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It's the Invasion of the WWII Movies

May 20, 2001|BILL DESOWITZ | Bill Desowitz is a regular contributor to Calendar

A funny thing happened at the Academy Awards a couple of years ago: Three World War II films competed against two Elizabethan stories for best picture. And although "Shakespeare in Love" managed to pull off an upset, what really captured the attention of the film world were "Saving Private Ryan," "The Thin Red Line" and "Life Is Beautiful."

Especially "Saving Private Ryan," of course. Not only was the Steven Spielberg film a box office triumph, but its vivid depiction of the Normandy invasion generated debate around the globe, with its battle carnage, groundbreaking use of computer-generated images and kinetic editing techniques.

But more than that, "Saving Private Ryan," together with Tom Brokaw's popular tome, "The Greatest Generation," brought renewed interest in World War II and the heroism that helped make the world safe for democracy.

Here we are at the dawn of the 21st century, still haunted by the ghosts of World War II. How else do you explain the appearance this year of nearly a dozen World War II-themed movies (including Disney's "Pearl Harbor," opening Friday), not to mention three miniseries devoted to the subject (including "Anne Frank," airing tonight and Monday on ABC) and the record-breaking Broadway musical based on Mel Brooks' "The Producers"? "There was a natural moment at the end of the last century when artists introspectively looked over their shoulders at that defining moment," suggests Sally Potter, the British writer and director of "The Man Who Cried," which opens Friday. The bittersweet drama stars Christina Ricci as a Russian Jewish refugee who falls in love with a Gypsy played by Johnny Depp.

"It was the end of the old order, the beginning of the Cold War and the end of innocence, with the systematic attempt at exterminating people," Potter says. "In many, many ways, the Gypsies are the forgotten people, and there was a natural alliance with the Jews."

Like many filmmakers dealing with World War II these days, Potter is a boomer who believes that its long shadow still hangs over her generation. That is why she and others feel compelled to find new stories that resonate in our morally ambiguous times.

Besides the Gypsy aspect, the film has a strong connection to music. Ricci finds herself in Paris on the eve of World War II, where she joins an Italian opera company while befriending an ambitious Russian dancer played by Cate Blanchett.

"The characters are fairly ignorant of what's going on around them," Potter says. "Music speaks for the disquiet of the soul and breaks down national barriers. It's representative of the survival of the human spirit."

Blanchett, meanwhile, stars in Warner Bros.' "Charlotte Gray," scheduled for release in December and based on the best-selling novel by Sebastian Faulks. She plays a Scottish woman working with the French Resistance in the hope of rescuing her lover, a missing RAF pilot.

"I've turned down a lot of World War II scripts," says Australian director Gillian Armstrong, "but what made this one so attractive is that it deals with a secret part of the war that has never been told: Winston Churchill's plan to help the French Resistance with arms and sabotage. It's about this girl who is recruited by the SOE [Special Operations Executive] because she studied in Paris and how she goes undercover in the unoccupied zone in 1942. It's a love story and a psychological story, full of inner strength and vulnerability, and the best woman's role I've seen in 15 years."

Chinese actress, producer and screenwriter Luo Yan gave herself a strong starring role in "Pavilion of Women," currently playing in theaters. Adapted from the Pearl S. Buck novel, this Chinese-American co-production tells the story of an affluent woman living in the garden city of Suzhou, near Shanghai, in 1938, right before the Japanese invasion of China. Feeling trapped by her traditional role and feeling sexually and emotionally unsatisfied, she arranges for her husband to have a young concubine. At the same time, Luo breaks free from her repression through a chance encounter with an American missionary doctor (Willem Dafoe).

"It's about a Chinese woman searching for spiritual freedom," Luo says. "It's what we're all searching for after the attainment of material freedom. Even in China, where the film has been more enthusiastically received than 'Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.' "

As for the presence of World War II, it becomes an explosive backdrop at the climax, just as the Chinese family and society at large implode as a result of their resistance to change.

"The Chinese were not prepared for the Japanese invasion," Luo says. "The novel didn't deal with the invasion explicitly, but I wanted to. It is something we have not seen on film, and I wanted to show the brutality of the Japanese and how they destroyed this beautiful garden city."

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