Top Favorite WORLD WAR II Movie and Television Productions

Soviet_infantryinInvasionofPoland

September 1-3 marked the 75th anniversary of the beginning of World War II.

On September 1, 1939; the German Army invaded Poland on the orders of its leader, Chancellor Adolf Hitler, a week following the signing of the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact. While the Polish military struggled to keep the invading Germans at bay, its government awaited awaited expected support and relief from France and the United Kingdom, with whom they had a pact. Two days later on September 3, Poland’s two allies declared war on Germany and World War II; which ended up engulfing both Europe, Asia, North Africa and the South Pacific; began.

Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war.

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR II MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1a - Band of Brothers

1a. “Band of Brothers” (2001) – Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks produced this outstanding television miniseries about the history of a U.S. Army paratrooper company – “Easy Company” – during the war. Damian Lewis and Ron Livingston starred. (tie)

1b - The Pacific

1b. “The Pacific” (2010) – Spielberg and Hanks struck gold again in this equally superb television miniseries about the experiences of three U.S. Marines – John Basilone, Robert Leckie and Eugene Sledge – in the war’s Pacific Theater. James Badge Dale, Joseph Mazzello and Jon Seda starred. (tie)

2 - Kellys Heroes

2. “Kelly’s Heroes” (1970) – Clint Eastwood, Telly Savalas and Don Rickles starred in this memorable war comedy about a group of Army soldiers who go AWOL to rob a bank behind enemy lines. Brian G. Hutton directed.

3 - Inglorious Basterds

3. “Inglorious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this excellent alternate history adventure about two plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler in 1944. Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz and Mélanie Laurent starred.

4 - Casablanca

4. “Casablanca” (1942) – Humphrey Bogart and Ingrid Bergman starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Murray Burnett and Joan Alison’s un-produced stage play, “Everybody Comes to Rick’s”. Directed by Michael Curtiz, the movie also starred Paul Henreid and Claude Rains.

5 - The Winds of War

5. “The Winds of War” (1983) – Dan Curtis produced and directed this excellent 1983 television adaptation of Herman Wouk’s 1971 novel. The miniseries starred Robert Mitchum, Jan-Michael Vincent and Ali McGraw.

6 - Hope and Glory

6. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote, produced and directed this 1987 excellent comedy-drama about his own childhood experiences during World War II. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7 - A Bridge Too Far

7. “A Bridge Too Far” (1977) – Sir Richard Attenborough produced and directed this darkly fascinating adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Operation Market Garden campaign. The all-star cast included Dirk Bogarde, Sean Connery, Ryan O’Neal and Gene Hackman.

8 - Valkyrie

8. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this detailed and first-rate account of Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg’s plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. The movie starred Tom Cruise, Tom Wilkinson and Bill Nighy.

9 - The Longest Day

9. “The Longest Day” (1962) – Darryl Zanuck produced this all-star adaptation of Cornelius Ryan’s book about the Normandy invasion. The cast included Robert Mitchum, Richard Beymer, Robert Wagner and John Wayne.

10 - The Bridge on the River Kwai

10. “The Bridge on the River Kwai” (1957) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Pierre Boulle’s 1952 World War II novel. The movie starred William Holden, Oscar winner Alec Guinness and Oscar nominee Sessue Hayakawa.

HM - Empire of the Sun

Honorable Mention: “Empire of the Sun” (1987) – Steven Spielberg produced and directed this excellent adaptation of J.G. Ballard’s semi-autobiographical novel about a British boy’s experiences in World War II China. The movie starred Christian Bale, John Malkovich, Miranda Richardson and Nigel Havers.

“THE WINDS OF WAR” (1983) Review

“THE WINDS OF WAR” (1983) Review

Nearly forty years ago, author Herman Wouk wrote ”The Winds of War”, a bestselling novel about the experiences of a middle-aged U.S. Navy officer and his family during the early years of World War II. A decade later, ABC Television and producer David Wolper brought his story to the television screen with a seven-part, fourteen-and-a-half hour miniseries that became a ratings hit and a major Emmy and Golden Globe nominee. 

Produced by Dan Curtis and Barbara Steele, and directed by Curtis; ”THE WINDS OF WAR” was a sprawling saga that told the story of Naval officer, Victor “Pug” Henry (Robert Mitchum), his wife Rhoda (Polly Bergen), and his three children – Naval aviator Warren (Ben Murphy), Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent) and Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), who ended up as an assistant to a radio personality – and their experiences during the six months before Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 and the first two years of the war, right up to the attack upon Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Most of the miniseries focused upon Henry’s experiences as a Naval attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Berlin, his role as a confident to President Franklin D. Roosevelt and his position at the War Department in Washington D.C. During this time, he experiences Germany’s reaction to the Poland invasion,the Battle of Britain and the early months of the Blitz, the Lend-Lease Program, and the Soviet defense against the German invasion of their country.

However, a good deal of the miniseries also focused upon Byron’s romance with one Natalie Jastrow (Ali McGraw), the niece of a Jewish author and scholar named Dr. Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) in Italy. Byron and Natalie also experience the German invasion of Poland, after attending a wedding held by her Jastrow cousins in Medzice. Their romance is later hampered by Natalie’s relationship with her former fiancé, a State Department diplomat named Leslie Slote (David Dukes) and her decision to remain in Europe in order to ensure that a very reluctant Aaron will safely get out of Europe.

Two other plotlines featured forbidden romances for both Pug and Rhoda. Pug becomes romantically involved with Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), the daughter of a British journalist and radio personality. However, their romance remains platonic. That did not seemed to be the case for Rhoda’s affair with a widowed government engineer named Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves), who will become involved in the first phase of the Manhattan project. By the end of the miniseries, Rhoda will ask Pug for a divorce.

One has to possess a great deal of patience and love of early-to-mid 20th century history to really enjoy ”THE WINDS OF WAR”. This is not my way of saying that it is a terrible production. But it is rather long at fourteen-and-a-half hours. At least four of the episodes are two-and-a-half hours long. And if I must be frank, there are sequences in the miniseries that I found rather ponderous. Sequences that usually featured Pug Henry’s meetings with famous world leaders such as Franklin Roosevelt, Adolph Hitler, Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin turned out to be exercises in sheer patience for me. And the sequences featuring the Lend-Lease Program, in which the U.S. government lent warships and planes to Great Britain also struck me as ponderous. I found some of the dialogue wince-inducing, silly, pretentious and long winded, thanks to Herman Wouk’s screenplay. Lesson – never allow an author to write the screen adaptation of his own work.

Many of the characters featured in the miniseries are portrayed by actors that struck me as too old for their roles. I can even say the same about the three leads – Mitchum, McGraw and Vincent. Well . . . almost. Somehow, these three managed to get away with it. The scenes that I found most unbearable featured Hitler’s conferences with his generals. Many of these scenes featured actor Günter Meisner as Hitler, engaging in a good deal of histrionic acting – at least in the miniseries’ first three episodes. Fortunately, he seemed to have found his stride by the fourth episode and portrayed the German chancellor without the usual clichés. Like I said, one needs a great deal of patience to face something like ”WINDS OF WAR”.

But in the end, the miniseries proved to be worth viewing. Despite its flaws, I believe it is one of the better miniseries that have appeared on television during the past forty odd years. The historic scope of the production is wide and magnificent. Director/producer Dan Curtis did a superb job in transporting viewers back to those early years of World War II – between 1939 and 1941, especially with a crew that included cinematographers Charles Correll and Stevan Larner, costume designer Heidi Wujek, matte cameraman Bruce A. Block, and production designer Jackson De Govia. I do have a quibble about Ali McGraw’s wardrobe and hairstyle. It almost seemed as if the actress seemed reluctant to utilize late 30s/early 40s costumes and hairstyles. And this made her look a little too modern for a series set during the early years of World War II.

Curtis and his crew did an excellent job in scouting locations for the miniseries. Being an epic set in the United States and Europe, he had to find locations that stood in for Berlin, Washington D.C., London, Siena and Rome, Moscow, Honolulu, Manila, along with Warsaw and Medzice. I also have to commend Marijan Karoglan for his supervision of the special effects featured in the miniseries – especially in battle sequences that focused upon the invasion of Poland, Pug’s ride aboard a British bomber over Germany, the battle outside Stalingrad, and the attacks upon Pearl Harbor and the Cavite Naval Yard in the Philippines.

One of the best things about ”THE WINDS OF WAR” is that despite being somewhat ponderous and long, it did feature some well written and interesting sequences. The best – as far as I am concerned – centered on Byron Henry and Natalie Jastrow getting caught up in the Nazi invasion of Poland near the end of ”Episode 1 – The Winds Rise” and the first half of ”Episode 2 – The Storm Breaks”. What started out as a charming visit to Poland for a family wedding, ended up as a harrowing series of events in which the pair encountered hostile Polish soldiers, aerial bombings in Warsaw, a harrowing journey across the Polish-German battle line, and a tense encounter with a Gestapo officer demanding the names of all Jews in the American party. Another favorite sequence of mine featured Pug’s experiences in Britain, during the Battle of Britain and around the beginning of the Blitz. This segment featured the beginning of his platonic romance with Pamela Tudsbury and a scary ride aboard a British bomber on a mission over Germany. I also enjoyed the segment at the end of ”Episode 3 – Cataclysm” that featured the Henry family and Natalie Jastrow’s reunion for Warren Henry’s wedding to Janice Lacouture (Deborah Winters), the daughter of an isolationist senator in Pensacola. The sequences featuring Byron and Natalie’s wedding in Lisbon, near the end of ”Episode 5 – Of Love and War” and Pug’s reunion with Pamela in the Soviet Union in the last two episodes are also favorites.

Earlier I had commented that the miniseries’ three leads – Robert Mitchum, Ali McGraw and Jan-Michael Vincent – seemed rather old for their roles. Mitchum, who was 65 years old at the time, portrayed a Pug Henry in his late 40s. McGraw was 44 years old, when she portrayed the 27-29 years old Natalie Jastrow. And Vincent was a 38 year-old actor portraying the 24-26 years old Byron Henry. But they were not the only ones. Ben Murphy, who portrayed the 27-29 years old Warren Henry, was at least 40 at the time of the miniseries’ production. Ralph Bellamy was at least 78 years old when he portrayed President Roosevelt, who had aged from 57 to 59 years during the story’s setting. There seemed to be a score of many old Hollywood character actors who struck me as too old for their roles. Many of them did not get away with portraying characters a lot younger than themselves. But Mitchum, McGraw, Vincent, Murphy and Bellamy did get away with it; due to their strong screen presence, good solid acting and looks.

Being the experienced Hollywood veteran, Mitchum did an excellent job of holding the series together in the lead role. He also did a first rate job in portraying a very reserved man who usually kept his emotions to himself, without turning the role into an automaton. McGraw seemed to have some difficulty in dealing with an exaggerated and at times, irritating character like Natalie Jastrow. I suspect that most of the blame should go to Wouk for creating such an overblown character and the bad dialogue that McGraw was forced to speak. However, I have to commend the actress for ably conveying Natalie’s moments of being intimidated in the presence of Nazis or in situations in which she felt like a fish out of water. Her character tend to be exaggerated and rather irritating at times. I suspect that most of the blame should go to Wouk for his creation of the character and the numerous bad lines that McGraw was forced to spew. However, the actress did a good job in conveying Natalie’s moments of feeling intimidated in the presence of Nazis and in situations that left her feeling like a fish out of water (think of Warren and Janice’s wedding). Both Ben Murphy and Lisa Eilbacher gave solid performances at the charismatic, yet likeable Warren Henry and the All-American Madeline Henry, who seemed to have a slight undercurrent of darkness in her personality. Jeremy Kemp gave a memorable performance as Brigadier General Armin von Roon, the stoic and very professional German Army staff officer that Pug befriended. Ralph Bellamy, who had originally portrayed Franklin D. Roosevelt in both the stage and film versions of ”SUNRISE AT CAMPBOBELLO” was in his element as the four-term president. I also enjoyed Topol’s warm portrayal of the Jastrow cousin from the Polish branch of the family, Berel Jastrow. John Houseman did a solid job in portraying Natalie’s scholarly uncle, Dr. Aaron Jastrow. However, there were times when his dialogue delivery seemed slow and slightly long-winded. As for Peter Graves, he must have been the only actor I can recall who can make an extramarital affair seem almost dignified.

But there were performances that stood out for me. One of them came from Jan-Michael Vincent, who portrayed the Henry family’sdark horse, Byron. Vincent did an excellent job in portraying Byron’s complex and sometimes difficult nature. He proved that Pug’s middle child could be just as reserved and intimidating as his father, and also very intense. Yet, at the same time, Vincent’s Byron seemed very relaxed and almost lackadaisical. Another first-rate performance came from Polly Bergen, who portrayed Pug’s flamboyant wife, Rhoda. In many ways, Bergen’s Rhoda could be just as complex as Byron. At times, she seemed like a cheerful and extroverted personality. At other times, she came off as flaky and sometimes rather unpleasant. And Bergen managed to convey Rhoda’s contradicting traits seamlessly. I am not surprised that she ended up earning an Emmy nomination for her performance. I was also impressed by Victoria Tennant’s performance as the young Englishwoman that ended up falling in love with Pug, Pamela Tudsbury. Tennant skillfully conveyed Pamela’s passionate nature and sardonic sense of humor beneath an exterior of English reserve. I have always been a fan of the late actor David Dukes, ever since I saw him in a miniseries called ”79 PARK AVENUE”. But I do believe that the role of Leslie Slote, Natalie’s former fiancé was probably one of his best. Dukes had the difficult job of developing his character from a sarcastic and slightly pompous man, reluctant to marry a Jewish woman to a loyal friend that ended up regretting that his fiancée had fallen in love with another man before he could marry her.

”THE WINDS OF WAR” has its shares of flaws – a ponderous dramatic style, too many scenes featuring the top statesmen of World War II, stilted dialogue and a questionable wardrobe for actress Ali McGraw. But its virtues – its in-depth look into the early years of World War II, its epic scope, interesting subplots and characters – make it all worth while. More importantly, I still believe it is one of the better miniseries from the last 40 years. In the end, I believe that newcomers to the saga will not regret it.

“THE SACKETTS” (1979) Review

“THE SACKETTS” (1979) Review

Thirty years ago, CBS aired a two-part miniseries (or television movie) based upon two novels written by the late Louis L’Amour. Directed by Robert Totten, “THE SACKETTS” starred Sam Elliot, Tom Selleck and Jeff Osterhage as the three Sackett brothers.

”THE SACKETTS” told the story of Tell (Elliot), Orrin (Selleck) and Tyrel (Osterhage) Sackett and their efforts to make new lives for themselves in the post-Civil War West. Screenwriter Jim Byrnes took two novels about the Sackett brothers – “The Daybreakers” (1960) and “Sackett” (1961) – and weaved them into one story. “The Daybreakers” mainly focused upon Tyrel and Orrin’s efforts to settle out West following the tragic circumstances of a family feud in East Tennessee. The two brothers eventually become involved in a between an elderly New Mexican rancher (Gilbert Roland) and a bigoted American businessman (John Vernon) in Santa Fe. At the same time, Tyrel struggles to keep the peace between a former New Orleans attorney named Tom Sunday (Glenn Ford), whom the two brothers had befriended during a cattle drive and Orrin. “Sackett”, on the other hand, focused upon the oldest Sackett brother and former Civil War veteran, Tell. Tell’s story centered around his search for gold in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and his problems with a family of outlaws who want revenge for Tell’s killing of their brother, a crooked gambler.

To Totten and Byrnes’ credit, they did an admirable job of fusing the two novels by adding two reunions between the brothers near the ends of Parts 1 and 2. They also allowed the supporting character of Cap Roundtree (Ben Johnson), a grizzled former mountain man whom Tyrel and Orrin also meet on the cattle drive; to break away from the two younger brothers and join Tell’s hunt for gold following the three brothers’ reunion at the end of Part 1. “THE SACKETTS” is also an entertaining and solid Western with two interesting tales that involve land feuds, romance, brotherly love, political change, vengeance and plenty of action.

One of the best aspects of the miniseries focused upon the developing hostility between the middle Sackett brother Orrin, and the brothers’ friend, Tom Sunday in Part 2. It was an interesting tale on how a solid friendship could easily sour over a difference of opinion regarding moral compass. After Cap had hooked up with Tell; Tyrel, Orrin and Sunday encountered the smoking remains of an emigrant family that had been killed by Ute warriors. Sunday wanted to split the money between the three of them. Orrin, upon discovering a letter written to the family by a relative, wanted to send the money back to said relative. Orrin got his way. And Tom’s resentment toward Orrin ignited. That same resentment exacerbated when he lost the election of Santa Fe’s new sheriff to the middle Sackett.

Politics also played a major role in the miniseries. The topic focused upon a feud between an aging New Mexican rancher Don Luis Alvarado (Gilbert Roland) and American businessman Jonathan Pritts (John Vernon). The feud was mainly the old Anglos vs. Mexican conflict that still dominates the Southwest to this day. The Sacketts became dragged into it, due to Orrin’s courtship of Pritts’ daughter (Marcy Hanson) and Tyrel’s romance with Don Luis’ granddaughter, Drusilla (Ana Alicia). In the end, the Sacketts and even Sunday sided with the New Mexicans. One has to applaud L’Amour for introducing this topic into the story, and for screenwriter Byrnes for maintaining it. But if I must be honest, I thought the execution of Don Luis’ feud with Pritts came off as heavy-handed and preachy.

One would think that Tell Sackett’s hunt for gold would dominate his storyline. Amazingly, it did not. Well, Tell did meet and fall in love with a woman named Ange Kerry (Wendy Rastattar), who had been stranded in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains for several years. But his story mainly focused upon his problems with the brothers (Jack Elam, Slim Pickens and Gene Evans) of crooked gambler named Bigelow (James Gammon), whom he had killed early in Part 1. This reminded me of a line from the 1984 adventure-comedy, “ROMANCING THE STONE” – “But if there was one law of the West, bastards had brothers . . . who seemed to ride forever.” And both Tell and Cap eventually discovered that the Bigelows had brothers and allies everywhere. One ally turned out to be an insecure gunfighter named Kid Newton (Paul Kelso), who had an unfortunate and humiliating encounter with Tell and Cap at a local saloon. Tell’s problems with the Bigelows culminated in a tense situation in the Sangre de Cristo foothills and a violent showdown in a nearby town.

Most of the performances featured in “THE SACKETTS” struck me as pretty solid. To the cast’s credit, they managed to use mid-to-late 19th century dialogue without being sloppy or indulging in what I considered the cliché ‘Frontier’ speech pattern that seemed popular in the Westerns of the late 1970s and early 1980s. However, I found at least four performances that really impressed me. One of them belonged to Sam Elliot, who portrayed the oldest brother, Tell. I might as well be frank. He has always been a favorite actor of mine for a long time. With his grizzled, deep voice and demeanor, the man looked as if he had stepped out of a 19th century daguerreotype. He also did an effective job of conveying Tell Sackett’s loner personality, making it easy for viewers to accept the idea that this is a man who would wait years before contacting any members of his family.

Another performance that impressed me belonged to Jeff Osterhage as the tense, yet pragmatic youngest Sackett, Tyrel. To this day, I am amazed that Osterhage never became a big star in television or movies. He seemed to have possessed both the looks and screen presence to become one. And I was certainly impressed by his ability to portray Tyrel’s pragmatic, yet intimidating nature. Traits that led him to be the best shot in the family.

I also enjoyed Wendy Rastattar’s performance as Ange Kerry, the young woman that Tell and Cap had discovered in the mountains. Rastattar did a first-rate job in portraying a tough, yet passionate young woman, who ended up falling in love with Tell. But the best performance came from Hollywood icon, Glenn Ford as the enigmatic friend of the Sacketts, Tom Sunday. In Ford’s hands, Sunday became one of a gallery of complex characters he had portrayed during his career. For me, it was sad to watch Sunday regress from Orrin and Tyrel’s wise mentor to Orrin’s drunken and embittered foe. And Ford did an excellent job in exploring Sunday’s many nuances, including those flaws that led to his downfall.

One might noticed that I had failed to include Tom Selleck’s performance as one of the more impressive ones, considering that both Elliot and Osterhage made the list. I found nothing wrong with Selleck’s performance. Unfortunately, he had the bad luck to portray Orrin, the least interesting member of the Sackett family. Orrin was an affable, yet solid character that lacked any nuances, which could have made him as interesting as his brothers. A great deal happened to Orrin in this story. He lost his bride in a family feud, fell briefly in love with the villains’ daughter and pissed off Tom Sunday. Yet, he was not very interesting character. Which left the talented Selleck with very little to work with.

The movie’s production values struck me as very impressive. Production designer Johannes Larson, costume designers Carole Brown-James and Barton Kent James, and cinematographer Jack Whitman did an excellent job in capturing the ambiance of the Old West circa 1869-1870. Along with the director Totten, they managed to create a West during a period before it truly threatened to become settled. They managed to capture the ruggedness and beauty of the West without overcompensating themselves, like many other Westerns released after the 1960s tend to do.

Many years have passed since I have read “The Daybreakers” and “Sackett”. Which is my way of saying that I cannot tell whether the miniseries was a completely faithful adaptation of the two novels. If I must be honest, I really do not care whether it is faithful or not. The television version of the two novels – namely “THE SACKETTS” – is a first-rate and entertaining saga. I am certain that many fans of Louis L’Amour will continue to enjoy it.