We all know, or else I do know and you should know, that the British are very good at putting out miniseries about all sorts of things. Often, it’s adaptations of literature or else original stories. Americans, however, like to make their miniseries out of historical things or popular (read: pulp) fiction of the time. I tend to associate American miniseries with event programing, like Roots (1977) (which I’ve not seen) or the series finale of long-running programs. I don’t associate this phenomenon with quality.
The Winds of War (1983) is an epic miniseries for ABC presenting the run-up to World War II from the view of an American family and the German high command based on the novel of the same name by Herman Wouk. An interesting combination that largely ignores the experience of the victims of German aggression in ways other than detached. When I say epic, I mean four two and a half hour and three hour and a half episodes—that’s fourteen and half for the non-counters—taking us from early 1939 to the end of 1941. The device used to accomplish greatest coverage is a family with a military patriarch.
Each episode starts as self-assured classic opening credit “The Winds of War” in bold block letters, but falls into the silly when the titles swings up twice with the second, slight amendment of “Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War” in the self-same block letters.
So far as a reader is concerned, only the first episode and perhaps the quotations of further episodes need to be read from the following summary to make sense of the review. Since it’s so huge—and the fact that it’s historical—the idea of a spoiler is a bit of a nonsense. Still, the ins and outs of the melodrama is no barrier to enjoying the show.
Episode 1 – The Winds Rise
There’s Ribbentrop and Goebbels. Would you like to meet them? Oh please!
Cmd. Victor “Pug” Henry (Robert Mitchum) begins as a Naval attaché to the American Embassy in Berlin (with his dopey wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen) for company). His daughter, Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), is looking to start a job in the media, his son Warren (Ben Murphy) is in flight school, and his other son, Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) has started a research position in Sienna, Italy for a Jewish author, Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) (who, incidentally, has a beautiful (?) niece named Natalie (Ali MacGraw) who is engaging in some kind of relationship with foreign service officer Leslie Slote (David Dukes)).
As attaché, Pug comes to know and exchange frank discussion with a German general, Von Roon (Jeremy Kemp). Von Roon is no supporter of Hitler (Günter Meisner), but believes in following orders. He also meets the Tudsburys, Talky (Michael Logan) and Pamela (Victoria Tennant), English travelers with Talky as a radio personality and Pamela as his sweet daughter (who seems to like Pug more than is appropriate). He also meets with an American engineer, Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves), who seems to be involved in the construction of a bomb more powerful than ever before.
After Byron proves himself a capable individual, Aaron lets Natalie go to Warsaw (where Slote has been reassigned) on the condition that Byron accompanies her. He does, but they get there two days before Germany invades Poland. The night before, they go to her cousin’s wedding and meet Uncle Berel (Topol) in rural Poland. When things get hairy, they have to head back to Warsaw ahead of the German invasion.
Episode 2 – The Storm Breaks
You do not have to understand, you only have to obey.
The episode begins with Natalie and Byron’s adventures after their return to Warsaw. Pug has impressed FDR (Ralph Bellamy) with his prescience on the German-Soviet nonaggression pact and begins a bit of a friendship there. Madeline gets a job with CBS and does quite well at it and decides not to go back to school. Natalie, Byron, and Slote get out of Warsaw (Berel makes his own way) and Byron hangs with his family in Berlin for a while then takes off to Sienna again. He proposes, she professes love and heads off to the US to see her ill father.
Episode 3 – Cataclysm
Rhoda, make out a list of everything you want to buy from the Rosenthals, and after each item, put down a very fair price.
Things are getting real. War has started on the western front. Attempts at peace are unsuccessful (and Pug gets a good look at an unguarded Hitler). The action is almost exclusively back-room dealing and family drama. Also, the experience of Jews in Europe (and all-over, really) becomes clearer and clearly unpleasant.
Episode 4 – Defiance
I understand that giving us fifty warships is not a wholly friendly act to the other side.
The focus of this episode is on the British experience in the early war. Pug goes on tours to see the various tools of the British Air Force and meets up with Pamela.
Episode 5 – Of Love and War
Do we or do we turn East because Goering has not frightened the English into surrender and because our leader fears the water?
This one covers Byron’s marriage and Pug’s semi adultery with Pamela. In the background is the flight of the Jews from Europe through Lisbon and the terror bombing of London (and the return fire against Berlin).
Episode 6 – The Changing of the Guard
I will not wake the Fuhrer for a convoy siting!
Doesn’t that embarrass you, Prime Minister, you, the lifelong archfoe of Bolshevism? Not at all, I have only one purpose, the destruction of Hitler. If Hitler invaded hell, I should at least make a favorable reference to the Devil in the House of Commons.
Lend lease happening all around now, but things still aren’t going well in the war. The Brits are holding on, but at a price. The Germans (read: Hitler) have decided to invade the Soviet Union and commit the massive blunder of World War I. Still, history does not appear to be repeating itself as the Germans cut through the Soviet Union at a prodigious rate. Meanwhile, Aaron and Natalie are having a devil of a time getting out of Italy—still. Aaron isn’t pushing that hard to get out and seems to be willfully ignorant of his peril.
Episode 7 – Into the Maelstrom
He’s a maniac after all. Seemingly clever, persuasive, and clever, but a maniac.
Pug goes to Russia to take a look at things there. It’s not so good for anybody, really. Berel reappears and pushes for the material he assembled proving German atrocities against the Jews be sent up to FDR to do something about it. He and the British chick profess their doomed love for one another. Then Pearl Harbor is attacked, which is where Warren is now stationed with the Enterprise. Byron is stationed in Manila with a submarine when it too is attacked by the Japanese. Aaron, Natalie, and the unnamed child still can’t get out of Rome. Rhoda asks for a divorce, but then rescinds the request when she hears about Pearl Harbor. War is joined, openly now, and we’re off to…oh wait, it’s over.
Ali MacGraw is terrible, just terrible. Vincent is often terrible—the terror generally consisting of that relentlessly identical and ubiquitous smirk of his. It’s so roguish, it’s almost winning, but by sheer repetition is drained of any power. Add to that the squinting contemplation of his eyes and he’s unbearable. Though, in all honest, his chemistry with his family as the wayward son is near perfect. It’s just as a love interest that he’s so weak. Basically, it’s Robert Mitchum, FDR, and the British (Tennant and others) that make this movie bearable. John Houseman would have been one of the pillars of this series’ greatness, but his character becomes so unforgivably stupid by the second installment that I just couldn’t take it.
The cast is thoroughly peopled with over-actors and the poor of expression. It’s interesting that this show isn’t populated with rising talent, which is what you see in British mineseries, but rather with old stars of dubious talents (Mitchum excepted). I can only surmise from these actors’ and the director’s credits that the media of television and film were highly segregated. For a working actor or director, how could it possibly be that they go from show to show (substantiating some kind of popularity) without being cast in even a handful of memorable films?
Another thing forever pestering me was the soundtrack. Here you have this massive, epic, long, epic series that must have taken weeks to cut together (with a team of six editors) and you’ve got the same sweeping yet meaningless theme constantly popping up. It’s not a terrible tune, but it has to be played two dozen times at the least. There’s one point where the music actually matches the action—where Byron and Natalie are getting bureaucratically married in Lisbon—that turns parody into tragedy. They knew how to make it better, they just decided not to.
While we’re talking annoyances, I’ve got a minor one. It falls into a grander statement on the series. There is a subculture out there, within the history-knowledgeable, that tends to both aggrandize the individuals of the past and simplify their thoughts to make them seem simultaneously brilliant and stupid. Example. Germans are smart and they aren’t prepared enough to fight a two-front campaign, so, Pug reasons, they must have a deal in the works with Stalin. Constructing a hindsight Sherlock Holmes-style deduction might seem like an elegant device to explain the situation, but instead comes off as a military history fetishist’s daydream of what he’d—and it’s definitely “he”—have done if he were there in 1939. If you’re familiar with Peep Show (2003-), you’re familiar with the type. But, while in Peep Show I find the behavior charming in its expression and clear impotence, in The Winds of War, these pronouncements are given in the voice and person of a John Wayne–Clint Eastwood–George Smiley hybrid. Even then, I’m almost inclined towards saint-like forgiveness, but when that preposterous narrator (William Woodson) comes in, I’m afraid that there can be no clemency. These narrations are almost laughable. I can’t get the Start the Revolution without Me (1970) guy out of my head.
That leads to the writing of the piece. Herman Wouk, who wrote the novel upon which the series is based, also did the teleplay. Why they gave him that opportunity and responsibility, I could not say, but it came to mixed results. The kind of astounding hero quality that Pug attains is a bit restrained—he never picks up a gun to shoot Nazis, at least—so that’s something. But there do seem to be a great deal of affairs that stem from…let’s call it fantasies unlike my own. These tend to be heavy on the melodrama and dynamic-shifts rather than deep thoughtful emotion. A lot of that probably has to do with the acting, which is definitely 80’s television, but the dialogue doesn’t often lend itself to profundity. God, that narrator!
The direction is actually rather strong from Dan Curtis. There are certain moments where the camera work is quite masterful. There are plenty of hiccups, but those are attributable to technology and the period. Breaking out of the period’s poor instincts—at least as I see them—is noteworthy and it’s praiseworthy when considering that this is both the 80’s and television.
As I alluded to earlier, this is a massive production. Apparently, they shot 185 hours of film that needed to be cut down to 14.5 hours. And they really used their time. There are huge battles and fly overs and I don’t know what all that must have cost a pretty penny. They had a budget of $35 million and they spent it. Consider, if you will, the perspective of someone creating an epic historical fiction. I imagine the temptation to pick up and call it good must have been considerable. Cut a corner here or there, reuse some locations here and there. Instead, they carried on and put together so epic that I’ve repeated the word epic about an epic half a dozen times.
What’s the bottom line? The historical setting falls into the phony on occasion, but is so strong elsewhere that it’s well-worth a look. I’m big on miniseries, history, and education through film, so this is right up my alley. But on the other hand, I’m an enemy to the melodramatic or maudlin, so if I’m recommending it, those strengths must go pretty far. Every great element is balanced by a weakness in that same element, but the same goes for the poor elements (like writing and acting).
It’s $26 on Amazon. I’d buy it.