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. . . and Takes Its Place at Top of All TV Drama

Volume 1 of ABC’s “War and Remembrance” is more than just a dazzling achievement in historical storytelling that captures both the panoramic and personal adversities of World War II. It is the best serialized drama in the history of American television.

The term miniseries hardly applies to 18 hours of prime time. Add to them the 14 hours of Volume 2 coming in May, moreover, and the resulting 32 hours of “War and Remembrance” far exceeds a season’s worth of episodes of “L.A. Law,” “Dallas” or “thirtysomething.”

Whether judged by quantity or quality, there is nothing even remotely mini about Volume 1 of “War and Remembrance,” which concludes at 8:30 tonight on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42.

What a pity that fiscal and ratings criteria have mandated this American classic being presented in two cumbersome chunks in November and May--requiring an enormous, concentrated commitment of time from viewers--instead of being spread out and made more accessible as a weekly series.

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Given the number of people who stop to gawk at freeway crashes and burning buildings, it’s probably not surprising that almost as many viewers Sunday night watched Vanna White play a statue come to life in NBC’s imbecilic “Goddess of Love” as watched that night’s brilliant episode of “War and Remembrance.”

About the time the Allies were invading North Africa on ABC, Vanna was proclaiming, “I am Venus, daughter of Zeus.” As Hitler pressed his attack on Stalingrad, Vanna was saying, “I take leave of you now.” And as the tide was turning against the Japanese in the South Pacific, Vanna was declaring, “No mortal woman can compete with Venus.” Yes, the pretty little miss acted her heart out.

That perhaps 40 million viewers found some kind of sustenance in “Goddess of Love” no doubt says something about America. Yet, happily, so does the fact that even more viewers watched “War and Remembrance.”

A sequel to the smash hit “Winds of War,” which aired in 1983, “War and Remembrance” has been something to behold, a stage upon which the grand and grotesque have coexisted in a way that has been true to history and the Herman Wouk novel from which this story about an American naval family is drawn. Wouk, Earl W. Wallace and executive producer/director Dan Curtis wrote the scintillating teleplay.

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In capturing at once the sweep and romance of the war and the evil of Hitlerism, Curtis has enveloped us in the lives of the Henry family just as the family members themselves have been enveloped by global conflict. They are flawed, but likable. You ache for them, mourn for them, hurt for them, fear for them.

Through inspired location filming and meticulous attention to period detail, Curtis has drawn us back through the years to a grim era and a story that is paradoxically romantic and sickening.

Never before in an American TV drama has the Holocaust been so graphically, uncompromisingly--and profoundly--depicted. Tonight’s scenes of rotting corpses at Auschwitz and the Nazi massacre of Jews at Babi Yar in the Soviet Union are excruciatingly and revoltingly real. This is important, landmark TV--hard to take, but even harder to ignore.

It’s ironic that “War and Remembrance” remains so acutely on target despite its pivotal character, Capt. Victor (Pug) Henry, being rendered nearly moribund by the calcified performance of Robert Mitchum. Any number of actors would have been better.

Otherwise, the performances have been excellent, especially Jane Seymour as Pug’s Jewish daughter-in-law, Natalie; John Gielgud as Natalie’s famous uncle, Aaron Jastrow; Polly Bergen as Pug’s frivolous wife, Rhoda; David Dukes as the American consular official Leslie Slote, who tries to spread word of the Holocaust, and Barry Bostwick as a swaggering American submarine commander.

In smaller roles, Bill Wallis has been chillingly on center as the Nazi bureaucrat Werner Beck, and Steven Berkoff has showed us Hitler as a madman without resorting to caricature.

ABC will surely lose a bundle on “War and Remembrance,” whose ratings have been less than a lot of people expected. Maybe expectations were too high. Nonetheless, ABC should be proud.

Volume 1 ends tonight on a note of uncertainty, as Natalie’s and Aaron’s hopes are briefly lifted when they and her small son are transported by the Nazis to the “Paradise Ghetto” of Theresienstadt. Rest assured, it will be no paradise.

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Until May.


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