By the late 1930s, Americans were in love with the movies. Motion pictures were part of weekly life, an opportunity to escape the humdrum of daily life but also to learn about the world (with a Hollywood twist, of course). When World War Two began, Hollywood producers were a bit ambivalent about how to approach the war effort. This was not true of five film directors--both established and emerging--who wanted in on the action and were willing to make the sacrifices to be involved.
Directors John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens were considered among the top directors in Hollywood prior to the war. All offered their services to the military and found themselves involved in the war effort in various ways. Each came back changed significantly.
In the book Five Came Back, Mark Harris told their story. I reviewed his book here about three years ago. The book has been adapted into a three-episode series now on Netflix. The result is both informative and emotional.
Laurent Bouzereau, the director of the series, has called on five modern directors-- Francis Ford Coppola, Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan and Paul Greengrass--to share insights, to provide context, and to give perspective on the impact of the war had on these creative men. For example, although George Stevens was best known for his light romantic comedies in the 1930s, after filming the Dachau concentration camp during the way, he said, “I could never make a comedy again.” He did direct powerful dramas like A Place in the Sun, Shane, Giant, The Diary of Anne Frank, and The Greatest Story Ever Told. These are movies that I grew up watching.
Neither the series nor the book address the faith commitment of these men, but both explore how several found themselves struggling to find meaning in the savagery that humankind practices on its own. This is reflected in their later work.
Although I loved the book, the documentary series is a separate and unique experience. We see not only excerpts from the directors’ films, but very graphic and sometimes horrifying war footage, often in color. Scenes from the liberation of Paris and the discoveries at the Dachau concentration camp are especially moving.
Once again, we are asked to consider why these men chose to serve, but we also are forced to see that war changed them as it does all who are involved. I highly recommend the series.