War is heaven

Times Staff Writer

This holiday movie season, the hills -- and the oceans -- are alive with the sound of battle. In films as seemingly diverse as "Cold Mountain," "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," "The Last Samurai," "The Missing" and "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World," men and the occasional woman are at furious war, sometimes against their own deepest selves.

Given that the United States has launched two wars in a little over two years, it's tempting to see some connection between the headlines and the outbreak of war at the multiplex. The zeitgeist movie is one of most cherished fictions of the Sunday newspaper commentator, but one contradicted by the realities of Hollywood business. Most of the epic-scaled features currently in theaters were a glimmer in some producer's eye long before the twin towers fell and U.S. bombs began falling on Afghanistan and Iraq. Director Anthony Minghella, for one, signed on to "Cold Mountain" in 1997, the year Charles Frazier's novel was published, and shooting on "The Return of the King" ended in 2000.

Whatever else you want to say about them, movie executives do not have the gift of prophecy. The studio suits could not have known that Russell Crowe's heroic poise in "Master and Commander" would find an echo in the image of an American president who likes to deliver speeches on aircraft carriers. What the executives did know, though, is that war, heroes and lavish productions are catnip to popular audiences and tastemakers alike, especially if packaged without politics and obvious ideological taint, and set in some distant past. While these movies -- which represent great financial investment and equally great aesthetic aspirations -- fail to shed direct light on this country's wars, they nonetheless say a great deal about the people who made them.

What's really pushing the big studio guns onto the battlefield -- among those heeding the call to arms this year are mega-star Tom Cruise and director-darling Peter Weir -- is a trend ignited by "Titanic" in 1997 and ratified a few years later by "Gladiator." Namely, Hollywood's steady retreat from the recognizably real world -- the place where people work, pay taxes, raise families and struggle along without Viking stoves and BMWs -- into false worlds. The retreat takes many forms and cuts across genres, and this season it's expressed through period violence and warfare. It is, it appears, easier and more attractive to sell simplified dollhouse worlds, whether they're set in an idyllic feudal Japan or the 19th century American West, than to deal with contemporary life.

A rage for period spectacle

In the late 1990s, James Cameron's "Titanic" didn't just become the highest-grossing movie in history, it kick-started a studio rage for period spectacle unseen since the 1950s, when biblical, Roman and western epics filled the wide widescreen. The revived interest in spectacle has something to do with contemporary film financing, which finds studios pouring enormous sums into high-concept movies. (Brad Pitt is Achilles!) It likely also has something to do with director ego, since filmmakers still like playing with big train sets, and with the strategic fact that epic-sized movies can dwarf character-based independent films at Oscar time. For these and other reasons, Hollywood enters a new time warp next year with "The Alamo," Wolfgang Petersen's Trojan War epic "Troy," Oliver Stone's spectacle about Alexander the Great, "Alexander" and Kevin Reynolds' medieval love story "Tristan & Isolde."

There's little doubt that the violence in these movies will be as effects-laden and blood-soaked as that in current period epics. There's little doubt, either, that these future films will be as stripped of politics and historical fact as "The Last Samurai" and instead will find meaning in appealing to seemingly timeless ideals and stirring scenes of love, valor and compassion. Studios don't rake in cash and Academy Awards by taking a critical view toward history, which is why so few epics take place within lived memory and why the Hollywood professionals who embrace accuracy most enthusiastically nowadays are costume designers. It says something about the state of American film that although the outfits Nicole Kidman wears in "Cold Mountain" look authentic down to the last petticoat, enslaved blacks are conspicuous only by their near absence.

Minghella is a smart, talented director, as is Weir. Yet like Minghella, Weir put on blinkers to make "Master and Commander," which principally takes place in an all-male world in the early 19th century far from the hardships of British mainland and colonial life. The war waged in the film is against the Napoleon-led French. But the Royal Navy wasn't just defending merry old England; it was protecting one of the most rapacious colonial powers in history. It's worth remembering that in the years leading to the Napoleonic War, the Royal Navy brutally fought American colonists, such as George Washington. (The movie is largely based on a novel set in 1812, during another British-American war.) Worse, until Great Britain abolished the slave trade in 1807 -- two years after the film opens -- the Royal Navy helped enslave millions of Africans.

For its part, "The Last Samurai" sells the fiction that a 19th century U.S. soldier who engaged in genocidal warfare against Native Americans can wash away his sins by embracing the way of the samurai. Leaving aside that the way of the samurai is pretty nuts (the swords look cool, but ritual suicide has to be a drag), the samurai helped prop up centuries of feudalism. Still, you can see the appeal. In "The Last Samurai," abstractions such as "honor" and "loyalty" are the foundation of a seductively simple moral universe, one set in a past as hermetic as a museum diorama. In idylls like these, there are no true bad guys, just bad guns, and no politics worth dying for, just ideals. For many people adrift in a post-civil society in which the lines between right and wrong are blurred, the appeal of such abstractions is obvious.

Movies and the truth

Hollywood has always been in the business of selling beautiful lies. That doesn't make films such as "Master and Commander" any less satisfying an entertainment, but it's debatable whether well-directed scenes, stellar technique and beautiful stars really make those lies more palatable. Perhaps it depends on who's watching: One person's romp is another person's work of art is a third's gross distortion. Then too, movies have a strange way of offering up their own truths. "Gone With the Wind" is hugely enjoyable claptrap, and racist to boot, but it also features wonderful performances from black actresses Butterfly McQueen and the deeply affecting Hattie McDaniel, who put her own distinct spin on a character who might otherwise come across as an offensive caricature.

Over half a century later, "Cold Mountain" features no substantive speaking parts for black actors. I'm not sure what Minghella was thinking here, but because he adapted Frazier's novel himself, he knows that the book is filled with black characters -- slaves and runaways, the children of black-white unions, even an enslaved woman sought by a desperate white lover. And because Minghella is smart, he must also have known that these black characters are essential to the meaning of the novel, which tracks two white Southerners struggling through the sort of everyday barbarism that had been visited upon enslaved blacks for generations. Minghella has said that the film "is not a history lesson" and clearly he didn't want history, and by extension black people, to get in the way of his love story.

The whitewash in "Cold Mountain" is remarkable even by Hollywood standards, but it's typical of the industry's cultural conservatism, which dictates that no potential audience member be offended by unpleasant truths. If Minghella included as many black characters in his story as Frazier put in his, the director would have to deal with the fact that his white lovers are racist. Products of their very specific time and place, Frazier's white Southerners don't transcend their historical context because such a thing would be impossible. By contrast, Minghella advances the canard that war is reducible to individual struggle without regard to ideology, power or the political violence that human beings are forced to perpetuate on behalf of power. In Hollywood, every hero is innocent, especially if a star plays him.

The idea that Hollywood is a hotbed of liberalism is a convenient smokescreen for conservative critics who are likely more enraged that Sony offers health benefits to its gay employees' domestic partners than by the stabs at "political correctness" in the Sony release "The Missing." The liberal rap is also a nice illusion for those Hollywood movers and shakers who don't see a contradiction between, say, raising money for Bill Clinton and selling entertaining violence and depoliticized warfare in their movies. Indeed, the feminized image of Clinton -- who didn't fight in Vietnam, didn't inhale and has a wife who wears pantsuits -- and the crisis in liberalism that defined his presidency and returned conservatives to power, may actually have inspired a kind of butch backlash in Hollywood. Who's afraid of war? Not the Industry.

Today, Hollywood moviemakers are waging war against one another in a struggle for box-office domination -- they've become the ultimate weekend warriors. The casualties of this battle include the multitudes of dead characters strewn across screens, but there are other more important losses being incurred. Notwithstanding "Cold Mountain," war stories mean fewer juicy roles for women in an industry already dominated by men. And because Hollywood history is usually told from the point of view of the vanquishers, the Great Man theory of history writ cinematically, there's no need for the "balanced" racial casting that constitutes Hollywood's idea of affirmative action. Even in "The Last Samurai," a studio film filled with an unusual number of nonwhite actors, the last man standing isn't named Ken Watanabe.

History is such a downer it's no wonder most filmmakers ignore it, even when they're mucking about in the past. And I'm the first to admit that it's way more fun watching Russell Crowe romp around in tight breeches while trade winds tousle his hair than it is watching Africans endure the horrors of the Middle Passage. That helps explain why Steven Spielberg's film about a rebellion aboard a slave ship, "Amistad," was, well, about a rebellion and one of the director's few box-office misses. Tough, downbeat historical epics are rare, and the few that filter through don't usually go over well with the public or critics. Stanley Kubrick discovered as much with his 1975 period epic, "Barry Lyndon," a bracing tale of moral rot and corruption in 18th century Britain and one of the director's biggest commercial disappointments. We may like our violence bloody as hell, but we like our wars and our heroes clean and simple.

Complexity is hard to sell

In the end, the biggest casualty of the new movie wars is real life. The fact that complexity is hard to sell in the global market explains why Hollywood has retreated from reality and why movies like "Mystic River" are increasingly rare. (The film would likely never have been made at Warner Bros. if the studio didn't have a long, profitable relationship with its director, Clint Eastwood.) Although the film's style veers on the operatic, its lower middle-class characters -- a vanishing breed in big studio movies -- are struggling with complex moral issues and hurt that a contemporary audience can understand and, perhaps, even relate to. By this I don't mean murder, thankfully a rare and unusual experience for the majority of Americans, but the backdrop against which the story unfolds: people struggling to hold families together, and living in communities beset by gentrification and underemployment.

"Mystic River's" true-grit soulfulness and sense of lived-in life help make for powerful art -- aided and abetted by magnificent directing, acting and writing -- but the drama that Hollywood has always found most compelling, of course, involves its own finances. The industry's high-concept, bottom-line thinking means that these days it generally traffics in either a popcorn present ("Charlie's Angels") or a spuriously romantic past, leaving the art, the smarts and the realism to its specialty divisions (or HBO). This holiday season, the romance with the past has led to hugely expensive spectacles fueled by star power and freighted with the cutting-edge special effects studios believe pull in audiences. What's notable about this year is how enthusiastically the movie industry -- long condemned as a bastion of progressive liberalism -- has embraced the spectacle of war. The Hollywood hawk is no longer an endangered species.

Manohla Dargis, a Times film critic, can be reached at manohla.dargis@latimes.com.

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