It’s a sad fact that more often than not when you revisit a movie or TV show that you absolutely loved as a kid, you end up thinking “how could I ever have liked this?”. I’m pleased to say that going back to The Winds of War doesn’t evoke feelings of disappointment. A huge hit in the U.S. on its premiere (and in my own country as well), this is a miniseries that has stood up well to the test of time.
March, 1939. As Adolf Hitler and his generals are planning to invade Poland, Captain Victor “Pug” Henry (Robert Mitchum) arrives in Berlin as a new U.S. naval attaché. His wife, Rhoda (Polly Bergen), has joined him and they get many opportunities not only to size up Hitler, but also the general mood in the country, the hostilities against Jews and Germany’s military capability. When Pug writes a report predicting a non-aggression pact between Hitler and Stalin before anyone else considers it a possibility, President Franklin Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) is impressed and discreetly asks him to be his personal eyes and ears in Europe.
Meantime, Pug’s youngest son Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) has taken a job as a research assistant for the American author Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) who lives in Italy. He falls in love with Jastrow’s niece, the strong-willed Natalie (Ali MacGraw), even though their affair runs into many minor and major obstacles due to the fact that she is Jewish. As World War II breaks out, the Henry family finds itself spread all over the world, always in danger, sometimes comforting themselves in the arms of friends who become lovers.
Plenty of action on display
It’s a sweeping soap opera that Herman Wouk wrote, but he was also careful about portraying the war as convincingly as possible. When ABC wanted to turn his massive book into a miniseries he ended up writing the teleplay to make sure his baby was handled properly. Real news footage has been worked into the depiction of how the war played out from March, 1939 to December, 1941; we meet all the major players and Wouk allows a few fictional characters (such as Pug and a German general) to always be in the middle of the action, able to convey their thoughts on and impressions of the crucial historical events. There’s plenty of action on display; the budget was big enough to guarantee that the war scenes looked as if they deserved a big screen.
As a history lesson, it only scratches the surface but still gives an idea of the dread building up to the war, as well as the conditions under which Jews lived in Europe at the time. The melodramatic stories of the Henry family are never as compelling as the war, but one is still easily attached to the family, especially Byron and Natalie who time and again seem unable to leave a continent that’s lost in the maelstrom of war; the emotional impact is effectively emphasized by Bob Cobert’s majestic main theme.
The acting is uneven. Mitchum looks like he’s sleepwalking sometimes, but he’s undeniably perfect for the statue-like Pug; MacGraw is a little old for her part, but still makes the central love story work together with Vincent; Günter Meisner portrays Hitler in a constant state of hysteria, but Bellamy is very solid as Roosevelt.
The sheer size of this enterprise gives pause for reflection. Director Dan Curtis has described it as the equivalent of “making nine movies” and the fact that there was no CGI available at the time makes all the war and crowd sequences even more impressive. In fact, considering the amount of modern viewer competition within TV, something equal to The Winds of War could probably not be staged today for the small screen.
The Winds of War 1983-U.S. Made for TV. 885 min. Color. Produced and directed by Dan Curtis. Teleplay, Novel: Herman Wouk. Music: Bob Cobert. Cast: Robert Mitchum (Victor “Pug” Henry), Ali MacGraw (Natalie Jastrow), Jan-Michael Vincent (Byron Henry), John Houseman, Polly Bergen, Lisa Eilbacher… Topol, Peter Graves, Ralph Bellamy, Victoria Tennant.
Trivia: Originally shown in seven episodes. In 1991, Cobert was found guilty by a federal jury of having plagiarized a song and used it as the theme of this miniseries. Followed by another miniseries, War and Remembrance (1988).
Last word: “I went into ‘Winds’ with my knees knocking. I was paralyzed, but it got better as ‘Winds’ went along. Robert Mitchum was the best. He’s such a pro that there were no accidents. Being part of ‘Winds’ is unique in my short film experience in that I think I’m part of something important.” (MacGraw, People)