For those who enjoy film, the names John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston will be familiar. All are Oscar-winning directors (with a total of 14 Oscars between them). They were also part of the World War II war effort as military filmmakers. Five Came Back is a three-part documentary about these five directors and how they used their filmmaking expertise during the war. The series is streaming on Netflix.
When the U.S. entered World War II after Pearl Harbor, there were many people who left their worlds of safety and comfort to fight in this war. These five filmmakers knew they had talents that could be of import to the war effort. Each volunteered and spent the war in uniform making films for the military. Each had different approaches to the task. For some it took them directly into battle—on Midway and at D-Day, or flying on bombers on combat missions. Others made films that helped American understand why this war had to be fought. But each found a way to serve their nation with the skills they had developed entertaining people with film. Some of their work was essentially newsreel material, often with a good dose of propaganda included. It served to bring the war back to Americans in such a way to keep morale high.
There are some big name directors of today who relate the stories of these earlier filmmakers: Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greenglass, and Laurence Kasdan. They understand how difficult it is to make films under the best of circumstances. They relate the hardships and trials (which included pushing to make the films their way) faced by the early group.
The series introduces us to their work before the war, but the bulk of the film focuses on their wartime work. It also shows us how this experience changed them. For example, George Stevens (who filmed D-Day and, eventually, the liberation of the Dachau concentration camp) was known mostly as a director of comedies before the war; after the war he never made another comedy (but some marvelous serious films).
This is an excellent piece of film history, plus a nice bit of the history of the Second World War as seen by these filmmakers. Netflix is also streaming some of the wartime films so that viewers can not only learn the story of these men, but also the stories they brought back with them. Among the ones I’ve added to my list on Netflix are: The Memphis Belle (Wyler), The Battle of Midway (Ford), The Negro Soldier (Capra), Know Your Enemy—Japan (Capra), and Let There Be Light (Huston).