Evolution of a war novelist. Vivid documentary on James Jones, author of `From Here to Eternity'

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``Old soldiers never die; they just write novels,'' wrote novelist James Jones in 1975. Jones managed to leave behind a body of important work before his passing in 1977, which included, among other books, ``From Here to Eternity,'' ``The Thin Red Line,'' ``WWII,'' and ``Whistle.''

James Jones: Reveille to Taps (PBS, Sunday, 10-11 p.m., check local listings) is unique as a biographical documentary. It details Jones's early life with snapshots and home-movie footage, buttressed with interviews with people who knew him in those days; then it fast-forwards to contemporary friends -- authors mostly -- who knew him in the last few years of his life. The James Jones at reveille was far different from the James Jones at taps: He turned out to be a wise, dedicated chronicler of war . . . and only incidentally of himself.

Producers J. Michael Lennon and Jeffrey Van Davis are professors at Sangamon State University in Springfield, Ill., not very far from Robinson and Marshall, Ill., where Jones was born and lived; where he left for the United States Army and Paris; returned to; and then departed from once again. They have somehow managed to produce a work that treads a dangerous line between scholarship and entertainment, between reality and fantasy in the life of James Jones, a man who two writers and friends, Will ie Morris and George Plimpton, believe will rank with the best war novelists of all time.

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The documentary manages tastefully to include the seemingly obsessive relationship he maintained with a distant relative, Lowney Turner Handy, who recognized his potential early in his life and nurtured his talent as well as many other young talents at her writers' colony in Marshall. She was finally rejected by Jones, who met and married an intellectual who happened to be Marilyn Monroe's stand-in.

In this peek into the cradle-to-grave existence of a little-publicized writer, there are short conversations about Jones with authors who were his close friends -- Norman Mailer, William Styron, Joseph Heller, and Irwin Shaw, among many others. And many of his hometown contacts talk glowingly of him as a reclusive boy. Jones's widow, Gloria, and his children, Kaylie and Jamie, also take part, so it must be assumed that this is an authorized biography. Film clips from the movie version of several of his novels seem a bit extraneous but certainly add to the entertainment value of the documentary.

According to the Sangamon professors who produced the documentary, Jones's achievements are now largely overlooked in academic circles, and many of his books are out of print. They felt it was essential that the man and his work be remembered by coming generations, who might otherwise be deprived of his unique ability, as Willie Morris puts it, to ``carry the news of WWII to succeeding generations.''

However, this documentary is not just a vivid depiction of a man who wrote well about war, or as Jones himself said, ``about the evolution of a soldier.'' It is a sensitive rendering of one of life's more delicate journeys -- the evolution of a writer.

If you can't watch this television journey because there's no TV set in your beach hideaway, you might try rereading ``From Here to Eternity'' on the beach. There are enough personal elements in James Jones's work to make his novels read like fictionalized autobiography.

``James Jones: Reveille to Taps'' is almost as good a read as a James Jones novel.

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