Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2015 037: Wings of the Navy (1939)

Wings_of_the_NavyWell, here’s another boy-meets-training tale, but this one a true period piece: instead of tough Brits finding out how tough they really are, we’ve got Americans of the last year or so of peace on our shores (1939) tackling Naval Aviator training. Soon after this movie hit, all of Europe was at war, and the United States was in a desperate rush to modernize its armed forces after two decades of neglect. This movie is often seen, in retrospect, as a propaganda film, but it is more nearly a classic Hollywood tale of sibling rivalry and a love triangle, set in a military setting, with the patriotic themes still seen in other nations’ movies — and often used by Hollywood before is shift to nihilistic anti-Americanism in the 1960s.

The mandatory love triangle has as its vertices submariner turned aviation cadet Cass Harrington (George Brent) , his brother, top aviator Jerry Harrington (John Payne), and Jerry’s girlfriend Irene (Olivia de Havilland).

In those days, Naval Aviators were srill required to master both land and seaplanes, and one of the thrills of this movie for a military and aviation history geek is to see the training aircraft of both types and some examples of the training lectures and aids.

Acting and Production

The Brothers. Jerry (r., John Payne) wants his kid brother to stay safe (?) in submarines; Cass (l., George Brent) wants to trade his dolphins for wings.

The Brothers. Jerry (r., John Payne) wants his kid brother to stay safe (?) in submarines; Cass (l., George Brent) wants to trade his dolphins for wings.

The acting and writing is B-movie, a little bit over the top. The actors are not big names, except Olivia de Havilland — and her greatness was in the future. The director, Lloyd Bacon, was a Warner Brothers journeyman who directed over 100 workmanlike films in all genres.

There are some pretty good flying scenes, shot with the real US Navy, although of course scenes of the stars in the cockpit were shot with the rear-projection technique of the period.

One warning: the DVD we bought at Amazon was a fair transfer from a good print, unencumbered by extras (typically for the “Warner Archive Collection”, which is Hollywood speak for “thrown-together crap monetizing the back catalog”). While it wasn’t as low-quality as the Warner Archive norm, it’s very overpriced at $18.

Accuracy and Weapons

While a little bit of weapons and gunnery training is shown, this is mostly about the aircraft and maneuvers that the pilot trainees must master. These were mostly shot on location at the Naval Air Stations in San Diego and Jacksonville, Florida, giving the viewer a rare look at training types (and operational types) that would be critical to the war — and some that would be gone.

To give you an idea of how pathetic US Naval preparedness was by 1939 (believe it or not, it made great strides before being caught napping in December, 1941), the “futuristic” experimental fighter-plane of the movie is played by a Grumman F3F biplane.

Wings of the Navy! Meanwhile, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Me103 had all been flying for 3-4 years.

Wings of the Navy! Meanwhile, the Spitfire, Hurricane, Me109 had all been flying for 3-4 years.

In the end, the naval cadet system shown here (which has its roots in the British Gosport system of 1916, established in response to terrible losses of ill-trained pilots)  was able to expand and accelerate to meet the demand for aircrews in a global war. The Air Forces had a very similar cadet system, and in fact the cadet system lasted into the 50s and 60s before a bachelors’ degree became a must have for aviators in an increasingly credential-happy armed forces. The Army still trains its aviators using a similar cadet system, but they are all initially trained as helicopter pilots.

One interesting note is the presence of an actor portraying a foreign (Brazilian) student. Then as now, the US projects power in part by hosting the future leaders of friendly foreign forces. (The USSR also did this, in its heyday, and of course we all learned it from the masters of coalition and commonwealth warfare, the British Empire).

The bottom line

wings of the navy olivia

O. de H. in a publicity still. Which brother’s hat is that?

Wings of the Navy is good, plain, black-and-white, G-rated fun; not for juxtaposition-flick addicts or people wanting to empathize with the angst of the auteur (Bonus film school points for two foreign words in one clause!), but it’s as entertaining today as it was meant to be 76 years ago.

Yeah, 76 years.

It’s especially fun for anyone interested in flight training; the similarities and differences are enough to get a room of pilots talking and even thinking, which is pretty rare for pilots.

And the biggest issue they usually face remains, “Who’s gonna get the girl?”

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page (none):
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (no reviews):

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 036: I Am Soldier (British, 2014)

I am soldierEven if you haven’t ever seen this B-movie before, you’ve seen this one before: the man-against-training movie, in this case, SAS Selection in the modern day, starring Tom Hughes .

It starts off very slowly, with Our Hero in the British equivalent of something every US SOF guy knows and loves (well, maybe not loves), the Resistance Training Lab.

About 15 minutes into the show, the show begins, with instructor Staff Sergeant Carter (Noel Clarke in the film’s strongest performance) telling the men what to expect:

“You will decide who passes — not us. We will lay out each phase before you. And then, all you have to do is complete it. If you’re attending for the first time, you have no idea what you are about to experience. You can ask your mates who are attending for their second and last time. You will meet the standards. Or you’ll be binned. Follow me.”

Carter, Chris and Mickey -- the longer the run goes, the faster pace Carter sets.

Carter, Chris and Mickey — the longer the run goes, the faster pace Carter sets.

And as a platoon — a subdivision of the 200-man selection class — follows Carter up into the foothills, his voiceover continues: “You will be smashed. Both physically and mentally.” On the first run, the trailing Land Rover begins to collect dropouts, and a subtitle tells us that then there were 163 of the first 200. This countdown reappears at intervals, always significantly lower than last time, as the unready, unsteady, and unlucky are sorted out of the running to join the SAS Regiment.

In time we come to meet three of the candidates as individuals. Mickey Tomlinson (Tom Hughes), is coming from an unexpected prior service position: he was a chef with the Royal Logistics Corps, although he has a secret that keeps giving him nightmares. His mates are infantrymen: John “JJ” Johnson (George Russo) is a paratrooper whose father is retired SAS, and big, strong Chris (Joshua Myers) — who will learn some lessons about the limits of “big” and “strong” — is from the Rifle Regiment. All three are extremely skilled actors and give life to parts that are sometimes written in such a way that the actor has a salvage job on his hands.

JJ and Mickey work out some personal problems in their billets.

JJ and Mickey work out some personal problems in their billets.

The scene that cements one’s appreciation for the actors’ art is the moment when they’re outside the CO’s office, getting called in one at a time to get the word on whether they passed. (In SF, it’s a board, and in our day it was all NCOs, even for officer candidates), but the emotions are exactly as depicted here. Seriously, it triggered flashbacks).

At about the halfway point we learn about a terrorist plot, and that a character who has several intriguing sides also has a further secret. This sets us up for what is going to happen after graduation.

There is an unrealistic woman officer/enlisted soldier romance that feels less “grafted on” than the usual. Naturally the woman is depicted as an Amazon who can beat cage fighters several times her size on sheer “you go, girl”-osity, and that grates, because people watch these movies and go away believing that nonsense. Apart from the inter-rank romance, though, her duties as a member of the Special Reconnaissance Regiment are plausible, and she has counterparts in other free world SOF elements. We can’t say whether she’d be involved in SAS selection, although we know two ways women were always involved: as interrogators in the RTL phase, and as security evaluators (something that goes back at least as far as wartime SOE and SIS practice).

Acting and Production

The film does an excellent job of portraying the physical and performance strain and exhaustion, and the terror of failure, in elite military selection and qualification courses. It gets that down very well.

The director, Ronnie Thompson, has a really, really annoying habit of using rapid cuts and jerky camera work when he’s out of ideas, and he spends far too much of the movie out of ideas. Also, his cuts are irritating. They cut to black for a long count, as if he had too little faith the viewer’s ability to process a change of scene.

Make-up is something we haven’t ever commented on before, as far as we can recall. But we’ve seldom seen it this bad. (In the interminable Resistance Training Lab scene, particularly. We went back and checked the RTL scene and apart from its appearance in gratuitous flash-backs and flash-forwards, it’s a full ten minutes for something most directors would have disposed of with a well-edited montage).

The austere, terrible scenery of the Brecon Beacons in Wales is, in the first half or so, an uncredited star of the film. Most Britons seem to pass through their lives completely unaware that this remarkable scenic wonder exists an easy drive (or as our SAS candidates arrive, a train ride) away. It is not the most forbidding terrain in the UK — hard to beat the Orkneys for that — but it’s the sort of place an unprepared hiker, or even a prepared one who’s a bit too cocky, can kill himself. That’s what makes it ideal for SAS selection, of course.


We watched this movie on Amazon Prime. The pros for watching it that way: it’s “free” as in beer (considering we already pay for Prime for speedier book delivery. If they ever remove the free shipping benefit, we’ll drop prime, because Prime video is sub-VHS quality).

Accuracy and Weapons

Most of the firearms seem to be replicas, with dubbed sounds. The price of filming in Britain, we suppose. For all that, they’re not that bad, except in the last act where there’s a weird set of mock M4s with a weird set of sights from carrying handles to Chinese knockoff optics.


There is some use of CGI, for example to create Chinook helicopters, and it’s low-budget and dreadful.

One little detail that rang false with us: their survival snare catches a rabbit. Never heard of that actually happening on any course (selection or survival) in any army in the world.

If survival/RTL completion is accurately depicted, it’s a hell of a lot lower-key than its Yank counterpart. No flag raising, none of that stuff. Our pshrinks say the flag-raising ceremony is key to reintegrating the candidate, who otherwise would come out of SERE as a white-hot ball of hate.

We don’t know how accurate it is compared to today’s SAS selection and training. The last SAS guys who shared beers and stories with us went to selection long ago, but as they described it events that are shown as small-team (2-4 guys) events were individual events. The difficulty of the events is not, however, understated. SAS selection and training includes considerable amounts of both gut-check and must-pass knowledge and (mostly) skills gates.

Weapons handling once the guys go operational turns into a soup sandwich. Doing CQB, nobody has or keeps a sector, and, when they need max precision because of a scriptwritten hazard, they drop their M4s and take up 9mm pistols instead. Obviously no one associated with the film knew what he was doing with firearms — if weapons knowledge was Plutonium 239, the entire cast and crew wouldn’t have enough to blow any one of their noses.

The bad guys have a “dirty bomb” that appears to have been left over in a forgotten property shed from the 1960s spy comedy, Get Smart. Yes, it’s that bad.

The bottom line

I Am Soldier is a B movie that makes a plunge to C or lower after completion of SAS selection. Of course, if they cut out the hokey and underbudgeted last act, trimmed the RTL to reasonable size, and eliminated the spastic flash-arounds and portentous minutes of black screen, it would be a 45 minute short. The easiest job in Hollywood would be cutting this to fit in an hour of TV with a million commercials.

For more information

Here’s some British and SAS slang for those of youThese sites relate to this particular film.

Binned — dropped from the course, i.e., in the dustbin (trash can).
Beat the clock — if you don’t know this one, we won’t spoil it for you (the movie explains it).

Tabbing — formerly yomping, in US slang rucking, formerly humping — walking with rucksack.
Gypsy’s warning — a head’s up, an unofficial caution. Longstanding British slang (19th Century? Our grandmother knew it).

These are sites related to this movie

  • DVD page:

Prime streaming video (free with prime):

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

No page

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (unreviewed):

  • Wikipedia  page:

No page

Saturday Matinee 2015 35: Uncertain Tomorrow (Web pilot, 2015)


They do show surveillance in a defensive setting. Click to embiggen these photos (and see the detail in the dark).

This is something very different from the usual review, because it’s a review of a ten minute, all-but-dialogueless webisode of a video that’s meant to be sort-of infotainment for preppers and those considering making preparations for family survival in the event of disaster accompanied by failure of Rule of Law.

And further webisodes may never be made; it’s on Indiegogo now, and it’s dying on the vine there, perhaps from a paucity of promotion.

The show is also unusual in that it is sponsored by a gun shop, the Savannah River Armory from Georgia, and an unusual one in that its manager and workers are veterans of the recent unpleasantness.

Georgians now have the emergency survival problem that people in built-up areas like the Northeast and Southern California have long had: most of them live in urban environments that hang together only by the rule of law and its fair and firm enforcement. In the event of a collapse of lawfully constituted authority (which is not as far off as you think; in 2005 the New Orleans Police Department evaporated into nearly half no-shows and nearly half who joined the  looters) the dependent masses, particularly youth that are already feral, become a hazard to everyone in town and out.

Uncertain Tomorrow aims to show us, through the actions of a small band of determined survivors, how such a calamity can be survived with confidence and integrity.

The story begins with our survivors in sub-optimal positions. One, a former military sniper, is in the long chains of cars that have become stuck in jams leaving the city. He opts to walk to what turns out to be a preset rendezvous point.

Another has a problem — he’s not just trying to flee himself, but protect his womenfolk as well, as the city collapses into  riots. By the end of the episode, they’re established in the countryside, but now have to deal with unprepared people seeking help.

Acting and Production

Before we comment on it, we’ll embed the 10-minute pilot for your edification.

The acting seems okay for what appear to be amateurs, but there’s no dialogue in the pilot episode, which they tell us cost $1k/minute (and they also tell us, that’s about standard for a production these days. To us, it seems low).

The episode has decent production values apart from its unusual “silent film” nature (it’s not really silent, as there are sound effects, unintrusive music, and ambient audio). Edits are snappy, camera angles interesting, situations don’t stretch plausibility more than any of these films do. (For example, why did the solo guy have to give up his vehicle and walk, while the family were able to drive from the burning inner city out successfully?)

Accuracy and Weapons

By and large their guns are sensible for the situation, and their use of them is much more realistic than the full-zombie-assault movies that are currently in vogue.


Right about now, this guy’s night vision is on a par with Stevie Wonder’s.

In some specific cases, the survival techniques looked unrealistic to us. The lone survivor, building a White Man’s fire and sitting staring into it? Not a real great policy; the forest is neutral but the people in it all have to be considered red forces until proven otherwise.

Also, snappy, squared-off patrol movements are easy to do in the first ten minutes after you pick up the gun. These guys never show what it’s like after ten hours under a ruck, and in this situation, ten hours is unfortunately a warm-up.

Driving right up to a building, even your own camp, that’s in an unknown security state? No; not in this situation. Your property may well be occupied by armed, scared squatters. You surveil it, then clear it, with someone providing support from a covered and concealed position. The folly of “just driving up” is driven (no pun intended) home later in the webisode, when Sumdood drives up and finds himself having to trust the survivors’ willingness to play, “Hand up, don’t shoot.”


The building-clearing techniques are asking for trouble against armed resistance, but to clear a building properly and safely you need more people and more training than these survivors have. If you don’t have that, you’re better off surveilling the building than trying to clear it. (A small band of survivors hasn’t really got the sand in its pockets to surveil a large building around the clock, either).

And the overall idea — when things go sour, drop everything and head to your woodland redoubt — may be a case of too little, too late with respect to sensible survival. A better approach, if survival in rule-of-law regressive times is your objective, is to do as James Wesley, Rawles practices (and preaches) and relocate now to a defensible remote location. Given that human beings are by definition social animals, very, very few people will do that. Instead, they’ll run the risk — also a reasonable decision, but know the decision you’re making.

Backing up the alley where you left the car, unsecured and unobserved; shuffling the womenfolk behind you? That's assuming a lot of risk. You might have no other choice.

Backing up the alley where you left the car, unsecured and unobserved; shuffling the womenfolk behind you? That’s assuming a lot of risk. You might have no other choice.

As we’ve pointed out, Hog Manor is six miles from a certain nuclear first-strike target generally to our north and about ten miles from another in the opposite direction, and is set between the grey Atlantic to the east and suburban sprawl to the west. We’re two days’ march (for shambling city folks) up the highway from a conurbation packed with people who already riot over sports scores, many of whom are on Year Eight of the Undergraduate Experience® and are about as societally useful as you’d figure, from that.

We’re running a hell of a risk in the event of societal collapse — but Your Humble Blogger is also a few months’ medication interruption from sudden death from one thing or agonizing disability from t’other.

Personally, we believe the best prep is gradual, realistic and risk-based. Remember that risk is a product of probability and severity, so start with being ready for the things that are very likely to screw your life up for a few days (loss of power, severe weather of the sort common in your area), then start planning for less likely and longer lasting problems. Yes, it’s intimidating to set aside rations for a year, but could you put three days’ foods (things that your family already eats) in some shelf-stable format in a Tuff Box in your basement? It wouldn’t be hard. (A kid can get adequate nutrition for a week from two or three cans a day of spaghetti, beef stew or hash, plus a multivitamin. And, if no power, can eat right out of the cans. The cans store damn near forever and if you pay $1 each you weren’t shopping the sales).

The bottom line

Uncertain Tomorrow is on Indiegogo and it is poorly subscribed to date; maybe they need to promote it more widely, maybe they need to shake up their campaign or up their rewards, or maybe the potential audience for this film has all their cash tied up in Krugerrands or something. We’ll consider this coming week whether we want to throw in on it; we’ll tell you on Friday or Saturday what we decided. Right now, we’re leaning towards a contribution, because we’d like to see more episodes of this. Yes, we’ve criticized some of what they show in the current brief episode, but they got us talking, didn’t they?

They are not, however, planning to make money with it, at least not directly, and that’s probably what’s going to hold them back more than any lack of contributions. Still, have a look at it!

For more information

None of the usual sites related to this particular film apply here. You’ve simply got:

Saturday Matinee 2015 033: Severe Clear (2009, Documentary)

Severe Clear DVDSevere Clear was highly recommended by a guy we met at a course. On his say so, we spent an hour and a half on it.

After a brief intro with a few seconds of disorienting, chaotic combat video, we meet the protagonist, Lieutenant Mike Scotti. It’s 8 Jan 2003 and he’s packing his gear and trying out his new video camera, while explaining the miscellaneous fates of its predecessors: slain by the dust of Afghanistan, broken rappelling from a helicopter — “But I got the shot, though!” He’s about to take a 40-day troopship journey on the USS Boxer. We’re spared the next month of video and we pick things up in early February.

He was apparently an artillery forward observer, necessarily close enough to the sharp end to be engaged and have a number of truly disturbing experiences, and yet far enough from the sharp end, or gifted with enough “hurry up and wait” down time, to keep his video project going.

The movie is divided into Chapters: there’s the start and troopship; Kuwait, waiting and training; “Call to War,” in which the shooting begins, not with the US invasion but with Scuds from Iraq, leading to gas alerts; and on into combat.


There are snippets of video of training. In this case, behind a title, Marines practice fast-roping from the tailgate of a CH-46 spotted over one of USS Boxer’s elevators.

A clear turning point in Scotti’s narrative comes when a unit ahead of his fires up an Iraqi taxi, occupied by a civilian man and his young daughter. “I heard bad things happen in war,” Scotti grimly announces. “Ain’t that the motherfuckin’ truth.”

Scotti intended all along to write a book about his big adventure; he frequently makes an audio “note for book.” (He did, in fact, publish a book, which vanished into remainders without a ripple. The video version of his memoir has been far more successful).

Acting and Production

Real, shaky, handheld: rough amateur-camera video meets pro editing in this documentary.

Real, shaky, handheld: rough amateur-camera video meets pro editing in this documentary.

There’s no acting, per se; it’s a documentary, although there are definitely scenes of Marines clowning for the camera.

Some images are not suitable for work or children; the usual images much beloved of generations of GIs of dead or dying enemies, and, occasionally, Americans.

One very nice touch is a roster of the names of the men Scotti served with that scrolls at the end of the credits: the officers and men of 1/4th Marines, C Company 1/1st Marines, and Scotti’s own unit, B Battery, 1/11th Marines.

Weapons and Accuracy

By and large, Severe Clear avoids any discussion of or dwelling upon weapons. They’re there, of course; every Marine carries a rifle (M16A2) or pistol (M9) or both; Iraqis are seen, usually dead, with AKs, primarily. While Scotti was a Forward Observer and artillery employment was his daily bread on this tour, he says little about the nuts and bolts of that; his focus is more upon the consequences of calling fire: physical consequences for the recipients, moral consequences for the senders.

The bottom line

Severe Clear has some strengths and weaknesses. The principal strength is the uniqueness. A secondary strength comes in the editing, but the sharp, stellar editing itself gives rise to some of the weaknesses. It’s particularly irritating that, rather than tell the story in the words of the Marines that were there, the director periodically just shows Scotti’s images of Marines moving around, overlaid with the prattle of media mavens who were making their reports based on RUMINT and BOGINT.



The weakness comes from that strong editing: at times it seems the story is too narrative, too pat. Sometimes director Kristian Fraga’s hand feels a little too heavy on the editing console.

As far as the consequences, Scotti says presciently at one point:

It will be interesting to look back on it five years from now and see what kind of future we helped them create. If they don’t screw it up.

And that’s probably the “message” of this film, to the extent it has one: they screwed it up, and we screwed it up. Because, even though we had the war won several times (the first, on Michael T. Scotti’s watch), it is most definitely screwed up beyond all repair at this point.

Sad thing. It will, in the end, be a tale of what might have been, and the way that the cupidity, power-hunger, and just general failings of men would ultimately turn, instead, into what it was. But it does show without averted lens exactly what American Marines experienced, endured, and overcame in 2003; for that, Scotti, Fraga and all the Marines who participated in the making of this document will be remembered as long as people are curious about this war.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

We watched it as a Prime Instant Video, and that’s what we recommend. The original source quality is low enough that Amazon’s low-quality compression can’t hurt it too much.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

alas, none.

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (75% fresh):

  • Wikipedia page:

  • Company website:


It says, “A portion of all DVD sales goes to support a military or veteran charity organization,” but Scotti has founded a charity, so buy the DVD if you want the DVD, not to do good deeds.

Saturday Matinee 2015 32: Against the Sun (2014)

against the sun posterIf you only knew that Against the Sun was a WWII Pacific movie, you’d probably think the protagonists’ enemy would have been the Rising Sun of Imperial Japan. But no; the Japanese play no role here, in this true story of a three-man Douglas TBD Devastator crew from VT-6 of USS Enterprise, a few weeks after Pearl Harbor shook them out of the peacetime Navy, fighting to survive in the merciless, trackless Pacific. The antagonist sun is not the stylized maru of the Empire of Japan, but a more deadly enemy: Sol itself.

With scarcely any tools or survival supplies, the men have a hundred different options. One is to sail their sailless, rudderless life raft some 600-700 miles to some islands, the position of which is vaguely remembered by their skipper, Aviation Chief Pilot Harold Dixon. If they make it, he intends to put his crewmen in for medals. If. The only tools they have are the wind against the raft when the wind is favorable, and an improvised sea anchor when it’s not. The other 99 options are varied pathways to the same destination, death: starvation, dehydration, insanity from drinking salt water, sharks, failure of or damage to their little raft, storms. Getting found by a Japanese patrol. And, of course, missing those flyspeck islands, in which case the next stop’s Tokyo, or the Asian mainland, a couple months later.


Meanwhile, a miserable fact hangs over them all, threatening to poison the teamwork they need to live: they failed to find the Enterprise after a long patrol. Who failed? The radioman, Gene Aldrich, losing a radio beacon whose bearing he needed for navigation? The pilot, Chief Dixon, botching the navigation calculations, or failing to make a critical turn? The torpedoman/ bombardier, Tony Pastula, misreading the drift sight? Are they just unlucky, or did one of their own number fail them? Everyone has his suspicions, of himself and of the others.

Acting and Production

There are at least two filmmaking challenges set before co-writer and producer/director Brian Falk: how do you get action, tension and character development in a three-man true story set predominantly in a life raft? And how do you depict a historic aircraft that there is, literally, no trace of today above the surface of the sea?

Garret Dillahunt as Chief

Garret Dillahunt as Chief shows the tension of a lost pilot seeking USS Boat….

Of course, the second problem can be solved with well-dressed sets and CGI, but the first can only be done with acting. And the actors are very good. Garrett Dillahunt, a busy TV star, is Chief Harold Dixon; Tom Felton (the bad kid, what’s his name, in Harry Potter films, now grown up and bursting with acting skill) plays Tony Pastula; Jake Abel, who is new to us, plays Gene Aldrich. They worked hard to make the film; while the sunburn, bruises, cuts and fish bites, etc, were the work of makeup artists, the emaciation and exhaustion was the result of putting the actors on a 500-calorie day.


It’s nice to know someone still believes in calorie restriction as a stressor, even as Ranger School has given it up to help push the girls through.

It’s rather inexplicably rated PG… the language is 40s-accurate and the saltiest is a well-timed “Goddamn!” There’s no sex and no graphic interpersonal violence, although some scenes have a very great deal of tension, and you frequently don’t know who may live and who may not.

What they needed more than anything was this pencil. Dillahunt in a Eureka! moment.

What they needed more than anything was this pencil. Dillahunt in a Eureka! moment.

Accuracy and Weapons

Apart from the Devastator’s minimal organic equipment, which goes three miles or so down with the plane in the first 20 minutes or so of the movie, the men are armed with .45s. Two of the three can’t swim and the Chief orders the others to ditch their guns. Pastula can’t — the rawhide leg strap was soaked and wouldn’t come undone — and from time to time he takes out and cleans the .45.

against_the_sun_-tom_felton_w_1911The gun makes two small contributions to the crew’s survival, one of them in a non-obvious way.


The details of being lost on a scout patrol from a small ship in a very big ocean are handled with great attention to detail. Every rivet on the Devastator interior seems right; the paint scheme is dead right; the plane has the right buzz numbers; the direction-finding loop antenna is right; the communications among the crew, and the attempted communication to Enterprise, are all right, right, right. They even use the correct Navy phonetic alphabet when passing their call sign over voice radio.  The date on the life raft gibes with the date of manufacture of the 130 Douglas Devastators the Navy bought, aircraft whose 200-kt bombing speed and 115-kt max torpedo attack speed

CGI seems to be used for a lot of the Devastator scenes — it’s not like you can whistle a Devastator up. The entire stock of known airframes of this important type from the era of the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway comprises one corroding in the seawater off each coast of the United States, and two corroding on the bottom of Jaluluit Lagoon in the Pacific. They appear to have built cockpit sets, a partial mockup, and 3D models (maybe physical models, also) of the unicorn-rare aircraft. It was realistic enough that the tall actors complained about the “Devastator’s” cramped cockpit — a complaint that echoes that of wartime aviators.

This video shows how they did it:

The ocean was the same tank that had been used for Titanic, and a clever combination of special effects (which are the physical things that happen during filming) and visual effects (the computer magic that happens afterward) make it seem frighteningly real.

The bottom line

Against the Sun had the bad luck to a little bitty independent film that was ready to be released right when Angelina Jolie’s massively hyped Unbroken, another WWII film with a ditching and survival scene, dived into the market in the bellyflop of 2014. Against the Sun is a good film with solid acting, period-correct dialogue, painstaking attention to historical detail, and characters worth rooting for.

In the end, you’re left with questions. What happened afterwards? What became of the men’s plans? What happened to the sister one wanted to introduce to the other? Who returned to combat? Who stayed in the Navy? Fortunately, the movie didn’t need to hammer these resolutions home; anyone can Google them up, these days.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

Also available as a Prime Instant Video, which is how we watched it… bad pixelation and overcompression on some of the long shots across the water at the very small life raft. The DVD is likely to be visually superior, but “free” is a hard price to beat.

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

alas, none.

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (67% fresh):

  • Wikipedia page:

  • Production Company website:

These sites and books are historical sources; read them only if you don’t mind spoilers.

Cox, Diane. One family, two heroes. Alton, IL: Advantage News, 8 December 2014. Retrieved from:,-two-heroes/

Townley, Alvin: Fly Navy: Discovering the Extraordinary People and Enduring Spirit of Naval Aviation. New York: Thomas Dunne Books, 2011.

Townley, Alvin: Stranded at Sea. Air & Space Smithsonian, 25 April 2011. Retrieved from:

Trumbull, Robert. The Raft. New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1942

Ave atque Vale: Robert Conquest

CThree great Americans honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Conquest, Franklin, Friedman. Conquest looks like he's saying, "I'm sorry, m'dear, what did you say you do?"

9 Nov 05: Three great Americans honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom: Conquest, Franklin, Friedman. Conquest looks like he’s saying to Aretha Franklim, “I’m sorry, m’dear, what did you say you do?”

The Anglo-American historian Robert Conquest, passed away 3 August 2015 at the age of 98. He brought to the study of the Soviet empire passion matched only by the system’s own victims, like Scharansky, Solzhenitsyn and Andrei Amalrik, and rigor unmatched by any historian, Russian or Western.

It is a measure of his ability that his dense catalogs of enormities, The Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow, were materially unchanged by the revelations attendant to the brief opening of Soviet archives in the short-lived Yeltsin era.

Less well known is that he was a brilliant writer, something often seen in pop historians who depend on or even plagiarize others’ research (like, say, Stephen Ambrose or Dorothy Kearns Goodwin), but seldom seen in a historian with his mastery of sources (his Russian was good enough that he translated an epic poem by Solzhenitsyn into English — at the Nobel Prize winner’s request). While the brilliance of the writing often serves to make the doomed victims of Stalin rise of the page in condemnation, an entertaining reminiscence by The New Criterion’s Roger Kimball reminds us that he could offer lighter, but at the same time serious, doggerel:

There was a great Marxist called Lenin
Who did two or three million men in
That’s a lot to have done in
But where he did one in,
that grand Marxist Stalin did ten in.

Amen, in.

One suspects that Heaven is a livelier place this week, for Conquest was ever on the side of the angels. And in The Other Place, Hitler is saying, “At least he can’t write about you any more, Josef Vissarionovich!”

There’s also a relatively interesting comment at Kimball’s post, from a purported descendant of Gulag survivors, noting that the guy in the Gulag may have had better survival potential than his family: outside, but stripped of housing and rations.

Saturday Matinee 2015 31: I Was a Communist for the FBI (1951)

I awas a commieThe title pretty much tells you what you’re going to get here: a gritty, black-and-white low-budget, exploitative 1950s tale. It tells a story of Communist infiltration, and an American double agent working inside the communist conspiracy to bring it down.

The necessity of living his cover means that Matt Cvetic is distrusted by his own friends and family. Even his brothers want nothing to do with him; his son gets beat up at school because his dad’s a Red. You can see that Cvetic burns to reveal the truth, but he can’t, and it’s just as well: meanwhile, the Communists themselves are checking up on him.

Are Communist leaders expecting the dame to inform on the guy... or the guy on the dame?

Are Communist leaders expecting the dame to inform on the guy… or the guy on the dame (Dorothy Hart)?

It’s not that they know or suspect anything particular: it’s just their normal CI tradecraft to trust no one and to surveil everyone. (One forgets how midcentury films made the point that the trappings of the police, surveillance state are explicitly un-American). A few details of undercover work and CI tradecraft are handled well; others are fanciful, and the drama, of course, is cranked up to 11. Real, successful spies and counterspies lead boring lives, at least until they’re caught.

Acting and Production

An angry kid denounces his Dad. Frank Lovejoy (r) plays the scene well.

An angry kid denounces his Dad. Frank Lovejoy (r) plays the scene well.

Before it was a movie, I Was a Communist for the FBI had been a big success as a series of articles in the now-forgotten magazine, the Saturday Evening Post (best remembered today for its Norman Rockwell cover art), and after the movie it became a now-forgotten 20th Century art form, a radio serial starring popular actor Dana Andrews.

Just as today, Hollywood producers turn to sequels and comic-books, artists having been replaced by financiers and imitators, even 60 years ago it was understood that filming something already popular was a surer path to riches than filming something new in hopes it becomes popular.

This was made in the days when the studios, not the customers, classified movies, and it patently was made as a B movie. Despite that it’s professional enough, with enough film noir classic shadowy scenes to please the cinema snob.

The actors aren’t names you’ll know. Frank Lovejoy? Dorothy Hart? Nor is director Gordon Douglas (despite his long and prolific film — you’ve certainly seen things he did in the 60s and 70s). But they’re good enough, and at least the relative unknowns don’t ever have acting reputations, or famous other roles, that overpower their performance in this film.

Rather astoundingly, I Was a Communist for the FBI was nominated for an Academy Award in the Best Documentary category. It didn’t win.

Accuracy and Weapons

Cvetic (c.) joins the bosses of the workers' and peasants' party -- in a lavish, even decadent, setting.

Cvetic (c.) joins the bosses of the workers’ and peasants’ party — in a lavish, even decadent, setting.

The film does seem to hew closely to Matt Cvetic’s story. Whether Cvetic’s story is true or not is a widely argued point; it seems that both he and the people who made his story into books and radio plays and this movie were not above improving a story with every telling. Cvetic did indeed infiltrate a Communist cell that was undermining trade unions in Pittsburgh, but that seems to be about the extent of the “factual” ingredients in I Was a Communist For the FBI.

The fundamental facts about Communist infiltration of trade unions (which the traditional unions in the US fought quite vigorously), and Soviet control of American communist parties and organizations are quite true.

I_Was_a_Communist_LovejoyWeapons are secondary to this story of infiltration and betrayal, but where they show up, they’re appropriate — double-action, 4-6″ barrel six-shooters mainly. The one really interesting weapon is a newspaper wrapped around a steel pipe, used by organized union goon squads to tune up non-communist demonstrators.

“But… these are Jewish newspapers!” a young, idealistic woman from the Party office exclaims. A cynical old apparatchik explains, yep, damn straight they are; that is the big idea. They weren’t going to use the Daily Worker. (The communists are also dismissive of black civil rights groups they’ve co-opted into support, and privately refer to them by racial slurs).

The bottom line

I Was a Communist for the FBI is never going to be called great art or great history, even by critics who aren’t sympathetic with communist policies and aims. But it’s a decent movie and an illustration of how even in the 1950s a good story can be told on a short budget, and an illustration that back in the 1950s, institutional Hollywood wanted to tell positive, American stories.

ginger_rogers_boris_morrosIf you like this film, you might also like the 1950s TV series I Led Three Lives, another true story of infiltrating Communist cells, and My Ten Years as a Counterspy, the memoirs of double agent Boris Morros, a Hollywood producer and composer who worked simultaneously for the Communist Party USA (i.e. for the USSR) and for the FBI. (That’s him at right with dancer/actress Ginger Rogers: he’s the one who looks like Gollum).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

None, alas!

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (no score):

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2015 30: Aces High (1976)

Aces HighA fellow could get hurt doing this — that’s the case for just flying the planes of World War One. By the time of the events in this film, 1917, the machines were far more sophisticated and deadly to their enemies than the start-of-war machinery had been; they don’t seem to be very much safer for the friendlies, either.

Aces High follows a new arrival at a British Royal Flying Corps squadron on the Western Front through his first week. As is often the case for combat replacements, the question is, will he live long enough to learn what he needs to know to live?

He encounters the usual suspects: the young but frazzled CO holding himself (and the unit) together with booze; the grounded, older adjutant, the font of avuncular wisdom; the winsome French girl; the stolid mechanic; the pilot officer whose nerves are shot. These scripted archetypes, already as well worn then as they are 40 years later, are saved from banality only by the skill of the players.

Acting and Production

The cast is a who’s who of 1970s British actors, with Sir John Gielgud in a brief role as Etonian headmaster, Malcolm McDowell as the troubled squadron leader, Maj. Gresham, and a splendidly mustachioed Christopher Plummer as Capt. Sinclair, Gresham’s non-flying, limping adjutant. Peter Firth is the youth who gets the stereotyped questions on arrival (“How many hours in S.E. 5’s?” “Four and a half, sir!”) and Simon Ward a squadronmate who has, er, issues.


The websites say the movie was based on a play about a ground unit in the same war, but it doesn’t really have any “tells” that would indicate that.

It is a characteristic 70s war film in its nihilism; much like many Hollywood films had been tortured into allegories illustrating how eager Hollywood was to surrender to Eurasian Communism, the film is, in part, a message film, and the message is that nothing good comes of war, nothing is worth dying for, and the combat soldiery has their lives thrown away by the fatcats far behind the lines.

In other words, these Brits too were anxious to get on with surrendering to Eurasian communism. (if any of them are alive today, they’re exploring their potential future as dhimmis, perhaps).

The characters and situations have appeared in virtually every WWI flying movie since Hells Angels, and sometimes the tropes and stereotypes buzz around you like Richthofen’s Flying Circus; as characters are introduced you can probably guess their entire character arcs and their disposition at the end of the film, one week after the arrival of the green Lieutenant Croft at 76 Squadron.

That said, why see the film? Principally for the action scenes.

Accuracy and Weapons

There are some interesting guns if you watch for them. At one point, a German two-seater crew lands to take a souvenir, and the observer-gunner winds up firing at an Englishman with a broomhandle Mauser. There are also some realistic scenes of Lewis gun magazine rotating under fire, and being changed.


The airplanes aren’t a terribly good or convincing job, with converted Stampes playing SE.5s, and a dressed-up Valmet Viima (not a Tiger Moth, although it generally shares the Moth’s swept-wing planform) aping various German single- and two-seaters. However, the actual stunt flying is quite good. The aerial scenes were all shot by a second unit director, not Jack Gold.


A couple of good scenes may have been lifted out of earlier movies, for example, The Blue Max (1966).

Flip side of the previous picture.

Flip side of the previous picture.

An extra, unairworthy Stampe was set afire in one scene. The biplanes actually used in the movie were all designed and made in the 1930s, but were technologically similar to the WWI planes, apart from much more reliable motors. There is one genuine WWI type in the film, an Avro 504 trainer that is used strictly as a prop.


Firth and Plummer again with one of the star “SE5’s”

The  sounds of MG firing are unfortunately canned sound-effects disc audio. Still, within the limits of a low budget for a period war drama, and considering the technology of 40 years ago, they did quite well.

The bottom line

Aces High is fun to watch, it’s a bit of a dual period piece, redolent of the 1970s as much as of 1917. Watch it wisely (that is, don’t overpay) and you’ll likely enjoy yourself. (If you’re a real expert on WWI aviation, don’t let it drive you nuts).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

Or free streaming for Prime members, which seems to be higher quality video than the DVD:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

  • Wikipedia  page:

New Show With Sword/Bladesmiths

First, the good news: there’s a new show showing off the bladesmith’s art.

History Channel Sword

Now, the bad news: it’s a lame-o History Channel low-budget reality show, modeled on chef-competition shows, complete with bogus competition, phony tension, and ten minutes of action tortured into 44 minutes of glacially-paced prolefeed.

Yeah, we’ve watched a couple of History Channel things. So we were not expecting much from Forged in Fire, which we learned about from a breathless promo disguised as a story on Popular Mechanics, which actually was lifted verbatim from its original placement in Esquire(Unless Esquire, too, nicked it from somewhere. Note that we’re nicking at least their idea of writing about this show, although we do have the decency to write our own words).

It’s not even a great deal for the smiths: the winner get $10k but he may see his masterpiece tested to destruction. The losers? Destruction, and no $10k (we said it was low-budget).

Still, it wouldn’t do to be too critical. Real bladesmiths compete on Forged in Fire to forge a weapon in each episode. And we do mean forge.

forging swordsEach episode shows the high points of four smiths’ quest to make the best blade. Some of the challenges: a broadsword; a Viking war-axe; a chakram throwing ring; a katana. But before the smiths get to the Big Deal in each episode, they must pass the first test: a blade that that they must forge in three hours. In fact, the initial knife is the standard, initial qualifier round in every show. It’s judged on form, function and finish. Botch that, and you’re gone.

Next, the three survivors make hilts for their blades. One more gets sent to the showers (presumably not through a gate labeled Work Sets You Free). Then the final two have a week to make the replica of, or perhaps tribute to is a better phrase, some historical edged weapon. There are a variety of tests, some realistic and some fanciful.

To keep it from getting boring — death in today’s 1000-channel entertainment world — there’s often a twist in the tale. For example, the chakram had to be made out of recycled material — yes, scrap.

The hosts and judges include an everyman type who’s supposed to be a former PJ, a martial artist type, and a historian-and-bladesmith guy. The competitors are all real, working bladesmiths, some full-time pros and some part-timers, most of whom are unknown to us.

Here’s a second video clip with the “five things everyone should know about weapons making.”

If you like it, you can see episodes when they come up on the History Channel, or see at least some of them on the show’s website, along with some web exclusives like the two clips here (there’s a great one on the sorts of injuries a bladesmith can expect in the line of duty, and a whole “Bladesmithing 101” on how things work).

Bottom line: we liked it a lot better than we expected. We’ll probably never watch The Iron Chef, but we’re very interested in what these guys can cook up out of raw iron. And if you’re going to spend time looking at a glowing rectangle, you might as well be learning something. We learned a few somethings from the episodes we’ve watched, including: can a katana split a .45 bullet?


(Administrative note: no, this is not Saturday’s overdue Saturday Matinee. That’s actually going to be an old 1950s movie, the very title of which will make you laugh, but events conspire to keep us away from the keyboard. Posting and comment-handling may be slow today -Ed.).

Barrel Heating: Allsop & Toomey & Rheinmetall, oh my!

Last night, musing over a possible technical post for this morning, we opened Allsop and Toomey’s Small Arms: General Design to see how what they wrote on barrel heating compares with our recent translation of the Rheinmetall HandbookAnd there was the same damned diagram.

No, not a close parallel. Or a close copy. The same jeezly thing. Don’y take our word for it. Here’s Allsop & Toomey:


…and here’s Rheinmetall:


That’s not coincidence; the form as well as the facts of the diagram are identical. Which gives rise to the question: who copied whom? Beats us with a stick. Although the Rheinmetall handbook has some primacy (1973 versus 1999, as the yellowed pages of our copy show) it’s quite possible that both derive from an earlier source. We don’t remember seeing this graphic in Balleisen (our copy of which is still adrift somewhere in office or library) or in Chinn (which we ought to check, because we have the e-book, although we just moved 150 GB of ebooks to our RAID array, which promptly ate a disk and needs repair stat — just reminding ourselves here).

One indicator we see that hints that both derive from some earlier source is that both graphs show an approximation of barrel heating, without numbers. It is the numbers, of course, that are most useful to the designer or engineer, although the graph showing how these numbers are arrived at over time is not without its own utility. The suppression of numbers in both the Handbook and Small Arms: General Design suggests that they’re both using a graph from some earlier technical report. Absence of this graph in US design books makes us speculate that the ur-source may have been European.

rheinmetall_heat_pageHere you can see the two graphs in context on their relative pages. (All images, including these thumbnails, embiggen with a click; the square thumbnails expand to show the full page with legible text, although the Rheinmetall is in German, naturally). What’s more interesting is that the two texts handle the same graph quite differently. Rheinmetall (whose text is translated in our earlier post) explains the graph and its meaning at some length.

allsop-toomey_heat_pageConversely, Allsop & Toomey just throw off a sentence telling you that breaks in firing reduce peak internal temperatures without really delaying the rise of external, overall temperatures. But they also include some numbers, despite the suppression of them in the graph, numbers that are quite useful to you. (All the numbers in both works are in SI units). They suggest there’s a difference of as much as 400º to 100º (C, F equivalents are roughly 750ºF and, of course, 212ºF).

The Britons warn that, if 500º C (932ºF) is maintained, “permanent damage will be done to the barrel through accelerated wear and erosion.” And then they go into a number of useful equations. They do not seem to estimate the point of failure of the barrel with all this sheet music; that is all tied up in pressure as well as temperature and there are an awful lot of variables baked into it; today’s engineers, unlike those of 16 years ago (Allsop & Toomey) or 42 years ago (Rheinmetall) would certainly use something like CATIA to do a finite element analysis of the barrel to substantiate the strength of the barrel in its predicted use, and estimate where and when it would let go.

We do note that the temperatures noted in Allsop & Toomey, and the surprisingly sparse cadence that will produce them, are in line with some of our previous material on the carbine failures at COP Kahler in Wanat (see here and here; the Wanat failures happened in part because soldiers are not taught to understand nor a practical way of avoiding overheating, beyond a simplistic “short bursts” drill) and on heat-driven accuracy problems in the ANM2 .50 caliber machine gun in the USAAF.

If readers would like, we can walk through some of the math. We’ll probably need the Blogbrother’s assistance, as he’s rather better at maths that your humble blogger.

A Note to Readers

This sort of technical post would be banned — would, indeed, be a felony — under Secretary of State John Kerry and his minions’ extreme and un-American attempt to suppress free speech about weapons design. Even though this post is based primarily on two textbooks published in two foreign countries, and available to all the world for decades! The Ivy League inbreds at State base their proposal on the contemptible and flimsy excuse that sharing knowledge constitutes international trafficking in arms.

Meanwhile, those same cretins are negotiating all obstacles out of the pathway to nuclear arms for the most terrorist-sponsoring regime in world history, the Islamic Republic of Iran. Got that? Iran/IRGC/Hezbollah/Hamas, getting nukes? No problem. You, understanding barrel heating, whether you are Iranian, Russian, Chinese, Canuckistani, or, like the majority of our readers, American? Problem. The guy should stick to what he knows, whatever that is. Seducing trust funds off of heiresses, perhaps.


If you would like to keep the First Amendment operative in the United States, and thereby disappoint the man who’s a living parody of Thurston Howell III, here’s a three-point plan for you:

  1. Read the background on the issue from the NRA.
  2. Read the actual notice of proposed rule making (.pdf; relevant bit begins in lower right of the first page) in the Federal Register and make sure you understand it.
  3. Make your comments in your own words about how this regulation works to harm you instead of its ostensible goal.
  4. Comments go here at or by email to: with the subject: “ITAR Amendment—Revisions to Definitions; Data Transmission and Storage”. Ceteris paribus, this link should open in your email application with the correct subject header.
  5. As a backup, contact your Congressman and two Senators. The very best way is to call their direct number; Google is your pal on this. Next best is to call the congressional switchboard (202) 225-3121, and ask for each of them in turn (you do know the names of your Senators and Representative, don’t you? If not, Google again). You’ll either get dumped in voicemail or to a junior staffer or intern, unless you’re a big donor. Have an index card with the points you want to make, make them briefly and politely, and end the call. For example, we have been making the point that a State Department that can take on prior restraint of Internet content is a State Department that is heavily overstaffed and overbudgeted, and might very well give up a few hundred millions in personnel expenditures for the Congressman’s pet projects.

D2S2 here, folks. No threats, no bluster. Make real, substantive comments on how this proposed regulation harms you and yet, does not prevent the sort of arms races and weapons proliferation the State Department usually knocks itself out encouraging.

If you have questions, we will try to answer them.

ITAR is no joking matter. It is an all-encompassing and deliberately vague law — it would even apply, on professor avers, to Superman —  and because it is so large and so difficult to comply with, it’s frequently used as a club to beat political opponents with.

For example, this iteration of the .gov has not been shy about really stretching to try to punish gun-culture figures with flimsy, but very costly to defend, ITAR prosecutions. Our ITAR counsel is telling us the blog has to go (archives and all) if this monstrosity of a rule becomes final.

Do not delay. They are already playing games with the availability of the comments website and email addresses to limit opposing comments.

Expect to hear this from us again.


Allsop, DF and Toomey, MA. Small Arms: General Design. London: Brassey’s, 1999. (Note that this out-of-print text is Volume 6 of a series on ballistics and weapons design called “Land Warfare: into the 21st Century” by authors mostly affiliated with the Royal Military College in Shrivenham, England).

Rheinmetall. Waffentechniches Taschenbuch. Düsseldorf, West Germany, 1973.