Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Harve Saal SOG books on ebay

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

Harve Saal Volumes

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

The four books were organized thematically:

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

We found each volume interesting.

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

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

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

Wednesday Weapons Website of the Week: Warriors Publishing Group

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

We Publish Books You Like to Read

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Recommendation: Gentle Propositions by J.S. Economos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Special (Belated) Request for Enlisted Fans

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

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

Hello everyone whose email was ever in my inbox!

I’ll keep it short:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you so much for any help you can offer,

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

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

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

Son Tay Raid Cartoon


Timeless Advice on Point Shooting

The original Remington Model 51 designed by Pedersen.

The original Remington Model 51 designed by Pedersen. Hatcher considered it an archetypically well-designed pistol for instinctive shooting.

Sometimes the age of a document shows. But the underlying principles may actually be timeless. Take, for instance, this brief excerpt from p. 487 of Julian Hatcher’s 1935 Textbook of Pistols and Revolvers, a bonus bound in a single volume with his Firearms Investigation, Identification and Evidence, a wide-ranging book whose title does not truly do it justice. The subject Major Hatcher is discussing is one of great interest here — shooting without sights, and whether the ergonomics of some weapons (he is specifically talking pistols) enable this more than others. Here’s what Hatcher said:

While I fully agree with the ideas of Mr. McGivern about the necessity of sights, I consider it important for the practical pistol shot to know how to get fairly good results without using the sights at all, but rather, pointing the gun entirely by instinct, as the finger is pointed in indicating an object. This is really very important, because any shooting that may be done at night will have to be this kind. Also pistol shooting on the battle field or in holdups is more likely to be at night than it any other time.

Ed McGivern, who passed away some 20 years after Thatcher’s book hit the shelves, was already all but retired, due to rheumatoid arthritis. McGivern is less famous now than he was when Hatcher penned those words, but he was a legendary trick shooter capable of prodigious feats of shooting speed and accuracy. How good was McGivern? Watch the NRA’s National Firearms Museum’s senior curator Phil Schreier wax rhapsodic about him:

And in 1935, night shooting meant blind shooting. Night vision equipment was unimaginably futuristic at the time, and even the laser was decades in the future as a laboratory device, and decades more before anyone could do anything practical with one.

And it’s understood it when Hatcher speaks about holdups, he’s talking more about interrupting or resisting them, than he is dispensing advice on how to  commit them. (One hopes).

The sort of instinctive shooting Hatcher is talking about here, the sort made famous by McGivern, is even more out of favor these days. Modern instructors teach you to acquire and use the sights at all but the shortest — contact! — ranges. But the fact is, in 1935 as well as today, you can engage targets at quite a considerable distance without using the sights at all. The Major continues:

You will find that if you will suddenly extend your arm and point your finger at any object near you, the finger is pointing pretty closely in the direction of the object in question. In the same way a pistol or revolver can be pointed without looking at the sights. One thing that makes it hard, however, is the fact that pistols and revolvers are of so many different shapes and that most of them do not point in the same direction that the finger would — without considerable practice.

The Remington Model 51 automatic was carefully designed after months of study, with the object of having it point just where the finger would point if it were not on the trigger. Many other pocket automatics point the same way, and the Colt Woodsman and the Luger are among the best in this respect. The .45 Government Model Automatic also closely approaches this ideal, especially with the improved mainspring housing adopted about 10 years ago.

Now that’s dated. The “improved mainspring housing” he’s referring to is the arched housing, introduced as part of the M1911A1 upgrade in 1926. Even with that, we never found a 1911 pointed as well as a Luger or another gun with a similarly raked grip, like the Woodsman Hatcher mentions or the High Standards that he doesn’t, because they weren’t designed yet. That said, some prefer the 1911 grip, which is why High Standard diversified from its traditional grip (that was exactly the same rake angle as the Woodsman’s) and later added the Military product line with a grip angle that was an exact match for the Government Model .45.

Celebrate Diversity! we always say.

Hatcher goes on to describe how to develop the art of pointing a gun, like a revolver, that may not point as naturally as some of those early-20th-Century self-loaders.

If you use one type of revolver and stick to it, you can easily learn to point the barrel accurately without using the sights.

He suggested a five-step program to master point shooting:

  1. Select some distant object as a target, and then close your eyes and point the gun. Open your eyes. How near are you pointing to your target? With practice, you’ll get better at it.
  2. Standing about 10 feet from a mirror, point the pistol at your own eyes. The reflection should tell you how close you are. Again, the more you do this, the better you get at it.
  3. Once you’re “accurate” enough just drawing and pointing, it’s time to add dry-fire: snap the gun when you present it. What happens to the muzzle when you do this? Practice, again, is the key to muzzle control.
  4. Move to live-fire, working on shooting without the sights. This requires a range that’s safe enough; back in the twenties, Hatcher had used the ocean off a then-undeveloped Florida.
  5. Optionally, continue at night, with white targets. You’ll be sble to see the target, but not your sights, forcing  you to shoot by instinct.

In the end, Hatcher promises that such a program will lead you to success:

Such practice as this, especially if you will stick to one particular gun, will rapidly train the subconscious mind so that the hand will always hold and point the gun so as to send the bullet into the right place.

It is surprising how soon you get so that you can simply extend the gun toward the object in question, at the same time smoothly contracting all the muscles that do the trigger pulling, and strike just about at the mark.

We have mentioned several times, both in this chapter and elsewhere, that the best way to aim is to extend the revolver straight out the object you are going to shoot, and not swing it from the shoulder in the old western style. This gesture had a reason in those early western days and was necessary. The reason was that the muzzle-loading or cap-and-ball revolvers were used, and when a cap was exploded it split in fragments which were liable to get into the revolver mechanism and clog the works. Swinging the gun with the muscle vertical when cocking allow these pieces to fall off the nipple and drop to the ground.

We can confirm that practicing instinctive shooting, which the Army once taught as “quick kill,” does rather rapidly show up as improvement in your instinctive fire results. But we didn’t know that percussion Colt trick before reading of it here.

Hatcher continues (p. 489 and following) with a discussion of the pros, cons, and methods of instruction for “hip shooting,”  which he considers “spectacular and interesting,” but more or less completely lacking “practical value.” There is no royal road to Ed McGivern level skills, Hatcher explains: “Lots of practice is what really counts in acquiring ability in hip shooting.”

You could substitute any other modifier for “hip” in there. Or leave it out entirely. Lots of practice is what really counts in acquiring ability in shooting.

Of course, it has to be focused, disciplined practice with concrete objectives, but that’s a post for another day.

Saturday Matinee 2014 21: Guns: The Evolution of Firearms (2013, TV)

guns-the evolution of firearmsWhat we’re talking about here is a documentary, or rather a series of television documentaries. Guns is a seven part documentary series the traces the history of firearms from the matchlock to today’s modern weapons. It does this by combining narration with historical footage (where available), still images (where film is not, for instance of the Revolutionary War), reenactments, and historic weapons displayed by museum curators.

It’s some four hours of good quality, generally accurate television. The focus is almost entirely on the guns, almost entirely on long guns, and entirely on military weapons; there’s little on, say, police guns or sporting arms.

Acting and Production

The acting is minimal, in the reenactor scenes and by voice actors reading contemporary letters in the style made famous by Ken Burns. The production is generally good, albeit repetitive at times. To get to a modern aspect ratio with old films, they use a sort of picture-in-the-same-picture-stretched-and-blurred effect which gets old rapidly. They did find a large number of rare old films and photographs; it’s not just all the same stale old pictures you’ve seen 1000 times.  There is a slight tendency to hang on tight to a good snippet of footage and reuse it several times back to back, which can get old rapidly.

Unlike some quickie exploitation TV documentaries, the DVD has decent image quality and professional splash-screen graphics.

Screenshot 2014-05-25 01.00.02

Accuracy and Weapons

The guns are, of course, the theme and the focus of Guns, so you would expect them to take great care on accuracy, and they generally do. Despite that, there are some errors, usually the sort where the narration and the image have gone separate ways in the editing booth. And there are a few bungled terms: the Lewis “drumpan” magazine, for one.

Some are more directly wrong. Not every video has a clinker in it, but most do, and the World War I episode (the episodes are divided by war, basically) doubles down on fail when discussing the Colt 1911, then the standard US service pistol. After a fairly good introduction to the adoption of the 1911, the camera zooms in close.

On a 1911A1. D’oh! 

Screenshot 2014-05-25 01.12.00

But wait, we’re not done. The camera then lovingly pans over another 1911, only it isn’t: it’s a Ballester Molina. Zug.

Ballester Molina

Reenactor footage includes some shooting blank, and some shooting live. It also includes very unrealistic scenes of “good guys” and “bad guys” blazing away at each other from five yards apart, and some where the machine gun sound is dubbed in, and the “gunner” is shaking the gun, with the belt not moving. Zug.

That said, the choice of guns is defensible, and the individual guns displayed are often rare, historic pieces, and in remarkable condition. Most of them come from the NRA Museum in Fairfax, Virginia, or the Army Reserve Museum (a little-known but high-quality museum in a basement setting in downtown DC). The curators handle them with cotton gloves on. You would, too.

The bottom line

Guns: The Evolution of Firearms will keep your interest and teach you something you didn’t know, if only because nobody can be an expert in all the gun trends in the last four plus centuries. Its flaws exist, but they’re easily excusable. This is a great set of videos for someone new to historic arms and helps newbies understand where different collector arms fit in the timeline of history. The running time of the whole set is 4:40, but it’s in seven parts on two discs.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page (it’s cheap, and also available in Blu-Ray, overkill for a documentary):

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page: none.
  • Rotten Tomatoes review page: none
  • Wikipedia  page: none


Saturday Matinee 2014 19: 5 Days of War (2011)

5 Days of WarThis movie was highly promising. There are some good pros in the cast, whose performances and parts we’ll get to. The director, Renny Harlin from Finland, is an ace at making low-budget actioners, and not bad at high-budget ones like Die Hard 2 and Cliffhanger — movies that aren’t especially believable, for any longer than it takes to exit the theater, but are pure joy whilst inside. Moreover, as a movie about real events — the 2008 Russian invasion of Georgia, with ethnic cleansing carried out under Russian guns by nominally-independent ethnic militias — it’s potentially applicable to current events in Ukraine, where nominally-independent ethnic militias operate under Russian direction and command, with a view to similar ethnic cleansing.

For this reason, we moved it up in our review queue.

Notice we said, “highly promising,” not “frickin’ awesome.” That’s because the movie is also a propaganda film so one-sided as to be disturbing. Harlin had extensive Georgian cooperation in filming 5 Days of War (a movie also available under other names). The Georgian Army provided both the Georgian and Russian forces for the film; the Georgian Ministry of Culture may have financed it (the then-minister has a producer credit); which should raise your eyebrow. And, while those things alone don’t undermine the credibility of the film, the cartoon Manichaeism does. In the movie, the Russian side is home to all depravity and the Georgian, all nobility, a situation which may occur in some wars but probably didn’t in this one.

Even if you accept that the Georgians were in the right in the war, you have to face the fact that Georgian artillery fired on Russian-sponsored militia in the breakaway provinces, handing Russia the casus belli. In the movie, this fact is absent; the Russians attack out of the blue, neutralizing the Georgian Air Force and a few kindergartens, and, naturally, the wedding that the hero, a reporter, is watching. Because every woman wants strange foreign correspondents at her wedding, right?

The essential plot challenge is for reporter Thomas Anders to get video documentation of Russian perfidy out to his network before the Russians step on him and make him disgorge the evidence. The one brilliant thing in the movie is that the network does not care: much like today’s CNN obsession with the lost Malaysia Airlines flight, then, the networks were

Johnathon Schaech (l.) with Renny Harlin on location.

Johnathon Schaech (l.) with Renny Harlin on location.

Renny Harlin is considered anti-Russian by the Russian, and formerly the Soviet, governments since his very first film, American Born. The Soviets, in fact, exerted political pressure on the Finnish government to censor (several minutes of Soviets behaving like Soviets were cut) and ultimately ban the movie, and later, Russia managed to spike his planned biopic of Finnish war and political hero Marshal Mannerheim, whom Soviet historiography dismisses as a fascist. Harlin could probably make a pro-Russian film and Russian officialdom would hate it, but he didn’t do it this time.

In an interview, Harlin said at the time of the movie’s release:

I guess there were some parallels in terms of coming from Finland, and having lived in a small country next to a superpower, so I could certainly relate to the situation between Russia and Georgia. And I delved into the subject matter, and thought that this was another movie that was a true story, and I could really tell something powerful with it, and about wars that are going on all around the world, constantly. And I felt very passionate about this one.

We are sick of journalists and lawyers as heroes, and the good news is, in 5 Days of War it’s only journalists. Still, Harlin doesn’t agree with us:

I felt that the point of view of the journalists was also interesting, because they are sort of the unsung heroes. People don’t realise that they are in the front lines there and without weapons, and at the mercy of events.

A Russian Mi-24 kinetically expresses Putin's dissatisfaction with Anders's and Sebastian's news coverage.

A Russian Mi-24 kinetically expresses Putin’s dissatisfaction with Anders’s and Sebastian’s news coverage.

The movie skips around slightly confusedly between events with President Mikhail Saakashvili (based on reality), and events around Tskhinvali and Gori, Georgian towns attacked by the Russian Army. Saakashvili is depicted without mercy as mercurial and inconstant; the journalists as brave, but out of their depth; and the Georgian Army gets the most reverential treatment, despite having its ass thoroughly kicked by the Russians. Johnathon Schaech plays a Georgian captain with a knack for deus ex macchina arrivals, who becomes a sort of Georgian guardian angel to Anders. There is considerable religious symbology throughout — Georgia, of course, draws its name from its patron, St. George.

The action scenes punch above the movie’s $12-million-budget and 36-day-shooting-schedule weight.

Acting and Production

"For all I know, Vladimir Vladimirovich wants Ukraine next!"

“For all I know, Vladimir Vladimirovich wants Ukraine next!” Andy Garcia nails Saakashvili’s shell-shocked look.

There are good actors in the film, some of them names. Andy Garcia perfectly captures the stress and wear upon President Saakashvili, a flawed and sometimes noble man who got his country in over its head. Rupert Friend and Richard Coyle are OK as the journalist Thomas Anders and his cameraman Sebastian Ganz. Val Kilmer has an excellent supporting turn as “Dutchman,” the sort of aging war photog wunderkind who remains in the grip of adrenaline addiction. Emmanuelle Chiriqui is the Georgian woman, Katya, who starts off as Anders’s guide to Georgian customs and winds up as his love interest, although it’s a chaste love that would not be out of place in a 1940s Hollywood flick.

Mikko as Daniil acting naught with a Dragunov.

Mikko Nousiainen as Daniil acting naughty with a Dragunov. Nousiainen brings the sinister to the part.

A villain can make or break a film, and 5 Days offers us two: Croatian actor Rade Šerbedžija as a Russian officer, Colonel Demidov, in a most un-Russian-Army scruffy and wrinkled get-up; and Finnish actor Mikko Nousiainen, who has an almost non-speaking but terrifying role as the Russo-Ossetian militia leader Daniil. Covered in prison tattoos, cruel and much more focused than his subordinates, who are distracted by opportunities for plunder and rape, Daniil is someone you really would not want to ever see, except through a riflescope, in which case you’d be doing all humanity a boon by taking up the slack in the trigger and sending him on to the next world.

There is also a young Russian soldier character, a kid who says not a word but shows he’s determined to hang on to his humanity. He’s very deftly inserted in just a couple of scenes.

The script and editing seem to jerk us back and forth, and the movie might have benefited by more focus, more direction, fewer characters, and much tighter editing. It’s a 90 minute movie delivered over a span of two hours.

Since the American reporter is your primary viewpoint character, and he’s a typical monoglot American, the technique of having the Georgians speak Georgian to one another when he’s around is very effective, but it’s a little jarring when we then cut to the President’s office — reportedly, the real President’s office was made available to Harlin — and the inner war councils of the Georgians speak English for the viewer’s convenience.

Dean Cain, an excellent actor, is underutilized as an American PR advisor to Garcia’s Saakashvili. It’s a bit sad that two such talented actors are tossed aside in a subplot that mostly just dumps exposition on us, before we go back to the action we’re truly concerned about, on and behind the front lines of the Russian invasion.

Accuracy and Weapons

Thanks to the Georgian official support, the guns in the film are mostly good, with a few exceptions, rooted perhaps in the double-edged sword of that Georgian support. The AKs, for example, are 7.62; Georgian SOF are using 7.62 AKs also; even the Russians use 7.62 AKs. During the war, the Russians at least used 5.46 AK-74s and Georgian SOF used M4A1s.

The bad guy and the good guy (Nousiainen and Schaech) both carry Beretta 92s, an odd choice. Nousiainen’s character also totes, as seen in the picture above, an SVD.


Generally gunfire sounds and sights are realistic, and even the aerial weapons are close (they’re shown with unrealistic full exhaust trails form launch to target, though).

CGI is used where it need be, when a helicopter must explode, for instance. Unfortunately the pyrotechnics are Hollywood: great gassy fireballs. We continue our lonely fight for realistic pyro, as the producers and directors of the whole industry laugh at us from atop a massive pile of money.

The bottom line

5 Days of War is a decent action film, perhaps 2.5 to 3 stars out of five, hampered by its excessive one-sidedness, that occasionally lapse into propaganda. Of course, you’re not going to get the Russian argument from a partially Georgian production, filmed just two years after the war that most Georgians see as naked, unprovoked Russian aggression.

This Georgian-government-sponsored movie is not the only film about the Georgian war, although it is the best known in the West. There are also two Russian government-sponsored films that we have yet to see, Olympus Inferno and August 8th. Olympus Inferno was made immediately after the war. It has a very similar plot to 5 Days of War, involving film of atrocities which must be exfiltrated, except with the sides reversed: the Ossetians and Russians are the good guys and the Georgians and their American puppetmasters are the bad guys. August 8th is an ambitious 2012 film that tells the story of the war from the dual viewpoints of a single mother and her son, who loses himself in a fantasy world.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (33%, Rotten):

  • Wikipedia  page:

The Silent Service (TV, 1957-58)

The things you find on YouTube. This is an episode of a forgotten series called The Silent Service which ran for 78 episodes in the late 1950s, we daresay before most of our readers were born. This black-and-white TV show dramatized true events of the United States’s then-diesel-electric submarines and their submariners, principally during war patrols in World War II. American submarines did more than anything, possibly including the nuclear bombing, to bring the Japanese Empire to its knees.

The show was created by California National Productions, which made other TV shows about the military — stirring stuff especially for adventure-oriented boys. Periscope Film (heh), the company that now owns the rights to these classic TV shows, has put several episodes on line.

Each episode starts with Rear Admiral Thomas M. Dykers (Retired), telling you what you’re about to see. Dykens sits at an admiral-worthy desk with a map of the Pacific behind him, setting the stage, as he describes in a Boston Brahmin accent what adventure you’re about to join under the waves. “Tonight, we bring you another thrilling episode of Silent Service stories, of warfare under the sea… as authentic as we can make it.” Dykers promises, as nearly to beaming-with-pride as he can manage without degrading his station in life. He goes on to narrate each story, which combines well-acted reenactments (or dramatizations if you will), with archival combat-film footage.

Here’s Episode 8310, The SS Tinosa Story starring Murray Hamilton, William Phipps, Brett Halsey and Britt Lomond. Periscope says, “The plot unfolds with the USS Tinosa trying to penetrate the sea of Japan using “Hell’s Bells” type sonar to cross the guarding mine fields.”

(Periscope adds: In WWII, Tinosa completed twelve war patrols in the Pacific and was credited with sinking 16 enemy ships, totaling 64,655 tons.).

The Silent Service endured very high casualties, by US standards, although nothing like the near-eradication their German counterparts suffered. In World War II, a sub usually came home to port safely or was lost with no hands, and for its own side, no trace until the world’s navies were able to compare and share data after the war. There was seldom a middle ground.

Here’s Episode 8297, Tirante Plays a Hunch, from June, 1957. The events depicted here earned rookie CO Lt. Cmdr. George L. Street the Medal of Honor, and the ship and her crew the Presidential Unit Citation. The officers of Tirante were a patrician bunch — the XO was Edward L. “Ned” Beach (played by Russell Johnson, a World War II bomber pilot who is best known for the role of the Professor on Gilligan’s Island), and the gunnery officer Endicott “Chuck” Peabody. Whether patriotism or noblesse oblige drove them to volunteer and volunteer again, they served the Navy and the country with true courage and vision in the war.

The skipper says, when Peabody suggests a harebrained scheme, “Most of this crew thought they were being trained as, er, submariners. Not pirates!” Meanwhile, Ned Beach has another harebrained plan, that would require the boat to steam long on the surface, close into the enemy shores and without enough water to dive in. But Peabody’s and Beach’s plans make sense enough that Street gives them his blessing, and we’re off on the adventure with the boat and its crew.

This episode was written by Beirne Lay, Jr. who was a wartime (and prewar) Air Corps/Air Forces officer, and who co-wrote the novel 12 O’Clock High,  and became the solo screenwriter for its equally classic movie and TV adaptations, and for the Jimmy Stewart classic Strategic Air Command.

There are a number of other episodes of Silent Service posted online by Periscope, and some others by third parties, and they’re all time capsules of an era when Hollywood was proud to cooperate with the US military and tell its stories.

Can we get a DVD set? Not officially, it turns out, but a Navy vet has put the episodes online on his website,, and he will sell a DVD for anyone that doesn’t want to take the loooong time to download the episodes in .mp4 format. On a submariners’ Facebook page, several boat vets cite the movie as an inspiration of their own undersea careers.

Saturday Matinee 2014 18: Falling Down (1993)

Screenshot 2014-05-03 02.28.16We were looking for a Michael Caine movie when we found this Michael Douglas movie that we’d never seen before. Not the Michael we were looking for, but two things they have in common are terrific acting ability and a knack for unusual roles. So we grabbed it — and are glad we did. It also features Robert Duvall in an absolutely outstanding supporting performance.


The opening traffic jam scene is an extended quote from Fellini, something that will be lost on all but film nerds. And from the minute you meet our protagonist, you empathize with him and share his frustration.

Yet, as the movie progressed, we found ourselves more and more concerned about how it might end. There was no way it could end well for all the characters we come to understand, and even like. And sure enough, it doesn’t. Although it ends just about as well as could be expected, and really horrible things don’t happen to people who haven’t got it coming. We were expecting a really horrible Hollywood nihilist twist at the end, and we didn’t see it.

After all, it is a movie.

Michael Douglas’s character is a a defense contractor named Bill Foster. “I build missiles,” he says with pride, “that keep America safe.” But he is the Willy Loman of engineers. He has defined himself all his life by family and work, and as we eavesdrop on a very frustrating day we start to pick up, by hints and by inches, how such quotidian frustrations as LA traffic, summer heat, and a failed A/C in his crappy car (a Chevette, of all things, with the vanity plate D-FENS) are more straws on a camel’s back that already has some serious fractures.

Bill is on a mission: to make it across town and see his daughter. It’s her birthday, and he loves her very much.

As his bad day goes on, though, we see Bill transform, from the wrapped-too-tight engineer in white shirt and pocket protector to — well. That would be telling.

One of the best things about the movie is the element of humor, often dark humor.

Acting and Production

Few of the actors fail to deliver a nuanced, believable performance. There are some supporting characters that are two-dimensional, which is a failing of the writers, not the actors. What happens when a Hollywood screenwriter runs out of ideas? Well, that’s when they fall back on the Hollywood Corollary to Godwin’s Law. They actually went there. And the Nazi guy is not the only unbelievable minor character. There’s a pushy-jerk cop who does not miss a single move from the Screenwriter’s Pushy-Jerk-Character Toolbox™. There are two gay guys whose existence in the movie is to be the anti-cat (in Save the Cat! terms): to show us that Nazi Guy is a bad guy because he hates Teh Ghey. For those of you in the cheap seats who didn’t figure that out from him being, you know, Nazi Guy.

Prendergast and Revolver

As mentioned above, both Douglas and Duvall stand out. Duvall’s character is a robbery detective on his last day before retiring, and he plays him with depth and feeling. You believe him, and you feel his joys and his sorrows.

Accuracy and Weapons

Yes, there are guns aplenty. Bill Foster starts off armed only with his briefcase, but he doesn’t stay that way.

Bill Foster

The guns are kind of standard movie guns of the 80s and 90s. (“Oh, look, a Tec-9.”) There’s nothing really special about them, although IMFDB notes that, “he never uses the same weapon more than once.” There is one dramatic scene where Detective Prendergast (Duvall) went for his gun, only to remember that he’d already turned it in (it was his last day, after all). He manages to borrow a gun.

The situations where the guns come up are not the most realistic. Bunch of gangbanging cholos with guns — we could believe that. Except, a gang of cholos with all their guns in a handy duffle bag? Maybe not. (At least Hollywood didn’t inflict that other tinseltown trope, the Multi-Racial Street Gang: you know, the Crips, the Bloods, the United Colors of Benetton (we’re dating ourselves, eh?).

And, even in 1993, the “surplus store with a back room full of illegal weaponry” was an unbelievable Hollywood cliché already. With so much imagination used elsewhere in the movie, it’s just sad that the writers got lazy and fell back on such a follish, hackneyed formula.

The bottom line

We never heard of Falling Down, and based on a trailer probably wouldn’t have gone to see it at the time. The trailer makes it look like, “Yawn, another white-middle-class-guy-snaps-like-a-dry-twig film.” But because we took a flyer on a $5 DVD, we got a good dose of entertainment, despite our quibbles.

Bill Foster is not just a guy who snaps like a dry twig. He’s a guy who does things for reasons. If he obsesses, his backstory tells you why. If he loses is, well, who hasn’t been tempted? And Duvall’s cop, Detective Prendergast? He’s got depth and backstory too, and a very human partnership with another cop, a friend he’s leaving behind on the job. Like Foster, he, too, has a sense of identity tied up in a job that doesn’t necessarily love him back.

We think you’ll enjoy Falling Down, the story of an ordinary guy pushed that one step too far — and the step after that.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

(73%, Fresh)

  • Wikipedia  page:

Saturday Matinee 2014 17: Non-Stop (2014)

non-stop neeson dvdOK: here’s the thing. This is supposedly an English-language, high-budget remake of a French anti-American propaganda film, which explains a great deal. The producers? America-hating Frenchmen and Hollywood denizens (same thing, practically).

The director? An America-hating Spaniard. Actors: a mixed bag. The bad guys? A 9/11 victim’s son — yeah, they went there – who is a veteran, what else, and another veteran, what else. After all, we’ve seen a worldwide epidemic of people blowing stuff up and they’ve all turned out to be veterans trying to frame some innocent goat herder named Mohammed… oh, wait.

This is the bad guy.

This is the bad guy, the 9/11 victim’s son who’s going to avenge dad with a terror attack of his own. Which you’ll figure out about 15 minutes in. It continues to puzzle Neeson’s character, though.

The first guy is motivated by anti-government rage, and the second, well, what are all soldiers motivated by, if you’re a Hollywood screenwriter who hasn’t had a family member in the service since they started letting cowards manipulate deferments? Why, of course, money, just like all those mercenaries out on the ramparts now. He wants money so badly he’ll suicide-bomb a plane for it, which indicates how deeply these writers thought about their characters’ motivations.

This is the other bad guy. You pick up on that as soon as Neeson meets him.

This is the other bad guy, the soldier committing a suicide attack for money. You pick up on that as soon as Neeson meets him, even before the other guy.

The suspense? None, once you realize that the bad guys are going to be the ones the director and scriptwriters hate, and anybody who looks like a real terrorist — like the guy in the jihad mandress and wifebeater beard — is really a good guy. If you are on to Hollywood’s inverted value system, you’ll nail this.

Of course, the 9/11-son-turned-soldier-turned-crazed-hijacker gets up shot in the head by Neeson, in jet’s-death-plunge-slow-mo, and his dumb-mercenary-sidekick gets hoist by his own petard, pretty literally, as a bomb that provides one of the plot points in his illogical plot blows him into the ether.

The plot is one of those gimmicky forced-suspense things that hits every Save The Cat! beat to the second, making a movie already based on a dull concept a predictable as crotch rot after three weeks in the field.

It has unfortunately been a box-office success, and unfortunately was still hanging on in theaters when we were looking for some non-chick-flick to see.

Well, it is that. It is a non-chick-flick. Of course, it’s also repulsive anti-American and anti-military propaganda. The entire audience, about seven people at this late date, groaned at the end, but then we were in a town where people go to the airbase to greet soldiers returning from overseas. Without meaning to spit on them. So here, it’s a groaner. Maybe it was big in Ithaca and Cambridge.

Acting and Production

non-stop neeson 3Liam Neeson, whiose career is coasting on the fumes of Schindler’s List as a “serious actor,” is certainly more salable as an action hero than some of the losers that Hollywood has tried to foist on us over the years. He was good in The Grey, but then he had animatronic wolves as co-stars; it was hard not to stand out.

Here, Neeson’s character is one of a team of two air marshals, but his partner’s role ends rapidly with the character’s murder. By Neeson’s character. Because the other air marshal was smuggling cocaine. Sure, they do that all the time.

Neeson’s character, Bill Marks, has issues, entirely apart from mouthing lines from screenwriters whose gage of dialog authenticity is other bad action films. The issues can basically be summed up as the character being a dislikable, boozehound loser. And Neeson stays in character. You never really like him. Of course, as the movie wobbles towards its contrived conclusion, you quickly figure out who the “real” bad guys are, and then you start to really dislike him.

We’re going to give the next few Neeson releases a pass in the theaters. If these are the scripts he’s picking, he needs to be sent to the Netflix penalty box for a while.

Julianne Moore and Michelle Dockery have thin female roles. About all you can say for them is that Moore has not aged well.

The bulk of the movie is Neeson changing directions and chasing red herrings as he suspects everybody on the plane, except the actual doers and the guy in the jihad clothes, whom even the booze-soaked Bill Marks realizes can’t be a terrorist in the movies, because he’s an Arab.

The production is the usual 2014 overdone montage of jerky camera angles, gratuitous slow-mo (“I heard Peckinpah did this, I gotta watch one of his films sometime”) and bad, TV-Movie-of-the-Week CGI.

Accuracy and Weapons

The key weapons in the movie are the guns of the the air marshals, the terrorist’s (the veterans’, remember, one of whom is a 9/11 family member) bomb, and their — we are not making this up — blowgun and its darts. They use the blowgun to shoot the pilot in his cockpit (through a hole in the lav wall) and to kill another inconvenient person, using a poison that is just like curare, except it’s delayed-action. “But such a poison does not exist!” the medically savvy among you may not. Well, it’s at least as common as 9/11 victims who hijack planes — in Hollywood’s fevered brains, at least.

The Air Marshal guns are correctly depicted as SIGs, although this may have changed since the last time I checked. Neeson’s partner has the right SIG, a 229, and Neeson has a similar but wrong stainless 226.

At one point, the director manipulates the physics so that the 229 and Neeson are falling through space in different directions. (This is where Neeson gets the shot and, whilst flying through the air, nails the 9/11 victim’s son in the head). Sorry, chico, gravity is not just a good idea, it’s the Law. That scene is offensive to everyone who made it through about sixth grade science. Galileo. Cannonballs. When does the eight pounder catch the four pounder? It also suffered from creeping Tarantinomia, namely, all time slows down except for the physical actions of the fifty-something star. You expect to see physics tortured in the Star Trek franchise, not an overproduced B-script actioner.

The bomb and its effects are particularly phony and fake. It generates a fireball and a ring of fire around the perimeter of the damage it causes. (In Hollywood, script problems are frequently handled with ignited gasoline. They should have put the gasoline on the script this time). Just one more example of the “terrifying” CGI that will bring a laugh out of you.

The bottom line

Non-Stop sucks like a cosmic merger of Oreck and Electrolux, raised to the power of the vacuum of interstellar space. Yes, it’s that bad.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • DVD page:

(For preorder. But please don’t).

  • IMDB page:

  • IMFDB page:

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page:

Yep, it’s rotten:

  • Wikipedia  page: