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: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (dir by Kenneth Branagh)


Oh my God, this is an exhausting movie.

Directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh, the 1994 film Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein sticks pretty closely to the plot (if not the tone) of Mary Shelley’s original novel.  What that means is that this movie includes a lot of the good stuff that often seems to get left out of other Frankenstein adaptations.  For instance, we learn more about the life of Victor Frankenstein (Kenneth Branagh) before he created his monster.  We find out about his family and his troubled romance with Elizabeth (Helena Bonham-Carter).  Victor’s good friend Henry Clerval (Tom Hulce) is included and so is Professor Waldman (John Cleese) and Captain Robert Walton (Aidan Quinn).

It also means that we get to watch as the Monster (Robert De Niro) flees into the wilderness and later befriends a kindly blind man (Richard Briers).  The Monster, as always, is happy until mankind interferes and treats him unfairly.  The Monster learns to speak and, after it learns to read, it discovers who created it and it sets out for revenge.  We watch as everyone that Victor Frankenstein cares about dies, all as a result of his desire to play God.

And yet, while you have to respect the fact that Branagh tried to stay (more or less) true to the plot of the original novel, Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is a bit of a chore to sit through.  A huge part of the problem is that Kenneth Branagh cast himself to play Victor Frankenstein.  In the book, Victor is a rather sickly character and his desire to create life is probably as much inspired by his own poor health and the death of the people close to him.  In the film, Branagh plays Victor as being almost a Byronic figure, with the camera emphasizing his flowing hair and his muscular physique.  Even when Victor does push himself to the point of death in his research, you never really believe it because Branagh the director isn’t willing to let Branagh the actor look weak or malnourished.  However, turning Victor into an alpha male also turns him into a jerk.  Unlike say Colin Clive or Peter Cushing in The Curse of Dracula, you never find yourself sympathizing with Kenneth Branagh’s Victor.

And then you have Robert De Niro as the Monster.  Now, really, I imagine that — in 1994 — the idea of De Niro playing the Monster seemed like an obvious one.  I mean, the Monster is a great role and De Niro’s one of the greatest actors who ever lived so if anyone could find a new and interesting way to play Frankenstein’s Creation, it would have to be De Niro, right?

But no.  First off, De Niro may be a great actor but it’s hard to accept the idea that a monster created in Germany would speak with a New York accent.  Even under tons of makeup, De Niro does an okay job of projecting the Monster’s rage but, unlike Karloff or Christopher Lee, De Niro never seems to really connect with the character.  You never forget that you’re watching a heavily made-up Robert De Niro.  De Niro often seems to be rather detached from what’s happening on screen.

Branagh’s directs in a manner that can only be called operatic, which turns out to be a mistake.  The story is already dramatic enough without Branagh spinning the camera around every few moments.  There’s not a subtle moment to be found in the film but unfortunately, Frankenstein is a story that needs just a little bit of subtlety.  It all gets to be a bit overwhelming and, by the time the Monster is literally ripping a heart out of a body, you’re just like, “Enough already!”

It’s just a really tiring movie.

Lisa Reviews An Oscar Nominee: Sense and Sensibility (dir by Ang Lee)


Sense_and_sensibility

I just finished watching the 1995 best picture nominee Sense and Sensibility on TCM and, despite the fact that I’ve watched it several times in the past, I’m glad that I took time to rewatch it.  Sense and Sensibility is one of those very special films that you should rewatch every few months just to be reminded of how good it is.  There’s no CGI in Sense and Sensibility.  Instead, there’s just some very good writing, some excellent performances, and some lushly wonderful images of the English countryside, courtesy of director Ang Lee.  It’s a deliberately paced film, one that proves the virtue of a subtle touch.

The film tells the story of the Dashwoods.  As Mr. Dashwood (Tom Wilkinson) dies, he tells his son by his first wife, John (James Fleet), to take care of his second wife (Gemma Jones) and their three daughters, Elinor (Emma Thompson), Marianne (Kate Winslet), and Margaret (Emilie Francois).  Naturally enough, John does the exact opposite and soon the Dashwood sisters are forced to leave their large estate and fend for themselves.

The film centers on the practical Elinor and the passionate Marianne.  Elinor meets and falls in love with Edward (a surprisingly restrained Hugh Grant), an aspiring clergyman who is also John’s brother-in-law.  Edward comes from a wealthy family but will be disinherited if he marries someone who has neither money nor social prominence.  Marianne, meanwhile, has fallen in love with John Willoughby (Greg Wise), who is handsome, dashing, rich, and a bit of a cad.  (Cad is such a cool word.  People should start using it more.)  Marianne is so in love with the unworthy Willoughby that she misses the fact that the kindly Col. Brandon (Alan Rickman) has also fallen in love with her.

Sense and Sensibility is based on a Jane Austen novel and, in its very British way, it’s a wonderfully romantic film.  Tonight, when viewed in the shadow of the recent passing of Alan Rickman, the scenes featuring Col. Brandon were even more poignant than usual.  His love for Marianne is perhaps the most pure and selfless love to be found in the entire film.  There’s a scene where Col. Brandon is speaking to Elinor and Marianne, inviting them to his estate.  Marianne ignores him until Brandon mentions that Willoughby is also inspected.  Suddenly, Marianne looks up and smiles and Alan Rickman allows just a hint of pain to enter his voice.  It’s a masterful performance.

But really, the reason why I love this film is because it’s about sisters. I am the youngest of four sisters and, whenever I see this film, it’s hard for me not to see the Bowman sisters in the Dashwood sisters.  There is so much about Marianne that I relate to, from her passionate pursuit of “true love” to her artistic sensibility to her somewhat dangerous habit of wandering around in the middle of thunderstorm.  You never doubt for a second that Emma Thompson and Kate Winslet could be related and this film always makes me appreciate my own sisters.

Sense and Sensibility was nominated for Best Picture of 1995 but it lost to a film that is its total opposite, Mel Gibson’s Braveheart.