Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

The history of Jane’s Infantry Weapons

Jane's Infantry WeaponsJane’s Infantry Weapons is an annual yearbook published by Jane’s Information Group.

The Group started with Fred T. Jane, who was an illustrator of ships. In 1898 he published the first edition of what’s now known as Jane’s Fighting Ships. That became a yearbook, as the Dreadnought-era navies waxed and waned, and was followed, as the world’s militaries took to the third dimension, by Jane’s All the World’s Aircraft. Fred Jane is long gone, and photography replaced drawings for the most part, but the detail and accuracy for which he was respected live on today with IHS Jane’s Information Group.

As demand for curated information on military technology grew, so did the company, and in 1975 they added an Infantry Weapons yearbook. It’s a desk reference used in newspaper offices (not frequently enough), intelligence agencies and other government offices (the main customer base), and defense-contract business development types; I’ve even seen a dog-eared old copy in a novelist’s study. It’s now available as a hardcover and will soon be available as a digital database for, either way, ridiculous money (see above comments on intelligence agencies and government offices). But used copies do turn up, and there’s relatively little churn from year to year. An old hardcover’s price is entirely based on supply and demand, and demand declines for a dated yearbook rather sharply. This year’s yearbook will set you back well over $1,500. Last year’s might still be a thousand dollars. and one from twenty years ago — which, for all we know, might be the one you’d rather have — might be anywhere from two to fifty bucks, plus shipping. 

Jane’s Infantry Weapons is rather good at describing what exists out there, what its broad capabilities are, and who designed it. It’s also quite solid at describing who makes it and where to contact him, which has certain utility to industry. Sometime in the last ten years, a corporate merger drove a title change to IHS Jane’s Weapons: Infantry (as with the other Jane’s yearbooks), but everybody still calls it by the old name.

The initial editor was FWA Hobart, and his successors have included such luminaries as Jon Weeks and Ian V Hogg, who had a long run (1983 to the mid-90s).

The  current editor (since 2004) is Richard D. Jones, whose CV certainly marks him as more than qualified:

Richard D Jones joined the Regular Army as a junior soldier in the 1960s. Enlisting initially in the Royal Artillery, he later became personally and professionally involved with small-caliber weapons and ammunition. After completing Regular Army service in 1994, he joined the UK Ministry of Defence Pattern Room, sometimes known as the Enfield Collection – arguably the world’s most comprehensive working reference collection of small arms, spanning the years 1850 to the present time. Formerly the Custodian and Head of Unit until the transfer of the collection to the Royal Armouries in September 2005, Richard continues to provide a similar service to his former customers at the newly created National Firearms Centre at Leeds, in the north of England.

Richard is married, has two adult children and lives in Nottingham. His hobbies include participation in all forms of shooting, travel and reading, primarily non-fiction. Richard became Editor of  in 2004 (then known as Jane’s Infantry Weapons).

Jones’s co-editor is Lee Ness, since approximately 2005; Ness is a US Army retiree and is more of an armored vehicle guy with an interest in small arms, than Jones who has always been small-arms oriented. (Ness also co-edits an Ammunition yearbook).

A current Jane’s Infantry Weapons is, as suggested above, very expensive. ($1,500 plus for the hardback). But older issues are widely available, for example, on Amazon and Ebay, and they can be found in used bookstores (in the USA, especially in the National Capital Area). We’ve even found one in a Salvation Army thrift store.

Quick Consumer Tip: LOSD book, 25% off

Law of Self Defense Andrew BrancaWe have this book and we paid full freight for it, and it was worth every damn penny. You can get it for 25% off, if you act now.

Did we mention that we liked and recommend the book?

The book, The Law of Self Defense, is by the nation’s leading self-defense legal expert, Andrew Branca, a Massachusetts (of all places!) lawyer. And now you can get it for 25% off, and you can give credit to the CSGV, which is some anti-gun group. (They don’t have much of a real-world presence, they’re just more Bloomberg astroturf, which is why we forget how the acronym breaks out, but it’s something along the lines of Criminals Shooting Guns Viciously, or something like that).

You can get the book here, and put the following code in to save 25%: @CSGV.

Heh. As Andrew said in his Tweet announcing the price break, “No joke.”

So why did he give credit to his readers, in the name of the notorious anti-gun group? It’s like this: they’ve been trying to get him disinvited from the various universities where he’s been speaking on his summer lecture tour this year. They’ve been trying to shut him up. (Lotsa luck with that, kiddies).

Of course, they haven’t had any success; but that’s to be expected. Crazy Uncle Mikey Bloomberg’s money buys more persistence than it does competence.

Plus, he’s selling more books and getting more people at the seminars he’s been holding thanks to the attack. (Hmm. If a cyber attack can come from something we define as a Advanced Persistent Threat, is this inept and backfiring approach to silencing Branca more of a Retarded Persistent Threat? Could be. As he put it in his blog,  “Anyway, I certainly hope they keep it up–I couldn’t possibly afford to pay for this kind of advertising…. Indeed, I’m going to get both those tweets blown up and hung on my office wall, like animal trophies. :-)”

So what is best on a book tour? We don’t expect to hear from Andrew about that until he, and his motorcycle, are back in New England, but we would guess it sounds something like: “To crush your enemies. And hear the lamentations of their women.”

And, don’t forget you’ll be hearing the lamentations of their girly-men, too. So amble on over to the LOSD store, and get yourself (and maybe your pistol-packin’ pals; they need it too) a copy of this excellent book.

Hat tip, the estimable John Richardson at No Lawyers.

Saturday Matinee 2014 15: Gardens of Stone (1987)

gardens_of_stone_dvdUsually, we have no problem either summarizing or forming an opinion of a movie. This one is a rare exception; even after watching the DVD twice, and giving it two weeks of reflection, we’re still not entirely certain how we feel about it.

It’s a powerful film that has several different ambitions: it wants to be a coming-of-age film, it wants to be a powerful antiwar and anti-military statement, and it wants to entertain people. As a result, it motors back-and-forth between different sets of tone, imagery, and feeling. Some of this ambivalence reflects the ambivalence in the underlying source material, the late Nicholas Proffitt’s novel, which is thoroughly tied up in his own rejection of his own military experience. (Proffitt dropped out of West Point and spent three years’ penance in the Old Guard, the Army’s ceremonial unit which guards the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and performs burial ceremonies in Arlington National Cemetery. His long out-of-print novel is beloved of Old Guard vets for its realistic portrayal of their unique ceremonial duties; a disproportionate number of the reviews on the book’s Amazon page are from ex-Old-Guardsmen) .

We found the novel to be pretentious in the way that certain materials beloved of the New York literati tend to be; naturally it was a brobdingnagian bestseller, as it burnished every stereotype the Manhattan crowd has. They are quite certain they understand us military warmongers, despite the fact that most of their families last had a brush with military service when they paid a stand-in for the draft in 1863. They understand us because they read the occasional book by someone like Proffitt who was in the Army — and didn’t much care for it. 

The film is saved from the Looney Tunes shallows of literary novels by powerful performances by names familiar and less-so. We’ll discuss them below.

Funeral Arlington (Gardens of Stone)It’s worth watching if only for the mostly realistic depiction of Uncle Sam’s flash honor guard (all the services maintain a similar contingent, but the Army’s Old Guard, and its partner Pershing’s Own Army Band, have arguably the greatest range of responsibilities). And you’ll see the capable direction of Francis Ford Coppola, who as always draws the best out of his actors.

Acting and Production

gardens of StoneSeveral of the key roles are played by Hollywood heavyweights, including James Caan in an excellent turn as the frustrated career sergeant, Clell Hazard. His best friend and immediate superior is ably played by James Earl Jones. And who’s his love interest, who loves the man but hates his profession? Anjelica Huston. The kid Hazard takes under his wing, Jackie Willow, son of Clell’s old and since-deceased buddy, is played perfectly by D.B. Sweeney. Sweeney is one of those names little heard of today, but he’s worked steadily and is a solid journeyman actor. (He’s also someone known for supporting the military with combat-zone tours, among other things). He’s completely convincing as a youth who wants to go to OCS and Vietnam before the war is over. Caan — in one of the great performances of his life, and a comeback after many years off the screen — and Jones are perfectly convincing as senior NCOs who totally understand the young man’s desire to test himself in combat, and can’t communicate that they’ve been there and it’s not special enough to get your head shot off over.

These deep and rich characters owe a lot to Proffitt’s original story, and his awareness of dynamics and friendships across the enlisted ranks. Other characters that truly come to life include Huston’s anti-war journalist and Dean Stockwell’s hard-bitten company commander, Captain Thomas. Laurence Fishburne does an excellent job with a small part as a junior sergeant.

Accuracy and Weapons

Hazard M14 Gardens of StoneThe movie is highly accurate in its technical details, in part because the Army provided assistance. Some scenes were shot on location at Arlington National Cemetery, with the support of the actual old guard and Pershing’s own. (The Army assistance required Coppola to delete some of the scenes from the book).

Weapons aren’t really key to this film, as the unit is primarily ceremonial unit. The color guards, two guards and other old guard members do carry highly polished and 14s, which is absolutely correct for the mission and the period. In a brief scene of field training (yes, the Old Guard goes to the field), 1911s and an M60 also make an appearance. These are all correct, as are the uniforms. They’re even careful with details like Caan’s character having a star on his CIB (indicating service in Korea as well as Vietnam) and Jones’s having two stars (making him a WWII, Korea and Vietnam vet, not at all unusual for a senior infantry NCO in the 1960s).

Some scenes of Vietnam fighting are grainy newsreel footage. But by and large the Vietnam events take place offscreen, and only impinge on the Washington players through television and letters. This makes for gripping storytelling.

There are some continuity botches: for example, long after we are told it is 1969, Clell Hazard watches TV news reports of fighting in the Tet Offensive of late January to early February ,1968. But by and large the film does an excellent job of evoking an era that was already nearly 20 years in the past when the movie was in production.

The bottom line

Gardens of Stone is an internally conflicted film, and considering that, it’s as good a prism as any, through which to view the Vietnam experience of soldiers, as well as of civilians. Most people, whether they fight in the war, protested against it, or stay home and basically trying to ignore it, have some degree of inner conflict over the war.

Wes effective is the bookend opening and closing which frames most of the movie as a flashback. Since in the opening scenes we see Jack Willow being buried, and his widow receiving the flag of honor, there isn’t much potential for suspense in the movie. Instead, it’s more of a character study.

Personally, we spent 30 years around characters like that, and don’t need to study them. Your mileage may vary. But the film is worth seeing, if for no other reason than to see James Caan at the peak of his powers, and the Old Guard doing their everyday mission, “with the thanks of a grateful nation.”

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

(single movie DVD): http://www.amazon.com/Gardens-Stone-James-Caan/dp/B000066C6J/

($5 4-pack, but kind of crummy digitization): http://www.amazon.com/Detail-Avalon-Gardens-Stone-Birdy/dp/B008XAT0TQ/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0093073/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Gardens_of_Stone

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/gardens_of_stone/

  • Wikipedia  page:

 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gardens_of_Stone

The End of Enlisted, and some Harvard Whinging

Enlisted brothersWe’ve been big enthusiasts for the Fox light comedy Enlisted, which strikes us as a sort of modern-day F Troop or McHale’s Navy. But as you probably know, the show has been, not exactly canceled, but replaced, which sure looks like “canceled” to us, from outside the industry.

The show got good notices from critics, but never achieved the ratings it needed. It was in a crummy time slot, with a crummy lead-in, but it was a really good, sweet, positive show, which poked fun at the Army without the usual Hollywood nihilism. Maybe that’s why it failed; maybe there’s something in that nihilism that turns into popular viewing. We don’t know.

There are still a few episodes in the can, but it went off the air at the end of March, and we’ll see those episodes who knows where, who knows when. The Wire:

That brings us to Enlisted, which is airing it’s final episode tonight [28 March -- Eds.] before being yanked from the schedule for Kitchen Nightmares. Enlisted has always been a critical darling that didn’t have much chance at survival. The network scheduled it on Friday, a time slot that usually spells doom. And so it has despite passionate advocacy on the part of both TV writers and fans within the military. At Flavorwire, Pilot Viruet wrote: “Enlisted is shaping up to be one of those golden programs that Fox won’t know it has until it’s gone.” The Army Times wrote an editorial asking Fox to save the show. Creator Kevin Biegel insists that the last episodes of the season will air, it’s just a matter of when.

We presume that the cast and crew of the show will move on to other things, and we certainly wish them well and thank them for the many hours they put their hearts into a show that, for too few hours, made us smile and laugh. If there’s a box set we’ll buy a couple copies.

And now for the Harvard whinging. It comes from one other than Steven M. Walt (formerly of Chicago), whose acerbic academic antisemitism has earned him a deanship in Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  For example, in the sort of cold-blooded inhumanity that earns a guy at least an endowed, named professorship, he took the occasion of the murder of an Israeli family, including children of four months, four years, and eleven years old, to condemn the victims and blame Israel’s settlements policy.

 

Walt, who has no experience of the military and clearly likes it no more than he likes Jews, is whining in Foreign Policy.com about the lack of comedies that deal with the military.

Since the early 1980s, in fact, mass-market treatments of war and the military have become increasingly respectful, even adulatory. This trend begins with An Officer and a Gentleman (1982), followed by Top Gun, a 1986 film starring the F-14 Tomcat; A Few Good Men (1992); Saving Private Ryan (1998); Independence Day (1996), where the villains are evil space aliens and a sniveling civilian secretary of defense; Black Hawk Down, a 1999 book by Mark Bowden and 2001 film; the Oscar-winning The Hurt Locker (2008); and Zero Dark Thirty (2012) about the raid that killed Osama bin Laden. You could toss in Lone Survivor, Shooter, Under Siege, Tour of Duty, Call to Glory, JAG, and Band of Brothers — the moral of the story wouldn’t change much. Some of these works include conniving politicians or less-than-admirable commanders, but the core institutions and the troops themselves are portrayed in a consistently positive light. Today, only Garry Trudeau’s Doonesbury is still willing to crack a few jokes at the military’s expense, but his main military characters (B.D., Ray, Melissa, and Toggle) are all wounded or damaged in some fashion and the predominant tone is one of sympathy and support rather than satire.

I can think of only five partial exceptions to this pattern — Private Benjamin (1980), Stripes (1981), Good Morning, Vietnam (1987) and the two Hot Shots! parodies, but these works do not undermine my larger point. Although these films poke some gentle fun at the military (especially in Good Morning, Vietnam, where Robin Williams’s character, Army disc jockey Adrian Cronauer, frequently clashes with his stick-in-the-mud superiors), the broader lesson in each film is a positive one.

Ah, we get it. He wants films where the message about the military is a negative one. That figures.

In Stripes and Private Benjamin, for example, the lead characters ultimately gain wisdom from their military experience and become better people. And Good Morning, Vietnam becomes less funny as the film proceeds, as Cronauer confronts the realities of the war and discovers a Viet Cong agent has duped him. Hot Shots! (1991, 1993) doesn’t really count, as these films are really spoofs of pro-military genre films (especially Top Gun) rather than of the military itself.

Do Read The Whole Thing™ and see if we’ve mischaracterized Walt. We were wondering whether he’d actually heard of Enlisted; it turns out that he dismisses it without seeing it:

It’s true that FOX is challenging this taboo with its new series Enlisted, but its comedy is pretty bloodless, very respectful of the military itself, and it remains to be seen if the series will catch on or not.

Yeah, he doesn’t like it because it was “respectful of the military.” Unlike him. He further expresses his fundamental opinion that “capable armed forces are a regrettable necessity.”

Unlike, for example, the readily disposable luxury of nasty Harvard deans.

A Tale of Hog Hunting

Now, we have many problems in rural New Hampshire, most of them associated with an influx of aging hippie boomers from Massachusetts, but God in His mercy has not delivered unto us the plague of hogs that bedevil the farmers of much of the USA.

Mike Baron tells the story of the day a 998-pound hog “et” Cody Lee’s little sister, and how the hog had not a friend in the world that day, apart from the fine people of PETA. From Cody Lee’s point of view:

I knew we were close. I could smell thet hog. I saw one of Rose Marie’s shoes, didn’t stop to pick it up. Ned and Ethan right behind a whoopin’ and a hollerin’. And right behind them come the PETA people waving red flags, banging on tambourines, and singing “We shall overcome.” They must have had a real quick committee-type meeting and voted to give chase, bravely putting their own lives in danger to save the sister-eatin’, murderin’ hog.

Swear to God.

I came to a woodfall, a ten-foot bird’s nest made of thorns. I could hear that old hog layin’ in there, huffing and chuffing. I could smell him. But I couldn’t see him, and it would have been plum foolish to go looking for him in there. We all know about Br’er Rabbit and the Briar Patch, and I weren’t no rabbit.

I pulled up short and waited for Ned and Ethan, who’d run right through the PETA people and stood by me as we figured out our next move. Then the PETA people caught up with us.

“Best stay away from that copse, ma’am,” I kindly told the nose ring. “That hog’s in there and he’s a man-eater.”

They huddled and murmured. They took up positions at the four corners of the compass around that deadfall, with nose ring facing us.

“We’re sorry about your sister,” she said. “But the hog was doing what comes naturally. We’re all Mother Earth’s creatures.”

“Me too, ma’am,” I said. “I’m just doing what comes naturally.”

Ned grinned. “Ethan and me, we taught thet boy how to hunt.”

“Well I’m sorry,” the nose ring said, “but you’ll have to go through us to get to thet hog. And there are more of us on the way.”

As if on signal, five skeezy looking people blowing whistles and waving red flags trooped out of the woods and joined the first four. They tried to join hands but they didn’t quite stretch all the way around.

I looked at Ned. “What we gon’ do, Ned?”

He grinned again. “Just sit tight, little brother, and get ready to shoot.”

Nose ring confronted us defiantly. I thought, clean her up a little, give her some decent clothes, she’d still be ugly as a horned toad.

“There will be no slaughter of wild pigs today!” she declared Huey Long-like. And they sang, “We Shall Overcome.” And they sang, “Kumbaya.” And they sang, “The Internationale.”

With a snort like a sucking drain the giant hog broke weed behind her, clamped its big pig jaws over her right pelvis and dragged her screaming into the brush like a turd-brown submarine tussling with a sucker fish.

(if you likes that taste, Read The Whole Thing™ at:  Liberty Island – Mike Baron – On the Trail of the Loathsome Swine).

If that’s what hog hunting is like, we want in.

The story’s from a new site with a lot of short fiction on it, Liberty Island. We liked some and didn’t like others, but we thought this one was worth sharing with all y’all.

It’s also the way the urban Pajama Boy hordes think of us in the gun culture, so why not own it?

 

Saturday Matinee 2014 13: The Untouchables (1987)

Untouchables DVDWhat do you get when you take a hokey old TV show about the nation’s most lawless law enforcers, and stretch it to about two hours even? That’s the Jeopardy! Version of a one line review of this movie.

The Untouchables is a 1987 Brian de Palma film so you know it’s going to be soaked in cartooney violence — de Palma doesn’t disappoint (or maybe the correct term is, “doesn’t surprise”) on that expectation. It’s based on the 1959-63 Robert Stack cop show, which is based in turn on the posthumously-published memoir of Elliott Ness, a founding agent of the Prohibition Bureau, the agency that would become today’s ATF. Ness’s book, which we’ve never read (we just ordered a copy to rectify that error) was largely ghostwritten by sportswriter Oscar Fraley, and it launched Fraley on a new career of ghosting G-man tales, including at least one more by a member of Ness’s 11-man core “Untouchables” group.

The real Treasury agents got that nickname because, unlike Chicago’s local law enforcement (then, or now), they didn’t take bribes and cooperate with organized crime. Instead, they publicized and shamed bribe attempts. (This is shown in one scene in the movie, a scene that, once it gets started, is taut and on point).

The score deserves mention, because it doesn’t work. It’s by Ennio Morricone (of The Good, the Bad, and The Ugly fame). He’d lost the art of using the musical “rest” and, unfortunately, discovered the drum machine. It’s the Ugly, the Ugly, and the Ugly.

A Press Conference scene reminds us the only ones that Hollywood treats worse than the military, oddly enough, are reporters. But even though reporters as a pack are depicted as shallow and stupid, as individuals, they’re one of the phony city’s favorite hero types, and yes, there’s a Jimmy Olsen, Cub Reporter type – neither the part nor the performance rises above type – who’s the comic relief, sidekick type.

The blood-drenched movie ends with emo Ness shaking his head and intoning, “So much violence,” in a display of Hollywood hypocrisy right up there with any of them.

We just have to mention the Morricone score again, because throughout the movie it was utterly jarring, dreadful and distracting. It won a bunch of awards, but then, 1987 was in the midst of a cocaine epidemic, and that stuff’s supposed to be bad for your hearing.

Acting and Production

The big-name actors in the movie deliver big-name performances. Three in particular stand out.

Kevin Costner as Elliot Ness plays a sort of modern, anguished, vulnerable hero. ATF agents who celebrate the legend of the TV Ness will freak at the very idea of emo Ness. But if you’re going to have an emo Ness, the very underrated and expressive Costner is a good guy to play him.

Robert De Niro excels himself as Al Capone. Opening scene – over the top. Camera in ceiling as the mobster gets shaved and manicured. Later, he has a great reverse “save the cat” scene where he beats one of his underlings to death with a baseball bat.

Sean Connery has an Oscar-winning supporting role as an Irish cop, Jim Malone, who’s Yoda to Costner’s emo Luke Skywalker (Connery’s was the film’s only gold statuette).

the-untouchables-connery-kostner

He does have a pretty good line. When Ness tells him he’s a Treasury officer, Malone turns and walks away. “You just turned your back on an armed man!” Ness fumes.

Malone: “But you’re a Treasury officer.”

Ness: “But I just told you, I didn’t show you my badge.”

Malone: “But you said you’re a Treasury officer. Who would claim that who was not?”

A great deal of money was spent on this period drama, and it shows.

Accuracy and Weapons

This version of Ness carries an unlikely 1911. (The real Ness carried a .38 Colt Detective Special, once that model was introduced in 1927. The Detective Special is nothing but a Police Positive with a 2″ barrel). The cops are armed with revolvers, tommy guns, and pump shotguns (about right for the 1930s).

kevin-costner_the-untouchables

Along with the movie-only 1911 (they actually used Stars as substitutes in firing scenes, as they’re easier to make feed with blanks, and Colts in the non-firing scenes), Ness also picks up and uses a Colt Official Police revolver and uses it to chase Frank Nitti in the climactic foot chase. The actual movie Colt was later sold off, and can be seen on a prop-collectors’ website.

The-Untouchables-The-Untouchables-Screen-Used-Kevin-Costner-Pistol-1

As you can see, it’s a post-1950 colt (the ramp on the front sight, and the squared-off grip frame, are giveaways). Apart from such subtleties, the good guys have period-correct (mostly, as some of the Colts are post-1950) revolvers, lever-actions (Winchester 94s) and pump shotguns (Winchester 97s and 12s).

The criminals are armed with similar stuff, including too many 1911s. They are 1980s-armed crooks in a 1930s movie! Frank Nitti, for instance, has a gaudy nickel 1911 (which is a Star Model B, actually. You can see the extractor in shots showing the gun’s right side). The real Frank Nitti was partial to .32 revolvers. But then again, the real Frank Nitti was 5’4″, closing in on middle age, and plump; the movie Nitti is taller, lean and young. Hollywood magic!

Nitti - UntouchablesStar

Everybody has a few Thompsons. They all have drum mags (the first was common for the era, as both cops and criminals used this gun. The second was not, entirely; drum vs. stick mags appear to have been about 50/50 in both police and criminal use).

While there was a lot of gunplay in Prohibition Chicago, it was mostly crook-on-crook; despite the body counts racked up by the TV Ness (Bob Stack, himself a champion sports shooter) and this movie version (Costner), the real Elliot Ness never shot anybody, although he did fire warning shots, and was not above pistol-whipping a gangster. Most of the real Untouchables also carried small Colts; one, Barney Cloonan, carried a .45 ACP Smith & Wesson M1917 revolver. Cloonan was a WWI vet Marine, and he was not the only war vet on the squad.

One real-world Ness weapon makes an appearance in a Hollywoodized version: his specialized raid truck, reinforced for ramming through doors and walls, and equipped with ladders to land agents on the roof. The empty-cask raid appears to have been a Hollywood creation; the real Ness hit paydirt with his first raid and kept the raids coming, although sometimes the crooks got away, leaving only the booze and stills or breweries. (That’s why he created the raid truck).

The movie Untouchables are distilled down to four characters. There’s no scope for the range of the real men: some selected for athleticism, some selected for their ability to blend in anywhere, and bringing varied expertise in everything from the new discipline of tailing-by-car to the old standby of undercover operations. It’s true that Ness wanted single men, because he expected casualties. The canny Capone refused to play that; as one of the other Untouchables remembered in his old age, “he knew that if he killed one of us, he’d be replaced by two more guys, and probably tougher ones.”

Apart from the story, a lot of care was taken with period details. When the agents fly off to hit a booze shipment, they fly in a period-correct Ford Trimotor. There are a lot of authentic-looking 1930s vehicles in here, something that fills producers with dread (will they work when we need them?).

The depiction of Chicago of the 1930s—which could be Chicago today – shows what happens when an underground is fully embedded in society. Al Capone owned Chicago Aldermen, Chicago judges, most of the Chicago Police Department, and the Chicago mayor. So in this case, it was a criminal underground, but some of the stories we read of occupied and totalitarian nations (especially the ones where resistance movements were successful) had a similarly pervasive underground. The techniques work the same way, regardless of whether you’re on the side of God or Devil.

The death of Frank Nitti is not only historically wrong, but almost incredibly, and not-almost laughably (as in completely, absolutely laughably) fake. The movie’s Nitti character is younger than de Niro’s Capone, reversing their original ages; and instead of meeting his end at the hands of incorruptible lawmen, a middle-aged Nitti drank himself into a stupor and then shot himself twice in the head with a Colt .32 revolver. But the death scene in the movie is not only completely different, but also ridiculously phony. If you can’t make special effects convincing, please, directors: kill the guy off camera.

The bottom line

Bottom line: too much money spent on a TV show, despite the stellar cast, some great moments (the script was by David Mamet, so there’s some brilliant dialogue), and enough violence to please Al Capone his ownself. This might have been a stronger movie if they didn’t use the names of historical figures and create a false impression of the movie being a true story.

If you do like a classic gangster film made with modern production values, check out our review of 2012’s Gangster Squad with Jeff Brolin, a similar romp that does violence to history but at least entertains a viewer.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Untouchables-Kevin-Costner/dp/B00AEBB9NM/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094226/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Untouchables,_The_(1987)

  • Rotten Tomatoes review aggregator:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/untouchables/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Untouchables_(film)

Satrurday Matinee 2014 12: Ender’s Game

Ender's_Game_posterWhen you take a well-loved genre novel with a rabid cult following – in this case Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game – and make a movie out of it, there are two possible outcomes.

Number 1, you make a classic for the ages.

Number 2, you make a turkey.

The actual quality of the movie was somewhat lost in the thunderous pink swish of the gay boycott – apparently the Great Buggernaut is upset that Card has expressed the radically reactionary idea that men and women should marry the opposite sex – so we didn’t see any reviews of the movie at the time it was in the theaters – apparently the reviewers flounced, feather boas and all, into some other screening at the time.

Most of the changes made to the book in the process of film-scripting it made it worse. Certainly it was bent to shape and beaten to fit, with the form being the Save the Cat! Template. Every single beat is in place, which leaves you with the feeling you’ve seen this one before. But then, the end is lost, because Card’s original conclusion becomes a false end arranged to enable future sequels — sequels that will never happen, due to the box office flop of the movie.

Likewise, no movie these days is complete without a grafted-on or wedged-in faux environmental message, and the Ender’s Game creative team couldn’t resist jamming in some 1960s-style population-bomb environalarmism. We were surprised by the relative lack of global warming messaging, but it may have happened when we nodded off.

Sending the Hitler Youth to the defense of Berlin, reimagined as a good idea.

Sending the Hitler Youth to the defense of Berlin, reimagined as a good idea.

The really dreadful bit comes at the end, when the little kid warrior (Card’s High Concept, which Card pulled off and the movie basically doesn’t) becomes a kid peacenik, resolved to save the last remaining hive of the enemy insects. We don’t recall this from Ender’s Game, the novel, and after checking with a friend who is a fan, what happened there was that the enemy “queen” (the enemy are an antlike race) communicated with Ender, explaining that the Formic species didn’t understand humans were sentient, because among the Formics intelligence and consciousness was shared across all individuals; too late they realized the the humans’ indentity was an original. This explains why the Formics fought the humans and why Ender now takes them to heart, and saves their last surviving queen. These details are absent from the movie, turning it into a Homer Simpson definition of life: “a bunch of stuff that just happens.” The book is a deep tragedy of interspecies misunderstanding; the movie, a shoal of a shoot-em-up.

One of the key factors in Ender’s childhood in the book is a degree of ostracism as a “third” child. (In Card’s imagined future, laws modeled on the Chinese single-child rule limit families to two children). This is entirely absent from the movie, which is strange because they do make a couple of population-threat asides, and so the other kids bully him “just because.” Sometimes, Hollywood can use fancy camera work or something to get around the characters’ lack of colorable motivation; this time, they don’t, which takes a lot of air out of the interpersonal conflicts essential to Ender’s development.

We suspect that the changes were made not just because the novel, like any novel, is far too long for the screen (an Audible adaptation of the book runs something like 8 hours), but because the original story was much too martial for the effete Hollywood that has forgotten how to make Sands of Iwo Jima, 12 O’Clock High, or, for that matter, that jingoistic epic, The Best Years of their Lives.

In other words, they did violence to the original novel, like the numbingly stupid Starship Troopers, but they didn’t even make a decent stupid actioner, unlike the sporadically entertaining Starship Troopers. 

In the moviemakers’ defense, it may have been impossible to film the book. The novel occurs almost entirely inside the protagonist’s Brain Housing Group. Card himself was involved in the early stages (although nothing from his screenplay drafts made it to the screen) and remained engaged as a producer. Moreover, Card himself has expressed satisfaction with the movie.

Acting and Production

Does this universe make my character look small?

Does this universe make my character look small?

Most of the main characters are kids, and the actors who are not kids are wasted playing stone-faced military stereotyped characters. The one actor who brings some depth to his character is Harrison Ford, who has aged well and plays a weary man who must do things he would rather not do to save the world. The other stone faces include Ben Kingsley.

Stage actress Viola Davis plays a military psychologist, who speaks in the sort of shaman mumbo jumbo laymen associate with psychologists. She may be an actress of rare grace and power; if so, she spares those virtues for some future, meatier part.

The movie is all CGI, all the time. We predict that this “look of 2010” will one day be as dated as black and white.

Accuracy and Weapons

The weapons and their functions are completely unrealistic and illogical, but it’s practically Euclidean geometry compared to the dog’s breakfast of tactics and strategy.

The weapons that are displayed are a jet much like the canceled F-22; a physically improbable ray-gun that shoots lightning and produces localized paralysis; a colossal ray that can destroy a planet but needs to recharge for 60 seconds because the director’s at a loss to build suspense any other way.

enders_game_2The relations between people in the military of the future are formed in the minds of Hollywood drones who don’t know anyone who’s ever been in the military, but have formed their opinions based on other Hollywood screenplays’ depiction of the same. So they’re an infinitely recursive version of Gunny Hartmann delivering tough love, and leadership taking place primarily by pulling rank and humiliating subordinates.

We dunno where that comes from. Not the real military, anyway. It’s probably how actors, directors and screenwriters treat their servants.

One major difference between Hollywood enemies and real enemies is that Hollywood enemies have a single catastrophic point of failure that’s so glaringly obvious even an actor could find it. This suits the demands of narrative tradition but it’s so unlike real war that it disrupts viewers’ ideas of what is possible.

Of course, you can hear the explosions across the vacuum of space. Hollywood magic! 

The bottom line

Ender’s Game is a C-movie science fictioner on which A-movie money was spent.

There is one blessing for moviegoers in the film’s poor box-office performance: Ender’s Game the novel spawned dozens of sequels, pre-quels, and parallel-quels, and the movie makers had hopes of inflicting more of the series upon us. That’s not going to happen; it’s anyone’s guess  whether that’s a scalp for The Ghey or just for Hollywood’s essentially mercenary, crony-capitalist nature.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:
  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1731141/

  • IMFDB page:
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/enders-game/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ender%27s_Game_(film)

 

A Poem of War, and Despair

For today’s psychologists, at least the “pop” variety, today’s psychological casualties (like the suicides we discussed a bit last Friday) are a Baby Duck world: everything is new, and nothing has come before all these novelties. This stakes a claim to a certain diagnostic power that today’s pshrinks almost certainly have not got, and at the same time, neglects a body of literature of war centuries, even millennia, old. In those old times, men as smart as we are today, and unconstrained by the straitjacket of today’s psychiatric constructs, wrestled with much the same problems.

WWIbattleThe literature of the First World War is experiencing a small bloom of appreciation, on the centennial of that conflict that imbrued a continent and decimated a generation (indeed, more than “decimated,” with that word’s ancient meaning of the slaying of one in ten, the men of the officer class, those most likely, in that era, to commit literature). Here we have Britain’s daily The Telegraph on an early poem by Wilfred Owen, one which moves us more than most of Owen’s work:

“The Dead-Beat”, one of Owen’s less well-known poems, was based on a real incident he had witnessed in France, and was the first he wrote after meeting his mentor Sassoon at Craiglockhart. The poem therefore has a strong Sassoonian influence, with a directness and bitterness untypical of Owen’s later and more subtle work.

The Dead-Beat

by Wilfred Owen

He dropped, – more sullenly than wearily,
Lay stupid like a cod, heavy like meat,
And none of us could kick him to his feet;
Just blinked at my revolver, blearily;
– Didn’t appear to know a war was on,
Or see the blasted trench at which he stared.
“I’ll do ‘em in,” he whined, “If this hand’s spared,
I’ll murder them, I will.”
A low voice said,
“It’s Blighty, p’raps, he sees; his pluck’s all gone,
Dreaming of all the valiant, that aren’t dead:
Bold uncles, smiling ministerially;
Maybe his brave young wife, getting her fun
In some new home, improved materially.
It’s not these stiffs have crazed him; nor the Hun.”
We sent him down at last, out of the way.
Unwounded; – stout lad, too, before that strafe.
Malingering? Stretcher-bearers winked, “Not half!”
Next day I heard the Doc.’s well-whiskied laugh:
“That scum you sent last night soon died. Hooray!”

via ‘The Dead-Beat’: Wilfred Owen’s poem of despair – Telegraph.

Craiglockhart War Hospital, the place at which The Dead-Beat was written or at least inspired, was a “rest home” in one of the euphemisms of the day: a nut hatch, officers, for the use of. Sassoon nicknamed it “Dottyville;” he appears to have been grateful all his life for the “treatment” he received there, which seems to have been talk therapy from WHR Rivers, whom we’ve seen on this website before.

Rivers and that entire regime were overturned in late 1917, and an attempt to treat the patients as malingerers was attempted. This failed rather spectacularly and the next regime, once again under a “modern” physician, stressed the inmates making themselves useful. From an interesting report on the hospital’s history in the Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine:

Perhaps [Dr Arthur John] Brock’s most important tool, both to communicate his aims to the patients and also as a form of therapy in itself, was The Hydra, the hospital magazine. The Hydra, the many-headed monster whose defeat was one of Hercules’ most difficult labours, was to provide a jokey description of the character of the hospital—the officers, or heads, being removed (or discharged) only to be replaced by new inmates. It also provided a more serious analogy for the results of poorly carried out shell-shock treatment: the resurfacing of psychological problems in different, but equally distressing and incapacitating forms. The magazine was a vehicle through which the patients could express and share their experiences, as well as learn about the hospital ethos and activities. Brock’s patient Wilfred Owen was editor of this monthly periodical for much of his time at the hospital, and had his first published poems within its pages. Indeed, Owen did not begin writing war poetry until Craiglockhart. This was due largely to his budding friendship with Siegfried Sassoon, but it was also due to Brock’s encouragement: that he direct his artistic eye over his experiences and not his fantasies, to approach a cure by functioning. Perhaps the most famous anti-war poem, “Dulce et decorum est” was written at the hospital in 1917.

Another poem in Owen's hand, with edits in Sassoon's, from Craiglockhart.

Another poem in Owen’s hand, with edits in Sassoon’s hand, from Craiglockhart.

The military established Craiglockhart with a view to saving psychological casualties and returning them fit to duty. While many of the approximately 1800 patients returned to productive life, and over 700 were passed out fit for some kind of duty, a return to fitness for combat leadership was very rare. Sassoon was one passed out fit, so was Owen; but the return to France was disastrous for both. Sassoon was wounded, not fatally, in the head and invalided back to Britain, where he tried to talk Owen out of returning to the line. Owen returned to duty with his Manchester Regiment, and was shortly thereafter killed. He received the Military Cross posthumously; most of his poems wer published only posthumously. Several of them are set in the War Requiem of composer Benjamin Britten.

Here is the citation for Owen’s Military Cross:

2nd Lt, Wilfred Edward Salter Owen, 5th Bn. Manch. R., T.F., attd. 2nd Bn.
For conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in the attack on the Fonsomme Line on October 1st/2nd, 1918. On the company commander becoming a casualty, he assumed command and showed fine leadership and resisted a heavy counter-attack. He personally manipulated a captured enemy machine gun from an isolated position and inflicted considerable losses on the enemy. Throughout he behaved most gallantly.

If that was insanity, the military forces of the world depend upon it. A short month after those heroic deeds he would be slain, on November 4th — a week before the Armistice. The net has a great deal of Owen’s and Sassoon’s poetry.

Saturday Matinee 2014 08: The Last Detail

Nicholson_the_last_detailThe Last Detail is a military movie with a difference. It’s a peacetime, or at least, a Stateside, story about a sad situation many NCOs and petty officers have faced over the years: serving as a “chaser,” and taking a convicted soldier or sailor to prison.

There was once a very complex and deep system of military prisons, with the Army and Navy maintaining separate hard-time prisons, Leavenworth and Portsmouth respectively, and legions of local brigs and correctional custody facilities for short-term yardbirds. Over the years, reforms have narrowed those incarceration options: the sort of person who’d have got a short sentence is now simply ejected from the service, and the axe murderers and baby rapers go to Leavenworth. (Portsmouth stands in ruins today. It was already closed when The Last Detail was in production). 

At the movie’s opening, two petty officers in transient housing on a Navy base are hunted down and dragged in for a chaser detail: PO “Badass” Buddusky, arguably the role that produced Jack Nicholson’s rep as the go-to actor for gonzo characters, and PO “Mule” Mulhill, ably played by Otis Young, who would toil in obscurity (he’s since passed away). The prisoner is played by Randy Quaid, in what must have been one of his first movies; other characters come and go, but the story’s about these three.

The mission, then, is to bring Quaid’s character, Meadows, to Portsmouth, where he’ll spend the next eight years of his life. He’s a teenager, and he’s never had most of the experiences a young man has when he goes into the service — like getting drunk, or getting laid.

The two old sailors are first excited to be having an adventure on the Navy’s dime — hey, it’s full per diem, a complete get-over. But in time, they develop both some sympathy for their hapless charge, whose kleptomania is, essentially, destroying his life. And so, the original plan to zip the kid to crowbar motel and then unwind on the way back morphs to a plan to show the kid a good time. Still, they can’t let him get away.

Nicholson_45_Last_Detail

It’s hard to think of another movie that’s like this. It’s really a stand-alone film. At the time of its production, it was up for several Oscars, including Best Actor for Nicholson, but it didn’t win any.

Acting and Production

Nicholson is just incredible. He disappears into the character, and this performance probably landed him things like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It may have typecast him as a nutjob. Journeyman Otis Young wasn’t the director’s first choice for the part, but the actor he preferred came down with terminal cancer. Young does a good job as Nicholson’s more mature, sensible foil. And Randy Quaid is perfect at the kid whose Navy career of constantly stepping on his &%^$ has landed him in a terrible place — Reduction to E-1 (the lowest enlisted grade), Forfeiture of all Pay and Allowances, Dishonorable Discharge, and confinement for 8 years. He’s just a kid… who can’t stop stealing stuff.

That’s one of many things that makes the movie funny at time, enough so that many reviewers call it a comedy or a comedy/drama. It would be more accurate to say it’s a drama with many lighthearted and funny moments — just like real life. There are heartbreaking movies, too. Badass and Mule take the kid to see his mother on their way… but she’s not in, and it’s clear that she’s living in squalor.

Because of the age of the movie, you see an America that’s gone. People traveling by Greyhound and train. All those great sixties and seventies cars in the background, and more than that, the sixties and seventies that were not great: Plymouth Satellites and Ford Mavericks.

There’s a road-movie aspect to it, also, with vignettes that are almost stand-alone shorts as the unlikely trio does Washington, Philadelphia, New York and Boston before a final picnic in Portsmouth — in the freezing cold.

Accuracy and Weapons

There’s not much use of the two firearms that figure in the story, the .45s with one mag each that POs Buddusky and Mulhall draw from a Senior Chief Master at Arms at the start of their adventure. The guns come out a few times during the movie.  The Colt 1911 is of course the right choice for this period.

As far as the overall accuracy of the film, some parts of it ring true and some clang, to us, but we know nothing about the Navy. Maybe they do really start brawls with Marines (or maybe they did, 40 years ago). Certainly there are POs and NCOs in every service that like a good deal detail with some per diem and downtime; and certainly nobody likes transporting a prisoner.

One slightly subversive scene has a group of urban hippie-liberals trying to raise the consciousness of the sailors. Of course, the sailors, who seem so wretched to the liberals, have the one thing that the hip urbanite of the era craved: authenticity.

The bottom line

The Last Detail is a lot of fun. At the time it might have been over the top in its profanity, limited violence, and adult situations; nowadays, it’s pretty tame. Indeed, it’s an amusing mental exercise to think about just what a botch of it that modern Hollywood would make.

The principal reason the film works is that the script imbued the three main characters with complex, and often likable, or at least understandable, traits; and the three actors swing for the fence and knock the script right out of the park.

We watched it just for local color, you see, because the Portsmouth Naval Prison looms like Dracula’s Castle over the shoreline not at all far from here. Apart from the cranes, it’s the defining skyline of the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, which is not in Portsmouth at all (technically, it’s on an island that’s part of Kittery, Maine, projecting into Portsmouth Harbor). The Navy has let the building decay; a dotcom-boom era attempt to repurpose it as offices foundered in a vapor of evanescing capital, and no one is willing to face the music and admit that the old landmark must come down.

But The Last Detail should entertain all of you, even if you never see Portsmouth (or have never seen the ocean, for that matter). Because at its heart it is a story about people. And Jack Nicholson is at his scenery-chewing best.

 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Detail

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0070290/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/The_Last_Detail  (fair warning, it’s pretty minimal. Not really a gun movie).

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/last_detail/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Last_Detail

 

“Most Favoured by Terrorists and Insurgents”

sten_mk_IIThe following is the forward by Lieut. Gen. Sir Frank King KCB MBE, General Officer Commanding-In-Chief, Northern Ireland to FWA Hobart’s Pictorial History of the Sub-Machine Gun. The pictorial history dates to 1973, so it’s over 40 years old, and the submachinegun stood in a different place in history of the time. But Sir Frank’s take on it is quite idiosyncratic:

As a young officer I will remember the introduction of the first British Sub-Machine Gun – the Sten – to the British Army. It was heralded with especial ecstasy in many newly formed Battle Schools, by Senior Officers who extolled its easy production, cheapness, simplicity, and devastating firepower at short range. Indeed, there were many enthusiasts who described these advantages as decisive, and likely to change quickly the course of the war. This did not happen. The Germans possessed a similar weapon. And with its relatively short effective range the SMG became merely one of the family of arms required by infantry to cover the requirements of their particular battle field.

Notwithstanding this it had, and indeed it has, a very effective military role to play and deserves a high place in the gratings of usefulness of weapons. Above all, it is perhaps most favoured by terrorists and insurgents, particularly when operating in urban or jungle environments where its undoubted excellence as a short range and powerful destroyer is accentuated by the ease with which it can be produced or procured, concealed, distributed and used. it has deservedly earned an important place in the history of small arms

It may seem strange that the story of the Sub–Machine Gun should be related by a retired Gunner. Major Hobart saw through at an early age, the complex and at times almost ritualistic façade which obscures the relatively simple problems of field gunnery, and for many years now has devoted his considerable energy and enquiring mind to the more precise and intimate science that embraces small arms. There are few officers better suited or qualified for this task. He has produced a comprehensive, knowledgeable and authoritative history and his book must commend itself to every student of Infantry soldiers and of Small Arms design.

While the most famous 3rd-generation SMG is the UZI, the Czech Vz23-26 were arguably fielded first. This is a Vz26 (7.62x25, folding stock).

While the most famous 3rd-generation SMG is the UZI, the Czech Vz23-26 were arguably fielded first. This is a Vz26 (7.62×25, folding stock).

While we chuckled at the “terrorists and insurgents” remark, Sir Frank was on to something. For another ten or so years, terrorists very frequently appeared with submachine guns, with some favorites being the Uzi, the Vz. 61 Škorpion, and the older Czech Vz 23-26 series. But by 1973, these weapons were already on the way out, with the similarly compact but much more powerful AKM replacing them. and the fact of the matter is, insurgents are armed with whatever they can arm themselves with. The two principal sources of rhymes for insurgents are always external sponsorship, and internal battlefield recovery. In both cases the arms of the insurgents wind up looking a lot like the arms of armies; the armies of either their friends or enemies respectively.