Now Opening near You: Attack of the War Flicks

Article excerpt

Want to escape CNN's round-the- clock war coverage? Don't head for the theater.

Faster than Lee Marvin could say "Dirty Dozen," Hollywood is rounding up its good-looking troops, rallying the editing rooms, and launching a war-time celluloid offensive.

With few American soldiers killed in the war so far, movie executives are letting fly a bevy of war-themed releases, beginning with today's "Behind Enemy Lines," a flag-waving tale of a US pilot in Bosnia.

That movie, which Fox rushed into release after positive test screenings, is Hollywood's opening salvo. The true test of audiences' appetite for mock warfare during wartime comes next month, with "Black Hawk Down," based on a real US tragedy involving special forces.

In the past, Americans have tended to shy away from dark depictions of war when real soldiers are in danger.

"The question is: Will people go to the box office for $7.50 and $10 for popcorn when they can get the same thing on CNN for $14 bucks a month?" asks Jim Grimshaw, a former Army Ranger who acts opposite Mel Gibson in this spring's Vietnam-era tale "We Were Soldiers."

But moviegoers' initial response has so far been as positive - and patriotic - as Hollywood executives could wish. "It was a very violent movie, but I think ... people will respond to its patriotism," says Eleanor, a retiree who attended a sneak preview of "Behind Enemy Lines." "It's a very positive piece of Americana."

To be sure, war movies have never gone out of vogue. From "Stalag 17" to "U-571," Tinseltown retellings of American derring-do are legendary - and in some cases, legendarily profitable. In fact, many of the current releases were inspired by the tremendous success of "Saving Private Ryan."

But more recent war films have painted a far more complex, ambiguous picture of America's wartime experiences, including "Platoon," "Deer Hunter," and the more recent "Three Kings," an acclaimed 1999 film that questioned US motives in the Gulf War.

But that was before Sept. 11. Now, moviegoers may prefer "Top Gun" to "Apocalypse Now." "The general pattern is that during the time people feel that we are at war, they don't want to see war films," says Howard Suber, professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Film, Theater, and Television.

During past wars, "homefront" movies like "Mrs. Miniver," an Oscar-winning yarn about a London mother holding her family together during the Blitz, tended to succeed commercially. (The biggest box- office draw during World War II? Abbott and Costello.)

Even John Wayne had trouble getting the right tone down. …

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