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Five Came Back

Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War is a documentary by journalist Mark Harris which was released by Netflix in three parts in 2017. It features various footage of World War II events that was shot and/or edited by directors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, George Stevens, and their teams, as well as some scenes that were staged. The ultimate message of the film is these guys went off to fight for their country in the way they best could, by documenting it and contributing to America's propaganda efforts, and came back forever altered.

Harris interviewed five other Hollywood titans (Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, and Steven Spielberg) for their perspectives and insights about the five who'd filmed the war, what they witnessed, how they captured it, how it affected them, and how they dealt with it afterward.

Last year I watched Know Your Enemy: Japan, an American propaganda film pieced together and scripted by Frank Capra. I think it was supposed to be released in 1945 but wasn't. In Five Came Back, we learn that General MacArthur didn't want his troops to see it, and he recommended that it not be released in the U.S. either. It's extremely racist and was intended to portray the Japanese as an evil ant colony bent on working itself to death for their emperor. Five Came Back points out that American propaganda generally represented the German people as victims of Hitler, whereas the Japanese were characterized as all bad, an idea that may have contributed to the use of extermination warfare such as the use of atomic weapons and relentless carpet bombing across Japan, and perhaps as well to the internment of Japanese Americans in the U.S.

It's a Wonderful Life (1946), one of my favorite films, was directed by Frank Capra. I was surprised that he and John Huston, who also wrote parts of the Know Your Enemy: Japan script, had worked on war propaganda. There's a lot of other interesting bits in the documentary, and I thought the most compelling episode of the three was the last, which starts with Ford's filming of the carnage on D-Day (before he went on a multi-day bender) and then moves on to Stevens filming the horrors discovered at the Dachau concentration camp.

The role of these men changed during the war, from propaganda-makers to documentarians to, in Stevens' case, an eyewitness and collector of evidence of crimes against humanity. All in all, the documentary is engrossing and a tribute to these men and a good lesson in the importance of film.


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