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Tuesday, 2 May, 2000, 18:01 GMT 19:01 UK
Hollywood fights the facts
By BBC News Online's Ryan Dilley
Despite six years of fierce fighting and more than 400,000 war dead, it seems Britain was only a bit player in the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany.
Or so Hollywood would have us believe.
Colditz, the infamous German PoW camp, is set to be given the Tinsel Town film treatment with a cast including the American superstars Tom Cruise, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.
The numerous and daring escapes by imprisoned British servicemen from the castle stronghold have become a cornerstone of our national "stiff-upperlipery".
Few Americans were held at the top security camp and, more controversially for the film makers, none broke out.
Fancy a bet that Cruise and co will be donning British battledress for the movie?
Though latecomers to the global conflict, America has long portrayed itself as World War II's main protagonist, thanks to the dominance of its movie industry.
Hollywood's renewed interest in the war promises to convince the Playstation generation that America overcame Germany and Japan single-handed.
Steven Spielberg's blockbuster Saving Private Ryan was accused of marginalising the efforts of British and Canadian troops on D-Day.
The upcoming naval drama U-571 has sailed into an even greater storm.
It has US sailors capturing a Nazi submarine and its Enigma code machine, whereas in real life the raid was pulled off by the Royal Navy even before America's entry into the war.
Jeffrey Walsh, a Manchester Metropolitan University academic who has studied America's self-image in war films, says Hollywood's take on the conflict is skewed.
"These films need to be treated with a considerable amount of scepticism and caution. Exploring American myths and narratives is more important to them than historical fact."
Mr Walsh says the relative moral simplicity of the war is one of the reasons "Hollywood has gone for World War II in a big way".
"They see it as a rather straight-forward war between good and evil. Conflicts such as in the Balkans are difficult for American audiences to understand. They wouldn't make the best films."
The fight against fascism also gives Hollywood directors the opportunity to exorcise the ghost of less glorious but more recent conflicts.
"There's a definite change in the representation of war in these films as opposed to the angst-ridden movies about Vietnam."
Alf Louvre, who co-wrote Tell Me Lies About Vietnam with Mr Walsh, agrees.
"The glut of World War II films is part of an attempt to overcome the unique defeat in Vietnam. They have re-invented the notion of the heroic American which that war put on ice for a long time."
Mr Walsh says Saving Private Ryan and The Thin Red Line have given the American male a welcome respite.
"They're getting quite a good press. In the past 25 years American soldiers have been portrayed as deeply troubled or even psychotic."
Total Film critic Cam Winstanley says profit is the bottom line in the Hollywood Americanisation of World War II.
"I'd put it down to insular American audiences. Americans want to see films about Americans. That's where the money is."
Mr Winstanley points to Saving Private Ryan, which contained only one reference to the British forces in Normandy, "and that was a disparaging comment about Montgomery".
A losing battle
A film attempting to show the complexity of the war or redress the balance for America's wartime allies would probably make few inroads into these entrenched attitudes.
"To get made at all, most British films need at least one American star. Despite sharing a language, most of our films are regarded as foreign to US cinemagoers."
Admittedly the British film industry of the 40s and 50s, which made its own version of the Colditz story, was responsible for skewing the facts in our favour.
However, the global reach of Hollywood threatens to engulf the truth about World War II.
"Spielberg's Schindler's List is taken as a historic document, shown in American schools. It's quite possible that Saving Private Ryan is seen in just the same way," says Mr Winstanley.
Hollywood directors may still have a battle on their hands. The dramatic licence in U571 has created a row involving questions in the Commons and President Clinton himself.
"As you know," wrote the President to Labour MP Paul Trusswell, "Universal Studios has stated that the film is not intended to be an accurate portrayal of historic events."
Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Clinton?
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