Sunday, April 30, 2017


So I'm watching Five Came Back, Laurent Bouzereau's three-part Netflix documentary adapting Mark Harris's recent book about the World War II adventures of five canonical directors: Frank Capra, John Ford, John Huston, George Stevens and William Wyler. Sporting a bombastic kickass theme by Thomas Newman, the series, scripted by Harris himself and narrated by Meryl Streep, assigns five current directors as guides to its protagonists: Francis Coppola for Huston, Guillermo del Toro for Capra, Paul Greengrass for Ford, Lawrence Kasdan for Stevens and Steven Spielberg for Wyler. I'm not sure what criteria determined these assignments but the modern directors' comments are usually interesting, particularly when Coppola defends Huston faking battle footage for his San Pietro. Anyway, the first episode climaxes with Capra's intellectual masterstroke of detourning Leni Riefenstahl for his Prelude to War and Ford's baptism of fire when the Japanese attacked Midway Island. Greengrass is understandably a big fan of the short documentary that resulted, even if Ford's shaky-cam effects are purely involuntary. The documentary does a grand job of hyping The Battle of Midway as cinema verite if not avant-garde for Ford's willingness to show the film's rough edges, including frame jumps, as proofs of its authenticity. Netflix has conveniently made the documentaries mentioned in Five Came Back available for streaming alongside it, so I took advantage of the opportunity to watch Midway whole. It's only 18 minutes long but manages in that brief time to be very different from what Five describes.

The incredible footage Ford shot while being bombed (he was slightly wounded in the process) is there, but so is a lot of stuff that Five Came Back deemed not worth mentioning, revealing Midway as an uncomfortable mix of radical realism and Hollywood hokeyness. It must be remembered that Midway is primarily a propaganda rather than a documentary film; Ford's purpose was as much to manipulate public opinion as to record the events of the battle. As a propagandist Ford was learning on the run, puzzling out what his film needed to say as well as show. There's a note of humor early as he shows some birds that are Midway's only native inhabitants and his narrator -- there are several, including Donald Crisp of  How Green Was My Valley, as well as other guest vocal artists we'll mention later -- notes sardonically, "Tojo has promised to liberate them." Then the film threatens to spiral down into Fordian folksiness with a sentimental accordion solo and the most bizarre part of the film, when suddenly we hear voices (including Henry Fonda) discussing one of the soldiers onscreen, identifying him by name and hometown. The idea, I guess, was to anticipate or simulate the voices one might hear in a theater, should they recognize any of the soldiers as one of their own. We then take a quick jaunt to the soldier's home town, where we're shown his father working in a railyard and his mother knitting with one of those special banners honoring her boy's service. The voices will come back in and out of the film wishing the soldiers well or urging medics to help them during the battle. To we moderns these interventions are as jarring as the rough editing of the bomb attack must have been to the original audiences. They may well take you out of the picture, so corny do they seem now. Likewise, after the battle Ford returns to those birds and has a voiceover express their presumed opinion of the situation: "We're just as free as we ever were!"

You can see a bomb dropping from the Jap plane at far left above.
Below, a bomb impact nearly blows the film out of the camera
(the dark line near the top is the frame divider)

Of all the documentaries made by the Five directors, Midway probably has the most obvious directorial signature. That may be a matter of retrospection, since I'm struggling to recall how many funerals Ford filmed before Midway. The documentary may well have helped make such scenes specifically Fordian, and they must have had a strong impact on audiences at a time when many more such funerals could be anticipated. The government apparently feared that the burials of sea would have too strong and too wrong an impact, so that Ford had to butter up President Roosevelt by adding footage highlighting the proximity to battle of one of FDR's sons in order to ensure the film's release on his creative terms. Five Came Back emphasizes ironically how many of the films it covers flopped at the box office, but Midway went over big. It probably helped that Ford followed those grim scenes with a bombastic coda racking up the score of Japanese naval vessels taken out in the battle.

My one reservation about Five as a book and show is that its biographical focus on the big five directors overshadows a more complex account of movie propaganda during the war, but I'll concede that the way these masters (Huston was a comparative neophyte but had just made The Maltese Falcon) tried to work with the biggest story of their careers, and one they could never hope to impose creative control upon, is compelling in its own right. It's interesting to learn, for instance, that while Ford made it through Midway more or less with flying colors, D-Day broke him, driving him to a bender that ended his career as a wartime documentarian. Perhaps he no longer had the confidence in his ability to process what he saw with the Hollywood devices he'd used before.

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