John DeFore on DVD
The 60th anniversary of D-Day is just over a week away and, intentionally or not, the DVD world is capitalizing on it with a blitzkrieg of new World War II titles. The splashiest new releases are souped-up versions of movies that have been in print for some time. Saving Private Ryan (DreamWorks), a movie with a high enough profile that fans probably expected loads of documentary features the first time around, finally gets them with the new edition, which is also packaged in a nifty little cardboard box mimicking a case of ammunition. (In the best of both worlds, the packaging is clever but no bulkier than a typical double-disc case.)
Then there's The Great Escape (MGM), that classic adventure based on an amazing true story of tunnels, tunnels, tunnels. I re-watched it a week ago and I swear I'm still whistling the theme song - a credit not just to Elmer Bernstien but to the picture's thrilling spirit. The new disc has some informative features, but also contains a mystery: Its widescreen transfer is actually narrower than the one on the previous DVD. It's not a huge difference - no crucial picture information is cropped - but it's undeniable. I pestered MGM to find out if there was a good reason for this, but representatives weren't aware of the variation and didn't care enough to see it for themselves; it's possible that this new aspect ratio is the historically correct one, but finicky film buffs may want to wait a while before plunking down their dough.
Not so with The Final Countdown (Blue Underground), an unheralded little treat that is almost certainly getting the most lavish treatment it will ever receive in the DVD age. There's a slight whiff of goofiness to this 1980 sci-fi war flick - in which a modern aircraft carrier is mysteriously transported back to the day before Pearl Harbor, and has to decide whether to intervene or let history run its course - but it's an awfully fun flick, and has a heck of a cast (Kirk Douglas, Martin Sheen, Charles Durning) for what feels like a B picture.
A number of other recent releases have a more casual relation to the war: The Little Prince (Paramount) is an adaptation of the fable written by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry while he was a pilot for the French Air Force; this very odd interpretation features songs by Lerner & Loewe and a cast including Gene Wilder and (ahem) Bob Fosse. Joseph Losey's Mr. Klein (Home Vision, released alongside Losey's La Truite and Time Without Pity) stars Alain Delon as an art dealer who preys on Jews fleeing Nazi-occupied France until he is embroiled in a case of mistaken identity.
Bernard Tavernier's Safe Conduct (Koch Lorber) is also set in occupied France, but its protagonists (filmmakers with torn allegiances) are a bit more sympathetic. Complicated allegiances are at the heart of Taking Sides (New Yorker), in which composer Wilhelm Furtwängler (Stellan Skarsgard) must face investigator Harvey Keitel after the war and defend his decision to remain in Germany as one of the Reich's favorite artists. The wildly acclaimed Underground (New Yorker) focuses on a Yugoslav black marketeer who has an army of refugees working in hidden basements, manufacturing weapons for WWII even after combat has ended. And then there's I Was a Male War Bride (Fox) - where Cary Grant is eventually forced to dress as a woman to accompany his new wife home - which is hardly a war film, but wouldn't exist without military bureaucracy.
Finally, 20th Century Fox's "Studio Classics" line recently issued The Diary of Anne Frank, which probably needs an introduction less than even the best-known films listed above. The barely-teenaged heroine was played by 20-year-old Mille Perkins, but the film was convincing enough to earn Oscar nominations for Best Picture and Best Director, and it took home trophies for Supporting Actress and Cinematography.
Now if only a surplus of war on movie screens could convince Americans they've had enough of it in the real world. •
John DeFore on DVD