War and Remembrance: The Last of the Elephants

warandremembranceThe epic follow-up to the miniseries The Winds of War (1983) was made on a daunting scale, and unsurprisingly ended up killing the 1980s trend of huge, costly miniseries because of disappointing ratings. Watching War and Remembrance now is an almost curious experience; made on a budget exceeding $100 million, you can virtually see where all the money went, as we’re swiftly taken from battles in the Pacific to swank locations in Europe to concentration camps in Poland.

Actual World War II footage blends seamlessly with reenactments. The crowd scenes are all genuine, not produced in a computer. Very impressive – but some of the complaints I reserved for Winds of War are valid here as well.

The last miniseries left us after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, and this one covers the rest of the war. Victor “Pug” Henry (Robert Mitchum) and his sons Warren and Byron (Michael Woods, Hart Bochner) all have missions in the Pacific as the hobbled U.S. Navy prepares to face the might of Japan. At the same time, Rhoda (Polly Bergen) and Pug are considering divorce and their former flings keep popping up in their lives. In Europe, Natalie (Jane Seymour), her young son and Aaron Jastrow (John Gielgud) are waiting in Naples for a refugee boat to take them to Palestine, but a German diplomat and a former student of Aaron’s convinces them to go to Siena instead where they will be protected by him. Natalie remains very skeptical, however…

Long, slow but still compelling
I’ve had a long-running argument with two of my colleagues about the merits of War and Remembrance. They think it’s too long and slow, and yes, as was the case in The Winds of War, the soapy details of the Henrys’ private lives are underwhelming even though a lot of time is devoted to them. They think Mitchum’s too old for his part. He really is… but remains solid in a wooden way. He just is Pug. And then there’s Steven Berkoff. The veteran British actor (who’s played a lot of villains) is Adolf Hitler, and my friends think his performance is far too hysterical. Berkoff certainly chews the scenery here, but he’s still utterly compelling throughout, partly because he actually looks like Hitler, partly because he captures an essence of the dictator that seems true, as evidenced by clips of his speeches and testimonials by people who witnessed his tantrums.

Several key roles were recast for this sequel to Winds of War; Bochner is less memorable as Byron than Jan-Michael Vincent, but Seymour and Gielgud are excellent as the new Natalie and Aaron. Following the Jastrows’ journey from relative safety in Italy to the horrors of Auschwitz is one of the strongest and most emotional aspects of the miniseries. There’s also an educational ambition here that is laudable, as Herman Wouk and those behind the series explore and illustrate the plight of Jewish refugees and the political realities behind the Nazi “final solution” and the attempt to make the Theresienstadt ghetto look like a “model camp” for Jews.

Watching Aaron Jastrow in Auschwitz for the first time since I was a child brought tears to my eyes again, and made me think of what an impact this miniseries once had on me, this my first encounter with the Holocaust.

Considering the earnest efforts behind it, with scenes shot in the actual camp, and several Auschwitz survivors (including future Schindler’s List producer Branko Lustig) present making sure realism didn’t suffer, War and Remembrance is still a worthy TV event. Warts and all.

War and Remembrance 1988-U.S. Made for TV. 1620 min. Color. Produced by Barbara Steele. Directed by Dan Curtis. Teleplay: Dan Curtis, Earl W. Wallace, Herman Wouk. Novel: Herman Wouk. Cast: Robert Mitchum (Victor “Pug” Henry), Jane Seymour (Natalie Henry), Hart Bochner (Byron Henry), Victoria Tennant, Polly Bergen, John Gielgud… Steven Berkoff, Ralph Bellamy, Topol, E.G. Marshall, Sharon Stone, Barry Bostwick, Ian McShane, John Rhys-Davies, Peter Graves, Robert Stephens, Robert Morley, Hardy Krüger, Eddie Albert, Pat Hingle, Brian Blessed, G.W. Bailey, Michael Madsen.

Trivia: Originally shown in 12 episodes. James Coburn was allegedly considered for the part of Pug.

Golden Globes: Best Miniseries, Supporting Actor (Gielgud and Bostwick). Emmy: Outstanding Miniseries.

Last word: ”Dan has a low threshold for obstructions. To a certain extent, he looks at life as a series of contests. But when we were working on the Holocaust scenes, Dan had asked some survivors to come talk to us. One prosperous lady had done her best to block it off, but at one point she crumbled. Dan immediately took her in his arms and was incredibly tender.” (Wallace on Curtis, The New York Times)

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