By: Tom Magennis
As an aspiring filmmaker, World War Two is an odd subject for me. On the one hand, it is a horrifying, nightmarish struggle of blood and steel, where millions perished and countless atrocities were committed by both sides. (Although obviously the Axis were more to blame in that last regard than the Allies.) But on the other, it is one of the most fantastically cinematic events in human history. Mass warfare, being executed on a scale we can’t even imagine today; Battles of land, sea, and air; iconic weapons like the Thompson, the MP40, and the Lee Enfield Rifle; and one of the few cases of a true Good vs Evil struggle in the history of conflict. I know I am not the only person who feels this way, as evidenced by the countless films, TV shows and Video Games that have been made about the War, making it one of the most exposed and explored periods in our modern pop culture.
Five Came Back approaches the Second World War, from a fascinating perspective, in a truly unique way. It examines the way the war’s story was told at the time. It tells the stories of the filmmakers who went out and recorded these earth-shaping events, often at great personal risk to themselves, and it shows the scars this war left behind, both on them, and the country they returned to, covering the build-up and beginning of the war, to Pearl Harbour and America’s entering the fray, to D-Day, and the eventual ending and aftermath of the War . But it is the way in which Five Came Back explores the lives of these men, these cinematic titans of their age, John Ford, Frank Capra, John Huston, William Wyler, and George Stevens, that is truly fascinating. While it does have some narration, provided by Meryl Streep, the bulk of the documentary’s analysis and contemplation comes from five of the most lauded and respected filmmakers of the modern age. Steven Spielberg, Guillermo Del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass and Larry Kasdan, all provide their take on the men who documented the American Effort in WWII. This is a genuinely fantastic hook for the film, as not only does it provide insight into the process by which these men made their films from people who irrefutably know what they’re talking about, but it allows the viewer to explore the relationship between modern cinema and the cinema of years gone by. How we have moved on, and how we still look to the past for inspiration.
You do get the feel that it’s cheating a bit, that it should have chosen to be either a movie or a series, where here it feels like a strange mix of both, with (and this may be the pettiest gripe I’ve ever indulged) the title sequence especially feeling more suited to a film, as, despite it being pretty cool and featuring the film’s excellent theme tune, it does run on pretty long for the title sequence of a series. But despite my nit-picking, the series’ runtime works. As a film, it could have felt overly long, and if they’d pushed for a six-episode series it could have felt padded out. As it stands, each episode works fantastically well, and is good enough to stand on its own, while perfectly flowing into the next instalment.
The film does an excellent job of telling the stories it set out to tell, not only depicting the large-scale picture of the war, and the five directors’ attempts to capture it on film, but it also delves into the personal stories of the Five, and the impact the war had on them, using their exceptional example as an analogue for the experiences of all the men who served, from the triumphs of victory to the deep-rooted trauma both physical and psychological that War leaves behind it. And while the film does, for the most part, paint a highly positive picture of its five subjects, it commendably refuses to shy away, as so many movies before it have, from the more distasteful acts the US committed over the course of the war, from the treatment of African-American Servicemen, to the internment camps into which many Japanese Americans were forced, to the outright racism with which the Japanese were subjected to by the American Film Industry.
To conclude, Five Came Back is a stunning documentary, providing a fascinating look at the Second World War, the men who recorded it, and a study of the process of film-making. It is flawlessly presented, showing full colour and black and white images of the war, as well as excerpts of the Five’s pre-war and post-war work, and it presents a wonderfully nuanced analysis of five fascinating men, their incredible stories, and the impact they had. It is a meditation on on the use of film, both in peacetime and in war, as a weapon, and as a symbol of hope. It is a truly important documentary series, that anyone with an interest in cinema should make it their business to watch.
Plus, it has Paul Greengrass’ preposterous hair in it, and that’s always worth checking out.
What did you think of Five Came Back? Let us know in the comments below.
Or hit us up on Twitter @GetReelMovies