Netflix documentary Five Came Back looks at the influence of film on America’s participation in WWII

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This might be difficult for some of our younger readers to imagine, but images of war, destruction and terrorism weren’t always beamed straight into our eyeballs in real-time thanks to the proliferation of online media. The first time TV viewers were really exposed to the horror of war as it happened was during the 1990-91 Gulf War, with dramatic live footage of night-time air raids and anti-aircraft fire over the skies of Baghdad.

In America television news rose to prominence during the 1960s as home television ownership increased substantially between 1950 and 1970. Footage of the 1955-75 Vietnam War from journalists on the ground was submitted to news networks, who in turn broadcast the news to their viewers. Those broadcasts had a substantial influence on the American population as uncensored images of death and destruction entered their homes for the first time, and heavily swayed public sentiment against the war.

It’s an excellent example of the power the media holds to influence its viewers, and of the responsibility it bears not to abuse it as that leads to an erosion of trust. That’s particularly true in these times with the much-discussed rise of fake news and calling truths you don’t like “fake news”, or to call it by its real name – propaganda.

Propaganda in itself is neutral, it can be used for both good or bad ends. The good, and the reason for my brief history lesson on the escalating role of media during war time, is the subject of the first installment in a series of Netflix Original documentaries on World War II.

Five Came Back is a 3-episode-long documentary that examines the work of five legendary Hollywood film directors during WWII who interrupted their careers to serve in the military, and the effect their footage had on the American population as it was the first time war would be seen, not just heard.

The five directors in question are John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath, Stagecoach), William Wyler (Ben-Hur, Wuthering Heights), John Huston (The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, Moulin Rouge), Frank Capra (It’s A Wonderful Life, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town) and George Stevens (Shane, The Diary of Anne Frank). Narrated Meryl Streep, the documentary will also feature interviews with five current A-list directors Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan.

Let’s see what they’ve got for us:

As someone who has a passing interest in military history this looks fascinating to me because it’s touching on a topic that’s not really discussed very often when talking about WWII propaganda. While a lot of focus is given to how Hitler made use of propaganda to rise to power and propel Germany into war, America also had to make use of it in order to mobilise support for what many initially perceived as a mainly foreign conflict prior to its official entry into WWII in 1941 after the attack on Pearl Harbour; and to maintain the morale of the populace during the the harsh years that followed.

The work of the five directors in question was vital in this regard, and as we can hear from the brief interview snippets in the trailer many of the lessons learned still apply today. This is one documentary I’m definitely going to watch.

What do you think?

Five Came Back will go live on Netflix on 31 March. It’s directed by Laurent Bouzereau and written by Mark Harris – and based on Harris’ 2014 book ‘Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War’.

 

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