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Movie Review : Right Stuff, Wrong Medium In '1918'

June 12, 1985|KEVIN THOMAS | Times Staff Writer

While American soldiers were fighting in France during World War I, their families were plagued at home by a flu epidemic that brought more deaths to many families than the battlefield did.

In "1918" (at Los Feliz, Monica 4-Plex and Town & Country) writer Horton Foote attempts to portray the impact of that distant war and that all-too-near epidemic on a small-town Texas family modeled after his own.

There are some genuinely affecting moments in this drama of quiet heroism, but "1918" is an instance of the right material in the wrong medium. Long before the closing credits confirm that it's based on a play, "1918" has betrayed its theatrical origins. Too stagy to sustain a life of its own on the screen, it makes matters worse by running on for half an hour after the story is over.

A prosperous young tailor (William Converse-Roberts) and his wife (Hallie Foote) agree that his purchase of $4,000--an amazingly large sum, all considered--in Liberty Bonds should free him from the moral obligation of enlisting. (After all, he reasons, he is a husband and the father of a 3-year-old daughter). At the same time, Foote's trouble-prone 17-year-old brother (Matthew Broderick) can't wait to be old enough to sign up. Then the flu epidemic strikes, rendering individual wishes and views beside the point in the face of a common enemy.

Foote is too honest a writer to suggest that his people are free from the prejudices and naivete of their time and place, or even that tragedy is enlightening for them. He contents himself instead with celebrating the strength and courage of seemingly ordinary people, just as he has done so often--and so much more effectively--before.

Considering that Foote is a two-time Oscar winner ("To Kill a Mockingbird" and "Tender Mercies") and a distinguished veteran in all media, it's surprising that he either didn't develop his play more fully for the screen or present it as a one-hour vignette for public television. Not helping matters is Ken Harrison's stiff, draggy and unimaginative direction, seeming all the more self-conscious amid the film's period settings.

Until the film unravels disastrously in that last half-hour, Hallie Foote (who is the author's daughter and is playing her own grandmother, for whom she is named) and especially Converse-Roberts generate considerable, though intermittent, involvement. No one else has much dimension--and that includes Broderick. As the film's one true star, he just can't help giving off sparks--a successful adaptation of "1918" surely would have made him the central figure. There's an admirable sensibility and a clear commitment to "1918" (Times-rated Family) that makes its failure all the sadder.

'1918'

A Cinecom International Films release. Executive producers Lewis Allen, Peter Newman. Producers Lillian Foote, Ross Milloy. Co-producer Walker Stuart. Director Ken Harrison. Screenplay Horton Foote; based on his play. Camera George Tirl. Art director Michael O'Sullivan. Film editor Leon Seith. With William Converse-Roberts, Hallie Foote, Rochelle Oliver, Michael Higgins, Matthew Broderick, Jeannie McCarthy, Bill McGhee.

Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes.

Times-rated: Family.

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