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)

The Savior of the Universe: Flash Gordon (1980, directed by Mike Hodges)


Flash GordonLife on the planet Mongo is not easy.  Aided by Darth Vader wannabe Klytus (Peter Wyngarde) and the sadistic General Kala (Mariangela Melato), the evil Emperor Ming (Max Von Sydow) rules with an iron fist.  All of the citizens are heavily taxed and kept in a state of perpetual war in order to keep them from joining together and rebelling.  Those who attempt to defy Ming are executed.

There are many different races living on both Mongo and its moons. The Arborians, also known as the tree people, live in a jungle and are ruled by Prince Barin (Timothy Dalton).  Until Ming overthrew his father, Barin was the rightful heir to the throne of Mongo.  Barin is also one of the many lovers of Aura (Ornella Muti), Ming’s rebellious daughter.

Barin distrusts the Hawkmen, a group of winged barbarians.  Led by the boisterous Prince Vultan (the one and only Brian Blessed), the Hawkmen live in a palace that floats above Mongo.  Both Vultan and Barin share a desire to overthrow Ming but neither one of them can set aside their own dislike and distrust of each other.

Ming grows bored easily but Klytus has found him a new play thing, an obscure planet in the S-K system.  “The inhabitants,” Klytus says, “refer to it as the planet Earth.”

It all leads to this:

You may have been too busy listening to Queen’s theme song to notice (and I don’t blame you if you were) but I have always found it strange that, even though Ming had never heard of Earth before Klytus brought it to his attention, he still had a button labeled “Earthquake.”  Whenever I watch Flash Gordon, I wonder if I am the only one who has noticed this.

With Ming plaguing Earth with tornadoes, hurriances, and “hot hail,” it is up to three Earthlings to travel to Mongo  and defeat him.  Dr. Zarkov (Topol) is an eccentric scientist who was forced out of NASA because of his belief in Mongo.  Dale Arden (Melody Anderson) is a reporter.  And, finally, Flash Gordon (Sam J. Jones) is a professional athlete.  Because this movie is a fantasy, Flash Gordon is a superstar quarterback for the New York Jets.

The character of Flash Gordon was first introduced in a 1934 comic strip and was played by Buster Crabbe in several classic serials.  Among Flash’s many young fans was a future filmmaker named George Lucas, who would later cite Flash’s adventures as being a major inspiration for the Star Wars saga.  After the unprecedented success of Star Wars: A New Hope, it only made sense that someone would try to make a Flash Gordon film.

That someone was producer Dino De Laurentiis.  (Before writing the script for Star Wars, Lucas attempted to buy the rights for Flash Gordon from De Laurentiis.)  To write the script that would bring Flash into the 80s, De Laurentiis hired Lorenzo Semple, Jr.  Semple was best known for helping to create the 1960s version of Batman and he brought a similarly campy perspective to the character and story of Flash Gordon.  As a result, the film ended up with scenes like this one, where Flash interrupts one of Ming’s ceremonies with an impromptu football scrimmage:

It also led to Brian Blessed’s entire performance as Prince Vultan, which is especially famous for the way that Blessed delivered one line:

(That also makes for a great ringtone.)

Sam J. Jones and Melody Anderson often seem to be stranded by Semple’s script but Max Von Sydow, Topol, Brian Blessed, Peter Wyngarde, and Ornella Muti all get into the swing of things.  Seen today, Flash Gordon is entertaining but too intentionally campy for its own good.  On the positive side, the images still pop off the screen and the soundtrack sounds as great as ever.  When you listen to Queen’s theme song, you have no doubt that “he’ll save every one of us.”

As Flash Gordon himself put it after he saved the universe: “YEAAAAH!”

Yeah

James Bond Review: For Your Eyes Only (dir. by John Glen)


For Your Eyes Only marks a few changes in the way EON Productions wanted to go with James Bond.  With Moonraker being so over the top, the producers decided to go a little more low key and practical. After working on the 2nd unit for Moonraker and a few other Bond Films, John Glen would step up to the plate as the director for this and every 007 film leading up to Goldeneye. Instead of John Barry working on the music, Bill Conti would take over here, which ended up being a very different kind of sound for the film, one fitting of the early 80s.

For Your Eyes Only opens with an interesting start, having Bond visit the grave of his wife, Tracy, who was killed during the events in Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Bond is informed that his helicopter is ready, but when he climbs inside, he finds that it’s under the control of someone with a serious grudge, and though we can’t see his face, we’re to assume he could be Ernst Starvo Blofeld. Supposedly, the scene, which ends with Bond reclaiming control of the helicopter and dropping the would be Blofeld into a chimney pipe, was a jab at writer Kevin McClory. Over the years, the Thunderball lawsuit caused some rifts between McClory and EON Productions. The statement made with For Your Eyes Only was that EON could come up with plenty of great stories without having to use a signature villain like Blofeld. They’d been successful with two movies back to back using Richard Kiel as the henchman Jaws, and probably felt they were doing pretty well. In reponse, McClory would give the Thunderball another try in the bond film Never Say Never Again (which isn’t part of the EON produced Bond films, and won’t be found in any of their Bond Blu-Ray / DVD compilations.

Similar to Tomorrow Never Dies, the story starts with a boat being attacked and sunk. Bond is asked to retrieve a targeting system from the ship and return it to Britain before the Russians do the same. One of the great things about the time period is that since it was pretty much the Cold War, everything was a black ops -sneak in, sneak out – scenario to avoid World War III and nukes being fired by both sides.

The Bond Girl for this film is Melina Havelock (Carole Bouquet), who I really liked here. After her parents are gunned down on their boat, she picks up a bow and arrow to take revenge. As a result, she manages to run into Bond on a number of occasions and had a real sense of calm to her (or as calm as one could be when facing a giant fellow in a scuba suit). The villain of the story, Kristatos was played by Julian Glover, who I enjoyed in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and currently on Game of Thrones. I didn’t care much for him in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets as Hagrid’s pet spider, Aragog. One thing to note about Glover is that at one point, he was approached to actually play Bond after Connery left. An interesting casting choice if you notice him is Charles Dance as one of the henchmen and Fiddler On the Roof’s Topol, who played a former business partner of Kristatos’. I found that kind of fun, that you could see these actors here in 1981 that people are familiar with to some degree. The year this came out, Liam Neeson was in Excalibur, for example.

The story features a number of good moments, particularly a great snow skiing chase, a mountain climb as well as a fight between Bond and some hockey players. There’s even a well filmed underwater sequence. Of the Roger Moore Bond films, I always thought of this one and The Spy Who Loved Me as two of his best. With the mission being as small as it is, there wasn’t a lot of room for anything as wild as Moonraker. It’s a pretty tight, practical film that doesn’t rely too much on the gadgetry of the other films. It should also be pointed out that like The Spy Who Loved Me, the signature car for Moore’s Bond is still a Lotus, as I don’t believe the Aston Martins made an appearance until The Living Daylights. That was a little of a letdown for me, but otherwise, the film is beautiful.

Tomorrow, The Shattered Lens takes on Octopussy, a film that showcases just how deadly the circus can be when James Bond is involved. We’ll leave you with the theme song to For Your Eyes Only, sung by Sheena Easton.