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The battles behind Francis Ford Coppola's surreal war movie are well-documented: the nightmarish, multiyear shoot; star Martin Sheen's heart attack and recovery; a cackling press corps that sharpened its knives for a turkey of epic proportions. Coppola would have the last laugh. So much of the vocabulary of the modern-day war picture comes from this movie, an operatic Vietnam-set tragedy shaped out of whirring helicopter blades, Wagnerian explosions, purple haze and Joseph Conrad's colonialist fantasia Heart of Darkness. Fans of the Godfather director, so pivotal to the 1970s, know this to be his last fully realized work; connoisseurs of the war movie see it (correctly) as his second all-out masterpiece.
Stop snickering: There's a real reason why this sci-fi actioner is so high on our list. Never before (and probably never again) had the monied apparatus of Hollywood been so co-opted to make a subversive comment about its own fascist impulses. Director Paul Verhoeven cackled all the way to the box office as giant bugs were exterminated by gorgeous, empty-headed bimbos; when Neil Patrick Harris showed up near the end of the movie in a full-length Nazi trench coat, the in-joke was practically outed. Source novelist Robert Heinlein meant his militaristic tale sincerely; meanwhile, the blithe destruction of humankind on display here could only be intended as a sharp critique, both of soldiering and of popular tastes. Return to it with fresh eyes.
Pervy Dutch director Paul Verhoeven is better known for Basic Instinct and Showgirls, but war movies are his true métier. In this deliciously plotted WWII survival tale (a comeback of sorts for the Hollywood exile), a hotcha Jewish singer becomes a spy, a freedom fighter and a bed partner of Nazis. Talented Carice van Houten commits fully.
ACT I: A DEADLY NEW DISEASENARRATION: In 1918, the United States was a vigorous young nation, leading the world into the modern age. All our fears and anxieties were directed toward Europe, where the war raged; at home, we were safe. William Maxwell was growing up in Lincoln, Illinois.WILLIAM MAXWELL: In 1918 Lincoln was a town of 12,000 people. It was perhaps 50 years old, just time enough for the trees to mature so that the branches met over the sidewalks.... Yards were large, the children played in clusters in the summer evenings. On Sunday morning the church bells were pretty to hear. But my father had had enough of church going so we went fishing on Sunday, out in the country with a picnic. It was a life not very much impinged on by the outside world....NARRATION: In Macon, Georgia, Cathryn Guyler was five years old.CATHRYN GUYLER: My father was a playmate actually and when he'd take me out in his car, he would stop at, at grocery store that he knew and take me in and the owner of the store, in his white uniform, would say to his men, [CLAPS HANDS] 'Go out and shake the candy tree, boys.'....I think I must have known that candy didn't grow on that tree, but I wouldn't have given up the notion because he was enjoying it and I was enjoying it and everybody was enjoying it, you see. NARRATION: For a young newspaper woman in Denver, Katherine Anne Porter, life was like a romantic novel.PORTER: I had a job on the Rocky Mountain News. The city editor put me to covering theaters. I met a boy, an army lieutenant... we were much in love.NARRATION: The soldier was the darling of America. Patriotism ran unrestrained in a country newly entered in the Great War.ANNA MILANI: We would march up the streets singin' 'tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching. I spy Kaiser at the door. And we'll get a lemon pie and we'll squash him in his eye and there won't be any Kaiser anymore.'GUYLER: It was a good world, but it was an age of innocence; we really didn't know what was ahead. NARRATION: Some say it began in the spring of 1918, when soldiers at Fort Riley, Kansas, burned tons of manure. A gale kicked up. A choking duststorm swept out over the land -- a stinging, stinking yellow haze. The sun went dead black in Kansas.NARRATION: Two days later -- on March 11th, 1918 -- an Army private reported to the camp hospital before breakfast. He had a fever, sore, throat, headache... nothing serious. One minute later, another soldier showed up. By noon, the hospital had over a hundred cases; in a week, 500.NARRATION: That spring, forty-eight soldiers -- all in the prime of life -- died at Fort Riley. The cause of death was listed as: pneumonia.NARRATION: The sickness then seemed to disappear -- leaving as quickly as it had come.NARRATION: For over a century, the booming science of medicine had gone from one triumph to another. Researchers had developed vaccines for many diseases: smallpox, anthrax, rabies, diphtheria, meningitis.Dr. SHIRLEY FANNIN, Epidemologist: ...With the great advances in microbiology we were eliminating mysteries, okay. The mystery of what causes this disease. The mystery of what causes this disease. The optimism of being able to visualize something... All we have to do is just look under the microscope and we'll see the organism, and then take an action and see that something die off or be controlled.... that leads to the thought of invincibility.NARRATION: It seemed that the masters of medicine could control life and death: there was nothing that Americans couldn't do. We could even win the war that no one could win.NARRATION: That summer and fall, over one and a half million Americans crossed the Atlantic for war. But some of those doughboys came from Kansas. And they'd brought something with them: a tiny, silent companion.NARRATION: Almost immediately, the Kansas sickness resurfaced in Europe. American soldiers got sick. English soldiers. French. German. As it spread, the microbe mutated -- day by day becoming more and more deadly.NARRATION: By the time the silent traveller came back to America, it had become a relentless killer.NARRATION: On a rainy day in September, Dr. Victor Vaughan, acting Surgeon General of the Army, received urgent orders: proceed to a base near Boston called Camp Devens.NARRATION: Devens was about to change Dr. Vaughan's world forever.READING: I saw hundreds of young stalwart men in uniform coming into the wards of the hospital. Every bed was full, yet others crowded in. The faces wore a bluish cast; a cough brought up the blood-stained sputum.NARRATION: On the day that Vaughan arrived, 63 men died at Camp Devens.NARRATION: An autopsy revealed lungs that were swollen, filled with fluid, and strangely blue. Doctors were stunned: what in the name of God was happening to these lungs?NARRATION: When the strange new disease was finally identified, it turned out to be a very old and familiar one: influenza: the flu. But it was unlike any flu that any one had ever seen.DR. ALFRED CROSBY, author, "America's Forgotten Pandemic": One of the factors that made this so particularly, frightening was that everybody had a preconception of what the flu was: it's a miserable cold and, after a few days, you're up and around, this was a flu that put people into bed as if they'd been hit with a 2 x 4. That turned into pneumonia, that turned people blue and black and killed them. It was a flu out of some sort of a horror story. They never had dreamed that influenza could ever do anything like this to people before.NARRATION: Soldiers carried the disease swiftly from one military base to the next. They did it... just by breathing.FANNIN: If an individual with influenza were standing in front of a room full of people coughing, each cough would carry millions of particles with disease-causing organisms into the air. All the people breathing that air would have an opportunity to inhale a disease-causing organism. It doesn't take very long for one case to become 10,000 cases.MAXWELL: My first intimations about the epidemic were that it was something that was happening to the troops. There didn't seem to be any reason to think that it would ever have anything to do with us. And yet in a gradual remorseless way, it kept moving closer and closer.NARRATION: For a time, life in America went on, untouched. Suffragettes demanded the vote for women. Airmail service began zooming between New York and Chicago -- flying time: 10 hours, 5 minutes. On September 11th, Babe Ruth led the Boston Red Sox to victory in the World Series.NARRATION: But on that same day, on the sidewalks of Quincy, Massachusetts, three civilians dropped dead.NARRATION: Influenza was out in the world.ACT II -- IT BECOMES AN EPIDEMICNARRATION: From Boston, the disease moved down the eastern seaboard -- to New York, to Philadelphia, and beyond.MAXWELL: Rumors of this alarming situation had reached this very small town of 12,000 people in the midwest... I know that my parents were worried, I could, I, I paid less attention to their words than I did to the sounds of their voices and when they discussed it, I heard anxiety. MAXWELL: My mother was expecting a baby and so, my father and mother had no choice, to, but to take me to my father's sister's house where we were not comfortable. It was a dark, gloomy house... I can best suggest the quality of the house by saying, in the living room there was a framed photograph of my grandfather in his coffin.... It was a very strange room, there was a vase with peacock feathers in it and my aunt didn't know, I don't know that anybody else in Lincoln knew that peacock feathers bring bad luck...DANIEL TONKEL: The first time that I was aware that something was amiss in our normal living was when my father told me, 'son, most of the employees are sick.' We don't have anyone left to run the store. Everyone is home sick, or in the hospital sick. And within a week or ten days my father told me that this saleslady had passed away and another one had passed away. So, as I recall, out of the eight or ten employees, four of them passed away and the passing away came about so quickly. ANNA MILANI: It was a mild day and we were sitting on the step. Diagonally across from us, there was a little, a girl, 15 year old girl was just buried. Towards the evening, we heard a lot of screaming going on and in that same house a little baby, 18 months old, passed away, in that same family.FANNIN: For a physician it must have been very, very confusing, being confronted with patients that come to you and, within 12 hours, before you even have a chance to do anything, they're dead. This was happening too fast.NARRATION: Even children began to see it coming. A little ditty was heard in playgrounds:I had a little bird/ 2b1af7f3a8