Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Congratulations to Tom Kratman

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tradition Upheld, Good Books Acquired

This post will be slightly more personal than usual, and it will be written in the first person. You see, my mother was a remarkable and curious person who lived nearly 80 years and spent all of them trying to slake an insatiable curiosity, a fortunate malady that was among the inheritances she passed to her sons. This insatiable curiosity is manifested, among other things, as reading and love for books that falls somewhere along the scale where passion and obsession are found.

Today would have been her 79th birthday.

She was buying books, in hopes of reading them, short days before her death after a long and physically arduous complex of illnesses.

We had a sort of mother-son tradition, when I used to visit the folks in Florida: the Friends of the Martin County Library operate a large used book store on the grounds of a large flea market in Stuart, Florida, and we would go there one day every weekend (the store, which is staffed by volunteers, is only open on weekends when the market is open). We would each buy a stack of books. They would be different books, of course: she read fiction and loved taut, sophisticated mysteries, especially 20th Century British writers; I sought out military non-fiction, although she did urge some novels on me, and I was always a better man for each of them.

Two Sundays ago, I went without her, for the first time. It was, perhaps, a tribute. The image is my stack of books (minus a couple already distributed among the bathrooms down south at Hogney World). You may see some ideas from some of these books emerge in the blog. Most of them await my next visit and return, at the wheel of a car; this trip was in the human mailing tube we call an airliner.

stack_o_books

An interesting set:

  1. Landfall by Nevil Shute, a novel of Bomber Command in the early years of the British bomber offensive. Nobody really understands the staggering casualties the bomber boys (British and American alike) took. Shute captures well the “live for today” ethos that resulted, and the fragile, flickering flame of hope that gave them hope for survival, and for life beyond the war. Some of them would even get that. Shute’s most-read novel, On the Beach, isn’t close to being his strongest.
  2. Warday by Whitley Streiber and James SomebodyIcan’tread [ETA: Kunetka] is one of those 1980s novels of nuclear devastation that served Soviet propaganda aims. Some of them were Soviet-sponsored, some were by independent fellow-travelers, and some were by people who weren’t on the Soviet side so much as they, too had been scared by all the nuclear propaganda. If I remember, Warday is not a good novel, and it’s a tossup whether it’s of the first or of the second set. Streiber was a writer for hire, and it’s not like the KGB paid its agents of influence in unconvertible rubles. But I got it as a period piece, kind of like Mein Kampf or an argument for the divine right of kings.
  3. The Grim Reaper by Roger Ford is pretty much straight in WeaponsMan’s wheelhouse: a history of the machine gun. It’s more of a social history than a technical one, and it’s pretty interesting so far. Ever hear of the Ager gun?
  4. The Rogue Aviator by Ace Abbott. Somehow we think “Ace” was not on his birth certificate. A personal memoir of military and airline aviation in the F-4 Phantom and 727 era; a quick read.
  5. Days of Infamy: Military Blunders of the 20th Century by Michael Coffey. As God is my witness, I opened this three times and read some of it, and can’t retain what it’s about. That’s not an especially good sign. Indeed, I only recovered the subtitle by googling the sucker. My impression was that there was nothing new or rare in there and that it had a snide Hollywood tone, and looking online, I see it is a companion book for a TV show. You might wonder how something so shallow gets published — well, the author is the editor of Publishers Weekly.
  6. The History of LandminesI’ve already treated you to a detail or two from that. Good, slim, quality book by Mike Croll, a former British soldier and civilian mine removal expert. It turns out that ten years later, Mike rewrote and republished the book, now called Landmines in War and Peace.
  7. Declassified by Thomas B. Allen purports to be full of explosive declassified secrets, but a quick skim revealed nothing that hasn’t been covered in more depth elsewhere. This is an exploitation book to go with a TV series, which probably accounts for its superficial nature.
  8. Women in War by Shelley Saywell appears to be a 1980s propaganda tract by a feminist writer. Expect no humor whatsoever. Stories are selected for their Sisterhood Appeal and some are exaggerated; others apocryphal.
  9. Hunt the Wolf is a novel by former SEAL Don Mann; the protagonist is essentially a better Don Mann, but the book is a fun, fast read. One hopes that SEALs don’t “wing it” to the extent they do in this book.
  10. Tuxedo Park by Jennet Conant is the story of a wartime scientific lab sponsored by a secretive Wall Street potentate, told by his granddaughter and bearing on the “wizard war” of radars and sonars and passive detection systems.

In addition to those, there’s the bathroom books, including a photo history of SAAB and a couple others we can’t remember.

I have my receipt around here somewhere, but the total came to $28.

Saturday Matinee 2015 13: Generation War (German, 2013, TV)

(DVD image) Berlin. 1940. Five 20-year-old friends enjoy a last time together before the currents of the century separate them: solid, practical Wilhelm is a 2nd lieutenant in the army, and leaves in the morning for his duty station in the East. Charlotte, “Charly,” is a freshly qualified nurse, and she can’t bring herself to tell Wilhelm she has fallen for him. Wilhelm, for his part, doesn’t want to make any promises — there’s a war on, and it wouldn’t be fair. Wilhelm’s younger btother Friedhelm is completely unpractical: he’s lost in words and poetry, and is dead-set against the war but he’s now a draftee, and their parents have made Wilhelm promise to keep him alive. Greta dreams of being a successful singer, but she has a problem: her boyfriend, Viktor, the fifth of the friends, and a son of a World War I soldier, is a Jew.

GW five friends

L-R: Greta, Wilhelm, Charlotte, Friedhelm, Viktor

We viewers, watching this scene and knowing the history of Germany, know what these characters do not: horrors lie ahead.

There has probably never been a movie or TV series that has shown the horrors, the misfortunes and misdeeds of the ordinary German in what Germans now call “the NS-time,” as thoroughly and as well as Generation War (its German title is Unsere Mütter, Unsere Väter; “Our mothers, our fathers.”) It is unstinting, unsparing, and unsentimental. In places it is hard to watch.

Acting and Production

The actors are apparently household names in Germany; Volker Bruch as Wilhelm may be the largest star of them (we don’t really follow Teutonic showbiz), and Tom Schilling as Friedhelm gets, perhaps, the widest-ranging character. They are all good and deliver powerhouse performances, as do a large cast of secondary players, bit players, and extras.

Acting works when you can't see that it's "Acting" and fully believe in the characters.

Acting works when you can’t see that it’s “Acting” and fully believe in the characters.

The villains — to the extent that anybody’s a villain here, where almost everyone does something horrible sooner or later — are well played, Mark Waschke as a self-serving Gestapo functionary and Sylvester Groth as a cheerful mass murdering SS officer.

Sets and locations are extremely well thought out, and very often provide a visual contrast. In that sense, we mean that the sets are often places that were once beautiful grand houses, now ruined by war; and the outdoor locations are often places of great natural beauty, despoiled by the violence of warfare. This occurred so frequently in the hours of the series, that we came to think it was a deliberate decision on the part of the director and producers.

Each two-hour segment of the miniseries feels long (perhaps because the subject matter is so uncomfortable) and builds to a climactic last-minute reveal — and cliffhanger. (ETA: IMDB says the segments are 90 minutes. They felt like two hours, but not because they dragged, because they’re packed with intensity).

A score can make or break a show, and the score here was truly magnificent. Themes, motives from classical music, and  the melody of a beautiful song that Greta sings all recur, sometimes seriously, and sometimes ironically or mockingly. The main theme is as beautiful and as tragic as the entire production is.

Accuracy and Weapons

You can’t have a war without guns, and they put a great deal of effort into getting the right guns, or ones that are very near to correct. We could quibble about a couple of anachronisms in firearms and equipment, in which the Germans have gear on screen before their historical ancestors had it in the real world (MG42 before 1942; Kubelwagen at the start of the invasion of Russia).

Explosions are largely realistic. CGI, when it is used, is used skillfully and artfully. For example, both prewar and ruined postwar Berlin were re-created for different scenes; characters watch a train pass with Tiger tanks on flatcars at one point. (They know they nailed that bit of CGI: they put it into the trailer).

The Polish Home Army (Armij Krajova) is shown warts and all -- here with an MG42 and other captured German arms.

The Polish Home Army (Armija Krajova) partisans are shown warts and all — here with an MG42 and other captured German arms. Note that the gun looks new-ish, and not 70-years-of-beaten-up, as is sometimes the case with movie guns.

In one scene, which is featured in the trailer and that bookends the first episode, Wilhelm is firing an MP.40 and the casings fall on his copy of the “five friends” picture. They have made the casings wartime, unfinished steel. Give them +1 for that. But with the single flash hole of Boxer priming — give them -1 for that, and us -1 for being nerds enough to notice.

In another, there’s a continuity error where a P.38 pistol turns to a P.08. That this is a classic Hollywood error that they’ve been making since the war doesn’t, it seems, keep new producers from making it.

One important plot point is served by a Russian with a clutch of Panzerfaust grenade-launchers, although the Germans never seem to have this German weapon.

As a German production, it focuses primarily on German issues, but there are accurate if unflattering scenes of Russians, Poles, and American occupiers as well.

The bottom line

Some reviewers have described Generation War as “The German Band of Brothers.” It isn’t really; in some ways, it’s more ambitious, trying to show the whole grand sweep of a great war in about five or six hours. The war actually slew some 12 million Germans, while the Nazi regime slew millions of others, not only the famous, doomed Jews; and no survivor was left untainted by the events of 1939-1945. At one point, one of the characters shouts that there were no choices any more, just the choice of death or lying. At the end, the survivors among the friends can barely interact when they meet in the ruins of the location of the prewar party.

A very high level of the filmmaker’s art is here deployed in the service of a bleak, dark and depressing story, and we found it best taken in installments. The individual episodes are long, but they tend to draw one in and we did watch each in one sitting. Watch it yourself and use your best judgment before you let a family member or friend who is struggling to process war experiences see it; for some such sufferers it will be cathartic, and for others it may exacerbate depression.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Generation-War-Volker-Bruch/dp/B00ID8H8EW/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1883092/

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

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/771363367/

  • Wikipedia  page (note that the Wikipedia entry is bursting with errors):

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

Saturday Matinee 2015 10: Air Cadet (1951)

Air_Cadet_filmIt’s 1951, in the first hard years of the Cold War, and for a select group of American young men, the sky is calling. The Air Cadet program was created in the throes of the runup to World War II when the US needed to produce lots of airmen, fast. A systematized training scheme put men through a boot-camp-like military indoctrination, followed by Primary, Basic and Advanced flight training. (Would-be airmen who couldn’t keep up or lacked pilot aptitude joined other cadets in training for other aircrew positions). By 1951 this relatively baroque system had been greatly simplified. Pilots were trained ab initio in T-6 piston planes (which had been the Advanced single-engine trainers in the wartime system). Then, pilots selected for multi-engine training would move on to the TB-25; pilots with fighter aspirations would move to the then-new T-33, a trainer version of the then-current Lockheed F-80 fighter.

The military bildungsroman is a common enough film type, or was at the time, and the conflicts in the movie are the will-he-pass-the-checkride variety, along with who-gets-the-girl and the ever-popular why-does-the-major-have-it-in-for-me?

Acting and Production

It’s a midcentury B-movie from Hollywood, so it’s going to be corny. If you’re expecting gallic ennui or New York nihilism-in-a-cynic’s-mask, you’ve come to the wrong show. The biggest name actor in it is the then unknown Rock Hudson, but he has a small role as an upperclassman at Randolph Field who hazes our four cadet roommates, all played by Hollywood journeymen. The four are types: the cynical infantry vet Joe Czanoczek, Everyman Russ Coulter who’s representing his dead pilot brother, plane-crazy Jerry Connell, and spoiled-rich-kid Walt Carver.  It doesn’t take a jet pilot to know that under Hollywood rules Joe will find something to believe it, Russ will grow out of his brother’s shadow, Jerry will find limits to his love affair with aviation, and Walt will accomplish something without a nanny for a change.

Air Cadet engine

The movie was made with a limited budget and a lot of assistance from the Air Force, and combines studio interiors and airplane models and mockups with exteriors shot on real bases, and with real aircraft in the background. Supposedly, one of the extras in the movie was future Mercury and Gemini astronaut Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, who was in line to command Apollo 1 and also the first lunar landing. He would, instead, perish with his crewmates in a launch-pad rehearsal flash fire in 1967.

Accuracy and Weapons

Guns don’t figure in the story at all, and, in fact, neither do many combat planes: the men have their hands full trying to master the T-6 and the T-33, although they peak with a solo in the F-80. These vintage training planes are one reason to enjoy the movie, and there are a lot of little cues to vintage ground equipment, like a mobile control tower on the back of a 2½ ton truck.

Air Cadet F-80

Many aspects of cadet training are depicted realistically, while others are fanciful. The challenges of academics and hazing are dismissed rapidly in montage fashion. There are many such films, but none that realistically shows the tension created as one good man after another fails to meet the cut and is washed out; Air Cadet may be doing its best, but in the end it only hints at it.

The flying is to some degree nonsense, with both formation flying and instrument flying hammered into plot inflection points rather than being treated realistically. On the other hand, depiction of the macho pilot culture and its limitations is ahead of its time, including a plot point that hinges on a suicide (off-screen, by a character we never see). They explicitly make the point that the burden of flying risky missions was a factor, and suggest that the squadron leader blamed himself.

In these days before CGI and green screen, effects shots are either done with rear-projection sets or with models. One scene, of a T-33 belly landing, is barely recognizable as a model, and that only because of the non-scale flames. For 1951, it’s not bad.

The bottom line

Air Cadet is a blast from the past — a very distant 64 years ago; it wasn’t Oscar bait then and it isn’t a “classic” now. But it is a little bit of a forgotten era in national defense, preserved for the benefit of us all.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page: (not available).
  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0043270/

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

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

Saturday Matinee 2015 09: 49th Parallel (1941)

49th ParallelSome of the sites describing this video describe it as a propaganda film. It is that, in the sense that it was produced by a wartime combatant (Britain) and meant to stir emotions in the citizens of a noncombatant (the USA, at that time). Accordingly, the movie shows some of the things you’d expect an American to believe about Canada and Canadians — the happy Inuit, the voluble French trappers.

But it’s more than just propaganda. Because “propaganda film” brings to mind the mindless paeans to various dictators over the years, and has a connotation (often deserved) of dreadful quality. This movie does not deserve to be tarred with that same brush.

Fortunately, you do not need to take our word for it; you can decide for yourself, because the copyright for  has lapsed. Therefore, we have the opportunity to embed the whole movie for you here.

The story is essentially this: a German submarine, U-37, is operating off Newfoundland. Hunted by Canadian planes and ships after sinking a merchantman, the Germans choose to take refuge in Hudson’s Bay, where they are found and sunk by Canadian planes that are Lockheed Hudsons in some shots and ancient Douglas types in others (the RCAF did operate these aircraft during the war). But before U-37 went the way of all flesh, her skipper landed a foraging party of two officers and four men, who were supposed to raid a Hudson’s Bay Company trading post for food and fuel. Now, they must survive, a situation for which their preparation is inadequate. And they must try to evade their way from the Canadian near-arctic to neutral territory — presumably, across the border into the neutral USA.

49th_parallel_nazis

In true Hollywood Nazi fashion, the Germans blow every chance to make friends and influence people.

Johnny, a trapper (played with verve and over-the-top Acadian diction by a young Laurence Olivier), doesn’t believe a word of the stories he’s told — after a year running his trapline, unaware there was a war on — about Germans having strafed Polish civilians.

“The German, he’s an ordinary man like us. I wouldn’t do that. You wouldn’t do that. So I’m not going to believe they would do that.” The Germans, of course, make him a believer before they’re done.

But the Germans move on, their ranks thinned by mishap and enemy action, trying to get to the United States, from which they may be able to get back home and back into the war.

Acting and Production

While it absolutely was made as a propaganda film, the movie was made by screen professionals and production values were not compromised for didactic value. 49th Parallel is well-shot and well-acted, and the cast is chockablock with British pros: Laurence Olivier, Leslie Howard and Raymond Massey (actually a Canadian; this is the only movie in which he ever played a Canadian character!). The Hutterite leader Peter is played by Anton Walbrook; Walbrook donated half his fee to the IRC, and the three big-name stars simply worked for half pay, because they believed in the movie’s message — and the creatives’ ability to deliver it.

Arguably the best performance is the forgotten Irish actor Niall MacGinnis as the baker-turned Engine Room Artificer, Vogel.

The director, Michael Powell and the writer Emeric Pressburger would later be known as “The Archers” and make a series of memorable wartime and postwar films.

Pressburger’s Oscar-winning script is devilishly clever, with the Germans, a mixed bag of regular Joes and committed National Socialists, initially seeming a ruck of indistinguishable Nazi uniforms and gradually emerging as individuals, with individual motivations, beliefs — and fates. At one point, a Nazi officer regales a Christian religious community with parables of praise for his Savior — Adolf Hitler. The blasphemous parallel is done, but done subtly; it would have been much easier to overdo it, and neither Pressburger nor Eric Portman as the German lieutenant fall into that trap. Still, as you might imagine, the political harangue lays an Operation Barbarossa-size egg.

The Germans get their share of clever lines. At one point, one tells an expert on Indian tribes that the Nazis “choose to rely on ‘primitive, savage folkways,'” or words to that effect, mocking a passage in the author’s own manuscript — which the Nazis then destroy, along with his modern art. In case the message was lost on you, then they burn a Thomas Mann novel (Mann was proscribed in the Third Reich).

One thing that deserves some notice is the orchestral score, which is magnificent. The composer Ralph Vaughn Williams is responsible. The rest of the sound effects are variable in quality — one scene in a plummeting airplane is all wrong, but the sound of a plane running a fuel tank dry is all too correct (don’t ask us how we know that).

Accuracy and Weapons

For a wartime picture, guns are not as emphasized as you might think. The sailors go ashore with WWI vintage long Mausers with long bayonets, not entirely unbelievable for 1940 or so. By the time they go clandestine, the Mausers are a memory. The officers have Lugers (although in one scene, we swore we saw a Lahti!) in wrong holsters, but one assumes British prop houses weren’t flush with German WWII kit by that time. The Kriegsmarine uniforms are all wrong.

49th_parallel_nazi_guns

Conversely, the Canadians are armed with sporting arms and dressed in the outdoor clothing of the mid-20th Century. While the Canadians normally have their guns put away, the Nazis are very quick to use theirs.

49th_parallel_nazi_pistol_rifle

One Eskimo gives the plot a nudge with a Savage Model 99, one of the most beautiful lever actions ever made:

49th_parallel_eskimo_savage_99

And later, another lever action falls into the hands of the Nazi evaders — another classic, a Winchester Model 1895.

49th_parallel_winchester_95

The German sub features one prominent anti-aircraft gun — a water-cooled Vickers. Nice try, but… it’s almost as funny as the bombing attack on the sub, in which all bombs either hit or strike within a couple of feet of the sub. Had Allied bombing been that good, the U-boats would have been out of business by January 1940.

The understanding of Nazi beliefs and politics is uneven, compared to that developed by postwar scholarship.

In one extremely effective scene, the gunshot you know is coming takes place off screen. What you see is, instead, the heartless German officer making the Nazi salute as bloody murder is done off stage.

The bottom line

49th Parallel is a period piece, a fossil from the mid-20th Century preserved in amber and now available to everyone through the magic of the Internet and the good fortune (albeit perhaps not for the Archers’ heirs) of the film’s copyright lapsing. Yes, it was made to sway minds, but it was made with a light hand by people who were very, very good at their job. It does not conform to the Save The Cat! template perfectly, and it runs just about 2 hours long — a modern audience wouldn’t sit still for it, perhaps. But if you sit still for it, you will be glad you did. It has the abovementioned great script, with a truly fiendish (and satisfying) twist at the end.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (also on Prime instant video for free for Prime members. However, the YouTube version above is probably less compressed than the Prime version):

http://www.amazon.com/Parallel-Criterion-Collection-Leslie-Howard/dp/B000KRNGN6/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0033627/

  • IMFDB page:

(Doesn’t exist).

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (88% fresh):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/49th_parallel/

  • Wikipedia  page:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/49th_Parallel_(film)

Today Only Book Deal – Free

SF A TeamsLadies and Gents, here’s a freebie for you if you act fast, thanks to author (and retired Colonel) Tom Davis. Special Forces A Teams is a carve-out from Tom’s longer autobiography, The Most Fun I Ever Had with My Clothes On: A March from Private to Colonel. It includes his memories of service as a junior officer on a Special Forces ODA in the United States and Europe (Tom’s Vietnam service was in conventional forces, IIRC).

In the book, Tom Davis tells stories of SF Combat Diver (SCUBA) school; walking the Appalachian Trail with an ODA whose leader he was sent to relieve, but wasn’t just taking a relief lying down; of being trained as a Green Light team; and of the lieutenant who had to learn for himself that what the teams did with cryptographic material wasn’t what doctrine said to do with it:

On one such Flintlock we deployed from RAF Greenham Common, England, into Germany. My new, XO, LT Tuffs, decided that he would do as he was taught in the SF Course and maintain control of the one-time pads (OTP). One-time pads were crypto pads about the size of a small notebook. They consisted of pages and pages of letters in five groups each. Once they were filled out , they were destroyed.

An officer on the Team was supposed to maintain control of them and write and encrypt each message then give it to the commo guy who would send out the encrypted five-letter groups via Morse code over the radio. In reality, the senior commo guy, in this case SFC Taylor, would carry the pads and encrypt the message that I gave him. I didn’t feel good about it, but I couldn’t tell Tuffs that he couldn’t do it as he was taught. Anyway, what could go wrong?

We were three days into the operation. I was sitting by the fire when Tuffs walked over, his face colorless. I knew instantly something had really gotten screwed up. “What?” I said expecting the worse.

“Sir, I can’t find the one-time pads.” He looked down and shook his head.

This was a BIG deal. Not only had we lost a sensitive real world crypto document, we had lost it in a foreign country! “Are you sure?” I said, seeing my career, what little there was of it, flash before my eyes. All he could do was nod his head and gulp shallow breaths.

We went over to his field gear, and I emptied his rucksack and turned his sleeping bag inside out. No pads. If we couldn’t find them within the next hour, I would send a flash message, in the clear no less, back to our battalion headquarters (called a FOB or Forward Operations Base) to let them know we had really screwed up. There was no question the commander would have administratively yanked us all out of the field and started a 15-6 investigation into the matter. I stomped back over to my gear and was about to call [team sergeant Thompson over to tell him to get everybody together so we could backtrack where we had come from. Just then Thompson and Taylor walked up. Taylor was smiling. Thompson wasn’t.

“Taylor has something to show you.” Thompson motioned Taylor forward. “Look what I found on the ground back at our last stop.” Taylor produced the pads.

“You found these back at our RON (Rest Over Night) and are just now telling me?” I knew exactly what he was doing. He was making the point that the commo guy should be the one to control the pads as we, and every other Team, had always done.

Tuffs was right and Taylor was wrong but also right. I called Tuffs over and showed him the pads. His reaction was just like when you’ve lost your billfold then find it, but multiplied by ten! I allowed as how even though doctrine dictated that an officer control the pads, we’d let SFC Taylor control ours from then on. Tuffs was good with that.

Most every team, during the days of 2LT team Executive Officers, had a story like that, and frankly, most of the former XOs can tell one, too. It was part of learning the tribal knowledge of how to lead SF soldiers, things that weren’t in the book, and that sometimes, like in this case, conflicted with doctrine.

There are a number of reasons team leaders shouldn’t have been the ones encrypting messages, but the biggest ones are 1. the TL’s time is precious, and 2. anyone who encrypts a lot of messages, as every communicator (SFC Taylor would have been a 05B4S, today he’d be an 18E4) has done in his MOS phase of SFQC and subsequent service, is going to be much, much faster than anyone who has little experience of it. The one-time pads still exist as a backup, and have the signal (no pun intended) advantage of being proven unbreakable, so long as the keystream or key generation is truly random.

Anyway, the stories are entertaining. This sub-book ends with an offer of a discount on Tom’s full-length book in trade paperback format, something that fixes one real problem with the Kindle format, the tiny fixed-size pictures.

You want real SF stories from a real SF guy, Davis has got ‘em. Get ‘em yourself here. After today, the price goes up to $3!

Note

This post has been corrected. The commo man’s MOS has been repaired, per the note in the comments from Mike Hill (himself a former commo man! He would know).

Saturday Matinee 2015 08: Field of Lost Shoes (2013)

Field of Lost ShoesThis was recommended to us by a commenter months, maybe years ago. But we finally got around to watching it. And you should, too. It’s a serious attempt to tell a true story of the Civil War, a remarkable human interest story. The story is that of the Battle of Newmarket in Virginia in 1864, and one of the most unusual units to as ever turn the tide of the battle: the Corps of Cadets of the Virginia Military Institute . These were young men and boys from about age 15 to about age 21.

While this story has risen to the level of legend among the graduates of the Institute, it’s a story of the Civil War worth learning, whether you have any connection at all to either side of that conflict.

Acting and Production

Field-of-Lost-Shoes_boys

The young unknowns who play the cadets do perfectly well, and they’re supported by a cast that includes a wide range of talents: Civil War reenactors, actual VMI cadets, two seasoned professionals. In the latter category , Keith David has the institute’s slave baker, “Old Judge”; Tom Skerritt, as US Grant; and Jason Isaacs, as Confederate Gen. Breckenridge, stand out. Isaacs gets the line of the movie: “Send in the boys… and may God have mercy on my soul.”

They apparently extended their budget by a trick that we’ve seen war-film makers use in several other independent films, using reenactors. That said, the film seldom feels budget-cramped; perhaps when very similar locations and sets are used for various Confederate and Union field camps (indeed, it feels like one location and set, superficially re-dressed for each scene). Where a lot of money needs to be put on the screen for the viewer to see, it has been done.

VMI_cadets_at_NewMarket

The command position’s difficulty of observation during a Civil War battle was made quite clear.

Any costume, period drama is a hard thing for filmmakers to plan and shoot, the Civil War being a particular bear. There is some anachronistic language and mores, but not overwhelmingly so; by and large they hold to the language and attitudes you would expect from martial caste Americans of the mid-19th Century.

One prelude scene shows a young son of a privileged gentleman getting himself a bit of an education about slavery, by watching a slave auction. He had just been telling his father that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was clearly nonsense, because he didn’t know anyone that

The scene rings true, despite the unlikelihood of the situation they try to sell later, in which a group of young Virginians of 1863-4 are all morally opposed to slavery. If a character in a modern movie were to express the attitude of the average denizen of the 1860s towards black men, viewers would be outraged. On the other hand, the simple faith of many of the rank and file as well as the leaders does get a fair showing.

Field-of-Lost-Shoes_prayer

The DVD includes a making-of featurette and one on the way the Institute and its Cadets memorialize the heroes of New Market.  The sound levels on the featurettes are much higher than that on the movie itself.

Accuracy and Weapons

The use of weapons seems about right, and the weapons used by both the Union and Rebel troops seem about right. They do not downplay the smoke of the field much, compared to other Civil War films.

In one incredible scene that we’re guessing was CGI or superimposition, you can see the cannonball exit a Union cannon. Amazing! The actual assault is done, as you might expect in an era of slow-loading rifle-muskets, with empty rifles merely serving as handles for cold steel.

field-of-lost-shoes-charge

The bottom line

The Field of Lost Shoes is a must for former VMI grads and Civil War buffs, the best-informed of whom can probably find nits to pick with it. We enjoyed it, and thought it a good balance of realism and plot. The stories of cadets like Thomas G. Jefferson, John Wise, Moses Ezekiel and their friends deserve wider respect, beyond the VMI alum network. This movie tells the story with art and without artifice; it is endearing in its earnestness.

field-of-lost-shoes-march

We respect heroism around here, whether it’s in service of a good cause or ill, it deserves recognition of its own right. History would write that the Rebel cause was both wrong, and doomed; let history also record that the Rebels (and the Yanks) fought their hearts out, in a cause that they believed was right, and that they wouldn’t admit was doomed, even to themselves. Ave atque vale. 

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Field-Lost-Shoes-Jason-Issac/dp/B00NMYL93I/

Also available in Instant Video:

http://www.amazon.com/Field-Lost-Shoes-Lauren-Holly/dp/B00N1Q4UNS/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2477218/

  • IMFDB page: (none)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (40%, rotten):

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

  • Wikipedia  page:

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

 

Amazon’s TV Series Decisions: yes to High Castle, no to Cocked

Man_High_Castle_(TV_Series)_mapJust a brief note on this breaking news:

Amazon has made its call on which of its series it will order for a full season. Of the two series we reviewed, the atmospheric The Man in the High Castle, an alt-history where the Germans and Japanese won WWII and occupied the USA, based on a Philip K. Dick novel, is going forward to production; the uneven Cocked, which featured stars Jason Lee and Brian Dennehy in a show about a dysfunctional family in the firearms industry.

The Man in the High Castle was, they say, the most watched pilot Amazon ever put up. We reviewed it here. We know Tam and Bobbi will be excited about this, if nobody else is (and clearly, from the response, a lot of somebody-elses are).

Hollywood being Hollywood, even the Silicon Valley version, they have nothing to say about the shows that didn’t continue, but you can read our review of Cocked here. Now that the decision is made, we’re a little sorry the story of Paxson Firearms came to an end, but then, we know from Alpha House where Amazon was going to take it, so it’s probably better off on Fiddler’s Green.

They also greenlit the achingly dull and crushingly boring award-bait documentary series The New Yorker Presents, an alleged comedy about middle-aged losers, Mad Dogs, and two pretty derivative shows for small children, one animated.

Joining Cocked in oblivion are Down Dog, “a satirical look at LA’s yoga culture” (we didn’t watch), Point of Honor, a laughably ahistorical historical drama about a family of Confederates who have morals from the future (they’re opposed to slavery; the “young ladies” are foulmouthed slatterns; they’re anti-smoking; we lasted maybe 8 minutes), Salem Rogers, a show about the travails of a washed-up fashion model (didn’t watch), and four more kiddie shows.

The Amazon Press Release is at this link.

Saturday Matinee 2015 07: BAT-21 (1988)

BAT-21 DVDThis movie was based on a popular non-fiction book that hit the racks in the 1980s, one of several books about heroic Vietnam experiences that delighted the public, as a backlash took hold against the media-mythologized image of the no-good Vietnam vet. But “based on” gets tortured pretty badly between book and screen; IMDB calls it a “fact-based war drama,” and we all know what that means. Now, they didn’t make the protagonist a conflicted war criminal or anthing; in fact, most of the changes the writers (a team practically as big as Glenn Miller’s Band, judging from the credits, never a good sign) and director Peter Markle made, made their adventure story less interesting than the real adventured of USAF Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton.

And their efforts towards accuracy were, to be blunt, pathetic. You can imagine the dialogue in planning conferences: “It was an airplane, so show a picture of an airplane, or get one to fly over. Any airplane — they all look the same to me.” And what about the Vietnamese characters, or, really, extras? “All Asians look alike to us, so just get some generic Orientals and we’re golden.” So why watch the jeezly thing? As a gateway drug to reading William C. Anderson’s and Iceal Hambleton’s book of the same title, perhaps. Or to see good performances by Gene Hackman, Danny Glover, and some supporting actors. Or just to see a movie about Vietnam in which the Americans are not defunct losers or outright villains, still a rarity in 1988 when this was released.

The original trailer plays up the Hollywood anti-war theme, but it doesn’t actually represent the movie well:

That’s what makes the movie, though: the chemistry of Hackman, playing a real character, and Glover, playing a composite one, connected by the thin thread of survival radio. In some ways they got the gestalt of a rescue operation during the 1972 Easter Offensive right, even as they botched seemingly every detail.

Acting and Production

hackman as hambletonThe actors are pros and their parts are pretty straightforward. The production tells the story simply and chronologically. This is not a juxtaposition flick, and they probably didn’t screen it at Cannes. It was a summer shoot-em-up, and made everybody involved money, and still entertains people on late-night movie channels.

The movie was made in Malaysia, whose jungle stood in well for northern South Vietnam.

Accuracy and Weapons

Oddly enough, considering how wildly and unnecessarily inaccurate the story is, the small arms in the film are fairly accurate. The NVA mostly have Chinese AKs and a Makarov pistol, check. Danny Glover’s character bails out of an emergency-landed aircraft with an M16A1, which is also the weapon carried by other American soldier characters; the helicopters have M60 door guns (check), but not mounted M60Ds, merely bungee-suspended ground 60s, as was done in 1962. Uncheck. Also, the MG the NVA shoots several helicopters down with is an M2HB.

Hambleton’s real-world survival weapon was a Smith & Wesson .38, and he didn’t kill anybody with it, or even fire it at anybody. In the film, he has a Browning Hi-Power (a not totally implausible pilot’s weapon) and he uses it with abandon. In the real world, that’s inadvisable, in the middle of the enemy’s combined-arms offensive.

hackman firing pistol

One thing that’s really true is the use of hole lengths and azimuths from the golf course of Tucson National to steer Hambleton, an avid golfer, towards safety. A similar, if cruder, code referring to the Snake River was used to steer Idahoan Clark towards water and safety; this isn’t in the movie because the script put what was really two separate evaders together.

Hambleton was rescued, all alone, by a team of one US Navy and one Vietnamese LDNN SEALs. Hundreds of men, aircraft, vehicles and ships were involved in the rescue, but in the end it came to a couple of commandos skulking in the water and along the riverbank. This dramatic reality is not present in the movie.

glover bat 21Danny Glover’s character depicts several FAC pilots; while a FAC crewman named Clark was shot down and then rescued during the Hambleton rescue, his name was not Bartholomew, but the rather more prosaic Mark. He wasn’t a nobody, though, but the grandson of WWII Army general Mark Clark. Clark did not come from a poor background. Clark did not fly a helicopter, and did not link up with Hambleton, but was rescued separately by the same SEALs (US and RVN) working for SOG-80/JPRC.

For a FAC to waltz off with a helicopter after a simple cockpit briefing… well, it’s a movie.

pilot executedThe depiction of the NVA murdering a helicopter pilot, and another helicopter pilot killing himself in a minefield, is completely fanciful, but the NVA are suspected of murdering two FAC crewmen who were in the area on an unrelated mission. (One of them, USMC 1st Lt. Larry Potts, may have been the inspiration for the filmmakers choosing a black actor to play Clark. Clark’s actual frontseater was captured alive, and repatriated in 1973).

This is a real O-2, photographed over Laos (possibly supporting SOG or Project 404) in 1970. The plane in the movie was a crude approximation.

This is a real O-2, photographed over Laos (possibly supporting SOG or Project 404) in 1970. The plane in the movie was a crude approximation.

All the aircraft are wrong. Every single one. Glover’s O-2 is a civilian Skymaster, not even cosmetically dressed as the military plane, except for a coat of paint. No gunsight, no radios (well, all-wrong civilian radio stack), no smoke rockets, nice plus civilian seats, not the web butt-torturers of the pukka O-2. Most of the FACs were flying the more-modern OV-10 at the time. The jets are Malaysian F-5s, complete with Malaysian 1980s colors and markings, and the helicopters are Malaysian Sea Kings. One short archival clip of F-100s is used — and by 1972, the F-100s were gone from Vietnam.

There was no planned B-52 raid creating artificial timeline tension in the real world: instead, B-52s were actually used as a high-risk high-payoff diversion, to strike NVA concentrations and tie up enemy assets to allow the planned SEAL water/ground rescues (two separate rescues, on two separate nights) to eventuate… one more case where the director’s and screenwriters’ decisions leeched real drama out of their canned script.

Finally, a pet peeve of ours, the explosions are all Hollywood fireballs. Does any Hollywood pyro man know how to blow up anything but gasoline? Doubtful.

The bottom line

BAT-21 is entertaining, if wildly unrealistic.  The best thing you may get from it is a determination to hunt up the real story, in several websites (this one’s a good start, and so is this) and two books. But it is 105 minutes or so of fast-moving entertainment.

The real Iceal Hambleton — who went by “Gene” to those who knew him — passed away in 2004, at the age of 85. He was a veteran of three wars: WWII, where he was still stateside at war’s end; Korea, where he flew many missions as a B-29 navigator; and Vietnam, where a decision to put himself on the flight schedule due to a navigator shortage entered his name in the history books.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Bat-21-Gene-Hackman/dp/B00004ZBVG

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0094712/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/BAT*21

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (the reviewers liked it; 80% fresh. It didn’t score as well with viewers in general):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/bat_21/

  • Wikipedia  page:

 

Saturday Matinee: Edge of Tomorrow

Edge_of_Tomorrow_PosterEdge of Tomorrow illustrates the bizarre economics of Hollywood by being a $100M grossing… flop. It suffered from, among other things, customer backlash against Tom Cruise, and a marketing effort so feeble (or was it febrile?) that they have gone two ways with the movie’s title, the bland Edge of Tomorrow which signposted the film’s dusty road to box-office death, and Live Die Repeat, which has sold it in DVD and Blu-Ray. We watched it on HBO, where it is presently in rotation, but you can find it at all the usual suspects.

The movie is set in an unspecified near future where a world has had to unite to fight against an alien race, the Mimics. (Unlike some other sci-fi xenospecies, the etymology of the enemy’s name is not logical or clear). The Mimics are smarter, somehow, and they can anticipate humans’ every move. The Earth armies are to invade the European continent from England in a battle loosely modeled, by the movie makers if not their fictional generals, on Operation Overlord. It is called Operation Downfall (the real name of the planned, never-executed, invasion of Honshu). Public Affairs officer Thomas Cage (Tom Cruise in a rather deep part for an actioner) blots his copybook, and will be participating in the invasion as a freshly minted, and combat-untrained, private. Cage sees horrible sights, never gets his gear working right, whacks a Mimic leader of some type through sheer happenstance — and is violently slain.

That’s where the movie really starts to pick up. Cage is somehow reliving the day, over, and over again, and unlike everyone else, knows he’s doing it. His attempts to call others’ attention to this Kafkaesque situation meet Kafkaesque rejection. Take that, Gregor Samsa.

It turns out, the enemy has the ability to stop time and revert to a status quo ante. When the war starts going against them, they go back and replay the scenario, with the knowledge of what their enemies will do. No wonder they win. And no human understands this but Cruise’s Cage. Or are there others?

The movie is based on a Japanese “light novel,” a uniquely Japanese kind of popular novella, named All You Need is Kill. The name alarmed Warner Brothers executives, who are still dithering about the name to this day.

Acting and Production

We get that people are weirded out by Cruise’s unconventional religion and its bizarre beliefs. However, those of us who attend a church that displays a dead guy on a stick, or that believe God settled his benevolence uniquely on one tribe of scrabbling desert nomads over all the others, probably ought to lighten up the stone-throwing. It’s his right to believe whatever it is he believes, and it’s your right to make fun of him, and even boycott his films, but if you do the last, you’re missing some good entertainment.

edge of tomorrow scar

Cruise’s boyish athleticism — dang, the guy’s in his mid-fifties, and does at least some of his own stunts, no doubt to the irritation of his insurers — is exactly what the part needs. He might fall short as Jack Reacher, who’s supposed to be large and intimidating, but in this role where he’s an office-working officer thrust unwillingly into combat, he’s excellent. He clearly had fun in the role, and has been said to compare the many deaths of William Cage to those of Wile E. Coyote. (He doesn’t ever hold up an “Oh, no!” sign, but he has a way of expressing that with his face).

Other strong performances include Emily Blunt as Rita Vrtaski, the obligatory Amazon (and a very chaste source of sexual tension with Cruise, in a throwback to the sexual energy of classic movies of another day), and Bill Paxton as Master Sergeant Farrell.

The movie reminds one of video games, especially the old 1980s text variety, where The script is a stew of dozens of creatives’ efforts, and it shows: the ending in particular smells focus-grouped and unsatisfying.

Accuracy and Weapons

While the alien technology and weaponry is entirely fanciful (and can boil down to: “the bad guys get to use magic”), the near-future equipment of the humans is at least plausible. Forerunners of the combat exoskeletons have indeed been subject to experimentation, and the quad tiltrotor, while a Hollywood creation with too little lift for too much weight, and an illogically redundant use of both tail gate and belly doors, loosely resembles machines actually proposed by serious people.

The firearms are the least evolved thing in the movie. There is a recognizable Claymore mine (complete with the FRONT TOWARD ENEMY originally place there because of the near-illiteracy of many privates of the 1970s Army), and at one point, Cruise’s character specifies his ammunition requirements — in 5.56.

Sorry, but even in the fictional future, 6.5 fans can’t catch a break.

When Sergeant Vrtaski needs to “reset” Major-turned-Private Cage, she shoots him in the head with a SIG 226. (As a public service to all who might have a bad day and be tempted to blast the nearest actor, in the real world this does not reset time and give you a Mulligan on your day. Thank you).

edge of tomorrow sig

No one involved with the film seems to have ever had any exposure to any actual military, so what we have here is Hollywood recycling Hollywood tropes about the military. This can be painful at times: discipline is enforced by brutality, grunts are as coarse and stupid as Danny Deever, generals are callous monsters who take the shortest of breaks from throwing lives away to use the power of their rank to advance personal vendettas. It’s the Star Trek Skin Deep Diversity World goes to war, and it hits many of Hollywood’s favorite themes, including the bumbling man/domineering women so beloved of commercials (and commercials are where this director came from).

It’s unfortunate that people coming out of this film will think that her fictional Rita Vrtaski character is what we get when we lower standards to rush women into infantry combat, and doubly unfortunate that those gullible people will then vote for politicians similarly unexposed to military life. (Women can and do serve with courage and commitment, and have for a very long time, but the Narrative demands that we must have Amazons on the screen. Trying to adapt that to real life is only going to get people, units, and possibly countries killed).

There’s a lot of CGI in the movie, and a lot of frenetic cutting, sometimes of the “just shake the camera so they can’t see what we just did, there” variety. At least it’s generally good CGI.

The bottom line

Edge of Tomorrow deserved better than its US box-office underperformance ($100M versus $178M costs), although it unquestionably became profitable in retrospect. slight elaboration. What you’ll get from it. Smart ass closing.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://www.amazon.com/Live-Die-Repeat-Tomorrow-Blu-ray/dp/B00K2CHWOI/

Note that the digital copy included with Warner Brothers releases is now the crappy proprietary ultraviolet one, with sub-YouTube, not HD, quality, and does not work at all with IOS devices.

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1631867/

  • IMFDB page:
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (they like it: 90% fresh):

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

  • Wikipedia  page:

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