Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Book Review: UnSafe by Design, Jack Belk (2014)

Jack BelkWe acquired this book with a view to adding it to our design library (see the Page linked above)

The full title is UnSafe by Design: Forensic Gunsmithing and Firearms Accident Investigations, and it was published by what we believe is Belk’s own imprint, “Truth ‘n Shootin’ Books.” The homey publisher’s name is a pointer to the tone of the book, so if affected country homey-ness sets your teeth on edge, this may not be the book for you.

His primary motivation, Belk says, in writing this was to produce:

A tutorial on firearms design and function with an emphasis on safety, using past investigations of failures to better understand why some guns are safer than others, by design.

In fact, his motivation seems to be partly that, and partly a defensive response to criticism of that part of Belk’s career that has been spent as a plaintiff’s expert in lawsuits against firearms manufacturers. That criticism can get vitriolic (example). He has legitimacy as an expert because he was also gunwriter — largely at Guns & Ammo magazine — and a gunsmith who trained at Trinidad and made custom hunting rifles at a shop in Filer, Idaho. In Belk’s world, the cause of the accident often is the gun, and more especially, it’s the way the evil corporate overlords cheaped out on the gun.

Belk believes that weapons should be designed so that they are as safe as possible. (Yes, we know: “Is gun. Is not safe.” But bear with us). He says that one thing that boils down to is this (from p. 423 [Kindle ed] but this is repeated throughout the book):

[A] gun that can fire without the trigger being pulled and can fire with the manual safety ON is a defective gun.

The Remington 700 series trigger, the so-called Walker trigger, is such a gun. Most of them never do this (we can’t recall a single incident with M24s over decades of use), but some will, and if you can make it through Belk’s writing style, which isn’t for everybody, you will learn what Belk thinks the problem is.

Here’s Remington’s counter to one of the TV stories based in part on Belk’s testimony (plaintiffs’ attorneys have been able to place their arguments with at least two TV networks, and both CNBC — countered here — and CBS’s 60 Minutes have run one-sided Remington trigger stories).

Belk, conversely, turns this into a morality play. From random places in the book:

…some English major that wants to write outdoor stories to do a ‘test report’ on the latest cheap piece of miss-designed hardware that would fit right into the toy section by mistake, and suddenly he’s a ‘gun writer’…

…Guns are made for economy. It is rare to find any gun that is made to be as good as it can be, only as good as is price competitive. There have always been cheap guns just like there were iron swords and inferior stone arrow heads…

…looked like a Browning and worked like a Browning but was considerably cheapened to make it more affordable.

Cheap guns are always suspect, even in the most simple of ways.

I think we can trace, by following design changes, the decline of safety in firearms dating back to just after the war with one company and then, like a domino falling in line, the others followed. Everybody had to get cheap or go broke.

Two comments there: by every measure, the incidence of firearms accidents has dropped like a rock since World War II. (Recall our post about the Maine accidents in 1954? It wasn’t a stand-alone post, but included in one of our Mess of Accidents compilations, quoting from Sports Illustrated):

During a Maine gunning season something like 165,000 hunters take to the woods. Of this number, a normal season’s accidents will run to 70 dead and wounded. [Inland Fish & Game Dep’t Special Investigator Maynard] Marsh’s casualty report this Saturday evening could be succinctly stated as: three Mistaken Identities; two Line of Fires; two Accidental Discharges. Score? five dead, two wounded.

As accidents get rarer, it seems that the tendency to blame the gun increases. And the “cheap” argument plays into the messages in constant heavy rotation in the pop culture.

Belk needs to be taken seriously even in his grating quasi-Marxist high-dudgeon mode (“the corporations did it to save money”), because he has carefully analyzed triggers in particular, and most especially the Remington Walker trigger on the Model 700 and its ancestors and derivatives, and the Remington Common Fire Control used on shotguns.

That he has done this at the behest of plaintiff’s attorneys, and for money, is more of an indictment of the American tort system than it is of Belk.

As a “tutorial,” though, the book is weak. While it is rich in design information, that information is so embedded in folksy argument that finding facts resembles going through dog poo for something valuable that Fido ingested. A great deal of the design information in here is also found in other books, as Belk himself admits, recommending Otteson and DeHaas:

Stuart Otteson has written about bolt action rifle design and excellent books on trigger mechanisms. Frank DeHaas Senior and Junior have books that describe trigger mechanisms as well. Information is power and I highly recommend them all.

Here’s an example of what we have called “defensive tone” above, but what Belk would probably say illustrates the passion he brings to firearms safety; it begins on p. 416 [Kindle edition]:

I’ve been accused of being a firearms busybody and critical of just about everything I see. To avoid that, I don’t go to many gun shows anymore. What do you do when you see a guy reaching for wads of bills while lusting for a Vulcan .50? I’m seriously asking that question of everyone. I can’t buy every dangerous gun I see and I can’t carry around a soap box and preach, either.

At a gunshow in Denver many years before I started testifying, I saw a man and a young son looking at .22 rifles. I love to watch people watching guns and they were a study. They were looking for something really cheap. I thought the kid wanted the gun more than his dad, but his dad was going along if it was cheap enough.

They fondled every old Mossberg and Savage and beat up old Coey in the show and then seemed to settle on the one gun there that was likely to blind the kid in both eyes and it could do it on the very first shot. They had seemed to decide on a Stevens Crackshot with a $ 60 price tag on it. It was worn out and the chances of it catching the rim of a modern .22LR between the extractor and barrel was very real. On closing the lever the gun fires out of battery and the brass fragments fan out in a pattern nearly assured of blowing out one or more eyes.

I didn’t know the dealer, but at least I had sixty bucks so I went over and told the dealer I was about to screw up his sale and here’s the money up front, and then explained to the man and his kid how it was dangerous and helped them buy a Winchester Model 69-A for just a few bucks more.

Indeed, Belk’s among basic contentions are that some firearms are unsafe by design, others are unsafe by manufacture, and that many buyers and shooters give altogether too much deference to manufacturers. For that reason, we found it an interesting, if sometimes exasperating, read.

There are gems in there, like his analysis of the Ruger #1 Rifle safety (which he likes and uses an example of a well-designed tang safety), and this (p. 243 in the Kindle ed.]:

A general rule of thumb for safeties is: The closer to the primer the safety operates the more inherent safety it’s likely to have. Firing pins are hard to block, lock or intercept on any gun but bolt action rifles. In other guns, whatever is closest to the firing pin usually gets locked or blocked. In descending order of distance from the firing pin are the hammer or striker, then the sear and then the trigger. When viewed from that direction, any gun that does not block, lock or intercept the hammer or striker must, by definition be less than safe by design.

You will just have to skip a lot of folksy mock-question-answering and stuff to get to things like that. The book has insights in it, but they take some mining to find. For this reason, and because Belk’s theory of the Walker trigger malfunction is completely unproven, we’re not going to place this book in our page of recommended design books.

We do, however, urge everyone carrying a Remington 700 or anything else to be sure of the muzzle direction and backstop at all times. What if Belk is right and it just goes off? What if Remington is right and the ADs were caused by bad maintenance or an unconscious finger on the trigger? Either way, if the rifle is not pointed at anything but the most inanimate and inexpensive thing around, any bang may be followed by a curse, but not by heartbreak or ruin.

We’re now going to do what Belk recommends, and read Otteson and DeHaas!


Belk, Jack. UnSafe by Design: Forensic Gunsmithing and Firearms Accident Investigations. Truth ‘n Shootin’ Books, 2014.

Available from Amazon in Paperback and Kindle formats:

Saturday Matinee 2015 038: The Enemy Below (1957)

enemy_below_mitchumThis one was recommended to us by none other than our banned commenter, Haxo Angmark. (Thanks, Haxo. But you’re still banned. How’s that for gratitude?)

Correction: Haxo informs us (through a comment we disapproved, ’cause he’s still banned) that he didn’t recommend this, but instead, The Bedford Incident, a Cold War nukes-are-bad-especially-in-American-military-hands black-n-whiter. His protest is noted. -Eds.

The Enemy Below was one of those classic stories that comes out when a decent interval since the war has passed, and people have been able to process their wartime emotions. (This always seems to take about fifteen years, we think). Featuring Robert Mitchum as a destroyer escort skipper, and Curt Jurgens as a u-boat commander, it was one of the first films to depict a Nazi officer as a decent human being.

It doesn’t tell a story of a war-changing, world-changing superconflict. It’s retail: a game of wits between the captains and crews of two ships that are known, mostly, by numbers, a US destroyer escort and a U-boat. (US destroyer escorts also had names as well as pennant numbers; German submarines of the era never had names).

The film was based on a British book by an anti-submarine warfare veteran, DA Rayner, and in true Hollywood style, the movies made the heroes Americans — and changed the ending substantially. In the novel, the British and German skippers wind up in the same lifeboat — and the Englishman clobbers his adversary. In the movie, the characters wind up, post-rescue, on the fantail of an American cruiser, sharing a smoke.

Acting and Production

The acting and writing is first class throughout. Mitchum is the new skipper whose men don’t know whether to trust him at first.

Robert Mitchum bonds with a wounded sailor in the ship's sick bay.

Robert Mitchum bonds with a wounded sailor in the ship’s sick bay.

Jurgens, whose German accent is, of course, natively perfect, manages to sell his character, Captain von Stolberg, as a man who loves his country but not his leadership. He does this in many ways; in the contempt he displays for an avid Nazi subordinate; in the way he slings his shirt over a propaganda sign referencing Der Führer, making of the supreme overlord of the Third Reich a clothes-rack. He also tosses off a reference to his history: no Nazi parvenu, he came up as a Fähnrich in U-Boats in the last war. Jurgens, perhaps, can sell this well because he had experienced the Third Reich (and a falling-out with the Third Reich) first-hand. His spaniel-loyal but Irish-setter-thick XO, Heinrich Schwaffer, is played perfectly by Theodore Bikel, whose family got out of Europe before he would have become one more arm tattoo, one more ill-fated extra in the bit of mismanagement theater that was the Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Naturally, his German accent isn’t fake, either.

Jurgens and Bikel in the control room.

Jurgens and Bikel in the control room.

Bikel is especially good when he’s playing a man struggling to understand. His captain is a man who has considered the moral dimensions of the war and of the Third Reich; the XO has not, he simply follows, loyally, admiringly. When the captain engages him in a discussion with a moral dimension, the director takes a close reaction shot of Bikel, who manages to portray both puzzlement and a desperate struggle to keep up.

The underwater scenes, including torpedo firing and depth-charges, seem clichéd, but that’s because every film since has aped them. In 1957, they earned a special-effects Oscar nomination for The Enemy Below.


The director, legend Dick Powell in his last feature film, uses juxtaposition cunningly, with edits that cut from the action on the surface ship, to the DE’s bridge’s clock, to the sub clock (showing the same time), to action in the control room of the sub. Cuts from some compartment, perhaps the sonar room, in the DE to the torpedo room in the U-Boat, are similarly striking. In 1957, when most movie-goers would have lived through the war, this must have been fairly provocative.

enemy_below_torpedo_roomIn another cunning juxtaposition shot, an enlisted sailor aboard the DE is seen reading a heavy philosophy tome — then the camera pans to the engineering officer, similarly engrossed in his reading — a comic book. While we’ve spoiled the surprise for you, there, there’s a second laugh in that scene for those in the know. The exteriors and some interiors were shot using an actual destroyer escort — USS Whitehurst, DE-634, and many Whitehurst sailors appeared in the film, especially in scenes showing depth charging (which was done with live depth charges) and 3″ gun firing. They saved on stuntmen “abandoning ship” by having real sailors do it. And the skipper of Whitehurst, Lt. Cdr. Walter Smith? He’s that comic-book reader!

Accuracy and Weapons

The accuracy of the movie is somewhat uneven, on the details, which is understandable, given the state of the art in 1957. The moviemakers had a lot of support from the US Navy (which gets a big credit in the titles). But there’s a limit to what even a Navy could do. They could provide a wartime destroyer escort for exterior shots, and did; they could provide a sub or some shots of one, and they did, but a late-1950s American diesel boat was a different thing than a mid-40s U-Boat. The interiors seem to have been done on sound stages. While they give you a little of the claustrophobia-inducing tightness of a submarine, they don’t nail it the way Das Boot would. And the “control room” is quite decluttered. Compare to this shot of a real U-Boat (U-505 on display in Chicago, from this page).


But they do take pains with some of the details. The clocks look exactly like photos of naval clocks of the period — for German examples, this militaria dealer has several (all sold) on his web pages. The torpedo reticle also matches that displayed at the U-505 museum (hopefully not because the museum is using the one from the movie!). The movie one is below.


One thing seldom seen in movies but period-accurate is the decoding of a message onto a paper tape, which is how American code machines like the M-209 and SIGABA did it. (We don’t know anything about the actual machines the Navy used). The “code machine” used seems to be an ordinary teletype terminal, but the paper tape Mitchum reads is a ringer for the real thing.

Decrypted message on paper tape scrolls out of a code machine.

Decrypted message on paper tape scrolls out of a code machine.

Guns play a very small role in the film. In the climactic surface battle the American DE’s 3-inch (76mm) main armament fires a few rounds, and a German gun — that is in some views an Oerlikon and in others some kind of a prop maker’s abortion of an MG-42 — fires back.

The principal special effects that were available in 1957 were models and rear-projection, and The Enemy Below makes extensive use of both. In most scenes, this works; in the climactic surface battle scene, verisimilitude falls off.


In sixty years, the technical side of the moviemaker’s art has advanced, even as it seems that the dramatic side has been in eclipse.

The bottom line

The Enemy Below is another entertaining midcentury film. Despite the lack of a grafted-on car-chase, gratuitous blood and gore, raunchy and empty sex, scenery-chewing overacting, gutter profanity, anachronistic race-lifting of heroes, any Save the Cat moment instructing the dimmer members of the audience who the Good Guy is (as if they can’t figure out it’s the race-lifted hero), an hour of green-screen CGI, and Hollywood fireballs, it’s still worth watching almost 60 years later.

That’s because it’s entertaining, something today’s Hollywood thinks requires all the garbage we just listed in the above paragraph, but doesn’t require character, or plot, or story, beyond the canned and lightened Hero’s Journey of Save the Cat.

Is The Enemy Below perfect? No. The Oscar-caliber special effects and models of 1957 are pretty lame today. But  imagine this movie being remade by, say, the master of schmaltz, Steven Spielberg, or the master of violence, Quentin Tarantino, to name two current Hollywood celebratori. Would it be a better movie?

Is the nihilistic, depressing Das Boot a better film than the elegiac The Enemy Below? In film-school terms, it probably is; also, its accuracy in depicting U-Boat life is unequalled, we think. But which is better entertainment?


This post has been corrected:

  1. Haxo did not recommend it, after all. He recommended another film, The Bedford Incident. We regret the error.
  2. The spelling of DA Rayner’s name has been corrected.
  3. A link to the Wikipedia entry for the film was inadvertently deleted before going live. It has been restored.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page

(There are several DVD options. Beware discs that are not encoded in your DVD Region, a little thing Hollywood does to screw their customers):

(Instant streaming video. Not a free Prime one, this is a pay movie).

  • IMDB page:

(IMDB was down when we drafted the review. This should be the link, not checked, so no guarantees):

In sixty years, the technical side of the moviemaker’s art has advanced, even as it seems that the dramatic side has been in eclipse.

  • IMFDB page (none):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (80%):

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 037: Wings of the Navy (1939)

Wings_of_the_NavyWell, here’s another boy-meets-training tale, but this one a true period piece: instead of tough Brits finding out how tough they really are, we’ve got Americans of the last year or so of peace on our shores (1939) tackling Naval Aviator training. Soon after this movie hit, all of Europe was at war, and the United States was in a desperate rush to modernize its armed forces after two decades of neglect. This movie is often seen, in retrospect, as a propaganda film, but it is more nearly a classic Hollywood tale of sibling rivalry and a love triangle, set in a military setting, with the patriotic themes still seen in other nations’ movies — and often used by Hollywood before is shift to nihilistic anti-Americanism in the 1960s.

The mandatory love triangle has as its vertices submariner turned aviation cadet Cass Harrington (George Brent) , his brother, top aviator Jerry Harrington (John Payne), and Jerry’s girlfriend Irene (Olivia de Havilland).

In those days, Naval Aviators were srill required to master both land and seaplanes, and one of the thrills of this movie for a military and aviation history geek is to see the training aircraft of both types and some examples of the training lectures and aids.

Acting and Production

The Brothers. Jerry (r., John Payne) wants his kid brother to stay safe (?) in submarines; Cass (l., George Brent) wants to trade his dolphins for wings.

The Brothers. Jerry (r., John Payne) wants his kid brother to stay safe (?) in submarines; Cass (l., George Brent) wants to trade his dolphins for wings.

The acting and writing is B-movie, a little bit over the top. The actors are not big names, except Olivia de Havilland — and her greatness was in the future. The director, Lloyd Bacon, was a Warner Brothers journeyman who directed over 100 workmanlike films in all genres.

There are some pretty good flying scenes, shot with the real US Navy, although of course scenes of the stars in the cockpit were shot with the rear-projection technique of the period.

One warning: the DVD we bought at Amazon was a fair transfer from a good print, unencumbered by extras (typically for the “Warner Archive Collection”, which is Hollywood speak for “thrown-together crap monetizing the back catalog”). While it wasn’t as low-quality as the Warner Archive norm, it’s very overpriced at $18.

Accuracy and Weapons

While a little bit of weapons and gunnery training is shown, this is mostly about the aircraft and maneuvers that the pilot trainees must master. These were mostly shot on location at the Naval Air Stations in San Diego and Jacksonville, Florida, giving the viewer a rare look at training types (and operational types) that would be critical to the war — and some that would be gone.

To give you an idea of how pathetic US Naval preparedness was by 1939 (believe it or not, it made great strides before being caught napping in December, 1941), the “futuristic” experimental fighter-plane of the movie is played by a Grumman F3F biplane.

Wings of the Navy! Meanwhile, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Me103 had all been flying for 3-4 years.

Wings of the Navy! Meanwhile, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Me109 had all been flying for 3-4 years.

In the end, the naval cadet system shown here (which has its roots in the British Gosport system of 1916, established in response to terrible losses of ill-trained pilots)  was able to expand and accelerate to meet the demand for aircrews in a global war. The Air Forces had a very similar cadet system, and in fact the cadet system lasted into the 50s and 60s before a bachelors’ degree became a must have for aviators in an increasingly credential-happy armed forces. The Army still trains its aviators using a similar cadet system, but they are all initially trained as helicopter pilots.

One interesting note is the presence of an actor portraying a foreign (Brazilian) student. Then as now, the US projects power in part by hosting the future leaders of friendly foreign forces. (The USSR also did this, in its heyday, and of course we all learned it from the masters of coalition and commonwealth warfare, the British Empire).

The bottom line

wings of the navy olivia

O. de H. in a publicity still. Which brother’s hat is that?

Wings of the Navy is good, plain, black-and-white, G-rated fun; not for juxtaposition-flick addicts or people wanting to empathize with the angst of the auteur (Bonus film school points for two foreign words in one clause!), but it’s as entertaining today as it was meant to be 76 years ago.

Yeah, 76 years.

It’s especially fun for anyone interested in flight training; the similarities and differences are enough to get a room of pilots talking and even thinking, which is pretty rare for pilots.

And the biggest issue they usually face remains, “Who’s gonna get the girl?”

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (none):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (no reviews):

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 036: I Am Soldier (British, 2014)

I am soldierEven if you haven’t ever seen this B-movie before, you’ve seen this one before: the man-against-training movie, in this case, SAS Selection in the modern day, starring Tom Hughes .

It starts off very slowly, with Our Hero in the British equivalent of something every US SOF guy knows and loves (well, maybe not loves), the Resistance Training Lab.

About 15 minutes into the show, the show begins, with instructor Staff Sergeant Carter (Noel Clarke in the film’s strongest performance) telling the men what to expect:

“You will decide who passes — not us. We will lay out each phase before you. And then, all you have to do is complete it. If you’re attending for the first time, you have no idea what you are about to experience. You can ask your mates who are attending for their second and last time. You will meet the standards. Or you’ll be binned. Follow me.”

Carter, Chris and Mickey -- the longer the run goes, the faster pace Carter sets.

Carter, Chris and Mickey — the longer the run goes, the faster pace Carter sets.

And as a platoon — a subdivision of the 200-man selection class — follows Carter up into the foothills, his voiceover continues: “You will be smashed. Both physically and mentally.” On the first run, the trailing Land Rover begins to collect dropouts, and a subtitle tells us that then there were 163 of the first 200. This countdown reappears at intervals, always significantly lower than last time, as the unready, unsteady, and unlucky are sorted out of the running to join the SAS Regiment.

In time we come to meet three of the candidates as individuals. Mickey Tomlinson (Tom Hughes), is coming from an unexpected prior service position: he was a chef with the Royal Logistics Corps, although he has a secret that keeps giving him nightmares. His mates are infantrymen: John “JJ” Johnson (George Russo) is a paratrooper whose father is retired SAS, and big, strong Chris (Joshua Myers) — who will learn some lessons about the limits of “big” and “strong” — is from the Rifle Regiment. All three are extremely skilled actors and give life to parts that are sometimes written in such a way that the actor has a salvage job on his hands.

JJ and Mickey work out some personal problems in their billets.

JJ and Mickey work out some personal problems in their billets.

The scene that cements one’s appreciation for the actors’ art is the moment when they’re outside the CO’s office, getting called in one at a time to get the word on whether they passed. (In SF, it’s a board, and in our day it was all NCOs, even for officer candidates), but the emotions are exactly as depicted here. Seriously, it triggered flashbacks).

At about the halfway point we learn about a terrorist plot, and that a character who has several intriguing sides also has a further secret. This sets us up for what is going to happen after graduation.

There is an unrealistic woman officer/enlisted soldier romance that feels less “grafted on” than the usual. Naturally the woman is depicted as an Amazon who can beat cage fighters several times her size on sheer “you go, girl”-osity, and that grates, because people watch these movies and go away believing that nonsense. Apart from the inter-rank romance, though, her duties as a member of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment are plausible, and she has counterparts in other free world SOF elements. We can’t say whether she’d be involved in SAS selection, although we know two ways women were always involved: as interrogators in the RTL phase, and as security evaluators (something that goes back at least as far as wartime SOE and SIS practice).

Acting and Production

The film does an excellent job of portraying the physical and performance strain and exhaustion, and the terror of failure, in elite military selection and qualification courses. It gets that down very well.

The director, Ronnie Thompson, has a really, really annoying habit of using rapid cuts and jerky camera work when he’s out of ideas, and he spends far too much of the movie out of ideas. Also, his cuts are irritating. They cut to black for a long count, as if he had too little faith the viewer’s ability to process a change of scene.

Make-up is something we haven’t ever commented on before, as far as we can recall. But we’ve seldom seen it this bad. (In the interminable Resistance Training Lab scene, particularly. We went back and checked the RTL scene and apart from its appearance in gratuitous flash-backs and flash-forwards, it’s a full ten minutes for something most directors would have disposed of with a well-edited montage).

The austere, terrible scenery of the Brecon Beacons in Wales is, in the first half or so, an uncredited star of the film. Most Britons seem to pass through their lives completely unaware that this remarkable scenic wonder exists an easy drive (or as our SAS candidates arrive, a train ride) away. It is not the most forbidding terrain in the UK — hard to beat the Orkneys for that — but it’s the sort of place an unprepared hiker, or even a prepared one who’s a bit too cocky, can kill himself. That’s what makes it ideal for SAS selection, of course.


We watched this movie on Amazon Prime. The pros for watching it that way: it’s “free” as in beer (considering we already pay for Prime for speedier book delivery. If they ever remove the free shipping benefit, we’ll drop prime, because Prime video is sub-VHS quality).

Accuracy and Weapons

Most of the firearms seem to be replicas, with dubbed sounds. The price of filming in Britain, we suppose. For all that, they’re not that bad, except in the last act where there’s a weird set of mock M4s with a weird set of sights from carrying handles to Chinese knockoff optics.


There is some use of CGI, for example to create Chinook helicopters, and it’s low-budget and dreadful.

One little detail that rang false with us: their survival snare catches a rabbit. Never heard of that actually happening on any course (selection or survival) in any army in the world.

If survival/RTL completion is accurately depicted, it’s a hell of a lot lower-key than its Yank counterpart. No flag raising, none of that stuff. Our pshrinks say the flag-raising ceremony is key to reintegrating the candidate, who otherwise would come out of SERE as a white-hot ball of hate.

We don’t know how accurate it is compared to today’s SAS selection and training. The last SAS guys who shared beers and stories with us went to selection long ago, but as they described it events that are shown as small-team (2-4 guys) events were individual events. The difficulty of the events is not, however, understated. SAS selection and training includes considerable amounts of both gut-check and must-pass knowledge and (mostly) skills gates.

Weapons handling once the guys go operational turns into a soup sandwich. Doing CQB, nobody has or keeps a sector, and, when they need max precision because of a scriptwritten hazard, they drop their M4s and take up 9mm pistols instead. Obviously no one associated with the film knew what he was doing with firearms — if weapons knowledge was Plutonium 239, the entire cast and crew wouldn’t have enough to blow any one of their noses.

The bad guys have a “dirty bomb” that appears to have been left over in a forgotten property shed from the 1960s spy comedy, Get Smart. Yes, it’s that bad.

The bottom line

I Am Soldier is a B movie that makes a plunge to C or lower after completion of SAS selection. Of course, if they cut out the hokey and underbudgeted last act, trimmed the RTL to reasonable size, and eliminated the spastic flash-arounds and portentous minutes of black screen, it would be a 45 minute short. The easiest job in Hollywood would be cutting this to fit in an hour of TV with a million commercials.

For more information

Here’s some British and SAS slang for those of youThese sites relate to this particular film.

Binned — dropped from the course, i.e., in the dustbin (trash can).
Beat the clock — if you don’t know this one, we won’t spoil it for you (the movie explains it).

Tabbing — formerly yomping, in US slang rucking, formerly humping — walking with rucksack.
Gypsy’s warning — a head’s up, an unofficial caution. Longstanding British slang (19th Century? Our grandmother knew it).

These are sites related to this movie

  • DVD page:

Prime streaming video (free with prime):

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

No page

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (unreviewed):

  • Wikipedia  page:

No page

Saturday Matinee 2015 35: Uncertain Tomorrow (Web pilot, 2015)


They do show surveillance in a defensive setting. Click to embiggen these photos (and see the detail in the dark).

This is something very different from the usual review, because it’s a review of a ten minute, all-but-dialogueless webisode of a video that’s meant to be sort-of infotainment for preppers and those considering making preparations for family survival in the event of disaster accompanied by failure of Rule of Law.

And further webisodes may never be made; it’s on Indiegogo now, and it’s dying on the vine there, perhaps from a paucity of promotion.

The show is also unusual in that it is sponsored by a gun shop, the Savannah River Armory from Georgia, and an unusual one in that its manager and workers are veterans of the recent unpleasantness.

Georgians now have the emergency survival problem that people in built-up areas like the Northeast and Southern California have long had: most of them live in urban environments that hang together only by the rule of law and its fair and firm enforcement. In the event of a collapse of lawfully constituted authority (which is not as far off as you think; in 2005 the New Orleans Police Department evaporated into nearly half no-shows and nearly half who joined the  looters) the dependent masses, particularly youth that are already feral, become a hazard to everyone in town and out.

Uncertain Tomorrow aims to show us, through the actions of a small band of determined survivors, how such a calamity can be survived with confidence and integrity.

The story begins with our survivors in sub-optimal positions. One, a former military sniper, is in the long chains of cars that have become stuck in jams leaving the city. He opts to walk to what turns out to be a preset rendezvous point.

Another has a problem — he’s not just trying to flee himself, but protect his womenfolk as well, as the city collapses into  riots. By the end of the episode, they’re established in the countryside, but now have to deal with unprepared people seeking help.

Acting and Production

Before we comment on it, we’ll embed the 10-minute pilot for your edification.

The acting seems okay for what appear to be amateurs, but there’s no dialogue in the pilot episode, which they tell us cost $1k/minute (and they also tell us, that’s about standard for a production these days. To us, it seems low).

The episode has decent production values apart from its unusual “silent film” nature (it’s not really silent, as there are sound effects, unintrusive music, and ambient audio). Edits are snappy, camera angles interesting, situations don’t stretch plausibility more than any of these films do. (For example, why did the solo guy have to give up his vehicle and walk, while the family were able to drive from the burning inner city out successfully?)

Accuracy and Weapons

By and large their guns are sensible for the situation, and their use of them is much more realistic than the full-zombie-assault movies that are currently in vogue.


Right about now, this guy’s night vision is on a par with Stevie Wonder’s.

In some specific cases, the survival techniques looked unrealistic to us. The lone survivor, building a White Man’s fire and sitting staring into it? Not a real great policy; the forest is neutral but the people in it all have to be considered red forces until proven otherwise.

Also, snappy, squared-off patrol movements are easy to do in the first ten minutes after you pick up the gun. These guys never show what it’s like after ten hours under a ruck, and in this situation, ten hours is unfortunately a warm-up.

Driving right up to a building, even your own camp, that’s in an unknown security state? No; not in this situation. Your property may well be occupied by armed, scared squatters. You surveil it, then clear it, with someone providing support from a covered and concealed position. The folly of “just driving up” is driven (no pun intended) home later in the webisode, when Sumdood drives up and finds himself having to trust the survivors’ willingness to play, “Hand up, don’t shoot.”


The building-clearing techniques are asking for trouble against armed resistance, but to clear a building properly and safely you need more people and more training than these survivors have. If you don’t have that, you’re better off surveilling the building than trying to clear it. (A small band of survivors hasn’t really got the sand in its pockets to surveil a large building around the clock, either).

And the overall idea — when things go sour, drop everything and head to your woodland redoubt — may be a case of too little, too late with respect to sensible survival. A better approach, if survival in rule-of-law regressive times is your objective, is to do as James Wesley, Rawles practices (and preaches) and relocate now to a defensible remote location. Given that human beings are by definition social animals, very, very few people will do that. Instead, they’ll run the risk — also a reasonable decision, but know the decision you’re making.

Backing up the alley where you left the car, unsecured and unobserved; shuffling the womenfolk behind you? That's assuming a lot of risk. You might have no other choice.

Backing up the alley where you left the car, unsecured and unobserved; shuffling the womenfolk behind you? That’s assuming a lot of risk. You might have no other choice.

As we’ve pointed out, Hog Manor is six miles from a certain nuclear first-strike target generally to our north and about ten miles from another in the opposite direction, and is set between the grey Atlantic to the east and suburban sprawl to the west. We’re two days’ march (for shambling city folks) up the highway from a conurbation packed with people who already riot over sports scores, many of whom are on Year Eight of the Undergraduate Experience® and are about as societally useful as you’d figure, from that.

We’re running a hell of a risk in the event of societal collapse — but Your Humble Blogger is also a few months’ medication interruption from sudden death from one thing or agonizing disability from t’other.

Personally, we believe the best prep is gradual, realistic and risk-based. Remember that risk is a product of probability and severity, so start with being ready for the things that are very likely to screw your life up for a few days (loss of power, severe weather of the sort common in your area), then start planning for less likely and longer lasting problems. Yes, it’s intimidating to set aside rations for a year, but could you put three days’ foods (things that your family already eats) in some shelf-stable format in a Tuff Box in your basement? It wouldn’t be hard. (A kid can get adequate nutrition for a week from two or three cans a day of spaghetti, beef stew or hash, plus a multivitamin. And, if no power, can eat right out of the cans. The cans store damn near forever and if you pay $1 each you weren’t shopping the sales).

The bottom line

Uncertain Tomorrow is on Indiegogo and it is poorly subscribed to date; maybe they need to promote it more widely, maybe they need to shake up their campaign or up their rewards, or maybe the potential audience for this film has all their cash tied up in Krugerrands or something. We’ll consider this coming week whether we want to throw in on it; we’ll tell you on Friday or Saturday what we decided. Right now, we’re leaning towards a contribution, because we’d like to see more episodes of this. Yes, we’ve criticized some of what they show in the current brief episode, but they got us talking, didn’t they?

They are not, however, planning to make money with it, at least not directly, and that’s probably what’s going to hold them back more than any lack of contributions. Still, have a look at it!

For more information

None of the usual sites related to this particular film apply here. You’ve simply got:

Saturday Matinee 2015 033: Severe Clear (2009, Documentary)

Severe Clear DVDSevere Clear was highly recommended by a guy we met at a course. On his say so, we spent an hour and a half on it.

After a brief intro with a few seconds of disorienting, chaotic combat video, we meet the protagonist, Lieutenant Mike Scotti. It’s 8 Jan 2003 and he’s packing his gear and trying out his new video camera, while explaining the miscellaneous fates of its predecessors: slain by the dust of Afghanistan, broken rappelling from a helicopter — “But I got the shot, though!” He’s about to take a 40-day troopship journey on the USS Boxer. We’re spared the next month of video and we pick things up in early February.

He was apparently an artillery forward observer, necessarily close enough to the sharp end to be engaged and have a number of truly disturbing experiences, and yet far enough from the sharp end, or gifted with enough “hurry up and wait” down time, to keep his video project going.

The movie is divided into Chapters: there’s the start and troopship; Kuwait, waiting and training; “Call to War,” in which the shooting begins, not with the US invasion but with Scuds from Iraq, leading to gas alerts; and on into combat.


There are snippets of video of training. In this case, behind a title, Marines practice fast-roping from the tailgate of a CH-46 spotted over one of USS Boxer’s elevators.

A clear turning point in Scotti’s narrative comes when a unit ahead of his fires up an Iraqi taxi, occupied by a civilian man and his young daughter. “I heard bad things happen in war,” Scotti grimly announces. “Ain’t that the motherfuckin’ truth.”

Scotti intended all along to write a book about his big adventure; he frequently makes an audio “note for book.” (He did, in fact, publish a book, which vanished into remainders without a ripple. The video version of his memoir has been far more successful).

Acting and Production

Real, shaky, handheld: rough amateur-camera video meets pro editing in this documentary.

Real, shaky, handheld: rough amateur-camera video meets pro editing in this documentary.

There’s no acting, per se; it’s a documentary, although there are definitely scenes of Marines clowning for the camera.

Some images are not suitable for work or children; the usual images much beloved of generations of GIs of dead or dying enemies, and, occasionally, Americans.

One very nice touch is a roster of the names of the men Scotti served with that scrolls at the end of the credits: the officers and men of 1/4th Marines, C Company 1/1st Marines, and Scotti’s own unit, B Battery, 1/11th Marines.

Weapons and Accuracy

By and large, Severe Clear avoids any discussion of or dwelling upon weapons. They’re there, of course; every Marine carries a rifle (M16A2) or pistol (M9) or both; Iraqis are seen, usually dead, with AKs, primarily. While Scotti was a Forward Observer and artillery employment was his daily bread on this tour, he says little about the nuts and bolts of that; his focus is more upon the consequences of calling fire: physical consequences for the recipients, moral consequences for the senders.

The bottom line

Severe Clear has some strengths and weaknesses. The principal strength is the uniqueness. A secondary strength comes in the editing, but the sharp, stellar editing itself gives rise to some of the weaknesses. It’s particularly irritating that, rather than tell the story in the words of the Marines that were there, the director periodically just shows Scotti’s images of Marines moving around, overlaid with the prattle of media mavens who were making their reports based on RUMINT and BOGINT.



The weakness comes from that strong editing: at times it seems the story is too narrative, too pat. Sometimes director Kristian Fraga’s hand feels a little too heavy on the editing console.

As far as the consequences, Scotti says presciently at one point:

It will be interesting to look back on it five years from now and see what kind of future we helped them create. If they don’t screw it up.

And that’s probably the “message” of this film, to the extent it has one: they screwed it up, and we screwed it up. Because, even though we had the war won several times (the first, on Michael T. Scotti’s watch), it is most definitely screwed up beyond all repair at this point.

Sad thing. It will, in the end, be a tale of what might have been, and the way that the cupidity, power-hunger, and just general failings of men would ultimately turn, instead, into what it was. But it does show without averted lens exactly what American Marines experienced, endured, and overcame in 2003; for that, Scotti, Fraga and all the Marines who participated in the making of this document will be remembered as long as people are curious about this war.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

We watched it as a Prime Instant Video, and that’s what we recommend. The original source quality is low enough that Amazon’s low-quality compression can’t hurt it too much.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

alas, none.

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (75% fresh):

  • Wikipedia page:

  • Company website:


It says, “A portion of all DVD sales goes to support a military or veteran charity organization,” but Scotti has founded a charity, so buy the DVD if you want the DVD, not to do good deeds.

Saturday Matinee 2015 32: Against the Sun (2014)

against the sun posterIf you only knew that Against the Sun was a WWII Pacific movie, you’d probably think the protagonists’ enemy would have been the Rising Sun of Imperial Japan. But no; the Japanese play no role here, in this true story of a three-man Douglas TBD Devastator crew from VT-6 of USS Enterprise, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor shook them out of the peacetime Navy, fighting to survive in the merciless, trackless Pacific. The antagonist sun is not the stylized maru of the Empire of Japan, but a more deadly enemy: Sol itself.

With scarcely any tools or survival supplies, the men have a hundred different options. One is to sail their sailless, rudderless life raft some 600-700 miles to some islands, the position of which is vaguely remembered by their skipper, Aviation Chief Pilot Harold Dixon. If they make it, he intends to put his crewmen in for medals. If. The only tools they have are the wind against the raft when the wind is favorable, and an improvised sea anchor when it’s not. The other 99 options are varied pathways to the same destination, death: starvation, dehydration, insanity from drinking salt water, sharks, failure of or damage to their little raft, storms. Getting found by a Japanese patrol. And, of course, missing those flyspeck islands, in which case the next stop’s Tokyo, or the Asian mainland, a couple months later.


Meanwhile, a miserable fact hangs over them all, threatening to poison the teamwork they need to live: they failed to find the Enterprise after a long patrol. Who failed? The radioman, Gene Aldrich, losing a radio beacon whose bearing he needed for navigation? The pilot, Chief Dixon, botching the navigation calculations, or failing to make a critical turn? The torpedoman/ bombardier, Tony Pastula, misreading the drift sight? Are they just unlucky, or did one of their own number fail them? Everyone has his suspicions, of himself and of the others.

Acting and Production

There are at least two filmmaking challenges set before co-writer and producer/director Brian Falk: how do you get action, tension and character development in a three-man true story set predominantly in a life raft? And how do you depict a historic aircraft that there is, literally, no trace of today above the surface of the sea?

Garret Dillahunt as Chief

Garret Dillahunt as Chief shows the tension of a lost pilot seeking USS Boat….

Of course, the second problem can be solved with well-dressed sets and CGI, but the first can only be done with acting. And the actors are very good. Garrett Dillahunt, a busy TV star, is Chief Harold Dixon; Tom Felton (the bad kid, what’s his name, in Harry Potter films, now grown up and bursting with acting skill) plays Tony Pastula; Jake Abel, who is new to us, plays Gene Aldrich. They worked hard to make the film; while the sunburn, bruises, cuts and fish bites, etc, were the work of makeup artists, the emaciation and exhaustion was the result of putting the actors on a 500-calorie day.


It’s nice to know someone still believes in calorie restriction as a stressor, even as Ranger School has given it up to help push the girls through.

It’s rather inexplicably rated PG… the language is 40s-accurate and the saltiest is a well-timed “Goddamn!” There’s no sex and no graphic interpersonal violence, although some scenes have a very great deal of tension, and you frequently don’t know who may live and who may not.

What they needed more than anything was this pencil. Dillahunt in a Eureka! moment.

What they needed more than anything was this pencil. Dillahunt in a Eureka! moment.

Accuracy and Weapons

Apart from the Devastator’s minimal organic equipment, which goes three miles or so down with the plane in the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, the men are armed with .45s. Two of the three can’t swim and the Chief orders the others to ditch their guns. Pastula can’t — the rawhide leg strap was soaked and wouldn’t come undone — and from time to time he takes out and cleans the .45.

against_the_sun_-tom_felton_w_1911The gun makes two small contributions to the crew’s survival, one of them in a non-obvious way.


The details of being lost on a scout patrol from a small ship in a very big ocean are handled with great attention to detail. Every rivet on the Devastator interior seems right; the paint scheme is dead right; the plane has the right buzz numbers; the direction-finding loop antenna is right; the communications among the crew, and the attempted communication to Enterprise, are all right, right, right. They even use the correct Navy phonetic alphabet when passing their call sign over voice radio.  The date on the life raft gibes with the date of manufacture of the 130 Douglas Devastators the Navy bought, aircraft whose 200-kt bombing speed and 115-kt max torpedo attack speed

CGI seems to be used for a lot of the Devastator scenes — it’s not like you can whistle a Devastator up. The entire stock of known airframes of this important type from the era of the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway comprises one corroding in the seawater off each coast of the United States, and two corroding on the bottom of Jaluluit Lagoon in the Pacific. They appear to have built cockpit sets, a partial mockup, and 3D models (maybe physical models, also) of the unicorn-rare aircraft. It was realistic enough that the tall actors complained about the “Devastator’s” cramped cockpit — a complaint that echoes that of wartime aviators.

This video shows how they did it:

The ocean was the same tank that had been used for Titanic, and a clever combination of special effects (which are the physical things that happen during filming) and visual effects (the computer magic that happens afterward) make it seem frighteningly real.

The bottom line

Against the Sun had the bad luck to a little bitty independent film that was ready to be released right when Angelina Jolie’s massively hyped Unbroken, another WWII film with a ditching and survival scene, dived into the market in the bellyflop of 2014. Against the Sun is a good film with solid acting, period-correct dialogue, painstaking attention to historical detail, and characters worth rooting for.

In the end, you’re left with questions. What happened afterwards? What became of the men’s plans? What happened to the sister one wanted to introduce to the other? Who returned to combat? Who stayed in the Navy? Fortunately, the movie didn’t need to hammer these resolutions home; anyone can Google them up, these days.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

Also available as a Prime Instant Video, which is how we watched it… bad pixelation and overcompression on some of the long shots across the water at the very small life raft. The DVD is likely to be visually superior, but “free” is a hard price to beat.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

alas, none.

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (67% fresh):

  • Wikipedia page:

  • Production Company website:

These sites and books are historical sources; read them only if you don’t mind spoilers.

Cox, Diane. One family, two heroes. Alton, IL: Advantage News, 8 December 2014. Retrieved from:,-two-heroes/

Townley, Alvin: Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011.

Townley, Alvin: Stranded at Sea. Air & Space Smithsonian, 25 April 2011. Retrieved from:

Trumbull, Robert. The Raft. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1942

Ave atque Vale: Robert Conquest

CThree great Americans honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Conquest, Franklin, Friedman. Conquest looks like he's saying, "I'm sorry, m'dear, what did you say you do?"

9 Nov 05: Three great Americans honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Conquest, Franklin, Friedman. Conquest looks like he’s saying to Aretha Franklim, “I’m sorry, m’dear, what did you say you do?”

The Anglo-American historian Robert Conquest, passed away 3 August 2015 at the age of 98. He brought to the study of the Soviet empire passion matched only by the system’s own victims, like Scharansky, Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Amalrik, and rigor unmatched by any historian, Russian or Western.

It is a measure of his ability that his dense catalogs of enormities, The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, were materially unchanged by the revelations attendant to the brief opening of Soviet archives in the short-lived Yeltsin era.

Less well known is that he was a brilliant writer, something often seen in pop historians who depend on or even plagiarize others’ research (like, say, Stephen Ambrose or Dorothy Kearns Goodwin), but seldom seen in a historian with his mastery of sources (his Russian was good enough that he translated an epic poem by Solzhenitsyn into English — at the Nobel Prize winner’s request). While the brilliance of the writing often serves to make the doomed victims of Stalin rise of the page in condemnation, an entertaining reminiscence by The New Criterion’s Roger Kimball reminds us that he could offer lighter, but at the same time serious, doggerel:

There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in,
that grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

Amen, in.

One suspects that Heaven is a livelier place this week, for Conquest was ever on the side of the angels. And in The Other Place, Hitler is saying, “At least he can’t write about you any more, Josef Vissarionovich!”

There’s also a relatively interesting comment at Kimball’s post, from a purported descendant of Gulag survivors, noting that the guy in the Gulag may have had better survival potential than his family: outside, but stripped of housing and rations.

Saturday Matinee 2015 31: I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951)

I awas a commieThe title pretty much tells you what you’re going to get here: a gritty, black-and-white low-budget, exploitative 1950s tale. It tells a story of Communist infiltration, and an American double agent working inside the communist conspiracy to bring it down.

The necessity of living his cover means that Matt Cvetic is distrusted by his own friends and family. Even his brothers want nothing to do with him; his son gets beat up at school because his dad’s a Red. You can see that Cvetic burns to reveal the truth, but he can’t, and it’s just as well: meanwhile, the Communists themselves are checking up on him.

Are Communist leaders expecting the dame to inform on the guy... or the guy on the dame?

Are Communist leaders expecting the dame to inform on the guy… or the guy on the dame (Dorothy Hart)?

It’s not that they know or suspect anything particular: it’s just their normal CI tradecraft to trust no one and to surveil everyone. (One forgets how midcentury films made the point that the trappings of the police, surveillance state are explicitly un-American). A few details of undercover work and CI tradecraft are handled well; others are fanciful, and the drama, of course, is cranked up to 11. Real, successful spies and counterspies lead boring lives, at least until they’re caught.

Acting and Production

An angry kid denounces his Dad. Frank Lovejoy (r) plays the scene well.

An angry kid denounces his Dad. Frank Lovejoy (r) plays the scene well.

Before it was a movie, I Was a Communist for the FBI had been a big success as a series of articles in the now-forgotten magazine, the Saturday Evening Post (best remembered today for its Norman Rockwell cover art), and after the movie it became a now-forgotten 20th Century art form, a radio serial starring popular actor Dana Andrews.

Just as today, Hollywood producers turn to sequels and comic-books, artists having been replaced by financiers and imitators, even 60 years ago it was understood that filming something already popular was a surer path to riches than filming something new in hopes it becomes popular.

This was made in the days when the studios, not the customers, classified movies, and it patently was made as a B movie. Despite that it’s professional enough, with enough film noir classic shadowy scenes to please the cinema snob.

The actors aren’t names you’ll know. Frank Lovejoy? Dorothy Hart? Nor is director Gordon Douglas (despite his long and prolific film — you’ve certainly seen things he did in the 60s and 70s). But they’re good enough, and at least the relative unknowns don’t ever have acting reputations, or famous other roles, that overpower their performance in this film.

Rather astoundingly, I Was a Communist for the FBI was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. It didn’t win.

Accuracy and Weapons

Cvetic (c.) joins the bosses of the workers' and peasants' party -- in a lavish, even decadent, setting.

Cvetic (c.) joins the bosses of the workers’ and peasants’ party — in a lavish, even decadent, setting.

The film does seem to hew closely to Matt Cvetic’s story. Whether Cvetic’s story is true or not is a widely argued point; it seems that both he and the people who made his story into books and radio plays and this movie were not above improving a story with every telling. Cvetic did indeed infiltrate a Communist cell that was undermining trade unions in Pittsburgh, but that seems to be about the extent of the “factual” ingredients in I Was a Communist For the FBI.

The fundamental facts about Communist infiltration of trade unions (which the traditional unions in the US fought quite vigorously), and Soviet control of American communist parties and organizations are quite true.

I_Was_a_Communist_LovejoyWeapons are secondary to this story of infiltration and betrayal, but where they show up, they’re appropriate — double-action, 4-6″ barrel six-shooters mainly. The one really interesting weapon is a newspaper wrapped around a steel pipe, used by organized union goon squads to tune up non-communist demonstrators.

“But… these are Jewish newspapers!” a young, idealistic woman from the Party office exclaims. A cynical old apparatchik explains, yep, damn straight they are; that is the big idea. They weren’t going to use the Daily Worker. (The communists are also dismissive of black civil rights groups they’ve co-opted into support, and privately refer to them by racial slurs).

The bottom line

I Was a Communist for the FBI is never going to be called great art or great history, even by critics who aren’t sympathetic with communist policies and aims. But it’s a decent movie and an illustration of how even in the 1950s a good story can be told on a short budget, and an illustration that back in the 1950s, institutional Hollywood wanted to tell positive, American stories.

ginger_rogers_boris_morrosIf you like this film, you might also like the 1950s TV series I Led Three Lives, another true story of infiltrating Communist cells, and My Ten Years as a Counterspy, the memoirs of double agent Boris Morros, a Hollywood producer and composer who worked simultaneously for the Communist Party USA (i.e. for the USSR) and for the FBI. (That’s him at right with dancer/actress Ginger Rogers: he’s the one who looks like Gollum).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

None, alas!

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (no score):

  • Wikipedia  page:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

  • DVD page:

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

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page: