Chronicling the exploits of American naval officer ‘Pug’ Henry (Robert Mitchum), who becomes Ambassador to Germany, and his various family members’ activities from 1939-1941. Concurrently, the film also charts the rise of Germany’s Fuhrer Adolf Hitler (Gunter Meissner), and the effects his growing influence has on not only Germans, but the rest of the world, and especially the Jewish people. Polly Bergen is Henry’s increasingly bored, gauche wife, who starts to see an awful lot of widowed uranium scientist Peter Graves (who is working on the atomic bomb!), when her husband is away for long periods of time. This proves to be a very long time, as Henry is stationed in Berlin, London, Rome, and even Moscow, by President Franklin D. Roosevelt (Ralph Bellamy) himself, to be his observer. But don’t feel sorry for ol’ ‘Pug’ (who also gets to meet Hitler, Churchill, and Stalin!), he’s got the charming young Brit Victoria Tennant to hero-worship him (and more, if he’ll only let her!). Jan-Michael Vincent is the family ‘black sheep’ son Byron, who goes to Italy to work as a research assistant for famed American author John Houseman. There he falls in love with Houseman’s stuck-up, stubborn, rich-girl niece Ali MacGraw. Lisa Eilbacher is Henry’s stubborn daughter who finds her niche working for CBS. Ben Murphy, barely in the film, is Henry’s other son, a fighter pilot who ends up stationed at Pearl Harbour (Gee, I sure hope that works out for him!). David Dukes plays MacGraw’s constantly rebuffed, rather petty would-be suitor, a nerdy diplomat. Dukes and MacGraw are forever trying to convince the stubborn, elderly Jew Houseman that Italy is no longer a safe haven for him and he should return to the US while still possible. Jeremy Kemp excels as the fictitious Gen. Armin Von Roon, a proud and dutiful German who disapproves of what Hitler is doing, but is nonetheless loyal to Germany and it’s ruler. A lively Topol has a glorified cameo as MacGraw’s Polish uncle (therefore Houseman’s estranged brother) Berel, who uncovers the implementation of concentration camps. Australian-born Allan Cuthbertson and everyone’s favourite Nazi Anton Diffring play attachés, British and German, respectively.
This extremely long (shown over about a week on Australian cable TV, where I saw it. Around about 15 hours in length, anyway) but rewarding and entertaining 1983 mini-series directed by Dan Curtis (“House of Dark Shadows”), was scripted by Herman Wouk, from his own novel. With the amount of story and significant events needed to be worked through here (depicting the period between 1939-1941 before the US became engaged in WWII), Wouk has perhaps skimped on the details at times and resorted to some less than 3D characters and soap opera-like situations. There’s way too many romantic dalliances here for one story and the Pearl Harbour seems rushed to me, like it was only in there because it had to be there. However, this is such a massive undertaking and as such it works a lot better than it could have, and it still holds up quite well today, with a few reservations (which I’ll get to in a minute). WWII has many stories ready for telling and, it’s a war that even I myself find interesting to read about, learn about, and watch WWII films.
The casting is mostly very effective, with stalwart Mitchum a fine anchor, even if he’s far too old for his role, the film wouldn’t be as strong without his presence and stubborn (but ultimately noble), granite-like persona. Tennant, meanwhile, looks rather spiffy in a uniform, playing the daughter of a British journalist who becomes acquainted with Mitchum, when he’s away from the wifey. She’s all English pleasantness and posh accent, but does rather well considering some of the silly soap opera dialogue she gets. For me, however, the standouts were in the supporting roles, notably Kemp, Bellamy, Dukes, Houseman, Diffring, Ferdy Mayne, and Meissner. Kemp plays the film’s most interestingly layered character (the audience’s entry into the minds and actions of the German military, really), and proves what an underrated actor he is, stealing the show. Well, stealing the show from everyone but Bellamy, who makes an indelible impression as the aging FDR, always armed with that signature cigarette holder rigidly held between his lips. He brilliantly plays the American President as a physically frail and outwardly paternal man, but also clearly a sharp and crafty politician. Dukes (who for some reason reminded me of David Strathairn in this one) does well to make his sometimes unsympathetic character somehow understandable and you even feel a bit sorry for him. Old pro Houseman could recite the phone book and make it sound enthralling with his wonderful voice. Diffring does his usual snobbish Nazi thing to perfection in a small role, whilst Mayne is genuinely affecting in a few short scenes as a Jewish merchant who rents his home to Mitchum and his family, with the new Nazi laws making life very difficult for him and his own family.
Gunter Meissner, familiar to many as Slugworth in “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” gets the plum role here of the Fuhrer, a role he was able to play several times in his career, despite usually being cast in SS roles (Nazis were his specialty, it seems). He seems a sticking point with many, but I found he portrayed Hitler exactly as the director and Wouk have instructed. The character doesn’t call for much subtlety, and the frightening-yet-blowhard Meissner doesn’t provide subtlety (though the rigid arm movements are a bit phony). He does overdo it one scene in particular, but it’s a scene where such an approach was essential to show just how nuts this guy was. Even though in previous films I’ve noted how much Meissner looks like Goebbels, he also looks rather a lot like the Fuhrer here, albeit a bit slimmer. I like Meissner and he makes quite an impression here at any rate, and it’s nice to see him getting such a major role.
There are also solid smaller appearances by Cuthbertson and Israeli actor Topol, the latter of which should’ve had a much larger role, if you ask me. Aside from Tennant (and a cameo by ‘Scream Queen’ Barbara Steele, strangely credited as a producer here), the female roles are not quite as well-handled, notably a miscast and talentless MacGraw (too old for her part by about 10 years, though her co-star for most, Jan-Michael Vincent was no spring chicken himself) and a horribly shrill, unbearable Bergen. The former (an actress of zero talent or charisma. Yeah, I said it!) is entirely colourless and gives her character a harshness and coldness, and an ego that make her entirely unlikeable. The latter is playing an embarrassing, ‘ugly American’ stereotype, but Bergen is incapable of subtlety and takes the stereotype to even more histrionic heights that her performance becomes more embarrassing than the character (no easy thing to do!). I hated the selfish and stupid character and hated the way Bergen played it.
And whilst we’re speaking of flaws, time has not been so kind to the film’s rather uneven FX work, decidedly dodgy in several places (mostly the action scenes with unconvincing models and blue-screen work). Anyway, these are minor distractions in an otherwise still impressive and mammoth TV miniseries undertaking that is definitely worth seeing, especially for fans of WWII stories.