The Winds of War (1983) *****

Posted by Crow on
Movie Reviews

TL;DR The mini-series actually stands up better than the book IMO. See below for more.

Perhaps it’s the age I live in, but I don’t have much time for thousand page novels anymore. They were a relic of the ‘70s and ‘80s before we had video games that you didn’t get bored of after a few minutes and before the VCR and cable really took hold. Killing time with a long book was a good thing. But now we want our stories to get to the point and fast. Wouk was famous enough at the time that he could write whatever the hell he wanted to and it would get published. Therefore he did very little editing to The Winds of War, despite the fact that at over a thousand pages, he only got to the Pearl Harbor attack. I feel that he could have easily cut 300 pages, and by reading modern reviews on Goodreads.com, many others agree with me. In particular the character of Natalie Jastrow and the many chapters devoted to her could mostly be eliminated without harming the story. She is just a plot device, a way to show what was happening in Poland and Italy before the U.S. entered the war, and as the token Jew. The main character “Pug” Henry is a devout Christian. Even though she’s supposed to be intelligent, her actions in the novel are anything but. Pug’s youngest son, Byron “Briny” Henry isn’t much better but he is at least a foil for his stodgy by-the-book father. 

In the mini-series Natalie Jastrow is played by the then 45 year old Ali MacGraw and Briny is played by the then 39 year old Jan-Michael Vincent. They are supposed to be 26 and 22 respectively. Interestingly both MacGraw and Vincent were discovered by talent agents for their good looks and plucked from obscurity into a career in Hollywood and for MacGraw it was overnight stardom. She was honored with a spot in front of Mann’s Chinese Theater with only three film credits. For Vincent it took about ten years working on films and TV shows before The Winds of War became his breakthrough role. It lead directly to his casting as the lead in the TV action series Airwolf. The show ended up being canceled because of his out of control drinking. That is why you never heard much from him after that. Nobody wanted to deal with his antics and Dan Curtis did not rehire him for the sequel. It’s quite sad as Vincent had real star quality. Ali MacGraw’s performance was widely panned, her age was indeed noticed by viewers and she also did not return and was replaced by Jane Seymour (who lobbied for the part) in War and Remembrance.

I actually did not find MacGraw’s performance to be that bad, she was just wildly miscast. Who in their right mind would get a 45 year old woman to play a 26 year old girl? It makes no sense except that MacGraw was an aging star and was still covered in the tabloids because of her high profile marriages. Fading star power was the same reason why Curtis cast an over-the-hill Robert Mitchum as Pug. Mitchum is great as the lead character, however he’s just too old. Pug is supposed to be an in-shape driven man in his early fifties. Mitchum was 66 at the time and badly out of shape. In a scene where Pug is supposed to display his tennis prowess, Mitchum is clearly wearing a girdle to suck in his huge gut. But that said, his casting was nowhere near as offensive or distracting as MacGraw’s. 

Curtis makes up for those errors with brilliant casting for most of the secondary characters. Especially when it came to historical figures, he nailed it. He smartly cast actors who had previously played those parts in either plays, movies, or TV shows in the past. Ralph Bellamy is great as FDR, little known British character actor Howard Lang does a commendable Churchill, and German character actor Günter Meisner turned in a truly memorable tongue-rolling portrayal of the Fuhrer. Two other actors stood out. One was Polly Bergen as Pug’s wife. She was nominated for an Emmy for her portrayal of Rhonda Henry and had previously starred with Robert Mitchum in the original Cape Fear. But the real standout performance to me was British actress Victoria Tennant as Pug’s much younger mistress Pamela Tudsbury. Although it’s nearly inconceivable that such a young attractive woman would fall in love with a grizzled overweight and married old man her emotions seemed so genuine and real. It’s a shame that she never really was known for anything other than the two Wouk mini-series, but she does get much more screen time in the follow-up. Tennant though was probably also miscast as she was 32 at the time and was supposed to be playing ten years younger. 

One more casting win was the stunningly gorgeous Lisa Eilbacher as Pug’s daughter, who is probably most famous for losing out to Carrie Fisher for the role of Princess Leia in Star Wars. I’ll put the video of her audition below. I can see why George Lucas was stuck deciding between these two because either one would have been good. And much like Fisher, Eilbacher’s career never really went anywhere past the early eighties. Her only notable film role was Beverly Hills Cop.

As most of you probably know Wouk’s story is about America right before it’s entry into WWII. Most of the characters are fictional but they interact with real historical figures. Pug just happens to meet FDR, Hitler, Mussolini, Churchill and even Stalin in the same year. Unlikely to say the least, but it provides a very wide view of the war and all of its participants. The book and mini-series truly can be defined by the word EPIC.

One facet that makes the book better than the series are the fascinating chapters “written” by the fictional German general Armin von Roon as he sat in prison after the war. Pug Henry “translates” the work and provides commentary. To me, these are the best chapters in both novels and the most fun to re-read. By providing a German view of the war Wouk can really see things from a different angle and makes some very salient points. 

I am just praising the series a bit more here because it’s just such an incredible accomplishment. Never before had a book been so faithfully rendered in film. No wonder because Wouk himself wrote the teleplay. Here are just a few facts from Wikipedia to give one an idea of the scope of this project:

– The series consists of 7 episodes and has a runtime of 14 hours 40 minutes.
– The 962-page script contained 1,785 scenes and 285 speaking parts.
– The production involved 4,000 camera setups and shot a million feet of exposed film.
– The estimated budget was very large for its time, $38 million ($120 million in 2017 dollars).
– The production had a 206-day shooting schedule and came in four days ahead of schedule.
– The series was shot at 404 locations in Europe, California and Washington state over 14 months.

Even though Curtis had a huge budget and over a year to shoot, you have to give him credit for getting in done ahead of schedule. The series is a bit dated now but I thoroughly enjoyed it and found it to be very binge-worthy and addictive. Besides the unbelievability of Ali MacGraw, the main other problem is the 4:3 aspect ratio. We are so used to widescreen TVs now that seeing a cinematically shot film presented as a square is annoying. Curtis did shoot it like a film, not a television series, so he often has two actors on screen at the same time for over-the-shoulder shots and such. But it often looks like the two characters are close enough to kiss because of the tight framing. Additionally the locations and 1940’s set design really deserved the widescreen treatment. It’s a real shame that this series has never been remastered on blu-ray with 5.1 surround sound. Equally shameful, it is not available on Netflix or Amazon to stream. I watched the DVDs which is the best way to experience it at this point. But all 7 episodes are on YouTube (with a bit too much compression) but they’re watchable (link below). 

So while both the series and the book deserve to be revisited I would personally skip the long-winded novel and get right to the series. It covers all of the major plot points of the book and keeps the dialogue virtually word for word. It is one of the best WWII films ever made (if you view it as a film). It would be a great introduction to the reasons for the war for someone who was just learning about it.

”The mini-series form is the best storytelling vehicle there is. It is the only one that allows you to tell a story the way it should be told.” A prescient quote from Dan Curtis back in 1988. 

It has its flaws (mostly with casting) but I have to give this amazing series a 5 outta 5. The music is great, the locations and cinematography are top notch, and it really blew away anything else on TV in 1982. The series won Emmy’s for cinematography, costumes, and visual effects. That is another thing that is a bit dated: the model shots of ships and bombers are of course models, not CGI, but I thought that they looked awesome for the time personally. It’s really only the scale of the water that really gives them away. 

YouTube playist
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-ZABDI_G1o4&list=PLAPGcD5LGrp4gy1QArNxLREpt5ydoWvp_

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