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The Houston Chronicle
Disappointing tribute to a war hero by Ann Hodges, television critic
April 20, 2001

Varian's War is the story of a real forgotten hero of World War II, with William Hurt as the New York journalist credited with saving around 2,000 artists and intellectuals from Nazi persecution.

It's another Holocaust-themed drama from Barbra Streisand's Barwood Films, and she's listed as an executive producer.

The movie, which airs Sunday on Showtime, is also debuting tonight 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.

Chetwynd concentrates on just one of Varian Fry's wartime missions - his first. In November 1938, Varian is visiting Berlin on the night (now known as Kristalnacht) when Nazi storm troopers break windows and pull Jews into the streets to beat them.

Varian has already heard that the Nazis are targeting artists, scholars and intellectuals, and, after seeing this, he is fearful about what lies ahead for them in the war that is surely coming.

As that war begins, he's back home, begging his curiously disinterested intellectual friends in New York to help him "save those keepers of the cultural soul of Western Europe, and bring them to America."

By the time he gets the money and the official permission - with the help of first lady Eleanor Roosevelt - to go back to Europe to do that, France has fallen, and the people he wants to bring here have fled to Marseilles in unoccupied France.

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 cloddish U.S. consul in Marseilles is certainly no help at all. FDR is president, but Herbert Hoover's picture still hangs on his office wall.

Better luck for Varian that the vice consul has a brain. He's already hidden some of the names on Varian's list of exalteds at his house. Included are painter Marc Chagall, political writer Hannah Arendt, novelist Lion Feuchtwanger, historical writer Heinrich Mann and novelist Franz Werfel.

Lynn Redgrave plays Werfel's wife Alma, and hers is the only one of these characters, unfortunately, that's more than cameo cardboard. These "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.

Varian Fry, the epilogue says, went back to Marseilles many times before he was arrested by the French and expelled to Spain. He died in Connecticut in 1967.

His was a noble cause, but Varian's War is an unsatisfying effort to pay it tribute.

Grade: B-.

  2001, The Houston Chronicle Publishing Company

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