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'Five Came Back': Netflix's Fascinating WW2 Documentary Miniseries

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'Five Came Back': Netflix's Fascinating WW2 Documentary Miniseries

Shaun Cordingley

Five Came Back appeared on my "Recommended" feed on Netflix suddenly, and I was intrigued: based on the book (of the same name) by Mark Harris, Five Came Back is the story of five major Hollywood directors' contributions to World War 2, largely revolving around the creation of documentary/propaganda films. Over the course of three, roughly one hour episodes, the series introduces you to the five directors, and takes you along with what they did (and pieces of some of the films they produced) through the war, and then what happened with them in the post-war era. 

I honestly had high hopes going in to watching Five Came Back (and Harris' book has been on my wishlist for quite some time now), and I have to say that I was very pleased with the end result. 



Five Came Back tells the war-time story of directors Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), John Ford (The Searchers), John Huston (The Maltese Falcon), George Stephens (Giant), and William Wyler (Ben-Hur), and how they each chose to serve the war effort by making documentary and/or propaganda films, narrated by Meryl Streep, and with each director having a modern "master" filmmaker (Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, and Steven Spielberg) discussing their stories individually, intercut with archived interviews, recordings, and the footage they had shot. 

This format was absolutely perfect for the story Five Came Back strives to tell. Organizing everything by date, and allowing the timeline of World War 2 to serve as the framing of the story, and allowing these five directors' experiences to reverberate through that was an excellent idea: it never gets dry, nor do you ever leave one of the five stories long enough to lose track of what was going on. Archival interviews to hear from the directors themselves were well used (and not over used), which meant that a good deal of your time is spent seeing what they had actually shot, and the documentary ties it into them (and how they were changed by their experiences--George Stevens' story alone is fascinating, as he essentially embedded in Europe from D-Day to the Nazi Surrender). 

I also appreciated seeing bits and pieces of some of the films they shot; I had seen some of them before (as I did have European History at University, plus I find propaganda films fascinating), but had never seen behind the scenes of Prelude to War or The Battle of Midway, nor did I know the story of San Pietro, so adding that context was really quite interesting, on top of adding some films to my...way too long watchlist. 



The question may be, if you are not into filmmaking, or Hollywood History, or classic cinema, is Five Came Back going to be interesting to you as a World War 2 documentary, and the answer to that is yes. This is a war story at it's heart, and it's a side of the Allied war effort that is seldom considered. Essentially you are following five men (and their crews) through parts of the war that you maybe have not seen before, and none of them were carrying weapons, but were right along the soldiers in the fight. To me, that is a special kind of bravery, and really, really important as their work became much of the first footage of war most people (back home, recruits, etc.) had ever seen. 

Now, I knew all of these directors and their work going in,  but that did not really add anything other than flavour for me, as the clips of their films (like Mrs. Miniver) I obviously knew, but getting more context behind it, and how Wyler was worried about Miniver's English premiere was really interesting, just not the heart of what Five Came Back is working to achieve. I think if you do know them, or appreciate their work (which, based on the Better Late Than Never series in our Film section, it's pretty obvious that I do), it will add to the experience of the miniseries, but is not integral. 

Frankly, Five Came Back is one of the better World War 2 Documentaries I have seen in...quite some time; it is well told, excellently paced, and does not linger too long on anything that it does not need to to tell its story. This is yet another example of how good Netflix has become at a content producer, and a shoutout to them as well for adding a lot of the films discussed in Five Came Back to their library (including most of the documentaries/propaganda films); it's really quite great that if you see one you want to see in Five Came Back, you can (usually) just watch it right there. 

-S (@Shauncord)