Five Came Back

TV review by
Dana Anderson, Common Sense Media
Five Came Back TV Poster Image
Doc tells story of how movies rallied the USA during WWII.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 1 review

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The parents' guide to what's in this TV show.

Positive Messages

People can contribute their talents to a nation in many ways during a crisis. Group think (as shown in the films with the Axis powers' leaders) is dangerous. War is not overly glorified and simplified but rather shown in all its complexities.

Positive Role Models & Representations

These five directors are nuanced characters, with personal flaws and sometimes puffed-up egos. Still, they rise to the occasion when needed, find their strengths, and get the job done.


Wartime footage is violent and sometimes graphic. Soldiers seen injured, dead. Concentration camp victims shown in real footage. Loud noises related to bombing. Fires, crashes, firing of war weapons.


Mild sexual references in some of the movies or related to some of the directors' private lives.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

Depictions of substance use; frequent cigarette smoking. References to or depictions of some of the directors' drinking or smoking habits. 

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Five Came Back is a three-part documentary series about five popular 1940s Hollywood directors who served in World War II. These men turned their attention from directing money-generating dramas to filming war footage and propaganda movies. Modern directors including Steven Spielberg tell the stories of Frank Capra (It's a Wonderful Life), John Huston, John Ford (The Grapes of Wrath), William Wyler, and George Stevens through footage of their Hollywood feature films as well as their wartime movies. The movies they made may have changed the national opinion away from isolationism and toward involvement in WWII. Narrated by Meryl Streep, the movie includes historical 1940s footage, as well as interviews with some of the directors in their early and later years. The real footage of war battles and their aftermath is violent and sometimes graphic.

User Reviews

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Adult Written byCriticus August 27, 2019

Five Came Back

An intriguing, informative and well-produced program with some really value. On one hand, Five Came Back paints the backdrop for the five famous 20th-century di... Continue reading

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What's the story?

FIVE CAME BACK tells the stories of five popular 1940s Hollywood directors who served in World War II: Frank Capra, John Huston, John Ford, William Wyler, and George Stevens. Based on a book with the same name by author Mark Harris, the three-part documentary series begins with a review of each director's filmmaking history. Modern-day directors -- including Steven Spielberg, Francis Ford Coppola, and Guillermo del Toro -- appear to talk about their knowledge of each director's work and war efforts. Footage of WWII battles, scenes from the global political and everyday life of the 1940s, as well as clips from the directors' movies constitute the bulk of the film.

Is it any good?

This documentary series is slow-moving at first, but it becomes absolutely riveting as it moves into wartime filmmaking. The first episode spends a significant amount of time explaining the history of each director's feature film legacy in Hollywood, their personalities, and their personal thoughts about the war. It's interesting enough for film buffs for sure, but the real heart of the documentary begins when the directors dig into the war effort. The archival footage of both the American troops and American citizens at home give viewers a deep sense of what it was like to live at the time of WWII. Footage of the leaders of the Axis powers, some of which was brilliantly used by Capra against them in American propaganda films, is chilling. Five Came Back sheds a new light on unexpected war heroes -- Hollywood directors -- who may in some ways have turned the tide of American opinion toward the war effort more than most ever knew before this documentary. 

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about why the directors in Five Came Back decided to get involved in World War II. Ask your teen: Would you have made the same choice they did? Why, or why not?

  • Talk about how films can influence the collective mind of a nation. John Ford's film The Battle of Midway was shown in three-fourths of American theaters. How do you think the phenomenon of all those people viewing the same war film affected the American discussion of the war?

  • Watch some of the classic non-war movies made by these directors to see another side of their peacetime creative personalities.

TV details

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For kids who love history

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