Ticket to the past

This fall, Hollywood will be busy remembering the Alamo, Napoleon, and the Civil War.

If you're heading to the movies this fall, pull out your horse and carriage: Hollywood is cracking open the history books. Filmmakers are releasing a wide array of historical epics, mainly set during the 19th century. They range from "Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World" to "Cold Mountain" and "The Alamo," offering windows into topics ranging from the Napoleonic War to the Civil War to the fall of the Alamo. (Yes, battle cries and booming cannons will be testing theaters' surround-sound systems.)

A major factor behind these movies lies in the way Americans choose to recall the 19th century - as a time of violence and ethnic hatreds like those shown in last year's "Gangs of New York," but also a period of progress, stability, and morality. Even the mayhem of Civil War seems imbued with honor and orderliness compared with the random nature of 21st-century terrorism.

"There's always a market for nostalgic retellings of the American past as a kind of romance or fable," says Christopher Sharrett, a professor at Seton Hall University in New Jersey who has written extensively on film, ideology, and politics. "They recur in cycles. American history is the most popular kind because Americans are insular in their views of the world, and films about the 19th century speak to a time when things seemed clearer, when people supposedly had a stronger sense of good and evil.

"It's not accidental that 'Gone With the Wind' is a central film in American cinema," Dr. Sharrett adds. "It shows war and violence, but it still [evokes] a time of great order, a time when everyone knew their place and what they were supposed to do. People loved it in 1939, when they were just emerging from the Depression and about to enter another world war. People still love films like that today."

Hollywood has practical reasons for tapping into the past, of course. This summer's expensive disappointments - from "The Hulk" to "Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle," and "Sinbad: Legend of the Seven Seas" - showed that teenage boys alone do not a winning business model make. There's money to be made by reviving a kind of storytelling that appeals to a diverse array of box-office tastes.

The 'Gladiator' factor

Nor have studios overlooked the smash-hit success - and Oscar-winning glory - of recent historical films. Russell Crowe surely landed his "Master and Commander" role partly because of his great success in "Gladiator." Coming movies with a literary slant, such as "Cold Mountain" and Gwyneth Paltrow's biopic "Sylvia," about poet Sylvia Plath, owe their genesis partly to prestige pictures such as "The English Patient" and "Shakespeare in Love." The explosive success of "Titanic" looms large in Hollywood's consciousness, too, as does the popularity of the current "Seabiscuit."

Looking at the attitudes of everyday ticket-buyers, it's likely that current American moods - shaped partly by such unsettling events as the Sept. 11 attacks and Middle East violence - are also contributing to the trend. Films dealing with historical episodes, like the coming releases given the green light after Sept. 11, let audiences explore disquieting ideas and emotions in contexts safely removed from the pressures of present day.

This helps explain why moviegoers embraced historically grounded fare like D.W. Griffith's controversial Civil War epic "The Birth of a Nation" and Laurence Olivier's colorful adaptation of Shakespeare's "Henry V" during the eras of World War I and II. Viewers during the cold war found extra resonance in "Doctor Zhivago" and John Wayne's version of "The Alamo," among other films.

Offerings like "Cold Mountain" and the new "Alamo" may provide a similar blend of historical distance and movie-style escapism. Ditto for the new wave of westerns riding into theaters. Kevin Costner's picturesque "Open Range" is playing now, and Ron Howard is making his first foray into this territory with "The Missing," starring Cate Blanchett as a frontier woman - a rare female protagonist in the male-dominated western genre - facing danger on her New Mexico ranch. And don't be surprised if "The Last Samurai," with Tom Cruise as a Civil War veteran who learns to venerate Japan's ancient codes of honor, turns out to be a western in thin disguise.

If such pictures prosper, it will suggest that moviegoers want to recapture their social and cultural roots as an antidote to qualms about current events. Something roughly similar happened in the Vietnam era, when old-fashioned folk songs and clothing styles had a huge revival in popularity - as did historical movies as different as "Patton," "Cabaret," and "Barry Lyndon."

Authenticity wasn't exactly a hallmark of that time: Producers of those history-based films were careful to deck them out with major star power and other fashionable trappings, just as the folk-music boom was fueled less by the recordings of intrepid musicologists than by commercialized rehashes from the likes of the Kingston trio and Peter, Paul, and Mary.

Still, the enormous market for such historically based material showed a desire to rediscover a national - and individual - sense of self, illuminated by events and experiences of the past. The same may be happening now. "Historical films ... always serve a contemporary agenda," says William Luhr, editor of "World Cinema Since 1945," "usually by erasing large historical issues."

Return of the 'manly' man

"Look at Mel Gibson's career," Dr. Luhr adds, "with movies like 'The Patriot' and 'Braveheart,' and 'We Were Soldiers,' with its old-fashioned view of World War II valor. His films reduce the complexities of history to a conservative view of masculinity and families - a view that's pre-1960s, prefeminism, pre-gay rights.... His new Jesus film [called "The Passion"], may do similar things, reviving another historical era when [traditional] masculinity wasn't questioned the way it often is today."

Conspicuously masculine men indeed have high profiles in coming films about the 19th century. That's when backwoodsman Davy Crockett defended the Alamo against thousands of Mexican patriots. It's when Capt. Jack Aubrey of "Master and Commander" spearheaded Britain's battle with Napoleon's Navy. And it's when the Civil War brought adventures of the sort displayed in "Cold Mountain," starring Jude Law as an injured Confederate fighter making his way back to the woman (Nicole Kidman) he left behind.

These movies will tap into current film fashions - all have war and soldiering as major ingredients - and as usual in such pictures, historical matters will be treated with a lot of poetic license. The books that inspired "Master and Commander" are novels by Patrick O'Brian, not scholarly studies, and Anthony Minghella filmed "Cold Mountain" in a Romanian valley, not the American South.

Beneath the different topics they deal with, all of the new historical movies share what Luhr calls a weakness for "history as flamboyant action, adventure, and spectacle, which is the traditional way of interpreting the past." This may make for rousing excitement at the multiplex, but it hardly captures the intricate, often un- dramatic realities of how and why the world has evolved into its present state.

Cultural historian Patricia Nelson Limerick puts this well in her 1987 book "The Legacy of Conquest," where she writes, "If Hollywood wanted to capture the emotional center of Western history, its movies would be about real estate. John Wayne would have been neither a gunfighter nor a sheriff, but a surveyor, speculator, or claims lawyer."

It's unlikely such perspectives will figure prominently in the war movies, westerns, and other historical epics of coming months, since Hollywood instinctively sides with Oscar Wilde's iconoclastic attitude toward the past. "Our only duty to history," wrote the mischievous 19th-century scribe, "is to rewrite it."

'Tis the season for smart films

For audience members who find the thought of wartime history lessons less than appealing, this fall also offers a number of promising films that have nothing to do with horses or carriages.

Lost in Translation, Sept. 12. Sofia Coppola made a smashing directorial debut with "The Virgin Suicides" in 1999, and Bill Murray has shown a flair for smart comedy in movies like "Rushmore" and "The Royal Tenenbaums," so they're clearly a team to be reckoned with. Here he plays a movie star bored by an interminable photo shoot in Tokyo, where he meets a fellow hotel guest (Scarlett Johansson) facing her own problems with a brand-new husband. Not quite a love story and not quite not a love story, it reminds us that US films can tackle character-driven plots when they really want to.

The Human Stain, Sept. 26. About a quarter of the way into Philip Roth's novel, he springs a major surprise about the main character - the kind of thing that gets you shuffling through previous chapters to see if you've missed something. While advance reporting about Robert Benton's film version has already spoiled this revelation for many, there's plenty to look forward to anyway. A year ago, the choice of glamorous Nicole Kidman as an abused, undereducated cleaning woman might have seemed crazy, but with "The Hours" she proved she can portray just about anyone convincingly.

Anthony Hopkins plays the protagonist, a retired college professor with whom the much younger cleaning woman has an affair, and Ed Harris plays her dangerous former spouse. This could be one of the year's most memorable movies if Nicholas Meyer's screenplay captures the essence of Roth's hard-hitting, richly intelligent book.

Mystic River, Oct. 10. Clint Eastwood stays on the business side of the camera for his latest opus, directing Sean Penn as a former crook who revisits shady old acquaintances after a horrible crime shatters his family. Also on hand are Tim Robbins as a neighbor with a tragic past, Kevin Bacon as a cop trying to crack the case, and Laura Linney as a bereaved mother with a streak of Lady Macbeth in her nature. The ambiguous ending is designed not just to wrap up the story but to spark animated debates in the lobby, as well.

Shattered Glass, Oct. 17. Hayden Christensen ("Star Wars") turns serious in this fact-based drama about Stephen Glass, a writer for The New Republic who was busted by his editors for turning in phony reportage. Hank Azaria plays the editor who uncovers the scam, and Chloë Sevigny and Steve Zahn round out the cast.

Veronica Guerin, Oct. 17. The busy Cate Blanchett, also due in "The Missing" on Dec. 10, plays the title character, a real-life journalist who risked her life - and her family's welfare - in a crusade against Dublin drug dealers who seemed eerily immune to cops and courts. Hollywood hitmaker Joel Schumacher directed the drama.

Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Nov. 14. Charlie Kaufman has built his screenwriting career with genre-bending fare like "Being John Malkovich" and "Adaptation," but those may have been mere warm-ups for his latest brain-teaser.

Kate Winslet plays a miffed girlfriend who uses new technology to wipe out all her memories of her former boyfriend, a cartoonist (Jim Carrey) who then reciprocates in the same way. The movie mirrors its theme with everything from stylized set design to "Memento"-style storytelling in reverse.

Dr. Seuss' The Cat in the Hat, Nov. 21. Mike Myers takes a vacation from Dr. Evil and Mini-Me in this big-budget version of the 1957 childhood classic. He plays the crazy cat, and maybe he'll even be recognizable beneath the elaborate makeup the part clearly calls for. Also present are Kelly Preston and Alec Baldwin.

The Statement, Dec. 12. Hollywood veteran Norman Jewison is respected for politically minded dramas like "The Hurricane" and "A Soldier's Story," and he's true to form in this fact-inspired drama about a Nazi collaborator whose participation in war crimes was covered up by officials of the French government and the Roman Catholic Church. Michael Caine plays the villain, opposite Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam as the judge and police officer who expose him.

The Company, Dec. 25. Maverick director Robert Altman returns to the multistory format of movies like "MASH" and "Nashville" in this fictionalized look at the renowned Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, played by actual members of the troupe. Leading the cast is Neve Campbell, a former ballerina herself. Will this be an Altman hit like "Gosford Park," or an eccentric miss like "Ready-to-Wear," or something in between? The only sure thing is that Altman, approaching his 80th birthday, shows no signs of slowing down.

Also headed our way are the final (please!) chapters in sure-fire franchises already boosted by mushrooming ad campaigns and the box-office blazes sparked by previous installments. "The Matrix Revolutions" debuts on Nov. 5, allowing a few weeks for fantasy fans to see it several times before switching to "The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King," due Dec. 17.

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