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Replaying WWII

Whether ''the greatest generation'' is historical reality or revisionism, three new TV offerings reinforce a perception of this era as less troubled by moral ambiguity than succeeding decades.


© St. Petersburg Times, published May 18, 2001

His father served in the British Army during World War II. And he was born in 1947, two years after the war ended.

But ask actor Sam Neill how his dad felt about that war, and whether that has affected his performance in an NBC movie Sunday set near that time, and he'll draw a most conspicuous blank.

"It was only a couple of weeks before he died that he actually mentioned the war at all," said Neill, who plays U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Charles "Swede" Momsen, the only man to rescue men successfully from a submarine trapped on the ocean floor, in NBC's TV movie Submerged.

"All of my father's contemporaries . . . I never heard them mention the war, and I've never entirely understood why," added the actor, perhaps best known for his roles in films such as Jurassic Park and The Piano. "But I was brought up with World War II movies, my father was of that generation, and it has always been very vivid in my imagination."

And soon, Neill will have plenty of company. A virtual flood of TV and film projects focused on incidents from the World War II era is set for release in weeks to come, from the big-budget theatrical release Pearl Harbor on May 25 to a special VHS and DVD release of the 1970 film on the Pearl Harbor attack, Tora! Tora! Tora!

On television Saturday, HBO presents Conspiracy, a dramatization of the 1942 meeting by 15 top Nazi officials to develop Adolf Hitler's "Final Solution" to eliminate the Jews. One day later, ABC starts Anne Frank, a two-day, four-hour miniseries based on the life of the Jewish teen who kept a diary while living for more than two years inside hidden rooms within a building in German-occupied Amsterdam.

Neill's Submerged, set in 1939 before the United States' entrance into the war, airs on NBC Sunday. The network's top anchor, Tom Brokaw, will narrate National Geographic Channel Presents Pearl Harbor: Legacy of Attack at 9 p.m. May 27 on NBC. With Saving Private Ryan's Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks as executive producers, HBO also has committed $120-million to develop Band of Brothers, a 10-part miniseries for fall based on historian Stephen Ambrose's book about a World War II parachute infantry regiment.

Why all this interest in World War II right now?

"I don't think there's any set answer," says Stephen Goldman, director of the Florida Holocaust Museum in St. Petersburg.

"This generation of (World War II-era) witnesses is dying, and the children of that generation have the wherewithal and the influence to tell these stories," says Goldman, who relishes the prospect of a new generation learning the details of these historic events. "That's what we (Americans) do . . . use popular culture to teach lessons about history."

Indeed, these projects offer a fresh look at long-documented incidents, teaching significant lessons about the way Americans view their own history, and the way Hollywood chooses to retell it.

Those looking for reasons behind this tide of projects have their pick of potential catalysts:

It's not Vietnam

As politicians are mired in scandal, and movie stars struggle publicly with addictions, it's understandable that storytellers might choose to focus on a less ambiguous time in America's history.

For moviemakers, World War II presents a scenario free from concerns of political correctness -- no author could create villains as extreme as the Nazis or heroes as virtuous as the Americans who helped stop them.

NBC's Submerged shows Neill's "Swede" Momsen struggling to use then-cutting-edge technology to rescue sailors from a crippled submarine. Momsen does what needs doing, barely aware that risking his own life in just-invented pressure suits and diving bells might be considered praiseworthy.

The movie offers a taut, unadorned story of Momsen's efforts to save the Squalus, then the newest U.S. submarine, on the eve of World War II.

"There are no Momsens in American culture today," said Stanley Brooks, executive producer of Submerged. "It was a day when you could have acts of heroism because battles were hand to hand and there was great risk in exploration. When magazine journalists can hike Mount Everest and a California millionaire can go up in space, where will our next heroes come from?"

Vietnam also suffers when its historical image is compared with that of World War II. While the goals of World War II were clear and generally supported by the public, Vietnam was a confusing conflict, fought in unconventional ways for unspecified goals.

And in World War II, everyone from John F. Kennedy to Clark Gable served in uniform. Twenty years later, those who could often used connections at the National Guard or enrollment in college to stay out of harm's way.

"For all its flaws in terms of segregated (armed forces), World War II was a democratic war," said Gary Mormino, a professor of history at the University of South Florida and author of a book on the Tampa Bay area during World War II. "Japan and Germany were totalitarian states, and nearly everyone served (in the armed forces). Vietnam was a working-class war."

Spielberg, Spielberg, Spielberg

The 54-year-old director virtually has reinvented the way modern filmmakers look at the World War II era with his haunting Holocaust drama, Schindler's List, and realistic look at warfare, Saving Private Ryan.

The black-and-white cinematography of Schindler's, paired with a brutal, almost matter-of-fact depiction of Nazi atrocities, influenced a number of productions, including ABC's Anne Frank (during scenes of Anne in a concentration camp, the film slowly loses color until her death).

And the brutal realities of infantry combat shown in Ryan -- including American GIs gunning down German troops after they surrendered -- proved that a post-Vietnam eye for showing moral ambiguity in combat can be both compelling art and big business.

"There is a huge appetite for authenticity . . . not some rose-colored rearview mirror," said NBC's Brokaw, shrugging aside criticisms that his three books about the World War II generation -- which he calls history's "greatest generation" -- indulge exactly that kind of hero worship. "It makes me realize how important it is to do this kind of work as a journalist."

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd recently wrote that such efforts reflect the baby boomers' penchant for navel-gazing, turning "the Greatest Generation" into "the Gabbiest Generation." But that's a charge Brokaw, who said he tried to talk Dowd out of writing that column, disputes.

"I am worried that we're going to overexpose them . . . but we're forcing these stories out," said the 61-year-old news anchor. "We're saying, 'We're in awe of what you did. Tell us more.' "

In the spirit of finding new layers of meaning, HBO's Conspiracy dramatizes a top-secret meeting among 15 high-ranking members of Hitler's Third Reich at an ornate mansion outside Berlin. The purpose: to map out plans for a series of gas chambers that could kill thousands of prisoners per day, allowing the Nazis to wipe out the Jewish people within a year.

Henry V's Kenneth Branagh plays top Nazi Reinhard Heydrich; Big Night's Stanley Tucci is his assistant, SS Maj. Adolf Eichmann (the odd dissonance between Branagh's British accent and Tucci's American one while playing German soldiers is one of the movie's many curious distractions).

As this group debates the issue -- with some Nazis unwilling to support wholesale genocide -- the pressure of the mob mentality, the unreality of Nazi logic and the precise cruelty of the German war machine emerge in sharp relief.

"I am reading a book about Rwanda, and it is remarkable how many parallels there are," said Colin Firth (Shakespeare in Love), in press materials HBO provided on the film. Firth plays Dr. William Stuckart, co-author of the Nuremberg Laws, which systematically disenfranchised Jews in Nazi Germany.

"The people who were committing these murders were doctors, parish priests, research scientists and all other sorts of professional people," he added. "They weren't doing it in a spirit of passion, but because they felt . . . their lives would be better if they got rid of an entire race of people."

That's why the Holocaust Museum's Goldman supports the effort to bring movies such as Conspiracy to television.

"To show ordinary human beings, in this highly evolved culture -- which Germany was (in the 1940s) -- doing this, even with misgivings, shows anybody can do it," he said. "It shows you can't order people to do this kind of thing . . . but you can lead them to it."

It's about heroism

Ben Kingsley is actually the English-born son of a father who was an East Indian physician and a mother who was a British actor. But he has played Jewish heroes in three notable films: Nazi hunter Simon Wiesenthal in the 1989 TV movie Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, accountant Itzhak Stern in Schindler's List and Anne Frank's father, Otto, in Anne Frank.

"They all come under the collective Yiddish noun of mensch," Kingsley said. "There's something Old Testament prophetic in their strength and something so admirable in the face of terrible things they endured. In a crisis, I'd like to be a mensch."

ABC's Anne Frank fleshes out Anne's tragic story, showing a happy childhood in Amsterdam clipped off by Germany's invasion and deportation of Jews into concentration camps. Based on the 1998 book Anne Frank: The Biography and developed without support from the Frank family estate, the movie doesn't include any excerpts from her famous diary, which ended with her capture by the Nazis in 1944.

Anne's relatives needn't worry. Anne Frank casts its heroine as an almost impossibly perceptive, optimistic and precocious child, able to keep her head even as the adults who joined her in hiding fall into bickering and depression.

In a too-slow setup of the story, Kingsley shines as Anne's level-headed father, joined by a heavyweight cast that includes Oscar nominee Brenda Blethyn (Secrets & Lies), Lili Taylor and 14-year-old phenom Hannah Taylor Gordon as Anne.

Not until the show's second night, when Anne is sent to a concentration camp with her family, does the miniseries take flight, electrified by her ultimately unsuccessful struggle to survive hunger, disease and exposure.

It's an approach that addresses criticisms from some scholars that The Diary of Anne Frank may not be the best way to introduce students of history to the Holocaust.

"Her story is not at all typical, because (her dairy) was not kept through the concentration camps," said Goldman, who does not agree with the criticisms. "Her statement that 'In spite of everything, I really believe that people are good at heart' . . . We don't know if she would have felt that (in the camps). But I think anything that brings the worst of the human condition to light . . . is a positive."

The final hour of the movie, which will air without commercial interruption, unfolds with the stark drama of Schindler's List (Spielberg was an executive producer of the film until protests by Frank's estate prompted him to drop out). Its climax is the dramatization of Anne's death in the typhus-plagued Bergen-Belsen concentration camp only a few weeks before it was liberated by British troops on April 15, 1945.

"The taste that these films leave for me as a storyteller is one of triumph -- that we told the story and people stayed to (absorb) it," Kingsley says. "That's the best you can expect from a film like this. That people leave the cinema saying, 'Okay, this did happen. I believe you.' "

-- Material from Times wires was used in this report

At a glance

Conspiracy airs at 9 p.m. Saturday on HBO. Grade: B-plus. Rating: TV-14.

Anne Frank airs at 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday on WFTS-Ch. 28. Grade: B-plus. Rating: TV-PG (first night), TV-14 (second night, some nudity).

Submerged airs at 9 p.m. Sunday on WFLA-Ch. 8. Grade: B-plus. Rating: TV-PG.

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