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If “The Hurt Locker” wins the Oscar for best picture Sunday night — and at this stage, the race is really down to either “Avatar” or the Kathryn Bigelow-directed film about bomb disposal experts in Iraq — it will be the first war film to earn the academy’s top honor in nearly 25 years. In the last 40 years, only three bona fide war films have won the top Oscar — 1970’s “Patton,” 1978’s “The Deer Hunter” and 1986’s “Platoon.”


But what intrigued me, after taking the time to watch the films again recently, was this: What do the movies tell us about our attitude toward war — and about ourselves as a country? And why did they win the Oscar, often against especially stiff competition?


First off, and it’s a big first, they were all big hits. In terms of adjusted for inflation grosses, which is the best way to provide a modern-day perspective on their domestic numbers, “Patton” grossed $306 million, “Platoon” $282.9 million and “The Deer Hunter” $162.6 million. If “The Hurt Locker” wins best picture, it could be the lowest-grossing winner in recent memory, having only made $12.7 million in the U.S. so far.


In other words, not only were audiences eager to see a complex portrayal of a World War II warrior at the height of the Vietnam War, but they were just as willing to embrace two very dark, disturbing portraits of the Vietnam quagmire in the years following the end of that war. Even though “The Hurt Locker” offers a taut, compelling portrait of life during wartime in Iraq, it has largely been ignored by American audiences, who’ve turned their backs on every cinematic effort to capture the drama of the Iraq conflict.


For me, the most fascinating thing about all the past Oscar winners is that they unerringly capture our modern-day ambivalence toward war.


Although the film wasn’t released until 1970, “Patton” was written by Francis Coppola in 1965 at a time when he was broke and couldn’t get any of his personal projects made. The film’s producer was looking for a screenwriter with a military background. He must have struck out, since Coppola’s only military association was military school. As Coppola later admitted: “My only military background was playing tuba in a military academy band.” But Coppola (who shares script credit with Edmund North, who did some rewrites on the project) had a savvy take on Patton, imagining him as a medieval knight living in the wrong century.


In fact, Patton, who looks especially bigger than life in the hands of George C. Scott, was a classic American archetype: the brilliant tactician and motivator of men whose obsessive need to win eventually undermined nearly all of his impressive accomplishments.


You could argue that “Patton,” which was directed by Franklin Schaffner, was a hit because its audiences saw the movie they wanted to see. Antiwar moviegoers could view Patton as a vain, egomaniacal blowhard who risked the lives of his men to achieve his own ends, while pro-war moviegoers could see Patton as an inspirational hero, unwilling to leave war to meddling bureaucrats. Perhaps he was both.


It’s pretty obvious that 1970-era moviegoers, depressed by the dreary daily news accounts from Vietnam, were delighted to watch a movie about a simpler war, a war that could actually be won. “Patton” was Richard Nixon’s favorite movie — he watched it repeatedly, including the night before he authorized the controversial invasion of Cambodia.


There’s no evidence that Nixon ever watched “The Deer Hunter,” the bleak, troubling three-hour Michael Cimino-directed epic that won five Oscars, including best picture, which was handed out — in the irony of all ironies — by John Wayne. Like many of the war movies that followed it, in particular “Platoon” and “The Hurt Locker,” “The Deer Hunter” was a story about male camaraderie. The movie takes great pains to establish that its leading characters, played by Robert De Niro, Christopher Walken and John Savage, are blue-collar pals from a small steel town in Pennsylvania.


They go off to war seeing it as their patriotic duty, but when they return — if they return at all — they are shattered by the experience. Audiences flocked to see the film and most critics raved about what David Thomson calls “the overall notion of a blinded, battered American self-belief struggling to move forward.” It is telling that “The Deer Hunter” earned its best picture by defeating “Coming Home,” another critically lauded film about Vietnam. But whereas “Coming Home” was clearly an antiwar film, populated with antiwar activists like Jane Fonda and Jon Voight, “The Deer Hunter,” like “Patton,” offered a far more ambiguous view of the war.


The film’s terrifying Russian-roulette scenes, which played a big part in making the movie a cultural sensation, were a perfect symbol for the nihilism and bitter sense of futility that the country felt about the war. (They were also hugely controversial, since it’s unclear if the Vietnamese, who are portrayed in the film as wild-eyed sadists, ever used such a practice.) But the film also played into the country’s deep-seated patriotism, having its characters reunited at the end for a solemn rendition of “God Bless America.”


Oliver Stone is far less sentimental about war in his “Platoon.” Made on a shoestring budget after the script was turned down by every studio in town, the film was a big winner at the Oscars in part because it had a great awards season hook: It was the first Vietnam movie made by someone who actually fought in the war himself. The movie is clearly autobiographical, with Charlie Sheen playing the young, vaguely idealistic Stone, who served in the 25th Infantry Division, earning a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart long before he started racking up Oscars.


The movie represents Stone’s ambivalent attitude toward war — he admires the blue-collar infantry grunts for their grit and valor but goes out of his way to underline their wary skepticism toward the war. Most of the soldiers are just trying to survive — they look at Sheen, who like Stone himself is a volunteer, not a draftee, as a lunatic idealist. Early in the film, Sheen explains that he shed his college deferment and volunteered because “I figured, why should the poor kids go off to war and the rich kids get away with it?”


One of the African-American soldiers, raising an eyebrow, says dryly, “What we got here is an idealist,” adding, “You gotta be rich in the first place to think like that.” “Platoon” is full of similar class consciousness, but what makes it different from other Vietnam movies is that it focuses on the divisiveness of the conflict. No one in “Deer Hunter” questions the war — they’re simply maimed or destroyed by it. In “Platoon,” the most elemental conflict isn’t between the U.S. and the North Vietnamese, it’s between the soldiers themselves, who are just as conflicted about the conflict as their countrymen back home.


The film’s tension comes between the yin and yang of its two most charismatic actors — Willem Dafoe, who plays the maverick, quasi-pacifist hero, and Tom Berenger as a ruthless pragmatist (a Patton-esque character unbound by any old Army restraints) who ends up killing his most feared adversary — not a member of the Viet Cong but a member of his own platoon. It is a film that oozes with disillusionment, but perhaps that’s what helped make it such a hit. In the mid-1980s, if “Top Gun” represented an appealing fantasy about the visceral excitement of war, it was “Platoon” that captured the caustic reality.


As David Halberstam, who’d made his name as a Vietnam correspondent and one of the war’s earliest critics, put it: “I find it inconceivable that someone who had not been to Vietnam could see this movie and not sense its authenticity and immediately understand why the war was unwinnable.”


You could probably say much the same thing about “The Hurt Locker,” which captures both the individual acts of bravery as well as the overall futility of the war in Iraq. No matter how you look at it, in the world of Hollywood movies, war is hell, where every stirring act of heroism or grace under fire is undercut by a pervasive feeling of isolation, dehumanization and pessimism. Even “Patton,” set in the one war that was actually won, ends on a bleak note, with the grand warrior as a lonely old man.


In John Wayne’s day (even though he ducked out of the fighting himself), war movies served as an inspiration, both for the men in battle as well as the folks rooting them on back home. It was a simpler time, when it wasn’t so hard to separate the right cause from the wrong one. But when today’s Hollywood takes a shot at capturing war on screen, the moral lines are less distinct. Audiences see, up close and personal, the brutality of conflict. In every film, the mood is pretty much the same — even when it’s time to sing “God Bless America,” despite the prideful lyrics, it is a serenade full of sorrow.

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