Relatively few entertainment programs in the history of broadcasting have qualified for the term "monumental." But the word fits "War and Remembrance," ABC's shattering and spectacular miniseries from Herman Wouk's novel of World War II. The production is vast, mammoth, on a scale virtually unheard of for TV. It's tremendous television.
The first 18 hours of this harrowing epic will air in November - starting Sunday night, Nov. 13 (7 p.m. on Ch. 4) with a three-hour opener - and the rest will appear later in the TV season, probably February or May. A total of at least 30 hours, produced at a cost of $110 million, is planned. ABC executives have already noted, perhaps more with pride than sorrow, that the network stands to lose as much as $20 million on the show, no matter how much advertising is sold.But dollars and profits seem trivial in dealing with "War and Remembrance," which includes sequences of deep emotional intimacy upon its panoramic canvas. The miniseries is in a class with "Roots" and ranks as a considerable improvement over the 1983 blockbuster, "The Winds of War," to which it is a sequel.
A dramatic departure from what has been a season of sleaze on network television, "War and Remembrance" confronts great and abiding issues, matters of life and death. Wouk mixes historical reenactments with a compelling, many-tiered fictional tale-the war as it affected the world and people who fought it.
Probably the most daring decision of producer Dan Curtis and others who adapted Wouk's book was to depict in graphic detail the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps. In parts two and seven (both to be preceded with parental advisories), the nightmares of the Holocaust are shown more explicitly than in any previous television dramatization. Part two (Nov. 15) includes a long sequence of unspeakable brutality at Auschwitz, the death camp where these scenes were actually filmed. Part seven (Nov. 23) shows massacre and mass graves at Babi Yar.
The filmmakers risk scaring viewers off with these prolonged, horrific sequences (which the network says will not be interrupted with commercial breaks, thank goodness). But to attempt a comprehensive treatment of the war without such scenes would be dishonest. This, of all that happened in the war years, is what the world should most remember.
Much of the original cast of "Winds of War" has returned: Robert Mitchum as naval captain and admiral-to-be, Victor "Pug" Henry; Polly Bergen as his furtively philandering wife; Victoria Tennant as Pamela Tudsbury, with whom Pug had a pre-war affair. Some of the cast changes are decided improvements, especially Jane Seymour assuming the role of Natalie Jastrow, played before by the snide Ali MacGraw, and John Gielgud taking over the role of her uncle Aaron from the late John Houseman.
The story of young Natalie-married to Pug Henry's son Byron (now played by a commanding leading man, Hart Bochner) - who, with her uncle and one-year-old baby, is shuttled all over Europe because of the Germans, is the most compelling and heartbreaking plot line. The old man naively thinks that his celebrity status as a noted Jewish author and scholar will somehow protect him, even as he and the mother and child flee from Siena, Italy, to the island of Elba to Marseilles to Lourdes to Paris.
At times, viewers may think they're seeing a medley of every war movie ever made. A sub commander in part one who's described as "absolutely scared out of his mind" is reminiscent of Wouk's own "Caine Mutiny." But the love stories played out against the background of inferno seem believable, and what cliches there are come off as benign, or so old they're new again.
The pace can be torturously slow, especially in the first two or three chapters. But the war took a long time, too. The length and weight of "War and Remembrance" convey some sense of what it might have been like to live through this.
"War and Remembrance" is about people, and nations, facing awesome challenges, and it is something of a challenge to watch it. But a program that is demanding, sometimes difficult, is a welcome change from dismissible prime-time pap.
A Navy man refers to one military maneuver as a "desperate gamble," and that's what this miniseries is. We may never see anything like it again.