Closing out Elwood’s birthday month with Kino’s re-issue of the actor’s 1994 film.
It seems a crime to close out the month without celebrating Elijah Wood’s birthday. Yes, everyone’s favorite onscreen hobbit turned 40 this week. Even if the fact itself makes me feel so incredibly old, I find Wood’s milestone birthday to be a cause for celebration due to his cultivating of a career which is still continuing to impress both in front of and behind the camera. The actor has tackled virtually every kind of genre in the film world, going from fantasy, to horror, to drama, to comedy and several blends in between. As one of the few child stars of the 80s and 90s who successfully made the transition past puberty without any scandal attached to his name, the actor maintains the same wonder and hunger that helped define the work he did as a youngster.
Recently, the folks at Kino put out 1994’s The War, a Jon Avnet directed dramedy starring Wood and Kevin Costner on blu-ray for the first time. The film’s revisiting isn’t just a perfect way to celebrate Wood’s birthday, but also manages to serve as a reminder of what a skilled actor he always was.
Set during the Vietnam era, The War focuses on Simmons siblings Stu (Wood) and Lydia (Lexi Randall), whose father Stephen (Costner) has just returned home from serving in combat. Covered in scars both mental and physical, Stephen tries to provide a better life for his wife (Mare Winningham) and their kids. Meanwhile, Stu and Lydia decide to spend the summer building a treehouse in a nearby property, angering the children of a rival family and causing a war of their own.
The War is a deeply underrated film which straddles the line between family adventure and telling drama. Stu, Lydia and their friends enjoy plenty of shenanigans, causing the kind of trouble most kids would indulge in during a hot Mississippi summer. Wheelbarrow escapades, falling out of trees and bumps and bruises galore do their part to make The War an embraceable piece of youthful innocence. It’s when Stu and Stephen come together when the film launches into something quite real and true as the energy of youth meets the damage of experience. The War allows Stu to look at the situation in Vietnam as something more real than he has before through the effects of his father. He bears witness to Stephen’s night terrors and attempts to fit back into a society which has little use for him. In the process, Stu sees his father fully for the first time and begins to leave childhood behind more and more with each passing day that summer.
Eventually, things between Stu, Lydia and the pack of bullying neighbors culminate in a dangerous battle over the treehouse itself, bringing forth the anger within Stephen. Stu defends the act of standing up and protecting what’s theirs, calling his father out in the process. “You went to war to fight for people you don’t even know,” he says, to which Stephen replies: “But in the end, I killed more people than I saved!” Ultimately, The War is one of the better examples of the blending of rambunctious hijinks and the painful lessons of growing up. The film eventually takes some definite dramatic turns in an effort to drive this point home (cementing Wood as one of his generation’s most talented young actors), yet it does so in a way few films of its kind have the bravery to do so anymore. With an ending both tragic and hopeful, The War is the kind of that wisely opts for truth over sentimentality.
Even tho he plays second fiddle to a tyke, Costner is fantastic in his role; heartbreaking and compelling in a way the actor so rarely allowed himself to be when taking on one of his star-driven vehicles of the era. It’s Wood who proves to be the film’s soul. He captures that very specific time of growing up when the outside world starts to become more real than ever before. The way he shows Stu’s transformation into a young man is the kind of unmatched pathos and curiosity that has accompanied all of Wood’s work. All these years later, Wood has seen his characters try to outrun a comet, discover their grandfather’s secrets and outwit an assassin while trying to play the perfect concert piece. Its been a remarkable career full of memorable turns and captivating characterizations and I cannot wait to see where Wood ventures next.
The War is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD from Kino Lorber.