The Winds of War

Lesley Smith

Perhaps a new generation might learn something of the substance behind the headlines by following the Henrys around the world of 65 years ago.

The Winds of War

Cast: Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw, Jan-Michael Vincent, Polly Bergen, John Houseman, Victoria Tennant, Ralph Bellamy, Peter Graves, Topol
Network: Paramount
First date: 1983
US Release Date: 2004-05-25

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Keep reading... Show less

Pauline Black may be called the Queen of Ska by some, but she insists she's not the only one, as Two-Tone legends the Selecter celebrate another stellar album in a career full of them.

Being commonly hailed as the "Queen" of a genre of music is no mean feat, but for Pauline Black, singer/songwriter of Two-Tone legends the Selecter and universally recognised "Queen of Ska", it is something she seems to take in her stride. "People can call you whatever they like," she tells PopMatters, "so I suppose it's better that they call you something really good!"

Keep reading... Show less

Morrison's prose is so engaging and welcoming that it's easy to miss the irreconcilable ambiguities that are set forth in her prose as ineluctable convictions.

It's a common enough gambit in science fiction. Humans come across a race of aliens that appear to be entirely alike and yet one group of said aliens subordinates the other, visiting violence upon their persons, denigrating them openly and without social or legal consequence, humiliating them at every turn. The humans inquire why certain of the aliens are subjected to such degradation when there are no discernible differences among the entire race of aliens, at least from the human point of view. The aliens then explain that the subordinated group all share some minor trait (say the left nostril is oh-so-slightly larger than the right while the "superior" group all have slightly enlarged right nostrils)—something thatm from the human vantage pointm is utterly ridiculous. This minor difference not only explains but, for the alien understanding, justifies the inequitable treatment, even the enslavement of the subordinate group. And there you have the quandary of Otherness in a nutshell.

Keep reading... Show less

A 1996 classic, Shawn Colvin's album of mature pop is also one of best break-up albums, comparable lyrically and musically to Joni Mitchell's Hejira and Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

When pop-folksinger Shawn Colvin released A Few Small Repairs in 1996, the music world was ripe for an album of sharp, catchy songs by a female singer-songwriter. Lilith Fair, the tour for women in the music, would gross $16 million in 1997. Colvin would be a main stage artist in all three years of the tour, playing alongside Liz Phair, Suzanne Vega, Sheryl Crow, Sarah McLachlan, Meshell Ndegeocello, Joan Osborne, Lisa Loeb, Erykah Badu, and many others. Strong female artists were not only making great music (when were they not?) but also having bold success. Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill preceded Colvin's fourth recording by just 16 months.

Keep reading... Show less

Frank Miller locates our tragedy and warps it into his own brutal beauty.

In terms of continuity, the so-called promotion of this entry as Miller's “third" in the series is deceptively cryptic. Miller's mid-'80s limited series The Dark Knight Returns (or DKR) is a “Top 5 All-Time" graphic novel, if not easily “Top 3". His intertextual and metatextual themes resonated then as they do now, a reason this source material was “go to" for Christopher Nolan when he resurrected the franchise for Warner Bros. in the mid-00s. The sheer iconicity of DKR posits a seminal work in the artist's canon, which shares company with the likes of Sin City, 300, and an influential run on Daredevil, to name a few.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.