Let’s face it: The greatest story of the 20th Century remains World War II. Absolutely nothing matches the epic grandeur of its genocidal apocalypse, no fiction writer could produce the likes of Hitler—a human monster who, on the box, may yet “live” out his promise of a 1000 year reich. The strongest facets of our continuing fascination: that one man could persuade a nation to indulge his megalomania; that one man so easily found the perfect inhuman killing machines to carry out the sickest of atrocities; and that one man could maintain so fearful and futile a grip right up to the very end. Hitler’s insanity wasn’t exclusively wrought from his own demons; he was the supreme emblem of Germany’s social psychosis brought on by the defeat of W.W.I., the punishing Treaty of Versailles, the world-wide Depression, the susceptibility and chaos of immoral politics. Confirming the advanced level of German dementia only slightly more than the anti-Jew policies is the blatant adoration of Hitler as a sexual magnet; his myth-making showmanship produced orgasmic frenzy amongst the nation’s women belying his creepy, dark-haired, pathetically mustached indigent roots, the antithesis of the Aryan God as procreator he endeavored to make official biological law. Watching the miniseries versions of Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, one horrible fact emerges above all others: Hitler hasn’t suffered a shortage of copycats.

Given the vastness of subject, the numbers of countries and real people and fictional characters interweaved into the narrative, you may initially wonder how producer-director Dan Curtis could gather Wouk’s profuse fanning of scenes into a cohesive whole. Though Wouk’s books were never written with television in mind, and are too encompassing for a single movie, they’re very adaptable to the miniseries format—all the major moments have a camera-ready-like immediacy. Wouk wrote The Winds of War teleplay and was part of a trio adapting War and Remembrance. Becoming apparent is how daunting are the actual logistics of filming: Curtis’ great accomplishment is overcoming most of the myriad problems while filming to effectively re-produce the sprawl of World War II. If we argue over his aesthetics, choices of actors and narrator (William T. Woodson, whose voice imparts unintentional pomposity) and some very poor special effects on the seas, we can hardly debate his roughly thirty hour saga isn’t gripping history of the damned.

When Curtis convinced ABC to invest millions in creating a miniseries out of Wouk’s The Winds of War, many of us cackled over casting Ali MacGraw as Natalie and psycho Jan-Michael Vincent as her husband Bryon. The result: Who didn’t want to throw these two into the nearest gas chamber? The high ratings guaranteed Curtis would be given the okay to multipart Wouk’s follow up War and Remembrance. Accepting the onslaught of severe criticism concerning MacGraw and Vincent, with Wouk in private probably the most vocal, Curtis cast Jane Seymour as Natalie, Hart Bochner for Bryon, and, because John Houseman, who originated the part of Dr. Aaron Jastrow, was suffering from terminal spine cancer, asked Sir John Gielgud to fill in. Sometimes fate intervenes gratefully: Sir John single-handedly makes the length of War and Remembrance endurable. In attempting to describe this, his last major performance, and the largest filmed role of his long career, I defer to critic Eric Bentley who in his collection of criticism What is Theatre? captured him as “an incomparably graceful scythe.” It’s his sleek, razor-sharp urbanity, his devastating economy as an actor winning us over time and again. Oh, what an elegant, immaculate blade! Unlike Olivier, he has no bag of tricks, making the “big screen” performance here all the more wrenching. The epitome of class and restraint, Sir John attains near-greatness in scenes such as the one in which he’s being kicked in the abdomen and back, his reacquaintance with his faith, another in which he bribes Nazi commandant Robert Stephens with diamonds to spare Jane Seymour’s life, and, as pinnacle, when hurried into a gas chamber nude and amidst the screams, there’s both fear and resignation in his eyes, reflecting terror so hurting and poignant as to be chilling, as if Thespis resurrected. His voice-overs used as linking device, when he departs Theresienstadt, known as the “showplace” concentration camp, to board the train to Auschwitz, he recites verbatim Wouk’s most moving passage of text. (It’s the conclusion of Chapter 89. Readers as well as viewers wonder what’s to become of “A Jew’s Journey,” which Aaron wrote and hid behind other books at Theresienstadt.)

In giving Gielgud his glorious due, there’s danger of overlooking Ralph Bellemy, who, for one more time, plays FDR. He first played Roosevelt on Broadway to Tony-winning acclaim in Sunrise at Campobello, and did the 1960 film version with Greer Garson. Though Sunrise static and the performances in it annoyingly theatrical, you can see Bellemy, trying to reach beyond impersonation and not always succeeding, wants to find an energy source via the president’s affliction, using it and the wheelchair as vehicles to bond with the audience. Edward Herrmann, Jason Robards Jr. and John Lithgow also used the wheelchair as an emotional bridge, but it’s Bellemy in The Winds of War and War and Remembrance who turns the handicaps, as well as a cigarette holder, into an actor’s reservoir; his affection for FDR spills over into smiling majesty. And maybe it’s just easier and safer to play Hitler the way Günter Meisner does—as “dress up,” going for solemn caricature, tightroping drag into power-mad showboating, providing a protective net for audiences so they can pretend no one “could really be like that” or permit such unspeakables. Meisner doesn’t connect beyond media-produced imprressions and presumably why Steven Berkoff, an English Jew, takes over in War and Remembrance, working even harder to bring to us a fearing beholder’s composite view of incomprehensible monstrosity; there really is intent to  frighten yet empty when he goes off on one of those manic-hysterical rages. (Which give new meaning to the effectiveness of breath control: Berkoff’s ability to use his respiratory system to enable the spellbinding imbalance is likely to be studied in acting classes for years to come.) These performances don’t get there, as they’re minus any flesh and blood, replaced by and sustained on illimitable revulsion. With Meisner’s lispy speech impediment and Berkoff’s facial cyst, they’re the sell-out attraction at a circus maximus freak show.

Robert Mitchum is the tent-pole patriarch Victor “Pug” Henry and he reinforces the meaning of stoicism; his steadiness is hugely reassuring. In the role of her career as Pug’s boozed, almost slutty wife Rhoda, Polly Bergen, hitting the spectrum of conniving nuance, and fully a milliner’s favorite, could be a disguised version of Mamie Eisenhower, especially revelatory during the Washington D.C. sequences. (Mamie was indisputably quite a social drinker during the war years.) Jane Seymour makes us forget about Ali MacGraw, and while Hart Bochner’s satisfactory in his Naval action scenes, he’s taxed beyond his abilities for the heavily affectional ones he’s got to do at the end. (He belongs in the sub, deep under the water with all that other seafood.) Sharon Stone is surprisingly good as the Henrys’ daughter-in-law. A welcomed respite for viewers, Nina Foch’s chatterbox portrayal of real Clara Comtesse de Chambrun is double-edged expatriot, a Shakespeare scholar and surmised collaborator in the “moral maze” of France against the Resistance as her son married the daughter of Vichy premier Pierre Laval. The casting for the Nazi military is supreme stereotype—given the chance to vent protracted demonization, the actors go full tilt in competition to immortalize themselves. Kudos to production designers Jackson De Govia and Guy Comtois and cinematographers Charles Correll, Stevan Larner and Dietrich Lohmann for all the detailing.

As with Bill Conti’s central theme throughout his score for the Civil War series North and South, Bob Cobert’s for The Winds of War and War and Remembrance is workhorsed to the max, yet the emotions the themes evoke for older generations are now waning as reminder to prevent history repeating itself. A hundred and sixty years after the Civil War, a Harvard-educated fascist governor enacts constrictive legislation in effect saying black lives don’t matter. In a recent national survey of high school students, Hitler was named by a majority of them as having been America’s ally against Russia. Addicted to their cellphones, these same twits support the belief Hitler was killed in a Paris movie theatre. Their understanding of religion grants a present day pathological liar as God’s chosen one.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1998 RALPH BENNER (Revised 4/2023) All Rights Reserved.