Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

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:

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:


…and here’s 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.


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 or by email to: 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.


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.


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.

  • DVD page:

and Blu-Ray:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

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

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • 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):

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page: