The other day I saw on IMDb.com that HBO’s World War II drama Band of Brothers is the all-time highest-rated TV mini-series, with the phenomenal score of 9.6/10. The ten-episode mini-series about members of Easy Company, US Army 101st Airborne Division had Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg among its executive producers, and starred a mostly unknown, mostly British cast. Though episodic in nature, at the heart of the mini-series was the story of Major Richard D. Winters. For most American viewers, it was their initial introduction to English actor Damian Lewis, who played Winters. Lewis, of course, won the Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series Emmy Award this past fall for the Showtime drama Homeland, which also won Outstanding Drama Series.
Band of Brothers, which premiered in 2001, was a success in every sense of the word, drawing plaudits from critics, attracting a huge viewership and earning industry awards. Nine years later it spawned a companion piece, The Pacific, also filmed in ten parts, produced by HBO, and with the involvement of Hanks and Spielberg. Whereas, Band of Brothers dealt with the European theater, The Pacific, quite obviously, concerned itself with the war in the Pacific. Although not the juggernaut of its predecessor, The Pacific, was still well received.
Both of those mini-series were made long after the heyday of the format, whose peak was in the mid-seventies to late-eighties. In fact, Band of Brothers and The Pacific were produced when mini-series were, for the most part, no longer a staple of U.S. broadcast network TV production at all. Chances are that the occasional mini-series that still appears today is on a cable or premium cable network, rather than on one of the broadcast networks. Back in the day, however, the mini-series was commonly used by the over-the-air networks to boost their Nielsen ratings during the all-important sweeps periods.
Dozens of these productions were made in a relatively short period, but no definitive definition of what constituted a mini-series seems to exist, so a working definition may be in order. Generally speaking, a mini-series was no less than four hours long (commercials included) to as much as twenty-five hours, and shown in as few as two, to as many as twelve parts. In order to make the most impact, mini-series were usually scheduled on consecutive nights, or with all parts broadcast within days of each other. In nearly every instance, a mini-series was based on a popular novel. Typically, mini-series boasted large ensemble casts populated by past-their-prime movie stars, TV stars in-between series stints, and/or young actors on the rise.
There are so many mini-series in the DVD collection of the Des Moines Public Library that it’d be all but impossible to highlight the best of what’s available. So, as World War II has already been broached, and as that historical period was common subject matter in the golden age of mini-series production, I’ll continue in that direction. If you’re interested in viewing the best examples of the format dealing with the Second World War, I recommend the aforementioned relatively recent titles, as well as the following highly-acclaimed and popular titles from decades past.
Holocaust (1978) 420 minutes, four parts – The Weiss family, Polish émigrés who move to Berlin in the 1930s, ignore the growing anti-Semitism around them to their increasing peril. Meryl Streep and James Woods were among the young stars whose careers got a boost from this production.
The Winds of War (1983) 883 minutes, seven parts – Author Herman Wouk’s epic novel became an epic TV production. The story centers on the Henry family, headed by career naval officer Victor “Pug” Henry, played by Robert Mitchum. Numerous worldwide locations were used to film this mix of history and melodrama, which starts with the beginnings of the war in both Europe and the Pacific, and culminates in the Japanese surprise attack on Pearl Harbor.
Wallenberg: A Hero’s Story (1985) 200 minutes, two parts – Richard Chamberlain (star of several of the most popular mini-series of all time, including Centennial, Shogun, and The Thorn Birds) plays Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, who was responsible for saving approximately 100,000 Hungarian Jews from the Nazi Holocaust.
War and Remembrance (1988) 1620 minutes, twelve parts – If The Winds of War seemed gargantuan, this filming of Wouk’s sequel is absolutely mammoth. Robert Mitchum reprises his role as “Pug” Henry, but, as five years had elapsed between productions, some other cast members from the previous mini-series had to be recast. If you can get past that quibble, then you’ll likely enjoy this tale of the America’s direct involvement in the war.
Lastly, some English television productions set during World War II might also be worth checking out. Technically speaking, Fortunes of War, Sword of Honour, and Piece of Cake aren’t mini-series, at least not in the American sense. The total episodes shot for a season of an English TV series are roughly a quarter of the number shot for a TV series in the United States. In addition, many English series are written as standalone seasons, with no setup for possible future seasons. As a result, many of these series greatly resemble our conception of an American mini-series. So, if you’re curious about the British take on the Second World War, consider giving those a try.