Great wars and social tragedies can make the movies seem temporarily irrelevant. But, in the end, the emotions those cataclysms arouse and the memories they leave almost always enter into the movies -- and, eventually, they change them just as thoroughly as they change us.
That seems bound to happen once again with the horrific images and devastating sorrows of the World Trade Center massacre. Just as the shock and anguish of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, eventually altered the Hollywood products of that day, the explosions, bloodshed and consequences of modern terrorism will be seen in our movies before long.
The questions are how and why: Will World War II's specific example repeat itself in our movies and in their response to the carnage? Will there be an increase in violence -- something hard to imagine -- or a greater sense of responsibility? Will there be more mindless entertainment to ease the anxiety?
History provides an example. The shift between the movies of 1939-1941 and those of the subsequent war years, 1942-45, was a remarkable one. It was a sea change that saw the movies enlist fervently in the war effort, abandoning some of the breakthroughs of the era of "Citizen Kane" and "Gone With the Wind" to glorify our combat efforts while also taking on the tasks of amiable cheerleading and spirit-raising.
I could almost feel a modern-day shift beginning after Sept. 11. Trapped at the Toronto film festival for the whole first week, I felt cut off from the horrific events happening to other Americans. In another country, watching everything on TV, I began to see everything through a slightly different perspective. The global consequences were as horrendous as the personal ones.
If anything, the horror was magnified by the fact that, while the attack was rooted in extreme prejudices and hatreds, the festival was a place of harmony and international understanding.
Everyone shared the tragedy. What else could you do? These images -- of the initial attack, of the twin towers falling into rubble, of the desperate search for survivors under a cloud of smoke and ruin -- kept being repeated until, finally, they were as familiar as some movie we'd seen again and again.
As surely as the turning of the Earth, those images and the resulting emotions will find their way into our movies. Already, there's an attempt to change the images we will be consuming. "Collateral Damage," an Arnold Schwarzenegger thriller about terrorism that was slated to open the Chicago Film Festival, has been postponed. (It may not open soon.) The Ed Burns comedy "Sidewalks of New York" has also been postponed, for no better reason than that "New York" is in the title. (Surely this is the height of foolishness; many of us would like to see New York on screen right now, to show solidarity with the beleaguered Big Apple.)
One imagines that all those flashy, explosion-ridden, terrorist-on-airline thrillers, so common in recent years, will be verboten for a while. Maybe other, more sober looks at terrorism -- and at war -- will flourish. But one thing seems certain: The studios, which have been blamed for excessive violence, will probably try -- at least for a time -- to redeem themselves.
This is what happens, always, in times of war or upheaval. The last time the nation was affected this way was after the Japanese assault on Pearl Harbor, which was absurdly re-created this year by director Michael Bay. (Korea and Vietnam were different stories, partly because Korea lasted relatively briefly and Vietnam was so unpopular, especially in Hollywood itself.)
Pearl Harbor came at the end of 1941, which may well have been the greatest single year of the old Hollywood Golden Age. Most observers cite 1939 as the finest year in film history, but I've always felt they were two years premature. But 1941 -- the year of "Citizen Kane" "The Maltese Falcon," "How Green Was My Valley," "Sergeant York," "Sullivan's Travels," "High Sierra," "The Little Foxes," "The Lady Eve" "Penny Serenade," "Meet John Doe" and "Suspicion" -- has always struck me as the superior year.
It was a great year partly because of the times, because the techniques of the sound era had been mastered and because so many great people were working together in Hollywood at the same time. They came from all around the world, many of them -- like Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Max Ophuls and Jean Renoir -- refugees from war-torn Europe.
Windows of opportunity
After Pearl Harbor, things changed. Many of Hollywood's best directors -- including John Ford, George Stevens, Frank Capra, William Wyler and John Huston -- went into the Army or Navy. Many of the best actors did as well. (Studio actors ineligible for the draft, like Humphrey Bogart and John Wayne, saw their careers begin to flourish just as the Jimmy Stewarts and Henry Fondas departed.)
And the movies changed -- as ours soon may. The years preceding, 1939-1941, had been an unusually intelligent and forward-looking time, with many daring and incisive looks at problems at home and abroad seen in films from "Citizen Kane" to "The Grapes of Wrath" and "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." For the rest of the war years, that kind of social comment was muted or submerged in the shadowy recesses of film noir and crime thrillers.
A certain kind of social criticism was temporarily put on hold while Hollywood's most radical left-wing writers and directors (from Dalton Trumbo to John Howard Lawson to Bertolt Brecht, who wrote a script for Lang) took on noble war themes. A few great moviemakers -- notably Wilder and Preston Sturges -- kept that critical vein alive, but most of the social themes of the Depression era would not re-emerge again until the post-war era, right before the era of the black list.
Instead, during the war itself, there was almost a formula: idealized depictions of the armed struggle ("Bataan" and "Air Force") or home-front situations ("Mrs. Miniver," "Tender Comrade" and "Since You Went Away") alternating with pure escapist entertainment. Audiences yearned for the sheer fantasy of the movies--for the musicals of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland, Betty Grable and Carmen Miranda, for the Andy Hardy movies, for the glossy romances of Hepburn and Tracy or Ingrid Bergman and Cary Grant. Also popular were crime and fantasy-horror pictures ("Cat People," "The Body Snatcher") and the many comedies and musicals of the era's two most popular stars, Bing Crosby and Bob Hope.
The king of Hollywood during the '30s supposedly had been Clark Gable. But if there was a king during the WWII years, it was probably Humphrey Bogart. In films like "Casablanca," "Across the Pacific," "Action in the North Atlantic" and "To Have and Have Not," Bogey became the incarnation of a certain brand of American toughness, intellect and idealism: The cynic turned romantic, the wise guy turned crusader. That lonely, moody, dark wry quality of Bogart's -- plus the sense of brooding menace that had made him a top Warner Bros. heavy -- now reflected the moodiness and strength of a grownup world around him.
But perhaps someone even younger will emerge: an Ed Norton, an Ed Burns, or even a Nic Cage. And perhaps a different movie-star heroine, not bound to the home front like Hepburn or Ginger Rogers, will emerge too.
Looking to inspire
What do current events portend for our movies? There may be some tendency, as there always is, to lock the barn door after the horse is snatched, to try to fathom, after the fact, the horror of these mass murders and the terrorist minds that conceived and executed them.
There may be a desire (probably brief) to soft-pedal the incessant, extreme violence -- often involving fictional terrorists -- that has deluged our screens since the '80s. And there may be more attempts to green-light inspirational films, movies that celebrate -- sentimentally or not -- the qualities of character we most need now: resolve, courage, sympathy and a sense of justice.
There will still be movie violence, of course. It is one of Hollywood's most dependable trade commodities. But perhaps it will now be leavened with a more adult perspective. Maybe the studios will turn back to World War II and its heroes for inspirations, as they already have in films such as "Saving Private Ryan" and (shallowly) "Pearl Harbor." And maybe we can expect a rise in "pure" entertainment; perhaps we will find our own Astaires, Kellys, Garlands, our own Crosby and Hope.
Maybe not, though.
In Lebanon, in the 1980s, at the height of that city's bloodshed, the most popular movie was the 1985 Sylvester Stallone war extravaganza "Rambo," a mindless cartoon of endless carnage. I sometimes think about that -- and worry. Not even memories of Bogey and the best WWII movies can quite dispel that feeling.