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War movies just ain’t what they used to be

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

I was just a kid during World War II, but I had no fear that the bad guys would invade the little California beach town where I was raised. Mom took me to the movies at least twice a week, and a whole host of heroes shepherded us through the war.

Guys like Tyrone Power, Humphrey Bogart, Brian Donlevy, Dana Andrews, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, John Garfield and John Wayne – especially John Wayne – made the world safe for democracy every Saturday and Wednesday.

Dozens of those old B-movies, like “Bataan,” “Sahara,” “Destination Tokyo,” were boilerplate stories full of unsubtle propaganda and laughably one-dimensional character actors. I’ve seen ’em all, and still watch them just to revel in the nostalgia for those long gone days of simplistic social morality.

Unfortunately, like our own children, Hollywood war movies grew up. Themes and characters became not quite so black-and-white, and we began to view past conflicts with more introspection. The result, happily, was superior work like “Band of Brothers,” “Glory,” “Saving Private Ryan,” and “Gettysburg.”

Things have changed once again. We are beginning to see how Hollywood represents the American fighting man in Iraq and Afghanistan. I had slim hopes for quality work because we just don’t do very well at depicting unpopular wars. Bet you can’t name more than one (“Apocalypse Now”) really great war film about Korea or Vietnam. However, I was surprised. Reliable old HBO is currently running a miniseries entitled “Generation Kill” which looks like it’s going to set the bar pretty high for films about this futile, unwinnable war. I recommend it highly. New episodes air every Sunday at 9 p.m. (with many repeat dates), so jump on the humvee and go along for the ride.

This miniseries was made by the creators of the cult series “The Wire,” and is smart, tough, ultra-realistic, and boasts a cast of unknown actors who look just like real people.

“Generation Kill” follows one small group of Americans (plus an embedded newsman) from the beginning of the invasion of Iraq. They’re young, they’re cocky, the dialogue is a mixture of soldier jargon and shockingly street-oriented comments. And like the best of the old-time war movies, such as “A Walk in the Sun,” the enemy is rarely seen; these men are thrown into the chaos of war and perceive only their own little piece of the action – or inaction.

It is a miniseries, so the producers have the luxury of exploring a variety of story lines and the result is a gripping adventure that some viewers may find too realistic to watch. Online, I have read several comments by real Iraq war vets, and they’ve all praised this series for “getting it right.”

Of course, if you can’t handle the truth (now, where have I heard that line before) and just want an updated version of John Wayne mowing down the minions of the axis, by all means rent the DVD of Jamie Foxx and Jennifer Garner in “The Kingdom,” also playing on satellite. They play part of a nearly invincible FBI investigation team, running down and annihilating tons of terrorists in Saudi Arabia. For a shoot-em-up, it’s great fun, but far from realism.

So this week, instead of heading for the multiplex to see whichever superhero is debuting, I’m sticking to the tube for “Generation Kill.” Then maybe I’ll drag out some old videotapes. Haven’t seen The Duke in “Flying Tigers” for years, and the contrast of an uncomplicated hero (for a change) should help ease my growing combat fatigue.

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