Many of Hollywood's top writers, producers and walking social consciences got together in Ojai, Calif., recently for the announced purpose of saving the docu-drama from extinction. Starting tonight, with the first two hours of the six-hour biography "Ike," ABC unintentionally offers a persuasive reason to kill it.
The film, to be shown in the three two-hour chapters tonight, Friday and Sunday at 9 on Channel 7, is less a portrait of Gen. and President Dwight D. Eisenhower than an illustrated lecture on the expendable art of the tease. Melville Shavelson's movie mingles historical fact, dramatization, rumor, speculation and tie-dyed old newsreels and, to judge from the first four hours, manages to be definitive about nothing and illuminating about little.
There are many reasons why the film fails, but central among them is the fact that the docu-drama format is simply the wrong medium for telling a story like this. A two-hour documentary, incorporating period footage and interviews with those who knew Eisenhower, could tell us a great deal more about the man and the stuff he was made of than this meandering combination of a Fourth of July parade and a Yellowing old gossip column.
Shavelson's big problem was how to deal with Kay Summersby, Eisenhower's driver,confidante, secretary, and who knows what else, while he was supreme allied commander during World War II. If Shavelson had chosen to make a film about the romance, if any, against a war-time setting, that would be one thing, but he has tried to put both the war and the romance, if any, on equal footing, so they are made to appear identically important in the scheme of things.
It is one thing to pry into sex lives of the dead and another to equate their importance with the momentous struggles of history. Was D-day a success because Kay Summersby gave Ike a pep talk the night before, while they held hands on a couch? You can't tell whether the war is interrupting the affair or the affair is interrupting the war.
One moment Ike is saying a misty-bye-bye to Summersby and the next he is speculating military action: "There could be half a million of our young boys dead on the beaches of France."
In fact, the film stops far short of consummating this relationship, partly because the Eisenhower family, angered by the posthumous publication of Summersby's book, "Past Forgetting," created a large stir in 1977 and released some of Ike's letters home to wife Mamie as a rebuttal to Summersby's allegations that the two of them were deeply involved even if they never got beyond the hugging and smooching plateau.
To be on the very safe - and rather dull - side, Shavelson never lets Robert Duvall as Eisenhower and Lee Remick as Summersby reach that plateau.There is a tiny bit of platonic hand-holding, and at one point Ike ceremonially kisses his driver on the cheek, but that's about it, except for heavy glance-exchanging.
And although Remick is given a compact little feminish manifesto to recite early in the film - one of those manifestos we doubt ever got recited in 1942 - it's the movie's view that this was a case of her unrequited heroworship and love for him, not his lonely and unrequited love for her, as some sources have claimed.
Duvall does not have the physical presence to play Eisenhower, but now and then he strikes a smile or a blank look that is reminiscent of the man. It is never much less than a pleasure to encounter Remick, but here her essential and lustrous sultriness has been subverted in the interest of making Summersby a giddy British cliche cross between Mary Poppins and Gracie Fields and chipper to a fault.
She's Ms. Miniver.
"It's going to clear; you have my word," she chirps to Ike on D-day morning, as the general surveys the cloudy skies. She follows him around like the Scottie dog that follows her around, forever cheerful (except when her intended husband is killed in battle), always perky, spunky and prim and stouthearted. Eventually she becomes such a twinkling, criminal drag that Julie Andrews would seem refreshingly misanthropic by comparison.
According to this revisionist picture of World War II, however, Ike had a lot to be protected from. The Germans were the least of his problems. In the film he perpetually embroiled in contretemps with Franklin D. Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles DeGaulle, George Patton and, of course, the infamous Field Marshal Montgomery, whose mustache is too trim to twirl but who otherwise comes off in this film as a villainous menace nearly equal to Hitler.
Ike keeps saying things on the order of, "Oh, drat these politicians." During one exchange with Churchill, the old boy tells him, "Someday, I do not doubt, you will run for president" and Eisenhower replies, "God forbid."
Shavelson and codirector Boris Sagal staged a few scenes that come accross as authentically reminiscent of the period - if not enlightening on the subject of Eisenhower's character and motivations. Just before D-day, he makes an appearance before a group of pilots. One shouts, "Hey - that's Ike!" and they surround and cheer him.
And though most of their scenes together are flagrantly unaffecting, there is segment near the close of Part Two in which Remick and Duvall do suggest the poignance of an unspoken love affair like the one depicted or imagined here. Earlier they had heard Noel Cowark and Gertrude Lawrence (both poorly imitated) sing Coward's "I'll See You Again" and now, close to Ike's departure for the U.S. after V-E Day, they hear it again from the stage of a London theater.
The title of Summersby's book comes from a line in the song: ". . . what has been, is past forgetting."
Eisenhower's only apparent character flaw according to the film is his inability to express himself to women. The exchanges take on an almost farcically comical tone because of her sunny chattiness and his fumble-bumbling.
Summersby: "We are both of us so terribly alone, general."
Eisenhower: "Everyone calls me 'Ike.'"
Summersby:"Dammit - Ike!"
They are interrupted by a knock at the door.
Later Summersby declares herself to Eisenhower as "loving you so much that I don't care what happens to me at all," to which he tenderly replies, "Kay! Dammit, Kay!" which sounds like the title of a '20s musical.
The best parts of "Ike" have nothing to do with this whatsit of a romance but are battle montages (and a victory montage) edited together from old newsreel footage that was in black and white but, through some sort of computer-aided wizardry, have been turned into color. It's the kind of surreal, over-golden color of an old tinted postcard, and the sequences are strikingly done.
In a victory parade, Duvall's Eisenhower is intercut with the real thing; when Ike stands up with his back to the camera to wave to the crowd, Shavelson cuts to front view of Duvall smiling and waving.
Less fortuitous is a butt-splice transition that goes directly from the White House to the front; the editing is so tight that it looks as though FRD's bed had just exploded.
You throw this all together with the hokey dramatization, however, and such unlikely asides as Gen. Mark Clark winking, "The French they are a funny race, parlex-vous" and what "Ike" becomes is what other such projects have turned into: a costume party in which the actors appear nervously self-conscious about the mighty personages they ar portraying. The fact the Eisenhower is the only one to emerge withou a blemish may be as unfair to him as it is to the others.
There are two kinds of television viewers; those who turn the set on automatically and sit there all night, and those who only turn on the set to see a program that has sparked a certain unusual interest. The best TC shows-whether "Friendly Fire" or "All in the Family"-can bring both groups together. But "Ike" is strictly for the former-it can hold one's attention but it accomplishers nothing except to mess around with history and memory. It is almost past forgiving. CAPTION: Picture 1, Robert Duvall as Eisenhower and Lee Remick as Kay Summersby in "Ike'; Picture 2, Robert Duvall as General Eisenhower