World War II Created the Documentary Film Genre
‘Five Came Back’ exposes Hollywood’s role in the fight against fascism
World War II still haunts. Even now—several generations removed—we still live in the shadow of a war that reshaped the planet and propelled America to the center of geopolitical power. Millions of Americans grew up watching footage of the war and hearing its stories told and retold around the kitchen table.
What more is there to say? What fresh perspective could possibly exist? Netflix managed to find one and it surprised me. The streaming service’s new three part documentary Five Came Back runs over three hours long and tells the story of how Hollywood helped fight the war against fascism.
The documentary narrows its focus by picking five directors—John Huston, John Ford, William Wyler, Frank Capra and George Stevens—and filtering their experiences through modern day directors Guillermo del Toro, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan. Meryl Streep narrates and the bulk of the footage, which comes from the work of the World War II era directors themselves. Some of it hasn’t left the vault in decades. You will see things here that you never saw passing a quiet afternoon watching the History Channel.
The first thing that struck me was how different the United States was back then and how differently—and I’ll make a value judgement here and say better—we fought. The first episode deals with the lead up to war in Europe and dives into the politics of an America that was so isolationist that a contingent of Congress fought Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to keep the country free from European entanglements.
When America finally did go to war, by God, it took the whole country with it. In 2017, we’re mired in perpetual conflict and part of the way America has gotten away with it is by making sure the homefront never feels as if it’s fighting overseas. If a U.S. citizen wants to avoid news of its countries various wars, it can do so easily.
It wasn’t that way during World War II. Everyone participated on some level—and those who skirted faced reminders everywhere. Hollywood’s relationship to Washington and the Pentagon was also different. Famous movie stars lined up to join the service. Jimmy Stewart, Johnny Carson, Mel Brooks, Charlton Heston and hundreds more answered the country’s call. Even Bettie Davis ran a canteen for service members in the heart of Hollywood.
The five directors of the film went too and served in their own way. Capra crafted the famed Why We Fight film series, helped organize the animation team that created Private Snafu and produced hundreds of training films. Huston, Ford, Wyler and Stevens traveled overseas and used their powers as directors to create both fictional and documentary films such as Memphis Belle and The Battle of San Pietro. These movies still resonate today.
Even more incredible, riffing off Triumph of the Will—these directors created the modern documentary genre. Before World War II, it was a barely respected style. No serious director had done much since Nanook of the North.
In the middle of the war, the Academy Awards created a new category for documentaries and began handing out Oscars for the stellar work of these directors. Even more stunning, they changed the grammar of film. Color film was possible at the time, but audiences associated it with fantasies such as The Wizard of Oz and Gone With the Wind. The color footage of Huston and Ford changed that, bringing reality and film closer than ever.
Five Came Back also faces the unpleasant problems of the hundreds of G.I.s who came back from the war psychologically damaged. World War II was horrible and many soldiers came home with post-traumatic stress disorder before doctors had acknowledged and labeled the problem. It affected the directors who filmed alongside the soldiers as well.
John Ford filmed D-Day then immediately sneaked to a French town and drank himself into a three-day stupor. He became so obnoxious that the military sent him home. Huston shot a documentary about the soldiers’ experiences coming home as they went through debriefing. Let There Be Light detailed the psychological problems of a nation of men coming home from the front.
Disturbed by the movie and ready to move the country forward, military police seized the reels and the movie didn’t see the light of day until 1981. “It’s not great advertisement for war to see what the experience of combat does to men’s soul,” Ford said of the film.
“So much of the horrible truth of the war was just removed from our culture … I’ve always been a big believer that you can’t move into the future unless you have a complete, solid understanding and empathy about the past,” Spielberg explained.
The war took its toll on all the directors—just as it did the soldiers. Wyler was nearly deaf for the rest of his life after coming home. Huston lost his temper with John Wayne on the set of They Were Expendable when The Duke couldn’t seem to salute properly for the camera. “Can’t you salute like someone who’s been in the service?” he screamed, before crumbling into sobs and tears.
Capra came back and directed It’s a Wonderful Life … which flopped critically and commercially. The film was so unpopular nobody bothered to revive the copyright, which is why fledgling cable networks began to run it during the Christmas season. It was free. He never lived to see it become the cultural force it is today.
Poor George Stevens shot hours of footage in Europe. He was with the 3rd battalion when it liberated Dachau and he filmed it all in horrid detail. As the dying and diseased prisoners marked for death pawed at Stevens, disgust waved over him and he hated them for it. He hated himself more. He says he understood the Nazis that day and it horrified him.
Stevens vaulted the footage, only to pull it out in 1959 when filming The Diary of Anne Frank. He watched just a few minutes of the footage before stopping the screening, returning the reels to the vault and never watching them again. Before the war, Hollywood regarded Stevens as a master of the comedy. After the war, he never made another funny picture.