A Herman Wouk Double Feature: The Winds of War (1983, directed by Dan Curtis) and War and Remembrance (1988, directed by Dan Curtis)


When the great American novelist Herman Wouk passed away earlier this month at the age of 103, he left behind a rich and varied literary legacy.  From 1947, the year that his first novel was published to 2016, the year that he published his memoirs, Wouk wrote about religion, history, science, and even the movies.  However, Wouk will probably always be best remembered for the three novels that he wrote about World War II.

Based on his own Naval service during World War II, The Caine Mutiny was published in 1951 and was later adapted into both a successful stage play and an Oscar-nominated film.  It also won Wouk a Pulitzer Prize and established him as a major American writer.  Nearly 20 years later, Wouk would return to the history of the Second World War with two of his greatest literary works, The Winds of War and War and Remembrance.  (Originally, Wouk was only planning on writing one book about the entire war but when it took him nearly a thousand pages to reach Pearl Harbor, he decided to split the story in two.)  Beginning in 1939 and proceeding all the way through to the end of the war, the two books followed two families, the Henrys and the Jastrows, as they watched the world descend into war. Along the way, the book’s fictional characters rub shoulders with historical characters like Hitler, Churchill, FDR, and even Stalin.  Carefully researched and meticulously detailed, the books were both critically acclaimed and popular with readers and, despite some soapy elements, they both hold up well today.

Given their success, it’s not a surprise that both The Winds of War and War and Remembrance were adapted for television.  Today, HBO would probably give the books the Game of Thrones treatment, with 8 seasons of war, tragedy, romance, and Emmys.  However, this was the 1980s.  This was the age of of the big-budget, all-star cast network miniseries.  Wouk’s epic history of World War II was coming to prime time.

With a total running times of 15 hours, The Winds of War originally aired over seven evenings in 1983.  Produced and directed for ABC by Dan Curtis, The Winds of War had a 962-page script, a 200-day shooting schedule, 285 speaking parts, and a then-record budget of $35,000,000.  It also had Robert Mitchum, starring as Victor “Pug” Henry, an ambitious naval officer who somehow always managed to be in the right place to witness almost all of the events leading up to America’s entry into World War II.  Jan-Michael Vincent played Pug’s son, Byron, while John Houseman took on the pivotal role Aaron Jastrow, a Jewish scholar though whose eyes the home audience would witness the rise of fascism in Europe.  Terribly miscast as Natalie, Aaron’s niece and Byron’s lover, was 44 year-old Ali MacGraw.  Among those playing historical figures were Ralph Bellamy as FDR, Howard Lang as Churchill, and Gunter Meisner as Hitler.

I recently watched The Winds of War on DVD and, despite some glaring flaws that I’ll get to later, it holds up well as both a history of World War II and a tribute to those who battled Hitler’s evil.  Like Wouk’s novels, the miniseries does a good job of breaking down not only how Hitler came to power but also why the rest of the world was often in denial about what was happening.  Watching the entire miniseries in one setting can be overwhelming.  It’s a big production and it is also unmistakably a product of a time when the major networks didn’t have to worry about competition from cable.  It takes its time but, in the end, you’re glad that it did.  All of the little details can get exhausting but they’re important to understanding just how Hitler was able to catch the world off-guard.

Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw in The Winds of War

The miniseries does suffer due to the miscasting of some key roles.  Both Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali MacGraw were far too old for their roles.  Vincent was 38 and MacGraw was 44 when they were cast as naive and idealistic lovers trying to find themselves in Europe.  It’s perhaps less of a problem for Vincent, who had yet to lose his looks to alcoholism and who looked enough like Robert Mitchum that he could pass as Mitchum’s son.  But MacGraw is simply terrible in her role, flatly delivering her lines and looking more like Vincent’s mother than his lover.  It’s particularly jarring when she mockingly calls diplomat Leslie Sloat “Old Sloat,” because Sloat was played by David Dukes, who was six years younger than MacGraw.

67 year-old Robert Mitchum was also much too old to play an ambitious junior officer, one whose main goal in life is still to ultimately become an admiral.  When he ends up having an affair with a younger British journalist played by 30ish Victoria Tennant, the difference in their ages is even more pronounced than in Wouk’s novel.  (Pug was in his 40s in The Winds of War.)  However, Mitchum overcomes his miscasting by virtue of his natural gravitas.  With his weary presence and authoritative voice, Mitchum simply is Pug.

A ratings hit and a multiple Emmy nominee, The Winds of War was followed up five years later by War and Remembrance.  Like its predecessor, War and Remembrance set records.  The script ran 1,492 pages and featured 356 speaking parts.  The production employed 44,000 extras and filming took nearly two years, from January of 1986 to September of 1987.  With a budget of $104 million, it was the most expensive television production to date.  The final miniseries had a 30-hour running time, which was divided over 12 nights.  War and Remembrance not only made history because of its cost and length but also as the first major production to be allowed to film on location at the Auschwitz concentration camp.  For many members of the generation born after the end of World War II, War and Remembrance would serve as their first introduction to the horrors of the Holocaust.

Director Dan Curtis returned and with him came Robert Mitchum, now in his 70s and still playing a junior naval officer.  David Dukes once again played the hapless diplomat, Leslie Sloat.  Ralph Bellamy also returned as FDR as did Victoria Tennant as Mitchum’s lover, Polly Bergen as Mitchum’s wife, and Peter Graves as Bergen’s lover.  However, they were the exception.  The majority of the original cast was replaced for the sequel, in most cases for the better.  With John Houseman too ill to reprise his role, John Gielgud took over the role of Aaron Jastrow while Hart Bochner replaced the famously troubled Jan-Michael Vincent.  Robert Hardy took over the role of Churchill while Hitler was recast with Steven Berkoff.  Best of all, Jane Seymour replaced Ali MacGraw in the role of Natalie and gave the best performance of her career.  Other characters were played by a mix of up-and-comers to tv veterans, with the cast eventually including everyone from Barry Bostwick and Sharon Stone to E.G. Marshall and Ian McShane.

Jane Seymour and John Gielgud

With a stronger cast and (ironically, considering the running length) a more focused storyline, War and Remembrance is superior to The Winds of War in every way.  That doesn’t mean that it’s perfect, of course.  The scenes featuring Barry Bostwick as a submarine commander feel as if they go on forever and Robert Mitchum still seems like he should be preparing for retirement instead of angling for a promotion.  But none of that matters when the miniseries focuses on Aaron and Natalie Jastrow and their struggle to survive life in the Theresienstadt Ghetto and eventually Auschwitz.  At the time that War and Remembrance was initially broadcast, the concentration camp scenes were considered to be highly controversial and many viewers complained that they were so disturbing that they should not have been aired during prime time.  (This was four years before Schindler’s List.)  Seen today, those scenes are the most important part of the film.  Not only do they show why the war had to be fought but they also demand that the world never allow such a thing to happen again.

Though it was considered by a rating disappointment when compared to its predecessor, War and Remembrance was still a multiple-Emmy nominee.  Controversially, it defeated Lonesome Dove for Best Miniseries.  Both Winds of War and War and Remembrance have been released on DVD and, like the books that inspired them, they both hold up well.  They pay tribute to not only those who fought the Nazis but also to the humanistic vision of Herman Wouk.

Herman Wouk (1915-2019)

Horror Film Review: Terror Train (dir by Roger Spottiswoode)


Wow.  Fraternities are mean!

How else do you explain the prank that begins the 1980 slasher film, Terror Train?  At a party, awkward pledge Kenny (Derek MacKinnon) is told that Alana Maxwell (Jamie Lee Curtis) is waiting for him in an upstairs bedroom and she totally wants to have sex with him!  Poor Kenny.  Really, he should have been able to figure that this was a prank but I guess he’s just naive.  Anyway, he goes upstairs, strips down to his underwear, and listens as Alana says, “Don’t be shy …. kiss me!”

Kenny thinks that Alana is waiting for him in the bed but actually, she’s hiding behind a curtain.  So, what’s in the bed?  Well, as Kenny soon discovers, it’s a limbless corpse!  Oh, those wacky pre-med students!  Under the direction of Doc (Hart Bochner), they’ve stolen a cadaver from the medical school and they’ve used it to play the joke of the century!  Everyone bursts into the room, laughing.

Ha ha!  Funny joke, right?

Well, not to Kenny.  Kenny totally freaks out and starts spinning around and gets all wrapped up in the sheets.  Needless to say, Kenny does not get laid that night.

In fact, Kenny ends up losing his mind.  And that’s unfortunate but, as they say, life goes on.  Three years later, the pranksters are all due to graduate so they’re going to throw a costume party on a train!  The conductor (Ben Johnson) watches as these rich, costumed college kids get on his train and you can just tell that he’s thinking, “There better not be no funny business.”  He need not worry!  Alana is on the train and she still feels so bad over what happened to Kenny that you can be sure that there won’t be any pranks during this graduation party!

Unfortunately for everyone else, Kenny’s decided to get on the train as well.  While his former classmates are smoking weed, getting drunk, dancing to the best disco music of 1980, and taunting a magician (David Copperfield), Kenny is killing people and stealing their costumes.

Kenny’s first victim actually dies before the train leaves.  When he comes staggering up to everyone with a sword sticking out of him, everyone assumes that it’s just another joke.  Nope!  Turns out the sword is real but everyone’s too busy boarding to notice as the guy collapses to the ground and is promptly dragged underneath the train.  In a scene that always makes me cringe, the train slowly crushes him as it starts to move forward.  I mean, seriously …. Agck!

So, now Kenny is wandering around the train, dressed like Grouch Marx and killing people.  It takes people a while to notice because we’re not exactly dealing with the smartest group of college graduates.  And, once they do realize …. well, what are they going to do?  They’re stuck on a train in the middle of nowhere!  Even if they do get off the train, it’s snowing and below freezing outside!  I mean, it’s almost as bad as Minnesota in January out there….

Of the many slasher films that Jamie Lee Curtis appeared in after Halloween, Terror Train is definitely the best.  After making his directorial debut here, Roger Spottiswoode went on to become one of the busiest directors in Hollywood and you can tell why when you watch this movie.  Spottiswoode’s makes great and atmospheric use of the train and Kenny’s habit of constantly changing his costume keeps you guessing just where he might be at any given time.  Even more importantly, Spottiswoode takes the time to develop the characters so that they become more than just cardboard victims.  Jamie Lee Curtis, Hart Bochner, Sandee Curris, and Timothy Webber all give excellent performance as the objects of Kenny’s wrath while old veteran Ben Johnson brings some gravitas to the film as the wise conductor.

(My only objection is that the worst of the pranksters is named Doc, which happens to be the name of our cat.  And let me just say that Doc the cat would never pull as cruel a prank as Doc the medical student.)

As we all know, Jamie Lee Curtis will be returning to the horror genre later this month.  She’ll be playing Laurie Strode in David Gordon Green’s Halloween remake or reboot or sequel or whatever it is.  Famously, Curtis refused to appear in horror films for several years, saying that she didn’t want to be typecast.  That was understandable on her part and, as much as I love horror movies, it was probably a smart career move.  That said, the slasher films that Curtis appeared are some of the best of the genre.  Halloween, Terror Train, and even Prom Night are all classics of their kind.  Terror Train is a suspense masterpiece, perfect for any cold and snowy night when you want to scream a little.

A Movie A Day #254: Mr. Destiny (1990, directed by James Orr)


When did your life first start to go downhill?

Larry Burrows (James Beluhsi) is convinced that, if he had not struck out while playing in the state high school baseball championship when he was 15, his life would have turned out so much differently.  He would be a success, instead of a mid-level executive with money problems, a dissatisfied wife, Ellen (Linda Hamilton), and a weird best friend (Jon Lovitz, of course).  On Larry’s 35th birthday, Michael Caine shows up as Larry’s guardian angel and, before you can say “George Bailey,” Larry is transported to an alternate timeline where he won that baseball game and got everything that he wanted.  Now, Larry has a big home, a sexy wife (Rene Russo), and a sexy mistress (Courtney Cox).  But he doesn’t have Ellen and Larry realizes that this all he ever wanted in the first place.

1990 was a busy year for Jim Belushi, starring in both this and Taking Care of Business.  Of the two films, Mr. Destiny is marginally better.   The story itself is predictable and the film makes a big mistake by trying to get dramatic during the final act.  (Everyone knows that Larry’s rival at the compamy is sleazy because he is played by Hart Bochner and everyone remembers Die Hard.  There was no need to turn him into a murderer, even if it was in a parallel universe.)   However, Michael Caine has the ability to make even the worst dialogue sound good.  Belushi is relatively restrained and any film that features Rene Russo, Courtney Cox, and Linda Hamilton can’t be all bad.   Mr. Destiny is forgettable but inoffensively entertaining.

Back to School Part II #12: Breaking Away (dir by Peter Yates)


Has Indiana changed much since 1979?

I ask because I just watched Breaking Away, a 1979 nominee for best picture.  Breaking Away was shot on location in Bloomington, Indiana and on the campus of Indiana University.  And though the film doesn’t go out of its way to idealize either the state, the town, or the university –in fact, the title refers to the desire of several characters to break away from their life in Bloomington — it still manages to make Indiana look like the nicest place on Earth.  Add to that, Indiana University is home to the Eskenazi Museum of Art, which I will someday visit.

Breaking Away is actually a film about a lot of things: it’s a comedy, it’s a quasi-love story, it’s bittersweet coming-of-age story, it’s a sports film, and it’s a sweet, good-natured film that made me cry.  At the heart of the film is Dave Stoller (Dennis Christopher), who has just graduated from high school and whose cheerful and eccentric exterior hides the fact that he appears to have no real future.  Dave is obsessed with bicycle racing and idolizes that the Italian cycling team.  In fact, he idolizes them so much that he decides to be Italian.  He rides around Bloomington, greeting people with a merry “Ciao!”  At home, he listens to opera and renames the family cat “Fellini.”  While his mother (Barbara Barrie) is understanding, his father (Paul Dooley) cannot understand what’s happening to his son.  Of course, Dave doesn’t truly believe that he’s Italian.  He just desperately wants to be something other than who he is.

And who is Dave?  He’s a citizen of Bloomington, a town that is divided between the upper class students at Indiana University and the blue-collar townies.  The students call Dave and his friends “cutters,” because the only real industry in town is working in the quarry, cutting stone.  The students look down on the cutters and the cutters resent the students.

Dave has three close friends, all of whom were big in high school and who are now facing an uncertain future of anonymity.  Cyril (Daniel Stern) is the funny and quirky one, the former basketball player who talks about how he would like to be a cartoon character.  Moocher (Jackie Earle Haley) is usually easy-going but loses his temper whenever anyone mentions that he’s short.  (At one point, Moocher’s boss orders him to, “Punch the time clock, Shortie!”  Moocher literally does just that.)  And finally, there’s Mike (Dennis Quaid).  Mike is their leader, a former high school quarterback who idolizes the Marlboro Man and who knows that he’s destined to spend the rest of his life in Bloomington, going from “20 year-old Mike” to “mean old man Mike.”

When Dave meets a student named Katherine (Robyn Douglass), he pretends to be an Italian exchange student and, soon, he’s serenading her on the lawn of her sorority house.  That doesn’t make Katherine’s boyfriend, Rod (Hart Bochner), happy.  Rod and his friends beat up Cyril, which leads to another fight at a bowling alley.  (Cyril, for his part, gets his finger stuck in a bowling ball.)  Seeking to broker some sort of peace and understanding between the students and the town, the university president (played by John Ryan, who was the real-life President of Indiana University at the time) announces that the cutters will be invited to take part in the annual Little 500 bicycle race at Indiana University.

And you can probably guess how the race turns out.  It’s a feel-good sports film so you already know who is going to win and that he’s going to have to win after initially falling behind and sacrificing a big lead.  You know all that but it doesn’t matter.  Breaking Away is such a sweet and well-acted movie that it still brought tears to my eyes even if the ending didn’t surprise me.

And really, the film does have a few surprises.  For one thing, Rod turns out to be not as bad a guy as you initially think he’s going to be.  Over the course of the film, he gets two small reaction shots, both of which hint that he’s not as much of a jerk as he often appears to be.  It’s a minor detail and it’s easy to miss but what’s important that it’s there and it’s one of the many small details that makes Breaking Away feel alive.  After watching the movie, I feel like I could go to Bloomington and still find all these character hanging out at the quarry.

There’s another scene that I want to mention.  This is the scene that made me cry.  Dave and his father walk around the university and his dad talks about how he and the fathers of all of Dave’s friends helped to cut the stone that was used to build campus.  His dad admits that, even though he helped to build it, he’s never felt comfortable on the campus and then tells his son that he doesn’t have to be a cutter.  And it’s such a heartfelt scene and so beautifully performed by Paul Dooley and Dennis Christopher that I started to cry.  Perfectly acted, perfectly directed, and perfectly written, what a great scene!  Fantastico!, as Dave might say.

I loved Breaking Away and I bet you would to.

Breaking Away