The Winds of War: Over and again

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Do you have a book, movie, or mini-series that you’ve read or watched over and again, and will continue to as long as you’re here on terra firma? I have several, and one of them is Herman Wouk’s The Winds of War, both the 1971 novel and the 1983 television mini-series adaptation.

The Winds of War starts in 1939, as war clouds are swirling about Europe. It follows the fortunes of the Henry family, headed by U.S. Navy officer Victor “Pug” Henry, along with his wife Rhoda, sons Warren and Byron, and daughter Madeline.

Joining them as major figures are famous Jewish author and retired professor Aaron Jastrow and his niece, Natalie, who are living in an Italian villa. Their journeys also become focal points. Also prominent is Pamela Tudsbury, a young British woman who travels the globe helping her father, foreign correspondent “Talky” Tudsbury, as well as foreign service officer Leslie Slote.

With the novel weighing in at some 880 pages, and the mini-series clocking in at seven hefty episodes, The Winds of War qualifies as a sweeping epic. It opens with Europe on the brink of another war, and it continues on through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Throughout the story, the major characters and others cross paths, move apart, face life-threatening danger, and fall in and out of love, in places as disparate as London, Berlin, Italy, Portugal, Washington D.C., Hawaii, and the Philippines, among many others.

Major historical figures such as Roosevelt, Churchill, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin all make their appearances. (In story turns that are somehow believable, our trustworthy, no-nonsense Captain Henry meets all of them.)

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My introduction to The Winds of War came via the mini-series. I missed it when it first aired, but during a holiday trip home to see my family many years ago, I discovered it at a local video rental store and dove in.

Robert Mitchum stoically plays Pug Henry, with Polly Bergen as wife Rhoda. Among the Henry siblings, young Byron (Jan Michael-Vincent) is featured most prominently in the mini-series, along with Natalie Jastrow (Ali McGraw) and uncle Aaron (John Houseman), Pamela Tudsbury (scrumptious Victoria Tennant), Leslie Slote (David Dukes), scientist Palmer Kirby (Peter Graves), and German general Armin von Roon (Jeremy Kemp).

Contemporary reviews of the casting decisions were mixed, with Ali McGraw bearing the brunt of the criticism. However, the story lines were compelling and the cinematography won a well-deserved Emmy, among three garnered by the mini-series.

Now Winds is on DVD, and I’ve watched it at least a dozen times over the past ten years. You know how a character in a story just resonates with you? Well, for some reason I feel that way about multiple figures in Winds. I keep imagining myself in their world, living their adventures and challenges.

If you want more evidence of my obsession, here it is: I even tracked down a used copy of a “making of” published diary put together by publicist James Butler. It’s a cheaply produced, spiral-bound paperback featuring profiles of leading cast members and Butler’s reminiscences of filming Winds around the world in 1981. It’s an affectionate remembrance. For example, notwithstanding Ali McGraw’s uneven performance as Natalie Jastrow, we learn that she was a down-to-earth class act in working with the production crew and interacting with the public on location. And a lot of the guys had major crushes on her.

The photo above is a page from Butler’s on-location diary. At bottom left are Robert Mitchum and Victoria Tennant. At top right are director Dan Curtis and actor Howard Lang, who made for a pretty good Churchill.

And yes, I even have the mini-series soundtrack:

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Wouk would complete his panorama of the Second World War in War and Remembrance, notable especially for its brutally authentic depictions of Nazi death camps. It, too, appeared first as a novel (1978), followed by a mini-series (1988-89) that included scenes filmed at Auschwitz. I’ve devoted repeat viewings and readings to Remembrance as well, but The Winds of War has captured my primary affection among Wouk’s two mega-works.

So, at some point during the next year, I’ll pull out the Winds DVDs, and lose myself in a tumultuous world of some 75 years ago.

4 responses

  1. Dave, I’m glad that you wrote this particular post in your blog. I read and greatly enjoyed Winds of War as well as War and Remembrance way back in Valpo days. About six months ago, I heard that Winds of War was available on Netlifx streaming so I downloaded it. And there it has sat – with about 40 other movies and series. Now that I have your recommendation in hand, I will reprioritize it to the top of the list and start watching it right after the Thanksgiving holidays. Keep those recommendations coming!

    1. Don, too bad we didn’t encounter one of their film crews while we were in England or traveling on the Continent! They were filming there during our semester abroad.

      I hope you enjoy watching it. It’s got all the plusses and minuses of the mini-series genre, but I’m hooked on it, as you could tell!

  2. Well, I’m a Gen Xer, not a Joneser, but I’d say my love of “Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” is possibly equal to your own….though with me primarily the books, which I have reread several times. As a storyteller, Wouk has no equal since Dickens.

    I do love the DVDs and have watched the whole series (missed it the first time around, I was busy being in high school & college) and found it extremely powerful, especially the harrowing Holocaust scenes, which should be required viewing for anyone in danger of forgetting what happened and how awful it was. I remember having almost a violent reaction when it seemed that Byron and Natalie’s son had been killed, I was so hooked on the story that I couldn’t believe they would let that happen. I literally cried when it became clear he had survived. Anyway, I agree how great the DVD is.

    I had never heard of that making-of diary, and an online search for it revealed that (at present) it’s only available with the scripts, running to nearly $300. I don’t want it THAT much, but I’d sure love to see it someday.

    Thanks for the post!

    1. Bruce, thank you for your comment! Yes, it seems like we’ve been hooked on those stories in much the same way. In fact, your note caught me at a time when I’m casually watching the DVDs of Winds for the umpteenth time on my computer!

      The Holocaust scenes in Remembrance are, in my opinion, the most vivid and horrific dramatic portrayals of those events ever filmed. They are among the reasons why I find Winds easier to read/watch than Remembrance; I need to gird myself for Remembrance.

      Fortunately I didn’t have to pay anything close to $300 for the Winds diary; it was a not inexpensive but lucky catch. I’m guessing that it’s the kind of thing that turns up now and then at a more affordable price than in the hundreds. I hope you’ll be able to snag a copy that way.

      Thanks again for writing.
      David

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