Hollywood bets on war to swell the take
By Andy Seiler
On the battlefield, war is hell.
20th Century Fox
Burnett (Owen Wilson) plots his next move while being pursued by countless enemy troops in "Behind Enemy Lines," one of several war films hitting theaters soon.
20th Century Fox
Filmmakers are betting that war movies will play differently and more powerfully now that the United States has been attacked. It helps that Americans are overwhelmingly in favor of the war against terrorism.
Expect a battalion of combat films in coming months, beginning with "Behind Enemy Lines," which opens tomorrow, about a lieutenant shot down while on a mission during the Bosnian war, and then the already much-buzzed-about "Black Hawk Down," based on Mark Bowden's book set in Somalia.
But there are snipers waiting ahead in the foxholes, observers caution, and only certain kinds of war films may strike a chord with moviegoers. They may want to see only winnable wars with heart-tugging heroes. "Movies that reflect heroism and striving for a good cause, like 'Saving Private Ryan,' will do very nicely," predicts Douglas Raybeck, a psychological anthropologist who specializes in future studies at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y.
"Movies with ambiguity, moral and otherwise, will not do nearly as well. Downers won't do well. People want to feel good. Cartoon violence will not go away too quickly," Raybeck says.
In addition to "Enemy Lines," which was moved up from a January release, at least three other big-budget war films are jumping the gun to take advantage of the martial atmosphere:
"Black Hawk Down": once scheduled for March, is now getting a one-week early release in Los Angeles and New York on Dec. 28 to qualify for the Oscars. It opens nationwide in January.
"Charlotte Gray": intended for release in 2002, also is getting a limited, Oscar-qualifying Dec. 28 opening date.
"We Were Soldiers": a Vietnam War saga starring Mel Gibson, jumped to the early part of 2002 from later in the year.
Other celluloid comrades will join them, including several possible contenders for the best foreign-language Academy Award the Czech Republic's "Dark Blue World" and Bosnia's " No Man's Land."
Those modern war movies will not preclude retellings of accounts during World War II, evidenced in John Woo's "Windtalkers." Robert Levin, president of worldwide marketing and distribution for MGM Studios, which is releasing the film in March, says: "I've seen the movie post-Sept. 11 and prior to Sept. 11, and there's a different sense of the honor, sacrifice and heroism of soldiers in war. The whole concept of the heroism, the sacrifice, the whole concept of going to war for things we believe in resonates in a stronger way."
Most of these films were ordered into production when "Saving Private Ryan" hit like a grenade at the box office, grossing $216.2 million. It's no wonder that most of them have remarkably similar variations on "Ryan's" trapped behind enemy lines theme.
Filmmakers then could not have known there would be a real war going on when they finished shooting, but the outcome is likely to have a big impact on how their movies are perceived.
"If it's an extra-good film and it has a wartime background, there's no reason it can't play well in these times," says Steven Spielberg, "Ryan's" director. "As long as there's no effort to exploit the times, but simply to ride along with the times, it's justified."
Gibson, star of "We Were Soldiers," calls his violent film "an assault on the senses" and "hard to watch." But he says that could be good for Afghanistan-absorbed audiences.
"It could be therapeutic, even, to deal with it," Gibson says. "It shows the human spirit and courage and the terrible thing war is."
War films on the radar (dates subject to change):
"Behind Enemy Lines": Owen Wilson plays a Navy flight navigator shot down by Serbs during a reconnaissance mission during the Bosnian war. With Gene Hackman; opens tomorrow.
"Black Hawk Down": Based on real events, the story depicts elite U.S. soldiers who are trapped in Mogadishu, Somalia. With Josh Hartnett and Ewan McGregor; opens in select cities Dec. 28.
"We Were Soldiers": Mel Gibson teams again with "Braveheart" screenwriter Randall Wallace in this tale of 400 U.S. soldiers trapped in the first major battle of Vietnam. Opens March 1.
"No Man's Land": Bosnia's official entry for the foreign-language Academy Award pits a Bosnian and a Serb soldier in "no man's land" a trench between enemy lines during the Bosnian war. Opens Dec. 7.
"Dark Blue World": An entry for the foreign-film Oscar, the tale follows two Czech pilots who join the British air force during World War II and fall in love with the same woman. Opens in select cities Dec. 28.
"Charlotte Gray": An ordinary Englishwoman (Cate Blanchett) goes behind enemy lines as a spy in a special operation with the French Resistance. With Billy Crudup. Opens in select cities Dec. 28.