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Storming the Cinema

Get ready for a second invasion of World War II movies as America returns to its days of blood and glory.

April 19, 1998|Jack Mathews | Jack Mathews is the film critic for Newsday

When Allan Dwan's rousing World War II film "Sands of Iwo Jima" premiered on Dec. 14, 1949, re-creating on film the famously photographed raising of the American flag on Mt. Suribachi, it straddled a few peaks itself.

Hollywood movies were at the height of their popularity, selling more than 70 million tickets a week. The patriotic combat film was the decade's most popular genre. And the film's star, John Wayne, whose own identity was fused with the kind of hard-nosed, patriotic, all-American military hero he was playing, was the country's favorite actor.

The times were good. The war was over, families were reunited, or at least rebuilding; there were prosperity, jobs, expansion, a general sense of well being. We'd fought the good fight, slain the dragons and saved the world. There were signs of brewing discontent in such postwar films as "Gentleman's Agreement" and "Home of the Brave," but Americans were still in a mood to celebrate the victories over Japan and Germany, and "Sands of Iwo Jima" packed them in.

Nineteen years later, when Wayne tried to revive the character and the esprit de corps of "Iwo Jima" in "The Green Berets," the mood wasn't so sanguine. The country was split on social, racial and political issues, the World War II generation was trying to hold ground against its own children, and the war that Wayne was trying to sell--Vietnam--was an open sore on the American psyche.

Things went downhill from there, in life and on film, from national introspection to self-loathing, with movies running through a descending cycle of anger, regrets and recriminations; and the war itself bottomed out with the My Lai massacre, an event so soul-crushingly horrific that Oliver Stone stopped short of dramatizing it in his otherwise unflinching "Platoon."

Thirty years have passed since both "The Green Berets" and My Lai, and we're about to find out if we're far enough from those events and that period to have come full circle, from Iwo Jima to My Lai and back again. Hollywood is taking another look at World War II, the "last good war," and will test the audience appetite with a pair of $60-million-plus combat films later this year. Waiting in the wings are at least half a dozen others in development.

First up, in July, is Steven Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan," starring Tom Hanks as a platoon leader sent behind German lines to rescue a stranded soldier near the end of the war in Europe. The second, due at Thanksgiving, is Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," adapted from James Jones' follow-up novel to "From Here to Eternity," with an all-star cast fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Guadalcanal.

Preceding those films is an HBO combat movie, "When Trumpets Fade," based on the true story of a pigheaded infantry assault of a German hill that cost thousands of lives near the end of the war. There's also British director David Leland's "Land Girls," adapted from a novel about three young women who find their own adventures while filling in for farm sons sent to war.

Other World War II movies in the works include:

* "U-571," an action-thriller about U.S. troops' attempt to steal technology from a German sub. It will be directed by Jonathan Mostow, who made a potent debut with last year's highway thriller "Breakdown."

* "To the White Sea," adapted from James Dickey's novel about a U.S. tail gunner stranded in Japan. It's the next project for Ethan and Joel Coen ("Fargo," "The Big Lebowski").

* "Earth, Wings, and Fire," a dogfight drama with the Flying Tigers taking on Japanese Zeros.

* "Thunder Below," the true story of Eugene Fluckey, a sub commander whose exploits made him the Sgt. York of the Pacific theater.

* "The Ludendorff Pirates," about an attempt by disguised men to take taking over a German battleship.

* "The Emperor's General," set in Manila during the final days of Japanese occupation.

* An untitled bio-pic about the life of World War II POW Lou Zamperini, starring Nicolas Cage as a fighter whose plane crashes in the Pacific and survives weeks of being at sea, only to land in Japan and become a prisoner of war.

So, is America ready or not?

"I'm very optimistic; I think these movies could be big hits," says film historian and Wesleyan University professor Jeanine Basinger, whose "The World War II Combat Film: Anatomy of a Genre" may be the definitive book on the subject. "Look at the success of 'Titanic.' People love it not because everybody drowns, but because there's a love story. People are ready for something upbeat or romantic or mythic that makes them feel better."

Robert Sklar, who teaches film at New York University, thinks Hollywood is returning to the World War II combat film because it has worn out the surrogate "good" wars fought against aliens in everything from "Star Wars" to "Starship Troopers."

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