WAR FILMS

Be­hind “Five Came Back.”

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - By Michael Or­doña cal­en­dar@la­times.com

Largely lost in the le­gends of five of Hol­ly­wood’s most ac­com­plished film­mak­ers is how they all served dur­ing World War II — and how that ex­pe­ri­ence in­flu­enced their art.

“I think we for­get that the true film­mak­ers are in­flu­enced by life,” says “Five Came Back” di­rec­tor Lau­rent Bouzereau. “When you re-watch [the movies they made af­ter the war], you see them in a dif­fer­ent light: ‘My God, they were talk­ing about them­selves,’ or ‘They were try­ing to ex­or­cise some­thing.’ ”

Frank Capra (“It’s a Won­der­ful Life”), John Ford (“The Grapes of Wrath”), John Hus­ton (“The Trea­sure of the Sierra Madre”), Ge­orge Stevens (“Giant”) and Wil­liam Wyler (“Ben-Hur”) each joined the gov­ern­ment’s pro­pa­ganda pro­gram, putting mas­sively suc­cess­ful com­mer­cial ca­reers on hold to make mes­sage films at home — or doc­u­men­taries shot on lo­ca­tion in war zones.

Film jour­nal­ist Mark Har­ris’ book about their ser­vice and the af­ter­math, “Five Came Back: A Story of Hol­ly­wood and the Sec­ond World War,” was a fi­nal­ist in 2015 for the Los An­ge­les Times Book Prize for His­tory. It is now a three-part Net­flix doc­u­men­tary, with Bouzereau re­cruit­ing five of to­day’s best-known film­mak­ers for run­ning com­men­tary, and Meryl Streep to nar­rate.

“Five” pro­ducer Steven Spiel­berg dis­cusses Wyler’s journey. Francis Ford Cop­pola takes on Hus­ton; Paul Green­grass, Ford; Guillermo del Toro, Capra; and Lawrence Kas­dan fol­lows Stevens’ trek.

Bouzereau says the com­men­ta­tors were cho­sen largely be­cause they matched up with their sub­ject film­mak­ers in some way. For in­stance, he aligns Cop­pola’s “Mak­ing ‘Apoc­a­lypse Now’ was my war” mind-set with Hus­ton’s hunt­ing of ele­phants while mak­ing “The African Queen”: “Those are peo­ple who lived the film­mak­ing ex­pe­ri­ence to a de­gree that is al­most be­yond what one can imag­ine.”

De­spite this ad­ven­turer’s ap­proach, when Hus­ton’s doc­u­men­tary work was crit­i­cized as “anti-war” by Army of­fi­cials, he re­port­edly re­sponded, “Well, sir, when­ever I make a film that’s for war, you can take me out and shoot me.”

While Hus­ton’s “The Bat­tle of San Pi­etro,” pre­sented as a you-are-there chron­i­cle of an ac­tual fire­fight, in­cluded some staged footage, Bouzereau says there’s a kind of cin­e­matic re­demp­tion in his painfully hon­est doc­u­men­tary, “Let There Be Light,” a por­trait of post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der be­fore it had a name.

“There’s this scene with this African Amer­i­can [vet­eran]; they say some­thing to him, and he says, ‘Well, I hope so, sir, I hope I’m go­ing to be OK.’ And he takes off his glasses and wipes his tears. That clip gets me each time,” says Bouzereau.

Ford, one of the in­ven­tors of the ma­cho west­ern genre, put life and limb on the line to make “The Bat­tle of Mid­way,” a doc­u­men­tary shot un­der ac­tual fire from Ja­panese planes.

Bouzereau says, “When Ford is at Mid­way, on top of a plat­form as the bombs are drop­ping to get a shot, I’m think­ing, ‘Green­grass would prob­a­bly do the same thing.’ ”

Del Toro evokes his own and Capra’s im­mi­grant ex­pe­ri­ences in dis­cussing one of the lead­ers of the cin­e­matic war ef­fort. Bouzereau says, “Noth­ing pre­pared me for the bril­liant, emo­tional in­ter­view we did to­gether. Ev­ery­one who came to that in­ter­view was riv­eted.”

In part be­cause of a meet­ing he had with Wyler early in his ca­reer, Spiel­berg chose to dis­cuss him. Af­ter the war, Wyler made “The Best Years of Our Lives,” a de­cid­edly un­tidy look at the strug­gles of veter­ans re­turn­ing home. Among its Os­cars were awards for best pic­ture and Wyler’s sec­ond di­rect­ing honor (of three).

Stevens, un­til the war known as a master crafts­man of slick come­dies and mu­si­cals, made you-are-there doc­u­men­taries in the Euro­pean the­ater. His cam­eras were the first to cap­ture the death camp at Dachau.

Bouzereau says Stevens’ Dachau footage “is no longer shot with a point of view, but with the goal of be­ing ev­i­dence. It was used, of course, at the Nurem­berg tri­als. He grabbed the cam­era him­self; he doesn’t let any­one else do it.”

When he re­turned, the film­maker showed lit­tle in­ter­est in his for­mer gen­res.

Af­ter a long lay­off, Stevens “worked on de­vel­op­ing a com­edy with In­grid Bergman and even­tu­ally had to give it up: ‘I just can’t.’ Then you look at movies like ‘Giant’ — there’s an in­cred­i­ble shot where the char­ac­ter Sal Mi­neo played has been killed dur­ing the war and there’s this shot of a train stop­ping, and the train leaves, and there’s his cof­fin.”

Netf lix

Kirk McKoy Los An­ge­les Times

DI­REC­TOR Lau­rent Bouzereau views the sub­jects in “Five Came Back,” in­clud­ing John Ford, above right, in new light.

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