Five Came Back **** / *****
Directed by: Laurent Bouzereau.
Written by: Mark Harris.
Featuring: Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep.
Mark Harris’ Five Came Back is one of the best film books of recent years – and the only reason I say one of the best instead of the best, is because his Pictures at a Revolution is even better. It chronicles the wartime lives of five America filmmakers – Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston George Stevens and William Wyler – who all left Hollywood at the peak of their careers to spend years documenting WWII for American soldiers – and eventually, the public. They didn’t have to – many didn’t, including that symbol of all-American manhood John Wayne – but they felt they had a duty to serve. The films they made were undeniably propaganda, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t good. Germany had Leni Riefenstahl, Britain had Humphrey Jennings – America had these five.
Laurent Bouzereau’s documentary about these five filmmakers runs three hours, and could easily had been two to three times longer, and I would have been just as enthralled by it. As a history lesson about what these men were before the war, what they did during the war, and how it changed the forever afterwards, the film is never less than fascinating – although Harris’ book delivers all that information, and much more, as well. What makes this documentary truly special – what makes it a companion piece worthy of sitting alongside the book, not just a substitute for those who don’t like to read – is that Bouzereau gets five contemporary filmmakers to analyze the filmmakers themselves. Francis Ford Coppola talks about John Huston, Paul Greengrass talks about Ford, Steven Spielberg talks about Wyler, Lawrence Kasdan talks about Stevens, and Guillermo del Toro talks about Capra. Some of the pairings make complete sense – Spielberg analyzing Wyler for example, as both are Jewish filmmakers who don’t always foreground their religion, even as it remains an element of their work. Greengrass makes sense when you consider how proud Ford was of his Irish roots. I’m not quite sure how Stevens and Kasdan connect – but Kasdan is still insightful into his work. The only disappointment is Coppola, who doesn’t delve as deep into as fascinating filmmaker like Huston. Surprisingly, del Toro is far and the best in talking about Capra – something that initially feels like a strange choice, but makes perfect sense in retrospect. Del Toro clearly loves Capra, but isn’t blind to his flaws – he isn’t afraid to call Capra politically confused (he was), or call out some of the more questionable elements to some of Capra’s films. But he appreciates him in the big picture – out of all of the five filmmakers under discussion, its Capra who I see in a new light more than any of the others (and wonder of wonders, the film was able to get me misty during clips of It’s a Wonderful Life – a film I’ve seen so often that it usually doesn’t do that anymore).
The film is also a treasure trove of archival footage – as well as containing ample footage of the films themselves – an advantage it clearly has over the book, which has to describe everything. Particularly devastating is footage that Stevens shot as they liberated Dachau – an experience that haunted him for the rest of his life. The director of pre-war comedies would never make another one after the war. There is a ton of footage here, all assembling wonderfully well. The film is split into three one hour episodes, all of which moves by with a brisk pace – it certainly doesn’t feel like three hours. I honestly do think the film could have been significantly longer. The film doesn’t dive in deep into somethings – like Huston PTSD before PSTD was a thing doc Let There Be Light for example, which is covered in the doc, but deserves even more time. I do think Harris’ book found a little more to criticize than this film does.
But those are minor quibbles for what is mainly a great doc – one of the best docs on filmmaking to come out in years, and a worthy companion piece to a great book.