Despite a title that implies an epic mini-series, World War III (originally broadcast in 1982) is far less grand than other major network specials of the day. This was the golden age of TV mini-series, when seemingly every week produced a classic such as Rich Man, Poor Man, Roots, Shogun and The Thorn Birds. All of those projects had opulent budgets as well as big name casts. World War III does boast three big names of the day, Rock Hudson, Brian Keith and David Soul but the similarities stop there. It seems all of the money went into these actor's salaries, leaving the rest of the production to cope with a budget that seems to be akin to that of a high school play. The show was aired during tense times of the Cold War period and the paranoia about Soviet expansionism helped ensure Ronald Reagan's triumphant rise to the Presidency. The problems begin with the screenplay, the premise of which is fairly absurd. Seems U.S. President McKenna (Hudson) is heating up the Cold War by imposing a grain embargo on the Soviets that threatens the very fabric of their society. McKenna's aim is the reign in their military adventures but the Soviets respond by sending a commando team into a remote part of Alaska with the intention of overtaking a small military outpost that defends a pivotal oil pipeline. The Reds plan to threaten this crucial source of oil if McKenna doesn't back down on the grain embargo. The Soviet patrol is discovered by the small contingent of Americans guarding the facility and a fierce firefight erupts. The stakes quickly rise to nuclear threat levels and a summit meeting is quickly convened between McKenna and Soviet Secretary General Gorny (Brian Keith). Both men want peace, but Gorny's attempts to defuse the situation are sabotaged by Kremlin war mongers. The film intercuts the political intrigue with the ordeal of both Russian and American fighting men facing death in a snowy wasteland.The notion that America could be brought to its knees but a few soldiers capturing an oil facility may seem crazy but at the time you couldn't go broke trying to scare people into thinking the United States could actually be invaded by a conventional army. (Think Red Dawn, the other kooky invasion thriller of the era that only the paranoid could love.)
The American leading role is played by (then) red-hot David Soul as a colonel who finds himself commanding an outgunned and out-manned group of soldiers who fight valiantly against seemingly insurmountable odds to stave off Soviet occupation of the oil pipeline. This being TV in the early 1980s, there is some sexual byplay squeezed in between Soul and Cathy Lee Crosby, who plays a sexy intelligence officer equally at home in a snowsuit or evening gown. Naturally, she ends up toting a gun and helping Soul repel the Soviet onslaught. The notion of generals seeing more action in the bedroom than in the battlefield might have seemed like a stretch at the time, but in the age of General Petraeus, the screenwriter now seems like an oracle. The acting is all perfectly fine, with Hudson giving a commanding performance as a dovish president forced to be a hawk. Watching him square off with the great Brian Keith is one of the show's few true pleasures, along with an opening sequence that is well acted and directed and features a startling act of treason. However, World War III plays like a bargain basement version of Fail Safe, right down to the film's final sequence which is literally stolen verbatim from that classic movie. Most of the film is shot in claustrophobic interiors that never convince you that the action is taking place anywhere but on a studio sound stage. The worst aspects of the program, however, are the scenes set in the Alaskan frontier. There seems to have been no more than twenty square feet of studio space allocated to these sequences and to get around it, the actors are often filmed in close-up. The production design is also rather laughable with plastic and foam snowbanks that you would expect to see decorating your local ice cream parlor. If you think the arctic scenes in Ice Station Zebra looked bad, wait until you see these amateurish creations.
In fairness, comments readers on IMDB indicate people have very fond memories ofthis production, which was directed by the usually competent David Greene after the original director, Boris Sagal, died during production in an accident involving a helicopter. I hate to be a wet blanket about nuclear war, folks, but World War III is a pretentious, cheapo production that uses a few big names to justify its existence. The diplomatic sequences are corny and predictable and feature the kind of preachy, Kumbaya moments that would send the likes of Rush Limbaugh into a frenzy. Skip this one, unless you have three hours of your life you don't value, and stick to an intentionally funny Cold War film, Dr. Strangelove.
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