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Scott Larson





Building façade in Cannes, France

Pearl Harbor: the sequels

While you were busy trying to avoid all the news coverage about anthrax and instead were reading about how an image of Bert from Sesame Street wound up in an Osama bin Laden poster being paraded around by rioters in Pakistan, you may have missed a certain article in The New York Times. (Note: The Bert and Osama story is truly the weirdest thing to come out of all the noise in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Of course, most of the stuff going around by email—from alleged Nostradamus predictions to windsurfing WTC workers to airliners posing with tourists on the observation deck—is patently false. But appropriately, the weirdest story of all—the Bert and Osama one—is actually true.)

Anyway, this New York Times article was saying that Hollywood is apparently holding back on a slew of war movies currently in the pipeline because the marketing departments are worried that audiences will be confused by movies with military themes at a time when they are seeing plenty of military images all the time on television news. (Thank you once again, Hollywood marketers, for respecting our intelligence.) Two of the new movies being postponed are Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down (about Somalia) and John Woo’s Windtalkers (about World War II Navajo code talkers). An exception is Rod Lurie’s The Last Castle (about an uprising in a military prison), which is opening this week as scheduled. The conclusion is that the renaissance of the war movie genre kicked off three years ago by Saving Private Ryan may be about over.

This seems strange to me. I know that the current situation is billed as being a different kind of “war” than we’ve ever known before, but is there any reason to believe that Hollywood won’t be enlisted to play its traditional wartime role, i.e. to act as cheerleader and morale booster for an anxious nation? I know that lots of movies about World War II didn’t get made until after the war was over, but some were made in short order while the war was still going on. Perhaps the best war movie ever made was made in 1942. It didn’t actually have any battle scenes, but it sure taught us a lot about standing up for the right side instead of getting caught up in our own petty little problems, which don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world. I am speaking, of course, of the great Casablanca. But has there ever been an enemy so incontrovertibly evil as the Nazis, and has any war since (or in the future) been as unambiguous as WWII? Vietnam inspired some fine films (The Deer Hunter, Apocalypse Now, Platoon), but none of them exactly evoked the patriotic fervor of the WWII movies. Not even when Rambo tried to do so by going back and re-fighting the Vietnam war.

It’s probably no coincidence that the war movies I remember most fondly were ones that I saw in my youth because the qualities that make a classic war movie are the same ones that appeal to boys under the age of 16, i.e. lots of explosions and rarely any kissing.

But for now the most appropriate movies for the current period of uncertainty are those that belong to a tiny sub-genre I call post-attack paranoia films. This sub-genre is so tiny that I can only think of three examples off-hand, and they all deal with the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbor. One is Alan Parker’s Come See the Paradise, a love story involving Japanese-American internment camps. Another is Scott Hicks’s Snow Falling on Cedars, about post-war tensions in a small Pacific Northwest town. But the granddaddy of the sub-genre, by default, is a Steven Spielberg film called 1941. This is an extremely rare Spielberg film on two counts: 1) it is a screwball comedy, and 2) it was a major commercial and critical flop.

Spielberg’s first movie with a huge budget (a really bad sign right there), 1941 aspired to be a zany ensemble blockbuster in the tradition of It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World. The cast included such talent as Dan Aykroyd, Christopher Lee, Robert Stack and John Candy with John Belushi and Toshiro Mifune as bumbling fighter pilots. The story, to the extent that there was one, dealt with West Coast American paranoia and overreaction following Pearl Harbor. Only time will tell if the current American mood of anxiety will similarly look like an overreaction or (God forbid) an underreaction with the distance of time.

Perhaps the movie, or trilogy of movies, that will best capture the spirit and mood of this war is one that will debut in a couple of months. Maybe what we need in order to put things into perspective is an epic tale of a global war between good and evil, about an alliance that comes together from many different corners and races in defiance of a dark lord who has lain in wait for years and is now casting a black shadow over all of Middle-earth. Maybe Peter Jackson’s adaptation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings is arriving at exactly the right time.

-S.L., 18 October 2001


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