”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 his 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 six 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 confident 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 safely get 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. 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 conveying Natalie’s moments of being intimidated in the presence of Nazis or in situations in which she felt like a fish out of water. Her character tend to be exaggerated and rather irritating at times. I suspect that most of the blame should go to Wouk for his creation of the character and the numerous bad lines that McGraw was forced to spew. However, the actress did a good job in conveying Natalie’s moments of feeling intimidated in the presence of Nazis and in situations that left her feeling 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 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 sometimes 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.