Battles on the big screen

Culture | War movies are hitting the theaters, but the best are at the video stores

Issue: "Humanity Under the Microscope," Dec. 8, 2001

After Sept. 11, movie studios scrambled to shuffle their fall/winter releases, bumping violent or war-themed films and attempting to fill multiplexes with more innocuous, uplifting fare. Then a funny thing happened. Almost uniformly, the top films at the box office in the ensuing weeks were horror films and thrillers-films like The Others, Don't Say a Word, and Training Day.

So now studios are reversing course, rushing several war-themed films previously slated for release in the new year into theaters for the holidays-among them, Behind Enemy Lines starring Gene Hackman and Ridley Scott's Black Hawk Down.

Spy Game (rated R for bad language, some violence, and sexuality) also hit theaters recently-this one not really a war film, but focusing on intrigue within the CIA. Robert Redford and Brad Pitt star in director Tony Scott's stylish, entertaining action film. As with most of Tony Scott's films, Spy Game is visually compelling, but also boasts strong performances and a stronger-than-expected script.

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What Spy Game doesn't have is the benefit of a post-Sept. 11 perspective. Like most modern Hollywood products, Spy Game was scripted with an inherent distrust of government intelligence and military institutions. The bad guys are found both at home and abroad in this story: The Chinese who are holding Brad Pitt in a dingy prison and the corrupt CIA bureaucrats who care little for his life are equally nefarious.

What was once standard Hollywood issue now seems strangely anachronistic in a time when public confidence in government institutions and America's armed forces is high. Upcoming releases, while perhaps filmed with similar skill, promise to offer the same perspective on the overall integrity and capability of America's defense structure.

Hollywood has done well in the past, however. Plenty of great-even patriotic-war films are available at the neighborhood video store, especially for people interested in World War II. Some of the century's greatest war films have been about the "Greatest Generation."

Among the many highly qualified candidates, The Enemy Below, The Sands of Iwo Jima, The Longest Day, and Bridge on the River Kwai (all unrated) stand out. The first tells the tense story of a cat-and-mouse duel between two honorable sea captains-one of a Navy Destroyer and the other of a German U-Boat, played by Robert Mitchum and Curd Jürgens, respectively.

Sands of Iwo Jima is John Wayne at his best and most inspiring, as tough-talking Sergeant John Stryker-Duke's first Oscar-nominated role. The Longest Day may mark the pinnacle of Hollywood's epic approach to the war, dramatizing the D-Day invasion with a grand scope and an all-star cast that includes Robert Mitchum, Sean Connery, John Wayne, Henry Fonda, and many more. The full scope of the Normandy landing is captured-from the personal stories of the men who hit the beaches to the commanders who planned the attack.

David Lean's masterpiece Bridge on the River Kwai is the most complex of the four, telling the story of British and American soldiers in a Japanese POW camp, and the ensuing battle of wills. Alec Guinness received one of this film's seven Oscars for his portrayal of a British officer going mad in the jungle.

After years of wallowing in depressing, cynical Vietnam-era movies, Hollywood found its patriotic footing again thanks to Steven Spielberg, in the immensely popular Saving Private Ryan and Schindler's List (both rated R). Both, however, are somewhat scarred by modern sensibilities about what is required by the laws of realism. (It's amazing how well a story can still be told when the option of R-rated violence and sex is unavailable.)

One final, non-WWII film deserves mention. Hollywood has spent far less time in the trenches of World War I, but one of film's greatest, most nuanced studies of a soldier at war is set during this era. The Oscar-winning Sergeant York (unrated) recounts the true story of Alvin York, one of the most decorated heroes of WWI. This classic has long been beloved by Christians for its more than sympathetic portrayal of York's conversion and conscientious objection to the war, but also features thrilling scenes of trench warfare staged by director Howard Hawks.


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