New crop of war movies tell it as it was

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The Independent Online
HOLLYWOOD film stars are facing the equivalent of the military draft this autumn as combat mania grips the production studios.

The commercial firepower of the Steven Spielberg film, Saving Private Ryan, which opens in Britain on Friday, has revived interest in the Second World War as a subject 30 years after a spate of blockbusters, such as The Guns of Navarone, The Battle of the Bulge and Where Eagles Dare.

Two of Hollywood's biggest stars, George Clooney and John Travolta, have already been enlisted for one project, and the producers of seven other war films are armed and ready for action.

Work in progress includes: DreamWorks' Thunder Below, which is about the war's most decorated submarine commander; Universal's To the White Sea, the story of an American gunner who is shot down over Tokyo; Dimension's Proteus, a supernatural thriller set on a submarine, and Combat, based on the old television series, with Bruce Willis lined up as a possible star. Tom Cruise is also thought to be developing a screenplay, provisionally called With Wings of Eagles, about a German officer who flouts an order to kill a group of prisoners. Finally, The Emperor's General will tell of a plot to assassinate a powerful Japanese officer.

As a result, the wide-lapelled suits and disco glitter balls that marked cinema's brief love affair with Seventies retro chic are all being returned to the props cupboard in favour of army fatigues and carbines.

The leader of the pack, Saving Private Ryan, which begins with brutally realistic scenes from the Allied D-Day landings on Omaha beach in June 1944, made pounds 19m in its first weekend in the US and is a virtual certainty for Oscar recognition next spring.

Based on the real-life events that surrounded a high-profile US army mission to rescue the only surviving brother in a family of four young soldiers, Tom Hanks is cast as the platoon leader sent behind enemy lines to retrieve Matt Damon, who plays the eponymous private.

Spielberg's attention to grim and gory detail has disconcerted many cinema-goers, both in the US and at special screenings held in Ireland, where the film was made. Yet the director's gritty approach also marks a new and more sophisticated cinematic attitude to the Second World War. The passing of half a century appears at last to have allowed the subject to be addressed without a propagandist slant.

"It is hard to say whether there is a change in mood or whether all these war films are just coincidence," commented Tony Safford, senior vice-president of acquisitions at Twentieth Century Fox.

The next film to be released in the war film genre is Twentieth Century Fox's remake of the 1964 Montgomery Clift film The Thin Red Line, set in the South Pacific. It was to have opened this winter, but is now expected to reach the screens in March next year. Directed by Terence Malick, it will feature some heavy box office artillery: George Clooney, Sean Penn, Woody Harrelson, Nick Nolte, John Travolta and John Cusack.

A submarine adventure is the third of the war movies with an imminent release date. U-571was filmed in Malta and chronicles a commando raid on a submarine and an attempt to snatch a Nazi de-coder.

While fascination with the last war, and in particular with the Nazis as villains, has never gone away, it has been some time since cinema has handled the subject head-on.

The current photographic exhibition, The Nazis, running at London's Photographers Gallery, is testament to the monocles, scars and sadistic sneers of the silver screen's array of SS comandants. Marlon Brando, James Mason, Richard Burton and, more recently, Ralph Fiennes have all given us their portrayals of grey-uniformed, heel-clicking evil.

Some cooler, and perhaps more honest, pictures of wartime were made towards the end of the war itself; for example, Howard Hawks's Air Force (1943) and John Ford's They Were Expendable (1945), but most were morale-boosting exercises. Even the Sherlock Holmes mysteries made at that time customarily closed with a stirring speech about the importance of stamping out fascism.

Traditionally, war films have feted valour in the field, but many honourable exceptions began to portray the real experiences of the men on the frontline, for example, Objective Burma! (1944) or A Walk in the Sun (1945, Lewis Milestone), The Steel Helmet (1950, Samuel Fuller) and Attack! (1956, Robert Aldrich). The subject of war was returned to with gusto in the early Sixties when widescreen spectacle was at a premium. Films such as The Guns of Navarone (1961, J. Lee Thompson) and The Longest Day (1962 Ken Annakin/Andrew Marton/ Bernhard Wicki/Darryl F. Zanuck) The Battle of the Bulge (1965, Ken Annakin) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970, Richard Fleischer) set up the increasingly risible conventions of the action blockbuster. By 1977, with the release of A Bridge Too Far, Richard Attenborough's recreation of the Allied campaign in Holland, the format had become expensive and cumbersome.

A cynical backlash was already underway. In Catch-22 (1970, Mike Nichols) and M*A*S*H (1969, Robert Altman), anti-war sentiment was present in abundance as the nightmare of Vietnam began to be acknowledged, eventually to be epitomised by Marlon Brando's Colonel Kurtz in Francis Ford Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979).

Since The Deer Hunter (1978, Michael Cimino) modern cinema audiences have become most familiar with the conflict in Vietnam, although it was John Wayne who first got down and dirty in the jungle in The Green Berets (1968, John Wayne/Ray Kellogg).

Oliver Stone's Platoon (1986), Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket (1987) and John Irvin's Hamburger Hill (1987) were to follow. Over the last year, film makers have tackled the conflict in Bosnia in Welcome to Sarajevo and in the more recent Savior, starring Dennis Quaid, but the trend really started with D W Griffith's 1918 production, Heat of the World. Since then an estimated 600 Hollywood films have been made on the subject of war.

Saving Tom Sizemore, Culture, page 3