Documentaries Put Spotlight on War Propaganda

The Great War and Five Came Back reviewed.


'Five Came Back'
'Five Came Back,' Netflix

Five Came Back. Available now on Netflix.

American Experience: The Great War. PBS. Monday, April 10, 9 p.m.

Growing up, I was completely absorbed by a CBS documentary series called The 20th Century that aired on weekends from 1958 1966. Every other episode, it seemed, was about a war. At the time, I thought the main reason was probably that Walter Cronkite, the narrator, had become famous as a combat correspondent. That may have had something to do with it, but with the passage of years and a widened perspective, I've come to suspect that the real reason is that war—preparing for it, fighting it, recovering from it, and arguing about what it meant—was the century's principal activity. From the decapitation fad during the Boxer War that opened the century to the trigger-happy streets of Mogadishu that closed it, war was a global avocation.

TV this week takes a look back at the century's two biggest bangs with a pair of magnificent three-part documentaries. PBS' American Experience series spends six hours dissecting World War I (part of it, anyway; we'll get back to that), while Netflix explores how Hollywood enthusiastically picked up the propaganda gun during World War II with Five Came Back. Both shows convey an astonishing amount of information with a mixture of style and simplicity that other filmmakers could study to immense profit.

World War I, as American Experience: The Great War paraphrases a conclusion already reached by the cast of Friends many years ago, is probably the biggest event in U.S. history of which Americans know next to nothing. In some ways, that will still be true even if they watch The Great War, which views the events strictly through the lens of how Americans were affected. The welter of royal bloodlines and backdoor treaties that turned a seemingly isolated event—the assassination of an Austrian nobleman by a Serbian teenager—into a worldwide conflagration involving Russia, France, England, Italy, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, Bulgaria, Japan, and the United States is barely explored. Nor are many of the war's geopolitical shockwaves. Even the implosion of Russia's czarist government, which would eventually result in a Cold War that for nearly five decades threatened to turn apocalyptically hot, only gets a minute or two.

What The Great War does do, in truly spectacular fashion. is limn the voracious expansion of the American government midwifed by World War I. When Woodrow Wilson's uncertain attempts at neutrality floundered and he called for a declaration of war in 1917 because "the world must be made safe for democracy," it made the United States unique among the combatants, notes a historian in The Great War: "It was not fighting for survival. It was fighting for an ideal."

But as The Great War documents in horrifying detail, that ideal was the creation of a Leviathan state with unprecedented power: to draft young men and send them to a foreign war. To set price controls on food and impose dietary restrictions. To arrest and even deport political dissidents. To create a powerful government propaganda organ aimed not at enemy nations but the American people. (It expanded from one employee to about 100,000 in a couple of months.) To send goon squads known as Liberty Loan Committees roaming neighborhoods offering deals on war bonds that couldn't be refused.

Wilson's actions did not go without dissent (signs at a protest march in New York City: MR. PRESIDENT, WHY NOT MAKE AMERICA SAFE FOR DEMOCRACY?) and dissent did not go without punishment. Wilson demanded, and got, a new Espionage Act that made it a crime to collect, record and disseminate information "harmful to the war effort," and he wielded it like an axe against the anti-war movement. By the fall of 1917, the federal government opened prison camps in Utah, Georgia, and North Carolina to house all the "security threats" Wilson's Justice Department had detected.

Wilson's security mania spread out into the population, too, where it unleased what The Great War calls the "wholesale destruction of German culture in the United States. There were moves to ban German music, plays, and even the spoken language. Some of the xenophobic spasms, like beer-stein-smashing contests, were loony enough to be funny; others, like the slaughter of German dog breeds in Ohio, were almost too ugly for words. Though Wilson's supporters managed to utter some. When an Illinois coal miner of German heritage was lynched by coworkers who thought he might be a spy, the Washington Post labeled it a nothing more than a slightly over-exuberant sign of "a healthful and wholesome awakening in the interior part of the country."

America's budding film industry joined the effort, too, cranking out movies like The Kaiser, The Beast of Berlin and Claws of the Hun. But Hollywood's efforts in World War I would pale beside those recounted in Five Came Back, which recounts in hilarious, horrifying, and heartbreaking detail how the movie industry transformed itself into an erratic weapon in the U.S. arsenal of World War II.

The script of Five Came Back (the documentary's title is a bit of wordplay on a 1939 disanthropologic John Farrow drama about plane-crash survivors besieged by Panamanian cannibals) was adapted from his own marvelous book of the same name by film historian Mark Harris. With Steven Spielberg producing and Laurent Bouzereau (veteran of literally hundreds of "the making of" Hollywood documentaries), Five Came Back is a must-see for anybody interested in film, World War II, or great story-telling.

It focuses on five powerhouse directors who enlisted in the armed forces during World War II carrying not rifles but cameras. John Ford, Frank Capra, William Wyler, John Huston, and George Stevens all spent their wars making explicit propaganda while carrying on old rivalries, fighting with a military bureaucracy that made the rigidity of the Hollywood studio system look like harum-scarum anarchy and often treating the war like a giant set with an endless supply of extras in uniform.

They knew next to nothing of war. John Ford, sent to the Pacific island of Midway in advance of a naval and air battle that the military knew would be major, built an elevated platform for his cameras with no apparent inkling that it would be a magnet for Japanese attack planes. (He and his crew were nearly killed by shrapnel.) Their knowledge of America outside the cossetted confines of Hollywood wasn't much better. Wyler, who signed onto "a Negro war effort film," was horrified to visit a black military base in Georgia where the troops lived in fear of attacks by neighboring white towns. (He promptly quit the project and got himself reassigned to the air war in England.)

Most of the filmmakers had a born propagandist's airy disdain for the truth, and then some. Their military superiors constantly had to temper the racist caricatures in their anti-Nazi and anti-Japan films. Frank Capra's film Know Your Enemy—Japan was so egregiously abusive and jingoistic that Gen. Douglas MacArthur, the commander of the war's Pacific theater, refused to let it be shown to his troops and even urged the War Department to keep it away from civilians.

Though most of the directors and their crews did regularly (and bravely) venture out into combat, they thought nothing of restaging scenes when they were dissatisfied with footage of the real thing. The make-believe reached its zenith, if that's the right word, for Tunisian Victory, a co-production with the British War Ministry on fighting in North Africa. George Stevens sent U.S. Army units to re-liberate villages while docile locals obediently cheered and waved for the cameras, while Huston faked air-battle scenes in the Mojave Desert. An internal military study damned the film for its abject falsity, while American audiences did the same by staying away in droves.

Faking footage in propaganda films, whatever its utility, is not much of an ethical issue. But the directors, still steeped in Hollywood vainglory, wanted their efforts celebrated. They lobbied for a new Oscar category for documentaries, then demanded multiple awards. All four winners in 1942 were government propaganda.

In the end, though, the barbarity of World War II surpassed anything the filmmakers could possibly have imagined. Stevens and Ford sent dozens of cameramen ashore with the troops on the D-Day invasion of France, where 4,000 Allied troops died in the first 24 hours, but practically none of their footage was usable. The bits shown in Five Came Back—of what looks like a boat deck strewn with piles of mangled viscera, of American bodies bobbing in the water like schools of strange fish—make it apparent why.

D-Day was so traumatic for Ford that he suffered a drunken breakdown and was pulled out of the war zone. Stevens stayed with the troops as they pushed across France into Germany, where he turned from a propagandist into a prosecutor, filming scenes in concentration camps that would be put to devastating use in Nuremburg. He heard stories that were unspeakable and shot film that was unwatchable; the excerpts of his work included here, though mercifully brief, are more than enough to convey the dumbstruck horror of the time.

When his Nuremburg project was finished, Stevens pulled all his film out of military storage and slipped away with it. He locked it up in a Hollywood warehouse and looked at it only once, 14 years later, as he prepared to shoot The Diary of Ann Frank. He threaded a projector and watched for just about a minute. Then he turned the machine off and walked out, never to return.