'The Wall' finally comes to TV

Tom Conti was surprised at his reaction to Auschwitz.

The major star of the TV version of John Hersey's classic novel about the Warsaw Ghetto, ''The Wall,'' (CBS, Tuesday, 8-11 p.m.) visited that concentration camp during the filming of the drama which was shot in Poland. It was made two years ago and is finally reaching the TV screen, after surviving attempts to re-edit so that it would be more of an entertainment.

''I felt I had to make the journey to this notorious concentration camp -- but I went expecting to feel sadness and horror. Well, I felt those,'' Mr. Conti tells me, with more than a hint of a Scottish accent. ''But what I didn't expect to feel was the rage in me that lasted for weeks. How was all this allowed to happen? The anger peaked when I saw piles of children's clothing.

''It took me a long time to get over my initial rage. Now I feel I have done my part just a little by making this film. I hope it will help keep alive the fact that in our society these things have happened and may still happen. We must keep watch for genocide -- right now we must not forget the Indians of Brazil, the Cambodians, and so many others.''

Some TV viewers may remember Mr. Conti from his PBS appearances in ''The Glittering Prizes'' and ''The Norman Conquests.'' But many will remember him most for his appearance on last year's Tony Awards program to accept his prize for his portrayal of the lead in the Broadway version of ''Whose Life Is It Anyway?''

Now, in ''The Wall,'' he plays the role of a young ''uninvolved'' Jew in Warsaw who finds himself in the midst of the Jewish resistance movement, somebody able to move in and out of the ghetto to make contact with the Polish resistance. For the film to receive permission to be made in Poland, almost all references to Polish anti-semitism and a reluctance of some Poles to help the ghetto Jews were almost eliminated. The book made such a situation clear, however.

As a great admirer of John Hersey's book, I was disappointed in the TV version, just as I was disappointed in the Broadway theatrical version, both adapted by Millard Lampell. In the book the enormous number of major figures, although thinned out to just a few in both the theatrical and TV versions, contributed to a multicolored, multipatterned human tapestry that somehow merged at the end to give great emotional impact to the inevitable clash between the 650 members of the Jewish Fighting Organization and the 3,000 Germans who stormed the ghetto. A reader could feel great compassion and pity as well as admiration for many of the characters.

In this TV version, as directed by Robert Markowitz, I was constantly confused by the flow of people, never certain of their relationships. And the culminating battle came almost as anticlimax. ''The Wall'' is a comparatively cool film of a novel that fairly shrieked with indignation and fury.

But as Mr. Conti pointed out to me when we lunched together recently: ''Perhaps the time for anger has passed, although the reason for the anger should never be forgotten.''

''The Wall'' is a remembrance. While imperfect, this TV version is several levels above what we are being offered on network programs most nights. In its own convoluted way, it is an effective celebration of the triumph of the human spirit.

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