The Winds of War, newly released in a lavish, seven-disc set, with a running time of nearly 15 hours, follows the fortunes of Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum). A U.S. Naval attaché, he and his family are dispatched to Berlin in 1939, preceding America’s forced entry into World War II in December 1941. Through a series of confidential postings, Pug is pitched from one key moment of World War II to the next as the special envoy of President Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy).
This unlikely Renaissance man not only chats with Roosevelt and negotiates with Churchill and Stalin, but shepherds destroyers across the Atlantic, inspects the Russian front just as the Germans march within sight of Moscow, and loses his battleship at Pearl Harbor. And he still has time for a tender love affair with the delectable daughter (Victoria Tennant) of a British journalist (Michael Logan), who repeatedly turns up in the same locations as Pug.
As a device to track America’s reluctant entrance into the War, the Henry family saga, first shown on U.S. television in 1983, works quite well. For British and European audiences, the reasons for the States’ tardy intervention are often obscure. The series takes the time to articulate both the popular and political arguments for and against U.S. involvement with some subtlety, and illuminates the extent of America’s help to Britain (for example, through the Lend-Lease program which provided military equipment and supplies to continue the war) and its limitations.
For American audiences, World War II all too often begins in 1941. The Winds of War carefully delineates the brutal decline into chaos, occupation, and death that afflicted Europe and the Soviet Union during the previous two years. Herman Wouk, author of the novel and teleplay from which this massive series was produced, is particularly fair to the Soviets, using Pug’s visit to the Eastern front to show that the millions of Russians who died resisting the Germans bought the Allies sufficient time (three years) to mount the invasion of Europe from the West. The series also highlights the Alice-in-Wonderland punctiliousness of those at war, treating “neutrals” with the utmost consideration.
Only in his treatment of the German army does Wouk falter badly. The fictional General Armin von Roon (Jeremy Brent) is a reassuring, but wholly inaccurate, portrait of the German general staff as primarily “good Germans,” hostile to the megalomania of Adolf Hitler and fighting the War only to save their nation from greater ruin. With this and other events, the series distorts history to serve the interests of drama. In a series of far-fetched coincidences, the assorted Henrys transform every major event from 1939 to 1941 into soap opera.
Pug’s dilettante son Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) falls in love with a headstrong Jewish-American intellectual, Natalie Jastrow (Ali McGraw), then finds himself under the German blitzkrieg that crushed Poland in 1939. There he proves either his fearlessness or his foolhardiness, depending upon the generosity of the viewer, by driving through the German lines, sketching maps from the top of a church tower under fire, and bringing water to the beleaguered American Embassy in Warsaw.
At the same time, Pug’s wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen) falls in love with Palmer Green (Peter Graves), who happens to be working on the creation of the atomic bomb, while dutiful son Warren (Ben Murphy) qualifies as a naval aviator, a hefty hint that at least one Henry will experience the devastation at Pearl Harbor. Even illegal migration to Palestine enters the picture, as Natalie and the uncle for whom she works, Aaron (John Houseman), are stranded in Italy as Mussolini declares war on the United States, and discover that only the Zionist underground is willing to help them.
In the novel, the stretching of credibility require to bring an American, as opposed to a European, family to the center of world history between 1939 and 1941, is mitigated to some extent by Wouk’s crisply descriptive writing and his undeniable talent for creating engaging personal stories. While somewhat hackneyed, they weave an intricate mesh of tension and anticipation when blended into a vividly realized historical background.
However, the reader’s imagination does not have to combat some of the most wooden acting, the product of both miscasting and haphazard direction, in recent television history. Mitchum is far too old and laid back (or comatose) for the diplomatic and military dynamo that Pug Henry becomes. McGraw flounces like a pert 14-year-old on a suburban tennis court, and delivers not one natural intonation in the entire piece. Vincent, wholesomely handsome, musters only two expressions, eyes opened and eyes narrowed.
Such faults might suggest that The Winds of War is nothing more than a televisual curiosity, whose assignment to merciful oblivion cannot arrive too early. Wouk’s real protagonist, though, in both the book and the mini-series, is not Pug Henry (and his assorted dependants), but war itself, and the insidious breakdown of social and cultural morality it spreads. In telling this story, Winds’ leisurely peregrinations around Europe and the Pacific triumph. Seven discs of labored acting might seem too high a price to pay for such understanding. But when every public debate on war and peace in the English-speaking world is reduced to shrill, ad hominem invective, perhaps a new generation might learn something of the substance behind the headlines by following the Henrys around the world of 65 years ago.