Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Range 15 Movie Trailer (NSFW Warning!)

OK, kids, if we’re going to be banned by the Indiana Pubic Libraries, we might as well be banned for a reason, like Harry’s guys in The Odd Angry Shot. So here’s the trailer to Range 15, which is going to be the most fun had by troops since Tropic Thunder (or maybe Stripes) and the most fun had with zombies since Shaun of the Dead. 

Hat tip, Jonn at This Ain’t Hell. We’ve only watched the trailer once, and are disappointed that there are no bikini snaps. They’d better be in the movie.

There’s a surprising number of real actors in it: William Shatner and Keith David, for example. David has been promoted to Colonel from his stint as a Command Sergeant Major straight man in the ill-fated comedy series Enlisted last year. There are also a number of military celebs: SF and UFC’s Tim Kennedy, a couple of MOH recipients, a whole bunch of amputees (mostly as legless zombies), and Navy Cross recip Marcus Luttrell in what the trailer suggests is the briefest of cameos.

We had wondered how Mat Best, Nick Palmisciano and the gang would get from their typical  YouTube video, which was kind of like a grotty, coarse, GI-humor Monty Python sketch, to a full-length movie. It looks like what they did was construct a plot that’s basically a zombie-laden wrapper for gory action scenes and black-humor comedy sketches. The trailer should give you the idea.

Again, this trailer is NSFW. We mean it. Really NFSFFW. Got it? Good.

Update

OK, you want more? Here’s five minutes behind the scenes. It’s NSFW, too; looks like they had some real This is Spinal Tap moments.

So what else is there to say, but, Tap into America, guys.

Update II

Their Indiegogo campaign is still running. We just thought we’d launch that one into the morning.

Saturday Matinee 2016 03: 13 Hours (2016)

13_Hours_poster13 Hours has been  political football, which meant two things: everyone who hasn’t seen it has an opinion about it (we did before seeing it, too), and because of the perception that it poses a threat to the coronation of the next dynastic overlord of the Imperial City, her minions in the press have savaged it — many of them, from the reviews, without watching it.

The negative reviews took their toll on the film’s early box-office, but perhaps it’s coming back. Two of us saw it in half-full cinema, at a 3:15 Saturday showtime.

13 Hours tells the riveting story of a very small CIA personal security detail that’s the only back-up for an extremely underarmed, underdefended and underprepared diplomatic mission.

It is an Alamo-like last stand, with the singular exception that the defenders ultimately slip away and deny the enemy the chance to do the sort of bestial things he does to captives and enemy remains.

It was an Alamo-like last stand. Note accurate depiction of muzzle flashes.

It was an Alamo-like last stand. Note accurate depiction of muzzle flashes.

The show moves with breakneck pace and seems shorter than it’s roughly 2 1/2 hour running time. There’s very little exposition — perhaps too little, as a couple sitting next to us kept asking what was going on — before the movie cranks up the tension of being a third party national in a city wracked by sectarian and political civil war. Once it’s been established that Benghazi in 2012 is a scary, hairy place to be, we learn about the mutual lack of respect between the case officers and the security officers. (All this is quite true to life).

Tension

Tension. Think you have a difficult workplace. Glock and SIG are correct.

And then the anniversary of 9/11 comes, and whether the anniversary motivates the enemy or not, it’s game on. And the further other persons and assets are from the handful of former troops fighting in the two Benghazi compounds, the less concerned they are with what’s happening on scene. In AFRICOM, in the Pentagon, in the White House, in Foggy Bottom, and in Langley, nobody seems to care.

The movie covers the pulse-pounding action and creepy lulls of the actual fighting. It has nothing to say about the aftermath, the one where heartless politicians would sneer, “What difference does it make?”, wearing their indifference as if it were the ermine of divine right. That aftermath — which is still going on — is not what this movie is about. The courage, committment, sacrifice, and fidelity of the men on the ground: that’s what this is about.

Acting and Production

You may know the actors in 13 Hours, but we didn’t. That made it easy to see characters, not actors.

The actor who plays “Bob,” the weaselly Chief of Station, deserves particular mention, for he brings to near-three-dimensional life a part that is destined to be disliked by the audience (no spoiler. You will dislike him the moment he opens his mouth. It takes a heck of an actor to play such a drip, and his comment about Agency people from Harvard and Yale is the essence of many Agency managers).

The actors who play the operators play the parts well; there’s no Charlie Sheen Navy SEALs in this film.

Michael Bay has come a long way as a director, and he pulls great performances from his actors as well as delivers fast-paced action. You won’t believe that this was done by the same guy that delivered the steamer that was Pearl Harbor. (Of course, he has better, if presently less famous, actors in this film). It is the nearest thing in many years to Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down, which is the benchmark of a true-life action film. The action is less sprawling and the players fewer, which lets them all have depth and development. (Even “Bob” has significant development, without ever going out of character).

Accuracy and Weapons

We’ve already held up Black Hawk Down as an example, and having read the books in both cases, we can say categorically that 13 Hours makes fewer departures from the book than its film grandpappy. This film is accurate in many ways large and small.

The degree to which the movie sets replicate the combat locations of the diplomatic compound and the annex is uncanny and bespeaks hard work by researchers and below-the-line technical crew.

Most of the firearms as carried by the GRS and State DSS shooters are quite correct. Some capabilities of ISR systems are exaggerated or “Hollywood.” Tracers are all right and RPGs and grenades are all wrong, and Bay’s pyrotechnicians couldn’t resist good old Hollywood fireballs. There is, generally, more flame and less smoke than probably occurred that miserable night; the reduced smoke is probably a concession to the storyteller’s art.

We do get a classic Bay follow-the-projectile shot or two.

13H mortar shell

Guest star: 82mm mortar shell, in a brief but energetic performance.

The weapons shown in the hands of the purported 1st Battalion 10th Group Commander’s Intervention Force team (hi there, guys) were not right; for the record, they’d be armed more like the operators. Since, as anyone who followed the story knows, that element never went anywhere but were held across the Med and Adriatic by NCA/JCS level decision makers (uh, maybe “decision duckers” is more correct here), the botch of armament is immaterial.

The portrayal of client/PSD relations (including the near-suicidal cluelessness of those Harvard and Yale types when doing meets) is so accurate it’s uncanny. Did that really get cleared for publication in the book? It did. And it made it into the movie. Uncanny.

Perhaps a reason for the unusual level of accuracy is the unusual degree to which the director, cast and crew involved the actual men portrayed in the movie in the production. Whatever they did, it worked.

13-hours actor and real guy

Dominic Fumusa, playing John “Tig” Teigen, gets some tips from the real Tig.

The bottom line

The critical establishment hates 13 Hours, to the point where they’re reviewing it without watching it. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences is not going to give it any cookies; nobody’s transgendered or questioning, and the bad guys are Hollywood anathema, real bad guys saying bad guy stuff (“allahu akbar”) and carrying the black flag of regression. Somewhere under the LA smog, some jerk is already pitching a remake with the villains changed to European neo-nazis and a general who’s secretly the Kosmic Koalscuttle of the KKK.

13H patrol

But all the reasons that institutional Hollywood hates it are reasons you should see it. And it’s a big, splashy picture best enjoyed on your friendly neighborhood big, loud screen. It’s sad that institutional Hollywood hates it, because the cast and crew personify institutional Hollywood. They just stepped far enough off the reservation to make a solid film about men in combat, abandoned by the leaders of their nation, facing a desperate fight against terrible odds. For that reason, the director, actors, producers, and entire crew are due much respect.

See this film while you still can.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (preorder only):

http://www.amazon.com/13-Hours-Secret-Soldiers-Benghazi/dp/B018IDVB5S/

You can also find Blu-Ray at that link. Amazon also has the book on which the movie is based:

http://www.amazon.com/13-Hours-Account-Happened-Benghazi/dp/145558228X/

(Interesting to note: most of the reviews max the book out, four stars. But there are some one-star reviews. Or are there? When you click on the one star to read them, they are mostly very positive. Apparently if you ignore the stars when reviewing, Amazon defaults to one star).

 

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4172430/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/13_Hours

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (60%):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/13_hours_the_secret_soldiers_of_benghazi/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/13_Hours:_The_Secret_Soldiers_of_Benghazi

  • NEW! History vs. Hollywood Page. (We hope there’s one of these for every “true” war movie soon).

http://www.historyvshollywood.com/reelfaces/13-hours/

Notes

none

Review: Tough as They Come by Travis Mills & Marcus Brotherton

tough_as_they_comeTough as They Come is the story of an infantryman who would probably tell you he is a typical airborne infantryman. But, while he is in some ways, that’s not the whole and unvarnished truth. Before being wounded, Travis Mills was an excellent infantryman. After he was wounded, he became outstanding on a whole new level.

The title phrase, “as tough as they come,” crops up several times in the memoir. But while the overall theme of the memoir is positive, this is no standard-SEAL-book-contract braggadocio. Being as tough as they come, Travis learned, has its limitations:

Time passed and the intense pain remained. One night my dad was with me and I begged him to turn my leg around. “Dad! I know I don’t have a leg, but it’s backward. You’ve got to turn it around.” I cried out all that night, my dad told me later. I screamed. I shouted. I thrashed about in agony.

A doctor showed me a chart and said, “Travis, on a scale of one to ten, describe your level of pain.”

“Ten,” I said. They administered some sort of painkiller as part of a medicinal study on me. I don’t remember what it was. Again the doctors asked me to describe my pain.

“Ten,” I said. They tried a second study. Afterward, the same question.

“Ten,” I said. They tried a third study. I don’t know how long these studies took to implement. When this study was over, they asked the same question. “

Ten,” I said. I couldn’t stand the torment.

“I want to die,” I said again. I didn’t know who was listening. I didn’t care. It was the truth. I was as tough as they come, but I couldn’t take these phantom pains. It felt like I was being filleted alive. The skin was ripped off me. Spikes were driven through my heels. My toenails were yanked out. Gasoline was rubbed all over my skinless flesh. I was screaming again. Screaming. A match was tossed on the gasoline and my body exploded in fire, burning, burning, burning.

“There’s a relatively new and controversial experimental study,” a doctor’s voice said from above me. “It’s only ever used on extreme cases. Basically, we pump him full of Ketamine and put him into a coma. We leave him there for a while, then bring him back out. It’s like turning a computer off and then rebooting it again. The hope is that we can reset his pain tolerance. It’s not a guarantee. And there are risks.”

“What sort of risks?” came a voice off to one side. My eyes were closed. They were having a meeting about me, and I didn’t hear the answer just then. I’d heard that on the street, Ketamine is known as Special K or Cat Valium. It’s similar to PCP. I’d never tried either, but I’d heard that if you take enough Ketamine, it feels like you’re not in your body anymore. You have wild hallucinations. Sometimes people describe the feeling as “near death.” On the street, they call this being plunged into the “K-hole.”

Okay, then. If I had one chance in a hundred of feeling better again by going into a Ketamine coma, then that’s where I would go. I was awake enough at one point to agree to the procedure. I knew I might never wake up again. I knew it might fry my mind completely. I might become a basket case for the rest of my life. I didn’t care. Anything was better than this unbearable level of pain.1

While Mills is famous for his horrible wounds — he is one of five quadruple amputees to survive in American military history, all of them from Afghanistan and Iraq — and his robust recovery from them, the book is not simply a tale of gettin’ blow’d up (as the guys say) and the Stations of the Cross of recovery. It’s a tale of a full and ongoing life, beginning with a Michigan childhood and youth that flowered into manhood in the Army.

Travis was like a lot of young guys who followed the easy path from high school into college. He was an athletic guy but didn’t intend to express that in the Army. His dream had him playing big-college football, and maybe, possibly, pro ball. But the small town (Vassar, Michigan) football star didn’t catch the eye of college recruiters, and didn’t have the grades to get into a big state university and try to walk on. He was playing ball in the dead-end community college leagues, and taking classes that didn’t interest him very much.

The military did interest him. His family had a proud tradition of service, and he liked the idea of a challenge to mind and body, and a chance to be part of an even bigger team.

His new team was the 82nd Airborne Division; he made several deployments to Afghanistan and grew as a soldier and leader. He thrived in combat.

After a while the shooting died down, and we moved forward. Dangerous terrain lurked everywhere. Bullets could come from other compounds, from behind huts or foliage. A couple trucks whizzed by on a road in the distance. We could hear the Taliban on our Icom radio. They were planning movements and calling in reinforcements, more weapons and ammunition. Essentially, their plan seemed to be to shoot at us for a while, then pack up and move to a new location down the road where they’d shoot at us again, and so on and so on until we got back to our base. It didn’t take much brains to figure out that was a smart move for them. They were driving. We were walking. For us, our only plan was to keep moving, always on the lookout for our next point of cover and concealment. If you’re standing still, then you’re a sitting duck. You always want to keep moving, even under fire.

Sure enough, not long after that, we got into our second firefight of the day. Bullets whizzed in all around us and we fired back. We fought for a while, then the fighting eventually died down, and we moved on.2

That was the start of a series of at least seven firefights that day… and that wasn’t the only fighting day. It was just the one where the helicopter pick-up was botched and the unit had to shuffle back to the outpost, fighting all the way for ten kilometers. They called it the Ten-Click-TIC3.

But it wasn’t just fighting; leadership has other aspects, too, as Travis illustrated at the end of the Ten-Click-TIC:

We fought the whole way back to the strongpoint. It was a grueling day. But I’d made it a point on other missions to run ahead and sing to my guys the 82nd cadence when they returned into our gates. I was exhausted, but I wasn’t going to let them down, today of all days. I ran ahead, started singing, and high-fived them all in.4

Some of the most interesting and revelatory passages are not the combat ones, but the passages describing his family and its impact on his decision-making and family; and it’s also interesting to see the impact that he and his seriously-injured friends have had on other wounded, especially other amputees. (And the impact that a brief meeting with an earlier quad-amputee, Marine Todd Nicely, had on Travis).

A description of a trip to Boston after the Marathon bombing is instructive as well as entertaining. The administrators at the Boston hospital, full of Boston values, didn’t think wounded soldiers could possibly do anything but alarm and terrify these wounded civilians. (That will probably seem illogical to most readers. It did to Travis. But having lived among the Bostonians, most of them do not distinguish between terrorists, criminals and soldiers: Massachusetts schools teach that all are interchangeable users of violence. In their world, a wounded warrior is a wounded warmonger, and probably had it coming). In any event, Travis and a buddy knew that the best thing for a fresh amputee is seeing the example of a successful amputee, and they sneaked off from the higher ranks who were debating what was and wasn’t good for the injured, tapped into the nurse mafia to find them, and spent the day showing them what the potential of an amputee’s life is. (They also fielded a lot of practical, “How will I learn to do with a prosthetic ?” questions, as only someone who has done it can).

By the time the administrators had finally been persuaded to let the wounded warmongers circulate among their patients, it was too late; the deed was already done.

And that is why you should not bet against SSG (Retired) Mills. He’s an airborne infantryman, as stubborn as a mule, and yes, as tough as they come.

Notes

  1. Mills & Brotherton. Tough As They Come. pp. 198-199.
  2. Ibid., p. 162.
  3. TIC: military acronym for “Troops In Contact,” pronounced like the small bloodsucking arthropod, “tick”; Ibid., p. 163.
  4. Ibid., p. 163.

The Book

Mills, Travis & Brotherton, Marcus. Tough As They Come. The Crown Publishing Group. (Kindle Edition read & reviewed). Available from: http://www.amazon.com/Tough-They-Come-Travis-Mills-ebook/dp/B00TNDP1NG/ (the hardcover edition can also be found through that link).

Saturday Matinee 2016 02: The Revenant (2016)

the revenant posterIf you only read the big media when this came out, you think it’s about Leonardo Di Caprio getting raped by a bear. It’s not quite that; being chewed up by a mother Ursus horribilis is only one of the indignities visited on Di Caprio’s character, including freezing in a snow cave, being buried alive, having family members murdered before his eyes, being chased over a cliff by scalp-seeking savages, and falling through a tree without missing a branch.

Even when he gets the best of Ma Griz, she falls on him. Dude can’t win for losing.

This phenomenally unlucky character and his chain of unpleasant events, which make Ranger School and Hell Week look like the USAF equivalent1, are a true person and his true story, or at least, have their basis in one. And it does make an extremely entertaining movie. Coming off the Hateful Eight, we were not enthusiastic about another “modern take” on a Western. But this was more of an old Western made with modern production techniques and values.

Di Caprio as Hugh Glass

Di Caprio as Hugh Glass in The Revenant.

Acting and Production

the revenant domnhall gleeson 1There are some first rate performances, particularly by Di Caprio as frontier scout Hugh Glass and his nemesis, the double-dealing Fitzgerald, played with just the right touch of craven bravado by Tom Hardy. In addition, the supporting actors hold up their parts well. One standouts is Domnhall Gleeson as Captain Andrew Hardy (right).

Will Poulter does well as a young Jim Bridger, but he doesn’t exactly have leading-man looks.

the revenant will poulter 1Bridger in this movie is a follower and a man whose personal weakness leads him to make a bad decision, an error he has time to contemplate. Poulter (left) is good enough at this acting gig that we’re going to see more of him, but he’s kind of funny looking, which is probably going to limit his career in Hollywood.

Then again, some people think Sean Penn is a leading man, and he’s a lot weirder-looking than Will.

Another star is the great outdoors. We see it in every winter guise it has, from clear skies to threatening snow clouds; from open range to mighty mountains to riparian forests.

the revenant sceneryThe movie starts slowly, luxuriating in the scenery of the West (actually, the Canadian West; the locations were in British Columbia). But within minutes it’s moving, and it only lets up in dream sequences which are designed either to humanize Glass by showing his murdered Indian wife, or to keep women moviegoers from slagging this film by providing a sympathetic (if ghostly) female character, something otherwise lacking in this frontier testosteronepalooza.

The scenery never gets any less beautiful, and it’s beautifully photographed; even when you have actors made up in grime to represent frontiersmen who took a bath every year whether they needed it or not, the forest and mountain settings makes it worth watching.

Action scenes are dramatic and, in the form of Indian ambushes, terrifying. The panic of an Indian raid is painted with alarming accuracy.

the revenant action 1

The movie does hit all the standard Hollywood Blockbuster “beats,” for Save the Cat! fans, but that’s only obvious if you know that. If there is ever a chance to miss a frontier-movie cliché, from The Noble Savage to the end-of-film mano a mano between the pro- and antagonists, that chance is a Road Not Taken by this director (Alejandro Iñárritu) and his writers (one of whom is himself).

So, in terms of the story, it’s a formulaic one, but you almost don’t notice that because the pacing and the visual aspects of the film are so good.

Accuracy and Weapons

The weapons are all plausible and period-correct. We’ve already run a story on the rifle made for the movie by smith Ron Luckenbill. All the other firearms are appropriate flintlocks. They fire with a suitable spark and flash, and plenty of smoke (if not the random delay familiar to flintlock shooters).

the revenant hardy 2

Tom Hardy as John Fitzgerald lights off a flintlock. The character has a good reason for wearing that silly hat — and that’s all we’re going to say about that.

All the edged weapons that appear on screen seem to be period-technology (or realistic prop replicas thereof).

As we know nothing about the real Hugh Glass, and just as little about the Indian tribes depicted, the Ree and the Pawnee, we can’t comment on the historical accuracy of the movie.

The bottom line

The Revenant wasn’t made as award bait (although it has some nominations) and wasn’t made to be deconstructed by the film-school students of 2055. It was made to put butts in theater seats and entertain the people sitting atop those butts, and that it does. For the typical reader of this blog (if such a film test dummy exists), we can recommend it without reservation.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

This film has not been released for home video yet. The DVD can be pre-ordered at this link, and from this link you can easily find the Blu-Ray version:

http://www.amazon.com/The-Revenant-DVD/dp/B01AB0DVYK/

Amazon also has the novel on which the movie is based:

http://www.amazon.com/Revenant-Novel-Revenge-Michael-Punke/dp/1250072689/

And several other books about the real-world protagonist, Hugh Glass, fiction and non-fic alike.

http://www.amazon.com/HUGH-GLASS-Bruce-Bradley-ebook/dp/B00UGTCXJ6/

http://www.amazon.com/Hugh-Glass-Bruce-Bradley/dp/1515031063/

http://www.amazon.com/The-Saga-Hugh-Glass-Mountain/dp/0803258348/

http://www.amazon.com/Hugh-Glass-Revenant-story-Grizzly-ebook/dp/B019SFRU0A/

http://www.amazon.com/Adventures-Glass-Hunter-Trapper-Missouri-ebook/dp/B0190QJE1A/

http://www.amazon.com/American-Trapper-Death-Frontiersman-Glass-ebook/dp/B00PSENU3M/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1663202/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Revenant,_The_(2015)

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/the_revenant_2015/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Revenant_(2015_film)

Notes

  1. That would be, “Oh snap! The cable’s out.”

Farewell, Shotgun News

Firearms News IssueThe magazine in the newsstand caught our eye. It looked a lot like one we used to subscribe to… Shotgun News. The title was a throwback to many, many decades ago when shotguns were one of main things traded in the gun-trading paper. It’s new, more fitting name is Firearms News.

In its pages and on its website — where typing shotgunnews.com redirects to firearmsnews.com — editor David Hunter Jones explains:

…the title in your browser now reads Firearms News rather than Shotgun News. This is no mistake, but rather it’s a sign of what Shotgun News has become in both the digital and print world.

Since I took over editorship of Shotgun News, I’ve been bombarded by questions about how things are looking in the world of scatterguns. As you know, Shotgun News is much more than simply news about shotguns. The title of the magazine has long been somewhat of a misnomer, and for 2016 we decided to put an end to questions about what the magazine and digital edition are all about: all kinds of firearms, not just shotguns. Hence the name change.

via Introducing Firearms News – Firearms News.

This is the new logo and the old. By using a similar block-serif typeface to the old, the design maintains a little continuity.

Firearms News logo

Shotgun News Logo

Jones explains that it’s more than just a cosmetic changeover; you can expect more color and more… well, we’ll let him explain.

It used to look like this...

It used to look like this…

Here are a few highlights:

  • Twice as many color glossy book-sized issues per year
  • A heavier, thicker paper stock for easier reading and better image fidelity
  • Each of the 30 issues will feature a gun on the cover
  • New optics column penned by expert David Fortier
  • A news section entitled “Shotgun News” that will bring you breaking news from industry insiders
  • Redesigned more attractive features

One of the interesting aspects of this is the caterwauling from longtime users in the comments to Jones’s post. They liked the cheap newsprint listings.

And now, it looks like this.

And now, it looks like this.

I just hope they keep the gunsmithing and historical articles. That’s why we used to subscribe (and the irregularity of those articles is what sent us to the newsstand).

Blast from the Past: “Gun Pro” Correspondence Course

(This is the latest in our promised occasional substitution of a book review for When Guns are Outlawed. Let us know if you want us to stick with this feature in the comments — Ed.).

The seller warned us that this set of booklets wasn’t in the greatest condition. But we bought it anyway, and in a week or so the 1970s-vintage Gun Pro Course from the North American School of Firearms arrived at Hog Manor. We found that the actual course volumes, each of which is a photo-reproduced, triple-punched 8½ x 11 inch booklet of anywhere from five to fifty pages, were in excellent shape; only the slipcase was really in the trashed state that the conscientious seller was so careful to describe.

Whether the course was worth the money… depends. We think the used course, once the property of one Ralph D. Davis, by his ink marks in a couple of volumes, was worth the $20 or so we paid (we don’t remember the exact amount), but in its heyday it cost a lot more. It probably wasn’t worth that.

gun_pro_ad_field_and_stream_1977It was one of a variety of correspondence courses sold out of the back pages of magazines. Both small display ads and even smaller text-only classified ads promoted these courses. An example of the display ad is seen to the right; it came from Page 90 of the July, 1977 issue of Field and Stream. Similar display ads promoted the North American School of Conservation (Page 18) which offered you “the Badge of the Future,” although we doubt anyone ever got hired as a conservation or game officer after taking this mail course, and the North American school of Animal Sciences, which asked you to “Be a Veterinary Assistant!” with a picture of a big-eyed spaniel. These ads all invited responses to the same address, which would get you an “Info Pack” or “Career Kit” — a come-on to buy the course. This would have been larded with the usual direct-mail bullshit: grandiose boasts, empty promises, probably bogus testimonials with no real names: “Bill W., Akron, Ohio.” If you bought the course, it came to you in dribbles.  We’re sure people who took this course got jobs, but we doubt anyone, ever, got hired because he or she took one of these courses.

The core promise: “Make Big Money on Guns — Be a Gun Pro!” of the ad? How can we say this politely? Manure. Yeah, we like that word. That promise was manure.

The North American Correspondence Schools had addresses in Newport Beach, California and Scranton, Pennsylvania and at some time before the Event Horizon of the Internet, they completely vanished. It is possible that they were absorbed into an existing correspondence course marketing mill, Penn-Foster. That outfit also calls Scranton home, we believe.

The general consensus online is that the course was not very good. Here’s a sample of comments:

  • On The High Road, 6 March 2010: “I took both the North American School of Firearms and NRI correspondence courses 20+ years ago. TOTAL CRAP.”
  • On HandgunForum.net, 16 May 2010: “I have taken 3 gunsmithing courses. The first one was in 1975. The school was the North American School of Firearms, Newport Beach, CA (correspondence course). This course was mentioned in the NRA Gunsmithing Guide – Updated. I found it to be geared more towards the shooter than the gunsmith. The school is no longer in existence. Last year I took a “quickie” course from Phoenix State Univ. I got what I paid for.”
  • On FirearmsTalk.com, 11 June 2010: “I’ve taken 3 correspondence/online gunsmithing courses. 1. North American School of Firearms, Newport Beach, CA (mentioned in NRA Gunsmithing Guide), Phoenix State University Gunsmith Certificate program and Ashworth College School of Gunsmithing, Norcross, GA. Best by far (in my opinion) is Ashworth College and North American School of Firearms is no longer in existence (took that course in 1975) but by far the best way to learn is thru an established shop or by going to one of the accredited schools.” (We’ll come back to that last thought in a bit. This does seem to be the same guy who left the comment above -Ed.)
  • On The Firing Line, 13 July 2011:  “I took the Penn course and the North American School of Firearms course (no longer in business). They are garbage.”

We didn’t think they were that bad. The materials are certainly biased towards the complete novice… towards Bubba the Gunsmite, if he could only read. There is an overview of the history of firearms, good enough up to 1970 or so. And some of the instruction for hands-on work is useful, at least in terms of reducing the odds you will acquire the nickname “Bubba” working on your own firearms.

For example, the booklets on repairing single- and double-action revolvers, hands-on repair of which pretty much terra incognita to us, gave a useful explanation of what the parts of a revolver mechanism do, and some explicit instructions, with illustrations, for how to replace internals to restore a revolver to a proper lock-up. It’s given us enough confidence to bid on some gunsmith specials — if they come to us broken already, we have nowhere to go but up.

Of course, the booklets are full of 1970s values: there are descriptions of how to sporterize a military rifle or customize an original Colt SAA that will make a collector from now, 40 years later, cringe. And there’s absolutely nothing about the modern sporting rifle — in 1975, your choices were Colt SP1, Ruger Mini-14, or if you hunted long and hard, maybe a Valmet M62S or an FN-FAL. Those weren’t just representative modern rifles available then — that was almost all the modern rifles available then. They were also considered a bit out there by the Fudd culture of most gun magazines — they’d get reviewed in the then-new publication Soldier of Fortune, not in Guns and Ammo or Shooting Times so much. (The American Rifleman, NRA’s only membership magazine then, and Guns magazine seemed to take more interest in military-style firearms than the other mainstream gun magazines). So this class comes from an era when a gunsmith worked predominantly on revolvers and on bolt and lever action rifles, and slide and double-barrel shotguns.

But the bottom line is this: gunsmithing is a craft, and as such you can’t learn it from books. Period, full stop. Your shelves can groan with gunsmithing volumes, but if you can’t drive a set of files like you’re the Lord of All Metals, they might as well be written in Sanskrit. You can’t learn it from DVDs, either — sorry about that, AGI. It astonishes us that people who dutifully took Driver’s Ed when they were 16 before getting their driver’s license think nothing of taking machine tools to their firearms based on some time logged on YouTube. You can do that — it’s a free country — but don’t expect professional results first time out.

Any craft can only be learned by doing, or by hands-on instruction from a master craftsman. Hands-on instruction takes a lot of the painful trial and error out of learning, but rare is the master craftsman who has the patience to instruct a novice.

At $20 or $30 on the used markets, this is a good buy. More than that and you might want to let it go. And if you really want to be a gunsmith, start talking to the local guys… maybe someone will trade instruction for some help. Good old-fashioned apprenticeship is never out of style, when your objective is master craftsmanship.

Review: Intelligence Support to Urban Military Operations

We weren’t going to have a Thursday book review, because they take longer to write than When Guns Are Outlawed. But this one dropped in our laps…. -Ed.

intel_urban_ops_01From Steven Aftergood at the Federation of American Scientists comes news of this new manual, Training Circular 2-29.4, which supersedes a field manual released not that long ago: 20 March 2008. Steve posting it on his site allows us to link to the .pdf so you can read it and see what your take-away is: http://fas.org/irp/doddir/army/tc2-91-4.pdf

Or you can read our take-away, below.

It’s interesting that this is a TC. In Army parlance, a Field Manual is doctrine on how to do things; it’s pretty much the Army speaking ex cathedra, and is expected to be fairly immutable. And that’s true, as long as external influences don’t change much; there are things in our current infantry manuals that can be traced back to World War II and even to the American Expeditionary Force. But intelligence is something that, where principles are as well-established as Sun Tzu, tactics, techniques, technologies and procedures are in nearly constant flux, hence the “demotion” of Intelligence Support to Urban Operations to the level of Training Circular, a TTTPs document that can be revised with less of a circus maximus than an FM requires.

Aftergood chose to highlight these paragraphs:

Providing intelligence support to operations in the complex urban environment can be quite challenging. It may at first seem overwhelming. The amount of detail required for operations in urban environments, along with the large amounts of varied information required to provide intelligence support to these operations, can be daunting.

In urban terrain, friendly forces will encounter a variety of potential threats, such as conventional military forces, paramilitary forces, insurgents or guerrillas, terrorists, common criminals, drug traffickers, warlords, and street gangs. These threats may operate independently or some may operate together. Individuals may be active members of one or more groups.

The enemy situation is often extremely fluid–locals friendly to us today may be tomorrow’s belligerents. Adversaries seek to blend in with the local population to avoid being captured or killed. Enemy forces who are familiar with the city layout have an inherently superior awareness of the current situation.

Finally, U.S. forces often fail to understand the motives of the urban threat due to difficulties of building cultural awareness and situational understanding for a complex environment and operation.

via Intelligence Support to Urban Military Operations.

We’ve spent a couple of days reading this manual and we have two reactions to it:

  1. It’s generally a pretty solid document, highlighting combat intelligence “the American way” in terms of developing the ground truth needed by a combat comander.
  2. The Alex Jones conspiracy crowd is going to go nuts, assuming this is some kind of manual for civil war. But Jones and company will be wrong.

We’ll address both of these in turn

Intelligence Support to Urban Operations is a Solid Document.

The US generally takes two completely different approaches to intelligence: strategic intelligence, which is supposed to support early warning and high-level pol/mil decision making, and tactical intelligence. Generally, our strat intel blows. It is enormously dependent on easily misled and spoofed technological collection means, and analyzed almost entirely by  homogenous class of people who live in the same SWPL suburbs in the National Capital Area and have little to no direct engagement with the region on which they are supposedly expert. It is become Shiva, the self-licking intel ice cream cone; the organization is focused on its own objectives, all of which relate to growing the organization.

Our tactical intel starts off like that, made by the same cloistered bozos based on the same dodgy inputs, but once the Army gets on the ground, reliable information starts coming in. (Not just the Army. The US Navy thought it knew everything about Japan on 6 Dec 41; by the time of Midway, most of the usable, actionable intelligence on hand about the IJN was combat intelligence gathered by fighting the jeezly heathens).

intel_urban_ops_02Intelligence Support to Urban Operations describes how to start with the chaos of an urban area and start developing useful combat intelligence products for an engaged commander. There is little gauzy theory about the Intelligence Cycle or the various Intelligence Disciplines (or “Ints,” like HUMINT, SIGINT, and the ever present BOGINT).

There is some stuff about what national agencies can do for the combatant commander, but the stress is on using the sort of practical thing that comes from eyes-on-target troops.

Some of the material in here is seldom encountered in open sources. For instance, the kimono of what NGA can do for a combatant commander is opened a little bit. And we’ve not only never seen the SODARS reports mentioned in a publicly-available document before, we rememberwhen even the existence of SODARS was classified. (We have several generations of format kicking around, and they’re all classified when filled in). The first thing we’d do before heading off to a new country or new AO was to pull all the past SODARS reports on the area, and read what previous SOF teams/platoons/elements had to say.

The document is not without weaknesses. In one intelligence-dependent area where various enemies have eaten the USA’s lunch in recent years, Information Operations, is dismissed in less than one page and one checklist. One suspects (and hopes) that an IO Training Circular and, very important, a Counter-IO TC are in the works, given the subject’s dismissive, cursory treatment in this TC.

Conspiracy Buffs are Wrong to Read Much Into It

intel_urban_ops_03Would the Army use these TTTPs if it were engaged in a civil war? Of course it would. Any army, anywhere, fights as it trains, and applied templates developed in one theater to another. But that’s not the same thing as saying this is preparing for a civil war.

The world is increasingly urbanized, and most disputes start and grow where there are enough people to feed the dispute. These trends make the probability that war will take place in an urban environment much higher. Therefore, this manual simply isn’t preparing for fighting the last war all over again; it really makes sense as preparation for fighting the next foreign war.

Book Review (Revolutionary History): Ten Tea Parties

Welcome to a new feature on WeaponsMan.com. We’re replacing, at least temporarily, the Tuesday 1400 hr. When Guns are Outlawed with a book review, because WGAO is our most unpopular feature (although easy to write, and much less work than a review), and because people did ask for book reviews. We might also do this with the Thursday WGAO. We’ll continue to tinker as 2016 rolls on. -Ed.

Some Tea Parties (here, Annapolis, the burning of the Peggy Stewart) were fiery.

Some Tea Parties (here, Annapolis, the burning of the Peggy Stewart) were fiery.

The men gathered, disguised as Indians, and looked at the growing pile of tea. Some were willing participants in what later centuries would call the Tea Party; the fomenters of the act of rebellion were among the leaders of the community. But many of the men carrying it out came from what Colonial establishment figures, be they rebellious against or loyal unto King George, considered the coarse, lower orders. As a result some of the participation might have been less than voluntary; merchants destroying their own tea, because the alternative was to be tarred and feathered.

When the tea was gathered, the men knew what to do: they set the casks, bales, boxes and personal supplies of the beloved leaf afire, and danced around the resulting bonfire. They may have performed an American suttee on King George, or his Royal Governor, or at least his notorious local tax collector — in effigy, of course. Over a decade of unrest going back to 1760s attempts to levy duties on sugar and require a tax stamp upon documents, had just taken a turn for the destructive. Not the violent, not quite yet, but the violence was in the air just as much as the aroma of overdone Bohea.

Wait! They’re not supposed to burn the tea. They’re supposed to throw it in the harbor, right?

ten tea partiesThat’s a common misunderstanding, and one that Joseph Cummins’s entertaining Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot aims to correct, by placing the Tea Party we all know, or think we know, into its place at the head of a squadron of similar protests. As the Colonies were quite disparate at the time, so were the protests.

Of course, the famous Tea Party — which was not called by that name until some 60 years later, according to Cummins — was the “action against the tea” on 16 December 1773, in which some 92,000 pounds of tea, in bundles and in chests, was thrown into Boston Harbor by the ancestors of future Patriots fans, thinly disguised as Mohawk indians. The indignant East India Company complained the “tea destroyers” cost them almost £10,000, a staggering sum in 1773; and the company felt particularly ill-used because the protesters were angry not so much at the EIC’s trade monopoly, but at George III’s government application of taxes thereto.

But there were many other tea protests, most of them after the famous Boston event (as its news spread across the several Colonies), but at least one, a tea-burning in Lexington, Massachusetts (the very place the British Army on one of the Powder Raids would meet the colonial militia in open rebellion in less than a year and a half), took place a couple of days prior, while the Boston event was still planning.

Significant tea destruction took place from Maine (then still a fief of Massachusetts) to South Carolina.

The tax had been, appropriately enough for a trigger of tea parties, something of a bailout for the East India Company. Probably the weakest part of the book is Cummins’s explanation of the economic roots of the conflict; an economist, he is not.

[T]he East India Company had shareholders who expected hefty returns on their dividends.1

Er… dividends are returns.

A few errors of this type are quite forgiveable, though, because Cummins brings the fervor of the era, and some of the people who personified it, to life. And he takes the trouble to explain this period, once taught in every school, and now buried under a strange history that views all events from the standpoint of marquee minority members, without ever providing much in the way of a framework of understanding or an explanation of what actually happened. 

The tea was destroyed as a protest against, first, a 3d. per pound tax on the tea from 1770 on; and then, after April, 1774, as a highly visible form of protest against a variety of laws cracking down on the colonies, laws called the Coercive Acts by Parliament, but  the Intolerable Acts by the colonists. The tea tax replaced the more broad tax powers of the Townshend Acts, which had in turn replaced the Stamp Act and the Sugar Act. Parliament had initially intended for these various revenue-raising Acts to help the mother country recover the indebtedness caused by the Seven Years’ War (fought largely in the New World as the French and Indian War) and to defray the cost of maintaining a standing army in the New World. Far from appreciating the benevolence of King and Parliament, the Americans, preferring to be governed by their own assemblies, began a colonial boycott of English goods. Not all colonists may have been willing to participate, but social pressure kept them in line. The boycott was ruinous, or perceived that way, by the merchants and shipowners of London and Liverpool, which is why Parliament kept changing and moderating the tax vehicle.

The Tea Parties never seemed to include violence against persons, beyond the painful and humiliating (and potentially scarring) ritual known as tarring and feathering.

macaronymaking

Tarring and Feathering was painful, not just humiliating.

Often, the mere suggestion of tar and feathers was enough to get the thing done. In Falmouth, Maine, merchants were “encouraged” to keep a boycott by a threat deployed behind the merest tea leaf of humor:

A handbill soon appeared, produced by the local Committee for Tarring and Feathering, declaring that no one in town should doubt what would happen to those who bought or consumed tea. The notice was signed: “Thomas Tarbucket, Peter Pitch, Abraham Wildfowl, David Plaister, Benjamin Brush, Oliver Scarecrow, and Henry Hand-Cart.” Falmouth merchants got the idea and stopped selling tea.2

Sometimes the humor was not evident at all. In Annapolis, merchant Anthony Stewart was forced by a mob to put his own ship, named after his wife, to the torch. She was expecting; her bedroom window looked out upon the scene of her husband’s humiliation. (He would later join the Loyalist exodus to Nova Scotia, although he doesn’t seem to have been a Loyalist before these events). In Charles Town (later Charleston), South Carolina, leading merchant Christopher Gadsden was so committed to the patriot cause that he all but ruined his own import-export business.

There’s a bit of digression on Gadsden, the guy who produced the Gadsden flag and for whom Gadsden, Alabama is named. It’s a worthwhile digression; Cummins seems a bit bemused that such a noble and influential figure has such a small footprint in today’s understanding of the Revolution. And you will meet a Tory of equal nobility and courage in Jonathan Sayward of York, Maine. To meet these two gentlemen is, alone, worth the price of the book.

In discussing the historiography of the Tea Party in an epilogue, a field where Cummins seems much more at home than in trade or corporation economics, he even finds a story of a Tea Party phony, a wannabe who surfaced in Chicago in the 19th Century, the…

…obligatory tea party imposter—David Kinnison (or Kennison), who died in Chicago in 1852, at the supposed age of 115, after convincing the people of that good city that he had actively participated in the Boston Tea Party, despite being only eight years old in 1773.3

There’s even a Tea Party that itself may be phony: the Chestertown, Maryland event of May 13, 1774, is unique among the ones he cites in that there are no contemporary references to it at all; it first surfaces in writing in 1899 (but it still occasions a festival every spring, so there is that). Cummins concludes, like the editors of the New York Sun did once when a young girl wrote to them, that it does no harm to believe, for the spirit is in all of us.

Nowadays, the Chestertown Tea Party is all in good fun. And period costume!

Nowadays, the Chestertown Tea Party is all in good fun. And period costume!

Cummins writes well and tells an entertaining story; as long as he sticks to history and keeps a good distance from anything business or economic related, he does fine. It’s just his bad luck to be trying to explain mercantile economics from a standpoint that’s apparently unaware of such basics as what a dividend is, how shareholders get paid (today or in Georgian days), and how India-Indian poverty came about. Apart from that single, solitary quibble, and quibble it is, we greatly enjoyed Ten Tea Parties. There is much there for the student of the American Revoution, and some interesting materials for anyone who would promote another.

Notes

  1. Cummins, p. 18.
  2. Cummins, p. 165.
  3. Cummins, p. 231

Page citations from the iBooks epub edition.

The Book

Cummins, Joseph: Ten Tea Parties: Patriotic Protests that History Forgot. Philadelphia: Quick Books, 2012.

Amazon hardover: http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Tea-Parties-Patriotic-Protests/dp/1594745609/

Amazon Kindle: http://www.amazon.com/Ten-Tea-Parties-Patriotic-Protests-ebook/dp/B004ZZP5WY/

iBooks: https://itunes.apple.com/us/book/ten-tea-parties/id462027686?mt=11

(Sadly, Quirk is a Random House imprint, and so the ebooks are extremely overpriced. Best bet is look for a used hardcover on Amazon).

Saturday Matinee 2015 52: The Hateful Eight

the-hateful-eight-posterQuentin Tarantino. Some people love him.

And some people see his movies because it was what Kid wanted to see. His take, afterwards: “Pretty gruesome. I thought from the trailer there was going to be more humor in it.”

Forget it, kid. It’s Tarantino.

“Yeah. All the humor is pretty much in the trailer.”

The name The Hateful Eight refers to both eight characters in the movie, most of whom despise each other (and are detestable for various reasons). This should not surprise anyone who’s seen, say, Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill. It’s just that this time the nihilistic savagery is deployed in a Western setting.

Acting and Production

Kurt Russell's bounty hunter, with Jennifer Jason Leigh as his prisoner, Daisy Dommergue (pronounced Dommer-gyoo).

Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Daisy Dommergue (pronounced Dommer-gyoo), the prisoner of “Hangman” John Ruth (Kurt Russell).

The main characters are deftly drawn and performed with brio. Kurt Russell is a bounty hunter considered a bit “off” among his profession because he never takes the easy way out with a “Dead or Alive” suspect; it’s a point of professional pride for him to being them in to hang, hence his nickname: “The Hangman.” Jackson is another bounty hunter, one who takes the easy way out: like most bounty hunters, if the poster says “dead or alive,” he spares himself the aggravation of a live prisoner. Not by drygulching him; he shoots him face to face, after provoking an attack. (He says. Later he tells a story of torture, rape and murder — that provokes another attack. But is it a true story, or just a story? It’s probably true, but you never really know).

The two bounty hunters start off on the wrong foot.

The two bounty hunters start off on the wrong foot.

A convenient blizzard traps the two bounty hunters, and The Hangman’s suspect, with a bunch of unlikely characters in a roadhouse whose usual staff are all missing, replaced by a taciturn Mexican who says he’s filling in for them. By the end of the blizzard, when the stagecoaches can move again, who will be left?

We won’t dump a spoiler right here, but what do you think happened to the roadhouse crew?

The movie is beautifully photographed, at least in the exterior scenes. It does, however, drag; it’s a one-hour story told in two hours and fifty-one or so minutes.

The music is, rarely for a Tarantino film, a drag on the production. He had the right idea: he hired legendary spaghetti-western composer Ennio Morricone, whose twangy guitars set off all those Man With No Name films that set up Clint Eastwood for greatness. But either the score Morricone delivered, or the way it was used, does the very worst thing a score can do: it lurches to the forefront occasionally, and draws attention away from the screen and to the soundtrack instead. That was a real disappointment, because we were hoping that Morricone was going to add a new chapter to his legend.

Accuracy and Weapons

Bruce Dern (r., reacting to gunshot sound) plays a thin-skinned Rebel general who's still wearing his grey some years or decades after the Lost Cause, well, lost.

Bruce Dern (r., reacting to gunshot sound) plays a thin-skinned Rebel general who’s still wearing his grey some years or decades after the Lost Cause, well, lost.

There was a minimal attempt to create an Old West vibe, as you might see at a dude ranch or theme park, but there was no real attempt at accuracy. The characters are 21st Century types, speak in modern slang and argot, and many of them have anachronistic 21st Century mores.

The time of the events is not narrowed down specifically, but you have Civil War veterans from both sides swanning about in their uniforms, while armed with pistols that began being produced a hateful eight years after Appomattox. Maybe people had lower standards of personal grooming in the 1870s or 80s,

Samuel L. Jackson’s character was a Union major. We thought that an anachronism, but a little research online showed us that some black officers were commissioned from among the men in the segregated black units during the Civil War. Some online links say two hundred, others say one hundred twenty, eighty, eight; what’s right? We don’t know. And what rank did these officers achieve? It turns out, Alexander Augusta was commissioned as a major and achieved the rank of lieutenant colonel, but he was a medical officer (he’d gone to Canada for his training, because neither American medical schools nor the AMA was accepting blacks then and for quite some time after the war). Augusta became the founding professor of medicine at (segregated) Howard University; the digression was worth it just to read about this guy, a much better example of a Black Life that Mattered than any of the skells getting blown away by cops recently. You can visit his grave — where he belongs, in Arlington. According to a society of Union officer descendants, another officer, William H. Singleton, was Colonel by vote of the regiment of freedmen he trained, but he (a freed slave himself) appears to have been reduced to First Sergeant under white officers when the unit was mustered into the Union Army. William N. Reed was a Federally recognized Lt. Colonel, who died of wounds received in battle in 1864. There were two other majors and one brevet major in the listing. So Jackson’s character would have been a rarity, but definitely not an impossibility. 

Russell's character carries an anachronistic Colt 1855 muzzle-loading revolving carbine.

Russell’s character carries an anachronistic Remington 1858 muzzle-loading revolving carbine. While most of the revolvers are cartridge ’73s.

The guns seem to have been selected for how cool they’d look on the screen, not according to any sensible notion of what an actual person in those years might have carried.

The graphic violence is about as realistic as a two hour porn epic is as a depiction of the average couple’s sex life. In one case, two shots from ordinary Colt Single-Action Army pistols blow a guy’s head to nonexistence, which betrays the writer’s and the director’s (both of them being Tarantino) profound ignorance of head anatomy, as well as pistols and their terminal ballistics.

One wonders if this misinformed attribution of magical powers to firearms may be at the root of much Hollywood anti-gunnery: most people thought it was hyperbole when police Inspector Harry Callahan warned a punk that his .44 “can blow your head clean off;” Tarantino, a noted film buff, took it as a ballistics lesson. (Although not all Hollywood stars are anti-gun; Kurt Russell, co-star of Hateful Eight, has spoken for the concept of armed self-defense quite ably recently).

Of course, he pistol rounds only have their magical properties on the scriptwriter’s command (who was that guy?) When the script requires it, others shrug off those thermonuclear pistol rounds and keep fighting with a grimace. And when the script requires it, the depiction of the suffering of the wounded is realistic — more realistic than in most films.

Almost like the director is enjoying it.

The bottom line

We didn’t care for The Hateful Eight. It’s a must for Tarantino fans and for people who miss Sam Peckinpah and his voyeuristic, arguably mentally ill approach to graPHIC violence on screen.

At times, in fact, it felt like it was Final Destination 8, the latest in the series of horror movies for teens. The only suspense was who was going to die next, and how gruesome the death would be.

If you’re of the opinion that Quentin Tarantino has spiders in his head, nothing on screen in The Hateful Eight will change your mind.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.Amazon.com DVD page (none):

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3460252/

  • IMFDB page

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Hateful_Eight,_The

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page

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

  • Wikipedia  page: 

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

Saturday Matinee: Ancient Black Ops (UK, TV, 2014)

Here’s a recommendation from the Blogbrother that, after watching one episode, we’re bouncing to you: Ancient Black Ops, a British series that reaches worldwide for experts and conducts some grimly low-budget reenactments in order to get across the latest thinking on elite forces of the distant past.

It’s been available on several TV channels in the UK, and here in the States is visible on Netflix or on Dailymotion.com. It only ran for one season (2014) and is not available on DVD.

ABA - Spartan Phalanx

Series 1, Episode 2 dealt with familiar ground — the Greek defense at Thermopylae. Several tiers of ancient Greek elite forces were involved. First, you could argue that the Spartans themselves were an elite — the only standing army maintained by a Greek city-state. Second, Leonidas could not get authority to march the whole army (in Sparta’s unique political arrangement, he was only a co-king). So he took only the troops he could mobilize himself: his own bodyguard, the famous 300. Finally, within these two elites was another, smaller elite called the krypteia.

Acting and Production

ABA - Spartan HelmetThe actors in the reenactment segments seem to be more from the reenactor end of the pool, than from the professional actor end. To be sure, they are not asked to deliver Shakespearean dialogue or rise to particular thespian challenges; they’re perfectly good for what they must do.

The experts, on the other hand, are on the top of their craft. Series 01 Episode 02 relied heavily on the most interesting and readable scholar on ancient Greek military tactics, weapons and operational art, Australia’s Christopher Matthew, author of A Storm of Spears: Understanding the Greek Hoplite in ActionBeyond the Gates of Fire: New Perspectives on the Battle of Thermopylae (co-written with Matthew Trundel), a new, annotated edition of Aelian’s Tactica for the first time in five centuries, and the forthcoming An Invincible Beast: Understanding the Hellenistic Pike Phalanx in Action. Matthew not only commands the sources, he actually strapped on armor and helmet, and took up shield and spear, and drilled until he knew the phalanx like no historian before him. In other words, on the Spartan phalanx, the producers didn’t just go get a guy; they got the guy.

The other experts are equally informative. British officer cadets were drilled in basic phalanx skills by   ________ Nolan, a soft-spoken, confident Briton identified as a weapons expert, and two modern veterans — SAS  and SEAL Don Mann, himself author of many books including SEAL Team Six (and still visibly fit long after retirement; good for him) tie the elite force of the past to the ethos of today’s special operations forces.

What the production doesn’t have is Hollywood money. They do the best with what they have, but the pitiful few extras they can muster make for a rather short phalanx, which they get around by framing shots in tight close-up of a hoplite or two, and they seem to reuse snippets of tape multiple times.

At least they resisted the siren’s call of cheap, bad CGI. Perhaps if the show had been a success, they’d have had a bigger budget for following seasons; but it looks like the ten episodes kicking around Netflix and the net are all you’ve got. Sorry ’bout that.

Accuracy and Weapons

If you really want to know about the panoply of the Spartan citizen-at-arms, you really need to read Matthew, who draws on such disparate sources as found weapons from graves and battle sites, depictions of weapons in contemporary art, and descriptions of weapons and their use in contemporary literature. On-screen, the Bronze Age warriors may have gleaming steel swords and armor — good-looking, but anachronistic.

There are also a few forays down the garden path that starts, “What might have happened is…”, including an attack on the Persian king, Xerxes, by the krypteia. But the show is kept from going too far off the track by the presence of Matthew and Nolan, who know what was practice and what is practically possible.

The bottom line

We enjoyed the show a great deal and plan to watch the rest of the episodes soon.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film. (As you’ll see, we found — or the Blogbro did — a pretty obscure series, this time.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (none):
  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3905852/

  • IMFDB page (none)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (none)
  • Wikipedia  page: (none)