When America went to war in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hollywood did too: Marquee film directors, struck by patriotism, became officers overnight and shipped out to the front lines with cameras, mounting their own propaganda campaigns. Mark Harris’s 2014 historical book of criticism, Five Came Back, bursts with the juicy drama and humor of the situation, as unsoldierly artists accustomed to cushy expense accounts donned uniforms, restaged battles and emerged from combat as changed men. (Full disclosure: Harris, a former Entertainment Weekly staffer, is my acquaintance and Twitter-sparring pal.)
Five Came Back works even better as a documentary and not only because we can see the harrowing footage these filmmakers captured: aerial-bomber fights, burning cities, liberated French crowds in tears and the piles of clothes and bodies at Dachau concentration camp. Ingeniously, the five of the title—Hollywood’s A-list directors of the ’30s and ’40s—have been paired with five boomer directors who tell their tales, turning the enterprise into a testament of cinematic gratitude. Apocalypse Now’s Francis Ford Coppola smiles at the pragmatism of John Huston, who rewaged the battle of San Pietro after the fighting was done. Steven Spielberg speaks to the integrity of William Wyler, Lawrence Kasdan to George Stevens's witnessing of the worst of the Nazi aftermath, Guillermo del Toro to Frank Capra's immigrant pride. And United 93’s Paul Greengrass does a beautifully complex job by John Ford, who was embedded at D-Day’s Normandy beaches and ruined by what he saw.
Though occasionally marred by slickness, Five Came Back builds to an emotional wallop, especially in its final third when the movies make a comeback. Postwar masterpieces like Stevens’s Shane, Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives and Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life take on fresh intimacy as the mature works of storytellers who could no longer merely entertain.
Follow Joshua Rothkopf on Twitter: @joshrothkopf