Five Came Back: How Hollywood’s finest shot the Second World War

Netflix continues to go from strength to strength in its quest for total domination of the streaming market, its roster of Netflix Original productions growing ever more impressive thanks to a canny acquisition strategy. 

Documentaries and serialised adaptations of pre-existing cultural properties are two areas in which the VOD site has particularly excelled in recent years and the company has now combined the two approaches to offer one of its most dazzlingly realised programmes to date: Five Came Back

Based on journalist Mark Harris’s 2014 book of the same name, this three-part series recounts the experiences of five Hollywood directors during the Second World War, commissioned by the US Army to shoot newsreel footage straight from the frontline in the wake of Pearl Harbour.  

John Ford, John Huston (below), George Stevens and William Wyler – martialled by Frank Capra back in Los Angeles – were dispatched to cover the conflict across the globe, stationed as far away as the Pacific’s remote Midway Island to the heart of Paris and Rome as those great European capitals were liberated from German occupation.  

John Huston pictured in uniform, 1942 (Rex/Shutterstock)

The films they sent back were screened for new recruits and projected in cinemas across the US to ensure both the troops and the American public were kept up to speed with the latest news from the battle overseas and left in no doubt about the importance of the cause and under no illusions about the horrifying realities Allied soldiers were facing away from home.  

More at ease on studio lots with two-dimensional sets and busy costume departments at their disposal, these seasoned filmmakers had little choice but to abandon artifice and shoot what they saw, keenly aware of the duty they owed to the enlisted men and women around them to capture the truth of their experiences faithfully.  

Their efforts represented a vital propaganda tool but came at no little personal…

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