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Published: Wednesday, 3/2/2005

Hollywood goes to war


Some cry cowardice.

Others common sense.

But without fail, Hollywood will avoid any war while it's still hot, and perhaps that's for the best. Our greatest war movies have always been reflective by nature. We need time and distance to digest the impact - or to just make sense - of a war.

What you lose is outrage.

What you gain is perspective.

Take the war in Iraq.

Later this month, it'll be two years old, and two years is generally the time it takes a production to go from an idea to your neighborhood multiplex. There may be documentaries like the upcoming Gunner Palace. Or features that address a conflict indirectly - Jarhead (opening in November), Sam Mendes' adaptation of a Marine's memoir about the first Gulf War, will probably have strong relevance to the events of this war. But if movie history tells us anything, it's that we shouldn't expect the first serious treatment of the Iraq war until sometime in the next decade.

So it's a good time to ponder.

Starting Sunday, Hillsdale College in Michigan will host War on Film, a six-day screening and lecture series on the history of the genre. It's free, open to the public - and a couple of speakers are inspired choices: On March 9, there's Michael Medved, the conservative movie critic and radio host, and on March 10, Stephen Hunter, the Washington Post's chief film critic (and only the second, behind Roger Ebert, to win a Pulitzer Prize for his movie criticism).

Screenings range from got-a-job-to-do action favorites like David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai on Sunday, to classic anti-war statements such as Grand Illusion on Monday afternoon.

"Although in the case of Grand Illusion, for instance, we're using it more as a way to think about World War I," said Tim Caspar, Hillsdale College's director of seminars.

On the other hand, if you only have time for one war picture, head to Detroit. The Big Red One, a remarkable restoration of Sam Fuller's World War II epic, screens this weekend in the Detroit Film Theatre at the Detroit Institute of Art. The title is taken from the nickname of the U.S. Army's First Infantry Division - for decades, Fuller dreamed of a sprawling, definitive war movie recounting his time as a member of the Big Red One. (He's one of the few directors to have ever made war movies and actually fought in a war, too.) Fuller was a cigar-chomping B-movie legend at the end of his career, but he assembled an impressive cast: Lee Marvin, Robert Carradine, and then-hot Mark Hamill, fresh from playing Luke in Star Wars.

Then came the trouble.

Fuller shot a four-hour movie, a masterpiece by the accounts of those who saw it. But the distributor cut it to two. When he died in 1997 no one expected to ever see the original. Then critic and historian Richard Schickel set out to reconstruct it.

The result is closer to three hours, and time has dated it a little; the Normandy invasion in the film, for instance, is placid compared to the hellish opening of Saving Private Ryan, the war film every war film since has had to reckon with. But that's no fault of its own, and few war films have as much scope: Marvin and Co. fight across France, Sicily, Africa, Belgium, and finally, into the death camps of Eastern Europe.

It's every war film laid end to end, and more. It's an old soldier's insistence on doing what great war films do: bear witness.

Contact Christopher Borrelli at: cborrelli@theblade.com

or 419-724-6117.

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