Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2015 30: Aces High (1976)

Aces HighA fellow could get hurt doing this — that’s the case for just flying the planes of World War One. By the time of the events in this film, 1917, the machines were far more sophisticated and deadly to their enemies than the start-of-war machinery had been; they don’t seem to be very much safer for the friendlies, either.

Aces High follows a new arrival at a British Royal Flying Corps squadron on the Western Front through his first week. As is often the case for combat replacements, the question is, will he live long enough to learn what he needs to know to live?

He encounters the usual suspects: the young but frazzled CO holding himself (and the unit) together with booze; the grounded, older adjutant, the font of avuncular wisdom; the winsome French girl; the stolid mechanic; the pilot officer whose nerves are shot. These scripted archetypes, already as well worn then as they are 40 years later, are saved from banality only by the skill of the players.

Acting and Production

The cast is a who’s who of 1970s British actors, with Sir John Gielgud in a brief role as Etonian headmaster, Malcolm McDowell as the troubled squadron leader, Maj. Gresham, and a splendidly mustachioed Christopher Plummer as Capt. Sinclair, Gresham’s non-flying, limping adjutant. Peter Firth is the youth who gets the stereotyped questions on arrival (“How many hours in S.E. 5’s?” “Four and a half, sir!”) and Simon Ward a squadronmate who has, er, issues.

aces_high_firth_plummer

The websites say the movie was based on a play about a ground unit in the same war, but it doesn’t really have any “tells” that would indicate that.

It is a characteristic 70s war film in its nihilism; much like many Hollywood films had been tortured into allegories illustrating how eager Hollywood was to surrender to Eurasian Communism, the film is, in part, a message film, and the message is that nothing good comes of war, nothing is worth dying for, and the combat soldiery has their lives thrown away by the fatcats far behind the lines.

In other words, these Brits too were anxious to get on with surrendering to Eurasian communism. (if any of them are alive today, they’re exploring their potential future as dhimmis, perhaps).

The characters and situations have appeared in virtually every WWI flying movie since Hells Angels, and sometimes the tropes and stereotypes buzz around you like Richthofen’s Flying Circus; as characters are introduced you can probably guess their entire character arcs and their disposition at the end of the film, one week after the arrival of the green Lieutenant Croft at 76 Squadron.

That said, why see the film? Principally for the action scenes.

Accuracy and Weapons

There are some interesting guns if you watch for them. At one point, a German two-seater crew lands to take a souvenir, and the observer-gunner winds up firing at an Englishman with a broomhandle Mauser. There are also some realistic scenes of Lewis gun magazine rotating under fire, and being changed.

aces_high_flying_lewis_gun

The airplanes aren’t a terribly good or convincing job, with converted Stampes playing SE.5s, and a dressed-up Valmet Viima (not a Tiger Moth, although it generally shares the Moth’s swept-wing planform) aping various German single- and two-seaters. However, the actual stunt flying is quite good. The aerial scenes were all shot by a second unit director, not Jack Gold.

aces_high_real_stunt_flying

A couple of good scenes may have been lifted out of earlier movies, for example, The Blue Max (1966).

Flip side of the previous picture.

Flip side of the previous picture.

An extra, unairworthy Stampe was set afire in one scene. The biplanes actually used in the movie were all designed and made in the 1930s, but were technologically similar to the WWI planes, apart from much more reliable motors. There is one genuine WWI type in the film, an Avro 504 trainer that is used strictly as a prop.

aces_high_firth_plummer_se5

Firth and Plummer again with one of the star “SE5’s”

The  sounds of MG firing are unfortunately canned sound-effects disc audio. Still, within the limits of a low budget for a period war drama, and considering the technology of 40 years ago, they did quite well.

The bottom line

Aces High is fun to watch, it’s a bit of a dual period piece, redolent of the 1970s as much as of 1917. Watch it wisely (that is, don’t overpay) and you’ll likely enjoy yourself. (If you’re a real expert on WWI aviation, don’t let it drive you nuts).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B00JWS9J1M/ref=dp_mv_of_dp_0

Or free streaming for Prime members, which seems to be higher quality video than the DVD:

http://www.amazon.com/Aces-High-Malcolm-McDowell/dp/B00A97BWCO

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0075627/

  • IMFDB page:
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/aces-high/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aces_High_(film)

New Show With Sword/Bladesmiths

First, the good news: there’s a new show showing off the bladesmith’s art.

History Channel Sword

Now, the bad news: it’s a lame-o History Channel low-budget reality show, modeled on chef-competition shows, complete with bogus competition, phony tension, and ten minutes of action tortured into 44 minutes of glacially-paced prolefeed.

Yeah, we’ve watched a couple of History Channel things. So we were not expecting much from Forged in Fire, which we learned about from a breathless promo disguised as a story on Popular Mechanics, which actually was lifted verbatim from its original placement in Esquire(Unless Esquire, too, nicked it from somewhere. Note that we’re nicking at least their idea of writing about this show, although we do have the decency to write our own words).

It’s not even a great deal for the smiths: the winner get $10k but he may see his masterpiece tested to destruction. The losers? Destruction, and no $10k (we said it was low-budget).

Still, it wouldn’t do to be too critical. Real bladesmiths compete on Forged in Fire to forge a weapon in each episode. And we do mean forge.

forging swordsEach episode shows the high points of four smiths’ quest to make the best blade. Some of the challenges: a broadsword; a Viking war-axe; a chakram throwing ring; a katana. But before the smiths get to the Big Deal in each episode, they must pass the first test: a blade that that they must forge in three hours. In fact, the initial knife is the standard, initial qualifier round in every show. It’s judged on form, function and finish. Botch that, and you’re gone.

Next, the three survivors make hilts for their blades. One more gets sent to the showers (presumably not through a gate labeled Work Sets You Free). Then the final two have a week to make the replica of, or perhaps tribute to is a better phrase, some historical edged weapon. There are a variety of tests, some realistic and some fanciful.

To keep it from getting boring — death in today’s 1000-channel entertainment world — there’s often a twist in the tale. For example, the chakram had to be made out of recycled material — yes, scrap.

The hosts and judges include an everyman type who’s supposed to be a former PJ, a martial artist type, and a historian-and-bladesmith guy. The competitors are all real, working bladesmiths, some full-time pros and some part-timers, most of whom are unknown to us.

Here’s a second video clip with the “five things everyone should know about weapons making.”

If you like it, you can see episodes when they come up on the History Channel, or see at least some of them on the show’s website, along with some web exclusives like the two clips here (there’s a great one on the sorts of injuries a bladesmith can expect in the line of duty, and a whole “Bladesmithing 101″ on how things work).

Bottom line: we liked it a lot better than we expected. We’ll probably never watch The Iron Chef, but we’re very interested in what these guys can cook up out of raw iron. And if you’re going to spend time looking at a glowing rectangle, you might as well be learning something. We learned a few somethings from the episodes we’ve watched, including: can a katana split a .45 bullet?

 

(Administrative note: no, this is not Saturday’s overdue Saturday Matinee. That’s actually going to be an old 1950s movie, the very title of which will make you laugh, but events conspire to keep us away from the keyboard. Posting and comment-handling may be slow today -Ed.).

Barrel Heating: Allsop & Toomey & Rheinmetall, oh my!

Last night, musing over a possible technical post for this morning, we opened Allsop and Toomey’s Small Arms: General Design to see how what they wrote on barrel heating compares with our recent translation of the Rheinmetall HandbookAnd there was the same damned diagram.

No, not a close parallel. Or a close copy. The same jeezly thing. Don’y take our word for it. Here’s Allsop & Toomey:

heat_figure_-_allsop___toomey

…and here’s Rheinmetall:

heat_figure_-_rheinmetall

That’s not coincidence; the form as well as the facts of the diagram are identical. Which gives rise to the question: who copied whom? Beats us with a stick. Although the Rheinmetall handbook has some primacy (1973 versus 1999, as the yellowed pages of our copy show) it’s quite possible that both derive from an earlier source. We don’t remember seeing this graphic in Balleisen (our copy of which is still adrift somewhere in office or library) or in Chinn (which we ought to check, because we have the e-book, although we just moved 150 GB of ebooks to our RAID array, which promptly ate a disk and needs repair stat — just reminding ourselves here).

One indicator we see that hints that both derive from some earlier source is that both graphs show an approximation of barrel heating, without numbers. It is the numbers, of course, that are most useful to the designer or engineer, although the graph showing how these numbers are arrived at over time is not without its own utility. The suppression of numbers in both the Handbook and Small Arms: General Design suggests that they’re both using a graph from some earlier technical report. Absence of this graph in US design books makes us speculate that the ur-source may have been European.

rheinmetall_heat_pageHere you can see the two graphs in context on their relative pages. (All images, including these thumbnails, embiggen with a click; the square thumbnails expand to show the full page with legible text, although the Rheinmetall is in German, naturally). What’s more interesting is that the two texts handle the same graph quite differently. Rheinmetall (whose text is translated in our earlier post) explains the graph and its meaning at some length.

allsop-toomey_heat_pageConversely, Allsop & Toomey just throw off a sentence telling you that breaks in firing reduce peak internal temperatures without really delaying the rise of external, overall temperatures. But they also include some numbers, despite the suppression of them in the graph, numbers that are quite useful to you. (All the numbers in both works are in SI units). They suggest there’s a difference of as much as 400º to 100º (C, F equivalents are roughly 750ºF and, of course, 212ºF).

The Britons warn that, if 500º C (932ºF) is maintained, “permanent damage will be done to the barrel through accelerated wear and erosion.” And then they go into a number of useful equations. They do not seem to estimate the point of failure of the barrel with all this sheet music; that is all tied up in pressure as well as temperature and there are an awful lot of variables baked into it; today’s engineers, unlike those of 16 years ago (Allsop & Toomey) or 42 years ago (Rheinmetall) would certainly use something like CATIA to do a finite element analysis of the barrel to substantiate the strength of the barrel in its predicted use, and estimate where and when it would let go.

We do note that the temperatures noted in Allsop & Toomey, and the surprisingly sparse cadence that will produce them, are in line with some of our previous material on the carbine failures at COP Kahler in Wanat (see here and here; the Wanat failures happened in part because soldiers are not taught to understand nor a practical way of avoiding overheating, beyond a simplistic “short bursts” drill) and on heat-driven accuracy problems in the ANM2 .50 caliber machine gun in the USAAF.

If readers would like, we can walk through some of the math. We’ll probably need the Blogbrother’s assistance, as he’s rather better at maths that your humble blogger.

A Note to Readers

This sort of technical post would be banned — would, indeed, be a felony — under Secretary of State John Kerry and his minions’ extreme and un-American attempt to suppress free speech about weapons design. Even though this post is based primarily on two textbooks published in two foreign countries, and available to all the world for decades! The Ivy League inbreds at State base their proposal on the contemptible and flimsy excuse that sharing knowledge constitutes international trafficking in arms.

Meanwhile, those same cretins are negotiating all obstacles out of the pathway to nuclear arms for the most terrorist-sponsoring regime in world history, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Got that? Iran/IRGC/Hezbollah/Hamas, getting nukes? No problem. You, understanding barrel heating, whether you are Iranian, Russian, Chinese, Canuckistani, or, like the majority of our readers, American? Problem. The guy should stick to what he knows, whatever that is. Seducing trust funds off of heiresses, perhaps.

Boot-stomping-on-a-human-face-forever

If you would like to keep the First Amendment operative in the United States, and thereby disappoint the man who’s a living parody of Thurston Howell III, here’s a three-point plan for you:

  1. Read the background on the issue from the NRA.
  2. Read the actual notice of proposed rule making (.pdf; relevant bit begins in lower right of the first page) in the Federal Register and make sure you understand it.
  3. Make your comments in your own words about how this regulation works to harm you instead of its ostensible goal.
  4. Comments go here at Regulations.gov or by email to: DDTCPublicComments@state.gov with the subject: “ITAR Amendment—Revisions to Definitions; Data Transmission and Storage”. Ceteris paribus, this link should open in your email application with the correct subject header.
  5. As a backup, contact your Congressman and two Senators. The very best way is to call their direct number; Google is your pal on this. Next best is to call the congressional switchboard (202) 225-3121, and ask for each of them in turn (you do know the names of your Senators and Representative, don’t you? If not, Google again). You’ll either get dumped in voicemail or to a junior staffer or intern, unless you’re a big donor. Have an index card with the points you want to make, make them briefly and politely, and end the call. For example, we have been making the point that a State Department that can take on prior restraint of Internet content is a State Department that is heavily overstaffed and overbudgeted, and might very well give up a few hundred millions in personnel expenditures for the Congressman’s pet projects.

D2S2 here, folks. No threats, no bluster. Make real, substantive comments on how this proposed regulation harms you and yet, does not prevent the sort of arms races and weapons proliferation the State Department usually knocks itself out encouraging.

If you have questions, we will try to answer them.

ITAR is no joking matter. It is an all-encompassing and deliberately vague law — it would even apply, on professor avers, to Superman —  and because it is so large and so difficult to comply with, it’s frequently used as a club to beat political opponents with.

For example, this iteration of the .gov has not been shy about really stretching to try to punish gun-culture figures with flimsy, but very costly to defend, ITAR prosecutions. Our ITAR counsel is telling us the blog has to go (archives and all) if this monstrosity of a rule becomes final.

Do not delay. They are already playing games with the availability of the comments website and email addresses to limit opposing comments.

Expect to hear this from us again.

Sources:

Allsop, DF and Toomey, MA. Small Arms: General Design. London: Brassey’s, 1999. (Note that this out-of-print text is Volume 6 of a series on ballistics and weapons design called “Land Warfare: into the 21st Century” by authors mostly affiliated with the Royal Military College in Shrivenham, England).

Rheinmetall. Waffentechniches Taschenbuch. Düsseldorf, West Germany, 1973.

Saturday Matinee 2015 27: 1776 (1972)

1776 dvd 2OK, imagine you’re Jack Warner, Hollywood potentate. The year is 1970 or 71, the height of social unrest over Vietnam and Hollywood loathing for Nixon, which hadn’t yet degenerated into today’s Hollywood loathing for America. And a guy comes pitching you a movie: a musical about the drafting of the Declaration of Independence. With the song lyrics and libretto drawn, in part, from the actual writings of the men of the 2nd Continental Congress. Verbatim.

Jack Warner did not throw that guy out of his office. Maybe because he had split with Warner Brothers and needed a movie badly. Maybe because the pitch was to take a hugely successful Broadway musical and bring it to the screen. Maybe — and this was almost certainly a factor to Warner — because “success” on Broadway for 1776 was not defined only as winning multiple Tony awards, but also as making buckets of real money. For whatever reason, 1776 did indeed come to be made, using mostly the Broadway cast and an adapted screenplay. And you can be glad it was: the history is no more inaccurate than other popular entertainments, the songs are melodic and the lyrics, in Broadway tradition, fiendishly clever, and the performances are less “stagey” than often seen in live theater.

Acting and Production

A musical always begins with a decision: do you use actors who can sing, or actors who are guaranteed box office, but can’t carry a tune in a wheelbarrow? Some of you have seen what happens when they make that call wrong: the Russell Crowe Les Miserables, which goes from Hugo to Yugo in about six nanoseconds every time Crowe opens his yap. 1776 shows what happens when they make that call right. None of the actors are movie “names,” but it doesn’t matter; most of them are from the same cast that did this show over 1,000 times on Broadway, and they’re slick.

1776-005

The production suffers from that common malady, too much, depending on the version you see. In the Blu-Ray, it’s nearly three hours long, and could probably do with a tautening-up, but there isn’t a lot of time when you feel it dragging and think, “Gee, the director should have cut this.” There are at least four different running times in current or prior circulation: 141 minutes, original theatrical and VHS; 168 minutes, the director’s cut, made in the 1990s, restores some very mildly risqué humor and one song, “Cool, Cool, Considerate Men,” that was cut at the request of then-President Richard Nixon, one of Warner’s friends; there’s a shorter TV cut that airs now and again, and a still longer version on the Blu-Ray (which also contain’s the director’s cut).

The story is somewhat complicated, if you try to follow it, and the TV cut is so trimmed it’s hard to do so.

Accuracy and Weapons

Guns and other weapons don’t really figure in the story. It’s a story of revolution, but the guns are off stage. (One is used to fire a shot in the air to break up a fight).

The accuracy of the movie is an interesting mixed bag. It misses, munges and sometimes maims historical detail, but gets the broad-brush sense of events mostly right — and reaches an audience that would sooner be riven by wild hyenas than crack a history book. It’s a good fit with kids, at least, until they get to cynical to tolerate a singing Mr Jefferson.

The bottom line

1776 is good, clean, family fun. While it is inaccurate in some details, the average American will learn more about the Declaration and the Founders than he or she probably knows now, and most of that learning will be correct.

But the real reason to watch is to see Ben Franklin sing and dance.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/1776-Restored-Directors-William-Daniels/dp/B000067D1R/

and Blu-Ray:

http://www.amazon.com/1776-Directors-Cut-4K-Mastered-Blu-ray/dp/B00UHAJ16C/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0068156/

  • IMFDB page:

No page. Like we said, guns aren’t a factor here.

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1776/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1776_(film)

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