Now opening near you: Attack of the War Flicks

Want to escape CNN's round-the- clock war coverage? Don't head for the theater.

Faster than Lee Marvin could say "Dirty Dozen," Hollywood is rounding up its good-looking troops, rallying the editing rooms, and launching a war-time celluloid offensive.

With few American soldiers killed in the war so far, movie executives are letting fly a bevy of war-themed releases, beginning with today's "Behind Enemy Lines," a flag-waving tale of a US pilot in Bosnia.

That movie, which Fox rushed into release after positive test screenings, is Hollywood's opening salvo. The true test of audiences' appetite for mock warfare during wartime comes next month, with "Black Hawk Down," based on a real US tragedy involving special forces.

In the past, Americans have tended to shy away from dark depictions of war when real soldiers are in danger.

"The question is: Will people go to the box office for $7.50 and $10 for popcorn when they can get the same thing on CNN for $14 bucks a month?" asks Jim Grimshaw, a former Army Ranger who acts opposite Mel Gibson in this spring's Vietnam-era tale "We Were Soldiers."

But moviegoers' initial response has so far been as positive - and patriotic - as Hollywood executives could wish. "It was a very violent movie, but I think ... people will respond to its patriotism," says Eleanor, a retiree who attended a sneak preview of "Behind Enemy Lines." "It's a very positive piece of Americana."

To be sure, war movies have never gone out of vogue. From "Stalag 17" to "U-571," Tinseltown retellings of American derring-do are legendary - and in some cases, legendarily profitable. In fact, many of the current releases were inspired by the tremendous success of "Saving Private Ryan."

But more recent war films have painted a far more complex, ambiguous picture of America's wartime experiences, including "Platoon," "Deer Hunter," and the more recent "Three Kings," an acclaimed 1999 film that questioned US motives in the Gulf War.

But that was before Sept. 11. Now, moviegoers may prefer "Top Gun" to "Apocalypse Now." "The general pattern is that during the time people feel that we are at war, they don't want to see war films," says Howard Suber, professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Film, Theater, and Television.

During past wars, "homefront" movies like "Mrs. Miniver," an Oscar-winning yarn about a London mother holding her family together during the Blitz, tended to succeed commercially. (The biggest box-office draw during World War II? Abbott and Costello.)

Even John Wayne had trouble getting the right tone down. When "Green Berets" (now most famous as the movie where the sun sets in the east) came out in 1968, its jingoistic fervor completely missed the mood of the country.

Well aware of this, Hollywood executives - anxious both not to offend and make a profit - are trying to put a patriotic spin on essentially downbeat portrayals of past wars.

"We're getting back to patriotism, so they'll weave that in there," says Mr. Grimshaw. "They're clever. They're going to try to reflect the mood of the country."

Nowhere will that be more difficult than with "Black Hawk Down," a grim, reportedly graphic, account of the 1993 raid in Somalia that ended in the deaths of 18 US special forces. According to the movie's producers, it's now not about America's "darkest hour," as then-President Clinton put it, but its "brightest moments," a story about "extraordinary people being at the wrong place at the wrong time."

"What are they going to do, not show the bodies being dragged through the street?" asks James Wall, a film critic for Christian Century magazine.

For the moment, Hollywood is shifting its marketing, not its content, and the public is noticing. "It seems like, all of a sudden, Hollywood is trying to catch the whole patriotic wave," says George York, who saw "Spy Game" in Raleigh this week.

Indeed, beginning next month, the sound of gunshots will be whistling around theater auditoriums with the release of "Black Hawk," the World War II drama "Charlotte Gray," starring Cate Blanchett, and "No Man's Land." Other coming movies include Mel Gibson's "We Were Soldiers," Bruce Willis's "Hart's War," and "Windtalkers," with Nicolas Cage, which was actually bumped from the fall during Hollywood's initial concern about emotional fallout from the Sept. 11 attacks. And in January, another Bruce Willis film, focusing on special forces in Africa, is set to start production.

War is coming to the small screen as well. Following HBO's acclaimed fall series "Band of Brothers," the A&E channel will air "Lost Battalion," a violent chronicle of a WWI platoon captured in the Ardonnes Forest by the Germans. On video, "Pearl Harbor" is being released next Tuesday.

So long as US casualties remain light and there are no additional terrorist attacks on US soil, Americans may continue to enlist their support at the ticket window. "It makes me want to support US actions even more," says Radhika, a Boston librarian, who had just emerged from "Behind Enemy Lines."

Stephen Humphries in Boston contributed to this report.

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