ROBERT MITCHUM AS Commander Victor (Pug) Henry has just returned from a bombing raid when his London honeybunch asks him, "It was bad, wasn't it?" To which Mitchum grimly replies: "It was long."
This sounds like a conversation with someone who has sat through "The Winds of War," the bulbous and bloated 18-hour ABC serial about the months preceding World War II, but it is actually a conversation from it. ABC will blitz America with "War" for a week, starting tonight at 8 on Channel 7, continuing through Sunday, Feb. 13, every night but Saturday. Since ratings weeks begin with Sunday, that means "Winds" will blow up heady Nielsens for ABC during two ratings weeks instead of just one.
And blow it does--it blows hot, it blows cold, it blows up, but mostly it just blows long. Originally, Herman Wouk's TV adaptation of his own tubby novel was supposed to last 12 hours. Then 16. Then ABC saw a way of stretching it to 18. Brandon Stoddard, the ABC executive in charge of mini-series and movies, has said that anything less than 18 hours would impair the dramatic "flow" of the film. However, a first-year film-school student could edit three or four hours out of the thing without hurting the flow at all. Of course, then there would be less commercial time to sell (at a reported $170,000 per 30-second spot), and that's still the major "creative" consideration in undertakings of this sort.
Watching "Winds of War," ecstatic superlatives like "competent" and "acceptable" come to mind. It's not only mammoth, it's woolly. Wouk and the filmmakers have given us nothing really new, but they have produced a See "WINDS OF WAR," L8, Col. 1 Victoria Tennant and Robert Mitchum in "The Winds of War" WINDS OF WAR "WINDS OF WAR," From L1 fitfully enticing composite. "Winds of War" is a Whole War Catalog, a pastiche of all the other movies made about the war since its conclusion. It doesn't even bother with being an antiwar movie; if anything, it pines for the wars of simpler times, when bad weather in the English Channel was enough to forestall doom. "Winds of War" at its best mistily evokes the more orderly rhythms of a prenuclear world.
Wouk's central characters are Commander Henry; his frivolous, party-going wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen); their son Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent); Byron's girlfriend and, eventually, wife Natalie (Ali MacGraw); Henry's son Warren (Ben Murphy), of whom very little is seen until the final four or five hours or so; and daughter Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), who goes to work for CBS. Among those involved in their lives are Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman), Natalie's cantankerous Jewish intellectual uncle who lives in Siena, Italy; Leslie Slote (David Dukes), a State Department flunky who dotes unrequitedly on Natalie; and Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), a plucky British lass with whom Pug almost has an affair even as his own wife is off dallying under the treetops with Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves), who is somehow involved in development of the atomic bomb and also appears to be the dullest man on the face of the earth.
Commander Pugsy is one of those fictional characters who manage to be just about everywhere momentousness is occurring. He meets with Adolf Hitler, Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Benito Mussolini and Joe Stalin. Pug tags along with the chaps for a British bombing raid of Berlin (very impressively re-created with miniature planes and spotlights in the final half hour of part four, airing Wednesday night at 9) and accompanies British destroyers taunting the German submarine "wolf pack" in the waters of the North Atlantic (not so convincingly re-created with toy boats in part six, Friday night at 8). The story plops around from Washington to Warsaw to New York to Berlin to London to Pensacola, Fla., to Florence, to Lisbon, to Zurich, to Moscow, even to "Silver Springs sic , Md.," where Pug catches a train. The stories of these supposedly ordinary lives caught up in the sweep of history (and whither knoweth they notteth), are occasionally interrupted for newsreel footage of the war accompanied by voice-over narration from a sternly stentorious announcer.
Love, death, partings, reunions, marriages, births, affairs, tea parties and tense incidents at restaurants--the stuff of life itself! And much of it as flavorlessly numbing as it is commercially sure-fire.
When Germany and Japan finally surrendered and treaties were signed in the mid-'40s, a war was over but an industry was born. World War II has been big business ever since. Not a year goes by that it doesn't make the best-seller lists, that some part of it isn't fought over again on the motion picture screen and that TV doesn't find new excuses to resume hostilities. Adolf Hitler would probably be pleased by this, and by the fact that he is portrayed on TV so regularly they should start a new Emmy category: Best Performance by a Hitler.
For the current TV season, the Best Hitler Emmy might go to "Winds of War's" Gunter Meisner, but purely by default. He's a dipsy-doodle Fuehrer, straight out of a wartime "Three Stooges" short ("I'll Never Heil Again," for instance). His mustache looks like a furry bow tie.
But there are plenty of casting problems with "Winds of War." Just about everybody is too old; producer-director Dan Curtis appears to have shot a lot of them through filters (and some of them through sheet metal, as the old joke goes). MacGraw is supposed to be the spring chicken incarnate, but the actress is in her forties, for Pete's sake, and looks it. Besides, she still has the same sneery-smirky delivery she had in "Love Story," so that in almost every scene she plays, you wonder why someone doesn't slap her silly face. The dialogue Wouk doles out isn't exactly easy to handle, though, as when, in part five, MacGraw barks at her new hubby, in bed, "Why did you insist on marrying me? That's what's eating me. We could have made love all you want, you know that, but now I feel tied to you by this rope of burning nerves."
Jan-Michael Vincent, as the boyfriend who becomes the husband, is also getting long in the tooth to be a male ingenue, and we are asked to believe that this skinny jock is a scholar who has done deep study on the Italian Renaissance, of which he says, "I started out fascinated, and I ended up just snowed-under and bored," as if reviewing this program. Ralph Bellamy, as FDR, first played the part 20 years ago (in "Sunrise at Campobello"), and Mitchum totters around looking stiff and uncomfortable as Commander Pug, allegedly a mere 49 years old. Mitchum will be 66 this year.
Granted, movie history is full of castings that defied Father Time, but the problem with Mitchum isn't just that he's old for the role. He appears to be disinterested in it. He seems to be thinking about lunch breaks and dinner breaks. "He is just a Sphinx, that man!" scolds Polly Bergen when they have dinner with FDR and Eleanor at the White House; the line may have been written to help explain Mitchum's somnambulence. He only shows vigor when angry, and then, as he's always been in the movies, Mitchum is mightily imposing. One of his zippier outbursts occurs late in part five, when a slimy anti-Semite tries to bribe him into supporting Hitler in Washington. The offer has been made in the name of Hermann Goering, and Mitchum scores something of a network language breakthrough when he snarls, "Tell Goering he can stick his Swiss bank account up his fat ---." They don't use dashes, either. Perhaps if Mitchum spent more of the movie telling people off, he wouldn't seem so lethargic. He's beautiful when he's angry.
But we are dealing with a TV movie here, and great acting is not really what people expect. The producers of "Winds of War" wanted a capital-p Presence at the center of their film, and with John Wayne now gone, Mitchum may be the reigning macho capital-p Presence of his movie generation. So perhaps it doesn't hurt a bit that he sort of lumbers casually into World War II.
The one really smashing, even ginger-peachy, performance in "Winds of War" is the new discovery, Victoria Tennant, who manages to embody, as brightly as perhaps anyone could, British resolve and backbone, and who can make even the sloshiest dialogue sound authentic and genuine. Tennant lights up a scene like sunshine. On the other hand, Houseman's monotonous, one-note approach proves again a dispiriting drone. Some of the portrayals of actual historical figures are such caricatures one must assume the effect is intentional, that Curtis looked upon "Winds" as a pop-history comic book.
After about 12 groggy hours of back-and-forth between the war and these fairly trivial private lives, everyone begins not to matter very much. When, in part seven, Curtis cuts from the attack on Pearl Harbor to Mitchum as he composes a letter to his lover ("Dearest Pamela . . ." we hear him murmur) and back again, the whole thing has become impossibly ludicrous. Pug tells Pamela "I'm a one-woman man, and I've got to fight a war," breaking off the affair and refusing to suggest a divorce to his wife. Then he gets a letter from his wife admitting her affair and asking him for a divorce. This isn't one of his better days; the battleship he was to command, The California, was sunk at Pearl, his daughter-in-law is trapped with his new grandson in fascist Italy, and his son Byron appears to have died in the wreck of a submarine. A fellow officer says to him, "Is everything all right, Pug? I mean, you look a little green around the gills."
Actually, the expression on Mitchum's face suggests nothing much more catastrophic than that one of his shirts came back from the laundry with a button missing.
Attempts by Curtis to pad things out with picturesque irrelevancies are evident as early as in tonight's premiere, when a full 10 minutes is devoted to the running of the Palio, a famous horse race, in Siena -- very pretty, pretty pointless. But for all the excess length and excess verbiage (one can think of the characters as The Windbags of War), at least it can be said that each night's episode contains at least one affecting sequence, something poignant or deftly observed or just a good old-fashioned dramatic wowser.
In part one, the Israeli actor Topol makes his first appearance as Berel Jastrow, Natalie's cousin living in imperiled Poland, and while the trite Bob Cobert background music at this point sounds like a variation on "Fiddler on the Roof" (Cobert's love theme is a cloying drag as well), Topol is an energetic asset. He will show up again in part six, taking photographs to document a Nazi massacre in Minsk. The best thing in part two is a long, tense sequence during which Natalie, Byron and Slote flee Warsaw with other Americans, some of whom are Jewish. "I'm ordered to separate out the Jews," a Nazi says at one checkpoint. Jews among the group must deny their ancestry; one is able to fake being a Gentile partly because Byron gave him a copy of the New Testament to hang onto just in case.
In part three, Pug and his wife attend a Nazi party on the Goering estate (the date given is Dec. 15, 1939) hosted by a rabid anti-Semite. A huge slide has been rigged up for the occasion and guests must swoosh down it into the living room. Something about this colorful detail seems pungently to epitomize the perversity of the whole German epoch. Earlier, Pug is told he will have "exactly seven minutes of the Fuehrer's time" for an audience, but when he does meet the old bastard, Hitler drones on for hours and hours about his plans for Germany.
In part four, Byron and Natalie have a big farewell as his sub pulls out that seems stolen from the train-station parting in the film "Umbrellas of Cherbourg" (Byron enters the submarine service as those pesky storm clouds continue to gather). In part six, Wouk deals delicately with lingering allegations that the United States and England could have acted to prevent the Nazi Holocaust. FDR hears a report of concentration camps and slaughter on the radio. He says, "I think--I certainly hope--those stories are terribly exaggerated." It's hard to know if we're to think of him as uninformed or foolish. Or worse. Later, in part seven, Topol arrives in the Kremlin to tell Pug that his documentation of Nazi atrocities is being ignored by Washington. We hear Pug mention it in a letter to FDR. And that's that.
Wouk certainly wasn't writing revisionist history; the attitude toward FDR most of the time is one of rapt reverence. There is one very touching scene of FDR worship that also captures a sense of the times. The president, though crippled, insists on walking across a gangplank to meet Churchill on a British ship. As he slowly, and painfully, makes his way, news photographers standing by to record the scene respectfully lower their cameras. This was not for the world to see.
Audiences for "Winds of War" will probably be the largest tonight and a week from tonight, when the final chapter, the one with the largest fireworks quotient, is aired. The timing of the mini-series may prove to have been shrewd; watching the world unravel in "Winds of War's" synthesized past may prove seductive escapism for a viewing public satiated with the economic troubles of the present.
It's doubtful the millions who watch some or all of "War" will feel they have wasted their time--but especially not if they watch the thing with family and friends whose conversation can cover the long, dull stretches, or with a stack of unread magazines nearby. Or a good book--not "The Winds of War." This mini-series can be looked upon as a chance to catch up with neglected reading, or knitting, or ironing, or, during some of its lulls-before-storms, sleeping.
If you missed "Roots," you missed a television landmark and a stirring sociological event; the same with "Roots II." If you missed "Shogun," you missed an intoxicating exercise in exotic adventure. If you missed "Holocaust," you missed a devastating emotional experience. If you miss "The Winds of War," you will be adding 18 hours to your life.