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A Twist Of Truth In 'War Story'

October 11, 1985|JACK MATHEWS | Times Staff Writer

Ira C. Rothgerber was a short 29-year-old second lieutenant in the Army when he was ordered to defend an American soldier accused of strangling three Australian women in Melbourne during World War II. So, naturally, the producers dramatizing the event on film promoted his character to major and cast tall, 57-year-old James Coburn in the part.

"I don't know how they could have found a more appropriate person," jokes Rothgerber, now a retired civil lawyer living in Boulder, Colo. "He seems just right to me."

Hollywood has always played it fast and loose when chronicling "true stories," but what makes "War Story" different is that it was made by Australians. They have a reputation, through such films as "Breaker Morant," "Gallipoli" and "The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith," for being sticklers for documentary detail.

At least, that was the public relations preceding them. Who in Hollywood knows Australian history?

You can't always blame film makers for the "little lies" that help mold, shape and illuminate stories that would otherwise be drier than a Barstow police blotter. But "War Story," now being shopped among American distributors, stretches the truth far enough to qualify it as a mainstream Hollywood movie.

That is perhaps the point. Producer Oscar Scherl, who runs a film and TV commercial production facility in Sydney, says recent changes in Australian tax laws are forcing film makers there to "become international, to broaden story content and bring in more international stars."

"We only have 16 million people," Scherl says. "We can't support our own industry. We have to become part of the world market."

With "War Story," Scherl picked a subject that ought to have plenty of international appeal. It is based on an event that shook Australia in 1942 and threatened to destroy relations between Australian authorities and Gen. Douglas MacArthur's South Pacific command, while being kept from Americans back home.

The series of murders, committed by a 22-year-old private named Eddie Leonski, elevated tensions that were already high among Australian and American soldiers, who were competing for Australian women, and it helped touch off a train station shoot-out between the two armies that left 35 men--19 Americans and 16 Australians--dead.

According to the movie, MacArthur, anxious to appease the Australians and "get on with the war," ordered a speeded-up court martial, then blocked Rothgerber's attempts to appeal the case before Leonski was hanged. Rothgerber says MacArthur could have stopped the hanging and didn't, despite evidence that Leonski was insane. But he doubts that MacArthur played quite as active a role in the case as implied by the movie.

Scherl does not acknowledge taking any poetic license with the story. In fact, he said, "There are no fictitious elements to the story whatsoever," and pointed to the expense of filming in the actual rooms where the court martial and hanging occurred.

Rothgerber, now 72, spent a lot of time with "War Story" director Phillipe Mora and says the film gets the general facts of the murders and the court martial right. It is the portrayal of him as both the head of the Army's murder investigation and Leonski's defense that is wildly inaccurate.

"To be both an investigator and a defense attorney on the same case would have been impossible under both Australian and American law," he says. "I got involved after Leonski was arrested, and I was ordered to defend him."

The major also has a torrid love affair with a beautiful Melbourne socialite, which serves the film's sub-text that Australian men hated the Americans because the Australian women loved them. Alas, says Rothgerber, the affair never occurred, and the reason Australian women seemed interested in Americans was because the Americans were so interested in them.

"They used to say, 'What do we have that American women don't have?' " Rothgerber recalls. "We said, 'Nothing, but you have it here.' "

Scherl sees "War Story," which features a lot of American actors living in Australia, as the start of Australia's inevitable internationalization.

In the last few years, the government has been whittling away at tax benefits that once provided 150% deductible on initial investments and 50% tax-free returns. The current rates of 120% deductible and 20% tax-free returns are still good, but Scherl expects the benefits to dwindle even further.

"In the long run, I think this will be good for us," he says. "It will draw us closer to the international market to which we should belong."

If that means rearranging reality to serve a plot--and with "War Story," it obviously did--then welcome to big-time film making.

BUENA SUERTE: Those lines in front of the many theaters in Los Angeles' Spanish-speaking neighborhoods should not be read as a sign that "El Judical 2" and "Majar o Morir" are going to break any box office records.

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