NOTES ON War and Remembrance”

Lets 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. Hitlers insanity wasnt exclusively wrought from his own demons; he was the supreme emblem of Germanys social psychosis—brought on by the defeat of W.W.I., the punishing Treaty of Versailles, the world-wide Depression, the chaos of corrupt politics. Confirming the advanced level of German dementia 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 nations women that belied his creepy-looking, dark-haired, pathetically mustached indigent roots. He was the antithesis of the Aryan God as procreator he endeavored to make official biological law. Watching the miniseries versions of Herman Wouks The Winds of War and War and Remembrance, one horrible fact rises above all others: Hitler never suffered a shortage of accomplices.

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 Wouks profuse fanning of scenes into a cohesive whole. Though Wouks books were never written with television in mind, and are too encompassing for a single movie, theyre very adaptable to the miniseries form—all the major moments have a camera-ready-like immediacy. (Wouk wrote the “Winds of War teleplay, and was part of a trio who teleplayed War and Remembrance.”) What becomes apparent is how daunting are the actual logistics of filming. Curtis greatest accomplishment is that he overcame his myriad of problems while filming to effectively re-produce the sprawl of World War II. If we argue over his aesthetics, his choices of actors or narrator (William T. Woodson, whose voice imparts unintentional pomposity), we can hardly debate that his roughly thirty hour saga is gripping history of the damned.

When Curtis convinced ABC to invest millions in creating a miniseries out of Wouks “The Winds of War, adapted for the most part by the late great Jack Pulman, some of us cackled over casting Ali MacGraw as Natalie and that psycho Jan Michael Vincent as her husband Bryon. Who didnt want to throw them into the nearest gas chamber? The high ratings guaranteed Curtis would be given the okay to multipart Wouks follow up “War and Remembrance. Accepting the severe criticism concerning MacGraw and Vincent, 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: Gielgud single-handedly makes the length of War and Remembrance” endurable. In attempting to describe this, his last major performance, and the largest film role of his long career, I defer to critic Eric Bentley who in his collection of criticism What is Theatre? captured Sir John as “an incomparably graceful scythe.” Its his sleek, razor-sharp urbanity, his devastating economy as an actor that wins us over time and again, because hes rarely more than anything but himself. But oh, what an elegant, immaculate blade! Unlike Olivier and Dustin Hoffman, Sir John has no bag of tricks, which makes his “big screen” performance here all the more powerful. The epitome of class and generosity, Sir John attains greatness in scenes that would otherwise humiliate a lesser actor: one in which hes being kicked repeatedly in the abdomen, another in which he bribes Nazi commandant Robert Stephens with diamonds to spare Jane Seymours life, and then when he is hurried into the gas chambers. Nude and amidst the screams, theres a look of both fear and resignation in his eyes—of terror so hurting and so poignant as to be chilling, as if Thespis resurrected. His voice-overs are used as linking device, and when Aaron departs Theresienstadt, the “showplace” concentration camp, to board the train to Auschwitz, Sir John recites verbatim Wouks most moving passage of text. (Its the conclusion of Chapter 89 in the book War and Remembrance. Readers as well as viewers wonder whats to become of Aarons “A Jews Journey,” which he hid behind some books at Theresienstadt before departing).

In giving Gielgud his glorious due, Im in danger of overlooking Ralph Bellemy, who, for one more time, played FDR. He first played Roosevelt on Broadway to Tony-winning acclaim in Sunrise at Campobello, and he did the 1960 film version with Greer Garson. Though the movies static and the performances annoyingly theatrical, you can see that Bellemy, while trying to reach beyond impersonation and not always succeeding, wants to find an energy source via the presidents affliction, use it as tool to bond with the audience. Edward Herrmann, Jason Robards Jr., and John Lithgow also used the wheelchair as an emotional device, but its Bellemy in “The Winds of War and War and Remembrance” who turns it, finally, into an actors love reservoir; his affection and fun spill over into near majesty. And maybe theres no other way to play Hitler other than “dress up,” going for solemn caricature, tightroping drag into respectable acting, which provides a safety net for audiences so they can pretend no one “could really be like that” or permit such unspeakables. Yet Steven Berkoff, an English Jew, does make a sort of contact in trying to give us a fearing beholders image of an unaccountable monster; there really is something genuinely frightening when he goes off on one of those manic-hysterical rages, which give new meaning to the effectiveness of breathing control. Berkoffs ability to use his respiratory system to provide the spellbinding imbalance is going to be studied in acting classes for years to come. Still, like the other Hitlers who have come before it, this performance lacks flesh and blood. As disturbing and obscene as itll sound, Hitler will never be a role an actor can play with fevered real-life horror until an actor plays him as human being first, mesmerizing psycho-orator second.

Robert Mitchum is the tent-pole patriarch Victor “Pug” Henry and he reinforces the meaning of stoicism; his implacability, however, is reassuring. In the performance of her career as Pugs boozed, almost slutty wife Rhoda, Polly Bergen, hitting the spectrum of conniving nuance, and fully a milliners 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 Bochners satisfactory in his Naval action scenes, hes taxed beyond his abilities for the heavy emotional ones hes got to do at the end. (He belongs in a sub, deep under the water with all that other seafood.) Sharon Stone is surprisingly good as the Henrys daughter-in-law. The casting for the Nazis is supremely stereotypic—given the chance to vent protracted demonization, the actors go full tilt and immortalize themselves. Kudos to production designer Guy Comtois and photographer Dietrich Lohmann for all the rich detailing.

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Text COPYRIGHT © 1998 RALPH BENNER  All Rights Reserved.