Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

New in the Library: Gun Design & Construction Tomes

This one turned out to be redundant.

This one turned out to be redundant.

The Weaponsman end of the Unconventional Warfare Operational Research Library has a few new volumes today. The problem with today’s Amazon dump is that finding the time to read these books will be problematical, especially as two of them are full of sheet music, and require that the problems be worked to really get the benefit of the book.

The first, though, turned out to be a reprint of an old Clyde Baker revision of Col. Townshend Whelen’s Amateur Gunsmithing. This version is called Modern Gunsmithing: A Manual of Firearms Design, Construction and Remodeling for Amateurs and Professionals and it dates from 1928. Most of it appears to be Baker’s work, with three or so chapters from Whelen on the art of barrel making; but despite the subtitle, there is hardly any information on firearms design. The sole exception appears to be Whelen’s thoughts on practical barrel design, and we already had an older hardcover of this book, with more illustrations, than this one.

Armament EngineeringThe second two books are by a Canadian engineering professor, H Peter. The Peter books are collegiate textbooks, which use as examples the conceptual design and engineering substantiation of artillery pieces and tank main armament, but they can be adapted to smaller-calibre guns. They are Armament Engineering: a Computer Aided Approach (2003) and Mechanical Engineering: Principles of Armament Design (2004), both are published on-demand by Trafford and available at Amazon. They show how to apply modern engineering methods using common software like Matlab and even Excel. Principles of Armament Design even includes a CD of Peter’s programs.

While the latter books are indeed aimed at someone who’s going to be designing guns with bores measured in multiple inches, there’s a ton of practical mechanical engineering methods that will educate and perhaps entertain the wannabe rifle designer as well. For the non-technical reader who is interested in concepts and history, rather than the very statics and mechanics of arms, these books probably get too deep too fast, and don’t include enough explanatory text.

Here’s an example: these are the headings of the first chapter of Principles of Armament Design, which is called “Design of Gun Barrels”:

1. General Considerations for Gun Barrel Design

Calibre-Wise Classification of Gun Barrels

Effect of Barrel Wear on Accuracy of Guns

Major Influences in The Design of Gun Barrels

Safety Factor in Barrel Design

Stress Effect of Recoil Forces on Gun Barrels

Vibrations of Gun Barrels

Heating of Gun Barrels

Bending of Gun Barrels

Cook Off

1.2 Theories of Failure of Gun Barrel Materials

Basis for Failure Theories

Theories of Failure Associated with Gun Barrel Materials

The Maximum Shear Stress or Tresca Theory.

The Maximum Distortion Energy or Huber-Von Mises-Hencky Theory

Two-Dimensional Stress Case

1.3 Conventions Used in Gun Barrel Design

Gun Pressure Codes

Computed Maximum Pressure (CMP)

Rated Maximum Pressure (CMP)

Permissible Individual Maximum Pressure (PIMP)

Allowable Stress

Elastic Strength Pressure (EST)

Safety Factor (SF)

Allowance for Eccentricity

Droop, Attachments and Manufacturing Influences on Gun Barrel Wall Thickness

A big honkin' gun on the cover... that was a good start.

A big honkin’ gun on the cover… that was a good start.

The remainder of the chapter walks a student through the design of a monobloc large caliber gun barrel (Peter defines “large caliber” or “heavy armament” as >30mm, with smaller caliber weapons going into a “small arms and cannon” bin). All of Peter’s design examples are for large caliber weapons and their equipment, such as recoil-management apparatus, and mechanical and powered elevating and traversing gear.

One important note for readers and students worldwide is that Peter uses exclusively international units (the metric system). The French Revolution might have failed at everything else, but they did introduce a lasting system of weights and measures.

The computing demands are not too exotic, and the math is college-freshman math. The computer here is a helper at doing the mathematics, and no fancy engineering computation (such as finite-element analysis) comes into play.

If math makes your hair hurt, and you don’t have any ambitions to design anything, you might still learn a good bit about artillery design and construction today from Professor Peter. But these books probably aren’t the best choice for that reader.

PS. A Non-Weapons Entry in the UWORL

We also have a new book, Bright Light, by Steve Perry, another New England SF vet (although he grew up in California). Steve served in MAC-V SOG at FOB 1 and was a relative rarity, a recon-running medic. Bright Light, which gets its name from the code name of personnel recovery missions in the Vietnam War, is Steve’s memoir of his SF and SOG service. You can learn more about Bright Light and Steve, and buy the book, here. (We bought the book and the e-book. We believe in supporting SF authors. Like us, they joined a minority group).

Errors in Firearms Materials are Nothing New

Recently, the gang at Small Arms of the World posted a World War II vintage German language weapons manual (subscription required) that focused mostly on German service submachine guns.1 The manual was developed by a retired officer, Colonel Schmitt. Col. Schmitt was a prolific author of small arms and military manuals (of the sort that might be popular with earnest young soldiers, and youth looking forward to military service). He was also the editor of a range of war maps. His materials appeared though the publishing house of R. Eisenschmidt, located on Mittelstraße 18 in Berlin NW7.

At first we thought so the introductory material would be useful in an ongoing research project on early submachineguns. Even though this is not a primary source on early SMG’s, it’s an earlier secondary source than many of the documents we’ve been working with. So we thought it might be authoritative. Indeed, it starts off making sense, and it’s chock full of interesting material; but there are enough errors to give us considerable pause. Let’s start with the sensible bit (our translation):

General Information for all MPs Found in Units

The MP is a weapon that is particularly suited for close combat.

Due to the weapon’s stability in automatic fire, a tight grouping of bursts of fire is enabled. Small targets can be engaged with good success at distances to 100 meters, and larger targets up to 200 m. Beyond 200 m distance, ammunition expenditure is unlikely to meet with success.

The low number of cartridges that can be carried by troopers, and the heavy ammunition demand in the front line, constrain the employment of the MP to snap missions at short distance and to close combat.

This is good, interesting information. But can we trust it, about the MPs that were carried in the first world war? Certainly, we want to trust it; Colonel Schmitt must surely know what he’s talking about, mustn’t he?

Very soon, we come upon information that turns out to be less than trustworthy, on the same page of this same document:

The following models are currently employed:

  • MP 18I (System Bergmann)
  • MP 28II (System Schmeisser),
  • MP Erma (System Vollmer),
  • MP 38 (smooth receiver),
  • MP 40 (receiver with flutes), and
  • MP 34 (with mounted bayonet M.95).

The MPs only fire the pistol cartridge 08 (cal. 9 mm) except the MP 34 which to date only fires the Steyr cartridge (9mm). 2

(The unusual use of superscript Roman numerals in the MP 18 and MP 28 designators is like that in Schmitt’s original).

Now, the world of early German MPs is grey enough that we can let the distinction between “System Bergmann” and “System Schmeisser” slide. (As we understand it, Schmeisser was the primary designer of both, and the magazine housings were generally marked with “Schmeissers Patent” for the double-column, single-feed magazine, but the guns were made by Bergmann).

But notice, that the good Colonel has the MP.38 and MP.40 exactly backwards. While there were many other changes between the 38 and 40, and additional running changes in production (like the two-part “safety” bolt-handle, sometimes called an MP.40 feature but actually introduced as a running change in the MP.38), one of the key improvements in the MP.40 was the lack of fluting, which allowed more rapid, less costly manufacture.

It wasn’t just a single error, for if you skip ahead to where Schmitt treats the MP.38 and .40 (as a single section of his book, which makes perfect sense given the guns’ near-identical nature)3, he makes the same error:


The footnote (with asterisk) refers to a reference to the receiver, higher on the page, and reads, “On the MP.38, the receiver is smooth; on the MP.40 it is provided with flutes.”

We assume that Colonel Schmitt was truly an expert, and that he took good care with his manuals, which he knew would be bought and read by Wehrmacht troopers and those soon to be Wehrmacht men. But here’s an example of a mistake he made on a simple thing. It reinforces the importance or critical reading of sources, even of period sources (and even primary sources).

It’s also important to weigh the expertise of a source with the left and right limits of his knowledge… his expertise’s “range fan,” if you will. Combat soldiers may have their heads full of mistaken ideas about the development and manufacture of their weapons, and design engineers, contract managers, and hands-on manufacturing workers may be in the dark about how their products are employed in the field.

And everybody’s human, and makes mistakes. Nicht wahr, Oberst Schmitt?

This is one place where 21st Century scholarship has an edge. If poor old Schmitt made an error, by the time he heard about it R. Eisenschmidt could have printed 20,000 copies of the booklet with the error. If a blogger makes an error, he’s called out on it in the comments forthwith (don’t ask us how we know this).


1. Schmitt, Colonel. Maschinenpistolen 18I/28II/Erma/38/40/34; Leucht-Pistole, 2er Auflage: Beschreibung und Zusammenwirken der Teile, Beseitigung von hemmungine; Ausinandernehmen und Zusammensetzen; Schulschießübung. Leuchtpistole mit Munition.  (English: Submachine guns MP 18-I, MP28-II, Erma, MP 38, 40, and 34; Flare guns; 2nd Edition: Description ). Berlin, R. Eisenschmidt: 1940. Retrieved from Small Arms of the World archive (subscription required):

2. Schmitt, op. cit., p. 5.

3. Schmitt, op. cit., p. 23. 

Saturday Matinee 2014 032: Inchon (1982)

Olivier InchonInchon is one of those movies like Ishtar, Heaven’s Gate, or Waterworld. Many more people have heard of how dreadful it is than have actually seen it. We haven’t ever seen Heaven’s Gate or Ishtar, but when we finally got around to seeing Waterworld, we discovered that its reputation hid a pretty decent B actioner, poisoned by too large a budget and too much hype. (We’ve argued before that constraints, like tight budgets or rigid formats, often have a salutary effect on artists). Inchon was a war movie about one of the most dramatic reversals in all of military history: a battle that was full of interesting characters, remarkable events, and human striving in its most elemental. Surely someone could make a great movie out of that. Furthermore, no review of Inchon fails to note that its impresario was Sun Myung Moon of the Unification Church; we wondered if maybe there was a little bias happening there. (We certainly see that in reviewers’ treatment of Tom Cruise. Cruise is a very, very competent actor, but reviewers seem to hate him for his unusual religion; could a similar bias have influenced Inchon reviews?)  So we exposed our fair glazzies to the entire duration of the thing — the original, 2 hour 20 minute long extravaganza.

And… to put it gently… Inchon has got issues. It’s fiercely didactic, diverges enough from reality that it begins with a weasel-worded disclaimer, and the cast, competent enough Korean pros and Hollywood “names,” do the best they can trying to make a leaden script float. It is bad, and it compounds the bad by being long. 

nork_blazes_away_with_a_sten_inchonA fortune was spent on this movie, but unfortunately for Rev. Moon’s aspiration to creat an epic, it was not spent wisely. You can see some of the decisions in the initial scenes of the 1950 NK invasion of the South, where an endless budget for extras in faux Nork uniforms is offset by the Norks’ arrival astride M48 tanks, and the cruelty of their machine-gunning of civilians is undercut by their choice of murder weapon: the Mark II Sten.

You’ll note that this exemplar of Kim Jong Il’s finest isn’t using the sights. He’s not the only one to open fire, unaided by any attempt to aim. There’s rather a lot of it going around in this film — and it wasn’t all in front of the camera.

Acting and Production

Some of the actors are clearly approaching career twilight. That’s true of Laurence Olivier, but he does an intermittently decent job as Macarthur, given the abominable script he’s stuck with. But it’s even more true of David Janssen, playing a cliché of a reporter. “You never miss a chance to bash him, do you?” another reporter asks Janssen’s character. “Of course not, I’m a journalist!” is the reply.  This stomp-three-times Hollywood foreshadowing tells you that (1) Janssen’s bark is worse than his bite, and (2) by the closing credits he’ll be a True Believer in the cult of Macarthur. We refuse to call this a “spoiler”; if you don’t see it coming, you’re watching the Braille Version. (The Janssen subplot doesn’t fully close, perhaps because he was inconsiderate enough to croak during filming).

Even the special effects are pathetic. An attempt to do the old “big-blast-and-launch-a-stuntman” effect, about twenty minutes in, runs afoul of the shoals of timing: the blast has dissipated before the stuntman hits the trampoline. Look, every production shoots a few takes like that, but they aren’t supposed to make it into the final cut. For some inexplicable reason, that one did. It was not alone.

Gazzara, Roundtree, and a rare period-correct vehicle, passing ROK extras with what looks like dummy Springfield 03A3s.

Gazzara, Roundtree, and a rare period-correct vehicle, passing ROK extras with what appear to be dummy Springfield 03A3s. The movie’s armorer seems to have been called to provide, “Guns, any old guns.”

The events of history are tied together by the lives of two couples, who are separated from one another for most of the movie: the first is a Marine officer (Ben Gazzara) whom Macarthur trusts enough to make him his eyes on the ground, and the wife (Jacqueline Bisset) that Gazzara is planning to leave for his Korean girlfriend. The second is a young Korean engaged couple who wind up separated from each other, too, but each colocated with his or her American counterpart. Seventies tough guy Richard Roundtree is believable as Gazzara’s American sergeant; Toshiro Mifune is wedged into a part that seems to have been written to apply the actor to the story, rather than use the actor to advance the story; despite that, Mifune does well.

There are some scenes that are memorable. About 35 minutes in, a series of deftly drawn vignettes set around a bridge that’s necessary for the Norks, equally necessary for the refugees trapped among them, and that the ROK army is determined to blow, bring the terror of a retreat to life.

But for every scene like that, there’s a forlorn signpost to the greatness this movie fell short of. An example is the chaotic ambush of a Nork column by a Korean irregular force clad in civilian costume. There’s no visible leadership, organization, and planning, just berserker action (with, among other things, ZB-26 LMGs, and the omnipresent Stens).

A good score can add a lot to a film. Here, the composer didn’t.

Accuracy and Weapons

We’ve mentioned the wrong guns before. And the wrong tanks, and wrong uniforms, and wrong everything. The aircraft are wrong. A Jeep is hit and blows up, the same pyro shot is used from several angles, and the jeep is a 1960s M151. The Marines’ helmet covers are Vietnam era.

It’s cringeworthy to have an American officer look through binoculars at obvious M47 tanks and says, “T34s At least, that’s what Intelligence says.” Look, intelligence is (and then, was) far from perfect, but it sure has a better batting average than this film’s cast and crew.

Later, Norks guarding a lighthouse are clearly from a better-equipped regiment than the ones at the beginning — they have MP40s instead of Stens. Sheesh. And their QRF has Thompsons. The US and ROK small arms are mostly correct — M1 rifles and carbines, M1919A4s and M2s, M3 Grease Guns and M1 Thompsons. But their combat vehicles are almost all of the wrong period.

All parties on all sides seem completely averse to the use of sights on any weapon. Occasionally, one is raised to several inches below the sightline, but mostly they blaze away from the hip. Fortunately, this movie did not spread that bad technique widely — too few people saw it.

As Douglas Macarthur arrives in Korea in the summer of 1950, so great are his powers that a 1955 Chevrolet is waiting for him. He not only beat Tojo and Kim Il Sung, he can bend time!

And, after making the night landing a key dramatic hinge of the movie, there are no shots of night landing. Only of a 6:33 AM landing on the island of Wolmi-Do, a rare example of an event a six in the morning with the sun, judging from the shadows, straight overhead.

We’ve been brutally critical of CGI in the past, but bad Asian movie CGI would be a signal improvement here.

There is little to no attempt to make the sights and sounds of combat realistic. Explosions are always gasoline fireballs; sounds are right off Acme Effects Disk No. 9.

The bottom line

Inchon is an archetype of the dreadful movie made by intertwining improbable personal relationships with major world events. It can be done well (the classic example being Gone With The Wind), it can be spoofed to perfection (Forrest Gump, although the genius behind that was novelist Winston Groom), and it can be done a lot worse than this (Michael Bay’s unbearable Pearl Harbor). It actually hews fairly close to the path of real events. But in the end, this is one of those where we watched so that you don’t have to.

On the up side, there are plenty of explosions and gunfire. So if that’s all you’re looking for, you can get a good fix. And the conclusion is uplifting, as Moon (and Macarthur) presumably intended.

(The true story of the Inchon invasion including the measures taken to secure the harbor islands is far better, and more dramatic, than the movie. So is the true story of Douglas Macarthur, who remains a greater figure — and a greater engima — than any of the many movies portray him).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

This movie is not available on DVD.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

It hasn’t got one of these, either.

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

Well… it outscored Jaws II. There is that.

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2014 29: Straight Into Darkness (2004)

Straight Into Darkness DVDWe probably should have bailed when we learned this movie was directed by a guy who makes horror B-Movies: you know, the ones named after some cutting implement with a rather large roman numeral, like Coping Saw VIII, Jackhammer XVI and that sort of thing.

If we missed that cue, we should have bailed with the corny minefield scene. (The minefield, mirabile dictu, eliminates everyone not further useful to the plot: Deus ex Tellermine). Or we should have grabbed the eject handle when we met the cannibal priest. Or the hanging villagers in the woods.

If we’d done that, we’d never have gotten to the partisan group of deformed and retarded children. This plot twist has the benefit of a certain novelty, but sometimes the reason a certain idea hasn’t been implemented before is that it’s a deformed and retarded idea. 

The movie centers on a pair of deserters, the sensitive, gentle paratrooper (?) Losey who has just seen more war than he can handle, and the crude, self-centered Demming, who considers his hide too precious to be penetrated by German metal products. At show’s opening, they’re stuck in a jeep with two gloating MPs, who are taking them to have a fair trial and an execution. (This is a slight historical departure: of all the thousands of WWII deserters, only one was executed; but if only they’d done these two also, we’d have been spared most of this movie. It will make you a death penalty supporter).

There’s really nothing comparable to this in the world of film, so far as we know. And if there is, please God may we not watch it.

Acting and Production

Ryan Francis as Losey. Note the weird costume and weapon.

Ryan Francis as Losey. Note the weird costume and weapon. Where did that barrel band come from? The prop room?

The actors are, with one exception, steadily-working TV actors. The exception is David Warner, fallen low from his stint as Captain Kiesel in 1978’s Cross of Iron. Losey and Demming aren’t badly cast; Ryan Francis and Scott McDonald respectively. The female lead is Linda Thorson, who isn’t remembered for succeeding Diana Rigg as the distaff side of The Avengers in its last season (1969) opposite Patrick Macnee. She does a great crazy lady.

It isn’t the acting that undoes this movie.

The production does what it can with a jock fraternity’s beer-run budget and a disjointed script.

The script is the real purveyor of chaos here. Nothing makes sense or is remotely believable.  As the intro above makes clear, soon we were watching it out of sheer morbid curiosity.

The motivations of the characters are unclear when they’re not inexplicable or outright irrational. The German bad guys, of course, include one leader who radiates evil and an endless cornucopia of incompetent mooks, who get wasted in windrows by the two Worst Soldiers in the ETO and a gang of children with various deformities of body and mind.

Accuracy and Weapons

"Germans" in Romanian Army coats.

“Germans” in Romanian Army coats.

The movie was filmed in Romania, and the production company seems to have used the “whatever’s handy” approach to firearms. They seem to have used non-firing replicas in every scene where the weapon didn’t have to fire, which is great for a safety standpoint, but the nonfiring and firing guns are not always the same make and model. Therefore a character’s gun may change from Colt to Walther and back again within a single scene.

The Tiger tank follows the lead of many other movies and grafts a Tiger superstructure onto a T-55 or other Russian armored vehicle. But in other movies, they try to make a proportionate Tiger top. This one has a turret with elephantiasis.

"German" stunt man launched feet in the air by a mix of explodiumite and a hidden trampoline.

“German” stunt man launched feet in the air by a mix of explodiumite and a hidden trampoline, but mostly the trampoline.

The weapons act somewhat bizarre, and in true Hollywood fashion, every explosive is packed with fireworks and gasoline — Hollywood’s patented ingredient, explodiumite.

A few words should be said about the tactics. Or lack of them. The Germans have neither the skills nor the desire for self-preservation, and come in, MP40s blazing from the hip. And like a Soviet battalion of tank riders, they’re heavily equipped with MP40s. The German leader sits in his tank turret and orders one attack at a time to go forward and die. Meanwhile, the script has him insisting mawkishly that he’s doing it for the good of his men. (Yes, the same men he’s throwing away in frontal assaults as if the Germans hadn’t given that up as a policy by late 1918). Our Dad used to say stuff like that: “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you.” It never did.

The bottom line

We like to find obscure movies; sometimes they turn out to be hidden gems Straight into Darkness is the other kind: the stuff the gems are buried in. There are two possibilities here: one, that someone (director? Writer?) was doggin’ it. The other, more frightening possibility, is that this is really the best that they can do.

We hope it’s not, but any further films from these guys will be approached cautiously, from upwind.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Movie’s official page

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:


  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

Stephen Hunter: Sniper’s Honor

snipers honorThe latest Bob Lee Swagger novel by Stephen Hunter is out, and Sniper’s Honor is his best in years — maybe the best ever. It introduces new and fascinating characters, new places and times, and, for the fans of firearms out there, new weapons (new to the series, at least; some of them are historic, even legendary) and tough situations for them to be employed in.

Yeah. We liked it.

In fact, we bought it at about 1500 Monday and finished it Tuesday. So we read it like it was a competition, and first-drafted this review while basking in the satisfaction of an enjoyable story, enjoyably ended.

The story skips around from Ukraine in 1944, where two brutal armies clashed, to today, where disparate people in disparate places — Idaho, London, Lviv, Moscow, Israel — struggle to resolve the fate of characters who went, seemingly overnight, from celebrities to nonentities. Certainly the Nazis made people disappear. So did the Soviets. But what ever could make the Nazis and Soviets both broom significant personalities out of their intelligence archives? To reveal that question to you is to reveal a little bit of a spoiler, because Hunter takes his time getting his characters to the point where they’re even starting to ask the right questions — but the answers they get never fail to shock and surprise. The plot’s twists and turns are, at once, easy to follow but confounding to one’s sense of resolution, until things are finally tied up at the end.

Some of the characters include: a pair of Washington Post reporters; a Ukrainian partisan general (loosely modeled on the real, and controversial, Stepan Bandera); a Nazi economist who we would swear is modeled on Robert S. Macnamara with an anti-Semitic twist; an officer serving a dishonorable state as honorably as possible; an imaginative Israeli intelligence analyst; an American hired gun; an Arab serving with the little-known Moslem legion of the SS; a playboy turned paratroop officer; a school teacher who is more that what he seems.  Now, some of these characters are central to the plot, and some are tangential, but all are interesting.

The primary characters, of course, are the snipers: Bob Lee Swagger, Vietnam legend now settling into retirement, or trying to, and Ludmilla Petrova, a fatalistic Russian sniper who knew it was not her fate to survive the war, but whose actual disposition came to be erased inexplicably from history.

One failing that has vexed us in previous Hunter books stems, we think, from his weapons experience, which is as a competitive shooter, not in the military. He usually concentrates mightily upon the sniper as single combatant, the knight of the one-on-one trial of arms. There is much less of that in this book, which seems to recognize for the first time that snipers, too, are part of military units and ply their trade with others. Even though the title, “Sniper’s Honor,” refers to just such a sense of chivalry, this book makes great strides describing military units’ operations. There is much less Lone Hero-ism in Sniper’s Honor than in any previous Hunter book.

It’s available from the usual suspects like Amazon, although the paperback isn’t coming until after Christmas. The currently available editions are the hardcover and a very overpriced Kindle version. We beat the Amazon price by about $4 by buying the book at a BJ’s Wholesale Club outlet.

The book is guaranteed to be entertaining, but if you’re a gun geek, there are a few odds and ends that aren’t quite right. At one point, Swagger carefully loads 30 rounds in a series of magazines that are famous for holding 32 rounds, for example. But that’s the kind of nitnoy complaint you will find with this book, if you must have something to complain about.

We did have one larger objection, and that was to the weapon used for the critical 1,000-yard shot. While the weapon has a degree of legend built up around it, we doubt anybody ever got 1,000 yard cold bore hits with issue ammunition and that weapon. Some folks may have done it recently with handloads, but it didn’t happen with WWII GI ammo. Did. Not. Happen. But it’s a critical plot point in the book.  Conversely, the accuracy potential of the M1891/30 with PU scope is higher than Hunter gives it credit for.

Ugly fact: even though they’ve become a staple of Hollywood,  1,000-yard shots were not the currency of a World War II sniper of any nation.

But that we’re even thinking those things after reading a 400+-page bestselling novel tells us this: that Stephen Hunter has sent this book right down our alley.

Saturday Matinee 2014 28: The War Wagon (1967)

The War WagonIt’s not a war movie, it’s a caper film in a Western setting, starring John Wayne and equally powerful Hollywood lead Kirk Douglas. It was based on a Clair Huffaker novel, adapted by Huffaker himself, and was produced by Wayne’s company, Batjac. It was a competent directorial debut by Burt Kennedy, who, unknown to Wayne, rebated half his payment for the film so that the budget stretched to hire Douglas. The two stars, both Type A personalities on and off screen, give their characters’ onscreen rivalry a depth that reportedly continued in real life; they enjoyed working with each other but had strong points of difference. There are some plot twists and turns, and if you’re expecting the Hollywood ending where the good guy shoots the bad guy towards the end of the final reel, and rides off into the sunset with the loot and the girl, all we can say is that things sorta like that sorta happen, but not exactly.

The eponymous War Wagon is the MRAP of its day, or perhaps, to think of it less anachronistically, a landbound ironclad. It is an armored stagecoach used by a shifty fellow named Frank Pierce, who has done John Wayne’s character, Taw Jackson, wrong. (Pierce is played by Hollywood staple villain Bruce Cabot, one of Wayne’s real-life buddies).

This picture of the War Wagon itself is a Flickr shot by Walter LaVaghn Causey from Universal Studios Florida in 1994. The prop was somewhat the worse for wear at that point:

The War Wagon 1994

The movie was shot in part in Mexico, which stands in perfectly for the deserts of the New Mexico Territory.

Acting and Production

John Wayne is John Wayne, right? So it’s a bit unusual to see him playing an ex-con and a robber, although the story makes it clear that he is the one who was morally wronged, and he’s just repossessing what’s rightfully his. Kirk Douglas rocks as his frenemy Lomax (if Lomax has a Christian name, the movie doesn’t tell us). Lomax shot Taw Jackson on behalf of the villain, Pierce, and now that Jackson has returned from a prison sentence Pierce arranged for him, Lomax is weighing two offers: Jackson wants to pay him $100,000 to help rip off Pierce, contingent on success, and Pierce offers $10k, upped to $12k, similarly contingent, for the simpler task of whacking Jackson.

Neither of these actors was in the bloom of youth, but they’re physical enough for the role, with Douglas especially displaying his physical fitness with acrobatic leaps from the ground to the saddle. (Some of these are shot from behind and might be stunt men, but others are clearly the then fifty-year-old Douglas, and more power to him).

The rivalry onscreen is illustrated by little acts and words of one-upmanship that we won’t spoil for you. One particular moment occurs when they have faced off with two would-be killers, and was one of the high points of the movie for us.

War Wagon - Douglas and Wayne

There was a similar rivalry offscreen. Douglas, a son of immigrants who grew up in a Yiddish-speaking home, is (he’s still alive at 97) a lifetime supporter of the Democrats and left-wing causes. Wayne was Republican and right-wing to that same degree. During the filming of the movie, a hard-fought gubernatorial election between incumbent Edmund “Pat” Brown and actor and political novice Ronald Reagan was taking place. The election offered a stark choice: Brown was the original bleeding heart, commuting dozens of death sentences and trying to appease student rioters. He was not only soft on crime, he was a devotee of generous welfare and strict gun control. Reagan was blunt about his own welfare position: “Put the bums back to work.” Douglas vanished from the War Wagon set at one point, and Wayne found he had gone to record an ad for Brown. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to find the Brown ad that Douglas did.

In keeping with their characters’ one-upmanship, Wayne then recorded one for Reagan.

(Brown had told schoolchildren that it was important their parents vote for him, because actors were bad people. His proof: an actor killed President Lincoln).

Reagan beat Brown by about a million votes, and was sworn in by the time The War Wagon premiered. We’d have liked to be a fly on the wall for that discussion between the two friendly and mutually respectful, but opposed and partisan, actors.

The movie is about Wayne and Douglas’s characters, but it doesn’t end there. Bruce Cabot is excellent as Pierce, the villain, playing the role with verve and evident pleasure. He would twirl his moustache if it were long enough, but he makes a good celluloid bad guy. None of his henchmen are anything but standard issue, Man, Hench, One Each Western Style (although one of them is a young Bruce Dern). The characters of Wayne’s robbers are also a bit unidimensional — the bitter old man who has access to Pierce’s inner circle, the drunk kid who has a knack with nitroglycerine. That’s OK, as they’re along for the exposition, mostly, and they’re competently played if tangential characters.

Accuracy and Weapons

This is a Western of the mythic type, from a period when TLAR rules applied to historic accuracy in film (That Looks About Right), and even though the weapons in the script seem to be right for circa 1870, the weapons on the screen make little sense. For example, Taw Jackson (Wayne) notes that Pierce’s men have “new Henry repeaters”, suggesting that this was in the dawn of the cartridge era, but everybody has the standard Winchester 92/94 and a Colt 1873.

At one point, Taw recognizes a cartridge, a sample of 100,000 that Pierce has ordered, and identifies it as being from a Gatling Gun. As the Gatling was chambered in a variety of standard service cartridges, that seems unlikely (to put it mildly). Pierce mounts his Gatling in a turret of the War Wagon, and uses it to beat back a feint by a Kiowa band Jackson has recruited for that purpose.

War Wagon - Gatling

About those Indians: they’re remarkably Mexican looking, and when Wayne’s Indian buddy addresses them in “Indian language,” it’s actually Spanish. Rather Mexican Spanish, actually, not Castilian. We’re warning you because it made us laugh out loud.

The weapons’ firing sounds and looks fairly accurate, except for the period-normal “zing!” of ricochets every fifth or sixth round.

Pierce’s War Wagon (the carriage, not the movie) goes everywhere at a full gallop, which seems to be wasteful of horses, especially in the deserts of New Mexico (or old Mexico, even). Even a relatively crude user of horses knows that what’s on screen there is not practical. No doubt if you know anything more about wagons and horses you’ll see other inaccuracies.

This next isn’t an inaccuracy, per se, more a note on changing trends in legal policy. You see, in the 1860s or 70s when this film supposedly took place, no one thought twice about Taw Jackson showing up after a 3-year stint in prison with a pistol on his hip. Today, felons lose their right to arms, and, by any measure, their right to self defense under Federal and State laws. In fact, in 1966 when this movie was being made, it still wouldn’t have been a violation in many states; the Federal felon-disarmament law dates from 1968 only, and is actually an artifact from that year’s high-water mark of liberalism. Of course, another policy change is that many more things are felonies today; in 1968, you had to commit a fairly serious crime to be a felon.

The bottom line

The War Wagon is not going to be disassembled frame-by-frame in any film school, but it’s a movie that entertains you for a while, with no pretensions to greatness. That may be the greatness in it: it’s not an all-time classic, but it’s not just a B movie either. The plot has enough moving parts and enough things go off plan to keep you interested to the end. For a low-cost Amazon or Netflix rental, or cheap DVD (we dropped a fin on it at Walmart), there’s enough entertainment value here to be worth pursuing.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

Harve Saal SOG books on ebay

This rare and out of print set of books just showed up on eBay. We have the set and were a bit shocked at the price, but for a researcher, there’s good stuff in here. For the person interested in action stories or lots of color photography, these may not be the right books. (If you’re going to spend thousands on SOG books, buy the six volumes so far of Jason Hardy’s coffee-table masterpiece, Team History of a Clandestine Army, which are still available — just). But Saal was both a member of the unit and an early historian. The books are a solidly made and well-printed overview of the organization and its operations, and have not been duplicated since.

Harve Saal Volumes

Harve passed away in December, 1997 and we have no idea who holds the rights to these works, although he definitely did have family who survived him. The first priniting is, to date, the first and only edition.

The four books were organized thematically:

  • Volume I, History/Evolution. This traces the course of SOG from its clandestine beginnings to the stepwise conversion of its assets and capabilities to RVN control.
  • Volume 2, Locations. This is the “where” of SOG: bases, launch sites, etc.
  • Volume 3, Legends. A limited who’s who of SOG luminaries.
  • Volume 4, Appendixes.

We found each volume interesting.

At the time Saal wrote these books, SOG’s existence was gradually being declassified, and most of the material in the books was very hard to find. As a SOG vet, Saal had a wide range of contacts, and almost everybody had not only

The books are not numbered. Generally, a set of four sells for far more than the sum of the values of the four individual books. There are copies available from time to time through Amazon’s affiliated sellers as well as on eBay. With the Amazon sellers, it’s hard to tell who’s selling one volume or all four.

We might post a more detailed review of the set at some time, but we’re planning to make a list of indispensable books about SOG with a capsule review of each — Saal’s definitely qualify.

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Warriors Publishing Group

Screenshot 2014-06-25 10.57.29Their tagline pretty much says it:

We Publish Books You Like to Read

They’re the Warriors Publishing Group and they are affiliated with Hollywood military adviser turned actor Dale Dye, and his Warriors Inc. advisory business. Dye, a Vietnam USMC vet and Marine Mustang who retired as a Captain, singlehandedly transformed the Hollywood war-film process by training actors and extras on weapons, tactics, and military deportment in condensed “boot camps”. He is the singular reason that gun handling in today’s films is miles above the gun handling in the classic films of the fifties and sixties, and for that alone everyone who strains his ocular equipment towards a big or small screen needs to say three Hosannas and a Hail Chesty in the general direction of Camp Pendleton (which for us is close enough to the general direction of LA-based Dye. If you’re closer to the West Coast the angles may be all wrong).

Fun fact about Dye: at least on his second, longer tour in Vietnam, he was a combat correspondent, who put a good deal of emphasis on the “combat” part of the title. He experienced, among other delights, the Tet Offensive in Hue, one of the USMC’s legendary battles of the 20th Century.

Dye is also a novelist of some talent. Several of Dye’s books are published by Warriors, unfortunately not including his great Run Between the Raindrops. 

If Dye is one tentpole author in the Warrior’s Publishing tent, the other has to be John DelVecchio. He was also a combat correspondent, but in the 101st Airborne Division (Airmobile), the Army’s helicopter-mounted fire department in Vietnam, in 1970-71. DelVecchio’s The 13th Valley is a truly great novel of Vietnam, written when the experience was still fresh in his mind. He has two further books, one dealing with the challenges of veterans’ reintegration, Carry Me Home, and another with the miseries of Cambodia, For the Sake of All Living Things. Fortunately, Warriors has republished these three classics.

Along with those two, WPG also includes books by other authors we haven’t heard of, but certainly hope to.

The boss of Warriors Publishing is longtime Warriors Inc. manager Julia Dewey Dye, PhD, (née Rupkalvis), Dale’s wife and a sought-after theatrical military advisor in her own right.  (They met on the set of Starship Troopers). She has a book out that sounds interesting, Backbone: History, Traditions, and Leadership Lessons of Marine Corps NCOs. (That link is to the Kindle edition, but the hardcover’s the same price). She cites some famous Marine NCOs and former NCOs who are, or ought to be, legends in the Corps. (Some of them, you’ll go, “Dang, I never knew…”) Naturally, it’s published by Warriors.

They do indeed seem to publish books we like to read.

Book Recommendation: Gentle Propositions by J.S. Economos

Economos_gentle_propositionsWhile the title sounds like it ought to be The Great Lost Austen Masterpiece, the book is a masterpiece of a different kind. This is not a full review — we’re not through with the book yet — but at the halfway or so point, it’s so good that we wanted to share it with you.

Gentle Propositions is a tale of SOG recon in Vietnam, and what sets it apart from many such novels is the author’s attention to accurate detail while not losing sight of the purpose of any novel, to engage and entertain the reader. It has done that well; it’s been a rollicking ride through all phases of a recon man’s life, especially the operational ones: mission prep, training, mission execution, recon, reporting, chance contact and immediate action, routine exfiltration and the much hairier worst-case of withdrawal under fire.

He also doesn’t neglect the non-operational: camp life, getting to know the Montagnards, stand-downs, being weathered out, meeting other teams at the pad (and being met by other teams when you came out), losing friends, getting drunk. True details of weapons and patrolling SOPs come alive just as the SOG Recon Teams used them back in 1969-70, and true details of Montagnard village life and the cross-cultural bonds of Straw Hat (American) and Yards are just as alive.

It’s all here: The Lottery, the target area no one wanted; what happens when you land on an NVA base area in the immediate aftermath of an Arc Light; what a Covey Rider did and what SPAF stood for; why not many medics ran recon. He does not shy away from the thorny problem of what happened when a guy served to his limit, wherever it was, and his luck or courage were all used up. He does not tell you how it feels to lose friends “across the fence,” never to be recovered: he shows you.

Economos is not an SF vet, but there’s something interesting about this book: the blurbs on the cover are all, or almost all, Vietnam-era SOG recon soldiers. They like it and they’re a hard bunch to please. He nails little details that he only could have done if he met these men or interviewed many who had, details like Bob Howard’s smile.

Like Howard, real men of CCC recon appear in the book, always in character and appropriately, the only fictional bit is their actual interactions with Economos’s fictional characters. We postdate the Vietnam War by quite a bit but there were still many bit players, extras if you will, whom we served with later on, and it was a thrill to see them and to see that they were handled appropriately and respectfully.

Most people who read this book, if it’s half as successful as it ought to be, won’t know a couple dozen of the old SF guys namechecked in here, but it doesn’t matter, as Economos’s accuracy doesn’t detract from his plot or character development: it’s a book you can, and should, read for the thrill of the story, and just note to yourself before you dive in that it is a more accurate depiction of life in SOG recon than many books that sell as non-fiction.

It’s available on Amazon as Kindle or paperback. We read the paperback.

A Special (Belated) Request for Enlisted Fans

"Enlisted"From show creator, Kevin Biegel. Kevin has not yet conceded, even though his show was canceled and was off the air. Fox has brought the last four episodes back and in what we think (in our ignorance of all things television) is a better time slot, 6 PM Sunday. We did not get this to you in time for the first of the last four, on 1 June.

And alas, we will miss the next episode (8 June) because we’re going to be eating highway miles somewhere. But Kevin still has hope that his show will find a new lease on life, if not with Fox, with another distributor. (C’mon guys, critics love this, there is a fan base among the millions of GWOT-era veterans, and it’s hella cheaper to produce than Firefly was).

Hello everyone whose email was ever in my inbox!

I’ll keep it short:

New episodes of Enlisted start this Sunday, June 1 at 7/6c on Fox.

There are 4 new episodes, and they will be on every Sunday in June with the finale airing on June 22.

These are the best four episodes we did. The episode airing June 1, our first one back, is one of our funniest, and the finale is one of the best pieces of TV I’ve ever been lucky enough to be a part of. Even more than that South Park episode with the mouse with the penis on its back, although that one was pretty good.

If we get even the slightest rating bump, it can help us live. This may seem like a fool’s errand, but even a little bit of hope is still hope. I love this show and believe in this show too much to give up.

If you can, spread the word about the show coming back. Forward this email to your friends, ask them to do the same. If anyone knows or knows of a Nielsen family, beg them to watch. Beg, really? That’s strong. How about ask?

I do hate asking favors, but I fear no one will know Enlisted is coming back on the air for the final 4. If we can get even a slightly decent rating we can show a new home that this show has a real fan base.

Thank you so much for any help you can offer,

It’s a great show, with lively writing and interesting characters. The gifted actors and writers bring the human side of the military to life, in an over-the-top comic way, with verve, compassion, and more than anything else, heart. They deserve to live for seasons to come.

If Biegel succeeds and saves this show, we’ll buy him a beer.

If he doesn’t succeed — and, sad to say, odds are against him — then we really can’t say it any better than this cartoon from on the occasion of the Son Tay Raid:

Son Tay Raid Cartoon