Archives for the month of: August, 2017

This is one of those productions which really makes me wonder how the economics of it could possibly work. Costumes are lush, the cast is frankly amazing, and it can’t have been cheap. But it’s awful. The writing is insulting and incoherent, the battle scenes are worse than nothing, and the directors have no idea how to get their actors to resemble human beings. And since it ran on TV, presumably it had no real way to recoup the outlay? How does this happen?

We open with Catherine’s (Catherine Zeta-Jones) marriage. Mel Ferrer is the priest! She is marrying the heir to the Russian throne, who is a non-entity with smallpox scars. Apparently he’s also incapable in the bedroom, so the Empress (Jeanne Moreau of blessed memory) recruits some slab of a nobleman (Craig McLachlan) as stud. Catherine falls heavily, has a kid whom we won’t see again, and is disappointed when this chap turns out to be gross.

MV5BMjA2Nzg4MTg4MF5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNDc1NjkxMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR4,0,182,268_AL_Then she launches a coup against her husband, the circumstances of which are not clear. That is: I didn’t already know them, and this production did not help me. Brian Blessed and Ian Richardson are there being sinister, but to what purpose it is impossible to say. The army seems to be important, and she has an affair with some guy called Orlov (Mark McGann), whose main skill seems to consist of being so manly he must use a pocketknife to unlace a corset.

Eventually Potemkin (Paul McGann) shows up, and they shout at each other and sleep together and he acquires a stylish facial scar. Approximately two dozen Ottomans make trouble, and Petersburg totters. Meanwhile some peasant (John Rhys Davies) pretends to the throne and both Catherine and Potemkin have a lot of angst about it.

Everyone in this production deserved better. I’m almost mad I watched it.

Stray observations:

  • Yes, the actors who play Orlov and Potemkin are brothers, and there’s actually a third brother as well, and yes, it is jarring. Orlov basically looks like a slightly coarsened Potemkin, and they’re both called Grigory.

Directors: Marvin J. Chomsky, John Goldsmith
Rating: tame TV
Length: 100 minutes
Score: 1/5

Herman Wouk’s novel about the last few years before the Second World War goes for coverage, both geographically and circumstantially. It smacks, rather, of a modern War & Peace, following several, sometimes overlapping threads. This works better in a book, but this series gives it the old college try.

MV5BMzY1NTEzODA4OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzM0NzUyMQ@@._V1_UY268_CR50,0,182,268_AL_Pug Henry (Robert Mitchum) is a career naval officer. His life ambition is to command a battleship. A cursory knowledge of the attack on Pearl Harbor and subsequent naval history will indicate that this is an ambition unlikely to be realized. Luckily, Pug has a host of other qualifications, like a working knowledge of German and Russian and an uncanny ability to predict geopolitical developments (he alone of everyone in the world predicts the collapse of the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, e.g.). He starts out as military liaison in Berlin and ends up a military observer of Lend-Lease efficacy in Moscow.

He has a lot of relatives, and they get into various scrapes. His wife, Rhoda (Polly Bergen), is dumb and shallow but has kept her figure, so that’s going to go badly. His daughter, Madeline (Lisa Eilbacher), is very young and goes into radio; she’s not interesting until later. His elder son, Warren (Ben Murphy), is a naval aviator in Hawai’i; his younger, Byron (Jan-Michael Vincent), is a Columbia grad and naval reservist who finds himself in Siena doing research for a famous author because he can’t settle to anything else.

This introduces the second thread, Aaron Jastrow (John Houseman) and his niece Natalie (Ali MacGraw). Dr. Jastrow is a Jewish author, which will allow the series to follow in detail the declining status of Jews in Europe, because he is stubborn and flighty, which means he refuses to leave when it is simple and then lacks the paperwork and wherewithal when it becomes difficult. Natalie is…an asshole. I had forgotten. She spends all her time keeping men on a leash and then being unpleasant when they venture to be concerned for her welfare. With a better actress in the rôle, it is broadly possible that Natalie would be captivating and impulsive, but…she’s just awful. Also, people keep looking at her askance because she’s so very Jewish-looking, and that is just insultingly silly.

Through Natalie we meet her distant cousin Berel Jastrow (Topol!), a Polish Jew who documents the early activities of the SS Einsatzgruppen. No one believes him, except Leslie Slote (David Dukes), who is a minor functionary in the US State Department and also manages to be in interesting dangerous places at interesting dangerous times. He’s very in love with Natalie and she treats him like dirt. I like Leslie, possibly the best of everyone, because all he ever does is try his best for people and get no credit. Leslie knows Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant), a young Englishwoman with a journalist father and an airman fiancé who globetrots around after her dad and incontinently falls in love with Pug. We come full circle!

Apparently no expense was spared in this production, and it was filmed on approximately nine thousand locations. This is a plus, but it doesn’t fix the problem: this was made in the early 80s, when subtlety was unknown and costumes only made a bare minimum of effort. In general, women’s dresses and hats are more or less in the style of the 40s, but in hideous fabrics, and no attempt for verisimilitude is made with respect to hairstyles. Men’s clothes, fortunately, escape disaster by retreating to uniform. The large cast, as usual, results in a quality of acting most generously described as uneven. This is not helped by Wouk’s limited talents as a screenwriter, which pale in comparison to his skills as a novelist.

At about twelve hours, it doesn’t save all that much time over reading the book, and is worse. But it is to be admired for its ambitions and its care.

Stray observations:

  • There is something inescapably 70s about Ali MacGraw, and she doesn’t even try to escape here. Also I think she might be a terrible actress. She’s definitely a terrible Natalie Jastrow.
  • The most affecting moment is FDR’s walk across the gangway to the Prince of Wales to accept Churchill’s invitation to church. Ralph Bellamy is generally excellent in the part.

Director: Dan Curtis
Rating: PGish
Length: 720 minutes
Score: 3/5