Showtime is promoting "Varian's War" as "the true story of the American Schindler," inviting comparisons to Holocaust hero Oskar Schindler and to the 1993 Oscar-winning film about him.
But this is no "Schindler's List." Noble intentions aside, "Varian's War," which can be seen Sunday, is a mess of a movie that leaves viewers with more questions than answers about Varian Fry, an ordinary American who traveled to Marseilles, France, to try to help artists, writers and other intellectuals to escape the Nazis.
Clumsily constructed and hollowly acted, it's a project that its lead performers--William Hurt and Julia Ormond--along with Barbra Streisand's Barwood Films, should quickly try to bury in their resumes.
The real Fry was a 32-year-old writer and editor who traveled to Vichy France in August 1940 as representative of a private relief organization called the Emergency Rescue Committee. His mission was to aid the refugees accumulating there--especially the artists, scholars and political and labor activists who had been blacklisted by the Nazis. Some were Jewish; many were not--but all were in grave danger.
By the time Fry was deported in September 1941, he and his colleagues had helped at least 1,500 people to escape, while offering aid, advice and assistance to 2,500 more. Among those they helped to flee were the artists Marc Chagall, Jacques Lipschitz and Max Ernst, writers Franz Werfel and Heinrich Mann, and philosopher-theorists Andre Breton and Hannah Arendt.
Writer-director Lionel Chetwynd fudges a lot of facts, beginning with the implication that Fry founded the Emergency Rescue Committee. Chetwynd also plays fast and loose with depictions of the supporting characters, including Fry's associate, Miriam Davenport (Ormond), and the writer Lion Feuchtwanger.
The storytelling, meanwhile, is often confusing, as when the married Fry stumbles upon a gay bar--included for no discernible reason. And what isn't confusing is outright boring: Even the hurried flight to the Spanish border comes across as little more than a casual hike in the woods.
With his hair crazily curled and his face perpetually pinched, Hurt portrays Fry as a stuffy, prissy intellectual--a relentlessly one-note performance.
Far better is Lynn Redgrave in a supporting role as Werfel's haughty and unexpectedly daring wife. Better still is Alan Arkin in a cameo as a document forger who has an artist's soul and a revolutionary's zeal.
For a more involving tale of valor, tune in an hour before "Varian's War" for the documentary "Outwitting Hitler." Produced by Christopher Ward and Steven Beal, it recounts the story of Marian Pretzel, a Polish Jew who forged German documents to aid fellow Jews' escape. Pretzel proves a vivid storyteller in his on-camera interviews, and his words, combined with haunting archival images, make this a gripping evocation of heroism amid horror--which is exactly what "Varian's War" should be, but isn't.
"Varian's War" can be seen Sunday at 8 p.m. on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-PG (may be unsuitable for younger children).
* "Outwitting Hitler" can be seen Sunday at 7 p.m. on Showtime. The network has rated it TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14).