War and Remembrance ABC, Sunday, 8-11 p.m.; then Nov. 15-17, 20, and 22-23 (check local listings; times are still being decided at press time). Stars: John Gielgud, Robert Mitchum, Jane Seymour, Hart Bochner, Victoria Tennant, Polly Bergen, David Dukes, Robert Morley, and Ralph Bellamy. Executive producer/director: Dan Curtis. Producer: Barbara Steele. Writers: Earl Wallace, Dan Curtis, and Herman Wouk, based on his novel. If you're prepared to devote 18 hours, over the next two weeks, to an entertaining ``reality based'' war opera (as in soap opera), then ``War and Remembrance'' is the TV maxi-series you've been waiting for - ever since the 18-hour ``Winds of War'' aired in 1983.
This sequel - the first chunk of a 30-hour production (with the last 12 hours set for telecast in the spring), is based on the Herman Wouk novel, picking up the same characters where ``Winds of War'' left them - on Dec. 15, 1941.
The main roles are filled by many of the same actors: Robert Mitchum is still the stony-faced Pug Henry, Polly Bergen his restless wife, and Victoria Tennant his young mistress. Ali MacGraw, however, has been replaced by Jane Seymour as Natalie Jastrow. The late John Houseman's role has been taken over by Sir John Gielgud as her Uncle Aaron. And Hart Bochner replaces Jan-Michael Vincent as Byron Henry.
Except for these changes, the cast remains more or less in place, with cameos by dozens of stars such as Ralph Bellamy in his Roosevelt impersonation, Pat Hingle as Bull Halsey, and Hardy Kruger as Rommel.
``War and Remembrance'' isn't really soap opera, though it has the same kind of melodrama; it's a new genre - war opera. It hypes up and hokes up battles, jazzes up human relationships, and oversimplifies political intrigue, even as it gives a reasonably accurate overall picture of the period from December 1941 through August 1945 - so long as you don't examine the details too closely.
The production has taken more than five years to make, at a cost of more than $110 million. There are 358 speaking parts and about 41,000 extras. The 1,492-page script calls for 2,070 scenes and 757 sets. The film was shot in the United States and eight European countries. Some of the concentration-camp scenes were actually shot at Auschwitz.
And that brings up a warning to viewers. In the second segment, airing Tuesday, there's a long, almost unbearable sequence in which the commandant gives Himmler a look at the new gassing procedure at Auschwitz. The camera shows a trainload of Dutchmen arriving, being stripped, gassed, and dumped into mass graves. It is an agonizing sequence, especially so because it is carried out in such an unemotional, businesslike manner, with the gassing postponed until afternoon so as not to spoil Himmler's lunch.
This is the first of many distasteful but truthful sequences throughout the series depicting the Nazi and Japanese horrors during the war. Though one can find reason to question the truthfulness of many of the romantic relationships, there is no room to doubt the veracity of the concentration-camp scenes. ``War and Remembrance'' deserves commendation for depicting those evils straightforwardly, without titillation.
Unless viewers are willing to immerse themselves in the series' five interwoven stories, however, it will be difficult to keep the relationships straight.
Through it all, Robert Mitchum manages never to crack a smile or reveal one iota of real emotion, even during his passionate love affair opposite Victoria Tennant. Meanwhile, his slightly hysterical wife, played by Polly Bergen, is busy with her own infidelities.
Though the human relationships come right out of soap opera, the progression of the war is effectively presented with real and simulated newsreels as well as marvelous special effects in the battle scenes. The depictions of the depths of the Nazi horrors make the soap-opera theatrics elsewhere seem very artificial.
At the beginning of the series, one can identify most with the Jastrows, as they vacillate about whether to escape the Nazis, until it is too late.
``War and Remembrance'' overflows with battles, atrocities, indiscretions, and indecisiveness, while sticking as close to military history as its melodramatic story lines allow. It is a monumental drama, so wide-ranging and enormous in concept that it becomes as difficult to critique as, say, the workmanship of Mt. Rushmore.
The big question for ABC: Will TV viewers allow this sprawling drama to disrupt their lives from Nov. 13 to the 23rd? Or will they decide to tape it on the home VCR for playback at convenient times? Or read the book, which is now out in a new paperback edition?