"The War Years," a savory, representative selection of movies made during or about World War II, gets the new year at the American Film Institute Theater off to a fascinating start. Scheduled for a near monopoly of AFI Theater programming over the next six weeks, this retrospective series, devised by Michael Clark, consists of about 90 titles, including such indispensable ones as "In Which We Serve," "Casablanca," "December 7th," "Mrs. Miniver," "Bataan," "Mission to Moscow," "Desert Victory," "Listen to Britain," "Fires Were Started," "Hollywood Canteen," "Memphis Belle," "Since You Went Away," "The Battle of San Pietro," "Hail the Conquering Hero," "Sands of Iwo Jima," "The Story of G.I. Joe," "The Best Years of Our Lives," "Twelve O'Clock High," "Bridge on the River Kwai," "Patton" and three of the indoctrination films in the "Why We Fight" series produced by Frank Capra for the War Department.

The largest single category is devoted to wartime documentary features and shorts, the next largest to romantic melodramas in which the approaching or ongoing war somehow intensifies the present and clouds the future of the principal characters, typically fighting men (in or out of uniform) and their loved ones. The remaining selections are divided more or less equally between comedies, musicals, espionage or suspense thrillers with a wartime background, foreign-language films, war stories produced during the war and war stories made after the war, sometimes soon after, like "Battleground" or "Sands of Iwo Jima" and sometimes long after, like "The Longest Day" or "Patton."

Seen a generation later through the inglorious perspective of Vietnam, the American films of World War II may appear to reflect a patriotic Golden Age. This stirring impression probably owes more to nostalgic wishful thinking and the systems of illusion peculiar to filmmaking and filmgoing than to the urgent social, political and military events of the war years themselves.

For example, Capra was authorized to begin his indoctrination films for American soldiers because a unifying perception of the war was perceived to be lacking and vitally necessary by none other than Gen. George C. Marshall, the chief of staff.

In his autobiography Capra recalled Marshall confiding, "Within a short time we will have a huge citizens' army in which civilians will outnumber professional soldiers by some 50 to 1. We may think this is our greatest strength, but the high commands of Germany and Japan are counting heavily on it being our greatest weakness. Our boys will be too soft, they say, too pleasure-loving, too undisciplined to stand up against their highly trained, highly indoctrinated, highly motivated professional armies....

"In my judgment... young Americans... will prove not only equal, but superior to totalitarian soldiers, if -- and this is a large if, indeed -- they are given answers as to why they are in uniform, and if the answers they get are worth fighting and dying for."

There were eventually seven films in the series, beginning in 1943 with "Prelude to War" and ending in 1945 with "War Comes to America." Each 50-minute segment was shown to American troops as a standard part of their training. This target audience of 8-9 million increased when several of the films were also utilized by Allied governments or granted limited theatrical release, occasionally over the protests of President Roosevelt's political opponents, who considered them surreptitious promotions for a fourth term.

Capra, who also launched the periodical "Army-Navy Screen Magazine" and supervised shorts in complementary series called "Know Your Enemy" and "Know Your Ally," was probably the most influential Hollywood filmmaker who lent his services to the war effort. Significant documentary pictures were also shot or assembled by John Ford, William Wyler, John Huston, George Stevens, Anatole Litvak and Garson Kanin. The National Archives has loaned several famous wartime documentaries to the AFI series, including Ford's Oscar-winning "Battle of Midway," Wyler's "Memphis Belle" and Huston's "Report From the Aleutians" and "Battle of San Pietro." The Archives has also contributed a complete 83-minute version of "December 7th," a report on the Pearl Harbor attack compiled by Ford and cinematographer Gregg Toland and originally released in a 20-minute version.

The most famous missing items in the series appear to be "Fighting Lady," a collaboration of former March of Time producer Louis De Rochement and photographer Edward Steichen, and the Marine Corps combat documentaries "With the Marines at Tarawa," which was supervised by actor-turned-combat-photographer Louis Hayward, and "To the Shores of Iwo Jima." Marines may feel underrepresented by the series, which appears to rely on the charismatic Sgt. Stryker of John Wayne -- evidently the most influential fictional Marine in movie history -- to uphold the glory of the Corps.

Ford lost an eye during the bombardment of Midway. Wyler lost his hearing totally in one ear and partially in another while shooting a second documentary under the auspices of the Eighth Air Force. As the director of "Mrs. Miniver" just before he joined the armed forces and "The Best Years of Our Lives" upon his return to Hollywood, Wyler opened and closed the period with unequaled prestige. Both films were Oscar-winning popular triumphs: "Mrs. Miniver" a celebration of British fortitude considered uniquely touching and effective soon after America had entered the war and "Best Years" an affirmative depiction of the homecoming problems of American servicemen considered uniquely touching and effective the year after the war.

War movies never outnumbered or outdrew non-war movies even in the war years. Before Pearl Harbor, when American military intervention was still a hotly debated political issue, the executives of the major studios were reluctant to authorize pictures that might jeopardize theater markets or holdings in both Axis and neutral countries. If Hollywood had been reluctant to dramatize war themes before America's entry into the conflict, confusion and equivocation appeared to prevail in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor.

The greatest apprehension was relieved when the Selective Service System ruled that movies were an essential industry. Although the war forced production economies, some manpower losses and voluntary cooperation with temporary government censorship restrictions on Hollywood, it also proved a boom time for the movie business. Production declined slightly -- there were more like 400 new pictures a year instead of 500 -- but average weekly attendance held at an estimated 85 million (four times what it is now) and box-office receipts climbed steadily. In large cities or industrial centers theaters stayed open 24 hours a day.

The war itself continued with mounting fury. Many families were saddened by military deaths and injuries, but the economic mood of full employment and good wages kept theaters prosperous. For a time, films of Japanese atrocities were banned. Exhibitors again pressed for fewer war films and more musicals and comedies. Their accuracy in gauging trends in public taste was indicated by the record gross of Paramount's 'Going My Way,' $7 million."

Martin Quigley, Jr. and Richard Gertner, writing in "Films in America," noted that in 1943 "studios announced plans for the astonishingly high total of 110 musicals; fortunately, not all of them were made." The most popular stars of the period were Bing Crosby, Betty Grable, Gary Cooper, Bob Hope, Abbott & Costello, Greer Garson, Humphrey Bogart and Spencer Tracy. Stories with war themes or settings began to increase throughout 1942 and peaked in 1943. The impact may be reflected in the box-office hits of the war years. In fiscal year 1941-42, six out of the 21 top grossers had some connection with the war, including the marginal inspirational connection of a musical biography like "Yankee Doodle Dandy." The ratios in subsequent years were 13 out of 24, 12 out of 25, 6 out of 34, 2 out of 36 and 1 out of 26.

The studios were not exactly prepared to do justice to combat stories. Budget and travel restrictions limited the scope of any war film planned by the major studios. Even the most expansive and costly of post-war epics about World War II -- "The Longest Day" or "A Bridge Too Far" -- are small logistical potatoes compared to the real battles they were conscientiously conceived to recreate and honor. With a rare exception like "The Story of G.I. Joe," Hollywood depictions of men at arms were ridiculed by soldiers themselves, who vastly preferred comedies and musicals to well-meaning fictions reflecting what noncombatants imagined they were saying, feeling or suffering. The inadequacy of most fictional depictions of warfare must have been underlined by the extensive newsreel coverage of World War II, a quantum jump in volume and immediacy over the documentary material produced in the previous war.