Mark Harris’s 2014 nonfiction bestseller Five Came Back concerns the origin or revision of many complacently accepted ideologies. Harris details how Hollywood and the American government teamed up during World War II to construct the public narrative of the war, while forging the classic notion of Baby Boomer life and its promise of self-actualization and subsequently inventing or updating various film genres. Reality is a construction rooted in malleable sounds, images, and language, and so cinema is partially the story of our collective lives, offering daydreams that fashion and inform fact. Hollywood’s best filmmakers are expert molders of these dreams, and so a logical bargain was struck during WWII: The government would legitimize the young West Coast movie industry, protecting it from censorious bigots who thought of it as a nest of subversive Jewish immigrants, while Hollywood provided the government with its mythology.
In the book, Harris follows five iconic American filmmakers—John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, William Wyler, and John Huston—as they served America’s war effort. The men navigated Washington D.C.‘s political bureaucracy, which paralleled the cutthroat machinations of their studio turf, and traveled the world and created documentaries that were often intended as art but sold to the government as propaganda. Eventually, the men witnessed the carnage of battle, which alienated them from the empowering fantasies they manufactured before the war and once bought into themselves on a primordial level. The spirit of adventure that cinema often associates with war—of becoming a real man and patriot, of belonging unambiguously to an American culture to which these artists didn’t entirely feel connected—was discovered by these men to be a silk screen obscuring a nightmare.
Netflix’s three-part adaptation of Five Came Back, scripted by Harris and directed by Laurent Bouzereau, is gripped by a fascinating irony: It’s a propagandistic examination of propaganda. The book contrasts the macro of the U.S.‘s efforts to win WWII with the micro of each filmmaker’s military experience, offering surgically precise, engagingly empathetic portraits of soldiers as well as significant artists. The series loses much of the book’s micro texture by necessity of form. Capra’s sketchy political indecisiveness, namely his sporadic attraction to authoritarian figures, has been downplayed in the series, acknowledged passingly by filmmaker Guillermo del Toro, who says that Capra, politically, was “very confused, but the need to be loved, the need to be saved, was true inside him.”
The documentary also disappointingly elides much of the U.S.‘s internal struggle over WWII prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, which Harris resonantly dramatized in his book. Instead, Harris and Bouzereau mount an inspiring story of doubt conquered and peace restored, though they also acknowledge the hypocrisy of a country that speaks of ending fascism while embracing the subjugation of its own black soldiers and dehumanizing the entire Japanese population, likening them to ants and dogs.
Five Came Back is somewhat at war with itself, then, as it recognizes these disparities while formally mirroring the sorts of films that Capra produced while in the War Department, emphasizing—with exciting battle footage and fawning celebrity-filmmaker testimonials—how a distracted and torn America woke up and reconciled itself to confront a looming threat to Western civilization. However, Bouzereau also inserts brief, jarring images of horror, such as a shot of D-Day, captured by Ford, of men reduced to hamburger.
As many studio films of the late 1930s and 1940s were conceived with interventionist undertones, Five Came Back has been produced with an eye on the contemporary global scene, as it’s impossible to watch the Netflix series and not think of Europe and America’s present embrace of hard-right isolationism and the hopelessness that fuels this movement. Throughout, Harris and Bouzereau are trying to sell a notion of teamwork and camaraderie without totally, glibly ignoring past atrocity, which is a tricky balancing act. The documentary even ends with a Capra quotation that suggests a plea to present-day audiences: “There’s good in the world. And it’s wonderful.”
Though somewhat simplified, Five Came Back has a dizzying power that testifies to film’s advantages over prose as a medium—namely, the visceral dimensions of sound and composition. Harris’s book discusses the films the five men produced at length, while the documentary can show us their actual work, providing the proof of the directors’ artistry in the pudding. Ford’s The Battle of Midway remains chillingly direct and beautiful, mixing the filmmaker’s formal precision with the spontaneously captured chaos of battle, dramatizing the violation of war and the authentic bravery of defense. Harris and Bouzereau shrewdly include passages and images from that film that speak volumes of the terror of World War II (especially a shot of dark smoke plumes in the sky) while elucidating Ford’s own poignant coming of age as a man enthralled with the military who comes to see both the price and duty of war. Similarly, footage of Wyler’s The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress offers bracing testament to the director’s sense of humanity while serving as a simultaneously haunting and thrilling document of adventure and carnage—particularly when men are seen to be counting the parachuted survivors of a shot-down enemy plane, rooting for their escape.
While references to Capra’s troubled identity have been streamlined in the series, he remains the narrative’s most moving figure. Part of this emotional piquancy has to do with context: Capra’s legacy hasn’t survived as well as those of the other men profiled. Huston and Ford are looming heroes of cinephilia, certifiable man’s men of cinema who left behind filmographies that, like wine, improve with age. Stevens and Wyler are less celebrated now, but they made films that are revisited and respected, most notably the former’s overpraised A Place in the Sun and the latter’s sweeping postwar masterpiece, The Best Years of Our Lives. By contrast, many of Capra’s films are hopelessly cheesy, and his greatest, most daring, and most personal work, It’s a Wonderful Life, nearly ruined his career and wouldn’t be embraced until years later, in mainstream rather than critical circles.
Huston, Ford, Wyler, and Stevens made war propaganda films that are authentically great movies, while Capra’s grand achievement was the construction of the unglamorous factory within Washington that made the production of much of this art possible. (Capra’s own visionary yet jingoistic propaganda films also defined postwar American culture, though they’ve aged poorly.) It would have been easy for Harris and Bouzereau to coast on the coattails of the more respected directors, affirming canonical presumptions, but instead they locate a deeper cultural fragility. Capra was heroic, insecure, and capable of monstrous sympathies all at once; he was a transcendent, indispensable, irreconcilable dork who suggests the sort of Great Man as Everyman that frequently populated his films, namely James Stewart’s character from Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.
Harris and Bouzereau’s sympathy for Capra is perceptive as well as gallant (del Toro memorably describes Capra’s films as having an “existential quality”). And this nuance speaks to Harris’s ongoing project as a journalist, not only as the writer of both incarnations of Five Came Back, but as a columnist who homes in on pop filmmaking that the critical elite may not deign to take seriously. It’s easy as a critic to give up on the public and leave them to their Marvel films and write for oneself, and this resignation obviously has its parallel in the cultural chasms of the political realm. Harris insists on reaching the public, or trying to, daring to retain hopefulness, and he adopts Capra’s career as a signifier of both the rewards and perils of his own ambitions. Harris has the intuition to recognize that Capra, the tragically square populist, embodies everything that’s right and wrong with America.