If you haven’t tuned into the new series “Five Came Back” yet – and are interested in propaganda – fire up your Netflix account and watch it. This Netflix Original series, in three parts, is an insightful account of five legendary film directors who voluntarily put their careers on hold to enlist in the army – documenting and propagandizing war efforts.

Five Came Back documents the work of John Ford, Frank Capra, George Stevens, John Huston, and William Wyler. The series is a beautiful melange of film clips, historical interviews, director commentary, and narrated background information. Five Came Back is wonderfully cut and captivating – even if some of the footage is extremely difficult to watch.

The first episode, “The Mission Begins” covers the directors’ origins and careers in Hollywood before the conflict breaks out. Episode Two, “Combat Zones”, outlines the active service of each of the five directors, including how they struggled to convey truth and maintain cinematic vision. The final episode, “The Price of Victory”, follows the directors’ return, as they attempt to re-establish their careers, outlining how their experiences changed each of them and their subsequent work.

The documentary is narrated by Meryl Streep, and features the commentary of five living Hollywood Legends: Francis Ford Coppola; Guillermo del Toro; Paul Greengrass; Lawrence Kasdan; and Steven Spielberg. At times the perspectives on propaganda as shared by these five modern directors is as interesting as the insights shared about the featured historic filmmakers. Of particular intrigue are the commentaries touching on the blending and dichotomy between what is art and what is truth, as well as the morals of portraying conflict in certain light.

One specific message stood out in the watching of Five Came Back – in assessing how the U.S. went about creating propaganda films during the Second World War, the series suggests that it was rather ad hoc, and, while well-intended, no one really seemed to have known what they were doing, perhaps causing more harm than good. This statement struck a chord, particularly when considered in the context of today’s Digital Age, and current attempts to deal with disinformation and the changing nature of propaganda in an online environment. Policymakers would do well to watch this series and keep that message in the back of their heads when planning modern counter-propaganda measures.

Five Came Back is available through Netflix.

For your viewing pleasure, several of the propaganda films mentioned in the series Five Came Back have been aggregated here below – as well as one unmentioned surprise.

Why We Fight

The first in a series of seven propaganda films directed by Frank Capra and commissioned by the U.S. government during the Second World War. Capra’s work was unique in that it used a combination of enemy propaganda and animations to explain why Americans are fighting in the war.

Private Snafu

Private Snafu was the star of an animated series of Second World War U.S. Army training films. The character was created by Frank Capra, and regularly featured some fairly bawdy content for the time.

The Battle of San Pietro

John Huston’s film documenting “The Battle of San Pietro” used staged scenes, raising issues discussed in the Netflix series Five Came Back regarding truth and integrity, which are well worth watching and vary between commentator.

Mrs. Miniver

Directed by William Wyler, “Mrs. Miniver” highlights the British struggle as portrayed through an unassuming house wife during the Second World War. The movie won six Academy awards and was the number one box office hit in 1942.

Memphis Belle

Another film by William Wyler, “Memphis Belle” documents the final flight of a Boeing B-17F Flying Fortress that ran 25 missions during the Second World War. Wyler took flight training to join the crew on its last mission and also documented their triumphant welcome back to Washington, D.C. for decommissioning. The crew commentary was recorded after the fact.

Cranes are Flying (Летят Журавли)

Filmed in 1957 in the Soviet Union, “Cranes are Flying” is about the Second World War, depicting the horrible cruelty of that conflict and the psychological damage endured by those affected. “Cranes are Flying” was the only Soviet film to win a Palme D’Or.  This film was not mentioned in Five Came Back, but is a moving testament to the senselessness of war. “Cranes are Flying” is available on YouTube.

About Author

La Generalista is the online identity of Alicia Wanless – a researcher and practitioner of strategic communications for social change in a Digital Age. Alicia is the director of the Partnership for Countering Influence Operations at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. With a growing international multi-stakeholder community, the Partnership aims to foster evidence-based policymaking to counter threats within the information environment. Wanless is currently a PhD Researcher at King’s College London exploring how the information environment can be studied in similar ways to the physical environment. She is also a pre-doctoral fellow at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, and was a tech advisor to Aspen Institute’s Commission on Information Disorder. Her work has been featured in Lawfare, The National Interest, Foreign Policy, and CBC.

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