“And yet” is a phrase that carries with it a lot of power. It implies that reality is malleable and it encourages those who speak it to look at the world in different ways so as to see it in ways that are both more and less comforting. It’s about understanding that the surface of something is only one part and someone could dig deeper to find greater, more ultimate knowledge. It’s about truth.
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It’s also a key to telling a moving, complete story.
Five Came Back, a three-part documentary series on Netflix, has one “and yet” after another. The series is an adaptation of film reporter, critic, and historian Mark Harris’s 2014 book of the same title. It focuses on the experiences of five Hollywood filmmakers who gave up their cozy studio assignments, families, and safety to enlist with the United States Armed Services to shoot documentaries and newsreels of battles in World War II. They saw the worst of humanity, but also the parts of people that make life worth living. They were busted and beaten, and some were injured for the rest of their lives. They were broken, but upon returning home, these directors made some of the most vital work of their careers -- classics we still watch today.
The filmmakers who joined the war effort were major players. John Ford made Westerns that spoke about how the world changes and how optimism is required. George Stevens made Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers into the ultimate singing-and-dancing couple in beloved musical comedies. John Huston was an up-and-comer who had worked his way up from screenwriting to crafting one of the greatest film noir stories (and one of the greatest directorial debuts) ever, The Maltese Falcon. William Wyler was a Jewish-German immigrant who made sumptuous dramas about romance and people coming together. Frank Capra moved from Italy to America as a youngster and he created hilarious and optimistic comedies, including his Oscar-winning It Happened One Night. And yet, by the end of their war experiences, these men would radically change their outlooks on the world and their art’s place in it.
Their story is told by director Laurent Bouzereau through Harris’s own script and interviews with five master filmmakers from the generations that came after the Hollywood and war veterans. Bouzereau sits down with Steven Spielberg, Guillermo del Toro, Francis Ford Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan in simple, black-draped rooms to hear their takes on the directors who influenced them and why what these veterans’ sacrifices meant to the country and the filmmaking industry. Narrator Meryl Streep resurrects these long-dead directors’ stories with a steady, reverent voice that nevertheless feels vital and of the moment. The interviewees bring an obsessive attention to the details of their forebears’ personal histories and career achievements -- del Toro talking about why Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life makes him cry every time he watches it is a particular highlight.
The series opens with “The Mission Begins,” an hourlong exploration of the march to war and the directors’ calling to join the effort. It is an urgent film, one that invokes feelings of what it means to be morally in the right against an enemy capable of evil on a scale the world had never before known. The directors were confident in themselves and what their abilities with cameras and film crews could mean to the war. They were capable of creating propaganda of the highest, most persuasive order, or they could elevate the horrors of real-life carnage into high art. But the war had other things in mind for them, as did some of their old Hollywood bosses, old executives whose names, like Jack Warner and Louis B. Mayer, you may recognize if you’ve ever seen a movie made in Los Angeles. These older men, while outraged at the anti-Jewish rhetoric and world-conquering ambitions held by Adolf Hitler, had also lived through World War I and they did not want to poison the well for their films in places like Germany, where the cinematic industry had so recently thrived as a place for both commercial and artistic success. Streep evenly narrates the dilemma of the Warners and Mayers of the world, who, despite their hatred of a man attacking their very right to existence simply because they were Jewish, were under the false assumption that this event would simply blow over. If it were not for the documentary work of the directors who had until recently made such successful popcorn flicks for the studios, Warner and Mayer and the rest would never have known the atrocities committed by Hitler and the Nazis.
Part two, “Combat Zones,” shows these directors quickly losing their prewar confidence in their ability to handle the conflict. Gone is their naive notion that they will truly be able to control the things that happen around them, but out of that lack of control rose ingenuity. In other words, “and yet,” they created something that would survive. Huston and his crew arrived too late to a battle, which left them unable to capture the victory audiences at home so desperately wanted to learn about. Huston simply restaged it using film techniques he had learned in the heat of other firefights and the combination of mortar shells bursting, dirt flying, and soldiers looking directly into the camera as if they were not being directed created an effect that nonetheless got to the truth of what a war zone is like, so that newsreel viewers in the States could understand what the men in uniform were experiencing -- it was still real, just in a different way. New combat planes fresh off the Detroit conveyor belts are too small to fit a camera operator on, which left Wyler scratching his head about how to shoot bomber runs -- and yet, he was able to place cameras in every hidden crevice of the planes to create the modern visual language we now think of when we picture planes attacking targets. Stevens arrived in the African theater of the war only after it was already won. This freed him up to head north to Europe, where his camera became instrumental in showing the world the inhumane brutality of the Dachau concentration camp, thus peeling back one layer of the Holocaust -- his footage was later used to secure convictions at the Nuremburg Trials.
“The Price of Victory,” the closing chapter of the series, is the most harrowing of the bunch, and not necessarily because of the carnage it depicts. Every filmmaker is destroyed and rebuilt into a harder person by their experiences. Ford drank for days to forget the rampant death he saw at D-Day, his final film mission. Huston worked for decades to let the U.S. Army show his documentary on the soldiers being treated for PTSD in the days when the disorder was not yet named or even spoken of. Wyler lived out the rest of his days with only 20 percent of his hearing intact thanks to the constant booming sounds made by plane engines. Stevens never made another comedy after he saw the bodies piled high outside the gas chambers at Dachau.
And yet, they understood their mental, physical, and emotional well being was not as important as victory. And yet, their work broke barriers in form and function, and they made documentary films that allowed audiences to truly be there alongside the fighting forces for the first time. And yet, they prevailed. And yet, despite their physical and emotional wounds, they continued to contribute to American culture with some of the greatest films ever made. We got The Searchers, Roman Holiday, Shane, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and It’s a Wonderful Life, among dozens of others, after these men returned home. “Remarkable” doesn’t even begin to describe what they did for this country. And yet, here we are.
Director: Laurent Bouzereau
Writer: Mark Harris
Starring: Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, Paul Greengrass, Lawrence Kasdan, Steven Spielberg, Meryl Streep
Rating: Four stars out of five
Available now on Netflix