In Memoriam: Herman Wouk, "America's Tolstoy",1915-2019

by Yoram Kahana July 2, 2019
Writer Herman Wouk

fred stein archive/getty images

Herman Wouk, who died recently aged 103, was a novelist, essayist, and screenwriter for more than six decades, mining the themes of his Jewish faith and education, his naval war experience and his conservative- patriotic stance. Sometimes all three converged in one epic work of fiction. Wouk's interacted with Hollywood throughout his writing career, with varying degrees of success, and so did his recognition by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.

His signature novel, "The Caine Mutiny" (1951), earned Wouk the Pulitzer prize, and in 1954 was made into a landmark movie starring Humphrey Bogart by the same title. It won critical acclaim and seven Oscar nominations, among them Best Film for producer Stanley Kramer, a frequent Globe honoree,  and Best Actor for Bogart (who, amazingly, was never recognized by the HFPA). The Best Movie-Drama Globe that year went instead to On the Waterfront directed by four-time Golden Globe winner Elia Kazan,  and its lead, Marlon Brando, won the 1955 Best Actor-Drama Golden Globe  (as well as World Favorite- Male, a discontinued category).

A handful of forgettable movies based on Wouk novels followed, but none of them earned a Golden Globe nod, except for one award for a Most Promising Newcomer - Female (another discontinued category), won by Carolyn Jones for her supporting role in Marjorie Morningstar (1958). It was a pair of 1980s mini-series with World War II themes, based on Wouk's novels and co-written for the screen by him, that would bring Wouk a bouquet of Golden Globe accolades: The Winds of War (1983) was nominated in four Golden Globe categories, including Best Mini-Series or Motion Picture Made for TV, but won none. (The prime time Emmys lavished 13 nominations and three wins on the mini-series). Its sequel, the two seasons of War and Remembrance (1988-1989) again collected four Golden Globe nominations in its first year, but this time went on to win three of them, including Best Mini-Series. In its second year, War collected two more Globe nominations.

Herman Wouk was born in the Bronx to Jewish immigrants from Russia. His grandfather schooled him at home in Jewish studies. He attended Columbia University where he took literature and philosophy and edited the university humor magazine. After graduation, he wrote for radio comedian Fred Allen. When the USA entered World War II, Wouk enlisted in the navy and served in the Pacific, until his discharge in 1946 with the rank of lieutenant. These were the experiences that would shape his literary work: Jewish upbringing, liberal studies, and service in the navy. His first two novels dealt with these themes and won good reviews. The third one, “The Caine Mutiny", was Wouk's entry into the first rank of post-war American novelists. Unlike his contemporaries and peers, he was the rare Jewish author who was orthodox and who criticized assimilation, was a right-leaning Republican, a social conservative and an uncritical American patriot.

After earning the Pulitzer prize Wouk turned his novel into a play, "The Caine Mutiny Court Martial". It opened on Broadway in 1954, with Henry Fonda (Cecil B. deMille award, 1980) playing the role of the Jewish attorney, Lt. Greenwald.  The movie version followed soon after, directed by Edward Dmytryk, and starring Bogart in a mesmerizing performance as the paranoid Captain Queeg, falling apart and clinking ball bearings in his hand under the fierce questioning of Greenwald, played in the film by José Ferrer (winner of the Best Actor - Drama Golden Globe in 1950). His drunken speech at the end of the movie, during a dinner celebrating his courtroom win, disdaining the acquitted defendants-mutineers and praising the disgraced Queeg, gave the moral victory to the career naval commanders. Wouk's contention, as spoken by Greenwald, was that it is officers like Queeg who "stand guard on this fat, dumb and happy country of ours, (who save a) little gray-headed Jewish lady (like Greenwald's mother) from being melted down into a bar of soap".

Herman Wouk on set of "The Winds of War", and a scene from "War and Remembrance)

Herman Wouk on the set of The Winds of War, 1987, with actor Steven Berkoff, who played Hitler, and examing the Brandenburg Gate miniature; Robert Mitchum in a scene from War and Remembrance, 1989.

david hume kennedy/walt disney television/abc photo archives/getty images


For two decades following "Caine"  Wouk did well commercially, his plays performed on Broadway and his novels chosen for the Book of the Month Club.  But Hollywood success eluded him. Marjorie Morningstar (1958) with Natalie Wood and Gene Kelly failed, as did Youngblood Hawke ( 1964) with James Franciscus as novelist Thomas Wolfe. Wouk himself called the film “just awful”, and did not turn any more of his novels into Hollywood productions.

This changed with the aftermath of the Vietnam War and America's defeat.  The zeitgeist was rife with criticism of contemporary war and militarism, and questioning of the meaning of patriotism and the conduct of  American imperialism. But Wouk looked back to the 1930s and 1940s, when patriotism was not questioned and the war was supported, its goals clear. He researched and wrote the sprawling novels "The Winds of War" (1971) and its sequel "War and Remembrance"  (1978), an epic historical romance as reflected by the lives of American military families. Wouk amplified his novels and turned them a decade later into two ABC miniseries,  broadcast in 1983 and 1988-89.

They were anything but 'mini': The first series spread over 15 prime time hours, the script was 962 pages long, it took 200 shooting days and a cast of 285 speaking parts to produce, at the unheard-of before cost of  $35 million. The second, War and Remembrance, again broke all production records. It cost $104 million to produce the 1492 pages script, over two years in some dozen countries, on 757 sets, with 358 speaking parts and more than 45,000 extras. It was the last of the giant broadcast TV mini-series before cable TV took over. Herman Wouk wrote the screenplays of his novels.

Robert Mitchum (Cecil B. deMille winner, 1992) anchored the illustrious cast, playing ambitious navy captain Victor “Pug” Henry, who somehow managed to always be in the right place to watch all the events leading to World War II.  Jan-Michael Vincent, a Golden Globe winner, played Pug’s son, Byron. John Houseman was Aaron Jastrow, a Jewish scholar who witnessed the rise of fascism in Europe. He became frail and was replaced by John Gielgud, who won a Golden Globe for his performance. Among other major actors were Ali MacGraw, Ralph Bellamy, Sharon Stone, Topol, Jane Seymour, Poly Bergen, Hardy Krueger...Both miniseries were well received and popular. They were recently released on DVD and, like the books that inspired them, they hold up well.  They pay tribute to the Americans who fought the Nazis, to the Jews and others who were the victims and survivors of the Holocaust,  and also to the humanistic vision of Herman Wouk.

It took Wouk 13 years of extraordinary research and long, arduous composition to produce his epic. Not resting on his success, he kept writing, publishing a series of books mostly on Jewish themes, ending with his memoir,  "Sailor and Fiddler: Reflections of a 100-Year-Old Author " (2015). It came out on Wouk's 100th birthday. NPR called it  "a lovely coda to the career of a man who made American literature a kinder, smarter, better place."

Herman Wouk, "America's Tolstoy", died in his sleep in his home in Palm Springs, California, 10 days shy of his 104th birthday.