NEW YORK — IT takes a long time to make a Hollywood movie, so nobody knew the latest big-budget war epic, ``Flight of the Intruder,'' would open in theaters at almost the same moment when real war broke out in the Persian Gulf region. The timing was coincidental, but it raises important questions about the nature of today's war films. Movies about war have a long and respectable history. In the hands of a great filmmaker such as Howard Hawks, for instance, pictures like ``The Dawn Patrol'' and ``Air Force'' effectively used World Wars I and II as the framework for explorations of character and team activity.
Movies about war can take many forms, however. During the 1970s, a new breed of pictures like Francis Ford Coppola's brooding ``Apocalypse Now'' and Michael Cimino's explosive ``The Deer Hunter'' raised philosophical questions about combat and patriotism, probing them with clear sincerity and varying degrees of insight.
Then the '80s took a big step backward with movies like ``Rambo: First Blood Part II,'' refighting the Vietnam war in terms of macho attitudes and personal vengeance.
Unfortunately, this is the tradition that ``Flight of the Intruder'' comes out of. It doesn't want to make us think about issues. Instead it wants to glamorize war, turning it into a colorful series of heroic acts and high-technology triumphs, with no concern for humanizing the adversary or depicting the agonies wrought by weapons of mass destruction. Much television coverage of the Persian Gulf war is doing the same thing, making the simplifications of ``Flight of the Intruder'' even more regrettable.
The movie focuses on two American fliers. When some of their buddies are killed over Vietnam, they get upset. Why aren't we allowed to fight this war the right way, they ask, and bomb the stuffing out of everyone in sight? The way to correct the situation, they decide, is to disobey orders and fly their own mission over North Vietnam, blowing up a store of missiles like the ones that killed their buddies.
The airmen get in trouble for this, of course, but not for long. The results of their private expedition (including a decision by North Vietnam to leave the current round of peace talks) lead the President of the United States to see the error of his ways, whereupon he changes his policy of restraints on bombing - to the joy of our heroes and he-man warriors everywhere.
``Flight of the Intruder'' was made by John Milius, who's been fascinated by war for a long time. He helped write ``Apocalypse Now'' and also churned out some pictures that take a slightly less subtle view of combat, from ``Conan the Barbarian'' to ``Red Dawn,'' the most grotesque example of cold-war paranoia to emerge from Hollywood during the '80s.
`FLIGHT of the Intruder'' is somewhat less Neanderthal, if only because it has such talented actors as Willem Dafoe and Danny Glover in the leading roles. Rosanna Arquette also shows up as a tacked-on love interest, and her offbeat charisma helps offset the boulder-like acting of Brad Johnson.
But the film remains a sorry piece of work, oversimplifying and vulgarizing every issue it touches. This would be unfortunate in the best of times, since war is literally a life-and-death matter that deserves the most thoughtful treatment filmmakers can give it.
In a time of actual war, the appearance of such a brainless piece of trash is downright irresponsible. If ever there was a time to stay home from a movie and think with our brains instead of our guts, this is it. ``Flight of the Intruder'' should fly back where it came from, and clear the air for more serious considerations.