Mini-series dramatizes quiet acts of heroism in Nazi-occupied Rome
The flood of stranger-than-fiction docudramas based upon the stranger-than-fiction Nazi years has come to its almost-inevitable ultimate conclusion in a forthcoming 18-hour, soap-opera version of WWII called ''The Winds of War,'' which starts airing on ABC on Feb. 6.
Good or bad - and I will be writing more about that soon - this $30-40 million wartime mini-series seems destined to become a major popular success in the ratings war. But meanwhile - before you succumb to the incessant promotional blandishments and enlist in the ''Winds of War'' battalions - you will find a startlingly simple, unprepossessing, sneakily inspiring dramatization of a supposedly true WWII escapade: The Scarlet and the Black (CBS, Wednesday, 8-11 p.m.).
Based on the book ''The Scarlet Pimpernel of the Vatican'' and starring four superb actors - Gregory Peck, John Gielgud, Christopher Plummer, and Raf Vallone - ''The Scarlet and the Black'' painstakingly documents quiet acts of heroism, heroic acts of faith.
As the German SS troops take over Rome, a lowly monsignor decides on his own to provide secret sanctuaries for Allied prisoner-of-war escapees in homes, monasteries, and nunneries in and around Rome. The Pope, as played with dignity and humor by John Gielgud, looks the other way. Gregory Peck plays Monsignor O'Flaherty with effective, if traditional, gentle skill.
Christopher Plummer, however, brings an amazing amount of depth to his characterization of the German colonel. He plays him with such subtle brilliance that, for once, a Nazi becomes understandable, if not especially lovable.
The straightforward script by David Butler is directed with unobtrusive perception by Jerry London - so much so that, until the unexpected dramatic denouements of the last half-hour, the viewer may be lulled into thinking he is seeing simply a benevolent re-creation of a wartime adventure. Then, suddenly, the script deals with the problems of responsibility, guilt, and punishment in a compelling fashion and in a unique framework. I won't spoil the surprises for viewers by revealing the conclusion - but I will say it may have some viewers questioning their own instinctive reactions.
Since most of the action takes place in the Vatican - although Gregory Peck is constantly leaving the safe confines of the area in unusual disguises a la Scarlet Pimpernel - it is apparent that the film was shot on location with the approval of authorities of the Roman Catholic Church. Certainly, in view of some recent criticism of the church for its alleged reluctance to take an active role in rescuing Jews and political prisoners from Nazi tyranny, it is understandable that the Vatican would be agreeable to this dramatization, which tends to counteract the criticism.