thankfully, Netflix is uploading 13 of the five directors’ war films.) Del Toro’s enthusiasm for Capra is contagious, and Spielberg brings great empathy to Wyler’s story, but too often the contemporary filmmakers deliver exposition rather than critical insight.

But the miniseries excels at demonstrating how the war altered its subjects, and how their work overseas continued to change the world for decades after the fighting had ceased. The sheer volume of a B-25 bomber robbed Wyler of much of his hearing. In 1946, Huston completed Let There Be Light, a groundbreaking documentary about soldiers with PTSD that was suppressed until 1981. Stevens documented the liberation of Dachau, where he was shaken to his core by the revelation of “how much management [humans] need to keep from becoming ourselves.” He made two Holocaust films that changed the course of the Nuremberg trials.

“By the time I finished researching the book,” Harris recalls, “I’d come to understand how deeply Stevens was shaped and shattered by his war experience, and then put himself back together after it. How Wyler was a disabled veteran. How Ford used the war to test his own courage, and what he discovered about that courage—which was real—and its limits—which were also real. The degree to which Huston was shaken up by his war experiences and by his fear clashing with his sense of daring. I was moved to read that Capra had this night in London, when he was standing outside in the street shivering, during the Blitz, and wondering what this was all for.”

Bouzereau and Harris wisely observe that when they returned to Hollywood, the directors made the films that came to define their careers. Capra’s classic, It’s a Wonderful Life, premiered in 1946. A few years later, Huston won a Best Director Oscar for The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. In the ‘50s, Wyler and Ford made the respective masterpieces, Ben-Hur and The Searchers. Stevens abandoned comedies in favor of weighty dramas like A Place in the Sun and Shane; he also adapted The Diary of Anne Frank. Whether they enlisted to prove their mettle or to fulfill a moral obligation, documenting World War II taught each man something about the human experience that made him a more insightful filmmaker.

Meanwhile, although they’re rarely screened today, the movies they made for the Army were instrumental in justifying a necessary war and preparing new recruits for the harsh realities that awaited them on the battlefield. Stevens’ concentration camp films are proof that one Hollywood director could hold an entire genocidal regime accountable. With fascism, nationalism and bigotry on the rise around the world — and across the U.S. — again, this seems like a crucial moment to remember that artists really can play a pivotal role in moments of political crisis.

“We didn’t know, obviously, that this documentary was going to be birthed into this political situation,” Harris reflects. “But I’m always most in sympathy with people who pick up their cameras with the idea of telling some kind of truth and looking at the world as it is. I don’t think politics dirty up art, or should be cordoned off from the discourse because they’re controversial or upsetting. If anybody comes away from [Five Came Back] with increased excitement about the power of what a person with a camera can do, I would be very, very happy about that.”

Five Came Back premieres Friday, March 31st on Netflix.