Five Came Back (2017)

Dir. Laurent Bouzereau.

I’ve spent some time thinking about what made Five Came Back so effective as a lens to view World War II, and at first I thought it was the subject matter. Entering this documentary and having little more prior knowledge than some vague understanding of John Ford and Frank Capra’s World War II service, I assumed that it was because the documentary did a good job of introducing me to a side of history which no one had ever shown me before. And to some extent I still believe that’s accurate. I had no idea, for example, that George Stevens was with the men who liberated Dachau, and his footage of it is absolutely unbelievable. Nor did I know that John Huston created three seriously different films about World War II, or that the last, Let There Be Light, was so ahead of its time on PTSD. One gets the general sense of “American soldiers returned home” or “American soldiers died in a huge numbers on Pacific beaches and in European fields” from history classes, but seeing William Wyler with a B-17 crew helps to bring home the highly personal nature of the war. None of that accounted for how moved I was at the end of the documentary, which ones a little over three hours.

Later, I recognized that Five Came Back, beyond the knowledge and the stories, had introduced me to a new way of seeing the war: much of the on-site documentaries, maybe even most of them, are in color. Black and white film had been dealt a mortal blow by Gone with the Wind and The Wizard of Oz in 1939, to the point where its use now is usually to emphasize that the film takes place long ago and that, for good or ill, the director is flexing his director muscles (Schindler’s List, The Artist, The White Ribbon, most of Bela Tarr’s oeuvre). The last black and white movie to win Best Picture in a time where there wasn’t a novelty was 1960’s The Apartment. But World War II footage – true, on the ground, not recreated World War II footage – from Ford, Huston, Wyler, and Stevens all comes through in way that is unlike any footage or film from World War II I’ve ever seen. It is a real case of film helping us to see something in a new way; the war doesn’t feel like history when it’s in color, and the distant “long, long ago” quality that we typically ascribe to any event before the last five years is evaporated. In Report from the Aleutians, Huston paints scenes of boredom and homesickness in a crystalline Alaska blue paired with the brown-black of men’s jackets and hats to keep out the cold. In The Battle of Midway, Ford records how black oil-smoke billows into the sky and captures the sandy brown wood of the coffins dropped from PT boats. In The Memphis Belle, Wyler shows us absolutely stunning footage of a deep gray B-17 spiraling, hurtling in a pale blue sky, with the dark shadows of men pulled by their parachutes falling from the plane. And in his records of the liberation of Dachau, Stevens shows the world, in color, what a death camp looked like, how a man turns blue when his body is dead in the snow. It’s not often that we’re given a chance to see something we thought we understood and be told that we actually can recognize it in a totally new way.

The film is narrated by Meryl Streep and features five directors as its talking heads: Paul Greengrass (who focuses on John Ford) Steven Spielberg (for Wyler), Francis Ford Coppola (for Huston), Lawrence Kasdan (for Stevens), and Guillermo del Toro (for Capra). In the first and third episodes of the documentary, they were a relatively welcome presence. Kasdan discusses how Gunga Din, which is part of that weird subgenre of pro-British imperialist fantasy that Hollywood was engaging in during the ’30s (see also The Lives of a Bengal Lancer), was a sort of influence on Raiders of the Lost Ark, which he wrote. Kasdan’s thoughtful, introspective streak in his own films (The Big ChillGrand Canyon) to some extent reflects Stevens’ socially conscious post-WWII films (A Place in the SunGiant). Spielberg mentions that he’s watched The Best Years of Our Lives at least once a year for the past three decades; I also think that, like Wyler, Spielberg has a gift for getting strong performances out of his actors. And del Toro identifies with Capra’s immigrant ethos in a way that I found really honest and touching. Greengrass and Coppola are a little more stylistically distant from their directors, which Greengrass makes up for by being engaging and, yes, British. Coppola, alas, is a surprising nonentity on screen. As much as I wanted the directors to matter as talking heads, they more or less left me cold, especially in the second episode. None of the information they had seemed especially theirs. Much of what they talk about is historical fact more than analysis of the pictures themselves, which is of course what I would pay the price of admission for in the first place. I loved seeing what (presumably) caught the eyes of these fellows. Spielberg is the one who calls attention to that B-17 falling to earth in Memphis Belle; Coppola notes a soldier trained to fall in The Battle of San Pietro and uses that as a way to discuss the forced pseudorealism of that film. But on the whole, Five Came Back far too often falls into the trap of the Rick Steves test when it uses those directors. (It’s named for a moment I vividly remember from a high school French class where we watched a Rick Steves travel guide to Paris. One of my classmates was unimpressed. “I could have made that,” he said. “All you need is a video camera and Rick Steves.”) I was terribly afraid that with the tools in front of Laurent Bouzereau – Mark Harris’ book, five famous directors, and archive footage – I could have come up with the same documentary. All you need is a video camera and Steven Spielberg. Weirdly enough, the directors actually undercut a running theme of the film: the people wanted realism. There’s a subplot to a John Ford segment of the documentary where Ford let Gregg Toland have a little too much free rein; having assigned a piece about some ships, Ford was surprised to find that he’d gotten the Pearl Harbor story with reenactments and miniatures. People, we understood, did not want reenactments. The Battle of San Pietro is a brilliantly made reenactment, complete with an ahead-of-its-time shaking camera: it’s so good, in fact, that the general public thought Huston was taking real-time footage until the ’90s. People flocked to the films which had real moments with real people from real battles; there was an appetite for the actual (or at least the actual that filmmakers could get away with) as opposed to the sanitized. The presence of the directors instead of Mark Harris and a bunch of historians gives Five Came Back some prestige, but it doesn’t make it a stronger documentary. They felt unrealistic; at one point, and this is not to impugn Paul Greengrass’ knowledge at all, it looks like he’s reading a cue card about some factoid about John Ford’s wartime service. The best talking heads are the talking heads that the filmmakers scavenged from other documentaries and interviews. Huston and Capra appear to have been terribly interesting people to interview, which surprises no one; Ford and Wyler appear in a few on-camera interviews and are less engrossing; Stevens appears to have been interviewed on the radio instead of in front of a camera. Putting their voices or faces on screen and letting their films play under their voices is more interesting than hearing it second- or thirdhand from a contemporary director. And one really hopes that they aren’t just there reading copy from Mark Harris from his book. I don’t know if they are, but one really hopes some of that is offhand.

What is impressive about Five Came Back as a movie documentary is that it plays around a little bit with audience expectations concerning structure. Of course one expects the filmmakers to linger on The Best Years of Our Lives and It’s a Wonderful Life, and they do, but they do it in a way that it’s not arranged as a “director’s greatest hits” compilation. To a person like me who usually skipped this piece of the directors’ filmographies on Wikipedia, we get to see the “director’s greatest hits” with new eyes and with films from World War II replacing the Oscarbait. When the documentary does start to consider the coming back of Five Came Back, even this greatest hits segment is a little different.The Best Years of Our Lives is read a next step to Thunderbolt, and It’s a Wonderful Life as a next step to Know Your Enemy: Japan or the Why We Fight series. We see how the war is a genuine life-changer for the directors who volunteered their talents to the U.S. military. The star of this piece is del Toro talking about Capra; he makes the case that George Bailey, who is underappreciated for holding the town together over the course of his life, is really Capra telling a story of his wartime experience. Capra was sort of the head honcho of the many army filmmakers, and more so than people like Ford or Wyler his moives were unsuccessful with the public. Yet Capra’s Why We Fight is a serious landmark, and his many training films and shorts just for the troops themselves were important to GI culture and morale; the public couldn’t see Capra’s value to the war machine. But the other directors are obviously burned by the fire they played with, and those troubles are discussed in some detail. Ford, who drank himself into insensibility because of the horror of D-Day, becomes wrapped up in a vision of the past which speaks to how we became a nation that could fight world wars: My Darling Clementine, She Wore a Yellow Ribbon, Rio Grande, The Searchers. Stevens, who probably saw more soulbreaking things than any of the other directors mentioned here, turned his focus entirely from his sparkling light comedies to socially conscious dramas, including his own contribution to Holocaust cinema, The Diary of Anne Frank.

The stories really are moving, and the third and final episode of the documentary could stand alone for its emotional heft. Almost alone among film footage, Five Came Back does not voice over Ford and Stevens’ work on D-Day. It is as unsparing in showing us Stevens’ Dachau footage as he must have been in creating it. And Let There Be Light is stunning. I was hurt deeply by a scene that Huston collected of a man weeping in a therapy session. He’s a little embarrassed to cry, but the man behind the desk tells him not to be. Sometimes that can be an emotional release. “I hope so, sir,” the man replies. It is an utterly stunning statement, combining the traditional dark humor of the soldier’s with an unmistakable cry for help. Even knowing nothing else of that man’s story, those words are like a blow to the gut.

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