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When five of Hollywood’s greatest directors actually went to war

Until the 1940s, no one would have imagined that when they went to see a Hollywood film they would come across the Nazi concentration camps. Nor would I think that the explosions and corpses on screen in the middle of a battle could be for real. Hollywood was synonymous with the best cinema and the greatest entertainment for everyone. Films, shot almost entirely inside the studios, reconstructed the world, but rarely went out to film in it. Everything was going to change thanks to five huge filmmakers who put their lives at risk to show the greatest armed conflict of all time.

When World War II broke out and the United States went to war, artists with military ranks enlisted and the industry turned its focus to the war effort. It was not the only cinema that was made, but it was a first for Hollywood. Among those who decided to take part, there were a handful of filmmakers who stood out particularly. John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, George Stevens Y John huston they decided to make propaganda documentaries for the United States government. The experience would alter their lives and their careers in a definitive way.

The Netflix docuseries Five came back (2017) tells that story. Directed by the expert on film documentaries Laurent Bouzereau and with first-rate archival material, it shows us the previous career of these film masters, their work during the war and their later lives. To accompany the story, each of the five stories has a current director who explains it. So they also appear Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Lawrence Kasdan Y Paul Greengrass. The pace and clarity with which everything is told is gripping and lives up to the incredible story it tells. The voiceover that of the documentary is nothing less than Meryl streep. In 2021, in addition, Netflix ordered as if it were a series twelve of the documentaries that they filmed under the title of Five Came Back: The Reference Films.

These directors were Hollywood giants when they stopped their careers and embarked on the adventure of filming documentaries. John Ford had already won two Oscars for best director, for The whistleblower (1935) and Vines of wrath (1940). When the war began for the United States, a third How green was my valley! (1941). But not only that, he had also directed The diligence (1939) and Young lincoln (1939), among many others. He was number one in the industry and his career was at an all-time high. Even so, he did not hesitate and went to film in the Pacific. His first brutal experience was nothing less than in the battle of Midway, where Ford would not only film a modern and disruptive documentary in many respects, he would also be injured for not accepting shelter during the fire of enemy planes over the island. Ford preferred to film rather than protect himself.

Frank Capra was not far behind, he had won three Oscars too, for What happened that night (1934), The secret of living (1936) and Live how you want (1938) and was another king of the industry. William Wyler was also a prestigious director, with many Oscar nominations and with a film that was to make history in 1942: Mrs. Miniver, the story of a British family suffering the Nazi bombings in the war. George Stevens was a comedy specialist, a brilliant director, and a blockbuster with a flair for humor. Like Ford and Capra, he had begun his filmography in silent films, that is to say that he was one of the creators of the classic cinematographic language along with his generation. And finally the youngest, John Huston, had made an impact in the industry with his debut feature, The Maltese Falcon (1941). Huston had also written a key film for the period: Sergeant York (1941). Five key directors, in their most prestigious time, dropped everything to join the war effort.

We said Ford was hurt. William Wyler, who made powerful documentaries about the air force, lost almost all of his hearing in one of his documentaries aboard fighter jets. Wyler, who was Jewish, flew over Germany in the middle of battle, as part of the crew of the mythical Memphis Belle. If he had been shot down, and if he survived, he would have fallen into Nazi territory and ended up in a concentration camp. This was what the directors were at stake. The documentary shows that and also the tensions with the government and the military forces. Asking five geniuses for propaganda documentaries was a double-edged sword. In their own way, all five complied and rebelled at the same time. Some documentaries, like Let there be light, by John Huston, they only saw each other years later. They were asked to film the war, but what they saw was stronger than anything anyone could imagine.

“Five Came Back” poster

Stevens and Ford were at the Normandy landings. Although it was not the first line, they were able to see and film the carnage on the beaches on D-Day. Capra had to make the seven films of Why we fight, where he also encountered harsh limits and speeches that today amaze for what came after the war. Capra, with absolute wit, also made an animation series for the soldiers. Cartoons for adults, didactic, spicy, funny. Cinema was the only way the United States and the world viewed war, what they recorded was critical.

The twelve films that accompany this documentary (they filmed more, only twelve are on Netflix) are historical pieces of incalculable value. Films like Apocalypse Now (1979) or Saving Private Ryan (1998), to name a few, derive from what is seen in these documentaries. They also changed the story of the documentary itself. From these shorts and longs, the Oscars incorporated two categories that continue to this day: Best Short Film and Documentary Feature Film.

But of the twelve documentaries there is one that, in addition to all the mentioned value, adds one more: having been a key piece in the history of the 20th century. Nazi concentration camps (1945) by George Stevens, 59 minutes long, is one of the most important films of the genre and has an extra value: it was used as evidence in the Nuremberg Trials, where the main perpetrators of Nazi crimes were tried.

George Stevens was tasked with bringing the allies together to liberate many of the death camps. What he filmed there changed his life forever and so did the story. Seeing that film is very distressing but it is worth it. All the horror in pictures that is known of the fields comes from there. Stevens never filmed a comedy again in his life. Five came back count that, among many other things. For that reason it is truly unmissable.

"Five Came Back"
“Five Came Back”


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