'The Winds of War' turns epic events into soap opera

Novelists ought to leave well enough alone. When Herman Wouk's ''The Winds of War'' was published in 1971, it evoked rave reviews from most of the nation's book critics - ''first-rate storytelling,'' ''grand, grandiose, compelling,'' were some of the more restrained comments.

Well, the kudos encouraged Mr. Wouk to insist upon great control over the television version (including, in the long run, the actual writing of the TV script).

He should have taken the original kudos and run. The Winds of War (ABC, Sunday, Feb. 6, through Sun., Feb. 13 - except Saturday. Check local listings for times) is landmark mini-series television - World War II as soap opera. And it may prove as habit-forming as daytime soap opera is for more than 50 million prime-time TV viewers. But like its prototypes, this mini-series is filled with the slightly sleazy excitement of the daily life of a crumbling family. The intimate display of the family wash is interspersed among the now-almost-unbelievable international events of the 1930s and 1940s. Aside from its easy popcorn-literature appeal, ''The Winds of War'' holds most fascination for those who may not be quite sure how it all started . . . and turned out.

After viewing the first seven hours of the TV epic and sampling a bit more from later episodes (you wouldn't want me to spend my whole life previewing ''The Winds,'' would you?), I went back and reread the book to make certain I wasn't making harsh judgments about the nature of the material. Yes, it is soap opera now - it was soap opera then.

However, it is comparatively literate soap opera - not as noble as ''Upstairs , Downstairs'' or ''The Forsyte Saga'' - but not as cheap as most of today's daytime champions, either. ''Winds,'' you see, has intellectual pretensions. ''That man will save civilization!'' predicts Polly Bergen the first time she hears Winston Churchill speak.

''The Winds of War'' is full of that kind of insight - of pregnant pauses - as when the two lovers drive past a charming little town called . . . pause . . . Auschwitz.

''My decision is irrevocable,'' declaims a comic-strip Adolf Hitler, mispronouncing the word irrevocable, when telling his general that he has decided to attack France in five weeks.

You may have heard the hoopla - 14 years in the planning, 13 months in the making, $40 million budget, and so forth. Nothing was spared to make ''The Winds'' a TV blockbuster, including the signing of stars Ali MacGraw and Robert Mitchum.

And that is one of the problems - these two actors, institutions though they may be, are stony-faced enough to conceal all the secrets of WWII behind their deadpan range of facial expressions.

Counterpointing Miss MacGraw's making the complex character she plays seem incomprehensible, Polly Bergen, as Mitchum's wife, appears to be trying to make up for the lack of animation in the faces of her co-stars by mugging throughout, as if this were a silent movie. Jan-Michael Vincent is the most believable of a cast of stereotypical characters.

But perhaps I am being unfair. Often the March-of-Time-like interruptions which herald the rise of Hitler through the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor are fascinating enough to make you forgive the never-ending soapy tribulations of the Henry family.

The mini-series is no worse than most of the second-rate but still fascinating wartime films. Director Dan Curtis, who admits to using everything he filmed, should perhaps have been just a bit more selective in his final editing. One gets the feeling that too often ''The Winds'' continues long after it should have stopped blowing.

If you are looking for insights about WWII, about family relationships, about Jewish-Christian love affairs, you will have to look elsewhere. ''The Winds'' touches on all of these subjects - but superficially. With just as much depth as is possible in a once-over-lightly mini-series trying to pack just about everything of importance that happened in the world between 1938 and 1941 into a mere 18 hours.

Eighteen hours! It's tiring just to think about it. Viewers will have to decide if they want their lives to be ruled for seven evenings by TV programming. More and more, some arrogant TV schedulers are trying to force the private lives of American viewers to conform to the network need for high Nielsen ratings during a ''sweeps'' period (February) when future advertising rates are set, based upon ratings. Maybe the widespread use of video-tape recorders will outmaneuver the programmers.

However, if you start watching on Sunday, don't fret if you have to miss a few days in the middle. You can always pick it up at any point, using ''Life's Picture History of World War II'' for updating.

Taiwan and Australia

What do Taiwan and Australia have in common next week?

Upcoming documentaries, both stressing the unusual sociological isolation and geographic separation that make the countries unique. Although the underlying themes are seemingly dissimilar - one focusing on politics, the other on ecology - the fact is that the two documentaries are unexpectedly similar. Both are utterly engrossing.

The Chinese Affair (PBS, Monday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for repeats) is the fourth ''Frontline,'' the new 26-part documentary series, anchored by Jessica Savitch and produced by a consortium of five public television stations.

Australia's Animal Mysteries (PBS, Wednesday, 8-9 p.m., check local listings for premiere and repeats) is the third in a new National Geographic series.

''The Chinese Affair,'' produced by John David Rabinovitch with China specialist Orville Schell, tries to unravel the Chinese puzzle that is the Taiwan-mainland China relationship. Overflowing with imaginative - if a bit purplish - prose, the film documents ''a painful reality - the separation of the Chinese people.''

Taiwan, according to the documentary, is a vacuum set adrift from its cultural roots 90 miles across the strait. Five thousand years of recorded history as well as common languages bind the two countries together, even though mainland China's form of government is completely at odds with the capitalist showcase that Taiwan has become.

While around 1 billion people live in comparative poverty across the strait, the 18 million people in Taiwan seem to live in unprecedented prosperity. They appear to have adapted the most materialistic aspects of the American way of life wholeheartedly. According to the visiting Sen. Barry Goldwater, ''Taiwan is the end result of the free enterprise system - the only bright economic spot in the world today.''

Utilizing old newsreels as well as current footage, producer Rabinovitch records the Taiwanese dream of recovering the mainland, the fortifications on Quemoy, the political repression and censorship on the island.

Unfortunately there is not enough said about just how the great prosperity has come about and what has happened to the indigenous population. The disturbing fate of dissenters - those who would try to bring about some sort of detente between Taiwan and mainland China - is, however, daringly portrayed in at least one apparently dangerous interview.

But ''The Chinese Affair'' is timely, informative, entertaining documentary-making

''Australia's Animal Mysteries'' uncovers a continent of living fossils - the result of millions of years of undisturbed geographical isolation, as compared with Taiwan's 34 years of sociological isolation. Remarkable film footage records some of the wonders of this island continent.

According to this superlative National Geographic documentary, produced for WQED/Pittsburgh by Barbara Jampel, there are hundreds of species of unique creatures the world knows little about - although just about everybody is familiar with the kangaroo, koala, wallaby, wombat, and platypus. The film wanders deep into the Australian outback, seeking out scientists studying unusual fauna, recording some unbelievable creatures as they go about their peculiar day-to-day activities.

''Australia's Animal Mysteries,'' is not, however, a mere believe-it-or-not show - it is a serious albeit entertaining attempt to educate the world about the fantastic ecology of the ''land that time forgot.'' It is certainly a documentary that neither time nor viewers will ever forget.

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