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Five Came Back - Full Production Notes

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“World War II “marked the government’s first attempt at a sustained program of filmed propaganda, and its use of Hollywood filmmakers to explain its objectives, tout its successes, and shape the war as a narrative for both civilians and soldiers constituted a remarkable, even radical experiment. Movies brought tens of millions of Americans out of their homes every week and stirred them to laughter, tears, anger, and, increasingly, patriotism. Filmmakers could not win the war, but Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens, and William Wyler had already shown they could win the people.

“[The five men] would honor their country, risk their lives, and create a new visual vocabulary for fictional and factual war movies. By the time they came home, the idea they had once held that the war would be an adventure lingered only as a distant memory. They returned to Hollywood changed forever as men and filmmakers.”

           -- From Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War​, by Mark Harris


In the late 1930s and early 1940s, more than half of adults in America went to the movies at least once a week. Included in their viewing were the extraordinarily popular, award-winning films made by a quintet of artists already among the era’s master filmmakers: John Ford’s Stagecoach​            , The Grapes of Wrath, and How Green Was My Valley; Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds
Goes to Town, You Can’t Take It With You, and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington; William Wyler’s
Jezebel, Wuthering Heights, and The Letter; George Stevens’ Gunga Din, Penny Serenade,
and Woman of the Year; and John Huston’s The Maltese Falcon and Across the Pacific, and Sergeant York, written by Huston.

A typical weekly movie theater program consisted of cartoons, short subjects, serial dramas, coming attractions, and features. And newsreels: The only source of visual news at the time, they showed increasingly disturbing images from Europe, where Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini formed the Axis Powers, and from East Asia, where Japan’s Emperor Hirohito was at war with China. Britain, France, and a half-dozen other countries were being drawn into battle. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt said that the United States “stood on a threshold,” but within Hollywood’s film community, questions about their role in a potential war effort gripped the men who made the movies: What did audiences want, and what would its fighting forces need? Could patriotism and industry exist side by side? What part could they play in mobilizing a divided, and wary, America?

After Dec. 7, 1941, Hollywood’s greatest directors sprang into action.

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Following the release of his lauded 2008 book Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the​         Birth of the New Hollywood – an incisive, wide-ranging examination of the generationally seismic 1967 Best Picture Academy Awards race – film journalist Mark Harris was looking for his next topic. He landed on one when he realized that, throughout his life as a filmgoer and cultural critic, he had never given immense consideration to the movie years 1939 to 1945, when America was at war and much of its talent was in uniform. Harris decided to focus on the directors who, without hesitation, interrupted their successful and honored careers to serve their country: Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens, and Wyler.

In February 2014, Harris’ Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War was published to great acclaim, becoming a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History. Almost immediately, Oscar-winning executive producer Scott Rudin (No Country for Old
Men, The Social Network, Fences) and Barry Diller thought of the next step: Bringing Five Came Back to the screen. When filmmaker Steven Spielberg came aboard as an executive producer, it was his idea to turn the project into a documentary under the auspices of Amblin Television. To helm it, Spielberg recruited Laurent Bouzereau, a prolific filmmaker who has directed documentaries about Spielberg’s films for over 20 years.

“We talked about various running times for this film, as long as five hours and as short as 90 minutes,” says Harris of the three-episode docuseries format. “We wanted to tell it chronologically and keep the interweaving stories. It’s one big story with five main characters. We needed a lot of length to preserve that.”

“Both the book and the making of the documentary were like one long journey to really try to understand who these five were as men,” adds Harris. “I always felt I had a good handle on who they were as filmmakers, but to get to know them, to try and understand their personal furies and frustrations and ambitions and disappointments – that was, from the very beginning, what I had most wanted to do. To bring them to life.”

“Being faithful to the structure of Harris’ book was crucial, says Bouzereau, whose extensive filmography includes Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking: The Story of Richard D. Zanuck, Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir, and TCM’s documentary series A Night at the Movies.
“We were going to preserve the amazing intercutting between the stories of those five men,” Bouzereau says. “But as a film, you have to make sure you balance them so you don’t lose their stories and how they interacted with each other at the time. Or even, sometimes, didn’t interact: Stevens and Huston, for instance, didn’t really run into one another during the war. How do you make that feel effortless? Mark’s immense knowledge and writing skills were there throughout the project to guide it.”


To guide us through the different personalities, interweaving chronologies and globe-trotting locales, the Five Came Back team turned to the voices of five modern cinematic geniuses.

“Early on, we seized on the idea that we could have one director serve as sort of a surrogate storyteller for each World War II filmmaker,” says Harris. “Then it was a complicated game of trying to pair them all up. They talked about who they wanted to talk about.”

The new group is made up of some of the heaviest hitters in cinema, with a deep well of knowledge about the artists they speak about. Spielberg himself provides insight into Wyler; Francis Ford Coppola delves into Huston’s narrative; Lawrence Kasdan discusses Stevens; Paul Greengrass handles Ford; and Guillermo del Toro comments on Capra’s story.

The work of the interviewed filmmakers is, of course, filmmaking’s top rank. Spielberg’s extraordinary career includes E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial​           , Schindler’s List, Saving Private Ryan, Munich, and Lincoln, among his many achievements as a director and producer. Coppola’s masterworks include the Godfather trilogy, The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, and Tucker: The Man and His Dream. Kasdan is the acclaimed writer-director of The Big Chill, The Accidental Tourist and Grand Canyon and screenwriter of The Empire Strikes Back,​         Raiders of the Lost Ark and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Greengrass has brought his piercing skills as a documentarian to dramas including The Bourne Supremacy, United 93, and Captain Phillips. And del Toro is the visually and emotionally exhilarating director of The Devil’s Backbone, Pan’s Labyrinth, and Crimson Peak.

“Throughout those interviews, I was continually blown away by how much they all knew,” says Bouzereau admiringly. “They all came in with very deep knowledge of the subject, as well as very strong opinions and experiences.”

There were personal perspectives as well, Bouzereau notes. “We were never shy about stepping out of the story. Those moments were precious, bringing in a personal perspective. Like when Francis talks about making Apocalypse Now and the survival nature of filmmaking. Or when Steven talks about not only his dad’s experiences in World War II, but also about how, as a young filmmaker, Steven had actually met Wyler. Paul, coming from the documentary world, was able to relate to Ford in unexpected ways. Guillermo talked about Capra from the heart – identifying with the fact that he, like Capra, is an immigrant, and how that affected his position in Hollywood. Larry called me on several occasions before his own interview to discuss George Stevens’ complex and moving journey during the war – he brought great knowledge and perspective.”
“Looking at these directors’ careers and what they symbolize in the film business,” says
Bouzereau, “gives us yet another layer of what Five Came Back is all about. All of them bring who they are to the table in a very interesting way. They have a unified voice in some sense, but they also come at filmmaking from different areas of cinema, as well as different generations.”

These five contemporary directors whose interviews help take us through the story “chose themselves more than we chose them,” says Harris. “By which I mean, we didn’t say, ‘Who is the modern equivalent of George Stevens?,’ or ‘Does Francis Coppola somehow equal John Huston?’ When you’re talking about Frank Capra, what matters is that Guillermo del Toro feels in sympathy with Capra, and so his comments were thoughtful and insightful in ways that you might not have predicted. I was thrilled that directors of their caliber were willing to do this, because we probably don’t talk enough about how the influence of these World War II-era filmmakers resonate in unexpected ways through generations.”

To capture the interviews, Bouzereau chose to use the documentary-filming device known as the Interrotron. Invented by filmmaker Errol Morris, the device is a camera that consists of a video monitor with a two-way mirror under it. The Interrotron allowed Bouzereau, as he asked questions, to make eye contact with the filmmakers while shooting them straight-on, as if they are addressing the audience.

“Interviews are about establishing a connection, so I was hesitant. But then, from an aesthetic point of view, it made sense,” says Bouzereau. “When Steven came to his interview, we were joking. I said, ‘Steven, this is my first time with the Interrotron!’ Steven said, ‘Yeah, me too!’ But it worked beautifully. It can help make a provocative statement.”
five came back netflix


With essential assistance from Five Came Back editor Will Znidaric (Winter on Fire), as well as Oscar-winning filmmaker Angus Wall’s (The Social Network, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo​   ) company Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment and John Battsek’s (One Day in September, Restrepo, Searching for Sugarman) Passion Pictures, Bouzereau began the long process of assembling copious footage and audio recordings to accompany Harris’ script. Over 100 hours of archival and newsreel footage was gathered as Bouzereau and his team watched over 40 documentaries and training films directed and produced by the five directors during the war; over 50 Hollywood studio films; and over 30 hours of outtakes and raw footage from their war films.

 “Then there were the late-in-life interviews they did, and all the general footage, audio, and cultural clips from that time,” says Bouzereau. “I had worked with George Stevens, Jr., on a documentary about his father’s film of The Diary of Anne Frank, so I had the footage Stevens shot during the war, but his son continued to be very helpful. We received clips and audio from​  the Wyler family, from official libraries, from Ford’s grandson, author Dan Ford, and from the John Ford collection at the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington. There was all of the material at the National Archives in Washington, D.C. And then, there was even more digging! Five Came Back presents all of this footage in a way that’s never been showcased before.”

The opening and closing credit music, from multiple Oscar nominee Thomas Newman (Bridge of
Spies, WALL-E, American Beauty, Angels in America, Skyfall and Spectre) and original score by
Jeremy Turner, were other major pieces in the puzzle. (Making things even more cyclical, Newman’s father, composer Thomas Newman, scored several films each for Wyler, Stevens, and Ford from the 1930s through the ’60s.) Bouzereau describes Newman’s themes for Five Came Back as “A beautiful, slightly more modern score than what you’d expect for a documentary about the World War II era.” Turner, for his part, “Faced the huge task of coming up with close to three hours’ worth of music, and worked really fast and hard to create a terrific score,” says Bouzereau.

When the three-part docuseries quickly found a home at Netflix, it was clear to the entire team that it was the perfect union of project and platform.

“Through Netflix, Five Came Back will expose a new generation of viewers to the classic films of these directors,” says Bouzereau. As well as the wartime work: In conjunction with Five Came Back, Netflix will feature 13 documentaries on the platform, including Ford’s The Battle of
Midway, Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress, Huston’s Report from the Aleutians, Capra’s The Battle of Russia, Stevens’ Nazi Concentration Camps​         , and Stuart Heisler’s The Negro Soldier.

Bouzereau, who also valued the input of Amblin Television co-presidents Darryl Frank and Justin Falvey, says that Spielberg – who, in the mid-’90s, assigned Bouzereau to make a documentary about Spielberg’s film 1941, starting a professional relationship on behind-the-scenes documentaries that continues today – was a true mentor in every sense.

“Steven was always so curious and interested,” says Bouzereau. “He watched all of the cuts, and gave clear notes, right down to things like, ‘Can you slow this down by two more frames,’ or ‘Give that one more beat.’ And his encyclopedic knowledge was essential. He also had thoughts about scoring and placement of music; he’d say, ‘Let this moment breathe here,’ or ‘Bring it up there.’ He and Amblin TV gave us the chance to make this documentary, and Steven was truly there with us 5,000 percent.”

Rudin’s crucial contributions was always something Bouzereau could count on as well. “Scott was always so accessible,” says Bouzereau. “If I sent an email at 1 or 2 in the morning, he’d reply a minute later. And Scott encourages you to say anything that’s on your mind, even if it’s a crazy idea. Early on, I’d say, ‘This is my idea, and it may be wrong but maybe it’ll lead to the right one.’ Sometimes those ideas worked, and at other times Scott was good at saying, ‘Let’s rethink this or that.’ He and Steven were respectful of my being the director, but their guidance was invaluable.”
There was another perspective Bouzereau found surprising: His own. “I didn’t grow up in the U.S., which perhaps makes me the right director for this,” says Bouzereau, who was born and raised in Paris. “I knew the cinematic part of the five World War II-era filmmakers very well, but not so much the political and war experiences. I was able to infuse my curiosity and sense of discovery into the film.”


To provide the narration for Five Came Back, three-time Oscar winner Meryl Streep joined the cause, and in doing so provided even more layers of humanity, talent and grace.

“We had discussions early on about how much narration to have, and Mark had written such beautiful scripts for each episode,” says Bouzereau. “The narration was to help us through the stories, including some of the ones that were the most complicated to talk about or explain. And Meryl came in with such amazing notes. She really provided a grand finale to two years of hard work.”

Harris remembers the day of Streep’s recording as one filled with significance.

“After all this time, it was kind of strange for me to go into that recording session and finally hear what I wrote, and to hear it ideally realized by the world’s greatest actress,” Harris says. Echoes of the pre-war era’s divided political culture can be seen in 2017, as America’s creative community is again moved to speak up in important ways during a polarizing time.

“Most crucially, Meryl always symbolizes incredible cinema,” says Bouzereau. “But she also reflected the artist’s social conscience when she expressed her political thoughts as she received the Cecil B. DeMille award at the Golden Globes ceremony in January.”

Adds Harris, “These discussions of ‘Hollywood versus Real America’ are debates we’re having right now. A version of that dispute was already very much in place in the lead-up to World War II, and it was entangled with things like anti-Semitism. World War II rebooted Hollywood as being central to America. In fact, Hollywood was America. It was the repository of American values and the American war effort. Hollywood was the way Americans learned about the war.”

 That solidarity only got stronger. “I think everyone could see Western civilization was at stake, and they needed to fight or die,” Spielberg says. “The documentaries these five made were powerful. And these filmmakers who came back with footage about the truth of that war, were changed forever.”


five came back netflix“Film was an intoxicant from the early days of the silent movies,” says Spielberg in the opening moments of Five Came Back. “And early on, Hollywood realized that it had a tremendous tool or weapon for change, through cinema.”

But in the 1930s, it was the nations to be known as the Axis Powers who had weaponized it. “Power to the Nth power, proclaimed by Hitler at the Nuremberg Nazi Congress,” we hear a newsreel narrator says over chilling visuals of a German rally. “The Nazi Party above the state, and Hitler above the Nazi Party – affirmed by thundering cheers.”

“Cinema in its purest form could be put in the service of propaganda,” says Coppola, referencing, among other films, Triumph of the Will, director Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous celebration of Nazi Germany and Hitler’s 1934 Nuremberg rally. “Hitler and his minister of propaganda Joseph Goebbels understood the power of the cinema to move large populations toward your way of thinking.”

In 1941, John Ford sensed what was coming, and had been serving as a lieutenant commander in the Navy for almost a year before Pearl Harbor. “Ford felt more certain than a lot of his colleagues, and a lot of other Americans, that war was inevitable,” says Harris. “Of the five directors showcased in this story, Ford is the oldest and the only one who could have fought in
World War I, but didn’t. So I think in many ways, the arc of what was going on in America, Europe and the world was clearer to him.”

But America was divided. “Isolationism was, from 1938 to ’41, a real strain not just in rural America but in Congress,” says Harris.

After Pearl Harbor, everything changed. “Each of those five filmmakers wanted to respond as so many millions did,” says Greengrass. “They chose to serve.”

Capra went to Washington, D.C., joined the Army with the rank of Major (soon to become Colonel), and was the head of Gen. George C. Marshall’s wartime propaganda-film program. Huston, now a Captain in the Army Signal Corps, and Ford prepared to go overseas. Stevens would follow, going into the Signal Corps after he finished filming his comedy The More the Merrier. Wyler became a Major in the Army Air Force and left Europe after he concluded making 1942’s pro-British drama Mrs. Miniver.

Ford was assigned to the Pacific’s Midway Islands in June 1942. Harris describes the director’s resulting documentary, The Battle of Midway, as “100 percent a John Ford movie.”

The Battle of Midway is a great moment in terms of the American war effort,” says Harris. “It was received so strongly and seen so widely, that that moment of mid-1942 was probably the apex of the War Department feeling of, ‘These films will help us, and will be a powerful tool in our arsenal.’”
As different as their individual reasons were for going into the war, notes Harris, the five filmmakers “Shared a kind of confidence. That sounds strange, since you’re dealing with everyone from Huston, famously full of bravado and swagger, to Stevens, who was soft-spoken and modest. But to varying degrees, they all felt like they had been in battle all their professional lives – they saw their fights to make good movies in romantic, somewhat confrontational terms. Yet they were all to learn, in very vivid ways, how different actual war was from the war of making movies.”

For Capra, the two battles would blend. Based in Washington, D.C., he was assigned by Marshall to instill in the troops a sense of the urgency of why they were in uniform. Capra created a series of films, one under the umbrella title Why We Fight and another under the title Know Your Enemies, to explain the origins of – and the players in – the geopolitical turmoil. Stymied as to what to do and struggling with Army rules, a tight budget, and a bare-bones staff, Capra, went to New York to see Triumph of the Will.

“He comes out of Triumph of the Will saying, ‘We can’t win this war, these guys are going to beat us,’’ says del Toro. “That’s how effective a weapon that film was.”

Five Came Back describes how Capra decided to use the Axis footage for new purposes, using narration by actor Walter Huston – father of John Huston. “Capra, maybe more than the others, really trusted his emotions,” says Harris. “He feels making his films will be an uphill battle against Army bureaucracy, and he encounters Triumph of the Will at a very low moment. Capra was always so susceptible to propaganda, and that rocked him. But it’s a commendable leap to go from ‘We’re going to lose’ to ‘Why is this making me feel this way?’ to ‘How can I use this to make people feel we’re going to win?’ That’s an extraordinary way to take a punch in the gut and turn it into a brilliant strategic solution.”


In the first year of the war, upwards of three or four narrative movies a week would use World War II as a backdrop. “Hollywood made a lot of movies about the war. They were basically made to get people out of their seats and write a check,” says Spielberg. “Audiences were very used to a sterilized Hollywood war, with bloodless combat. It was exciting, but it was nothing like the real thing.”

The first of Capra’s seven entries in the Why We Fight series, titled Prelude to War, was created for incoming soldiers but released theatrically. Huston made Report from the Aleutians ​            for the War Department, but as Five Came Back shows, his next feature, The Battle for San Pietro, had a checkered backstory in which Huston recreated scenes (albeit with the endorsement of the Army).

“There was manipulation in San Pietro and in another film, Tunisian Victory, as events didn’t allow them to shoot what they wanted,” explains Kasdan.

Though San Pietro, at the behest of the government, was a recreation of an actual battle – though Huston never publicly acknowledged it as such – the film nonetheless was a leap forward for realism in war films. Says Harris, “There is a real discussion to be had of the ethics of San Pietro, and I don’t write that off. But the aesthetics of it are undeniable. It helped create a new standard of cinematic realism.”

Five Came Back highlights watershed moments in fiction as well as documentaries. Wyler bridged both, as his London Blitz drama Mrs. Miniver opened to massive success in Britain and the U.S., going on to win six Oscars at the 15th Academy Awards ceremony, including Best Picture and Best Director. The event also saw Capra and Ford both win Best Documentary Oscars for Why We Fight: Prelude to War and The Battle of Midway, respectively; it was the first year for that category, and the only time it had 25 nominees and four winners.

While Wyler’s wife accepted his Oscar on his behalf in March 1943, Wyler was preparing to go up in a B17 with an American crew on their 25th bombing mission to film Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortess, a huge hit and the first film ever to be reviewed on the front page of The New York Times.

Memphis Belle is absolutely a Wyler movie in its precision and attention to detail,” says Harris. “He wanted to let you know what it’s like to fly that mission. He felt his duty wasn’t to just propagandize. Wyler also wanted to emphasize that these missions are scary, and it’s such a better movie because of it.”

There are lighthearted elements in Five Came Back as well, including a glimpse of the jokey
Private SNAFU” animated short films made for G.I’s. For those, Capra brought in cartoonist Theodore Geisel – later to become famous as Dr. Seuss – as well as animators Chuck Jones and Friz Freleng and voice actor Mel Blanc. The shorts were created to help soldiers avoid a
five came back netflixSNAFU, or Situation Normal All Fouled Up. (Perceptive soldiers knew exactly what the word “fouled” was a substitute for.)

“The ‘SNAFU’ shorts were an entertainment tool, but they also drove home with humor the vital principles of soldiering and living through the war,” says del Toro. “They were funny, raunchy, and incredibly accessible cartoons that really resonated with the average soldier.”

Including stories about “SNAFU” and such ancillary but noteworthy wartime events as Bette Davis’ founding of the Hollywood Canteen was crucial for Harris. “I hoped to have enough room to create a sense that the five filmmakers this documentary focuses on were not the only people involved with the war,” he explains. “Right on the margins of it you have people doing really interesting or complicated things, from Davis and Geisel to 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck on assignment in Africa. Just like it was important for me to have The Negro Soldier included.”
Shortly after Pearl Harbor, a poll showed that Harlem residents thought they would be no worse off if Japan won the war. That was a concern to the War Department and to Capra, and it led to the historic recruitment film The Negro Soldier, written by playwright Carlton Moss and directed by Stuart Heisler, who took over when Wyler rejected the Army’s offensive guidelines for the film.

“I was fascinated by issues of race and racism in the Army and its filmmaking effort,” says Harris, “and the two places we get to touch on it in the documentary are The Negro Soldier and in the depiction of the Japanese people in both the ‘hate movies’ – which is what those types of films were called then – that Hollywood produced, and in documentaries.”

“But the story of The Negro Soldier is really inspiring,” says Harris. “It’s this incredibly rare instance from that time of a white creative artist and a black creative artist collaborating to make something that not only had to change the perceptions of white Americans about what was going on, it had to overcome deep skepticism among African-Americans. It also had to overcome the institutional racism of the Army, which, initially at least, issued terrible instructions as to what that movie could and couldn’t do.”

“When you do any adaptation of a book, you keep thinking, ‘I hope we can keep this, I hope we can keep that.’ And keeping The Negro Soldier in the documentary was very high on that list for me.”

The film’s thoughtful portrait of African-American life and refusal to traffic in stereotypes was notable for 1944. While several of the documentaries made by the subjects of Five Came Back were successful, the genuinely massive crossover appeal of The Negro Soldier was extraordinary.

“It’s one of the few freestanding World War II American ‘propaganda movies’ that turns into a genuine hit,” says Harris, who notes that the film accomplished not just its initial goal of reaching G.I.’s, it contributed to the greater good. “Even today, the hope for anyone who makes a documentary with a point of view about something contemporary is, ‘Can I move the needle in terms of what the public thinks?’ The Negro Soldier absolutely did that. This was really, for its time, such a remarkable movie.”

Though The Negro Soldier wasn’t directed by one of the five directors at the center of Five
Came Back, including it, Harris says, added to “a sense of the size of this collective effort.”

Barely two years after Pearl Harbor, however, audiences’ film appetites changed. “In 1942 and ’43, three or more movies a week had some war-related content, whether they were combat movies, service comedies, spy thrillers, or the Invisible Man battling Nazis,” says Harris. “Because of the sheer volume of movies and shorts and the speed of production – where features could go from concept to finished cut in five or six months – you could see the war progress almost in real time. At the start of 1944, as things overseas get bloodier and darker, there was a counter-reaction to the glut of war movies.”

Then George Stevens and John Ford were assigned to cover the Normandy Invasion. 

Ford and Stevens were chosen by Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied Expeditionary Forces in Europe, to film the D-Day landing. The filmmakers went with hundreds of cameras and dozens of men to the shores of France on June 6, 1944. “They knew some of those men would be sacrificed,” Kasdan says. “There was no protected place to film the invasion.”

Five Came Back sheds light on this, one of the most dangerous moments for any of the filmmakers. Yet their footage was crucial.

“Think about it: Without the efforts that Stevens and Ford oversaw, 75 years later, we wouldn’t know what D-Day looks like,” says Harris. “We’ve had clean D-Day depictions in World War II movies, which then gave way to Saving Private Ryan, which is deeply influenced by the D-Day footage that was shot yet which still shocked everyone out of complacency about what that invasion was, and what the cost of it had been. But all of our understanding of it comes from those initial images.”

Over 4,000 Allied troops were lost that first day. The dramatic footage (some of it deemed too intense for the public) was another example of how the immediacy of cinema brought the war to audiences. “Film from the invasion got sent out almost immediately,” says Harris. “The first part, called Eve of Battle, went out first, and then on June 15, 1944, came the first actual D-Day footage. It was a huge event: It’s more likely the D-Day footage was advertised as the big coming attraction outside American movie theaters than whatever that week’s feature was. There was incredible anticipation for it.”

One of the more dramatic stories in Five Came Back involves Wyler’s assignment after he filmed the liberation of Rome. His documentary Thunderbolt was about small, single-pilot fighter planes, and to get footage from the air for it, the recent Oscar-winner went up in a B25 bomber, a much louder plane than the B17 he was in for Memphis Belle. Wyler put himself at the bottom of the B25 without ear protection. After returning to the ground, he was diagnosed as having lost 80 percent of his hearing.

“That’s a shocking piece of information,” says Harris. “In some sense, Wyler thinks his career is over and that his life is over. In a blink. This is incredibly moving to me, and really deepens your understanding of Wyler as a filmmaker.”

Five Came Back describes Stevens filming the Battle of the Bulge in late 1944, and photographing, in a unique fashion, Germany’s surrender of Paris. As he continued with the Allies in what Kasdan calls a “cold, hard, brutal, violent slog to Germany,” Stevens and the Allied forces came to the Nazi death camp at Dachau – and were shocked to their core by what they found.
“What they thought might be prison camps turned out to be extermination camps. Death factories,” says Kasdan.

Says Harris, “By the time Stevens got to Dachau, he had had more brutal on the ground war experience than any of the others. To me, it’s impossible that any of the five directors going into Dachau would not be profoundly shaken and moved by what they saw. But Stevens got through those gates and kind of intuited that this was without precedent, and an atrocity of a scale that he had not imagined. He instantly understood that now, what he was there for was something very different – he’s not using his camera for propaganda, or shooting for newsreels. He’s there to document history in the deepest sense.”

Stevens used his footage from Dachau to create two filmed documents that would be used as evidence in what would become the War Criminals trial at Nuremberg in late 1945.

“It was the first Holocaust footage the world had ever seen,” says Spielberg.

After Germany surrendered in May 1945, Capra was assigned to work on the much-delayed
Know Your Enemy: Japan. Unlike similar films that had sought to explain the German army, this “hate film” portrayed the Japanese people in offensive, terrible ways. However, after the U.S. dropped Atomic bombs on the Japanese cities Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Supreme Commander of Allied Forces in the Southwest Pacific Area, ordered Know Your Enemy: Japan to never be shown.

“This is a story we tell in the documentary that ends up being unresolved, because Hiroshima really ends the discussion of it,” says Harris. “But the question is always, How do you treat the ‘other’ that you see as an enemy? When you talk about propaganda and about how the U.S. government and the War Department wanted one thing and filmmakers wanted another, you automatically assume that the government must be on the wrong side in any formula like that. But there were people in the war effort who urged Hollywood to turn it down and not indulge in monstrous caricatures. The reason was impure – Japanese-Americans were in internment camps, and the government was worried that if there were too many of these ‘hate movies,’ small towns wouldn’t let them re-settle there. The impulse to portray the Japanese that way was not imposed on Hollywood by the Army. It’s a hard thing to watch now.”

Five Came Back concludes with a section on what happened to the filmmakers after their service ended. Ford’s first feature upon his return, They Were Expendable, was a tale of sacrifice imbued with his experiences that nonetheless felt dated in 1945. Huston made a documentary for the War Department, Let There Be Light, that showed, in raw and humanistic ways, soldiers suffering from what we now call Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder at a military hospital. Stevens would never go back to making comedy, instead doing films like A Place in the Sun and Shane that delved into fear, guilt, cruelty and bravery.
Then there are the studies in contrast: Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life and Wyler’s The Best Years of Our Lives. Both were released at the end of 1946 – but as Harris points out, their similarities end there.

“I think Capra really did think that the war was a horrible and cataclysmic interruption of a very stable America, after which the country would return to being what it was,” says Harris. That’s baked into the small-town ode he chose to do as the debut feature for what would become his new but short-lived independent company, Liberty Films – and it was a disastrous box-office failure.

“This is not a criticism of It’s a Wonderful Life, which is a movie that has immense emotional resonance for many people,” says Harris. “Yet that film lives much more beautifully out of its moment than in its moment, when it was dismissed as a piece of nostalgia. Capra didn’t necessarily understand that the war had taken America to a new place, rather than return it to an old place. It wasn’t seen as forwarded-thinking at a moment when America was very, very ready to move forward.”

That move forward is the essence of The Best Years of Our Lives, which was the year’s biggest hit and the eventual recipient of 9 Oscars, including Best Picture and Best Director. It was a movie that was as of-the-moment as one could possibly be.

The Best Years of Our Lives is both the last war movie and the first post-war movie,” says Harris. “It ushers in the next 15 years of social realism in movies. Wyler’s quest for truth and accuracy comes out of his war experience, and is poured into that film. It brings the subject of disabled veterans straight into the theater and then right into people’s homes and then around their dinner table. Wyler truly understands who those three returning veterans in the film are, because he is all three of them. It is incontestably his greatest movie, one of the great American movies, and an amazing achievement.”


The stories in Five Came Back reverberate with meaning. We are still living through their coda. Says Bouzereau, “These filmmakers, at that time, had a responsibility in that what they were putting into the world would be taken as truth, and there were no alternate thoughts on that. You can see a lot of echoes in what is happening today. It became clear as we were doing this film that the past was re-emerging in some ways, including the line we see that separates cinema that exists for entertainment and cinema that carries a message. And politics is more than ever a part of entertainment. I find it courageous of filmmakers then, as with artists today, to speak up for those who don’t have a platform.”

The duty to get news to audiences was paramount for the World War II filmmakers, Harris says. “It’s the hardest thing to convey to young, contemporary audiences – even if you understand it intellectually, you don’t understand viscerally that you had to wait a really, really long time for news.”

“We’re in a context now where we have five different ways of knowing what is making news this morning,” says Harris. “But you’re truly in another universe when you’re talking about the 1940s. There were newspapers and radio, but visually, the movies were the only way people could see the war.”

Capra, Ford, Huston, Stevens and Wyler were more than up to the job, even if its magnitude was unexpected, even by them. Throughout Five Came Back, “We see over and over again with these filmmakers that something they get into isn’t at all what they expected it to be,” says Harris. After their time in the service ended, he notes, “Their identity as people who served in the war remained an integral part of who they are, which is true of every man who served in World War II.”

“All five of them paid a very personal price,” says Coppola.

Their part in the war was to document, and bear witness to, the truth wherever possible.
“One thing that stunned me cumulatively while working on both the book and the docuseries of Five Came Back was that these guys were at Midway; they were at the liberation of France; they were at D-Day; at Dachau; at the Battle of the Bulge; in the Aleutian Islands; at San Pietro, Italy; in North Africa; and Ford also went to Burma and China. They were just about everywhere. I couldn’t believe how many places I could get to in the story of the war just by following these five guys. When I say they wanted to be where the action was,” says Harris. “They really were.”

#  #  #



Mark Harris is a journalist and film historian, and the author of the New York Times bestsellers
Pictures at a Revolution (2008) and Five Came Back (2014), a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for History. He writes a column about the intersection of culture and politics for New York magazine, is also a columnist for Film Comment, and has written for many other publications, including The New York Times, Entertainment Weekly, GQ, Grantland, Time, and the Washington Post. He is currently working on a biography of Mike Nichols. He lives in New York City and Provincetown, Mass., with his husband, Tony Kushner.

Named one of the top 50 leaders in the field of New Media by The Hollywood Reporter, filmmaker/author Laurent Bouzereau is one of the most sought-after talents in the industry.
Bouzereau wrote, directed and produced the feature-length documentary on producer Richard D. Zanuck entitled Don’t Say No Until I Finish Talking, executive produced by Steven Spielberg. He directed the feature-length documentary Roman Polanski: A Film Memoir​               , which was selected at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival (Out Of Competition). He wrote, directed, and produced the TCM series A Night at the Movies

Born and raised in France, Bouzereau moved to New York in the early 1980s and worked in several areas of the independent film industry. During this time Bouzereau also wrote his first book, The DePalma Cut, a study of the films of director Brian De Palma. Bouzereau moved to Hollywood, California in 1990 and worked in feature film development for Bette Midler at Disney Studios, while continuing his passion for writing books on cinema. In 1994, Bouzereau wrote, directed and produced his first of many documentaries for Steven Spielberg, hence joining the home entertainment revolution. 

Over the span of his long career, Bouzereau has directed, written and produced hundreds of documentaries on the “making of” the biggest films in the history of cinema, by some of the most acclaimed directors of all-time, including: Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, James Cameron, J.J. Abrams, Alfred Hitchcock, David Lean, Martin Scorsese, Brian De Palma, William Friedkin, Robert Zemeckis, Warren Beatty, Roman Polanski, Michael Crichton, Peter Bogdanovich and others.

Laurent Bouzereau is executive producing with Sherri Crichton an adaptation of Michael Crichton and Richard Preston’s Micro at Amblin Partners, as well as the series Dragon Teeth, based on the novel by Michael Crichton at Amblin Television.

five came back netflix


A Netflix Original Documentary Series

Amblin Television
Scott Rudin
IACF Production

In Association With
Passion Pictures
Rock Paper Scissors Entertainment

Executive Producers
Steven Spielberg
Justin Falvey
Darryl Frank

Executive Producers
Scott Rudin
Eli Bush
Jason Sack
Barry Diller

Executive Producers
Angus Wall
Linda Carlson
Jason Sterman

Executive Producers
Ben Cotner
Adam Del Deo
Lisa Nishimura

Directed by
Laurent Bouzereau

Written by
Mark Harris

Produced by
John Battsek
Laurent Bouzereau

Main and End Title Theme Music by Thomas Newman

Original Score by
Jeremy Turner

Edited by
Will Znidaric

Meryl Streep

Based on a Book by
Mark Harris


Studio Films

It's a Wonderful Life 
Mr. Smith Goes to Washington 
It Happened One Night
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 
You Can’t Take It With You
The Strong Man

War Documentaries

Why We Fight: Prelude to War
Why We Fight: The Battle of Russia
Tunisian Victory
"Private SNAFU" Shorts
Know Your Enemy: Japan
Why We Fight: The Nazis Strike
Why We Fight: Divide and Conquer
Why We Fight: The Battle of Britain
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Your Job in Germany

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The Best Years of Our Lives 
Mrs. Miniver 
Roman Holiday 
The Letter
Wuthering Heights 
A House Divided
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War Documentaries

The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress Thunderbolt!

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They Were Expendable 
The Grapes of Wrath 
The Long Voyage Home
Four Sons 
The Searchers 
How Green Was My Valley 
The Quiet Man

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The Battle of Midway
December 7th

Studio Films

The Maltese Falcon 
Across the Pacific
Treasure of the Sierra Madre 
Sergeant York (Written by Huston)
Juarez (Written by Huston)
The African Queen 
The Red Badge of Courage 

War Documentaries

Report From the Aleutians
The Battle of San Pietro
Let There Be Light

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The Diary of Anne Frank
Gunga Din
The More the Merrier 
Woman of the Year 
A Place In The Sun
Swing Time
Vivacious Lady 
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Nazi Concentration Camps
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Flying Tigers 
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Apocalypse Now
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The Mortal Storm
Behind the Rising Sun
Little Tokyo USA
War Documentaries The Negro Soldier
Desert Victory
At the Front in North Africa
With the Marines at Tarawa
Triumph of the Will
How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines (1943, John Ford)
The Battle of Midway (1942, John Ford)
Let There Be Light (1946, John Huston)
San Pietro (1945, John Huston)
Tunisian Victory (1944, John Huston)
Report from the Aleutians (1943, John Huston)
Know Your Enemy - Japan (1945, Frank Capra)
The Negro Soldier (1944, Stuart Heisler; produced by Frank Capra)
The Battle of Russia (1943, Frank Capra)
Prelude to War (1942, Frank Capra)
Nazi Concentration Camps (1945, George Stevens)
Thunderbolt (1947, William Wyler)
The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress (1944, William Wyler)

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