Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

We’ll Be Watching the Patriots, not the Football

Whether the ball is inflated more or less is a true #FirstWorldProblem, and wasn’t on the menu of the original Patriots for whom Belichick and Brady’s band of spheroidal-ball abusers are named. Fortunately, the original Patriots are coming to TV in a scripted historical miniseries, beginning this Sunday, 25 Jan 15, at 2100 R (2000 Central Time). It will run on three Sundays, for two hours each. No, no; as clarified in the comments, “Three consecutive nights (Sunday, 25th; Monday. 26th: Tuesday, 27th) 9:00 pm – 11:00 pm ET.” Thanks, Qajagon, whoever you may be.


We’ve mentioned before that we see the American Revolution as an insurgency, and we think that some of the issues related to that will be covered in the new History Channel miniseries, Sons of Liberty. It covers the initial events of the revolution, taking place in and around Boston in 1772 to 1776, including such high points as the Boston Massacre, the Tea Party, the initial battles of Lexington and Concord, the reinforcement of the Regulars, and the Battle of Bunker Hill. (It culminates, apparently, in the Declaration of Independence).


These battles were a fairly self-contained first phase of the Revolution. They were followed by the Colonial move to seize Fort Ticonderoga in the New York wilderness, and reinforce Charles Town and Dorchester Heights with the cannon (after an epic overland move), forcing the British and the throngs of loyalist refugees seeking their protection to abandon Boston and displace to New York and/or Canada. We don’t think those events are shown in this series, nor are some of the key events we’ve discussed here before, like the expulsion of the court from Worcester, or the raids on Fort William and Mary in Portsmouth. Paul Revere’s Ride is shown accurately (including its ignominious end, under the gun of a British officer; Dr. Samuel Prescott, whom Revere and his fellow rider William Dawes had picked up along the way, escaped and made it to Concord alone).

We grew up around the places where these events happened, and their history used to be taught in depth. As a result, many fictional depictions of the early Revolution sets our teeth on edge. But this one looks to have general historical accuracy, although there will no doubt be other issues with it.

For example, the actors speak in modern accents, rhythms, and language. This is probably intended to keep modern viewers interested.

But we think it will be a pretty good look at the underground and auxiliary, as well as the celebrated “Minutemen” militia that became the armed or guerilla element of the resistance to British rule. There is some effort spent on the intelligence side of the war, including an espionage ring that touched General Thomas Gage himself.

On the plus side, there are some great actors in this show. Fans of Breaking Bad will be pleased to see Dean Norris (“Hank Schrader”) in the role of larger-than-life Ben Franklin. Cousins Sam and John Adams, the radical firebrand and the even-handed lawyer, are played by Ben Barnes and Henry Thomas; John Hancock (Rafe Spall), Dr. Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold), and Paul Revere (Michael Raymond-James) round out the headlining Patriots. George Washington (Jason O’Mara) makes a later appearance. On the British side, General Gage (Marton Csokas), his American wife Margaret (Emily Berrington), and Major John Pitcairn (Kevin Ryan) are represented. The battle scenes are small and closely shot (cable TV budget, after all) but the props and armory seem reasonable, based on previews.


On the minus side, the show’s website is packed with spam and malware, including a pernicious   malware that tries to force connections to and collect personal information. Optimatic is supposedly an SEO tool (a fly-by-night business that attracts everything but legitimate businessmen in the first place) but testing seems to show it does not work. It does, however, collect information on you. So we’re not linking to the website.

Now, despite the category we put this in, it’s not a real review; we’ve only seen a few promos and squibs. We may have a review after we watch the first episode Sunday.

Saturday Matinee: Cocked (pilot, online TV, 2015)

cocked_paxson_auto_revolver_muzzle So, what’s the gun industry like? If you watch the pilot of Amazon’s potential new series, Cocked, it’s inhabited by some of the weirdest and least likeable people you could ever imagine meeting.

The company at the center of the show, Paxson Firearms, has been so mismanaged so long that it’s about to go paws up in, as one character notes, the best selling environment for firearms in history. Old Man Paxson (Brian Dennehy), who inherited and then built the business in decades out of mind, is out of touch; his son, middle-aged enfant terrible Grady (Jason Lee), is a hyper, unfocused cocaine addict.

They do manage a wry look at the SHOT Show.

They do manage a wry look at the SHOT Show in a rapid-fire montage that pokes fun at gun marketing excesses.

Mason (or is it Stacy?) in a fetching pose.

Mason (or is it Stacy?) in a fetching pose. Hollywood style.

“Beauty, bullets and blow,” he asks the camera, in a FIRE (the show’s clone of SHOT) show demo hotel, after he and two demo dollies, Mason and Stacy, sniff white powder off dummy pistols. “What more could a guy ask for?” One of the bimbos asks if he has a brother. It turns out, he does. But not the kind that will cavort.

Enter younger brother Richard (Sam Trammell), whose happy relationship with a solid family  is a glaring contrast to Grady’s never-grow-up juvenility. (Scots actress Laura Fraser, whom you may remember as crazy Lydia from Breaking Bad, is outstanding as Hannah, Richard’s loving but henpecking wife). A combination of frustration with his thankless role as an underling in a Big consulting firm, and the death throes of Paxson, gets Richard to leap off the partnership treadmill and return to the family business. That’s a slight spoiler, but when it happens it’s been telegraphed with such force and repetition that it’s been foreloomed more than foreshadowed, so we’re not giving much up here.

Grady takes a business meeting.

Grady takes a business meeting. Featuring Stacy and Mason. Or is it Mason and Stacy? Why doesn’t this ever happen to at trade shows? Wait, does this happen to anybody at trade shows?

Grady is what people in Hollywood think top businessmen are like, because in their peculiar business, he’s exactly what top businessmen are like. Except that they’re more likely to be doing coke and banging two preteen boys. So most of the jaundiced view of the gun industry is just the usual Hollywierd suspects projecting. 

A merger is conducted, in this Hollywood gun industry, by threats and blackmail, with an offer rejected by pissing on the documents.


In fact, Brian Dennehy urinates not once, but twice, at inflection points in the pilot’s plot. A key subplot revolves around the fact that Grady’s on parole for something involving drugs (hey, isn’t everybody? Robery Downey Jr was not available for comment) and can be required to pee in a cup at any time. (Does the director or one of the writers have urinary issues? Better get his prostate checked. This has been a public service of

The characters live in a house whose interior is a nightmare blend of Hearst Castle and Bannerman’s Island.

Like most Amazon original TV dramas, it’s trying hard to be more Hollywood than Hollywood, but its anti-gun politics are subdued and off center stage. In Cocked, the didactic message that is central to the show seems to be gun folks are all ate up. If any of you watched last year’ clever Alpha House, about four Senators sharing a Washington townhouse, you saw how a brilliant pilot (the opening scene is TV gold) deteriorated in three episodes into recycled jokes and plotlines from MSNBC and DailyKos. (Including, naturally, anti-gun snark and themes). What happened after about Episode 3, your reviewer is among the 99.999% of Amazon Prime members who couldn’t stay interested enough to learn (despite a fantastic cast led by John Goodman as a burned-out North Carolina senator).

Acting and Production

There’s workmanlike performances by most, especially the two “brothers,” but the presence of notorious Stolen Valor case Brian Dennehy in a top-billed role is an irritant for real vets and anyone who respects them. Dennehy is a solid actor, and his role is a secondary one, as the patriarch of the family. Clearly the main load is going to be carried by the next generation. (Indeed, they’ve laid the groundwork to write him out if Dennehy should kick the bucket. Not that we wish the old fellow that kind of ill).

Sam Trammell and Jason Lee seem to both be at their best, or perhaps best-exploited by this director, in reaction shots. Trammell can say a lot with the set of his jaw, and has to, because his character is one that is prone to deference.

Some money was spent on the production, although locations that are supposed to be in Virginia horse country instead are clearly in the barren, arid scrubland of the Southwest — probably California.

This is the Virginia hills, it says here.

This is the Virginia hills, it says here. Suuuure. What the hell, at least there’s no zombies or vampires (sparkly or otherwise).

The score also needs to be mentioned: it’s crap, especially the intro theme. Crap. Consider it mentioned. The sole exception is when an Allegro from Vivaldi’s Four Seasons is dragged out for contrast in a scene with Grady shooting watermelon “heads” off of manikins and blowing up bottles; even this production can’t screw up Vivaldi.

Weapons and Accuracy

There’s no real attempt to depict firearms accurately or even plausibly. The “secret weapon” that Grady totes into the mock SHOT show in the opening scenes turns out to be, in the amazed word of one of the employees, “It’s a revolver… and it’s semi-automatic! I’d leave my wife for that gun. You are a goddamn engineering genius.”

The Paxson Auto Revolver. Man, it's fugly.

The Paxson Auto Revolver. Man, it’s fugly.

But this bizarre mock-up, this undead Webley-Fosbery that’s intended to sell for $1,200, has been copied by a competitor, who offers his knock-off for $599. So in their fictional gun industry, there are two firms (and Lord knows how many customers) who have absolutely no sense of aesthetics.

Richard, a management consultant, brainstorms ways to unload the unwanted semi-automatic-revolvers. The marketing brainstorm he strikes, far from being one neglected by industry, is one that some industry firms have pursued for years, and will leave anybody in the industry going, “What’s the big deal? We have nothing against those people and have taken their money every day for centuries.” But Hollywood can’t imagine a gun industry that isn’t biased against a minority group. (To their credit, they do show minority workers at Paxson, although not to the extent that they really exist in the industry).

There are occasional snippets of gun culture which show that the writers have done a little research, including the sort of over-the-top reaction some have when untutored newbs violate safety rules they haven’t learned yet. There’s a lot of potential here (they really need Rick Taylor, World’s Greatest Tactical Instructor), but it’s hard to imagine them not squandering it.

The fictional companies in the Hollywood version of industry are Paxson Firearms and Rayburn, which was founded by the prodigal uncle of the Paxson family. Paxson’s back story was that it made bicycles and other household appliances and started making guns in 1938. During the war, it made M1 rifles. Lately, it has lost money and fallen behind the industry, in part because of the old man’s preference for unfashionable products, and certainly also because of a lack of professional management, and the immaturity of the heir apparent. Those things can happen, of course, in any industry, and they have considerable entertainment potential.

The Bottom Line

Amazon was looking for a breakout series when they made this. They’re still looking. Last year’s great hope, Alpha House, went from a fun pilot with a great cast to must-we-watch-this-? TV in three episodes. (We don’t know where it went after that. Watching it is free, but the time isn’t).

The show can’t really decide if it’s a drama or a comedy, so it drops unsatisfyingly in the hole in between, mostly on the drama side. In the end, the writers and actors don’t truly respect the sort of people that they are portraying, even to the degree that writers and actors respect their characters who might be horrible criminals, and that makes the whole thing feel inauthentic and phoned-in, despite a lot of hard work by the cast and crew.

If they make more episodes, we would probably watch them. There’s an ironic parallel for Amazon here: a chance here, like the one Richard talks the on-screen business into taking, to reach a demographic that is historically underserved, canine loyal, and flush with wealth that Hollywood can’t tap in to: the People of the Gun. Will they take that chance, or play to the neighbors in Brentwood and Laurel Canyon?

Saturday Matinee 2014 052: The Interview

If you haven’t taken up life underneath a geological feature, you must be aware of the James Franco/Seth Rogen comedy The Interview. Kid dropped the $15 on Google Play to own it, and then he came downstairs, laughing himself silly, and insisting we needed to see it. Like any 15-year-old these days, his sense of humor is attuned to the coarse, even crude comedies being made now, and this one was right up that alley.



Except for one thing: it was funny.

The laughs begin with the opening, as a cute Korean girl sings a beautiful song, with lyrics (rendered in English subtitles) that start off as typical our-lovely-country anodyne patriotism but soon take a new direction that’s completely at odds with the adorable kid and the pretty melody.

The plot has been telegraphed in many a news story, as well as the trailer: a vain and shallow late-night-show host, Dave Skylark (Franco), and his equally juvenile producer Aaron Rappaport (Rogen), win a chance to interview Korean dictator Kim Jong-Un — which becomes a chance to assassinate him, because while nobody in Hollywood has the least awareness of anything the CIA actually does, everyone on the better side of Pasadena knows it’s an assassination shop, right?

Look, roll with it. The story is less plausible than a Disney cartoon, and those are based on fairy tales, for crying out loud. Nobody watches this for the plot. You watch to see a Franco/Rogen buddy film, and to laugh that part of your anatomy that too many of the jokes will be about clean off.

Acting and Production

James Franco is a remarkably flexible actor, who loses himself in his parts, in this case Dave Skylark, a shallow simpleton of a TV personality who has a shallow, simple show. TV viewers being who they are, it’s a huge hit. In the opening scenes, he helps a very unlikely celebrity break the news that he’s gay (we won’t spoil it), and then we learn that it’s his and Aaron’s 1,000th show together — 10 years on the air. Dave is shallow all the way down, but Aaron is troubled by doubts about the seriousness of what he’s doing — even as he revels in it. Numerous small details from the first act go dormant in your mind, but they’ll be fulfilled in the third.


If you’ve seen Pineapple Express you’ve seen similar performances from Rogen and Franco, with Rogen’s character the one struggling to occasionally act like an adult (and often falling short), and Franco’s not even trying. They’re great as a buddy pair, and better in this dopey comedy than in Pineapple’s doper comedy, which could have been done by Cheech and Chong. (The problem with Cheech and Chong is that, unlike Rogen and Franco, doper comedy is all they could do).

There are several breakout performances by minor actors. The one everyone’s talking about is Randall Park, who’s killer as Kim Jong-Un, a complex part with layers of layers.

Kim Jong Un (Randall Park, center) in Columbia Pictures' THE INTERVIEW.

Accuracy and Weapons

This is probably not the right movie to pick if we’re going to key on accuracy, and there’s a rather minimal attempt to make things accurate. Yes, the Norks do have Soviet-style weapons, including a T-55 tank (complete with Cyrillic stencilling), but there is more of an attempt to get the Gestalt of North Korea and its armed forces than to nail any particular details.


There are a few pieces of Western equipment imitating Nork gear, including a Sikorsky S-61 helicopter and VW Type 183 Iltis jeeps, some of which go head to head with the T-55. Would it be a spoiler to tell you who wins?

Wrong helicopter, sure, but this is not the sort of movie that needs the right one.

Wrong helicopter, sure, but this is not the sort of movie that needs the right one.

American weapons include a bizarre assassination poison, that is basically a plot device, and a drone armed with a gadget whose basic raison d’être is another plot point.


Indeed, all the weapons used in the film are there to serve certain plot points.

The bottom line

We’d have urged you to see the movie anyway, on defense-of-free-speech principles. But the fact is that we went from laughing, to chuckling and chortling, back to laughing, to roaring with laughter. It is a modern comedy, meaning there’s a lot of unnecessary foul language and a lot of superfluous sex and gross-out content. But it’s a funny comedy.

At the movie’s end, we felt well entertained and didn’t grudge Franco and Rogen (and Evan Goldberg, who shared directorial duties with Rogen) the time. It was an extra sweetener that Kid bought us the movie with money he made at his own job.

Some people find North Korea to be not especially funny. The comical Kims have had a lot of real human victims, and it’s hard to see the laughter in that. Well, we don’t think Charlie Chaplin thought Hitler was really a barrel of laughs when he made The Great Dictator, either. But we think he was on to something. The Norks’ thin-skinned reaction to the film shows that it was right on target. (As do Sony’s and the exhibitors’ craven capitulation). If you want serious news about North Korea, the Volokh Conspiracy has a story about a lawsuit that shows just what sort of man Korean princeling Kim Jong-Un is, and just what sort of principality he rules. The Conspiracy’s Jonathan Adler quotes from the DC Circuit Court of Appeals’s judgment:

Admissible record evidence demonstrates that North Korea abducted Reverend Kim [no relation to the royal family -Ed.], that it invariably tortures and kills political prisoners, and that through terror and intimidation it prevents any information about those crimes from escaping to the outside world. Requiring a plaintiff to produce direct, firsthand evidence of the victim’s torture and murder would thus thwart the purpose of the terrorism exception: holding state sponsors of terrorism accountable for torture and extrajudicial killing.

Yes, dictatorships are serious business indeed. That’s why our best comedians need to be lampooning them. Please reward Seth Rogen and James Franco (and their whole cast & crew) for making The Interview. See their movie.

But if a scheduler for Dave Skylark calls you, you’re not in, m’kay?   

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page :

Not available yet. Try on Google Play:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: it has a 49%, “rotten,” rating, driven down by pro critics like Evan Burr at The Boston Globe who are trying to curry favor with the Norks or something.

  • Wikipedia  page:


The Cuban Winchester

These days, with Cuba in the news and our President bowing and scraping to los hermanos pollos Castros, is a good time to reflect on the arms of the Cuban Revolution. A recent biography of one of the many tragic figures of the war, Comandante Americano William Morgan, contained a few brief paragraphs about a homemade gun, the “Cuban Winchester.”

One night, [former Second Front training officer Regino] Camacho came over to Morgan, and the two began talking. The other rebels watched as the two huddled over an old Winchester, piecing together the parts to put it back together. They had patched up their differences.

By the morning, the two had devised a homemade assault rifle. Using the frame of a 1907 Winchester and combining it with other parts, they created a base so the gun could fire with interchangeable barrels, depending on what ammo was available. They called it the Cuban Winchester.

This book (The Yankee Comandante by Michael Sallah and Mitch Weiss) does have different details from other sources, but the authors have made scant attempt to document their sourcing, and no source at all is given for this. On top of that, Sallah and Weiss clearly have no interest in or understanding of firearms; a picture showing Comandante Morgan posing with his rebel girlfriend describes their arms, an M1 Thompson and an M1 Carbine, as “assault rifles.” But it interested us enough to track down other references to the Cuban Winchester, such as they are, and to tentatively conclude that the gun was a one-off for propaganda purposes.

We were able to find a video online from which we’ve taken some stills of the actual weapon. The actual video is embedded near the end of this post. (The images do embiggen but they’re originally pretty grainy scans from halftone, from Guns magazine in October, 1959[.pdf]).


Remembering something about this, we hit the Unconventional Warfare Operations Research Library, and in its needs-better-organized 3,000+ volume stacks, we found the following in Robert K. Brown’s Merc: American Soldiers of Fortune from the 1980s:

As Morgan later related in an interview with author Brown: “The Cuban Army periodically sent out two thousand to three thousand troops in offensive thrusts into the mountains to hunt us down and destroy our small bands. We were always outnumbered at least thirty to one. Some twenty or thirty of us would stay on the soldiers’ backs; we wouldn’t let them alone. As soon as one group would break off another would take up the attack. That was how we had to fight. Why? We needed the guns.”

Weapons were indeed a problem. The 26 July Movement was getting most of the foreign support going to the Cuban revolutionaries. Their public-relations personnel and contacts in the United States were better than any other group at the time. Even when weapons were shipped to the Second Front, Castro’s men frequently managed to intercept them.

Morgan found an experienced gunsmith who had seen action in the Spanish Civil War and in a number of South American revolutions and intrigues. Captain Camacho, as he was called, scrounged up welding equipment, lathes, and a forge, to set up the revolution’s army. He invented unique, effective weapons to compensate for the guerrillas’ shortfall, making them out of parts available or captured locally. An inventive genius, one of his more widely known items was called the “Cuban-Winchester” by those who used it. He used the frame of a .44 lever action Winchester rifle produced in the 1890s and combined it with parts from Winchester semi-automatic rifles, M-1 Garand rifles, and a few handmade parts. He reamed out his own barrels and, depending on what ammo was available locally, the user could select .45 ACP, U.S. .30 carbine, or 9mm caliber by switching barrels. The weapon could utilize many different types of pistol magazines, including the efficient Luger 32-round “snail drum.”

Morgan reported that this gun bad limited accuracy, but was highly regarded due to its firepower. He himself preferred British 9mm submachine guns, due to their light weight and the light weight of the 9mm ammo. During the guerrilla experiences, he noted the difference a heavier gun and ammo made when trying to move fast and far.

Morgan’s interview with Brown was previously used in a brief Guns Magazine report in October, 1959 (p. 17); Guns has put the entire issue online (.pdf), and here is the story:



PRODUCT OF CUBAN ingenuity and Yankee drive is the “Cuban Winchester,” emergency weapon of the revolution. Commandante William Morgan, an American fighting with the Revolutionary Army, thought up the idea in searching for greater firepower. Together with Captain Camacho, grizzled old gunsmith who had fought in the Spanish Civil War, the recent Venezuelan fracas and other South American scrapes, they put together 10 of the conglomerate arms pictured — prize creation of Camacho’s machine shop in the hills which also turned out grenades, machine guns, home-made cannon and anti-tank mines. It took three or four men about two weeks to complete one gun. In this little gem, the slide. recoil and trigger mechanism are a blending of M-l Carbine and handmade parts inside a Winchester .351 Self-Loading frame. The stock is whittled out by hand. Rebored interchangeable barrels allowed Morgan’s men to fire .45, 9mm, or .30 Carbine ammo, depending on what was for supper that night. Ammo capacity depended on the type of magazine used: either altered Star pistol clips or a drum.

According to Morgan, the short barrel length limited accuracy to “about 25 yards. However, it threw enough lead to allow us to even up the odds a little, as well as give confidence to the men,” the 30-year old ex-paratrooper told me. “Morgan’s combat experience included a world wide assortment of weapons, but he prefers the British Sten or improved Sterling submachine guns. He described the British weapons as having less recoil and weight yet a greater effective range than the American Thompson or M3 grease gun. “Furthermore,” he emphasized, “weight difference between 9 mm ammo and .45 makes a hell of a difference in favor of the 9mm when you’re off on a 40 mile hike in the Cuban backwoods.”


The gun is also mentioned, briefly, in Aran Shetterly’s The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom, another bio of Morgan. Shetterly describes Morgan (pp. 160-161) as

[P]osing with a “Cuban Winchester” (a regular bolt-and-lever Winchester rifle that the weapons doctor, Regino Camacho, had turned into a semiautomatic).

Previously, Shetterly introduced Camacho (p. 56):

 Like young baseball players being handed their first uniforms, bats, and gloves, Menoyo’s men thrilled at the sight of the shipment of arms. It was an odd assortment of weapons from shady dealers and pawnshops from Miami to New Jersey. There were 50 Italian carbines, a Thompson submachine gun and two English Stens that could fire 550 rounds per minute, two Springfield rifles, a Garand, five Remington semi-automatic rifles, one M1 and two M3’s, carbines, and thousands of rounds of munition [sic]. Menoyo handled the Sten to Morgan, knowing that he was one of the few men in the group who could handle a submachine gun.

In addition to the weapons, there were tents, uniforms, knapsacks, lanterns, and other essential tools and supplies, including a few old military helmets. One of these was a big, heavy Nazi helmet that a pawnshop proprietor had tossed in with the guns. Only one young man, a country boy named Publio, had a head big enough to wear it – and he did.

Every piece of hand-me-down war refuse would find a home. The weapons that didn’t work would be investigated and retooled by a bespectacled Spanish machinist named Regino Camacho. Camacho could turn a rifle into a submachine gun, or fit the clip of an American repeating rifle into the equivalent Italian firearm.

The single “Cuban Winchester” ever seen in photos appears to have been made from a .351 Winchester 1907 semiauto, based on the photos, not a lever action. This was a simple blowback design, meant to be a less expensive competitor to Remington’s expensive Browning-designed Model 8. It is fitted with a new stock including a pistol grip, a new forearm with the operating handle relocated to the right side, a cut-down barrel, and a strange drum magazine made from the drum of a 1st Model Luger TM.08 “snail” drum, and the body of a straight magazine of some kind.

The weapon is claimed to have been made in a quantity of 10, but Morgan’s Second Front were excellent propagandists and poor narrators, so all we know for sure is that one was made. No image shows more than a single firearm.

Moreover, no picture we have shows more than one single firearm or any variation that suggests more than one existed. In addition, no photo shows anything that might be the interchangeable barrel mechanism, and all pictures appear to show the same 1st Model TM.08 snail drum, a unit that was designed for the 9mm cartridge and would not adapt well to some of the rounds claimed for the “Cuban Winchester.”

Is this, perhaps, a propaganda weapon designed to promote the 2nd Front? Or, perhaps, even, to conceal the 2nd Front’s actual weapons sources? Did it even function? In some details it resembles the gangster specials of the 1930s, like the Hyman Lebman guns made for the Dillinger gang, as recounted here in 2013.

Replica of the Hyman Lebman Dillinger Gun, which may have inspired Camacho.

Replica of the Hyman Lebman Dillinger Gun, the original of which may have inspired Camacho.

A tragic figure, Morgan was a subordinate leader to Eloy Gutierrez Menoyo in something called the Second Front of the Escambray, a revolutionary group whose opposition to Batista was grounded in Enlightenment republican thought and values, as opposed to the Movimiento 26º de Julio whose values were those of Marxism-Leninism. They quickly came into opposition with the dominant Communists after the Revolution, and tried to play double-agents between the Communist Castro brothers and Che on the one hand, and the staunchly anticommunist Dominican dictator, Rafael Trujillo. Morgan and Menoyo had been betrayed by the US Ambassador, who at the time was operating under the sway of Castro’s and Che’s ostensible charisma. Not knowing whether or not they could trust Morgan, Castro and Che solved the problem their usual way, having Morgan shot after their victory. His wife was allowed to emigrate to the United States in the Mariel boatlift. Menoyo escaped to the USA, but would be betrayed on a later mission to Cuba and spend decades in prison.

Despite Morgan’s boast to Brown of being an “ex-paratrooper,” he was no such thing. Morgan was an Army veteran, but as if often the case among would-be mercenaries, he was a failure as a soldier, earning only a dishonorable discharge. The state of Cuban guerrilla training in the late 1950s was such that even such an undistinguished and brief career made him a one-eyed man in the kingdom of the blind.

None of these books is entirely trustworthy about Morgan. The Brown book lapses into mercenary fandom, and the new biography, written by two Toledo Blade journalists, commits the usual journalistic sins; true to newsroom culture, they don’t let themselves be distracted from good storytelling by a meaningless quest for accuracy. For example, while there are multiple legends of such things as Morgan’s death, the narrative-happy journos pick the one that most serves their narrative arc, and don’t even inform their readers that there are others.

Here is the video, from JMantime, whose channel has a lot of weapons-related content. We’re not aware of any photos of the Cuban Winchester other than the handful in this video, which were all in Brown’s Guns magazine article.



Brown, Robert K., and Mallin, Jay. Merc: American Soldiers of Fortune. New York: McMillan, 1979.

Sallah, Michael, and Weiss, Mitch. The Yankee Comandante: The Untold Story of Courage, Passion, and One American’s Fight to Liberate Cuba. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 2015.

Shetterly, Aran. The Americano: Fighting with Castro for Cuba’s Freedom. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin Books, 2007.

Apart from the sources listed above and linked in the article, there’s a trove of Morgan-related material at, including a good bit of primary source material, and many of the Toledo Blade stories that were fleshed out into Sallah and Weiss’s book. Retrieve from:

Simple Sabotage Field Manual

simple_sabotage_field_manual_coverWe thought for sure we had featured this already, but if so, we can’t find it on the site. This is a sabotage manual  dating to 17 January 44 . It was classified SECRET but was declassified long ago — 14 June 76, to be precise.

It is only 32 pages long, typeset but with no illustrations. It’s rather typical of OSS training materials in that it seems to use a sort of Socratic method, where the book, film or other training method is not aimed to teach people simple rote skills, but to spur deeper discussions and thought.

Despite its limits, there is a lot to be had here, including from the introduction by BG William Donovan to the closing suggestions, “General Devices for Lowering Morale and Creat­ing Confusion.” (And yes, it does seem like that last part of the manual has been in use by everyone in DC for quite a few years).

Some of the suggestions border on the whimsical:

Saturate a sponge with a thick starch or sugar solution. Squeeze it tightly into a ball, wrap it with string, and dry. Remove the string when fully dried. The sponge will be in the form of a tight hard ball. Flush down a W. C. or otherwise introduce into a sewer line. The sponge will gradually expand to its normal size and plug the sewage system.

Here is the book in .pdf:


Or, if you want it in .mobi for Kindles and Kindle-reader apps, or, in .epub for iBooks, or several other file formts, you can find it at



Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week:

You may have been to already, as it’s the home of InRangeTV, which we’ve been remiss about promoting, and have been meaning to plug. We’ll let Ian and Karl explain what InRange is:

InRange is a collaborative project between Ian McCollum (Forgotten Weapons) and Karl Kasarda. After watching the gun program landscape of cable television decline into a wasteland of explosions and ginned-up drama, they decided to produce a show that would appeal [to] the intelligent and sophisticated gun owners and gun enthusiasts worldwide.

In an internet video world that’s dominated by the childish play of FPSRussia and the soporific ramblings of 30-minute gun reviews, is there room for a show for the thinking gun enthusiast?

Here’s a far-out example: Karl in a 2-gun match with an updated FG 42. Before you laugh at the idea that a 70-year-old design can keep up with a “modern” AR (which is, after all, a 60-year-old design), watch to the end and see how Karl did out of 47 shooters. And here’s a follow-up with Karl and Ian discussing the features of the modernized FG. It’s like hanging out with two fellow gun nuts — in HD. “We’re putting out this video because we think this is an awesome gun,” Ian says.

In addition to those, there are a handful of other videos from InRange already posted. They’re all good, whether it’s Karl describing the forgotten battle at Dragoon Springs where a small Confederate foraging patrol found itself overwhelmed by… Apaches, one of their patented historical-gun matchups at a live 2-gun match, or an interview with AR pioneer Jim Sullivan.

“But wait!” our inner Ron Popeil cries out. “There’s more!”

Because isn’t just the host of InRange TV, even though InRange is our favorite channel there (imagine a cable network with different channels; that’s what Full30 is for people interested in gun-related videos).

Some of the bigger guns (pun definitely intended) of YouTube notoriety are here, including MAC (the Military Arms Channel) and Iraq Veteran 8888. Here, for an example, is a very thorough video by MAC about the FN F2000 and especially FS2000 rifles that hits all the high points (ergonomics, for example, forward ejection makes it ambi-friendly) and low points (STANAG mags only, thank you very much) of the system. The video actually made us want one.


Rotten Read Review: Berenson: The Shadow Patrol

Berenson Shadow PatrolThere is a downside to having the sort of personal characteristics that Special Forces either selects for, or develops in, a guy. Prominent among these characteristics is a level of persistence that is not normally found in neurotypical human beings.

That sounds like a wonderful thing, and it is, when you’re trying to cover 12 miles in 2 ½ hours with a broken rucksack frame, after a week with little food and no sleep. It comes in handy when you’re dealing with such persistence-killers as the cable monopoly and the Registry of Motor Vehicles, too. Or trying to train a teenager, or a dog. But you can probably imagine some circumstances when it’s maladaptive. For a bunch of guys who probably hold some global collective divorce percentage record, we have a tendency to cling to exes that ought to be set free. And we tend to finish every book we start, even if the book stinks.

In middle age, we can remember every single book we didn’t finish — fewer than 20 –, and we’ve probably averaged four books a week since childhood. We have no illusion that’s normal, even if Dogged Book Syndrome lacks a definition in the DSM-IV.

And that was our exact problem with Alex Berenson’s The Shadow Patrol. (New York: Putnam, 2012). That mindless compulsion to finish a book that we did not like.

It started off well enough. The book has an attractive jacket, with mountains that really look like Afghanistan, unlike so many illustrations that draw their inspiration from the Southwestern USA — or from Warner Brothers’ cartoon version of Road Runner fame. True, the four or five mosques cheek by jowl is a bit puzzling, but we put it down to an artist who thinks Islam is just like Christanity and so various mosques cluster like churches in a New England town square, Sunni and Shia and Ismailis nodding to another on their way to prayers like Lutherans and Congregationalists and Episcopalians (whom you can tell, as their nods are a bit shallower and more uptight).

That’s not a view anyone who’s lived among the Moslems of Southwest Asia might take, but, we can cut the artist some slack. No Afghan mountain tribesman lives in a society more rigid or isolating than the New York arts and publishing circle, after all.

But the book, per the sort of glance one gives a blurb and front matter in a store, had more promise. Many reviewers praised Berenson as a spy novelist. There were red flags, if we’d caught them. Berenson’s a New York Times reporter who’s covered three stories the Times has done a lousy job on: Iraq, Katrina, and the Madoff fraud. Anybody writing for the Times has to be assumed to be hostile to, and mystified by, today’s military. But… against that, there is this: a dedication To all the men and women still fighting. And an acknowledgement of an embed with American troops. Could be promising.

And all those reviewers said he was the best since Len Deighton, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler.


While the story starts off promising, with a much-altered retelling of the incident in which a supposed agent turned out to be a double and eliminated a number of CIA officers and contractors with a suicide bomb, it quickly devolves into a canned retelling of all the 99 bad movies about troops smuggling drugs in Vietnam.

Even his infantrymen come right out of bad Vietnam movies — poor, minority, stupid, in the Army only because they lack any other options in life. The rogue troops doing the drug smuggling — how they do it is never made really clear — aren’t even bright enough to do crime on their own, but they have to be led by, wait for it… rogue CIA agents.

It’s one more tale in which the valiant guy with the pedigree like a New York Times writer has met the enemy, and they are, naturally, the renegades and bloodthirsty, soulless vampires of the Stryker Brigades and, naturally, Delta.

Here’s an example of the sort of bullshit Berenson writes:

Francesca would be bummed when this tour was finished. It was his third and last. Not his choice. The Army gave you only three. In the three tours, two in Afghanistan and one in Iraq, he’d racked 56 kills, a good number, especially with the drones doing so much work these days. Maybe good was the wrong word. Francesca wondered whether all that killing had changed him. Course it had. Back home, civvies called guys like him serial killers. The more he pulled the trigger, the easier it came. He’d given up waiting for God or anyone else to punish him. He hadn’t been hit by lightning or gotten cancer or gone blind. He was in the best shape of his life. Plenty of money in the bank, and more coming. The Joes treated him like a minor god.

He wasn’t too worried about payback in the next world either. He’d watched close through his scope for souls leaving the man he killed. Hadn’t seen a single one. Only the red mist, the cloud of blood and tissue that shrieked from the body when a bullet cut through. The afterlife was a fable for little boys and girls. Not real men like him.

Yeah, that’s definitely how snipers think. And that’s why they start smuggling drugs and murdering Americans.

If you’re some assclown with a cube on 43rd Street, that’s how you think they think, anyway.

Berenson’s dim insight into the inner lives of his own characters doesn’t end there; it’s pretty universal. Another character is supposedly a convert to Islam, a conversion that not only is never explained, but that makes no visible impression upon the character, who can’t even bestir himself to salat. It seems more likely that what we’re seeing is Berenson’s projection of his own wishy-washy and disbelieving relationship with his own ancestral faith, whatever it isn’t.

The guy can write reasonable dialogue, and he can write a reasonable action scene, although some of his stuff, again, indicates he slept through his embed and falls back on movie fandom to understand guns and gunfights. In one crucial scene, a character sneaks up on a sniper team armed only with a Makarov and no spare mag, and a knife. (It’s OK, though, because his Makarov fits ten rounds in the eight-round mag; yes, there’s allegedly a 10-round Mak magazine out recently, but you won’t find it in Afghanistan).

Realistic? Did we tell you he kills them?

…even though they detect his approach?

…. and without any injury to himself?

… and… and…  (here’s the best part) … he sneaks up to them on a motorcycle?

That’s how dreadful this book is.


Saturday Matinee 047: Gunga Din (1939)

Gunga_Din_DVD“You’re a better man that I am, Gunga Din.” That closing line of the Kipling poem became the wrap-up line of this 75-year-old gem, which awkwardly merges the story of the loyal-unto-death bhisti with the comic episodic novel Sergeants Three, and an extra dose of Hollywood formula: the happy bachelors scheming to sink their buddy’s impending marriage. The acting’s sometimes over the top, the historical accuracy minimal and so many scenes and situations from this movie have become setpieces and tropes that you would be excused for thinking that Gunga Din, too, was an imitator rather than the originator of these ideas.

But if you aren’t entertained by this film, there’s something wrong with you.

Acting and Production

Gunga Din was shot on location in the Sierra Nevada mountains, which broadly resemble some parts of the Khyber Pass area, but have been used in so many Hollywood westerns that the striking scenery comes off as generic1. Many of the sets are clearly redressed movie-ranch Western sets, exotic enough to convince home-bound Americans of the Depression era, but unlikely to ring true to our many Afghan vets today.

But the acting, and the fanciful script’s taut dialogue, drive the story along and make the viewer, even from the vantage point of 2014, suspend enough disbelief to enjoy himself. The three key actors are the three sergeants: Cutter, McChesney, and Ballantine, played by Cary Grant, Victor McLaglen, and Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.

Sergeants Three

The three leads are, thanks to the script’s lively dialogue, a merry Three Stooges, British Raj-style: they clown around but somehow, always, seem to get the mission done for their stuffy Colonel and his toady, Sergeant Higginbotham.

Sam Jaffe as Din and Joan Fontaine as the hopeless love interest are some of the more familiar and skilled of the supporting actors — for Jaffe, this was a career-making credit (it didn’t hurt that he was friends with John Huston, which later helped him overcome blacklisting for his Communist sympathies).

Vast quantities of money were spent on the location shoots and setpieces, some involving hundreds of extras. As a result, the film lost money despite a high gross, according to IMDB.

Accuracy and Weapons

In 1939, moviemakers had a different approach to accuracy than they do now, and it’s likely that the movie had no researchers, and made no effort whatsoever, apart from naming a couple of distinguished veterans of the Northwest Frontier as military advisers.

Cary Grant as Cutter in Gunga Din

The uniforms are representative, not right, and the guns aren’t even representative; the troops have ahistorical bolt actions (Krags, which weren’t invented yet, and were never used by the British anyway), the sergeants tote American double-action revolvers (specifically, Colt New Service pistols, which postdate the setting by decades, too), the Thuggees (the bad guys) have a variety of exotic weapons that spring from the art director’s imagination, and their rifles are — drum roll please — trapdoor Springfields, mostly (and more Krags).


Both sides have cannons — the bad guys, Napoleonic looking muzzle-loaders, and the good guys, mockups of late 19th-century artillery — but neither one recoils when “fired.”


The indifference to accuracy extends beyond the firearms. Today’s Social Justice ninnies would be aghast at the casting of a Jewish guy from New York as a frontier Indian of the 1880s, but as mentioned above, Sam Jaffe’s performance as the title character is extremely good.

The bottom line

Gunga Din is a lot of fun, and it’s a compact film: the then-standard under-two-hours running length ensures that it motors right along (there’s an even brisker 94-minute cut, but the original ran for 117). To some extent it comes across as trite and something you’ve seen before, but that’s because it has been so thoroughly ripped off by other Hollywood shows. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is only one example of an update of the story; they even have the evil temple leader looking like his 1939 prototype.

Hey, everybody steals. The important thing is to steal from good work. This is good work, worth ripping off.   

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page :

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: it has a 92%, “fresh,” rating.

  • Wikipedia  page:


1. How common is the main location (Alabama Hills, Lone Pine, California)? An IMDB search finds Gunga Din  — and 342 other titles filmed there!

How an Original Tiger Wound up in Fury

One of the most remarkable things about Fury is the presence of a real, running, Panzerkampfwagen VI Tiger 1 on screen. This is the first time a real, live, Tiger, and not a mockup on some other chassis, a scale model, or a CGI digital emulation, was used in a feature film. Here’s a video of how a high-strung thoroughbred war machine from most of a century ago performed before the cameras:

As Tigers belonged to an empire that was crushed to rubble some 70 years ago, the few of them that have survived have mostly come to nest in museums. But one that was captured in 1942 in the Western Desert nation of Tunisia has been running (occasionally) and entertaining visitors at the Royal Armored Corps’s Tank Museum in Bovington, England for some years now. Tiger 131 was shipped to the set (along with some doting caretakers), and the Museum also provided the title character, Fury the Sherman tank.

The Museum now has a temporary exhibit dedicated to the movie, including some of the props they didn’t originally provide, and wargaming stations that let visitors get creamed by Tiger tanks themselves — at least, in the digital realm.

The Tank Museum also posted this video explaining some of the other lengths the movie makers went to, to make Fury as grimly accurate as they did.

We did note the absence of anachronisms on the screen, at least in terms of props and settings. (Some of the language and human expression is more 21st Century than 1945, but what can you do about that?) If you’re planning to see the movie (about which we remain uncharacteristically ambivalent), these videos contain no real spoilers and may help you look for details you’ll enjoy seeing.

Saturday Matinee 045: Fury (2014)

Fury is a movie of remarkable power. It begins with the crew of an American tank, an M3 Sherman (actually a very late M4A3E8) contemplating their survival — or most of their survival, for one crewman lies dead at his station — through Africa, Italy, Normandy, the Falaise Gap, and finally, into Germany. The war is nearly over, but it’s not letting up.


This tightly bonded crew is joined by a new man, green as his spotless new uniform (a sharp contrast to the personalized but worn and dirty gear that adorns the old crewmen), who isn’t even trained as a tanker. We see and empathize with his terror as he’s pressed in, an outsider, to a crew that seems cold, distant, cruel and crude — and united, against him. Tank warfare is a portmanteau of Hobbes and Churchill — the “natural condition” of tanker-kind is “worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short,” but all “made more sinister, by the lights of perverted science.”


The parallel to Oliver Stone’s Platoon is inescapable, and you can almost hear a Hollywood pitch meeting: “Platoon, with tanks, in World War II!” But Fury transcends Platoon’s jejeune war-is-bad-and-makes-men-naughty message, in part because director David Ayer seems unclear as to what message he wants to send, or if he wants to send one at all, beyond, “Stuff like this happened. Watch and see. Amazing.”

Acting and Production

The actors are, to a man (and a woman) fantastic. The key fivesome are the crew of Fury itself:

  1. Brad Pitt as the complex, multifaceted tank commander and leader, “Wardaddy”;
  2. Michael Peña as the ethnic-chip-on-his-shoulder driver, Trinia Garcia aka “Gordo”;
  3. Shia LeBoeuf as the devout Christian tank gunner, Boyd Swan or “Bible”;
  4. Jon Bernthal (familiar to viewers of the first two Walking Dead seasons as “Shane”),  as the coarse loader Grady “Coonass” Travis; and,
  5. Logan Lerman as Norman Ellison, a new replacement who is stuck in the bow gunner position.

fury-brad-pitt-imagePitt in particular has to play a deep, complex character chock-full of contradictions. Some reviewers have compared his character to the one he played in the shallow, cartoonish Tarantino revenge fantasy Inglourious Basterds. About the only possible explanation for that is that they reviewed the trailer, not the movie.

In addition, supporting actors in a variety of roles: the other tank crews, German captives, German refugees and civilians, etc., are uniformly good and complement their characters.

The production is well done, with the arguable exception of the sound design and sound effects which are over the top and interfere sometimes with one’s ability to follow the dialogue.

But some scenes are disturbing. Some graphic and gratuitous gore is included as an attempt, perhaps, by people who have never seen the face of war to describe their imagination of it. Others dwell at length at the cruelty and shallowness of the characters on the screen, as if the real purpose of the film is to “deglamorize” the WWII GI by the filthiest depiction that can be made. The characters are deeply flawed, apart, of course, for the Oliver Stone everyman/kid, and the point seems to be that in the skewed environment of war his lack of deep character flaws is, if not a flaw itself, at least a profound maladaptation.

Fury-MovieFury is superior to Platoon in this: there is not a member of the unit that is a renegade bad guy slavering to murder his own people, one of Stone’s paranoid fantasies brought to life in his epic. There are definitely characters in Fury that you are supposed to dislike, but you come to respect them.

The disturbing scenes, the persistent negativism and misanthropic message of much of the movie makes it, at times, hard to watch. It is not a movie for the family, for women, for kids who are not ready for Hollywood’s contempt of anything not tawdry, shallow and artificial, and Hollywood’s inability to distinguish depth from gratuitous grue. (“You can’t unsee that,” muttered Kid at one point, to which we reminded him that wasn’t a real human body part, but a latex prop molded and painted by skilled artists).

The runtime of the movie is about a half hour too long at 2h 14m; cutting some of the disturbing and maleficent scenes might have made a better film.

Accuracy and Weapons

There’s some imperfections in the details of the story, but they’re very small. News stories reported that an actual surviving Tiger tank was used, the only one in the world available for such duty (the handful of roadworthy Tigers are in museums). One gets the impression that the producers had a platoon of researchers; the uniforms are right, the weapons are right (on both sides). The weapons’ effects are at times overstated, with machine gun fire routinely removing entire heads (it can happen but is not the norm). This is as good a time as any to reiterate that the director follows Peckinpah and Tarantino in taking “graphic” into the lands beyond realism, the netherlands of disturbed imagination; at times there is no point to the bloodbath but the bloodbath.


Note the remarkable realism of this scene-setting, with the cartridge casings (as you can see, from live, not blank, rounds) and metal links lying across the turret, and marks from rounds spalling off the armor.

In at least one case — the effects of flame on a tank and its crewmen — the film goes for gross-out over realism, when realism would be plenty gross enough for even the most malicious 5th grader (who comes to mind because it seems his sensibility underlies some of Ayer’s artistic decisions).

Small arms are often considered an afterthought in tank warfare, but any tanker will tell you that, for most targets, the tanks co-ax and TC/loader guns are vital, and every tanker needs personal weapons when dismounted. These weapons are all right on target, with Brad Pitt’s character having idiosyncratic, but plausible, personal weapons: a captured MP44 and a personalized M1917 revolver.


Certainly Fury, the tank, is all but a character in the story. The Sherman was the product of an American concept of tank warfare that saw tanks primarily as vehicles for engaging enemy infantry, artillery and positions. It was second-best when put against any of the German armor of the day, especially on two of the three key tank axes of power: armament and armor. The Sherman was superior in mobility, and its systems were in some ways more sophisticated than those in foreign tanks, notably in its gyro-stabilized shoot-on-the-move capability. But American crews weren’t always trained to get the maximum out of their tanks. As a result, casualties were staggering; the 3rd Armored Division lost 580 percent of its tanks in Europe.

Rather well, the movie and the characters say little about the tank and its brethren, but show you what it can do and what it cannot. You can tell they have taken on a task beyond little Fury’s iron capabilities when the crew themselves show their fear.

One thing the movie does fairly well is get across the idea of the claustrophobia inside one of these steel coffins.

An accurate detail we don’t recall seeing in a movie before is the telltale marks of bullet splashes on armor. These are done, done well, and done in continuity, with more showing as the battle wears on — just keeping continuity on the enemy effects on the tank must have been a huge job for someone on the set. Whoever that anonymous crewperson was, their efforts bore fruit.

The most glaring goof is that the rounds in the turret are all color-coded inert blue. At another point, a grenade’s delay is stretched out to a seeming eleventeen seconds to allow plot developments to move along.

Fury_227The Germans are less suicidal than the mooks in most American war films, like the death-seeking human drones in Saving Private Ryan. For most of the show, they’re bold, cunning and take considerable killing; in the climactic battle at a crossroads, they finally indulge in a most un-Teutonic human wave attack.

The bitterness of the US troops to Germans in general and the SS in particular may seem out of place if your frame of reference is other war movies, but it is not actually out of place, based on primary sources. Some of the Americans are not-Geneva-cricket cruel to enemy POWs, but there’s a strong implication that this is tit-for-tat retaliation, and certainly such events did occur. The men-lose-their-veneer-of-civilization-in-war theme is straight outa Platoon, and it’s one of the weakest parts of a complicated, multilayered movie.

The bottom line

Fury is a powerful film. It took us quite some time to get to this review because we came out of the theater knowing we’d had a powerful experience, but extremely ambivalent about the experience we’d had. There are not many good movies about the armor branch, and none that focus on the interactions of a single crew, with the weak exception of The Beast, a 1980s B-movie depicting Russians in a lost tank in Afghanistan, that was itself an adaptation of a stage play.

We don’t think Fury will become a perennial classic, beloved of viewers like Saving Private Ryan. It may do better in the esteem of film professionals. It’s a film the average viewer should approach with some caution, and it will indeed give you food for thought, something rare in a war actioner.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page (unreleased, it’s still in theaters at this writing; for pre-order at this time) :

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: critics 78, top critics 70, audience 88, all on a scale of 100.

  • Metacritic review page: it has a score of 64 on a scale of 100 based on critical reviews, and 7.5 of 10 based on audience reviews. (Metacritic is new with this review).

  • Wikipedia  page:

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