Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2015 26: Red Tails (2012)

Red Tails opens with a morality play of sorts, set in the sky over Europe in 1943. A few German fighters draw off the P-51 escorts from a bomber raid, and the main German force, led by a lean, hungry fellow in a plane with a yellow nose, falls on the olive-drab B-17s. “Show no mercy!” the German leader intones melodramatically, and the Bf109s don’t, shredding the column. “Where are our escorts?” the helpless bomber crews cry as they die in droves.

red_tails_action

Obviously, they need something better.

That something better comes along as the Red Tails, the 332nd Fighter Group, a segregated unit with black pilots and ground personnel. They prove their worth with obsolete P-40s, then get the real star of the movie, the P-51D Mustang.

red_tails_p-51s

Ultimately they overcome Nazis and racism, but mostly racism, to be the Best Fighter Unit Ever. Music up, roll titles.

This is not the first movie telling the story — or part of the story — of the Tuskegee Airmen, or, at least, the 332nd Fighter Group (there were also Tuskegee B-25 medium bomber units, but they didn’t go overseas). The first movie was in 1945 and was narrated by some B-movie actor named Ronald. The best is probably the 1995 The Tuskegee Airmen, but it can’t hold a candle to the budget, dramatic fighting scenes and enormously improved CGI of Red Tails. It just tells the story better and less crudely.

Acting and Production

The actors are generally very good — a lot better than the script, anyway. They do their best to sell characters who are, unfortunately, just black versions of the Standard Hollywood Combat Squad. The Doomed Religious Guy, the Guy Who Falls In Love With a War Bride, the Guy Who’s Too Insubordinate For His Own Good, The Guy Whose Fear Drives Him To Drink — all, Now Available in Black! It’s not the actors’ fault. They have a piss-poor, not to mention stone-cold-dead, script to bring to life, and they’re just good actors, not Dr. von Frankenstein.

All he was missing was the Rebel flag.

All he was missing was the Rebel flag.

Bryan Cranston’s substantial talents are wasted in a cartoon-villain role as the White Man who’s Keepin’ The Brotherman Down. In general, white Americans are the real enemy and the Germans are just business.

The script probably has its moments, although we can’t remember any. What we remember are over-the-top action scenes and moribund dialogue.

One rather interesting choice the producers made was to have the Germans speak German — without subtitles. This risk works; there’s no problem for a non-German-speaker understanding the gist of their communication, and it adds to the sense that you are on one side, not the other, in this war.

The action sequences are visually and audibly exciting, as long as they keep the music down. But even those scenes break the suspension of disbelief when, in an early combat with Me109s, the green 332nd pilots tearing into a phalanx of the Luftwaffe’s elite, somehow drugged into suicidal zombie mooks by an overdose of Scriptium. It’s hard to be excited by something that has telegraphed that there will be no subtlety or surprise. The producer, Steven Spielberg of all people, apparently has lost faith in his audiences and believes they must be conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs. We hope that he is wrong.

We often mention the score when it displays conspicuous merit, or adds something to the film. In this case, let’s not.

Finally, at about two hours, the movie is somewhere between a half hour and two hours too long.

Accuracy and Weapons

In the 1950s and 1960s, little effort was taken to depict the weapons and war machines accurately or even realistically, in detail. Instead producers concentrated on characters and script. Today, the production values are reversed, with detail minutiae often nailed down painstakingly while the characters are shallow and wooden, and the dialog a pastiche of some other movies’ tropes and clichés.

Because the good guys are the good guys, they’re nearly immune to enemy fire. As mentioned above, on their first encounter with seasoned German fighter pilots, they shoot down a half-dozen without serious loss to themselves, despite flying an obsolete and outclassed airplane at the time (P-40E or F).

The actions of the characters are often ridiculous. At one point, after noting that they’re just about out of fuel and would be violating orders to do it, several of the men follow a damaged (burning, actually) German back to his base, because, otherwise, who would know where that base was? Apparently, whatever they taught a fighter pilot in 1944 it did not include anything about the existence of air or air-order-of-battle intelligence.

Moreover, the story’s point that the way to defeat the Germans was to stick close to the bombers, regardless, flies in the face of all that was known in 1944 about fighter escort tactics.

The CGI is in places brilliant, and in a few places crude.

It’s 2014, and bad guys still wear the equivalent of black hats. So that you know that the one German bad guy is really a bad guy, almost as bad as the white American officers, he has a specially painted plane. In fact, his Me109G bears the black-green/dark-green camouflage of the Bf109E of the Battle of Britain period, with a yellow nose lifted from the “Abbeville boys” or Eastern Front practice.

red_tails_yellow_nose_109

That’s not all. There’s also a broad yellow stripe on the tail because the producers assume you’re a purblind idiot who didn’t see the enormous yellow schnoz on this thing.

red_tails_me109

The CGI made us wonder if the movie industry is picking up some technology from the more-advanced game industry. Unfortunately, they’re still getting their scripts from the less-advanced comic-book industry.

The bottom line

Red Tails is not really bad. As we said, the actors put their heart into it, and the CGI, sets, props, and costumes were done with care. The photography is sometimes beautiful. But the story is weak as water, and given that they started with a great story of World War II that is proven to put heinies in theater seats, what they did here is just disappointing. So we recommend the ’95 one with Laurence Fishburne, despite the ’12 one’s good performance by Cuba Gooding Jr.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Red-Tails-Cuba-Gooding-Jr/dp/B005LAIGN2/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0485985/

  • IMFDB page (there are some great screen shots and comments here. The flare gun used to launch the fighters is a German one — we missed that):

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

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/red-tails/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red_Tails

Saturday Matinee 2015 25: Darby’s Rangers (1958)

darbys rangersThe Pentagon, 1942. Staff officer William O. Darby, a West Point grad from Arkansas, is gratified that his idea for an American version of the British Commandos has been accepted by important generals. But there’s a problem: they’ve shortlisted a few men for command, not including him. So — in the movie, at least — Darby’s first battle is to win command of his brainchild.

Then, the combat begins. (Well, actually, first they have to train under the British commandos… and most of them seem to win the hearts of local Scots ladies, sometimes, to the chagrin of their husbands).

This story of the Rangers of WWII — the first American Army regular unit to bear that name since the French and Indian War, although the Rebels had had “Ranger” elements — gets an entertaining, if highly fictional, treatment in Darby’s Rangers. 

Get me out of this damned office! Garner loosely resembled Darby, and unlike Heston, was close to his age in 1942

Get me out of this damned office! Garner loosely resembled Darby, and unlike Heston, was close to his age in 1942

Acting and Production

This was James Garner’s first big-screen role — Darby was supposed to played by Moses Himself,  Charlton Heston, but Garner was promoted from a supporting character into the Darby role. He is better remembered today as a TV actor, but did a credible job here. Of the other actors, most noticeable is Jack Warner as the Yiddish-wisecracking Master Sergeant Saul Rosen, a fictional character, as is almost everyone in this production except Darby and the generals he reports to.

The director, William Wellman, is one of the greats of the mid-20th Century — he won the first Best Picture Oscar (for Wings, a 1927 silent WWI film). He was dragooned into filming Darby’s Rangers as the price of filming his personal white whale, Lafayette Escadrille (which may be the military unit with the greatest number of disappointing films made about it, actually). Wellman was actually a Lafayette Escadrille veteran, and he hated that film enough after Jack Warner monkeyed with it that he wanted his name taken off (he didn’t say that about Darby’s Rangers).

The movie was shot on a budget and it shows, with second-rate black-and-white cinematography and many sound stage scenes, mixed with archival footage, here and there.

This could have been a scene from the movie, but it's actually the real Darby's Rangers in Sicily.

This could have been a scene from the movie, but it’s actually the real Darby’s Rangers in Sicily.

When the crew did venture out of doors, let’s just say, it’s uncanny how much exteriors in Scotland, North Africa, and Italy all look like Southern California.

The one thing they did do, though, was make the sets remarkably reminiscent of what photos of the target area looked like at the time — for example, in the Life magazine photo at left.

 

Movie Rangers did get a better-armed and cleaner Jeep.

Movie Rangers did get a better-armed and cleaner Jeep.

Parts of the training scenes, including the slide for life and the mountaineering scenes, appear to have been filmed at the Army’s Ranger School in Ft. Benning and Dahlonega, Georgia.

Accuracy and Weapons

Since, when they shot this movie, the current arms of the US Army were the same ones used by the original Darby’s Rangers, the American weapons are mostly accurate. There are some exceptions. Sharp-eyed carbine fans will note that the Rangers have 1944-45 vintage carbines with bayonet bands, etc. in 1942 and 1943. The Tommy Guns are the correct early-war M1928s.

darbysrangers19587212014123344

 

Weapons usage is uneven. The use of demolition charges on a Vichy French bunker (which is clearly fake, rather badly sited, and which shows no signs of life) seems phony, even before the Hollywood fireballs. Mind you, they never say the “enemy” in North Africa was the Vichy French. Conversely, a patrol that gets itself jammed up between two German outfits gets out with a weapon they might plausibly use, a direct-fired M2 or M19 60mm mortar.

Darby and Rangers (Garner, etc.) with 1911 and Garands.

Darby and Rangers (Garner, etc.) with 1911 and Garands.

Maybe we just missed it, but we didn’t see anybody with a BAR.

Less effort seems to have been taken with the Axis arms.  The “Italian sniper” who briefly detains the unit only to die a Hollywood death, is armed with a German Mauser.

When tanks appear, they’re American postwar M41 light tanks, decorated with white stars or black crosses as the script demands. That’s fairly typical of a war movie of the era.

The bottom line

Darby’s Rangers is not the greatest war movie ever; it’s not bad, but it’s not even the best William Wellman war movie.

 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:
  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0051519

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Darby%27s_Rangers

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

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

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Darby’s_Rangers_(1958_film)

When Books Go Bad — Three Capsule Reviews

As you may have gathered, we’re rather high on books around here. That means a lot of information gets chewed up and digested. But occasionally we break a tooth on something that is not quite right. This is a capsule review of three of these books. They include one non-fiction work, one novel, and one work represented as non-fiction that is possibly a fabrication. They have nothing in common, except that they disappointed us.

Archival Overreach: Nato’s Secret Armies by Daniele Ganser.

nato_s_secret_armiesWe saw the signs and overlooked them. How many sad war stories start out like that? But in this case, we didn’t walk into an ambush, just a tendentious and thinly-researched book.

In this case, the signs included a foreword by intel agency critic John Prados, and some reviews critical of Ganser’s methodology and integrity. But none of them warned us about the writing, or perhaps, the translation (Ganser is Swiss). There were also signs we didn’t see, including the glaring fact that Ganser is a connoisseur of conspiracy theories, and a True Believer that 9/11 was an inside job.

The writing is dreadfully dull stuff in 90% of the book, and when it gets exciting you can tell Ganser is making it up. Unfortunately this book is the only book-length study of clandestine preparations of stay-behind networks in NATO Europe. These networks were clandestine for a reason, and stood by for years, preparing in silence for missions that included unconventional warfare, espionage, sabotage, and assisted escape and evasion (each of those missions had a separate network, hermetically sealed from the others).

The point of the book is that this network “activated itself” and was responsible for the left-wing and Communist terrorism of the 70s and 80s in Europe, in order to discredit Communist politics. An excerpt from Ganser’s introduction shows the exact cutline when scholarship yields and speculation begins.

In case of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe the secret Gladio soldiers under NATO command would have formed a so-called stay-behind network operating behind enemy lines, strengthening and setting up local resistance movements in enemy-held territory, evacuating shot-down pilots and sabotaging the supply lines and production centres of the occupation forces with explosives. Yet the Soviet invasion never came.

So far, so good. Now, note this: the next paragraph below was not a new paragraph in Ganser’s book… it’s the rest of the graf above.

The real and present danger in the eyes of the secret war strategists in Washington and London were the at-times numerically strong Communist parties in the democracies of Western Europe. Hence the network in the total absence of a Soviet invasion took up arms in numerous countries and fought a secret war against the political forces of the left. The secret armies, as the secondary sources now available suggest, were involved in a whole series of terrorist operations and human rights violations that they wrongly blamed on the Communists in order to discredit the left at the polls.

Lord love a duck.

The sad thing is that Ganser has done quite a lot of real scholarship here, a lot of archival legwork and document discovery and translation. Where it all fails is when he fails to discriminate between archival sources, media reports, and conspiratroids’ feverish newsletters and web sites.

Narrative Arc & Plausibility Fail: World War 1990: Operation Arctic Storm by William Stroock

world_war_1990We’ve read and liked Stroock novels before, and, like him, we enjoyed the 1980s genre of Third World War battle-in-Europe tales exemplified by Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising. Others included General Sir John Hackett’s Third World War, which contained the memorable scene, at the victorious conclusion, of a NATO officer asking what to do with his prisoners, x-hundreds of officers and y-acres of men, and Ralph Peters’s Red Star, which retold the story of Red Storm Rising from the Russian perspective. 

In this case, Stroock is seriously trying to recreate those Cold War tales, but his lack of the broad military experience Peters and Hackett brought to their books, or the anal-retentive research-happy approach Clancy took to his early books, sets him up to fail.

The scenes in which a couple of yahoos lead the defeat of a Soviet invasion of Alaska are especially tone-deaf.

The figures emerged out of the morning fog. They wore camouflage and the rifles they carried were AK-47s. They were soldiers. The one on the driver’s side (he was just a few feet away now), raised his rifle. ‘Russian?’ Big Tom asked. ‘Da, Ruski.’ Big Tom stuck his .38 out the window and squeezed off a pair of shots. The soldier went down. Then Big Tom floored the accelerator, his tires kicked up dirt and gravel and propelled the truck toward the other soldier, who never stood a chance. He was hit by the truck and impaled on the crest of his plow. Tom slammed on the brakes, flinging the now dead soldier forward and bringing him within view of the bridge that led to the airport.

Yes, he has guys with revolvers and shotguns take on Russian airborne infantry, and win resoundingly. It suggests a lack of awareness of the symphony of applied violence that an infantry battalion commander can conduct nowadays.

 

Also, a techno-thriller depends on a solid grasp of the “techno” bit. During the Battle of Nome:

The window provided an excellent view of Anvil Mountain and the city’s LORAN telephone array on top. Banks rubbed his eyes to make sure he wasn’t seeing things. He wasn’t. Hovering above the array, firing rockets into it, was a Soviet Hind helicopter.

LORAN is a now-decommissioned radio navigation aid used by aviators and mariners in the last decades of the 20th Century. The name, indeed, is an acronym for LOnge RAnge Navigation. It wasn’t a telephone system.

But the unkindest cut of all comes at the end of the book, where you’re left hanging on the eve of a battle with no narrative closure whatsoever. Just, “Buy the next book when it comes out!”

Er, what if we’re already sorry we bought the first one?

BS Antenna Cut to Freq and Tuned: D-Day Through German Eyes by Holger Eckhertz

d-day_through_german_eyesThis story is ostensibly a recently published set of 1940s of 50s interviews with German survivors of D-Day in France.

Two things set us off: the overly-graphic depiction of deaths in combat, with limbs flying and whatnot, which seems to be a mark of this publisher’s books; and one man’s description of where he was stationed: in a “Tobruk” bunker near Vierville, in the area the Allies called Omaha Beach (Omaha Beach Red, specifically). There were certainly many “Tobruk” bunkers along the Omaha Beach defensive line, and many of them are still there, perhaps including the one described in this book. The problem is: no German ever called them “Tobruk” bunkers. The standard German Ringstellung for two men and an MGs, which was built on site or prefab’d and trucked in by German engineers or Organisation Todt laborers, was only called a “Tobruk” by the Allies, after first encountering such positions one of the times that Libyan city changed hands.

We reluctantly concluded that the book was not a collection of old interviews, but a recent fabrication, something that the German WWII effort and its related regime seem to draw all out of proportion to their size and significance. Some of the other memoirs seem to ring more true than the “Tobruk” tale did, but one we’d lost confidence in the author we weren’t going to get it back.

Predator: Dark Ages. You Won’t Believe it’s a Fan Film

We all know what “fan films” look like. Usually, some kids clowning around in Star Wars costumes, with unrealistic characters, stilted dialog, and a complete failure to sell the necessary suspension of disbelief. (Oh, wait: that was Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace. But you get the idea). So we’re reluctant to call this a fan film. It’s really good: it’s an earlier Predator visit to Earth — in the time of the Crusades.

It will take about a half-hour of your time to watch, but apart from the opportunity cost, it will cost you nothing else. You will likely agree it was a good deal for you.

Now, we don’t think they miss a Hollywood trope in there, from enemies that must band together to the wise man from the East to the warrior woman. And the script could be better. But it’s pretty good, better than many full-length products of the industry these days. The acting, the directing and editing, even the music and titles are fully professional.

Oddly enough, the weapons are remotely plausible for medieval men (and one woman, who is an archer) at arms.

One thing they do get right is the martial potential of the warrior of the day. Given the weapons of the period, they were masters of their craft. They’re just not that well set up for fighting armored space aliens.

Watch it now before the real powers-that-be in Hollywood, the talentless, humorless, tasteless lawyers, nuke it from orbit on copyright grounds.

Saturday Matinee 2015 23: 300: Rise of an Empire (2014)

300 rise 2-DVDUsually a sequel is a letdown from the original, often a huge letdown (Jaws 2, the last several Star Wars abortions). On occasion, make that, on very rare occasions, it’s better (Godfather 2; Mad Max II/The Road Warrior). This is not one of those very rare improved sequels. Although at least it does not sink to the level of Jar Jar Binks,

300: Rise of an Empire is bad, but it’s not Jar Jar bad.

This movie begins as the Greek city-states remain divided and the Persian threat has managed an end-run around the Spartan tripwire at Thermopylae. The action here, then, is contemporaneous with that of the 2007 film 300. Will the Greeks unite and fight? As it happens, their best chance to beat the Persians is at sea. But even there, the Persians are stronger: the Greeks must win by skill and cunning.

The CGI is great, so there is that....

The CGI is great, so there is that… the movie is very visually oriented.

Acting and Production

Like the original 300, this is less a movie than a comic book brought to motion. As you might expect, it has a comic book’s depth of characterization and plot sense. The actors are competent, but can’t do anything about the comic book dialog and action and paper cut-out characters they have to play. None of them are real stars; being billed here didn’t make or break any careers, but one hopes the checks cleared. If there is a standout performance, it’s Eva Green as Artemisia, the Greek slave turned Persian admiral.

She does a typical XXIst Century super badass chick.

She does a typical XXIst Century super badass chick.

This gives you a double dose of warrior princess, with Artemisia and Lena Heady’s Queen Gorgo of Sparta lopping heads and crushing skulls of much larger professional warriors. You can do that, with the scriptwriters tying the hands of the guys.

Because slender, hot chicks are optimized for sword fighting, right?

Because slender chicks are optimized for sword fighting, right?

It’s 108 minutes (about an hour and a half, minus the closing credits you probably won’t watch… if you make it that far) of blood, gore, and over-the-top CGI.

Accuracy and Weapons

The warrior princess angle is far from the only historical glitch in the story, Indeed, we can dispose of the points of congruence with history in a sentence: the Greeks and Persians fought a war, the Persians were forced to break off their invasion of Greece after several strategic defeats, especially a naval defeat in the Battle of Salamis.

300-naval battle

The CGI, at least, is breathtakingly good.

The weapons are grossly inaccurate in their shapes, styles and performance. The swords are wrong, the spears are wrong, the ships are as wrong as a canoe made of chain-link fence. We even get Hollywood gasoline explosions! Everything is designed for visual style.

"Put it down, I just said it's all wrong for a Greek sword."

“Put it down, I just said it’s all wrong for a Greek sword.”

If this gets some kid interested in actual Bronze Age warfare, that’s a good thing, indeed, it’s about the only good thing that comes out of it.

The bottom line

300: Rise of an Empire might have been called 300: Death of a Franchise, because we can’t imagine a third movie in a series on this trajectory: it would be in Ishtar and Jar Jar Binks territory, at least. But then, 300: Rise made money, and in the end, Hollywood is not about making art, telling coherent stories, and definitely not about depicting historical reality. And in the end, the film did make money.

When your extras are digital, your costs go way down. Who knew?

When your extras are digital, your costs go way down. Who knew?

Although not by Hollywood accounting, just in case some chump has a contract with points of the profit.

Since the producers have already made their money off this one, you don’t have to feel bad about not giving them any of yours.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/300-Rise-Empire-Special-DVD/dp/B00BEJL6JK/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1253863/

  • IMFDB page (n/a):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (42% Rotten):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/300_rise_of_an_empire/

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 21: The Warriors (1955).

Warriors DVDIt probably should have been a warning to us that this film had not one, but three names. That’s never a good sign. In the US it was The Warriors (not to be confused with the 1979 low-budget reimagining of Xenophon’s Anabasis in a stylized, campy New York youth gang setting). In the UK it was Dark Avenger. And in production, it was The Black Prince. 

Starring Errol Flynn in his last swordplay flick, producer Walter Mirisch would later admit it was not Flynn’s best outing.

Even bad Flynn makes for an entertaining movie, usually, but there’s plenty of good Flynn that you probably haven’t seen yet, that should probably take priority over this one.

warriors_-_flynn

As the film opens, in the middle of the Hundred Years’ War, the English have won a bloody and decisive fight, suppressing a French rebellion and taking King John of France. French nobles meet their new English king (Edward III) with open insolence, and go on to plot a rebellion. Meanwhile, the King returns to England, and leaves his son Edward, the Prince of Wales (Flynn), to hold Acquitaine. The plot basically serves as a matrix to hold fight scenes in place, but Flynn is not at his Captain Blood-era peak, and the plot and dialogue leave this a perennial $5 bin movie, not a lost classic.

Despite the fact it’s set in the 100 Years’ War, the movie has a feel of a Western, complete with battles on foot and on horseback, a devious, treacherous enemy, and a daring infiltration of the enemy’s camp. Sadly, it’s a B Western that it has the feel of.

Acting and Production

Errol Flynn was a great screen presence in his day, but by 1955 his day was a decade or more in the past. To some extent, per Mirisch, it was alcohol that slowed him down — he was imbibing between takes.

warriors_-_finchPeter Finch has the deepest role, as the villain — a swarthy French noble who refuses to be defeated, and who resists what he sees as British occupation. (The English saw it as hanging on to a fief, Acquitaine, that they’d obtained legitimately by inheritance). While the fortunes of the 100 Years’ War had their ups and downs for the English, the war was fought entirely in France, so it was basically a century of horror for the average peasant, who risked conscription or having his crops foraged by one side after another. But Finch portrays the résistant with pouty amour-propre, and makes what could be a wooden bad guy seem human. Still bad, treacherous, even — but after all, the character is French.

The film is beautiful, shot in extra-wide Cinemascope in England (mostly at Elstree studios), and it’s a better DVD transfer than the usual hack job from Warner Archive. With the one proviso that: nobody paid any attention to the sound levels during mastering — the volume buttons on your remote will get a workout as you crank quiet dialog up and then crank it down for shouted dialog, loud battles, or swelling background music.

The score has its moments, which is unfortunate because it’s pretty much the full length of the film, and needs more than moments. There’s a  jaunty song in a tavern at one point for no reason we can discern, except to insert a jaunty song in a tavern. OK.

Accuracy and Weapons

warriors_-_lanceThe weapons are hopeless. Generic prop swords and lances, which is kind of sad as the English won several battles, under the real Black Prince; and they did it with a fascinating weapon, the English longbow. Nope, this is not a tale of stout yeomen with longbows, it’s a tale of knights, so it’s lances and swords. There is absolutely no intersection between the actual battles of the war (or the actual adventures of the real-life Black Prince) and the boozy Errol Flynn version. It’s just a movie.

warriors_-_swordplayThe special effects in this pre-digital film are actually quite good, and the sets, even though clearly many supposed exteriors are shot in obvious soundstage settings, are effective.

The filmmakers made best possible use of a castle set left behind by the producers of Ivanhoe. 

The bottom line

The Warriors/Dark Avenger/Black Prince is a film that tried to make up for its pedestrian script and aging star with Cinemascope splendor. On the small screen, it seems longer than its running time of less than an hour and a half.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (not recommended at this price):

http://www.amazon.com/Warriors-Errol-Flynn/dp/B00LG22EZA/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0047975/

  • IMFDB page (none, firearms not invented yet):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (no reviews or tomatometer rating):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1023211-warriors/

  • Wikipedia  page:

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

Saturday Matinee 2015 18: Stukas (German, 1941)

Stukas DVDIt’s a propaganda film, but it works — not just as propaganda, but as entertainment. Even after almost three-quarters of a century. Even knowing what most of the people in its theater audiences did not learn until later: that they, and the filmmaker, were working for one of the most evil regimes in the long history of human depravity. Even knowing that, we enjoyed the movie.

Stukas tells the story of a Stuka squadron in the early days of World War II. They tend to be on the winning side, whether they’re fighting the Poles, the Belgians, or the French, but that doesn’t mean they have it all their way. They suffer losses; they have adventures. One poor bastard even becomes a psychological casualty, although he snaps out of it by the credits.

Along with the combat story, there are many human interest sub-plots and interesting period pilot behavior and language. The subtitles can’t be turned off, apparently, but at least they’re generally well and idiomatically translated.

stukas_-_happy_squadron

 

It’s an unusual insight, from 1941, into the German mind as the Nazi empire advanced, seemingly unstoppably, on all fronts. At least until they decided to one-up Napoleon and invade Russia.

A happy warrior, off to bomb Liège.

A happy warrior, off to bomb Liège.

War films that have been made postwar have been made in the knowledge that the invincible German war machine was far from invincible, and in less than four years from their pre-Barbarossa high point, they’d be driven back, crushed, defeated in detail, occupied, and partitioned; over half the prewar land mass of the German Reich would be forfeit for decades, if not forever, in the case of a dozen or more provinces that became part of foreign nations and were ethnically cleansed of Germans in the postwar years.

All postwar movies are freighted with the knowledge of defeat, and can’t reproduce the (somewhat creepy, in retrospect) enthusiasm in victory that suffuses this movie.

Acting and Production

The actors are unknown to us, but they are apparently a who’s who of German cinema at the time, and the production spared no expense; it’s technically brilliant. For example, in the Dark Ages before the Gaudy Age of CGI, combat aircraft were usually shown by using rear projection.

stukas_cockpitThe crew of interest was in a mockup in the foreground, and other aircraft or scenery were projected in the background. It can be well done, but in most American films it’s really rather crude by today’s standards. In most films, the cockpit mockups often don’t resemble the actual aircraft much, and the motion of the foreground stuff versus the rear projection is unnatural and just plain weird. That is not the case here — this is, in effect, a 1940 master class in how to do rear projection effects right.

stukas-dive

Director Karl Ritter was a World War I combat pilot who maintained a Reserve commission in the Luftwaffe. and was acquainted with Göring and Udet.

The DVD was produced by American Historical Films, an outfit that has reissued so much Nazi propaganda we can’t help but wonder if they’re really in it for the art… but regardless of their motivations, they’ve done a good job on remastering an old print and including some informative extras on the disc.

Accuracy and Weapons

Naturally, a nation that had a Propaganda Minister made the Luftwaffe available to the director who was a Luftwaffe officer — it didn’t hurt that Karl Ritter was an old-time Nazi Party member himself.

stukas-dive-interior

The key weapon in the movie is, of course, the Ju87B Stuka dive-bomber, and these are represented with a great deal of accuracy. As noted above, the flying scenes are generally much better than the usual run of 1940s war movies. Where the effects masters use models, realism suffers. One fanciful “dogfight” has Stukas emerging victorious from combat with Spitfires during the Battle of France, which is not only historically wrong (the only modern fighters deployed to France were Hurricanes), but also aeronautically implausible. It’s one of three places where the propagandistic nature of the film detracts from its entertainment objective.

The next propaganda coup is the degree to which the pilots are Nazi-saluting one another. Perhaps Ritter is right and we are wrong, but we understood the Nazi salute (stiff arm and “Heil Hitler”) was only imposed on the Luftwaffe after the July 20, 1944 assassination attempt.

One advantage to a black-and-white film, of course, is that they could and did intersperse combat camera footage. It’s quite hard to be sure what formation and dive-attack scenes were staged (with real aircraft) for the film, and which were combat camera footage. As long as they stay away from the models the images are logical and believable.

French tanks about to be bombed.

French tanks about to be bombed. Rare in a wartime film, they’re really French tanks. (all images in this post do embiggen),

One of the impressive “gets” of the production is the French uniforms, vehicles and equipment. These are generally quite correct.

The sounds of weapons seem to be generic studio SFX, but the sounds of the Stukas, especially the ropey idle of the Mercedes-Benz DB601 engine, appear to have been captured perfectly for the movie. The score is generally good — unobtrusive, but emotion-stirring, as Ritter no doubt wanted.

Finally, the close of the movie is the third and most implausible propaganda insert in the film. Having beaten Poland, Belgium and France, our intrepid dive-bombers are off to England with the rising sun behind them… as they all sing “The Stuka Song” over the radio. That’s a very hard sell to anyone who’s ever been a combat warrior in any military. An ironic, or even sarcastic rendition, maybe, but seriously? Poof goes suspension of disbelief. The ending is by far the worst of the film’s transgressions.

The bottom line

Stukas is fun, although it’s creepy seeing such a humanization of a one-time national enemy. If you can make it through an hour and a half or so of black and white with subtitles (and unfortunately, it does not seem possible to turn off the subtitles), you will find it interesting. For the Luftwaffe buff it’s a treasure trove of period uniforms, aircraft, and ground equipment .

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Stukas-Restored-Luftwaffe-WW2-Epic/dp/B00CXZQZF4/

IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0140578/

IMFDB page (none):

Rotten Tomatoes review page :(none)

Wikipedia page:

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

Is This Book For Real?

tiger_tracks_faustWe’ve been reading Tiger Tracks: The Classic Panzer Memoir by Wolfgang Faust. Republished by Sprech Media, which publishes and republishes English translations of German combat memoirs of WWII (mostly), this is a 1947 memoir by a Panzer VI Tiger driver who fought on the Eastern Front, it says here. Its German title was the Wagnerian Panzerdämmerung. 

But there are a few details that give us pause. In the first place, it’s graphic to the point of gaudy. Here’s a taste:

One such tank shot at us with a maniacal speed, its tracer rounds flashing past us as we manoeuvred around it to put a shell in from its side. Our 88mm round went exactly centre, just above the snow-covered tracks. The turret hatch lifted up and detonating ammunition spiralled out into the red-tinged sky, adding to the smoke pouring across the stained, rutted snow. Even then, the driver’s hatch opened and a crew man emerged, still in his protective headgear, holding a machine pistol. He fired on us with the little gun, the bullets pattering on our front armour, until our hull MG man brought him down with a single shot. Every round had to count now, had to find its mark; while every manoeuvre and evasion used up our dwindling fuel.

I lost track of time in that fight, with my head spinning from the amphetamines and my body unaware of pain. I noticed, with a strange detachment, that the sky was whitening, and the sun was now looming over the ridge above us. It was a fierce, crimson sun, casting jagged shadows from the peaks, and lighting the scattered wrecks of panzers that burned around us. In its light, the Stalins withdrew up the slope, reversing rapidly, firing as they left. Our 75mm PAK in the bunkers caught one of them with repeated hits as it lurched backwards in the snow, smashing off the very tip of its pointed hull. The Red tank kept on reversing, with two crewmen visible inside the hull through the split-open front. Wilf was unable to resist the temptation: he fired directly into the exposed compartment. Cool as always, he had selected high-explosive, and the detonation of the shell deep inside the confined steel box blew out the driver and machine-gunner from the fractured hull, sending them cartwheeling across the snow, trailing smoke. The Stalin’s ruptured compartment became an inferno of orange flames, in which other men were visible, struggling and writhing, until the vehicle was enveloped in its own smoke.1

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

Driver station of the Tiger in running condition at Bovington. Note vision block (all images embiggen with a click).

There’s a lot of writhing in flames in this book. Hits on tanks frequently let Faust (through his single vision block!) observe the deaths of the Russian or German crew inside. Hits on half-tracks (which he calls “Hanomags,” after the original manufacturer) do likewise, when they don’t blow vividly-described body parts in the air, launch vehicles in the air to land on screaming Panzer Grenadiers, or scythe heads off.

It’s all very Hollywood. One scene has German infantry struggling in neck-deep snow until an artillery shell neatly beheads them, leaving their “red spurting necks” as the only parts visible. It all seems rather over-the-top, even for the eastern front.

No doubt there was unimaginable carnage, we don’t question that. We question whether one guy could see all that carnage, although one guy could certainly see lots of carnage and imagine the details.

And there are a few oddities. He claims to be fighting JS- (or IS-)3 Stalin tanks in 1943. He just calls them “Stalins,” but its clear from the way he describes the vehicles — domed turret, and a precise description of the arrangement of the glacis armor — that he’s talking about a JS-3, not the earlier Stalin I or II tanks. (The JS-1 resembled the Tiger and other prewar and early-war tanks in its armor layout, and had a roughly square turret. The JS-2 had a turret resembling a T-34-85). Yet every reference we’ve seen suggests that Chelyabinsk Tractor Works, the Soviets’ go-to tank shop, didn’t start on the Objekt 702 project until the fall of 1944 at the earliest, and the JS-3s first showed up in combat in the Battle of Berlin, and were unknown to the Western Allies until the first Soviet victory parades.

Finally, there is an entirely implausible subplot with a captured Russian female lieutenant. Ripped right out of the movie script, that!

And yet… there are parts that ring true. There’s Faust hastily cannibalizing a vision block from a knocked-out Tiger, and detailed descriptions of the running gear and its limitations. He never drives his Tiger at an unreasonable speed — it was a slow tank, and he’s typically grinding along at  a plausible 10 or 20 km/h. For example, these sound plausible to us:

Inside our panzer, it was humid now, as the groaning transmission became hot and warmed the sealed-in air. Condensation collected on my dials, scalding oil from the transmission spat on my face, the reek of carbon monoxide made my head throb, and I almost envied our commander up in the turret, still with his head up in the morning air – despite the risk he ran of losing that clever brain to a shell or a sniper.2

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

This running gear layout is a Tiger II, but it gives you a sense of German practice.

Driveshafts and transmissions crowded the driver in his position in the left bow of a Tiger. And this should ring true to any former tank or mech guy:

Our Tigers were never designed to drive sustained journeys, not even on smooth city roads. The stress and wear to the running gear was too great, and the entire engine and transmission itself only lasted for 1,000 kilometres before being completely replaced. Several of our panzers were at that point now , and their crew muttered gloomily about the prospects of them finishing the journey at all without burning out or seizing up. Even the track links – those great chunks of steel weighing ten kilos each – wear quickly under the duress, and the tracks must be tightened and adjusted if the track is not to snap or become tangled on the drive wheels. The pins that hold the links together are thick metal rods, like your grandmother’s biggest knitting needle – but if one breaks, the sixty tonne panzer can be lost.3

One is left with the impression that perhaps the author is a trained Tiger driver, or at least has read his Tigerfibel closely, but has embellished his combat experience to make for a more vivid (and horrifying, and salable) book. Some years ago we reviewed very positively a book by a Soviet TC who fought on this same front in a T-34; Vassily Bryukhov’s descriptions of combat were no less vivid, but were much more credible than Faust’s.

We suspect we are not the first to have doubts about this work, and wonder if it was equally controversial when it was first published in war-wracked Germany.

UPDATES

A small note at the end of the book’s text says that “Wolfgang Faust” is a pseudonym, and the names of all others in the book have also been changed.

At book’s end, Faust is very nearly a sole survivor (his TC, a unit XO turned commander, is another). While there certainly have been sole survivors of crews, units, etc. in history, “sole survivor” is a very common claim in wannabe war stories, perhaps to explain plausibly the lack of corroborating witnesses.

A reader in Germany  tells us that there is absolutely no reference to this “classic Panzer memoir” discoverable on the German-language internet; he reminds us of the stirring Boy’s Own type tales that were printed in the pulp mag Der Landser (something like a German equivalent of The GI) during the magazine’s 1954-2013 run. (It has resurfaced as Weltkrieg, “World War”, and seems to have its roots in a wartime propaganda pulp for Hitlerjugend boys. They also were apocryphal stories, with brave heroes, minimal Nazi politics, accurate technical details and lurid combat scenes.

NOTES

  1. Faust, Wolfgang (2015-03-04). Tiger Tracks – Classic Panzer Memoir (Kindle Locations 1769-1782). Bayern Classic Publications. Kindle Edition.
  2. Ibid., Kindle Locations 59-62.
  3. Ibid., Kindle Locations 718-724.

Cooper’s Scout Rifle: Two Instances

In the 1980s, famed gunwriter Col. Jeff Cooper proposed what he called the Gunsite Scout Rifle. Essentially, it was a small, light, compact bolt action rifle, minimally scoped, with as much attention given to totability as to accuracy, and with firepower defined as a strong first shot rather than rapid-fire capability.

Here are two takes on that concept, one newer and one quite old:

two_nato_scout_rifles

Now, let’s look at Cooper’s definition, from the original American Rifleman article circa 1984:

It is much easier to specialize than to generalize, and the definition of a general-purpose rifle is a complex task. Let us attempt it by declaring that: a general-purpose rifle is a conveniently portable, individually operated firearm, capable of striking a single decisive blow, on a live target of up to 200 kilos in weight, at any distance at which the operator can shoot with the precision necessary to place a shot in a vital area of the target. This involved statement will not meet with everyone’s approval, but certain elements of it must be accepted before we proceed. Convenience is important. Power is important. Practical accuracy, as opposed to intrinsic accuracy, is important. If we add the desirability of ruggedness, versatility and speed of operation, and finally throw in a touch of aesthetics, we complete a workable set of parameters. Such a piece is eminently suited for taking the vast predominance of four-footed game, and equally so for men.

While Cooper is credited with the Scout Rifle concept, he spread the credit around by holding conferences where he solicited others’ opinions — and then gave them to ’em. (He was a forceful guy).

In 1983 a conference was convened at the Gunsite Training Center in Arizona to examine the subject of the modernization of rifle design. The members of the conference included gunsmiths, stocksmiths, journalists, marksmanship instructors, inventors and hunters. It was called the First Scout Rifle Conference (“scout” being the term settled upon for the definition of the new concept), and it adjourned with the objective of exploring all elements of design during 1984 and meeting again in October. When the second meeting was held much progress had been made. The project is not complete and at this point certain technical innovations remain to be perfected.

This idea has, of course, been somewhat supplanted by advances in gas guns, which are miles ahead of where they were in the 1980s when Cooper popularized this rifle, let alone in 1966 when he claims to have first gotten the idea, from the short-lived lightweight Remington 600.

But, of course, a small carbine is nothing new. Let’s check out the two in that picture. (The pic is on the dark side, but it does embiggen with a click.

Rifle No. 1: Ishapore Enfield 7.62 NATO

This rifle is an Indian-made Enfield Mk 4 modified to very nearly  Gunsite Scout requirements. It is converted to 7.62mm NATO, has detachable 10-shot magazines because the Enfield strippers for the rimmed .303 British round no longer work with the rimless 7.62 x 51.

It has most of Cooper’s preferred attachments, such as a long-eye-relief scope, a lightweight synthetic stock, and a muzzle brake that, according to the owner, “makes the guys on either side of you at the range really hate you.” One violation of Cooper’s principles is the complete absence of iron sights. In defense of the decisions by whoever modified this rifle, scope reliability has made Bunyan strides since Cooper first formulated his Scout Rifle ideas in 1966 or formalized them in 1983-84.

One of the most interesting features of this rifle is the apparent manufacture of some parts (including the entire bolt) from stainless steel. That’s not something one sees often on an Enfield.

Rifle No. 2: Spanish FR-8 Carbine

The FR-8 is a Spanish Mauser modified by Spain’s La Coruna arsenal into a 7.62 NATO carbine. This was an attempt to extend the utility of old Modelo 43 Mausers (a companion piece, the FR-7, was made from Modelo 1916 “small ring” Mausers). This happened as a backup, even as Spain adopted the select-fire CETME rifle. The FR’s iron sights resemble those of a CETME (or, to an extent, an HK), as does its flash hider and bayonet attachments. It loads only from strippers. This particular example has been modified in the interests of scope mounting, with both the safety and bolt handle having been altered in the interests of making this military rifle better suited to its post-retirement life.

The two rifles compared

Without shooting them, only a few notes can be taken of these rifles, but some distances do emerge. The Enfield has the legendary speed and smoothness of bolt operation for which the type is justly renowned. The Mauser has the legendary Mauser strength.

But then, the similarities: both are 7.62mm rifles with about 18-19″ barrels barely tamed by flash suppressors. Both were made by modifying full-size infantry rifles, and yielding a much handier firearm. Both of these rifles have been modified, sacrificing some of their collector value, in quest of some other value proposition.

Would they please Cooper? And is that even a good idea any more? Reader and sometimes commenter Nathaniel F. of The FireArm Blog posted a good roundup of some Cooper primary sources, along with some more recent and critical thinking about the bolt-action Scout Rifle’s remaining relevance.

Congratulations to Tom Kratman

tom_kratman_big_boys_don_t_cryTom’s novella Big Boys Don’t Cry received a nomination — indeed, was the category-leading nomination — for a Hugo award, which is apparently a very big frog in the Science Fiction fandom award pond. Tom, a retired Army officer who writes science fiction with plausible near-future military themes, is a sometime reader and commenter here, and his nominated work is a read that may be of interest to many of you.

The best of Tom’s works make you think, and may even shake your assumptions. This was the first Kratman work we actually read. In it, an artificially-intelligent, no, sentient, tank of the plausible future, tells her story as she runs through history in depot, while she awaits the latest in many cycles of overhaul, or… decommissioning and end of life.

Through the concept of the machine brain being trained for combat in virtual-reality scenarios, Tom is able to indulge his thorough knowledge of the history of war, and, not incidentally, deliver stirring combat scenes:

The enemy ranks are struck . They fall into disorder but they do not stop. Again comes the command and again we fire. Still they come at us. A chance arrow from the Hittites hits my driver in the throat. He turns to look at me. I believe he does not understand what has happened to him. His hands clutch at me and prevent me from firing. He screams, I think, though it comes out as more of an agonized gurgle , spraying red liquid across my chest and the chariot.

The horses begin to run . My driver falls off the open back of my chariot, almost pulling me with him. Oh, no! My chariot is heading directly for the enemy and I am alone.

I feel… I enquire. I feel fear. I do not want to happen to me what has happened to my driver. I do not want an arrow to sprout from my throat and make red pour from my mouth. I do not want to feel more pain. I drop the bow, grab the reins and try to turn my chariot. The horses will not turn.

The enemy closes. The horses turn on their own now. They must not want to feel pain either. I am thrown over the side as the horses twist my chariot out from under me.

I roll on the ground. Momentum overcomes control of my body. I come to rest and look up. The enemy is upon me. I scream. And then the pain comes.

I feel the horses of the enemy trample my body with their hard hooves. I hear crunching sounds coming from inside me. Chariot wheels pass over my legs and one of my arms . They break. I scream again… and scream and scream. But the pain does not stop.

The chariots are past me now. I see them through the dust of their passage. They are closing with my fellows. I do not hear the sounds of crashing over my own shrieking. My throat tires. I can scream no more. I begin to weep. “Oh, please, please, my creators, make the pain stop…. Please… oh, please.” I weep. I am alone and the pain will not stop. I cannot make it stop. Nothing makes it stop.

There is the same you-are-there feeling whether the machine brain is recalling training exercises that emulated 20th Century tank warfare, or brutal combat with nasty alien species — which is not always what it seems.

 

It is science fiction, so those who love or loathe that genre be forewarned. It is imaginative science fiction, in the best possible way, in that the imagination is applied to characters and to story.

There is, from time to time, political commentary in it. It is not partisan so much as it is a soldier’s view. For example:

Those early battle tanks should have been fielded sooner. But centuries of bureaucratic inertia, historically unequalled nepotism, academia-instilled pacifism, and corruption on an heroic scale, along with some even less savory factors, all contributed to a speed of deployment next to which a snail would have seemed a thoroughbred.

Still, with our planets falling to the enemy at the rate of six to eight a terrestrial year— a baker’s dozen in one particularly harsh year— even the low-grade morons of the General Staff and the moral lepers of the political branches eventually came around to the realization that bureaucratic procedures had to give way by our will, or the Nighean Ruadh would do away with them altogether. It probably didn’t hurt matters when, one Friday afternoon, following the fall of Beauharnais and the presumed deaths of almost half a billion human beings, a Washyorkston mob stormed the offices of the United Planets Organization, trampled the security guards into bloody jam and dragged to the lampposts some one hundred and twenty-seven members of the Assembly of Man. There would have been more had most of the members not signed out earlier that morning on a long paid weekend. Among the lynched were several hundred time-serving bureaucrats, sixty or seventy of whom were, at least in theory, members of the military.

If you spent even a year in uniform, that impulse (to decorate lampposts with dangling bureaucrats) surely must not be strange to you.

But the most remarkable thing is the development of the Ratha Maggie’s character, from her her first blast of innocent, joyous self-consciousness to the leaden burden of doing the bidding of her gods — humans — in war after war, in which the humans do not always act in ways one expects of gods.

To try it yourself in Kindle edition is a whopping $2.99 (actually, you might be able to borrow it for free, but we dunno how that thing works). When was the last time you blew three bucks?