Few entertainment programs in TV history have qualified for an accolade like "monumental," but that's precisely the word for "War and Remembrance," ABC's shattering and spectacular miniseries from Herman Wouk's novel of World War II. The production is mammoth, on a scale virtually unheard of in the medium. "War and Remembrance" is tremendous television.
The first 18 hours will air this month, starting with a three-hour opener at 8 tonight on Channel 7. The rest will appear later in the season, probably February or May. A total of at least 30 hours, made at a cost of $110 million, is planned. ABC executives have claimed, perhaps more with pride than sorrow, that the network stands to lose as much as $20 million on the project. But what a project.
"War and Remembrance" attains moments of intense emotional intimacy despite its panoramic canvas. The miniseries is in a class with "Roots" and considerably improves upon the 1983 blockbuster "The Winds of War," to which "Remembrance," as book and TV show, is a sequel.
A stunning departure from this Season of Sleaze on network television, "War and Remembrance" confronts great and abiding issues and, if it homogenizes them, at least does so intelligently. Wouk, who helped with the TV adaptation, mixed historical reenactments with a compelling, many-tiered narrative about ordinary people caught up in the maelstrom. The world was never uglier, yet there was the memory of beauty.
Probably the most daring decision of producer-director Dan Curtis (who shares screenplay credit with Wouk and Earl Wallace) was to depict in arduous detail horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. In parts 2 and 7, the nightmare of the Holocaust is shown more explicitly than in previous TV dramatizations, even NBC's "Holocaust" miniseries a decade ago. Part 2 (airing Tuesday) includes a long sequence on the mechanics of extermination as practiced at Auschwitz, where the scenes were filmed. Part 7 (Nov. 23) shows massacres and mass graves at Babi Yar.
Both chapters will be preceded by parental advisories warning of "graphic depictions of ... atrocities." The death camp sequences are lengthy and there is no cutting away to other story lines, nor to commercials. The viewer is challenged to confront the unspeakable. Curtis may be criticized for dwelling on it at length and so horrifically. But to attempt a comprehensive treatment of the war without such scenes would be dishonest. This, of all that happened in the war years, is what most cries out to be remembered.
Much of the original cast of "Winds of War" has returned: Robert Mitchum as naval captain and admiral-to-be Victor (Pug) Henry; Polly Bergen as his furtively philandering wife; Victoria Tennant as Pamela Tudsbury, with whom Pug had a prewar affair.
All of the cast changes are improvements. Jane Seymour is far more haunting and appealing in the role of Natalie Jastrow than was the smirky Ali MacGraw, who played her in the original; and as her husband, Pug's son Byron, Hart Bochner proves himself a sensational leading man, much better than Jan-Michael Vincent, whom he replaces.
John Gielgud, who took over the part of Natalie's uncle Aaron Jastrow from the late John Houseman, gives it more poignancy than it had before. Aaron and Natalie are trapped in Europe after they fail to take early opportunities to escape. Aaron naively thinks his status as a celebrated Jewish author will somehow protect him from the spreading plague of hate. Natalie has her 1-year-old son to care for. Together they go from Siena to Elba to Marseilles to Baden-Baden to Paris in the hope of finding a way out.
They are pursued by a would-be protector, a seeming "good" Nazi played with masterful subtlety by Bill Wallis. Not all the acting in "War and Remembrance" is uniformly good. Mitchum clearly feels it was enough effort on his part to show up, but he may be right. He certainly casts a manly shadow, and his stoicism contrasts effectively with Bergen's fluttering butterfly. When Pug's ship sinks beneath him in Part 5 (Nov. 20), Mitchum does all his reacting with his eyes, and you believe him.
There is about many of the performances -- especially Seymour's -- that mercurial something extra that suggests the actors felt inspired by what their characters symbolized and the insanity of the epoch in which they lived. Seymour and Bochner are briefly reunited at the end of Part 4 (Nov. 17) and then must separate again at the beginning of Part 5. Theirs is more than just another tearful wartime parting. It is a brilliantly wrenching scene. Moments like this lift "War and Remembrance" to soaring emotional peaks.
Portraying historical personages is often risky. Adolf Hitler could be considered the ultimate unplayble part. But Steven Berkoff, who played more prosaic villains in films like "Beverly Hills Cop," makes this a powerful study in obscene madness. On the other side of the Atlantic, Ralph Bellamy is back in the role of FDR for the umpty-umpth time and he now owns it. It fits him like a glove, an old pair of shoes -- an entire suit of clothes.
The portrait of Roosevelt is not entirely flattering. Wouk raises the question of how much America knew about Germany's genocide. Leslie Slote, a fictional foreign service officer played by David Dukes, is demoted for bringing reports of the death camps to his superiors. Some rebuff him. In Part 6, Eddie Albert, as a State Department bureaucrat, insists, "I'm not an anti-Semite," though it's indicated that he is.
"I truly believe we must help the unfortunate Jewish race in their time of agony, whenever and wherever we can -- within the law," he says, rejecting Slote's plea that the United States open its doors to those fleeing the Holocaust. Earlier, FDR says, "This Jewish situation is simply awful. I'm at my wit's end about it. The only answer is to smash Nazi Germany as soon as possible and give the Germans a beating they'll remember for generations. We're trying."
It is also noted by Slote that a report of documents confirming the existence of the death camps was "buried on Page 10 of The Washington Post." It is supposed to be Jan. 2, 1943, and Slote warns Pug Henry, "If this war goes on two more years, every Jew in Europe will be dead."
At times, viewers may think they're seeing a replay of every World War II movie ever made -- wartime romances, wartime adventures, wartime melodrama, wartime tragedies. In at least one case, an old war movie is literally replayed; Curtis finesses Dolittle's raid on Japan with newsreels and with clips from the MGM film "Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo."
Rarely is there evidence of cut corners, however. Some scenes have hundreds of extras, and the naval battles are, for the most part, lavishly staged. Yet Wouk and Curtis try their best not to glamorize warfare. A sign in a U.S. submarine says, "Kill Japs! Kill More Japs!"
The sub commander (Barry Bostwick, chewing on a cigar stub) takes the sign literally, ordering the slaughter of the survivors of an attack on a Japanese destroyer. Good and evil seemed so clearly defined then -- or at least they do in retrospect -- but the filmmakers take disturbing shades of gray into account.
In addition to Albert, others seen in cameo roles include Nina Foch, making a very vivid impression as a contentious, American-born countess living in Paris -- an accommodator who appears to stop just a tiny inch short of collaboration. Howard Duff plays Slote's boss in Bern. Perhaps the most skillfully chilling performance is that of Milton Johns as Adolf Eichmann, contemplating mass murder with the casual calculation of a shopkeeper taking inventory, then inquiring about the welfare of an underling's wife and kids.
Robert Morley, dependable as always, brings a daffy pathos to the role of Alistair Tudsbury, a British war correspondent and Pamela Tudsbury's father -- a man of fastidiously understated courage. In Singapore, he leads a chorus of "There'll Always Be an England" and it may be corny, but it sure is moving.
Chaim Topol and John Rhys-Davies play inmates at Auschwitz who are assigned to work crews. They are determined to survive; this means they must help dig mass graves into which their fellow victims will be thrown.
For its first few hours, "War and Remembrance" proves grievously slow. At times it seems Curtis will stop at nothing to prolong a simple conversation between two people. Cigars are lit, brandy is poured, the discussion moves to another room. The pace, however, picks up by the second night (Tuesday) and the extreme length of the miniseries -- and there's nothing mini about it -- doesn't seem unjustified. After all, the war took a long time, too.
Those who say we have seen it all before will be right. But Wouk and Curtis and their extraordinary cast of actors make the case that the moment is right to see it all again.
"War and Remembrance" evokes a time of incomparable challenges, to nations and to people, and it treats moral complexities respectably, rarely seeming simplistic. Of course there are cliche's, perhaps hundreds before the whole thing is over. But when a naval officer speaks of a military maneuver as being "a desperate gamble," he could also be talking about this imposingly ambitious project -- the likes of which, it has been said, we may never see from network television again.
"We've got to hit them with everything we've got," an admiral declares. That is what those behind "War and Remembrance" have done.