Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2016 11: The North Star (1943)

The-North-Star-1943Many people have seen this movie, and many say it’s a classic of wartime cinema. There may even be some intersection between the two sets, but if so, it’s small. The North Star is somewhat unique of being an over-the-top Soviet propaganda film that was not made in the USSR, but by Americans in Hollywood.

It starred Dana Andrews, Ann Baxter, Dean Jagger, Walter Huston and Walter Brennan as a variety of adorable Ukrainian peasants (all looking rather well-fed for Stalin-era Ukrainians, and whose characters have rather typical Russian names) and Erich von Stroheim in the bloodthirsty-Nazi role.

After an interminable succession of sequences educating us about the lives of joy and plenty to be had amid the Holodomor, the actual movie finally starts. In it, the peasants rally to the (red) flag and defeat the Nazi juggernaut. Fortunately, they sing a lot less once the actual, interesting part of the movie gets going.

Acting and Production

Erich von Stroheim in The North Star.

Erich von Stroheim in The North Star.

Most of the acting is self-conscious and clunky, but Huston does well. The real standout performance is Von Stroheim as a Nazi doctor who has put on a veneer of civilization, but it isn’t as deep as his dueling scar. (The university dueling scar was associated with nobility and gentry, and often Prussians, not Nazis, but whatever… seen one Hun, seen ’em all, right?)

We’ve forgotten the name of the guy who played the other Nazi, but he is the go to guy for Hollywood wartime Nazis — at one time or another he stood up in the turret of seemingly every Panzer, commanded every concentration camp, and executed every Allied prisoner to ever get whacked on the silver screen. He was actually an anti-Nazi German actor who escaped barely ahead of the warrant for his arrest, and wound up in Hollywood playing the very guys who persecuted him!

The other actors are all solid performers with many other credits, so you can’t blame them for the way this movie came out. The villain seems to have been scriptwriter Lillian Hellman.

Hellman’s script  seems to have been written according to an understanding of the audience as extremely slow, and unable to absorb instruction unless it’s hammered home with the caress of a pile driver — and the persistence of the Rain Man. The dialog only seems to be something a living, breathing human being would say of his or her volition only very occasionally — and then by sheerest happenstance.

north star happy peasantsAlmost the first half of the movie is the happy-peasant-singing-dancing bit. Imagine The Sound of Music in black and white, and with much worse songs.

The music needs to be mentioned as a warning, if for no other reason. The score is an intrusive chaos by the overrated Aaron Copland, and it gets worse, because there are songs with music by Copland and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. With the balky rhymes Gershwin comes up with, it’s almost as if he expected Sam Goldwyn’s check to bounce. Any of the singing scenes are a great time to use your fast forward button.

north-star stuka victimsAs bad as it was despite all the good actors in the cast and its awkward propaganda message, The North Star actually got a second chance at release — in the 1950s, it was recut and new dialogue was added, making the communist propaganda piece into an anti-communist propaganda piece that was nearly as bad. (“Nearly” because the cut version, released as Armored Attack!, lost 30 minutes of pastoral peasant insomnia therapy and a good bit of Copland’s and Gershwin’s auditory assault).

Most prints of this circulating in DVD and whatever are cropped for TV and in lousy condition, but it’s not like the film is a great aesthetic masterpiece. Save yourself a rental and watch it for free at the Internet Archive.

Accuracy and Weapons

If any effort at all was made in the direction of accuracy, it is not evident. One of the more bizarre (and gruesome) Hollywood inventions was the Nazis killing Soviet kids by transfusing their blood direct into wounded German soldiers — until the kids are dead. This over-the-top atrocity is hard to swallow, even knowing what we know now about extermination camps and Dr Mengele’s twin experiments.

The weapons seem to be “whatever” from the studio armory.

The bottom line

One wonders if Stalin saw it, was told that many of the cast and crew were true-believing Communists, and collapsed, weeping, to think that his Party had recruited the least adept figures in Hollywood. He could easily have formed that opinion from this movie, and it wouldn’t have been fair — most of the talent in front of and behind the cameras had plenty of quality work they could point to (the exception, perhaps, being Hellman). For whatever reason, and certainly Hellman’s leaden script is a prime suspect here, the talents didn’t gel on screen this time.

Sad to say, the bottom line is that this is one of those “we watched it so that you didn’t have to” movies. There’s a lot to be done with the resistance of various partisan bands to the Nazi invasion of the USSR, but this movie didn’t do it. And if you want to see Soviet propaganda? The stuff the Soviets made themselves is miles more entertaining.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page (cheapest DVD):

This second version also includes Armored Attack! as well as The North Star. For completists:

also available on instant video (for free for Amazon Prime customers!):

Watch it for free on

The free versions are generally from pretty lousy prints.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:


  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (unrated):

  • Wikipedia  page:

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (“no results.”)



Saturday Matinee 2016 10: Open Range (2003)

Open_rangePOSTERWe had another wartime propaganda film for you this weekend, and we just couldn’t do that to you (or us), so you get a week’s reprieve. Instead, we’re going to look at a modern Western now making the rounds on movie channels (we caught it on AMC, with commercial interruptions. (We survived. The guy who invented the Mute button is our personal hero, though). Open Range keys on the Hollywood staple of conflict between open-range ranchers and private-spread fenced-in ranchers. It’s1882, and Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) knows that he’s one of the last of a dying breed, and he and his right-hand man Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) might just hang it up after one last drive. Spearman’s old, and tired; Waite is, as we learn, a man with a past full of troubling ghosts, one of whom is himself. “Dying business” might be a bit too literal, as local bigwig Denton Baxter (played with an intermittently-on but consistently-dreadful Irish accent by Michael Gambon). Both sides have team members, deftly drawn by good character actors; and the villagers, whose moral center seems to be the often-absent town doctor and his fetching relative Susan (Annette Bening), have their hearts and minds on the auction block.

It’s a different sort of modern Western — indeed, it’s a lot like an old Western. That’s not a complaint.

The story is, will the good guys win? Ah, but will they win without sacrifice, and what shape does the sacrifice take? Will Susan and Charley find each other and have a happy ending, or is this one of the movies that ends in heartbreak?

Acting and Production

OpenRangeWinchester73-4Kevin Costner is a very underrated actor. His character here is very good at some things, and very clumsy at others, and Costner makes it very convincing. Duvall for his part was getting to old to play an action character, except, well, an old one; after exertion, it seems like he’s always fighting for breath, and that just adds to the reality of the movie. (Indeed if he’s just acting short of breath, those scenes need to be clipped by acting schools for future generations).

directed by costnerCostner also directed Open Range. We’re far from connoisseurs of the director’s art, but it seemed to be well put together, an elegiac homage to Westerns of bygone days, great movies that are themselves as far in the past today as the Old West itself was in the era of classic Westerns.

The show plods at the start, but once it gets rolling it rolls like a runaway train. There seems to be a good balance between shots of beautiful scenery and the actual action, or maybe we were just ready for a slower film this time. (Run time is 2 hours and 18 minutes).

One does suspect that it hits every Save the Cat! beat squarely, but those “rules” are in place because they work. Some little subtleties tie early scenes to late ones in a way that puts us in mind of Chekhov’s Gun. (Look it up. Russian writer Chekhov, not Star Trek character Chekhov).


Accuracy and Weapons

None of the weapons are unusual for a Western, and we didn’t feel the need to explore them in nitpicking depth. (IMFDB has that covered, proving that Costner’s Colt .45 is actually an Italian replica).

Most of the weapons are only lightly “Hollywooded.” The amount of smoke generated by these old black-powder cartridge guns is definitely played down, but there are relatively few inaccuracies and no glaring anachronisms.

IMFB did comment on something that we noticed, Costner firing lots of shots without a reload. Shades of John Wayne, who used to do that all the time; you have to wonder if Costner did that directly. The guns also tend to have extremely exaggerated terminal ballistics, as is, again, covered well at IMFDB. Duvall’s shotgun seems to be on loan from the Atomic Energy Commission.


Despite Costner’s 16-shooter SAA and Duvall’s elephant-gun shotgun rounds, the shootout scenes, especially the final one, have a degree of realism often missing in Westerns, especially recent ones. No trick camera angles, ultra-close-ups, hokey slow-motion or the-editor-has-ADHD cuts; just a plausibly choreographed fight. And even the bad guys act like normal human beings who want to win the fight, and who want to live; not the usual Hollywood bad-guy-automaton mooks.

For all the violence in the movie, though, it’s nothing you can’t watch with the kids who are old enough. (The pearl-clutchers who decide these things gave it an undeserved R rating). There’s none of the transrealistic violence, grue and gore beloved by directors like Peckinpah and Tarantino. If you hated The Hateful Eight, or even if you’re some bloodthirsty weirdo who liked it, give this a try and see if it entertains you.

The bottom line

OpenRangeColtSAA-16Westerns are not to everyone’s taste, and we have observed that the current generation of Westerns are less to one’s taste if one like the “original” Westerns: John Ford, John Wayne, all the usual suspects. Open Range is a standout exception to that rule. If you loved the Westerns of the 40s and 50s, this 21st-Century Western has a clean, non-ironic, good-vs-evil story, good, understated acting, and enough of both action and romance that the guys and gals can enjoy it together (even if they’re enjoying different scenes).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

also available on instant video:


  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (79%):

  • Wikipedia  page:

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (“no results.”)



Weaponsman Expert Book Reviews No. 2

weaponsman_eibWe’re expert, you’re expert, everybody’s expert! So we don’t need more than a few sentences to review a book. We put books into five categories:

  1. Read It Even if you Gotta Buy It;
  2. Get it at the Library;
  3. Read it if You’re a Specialist;
  4. Don’t Waste Your Time Reading It. And, last but not least:
  5. We read it, but we’re still not sure.

We also sneak in an online reading suggestion or two.

We link the titles to the book on Amazon; as a rule of thumb we link to the most economical option. We’re not yet an Amazon affiliate, though.

Read It Even if you Gotta Buy It

elmer keithHell, I was There! by Elmer Keith. Keith was for many years the dean of pistoleros and gunwriters, and we were privileged to enjoy his writing while it was fresh. Today, he is remembered as the promoter of handgun hunting and Smith & Wesson’s .357 and .44 Magnums, but Elmer Keith was also a Westerner when that meant something, and a lawman and a writer at various times — and what a writer! You don’t need to see a gun in his hand to enjoy his writing:

One day a kid picked a fight with me at school by punching me in the back of the neck with a sharp pencil when the teacher’s back was turned. At recess I proceeded to give him a good licking. Word later got home to my folks via the teacher, and some of the boy’s friends put me to blame. So they made me go over across town and apologize to his mother. I went across town all right, knocked on the door, and apologized to his mother. The kid stuck his head around her shoulder and thumbed his nose at me, so I reached up and glommed him and I proceeded to give him another good licking until his mother beat me off with her broom.

In just about the next scene after that, his young nose is a bit out of joint because his father and uncle won’t let him shoot a Winchester .95 in the punishing .35 Remington caliber. “Too much for a kid!” And that’s all before he really gets going. Hell, I was There! was a sort of anecdotal autobiography that Keith put out in 1979 at the height of his own popularity (he had previously published a more conventional autobiography, Keith, tying the President for self-regard, but perhaps with more accomplishments before the biographies started).

Not every scene, even of youthful hijinks, is that charming. (Think 4th of July + Firecracker + stray cat). If you’re a member of the gun culture, you need to know Elmer Keith, and there is no better way to know Keith than in his own words. Unfortunately the book is now long out-of-print and insanely expensive. You can haunt used bookstores or roll the dice on bootleg e-books. For a more affordable (but still expensive!) dose of Keith consider Tim Mullin’s Letters from Elmer Keith. 

Get it at the Library

Playing to the Edge by Michael Hayden. A somewhat self-serving, yet informative, memoir from an intelligence community insider. Like all such tomes, it raises the question: if those above you were doing that badly, why didn’t you resign in protest? One suspects the reason is, a resignation in protest would have put a crimp in Hayden’s post NSA, DNI, CIA career as an influence-peddler with Michael Chertoff’s lobbying firm. But reading Hayden makes the cynical take on the intelligence and national security community sound mild. They really are full of bozos.

For those who are patient and want to own a copy of this, it was overprinted and will be in cut-out bins and library discard sales in a few months to a year.

trident deceptionThe Trident Deception by Rick Campbell. We have never read anything by Campbell before, but with Seat B in the human mailing tube beckoning, and we wanted something physical as an alternative to continental Kindle squinting. Voilà! This paperback jumped into our shopping cart, just because it had a submarine on the cover (Give the cover artist a cookie). It was a page-turner with some remarkable twists and turns, clearly delineated good guys and bad guys and a plot that makes the good guys have to fight the bad guys, and a bunch of submarine stuff that sounds authentic enough to us. (Later in the book, when he talks about handguns, Campbell loses some of the accuracy he had talking about boats). It’s funny that as much as we love submarine stories (which reminds us, we have some incomplete…) we never could have served in them, or in the Navy at all, and so we doff our caps to the special breed who do, and the authors who can write engaging books about them. (Rick Campbell is both, being a retired sub officer. He has his own website). Not great literature, but pretty good entertainment — just what we needed. Finished it on arrival. There’s a sequel out, Empire Rising, and two more coming; we’ll probably read those, but a submarine series is always a stretch: the sub service is so intense and proceduralized exactly so that submariners don’t have a hair-raising adventure every year. (Well, apart from the whole, “months of underwater cat-and-mouse, while living with a reactor, a bunch of nuclear delivery systems, and 100 roommates you didn’t pick,” bit). The Kindle edition is overpriced at $10, but at the paperback (linked above) you can get used copies for as little as a penny plus shipping, or buy it in a department store for about $7 like we did. (Used copy sales doesn’t pay the author, but we didn’t do it to him with that $10 Kindle price — his shortsighted, greedhead publisher did).

Read it if You’re a Specialist

A Respectable ArmyA Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789 by James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender. This is a collegiate history textbook about how the US Army came to be, from its origins in the militia and colonial regiments of the French & Indian War through the campaigns of the War of Independence, up to the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the Constitution.

It is a serious and somewhat dry tome, without illustrations, but it is concise and accurate for its day (1982) and does not have the race/sex/class overlay of currently trendy historiography. Widely available because it was once a common college text. There are more recent editions available (2005) (2015) but they should probably be avoided, as they have only minor changes (i.e. pagination). There are claims of vast improvement in the new ed., but we didn’t see it; the maps are better in the new editions, but we have a atlases already; the bibliography is longer in recent editions, but many of the new books are the product of the post-1968 marxian race/sex/class warrior cohort of professors, and are as incompetently written as they are tendentious. Writing should be communicative, not hortatory, in anything one is not forced to read.

A word on why publishers frequently churn out mildly revised old works as new editions: it’s a short-sighted racket between publishers who sell books and professors who write them. Making minor changes every few years means professors can require the latest edition, guaranteeing them a sale to every undergrad enrolled in their class, by undermining the used market’s capability to cannibalize textbook sales.

Of course, it also assures that a textbook like A Respectable Army, which is a worthwhile read for many history buffs not presently confined to a college class (a much bigger market than current college inmates), does not find that market. As is usual for New York publishing houses (Wiley in this case), the e-book of the more recent editions is prohibitively overpriced.

Online Reading: If you’re interested in publishing this week’s feature is a thoughtful post at Forgotten Weapons. Do read the whole thing, and the comment thread.

Don’t Waste Your Time Reading It

gun show nationGun Show Nation by Joan Burbick. This is one we plucked out of a Florida remainder bin for $2.99. There’s some comfort in knowing the publisher and author didn’t get paid, because it really is that bad. This is the sort of anthropological study that Professors of English and “American Studies” at third-tier colleges write (and that is, in fact, what Burbick is. “American Studies,” by the way, is not any kind of American history but the lightweight modern race/sex/class grievance theory of what is wrong with America. It really should be called “Anti-American Studies”).  It is the sort of missionary-among-the-cannibals tome, with its matching condescending tone, that the New Press (a billionaire sponsored “non-profit” screedprinter) publishes, and they did. Brief samples:

The gun in America reeks of white power. Its history is inseparable from keeping arms in hands of whites and disarming black men to prevent their access to political and economic power. (p. 27);

When I asked men at my visits to gun shows what they’re gone would say if he could talk, they often don’t carry on about who it wanted to shoot, but how it wanted to shoot with deadly aim. The rifle had no ethical voice. (p.40);

Those millions of hours that American spent watching cop shows and vigilante heroes helped pump up the psychic investment in guns. (pp. 154-155).

She also (in 2006!) was still clinging hard to the Prohibition-era legal position, long abandoned by the legal academy, that the 2nd Amendment granted rights only to the National Guard. Like most people in grievance-studies programs, including the PhDs who perch atop them, Burbick doesn’t seem terribly bright. Give this one a pass. There is a second edition, which is a publisher’s racket we explained above in reference to the much better textbook, A Respectable Army.

We Read It, But We’re Still Not Sure

Nothing in this somewhat unwanted category this time around. Isn’t that good?

To the Readers:

Thanks for the positive feedback on #1. We’ll try to do one a week… no promises

Saturday Matinee 2016 09: For Whom the Bell Tolls (1943)

For_whom_movieposterWhat’s not to like? Gary Cooper at his most stoic. Ingrid Bergman at her most beautiful and emotional (she was nominated for Best Actress). Hemingway at his most… well, whatever Peak Hemingway is. Beautiful mountain settings. Performances by supporting actors that are even better than the leads’, and the leads aren’t shabby. (The unknown who played Pilar, Greek actress Katina Paxinhou, received a well-deserved Best Supporting Actress statue). It’s an unsparing look at the barbarism of the Spanish Civil War, even as it takes a side (because Hollywood, the Republican/Loyalist/Communist side).

And yet… and yet. It’s not all that. It’s too long for its story by an hour at 2:45 (175 minutes). It’s wordy and talky, and never misses a chance to tell you instead of show you (although one wordy description of atrocities is accompanied by a mute flashback scene). It’s Hemingway with all his faults preserved like a bug in amber, even as it’s Hemingway redone as wartime propaganda. You come out of the movie knowing less about the Spanish Civil War than you probably did going in. Even the beautiful scenery where the movie was shot — the same SoCal mountains featured in every period Western — is never used when they could do a shot on a sound stage with matte backgrounds instead.

The movie was light in Oscars received, but it was up against two better films, The Ox-Bow Incident and Casablanca, in that forgotten era when the performances on the screen were what mattered, before today’s obsession with race/sex/class beancounting.

FWTBT Cooper fires one

Gary Cooper blasts enemies and friends alike, depending on the needs of the situation, with his Colt DA revolver.

The movie does seize your attention at the very beginning, as Cooper and an associate blow a train and flee a furious counterattack. The other man is wounded, and begs Cooper to finish him off with his big M1917 revolver, in a scene that would become clichéd thanks largely to this movie.

It is a rare look at guerrillas as an adjunct to conventional forces, and it’s loosely based on real events during the unavailing Loyalist efforts to relieve the siege of Madrid in 1937. Much of the political discussion and thought that permeates the novel is stripped off here. What motivates the guerrillas seems to be no more than fighting for their village, and for each other, and for very vague ideas of what the friendlies (“the Republic”) and the enemy (“the Fascists” or sometimes “the Italians and Germans”) stood for.

Acting and Production

We’ve already mentioned the fine performances. It’s an absolute crime that the script wedges as much of the book as possible into dialogue, because at the times that Cooper and Bergman are expressing themselves with their faces alone, so much more is being said.Bergman Cooper FWTBT Hemingway was sitting on a Pulitzer-nominated monster best seller, and he was in the rare position of an author able to dictate to movie studios bidding on his film: and what he chose to dictate was the two stars; he had envisioned character Robert Jordan as Gary Cooper while writing the book, and thought Bergman would be perfect. (He met her in person to confirm that judgment before production began, and given that they were Hemingway and Bergman, probably slept together). At the time Hemingway wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls, he and Cooper had never met, but they’d go on to become friends by the time the movie was underway.

FTWBT Guerrilla bandThe ensemble of supporting players, behind the two main supporting characters Pablo and Pilar, do a fine job. From the actors’ names, they appear to be disproportionately Russians, which means they have accents, and Hollywood of the 1940s wasn’t particular about accents — one foreigner was as good as another. (“Need a Norwegian? — Paul Muni’s available!”)

Pablo’s motivations and indecision are played as crudely in the movie as they are handled deftly in the book, which is not the fault of actor Akim Tamiroff, but of Dudley Nichols’s dud of a script. Reading the book, you may disagree with Pablo, but you never don’t understand what he’s doing. In the movie, it’s, “Oh, Pablo, why is he doing that? He must be drunk again.”  Taking out half of this character’s dozen or so changes in direction would have streamlined the whole plot considerably.

In the days before CGI, big effects scenes were done with models, more on those below. Like CGI, model scenes can be good or bad, and here you get a chance to compare both kinds.

The Technicolor process was state of the art then, but looks somewhat dodgy now, which may be the result of a low-budget restoration attempt. Viewing it now, you might think it’s one of those 1980s Turner colorization jobs, but no, they just made it like that.

Accuracy and Weapons

The story is more an impressionistic than an accurate look at the Spanish Civil War or any particular action in it. It tries to tell “the” story of the war by telling “a” story of the war, a human-scale story focused on individual people.

The politics of the war is almost completely stripped out, because while a wide swath of Hollywood sympathized with the Republicans of 1937, under de facto Soviet control (slightly hinted at when Cooper’s character gets orders from an obviously Russian general), the industry’s executives then weren’t ready to try to sell the public out-and-out Communism, and such other Republican fare as mandatory atheism enforced by the murders of priests. (In the book, Jordan works with the Communists not out of sympathy for their ideology, but respect for their organizational skill. In the movie, the word “Communist” never appears).

What in the book is a combination of general ineptitude combined with ideological infighting between Communists and Anarchists that hampers the Republican side, the movie makes out to be mere ineptitude.

ftwbt_guerrillasThere is very little attempt to provide the G’s or the enemy with realistic weapons. Both sides wear similar clothing and their regulars were German-style helmets; both sides carry a mix of American weapons including a lot of Krags. While every weapon in the world probably was picked up and used to murder a civilian by one side or the other of the Spanish Civil War, American Krag-Jorgensons may be the exception to prove the rule. It’s particularly amusing when you think that 40 years before the events depicted here, the US Army learned just how inferior the Krag was to the 7mm Mausers carried by Spanish troops.

Despite that, there are some seldom-seen weapons well used in the movie. Cooper carries a BAR (actually appears to be a commercial Colt Monitor) at one point, and Lewis guns are used by both sides, in both ground and armor-mounted versions.

Coop takes aim with a Lewis.

Coop takes aim with a Lewis.

The bad guys’ armor includes M2 and M3 light tanks (or the cavalry versions, “combat cars”) and some WWI retread Renault FT17s (or the US visual clones, Ford 6-Ton Tanks). Of course, no US tanks were used in the Spanish civil war, but the interwar vehicles are very rarely seen these days and this movie is one place you can see them.

It can be fun trying to figure out how producer-director Sam Wood set up some of the effects shots. In several cases, “the distance” appears to have been depicted with models shot in the foreground, in front of the actors’ action, relying on the two-dimensional nature of film to force perspective.

Explosions are remarkably light on fireballs for a Hollywood production. Grenade blasts look like grenade blasts! The demolition attempted by Cooper’s Robert Jordan character is a little unrealistic, but that’s hardly the greatest sin in the movie. In one memorable moment, a tank on a bridge, mid-demolition, is seen to reverse and try to back its way to safety. Since this was presumably done with models it’s remarkably advanced and effective work.

The bottom line

The problem in adapting Hemingway is illustrated perfectly by For Whom the Bell Tolls. (Well, it may be even better illustrated by The Old Man and the Sea, but one review at a time, here). We were never rabid Hemingway fans — he was always at least as much celebrity and self-promotion as actual talent — but if we were we’d be very disappointed in For Whom the Bell Tolls. As it is, it’s an entertaining hour and a half of entertainment; its current 2:45 running time needs a cruel and ruthless editor to give it what for, and then it might actually stir audiences.

So we enjoyed For Whom the Bell Tolls, but it wouldn’t hurt if they could figure out how to make it toll a little sooner.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

also available on instant video (but for more money than the DVD!):


  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (77%):

  • Wikipedia  page:

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (“no results.” We really like the site, though, and hope they’ll do old classic movies like these going forward!)




Saturday Matinee 2016 08: Firing Squad (TV, Canadian, 1990)

firing_squad_extreme_unctionFiring Squad is one of those films that has many names. (We suspect that this is known in Hollywood as a Very Bad Sign). First, because it’s a Canadian TV show, it has to have a French version (Peloton d’execution) and an English one (called Execution at the time of production and in Canada). Then, it had to have a different name for US release, which makes it Firing Squad. It came, and went, and vanished nearly without a trace in the prehistoric days before the Event Horizon of the internet, and

The obscure movie takes some finding. We found it on a collection of 20-war-movies-for-$5, and might as well say up front that it seems a bargain at the effective price of 25¢, but value-for-money would probably not motivate one to spend the whole $5 on Firing Squad. 

Acting and Production

firing_squad_extreme_unction_2While some of the characters are coarse stereotypes, the actors are skilled Canadian journeymen and, where the script allows, bring the characters to life. Very effectively the condemned man is off the screen for the bulk of the production, building curiosity and suspense. The weakest performance is  Stepen Ouimette playing the protogonist, Captain John Adam, a man who is offered a chance to clean his blotted copybook by leading the firing party for an execution that no one wants. The next weakest is his chaplain, clearly the moral compass of the film, and in case you missed it, he listens to Bach and Beethoven, which the professional soldiers dismiss with, “What’s that racket? Turn it off!” The part is overwritten and despite an actor’s heroic effort to save it, winds up too precious by half. Conversely, the young man who played Danny Jones, the condemned man, played him very, very, well, and the “What’s that racket?” brigadier is a character who gives you no hints an actor is playing the part.

The production is a cheap one, but nothing feels missing. The story is told, in any case, in a series of outdoor set pieces and indoor close-ups.

As it’s a Canadian production, we were watching for American-bashing, and it shows up in this: the Canadians are prepared to let the accused man (deserter and accessory to a murder) go, but the Americans are going to execute one guy who was caught with him, and they expect the Canadians to whack their guy, too.

OK, we get it. Canadians are more moral than Americans. But if that’s the case, they have one hell of an ate-up military justice system.

Accuracy and Weapons

firing_squad_ready_aimThe movie’s end titles and credits play fast and loose with the suggestion that it’s a true story, but it isn’t. It’s an adaptation of a 1950s novel by a Canadian vet, who riffed off the one Canadian soldier shot for desertion, but changed the name, crime, circumstances, and character of the convict. The movie changed all these things again, moving away from the subtle morality play of the novel into a coarser version, and thereby moving still further from original facts. The units referenced in the production appear to be fictitious ones (we’re not up on Canadian regiments today, let alone the many more they had in WWII).

It is true that the death penalty was rare in Canadian Forces in WWII. It was more common in the US forces; despite the widespread belief thanks to a play and TV shows that the US only executed one soldier, Private Eddie Slovik, in fact Slovik was the only prisoner executed just for desertion; plenty of murderers and rapists stood before a firing party, regretting that decision.

Capital punishment was vastly more common in World War I, where British and Commonwealth units were shooting deserters and thieves wholesale, and the French had so many deserters and mutineers to deal with they merely tried to shoot a scientifically-selected representative sample pour encourager les autres. 

firing_squad_vehiclesWhile the show was shot on a TV budget, and on a Canadian TV budget to be specific, they did arm and equip the Canadian troops reasonably correctly, and they do use the sort of mixed bag of US, UK and Canadian vehicles that a Canadian unit in the winter of ’44-’45 might have had. There are some excellent scenes including fording a river. One of the most moving “gun” scenes is the whole process of the firing party drawing their weapons, which is filmed in thorough detail. One at a time, each man draws his rifle and a magazine, extends the mag towards his sergeant, and — thunk! — the sergeant pops in a single round. (Later, he will exchange one marksman’s live round for a blank). This rings of verisimilitude and builds tension as we approach Danny Jones’s date with the bullet end of all those cartridges.

"One for you..."

“One for you…”

"...and one for you...." Repeat, over and over, until you want the kid shot just to get it over with -- and so does he.

“…and one for you….” Repeat, over and over, until you want the kid shot just to get it over with — and so does he.

Historians will find plenty to quibble about, but not glaring things. They do depict a unit in France at a time when the Canadians were in the Low Countries trying to exploit Market-Garden, but that’s reasonable for a general audience, we suppose, to avoid exposition. Every Canadian knows Juno Beach — one hopes, anyway — but most of them get fuzzy on where their guys went after that. The original book put the action in the meatgrinder of Italy, and included combat scenes that are not included in the movie.

The bottom line

It’s a very predictable movie with a MESSAGE in all-caps, hammered into the audience at great length and repetitively. The subtlety in the original novel is lost in the small-screen adaptation. Strictly for Canadian war movie completists.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

We found it as part of a multiple-DVD package for $5 or $6 at a warehouse store.

Amazon has what appears to be the same collection, same cover art and everything, but if you read the fine print there’s one different film: sure enough, the equally dreadful Battle for Blood Island substitutes for Firing Squad.

Several other vendors have this collection. We leave it as an exercise for the reader to find out if they have the Firing Squad or Blood Island version (or maybe Amazon has a typo). Actually, looking at Disc 4 in the player (the disc that has Firing Squad on it), it also has Battle of (not for, oops) Blood Island.

This film has never been released individually on DVD. If you must own it (maybe you were the gaffer or something) there is an occasional used VHS tape.

It says interesting things about the movie that the notoriously grasping CTV hasn’t found some way to reissue it. We also can’t find it on YouTube, suggesting that it’s more a matter of weak demand than constrained supply.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (n/a: “There were no results matching the query.”)
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (n/a)
  • Wikipedia  page:

Book Review: Unintended Consequences by John Ross (1996)

Unintended Consequences John RossA book that is freighted with the weight of many misunderstandings is Unintended Consequences, the first, and to date only, novel by St. Louis financial advisor John Ross.

Some in law enforcement consider it an anti-cop violent fantasy, but that’s not what it is.

Some in the gun culture consider it a great work of art, but that’s not what it is, either.

It was an inspiration for at least one other author: former SEAL Matt Bracken, whose novels have sold well.

It is a rarity: a didactic novel, an entertainment intended to instruct or teach, that is, at the same time, entertaining. Most such didactic tracts fall far short of entertainment. Unintended Consequences doesn’t. It leads you on a character’s journey beginning with his ancestors and leading to a dystopian “present” that is a mere logical continuation of the Clinton Administration and the ATF of the 1990s.

Who’s Who

Henry Bowman is a late Baby Boomer kid who, for whatever reason, gets fascinated by guns in boyhood. His father owns guns, but isn’t into it in the same way. Still he encourages Henry as Henry combines inspiration from the Guinness Book of Records with his own unique, stubborn personality and we watch as he grows up, a kid familiar to many of us, and yet, his own man. Along the way every experience shapes him: the people he meets, the things he does, a humorless gun salesman, an inspiring economics professor, a bunch of townie kids who hate college punks

Family and home also shape Bowman. Granddad was a World War I veteran who passed away during the Bonus March. Dad was a Navy instructor pilot during the war. It was Uncle Max who was the big hero, a paratrooper on D-Day. Max is a commercial illustrator who lives larger-than-life: fast cars; fast women; fast money from trap tournaments.

His in-laws include Irwin Mann, a German who managed to wind up in the Warsaw Ghetto by marrying into a Jewish family, oblivious to the rise of national socialism.

All of these people shape Henry, and shape the story.

There are antagonists, as well, and we see them from their first fundaments: a boy who trades his moral center for anything he can get is highly likely to become a politician. We see Federal agents of two kinds: the crime fighters and the power trippers.

The Events in the Story

There are many, many events that are simply stage setting, but most of them do have a payoff. The only gun John Ross may never have heard of is “Chekhov’s gun,” but he employs the concept well. After identifying with Henry, his Dad, Max, Irwin, and many others, we find that elsewhere in the world, someone has decided to Make Examples.

At the time, rogue ATF agents were a controversial idea, even in the aftermath of Ruby Ridge and Waco (which took place while the book was being written). In the aftermath of the hundreds, possibly thousands, of human lives lost to the rogue ATF agents Billy Hoover, Mark Chait, Bill Newell, David Voth, Hope McAllister of the various Gunwalker programs of the early 2000s, it doesn’t seem as far-fetched. In the book, the ATF plans to frame and murder three high-profile Class III dealers in order to get their wish-list from Congress. The plans go wrong, and from then on, everyone has to pick a side.

As we wrote, this is considerably less far-fetched than it was in 1995-96, knowing that the above-named ATF agents would have totally been down with some murdering and framing — after all, they accepted the death of hundreds, until some of the dead were fellow Feds. That the forces of good are able to mount a significant defense against the rogue state, though — that bit requires some suspension of disbelief.

The Gun Culture

The “gun culture” is a very important concept when looking at this book. Unintended Consequences has been tagged, by Ross among others, as “a novel of the gun culture,” to the point where we thought it actually was the book’s subtitle; we had to pull out our copy to correct that mistake.

The gun culture, what is that? Who is that? It’s you, and us, and John Ross. It’s the rich collectors who buy the six-figure lots at Rock Island’s and Julia’s auction houses. It’s Justice Scalia and his quail-hunting pals. It’s every father in the world who braces a son (or daughter) that’s finally ready, and says… “steady, now, let your breath half way out… and squeeze” and virally transmits the gun culture to a new generation.

It’s the gun shops, the gun books, the gun magazines. It’s the Fudds sneering at drum magazines and the Tactical Tommies sneering at Fudds. It’s blogs, and YouTubers, and gunsmiths tramming a mill so that they can confidently make just the right cut to turn steel into art.

It’s a subset of everybody in Law Enforcement. A subset of the soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and a few of the weak swimmers in the Coast Guard (just kidding, Coasties. We love you guys, too).

Unintended Consequences


You will learn something about the gun culture and its history from Unintended Consequences. You will probably enjoy it (although, probably not as much as the original readers in the 1990s, who could see events in the book happening all around them). Some ATF agents did not enjoy the book; after its 1996 publication, there were a number of incidents of ATF agents threatening vendors displaying the book, and ATF agents tried to get John’s ex-wife to help entrap him.

So where do you get this book? That, unfortunately, has been a bit of a problem ever since the last of many printings of the First (hardcover) Edition sold out. For some time, it was passed hand to hand and even mailed around in the fine tradition of Soviet-era Samizdat.

Availability now is less bad than it has been.

It’s only carried on in out-of-print mode:

But the publisher still has some stock of the paperback edition, $30 + $10 shipping:

People report mixed results in trying to get it by inter-library loan.

There are bootleg .pdfs out there, but we believe that an author like Ross ought to get paid for his efforts, and so we will not link to them.

John’s occasionally updated website went radio silent last year, but he reportedly maintains a facebook presence.

Weaponsman Expert Book Reviews No. 1

weaponsman_eibSince we’re expert, you’re expert, everybody’s expert, we don’t need more than a few sentences to review a book. We put books into five categories:

  1. Read It Even if you Gotta Buy It;
  2. Get it at the Library;
  3. Read it if You’re a Specialist;
  4. Don’t Waste Your Time Reading It. And, last but not least:
  5. We read it, but we’re still not sure.

We link the titles to the book on Amazon; as a rule of thumb we link to the most economical option. We’re not yet an Amazon affiliate, though.

Read It Even if you Gotta Buy It

hand grenadeThe Hand Grenade by Gordon Rottman. As Gordon’s a fellow SF vet as well as a prolific author, we’re always glad to pick up one of his books. This is one of the Osprey Weapon series (#38), and is a well-illustrated if brief look at the weapon’s history. It was interesting to us that the Imperial Japanese Army knew that they were at a ‘nade disadvantage because Japanese men were smaller-statured than the European-heritage men they were fighting; they suggested “Chinese-style” stick grenades, then their average infantryman could throw the stick grenade as much as ten meters further than the usual cylindrical grenade (still not as far as an American or Australian could throw at them). Gordon has the actual quote from the Japanese Lessons Learned document on p.38. It is also available in e-book format, but only direct from Osprey and for a stiff $16. (If you have a ~$100/year Osprey membership, you get 30% off).

Get it at the Library

year of fearThe Year of Fear by Joe Urschel. A journalistic look at the crimes of Machine Gun Kelly (whose name wasn’t originally Kelly and who seldom used a machine gun, more’s the pity), and how those crimes, particularly the kidnapping of an industrialist for ransom, led to today’s Federal police agencies.

There are a couple of lively descriptions of gunfights, like the 16 June 1933 battle in Kansas CIty where Tommy-gun-toting criminals tried to free gang member Frank Nash from his escort of FBI agents and cops. Tipped off by an AP reporter, the gunsels didn’t reckon with the sheer inexperience of the Feds, who shot each other and Nash!

bunker hillBunker Hill by Nathaniel Philbrick. Philbrick is emerging as the current version of Stephen Ambrose, with a focus on the 18th and 19th Centuries, and (as far as we know) minus the plagiarism. His highly readable histories bring the Colonial era to life, and this one covers the remarkably sanguinary 1775 battle, beginning with necessary background and ending with consequences. Did you know that 1/4 of the British officers lost in the entire war, from 1774 to 1783, died in that one assault? That pyrrhic victory was one of the keys to driving Britain out of Boston. The movie In the Heart of the Sea is based on one of his books, but the bad screeplay wasn’t his fault. If Bunker Hill has a fault, it’s that Philbrick is so in love with his writing style that going back to the book and extracting basic facts is difficult.

Read it if You’re a Specialist

in the devil's shadowIn the Devil’s Shadow by Michael J. Haas. Subtitled  UN Special Operations During the Korean War, this book has a rollicking title, and covers a little-studied area in great depth, but is a dry, academic history, despite Haas’s being a retired AFSOC colonel and a rare Air Force officer with Army SF qualifications (among many others). It is focused more on the big picture than on agent- or guerrilla-band-level operations; that story may remain forever untold.

It’s a great book and tells a great story, of how US unconvential warfare (guerrilla warfare, sabotage and subversion, and assisted escape and evasion) recovered from various decisions by Harry Truman in 1945-47 that for all intents and purposes had this capability at zero when the Norks invaded. There are some very interesting models for joint (inter-service), combined (international) and interagency (i.e., military plus civilian intelligence agency) operations in here, and we suspect that every senior leader of UW forces and SOF in general in the GWOT has read this book, part of the Naval Institute’s influential Special Warfare series.

Online Reading: If you’re interested in publishing read this series of three interviews with fiction authors who have gone indie and are better off for it: Kristen Ashley, Douglas E. Richards, and Christopher Nuttall. This is a theme we have also seen from others. Of the three authors, we’ve read a couple of Christopher Nuttall’s Ark Royal series space operas and they’re good classic genre books.

Don’t Waste Your Time Reading It

The Ultimate Gun Book Volume One: By Gunz 101 Firearms Talk. This was apparently written by someone named Bryan Vetor. It’s available on iBooks, but is almost entirely content-free. That is to say, there’s practically nothing to it: some pictures of guns a kid thinks are neato-keeno, and a few words of text suggesting that his experience with them runs from zero to video games. This guy aspires to be a mall cop.

We Read It, But We’re Still Not Sure

I, RipperI, Ripper, by Stephen Hunter. The best-selling author of sniper melodramas is back with something completely new: a fact-based novel of Jack the Ripper, a serial killer who in 1888 terrorized the Judys (hookers) of Whitechapel (London’s red light district, although it was more like a no-light district in 1888), and who was never caught. Hunter tells the story in two intertwined diaries, a newspaperman’s and the killer’s; and that is one of the problems we had with it. The killer is, naturally, depraved; and Hunter gets into the killer’s mind so thoroughly that even a pretty hardened reader felt queasy. The other irritant was much smaller: his newspaper man’s annoying habit to never use one adjective or adverb where he could use eleven, set off in a laundry list with commas. We drove on to the end, but the book disturbed us greatly and our answer to the usual “What’chu reading? Would I like it?” has been “probably not.”

To the Readers:

Do you like this format? Why or why not?

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.


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. 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.

  • DVD page (preorder only):

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

(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:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (60%):

  • Wikipedia  page:

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



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.


  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: (the hardcover edition can also be found through that link).