Monday, August 10, 2020
"THE WINDS OF WAR" (1983) Review
Nearly forty years ago, author Herman Wouk wrote "The Winds of War", a bestselling novel about the experiences of a middle-aged U.S. Navy officer and his family during the early years of World War II. A decade later, ABC Television and producer David Wolper brought his story to the television screen with a seven-part, fourteen-and-a-half hour miniseries that became a ratings hit and a major Emmy and Golden Globe nominee.
Produced by Dan Curtis and Barbara Steele, and directed by Curtis; "THE WINDS OF WAR" was a sprawling saga that told the story of Naval officer, Victor "Pug" Henry (Robert Mitchum), his wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen), and their three children – Naval aviator Warren (Ben Murphy), Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), who ended up as an assistant to a radio personality – and their experiences during the five months before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the first two years of the war, right up to the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Most of the miniseries focused upon Henry’s experiences as a Naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, his role as a confidant to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his position at the War Department in Washington D.C. During this time, he experiences Germany’s reaction to the Poland invasion, the Battle of Britain and the early months of the Blitz, the Lend-Lease Program, and the Soviet defense against the German invasion of their country.
However, a good deal of the miniseries also focused upon Byron’s romance with one Natalie Jastrow (Ali McGraw), the niece of a Jewish author and scholar named Dr. Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) in Italy. Byron and Natalie also experience the German invasion of Poland, after attending a wedding held by her Jastrow cousins in Medzice. Their romance is later hampered by Natalie’s relationship with her former fiancé, a State Department diplomat named Leslie Slote (David Dukes) and her decision to remain in Europe in order to ensure that a very reluctant Aaron will get safely out of Europe.
Two other plotlines featured forbidden romances for both Pug and Rhoda. Pug becomes romantically involved with Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), the daughter of a British journalist and radio personality. However, their romance remains platonic. That did not seemed to be the case for Rhoda’s affair with a widowed government engineer named Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves), who will become involved in the first phase of the Manhattan project. By the end of the miniseries, Rhoda will ask Pug for a divorce.
One has to possess a great deal of patience and love of early-to-mid 20th century history to really enjoy "THE WINDS OF WAR". This is not my way of saying that it is a terrible production. But it is rather long at fourteen-and-a-half hours. At least four of the episodes are two-and-a-half hours long. And if I must be frank, there are sequences in the miniseries that I found rather ponderous. Sequences that usually featured Pug Henry’s meetings with famous world leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin turned out to be exercises in sheer patience for me. And the sequences featuring the Lend-Lease Program, in which the U.S. government lent warships and planes to Great Britain also struck me as ponderous, although interesting. I found some of the dialogue wince-inducing, silly, pretentious and long winded, thanks to Herman Wouk’s screenplay. Lesson - never allow an author to write the screen adaptation of his own work.
Many of the characters featured in the miniseries are portrayed by actors that struck me as too old for their roles. I can even say the same about the three leads – Mitchum, McGraw and Vincent. Well . . . almost. Somehow, these three managed to get away with it. The scenes that I found most unbearable featured Hitler’s conferences with his generals. Many of these scenes featured actor Günter Meisner as Hitler, engaging in a good deal of histrionic acting – at least in the miniseries’ first three episodes. Fortunately, he seemed to have found his stride by the fourth episode and portrayed the German chancellor without the usual clichés. Like I said, one needs a great deal of patience to face something like "WINDS OF WAR".
But in the end, the miniseries proved to be worth viewing. Despite its flaws, I believe it is one of the better miniseries that have appeared on television during the past forty odd years. The historic scope of the production is wide and magnificent. Director/producer Dan Curtis did a superb job in transporting viewers back to those early years of World War II – between 1939 and 1941, especially with a crew that included cinematographers Charles Correll and Stevan Larner, costume designer Heidi Wujek, matte cameraman Bruce A. Block, and production designer Jackson De Govia. I do have a quibble about Ali McGraw’s wardrobe and hairstyle. It almost seemed as if the actress seemed reluctant to utilize late 30s/early 40s costumes and hairstyles. And this made her look a little too modern for a series set during the early years of World War II.
Curtis and his crew did an excellent job in scouting locations for the miniseries. Being an epic set in the United States and Europe, he had to find locations that stood in for Berlin, Washington D.C., London, Siena and Rome, Moscow, Honolulu, Manila, along with Warsaw and Medzice. I also have to commend Marijan Karoglan for his supervision of the special effects featured in the miniseries – especially in battle sequences that focused upon the invasion of Poland, Pug’s ride aboard a British bomber over Germany, the battle outside Stalingrad, and the attacks upon Pearl Harbor and the Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines.
One of the best things about "THE WINDS OF WAR" is that despite being somewhat ponderous and long, it did feature some well written and interesting sequences. The best – as far as I am concerned – centered on Byron Henry and Natalie Jastrow getting caught up in the Nazi invasion of Poland near the end of "Episode 1 – The Winds Rise" and the first half of "Episode 2 – The Storm Breaks". What started out as a charming visit to Poland for a family wedding, ended up as a harrowing series of events in which the pair encountered hostile Polish soldiers, aerial bombings in Warsaw, a harrowing journey across the Polish-German battle line, and a tense encounter with a Gestapo officer demanding the names of all Jews in the American party. Another favorite sequence of mine featured Pug’s experiences in Britain, during the Battle of Britain and around the beginning of the Blitz. This segment featured the beginning of his platonic romance with Pamela Tudsbury and a scary ride aboard a British bomber on a mission over Germany. I also enjoyed the segment at the end of "Episode 3 – Cataclysm" that featured the Henry family and Natalie Jastrow’s reunion for Warren Henry’s wedding to Janice Lacouture (Deborah Winters), the daughter of an isolationist senator in Pensacola. The sequences featuring Byron and Natalie’s wedding in Lisbon, near the end of "Episode 5 – Of Love and War" and Pug’s reunion with Pamela in the Soviet Union in the last two episodes are also favorites.
Earlier I had commented that the miniseries’ three leads – Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw and Jan-Michael Vincent – seemed rather old for their roles. Mitchum, who was 65 years old at the time, portrayed a Pug Henry in his late 40s. McGraw was 44 years old, when she portrayed the 27-29 years old Natalie Jastrow. And Vincent was a 38 year-old actor portraying the 24-26 years old Byron Henry. But they were not the only ones. Ben Murphy, who portrayed the 27-29 years old Warren Henry, was at least 40 at the time of the miniseries’ production. Ralph Bellamy was at least 78 years old when he portrayed President Roosevelt, who had aged from 57 to 59 years during the story’s setting. There seemed to be a score of many old Hollywood character actors who struck me as too old for their roles. Many of them did not get away with portraying characters a lot younger than themselves. But Mitchum, McGraw, Vincent, Murphy and Bellamy did get away with it; due to their strong screen presence, good solid acting and looks.
Being the experienced Hollywood veteran, Mitchum did an excellent job of holding the series together in the lead role. He also did a first rate job in portraying a very reserved man who usually kept his emotions to himself, without turning the role into an automaton. McGraw seemed to have some difficulty in dealing with an exaggerated and at times, irritating character like Natalie Jastrow. I suspect that most of the blame should go to Wouk for creating such an overblown character and the bad dialogue that McGraw was forced to speak. However, I have to commend the actress for ably capturing Natalie’s extroverted personality and conveying the character's moments of being intimidated in the presence of Nazis or in situations in which she felt like a fish out of water (think of Warren and Janice’s wedding). Both Ben Murphy and Lisa Eilbacher gave solid performances at the charismatic, yet likeable Warren Henry and the All-American Madeline Henry, who seemed to have a slight undercurrent of darkness in her personality. Jeremy Kemp gave a memorable performance as Brigadier General Armin von Roon, the stoic and very professional German Army staff officer that Pug had befriended. Ralph Bellamy, who had originally portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in both the stage and film versions of "SUNRISE AT CAMPBOBELLO" was in his element as the four-term president. I also enjoyed Topol’s warm portrayal of the Jastrow cousin from the Polish branch of the family, Berel Jastrow. John Houseman did a solid job in portraying Natalie’s scholarly uncle, Dr. Aaron Jastrow. However, there were times when his dialogue delivery seemed slow and slightly long-winded. As for Peter Graves, he must have been the only actor I can recall who can make an extramarital affair seem almost dignified.
But there were performances that stood out for me. One of them came from Jan-Michael Vincent, who portrayed the Henry family’s dark horse, Byron. Vincent did an excellent job in portraying Byron’s complex and sometimes difficult nature. He proved that Pug’s middle child could be just as reserved and intimidating as his father, and also very intense. Yet, at the same time, Vincent’s Byron seemed very relaxed and almost lackadaisical. Another first-rate performance came from Polly Bergen, who portrayed Pug’s flamboyant wife, Rhoda. In many ways, Bergen’s Rhoda could be just as complex as Byron. At times, she seemed like a cheerful and extroverted personality. At other times, she came off as flaky and somewhat rather unpleasant. And Bergen managed to convey Rhoda’s contradicting traits seamlessly. I am not surprised that she ended up earning an Emmy nomination for her performance. I was also impressed by Victoria Tennant’s performance as the young Englishwoman that ended up falling in love with Pug, Pamela Tudsbury. Tennant skillfully conveyed Pamela’s passionate nature and sardonic sense of humor beneath an exterior of English reserve. I have always been a fan of the late actor David Dukes, ever since I saw him in a miniseries called "79 PARK AVENUE". But I do believe that the role of Leslie Slote, Natalie’s former fiancé was probably one of his best. Dukes had the difficult job of developing his character from a sarcastic and slightly pompous man, reluctant to marry a Jewish woman to a loyal friend that ended up regretting that his fiancée had fallen in love with another man before he could marry her.
"THE WINDS OF WAR" has its shares of flaws – a ponderous dramatic style, too many scenes featuring the top statesmen of World War II, stilted dialogue and a questionable wardrobe for actress Ali McGraw. But its virtues – its in-depth look into the early years of World War II, its epic scope, interesting subplots and characters – make it all worth while. More importantly, I still believe it is one of the better miniseries from the last 40 years. In the end, I believe that newcomers to the saga will not regret it.
Thursday, August 6, 2020
Below is a list of my favorite television productions set during the 1810s:
FAVORITE TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS SET IN THE 1810s
1. "Pride and Prejudice" (1995) - Jennifer Ehle and Colin Firth starred in this award winning adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Simon Langton.
2. "Emma" (2009) - Romola Garai, Jonny Lee Miller and Michael Gambon starred in this excellent adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel. The four-part miniseries was adapted by Sandy Welch and directed by Jim O'Hanlon.
3. "Vanity Fair" (1987) - Eve Matheson starred in this superb adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery's 1848 novel. The sixteen-part miniseries was directed by Diarmuid Lawrence and Michael Owen Morris; and adapted by Alexander Baron.
4. "Pride and Prejudice" (1980) - Elizabeth Garvie and David Rintoul starred in this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen's 1813 novel. The five-part miniseries was adapted by Fay Weldon and directed by Cyril Coke.
5. "War and Peace" (2016) - Paul Dano, Lily James and James Norton starred in this excellent adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's 1869 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Andrew Davies and directed by Tom Harper.
6. "Vanity Fair" (1998) - Natasha Little starred in this award winning adaptation of William Makepeace Thackery's 1848 novel. The six-part miniseries was directed by Marc Munden and adapted by Andrew Davies.
7. "Emma" (1972) - Doran Godwin and John Carson starred in this first-rate adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel. The six-part miniseries was adapted by Denis Constanduros and directed by John Glenister.
8. "Davy Crockett and the River Pirates" (1956) - This sequel to the 1955 television movie, "Davy Crockett, King of the Wild Frontier", conveyed the experiences of Davy Crockett and George Russel with keelboat riverman Mike Fink and river pirates along the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Picturesque and a lot of fun. Directed by Norman Foster, the TV movie starred Fess Parker, Buddy Ebsen and Jeff York.
9. "War and Peace" (1972) - Anthony Hopkins, Morag Hood and Alan Dobie starred in this superb adaptation of Leo Tolstoy's 1869 novel. The twenty-part miniseries was adapted by Jack Pulman and directed by John Davies.
10. "Poldark" (1996) - John Bowe and Mel Martin starred in this television adaptation of Winston Graham's 1981 novel from his Poldark series, "The Stranger From the Sea". The television movie was directed by Richard Laxton and adapted by Robin Mukherjee.
Thursday, July 30, 2020
Below are images from "EMMA", the 2020 adaptation of Jane Austen's 1815 novel. Directed by Autumn de Wilde, the movie starred Anya Taylor-Joy and Johnny Flynn:
"EMMA" (2020) Photo Gallery
Sunday, July 26, 2020
"THE EUROPEANS" (1979) Review
Merchant-Ivory Productions first began as a production company in 1961. Formed by Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory, the film company produced and released a series of movies, usually written by German-born screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. A few years before Merchant-Ivory entered its artistic heyday of the 1980s and 90s, it released "THE EUROPEANS", an adaptation of Henry James' 1878 short novel, "The Europeans: A Sketch":
Set in antebellum Massachusetts in either 1849 or 1850, "THE EUROPEANS" begins with the arrival of an European visitor named Felix Young, who is in the United States to visit his American cousins, the Wentworths. The first member of the family he meets is Gertrude Wentworth, who is shirking attendance at church. Felix eventually meets the rest of the family - patriarch Mr. Wentworth, Charlotte and the youngest member, Clifford. He also meets Mr. Brand, the local minister who hopes to marry Gertrude. Felix's sister, Eugenia Munster, arrives the next day. Not only does she meet the Wentworths and Mr. Brand; but also Robert and Lizzie Acton, a brother and sister who happen to be neighbors of the Wentworths.
It is apparent that Gertrude has not only become enamored of her European cousins' lifestyle, but especially Felix. Meanwhile, Eugenia and Robert have grown increasingly attracted to one another. However, Eugenia is reluctant to sign the divorce papers that would signal the end of her morganatic marriage to Prince Adolf of Silberstadt-Schreckenstein, whose family wants the marriage to end for political reasons. Despite Eugenia's marriage and her obvious dislike of her cousins' Unitarian society, she managed to become attracted to Robert . . . much to his sister Lizzie's distaste. As for Felix, he and Gertrude become romantically involved. Unfortunately, the Wentworths are not thrilled by this new development between the distant cousins. All of them expect Gertrude to marry Mr. Brand - including Charlotte, who happens to be in love with the minister. The story ends up as a clash between 19th century European and American sensibilities and culture; and also a series of love stories or subplots that feature family disapproval, procrastination and bad communication.
I might as well say it. "THE EUROPEANS" is not exactly an example of the Merchant Ivory team at its cinematic best. Mind you, the movie is visually lovely. And thanks to Ruth Prawer Jhabvala's screenplay, it does featuring some amusing wit. But there is something archaic, almost static about this film. I get the feeling that Ishmail Merchant and James Ivory were either overwhelmed by the film's period setting. Or else they, along with Prawer Jhabvala, were determined to indulged in some cliched view of stoic 19th century New England. There were times when "THE EUROPEANS" struck me as a bit too slow, almost bloodless. This pristine, yet chilly style even permeated the movie's production designs managed by Joyce Herlihy.
But there were plenty of aspects of "THE EUROPEANS" that I enjoyed. Cinematographer Larry Pizer beautifully captured the New England locations of the film. Although Henry James' story was set during the spring, Merchant, Ivory and their production team were so dazzled by the region's beauty during the fall season that they decided to change the story's period. I was also very impressed by Judy Moorcroft's costume designs. Not only did I find her costumes beautiful, but I was also impressed by Moorcroft's successful attempt to make her costumes a near re-creation of 1849-1850 fashions in Western countries. A good example is the following outfit worn by Lee Remick:
Despite my complaints about the movie's staid adaptation of James' novel, I must admit that I still managed to enjoy the story. What I found surprising about the movie's plot is that the so-called battle between the cultures did not result in any real winners. Did American or European culture win? My answer is "neither". But individuals won, especially three particular characters - Felix Young and the two Wentworth sisters, Gertrude and Charlotte. The romance . . . or flirtation between Eugenia Munster and Robert Acton proved to be a bit more complicated. Despite their flirtations and battles of will, I came away with the particular feeling that neither really triumphed in the end. Yet at the same time, I found it equally hard to believe that either of them had suffered a sound defeat. The Eugenia-Robert romance proved to be one of the most complex literary relationships I have ever encountered. Most of the performances in "THE EUROPEANS" proved to be solid, especially those from Tim Woodward, Lisa Eichhorn, Robert Addy and Norman Snow. But the two performances that really impressed me came from Lee Remick and Robin Ellis, who did a marvelous job in conveying the complicated Eugenia-Robert romance.
As I had stated earlier, I would never consider "THE EUROPEANS" as one of the best movies produced by the Merchant-Ivory team. I found it a bit slow and at times, bloodless. It lacked the earthy humor and drama of some of the production company's bigger successes in the 1980s and 90s. On the other hand, I must admit that it looked beautiful and still featured some complex characterizations, thanks to a solid cast led by Lee Remick and Robin Ellis. With patience, one could overlook the movie's flaws and still manage to enjoy Henry James' tale.
Friday, July 24, 2020
"THIS IS A MISTAKE"
I have heard that in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent protests against police brutality, Disney Parks have decided to change the theme of its Splash Mountain attraction in all of its theme parks. Instead of an attraction based on the 1949 animated film, "SONG OF THE SOUTH" and the Uncle Remus stories by Joel Chandler Harris, Disney Parks has decided to change the attraction’s theme to one based on the 2009 animated film, "THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG". And I believe this is a big mistake.
First of all, why can Disney Parks not consider the idea of maintaining the present theme of Splash Mountain and create a new one based on "THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG"? What is the point of erasing the "SONG OF THE SOUTH" theme from its Splash Mountain attraction? "THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG" theme . . . with a mountain setting? That does not make any sense to me, considering the 2009 movie was set in late 1920s New Orleans and the swamps of Southern Louisiana. "SONG OF THE SOUTH" was set near the region of Stone Mountain, somewhere between Northern and Central Georgia.
If Disney thinks it is being politically correct in the wake of the Black Lives Matters movement, they are mistaken. The Brer Rabbit stories are basically AFRICAN-AMERICAN folklore,which served as a metaphor for the struggles of African-American slaves before and immediately after the Civil War. Three African-Americans on a Georgia plantation had told these stories to Joel Chandler Harris, a white teenager they had befriended during and after the Civil War. Harris had worked for their owner and later, employer. When he later became a journalist and a writer, Harris took those stories and had them published under the "Uncle Remus Tales" title between 1880 and 1907. The character of Uncle Remus served as a metaphor for those three slaves-turned-freedmen, whom Harris had befriended. What Disney Parks is doing is misguided lip service to the Black Lives Matter movement. If Disney Parks really want to pay tribute to the movement, it would maintain Splash Mountain’s original theme and create a new attraction based on "THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG".
Now that I think about it, what is really racist about "SONG OF THE SOUTH"? The Uncle Remus character? The fact that he is a former slave? Or that he was friendly with two white kids? Or that he still lived on a plantation after the Civil War? Uncle Remus was based on the three slaves that Joel Harris had befriended on a plantation. How else does anyone thinks Harris had found out about the Brer Rabbit stories? By eavesdropping on the plantation workers? Are people upset that Uncle Remus had served as a narrator, telling these stories to white kids? I also noticed two other aspects of this situation. The 1946 movie was set during the post-Civil War era. One of the film's main protagonists, a young Georgian white boy named Johnny, who happened to be the son of an Atlanta newspaper journalist in post-Civil War Georgia. Aside from Uncle Remus, Johnny had befriended a poor white girl and the son of a black sharecropper during his family's visit to his grandmother's plantation. The movie has nothing to do with reinforcing the so-called "glories" of the pre-Civil War Old South. None of the live-action characters in "SONG OF THE SOUTH" - including Uncle Remus - or the film's actual plantation setting is featured inside Splash Mountain. So again . . . why does Disney Parks feel it needs to change the attraction’s theme?
The Brer Rabbit stories are metaphors about how generations black Americans had SURVIVED the horrors of American slavery, after they and their ancestors had been dragged to North American and to different parts of the South and forced to work for nothing against their will. Do many people have a problem that comedy was an element in the stories? That is how the original stories were framed. At least "SONG OF THE SOUTH" is actually based on African-American culture or folklore. Despite having an African-American woman as its leading character, "THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG" is not. It is a movie based on "The Frog Princess", a 2002 novel written by E.D. Baker, a white American woman. She had based her novel on who based her story on "The Frog Prince", the 1812 novel written by the Brothers Grimm . . . two white European men.
By replacing the "SONG OF THE SOUTH" theme inside Splash Mountain attraction at the Disney theme parks with one from "THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG", Disney Parks is erasing one theme based on African-American culture and replacing it with one based on European culture. Replacing "THE PRINCESS AND THE FROG" lead character from a white European woman to an African-American woman does not change that fact.
Sunday, July 19, 2020
Below are images from "TAP ROOTS", the 1948 adaptation of James H. Street's 1942 novel. Directed by George Marshall, the movie starred Susan Hayward and Van Heflin:
"TAP ROOTS" (1948) Photo Gallery