'Five Came Back' Review: Doc on WWII Filmmakers Is a Peerless History Lesson

Five modern directors examine Golden Age helmers who served their country – and the result is an invaluable look at Hollywood and wartime

'Five Came Back' traces the history of filmmakers who documented WWII – Peter Travers on why it's one of the best looks at Hollywood and wartime ever. Credit: Netflix

Arguably the best documentary ever made about Hollywood and wartime, Five Came Back is nirvana for movie lovers and a real eye-opener for anyone new to the subject. Based on the brilliant, richly detailed bestseller by Mark Harris, this three-part chronicle of filmmakers doing their patriotic duty is receiving a theatrical run while also being available as a miniseries on Netflix. Whichever way you catch it, don't think of missing it.

Subtitled A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, Harris' 2014 book pivoted between the P.O.V.s of five major Hollywood directors: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. Each of these taskmasters joined the war effort after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, taking their cameras into the heat of battle. It was far from a snap – while the conflict was already in full swing in Europe, Americans were still largely isolationist. The government were mostly in the market for propaganda; the directors wanted to tell the blunt truth. The footage these men came back ended up influencing most of the war films, fiction and nonfiction, that came after.

For the film version of Five Came Back, screenwriter Harris and director Laurent Bouzereau brought a new layer to the story. They would assign five major contemporary film directors to guide us through the work of the giants who have passed on. Paul Greengrass, of the Bourne films, takes on Ford, a lieutenant commander in the Navy whose film record of The Battle of Midway repped the first U.S. victory in the war. Mexico's Guillermo del Toro (Pan's Labyrinth) brings his assessment of Sicily's Capra, a fellow immigrant who preached the need for victory with his Why We Fight series. Lawrence Kasdan (The Big Chill) handles the quiet Stevens, a director of comedies who later found himself shuddering at the sight of the Nazi death camp at Dachau. Francis Ford Coppola (Apocalypse Now) investigates Huston, the young rebel of the bunch whose bloody, realistic The Battle of San Pietro became notorious when it was revealed that Huston (with military permission) recreated major battle scenes.

And lastly, Steven Spielberg (Saving Private Ryan) examines the influence of Wyler, the man behind the stirring keep-your-chin-up-Britain drama Mrs. Miniver. A Major in the Army Air Force, he went up in a B17 bomber (and subsequently lost most of hearing) to film the horror experienced and the heroism displayed by an American flight crew in Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Wyler wold return to film the Oscar-winning The Best Years of Our Lives, which Harris characterizes as "the last war movie and the first post-war movie."

At over three hours, with narration by Meryl Streep, Five Came Back packs in so much information you may have trouble keeping up. But what an exhilarating challenge. Harris and Bouzereau have delivered a lasting achievement, a humanist provocation that will endure as a classic of its kind.