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Five Came Back (TV series)

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Five Came Back
Based onFive Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
by Mark Harris
Directed byLaurent Bouzereau
Narrated byMeryl Streep
Theme music composerThomas Newman
ComposerJeremy Turner
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of seasons1
No. of episodes3 (list of episodes)
Executive producers
EditorWill Znidaric
Running time59-69 minutes
Production companies
Original networkNetflix
Original releaseMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)

Five Came Back is an American documentary based on the 2014 book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by journalist Mark Harris.[1] It was released as a stand-alone documentary in New York and Los Angeles, and as a three-part series on Netflix, on March 31, 2017.[2]

The documentary focuses on five directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – whose war-related works are analysed by modern filmmakers, respectively Paul Greengrass, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, and Lawrence Kasdan. Meryl Streep, who serves as narrator, won the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Narrator for her performance.

On February 9, 2021 Netflix added all of the propaganda movies featured into a new series called Five Came Back: The Reference Films.[3]

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>> Good afternoon. I'm a Public Program Producer here at the National Archives. Today we welcome author Mark Harris to the William G. McGowan Theater to discuss his book "Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War." A special welcome to those of you watching on our YouTube channel. It's most appropriate that the National Archives host this lecture as the work and the careers of the five directors that you will soon hear more about: John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston and George Stevens, is well documented in the motion picture, textual and photographic holdings of the National Archives. In fact, later today at 2:00 p.m. after the book signing up in the Archives Store we will be screening John Huston's 1946 documentary produced for the Department of Army, "Let There Be Light." The version showing was recently digitally restored by the National Archives Motion Picture Preservation staff. For those of you watching online, you can view the restored version on our YouTube channel as well as other films by the five directors discussed today. Before we get to today's program, I'd like to tell about a couple of upcoming programs taking place. Tomorrow night, November 6, 7:00 p.m., a bipartisan group of former members of Congress will examine yesterday's election results and a panel discussion, "Congressional Drama: Midterm Election Analysis." And next Wednesday, November 12, 7:00 p.m., we will welcome filmmaker Ivy Meeropol and her father, Michael Meeropol, as we screen and discuss the 2004 documentary "Heir To An Execution: A Granddaughter's Story." This program is presented in conjunction with our exhibit currently on display "Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures." To learn more about these and our public programs and exhibits, consult our monthly Calendar of Events. There are copies in the lobby along with a signup sheet so you can receive the calendar by regular mail and email. You will also find brochures about other National Archives programs and activities. Mark Harris is the author of "Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood," which was a "New York Times" Notable Book of the Year and named one of the 10 Best NonFiction Books of the Decade by "Salon." A columnist for "Entertainment Weekly" and a contributor editor at "New York" magazine, he has written about pop culture and film history for many other publications including "The New York Times," "The Washington Post," "Time," and "G.Q.." Of "Five Came Back," Paul Cantor wrote Mr. Harris has a huge story to tell and does so brilliantly. "Five Came Back " is so packed with true stories that according to the proverb are stranger than fiction. Mr. Harris' story of five particular directors at one particular moment of history tells as much about the motion picture industry, about the nature of filmmaking, and more generally about the relation of art to the larger demands of society. Would you please welcome Mark Harris to the National Archives. [Applause] >> Mark Harris: Thank you very much for coming and giving me your lunch hour. I usually begin this talk by telling people that we're going to go back to a very different time in Hollywood and Washington, but actually the time we're going back to is a time when Republicans and Democrats were bitterly divided and Republicans in Congress accused the Democratic President of creating an empirical presidency and a great deal was at stake. So we're sort of going back to yesterday but we're really going back about 75 years before that. I want to tell you a little bit about why I wrote this book and then a lot more about what's in it. Then I'm happy to take questions. My father was a World War II veteran. When I was growing up, and very young, he would tell stories of the not particularly interesting part of World War II he served in Burma and I would tune them out. I found it alienating and strange that someone would go off at 17 and leave home and, you know, live in the jungle to defend democracy. My father died when I was quite young, so I didn't get a chance, once I became more interested, to ask him about it. But I realized that my own aversion to this period persisted as I became a film scholar. I noticed that the movies made from 1940 to 1945, both in Hollywood and for the government, were a period I had sort of avoided even though I liked all parts of movie history. I hadn't paid enough attention to what Hollywood directors and what the government were doing in those years, the sort of gap years, between the very, very famous movies that many of them made both before and after the war. So I wanted in the book to investigate my own aversion to this subject a little bit, but I also was very aware when I started working on the book that we were coming to the close of, you know well, when I started, six or seven years in two years and that the output about those wars from Hollywood was almost nonexistent. You could probably count on the fingers of both your hands the number of Hollywood movies of any note that had been made about our experience in Iraq or Afghanistan and you'd still have some fingers left over. I was fascinated by the fact that during World War II an average of three to four movies a week with some content about World War II were released by the Hollywood studios. 150 to 200 movies a year in 1942 and 1943. Movies were the fabric of people's consciousness back then. 80 million Americans a week went to the movies. And while we often say that that was a time of escape where you could go to a movie theater and forget your troubles, it was also a time of engagement because movie theaters were really one of only three places where you could get the news. You could read the newspaper or magazines, you could listen to the radio, or you could go to the theater and see news reels and nonfiction shorts which changed every week. So it's interesting to me that because those shorts preceded the main features, going to a movie theater was both escape and engagement. You went there to learn about the world and then maybe to forget your troubles or, perhaps, to see movies that engaged with the world. Because films were produced so much more quickly in the early 1940's and late 1930's than they are now, movies could have a certain kind of immediacy. Right now usually when you see a Hollywood movie, even if everything has gone according to plan, at minimum it's about two years from the time that movie is conceived and really aggressively put into motion to the time you see it. Back in World War II, six months was a lot more common. And not just six months but movies could change and in fact were changed to reflect warhead lines sometimes as little as five or six weeks before they reached theaters; whether it was a new ending or an overdubbed line or a new title, even, to reflect what was going on in the world. Movies had an immediacy that made them, in a way, news. Now, the subject I was writing about was five directors, five of the most prominent directors in Hollywood at the time of Pearl Harbor, which is when within weeks or months they all left those Hollywood careers behind to go, except officers' commissions, and serve in the war as propagandists and documentarians. Those directors were: Frank Capra, who at the time of Pearl Harbor was the most famous and the richest director in America. He had been on the cover of "Time" magazine as the millionaire director. They called him Columbia's gem because he almost singlehandedly kept Columbia Studio afloat. By that point he had made three movies that won him Oscars: "You Can't Take It With You, "It Happened One Night," Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" and followed those three with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington," a movie that delighted audiences and alienated much of Congress and the Senate which thought it is an outrageous insult and were shocked that they would be depicted as succumbing to infighting and cronyism. William Wyler was known as the consummate craftsman in Hollywood, particularly for the movies he had made before the war with Betty Davis, "Jezebel," "The Letter" and the Little Foxes." His nickname was 40take Wyler or 50take Wyler depending on who was doing the complaining. He made people do it over and over and over again until they got it right. He was also a Jewish immigrant from a region that when he was a teenager had been variously controlled by the French or the Germans. And privately, although he did not really he was not an outspoken person before the war either as a Jew or as a leftist. Privately he was working terribly hard to sponsor as many as 25 friends and relatives who were desperate to get out of Europe. His conscience was increasingly pricking at him. He really wanted to do something to help the war effort very, very badly. One of his best friends in Hollywood, my third Director, was John Huston, who was the youngest and the least experienced of the five directors I write about. He had been a successful screenwriter for the last several years in Hollywood, including working for Wyler, but at the time of Pearl Harbor he had just gotten his first break directing a movie. And his very first movie was "The Maltese Falcon" which had just become a huge hit and was opening up huge possibilities for him as a director, all of which he was going to have to immediately shut down to go serve in the war. He did make one and two-thirds more movies before leaving for service. The twothirds was "Across The Pacific," which reunited his "Maltese Falcon" stars, Mary Astor, Humphrey Bogart and Sydney Greenstreet. And he had to go to another director with several days to go because he had forgotten what day he was supposed to go serve. Huston, in those years before the war, was known as a little bit of a flake and a rake and forgetting something like that would not have been atypical for him. John Ford, my fourth director and the only one of the directors I write about who joined the Navy rather than the Army, was -- if Capra was known as the most successful Director, Ford, at the time of Pearl Harbor, was probably known as America's best director. He had had an extraordinary run between 1939 and 1941. He directed seven pictures, including "Stagecoach," Drums along the Mohawk," "Young Mr. Lincoln," "The Grapes of Wrath," "The Long Voyage Home," "Tobacco Road," and "How Green Was My Valley?". I would say that output was still unmatched by any director. Although, if you've read Ford biographies, you know that after the war and straight into his declining years and the Nixon years, he leaned very, very strongly to the right. Ford considered himself a left Democrat when he went into the war. He was absolutely outspoken about it at times. My fifth Director, George Stevens, started with Laurel and Hardy shorts. And in the 1930s, graduated to become one of the most skilled directors of Hollywood escapism, movies like "Vivacious Lady" Ginger Rogers, "Swing Time" which teamed Rogers and Astaire, "Woman of the Year," the first time Katharine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy teamed up. Stevens was a native. Like Huston, he had grown up in a showbiz family. He also wanted to do more, make socially relevant movies and was frustrated, first, by R.K.O. and then by Columbia. So many of these directors were looking for adventure, were tired of being pigeonholed, and wanted to serve. What serving meant turned out to be a lot more complicated than any of them anticipated. They were very, very bent on doing their patriotic duty, but the whole premise of my book and the whole premise of bringing them into the War Department and the Army and the Navy precedes in a way, from a counterintuitive idea; which is the fact that George Marshall and the Roosevelt Administration very, very intelligently, and I think presciently, thought that World War II would need to be documented visually in order to be sold to the American people and that it would have to be sold even after Pearl Harbor all the way through the war. That was, I think, extraordinarily forward thinking. If you consider the fact that sound movies were only 12 years old at the time this war started, it would be as if now well, no, really it would be as if 10 years ago the government had realized that the internet was the best way to reach people. So I think one has to give the Roosevelt Administration credit for being very forwardthinking about that. The counterintuitive part was that they decided to turn to men who were best known for creating fiction in order to have facts documented successfully. And they did have other options. There were five or six major newsreel companies that could have turned to Passe, to Hearst, the march of time. They didn't think that the newsreel style of filmmaking was the way to go. They thought that Hollywood filmmakers who could succeed in rousing the passion and the emotion of the American public would be better equipped to explain and to sell the war to them than journalists and the newsreel men were. This led to a sort of conflict not so much a conflict of interest as a conflict of three different interests in the guys that I wrote about. Obviously, one, as artists and as craftsmen, they were interested in making the best, most gripping, most effective, most powerful movies with the best stories. That was just second nature to them. They were story tellers. Second, as patriots, they wanted to serve their country. That was absolutely their motive for going. They wanted to help the cause. And third, as newly minted documentarians and as men they were interested in telling the truth. That was very, very important to them. So to make great movies, to serve their country, and to tell the truth collided with each other in really problematic ways almost from the beginning of their service. Almost always, one of those goals was compromised. Often two of those goals were compromised. Sometimes all three of those goals were compromised. I'm going to give you a few examples of that. I will say that when I was working on this book, I did about four years of research on it both from the Hollywood side of things because all of the directors I wrote about had their papers, their diaries, their war journals, their logs, their production sheets carefully archived, and on the government side. And this gives me a public opportunity to thank not only the National Archives and the Library of Congress, without which really writing this book would have been impossible. And I know I'm not the first or 100th writer to say that, but this really is true. We depend on these facilities so much. I tried to remember while I was writing this book that every word that I used had a different meaning in the early 1940s than it does now. Propaganda was not necessarily a dirty word. Documentary did not necessarily mean true. Reenactments were used incredibly frequently in documentaries. And both the documentarians and the critics were rather matter of fact about it. It was just felt that it was an acceptable film technique in many cases and that if you weren't overtly misleading about it, it was a tool of the filmmaker's trade and shouldn't be shunned. So I tried not to write the book with a sort of smug hindsight of bewilderment that these filmmakers didn't have the cultural information that we have 75 years later, but I also tried not to fall prey to the reverse which was writing everything off by saying, well, the times were different then. Because the truth is even though the times were different then, there was bitter dispute about some of these issues. There were people who I think proved that they were very much on the right side of things and people who didn't. However, in writing about the filmmaking that I chose to write about in the book, it didn't divide neatly into this film is honest and therefore good, this film is dishonest and therefore bad. It turned out to be a really interesting spectrum, a large, large gray area; which is interesting because, of course, in many ways we think of World War II as one of the most black and white of all conflicts. And I don't think that we're wrong about that. But in filmmaking it was gray. I'm going to start by telling you a little bit about a movie that was probably the single worst violation of anything we associate with filmmaking ethics and even with wartime ethics that the Americans had their name on. It was called "Tunisian Victory." One thing about these directors is that they didn't lose their competitive edge when they left Hollywood and came here to Washington. In fact, it was heightened. One of the early ways that manifested itself, it was an intense competition with the British. The English the British Army film unit had started its work, for obvious reasons, two years before the Americans did. They were in the war for two years longer and so their propaganda effort was two years better and stronger and quicker off the mark. And those movies, many of them, were shown in the United States; not in art houses but in mainstream theaters. A lot of people saw them either as features or as shorts before any number of Hollywood entertainment films. One movie in particular called "Desert Victory" had really excited the attention of a great number of audience members, certainly of critics, and of openly envious Hollywood filmmakers. "Desert Victory" was about the allied victory in North Africa, which was after many, many rough months of war in the Pacific; one of the first things that homefront audiences could turn to here as the sign that maybe things were going the right way for the allies. "Desert Victory" was about the push into North Africa. It was made entirely by the English and strongly suggested that whatever role the Americans played in it was either peripheral or nonexistent. Frank Capra felt, and many people in the War Department felt, this was no way for an ally to treat an ally, but the Brits had an ironclad response to it, which was you didn't have any good footage; you weren't there; you didn't shoot anything. The reason they didn't have good footage is a sort of catastrophic long story about the moral of which is don't put all of your eggs in one basket, especially if your eggs are film and the basket is a boat that's going to get sunk. But be that as it may, the Brits were right. The Americans didn't have great footage. Frank Capra, who of the five directors was really the one who was in charge of everything he wasn't in charge of John Ford, who was in the Navy, but Capra was stationed in Washington. He made his big task to make the seven "Why We Fight" films, films detailing of a history of aggression over the previous 10 years and they were shown to every incoming G.I. Capra was in charge of coordinating the overall filmmaking effort. The idea was that the Americans would make their own response to "Desert Victory" called "Tunisian Victory" which would show that the Americans did actually have a great part in the victory in North Africa. Since there was no footage, Capra enlisted two of his colleagues in a deception. George Stevens, who was the last of the five directors to go in and actually was the last to come out of the war, had arrived in Algiers two days after everyone had left and victory had been declared. He got there incredibly excited to film the war only to discover that there was nothing to film. So Capra told him to film it, to just restage what had happened. And with the full cooperation of the Army, Stevens was given soldiers and tanks and pointed toward villages and filmed them being reliberated. So these villagers who had been recently sort of traumatized by tanks rolling through their towns got to see them again rolling through their towns, shooting, rolling over stuff for no particular reason but so that it could be captured by cameras. That didn't really sit well with Stevens, but orders were orders and he was still new to the war. He sent his footage back to Capra. Capra then turned to John Huston for an even more remarkable thing, which was to document the Tunisian Air War over the Mojave Desert and Orlando, Florida. Huston flew to Orlando first to the Mojave Desert to a training facility that was being used, in fact, by the Army to simulate desert conditions for draftees who were about to be posted over to North Africa. The Army obligingly built enemy tanks out of tank shells covered with canvas -- they looked convincing enough if you filmed from a long distance -- and then sent planes up in the air to bomb them so that Huston could film them. And then he moved on to Orlando for the aerial combat sequences, which was painted planes and had a camera crew that he was directing in the air that was so unsuited to World War II footage that at one point he yelled to them, "Enemy coming in at 2:00", his pilot looked at his watch. [Laughter] That footage, which was pretty terrible and would not fool any of you for a second, actually did not fool many people back then for a second, was then compiled into something. And this is where it really got ugly. Capra and Huston were told to go to London where the English were preparing a sequel to "Desert Victory" and convince them to scrap that film and make this an AngloAmerican joint venture in which the very good footage of the English filmmaking crews and the very bad footage of the American filmmaking crews would be combined. Capra, who was really remarkable at convincing himself of the patriotism and validity of anything, did this and actually talked himself into believing that it was a test of British commitment to the war. In other words, that if the Brits were really antiNazi and ready to be allies, they would accept this deal without even demanding to see what the American footage looked like. After weeks of jesting about this, that is what they did. The English swallowed hard and made this movie. Now, the ironic thing here is, it turned out later that the British had also been faking tons of footage. They just did it way better than the Americans did. They had studios where the right amount of sweat was put on to officers staring into the blazing sun. They were just sharper about this. But, you know, the resulting movie, "Tunisian Victory" was, you know, released widely in the United States and was really quite terrible and was passed off as absolute truth. The interesting thing is that despite that big deception, this was the only stretch of the war where for any real length of time Capra left the country to go to Europe. His experience of seeing London bombed and of waking up in the middle of the night, you know, because of air raids and seeing old women and children huddling in their robes in the street, profoundly moved him and really gave him a deeper conception of what the war was about and what its cost was than he had had before. It probably turned him into a better propagandist and better wartime documentarian when he got back to Washington where he was for the rest of most of the war. I've given you a really terrible example, but in a way what's more telling is the stories of filmmakers during the war who struggled with compromises but found ways to build integrity into their movies despite the necessary compromises. I'll tell you a little bit about two movies: One directed by John Ford, "Battle of Midway" and one, "Memphis Belle," the first great documentary of the Air War which was made in England by William Wyler. One thing about all of these movies that we're talking about is that if any kind of combat or outdoor footage or nonstaged footage was involved, there was almost no possibility of a live soundtrack. It was absolutely an accepted convention of the time that the soundtrack for all of these movies, including the ambient soundtrack, not just the music and narration, would be created later. So for the "Battle of Midway," which was really the first time Americans saw American soldiers in an engagement during the war Ford was taken to Midway Island by the Navy without knowing that the Navy knew that there was about to be a major Japanese attack on the island and that the Navy would be ready to respond to it. He was stationed on the roof of a power station with a perfect vantage point of zeros incoming and flying overhead, basically overhead to the battle behind him. He and two cameramen filmed as much as they could. You can see, if you see the movie which is about 18 minutes long, extraordinary color footage, which is another innovation of the times. All newsreels were in black and white and color at that time oddly was considered a sort of trapping of escapist movies. It was jolting to see explosions of yellow and orange against a blue sky with plumes of black smoke coming up from them. That was a version of war that no one in America had ever seen. And "The Battle of Midway" was shown by the end of its run in 3/4 of all American movie theaters. So one thing you have to remember about these movies is people didn't just see them once; especially if they were short because they played before features. Every week you'd see "The Battle of Midway" before a different movie for as long as it played. So this became the text, the visual text, of what World War II, was to people. But what to do about the soundtrack? You could see the explosions but you couldn't hear the explosions. How to create a real sense of veracity? Ford used, I think, a really interesting technique. His soundtrack for the first third of the movie, which is the pre-battle setup, is filled with what we think of as Hollywood elements: orchestral music, songs, and not one but four narrators. He used two sort of conventional voiceover narrators but he also used Jane Darwelll and Henry Fonda who had just been seen and were familiar to tens of millions of Americans as the mother and son in "The Grapes of Wrath." They narrate as if they are two members of the audience watching the movie. So you hear Jane Darwell as a young man passes across the screen say something like that's Junior Kinney; he's from my hometown. And then you hear Henry Fonda say, yes, well, he's an Army sergeant now. So when the audience is comforted by this kind of general ambiance that they're in a movie listening to people talk about a movie, battle begins. And at that point every sound drops out, narration, voiceover, music, songs. The only thing that you hear for probably five or six minutes is explosions. Now, those explosions were dubbed in later but the sudden switch from a very familiar kind of sound to a very unfamiliar kind of sound did a great deal to convey the reality of air battle and sea battle to people that I don't think necessarily violated any precept of honesty at the time. Now you turn to "Memphis Belle." William Wyler had gone to London and conceived the idea of flying several missions with a bombing crew. He had two ideas: one was to do a sort of 10man portrait of the crew of a bomber and the other was to do a sort of portrait of a bomber itself. The rule at the time was if a bomber went on 25 successful missions, its crew would get a nice long furlough back in the United States. And he thought it would be great to follow a bomber on its 25th mission. He merged those two ideas into one documentary called "Memphis Belle," which was a truly great documentary. You can see it on YouTube. I really do recommend it as I do "The Battle of Midway." Again, the soundtrack issue; especially difficult because he was flying. And Wyler himself flew in the planes and was one of the men operating the cameras. He was the 11th man on the mission. These bombers were unpressurized. The temperatures were extraordinarily low. You had to wear oxygen masks and heavy gloves. If you took them off for more than a minute, you'd faint and your hands would freeze. Frostbite was actually the thing that grounded more pilots in England than any other problem. So sound equipment simply would not work up there. It was out of the question. What to do about the soundtrack? Wyler, who was a stickler for accuracy, decided that after the 25th mission, when the crew got to go open a victory tour of the United States and he, himself, was sent back to Los Angeles to prepare the movie, he would have the crew itself record the lines that he had written down when he heard them use them in the plane. So at the end of the victory tour he threw a big Hollywood party for them. He asked each one which Hollywood star do they most want to meet and he invited them all. They all came. Then he brought them into the studio to, in a nonactorish way, dub their lines over the sound of motors and rotors and airplanes and explosions and bombs dropping that he had post dubbed in. This actually occasioned a censorship fight because they have cursed and Wyler wanted that in the movie; mild things, you know, watch out you son of a bitch, things like that or hell or damn. This inflamed the guardians of the production code and the Catholic Church and became such a nasty publicity issue that eventually they carved out a sort of special onetimeonly exception about language used under duress in times of war by men in pressured circumstances for this movie only. I'm touched by the fact that Wyler worked so hard to make his movie as real as possible within the constraints that it couldn't be real. The book is filled with complex issues like this. John Huston made "The Battle of San Pietro" about the liberation of a small, ancient village in Italy that was passed off by the Army preposterously as true. It was entirely restaged. The Army not only passed it off as true but issued press releases to journalists saying that Huston and his crew were so brave that they actually went into the village ahead of the American soldiers so that they could then turn their cameras around and show the American soldiers advancing into the village. Whenever you see that in a World War II documentary, you know you're looking at something staged. In fact, the village had already been taken by the time Huston got there. And at Capra's instruction and with the full cooperation of the Army, he spent six weeks using soldiers to restage it. You know, this seems like a massive act of falsification and it is. I mean, the Army lied about it and fooled almost everyone. In Huston's heart, he was not trying to put anything over on anyone. He had seen battle. He had seen what it looked like. He wanted to create a film that for the first time would show American audiences what a ground battle really looked like. So when you see "San Pietro," you are seeing something that's not true and yet you are also seeing a great director create a vocabulary of visual realism that is still in use today. Huston made sure that when an explosion happened, the cameras shook because, of course, the cameramen would be startled. That was something that people hadn't seen before, really, a kind of dirty realism that was used not intentionally used. It showed up in the "Battle of Midway," but Huston created a look for what combat really looked like. And he created that look by taking everything smooth about movies and throwing it out. And one of the great discoveries I had in the National Archives was looking at the footage that was in College Park, Maryland, and seeing the outtakes from "San Pietro." And you can see that Huston there are some comical outtakes where the soldiers start laughing. And that's obviously not really useable. But you can also see that he seems to have thrown out anything that looked too smooth, too Hollywood, too natural. Was his goal to deceive or was his goal to create something that he felt was real and show it to the American people? It's complicated and it's still being thought out. I think the degree to which, which is a loaded topic I can tell you that I got some reviews for this book that said, you know, oh, Huston turns out to have been a total fraud and others who have said, no, he's much, much too hard on "San Pietro." It's an important movie. It doesn't matter if it was restaged or not. So these issues are still in play. I do want to say that one of the things that most moved me about writing this book was the story of George Stevens who goes from, as I said, participating in this charade by restaging the battle the liberation of North Africa to joining the French Army and marching into Paris for the liberation where he actually restaged one of the most famous and widely seen pieces of footage of the war, which was the surrender of the Vichy general. He shot it as it happened inside a train station and then said to the general, I'm sorry. We're going to have to do this in the courtyard. Light wasn't good enough." And both the victorious general and the surrendering general sort of said, you want us do it again? And see Stevens said [Speaking NonEnglish Language] and actually took them both into the courtyard. He re-surrendered and that was the footage that was wildly seen. But the journey of Stevens was such that one of the things that ends the book is the fact that he and his filmmaking team were the first major American filmmakers into the camps. Footage that Stevens shot at Dachau, none of which is staged, none of which is manipulated, is, to me, so moving in part because it is the journey of a director from creator of footage to re-stager of footage to pure witness to compiler of evidence. The footage gave us our first real understanding of the atrocities of the death camps and what they looked like. In fact, Stevens stayed on in Europe long after the war was over to turn the film he shot into two hourlong evidentiary movies that were used in a very, very important way at the Nuremberg Trials and were seen by many people as having changed the mood of that courtroom and sealed the fate of many of the Nuremberg defendants. There's a lot more in the book, but I'm not going to tell you because I'm still hoping that some of you will buy it. I have given you a taste of some of the issues I raise in it. I'm happy to take questions. I think there are microphones on either side. If you could use them, they would be grateful. Thank you. [Applause] >> Thank you for your program. Were AfricanAmericans able to assist any of the five directors? Did they get any technical help from some of the brilliant AfricanAmericans? >> Mark Harris: Did everyone hear that question? Good. You know, the story of AfricanAmericans in the war is fascinating. Wyler's crew - Wyler's immediate crew was white. So was Ford's. But Wyler at different times, and Capra, were both involved in the creation of a documentary called "The Negro Soldier" which was intended as propaganda to convince AfricanAmericans that it was their patriotic duty to join up. There was a remarkable survey that showed that almost half of all men in Harlem at one point during the war thought that they would be no worse off under Japanese occupation than they were under the sort of segregationist policies of the U.S. government. That led to great fears in the South of what they called a NegroJapanese alliance and actually lead to some Japanese propaganda aimed at black Americans who were disenchanted with the U.S. government. Wyler started off intending to make that movie and became so disgusted by the racism aimed at AfricanAmericans by the white military that he refused to make it. Capra eventually turned the making of the movie over to a black screenwriter named Carlton Moss and the resulting movie is considered a real step forward and actually was one of the few documentaries about the war that became a breakout hit among mass audiences. That story is in the book. Also, there's a story about you see that John Ford frequently inserted footage of black sailors. It was really important to him to convey the idea that AfricanAmericans were an essential part of the fighting force. So, yeah, that is part of the story. >> Thank you. >> Dr. Harris, thank you. Very fine presentation; serious, entertaining, certainly illuminating. You answered a question on the Holocaust that I had. How long did it take to make these documentaries, films in general, on an average? >> Mark Harris: Many of them were done very, very quickly. Capra was the "Why We Fight" films, which were seven hourlong movies, Capra had had seven screenwriters, including the guys who wrote "Casablanca" fly from Hollywood to Washington within two or three weeks after he got there. Two weeks later they had scripts ready. One reason these movies went quickly is that there was very little money for them. The government had had an ambitious idea that Americans should make these movies but they weren't about to spend money on them. Republicans in Congress in particular, Republicans and also Democratic isolationists, thought it was disgusting that any money would be spent on movie making as opposed to, you know, material or men. They had to use a lot of existing footage, enemy propaganda that the Treasury Department had seized or American propaganda footage, stock footage that had been used so sometimes they were assembled within a matter of two weeks. Other times it took a lot longer. John Huston spent four months in the Aleutians filming his first major war documentary "Report from the Aleutians." >> Thank you. And second, are these stored here at the Archives? They engender patriotism and/or energy for support to a very large degree? >> Mark Harris: I think most of them are stored at the Archives. Many of them are available as DVDRs, burned DVDs that you can get online. Some of them are on YouTube. They're mostly public domain, so you can find a surprising number of them here. The answer to the last part of your question is, yeah, they absolutely did stir patriotism; the "Why We Fight" films in particular. Wyler, who had nothing to do with them, said right after the war was over that he thought that they would be Capra's most enduring legacy, which is a remarkable thing to say about a director who had already won three academy awards. >> Did the directors you wrote about have any involvement in any of the movies about Pearl Harbor? How was the original footage from Pearl Harbor incorporated into later movies about Pearl Harbor? >> Mark Harris: Shortly after Pearl Harbor Gregg Toland, who had been a really important cinematographer, not a director, but he shot "Citizen Kane" and was considered one of the great Hollywood photographers, was sent to Hawaii to make a documentary called "December 7", which was supposed to be about what happened at Pearl Harbor but with the propagandistic purpose of showing how quickly and effectively the Navy was going to rebuild. There wasn't a great deal of footage shot of the actual Pearl Harbor attack. There were a couple of useable minutes because it was a surprise. Toland, who had always wanted to direct, kind of went off in a mad direction of his own and ended up conceiving the idea for an entire feature film with actors, with restaging. The movie he made, which was about 80 minutes long, and which did use some of that Pearl Harbor footage but also used an actor playing Uncle Sam, an actor playing the American conscience, actors playing soldiers in heaven the movie was so virulently antiJapanese that even for the time the government refused to release it. It basically suggested that every Asian person living in Hawaii was a sleeper agent and that they couldn't be trusted. I mean, this is sort of for the worst of reasons, but the reason the film was censored by the government was that at the time there were all of these JapaneseAmericans in American internment camps and the plan was to redistribute them to towns in the south and southwest and midwest just a few in each town so that they could never get together and have a cabal or something. It was felt that this movie would frighten those towns into refusing to accept JapaneseAmericans as residents. So the movie was censored. John Ford took it over, cut out almost all of the problematic material, reduced the movie I think from 83 to 38 minutes. It's an instructive difference in just a propaganda and, again, both of those versions are available to see if anyone is curious about them. >> Thank you. >> It's often said that Vietnam was the first war that came into people's living rooms. But with everyone going to the movies and seeing these scenes of war either real or restaged, it would seem that there's a consciousness of what war is. But were the films shot, just as you've been mentioning, with such a patriotic theme behind them that there was no negative reaction to the war after seeing these films? >> Mark Harris: No. There was definitely negative reaction. In fact, the movie that's going to be shown this afternoon, "Let There Be Light," was intended as propaganda but there was such reaction to the honesty with which the psychological scarring of veterans was shown that it was really problematic. Huston in particular, always ran into trouble with his documentaries in that they were too real. Some people thought the "Battle of San Pietro" was much too blunt about the cost of war to American lives. In fact, there are scenes of American bodies being taken away for burial. The War Department flatly refused to approve those so Huston just said to them, oh, well, those bodies aren't American, they're Italian. And the War Department said it was ok. Also, his first movie, "Report from the Aleutians," suggested something that no wartime documentary had suggested, which was that war was really boring; that there were weeks and weeks and weeks of waiting for something to happen and sitting around and doing nothing. That was considered a really problematic message to send. It was one of the things that resulted in the movie's release being delayed for months after it was complete. All five of the directors at one time or another were pushing against a system that did not want their movies to be as realistic or as blunt as they even were. >> I have two questions. The first question - you kind of - the first question is, did any of these guys - I'm talking the directors come back from World War II in their experiences, in whatever experiences they had, highly critical of war is and what effects, potential, did this have on the rest of the war? Did they come back more cynical about war, come back antiwar? Second question is a much more problematical question. The notion of Hollywood role underguarding, in essence, the military complex. This came later, right? If you want to make a war film and stuff like that, you know, you need to go to the War Department, you need to show them stuff, screen play, etc., etc. You don't even talk about World War I had some war movies come out of it but also the very critical about antiwar movie. So, how do you see that? Do you see at this point in time a kind of coming together of Hollywood with the filmmaking community? And how this problematical and complex interaction takes place? And do you feel that maybe the War Department, Pentagon, etc., military industrial complex have at this point in time too much influence on the war making? Or do you see it as something that is, you know,if a filmmaker wants to make a film, he has to have some material and - >> Mark Harris: Are you asking about this point in time now? >> Right. This point in time now. Developing this point in time. If you could give oversight. >> Mark Harris: Sure. Your first question first. The directors were tremendously influenced by their experiences in the war in different ways. They resonated for the rest of their careers. John Huston during the war was accused at one point by the War Department after he made "San Pietro" of making an antiwar movie. His response was, if I ever make a pro war movie, I hope somebody shoots me dead. Stevens was so profoundly shattered by what he saw at Dachau that he never made another comedy and said he could not make another comedy. To the part of your first question that addressed whether that had any influence on the war itself and the way the war was depicted, no because the war was over by the time four of these five directors came back and almost over by the time Ford came back. There was no change in heart about what war meant among these five directors that happened early enough so that it manifested itself in movies that made it to the screen while the war was on. Although you can certainly see if you look at the Hollywood movies about war from 1941 through 1946, you can see a gradual change in what attitude those movies take toward war and its costs. And, you know, in the first really great movie about the postwar experience, which was William Wyler's "Best Years of our Lives," you see in that film some real honesty about the trauma and the cost of war to these men. I don't want to give a glib answer to your second question about the military industrial complex because it deserves an answer that is the length of another book, I think, frankly. I do think - I don't use this word in the book, but these guys, these directors, were essentially the early equivalent of what we now all embeds. You know, they were quasi journalists given access in exchange for delivering information about the war to civilians that the military wanted delivered. I think the great thing about them as filmmakers is that that proved to be a lot more complicated than the War Department ever anticipated it would be. As much as the War Department resisted what they did, it's probably to the War Department's credit to one exception: all of the movies that these directors made, that the War Department resisted, got shown to Americans during the war.Sometimes not as quickly as they should have been and sometimes somewhat tampered with, but a lot of what these directors wanted to do came through. The whole question about - the question about whether American filmmakers should put themselves in the service of a war, I don't think I can answer here because the problem is it's not a question to be answered about a war or a filmmaker. In the case of these filmmakers and this war, I think that what they delivered and what they showed the American public was on balance, worth it and helpful. And I don't mean helpful simply in selling the war. I mean helpful in terms of making people understand some truths about the war that they might not have otherwise. So I am very inclined to defend these particular filmmakers and what they did. I wouldn't want to apply that defense to a different set of filmmakers and a different war and a different media environment and different, you know -frankly a different military industrial complex. I hope that answers part of your question. [Applause] >> Mark Harris: Thank you.


Five Came Back explores the experiences of five U.S. film directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – and their frontline work during the Second World War.[4] It draws on over 100 hours of archival footage and is narrated by Meryl Streep.[5] Each modern director discusses the impact and legacies of one of the five earlier directors: Steven Spielberg (Wyler), Francis Ford Coppola (Huston), Guillermo del Toro (Capra), Paul Greengrass (Ford), and Lawrence Kasdan (Stevens).


The film was based on the 2014 book of the same name by Mark Harris.[6] The filmmakers studied more than 100 hours of newsreel and archival footage, and more than 40 documentaries and training films created by the five directors during the war. They also reviewed 50 studio films by the directors and more than 30 hours of raw footage from their war films.[7] Director Laurent Bouzereau, who has extensive experience documenting films and directors, introduced the idea of interviewing five current directors for the project.[8]

Meryl Streep recorded the narration for the documentary on January 17, 2017, the same day she received her 20th Oscar nomination (for Florence Foster Jenkins).[8]


No.TitleDirected byWritten byOriginal air date
1"The Mission Begins"Laurent BouzereauMark HarrisMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)
The series looks at the backgrounds of the five directors as World War II begins and their motives for helping the war effort. John Ford's The Battle of Midway was approved directly by President Franklin D. Roosevelt while Frank Capra fights to get Why We Fight made.
2"Combat Zones"Laurent BouzereauMark HarrisMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)
The directors learn their vision for the films is not always permissible by the U.S. government. Wyler is shocked by the racism he encounters against African American soldiers and refused to make a film recruiting black soldiers. Meanwhile, the films' racist depiction of the Japanese versus human depiction of the Germans causes worry for the War Department, which at that time planned to redistribute the Japanese-American population from internment camps into towns across the United States.
3"The Price of Victory"Laurent BouzereauMark HarrisMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)
The five directors return to Hollywood after the war but are forever haunted by what they saw. Ford goes on a drinking bender after filming the carnage at D-Day. Stevens is wholly unprepared for the horrors of Dachau and realizes he is not there to film propaganda but to capture evidence of crimes against humanity. Wyler, who lost his hearing during the war, fears his career is over. Huston chronicles soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder in the film Let There Be Light, only to have it suppressed by the U.S. government.

Critical reaction

Five Came Back has largely received critical acclaim. It has a 97% approval rating based on 37 reviews on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.[9] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the series 3.5 stars out of 4, writing, "Arguably the best documentary ever made about Hollywood and wartime, Five Came Back is nirvana for movie lovers and a real eye-opener for anyone new to the subject."[10] David Sims of The Atlantic praised the series' relevance today, and stated that it should have been longer: "Harris's book recognized that Hollywood often shapes our perception of reality more than we know, and that the recruitment of these directors by the U.S. military intertwined the film industry with sometimes-dangerous assumptions of truth and realism. Five Came Back is, in the end, a compelling examination of propaganda—its purpose, its effectiveness, and its drawbacks. These are all things that are worth keeping in mind in 2017, just as they were many decades ago."[11]

Allison Shoemaker, who reviewed each episode separately for The A.V. Club, gave "The Mission Begins" a B+ and graded both "Combat Zones" and "The Price of Victory" an A. Reviewing the final episode, she writes, "It comes as no surprise that the conclusion to this remarkable series packs a wallop—the previous episode ends with D-Day on the horizon, after all—but what is surprising is how gracefully Laurent Bouzereau and Mark Harris link these monstrous and stunning events and truths to the art which followed them. Does tying Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life to George Stevens' experiences at Dachau seem like a bit of a stretch? Sure, but somehow, it isn't. George Bailey's story is also Capra's, and Ford's, and Wyler's. There's much that this hour makes clear, but chief among that crowded group is this: the experiences of and footage captured by these men changed the United States, the world, and the directors themselves in irrevocable ways."[12][13][14]

John Anderson in The Wall Street Journal writes: "Overall, the series is much like its story: mythic, adventurous, romantic. And real."[15] Brian Tallerico, writing for, called it a "must-see" and a "cinephile and historian's dream come true."[16]

In The New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg writes, "Above all, Five Came Back is an invitation to see more: It's hard to watch it without wanting to visit (or revisit) Wyler's Mrs. Miniver or Ford's They Were Expendable. It's further proof, if any were needed, that these men weren't simply creating propaganda, but art that would endure."[17]

Kristin Hunt of Slashfilm questioned why the series did not address Ford's anti-semitism or Capra's admiration of Benito Mussolini, but was generally positive, writing, "Five Came Back is a testament to the power of cinema, and the moral implications that come with it. Was all this propaganda permissible? The documentary is sometimes afraid to truly grapple with that question. But when it does, it's gripping stuff."[18] Peter Debruge, chief film critic for Variety, was less enthusiastic, criticizing the series for leaving out the rich original research in Harris' book for the thoughts of the five current Hollywood directors, whose purpose he felt was merely a promotional gag.[19]


Year Award Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
2017 Primetime Creative Arts Emmy Awards Outstanding Narrator Meryl Streep (Episode: "The Price of Victory") Won [20]
Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special Jeremy Turner (Episode: "The Price of Victory") Nominated
3rd Critics’ Choice Documentary Awards Best Limited Documentary Series (TV/Streaming) Five Came Back Nominated [21]
18th Golden Trailer Awards Best Documentary (TV Spot/Trailer/Teaser for a series) Five Came Back Nominated [22]
2018 American Cinema Editors Best Edited Non-Theatrical Documentary Will Znidaric (Episode: "The Price of Victory") Won [23]
11th Annual Cinema Eye Honors Awards Outstanding Achievement in Broadcast Nonfiction Filmmaking Laurent Bouzereau (director/producer), John Battsek (producer), Ben Cotner (Executive Producer), Adam Del Deo (Executive Producer), and Lisa Nishimura (Executive Producer) Nominated [24]
65th Motion Picture Sound Editors GOLDEN REEL AWARDS Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Single Presentation Trip Brock (supervising sound editor), Bruce Stubblefield (supervising dialogue editor), Demetri Evdoxiadis (sound effects editor), Raymond Park (sound effects editor), Zheng Jia (sound effects editor), Abhay Manusmare (music editor) Nominated [25]


  1. ^ Agard, Chancellor (February 23, 2017). "Mark Harris' 'Five Came Back' Is Coming to Netflix as a Docu-Series". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  2. ^ "Mark Harris' Five Came Back is coming to Netflix as a docu-series". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  3. ^ "'Five Came Back: The Reference Films' Added to Netflix Globally". What's on Netflix. February 9, 2021.
  4. ^ "New Netflix series narrated by Meryl Streep to tell story of how Hollywood faced fascism during World War II". Radio Times. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  5. ^ "Exclusive: See the Trailer for Netflix's New Documentary About World War II and Hollywood". Time. February 28, 2017. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  6. ^ Harris, Mark (2014). Five Came Back : A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594204302. OCLC 964586334.
  7. ^ "VIDEO: First Look - New Netflix Documentary Series FIVE CAME BACK". BroadwayWorld. February 28, 2017. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  8. ^ a b Tapley, Kristopher (March 13, 2017). "Author Mark Harris on Turning 'Five Came Back' Into a Netflix Documentary". Variety. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  9. ^ "Five Came Back: Miniseries". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved May 22, 2018.
  10. ^ Travers, Peter (March 30, 2017). "'Five Came Back' Review: WWII Doc Is a Peerless Hollywood History Lesson". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  11. ^ Sims, David (April 3, 2017). "'Five Came Back' and the Frightening Power of Propaganda". The Atlantic. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  12. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (April 1, 2017). "Five Came Back traces the transformation of an artist to an instrument of war". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  13. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (April 2, 2017). "The directors grapple with bombings and bureaucracy in a gripping Five Came Back". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  14. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (April 3, 2017). "The stunning conclusion of Five Came Back makes us witnesses to both horror and joy". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  15. ^ Anderson, John (March 30, 2017). "'Five Came Back' Review: When Directors Went to War". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  16. ^ Tallerico, Brian (April 3, 2017). "Five Came Back Movie Review & Film Summary (2017) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  17. ^ Kenigsberg, Ben (March 30, 2017). "Review: 'Five Came Back,' and Inspired the Likes of Spielberg". The New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  18. ^ Hunt, Kristin (April 6, 2017). "What to Watch After Five Came Back". Slashfilm. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  19. ^ Debruge, Peter (April 1, 2017). "Film Review: 'Five Came Back'". Variety. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  20. ^ "Five Came Back". Television Academy.
  21. ^ "Critics' Choice Documentary Awards: Full Winners List". The Hollywood Reporter. November 2, 2017.
  22. ^ Hipes, Patrick (May 12, 2017). "Golden Trailer Awards Nominees: Warner Bros & 'Lego Batman' Lead Pack". Deadline.
  23. ^ "Eddie Awards 2018". American Cinema Editors. Archived from the original on April 11, 2020. Retrieved April 8, 2020.
  24. ^ "11th Annual Cinema Eye (Highlights from the 2018 Cinema Eye Honors)". Cinema Eye.
  25. ^ McNary, Dave (January 23, 2018). "'Baby Driver,' 'Dunkirk,' 'Shape of Water' Lead Golden Reel Nominations for Sound Editing". Variety.

External links

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