A man named Varian Fry was one of the unsung heroes of World War II. Now an excellent made-for-TV movie finally celebrates this "American Schindler" ("Varian's War" on Showtime, Sunday, 8-10 p.m., starring William Hurt, Julia Ormond, and Alan Arkin).
While Oscar Schindler saved 1,000 people from Nazi destruction, Mr. Fry saved well over 2,000. Acting with a handful of American friends, and without the help of the American government, Fry rescued Jewish and other European artists and intellectuals - such as painter Marc Chagall, political philosopher Hannah Arendt, historian Heinrich Mann, and artist Max Ernst - from French fascists in Marseilles.
"Varian Fry's enemies were not the Nazis," says writer and director Lionel Chetwynd, "they were the French fascists. There was a vast and elaborate collaboration between the French and the Germans at the level of the state and among ordinary people.... Fry was thrown out of unoccupied France by the French for aiding Jews and other anti-Nazis."
Fry was a wealthy New Yorker, who had grown up in Europe. A Harvard graduate and a Christian, he numbered among his friends Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who helped plan the actions of the Emergency Rescue Committee.
Realizing from firsthand experience what the fascists are up to, Fry breezes into unoccupied Marseilles and checks into a four-star hotel. With the help of Harry Bingham of the US Consulate, an American woman (Julia Ormond), and a couple of street-smart rebels, he outsmarts the opposition.
William Hurt is superb, restrained, and constantly inventive as Fry. He projects a profound conscience and sensitivity, as well as integrity. Fry is confronted with the dark side of his mission of mercy - there are only a few he can save and thousands needing to be saved. So he must choose among them. The moral dilemma is great, and neither Hurt nor writer-director Chetwynd minimize it. But, Mr. Chetwynd points out, Fry had a special charge.
"Most stories about the Holocaust are about the degradation of the body. This story is not about bodies, but about the soul," Chetwynd says.
Fry was trying to save the soul and conscience of Europe. Hitler had millions in his thrall. But many who refused to be hypnotized were the special targets of his antagonism, along with the Jews. Fry saved those persecuted who could express themselves through art, so that they in turn would help wake the conscience of America. One of Chetwynd's nicest touches is to show the women of the era not as politically correct proto-feminists, but as they were - courageous, smart, and refined.
A delightful sister story, played by real-life sisters
"The Old Settler" (PBS, April 25, 8-9:30 p.m.) is another delightful period piece this week that relates the experiences of women in a former time as they really were.
Based on the play by John Henry Redwood, the film stars real-life sisters Phylicia Rashad and Debbie Allen, with Ms. Allen also directing. It is the first time the sisters have appeared in a film together. It is an auspicious beginning.
The story concerns Elizabeth (Rashad) and Quilly (Allen), sisters living together in Harlem during World War II. The tensions between them are powerful, as upright Elizabeth suddenly takes in another boarder to help with the rent. The handsome young man from the South changes the dynamics of the household. The middle-aged sisters spar and blast each other for past trespasses. But there is healing in the wings.
Rashad is incandescent as Elizabeth, and Allen strikes lightning with Quilly's harsh tongue.
The language of the play is rich and lovely. And the story is sad, yet inspiring. And though it is no easy matter to transfer a play to the small screen, writer Shauneille Perry does a fantastic job.
In real life, Rashad and Allen have a warm relationship, and enjoyed working together. "There was a sense of security in the working environment because everyone felt it was their film," says Rashad in a recent interview.
"Everyone is always looking for love - this is what people really want.... In the end, Elizabeth and Quilly find the love they have always had - the love they have for each other."
Camryn Manheim is female "Cyrano"
People look for love in all the wrong places - especially in the movies. Take the talent scout for the US Comedy Arts Festival (Scott Cohen), who thinks he's found love in a young stand-up comic (Alexondra Lee). Trouble is, the pretty girl is a dim bulb living on her looks. Meanwhile, the generously proportioned woman tending bar is the really funny one.
"Kiss My Act" (ABC, April 23, 8-10 p.m.) is a contemporary twist on the "Cyrano de Bergerac" story featuring Emmy-Award winning Camryn Manheim as a female Cyrano. Answering the pretty ditz's e-mail for her, Samantha (Manheim) falls in love with the talent scout - and he with her. It's her sweet, sassy soul that touches him, and it all makes an unusual love story.
"It's the first time I've ever been a leading lady," Ms. Manheim said in a recent interview. "I like the fact that she shows her vulnerability, but that she has strength of character...."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor