War stories

From patriotic flag-waving in the '40s to the rerelease of "Apocalypse Now", war movies still resonate with American audiences.

"Pearl Harbor." "Saving Private Ryan." "The Thin Red Line." And now "Apocalypse Now Redux," a newly expanded version of Francis Ford Coppola's legendary 1979 epic on the horrors of Vietnam.

War movies are clearly back in style. Or would it be more accurate to say they never left?

In fact, war has been a favorite subject of filmmakers since cinema began. But just because a genre is old doesn't mean audiences will keep lining up for it. Westerns have bitten the dust, and traditional musicals have danced into near oblivion.

Why do war movies keep parading across movie screens despite shifts in social attitudes and Hollywood fashions? Three answers stand out.

• War films are a flexible genre, making chameleonlike changes in response to current moods. Think of the leap from "The Green Berets," which celebrated the Vietnam war in 1968, to "The Deer Hunter," which questioned its morality 10 years later.

• Stories about war appeal to our nostalgic instincts, satisfying the urge to revisit bygone times - and refight bygone battles.

"Sir, do we get to win this time?" asks Sylvester Stallone as a veteran heading back to Vietnam in "Rambo: First Blood Part II."

• War movies have a built-in affinity for melodramatic stories and action-packed images - elements of cinema that promise box-office gold when packaged and promoted in aggressive (or belligerent?) ways. Think of Steven Spielberg's 1998 "Private Ryan," the most popular war movie of the past decade and a good illustration of what makes the genre resonate with today's audiences.

Its story focuses on World War II, remembered by most Americans as a "good war" that justified great expenditures of lives and resources. The film erupts with action (vivid combat sequences) and throbs with melodrama (the selfless quest to ease a mother's grief) from start to finish.

While it follows well-worn Hollywood formulas, it freshens them by escalating the violence, especially in its blood-soaked D-Day scene. It also steals a trick from Spielberg's earlier "Schindler's List" by tacking on a modern-day prologue and epilogue that heighten the "real life" overtones of this fictional story.

Coppola changed the rules

The box-office fortunes of "Apocalypse Now Redux" will reveal much about today's attitude toward war movies. Although 22 years have passed since the film's first release, it still seems experimental in its outlook and philosophical in its ideas. Coppola wanted to revise Hollywood conventions in the '70s - he did this for crime pictures in his first two "Godfather" films - and here he asked audiences not just to view the chaos and confusion of war, but to think about the human impact of its body-crushing violence and spirit-numbing absurdity.

Terrence Malick sought a similar goal through different means in "The Thin Red Line," earning critical praise but lackluster financial returns. This demonstrates how much more conservative - cinematically and politically - general audiences had become in the two decades since "Apocalypse Now" debuted. Malick's movie also sold fewer tickets than "Saving Private Ryan," its competitor in multiplexes and the Academy Awards race. Spielberg's victory was surely connected with his canny decision to inject a larger degree of guts-and-glory heroics than Malick's more contemplative approach allowed.

Speaking of guts and glory, the most recent World War II epic also spews them with bazooka force. The overall track records of "Pearl Harbor" director Michael Bay ("Armageddon," "The Rock") and producer Jerry Bruckheimer ("Gone in 60 Seconds," "Con Air") suggest that they would have followed Hollywood's most sensationalistic war-movie rules even if the poor performance of "The Thin Red Line" hadn't taught them some lessons. "Pearl Harbor" didn't blitz the box office as decisively as they hoped, but their decision to view World War II through a deliberately old-fashioned lens still paid financial dividends.

Silent-film era ushers in war pics

Popular response to different war-movie specimens is a reasonably reliable way of gauging public opinion about war itself. The first war pictures arrived in the silent-film era of the 1910s and '20s, when the technologies of cinema and modern warfare were both newly born.

Major productions of that period tended to see war in terms of big-screen spectacle and romantic sentiment, but the best of them respected the dignity and humanity of their characters even as they cooked up life-threatening perils to put them through. "The Big Parade," a 1925 epic by King Vidor, still packs an emotional wallop with its view of combat as a proving ground for people of widely varying types.

"Wings," directed in 1927 by William A. Wellman, won the first Academy Award for best picture - and obviously inspired some of the story ideas in "Pearl Harbor," including its two-guys-and-a-girl scenario.

Not surprisingly, the 1940s brought a spate of patriotic flag-wavers meant to bolster the American fighting spirit during the World War II years. These ranged from Frank Capra's sophisticated "Why We Fight" documentary series to fiction films like "Air Force," a tribute to teamwork and sacrifice, and "Destination Tokyo," a claustrophobic submarine drama. Hollywood cooperated with the Office of War Information between 1941 and 1945, and some widely seen movies of this period - the propagandistic "Mission to Moscow," filmed by "Casablanca" director Michael Curtiz, is an often-cited example - freely distorted facts in ways considered helpful to the war effort by government authorities.

Numerous films released in the years immediately after World War II dealt with war indirectly - many "film noir" melodramas, for instance, focused on veterans returning to a society they no longer felt at ease in - or took retrospective looks at wartime situations. These included German prison camps in Billy Wilder's rambunctious "Stalag 17" and military morality in Edward Dmytryk's powerful "The Caine Mutiny."

Flag-wavers stayed on the scene, too, even during the Vietnam era, when Americans were fiercely divided over the Southeast Asian war itself. War-movie stalwart John Wayne attracted great attention with "The Green Berets," which had a viewpoint conservative enough to please the elite military corps it was named after. But it was eventually answered by maverick movies like "The Deer Hunter" and Oliver Stone's 1986 "Platoon," the first Vietnam film to view day-to-day combat through the eyes of an ordinary grunt.

Deliberately offbeat movies like "Platoon" and "The Deer Hunter" try to refute simplistic notions about war, but other films take polemical stands against the institution of war itself. Some critics feel the impact of antiwar pictures like "All Quiet on the Western Front" (1930) and "The Man I Killed" (1932) prompted Hollywood to soft-pedal war movies in later years.

Of filmmakers with a perennial interest in antiwar ideas, the late Stanley Kubrick may have reached the largest number of moviegoers, beginning with the 1957 drama "Paths of Glory," about soldiers convicted of cowardice by corrupt officers covering up their own inadequacies. Kubrick later satirized the nuclear-arms race in the surrealistic "Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" (1964) and chronicled the passage of Vietnam soldiers from ordinary men to dehumanized killing machines in the scathing "Full Metal Jacket" (1987).

Ironically, though, a movie considered strongly antiwar by one viewer may strike another as an exciting depiction of military might.

Samuel Fuller, a decorated World War II soldier who later directed blistering movies like "The Steel Helmet" and "Fixed Bayonets," once remarked that "Full Metal Jacket" was just another "recruiting film," since he suspected its mainly male audience would find perverse pleasure in its portrait of young soldiers being hardened for the battlefield.

Movies are ultimately fantasies, of course, not direct reflections of the world we actually live in. But since they help to shape our attitudes toward life, war films surely influence our thoughts about aggression, violence, hatred, and other elements of wartime experience.

This has led some critics to call for less mayhem in war movies - and in movies of all kinds - on the theory that violence always begets more violence.

An opposing view has also emerged, however, arguing that a long heritage of "tasteful" and "tactful" war movies - omitting graphic gore to suit censorship and rating codes - has sanitized the public's conception of war, creating a subliminal impression that battlefield violence is outweighed by opportunities for valor, self-sacrifice, and the chance to defeat a wicked enemy.

Some see TV coverage of the Persian Gulf conflict in 1990 as a logical continuation of this tendency, using high-tech video devices to depict bombing, shooting, and killing in images so detached and bloodless that viewers had trouble grasping the real-life mutilation, suffering, and death that were actually going on.

Hollywood continues busy pace

Be this as it may, war movies continue to attract studio money and public attention in the wake of "Saving Private Ryan" and the World War II nostalgia it tapped into. Nicolas Cage is particularly busy in this area, due later this month in "Captain Corelli's Mandolin," a wartime romance by "Shakespeare in Love" director John Madden, and in November, "Windtalkers," a John Woo movie about "code talkers" who conveyed secret messages.

Mel Gibson, fresh from the Revolutionary War heroics of "The Patriot," is reportedly being pursued by both Warner Bros. and Universal Pictures to portray an American warship commander involved in a historic naval disaster. Gibson will also star in "When We Were Soldiers" (scheduled for December), a movie about the first year of the Vietnam War. It also stars Greg Kinnear, Madeline Stowe, Sam Elliott, and Chris Klein.

Although out-and-out war movies make up a small proportion of contemporary films, the genre is flourishing when you count pictures that capitalize on war in roundabout ways.

"Cats & Dogs" is a farce with little connection to everyday life, but the focus of its comedy - felines and canines fighting tooth and nail - takes important cues from the high-tech fantasy of James Bond epics and the Austin Powers pictures. One of this winter's mostly eagerly awaited releases is "Lord of the Rings," based on J.R.R. Tolkien's brilliant books about warfare and other adventures in a mythological Middle Earth realm.

Fans may not pigeonhole these as war films, but part of their appeal comes from their place in a long tradition of war-centered fiction stretching back at least as far as Homer, whose "Iliad" and "Odyssey" have been cited as sources for "Apocalypse Now" and other combat films.

War movies may pick up even more momentum if pictures like "Windtalkers" and "Captain Corelli's Mandolin" catch on. But this will merely continue a trend far older than the Hollywood that profits from it.

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