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A Rich, Definitive American Epic

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How fitting that the final chapters of ABC’s remarkable “War and Remembrance” should air almost exactly at the half-century mark in United States television.

This rich, definitive American epic is one of the great achievements in television history, a voluminous, awesomely compelling work of stature that captures the heart and spirit of Herman Wouk’s powerful novel about a family’s tumultuous odyssey through World War II.

A sequel to Wouk’s “The Winds of War,” which spanned 18 hours on ABC in 1983, the vastly superior “War and Remembrance” opened with 18 hours of its own last November, leading to the present 11 1/2-hour finale.

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Airing at 8 p.m. Sunday and then at 9 p.m. on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and May 14 on Channels 7, 3, 10 and 42, it’s well worth the huge investment of time.

Better that ABC be known for Wouk II than for “Crimes of Passion 2” and “Scandals II,” the tabloid sex-and-crime specials that it recently canceled, the network said, because of fears of its image being damaged and because of advertiser resistance to the shows.

Although other major characters still have an ongoing presence, the concluding “War and Remembrance” bloc is essentially the Nazi concentration camp story of Jewish Natalie Henry (Jane Seymour) and her elderly uncle, Aaron Jastrow (John Gielgud), who were interned along with Natalie’s toddler son, Louis, after being trapped in German-controlled Europe when the United States entered the war.

As “War and Remembrance” reopens, Natalie’s husband, Byron (Hart Bochner), is still a submarine officer at sea, worried about Natalie and Louis and troubled by the atrophied marriage of his parents, Pug (Robert Mitchum) and Rhoda (Polly Bergen) Henry. Now a rear admiral, meanwhile, Pug faces a crossroads in his romance with Englishwoman Pamela Tudsbury (Victoria Tennant).

And Natalie, Louis and Aaron are in Theresienstadt, the German concentration camp in Czechoslovakia euphemistically dubbed the “paradise ghetto” only because it offered somewhat more humane conditions and was used by the Nazis as a showcase to disguise their evil.

Like its November predecessor, the new “War and Remembrance” has some softness in its underbelly.

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Many of the historical figures--from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Manhattan Project chief Robert Oppenheimer to Gen. Dwight Eisenhower’s driver and intimate friend Kay Summersby--are caricatures. Fortunately they appear only briefly as human punctuation marks.

What’s more, although the overall score is haunting, music used to identify specific subgroups and subthemes is again mundane and predictable. Members of the German general staff, for example, can hardly make a move without accompanying drums.

And on a more substantive level, executive producer-director Dan Curtis dwells far too long Monday and Tuesday on a highly embellished version of the failed assassination of Hitler by Count Claus Schenk von Stauffenberg. It serves only to slow the story.

Otherwise, “War and Remembrance” is a tour de force for Curtis, who also collaborated with Wouk and Earl W. Wallace on the script. His characters change, evolve and shed old skins in response to the war that so drastically alters their lives.

None grows more than Natalie, the terrified but fiercely strong mother, or Aaron, the once naive scholar who is reborn as a Jew in an atmosphere of death. It is here, repressed by his Nazi captors, that Aaron gains strength and rediscovers himself, his journal becoming the moral voice of “War and Remembrance” until he reaches Auschwitz, where the Jew’s journey finally ends.

The Holocaust is unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced it, and television’s small screen and diverting living room environment make for an unlikely medium of record.

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Yet Curtis conveys at least a sense of the terror in a craftily directed scene showing the sadistic all-night process of selecting exhausted Theresienstadt Jews to be shipped by rail to death camps in the east.

How profoundly symbolic are Curtis’ pictures of trains in “War and Remembrance.” And how horrifying are the sounds of boxcars being closed, signifying closure on life and hope.

Equally affecting is the long, tortuous train journey to Auschwitz that comes later, a slow, freezing, withering, stinking, vomitous, claustrophobic ordeal that Curtis is careful not to hurry, squeezing us in amid mostly doomed passengers enduring what seems like an infinite dark tunnel.

The death camp sequences that follow are almost too painful to watch, and too significant not to watch.

“War and Remembrance” far surpasses “The Winds of War,” in part because of crucial cast changes.

Continuing in a role first played by Ali McGraw, Seymour makes Natalie Henry the performance of her career. The flashing vibrancy is now a memory and the luminous face now drawn and haggard, with only the eyes hinting at the inner resolve.

Gielgud is a marvel in a part originated by the late John Houseman. He is the essence of fine acting as the once-foolish Aaron, now the epitome of reason and clarity and a courageous visionary in the face of extreme adversity.

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Almost as important as Seymour and Gielgud was the addition of Bochner as Byron, in place of Jan-Michael Vincent, and Steven Berkoff makes a fine contribution in the pivotal role of Hitler.

As for “The Winds of War” returnees, Bergen again shines as the pathetic and unhappy Rhoda. And Tennant does nicely as Pamela, even though her hot passion for Mitchum’s wordless, bloodless, lifeless, calcified Pug is as illogical and unbelievable as ever. When these two are on the screen together--which, happily, is not too often--”War and Remembrance” drops anchor and goes dead in the water.

What you recall most, though, is the vivid and brilliant storytelling, the shaping of massive material into an intelligent narrative, the delicate intermingling of the romance and the macabre of war, the celebration of the good in humanity and the damnation of evil.

Adding all the hours, “The Winds of War” and “War and Remembrance” together will have run the equivalent of roughly two full seasons of a weekly series. And a successful, often brilliant run it’s been--no matter the brainless criticism by some that the extraordinarily costly “War and Remembrance” flopped in November by drawing an average nightly audience of perhaps only 50 million people.

On the contrary, well done.

And so the story finally ends, bringing to mind what Wouk wrote about the fiery death of Byron’s Navy pilot brother, Warren, in the Pacific:

“For a few seconds, a thin black smoke plume marked the place where he fell. Then like his life, the plume melted into the wind and was gone.”

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