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A World War II box-office blitz

September 25, 2008|John Horn | Times Staff Writer
  • 'DEFIANCE?: Daniel Craig stars in the wartime drama.
'DEFIANCE?: Daniel Craig stars in the wartime drama. (Karen Ballard / Paramount…)

It's THE one war in the last 60 years that doesn't divide politicians, pundits and voters. But can World War II bring moviegoers together?

Starting on Friday and ending at Christmas, at least half a dozen dramas whose plots connect with World War II are scheduled to arrive in theaters, all hoping to perform better than the crop of recent war films looking at the modern Middle Eastern conflict.

The new movies -- Friday's Spike Lee-directed "Miracle at St. Anna," Nov. 7's concentration camp story "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas," Nov. 28's "Australia" from filmmaker Baz Luhrmann, Dec. 12's "Defiance" from director Ed Zwick, Dec. 26's "Valkyrie" from filmmaker Bryan Singer and "The Reader" from director Stephen Daldry (which could hold until 2009) -- feature dramatically different plots but share surprisingly common themes.

Several of the movies focus on largely unfamiliar yet remarkably brave true acts of anti-Nazi valor, even if the means (or the outcome) aren't exactly Hollywood feel-good: One has a point-blank murder, another a firing squad. The marketing for some of the films has been similar, with a few early trailers superimposing blocks of printed text on top of action sequences:

* "I swear by God this sacred oath: That I shall render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer of the German Reich." ("Valkyrie")

* "By the summer of 1941, Hitler's army was on the move, and Europe was about to fall. For millions, it was a death sentence. But for three brothers . . . it was a declaration of war." ("Defiance")

* "On December 19th, 1983, Hector Negron killed a man. In his New York home they found a priceless Italian artifact. It was a clue to a mystery that began 39 years earlier." ("Miracle at St. Anna")

These three World War II films started their path to the multiplex well before audiences rejected several recent films centered on modern-day terrorism and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Even with some favorable reviews, that slate -- "Rendition," "Stop-Loss," "In the Valley of Elah," "Grace Is Gone," "Redacted" and "Lions for Lambs" chief among them -- consistently fared so poorly that studios either scrapped even loosely similar movies (including United Artists' "Pinkville," an Oliver Stone movie about Vietnam's My Lai massacre) or tried to remove any reference to the current wars (as happened to Friday's "The Lucky Ones," about three soldiers on leave from Iraq in the United States).

The box-office history of movies about World War II is more favorable, but one of the more expensive new movies, United Artists' "Valkyrie" -- which the studio says cost $75 million to make but others say was pricier -- will have to do strong global business in order to make a profit. Although "Saving Private Ryan" was a global smash, several recent fact-based films about World War II, including Clint Eastwood's 2006 double bill of "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters From Iwo Jima," were hardly breakout hits.

That's not the only challenge some of the films face.

Lee's "Miracle at St. Anna," a Disney release that chronicles the true story of black soldiers crossing an Italian river into German territory, is more than 2 1/2 hours long and is generating only mild interest in audience tracking surveys.

"Valkyrie," which stars Tom Cruise as the ringleader of a real German plot to assassinate Hitler, has been scheduled for several release dates (which has sparked negative Internet chatter) and likely will move again -- albeit just a day, from Dec. 26 to Dec. 25. And anybody with a third-grade education knows that a plot to kill Hitler doesn't quite work out in the end. Even though the film's preview audiences liked "Valkyrie's" factual underpinnings, UA is selling the movie more as a thriller -- as evidenced by a new adrenaline-inducing trailer that premieres Friday.

Daldry's "The Reader," an adaptation of Bernard Schlink's novel about a romance with a Nazi twist set in postwar Germany, has been caught in a fight between producer Scott Rudin and distributor Harvey Weinstein over the film's release date. (The Weinstein Co. wants it to come out this year, but Daldry hasn't finished the movie yet.)

Paramount Vantage hopes that its "Defiance" will be distinguished not only by its cast (led by Daniel Craig, Liev Schreiber and Jamie Bell) but also by Zwick's critical and commercial pedigree. The director's last film, 2006's "Blood Diamond," grossed more than $170 million worldwide, and Zwick's historical dramas "Glory" and "The Last Samurai" were also big hits.


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