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Battle Fatigue

Flick Chick


Published November 13, 2002 at 5:00 p.m.

In the new Republican hegemony, we'll no doubt soon be bombing and battling our way to a better Baghdad. Opponents are circulating a 1946 quote about jingoism from Luftwaffe commander Hermann Goering, who claimed public opinion can be easily swayed in democracies, fascist dictatorships, parliamentary systems and communist states: "It's always a simple matter to drag the people along... All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, exposing the country to danger."

This could be a time when artists, a typically anarchic bunch, deliver the most inspirational pleas for peace. Cinema has a long tradition of anti-war perspectives encouraging to those who refuse to be "dragged along." Here are a few highlights:

All Quiet on the Western Front, which was frequently banned in countries preparing for war, is director Lewis Milestone's 1930 treatise against mass blood-letting rituals. Based on an Erich Maria Remarque novel, the film traces several young German soldiers who progress from naïve idealism to bitter disillusionment.

World War I is also the setting for Paths of Glory, a 1957 Stanley Kubrick film in which Kirk Douglas plays a French colonel whose men resist orders to launch a futile, suicidal assault on the German line. The filmmaker's first examination of mindless militarism would later resurface in Dr. Strangelove and the disappointing Full Metal Jacket.

In 1964 Dr. Strangelove, or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb, perfectly skewered the cold-war mentality. The what-if scenario, with Peter Sellers playing three distinct characters, follows the escalating madness when an American general orders an unprovoked nuclear attack on the Soviet Union.

The cult hit King of Hearts takes place during the First World War, but adoring audiences saw the 1966 satire as a metaphor for Vietnam. Alan Bates appears as a Scottish infantryman trying to find a bomb left behind by the Nazis in a small French town from which all the "normal" residents have fled. Patients who escape from a nearby asylum establish their own harmonious reality apart from a civilization consumed by violence.

Greetings, in 1968, and its 1970 sequel, Hi, Mom!, were Brian De Palma's wacky underground movies about a draft evader (Robert De Niro) who is shipped off to Southeast Asia. After returning to civilian life, he becomes an urban guerrilla. In 1989, De Palma made the more conventional and infinitely bleaker Casualties of War.

Adapted from Joseph Heller's book, Catch-22 stars Alan Arkin as a reluctant Air Force pilot named Yossarian. This 1970 black comedy directed by Mike Nichols conveys how even a "good war" -- against Hitler, Mussolini and Emperor Hirohito -- can damage the human soul.

M*A*S*H, also released in 1970, traces the misadventures of two irreverent combat surgeons (Donald Sutherland and Elliott Gould) during the Korean Conflict -- which is clearly a stand-in for Vietnam in the delightful Robert Altman picture. They're committed to saving lives, but never stop sassing the army brass.

Although Hair is a musical fantasy that came out in 1979, it captures the zeitgeist of the hippie protest era. The lyrics of one song -- about "facing a dying nation" -- resonate for anyone who believes the sharply divided country was experiencing a collective nervous breakdown.

A grimmer view of war emerges in Apocalypse Now, the 1979 Francis Ford Coppola epic. Long before Martin Sheen became the TV president, he inhabited the role of an intelligence operative hunting a rogue officer (Marlon Brando) in Indochina's heart of darkness. But it's a schizophrenic vision. The script by right-winger John Milius contradicts Coppola's counterculture sensibility.

Oliver Stone created a Vietnam trilogy, beginning with Platoon in 1986 and ending with the dreadful Heaven and Earth in 1993. In between, 1989's wrenching Born on the Fourth of July presented Tom Cruise as a flag-waving young man who meets a terrible fate while fighting in the faraway jungles.

U.S. intervention in Central America provided source material for Stone's most accomplished venture. Salvador is a 1986 drama featuring James Woods as a slippery gonzo journalist who comes face-to-face with death squads in the midst of a particularly dirty little war.

No Man's Land, which nabbed the foreign-language Academy Award last year, concerns Bosnia but has a universal message. The saga of enemy soldiers trapped in a deadly pas de deux compels us to witness an absurdist meditation on the hostilities in yet another "dying nation.