Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2016 19: Max (2015)

Max-poster2Let’s begin at the beginning: it’s a kid’s movie, and so it’s a direct, fun romp from heartbreaking start to heartwarming end. It harkens (barkens?) back to old doggy hero shorts, like Rin Tin Tin, with the tried and true formula of a boy and his dog, with a couple of well-selected sidekicks, up against a raft of grown up bad guys, and lives hang in the balance.

Were this the whole thing, mainstream critics might have loved it; but there’s also a patriotic sense throughout Max that ennobles service and, even, sacrifice; if you saw bad reviews of this movie, that may be why.

It’s not high art; it’s light entertainment. (Maybe, emotionally manipulative light entertainment). It’s a story of a boy and his dog, for cryin’ out loud.

Acting and Production

Too many flags for the critics?

Too many flags for the critics?

None of the actors are names or faces we know, but that didn’t stop us from enjoying them in their roles. Sometimes the script stretches a hair, but most of the characters act plausibly and have reasons for what they do, something that often comes up missing in Hollywood these days (“he’s a bad guy ’cause he’s a bad guy” is all too common).

Enough was spent on the movie for it not to  look cheap. The actors are good, even the dog:


There are several internal cliffhangers and events that keep things moving quickly.

A lot of the characters (and actors) were hispanic, which struck us, because a lot of real-world Marines and soldiers and their friends are hispanic, and we can’t recall another movie that put patriotic Americans of (presumably) Mexican extraction so front and center, and did it so matter-of-factly. (The bad guys come in white-Anglo and Mexican flavors, too). It really felt like it was not done to make Precious Diversity Beans of these roles, so at least they did it subtly if they did it. Two points for the writer and director.

Accuracy and Weapons

The bad guys have guns in this movie, which the good guys from time to time get their hands on. They’re plausible guns. They aren’t really key to the movie.

max-in-afghanisandpitSome of the stuff about dog handling is fictional, some is quite accurate. Yes, dogs do have stress reactions, and dogs can get something pretty close to PTSD. It is very traumatizing for a military working dog to lose its handler (and vice versa) and usually, either way, the surviving partner is a basket case for a while.

Dogs that can’t get over combat trauma, physical or psychological, are adopted out. In the real world this is a long and paper-heavy process. And if a dog can’t be safely placed with a family, it is put down. There has also been at least one case we know personally where such a doomed dog was saved by a dope-deal between special operations and explosive ordnance disposal personnel and the dog-handling bureaucracy.

Several years later, the dog hasn’t bitten anybody and lives happily with other critters and people in an old house in an old town. His master is an old war dog of the figurative variety, and an old friend of your humble blogger.

The bottom line

Max is fun. It’s okay to watch a movie to have fun. You have our permission.

max-dog and boy

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film. We watched it on a movie channel, where it occasionally shows up.

  • DVD page

There are several other versions that can be found at the link, including Blu-Ray, digital video and a novelization.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (none).
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (35%, what’s wrong with those people?):

  • Wikipedia  page:

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (none).



Saturday Matinee 2016 18: The ODESSA File (1974)

Odessa_posterIn the early 1970s, there were a few authors who had the action/espionage/adventure genre down, and produced bestselling thriller after thriller. Some had been around a long time, like Alistair MacLean. Frederick Forsyth, a former peacetime RAF pilot and BBC Biafran war correspondent, was one of the new guys, then; The Odessa File, published in 1972, was his second novel. It was as big a hit as his first, The Day of the Jackal, and like it was based on real people and organizations and given a twist.

The basic plot of the movie follows the novel in general terms: in Germany in 1963-64, independent journalist Peter Miller is looking for a particular SS officer, Eduard Roschmann, “The Butcher of Riga”, apparently for journalistic reasons. Roschmann is thought to have died — or gone underground. Miller discovers that the SS had set up sophisticated escape and evasion networks and stay-behind networks, which operate under the aegis of an SS veteran’s organization, Organisation der Ehemaligen SS-Angehörigen, ODESSA by acronym. The clandestine ODESSA network has spirited some Nazis to South America, and given others new identities in Germany. Miller makes contact with an Israeli group who are trying to infiltrate ODESSA, and they prepare and train Miller to take on a former KZ guard’s identity. Miller makes it as far as ODESSA’s master forger, one Wenzer; but the organization is on to him. Will he find Roschmann and expose the other war criminals before the organization finds him and plugs the security leak?

Acting and Production

Miller is well cast as, and well played by, Jon Voight; Roschmann, likewise, by Maximilian Schell, Hollywood’s go-to Nazi of the era.

Voight in old-SS-vet mode, and yes, the movie really hinges on an eponymous file.

Voight in old-SS-vet mode, and yes, the movie really hinges on an eponymous file.

Other strong performances include the then-unknown Derek Jacobi as Klaus Wenzer, a forger who, while he must be a Nazi, is a model of filial devotion (that is classic Forsyth: depth of even bit characters, laid out with an economy of words).

The movie diverges widely from the book in many details; Miller’s movie derring-do is more physical, and less psychological, than his book investigation. Both are worth enjoying, even now almost 50 years later.


It’s an adventure movie: the hero has to wriggle into an enemy castle!

The ODESSA File is shot in color, but there’s such great attention to light and shadow in each shot that one suspects that director Ronald Neame was paying homage to the black-and-white classics of film noir. It may be simpler than that; before Neame became a director in his own right, he was an acclaimed cinematographer who worked with David Lean.

Schell in a flashback.

Schell in a flashback. Image from IMFDB

Now, this is embarrassing: our recollection is that flashbacks are presented in black and white, but stills exist in both b&w and color, making us doubt our memory. The flashbacks are useful, not distracting, as is the framing device of an old concentration camp survivor’s diary and his last request. (Note that in the 1970s, when the movie was made, or the 60s, its setting, no one said “Holocaust” with a capital H yet).

Make-up did a remarkable job of aging Maximilian Schell for his “contemporary” scenes and of “appearing to age” Voight’s character to disguise him as an older SS man. We don’t often think of the makeup artist’s contribution to films, because unless it’s an extreme job, like this, or unless it’s really bad, it’s invisible.

The score is… how to put this nicely? Nicely, hell, let’s just be honest: it’s awful. It’s jarring and distracting, musique concrète meets the bizarre synthesized sounds of the 1970-vintage Moog synthesizer. All the excesses of the period are on the soundtrack, and they haven’t aged well. After the film ended, it was not surprising to see Andrew Lloyd Webber’s name roll by as the composer. Naturally.

Accuracy and Weapons

Forsyth (who is still with us, as he closes in on eighty, supporting the Brexit campaign) is famous for his painstaking research. He has said that his inspiration for The Day of the Jackal was to apply journalistic research and sourcing to fiction, and his books contain real persons acting plausibly, real. The real names used in the book include both Roschmann and “The Butcher of Riga” (who were two different people), several other Nazis who are bit players, and Nazi nemesis Simon Wiesenthal.

Naturally the uses he puts these characters to in the book, and the slightly different uses they have in the streamlined movie, are fictional. Roschmann never shot another Nazi officer, and never headed an industrial firm — indeed, at the time of the book and movie his whereabouts were unknown and it was thought probable he had perished in the sinking of one of the Baltic refugee transports, a transport that plays a small role in the movie —  and any suggestion that Wiesenthal worked with kinetically-oriented Israeli Nazi hunters is based on guesswork, not evidence. Some reviewers seem to be spun up about that, but Wiesenthal, at least, seems to have given interviews to Forsyth and liked the book and movie.

Roschmann, it can be fairly said, didn’t like it at all. He was living in obscurity in Brazil, under an assumed name, when someone who had seen the movie put two and two together and ratted him out. With several nations wanting to try him, he was extradited to Germany. He died in prison before the 1970s were out.

ODESSA is a but of a fictional construct, at least in its size and centralization. There probably was no single overarching Nazi escape organization — they were smart enough to realize that, when one must go underground (as Nazis had had to do from time to time before taking power) you need compartmentation, not centralization; and definitely not German efficiency! The US captured the entire SS Personnel Office files, and didn’t give them to the Bundesarchiv for decades, for fear that irredentist Nazis or sympathizers would eradicate the files of fugitive SS-men.

There is a sub-plot involving German guidance systems and missiles. German scientists and industrialists did indeed assist Egypt, during the days of Nasser’s pan-Arab call to greatness, with aircraft and missile projects. While money and technology were factors in the trade, mutual antisemitism can’t be ruled out as a motive. In the real world, the Egyptians didn’t have enough captive Jews to build new pyramids….

What's that excrescence on the end of his Smith & Wesson? Oh brother!

What’s that excrescence on the end of his Smith & Wesson? Oh brother!

There’s not a lot of gunplay, but what there is will set your teeth on edge. Yes, the good old silenced revolver shows up in a critical fight scene, going “pthutht”. It is, in fact, the most featured firearm in the show. (Although Roschmann keeps a Walther PPK in a drawer, fortunately without Nazi grips).

The bottom line

The ODESSA File is an entertaining 70s caper film, with a few little snippets of real tradecraft in it, and some film noir angles and lighting that will entertain you. It was shot partly on location in Bavaria, and the performances (especially Voight’s and Schell’s) are outstanding. There’s a nice twist at the end. Taken together, it’s enough to make you forgive a silenced revolver.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film. We watched it on a movie channel, where it occasionally shows up.

  • DVD page

Unfortunately this inexpensive ($6.99) DVD is a fullscreen butcher job, as are all US format DVDs.  There is a $29.95 widescreen version, but it is a PAL Region 2 (Europe) disk. That will not play in a US player; many travelers have a multiregion player, but most people don’t.

  • Amazon Digital Video ($3.99 to rent).

The Digital video is supposed to be widescreen, but we haven’t watched it.

Amazon also has the book on which the movie is based, from overpriced ($14!) current paperbacks to the 1¢-plus-shipping vintage copies here:

The book is a different and more complex plot than the movie; each is enjoyable in its own right.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (64%):

  • Wikipedia  page:

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (none).



Know The Law so You’re Hard to Convict

law_of_self_defense_branca_standard_editionFirst, a disclaimer: we’re enthusiastic about this book, and more generally about attorney Andrew Branca’s message: You carry a gun so you’re hard to kill. Know the law so you’re hard to convict. We’re enthusiastic enough to have bought several books, attended a live seminar, and signed up for his instructor program even though we’re not teaching presently. (After looking at the targets from yesterday’s range session, that’s A Good Thing; we got pretty rusty over the winter).

We have in the past reviewed Branca’s The Law of Self Defense in these pages, but this week we received the new Third Edition. We have spent some quality time with it (only some of it spent sleeping curled up in a recliner with the book and Small Dog) and have read the first half through (the second half is by-state tables of law). If you think you might be interested in this book, you probably want to know the answers to some key questions: “How is it changed? Do I have to buy it to replace my Second Edition? Would it make a good gift for a new self-defense gun owner? Will an experienced gun owner learn anything from it? Is it too lawyerly for a novice?”

Let’s dispose of the last question first, and work our way up:

Is it too lawyerly?

Definitely not. Andrew writes with an easy, conversational tone and his explanations of complicated legal issues are clear and comprehensible for anyone.

Moreover, the advice he gives is largely grounded in his real world of the trial court, where law consists not only of the black letter of the statute itself, but also of the established conventions of the law: case-law precedents (what juries and judges have done before), and jury instructions (what exact issues the judge allows the jury to decide, and what he tells them about the law). So you could probably say it’s just “lawyerly” enough, and it’s vastly better than relying on some non-lawyer’s (like, ours, or yours) reading a statute off a website, when the actual plain English meaning of the law might have been turned topsy-turvy by case law precedent.

Will I learn anything from it?

Certainly, even if you are an experienced carrier and a careful reader of self-defense news. In fact, even if you’re a defense attorney like Andrew, you will benefit from this book and some of the related resources, like his case-law collections; these days, in fact, his law practice comprises helping other attorneys out with legal issues in self-defense cases. After all, he’s the guy that wrote the book on the law of self-defense!

Would it make a good gift for a new self-defense gun owner?

Well, Your Humble Blogger bought a copy intending to do just that with it — present it to an octogenarian relative who’s thinking about owning a gun for the first time.

Do I have to buy it to replace my Second Edition?

Law of Self Defense Andrew Branca

2nd Edition, which some of you already have.

Generally, you don’t. While self-defense policy and politics are evolving rapidly, the material in the Second Edition is still sound.

The first edition dates to 1998, and so it is outdated. The Second Edition is from 2013, so it’s still fairly current.

The changes in the new edition include: a new forward by Mas Ayoob, nearly 1/3 more content, and more examples that arose after 2013. The Third Edition has also benefited from a complete review of state laws (which are always changing), and an overall rewrite.

So you don’t have to buy it, but you might still want to. We did!

How is the 3rd Edition Changed?

One example of the new content is Branca’s use of the 2014 trial of Michael Dunn for the shooting death of Jordan Davis and the attempted murder of Davis’s friends. Dunn did specific things, both during the shooting and afterward, that left him unable to convince a jury his was a of self-defense. Although he was only convicted of the attempted murder — the jury hung on whether Davis was killed in self-defense or not — it was a pyrrhic victory, with a remarkable life-plus-90-years sentence, possibly a record for “attempted” murder. (It seems likely that the judge disagreed with the jury, and sentenced Dunn based on the conviction the judge thought should have been delivered). Dunn’s key errors were: continuing to fire as the Davis’s friends’ vehicle fled, but most of all, fleeing the scene himself. Branca always stresses the importance of both acting within the limits of the law and telling a consistent story of your lawful actions in self-defense. If you run away, like Dunn, they will find you, and when you throw down the self-defense card they will not believe you. Ask Dunn if you want; it’s going to be a long life plus ninety, and he could probably use a visitor.

Each chapter ends with a “Wrap-Up,” and the main body of the book concludes with a chapter that essentially wraps it all up, and a final one that gives you a sort of meta-question to ask: was (is) it worth it? Before you draw, before you fire, you should be able to answer that question in the affirmative. Andrew gently points out that answering this question might well draw a pretty tight line around you and yours, that will keep you always in the right of the Law of Self Defense in your state — even if it’s Ohio.

law_of_self_defense_branca_uscca_editionIs there anything we’d change? After the narrative material concludes, there’s a by-defense-principle and then by-state rundown of the law. It’s useful, but the headings are printed in fine italic type on a grey background. We’d change that. We’d also like to see an index.

Get your copy here at Law of Self-Defense, at Amazon, or get the special USCCA edition (which has a foreword by Tim Schmidt in place of the Mas Ayoob one).

(Note for the record: Andrew kindly offered us a review copy when the 3/e went to press; we declined it because it is our policy to purchase books for review, and pre-ordered instead, and got our copies when the rest of the pre-orders shipped).


In the comments below, Andrew extended the offer of a significant discount to readers.  From his subsequent comments, you guys have found it… but in case you haven’t, and want this book, dig in and grab it while he still offers the code.

Saturday Matinee 2016 17: The First 48 (Reality Series, 2004-present)

The first 48This unscripted reality show, on the A&E Television Network, has been commercially successful. It follows homicide investigators through their work, from, usually, their ride to the scene to the delivery of a fat packet of evidence and a suspect in custody. The episode ends, usually, with a look at the suspect’s face as he’s booked, while a screen crawl tells you of the disposition of his court case as of air time: he “is charged with capital murder” or he “was convicted of 2nd degree murder and sentenced to 25 years,” for example.

This show is not like other cop shows, which is why we’ve written it up before (10 Things about Murderers we Learned from “The First 48”, 7 April 2014): the murderers aren’t the improbable collection of CEOs and scientists and CIA officers that comprise the rogues’ gallery of scripted shows, but real murderers committing real crimes against real victims. They do these for real, not Hollywood, reasons: from sheer loss of temper, to prevent being named in another crime, to make sure a robbery victim can’t seek revenge, to seek revenge for a robbery (this last comes up surprisingly often).


The impact of homicide on victims’ families seldom gets aired on other TV shows. The dead guy is only one victim. Almost every victim leaves heartbroken survivors behind.

Moreover, you know the show’s on target because it’s been taking flak from Black [Criminals’] Lives Matter and other pro-crime lobbies. The principal thing driving this appears to be the show’s detectives’ one error: in one of the 538 homicide investigations shown so far, the perp arrested at show’s end appears to have been cleared when another suspect was identified as the murderer, an unfortunate result that seems to be about par for the criminal justice course (0.2% false positive rate). That’s unfortunate (especially for the poor bastard who spent two years in the can for not being the guy that killed his two roommates) but it’s hard to see how a system designed and operated by humans could be much more reliable. It doesn’t justify the crime lobbies’ call for an end to the show.

Ironically, despite these groups’ loathing for the show, it’s one of the few shows that actually shows some sympathy to the perps and their families, even though a truly innocent victim is rare enough the detectives often express surprise when this turns out to be the case. The detectives frequently comment to the effect that the perp’s life is as lost, as doomed, as their victims’ are: the most frequent outcome of a murder one conviction is life in prison. Yet the human concern for both victims’ and perps’ families comes through again and again.

Acting and Production

There’s no “acting” in terms of Film Actors Guild members or formalized thespian conduct, although one gets the sense that the homicide bullpen in the show is a slightly desaturated version of the real thing. The sort of black humor and blunt judgment that real detectives apply somewhat callously when among their kin has no place here, so what you get is a real but constrained version of the homicide investigator.


Graphic pictures of dead bodies are rare in the show; crime scene images are usually fuzzed out. This shot is from season one.

In other words, you will see — very authentic — displays of sympathy for the victims, and even, sometimes, for the usually youthful, impulsive perpetrators, whose lives are almost as forfeit as the people they kill: a “good” outcome is a dozen or more years in prison on a manslaughter conviction. You won’t see anyone express the opinion that the victim had it coming, even in cases where the victim clearly engaged in behavior that was instrumental in his or her own death. “We’re the murder police, not the drug police,” is a mantra these cops often use to put witnesses, themselves often from a marginal underworld demimonde, at ease.

You will see lots of… to be brutally frank… worthless 16-, and 20-, and 25-year-olds, with dead eyes and devoid of human empathy, sharks’ souls in boy-men’s bodies. What you won’t see is the cops being brutally frank about them, as they are among their own kind.

Not every case is neatly closed in the 44 minutes of show that are available (most shows double up, cutting back and forth between two investigations in two different cities, so one crime often gets 22 minutes or less). Despite the title of the show, they sometimes show the high points of a case that takes weeks or months to solve. And some cases never close, and end with a plaintive request for information.

Never mind the gun, a real homicide investigator better be handy with a phone (and phone records) and a computer

Never mind the gun, a real homicide investigator had better be handy with a phone (and phone records) and a computer. And be a good interviewer, able to elicit what he needs from people who often have something to hide.

After you’ve watched a number of them, you learn to recognize the cadences, to predict what the narrator will say next and his exact timing and tone (“…a man lies in the road…” (three beats) “…dead”), and to make informed speculation about which phone calls were actually shot in real time and which ones are reenacted (a technique the producers admit using).

All the crimes are alike, in that The First 48 crews only embed with major metropolitan departments (rural and suburban murders are often very interesting, but they’re just too rare; one nearby New Hampshire town had its first-in-recorded history a couple of years ago). And all the crimes are different, in that different individual lives have been ended. Some of the criminals are cold-blooded and calculating, but more are impulsive and foolhardy.

Accuracy and Weapons

The show has been criticized, as we’ve said, by criminal lobbies, but it’s hard to get worked up about that. Most non-criminals welcome that as a feature, not a bug.

Unlike scripted-show “cops,” these cops do their work without gunplay. We’re always a little surprised when one draws his or her firearm during a warrant service (many of the criminals are picked up by well-armed and -organized fugitive task forces, and it’s rare for one to resist, when the cops come to the building where he is). Even chases are rare, about as rare as the case where the perp’s lawyer brings him right into the building.

We hope he's just checking to see if the batteries in his EOTEch are still good. Otherwise, something's missing.

We hope he’s just checking to see if the batteries in his EOTEch are still good. Otherwise, something’s missing. (This is a typical, pre-apprehension, fugitive task force prepares for the pickup scene).

The guns of the criminals are interesting, and it might be interesting to do a statistical breakdown on them. They are most often service-caliber handguns, often a mid-priced Glock, Ruger or Taurus and sometimes a cheap Hi-Point or Jennings, etc. It’s never been something on the curio or relic list, in the hundred-plus shows we’ve watched. Occasionally a long gun is used: an AK is the most common long gun, followed by AR, followed by shotgun.

Why so many cops? Overwhelming force often persuades an armed and dangerous criminal to give up without gunplay. Real detectives try not to charge in alone, unlike their detective-show peers.

Why so many cops? Overwhelming force often persuades an armed and dangerous criminal to give up without gunplay. Real detectives try not to charge in alone, unlike their detective-show peers.

True to the crime stats, most of the murders are gun murders, although a significant minority involve an edged weapon or tool, or a blunt instrument. We have not watched all 316 plus episodes and the 538 or so homicide investigations that they represent, yet, but have yet to see a case in which they bothered to trace the gun, or where the source of the perp’s gun mattered. In a good nine out of ten cases, the perp was a prohibited person from prior criminal activity (and in a good zero point nine of the remaining one of ten, he would have been a prohibited person due to drug use). They did, however, use toolmark ballistics in occasional cases.

The bottom line

The First 48 is a rare, if depressing, look at what murder really is in America in the 21st Century: a phenomenon of underclass impulsivity, narcissism, and greed. It shows its impact on real people and shows the frontline combatants against it, as real people. Just as the criminals are not Hollywood criminal mastermind characters, the detectives are not Hollywood detectives: bundle-of-neuroses, physically beautiful actors faking being cops. They’re real people doing real cop work, over the years in Detroit and Miami and Tulsa and New Orleans:.

This is the show to watch if you want to see the real coal face of crimefighting in America. You are, however, cautioned to control any desire or tendency to binge watch this one. It can’t be good for your soul to expose yourself to too many of those dead-eyed criminals, and we wonder sometimes how the cops hold it all together.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD (a DVD was made with 7 investigations from the first two seasons. It is the only DVD available):

Amazon does have some episodes for streaming, but at $2 a pop in the USA:

(But wait, see below).

  • The First 48 Home Page at A&E

United States cable-TV viewers can watch episodes here for free. Of course, we couldn’t get it to work (we’ve been watching back numbers on A&E).

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (n/a):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (No Score):

  • Wikipedia  page:

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (n/a).



What GI Joe Knew about Landser Fritz’s Small Arms

Here’s a once-classified (if mildly so) World War II training film that teaches American GIs how to recognize, operate, field-strip and reassemble four basic German infantry weapons: the Kar.98k rifle, the MP.40 submachine gun, and the MG-34 and -42 general purpose machine guns.

If you ever wondered how the three different feed arrangements for the MG-34 worked, or what that big washer on a Kar.98 stock was for, this movie has your answer. If you knew all that, enjoy learning what was thought to be important, sensitive information to pass to American GIs.

There are a few errors in the film. They even correct one with a title card: no, don’t disassemble the MP.40 (or anything else!) with the magazine in place. Another is referring to the MP.40 as the Schmeisser, which came about, as we understand it, because some early MP.38 magazines noted that the dual-column, single-feed magazine was made according to a Schmeisser patent. 

If you ever caught yourself wondering why everybody used to call an MP.38 or .40 a “Schmeisser,” showing this video to 12 million or so GIs may have been a factor.

The classification with which this video is marked, “Restricted,” is long defunct. (In some postwar documents, it is labeled “Restricted — Security Information.”) It is not to be confused with the sensitive “Restricted Data” marking used for nuclear weapons information, much of what is still not classified, and is marked “Formerly Restricted Data.” RD/FRD was not an Army/Navy or DOD clearance, but an Atomic Energy Agency, later Department of Energy, clearance.

Regular Army/Navy “Restricted,” on the other hand, was a notch below the first true stage of classification, “Confidential.” It was often used on things like this that discussed enemy and/or threat weapons, tactics, or operational art.

A civilian might suspect that classifying such things is a classically military example of blockheadedness, but the reason for the secrecy is not because some cretin in the Pentagon thinks it would be dangerous to show the  Germans how to field-strip their own machine guns, but because we’d rather not have had the Germans knowing what we know about their guns.

And this video, in Wehrmacht hands, would have told them something about our understanding of their weapons policy. By this point, the Wehrmacht had been combat testing the intermediate-round assault rifle for months if not a year, and this film makes no mention of the Mkb.42 (H) and )(W) or the MP.43. Our best guess is that the Germans were testing these new weapons primarily on the Eastern Front, not in the Western Desert or Italy where they were engaging American or British forces. But in the end that is only speculation.

The movie itself is a fact, a primary source for all of you, from World War II. Source here if you’d like to download an MP4 copy or grab embed code for your own blog.

Weaponsman Expert Book Reviews No. 4.

weaponsman_eibExpert! That’s us. Certified by the Weaponsman Board of Experts.

We put books into five categories:

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

We also try to sneak in an online bonus reading suggestion or two. (This week, we might not have one, but we’re heavy on gun books, so there is that). We also confess to a deep Czech tinge this week.

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

Read It Even if you Gotta Buy It

Brown BessThe Brown Bess; An Identification Guide and Illustrated Study of Britain’s Most Famous Musket by Erik Goldstein and Stuart Mowbray.  This is that rare thing, a book about a specialty corner of collecting, that everybody ought to own even if they’re not specifically collectors of Brown Besses, English martial arms, or Revolutionary / 1812 arms.

That is because it is one of the most important arms ever fielded, for America, Britain, and scores of other countries. And because this colorful, lavishly decorated book is the next best thing to sitting amidst a priceless collection of antique British muskets, while each is disassembled before your eyes to give you an “inside tour” of what makes this arm of the Empire tick.

Mauser walther mannlicherMauser, Walther and Mannlicher Firearms by W.H.B. Smith. Three old gun books in one, this book mostly gets a “Buy it” because it’s available at a very reasonable price. It’s out of print right now at amazon, but try other online bookseller aggregators like ABEbooks and Alibris.

It’s a reprint of a 1971 reprint that unified three slimmer 1940s books; therefore the date of information is, functionally, the months after the end of World War II and nothing collectors have learned since is included.

Nonetheless, given Smith’s comprehensive knowledge and excellent access to evidence for the day, it’s worth reading or keeping around as a reference. Many of the collector-oriented books zero in on narrow subsets of knowledge and lack the overview found here.

Online Bonus – none this week

Get it at the Library

The Hitler KissThe Hitler Kiss: A Memoir of the Czech Resistance by Radomir Luža and Christina Vella. This is a Resistance memoir by the son of one of the Czech resistance’s unknown-west-of-Cheb martyrs. This is a very good book and full of insights into resistance. It and the next book are helping us grapple with a thorny question — why was the Czech Resistance so unsuccessful? Especially while their distant cousins to the north, the Poles, although also failing to liberate themselves so bedeviled the Germans that the Germans gave them surrender terms that included treatment as POWs, something they not only didn’t extend to resistance operators elsewhere, but didn’t even grant to Russian soldiers of any rank or branch, or Western commandos. (A number of German officers were hanged for these breaches of military law and custom, not to mention civilized behavior, but that was small consolation to the wartime victims). This book has a very well-curated bibliography, with Luza’s assessment of each work in a line or two.

The Czechs Under Nazi Rule: The Failure of National Resistance 1939-1942 by Vojtech Mastny is the fairly standard academic history of this period. The Nazis, far from their TV image as malicious cretins, used a canny combination of carrots and sticks to keep the Czechs docile — and working for das Herrenvolk. Heydrich, rather interestingly, put scant weight on winning hearts and minds; he considered what the citizens of the occupied territory thought insignificant. His only interest was in making what they did conform to his needs, and when it wasn’t happening via carrots he could swing a terrible stick.

essential tips and tricksEssential Tips & Tricks: A How-To Guide for the Gun Collector by Stuart C. Mowbray. This is a “Library” book if you’re thinking about collecting guns, or if you think you’re kind of collecting guns. If you’re actually collecting guns, it is, as the title says, “Essential.”

A better subtitle to this might have been 1000 ways people will try to cheat you, and how not to get taken because Mowbray, who has seen it all, describes just about every racket that there is.

Even if you’re not a collector, it’s an entertaining, informative read.

Read it if You’re a Specialist

Know Your Czechoslovakian PistolsKnow Your Czechoslovakian Pistols by R.J. Berger. A slender paperback that covers a wide range of Czech and Czechoslovak pocket and martial pistols of the 20th Century. It has become a standard work for collectors and is still fairly solid despite its small size and 1989 date. However, it’s been bid up into the stratosphere by collectors and in our opinion it’s not worth some of the prices we’ve seen copies sell for — $150, and one is now on Amazon for nearly $250. This bubble will deflate if a better book is published, and in the next batch of reviews we’ll recommend a better book, within a couple of constraints.

(Disclaimer: We’re working on a book on Czech pistols, standing on the shoulders of Berger among others).

Satfford Secret AgentSecret Agent: The True Story of the Covert War against Hitler by David Stafford This is a series of anecdotes about SOE in Europe by one of the foremost British historians of the resistance war.

It is largely written from secondary sources, but well written, and Stafford’s interviews with then-surviving SOE vets — some of whom did not know the name of the outfit while they were in it — are worth the price of admission.

One tale we particularly enjoyed involved a bit of privateering that one SOE maritime got up to in the “neutral” port of Fernando Po — ending with an Italian and a German vessel, and their cargoes, which had been interned in the neutral harbor, finding new employment with the British war effort.

Stafford Camp XCamp X: OSS, “Intrepid.” and the Allies North American Training Camp for Secret Agents, 1941-1945 by David Stafford. This is another book by the same British historian and former diplomat as the previous. It tells the surprisingly complex story of the SOE/BSC/OSS training camp in Ontario, and some of the remarkable heroes of many nations who passed through, and what they learnt there.

There is also a parallel political story, which makes us wonder — has the Canadian race ever produced a bigger weasel than Mackenzie King?

In any event, these books tie together with some of Stafford’s other books to tell as complete a tale as anyone does of an agency that burned all its records but the historically important ones — and then lost those in a fire!

sorosSoros: The Life and Times of a Messianic Billionaire by Michael T. Kaufman. An “authorized” biography, this was commissioned by Soros as a means of damage control after his disastrous 60 Minutes interview with Steve Kroft in which he confessed to collaboration in the Holocaust, and mentioned it completely didn’t bother him. The book is fascinating, and rather than excuse Soros, it makes him look like a man with such a bounding case of narcissism that his self-adoring body is wrapped around a shriveled, shrunken, sunken soul. A remarkable man in many ways, and an object of pity, despite the author’s book-length adoration.

Don’t Waste Your Time Reading It

best care thirdBest Care Anywhere: Why VA Health Care Would Work Better for Everyone by Phillip Longman.  A shallow, partisan tract from an armchair expert, who uses a variety of nerdy metrics to argue for socialized medicine because it’s working really good for VA. The beltway genius who wrote it has never served in the military (it’s beneath his kind, evidently), said a quick prayer before being rolled into a VA OR, or sat in a VA pharmacy waiting to see what random stuff they substitute for one’s meds. His fundamental source for his fable or VA excellence turns out to be,  ultimately, VA management’s self-reporting.

best care 2ndStop the presses: Beltway drones tell a beltway drone they’re awesome, he writes that they’re super awesome! And everyone should give them more money and power, because electronic medical records will get your identity stolen in half the time… oh, he didn’t cover VA’s bad stewardship of the records.

He does write of scandals, only to dismiss them: news agencies write about them because they’re so visible, while they ignore scandals in the Dreaded Private Sector. Say what? We swear, there’s something in the water in DC, that is to stupid what vibrio is to cholera, and this cat is living next to Pump Zero.

best care 1stIf you must read it for class, there are three editions published 2 years apart with absolutely trivial changes. We were able to buy all three editions for under $10 plus shipping; one of them set us back a whole penny (and we wish we hadn’t splurged). The front matter (prefaces, etc., and blurbs by other armchair experts) is where most of the substantive changes are. We presume he does a new edition to change the page numbers so when a professor assigns the book to a roomful of captive undergrads, they don’t buy used.

Having gone through all three editions, not one of them is worth a line on the Waitlist of Death at the Phoenix VA, even though the author’s been cashing in on it as if he was drawing a VA Bad Management Relocation Bonus.

We Read It, But We’re Still Not Sure

Nothing in this somewhat unwanted category this time around.

To the Readers:

We have adjusted our goal, and it is now to do two of these in an average month.

Saturday Matinee 2016 13: Lions for Lambs (2007)

The quote calling it the "most exciting movie of the year" is from some YouTube guy. They couldn't find a positive review from a real reviewer.

The quote on the box calling it the “most exciting movie of the year” is from some YouTube guy. They couldn’t find a positive review from a real reviewer.

We watched it — well, most of it, including the start and the end, and parts of the plodding middle — so that you don’t have to. And we’ll say this about that: don’t. Don’t waste your time. This $35 million contribution in kind to the 2008 Obama campaign is as bad as the reviewers said (most of them probably didn’t watch the whole thing, either). It’s possible but It’s been decades since we personally put that much effort into anything that doesn’t earn a badge.

And yet, the cast is full of incredible talent: Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep, Michael Peña. The movie is not overly long. (Well, it is, really, at two minutes short of an hour and a half; this could be cut to fit in a half-hour TV slot, with commercials, and not lose anything meaningful to the plot. But it would still probably be too long).

So what happened? A bad script, no, a truly dreadful script, and a director whose celebrity has outpaced his meager talent (that would be Robert Redford, also appearing as a Mary Sue character as an all-wise college professor in a talky, plodding subplot).

The movie has a three-stories-in-one conceit ripped from the milieu of off-Broadway theater — first-night-closing variety.  Stop us if you’ve heard this before:  Stereotyped soldiers-as-losers-who-get-stuck-in-Afghanistan by Stereotyped DC Cheesers driven by greed and malevolence (that’s the other kind of movie “projection”),  can only be saved by Stereotyped Crusading New Journalists (for which they cast a now-Metamucil-age actress from the actual baby boomer New Journalist era) and Stereotyped Righteous Professors (for which they cast Redford, an actual baby boomer full of Vietnam War bullshit which he emits interminably).

The three stories are (spoilers, because you’re not really going to watch this steaming turd, are you?)

  1. a professor encourages his students to get out of the school and experience stuff for real; he’s appalled when two join up, and spends the bulk of the movie counseling a third. The payoff in the movie is apparently going to be this punk kid’s decision. By the end of the movie, nobody cares about him, but it still feels like a waste when he makes no decision.
  2. the two students who joined up go on an operation, where everything goes wrong, they’re abandoned in the mountains and go out in a blaze of glory at the end.
  3. a journalist who opposes and wants to undermine the war in Afghanistan interviews at great length (really great length….zzzzzzzz….) a slippery politician whose “new strategy” is seen by the journalist, herself the sort of strategy expert one becomes by interviewing politicians interminably,

Only the military story resolves, if unsatisfactorily. The other two are left hanging, even though they make up the lion’s share (no pun intended) of the screen time.

Acting and Production

Robert Redford is still handsome, if you like the dissipated Kennedy look, but Cruise is handsome and younger, works a lot harder to try to sell his crudely written part. Streep is still homely, which helps with verisimilitude if you remember your J-school chicks from college, but gives her crudely written part her best shot. Even Streep can’t save a part that is clearly meant to be a more verbose and less empathetic Barbra Walters. She has a decision to make — does she run the interview with Cruise’s Ambitious Politician Stereotype #3B, as her bosses (shallowly drawn as “corporate stooges”, the favorite villain of Hollywood Bentley Bolsheviks) want her to do, or does she quit and take her crusade against Cruise’s character to the public? The movie leaves you hanging, without knowing what she did, not that you really care by that point. (Not that the public cares, they’re changing the channel so that they can tune in Even the Kardashian Guys Have Boobs).

Redford, and his scenes, are painful to watch. An actual director who was anybody except ego-tripping Bob Redford would have taken the scissors to most of Redford’s screen time; his professor sits behind his desk (presumably so we can’t see his Depends) and yabbers, yabbers, yabbers at a his students, as the movie tells us rather than shows us that he’s the most beloved mentor on campus, yadda yadda yawnskins.

As mentioned above, the student who has to make some decision also doesn’t, after Redford and whatever bozo wrote the script having set that up with a Niagara of verbiage for nearly ninety minutes. And neither the character nor the actor in the part of the kid is at all appealing — for all the talk about changing the world, he’s going to wind up as a midlevel bureaucrat at VA screwing vets out of X-rays or something. Or, worse, a Hollywood screenwriter.

lions for lambs behind the scenes

“Remember, we want to drag this scene out a lot, because nothing happens in it. Then, we’ll make it too dark to see in post-production. Finally, we collect Oscars!”

The score is neutral — neither intrusive nor, really, noticeable. Was there a score? And the cinematography is dark, especially in the “Afghanistan” scenes, which were shot during daylight and darkened — overdarkened — in post-production (see example in the section below). In a theater this was probably bad enough; on TV with the TV network’s white logo embedded in the corner of the screen, whatever was happening on the screen was washed out.

Fortunately, nothing was happening on the screen. The whole movie is paced like a three-toed-sloth on Thorazine.

Accuracy and Weapons

For a movie that’s ostensibly about the War in Afghanistan, there’s little time spent on actual fighting. The two abandoned Rangers have M4s that have fake ACOGs on them:

lions for lambs acog m4

Apart from the fake ACOGs and the use of Tauruses for Berettas (which has to do with blank adaptation and Hollywood being cheap, and, frankly, it’s a licensed Beretta anyway), the movie doesn’t botch the guns. Well, except for how they’re used.

The troops don’t act much like troops. They act like the way the sort of deskbound know-it-all that Redford’s character and his students condemn think that troops act.

The strategy change that Cruise’s character talks about, putting small teams at remote points, was never proposed by anyone; actually, it’s pretty close to what we (SF) did in the early months and years of the war, before the Pentagon decided we need to get a broader range of career officers’ tickets punched.

But by 2007 it wouldn’t have made any sense at all. But nothing in this plot has to make sense. Cruise’s character just has to say some things while we’re signalled with all the subtlety of a .500 S&W Mag that this is the bad guy.

We love Michael Peña as an actor, but his character and the other dude’s portrayal of doomed helplessness is a deep insult to a couple of million of GWOT veterans.

Even the depiction of college isn’t remotely realistic, and is anyone else tired of crusading reporters? It’s past time for crusading reporters to meet some real-world Saracens.

Special appearance by that creature of the New York media, the Dreaded Afghan Winter™.

The bottom line

If you see this movie coming, split.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page (there are other ways to see this on Amazon, but the best way of all is not to):

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (27%, rotten — naturally):

  • Wikipedia  page:

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




Russian Books on Russian Arms

These books are for a very specialized reader but for him (or her) they are literally without peer. We refer to the books of the Russian publishing house Atlant. Atlant is based in Saint Petersburg and publishes books that reach further back into (mostly) Russian archives and museums than has previously been done, and, moreover, does it with a quality of research, photography and printing that is the equal (at least) of the best Western books. Atlant’s books are reminiscent, in their lavish illustration, of the best of Collector Grade’s gun books — and the ones we have seen are much better organized than the  Collector Grade books on our shelves. Atlant concentrates on books for weapons historians and collectors and produces fine works in relatively small quantities. Consequently, these books go out of print. (One can hope for a renewed print run, perhaps).

The downside, for most of our Anglophone readers: most of Atlant’s books, including the small arms books, are printed solely in the Russian language. That is not as daunting as it sounds at first. If you have even a rudimentary grasp of this language, you will find the picture captions stretch your weapons vocabulary, and the books tend not to be written in flowery, literary Russian or street slang; they’re functional books meant to disseminate the authors’ deep knowledge of armaments, mostly of Russian ones and to some extent of foreign ones that are collected in Russian museums. Atlant also publishes some history and biography titles.

We purchased three books directly from Atlant (of which more after we discuss the books). The books were История русского автомата, by S.V. Monetchikov, and two books by R.N. Chumak, Русский 7,62-мм винтовочный патрон, and Самозарядные и автоматические винтовки Токарева.

Those titles in English would be:  History of Russian Assault Rifles, The Russian 7.62mm rifle Cartridge, and Tokarev Self-Loading and Automatic Rifles. They come from a series Atlant calls The Encyclopedia of the Russian Army. We link the Russian titles to the Russian pages because there are more details including a few photos there, and we link the English ones to the English pages (where available) for ordering’s sake. We use photos from Atlant’s Russian pages.

History of Russian Assault Rifles

monetchikov-assault-rifles-coverUnfortunately, we seem to have gotten one of the last copies of this 2005 book. Monetchikov is the curator of a museum of the Great Patriotic War and, Atlant says, “a leading expert on firearms.” His books confirm this expertise. He’s a prolific writer who has also produced a three-volume study of Infantry Weapons of the Third Reich (unfortunately volume 1 is out of print) and a new volume, Russian Revolvers and Pistols, which we just saw on the site today and are no-kidding going to order as soon as this blog post goes live,

The book’s cover gives the first hint of the stuff inside: along with the unmistakable nose of an AK, there are four what-the-hell-is-that firearms that you’ll learn about in the book. (The one on the right, for example, seems to be a 1947 prototype called the TKB-408, one of many experimental bullpup designs in the book).

More AK competitors from the late 40s.

More AK competitors from the late 40s.

People tend to think of Russian weapons design as directed from the top down and boring: Mosin > SKS > AK > that’s it, end of evolution. And nothing could be further from the truth. The Russian program, going all the way back to the Empire (key personnel, like Federov and Tokarev, from the Tsar’s arsenals stayed on under the Red Star of the Soviets), has welcomed innovation — but then subjected it to ruthless testing.

History of Russian Assault Rifles begins, of course, with the Fyodorov Avtomat of 1916 and covers other pre-WWII experiments meant at providing a select-fire individual weapon, but goes in its greatest depth in the 1940s experiments and competitions that led to the AK. For example, this book is the only place we have seen illustrations of the trunnions of the first model AK receiver, letting you see how they differ from a conventional third model AKM trunnion. On the page across from that is AK serial number: 1. (It looks well used, too!)

The book is generally laid out chronologically. While we can’t help our fascination with the dead ends and blind alleys of Avtomat evolution, many readers may find it most useful for its deep look at AK-47 descendants, including not only the entire AK-74 series but the many more modern special-purpose weapons derived from the AK.

monetchikov-assault-rifles-inside2Highly recommended, unfortunately out of print.

The Russian 7,62mm Rifle Cartridge: History and Evolution

chimak-762 round-coverThis is essentially the biography of the whole life of the Russian 7.62 x 54R mm cartridge, which is unique among the world’s cartridges as a first-generation smokeless powder cartridge that is still in use a century and a quarter after adoption. Of course, the cartridge of 1891 was, while dimensionally a match, very different technically from its current counterpart, and Chumak gets deep into the history of the cartridge.

Like its near-contemporary, the German 7.92 x 57mm round, the Russian round was initially made in a long, heavy roundnose version and only later modified into today’s familiar spitzer. (If you click on the cover photo on the left, the leftmost round is an original 1891 example, easily compared with later rounds).

Along with the rounds, Chumak covers the firearms that launched them, and absolutely fascinating to us, the history of the stripper clip used with this round.

Unlike the other books, it’s in ready supply at the moment, but that won’t last forever.

Tokarev Self-Loading and Semi-Auto Rifles

chimak-tokarev riflesYou just know this book is going to be great from the way that Tokarev his ownself gives you a beady-eyed stare from the cover, gripping an SVT with fixed bayonet. Then, flip the book open, and the inside of the cover shows at a glance the evolution of the Tokarev rifle from early experiments that resemble hacked Mosins to production versions, culminating in a carbine that never seems to have seen production.

Tokarev was a great designer and design bureau leader, and his semi-auto rifle was a necessary step on the way to the AK. Our ex-Finnish example has been a prized possession for decades.

The next illustration shows some of the marvelous things to be found in here. On the left, a 1937 experimental primer-actuated Tokarev, a dead-end mode of operation American designers also played with. On the right, SVT-38 serial number 2. Right bottom? Nº 3.

chimak-tokarev rifles - insideWant to know about Tokarev carbines? Toks with hinged bayonets? What worked and didn’t work, among Tokarev’s designs? The dimensions of the barrel — including the chamber grooves to enhance extraction? It’s all here.

If you’re a fan of the ingenious Tokarev semi-auto rifle and want to know more about it this book is for you. And if you are interested in this subject, the time to buy this book is now as the publisher is in short supply. We are extremely pleased with this volume.

Buying from Atlant

The books are extremely reasonably priced by world standards (they’re expensive books on a Russian income). It makes us wonder if this isn’t as much a labor of love for the authors and publishers (Fedurin is a collector of edged weapons himself) as it is any reasonable or sensible attempt to make money. How you buy the books depends on where you are on the surface of the planet:

  • If you’re in Russia, it’s a breeze from the Russian site, but you probably know that already.
  • If you’re elsewhere in Europe, there’s an English-language site with prices in Euros. Start at the “last books” link, those are the ones soon going out of print! Prices average around €100, but that includes free shipping in the eurozone.
  • For the rest of the world, use the Euro site, and Atlant’s Dmitry Fedurin will contact you with a PayPal invoice including actual shipping. Shipping to the USA is stiff: the three books, delivered, cost us most of $300. But we were delighted to have them at the price.

Wonder if Dmitry Fedurin and the authors would be interested in cooperating on English-language editions for the global market?

Military / SOF Themed Short – “8”

Symbolism’s a bit heavy in this Balkan film of senseless revenge and constantly-turning tables.

Despite the videogame splash screen, the actual short has no videogame content, mercifully. It has two actors in it, and a certain mid-twentieth-century vibe with propeller airplanes and bolt-action rifles. The symbolism is not subtle (the two sides? X’s and O’s, like tic-tac-toe. See what we mean?)

Still, there’s non-zero technical merit here. It’s a bit of film-school heavy handedness, but it’s not totally boring.

If you’re going to film Njal’s Saga, then film Njal’s Saga, but you’d need rather a lot of actors and extras, not to mention period costumes. But this does have the same kind of pointless tit-for-tat that the Icelandic saga goes for.

Seems like an appropriate film for a day when the court in Den Haag has just left another Serb walk, this one already back home calling for ethnic cleansing again (released early because he was “too ill” to stand trial, but he seems perfectly robust to stand for election). In any event the court acquitted him; there wasn’t enough of a link between calling for other ethnicities to be killed and the killing for the delicate thinkers of the court. We expect he’ll win his election, because ethnic cleansing always has two natural constituencies, the ones who want to do the cleansing and the ones who covet the mortal goods of the to-be-cleansed.

There’s only one answer for the Balkans, that real-life Njal’s Saga. And that’s, Neca eos omnes. Deus suos cognoscen. (Which is probably botched Latin, but it’s not like we’re being graded on it).

Military /SOF Themed Short – Operation Jericho

OK, here’s another short film, this time, one based on modern military operations, if a bit farfetched: a four-man special operations team is sent to clandestinely destroy a hydroelectric dam that has “been taken over by Russian rebels and turned into a chemical warfare plant.” Somebody probably knows what version of Call of Duty that scenario comes from.

The ten-minute short shows the strengths and weaknesses of Airsoft World as your ticket to an action film.

For a low-budget (no-budget?) short, this really isn’t bad. Sure, a lot of the shots and camera angles are very derivative, but you can probably say that about every big-budget actioner that’s going to hit the multiplex this summer, and what’s their excuse?

Some of the acting is pretty good. When Bravo Team is on the hill, talking to Alpha inside the dam — watch the facial expressions.

Militarily the whole thing is nonsense. Converting a hydroelectic dam to a chemical plant is not just bad science, it’s bad alchemy and pretty questionable magic. You’re about as likely to convert a pack mule to Pegasus. And a dam this size is not going to be destroyed by anything that four guys can pack in, unless they make a new SADM, which isn’t going to happen. Four guys is not what you send to blow up a dam; it’s what you send to surveil a dam, or a lot of other things. And if your primary means of attack is a covert, nonattributable demo attack, why ever would Plan B be a fighter-bomber strike? (Also, a small detail, but if a team is on a covert mission they’re not wearing American flags and other attributable patches and labels on their stuff).

The SOF TTPs are dated and weak (and if these guys actually shot as badly as they do, the Russians would have had their heads for trophies halfway through the show.

But the bottom line is that Operation Jericho is rapidly and well paced. There’s a few surprises and things keep moving. It’s ten minutes of fun, for free. Can you beat that?