In Netflix’s new docuseries Five Came Back, Steven Spielberg, whose work as both director (Saving Private Ryan) and producer (Band of Brothers) reflects his abiding interest in the Second World War, pauses to discuss at length two films from William Wyler. The first, Mrs. Miniver (1942), culminates in a stirring sermon, delivered from the pulpit of a bombed-out British church; the second, The Best Years of Our Lives (1946), follows three American servicemen as they return to civilian life after the conflict’s conclusion. In both cases, Spielberg and the series turn to the decisions that forged Wyler’s art, underscoring the director’s vision with unforgettable images: Of the “declaration of commitment” contained in Mrs. Miniver’s stern, courageous finale, or of the “graveyard” of B-17s, the fluent camerawork, that create The Best Years of Our Lives’ elegiac ending. “Wyler’s talking,” Spielberg says of the former, “directly to audiences.”
It’s here, as text and explication fuse, that Five Came Back most closely resembles its source material, the deft combination of historical investigation and incisive criticism that defines Mark Harris’ monograph: The series’ director, Laurent Bouzereau, substitutes the language of cinema for Harris’ descriptive precision, illustrating Wyler’s technique as even the finest writing cannot. Wyler’s desperation to contribute to the war effort becomes Mrs. Miniver’s whistling missiles, or the poetic, airborne acrobatics of his 1944 documentary, Memphis Belle; his desire to depict the challenges facing veterans and their families becomes the spare, honest realism of The Best Years of Our Lives. In tandem, Harris, Bouzereau and Spielberg trace the connective tissue among Wyler’s Swiss-German Jewish heritage, the progress of the war, the politics and economics of Hollywood filmmaking, and his evolving aesthetic, bringing his career into sharper relief.
It may be that Wyler’s arc, from the noir formalism of The Letter (1940) to The Best Years of Our Lives—perhaps the greatest of the American postwar pictures, one I have no qualms comparing to Bicycle Thieves (Vittorio de Sica, 1948), Germany Year Zero (Roberto Rossellini, 1948) and The Third Man (Carol Reed, 1949)—is more easily elucidated on screen than those of the other filmmakers featured in Five Came Back, but much of the series falls short of this admittedly high bar. On the subject of Frank Capra (paired with Guillermo del Toro), John Huston (Francis Ford Coppola), John Ford (Paul Greengrass) and, to a lesser extent, George Stevens (Lawrence Kasdan), Five Came Back is a blunter instrument, sacrificing Harris’ light touch to the necessities of television. “You can see reality coming ever closer to Ford,” Greengrass says of The Grapes of Wrath (1940) and The Long Voyage Home (1940), for instance, though what exactly that entails, in terms of Ford’s style, is seen only briefly—relative to Wyler, the analysis here is more statement than proof.
In part, this is a problem of pacing: The war’s influence on the directors in question is central to Harris’ narrative, and in the book their prewar output comes in for sustained consideration. By contrast, the first (and weakest) of Five Came Back’s three episodes is rather precipitous; 24 minutes in and narrator Meryl Streep is already on to the Nazi advance through Europe as of September 1940, lessening the effect of the series’ group portrait. With his gentler treatment of Frank Capra, to wit, del Toro speeds through Harris’ illuminating assessment of the filmmaker’s muddled politics in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939) and Meet John Doe (1941), leaving the director’s postwar disappointment dangling: The restrained response to his now-revered It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)—which, Harris writes, “cut Capra to his heart”—was, in fact, a function of his failure to evolve, his belief in the same broad, sentimental “Americanism” of his earlier movies now sorely out of step with the country. In the series’ construction, this point seems almost incidental, even though the decline of Capra’s influence is a poignant microcosm of the profound changes that accompanied the war: To respond to the exigencies of 1946 demanded an altogether different approach to cinema, and the leading Hollywood director of the 1930s was among those left behind.
In streamlining Harris’ interwoven narratives of Hollywood, Washington, the war, and the filmmakers’ respective experiences, Netflix’s rendition of Five Came Back loses certain of the nuances—highlighting, in the process, both the possibilities and the pitfalls of adaptation. Relying on later interviews with the directors, for example, the series admirably limits its use of voiceover narration, yet it relinquishes the historical immediacy of the letters and diaries that Harris deploys in the book to such brilliant effect; by papering over the ethical shortcomings of Huston’s re-enactments, in The Battle of San Pietro (1945), the series maintains its momentum, yet it dispenses with Harris’ keen understanding that the genuine artifact—Memphis Belle, the British Ministry of Information’s Desert Victory (1943)—often emerged as the more compelling art. (Coppola’s contention that “it doesn’t matter” whether Huston filmed the battle itself or “the fiction” thereof, because “you get the essence of the thing” either way, is one of the series’ most dispiriting moments.)
For the rare footage alone, Five Came Back is an estimable introduction to the subject, or companion to the text. Bodies bobbing off the French coast on D-Day; bloody viscera strewn on the floor of a Higgins boat; Stevens’ dreadful record of the Holocaust, later presented as evidence at Nuremberg, which he captured at Dachau in the aftermath of the German retreat: These form the spine of the final episode’s moving valediction, in which images—as journalism, as propaganda, as instruction, as act of bearing witness—are essential to our understanding of the Second World War and its unimaginable cost. Passing through Huston’s empathic depiction of traumatized soldiers, in the long-suppressed documentary Let There Be Light (1946), and Ford’s taciturn depiction of the Pacific campaign, They Were Expendable (1945), Five Came Back finally arrives at a montage as stirring as Mrs. Miniver, as ambivalent as The Best Years of Our Lives, and for bringing attention to such worthy entries in the cultural history of the war, it deserves ample credit. But it’s hard not to feel as if the optimistic note on which Five Came Back lands is less honest than Harris’ original, and thereby less convincing. Where the text concludes with an anecdote about Stevens, so transformed by what he saw at Dachau that he never made another comedy, the series’ last line is delivered, curiously enough, by Capra himself. “There’s good in the world,” he says, with the slightly tinny ring of the shallow appraisal. “And it’s wonderful.”
Five Came Back premieres Friday, March 31 on Netflix.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.