The best films about WWII mine moral complexities

Beyond the flag waving

On one side of the divide there’s “The Valorous Generation,” or “The Greatest Generation,” depending on who’s making the summary: the men and women who went off to fight in World War II and came home to hide their combat wounds, physical and emotional, in stoic silence and lives of orderly suburban peace.

They made the world safe for democracy and left a legacy of heartache lamented by an elderly, bedridden “Doc” Bradley to his son in Clint Eastwood’s “Flags of Our Fathers”: “I could’ve been a better father. I should’ve talked to you more.”

On the other side is a generation saturated with materialism and media values, at ease with the exculpatory language of therapy, its own valor heavily defended by irony laced with derision.

The movies show the difference. Echoing WWII’s painful aftermath, “The Best Years of Our Lives” was suffused with the springtime tenderness of hope reborn. The flawed, even wayward characters in “From Here to Eternity” never questioned the ethos of Army life. And “Patton” measured the gulf between personal glory and the greater good. Implicit in these movies was a belief that, for all the cogent arguments about human folly — needless tragedy and aggression that go back to Homer — there were still some values worth dying for.

For the Vietnam generation, all that changed. “MASH,” “Coming Home,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “Apocalypse Now” and “Catch-22” were among the movies around which a general social attitude coalesced. “Make Love, Not War,” announced its bumper sticker. The martial air gave way to the flower-power ballad. For a while it really did seem that war was anachronistic, but not necessarily for the reasons the doves held in their earnest utterances.

“We went through a period of art and culture where a whole generation stopped talking about war and war heroes,” says author-screenwriter Mark Bowden (“Black Hawk Down”). “Anyone who talked or wrote about battle was considered trite or old-fashioned. It was a Cold War concept: Going to war meant committing mass suicide, so for 20 years, the idea was considered evil and absurd.

“But war is a real part of human experience. It’s only absurd if you subscribe to the fantasy that there’s nothing to defend. All war is not ridiculous.”

After the premillennial spate of films looking at the Greatest Generation, we’re seeing differently once again. In “Days of Glory,” French director Rachid Bouchareb reveals the contributions made by Muslim North Africans to the French war effort, and the discrimination they faced; Steven Soderbergh probes the not-so-heroic East-West division of spoils in 1945 Berlin as the Potsdam conference looms; Dutch filmmaker Paul Verhoeven’s “Black Book” eschews Hollywood’s traditional portrayal of nasty Nazis, persecuted Jews and unconflicted resistance fighters; and Eastwood’s “Flags” companion piece, “Letters From Iwo Jima,” depicts that battle from the Japanese perspective.

And if we think that selling war as if it were laundry powder is a post-Vietnam concept, “Flags of Our Fathers” shows how a single photograph — the raising of the American flag over Iwo Jima’s Mount Suribachi, and its fictional dramatization — did more to mobilize the American war effort than any politico’s orations on democracy imperiled.

Eastwood wanted to make a realistic movie about the most famous battle in Marine Corps history, but as someone who has led the fabled life of an internationally renowned actor and director. “I was fascinated by the commercial atmosphere that surrounded the three soldiers in the flag-raising photo,” he says, “especially in the scene when they had to re-enact the event on a papier-mache mountain in front of a stadium crowd. They were treated as heroes, but that’s not what they felt. They wanted to be back with their buddies, fighting on that island.

“To me, it wasn’t just a war story. I was a Depression-era kid. My father worked in a shipyard in Oakland. I was too young to know what the war was about, what it meant to fight and then be told, ‘Go home and forget about it.’ I do know a little about generational differences. In both ‘Flags’ and ‘Letters,’ I wanted to get the story of the common man out there.”

In “Letters,” Eastwood observes the irony of the man in charge of defending Iwo Jima against the American assault, Gen. Kuribayashi (Ken Watanabe), who had lived in the U.S. and studied English at Harvard.

“I wanted to make a movie from the other side,” Eastwood explains. “‘Letters’ is a shrine to the 12,000 still buried there, and I didn’t want to romanticize war at all.”

At the time, the Japanese believed their emperor was a direct descendent of God. To them, this was a metaphysical, religios war as well as a political, territorial one.

Time critic and author Richard Schickel says while “Flags” is “preoccupied with heroism and how it’s presented to the public, particularly when the modern celebrity system was coming into being,” “Letters” is very “dark in its view of (Kuribayashi), who thinks dying on this piece of lava is worth everything.

“Heroism itself is one of the great masquerades of movie life. Clint is himself a very dutiful man. I think what he celebrates most in his films is dutifulness.”