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See also Varian's War By Those Who Know
A few reference sources:
Robert A. Rosenstone, Visions of the Past: The Challenge of
Film to Our Idea of History (Harvard University Press, 1995)
Leger Grindon, Shadows on the Past (Temple University Press, 1994)
Robert Brent Toplin, History By Hollywood: The Use and Abuse of the American Past (University of Illinois Press, 1996)
Marc C. Carnes, editor, Past Imperfect: History According to the Movies (Henry Hold and Co., 1995)
Carlin Romano, Accuracy: a Novel Notion in Historical Novels? The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 13, 2001.
Press references (excerpts):
Los Angeles Times, April 21, 2001
Full Review by Daryl H. Miller (hyperlink lost)
Noble intentions aside, Varian's War... is a mess of a movie that leaves viewers with more questions than answers about Varian Fry....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....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.
The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 20, 2001
Debasing Good History with Bad Fiction, by Peter I. Rose
Now, six decades after the fact, Showtime Networks presents Varian's War, offering a Hollywood tribute to the extraordinary feat of an American Pimpernel....In the Showtime film, the producers make an earnest attempt to tell the story of a homegrown hero still unknown to most Americans. Unfortunately, what they have wrought does not do justice to the man, his colleagues, or his cause.....Although [director Lionel] Chetwynd's interpretation of [Varian] Fry's story contains kernels of truth, his film is filled with errors of fact about how the Emergency Rescue Committee and the mission got started, about Fry and his aides, about the selection process, about the role of the French and German authorities....Varian’s War is not cinéma vérité, despite the claim of its producers and publicists that theirs is the true story. Those familiar with what actually happened will find the historical distortions inexcusable and are bound to wince at the caricaturing of the rescuers and asylum-seekers.
This review is not online except for Chronicle subscribers, who may access it at Who Was Varian Fry? (The Chronicle of Higher Education).
The New York
Times, April 21, 2001
Varian's War: A Pantheon of Artists Rescued From Hitler, by Anita Gates
Oskar Schindler became Liam Neeson in an Oscar-winning Steven Spielberg movie in 1993. Raoul Wallenberg was played by Richard Chamberlain in an Emmy-nominated 1985 television film. Now Varian
N.B. The Varian Fry rescue mission was not focused on Jews, and the approximation of 2,000 people helped includes many non-Jews, such as the German and Austrian anti-Nazi exiles who were at the time among the most threatened by the fall of France. Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Heinrich Mann were not Jewish. Varian Fry was not rich. It is not clear on what basis Julia Ormond's character is being defined as a composite character: there was a real "Miriam Davenport" and the only other American woman who worked with Varian Fry was Mary Jayne Gold--who bears no relation to Ormond's character.
P.S. from The New York Times, May 3, 2001: A television review on April 21 about Varian's War, a film on Showtime about the efforts of Varian Fry, an American, to save European artists and intellectuals from the Holocaust, misstated the religious affiliation of some notable figures he rescued. Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst and Heinrich Mann were not Jews.
N.B. Let's try again. Fry was not exclusively or even specifically seeking to help Jews, and thus was not attempting "to save European artists and intellectuals"--and others--" from the Holocaust." He was attempting to save anti-Nazis--many but no means all of them Jewish--from the Nazis. The Times' correction leaves uncorrected the statement that "some 2,000 European Jews" were helped by Fry; that approximation by Fry of the number of people helped included many non-Jews.
P.P.S from The New York Times, May 11, 2001: Because of an editing error, a television review on April 21 about Varian's War, a film on Showtime about an American who saved European artists and intellectuals from the Holocaust, was abridged in a way that altered the reviewer's meaning. The affected passage, with the restored phrase shown by brackets, should have read: "As for Varian Fry, he did not go on to a brilliant journalistic or foreign service career after the war. When he died in 1967 at 59, he was teaching high school Latin in Connecticut."
Jewish Week (New York), April 20, 2001
Full Review by George Robinson
Out of this potentially fascinating, possibly thrilling material, Chetwynd has fabricated a cumbrous, sleep-inducing melodrama that recalls the worst of World War II Hollywood propaganda features, with sneering, evil Nazis and Vichy French and good guys who range from the noble to the picturesque, saving intellectuals who are either cute and cuddly or young and sexy. In order to achieve this dubious end, Chetwynd must vastly oversimplify Fry’s motivations and blur his background while simultaneously spending an unconscionable amount of screen time on the inessential throat-clearing of lengthy speeches about freedom and the necessity of intellectuals that seem to have been lifted from a 1943 Joan Crawford epic, all of which he gives a lugubrious pace calculated to induce narcolepsy in the most severe sufferer from Attention Deficit Disorder....Varian’s War has the distinction of being a fairly complete catastrophe. To add to the catatonic direction and wildly out-of-tune acting, the film has the hermetically sealed look of a total studio product. The streets of Marseilles and Berlin have never been so clean, so utterly devoid of life. Even the wall graffiti is neat and ordered, as befits a film that lacks even the slightest semblance of reality.
N.B. This reviewer is hard on 1943 Joan Crawford epics, some of which were fun.
Review by Terry Kelleher, television critic
Unfortunately this drama brings Fry's story to our attention without bringing it fully to life....The talented William Hurt gives a mannered performance....Fry's able aide, a composite figure played by Julia Ormond, has two salient features: sexual candor ("I collect special men") and a persistent cough....Neither is particularly convincing. Viewers are meant to appreciate the climax--an uphill hike to the Spanish border by winded artists and intellectuals--as the moral equivalent of The Great Escape. Mentally I did, but not emotionally. Bottom Line: Historical disappointment.
TN.B. Ormond is given the real-life name, although not the character or appearance, of Miriam Davenport, and this is no "composite figure": There were only two American women who worked with Fry, Davenport and her friend, the beautiful heiress Mary Jayne Gold. Nothing in the portrayal of "Miriam Davenport" reflects Mary Jayne Gold--and little of importance reflects Miriam Davenport...
San Franciso Chronicle, April 20, 2001
Full Review by John Carman (see below review of Meet the Pandas)
Varian's War is based, however loosely, on the true story of Varian Fry, a wealthy American who went to Vichy, France, during World War II and rescued 2,000 artists, writers and intellectuals from Nazi persecution....William Hurt coughs up another curiously phlegmatic performance as Fry....Produced by Barbra Streisand, the movie offers a stock assortment of Nazi villains -- not that we're expecting Nazi heroes -- French collaborators and bureaucratic American foot-draggers. There's some derring-do, but little palpable suspense. It's on a par with broadcast network movies and modestly entertaining, at best.
N.B. Varian Fry was not wealthy, just an intellectual working stiff, but it's not surprising the reviewer got this idea from the outlandish extravagance of the lifestyle Varian's War indicates Fry engaged in.
Wall Street Journal, April 20, 2001
Reportedly favorable review, available only for a fee online.
Hollywood Reporter, April 19, 2001
Full Review by Marilyn Moss
While the teleplay, written by director Lionel Chetwynd, is often slow and simple, [star William] Hurt redeems its shortcomings by delivering an intelligent and thought-provoking character. Hurt seems far more intelligent than the script, which insists on distilling the story to its lowest common denominator.
N.B. The review refers to Fry deciding to help "intellectual Jews including Marc Chagall, Heinrich Mann, Hannah Arendt, Franz Werfel, Alma Werfel and others escape to the United States." Heinrich Mann and Alma Werfel were not Jewish.
Full Review by Steven Oxman
What a strange collection of players we have here. Showtime's Varian's War is exec produced by Edward Wessex, better known as Prince Charles' brother, and another type of royalty in Barbra Streisand. What they've come up with is a quality offering that turns an unheralded figure into a cinematic hero, a good -- but could have been great -- story about an American intellectual who in unlikely fashion helped prominent artists escape Vichy France....
Fry is an unlikely figure for such a task, since he comes across as an effete and ineffectual personage -- even his sexuality is subtly questioned. What's clever about director Lionel Chetwynd's teleplay and Hurt's performance is that they capture the way Fry used this perception to his advantage, evading the watchful eyes of the French and German authorities by engaging them with a foppish front....
The storytelling doesn't proceed with enough sharp clarity, however, to give it the excitement that seems inherent in the tale....It's better as a character study, and the scenes where Fry puts on his "Who me?" act to his antagonists provide Chetwynd with his bread and butter, the quieter scenes of political intrigue. But even here, the piece avoids rather strenuously questioning the snobbishness that places some people's lives, artists in particular, over others, and therefore never emerges as a deeper contemplation on the Holocaust. To make matters worse, the artists themselves are depicted with a touch of buffoonishness.
N.B. What's clever about the teleplay and Hurt's performance, according to this reviewer, is that "they capture the way Fry used [an alleged perception of him] to his advantage." The reviewer here obviously assumes that Fry actually did what the writer/director says he did--but Fry didn't! This is a complete and utter fabrication that nobody who knew Fry or has studied the mission will substantiate. Should "poetic" license be allowed to extend this far, snaring even the savvy reviewer?
As for the "snobbishness" of the Fry mission, if the reviewer is left with that impression, than Varian Fry's greatness is not here celebrated very effectively.
Christian Science Monitor, April 20, 2001
TV film honors the "American Schindler," by M. S. Mason
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 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.
N.B. It is historically incorrect that Varian Fry's main enemies were the Vichy French, or that Vichy in 1940 was run by "French fascists"; Fry's main enemy was the State Department and the U. S. consular corps in Marseille. Indeed, while it is true that Vichy expelled Fry, this was done at the request of the U. S. Consul General in Marseille, who may have received instructions to that effect from Washington. The French were far less reluctant to see all these refugees leave than the Americans were to receive them.
As stated earlier, the depiction of Vichy rule in Marseille in Varian's War is essentially fanciful. Varian Fry was not wealthy, just an intellectual working stiff, but it's not surprising this reviewer too got this idea from the outlandish extravagance of the lifestyle Varian's War indicates Fry engaged in. Fry did not grow up in Europe. It's not clear what is meant by "Christian" in this context; Varian Fry was not a practicing Christian.
Baltimore Sun, April 21, 2001
Complex fight for freedom, by David Zurawik, television critic (hyperlink lost)
Showtime is promoting Varian's War, its new film about an American intellectual who saves Jewish intellectuals from Hitler's Europe, as "the true story of the American Schindler." Given the immense popularity and revered status of Schindler's List, who can blame Showtime for trying to forge that link in viewers' minds? But in some ways (and I know some readers are never going to believe me), Varian's War is a more interesting and enlightened film than Schindler. The more interesting part involves a fascinatingly quirky and cerebral lead performance by William Hurt as Varian Fry, an American magazine editor appalled by Nazi barbarism who decides to do something about it at a time when much of the rest of America looked the other way during the late 1930s....[What's] important about the Jewish characters in Varian's War is that they are not depicted one-dimensionally as victims and objects of pity. The Jews here, who range from painter Marc Chagall (Joel Miller) to writer Hannah Arendt (Elyzabeth Walling), are highly individualistic and, in a couple of cases, even a little abrasive in their opinions and intellectual snobbery....The finest supporting turn...is that of Julia Ormond, whose character humanizes Fry and sets the great-escape plot into motion....Chetwynd takes the time early on to let us get a good long look at Fry, and this is important because he is a not a character who is easy to like. In fact, in less talented hands than those of Chetwynd and Hurt, Fry might be inaccessible to a mainstream audience. But Hurt plays Fry as a man who seems more engaged in a private dialogue with his inner self than with the outside world, and it makes the character fascinating. You want to know what makes him tick. And once Chetwynd moves Fry to Nazi-occupied Marseille, you are on the edge of your seat wondering how this intellectual who seems tailor-made for the role of an absent-minded professor is going to beat the Nazis and smuggle these towering figures of European culture to safety. It is no secret that Showtime desperately wants to be thought of as an equal of HBO when it comes to being a maker of the very best made-for-TV movies. A few more productions like "Varian's War," and Showtime might just make it.
Houston Chronicle, April 20, 2001
Disappointing tribute to a war hero, by Ann Hodges, television critic
The movie...is also debuting [April 20, 2001] at the WorldFest - Houston International Film Festival. Between director Lionel Chetwynd's sketchy script and Hurt's off-putting, too-precious performance as a kind of contemporary Scarlet Pimpernel, Varian's War never quite stirs the emotions it should....In Marseilles, swastika banners are everywhere, and, as this indicates, the Vichy French are working hand-in-steel-glove with the Germans to make sure these refugees don't get away....[The] "soul keepers of Western Europe" come across here like a bunch of naughty and foolish children. Julia Ormond gets a somewhat better break as Varian's invaluable aide, Miriam Davenport. The name is real but the character is a composite. Matt Craven plays Albert Hirschman, a Jewish refugee who volunteers his services, and he's a real person. Hirschman is now the former head and professor emeritus of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study....His was a noble cause, but Varian's War is an unsatisfying effort to pay it tribute. Grade: B-.
N.B. Swastika banners were not on display in Vichy France; the distinction between Vichy France and German-occupied Northern France is lost on the filmmakers. "[Miriam Davenport's] name is real but the character is a composite." There were only two American women who worked with Fry, the beautiful heiress Mary Jayne Gold being the other. Nothing in the portrayal of "Miriam Davenport" reflects Mary Jayne Gold--and little reflects Miriam Davenport...
County Star, April 22, 2001
Journalist saves Jews in Varian's War, by John Crook, DV Data Features Syndicate
Oscar winner William Hurt portrays Fry in Varian's War, a fascinating Showtime movie. The son of a wealthy New York family, Fry happened to be traveling through Germany as a journalist in the 1930s and personally witnessed Kristallnacht, when Nazis smashed the windows of Jewish establishments....It's important to note that Fry was no Scarlet Pimpernel, a dashing desperado posing as a milquetoast. He truly was a self-effacing intellectual who steeled himself to overcome almost impossible odds simply to do the right thing. "Rarely have I come across ... an individual who struck me as truly modest," Hurt said. "He was such a self-effacing personality that he got lost."
N.B. Mr. Hurt's research into the real Varian Fry was obviously limited: nobody who knew Varian Fry ever described him as "truly modest." And far from being "self-effacing," the real Varian Fry could be rather ornery. The real Varian Fry, contrary to what the reviewer mistakenly asssumes is the truth, did not witness Kristallnacht.
Jerusalem Post, April 12, 2001
US movie dramatizes righteous gentile by Tom Tugend, JTA, also published in
The Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, April 19. 2001
Saving Europe's Soul by Tom Tugend
Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, April 19. 2001
Hollywood and the Holocaust by Sally Ogle Davis (hyperlink lost)
Some stories have taken 60 years to tell, like Varian’s War, a tale that director Lionel Chetwynd is convinced was suppressed for reasons of diplomacy. Varian’s enemy was not the Nazis, but the Vichy French. And until recently in the popular wisdom (and on the screen, with the notable exception of Casablanca) the French were our freedom-loving, resistance-fighting allies, rather than an important part of the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jews.
N.B. As stated above, it is historically incorrect that Varian Fry's main enemy was the Vichy French; his main enemy was the State Department and the U. S. consular corps in Marseille. The depiction of Vichy rule in Marseille in Varian's War is essentially fanciful. It is a shame that neither of the two articles cited above address the issue of just what liberties are acceptable in adapting history for the screen, especially when the claim is made that the movie is based on a "true" story.
Weekly Standard, March 19, 2001
Round One to Bush by Fred Barnes (opening paragraph only)
On the evening before the vote in the House on the most important part of his most important initiative -- the $ 1.6 trillion tax cut -- President Bush watched a movie. He invited leaders of Jewish organizations and Jewish members of Congress to join him in the 40-seat White House theater for a screening of Varian's War. The movie is about Varian Fry, an American who engineered the escape of Jewish artists and intellectuals from Vichy France in World War II. Bush sat with Lionel Chetwynd, the movie's director and one of Hollywood's few conservatives and Bush supporters. Bush hung around for an hour afterwards, chatting. The subject of taxes never came up.
© 2001, The Weekly Standard
March 9, 2001
RH'w'd Has a Friend in Oval Office, Chetwynd sez by Army Archerd
GOOD MORNING: Remember you heard it here first -- "Hollywood has a friend in the White House." I told you on Wednesday that President George W. Bush was screening Showtime's "Varian's War" at the White House that evening, and here's the report from the film's writer-director, Lionel Chetwynd. The President and First Lady thought the pic was "fantastic" and lingered an hour after the screening to talk about the making of the film, which centers on American hero Varian Fry, who rescued French Jewish artists from the Nazis in the South of France. Chetwynd said Bush wanted to know more about "the industry." In that discussion, "He also wanted to know more about the people who are making movies." Chetwynd says he became convinced: "We have a friend in the White House." Others viewing the Showtime movie (and not mentioned here Wednesday) include Hollywood GOP supporters Bruce Ramer (also national president of the American Jewish Committee) and Frank and Katherine Price. While in D.C., Chetwynd met with Democrat Sen. Joe Lieberman, an outspoken critic of violence in pix and TV. Chetwynd will arrange for him to be a guest of the Hollywood Caucus. "I'd disapprove if the government got involved (in ratings)," Chetwynd told me. "We should worry about that and we should address it before the government gets around to it."
March 7, 2001
World War II Redux by Army Archerd
GOOD MORNING: It's showtime at the White House tonight. To be more accurate it's Showtime's "Varian's War: A Forgotten Hero" screening in the 45-seat theater. Invited by the President to the showing of the film, which airs April 22, are Showtime's Matt Blank and Jerry Offsay, the film's writer-director Lionel Chetwynd, costars Julia Ormond and Gloria Carlin, a few members of Congress and reps of the American Jewish Committee, United Jewish Communities and B'nai B'rith. Chetwynd is responsible for the print getting to the White House. He's known the President for four years and "has supported him" during the campaign and most recently was backstage at "The Tonight Show" when Bush guested. He allows this screening is a "tremendous gesture" by the President, "but it is good for the film industry as well." Showtime chairman-CEO Blank, who allows he's "an old Democrat," says the film is great and it's important that the film get this exposure. It's about American Varian Fry, who risked his life while rescuing French artists, including Chagall, from the French Vichy, Nazi-controlled government, by taking them over the Pyrenees mountains. Producers of the film include Barwood's Barbra Streisand and Cis Corman and (Prince) Edward Wessex. The producers were not invited. Of course we know the political party leanings of Streisand and Corman, but they weren't invited, I was told, "because it (the screening) happened very quickly." Politics aside, Chetwynd told me he and Corman worked together during the entire production and Barbra was "very helpful with music cues" at the finale of the film. Chetwynd is a longtime conservative (when Variety reviewed his "Hanoi Hilton" on March 25, 1987, for example, reviewer Lawrence L. Cohn said the story of U.S. prisoners during the Vietnam War "emerges as a right-wing tract" and accused him of "taking right-wing potshots that do a disservice to the very human drama of the subject.") Chetwynd is now writing and will direct a PBS feature, "The Carl Foreman Letter," about Foreman's heartbreak letter to the N.Y. Times' Bosley Crowther, Aug. 7, 1952, recounting what happened to him after he was called by HUAC. Chetwynd continues chronicling U.S. history on film with the story of Eisenhower, the last few days before D-Day, and the 1704 "Deerfield Massacre," a feature for Col with Frank Price and Alan Greisman producing.
© 2001, Variety, Inc.
Washington Post, March 6, 2001
Column by Lloyd Grove
THIS JUST IN . . .
• The Weekly Standard's Fred Barnes was so impressed with "Varian's War" -- a Showtime movie written and directed by Brit-turned-American Lionel Chetwynd and starring William Hurt as Varian Fry, a Harvard-educated American journalist who rescued 2,000 artists and intellectuals from Nazi-occupied France -- that Barnes sent a video to White House aide Karl Rove, who raved to President Bush, who scheduled a White House screening for tomorrow night. Expected are Hurt's co-stars, Julia Ormond and Lynn Redgrave, Chetwynd and his wife, actress Gloria Carlin.
© 2001, The Washington Post Company
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