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Combat Pix Or Dogs Of War?

Torn from today’s headlines! As the threat of war in the Persian Gulf looms, several films related to – or outright exploiting – events there are rushing toward movie theaters.

They range from the sublime to the ridiculous – from well-intentioned movies attempting to understand American-Arab relations to low-budget action pics attempting to capitalize on topical tragedy.

There are more of the latter than the former.

* “Hangfire” is a Motion Picture Corp. of America release, from veteran action-adventure director Peter Maris, that opened in some cities last week.

Headlining Jan-Michael Vincent and featuring veteran Maris actors George Kennedy, Yaphet Kotto and James Tolkan, “Hangfire” is not really about the crisis in the Gulf – or at least it wasn’t until there was a crisis. Co-producer Steve Stabler says the movie is about escaped convicts who take an American town hostage. There are no Middle Eastern locations, or characters.

But ads for the film feature the ominous words, “Saddam Hussein Look Out.” Stabler explains: “The analogy to current events is pretty obvious,” adding that the Hussein line is “coming off all future advertising.”

* “Target U.S.A.” is a Trans Continental Films release, from producer-director Charles Nizet and exec producer Arby W. Alper. It wasn’t really about today’s headlines either, until today’s headlines became impossible to resist.

Telling the story of Iraqi terrorists who attempt to take over an American town, details have been added, a source on the production says, “to elaborate on the current situation.” Still without an American distributor, the film will make its debut at Cannes and open next summer.

* “Desert Shield,” a Menachem Golan, 21st Century Film Corp. effort, wasn’t really about the current crisis either. But it is now. Originally concerned with the Iran-Iraq war and U.S. naval forces patrolling the Persian Gulf, and titled “S.E.A.L.S.” – a title abandoned when Orion last summer released its own “Navy S.E.A.L.S” – the currently-being-completed film tells the tale of two S.E.A.L.S. They must, a story synopsis relates, attempt to destroy a site in Iraq, which “is stockpiling missiles and chemicals with plans to launch an attack on its oil rich neighbors.”

* “Shield Of Honor,” a Concorde actioner from exec producer Roger Corman, producer Steve Rabiner and director Louis Morneau, originally concerned Libyan bad guys. They have now become Iraqis.

Concorde producer Mike Elliott, acting as spokesman for the film, cheerfully acknowledges its exploitative nature: “We prefer to use the word ‘topical,’ but this film is being made specifically because of today’s headlines. It’s ripped from today’s headlines. We are definitely capitalizing on the fact that people are talking about the Middle East.” “Shield,” he adds, could be in theaters by April. “We work pretty fast.”

Topicality has not been limited to film. Tv programs that have had or will soon have episodes that address the percolating Gulf crisis include “A Different World,” “Under Cover,” “Designing Women” and “Major Dad” – whose hero, Major John D. MacGillis, was last season called up for active duty in an unnamed Central American military conflict.

For Corman, Golan and Maris, fictionalizing movies around real events is nothing new. Corman has capitalized on upheavals physical and political, with dramas concerning events in Panama (“Full Fathom Five”) and Berlin (“The Day The Wall Came Down”) as well as the last great earthquake in San Francisco (“Quake”). As they did on “Fathom,” Elliott says, the creators of “Shield Of Honor” “will be rewriting as they go so that events [in the Gulf] coincide with our script.”

Maris has made several films concerning U.S.-Arab relations, including “Ministry Of Vengeance,” about a war-hero-turned-priest whose wife and daughter are gunned down by Middle Eastern terrorists, and who winds up gunning down their killers, and “Terror Squad,” in which the American government stages a “Libyan” terrorist attack on a small Midwestern town in order to justify a Middle East invasion.

And Golan has built on real events for an entire career, having made movies about the Israeli raid on Entebbe (“Operation Thunderbolt,” which received an Oscar nomination for best foreign film), break dancing and the lambada (“Breakin’,” which the producer calls his “greatest success,” and “The Forbidden Dance”), the highjacking of a TWA airliner (“Delta Force”) and American POWs in Vietnam (“Hanoi Hilton”).

But he insists that “Desert Shield,” which stars Rob Lowe and Gale Hansen and which completed principal photography just four weeks ago, is not exploitative in any way.

“Like all moviemakers, I am inspired by things that are happening. It becomes exploitation if you exploit it in a bad manner,” Golan says, “by making a fast, quickie, low-budget thing.” Golan, who calls his movie a “docudrama about two soldiers, and a love story,” declined to reveal “Shield’s” budget.

Two other films may benefit financially from concern over American military involvement in the Middle East, although neither was designed with that in mind. Both Paramount’s “Flight Of The Intruder” and MGM’s “Not Without My Daughter” have a similar “torn from today’s headlines” atmosphere.

The second of those tells the “based on a true story” story of an American woman married to an Iranian. When they return to Iran and he embraces fundamentalist principles during his repatriation, she finds that she and her daughter cannot leave the country without risking her life. Producers Harry and Mary Jane Ufland note that their picture has been five years in the making and insist that it in no way capitalizes on the current crisis – and express some dismay at the prospect of gaining extra attention because of it.

“It’s the last thing we would want,” Harry Ufland says. “But obviously if something is in the paper every day, if Tom Brokaw is broadcasting from Saudi Arabia, there is more interest. People are more interested in that entire area.”

A less dismayed source at the studio admits that “the timing of the release of the movie is probably advantageous, even though it is accidental.”

Paramount’s motion picture co-president Barry London says that “Intruder” – originally a summer release, but pulled when the studio felt there were too many action pics in the market – probably won’t benefit from events in the Gulf.

“The film takes place in Vietnam in the 1970s and is unrelated to what’s going on now,” London says. “Of course there is increased awareness [of U.S. military action, wherever it takes place], but we are marketing this film solely on its own merits.”

Last spring, Paramount had to rework “The Hunt For Red October” when glasnost and perestroika took some of the chill off the cold war.

“That film dealt with a specific situation where events in the world were related to events in the film,” London says. “There isn’t that kind of relationship here.”

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