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'Five Came Back' review: Fulfilling Netflix series on eminent directors, their WWII films

Propaganda's a dirty word, casting a shadow of fake news and wily psychological manipulation onto shape-shifting political events. America is hardly immune to the word, or its practice. In the World War II years several of Hollywood's most revered directors engaged in the gathering, staging (in some cases) and dissemination of wartime propaganda, some of it thrilling and good for war bond sales, some of it stark and painful, some of it grimly racist.

Author, film historian and critic Mark Harris explored this propaganda, in all its dizzying variety, and the men who made it in his excellent 2014 nonfiction account "Five Came Back." Now that account has become a three-hour, three-part Netflix documentary series, available for streaming March 31.

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While somewhat hoked-up in its technique and packaging, the series is nonetheless highly rewarding, reflecting the broad canvas and intertwined stories of the book. The archival footage has been chosen with unusual care; truly, this book about films and filmmakers in combat was destined for the miniseries form.

The "five" of the title represent a who's who of patriarchal Hollywood authority figures and iconoclasts, each marked by the war in different ways. At 46, John Ford (haunted by his feelings of inadequacy after not serving in WWI) was the oldest of the group. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, he entered the war fresh off the success of "The Grapes of Wrath" and "How Green Was My Valley."

John Huston had just made a smashing directorial debut with "The Maltese Falcon." Frank Capra had just finished with "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" and "Meet John Doe." George Stevens, a master of buoyant light comedy, had tried to adapt "Paths of Glory" in the late '30s but was overruled his RKO bosses, who pushed him instead to do the rousing rah-rah war adventure "Gunga Din."

The fifth man, William Wyler, was a German Jew who'd gotten out of Europe thanks to Universal head Carl Laemmle, a relative of the director's. Coming off the prestigious "Wuthering Heights" and "The Little Foxes," Wyler was ready to do his part for the Allied effort when the U.S. War Department came calling.

The director of the Netflix series, Laurent Bouzereau, has a resume heavy on "making-of" video documentaries with a particular focus on Steven Spielberg's work. Spielberg's an executive producer on "Five Came Back," as well as one of five contemporary directors used for context and analysis in talking-heads segments. Harris adapted his book for the script. The first of the three segments hustles around to establish who's where, chasing which conflict. The second and third parts breathe more easily.

Narrated by Meryl Streep, "Five Came Back" tracks Ford as he makes "The Battle of Midway" (1942) and John Huston on the road to Italy. "San Pietro," Huston's 1945 dramatization, used staged combat footage, which Huston lied about for decades. Capra's ambitious "Why We Fight" series included "Know Your Enemy — Japan" (1945), rife with dehumanizing slander, completed just before Hiroshima and Nagasaki were leveled.

Wyler lost most of his hearing in an aerial bombing expedition, but he came back to make the essential postwar drama "The Best Years of Our Lives." Spielberg adores that film, as do so many; other directors heard from in "Five Came Back" include Francis Coppola, Paul Greengrass, Guillermo del Toro and Lawrence Kasdan. (Greengrass and del Toro offer especially insightful commentary.)

Inevitably, the most haunting story in "Five Came Back" is that of George Stevens, whose camera units captured footage of D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge — and finally, the release of the prisoners of the Dachau concentration camp. The unblinking Dachau images were used as evidence in the Nuremberg trials. Stevens never quite shook the experience, and he never made another comedy.

With its fancy opening-credits sequence and generically thundering Thomas Newman theme music, here and there "Five Came Back" carries a faint echo of a lesser History Channel project. But only here and there. The experiences of these five were hardly unique. Their cameras, however, helped shape popular perceptions of a great and terrible war.

In addition to "Five Came Back," Netflix will stream 13 related wartime documentaries throughout the month. The full list:

"The Battle of Midway" (1942, John Ford)

"Prelude to War" (1942, Frank Capra)

"The Battle of Russia" (1943, Frank Capra)

"How to Operate Behind Enemy Lines" (1943, John Ford)

"Report from the Aleutians" (1943, John Huston)

"The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress" (1944, William Wyler)

"The Negro Soldier" (1944, Stuart Heisler; produced by Frank Capra)

"Tunisian Victory" (1944, John Huston)

"Know Your Enemy — Japan" (1945, Frank Capra)

"San Pietro" (1945, John Huston)

"Nazi Concentration Camps" (1945, George Stevens)

"Let There Be Light" (1946, John Huston)

"Thunderbolt" (1947, William Wyler)

Michael Phillips is a Tribune critic.

mjphillips@chicagotribune.com

Twitter @phillipstribune

"Five Came Back"

Netflix, March 31

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