Storming the Cinema

Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

When Allan Dwan’s rousing World War II film “Sands of Iwo Jima” premiered on Dec. 14, 1949, re-creating on film the famously photographed raising of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, it straddled a few peaks itself.

Hollywood movies were at the height of their popularity, selling more than 70 million tickets a week. The patriotic combat film was the decade’s most popular genre. And the film’s star, John Wayne, whose own identity was fused with the kind of hard-nosed, patriotic, all-American military hero he was playing, was the country’s favorite actor.

The times were good. The war was over, families were reunited, or at least rebuilding; there were prosperity, jobs, expansion, a general sense of well being. We’d fought the good fight, slain the dragons and saved the world. There were signs of brewing discontent in such postwar films as “Gentleman’s Agreement” and “Home of the Brave,” but Americans were still in a mood to celebrate the victories over Japan and Germany, and “Sands of Iwo Jima” packed them in.


Nineteen years later, when Wayne tried to revive the character and the esprit de corps of “Iwo Jima” in “The Green Berets,” the mood wasn’t so sanguine. The country was split on social, racial and political issues, the World War II generation was trying to hold ground against its own children, and the war that Wayne was trying to sell--Vietnam--was an open sore on the American psyche.

Things went downhill from there, in life and on film, from national introspection to self-loathing, with movies running through a descending cycle of anger, regrets and recriminations; and the war itself bottomed out with the My Lai massacre, an event so soul-crushingly horrific that Oliver Stone stopped short of dramatizing it in his otherwise unflinching “Platoon.”

Thirty years have passed since both “The Green Berets” and My Lai, and we’re about to find out if we’re far enough from those events and that period to have come full circle, from Iwo Jima to My Lai and back again. Hollywood is taking another look at World War II, the “last good war,” and will test the audience appetite with a pair of $60-million-plus combat films later this year. Waiting in the wings are at least half a dozen others in development.

First up, in July, is Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan,” starring Tom Hanks as a platoon leader sent behind German lines to rescue a stranded soldier near the end of the war in Europe. The second, due at Thanksgiving, is Terrence Malick’s “The Thin Red Line,” adapted from James Jones’ follow-up novel to “From Here to Eternity,” with an all-star cast fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Guadalcanal.

Preceding those films is an HBO combat movie, “When Trumpets Fade,” based on the true story of a pigheaded infantry assault of a German hill that cost thousands of lives near the end of the war. There’s also British director David Leland’s “Land Girls,” adapted from a novel about three young women who find their own adventures while filling in for farm sons sent to war.

Other World War II movies in the works include:

* “U-571,” an action-thriller about U.S. troops’ attempt to steal technology from a German sub. It will be directed by Jonathan Mostow, who made a potent debut with last year’s highway thriller “Breakdown.”

* “To the White Sea,” adapted from James Dickey’s novel about a U.S. tail gunner stranded in Japan. It’s the next project for Ethan and Joel Coen (“Fargo,” “The Big Lebowski”).

* “Earth, Wings, and Fire,” a dogfight drama with the Flying Tigers taking on Japanese Zeros.

* “Thunder Below,” the true story of Eugene Fluckey, a sub commander whose exploits made him the Sgt. York of the Pacific theater.

* “The Ludendorff Pirates,” about an attempt by disguised men to take taking over a German battleship.

* “The Emperor’s General,” set in Manila during the final days of Japanese occupation.

* An untitled bio-pic about the life of World War II POW Lou Zamperini, starring Nicolas Cage as a fighter whose plane crashes in the Pacific and survives weeks of being at sea, only to land in Japan and become a prisoner of war.

So, is America ready or not?

“I’m very optimistic; I think these movies could be big hits,” says film historian and Wesleyan University professor Jeanine Basinger, whose “The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre” may be the definitive book on the subject. “Look at the success of ‘Titanic.’ People love it not because everybody drowns, but because there’s a love story. People are ready for something upbeat or romantic or mythic that makes them feel better.”

Robert Sklar, who teaches film at New York University, thinks Hollywood is returning to the World War II combat film because it has worn out the surrogate “good” wars fought against aliens in everything from “Star Wars” to “Starship Troopers.”

“Certain genres have played themselves out,” Sklar says. “Science-fiction and future adventure seems to be in a trough right now, and they’re looking for a new setting. World War II is a natural place for them to go.”

It’s certainly a reliable place to go for aggressors we can all agree on. With the Cold War over, and the former Soviet bloc stumbling into capitalist democracy, the Red Menace has become more an issue of red ink. Taking on the drug cartel is a noble mission, but it’s a limited theater. Our Gulf War opponent had its own version of Hitler, but the war itself was a turkey shoot. Grenada, which inspired Clint Eastwood to make the almost self-mocking “Heartbreak Ridge,” was a walk-over. Vietnam is too divisive, Korea is too oblique, and World War I is ancient history.

There’s a full generation of ardent moviegoers out there for whom the combat movie is a fresh genre. What’s it going to be?

“My students are between 18 and 22, and if I start talking about Vietnam, they look at me like I’m talking about Greek mythology,” says Basinger. “But they do know about World War II and they love movies from the ‘40s. That period was some grand watershed time in America.”

In his book, “Film: An International History of the Medium,” Sklar argues that World War II was Hollywood’s war to convey, just as Vietnam and the Gulf War were television’s. Images from preceding wars were stamped on the popular memory mostly through novels and poetry, he says, while the most vivid images of World War II were stamped on film.

“There was a lot of newsreel footage shot during World War I, but film didn’t play the same role in the culture,” Sklar says. “When we think of that war, we think of ‘Farewell to Arms,’ fiction, of famous people like Hemingway writing about it.”

Classic movies were made about the first world war, including King Vidor’s shockingly violent “The Big Parade” (1925); William Wellman’s “Wings” (1927), a melodrama bolstered with actual dogfight footage; and Lewis Milestone’s “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930), which challenged the validity of war like no film before or since.

But there were relatively few movies about that war, and it wasn’t until Hitler began marching through Europe that Hollywood, by then the dominant cultural medium, made the combat film a genre. In the years leading up to Japan’s 1941 raid on Pearl Harbor, there was a rash of combat films set during World War I, “Sgt. York” and “The Dawn Patrol” among them, that Basinger says were intended “to get us in the mood” for our inevitable entry into World War II.

Once we were in the war, Hollywood suited up for the effort, churning out dozens of propaganda films, demonizing our enemies as buck-toothed savages in the Pacific and fascist sadists in Europe. Gradually, the stories became more sophisticated, and more personal, with the development of what Sklar calls “the melting-pot platoon movie.” In any group of soldiers, there would be one from Brooklyn, one from the Midwest, one from the South, a Jew, an Eastern European, an Irishman, an Italian and a tough, dependable, Everyman leader, usually played by Wayne.

“Any combat film is a metaphor for democracy,” says Basinger. “There is some of the multicultural instinct at work here.” Of course, the melting-pot platoon was a temporary illusion of ethnic harmony in America. The priorities of the war had placed a moratorium on active prejudice, while endorsing new biases against Japanese Americans and German Americans.

By the late ‘50s, movie soldiers’ names were reverting to Smith and Jones, and the World War II film had splintered off in several directions. There were the “coming home” movies featuring troubled vets, mostly unsuccessful extensions of William Wyler’s 1946 “The Best Years of Our Lives.” There were the epic overviews, event movies like “The Battle of the Bulge,” “Tobruk” and “The Guns of Navarone.” The best character films, like David Lean’s “The Bridge on the River Kwai” and Edward Dmytryk’s “The Young Lions,” attempted to humanize the enemy, in their relationships with allies.

But as social unrest spread through the ‘60s and ‘70s, filmmakers began revisiting World War II with greater skepticism and through an emotional lens largely corrupted by feelings about Vietnam. Basinger says films like Robert Aldrich’s 1967 hit, “The Dirty Dozen,” about a recruited band of rapists and murderers who seek redemption by blowing up a whorehouse with Germans (and their hostesses) inside, turned the melting-pot platoon movie on its head.

“There were very few movies being made about Vietnam,” says Basinger. “We displaced them, we used World War II combat movies instead, and made them ugly.”

Even the war hero biography took a new turn. In Franklin Schaffner’s 1970 Oscar winner “Patton,” the World War II general was depicted as a man driven to leadership greatness out of near-psychotic megalomania. He may have made all the right moves in a righteous war, but how different was he, after all, from the Vietnam War’s Gen. William Westmoreland?

During the ‘70s and ‘80s, very few war movies were made. There was the occasional World War II action epic--”Tora! Tora! Tora!” (1970), “Midway” (1976) and “MacArthur” (1977)--but there were just as many films mocking the war: “Oh, What a Lovely War” (1969), “Catch-22” (1970), “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970). The country was divided on the nature of patriotism, and Hollywood was trying to accommodate audiences separated along generational lines.

If World War II films descended into revisionism, the Vietnam War movies began there. The vast majority of Vietnam films are domestic dramas about damaged vets coming home to a confused and hostile environment. From the patriot in “The Deer Hunter” (1978) to the psycho cabbie in “Taxi Driver” (1976), both played by Robert De Niro, Hollywood movies plunged deeper and deeper into the darkness dramatized in Francis Coppola’s 1979 “Apocalypse Now.”

Those films played largely to a counterculture, antiwar audience. It wasn’t until 1986, with Stone’s “Platoon,” that a film about Vietnam struck a chord with people on both sides of the political fence. Vietnam veterans liked it because it showed the reality of combat under impossible conditions. The right wing liked it because it did not argue against the validity of the war.

The left wing liked what it saw as evidence of ill-placed loyalty to a wrong cause. And the massive youth audience, nurtured on the arcade game films of the ‘80s, liked it because it was all action, all the time.

A decade later, the smoke has cleared, emotions have calmed, and there is no conflict in the world emotionally loaded enough to divide Americans. But the turmoil of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and the moral retreat of the ‘80s, have left a hole that the values fought for in World War II filled.

“The ‘40s and early ‘50s appeal to young people,” says Basinger. “They like the clothes, the hair styles, the romantic attitude. These are kids living in a time when there is very little of value. They’re looking for something, trying to make some sense out of their lives, and they find that in that period.”

On that score, Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” seems made to order. Based loosely on actual events, “Private Ryan” is the true story of a squad of eight men sent behind German lines during the Allied invasion of Normandy to rescue a stranded soldier named James Ryan (Matt Damon). Why risk the lives of eight men to save one? That’s the question the rescuers ask themselves, and the answer may take us all back half a century.

As “Private Ryan” producer Ian Bryce explains, the mission was ordered because Ryan was the only one of four brothers fighting in the war who was still alive. Recalling the national grief over one family’s loss of all five sons serving on an ill-fated cruiser earlier in the war, an event that prompted Congress to forbid siblings from serving in the same unit (as well as a 1944 movie called “The Sullivans”), the Army was determined to bring Ryan home safe.

“ ‘Saving Private Ryan’ may be very significant,” says Basinger. “They set out to save another human for reasons that matter, to save the family, and they become a family in order to do that. People want to feel that something can matter, where the stakes are automatically worth the risk.”

Written by Robert Rodat (“Comrades of Summer”), “Saving Private Ryan” was put in development at Paramount, where it foundered behind a pair of more urgent World War II projects. Bryce says the script found its way to Creative Artists Agency, and into the hands of client Tom Hanks, who brought it to Spielberg’s attention.

“Steven loved the script and wanted to do it,” says Bryce, “and that put it on a fast track at Paramount.”

The movie turned into a co-production between Paramount and Spielberg’s own company, DreamWorks, which is distributing it in North America.

Malick’s “The Thin Red Line” followed a different course. Malick, who gave up directing after his seminal ‘70s films “Badlands” and “Days of Heaven,” adapted Jones’ 1962 novel as a writing assignment only. According to “Thin Red Line” executive producer George Stevens Jr., Malick eventually got interested in directing it and brought the project to him and Mike Medavoy, the former Orion and TriStar boss who’d just formed a new production company, Phoenix Pictures.

Medavoy had a deal with Sony, but the studio not surprisingly passed on a film whose bad guys were Japanese, and Phoenix finally found a partner in Fox, home of that other retro-adventure, “Titanic.”

“The Thin Red Line,” like Jones’ “From Here to Eternity,” is a heavily character-driven story with a combat setting. It’s the effort by C Company, the company at Pearl Harbor in “Eternity,” to turn back the Japanese at Guadalcanal, in the Solomon Islands. Jones had intended to use the same main characters, Sgt. Warden (played by Burt Lancaster in the movie version) and Pvt. Prewitt (Montgomery Clift), in both stories, but after finding it dramatically necessarily to kill off Prewitt at the end of “Eternity,” he left them behind.

Nonetheless, the souls of Warden and Prewitt made the trip to Guadalcanal in characters that will be played in Malick’s film by Sean Penn and newcomer James Caviezel. Stevens says that Caviezel is one of six relatively unknown actors playing the core group, and Penn is one of many major stars who signed on for ensemble roles just to work with the legendary dropout Malick. Among the others are Harrison Ford, John Travolta, Nick Nolte, George Clooney, Woody Harrelson and John Cusack.

“People were calling us and asking to be in the movie,” Stevens says. “Terry would run into actors at parties, and they’d ask for a part. It got to the point where we were afraid if we brought in more, it would distort the movie.”

The subjects of David Leland’s small, $8-million “Land Girls” are the British equivalents of our Rosie the Riveter. Land Girls was the name given members of the Women’s Land Army, volunteers who left the cities to fill farm jobs vacated by young men leaving for combat.

“Land Girls,” adapted from a novel by Angela Huth, is the story of three of these volunteers (Catherine McCormack, Rachel Weisz and Anna Friel) who, on their first assignment in the country, become close friends, as well as rivals for the attention of a farmer’s son. The young man was planning to join the war, but in the face of this imported bounty, he can’t bring himself to leave.

Leland (“Wish You Were Here”) says that many of the Land Girls married and stayed in their adopted farm communities, causing a kind of urban/rural class merger that altered the social landscape of England.

“World War II is the major event of the century, and it is still shaping us,” says Leland. “The actors didn’t know all that much about Land Girls before, and the roles really struck chords in them. They identified with the girls and found that they weren’t so far from home.”

Some big questions will be raised if this wave of World War II movies finds a receptive audience and spurs a rebirth of the genre. Can Hollywood, more than ever dependent on international markets, afford to reopen old wounds with Japan and Germany? And if they water down the villains, for diplomacy’s sake, will the movies play?

For the moment, however, the only question is whether the values of the ‘40s have currency in the ‘90s.

“Rightly or wrongly, the ‘40s was a clean era for us,” says Basinger. “There was the Crash in the ‘20s, the Depression in the ‘30s, the HUAC witch hunts in the ‘50s, and the mess of the ‘60s and ‘70s. The ‘40s is kind of an oasis where women had more freedom, everyone had more money, and people were pulling together for something. Maybe America is ready to get over its self-loathing and feel good about itself again.”