WASHINGTON, April 3, 2017 — When Allied forces secured the beachhead at Normandy in 1944, director John Ford, who organized a military team of cameramen to record the assault on Adolf Hitler’s Fortress Europe, drove to a house occupied by American military officers. Over the course of three days, he drank himself into a stupor. Nothing could have prepared him for the carnage he witnessed on D-Day.
Ford, a naval officer, was ordered back to Washington, D.C., never again to command men outside of a Hollywood sound stage.
This is just one of the stories highlighted in the three-part Netflix documentary series “Five Came Back,” directed by Laurent Bouzereau and written by Mark Harris, whose book forms the basis of this documentary.
The “five” refers to Hollywood directors George Stevens (“Gunga Din,” 1939), William Wyler (“Wuthering Heights,” 1939), John Huston (“The Maltese Falcon,” 1941), Frank Capra (“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” 1939) and, as mentioned previously, John Ford (“Stagecoach,” 1939). All these storied directors joined military photographic units to add their movie-making expertise in the effort to chronicle the great American military crusade against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.
Perhaps not surprisingly, like the soldiers who battled for Alaska’s Kiska island and struggled in the North African sands of El Alamein, the global conflict forever changed the men who filmed its world-altering events.
“I think the strongest feeling I ever had in my life was the horror and the revulsion and the exposure to things that I couldn’t believe was part of human existence,” said George Stevens when recounting his experience with U.S. troops who liberated the Nazi death camp at Dachau.
“What kind of a world is this? What kind of creatures are we and how much management do we need to keep us from being ourselves?” asked Stevens.
The death-camp footage captured by Stevens’ team was introduced into evidence at the war-crimes trials at Nuremberg.
U.S. Supreme Court Justice Robert H. Jackson, chief U.S. prosecutor at Nuremberg, said in his opening statement to the judicial tribunal,
“The wrongs, which we seek to condemn and punish, have been so calculated, so malignant, and so devastating, that civilization cannot tolerate their being ignored, because it cannot survive their being repeated.”
And then there is director John Huston’s wartime documentary “Let There be Light,” which chronicled the rehabilitation of U.S. soldiers psychologically traumatized by war long before the term Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) was coined to describe this condition. Military authorities considered the film too disturbing and prevented its public release for 35 years.
Director William Wyler, who documented the aerial bombardment campaigns against Germany while aboard the B-17 Flying Fortress Memphis Belle, lost most of his hearing due to the roar of the aircraft’s engines.
And Frank Capra was given the daunting task of creating a series of films (“Why We Fight”), which explained to new servicemen the importance of leaving their homes and loved ones to fight on foreign shores.
In 1982, what Capra said in accepting the American Film Institute’s Life Achievement Award could easily have applied to his wartime, cinematic colleagues:
“Only the valiant can create, only the daring should make films and only the morally courageous are worthy of speaking to their fellow man for two hours… and in the dark.”
The documentary series “Five Came Back” is currently streaming on Netflix.