One of the biggest action genres of the last half-century — the World War II picture — may be marching toward a comeback.
A number of top stars, including Tom Cruise, Brad Pitt, Bruce Willis and Arnold Schwarzenegger, have expressed interest in projects set during the Big One. Meanwhile, a new generation of screenwriters has rediscovered WWII — arguably the last war with clear-cut heroes and villains — as a rich source of dramatic material.
Tom Hanks is set to star in Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Pvt. Ryan,” which is being co-produced by Paramount and DreamWorks.
That film is leading an army of WWII-themed projects into the studio trenches, where production execs have found themselves barraged by scripts depicting green-helmeted G.I.s, B-52 bombers and brown-shirted storm troopers.
“Several years ago, many writers, producers and studio execs independently realized there hadn’t been a good old-fashioned war movie in a long time,” explained a studio production exec. “Fortunately or unfortunately, all of these scripts have come to fruition at the same time.”
Projects currently in development include:
“To the White Sea” (Universal): The Coen brothers and Brad Pitt are in discussions to make this film, written by Janet and David Webb Peoples (“Unforgiven,” “12 Monkeys”). Based on a novel by James Dickey, the story follows the trek across Asia by a U.S. tailgunner shot down after the bombing of Tokyo.
“With Wings as Eagles” (Paramount): “Braveheart” scribe Randall Wallace’s adaptation of James J. Cullen’s “Ostermann’s War” has interested Schwarzenegger. He would play the role of a German officer who defends a group of POWs in the closing days of WWII.
“Earth, Wings and Fire” (CW Prods.): Cruise and Paula Wagner recently acquired film rights to a book being written by historian Bing Bingham about the highly successful Flying Tiger fighter pilot outfit.
“The Thin Red Line” (Phoenix Pictures): Terrence Malick, whose only two directing credits are “Badlands” (1972) and “Days of Heaven” (1979), is set to make his comeback with this adaptation of James Jones’ epic novel.
“Combat” (Paramount): Based on the vintage TV series, the project was originally set up at the now-defunct Sa-voy Pictures. Willis and Walter Hill were in discussions to, respectively, star and direct, although the future of the project is now uncertain.
While it’s unlikely all these diverse projects will make it to the bigscreen, they clearly signal a renewed interest in the genre that had all but disappeared since the Vietnam era.
“I think the revival of the World War II movie is partly about a world which, unlike ours, is black and white — not shades of gray, like Vietnam,” said Barry Isaacson. As executive VP, Isaacson was the Universal exec in charge of “To the White Sea” before leaving to join Hal Lieberman’s production company, Lieberville. “Every movie star wants to play a cowboy; the same goes for the World War II hero,” he said.
And it’s not just male stars who are attracted to tales set during the global conflict. Glenn Close, Frances McDor-mand and “ER’s” Julianna Margulies star in Bruce Beresford’s “Paradise Road,” which Fox Searchlight releases April 11. The Village Roadshow production tells the story of a group of female POWs who organize a choir to irri-tate their Japanese captors.
“My favorite movies growing up were ‘The Great Escape’ and ‘The Dirty Dozen,’ ” said screenwriter Tony Kayden, whose “Conduct Unbecoming” focuses on a group of black sailors during the war. “There were definite heroes, somebody to root for.”
Is the aud old enough?
But what are the commercial prospects for films set in a conflict that ended before many of the key 18-45 demographic members were born?
“The under-25 audience is very savvy in terms of watching and learning from old movies,” one studio exec said. “They’re the first rental generation. Just because they weren’t alive when ‘A Bridge Too Far’ or ‘The Guns of Navarone’ were released doesn’t mean they haven’t seen them.”
However, the new crop of films are not likely to offer viewers the rah-rah patriotism or unalloyed entertainment of such classics as “The Sands of Iwo Jima.”
While all these projects offer heroic roles, they take a more unflinching look at the horrors of war than many pics of the 1940s and ’50s.
“It’s impossible now to do a war movie with a gung-ho, John Wayne approach that’s completely uncritical of war-fare,” Isaacson said. “People like Spielberg, the Coen brothers, and David and Janet Peoples are baby boomers who will bring a post-’60s skepticism to World War II movies.”