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Wouk's 'War': Greatest Horror Story Of All

January 02, 1985|MORGAN GENDEL | Times Staff Writer

For the second time, and against his own promise to himself, Dan Curtis is undertaking the single largest film project ever.

The first was "The Winds of War," the 18-hour ABC miniseries that aired in February, 1983, after 13 months of shooting, a year of post-production and a million feet of exposed film.

The second is "War and Remembrance," novelist Herman Wouk's sequel to "Winds," on which Curtis once again will serve as producer and director. This one will probably run 20 hours or more, with a budget perhaps 1 1/2 times the $40-million price tag on "Winds." So complicated and massive a project is "War and Remembrance" that it will not likely air until fall of 1988--and it already has been in pre-production for 10 months.

"When we finished the last one, I said I wouldn't do it again . . . for many reasons," Curtis said the other day. "One was, I had already done this thing I set out to do that everybody thought was undoable. I had done it, and I just didn't want to go back and do it again.

"As tough as that was--and believe me, it was tough--this is at least twice as tough and--more than that--far more complicated, far bigger, sequences far more difficult to do. Massive. Makes the other one look like a Mickey Mouse cartoon."

Curtis, 57, revels in the size of it all. A thick-necked, powerful-looking man who proclaims himself a "frustrated soldier of fortune," he clearly loves describing the heft of "Winds of War's" 975-page script and how it had to be carried "in a huge case, over your shoulder, so that it hurt." The script for "War and Remembrance," on which he, Wouk and Earl W. Wallace are collaborating, will be even heftier, an estimated 1,500 pages or so.

After "Winds," and until he agreed to do the sequel, everything else shriveled by contrast. Normal 120-page screenplays looked like scratch pads.

"I'd get a script, I'd look at something this thick"--he held his thumb and forefinger so they were almost touching--"I'd throw it on the table and I'd say, 'Fine, I'll direct it from my house!' That's not even a scene for me.

"On top of it, they didn't have the re-creating of the historical sequences," Curtis said. "The battleships cruising up alongside; Churchill meeting Roosevelt. Great stuff!"

"War and Remembrance" presented a challenge not even "Winds of War" had offered: "This, \o7 this\f7 , is everything," Curtis said. "It picks up at Pearl Harbor and goes all the way through World War II. The other one is just a prologue. 'The Winds of War' is half a story. Natalie's trying to get out of Italy, Pug is ready to go to the war. Everybody has their leg in mid-air and it's over."

But it was neither the challenge nor the prospect of completing the story that convinced Curtis to take on "War and Remembrance." It wasn't even the money. There was more. Curtis became quieter but somehow more intense: "This is in the novel, and will be in the film, the only true representation of the Holocaust that will ever be done or has ever been done."

He is deadly serious about this. "The Holocaust," "Playing for Time," "Sophie's Choice"--all fall short, he says, of telling the story of the Nazis' mass extermination of millions of people, mostly Jews, the way "War and Remembrance" will tell it.

"All you ever see that has any authenticity to it are the documentaries that are dealing with \o7 after\f7 the Holocaust, when the bulldozers come in and they push the bodies and all the rest of it. But no one in terms of a dramatization has touched it. Most of the things I've seen are not believable, a lot of it seems staged. 'Playing for Time' was not bad, but it's a limited area. Mine goes way beyond the requirements of 'Playing for Time.' "

None of the other Holocaust films--documentary or otherwise--captures a quality Curtis credits Wouk with giving the reader in "War and Remembrance": "The ongoing, day-to-day horror, the utter fear that your life could be taken in an instant. No one has ever really done that, and no one has ever told you how it was done, about the people who did it, what they were like.

"For instance, he (Wouk) describes how one of our main characters is walking from the latrine and he passes a \o7 kapo\f7 (an inmate, typically a political prisoner, delegated for guard and enforcement duty by the SS) and he talks about how terrifying these \o7 kapos\f7 are, because at the slightest whim, they can kill you. They can take a club and smash your head in--and no one will do anything about it.

"It's this thing that goes on in the novel that established in your mind the ongoing terror, the incredible brutality."

Adapting the novel for the screen, he said, "is almost like making a horror movie. Once you establish in the mind of your viewer the horror, the unrelenting terrifying horror, then every time you mention the word Auschwitz you're going to feel it, you're going to feel the hackles go up on your back. And since this is what our people are heading for, Natalie and her uncle, that is the horror that hangs over the horizon."

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