Judge Bill Gibron has never been to war, but he occasionally gets "the winds" something fierce.
The Winds of Snore? The Winds of Bore?
For decades, World War II was viewed as the prototypical jingoistic junction box. As Tom Brokaw would later christen them, the "greatest generation" always viewed the time when the rest of the world took on Hitler, Mussolini, and Tojo as a defining moment in political and human history. And they were right. The scope of the Second World War encompassed so many military and moral issues that to recall them all would take volumes, not a simple DVD review. From the horrors of the Holocaust to the final, fatalistic nuclear statement made at Hiroshima, the cost—not only in lives but also in consciousness—created the basis for a whole new foundation of international conflict.
When combined with perhaps the single most recognizable universal symbol of evil incarnate—the Nazi Party and its leadership—and heroics so vast that sometimes the brain lacks the comprehension to understand such bravery, WWII has also been one of the hardest clashes to properly dramatize. Up until the mid-1990s, most World War II visualizations were factually inaccurate propaganda pieces, portraying the enemy as a group of outrageous ethnic and ethos stereotypes, while the Allies were gods in mortal garb. But beginning with Samuel Fuller's underrated The Big Red One, and reaching all the way to HBO's near-definitive pinnacle, Band of Brothers, the Great War has finally gotten a fair, first-class cinematic treatment.
Back in 1983, another filmmaker attempted something similar: Dan Curtis, TV mogul and creator of some of the boob tube's biggest cult icons, had a lifelong dream of bringing WWII to the screen. The Winds of War, Herman Wouk's intensely popular novel became the basis for what was, at the time, the biggest television miniseries ever—close to 19 hours of programming. But instead of going for abject realism, Curtis tried to combine several divergent factors—military strategy, politics, romance, family conflict, war crimes, and bumbling bureaucracy—into a single, stirring saga. As with any broad canvas, even with time to play out its plots, the strokes had to be wide and the insight superficial.
This is the reason why The Winds of War just doesn't hold up to postmillennial scrutiny. Instead of telling one story exceptionally well, it tries to cover every aspect of the pre-Pearl Harbor war in the European theater. Such a strategy is cinematically tragic.
Facts of the Case
It's 1938. Nazi Germany stands at the brink of war with Europe. Hitler has been tirelessly pursuing the Fatherland's rebuilding after the national humiliation the country suffered during World War I.
As the Fuehrer plans to invade Poland, Commander Victor "Pug" Henry (Robert Mitchum) and his brash wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen) are sent to Berlin. Pug serves as the US Naval Attaché in the hotbed of the Third Reich's push for power, acting both above and below the radar, gathering intelligence and information. Feeling left out of all the espionage, Rhoda begins a tawdry affair with uranium scientist Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves). The rest of the Henry family is spread out all over the map. Youngest daughter Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher) works for CBS in New York City. Oldest son Warren (Ben Murphy) is a pilot who ends up being stationed at Pearl Harbor after training. The black sheep of the family, son Byron, is in Italy, working as a research assistant for famed American author Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman). There, Byron meets and falls in love with Aaron's niece, the defiant Natalie (Ali MacGraw). Though she is seeing a member of the US embassy staff, Leslie Slote (David Dukes), Natalie soon grows to love Byron.
As Poland is invaded and conquered, France overrun, and Britain bombed within an inch of existence, America stays outside the fray. Pug travels on several secret missions under direct order of the President. But when Hitler refuses to occupy England and instead heads East for an overthrow of the Soviet Union, The Winds of War begin to blow even more fiercely, affecting each member of the Henry clan in a different way. Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), the daughter of a British friend of Pug's, develops a kind of schoolgirl crush on the old Naval war-horse. Because Natalie and Aaron are Jews, their life in Europe becomes a series of run-ins with the Gestapo and the constant threat of deportation. Byron heads to sub school and becomes an officer on one of the US Navy's underwater war machines.
Meanwhile, Pug witnesses the bombing of Berlin, battles on the German-Russian front, and the terror tactics of Hitler's air force over London. When he requests a sea command from the President himself, Pug is soon placed in charge of the USS California, docked and ready at…Pearl Harbor. Then the horrible events of December 7, 1941, change everything for both the United States and the Henrys. With America now battling in the Pacific, and preparing to take on the Nazi menace in Europe, the war is really just beginning…
Right from the very start, The Winds of War jars you with its desire to depict each and every aspect of World War II; the whole lot—from Hitler's harangues to Polly Bergen's clueless, star-struck Nazi sympathizer. When it stays with the war material—the strategizing and backroom politicking, the miniseries really ignites with intrigue and suspense. We learn a great deal about the early days of the war, from the genius military moves by the Germans to the badly-timed blunders that prolonged and eventually cost them the conflict.
Director Dan Curtis, who made Winds one of his numerous pet projects (you can add Dark Shadows and Kolchak: The Night Stalker to that list as well), obviously loves the intricacies of international negotiations, shuttle diplomacy and covert intelligence operations. Whenever The Winds of War focuses on such historically accurate providence, it's a great show. Curtis has enormous control here, never once manufacturing his military intrigue. After properly setting up the pros and cons, the objectives and the objections, he lets the actual truth be told, and the resulting high drama is a Winds of War rarity. Sadly, the same cannot be said for the saccharine, soap opera slop with which he—and obviously, scribe Herman Wouk—pad the plot. Just as we grow interested in more Nazi nastiness or Churchill charm, the hackneyed Henry family shows up, and melodrama's all over the place.
It's not entirely Curtis's fault that this is the operating model for The Winds of War. Since the phenomenal success of Roots established the miniseries as a viable venture in long-form entertainment, everything and anything that came after it had to be bigger, better, and broader in scope. Something like the Second World War and a family forced into the thick of it seemed like perfect several-night source material. Only problem is, the kitchen sink crap Wouk worked into War is not the least bit endearing. We end up hating half the family here, not only for their complete lack of class and couth (Rhoda Henry), but their unbridled gall at believing they are above the politics and pitfalls involved in war (Natalie Jastrow). Toss in Pug's Billy Pilgrim-like ability to be unstuck in time and location so as to be part of, or witness to, many of the landmark moments during the first years of the war, and the non-believability of this fictional clan is clear.
These petty personal issues within the story scuttle the seriousness of the geopolitical plights in Winds of War. But Curtis's desire to out-Cecil B. DeMille also undoes the dynamics here. Dan is just so in love with spectacle that you'd swear he was a wedding planner in a previous life. Several times throughout the endless running time of Winds, Curtis closes down the narrative to highlight one of those magical moments that are supposed to suggest scope and epic nature, but only end up as time sucks for an audience desperate to get the story back on track. Our first foray into said plot paralysis comes at a fancy dress ball in Berlin. Another instance occurs during a traditional Italian horse race, which looks more like an animal-hating free-for-all. From a banquet in a train depot for Warsaw refugees to a sea skirmish featuring some of the worst model work in the history of…history, The Winds of War is underwhelming in its attempt at grandeur. About the only instances where vision matches the visuals occur during a German attack in Russia, and the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. In both cases, the impressive power of a military machine in action more than makes up for second-tier special effects and sometime shoddy blue screen sequences.
But it is in the interpersonal department where this showcase really stumbles. Never before have so many lifeless characters filled in the human spaces on a backdrop as dramatic as the Second World War, as do the irritating idiots making up the Henry family (and their various associates). Robert Mitchum (who at 66, was far too old for his role—he was born during WWI, for crying out loud!) is just a seat warmer, required to be present when major expositional elements play out in front of the camera, but never really having much impact on the action. His Pug Henry is merely a representation of American power and patience, tactical temerity welded to an iron resolve. Of course, this all comes across as rather vapid onscreen, and Mitchum does seem bored most of the time. Jan-Michael Vincent—pushing 40 but playing 20-something—seems a single car accident—or shot of liquor—away from ending up as that modern incoherent mess he often portrays on Howard Stern's couch. Vincent's Byron is supposed to be an unbridled, free-spirited youth, in love with life and all its unfulfilled promise. But instead, he comes across as a constipated old man who would just be happy to have a good BM once in a while. From Ben Murphy's soldier impersonation as all toothsome smile, to Peter Graves's cow-eyed scientist as stoic adulterer, almost all the men here give new meaning to the concept of cowardice and lack of machismo.
But let's face it: if you had to put up with the God-awful shrews that make up the ladies' contingent in The Winds of War, you'd be emasculated as well. Both Polly Bergen and Ali MacGraw should be charged with some manner of war crime for their creepy, awkward performances here. MacGraw—looking every bit of her 45 years—is like a deranged Gentile's idea of what a haughty Jewish princess is all about. More than happy to screw anyone to get what she wants, she uses men like wetnaps to clean up all the self-created problems in her life. She is not beyond visiting Poland while a warning against travel is under effect, or returning to Italy to save a stubborn old uncle while the Final Solution is in full swing. This doesn't make her noble or brave, mind you. She's more foolhardy than fierce. Whatever acting talent MacGraw actually possessed at one time was obviously awarded to Robert Evans in their divorce. Not that Polly Bergen is any better. Saddled with a role that Herman Wouk must have known would make her look like a complete apologist for each and every Nazi ideal—including anti-Semitism—Bergen is like a broken record of a shrieking monkey in the middle of an epileptic fit. She whines so often and so loudly that you just wish Mitchum would go Max Cady or Rev. Harry Powell on her and put us all out of our misery. To her, the Nazi party is just one big receiving line, and she wants to meet everyone in it before the war is over and the celebrities all go home…or are shot. She may be intended as the Ugly American in this panoramic look at all facets of the war, but no US citizen should have to portray some…thing as repugnant as Rhoda Henry.
Outside the arena of the leads, the ancillary cast is very good. David Dukes plays the good-natured doormat Leslie Slote like he has the word "Welcome" tattooed across his forehead, and Topol tears up all the scenery he hasn't already chewed, giving the Russian refugee Berel Jastrow the perfect pre-Concentration Camp clarion call. Ralph Bellamy, who looks nothing like FDR except in the cigarette holder department, makes a fine, frail President and another non-lookalike, Howard Lang, still manages to pull off Churchill's bulldog skin with charm and charisma.
As for the bad guys, all the Nazis have their moustache-twirling nastiness down to an insane science, with Jeremy Kemp especially good as the disgruntled Brig. Gen. Armin von Roon. His quiet, introspective scenes with Mitchum are some of the best in the whole of The Winds of War. Though it seems like an odd thing to say, Hitler is given rather short shrift by the performance of Gunter Meisner. Supposedly famous for his take on the twisted world leader, Meisner looks more like a Warner Bros. caricature of the megalomaniac monkey-boy than the real life person. There is no subtlety to his shout-and-gloat performance; he is all fire and bugf*ck brimstone, signifying nothing.
With other "blink and you'll miss them" turns by John Karlen, Laurence Pressman, and famed scream queen Barbara Steele (who, strangely, served as a producer on this project) the vast majority of the performances are professional and reminiscent of the kind of straightforward thespianism you'd see in an Irwin Allen disaster film. No one breaks down into method madness or stirs the soul with a heart-tugging moment. These are bodies in service of a scenario, really nothing more.
Still, you have to give Curtis and the corps some credit—this was a massive undertaking with thousands of set-ups and hundreds of locations, and never once do we really get lost in the storyline shuffle. Curtis understands how to keep an ongoing saga salient, and it's to his credit that The Winds of War isn't more mundane or mediocre. Sure, when toy boats sail a backlot ocean and risk ruining their model paint and decal dynamics, the throwback to old-fashioned Hollywood hokum is painfully evident. As the recent successes of Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, and Band of Brothers prove, our nation is still hungry to understand the sacrifice and social symbolism inherent in this subject, and is not afraid of a serious, straightforward approach. When Michael Bay's misstep Pearl Harbor applied a similar sentimental ideal to its monumental military moment, audiences rejected its overt romanticism in the face of vast human suffering almost outright. Indeed, The Winds of War is a lot like Bay's blunder in that it wants to soften the blow of battle with cornball convolutions and personal parsimoniousness. Curtis proves he is up to the challenge of a realistic look at war, and had he not been burdened with Wouk's Harlequin romance-as-history-lesson, he had the potential to make a stellar serious statement about WWII. Unfortunately The Winds of War has far too many flaws to label it a timeless classic. It is a decent enough attempt, but definitely not the lasting memorial to those who fought, and died, to keep the world free.
Paramount releases The Winds of War in a six-disc Collectors' Edition DVD that has some serious audio and video problems. Instead of placing the original elements through the remastering machine and getting a pristine, like-new version of this fan favorite, the Prosaic Peak has apparently just slapped some mediocre VHS versions of the miniseries onto DVD with little concern for grain, dirt, age, and/or compression defects. All of these elements are present in the pathetic 1.33:1 full screen image and it's a real shame. Director Curtis tried for a level of opulence and detail in his compositions, but most of it is ruined by telltale gray "noise," fuzzy reproduction, and other irritating visual variations. Frankly, for a title as fondly remembered by fans to look this lousy is patently unfair.
As is the aural presentation. During many of the war scenes, the battle bombardments distort and obliterate the soundtrack's other elements. And then there is the God-awful music of Bob Cobert (Dan's Kolchak and Dark Shadows buddy, who did better work on those shows). Featuring only three or four main themes played over and over again to saccharine, syrupy effect, the Dolby Digital Mono turns the overt orchestrations flat and static. While dialogue is crisp and clear, the rest of the aural attributes are pretty poor for such an extravaganza.
Individuals anxious for extras will, perhaps, be pleased by the material found here. Located on Disc Four, we are treated to four featurettes, each of which covers a specific area of the production. The main offering, entitled "Making The Winds of War," details the challenge facing Dan Curtis in bringing the monumental bestseller to life. The details here are very interesting, especially how the former Yugoslavia stood in for several countries in the hunt for authentic locations. We actually witness many of these aforementioned places in the additional "On Location" featurette. As we follow several of the stars and crew around the markets and malls of these pristine settings, we get a real feel for the international flavor of the series. The "Cast and Characters" featurette discusses the difficulties in locating the proper Pug, Rhoda, and Pamela Tudsbury. Hearing Polly Bergen and Ali MacGraw compliment The Winds of War as the best project they've ever worked on, as well as the showcase they're most proud of, says a great deal for Curtis's ability as a filmmaker. Finally, Herman Wouk is present to detail the lengthy research and writing process that went into creating The Winds of War, the novel. He is especially frank about how, once he reached the Pearl Harbor section, he went back and realized he had written over 1000 pages of text. When he asked his wife what to do, her statement was simple: finish the story. The featurette entitled "A Novel for Television" addresses this dilemma, as well as the numerous concessions ABC had to make in order to secure the rights to the book. At over an hour of information and insight, these documentaries add a nice bit of explanatory context to the DVD presentation.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
All the shrews down in Shrewville aside, The Winds of War is epic television entertainment, without question. While it may not be the most factually accurate or politically astute discussion of what went on from 1938 to 1941, it does try to present a fair, frequently moving look at the time and the temperament of the world circa Nazism's rise. Sure, Italy and the other Axis powers are given short shrift here (material obviously saved for Wouk and Curtis's sequel, War and Remembrance), and the romance angles can get in the way of all the military mayhem. Still, to harp about the constant interjection of humanity into the story is silly. Audiences want to experience such horrible events through the eyes of someone to whom they can relate, and The Winds of War gives several such examples of everyman and woman. While some of the plot points can get convoluted, and dramatic tension is often killed by the random reconfiguration to a stateside—or bedside—story, the overall effect is to present all the dynamics that made up this conflict, both at home and abroad. It is in this capacity that The Winds of War succeeds.
When critics want to decry the excesses of the miniseries (mostly in discussions as to why they are no longer so popular), they usually point to two examples of the genre to prove their point: The Winds of War and its bloated sequel, War and Remembrance (itself clocking in at a staggering 1500 minutes—that's 25 hours!). Indeed, these epics to excess do represent everything that television could do better than the movies back in the early '80s. Before pay cable giants like HBO, Showtime, and Cinemax proved they could recoup their investment by making their own long-form films, the broadcast networks were the sole bastions of elaborate small-screen spectacle. In that regard, The Winds of War is a stellar example of this concept. It covers several years in the formative aspects of World War II and does so with energy and spirit.
But it also falls victim to the other toxic travails of the format—the reliance on hackneyed human melodrama to hook the homebound audience. And it's the people who populate this geopolitical playground who ultimately undermine the narrative. World War II was indeed a defining moment in the history of the planet. The Winds of War tries, but ultimately fails, to fulfill its mission of presenting the entire saga. It's an entertaining—and greatly irritating—television miniseries event.
The Winds of War is found guilty of being a pompous, overblown gasbag of a TV movie, and is sentenced to several screenings of Band of Brothers to learn how to visualize a global conflict through a narrow, unflinching scope.
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Scales of Justice
• Featurette: "Making The Winds of War"
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