When the Miniseries Was King
This month I have some evening busy-work to do, so I scanned Netflix for something mildly diverting -- and long. Well, I am neglecting my busy-work, because the film I chose is a miniseries from the golden age: The Winds of War, based on Herman Wouk's beloved best-seller.
Poking about online, I find only one review of this film, a snarky one -- which doesn't surprise me, given what passes for criticism these days. This is not Shoah. Nor is it The Sorrow and the Pity. It's a TV miniseries in the populist, let's-make-this-easy-for-the-folks-back-home line. And it was made in 1983, so its production values do not compare with those of HBO's Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan . It contains nothing like Private Ryan's eye-and-ear-popping depiction of the landing at Normandy, for example. But given the limitations of the small screen and the network censors (still functioning back then), Winds does a remarkable job of evoking battle and danger, not to mention a variety of European and American landscapes, on its small canvas.
Most of all, Winds accomplishes its goal, which is to blend a foreground of watchable characters into an accurately painted background of world-historical events. This may be an inherently ridiculous undertaking, but that hasn't deterred a great many novelists, not to mention playwrights. The question is, does director Dan Curtis (who died this spring) make himself ridiculous? Not at all. Apart from a certain cheesiness in the depiction of the Nazi High Command (especially Hitler), The Winds of War blends charm, action, and gravitas in just the right proportions.
Of course, you have to give it the benefit of the doubt. First, you must believe that there is actually something going on behind the stone face of Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum), naval attache to the US Embassy in Berlin in 1936. Second, you must accept that the starry-eyed response of his wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen) to the blandishments of the Nazi leadership reflects not perfidy but vanity. Third, you must feel the chemistry between the Henrys' callow son Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Natalie (Ali McGraw), his razor-tongued sweetheart, who thinks nothing of going to visit her long-lost Jewish relatives in Poland during the late summer of 1939.
Perform these acts of faith, and I promise, you will be swept along. One of the virtues of art is economy of means: making do with what is available within the constraints of one's medium and the expectations of one's audience. In that sense, these fast-paced, deftly constructed fourteen hours of television deserve to be called classic