JOSEPH N. BELL -- The Bell Curve

I went to see "Pearl Harbor" in spite of its bad reviews. It was a

piece of history I lived -- from a safe distance -- and I had to see how

it was portrayed by a bunch of people who weren't around when it

happened. I came away with the reaction I least expected: very little

feeling at all. I found the battle scenes gripping, the rest considerably

less. And I came home with a nagging sensation of irritation I couldn't

identify.

Now, I think I can. It grows from the pretentious hype being used to

promote the movie about the American loss of innocence that began like

the click of a light switch when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

Tom Brokaw skated around the same premise in "The Greatest

Generation," but he used real people to support his thesis. The movie

uses cardboard people and settings to symbolize our innocence, and none

hit very close to home for me. Maybe the guys I grew up playing poker

with would have spurned their lady love's offer to share her hotel room

on the night before they headed overseas, but I strongly doubt it. The

big band sound and summer frocks and a kind of gee-whiz approach to life

do not a generation make. We were a little more complicated than that.

Since we're not going to be around all that much longer to defend

ourselves, my generation is going to be judged disproportionately on the

basis of movies like "Pearl Harbor," which leads to two problems:

historical and social.

I'm not going to get into the historical accuracy of "Pearl Harbor"

here. That could lead to an endless and inconclusive debate. What does

interest me is the social context in which such stories are presented.

And, even more, the abstract question of whether or not movie makers are

obliged to present history accurately -- especially since the current

generation of nonreaders gets most of its history from movies and

television.

I once watched a vituperative argument between Jane Fonda and Michael

Cimon over that question. It took place backstage at the Academy Awards

in a year when both of them made a Vietnam war movie. Cimon won Best

Picture for "The Deer Hunter" in which we were asked to believe that the

Vet Congo played Russian roulette with American prisoners. Fond won Best

Actress for "Coming Home," which took a hard look at American society

during the Vietnam War.

Fond was outraged over Cimon's highly fictional account of that war.

Cimon defended himself by saying he had every creative right to depart

from history in the service of drama as long as the big picture was

accurate. The argument has continued through many similar films since,

and I was ambivalent about it until they started mucking around with my

generation.

There has been an interesting evolution of films about World War II.

Unlike the Vietnam War -- where the early films ("Green Berets," "Deer

Hunter") had us saving the world from communism and the later films

("Apocalypse Now," "Platoon") were much tougher -- the perspective has

been steadily softer as we distance ourselves from World War II.

Preceding "Pearl Harbor" was "Saving Private Ryan," a highly

sentimentalized film in which we are asked to find it reasonable that an

entire platoon should be risked -- and several members killed -- to

return one soldier to his mother after his siblings had given their lives

in combat. Like "Pearl Harbor," this inner story was carried along by

spectacular battle scenes.

I would urge those who want to get their World War II history from

films to check out such early entries as "The Best Years of Our Lives,"

"From Here to Eternity" and "Catch-22" for starters. These movies aren't

about special effects. They're about people that I used to know. And

still do.

Or better still, if someone in your family was there, don't wait until

it is too late to get some living history. Most historical movies and

books are done after the people who lived those times are dead -- and

that will soon be true of World War II. Even if you get a fair amount of

fiction in these accounts, too -- our stories often get better as we grow

older -- at least the creators will have been there.

My generation will probably always suffer from the Andy Hardy

syndrome, which was Louis B. Maker's MGM fantasy of the real

state-of-the-art America he never lived, himself. Andy Hardy wouldn't

have taken that girl to bed before he went off to war, and we're stuck

with that image. But there really were soda fountains, console radios,

one-night stands of the finest band music we'll ever know, vaudeville and

daytime baseball.

I like the people I grew up with in those surroundings. I've kept in

touch -- in some instances close touch -- with many of them over the

years, and I weep as they die off. And not just because they remind me of

my own mortality, but rather because they remind me that we were one hell

of a generation -- if not exactly for the reasons we've been portrayed.

In a few weeks, my wife and I are going to France, and I will have my

first look at the Normandy beachhead and the white crosses that

consecrate that place. I will also search nearby for the grave of my best

boyhood friend, Ed die Reeves, who was shot down in northern France the

day before the Germans surrendered. We went flying together in Corpus

Christ, Texas just before he went overseas. He never would have been

mistaken for Andy Hardy, either.

* JOSEPH N. BELL is a resident of Santa Ana Heights. His column

appears Thursdays.

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