Netflix's latest docuseries gives masterful insight into the power of propaganda
I’m always fascinated with stories of the unbelievable, and even more, the unpredictable. When I stumbled upon the captivating tale of five Hollywood directors who left their decadent lives in favor of pointing a camera at one of the deadliest wars ever, you could say my interest was more than piqued. An avid fan of not only film, but also the immense weight of world history, Netflix’s latest documentary series offered something of an unpredictable adventure, an adventure just waiting to be uncovered. What could possibly occur when an acclaimed director aimed his lens at the horrors of a violent and unruly war? Nothing good, but not something entirely evil either. An elegant mixture of the two, which in turn would blur the line between fact and fiction.
As the devastation of World War I began to subside, and the business of Hollywood continued to soar further into the stars, one drastic event would ignite an era of not only great violence and turmoil, but also great truth and discovery. As the Second World War boomed into prominence, and Adolf Hitler’s reign began, the realms of war across the seas and the silver screens of Los Angeles quickly merged. The horror, beauty, elegance and destruction of World War II found itself the subject of one of the world’s most essential pastimes. All of this, in great detail, was observed through the eyes of five Hollywood directors, five men who gave up their lives to join the war, and subsequently expose it. Filming the war was only the first step, however, as each of the directors painted an individual portrait of humanity, pain, victory and most importantly, bittersweet truth.
John Ford. William Wyler. Frank Capra. John Huston. George Stevens. They were icons of the silver screen before the second World War even hit the shores of the United States. Before Hitler, before the Holocaust, before numerous decades of pain and turmoil, these men brought everything from happiness and romance to comedy and drama to the Hollywood movie screens. Fun westerns starring icons like John Wayne, romantic comedies and silent films, noir thrillers, all unfazed by the conflicts of war and politics. That all changed when World War II began, and the swell of war propaganda in Hollywood became the industry’s greatest commodity. That starts the basis of the three-part docuseries known as “Five Came Back,” a portrait of history and art at a time when the world was at its most critical breaking point.
At its very core, “Five Came Back” was a story of humanity and truth. As its history was relayed alongside archive footage by the words of not only guest narrator Meryl Streep, but also a group of esteemed directors of the modern era, from Francis Ford Coppola to Steven Spielberg, the docuseries snatched you right from the start. Merging world history with captivating interviews with Hollywood filmmakers of past and present, the series worked to first set the grounds for its story, and then shake things up. Allowing the intermingling of the perspectives of both the five directors who experienced the war first-hand and the modern directors who know of the war’s lasting impacts on the world, the series began to paint an image of how society in America and across the globe were affected by the war.
While the careers of each of these five directors might be extensive, their purpose behind the camera might not have been entirely realized until the moment they entered the war. Turning their cameras from the glossy set pieces of sound stages and the false facades of popular actors, to the grim reality of World War II across Europe, the filmmakers uncovered a truth made to be put on the screen. An uncompromising, grisly and at the same time, hopeful truth that needed to be shown to the world. What began as a slew of propaganda advertisements used to draw young men and women into the war to fight for their country, ignited a highly-experimental and dangerous adventure into the unknown.
Divided into three consecutive chunks, each detailing an essential moment in each of the five directors’ journey into and out of the war, the story of ‘Five Came Back’ managed to keep the chronological order of a novel, while also packing in intense pockets of emotional significance in its storytelling. The series, working as both a history lesson on Hollywood, propaganda and the war, as well as an exploration of humanity and pain, allowed for moments that slowed down the intense narrative, and in turn let the viewer feel the emotion of the time period. One point that really stood out to me was when images of Hitler’s concentration camps populated the screen. Horrific images of death and despair, seen through the eyes of not just a Hollywood director, but thousands of other soldiers and civilians after the war; moments such as that made the series feel revealing and unbiased, but in a way that worked to connect the viewer emotionally to the victims.
While I won’t give away too much from the three-part series, only to say that it is essential viewing for any fan of history or film, “Five Came Back” obviously sent my mind down a number of sporadic yet systematic corridors of thought. While it gave me insight into a story I never knew could be a reality, it also questioned my humanity. Answering a number of questions, it also left me with questions of my own, surrounding everything from history and power of propaganda to the grueling capacity for good and evil within humans. Unpredictable, unruly and dynamic in its fascinating narrative, “Five Came Back” offered perfect bingeing material that will without a doubt leave you wanting more.
“Five Came Back” is now streaming on Netflix. The series is based on the work by journalist Mark Harris, entitled “Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War.”