New Netflix documentary series explores how Hollywood changed World War II and vice versa

The power of the movies to mould public opinion has never been lost on politicians, but rarely have they wielded it as a tool for pro-war propaganda with such force as depicted in Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War

John Ford shooting Second World War propaganda, helped by a US combat cameraman. Courtesy Netflix
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The power of the movies to mould public opinion has never been lost on politicians, but rarely do they get to wield it as a tool for pro-war propaganda with such force as ­during the Second World War.

A new three-part docuseries that comes to Netflix on Friday, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War, "tells the extraordinary story of how Hollywood changed the Second World War – and how the war changed Hollywood", says writer Mark Harris, author of the best-selling book that shaped the series.

"Film was an intoxicant from the early days of the silent movies," says director Steven Spielberg in the opening moments of Five Came Back. "And early on, Hollywood realised it had a tremendous tool or weapon for change, through cinema."

The series examines the interwoven experiences of five legendary filmmakers who went to war to serve their country and bring the truth as they saw it to the American people: John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra and George Stevens.

Five contemporary directors – Spielberg, who’s also an executive producer, along with Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo Del Toro, Paul Greengrass and Lawrence Kasdan – put wartime events into present context, along with narration by Meryl Streep.

In the late 1930s and early 1940s, more than half of adults in the United States went to the movies every week to view the extraordinarily popular movies made by the era's master filmmakers: Ford [Stagecoach, The Grapes of Wrath]; Capra [You Can't Take It With You, Mr. Smith Goes to ­Washington]; ­Wyler [Jezebel, Wuthering Heights]; Stevens [Gunga Din, Woman of the Year]; and Huston [The Maltese Falcon, Across the Pacific].

Shown along with the feature were cartoons, short subjects, serial dramas and coming ­attractions and newsreels – the only source of visual news at the time. These showed the disturbing images of the growing Axis between Germany’s Adolf Hitler and Italy’s Benito Mussolini as well as Japanese Emperor Hirohito’s war with China.

While Britain, France and half a dozen other countries were being drawn in to battle, it would take the devastation of Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, before a hesitant America, along with Hollywood’s greatest directors, would join the fray.

The war “marked the government’s first attempt at a sustained programme of filmed propaganda”, says Harris, “and its use of Hollywood filmmakers to explain its objectives, tout its successes, and shape the war as a narrative for civilians and soldiers constituted a remarkable, even radical experiment.”

While in 2017, much of ­Hollywood’s elite wear their ­anti-government activism as a badge of honour, in 1941 they didn’t want to be seen as unpatriotic or unwilling to “play ball” with president Roosevelt.

So Hollywood, in a sense, willingly became militarised – while Washington and its ­generals, in many ways, joined the ranks of storytellers.

“Of course there’s propaganda,” says Robert Thompson, the founding director of the Bleier Centre for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse ­University. “We weren’t calling it propaganda. If they were doing it, it was propaganda. If we did it, it was information and education. And [Capra’s] famous Why We Fight series is a great example of that.”

American women were especially transformed by the ­Hollywood war apparatus.

“Women were, with very strong propaganda, encouraged that it was their duty to the country – and their husbands, sons and boyfriends or fathers who were off fighting the war – to do their part. Rosie the Riveter becomes their kind of Uncle Sam of mobilising the female workplace,” says Thompson.

When “Johnny came marching home”, all the women who had gone to factories to take the place of men were expected to go back home and get busy producing babies. “A lot of them did that, but a lot of them who had got a taste of being part of a larger, economic lifestyle, were not so anxious to simply go back to the way things were,” says Thompson.

“By the time we get into the 1960s, the modern women’s movement has come to a boil.”

The upheaval of the ’60s – atomic fears through the Cold War and Vietnam, the ­burgeoning civil rights and women’s movements, more higher ­education with more people in colleges and rock and roll – started in those years after the war, and Hollywood played a big role in all of it.

“When we look back to the government-Hollywood cooperation during the Second World War, for the most part it’s easy to understand and it’s ­easier to kind of accept, I guess, given the nature of that conflict,” says Thompson.

“But I think it also has to give pause to the modern mind.

“That kind of cosying up, when government is piggybacking on to the way independent citizens are telling stories, that kind of thing should always make us nervous.”

• The three-part docuseries Five Came Back is available starting Friday on Netflix.