A funny thing happened at the Academy Awards a couple of years ago: Three World War II films competed against two Elizabethan stories for best picture. And although "Shakespeare in Love" managed to pull off an upset, what really captured the attention of the film world were "Saving Private Ryan," "The Thin Red Line" and "Life Is Beautiful."
Especially "Saving Private Ryan," of course. Not only was the Steven Spielberg film a box office triumph, but its vivid depiction of the Normandy invasion generated debate around the globe, with its battle carnage, groundbreaking use of computer-generated images and kinetic editing techniques.
But more than that, "Saving Private Ryan," together with Tom Brokaw's popular tome, "The Greatest Generation," brought renewed interest in World War II and the heroism that helped make the world safe for democracy.
Here we are at the dawn of the 21st century, still haunted by the ghosts of World War II. How else do you explain the appearance this year of nearly a dozen World War II-themed movies (including Disney's "Pearl Harbor," opening Friday), not to mention three miniseries devoted to the subject (including "Anne Frank," airing tonight and Monday on ABC) and the record-breaking Broadway musical based on Mel Brooks' "The Producers"? "There was a natural moment at the end of the last century when artists introspectively looked over their shoulders at that defining moment," suggests Sally Potter, the British writer and director of "The Man Who Cried," which opens Friday. The bittersweet drama stars Christina Ricci as a Russian Jewish refugee who falls in love with a Gypsy played by Johnny Depp.
"It was the end of the old order, the beginning of the Cold War and the end of innocence, with the systematic attempt at exterminating people," Potter says. "In many, many ways, the Gypsies are the forgotten people, and there was a natural alliance with the Jews."
Like many filmmakers dealing with World War II these days, Potter is a boomer who believes that its long shadow still hangs over her generation. That is why she and others feel compelled to find new stories that resonate in our morally ambiguous times.
Besides the Gypsy aspect, the film has a strong connection to music. Ricci finds herself in Paris on the eve of World War II, where she joins an Italian opera company while befriending an ambitious Russian dancer played by Cate Blanchett.
"The characters are fairly ignorant of what's going on around them," Potter says. "Music speaks for the disquiet of the soul and breaks down national barriers. It's representative of the survival of the human spirit."
Blanchett, meanwhile, stars in Warner Bros.' "Charlotte Gray," scheduled for release in December and based on the best-selling novel by Sebastian Faulks. She plays a Scottish woman working with the French Resistance in the hope of rescuing her lover, a missing RAF pilot.
"I've turned down a lot of World War II scripts," says Australian director Gillian Armstrong, "but what made this one so attractive is that it deals with a secret part of the war that has never been told: Winston Churchill's plan to help the French Resistance with arms and sabotage. It's about this girl who is recruited by the SOE [Special Operations Executive] because she studied in Paris and how she goes undercover in the unoccupied zone in 1942. It's a love story and a psychological story, full of inner strength and vulnerability, and the best woman's role I've seen in 15 years."
Chinese actress, producer and screenwriter Luo Yan gave herself a strong starring role in "Pavilion of Women," currently playing in theaters. Adapted from the Pearl S. Buck novel, this Chinese-American co-production tells the story of an affluent woman living in the garden city of Suzhou, near Shanghai, in 1938, right before the Japanese invasion of China. Feeling trapped by her traditional role and feeling sexually and emotionally unsatisfied, she arranges for her husband to have a young concubine. At the same time, Luo breaks free from her repression through a chance encounter with an American missionary doctor (Willem Dafoe).
"It's about a Chinese woman searching for spiritual freedom," Luo says. "It's what we're all searching for after the attainment of material freedom. Even in China, where the film has been more enthusiastically received than 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' "
As for the presence of World War II, it becomes an explosive backdrop at the climax, just as the Chinese family and society at large implode as a result of their resistance to change.
"The Chinese were not prepared for the Japanese invasion," Luo says. "The novel didn't deal with the invasion explicitly, but I wanted to. It is something we have not seen on film, and I wanted to show the brutality of the Japanese and how they destroyed this beautiful garden city."
Something else we haven't seen on film before is the depiction of the Italian occupation of Greece, which is the thrust of "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," a Universal film opening in August. Directed by John Madden ("Shakespeare in Love") and adapted from the novel by Louis de Bernieres, it stars Nicolas Cage as a jovial Italian officer with a passion for the mandolin. However, Cage slowly begins to question the whole nature of the rather benign occupation when he falls under the spell of the quaint village and its most beautiful and beguiling resident (played by Penelope Cruz).
"The main thing is that this is an unusual perspective of the war, even in Europe," the British director says. "There was an incredible affinity between the Greeks and the Italians. In fact, underneath the hostility they are the same people who share a common heritage. At the same time, you have the uneasy relationship between the Italians and the Germans. Bizarrely, the Greeks and the Italians fall in love with one another in this film, just as our couple does."
John Woo's "Windtalkers," an MGM film due to open around Thanksgiving, breaks new ground in depicting race relations during World War II. Cage again stars, this time as a Marine assigned to protect a Navajo code talker (played by Adam Beach) in the Pacific theater on the eve of the decisive battle of Saipan. Code talkers were secret recruits who transmitted messages using an unbreakable code based on their native language. Their mission was essential in fighting the Japanese. "Windtalkers" marks the first time their story has been told on screen.
And it just so happens that the four surviving Navajo code talkers and the families of the other 25 will be honored this summer with the Congressional Medal of Honor.
"John and I were skeptical about World War II as a subject because so much has been done already, but we were instantly attracted to this unique story and its racial element," says Woo's longtime producing partner, Terence Chang. "The under-age Navajos volunteered to fight for this country out of patriotic duty, and they experienced racism in the service because people assumed they were Asians."
Unlike previous Woo films, "Windtalkers" is more reality-based, but each of the five battle sequences has its own stylistic flourish. That's to be expected from the master of Hong Kong martial arts action. Like all Woo films, though, this one is predicated on the growing friendship between two opposing characters: the world-weary Cage and the naive Beach.
Racial tensions also permeate "Hart's War," the MGM military drama opening in December and set in a German prisoner of war camp during the Battle of the Bulge. Colin Farrell plays a privileged American law student in a POW camp who is assigned by the ranking officer (Bruce Willis) to defend a black prisoner (Terrence Howard) accused of murdering a white prisoner. In preparing his defense, Farrell discovers that the outcome of the trial could affect a secret escape plan devised by his fellow prisoners.
The film is based on the novel by John Katzenbach, the son of a POW, Nicholas Katzenbach, who was held for 27 months at Stalag 3 and later served as U.S. attorney general under President Lyndon Johnson.
"I've thought a lot about the issue of World War II," says director Gregory Hoblit ("Frequency"), who is wrapping production in Prague. "It's sort of practical and poetic, and it says something about life passing by. I've been spending time with three or four [former] POWs, and I've come to realize that in 10 years they will all be gone. No one will be alive to tell the story. This weighs heavily on my mind."
It appears that "Saving Private Ryan" weighs heavily on those who made "Enemy at the Gates" and "Pearl Harbor." Both films feature exciting and explosive battle sequences inspired by the bravura opening in the Spielberg film.
In "Enemy," director Jean-Jacques Annaud depicts the devastating German invasion of Stalingrad with gritty realism. The battle may be unfamiliar to most American audiences, but it contains some of the same flashy techniques as the Spielberg film, particularly with regard to computer-generated gunfire.
On the other hand, director Michael Bay seems intent on topping Spielberg with his impressive 40-minute re-creation of the infamous sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
We practically ride along with his computer-generated bombs courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic in a virtual reality that still manages to hit us in the gut with realistic force.
The end of innocence, indeed.