Five Came Back
Based onFive Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
by Mark Harris
Directed byLaurent Bouzereau
Narrated byMeryl Streep
Theme music composerThomas Newman
ComposerJeremy Turner
Country of originUnited States
Original languageEnglish
No. of episodes3
Executive producers
EditorWill Znidaric
Running time59-69 minutes
Production companies
Original release
ReleaseMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)

Five Came Back is an American documentary based on the 2014 book Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War by journalist Mark Harris.[1] It was released as a stand-alone documentary in New York and Los Angeles, and as a three-part series on Netflix, on March 31, 2017.[2]

The documentary focuses on five directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – whose war-related works are analysed by modern filmmakers, respectively Paul Greengrass, Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, Guillermo del Toro, and Lawrence Kasdan. The series received critical acclaim and was nominated for two Primetime Emmy Awards, winning Outstanding Narrator for Meryl Streep's performance.

On February 9, 2021 Netflix added all of the propaganda movies featured into a new series called Five Came Back: The Reference Films.[3]


Five Came Back explores the experiences of five U.S. film directors – John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, Frank Capra, and George Stevens – and their frontline work during the Second World War.[4] It draws on over 100 hours of archival footage and is narrated by Meryl Streep.[5] Each modern director discusses the impact and legacies of one of the five earlier directors: Steven Spielberg (Wyler), Francis Ford Coppola (Huston), Guillermo del Toro (Capra), Paul Greengrass (Ford), and Lawrence Kasdan (Stevens).


The film was based on the 2014 book of the same name by Mark Harris.[6] The filmmakers studied more than 100 hours of newsreel and archival footage, and more than 40 documentaries and training films created by the five directors during the war. They also reviewed 50 studio films by the directors and more than 30 hours of raw footage from their war films.[7] Director Laurent Bouzereau, who has extensive experience documenting films and directors, introduced the idea of interviewing five current directors for the project.[8]

Meryl Streep recorded the narration for the documentary on January 17, 2017, the same day she received her 20th Oscar nomination (Best Actress for Florence Foster Jenkins).[8]


No.TitleDirected byWritten byOriginal air date
1"The Mission Begins"Laurent BouzereauMark HarrisMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)
The series looks at the backgrounds of the five directors as World War II begins and their motives for helping the war effort. John Ford's The Battle of Midway was approved directly by President Franklin D. Roosevelt while Frank Capra fights to get Why We Fight made.
2"Combat Zones"Laurent BouzereauMark HarrisMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)
The directors learn their vision for the films is not always permissible by the U.S. government. Wyler is shocked by the racism he encounters against African American soldiers and refused to make a film recruiting black soldiers. Meanwhile, the films' racist depiction of the Japanese versus human depiction of the Germans causes worry for the War Department, which at that time planned to redistribute the Japanese-American population from internment camps into towns across the United States.
3"The Price of Victory"Laurent BouzereauMark HarrisMarch 31, 2017 (2017-03-31)
The five directors return to Hollywood after the war but are forever haunted by what they saw. Ford goes on a drinking bender after filming the carnage at D-Day. Stevens is wholly unprepared for the horrors of Dachau and realizes he is not there to film propaganda but to capture evidence of crimes against humanity. Wyler, who lost his hearing during the war, fears his career is over. Huston chronicles soldiers suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder in the film Let There Be Light, only to have it suppressed by the U.S. government.

Critical reaction

Five Came Back has largely received critical acclaim. It has a 97% approval rating based on 37 reviews on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes.[9] Peter Travers of Rolling Stone gave the series 3.5 stars out of 4, writing, "Arguably the best documentary ever made about Hollywood and wartime, Five Came Back is nirvana for movie lovers and a real eye-opener for anyone new to the subject."[10] David Sims of The Atlantic praised the series' relevance today, and stated that it should have been longer: "Harris's book recognized that Hollywood often shapes our perception of reality more than we know, and that the recruitment of these directors by the U.S. military intertwined the film industry with sometimes-dangerous assumptions of truth and realism. Five Came Back is, in the end, a compelling examination of propaganda—its purpose, its effectiveness, and its drawbacks. These are all things that are worth keeping in mind in 2017, just as they were many decades ago."[11]

Allison Shoemaker, who reviewed each episode separately for The A.V. Club, gave "The Mission Begins" a B+ and graded both "Combat Zones" and "The Price of Victory" an A. Reviewing the final episode, she writes, "It comes as no surprise that the conclusion to this remarkable series packs a wallop—the previous episode ends with D-Day on the horizon, after all—but what is surprising is how gracefully Laurent Bouzereau and Mark Harris link these monstrous and stunning events and truths to the art which followed them. Does tying Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life to George Stevens' experiences at Dachau seem like a bit of a stretch? Sure, but somehow, it isn't. George Bailey's story is also Capra's, and Ford's, and Wyler's. There's much that this hour makes clear, but chief among that crowded group is this: the experiences of and footage captured by these men changed the United States, the world, and the directors themselves in irrevocable ways."[12][13][14]

John Anderson in The Wall Street Journal writes: "Overall, the series is much like its story: mythic, adventurous, romantic. And real."[15] Brian Tallerico, writing for, called it a "must-see" and a "cinephile and historian's dream come true."[16]

In The New York Times, Ben Kenigsberg writes, "Above all, Five Came Back is an invitation to see more: It's hard to watch it without wanting to visit (or revisit) Wyler's Mrs. Miniver or Ford's They Were Expendable. It's further proof, if any were needed, that these men weren't simply creating propaganda, but art that would endure."[17]

Kristin Hunt of Slashfilm questioned why the series did not address Ford's anti-semitism or Capra's admiration of Benito Mussolini, but was generally positive, writing, "Five Came Back is a testament to the power of cinema, and the moral implications that come with it. Was all this propaganda permissible? The documentary is sometimes afraid to truly grapple with that question. But when it does, it's gripping stuff."[18] Peter Debruge, chief film critic for Variety, was less enthusiastic, criticizing the series for leaving out the rich original research in Harris' book for the thoughts of the five current Hollywood directors, whose purpose he felt was merely a promotional gag.[19]


Accolades for Five Came Back
Award Date of ceremony Category Nominee(s) Result Ref
American Cinema Editors Eddie Awards January 26, 2018 Best Edited Non-Theatrical Documentary Will Znidaric (Episode: "The Price of Victory") Won [20]
Cinema Eye Honors January 11, 2018 Outstanding Achievement in Broadcast Nonfiction Filmmaking Laurent Bouzereau, director; John Battsek and Laurent Bouzereau, producers; Ben Cotner, Adam Del Deo and Lisa Nishimura, executive producers Nominated [21]
Critics' Choice Documentary Awards November 2, 2017 Best Limited Documentary Series (TV/Streaming) Five Came Back Nominated [22]
Golden Reel Awards February 18, 2018 Outstanding Achievement in Sound Editing – Single Presentation Trip Brock, supervising sound editor; Bruce Stubblefield, supervising dialogue editor; Demetri Evdoxiadis, Raymond Park and Zheng Jia, sound effects editors; Abhay Manusmare, music editor Nominated [23]
Golden Trailer Awards June 6, 2017 Best Documentary (TV Spot/Trailer/Teaser for a series) Five Came Back Nominated [24]
Primetime Emmy Awards September 9–10, 2017 Outstanding Music Composition for a Limited Series, Movie, or Special (Original Dramatic Score) Jeremy Turner (Episode: "The Price of Victory") Nominated [25]
Outstanding Narrator Meryl Streep (Episode: "The Price of Victory") Won


  1. ^ Agard, Chancellor (February 23, 2017). "Mark Harris' 'Five Came Back' Is Coming to Netflix as a Docu-Series". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  2. ^ "Mark Harris' Five Came Back is coming to Netflix as a docu-series". Entertainment Weekly. Retrieved February 23, 2017.
  3. ^ "'Five Came Back: The Reference Films' Added to Netflix Globally". What's on Netflix. February 9, 2021.
  4. ^ "New Netflix series narrated by Meryl Streep to tell story of how Hollywood faced fascism during World War II". Radio Times. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  5. ^ "Exclusive: See the Trailer for Netflix's New Documentary About World War II and Hollywood". Time. February 28, 2017. Retrieved February 28, 2017.
  6. ^ Harris, Mark (2014). Five Came Back : A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War. Penguin Press. ISBN 9781594204302. OCLC 964586334.
  7. ^ "VIDEO: First Look - New Netflix Documentary Series FIVE CAME BACK". BroadwayWorld. February 28, 2017. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  8. ^ a b Tapley, Kristopher (March 13, 2017). "Author Mark Harris on Turning 'Five Came Back' Into a Netflix Documentary". Variety. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
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  10. ^ Travers, Peter (March 30, 2017). "'Five Came Back' Review: WWII Doc Is a Peerless Hollywood History Lesson". Rolling Stone. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  11. ^ Sims, David (April 3, 2017). "'Five Came Back' and the Frightening Power of Propaganda". The Atlantic. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  12. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (April 1, 2017). "Five Came Back traces the transformation of an artist to an instrument of war". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  13. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (April 2, 2017). "The directors grapple with bombings and bureaucracy in a gripping Five Came Back". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  14. ^ Shoemaker, Allison (April 3, 2017). "The stunning conclusion of Five Came Back makes us witnesses to both horror and joy". The A.V. Club. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  15. ^ Anderson, John (March 30, 2017). "'Five Came Back' Review: When Directors Went to War". Wall Street Journal. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  16. ^ Tallerico, Brian (April 3, 2017). "Five Came Back Movie Review & Film Summary (2017) | Roger Ebert". Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  17. ^ Kenigsberg, Ben (March 30, 2017). "Review: 'Five Came Back,' and Inspired the Likes of Spielberg". The New York Times. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  18. ^ Hunt, Kristin (April 6, 2017). "What to Watch After Five Came Back". Slashfilm. Retrieved April 8, 2017.
  19. ^ Debruge, Peter (April 1, 2017). "Film Review: 'Five Came Back'". Variety. Retrieved April 9, 2017.
  20. ^ Blyth, Antonia; Pedersen, Erik (January 26, 2018). "'Dunkirk' & 'I, Tonya' Take Top Film Prizes At ACE Eddie Awards – Winners List". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  21. ^ Erbland, Kate (November 3, 2017). "Cinema Eye Honors Announces Nominees; 'Strong Island,' 'City of Ghosts,' 'Brimstone & Glory' Lead Pack". IndieWire. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  22. ^ Pond, Steve (October 9, 2017). "Cat Movie 'Kedi' Leads Critics' Choice Documentary Award Nominees". TheWrap. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  23. ^ McNary, Dave (January 22, 2018). "'Baby Driver,' 'Dunkirk,' 'Shape of Water' Lead Golden Reel Nominations for Sound Editing". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  24. ^ Hipes, Patrick (May 12, 2017). "Golden Trailer Awards Nominees: Warner Bros & 'Lego Batman' Lead Pack". Deadline Hollywood. Retrieved July 21, 2023.
  25. ^ "Five Came Back". Academy of Television Arts & Sciences (ATAS). September 18, 2017. Retrieved July 21, 2023.