Jewish World Review March 24, 2003/ 20 Adar II 5763

Hollywood ---
then and now

By Steven Zak

http://www.jewishworldreview.com | Say these words with feeling: We're at war, and our enemies are Islamic fascists. Can you do it? If not -- if we're a nation too timid to express that truth without apology -- then we've put ourselves at a dangerous disadvantage.

Why would I doubt America's mettle? Among other reasons, the products of late coming out of Hollywood. The medium that film historian Garth Jowett once called "the democratic art" -- the movies -- is a means of collective thought, a reflection of our national identity and purposes, a record of the times. If we truly grasped the nature of the America-hating, West-loathing, anti-Semitic and anti-Christian evil that confronts us, film heroes would be fighting it on every front. So far, we've left our enemies strangely unmolested.

Consider, by contrast, the America of Franklin D. Roosevelt's time.

True, at the start of World War II, the country was divided between "interventionists" and "isolationists," who thought the war was Europe's, not ours. Reflecting the ambivalence, movies overwhelmingly tended toward "pure entertainment." But even in 1939, Hollywood released "Confessions of a Nazi Spy," which unambiguously named Nazism as a threat. The following year saw the release of Charlie Chaplin's masterpiece, "The Great Dictator," which lampooned both Hitler and Mussolini.

The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 -- without a single White House dinner celebrating Japan as a nation of peace -- we declared war. More to the point, we made more movies, ones that evidenced and reinforced our resolve.

Barely into the war, we were already battling the Japanese in such films as "Wake Island" and "Across the Pacific" (both 1942), and the Nazis in "All Through the Night" (1942) and "Action in the North Atlantic" (1943). Bogart's Rick Blaine in "Casablanca" (1942) stood against fascism at the cost of true love, and even the king of apes expressed our national grit in "Tarzan Triumphs" (1942), which had the jungle man commanding natives: "Kill Nazis!" Between December 1, 1941 and July 24, 1942, we made 72 war features. We stood ready to stamp out evil, and we made our films accordingly.

Even postwar we continued to celebrate our triumph over the forces of anti-civilization in films like "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "The Enemy Below" (both 1957) and "Guns of Navarone" (1961).

Today, instead, we make movies like last year's "Collateral Damage," starring Arnold Schwarzenegger as a Los Angeles fire fighter who loses his wife and child to a terrorist's bomb. The film's initial release date of October 5, 2001 was delayed four months out of fear that its subject matter was too real. Actually, it was too unreal: While three thousand Americans had recently been incinerated by Islamic fanatics, in this film the thugs are Colombians.

In "Sum of All Fears," released last May, terrorists set off a nuclear bomb in Baltimore. But unlike the Islamic terrorists in the Tom Clancy novel, the bad guys in the film are Nazis -- warmed over villains from another era.

Likewise, in last year's "Extreme Ops," terrorists bent on world domination are not Islamists but Eastern Europeans.

Of course, a feature film today can be several years in production, so even the most current films were likely set in motion before September 11. But this war has been ongoing at least since 1983, when Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah -- supported by Iran and Syria -- bombed the Marine barracks in Beirut, killing 241 Americans. It has continued through the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, of a U.S. military barracks in 1996, of our embassies in 1998, and of the U.S.S. Cole in 2000. And all the while, with only few exceptions, we've been making movies evidencing a stunning denial of the Islamic war being waged against us.

Like 1995's "Die Hard with a Vengeance," in which New York is threatened by a German terrorist. Or 1997's "The Peacemaker," in which nuclear warheads are stolen from a train -- by Russians.

In last year's "Derailed," Claude Van Damme tangles with terrorist antagonists who are, pointlessly, Slovakians. In the more recent "Bad Company," starring Anthony Hopkins and Chris Rock, nuclear bombers plotting against America are, strangely, Yugoslavians. James Bond does face adversaries from axis-of-evil member North Korea in the recent release, "Die Another Day," but his license to kill is never utilized against the Islamic thugs who murder stewardesses with box cutters or fire on civilian aircraft with shoulder-launched missiles.

Bear in mind, though, that Hollywood is hardly monolithic, no matter the noise emanating from the likes of Martin Sheen and Susan Sarandon. At last night's Academy Awards, numerous "peace" buttons and "dove" pins were in evidence, to be sure, but Jon Voight proudly wore an American Flag lapel pin and Matthew McConaughey sported a handsome red, white and blue boutonnière.

Barbra Streisand expressed anti-war sentiments dressed up as pride "in a country that guarantees every citizen, including artists, the right to sing and to say what we believe" but made no mention of the 250,000 troops currently fighting to keep her safe to do just that. But at least one other speaker had the decency to wish those troops "Godspeed."

Best Actor winner Adrien Brody, who portrayed Holocaust survivor Wladyslaw Szpilman in "The Pianist," spoke not of pride in American troops in Iraq ridding the world of another Hitler -- over 20 of whom were at that moment being reported dead or missing -- but of the "dehumanization of people in times of war." And the celebrity audience gave him a standing ovation.

But when Michael Moore, accepting an award for "Bowling for Columbine," said that "we are against this war, Mr. Bush, shame on you," the same audience booed him roundly. And if that wasn't clear enough, host Steve Martin quipped: "The teamsters are helping Michael Moore into the trunk of his limo."

Indeed, I'd say that Hollywood is becoming less inhibited about taking on our enemies. I'd note this season on Fox television's daring "24," which had government agent Jack Bauer (Keifer Sutherland) searching Los Angeles for a nuclear bomb planted by Middle East terrorists. And the current Bruce Willis war film "Tears of the Sun," pitting U.S. Navy Seals against sadistic Muslim rebels in Nigeria, which ended with a quote from British statesman Edmund Burke that would justify the American campaign in Iraq: "All that is needed for the triumph of evil is for a good man to do nothing."

Hollywood isn't afraid of truth; it just tends to take cautious measure of its audience. Sixty years ago, the Office of War Information asked prospective film makers to consider: "Will this picture help win the war?"

Today's movie makers don't need official encouragement. They'll be ready when you are.

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JWR contributor Steven Zak is a screenwriter and attorney in Los Angeles. Comment by clicking here.


© 2003, Steven Zak