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Wednesday, Nov. 1, 2006 07:51 am

The war of our fathers

Why Hollywood keeps fighting World War II

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Tora! Tora! Tora!Running Time 2:24Rated G

World War II was the big one, and Hollywood must agree. More footage has been devoted to WWII than to all other wars combined. Even in the modern era WWII continues to outpace other wars. While complaints of the abundance of Vietnam War films in the ’70s were growing, no one noticed that six times as many WWII films were produced in that decade. Vietnam, however, affected the content of movies about America’s last necessary war, prompting filmmakers to finally acknowledge its imperfections. Patton (1970) and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970), the first major WWII features of the ’70s, offered different levels of cynicism. Patton, in particular, managed to cater to both hawks and doves. Clint Eastwood’s Flags of Our Fathers probes deeper into the idea of heroism, and Eastwood is following it with Letters from Iwo Jima, which shows the conflict from the Japanese side. Catch-22 (1970) presented a much darker view of that war than had previously been seen, but it was completely overshadowed by the similarly themed M*A*S*H (1970). Both films were obviously metaphors for Vietnam, but the more farcical tone of Catch-22 made the film a tougher sell. Insanity may be the primary theme, but beneath that is an intriguing subtheme of the business of war. War profiteering was certainly an issue during Vietnam, and it is even more relevant today.

Sam Peckinpah transferred his wild bunch to the Russian front in Cross of Iron (1977), and he had the audacity to show the war from the German side. Not all Germans who fought in the military were monstrous Nazis who committed horrible atrocities. Many were pressed into service, with no choice in the matter. Cross of Iron is magnificently ugly, and there has never been a more brilliant film about WWII.

Two independent films have been released to DVD this year. Saints and Soldiers (2003) has received more praise than it deserves because of its indie roots. A platoon of stereotypical GIs is trapped behind enemy lines and spends the entire film trying to avoid those cliché landmines. Straight into Darkness (2005) has received no buzz, but this strange film is hard to forget. Two GIs, also behind enemy lines, become prisoners of a resistance group made up mostly of children. At times preposterous, Darkness is oddly compelling. The real war may have ended 61 years ago, but it will continue forever on celluloid.

New DVDs on Tuesday (Nov. 7): Cars and Little Man.

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