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Excellence Roars in NBC ‘Lions’ : Television: The World War II epic is enriched by writer and producer David W. Rintels’ creative work and by three stellar performances.

Winston Churchill, prime minister of Great Britain during most of World War II, begins speaking with his back to the camera. As he slowly turns toward us, we see a man burdened by the crushing tonnage of leadership in wartime, fearing that an allied invasion of France across the English Channel will cost 300,000 lives.

His words are leaden with gloom: “I wake up at night . . . and see the channel floating . . . with the bodies of the cream of our youth.”

If you’re seeking affirmation that U.S. television still has an epic drama or two up its sleeve, and even an artistic pulse, tune in the NBC two-parter, “World War II: When Lions Roared,” tonight and Wednesday night. Written and produced by David W. Rintels, it’s stunningly successful both as vibrant entertainment and as a personalized, peephole-widening account of history from a serious and creative dramatist.

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Abetted by a troika of stellar performances--John Lithgow as U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Michael Caine as Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and Bob Hoskins as Churchill--Rintels’ scintillating, prodigiously researched teleplay relates the war from the often competing perspectives of the three commanders in chief.

Despite the title, the only roaring here is figurative, and that’s good. No one is easier to caricature than a high-profile figure with recognizable traits, from a grinning Roosevelt and his appendage-like cigarette holder to a stogie-chomping Churchill giving his “V” sign to a pipe-smoking Stalin hiding behind a mask of inscrutability as thick as tire rubber.

None of that here. And even though they are the visual center of the story, Lithgow, Hoskins and Caine (give credit to director Joseph Sargent too) never allow their performances to eclipse the war that is omnipresent despite being seen only in occasional newsreel footage.

“Winston,” Roosevelt assures Churchill, “trust me to the bitter end.” But “When Lions Roared” is as much about high-level intrigues and special interests as anything, with even those closest of collaborators, Roosevelt and Churchill, alternating as human cracks in the alliance. Somehow, though, the three leaders put aside their mutual suspicions and separate political agendas long enough to act incisively and cohesively at critical moments.

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“When Lions Roared” is unconventional television visually as well as artistically, using split screens, freeze frames and rear projections of newsreel footage in bold ways. There is a lot of clutter on the screen that initially takes getting used to, but Sargent masters these fascinating devices and they work in the long run, with the split screens narrowing time and physical gaps in ways that allow the three principals to have dialogues across the seas as if they were face to face.

On one side of the screen, for example, Churchill dictates a cable to his U.S. ally, while on the other side Roosevelt hears and responds to it as if he were in the same room. Add Stalin, and these simulated video conference calls become three-way.

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The actual face-to-face meetings of the Big Three--at Tehran in 1943 and at Yalta in 1945--are the centerpieces of “When Lions Roared,” just as these conferences were the strategic centerpieces of the war itself. Prior to Tehran, Churchill worries on the screen about the “stupendous issues” facing the Allies. And indeed, Tehran becomes a seedling for the Cold War while Yalta, in the Crimea, becomes the unofficial stamp of approval for a communist postwar Poland.

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The “Polish question” is a main course at Yalta, where a dying Roosevelt arrives in his wheelchair, appearing, as Churchill notes, shockingly “frail and ill, transparent almost.” (Credit Linda De Vetta with making Lithgow look that way, and also with the convincing transformations of Hoskins and Caine.) As events would show, Stalin’s idea of “free elections” for Poland differed from that of his U.S. and British counterparts.

Rintels, however, has no intention of using these meetings (which were shot in Prague and spectacularly mounted by production designer James L. Schoppe) to create a definitive film record. His script’s shorthand is hardly all inclusive, omitting the issue of Japan from the Yalta talks, for example.

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And there’s no explanation for Churchill’s shock at Tehran over Stalin cavalierly calling for the mass execution of German officers. What the script omits is that the Soviets were already suspected of murdering 1,700 Polish officers in the Katyn Forest.

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More important to Rintels--and a wise call, given the film’s time limitations--is the sense of history that comes from exploring the relationships at play here, and the differences in the personalities and approaches of the three leaders. Churchill and Roosevelt, for example, clash over military strategy and over Stalin, with the President much more trusting with regard to Soviet postwar intentions than is the British leader. “I don’t know a good Russian from a bad Russian,” Roosevelt says to his confidant, Harry Hopkins (Ed Begley Jr.), about Stalin.

As “When Lions Roared” affirms, separating good television from bad television is much easier.

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MORE HISTORY: Everybody’s a critic. All right, perhaps Christopher Columbus wasn’t greeted on this continent by scantily clad dancing girls, as a network docudrama depicted in the 1980s. Maybe he didn’t study his navigational charts by day, the body of Dona Felipa Perestrello by night. And it’s likely he wasn’t told by a fortuneteller: “I see much hardship, but your name will be famous.”

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For better or for worse, though, television has indeed assumed a primary role as the nation’s chronicler of the past, both near and distant. Thus it’s only proper that an entire channel be devoted to history. One’s on the way, in fact. Its announced mandate: to air historical documentaries, films and miniseries.

As in Jaclyn Smith playing Florence Nightingale.

Cable’s 24-hour History Channel--a sort of spinoff from the Arts & Entertainment Network--is scheduled to debut by fall. Before junior historians get terribly excited, though, there’s the History Channel’s just-announced agreement with Columbia Pictures to consider.

The deal to air 11 movies and miniseries from Columbia does not include the Italian-made Christopher Columbus biography mentioned above. It does include the Oscar-winning “Gandhi”; “Hope and Glory,” John Boorman’s very pleasing, kid’s-eye view of World War II England; and various middle-brow film biographies. Plus, the History Channel promises that after each work, its host and guest historians will explore “any myths or dramatic license” in the presentation.

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Very nice. Yet on the negative side, the package contains a 1985 TV movie with Smith as Nightingale and a 1983 TV movie starring Cheryl Ladd as Grace Kelly.

I see much hardship for the History Channel, but it’s name will be famous.

* “World War II: When Lions Roared” airs at 8 tonight and at 9 p.m. Wednesday on NBC (Channels 4, 36 and 39).


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