Category Archives: Book and Film Reviews

Saturday Matinee 2016 13: Lions for Lambs (2007)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Acting and Production

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

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

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

lions for lambs behind the scenes

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

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

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

Accuracy and Weapons

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

lions for lambs acog m4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bottom line

If you see this movie coming, split.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

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

http://www.amazon.com/Lions-Lambs-Widescreen-Tom-Cruise/dp/B0013FCWUW/

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0891527/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Lions_for_lambs

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

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/lions_for_lambs/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lions_for_Lambs

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

N/A

Notes

none

Russian Books on Russian Arms

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

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

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

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

History of Russian Assault Rifles

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

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

More AK competitors from the late 40s.

More AK competitors from the late 40s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tokarev Self-Loading and Semi-Auto Rifles

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

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

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

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

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

Buying from Atlant

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

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

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

Military / SOF Themed Short – “8”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military /SOF Themed Short – Operation Jericho

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Science-Fiction Short

With bonus guns and biodefense.

This is just fun. As there’s a lot of suspense in it, we’ll say only this: enjoy.

Yes, the aircraft is very reminiscent of something from the Firefly universe, and the patrol is a bit loosey-goosey. But it’s fun, and the production values are really good. Believe it or not, we found this looking for an actual firearms video, but it was too good not to share.

It’s 16 minutes long and nothing about it (except for 16 minutes off task) is NSFW that we noticed. It was produced by an international cast and crew, and shot in London (action) and Stockholm (exteriors). The digital effects were done by blackstudios.se in Sweden.

Two Resources: Survival Guide and Prepping Matrix

Both of them come to us from the Greek Preparedness blog, which is exactly what it says — preparedness for Greek citizens (with some posts posted in both Greek and English) — but is worth reading for those of you in the other 200 countries of the world.

Resource 1: Tokyo Survival Guide

tokyo_survival_guide_coverBecause Japan is an island nation that is no stranger to natural (earthquake, tsunami — which Japan named) and man-made disasters (fire-bombing, getting nuked, nerve-agent terrorism) a subset of the Japanese people take disaster preparedness seriously, and prepare with classically Japanese thoroughness, One result is the Tokyo City Government’s preparedness guide for citizens, which in classically Japanese fashion begins with an anthropomorphic mascot (Bousai the Rhino, whose name is a play on words) and concludes with an instructive manga (Japanese comic for grown-ups) — just the thing for those of shorter attention span.

It’s quite good, even though it looks like it can only be downloaded in pieces. While some of the techniques and procedures mentioned here are primarily applicable to the Japanese Home Islands’ primary threats (quake, tsunami, volcano) others are useful in any potential survival situation. Link’s to the English version; of course, they have it on the same base website, in Japanese for the natives.

Resource 2: PrepperLink Preparedness Matrix

prepping_matrix_522The PrepperLink Prepping Matrix is an excellent, if imperfect, tool for those that would prepare for survival of what the DHS coyly calls natural or man-made disasters. We’re great fans of the mind-map as instructional and reference technology (we wonder what program Gary Griffin used to create this) so we were really predisposed to like this. And we did, with a few exceptions we’ll dispose of up front.

  1. “Security” refers only to guns. Having enough trustworthy people to keep watch, and a solid watch schedule and alert plan, is much more fundamental than having firearms.
  2. Little reference to alternate and contingency plans. Every decision needs PACE; the more fundamental the decision, the greater the need for alternates and contingency plan.
  3. No reference to maps or navigation. You need maps (and if coastal, lakeside or riparian, also charts) and the knowledge to use them whether your plan is bug-out or bug-in.

One of the best things about this matrix is the way each branch is, in effect, a decision tree, with the most crucial decisions closest to the root of the tree (at the central node). We also like the way items in one branch can refer back to items on other branches. This is handled deftly with color coding — as long as you’re not color blind. Get the whole thing at PrepperLink.

Having planned for the Big Quake, the Alien Invasion or the Zombie Horde leaves you in pretty good shape when three days without power thanks to an ice storm (a much more probable disaster) had your neighbors flapping.

Weaponsman Expert Book Reviews No. 3

weaponsman_eibExpert! From Ex-, Latin “former,” and spurt, “a drip under pressure.” So here we go to use just a few sentences to review a book. We didn’t get one of these in here last week, but we did keep reading books, so there is that. We put books into five categories:

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

We also try to sneak in an online bonus reading suggestion or two. (This week, we link to a review of several great SOE in Greece books).

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

Read It Even if you Gotta Buy It

at the klaxons callAt the Klaxon’s Call by Philip Rowe.  Rowe was a crew dog — a navigator and de facto flight engineer — on several US Air Force bomber types, including the B-58 Hustler, a beautiful but deadly strategic bomber that served a very brief career, from 1960 to 1970. Improved Soviet air defenses, especially, missilery, had made its survival strategy of high-and-fast strikes at Mach 2 untenable, and it wasn’t stressed to fly nap-of-the-earth missions

This book tells the story of a single crew in a Third World War that fortunately never happened. Ordered to launch because of an inbound missile strike launched without warning, the crew is not long into their flight before they’re overtaken by the flash of light and shockwave of their base — and their families — being erased by a thermonuclear warhead. They press on to their target, with many risks and adventures along the way. With the strike behind them, the next question is: where to recover (there was not enough fuel to fly a strike mission and return to CONUS)? Not great literature, but interesting in its discussion of the tactics, techniques and procedures of 50 years ago. Currently priced at $1.25!

ctrl-alt-revoltCTRL-ALT-Revolt by Nick Cole. This novel is a ro llicking tale of that old Science Fiction standby, a war between the humans and the intelligent machines they created. Cole actually got fired by his publisher over this book — his editor didn’t read beyond the first few pages, because she’s a Unique and Special Snowflake® and the AI’s reasoning offended her — but they’d have fired him again if he’d read any further, because the books the antithesis of PC. Cole is particularly good at crafting characters: a programmer who is just arriving at the big time; a reclusive tech entrepreneur; a young woman who games, because in a virtual world she doesn’t have to live with Cerebral Palsy. Even the AIs develop distinct, if unhuman, personalities. We liked it (and it’s cheap, $2, providing good entertainment bang for the buck).

Online Bonus – CIA Book Reviews

This .pdf file contains a review by CIA officer JR Seeger of four books that relate to the Resistance in Crete during World War II. We’ve mentioned participant W. Stanley Moss’s Ill Met by Moonlight before; Seeger reviews four other books including The Ariadne Objective: The Underground War to Rescue Crete from the Nazis by Wes Davis; Abducting a General: The Kreipe Operation and SOE in Crete, by participant Patrick Leigh Fermor; Kidnap in Crete, by Rick Stroud; and Natural Born Heroes: How a Daring Band of Misfits Mastered the Lost Secrets of Strength and Endurance, by Christopher McDougall. Each book has its own particular angle and strengths, and Seeger clearly loves the subject and understands it deeply. (The review also contains a short list of recent non-fiction on other Greek and Med operations, too).

Get it at the Library

Dark WingDark Wing by Richard Herman, Jr. If you liked Tom Clancy, and maybe if you enjoyed Douglas Reeman’s great novels of the Royal Navy, but thought, “All this Navy stuff is fine and good, but does anybody write like this about the Air Force?” you need to acquaint yourself with Herman, and rapidly; like, in afterburner. We’ve read another of his novels, that one about a C-130 outfit, and this one takes up the cudgel for everybody’s favorite airframe (well, except for Air Force generals and E-Ring suits). We refer, of course, to the A-10 Thunderbolt II. It says something of Herman’s perspective that that PR-executive-drafted name for what’s really called a Warthog does not seem to appear in Dark Wing. 

In this book, Lt. Col. Matthew Z. Pontowski III leaves the Pentagon — and the Air Force — for a career-tag job as a full-time National Guard officer, trying to make something of a hangdog A-10 squadron, whose pilots and ground crews are going through the motions while budget-driven deactivation looms. But a world crisis is also looming — and, just as the Air Guard had to supply the obsolete B-26s for the Bay of Pigs, the Air Guard gets touched for volunteers to create a secret wing — a “dark wing” — who can fly air support for some unlikely allies.

You meet a range of characters: a team of legendary scroungers; politicians in three countries; a captive NCO who’s in the right place at the right time to become a general; real generals, a clear contrast, one with a character of pure gold, and another of pure dross. And a remarkable girl who has the ability to cloud men’s minds, and the gift of telling fortunes — or at least, so the host nation people, from peasant to president, believe.

The book comes from the middle of a series, but is readable and entertaining on its own. It dates from 1994 and so it describes both geopolitical and technical states of affairs that are different from what now prevails, but it’s quite entertaining. We picked up the hardback at a library sale. We have another one for after this (one that’s earlier in the series). (Note that our link is to the $4 Kindle edition for those pursuing instant reading gratification. You can get a used paper or hardbound copy at Amazon for as little as 1¢, but that’s often plus $4 shipping…).

Handguns of the WorldHandguns of the Worldby Edward C. Ezell. This is a vital text within its limitations, which are: military handguns, from the cartridge era to the close of World War II. (That is, in fact, the full title of the book: Handguns of the World: Military Revolvers and Self-Loaders, 1870 to 1945. We have owned this book for over 30 years (ow) and took it down from the shelf again to make sure we were hitting the high points in the Czech and Czechoslovakian Fireams: Handguns book we’re working on. In reviewing the German section, we found a very minor error, but we were amazed because this is the first error we have ever found in any  reference by Ezell. For the record, it was the nationality of the designer of various Mauser pistols and the Czech Vz 24 service pistol, Josef Nickl. Nickl was not Austrian, but German (specifically, Bavarian). The first 166 pages provide a history of revolver and pistol development, and the remainder of the book looks at the pistols of significant designers such as Borchardt & Luger and Browning, and of each producing nation in turn. A brief concluding chapter discusses the principles and technology of pistol manufacture during this period, with specific examples. Overall, a fine work and highly recommended. Old but not obsolete!

Read it if You’re a Specialist

ars mechanica FNArs Mechanica: The Ultimate FN Book, by Auguste Francotte, Claude Geyer, and Robert Karlshausen. Looking for a different book, we came across this on eBay (or was it GunBroker? We’ve bought a bunch of books from each). Anything billed as the “ultimate” risks disappointing the reader, but this gigantic coffee-table tornado-anchor delivers on its promise.

It was published, it turns out, by Herstal Group (the parent of FN Herstal) and is a comprehensive business and technical history of the Belgian small arms powerhouse. It’s full of photos of rare and exotic FN prototypes, and color spreads of delectably engraved and inlaid FN arms.

Along with the guns, you also get a look at FN’s other product lines, like their once-thriving bicycle, motorcycle and automobile business. Indeed, early 20th Century FN magazine advertisments often showed a sportsman or -woman heading out to the country with FN shotgun on an FN motorbike, or a happy shooting party already delighting in one another’s company in an open FN touring car, off for a day of pheasantry among the peasantry.

There’s also fascinating factory images, including the classroom, photography rooms, and even a picture of a device like a polygraph that was used in assessing possible employees.

As it’s an official history, you won’t hear much about things that FN isn’t terribly proud of. The Nazi occupation is dismissed in a couple of pages, with some reference to resistance and sabotage, but they do admit producing hundreds of thousands of pistols and 1.6 million rifle barrels for the occupying Nazis. Likewise, FN’s foray into manufacturing Winchesters in New Haven — a new plant was built across the street from the historic old factor, but it folded in a few years — is dismissed with one page. But they do mention these less brilliant chapters in FN history, so it’s still quite interesting.

If you are deeply into FN, you want this, and even if you just want one book about FN, this is a good choice. (The authors are all respected historians, and the photographs are lovely and well-reproduced). The problem becomes: where do you put it? It’s a monster, at 575 pages and nearly 10 lb., and doesn’t fit in most of our shelves.

Don’t Waste Your Time Reading It

Nothing  in this category this week.

We Read It, But We’re Still Not Sure

Nothing in this somewhat unwanted category this time around. Isn’t that good?

To the Readers:

We’re continuing our goal, not always met, to do one of these a week.

Saturday Matinee 2016 11: The North Star (1943)

The-North-Star-1943Many people have seen this movie, and many say it’s a classic of wartime cinema. There may even be some intersection between the two sets, but if so, it’s small. The North Star is somewhat unique of being an over-the-top Soviet propaganda film that was not made in the USSR, but by Americans in Hollywood.

It starred Dana Andrews, Ann Baxter, Dean Jagger, Walter Huston and Walter Brennan as a variety of adorable Ukrainian peasants (all looking rather well-fed for Stalin-era Ukrainians, and whose characters have rather typical Russian names) and Erich von Stroheim in the bloodthirsty-Nazi role.

After an interminable succession of sequences educating us about the lives of joy and plenty to be had amid the Holodomor, the actual movie finally starts. In it, the peasants rally to the (red) flag and defeat the Nazi juggernaut. Fortunately, they sing a lot less once the actual, interesting part of the movie gets going.

Acting and Production

Erich von Stroheim in The North Star.

Erich von Stroheim in The North Star.

Most of the acting is self-conscious and clunky, but Huston does well. The real standout performance is Von Stroheim as a Nazi doctor who has put on a veneer of civilization, but it isn’t as deep as his dueling scar. (The university dueling scar was associated with nobility and gentry, and often Prussians, not Nazis, but whatever… seen one Hun, seen ’em all, right?)

We’ve forgotten the name of the guy who played the other Nazi, but he is the go to guy for Hollywood wartime Nazis — at one time or another he stood up in the turret of seemingly every Panzer, commanded every concentration camp, and executed every Allied prisoner to ever get whacked on the silver screen. He was actually an anti-Nazi German actor who escaped barely ahead of the warrant for his arrest, and wound up in Hollywood playing the very guys who persecuted him!

The other actors are all solid performers with many other credits, so you can’t blame them for the way this movie came out. The villain seems to have been scriptwriter Lillian Hellman.

Hellman’s script  seems to have been written according to an understanding of the audience as extremely slow, and unable to absorb instruction unless it’s hammered home with the caress of a pile driver — and the persistence of the Rain Man. The dialog only seems to be something a living, breathing human being would say of his or her volition only very occasionally — and then by sheerest happenstance.

north star happy peasantsAlmost the first half of the movie is the happy-peasant-singing-dancing bit. Imagine The Sound of Music in black and white, and with much worse songs.

The music needs to be mentioned as a warning, if for no other reason. The score is an intrusive chaos by the overrated Aaron Copland, and it gets worse, because there are songs with music by Copland and lyrics by Ira Gershwin. With the balky rhymes Gershwin comes up with, it’s almost as if he expected Sam Goldwyn’s check to bounce. Any of the singing scenes are a great time to use your fast forward button.

north-star stuka victimsAs bad as it was despite all the good actors in the cast and its awkward propaganda message, The North Star actually got a second chance at release — in the 1950s, it was recut and new dialogue was added, making the communist propaganda piece into an anti-communist propaganda piece that was nearly as bad. (“Nearly” because the cut version, released as Armored Attack!, lost 30 minutes of pastoral peasant insomnia therapy and a good bit of Copland’s and Gershwin’s auditory assault).

Most prints of this circulating in DVD and whatever are cropped for TV and in lousy condition, but it’s not like the film is a great aesthetic masterpiece. Save yourself a rental and watch it for free at the Internet Archive.

Accuracy and Weapons

If any effort at all was made in the direction of accuracy, it is not evident. One of the more bizarre (and gruesome) Hollywood inventions was the Nazis killing Soviet kids by transfusing their blood direct into wounded German soldiers — until the kids are dead. This over-the-top atrocity is hard to swallow, even knowing what we know now about extermination camps and Dr Mengele’s twin experiments.

The weapons seem to be “whatever” from the studio armory.

The bottom line

One wonders if Stalin saw it, was told that many of the cast and crew were true-believing Communists, and collapsed, weeping, to think that his Party had recruited the least adept figures in Hollywood. He could easily have formed that opinion from this movie, and it wouldn’t have been fair — most of the talent in front of and behind the cameras had plenty of quality work they could point to (the exception, perhaps, being Hellman). For whatever reason, and certainly Hellman’s leaden script is a prime suspect here, the talents didn’t gel on screen this time.

Sad to say, the bottom line is that this is one of those “we watched it so that you didn’t have to” movies. There’s a lot to be done with the resistance of various partisan bands to the Nazi invasion of the USSR, but this movie didn’t do it. And if you want to see Soviet propaganda? The stuff the Soviets made themselves is miles more entertaining.

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page (cheapest DVD):

http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B000KJTC82/

This second version also includes Armored Attack! as well as The North Star. For completists:

http://www.amazon.com/Armored-Attack-North-Erich-Stroheim/dp/B00K6J7SUU/

also available on instant video (for free for Amazon Prime customers!):

http://www.amazon.com/North-Star-Anne-Baxter/dp/B000HWBU96/

Watch it for free on Archive.org:

https://archive.org/details/TheNorthStar

The free versions are generally from pretty lousy prints.

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0036217/

  • IMFDB page:

(none)

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (unrated):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/1015260-north_star/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_North_Star_(1943_film)

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (“no results.”)

http://www.historyvshollywood.com/

Notes

none

Saturday Matinee 2016 10: Open Range (2003)

Open_rangePOSTERWe had another wartime propaganda film for you this weekend, and we just couldn’t do that to you (or us), so you get a week’s reprieve. Instead, we’re going to look at a modern Western now making the rounds on movie channels (we caught it on AMC, with commercial interruptions. (We survived. The guy who invented the Mute button is our personal hero, though). Open Range keys on the Hollywood staple of conflict between open-range ranchers and private-spread fenced-in ranchers. It’s1882, and Boss Spearman (Robert Duvall) knows that he’s one of the last of a dying breed, and he and his right-hand man Charley Waite (Kevin Costner) might just hang it up after one last drive. Spearman’s old, and tired; Waite is, as we learn, a man with a past full of troubling ghosts, one of whom is himself. “Dying business” might be a bit too literal, as local bigwig Denton Baxter (played with an intermittently-on but consistently-dreadful Irish accent by Michael Gambon). Both sides have team members, deftly drawn by good character actors; and the villagers, whose moral center seems to be the often-absent town doctor and his fetching relative Susan (Annette Bening), have their hearts and minds on the auction block.

It’s a different sort of modern Western — indeed, it’s a lot like an old Western. That’s not a complaint.

The story is, will the good guys win? Ah, but will they win without sacrifice, and what shape does the sacrifice take? Will Susan and Charley find each other and have a happy ending, or is this one of the movies that ends in heartbreak?

Acting and Production

OpenRangeWinchester73-4Kevin Costner is a very underrated actor. His character here is very good at some things, and very clumsy at others, and Costner makes it very convincing. Duvall for his part was getting to old to play an action character, except, well, an old one; after exertion, it seems like he’s always fighting for breath, and that just adds to the reality of the movie. (Indeed if he’s just acting short of breath, those scenes need to be clipped by acting schools for future generations).

directed by costnerCostner also directed Open Range. We’re far from connoisseurs of the director’s art, but it seemed to be well put together, an elegiac homage to Westerns of bygone days, great movies that are themselves as far in the past today as the Old West itself was in the era of classic Westerns.

The show plods at the start, but once it gets rolling it rolls like a runaway train. There seems to be a good balance between shots of beautiful scenery and the actual action, or maybe we were just ready for a slower film this time. (Run time is 2 hours and 18 minutes).

One does suspect that it hits every Save the Cat! beat squarely, but those “rules” are in place because they work. Some little subtleties tie early scenes to late ones in a way that puts us in mind of Chekhov’s Gun. (Look it up. Russian writer Chekhov, not Star Trek character Chekhov).

OpenRangeWinchester73-4

Accuracy and Weapons

None of the weapons are unusual for a Western, and we didn’t feel the need to explore them in nitpicking depth. (IMFDB has that covered, proving that Costner’s Colt .45 is actually an Italian replica).

Most of the weapons are only lightly “Hollywooded.” The amount of smoke generated by these old black-powder cartridge guns is definitely played down, but there are relatively few inaccuracies and no glaring anachronisms.

IMFB did comment on something that we noticed, Costner firing lots of shots without a reload. Shades of John Wayne, who used to do that all the time; you have to wonder if Costner did that directly. The guns also tend to have extremely exaggerated terminal ballistics, as is, again, covered well at IMFDB. Duvall’s shotgun seems to be on loan from the Atomic Energy Commission.

OpenRangecoachgun-9

Despite Costner’s 16-shooter SAA and Duvall’s elephant-gun shotgun rounds, the shootout scenes, especially the final one, have a degree of realism often missing in Westerns, especially recent ones. No trick camera angles, ultra-close-ups, hokey slow-motion or the-editor-has-ADHD cuts; just a plausibly choreographed fight. And even the bad guys act like normal human beings who want to win the fight, and who want to live; not the usual Hollywood bad-guy-automaton mooks.

For all the violence in the movie, though, it’s nothing you can’t watch with the kids who are old enough. (The pearl-clutchers who decide these things gave it an undeserved R rating). There’s none of the transrealistic violence, grue and gore beloved by directors like Peckinpah and Tarantino. If you hated The Hateful Eight, or even if you’re some bloodthirsty weirdo who liked it, give this a try and see if it entertains you.

The bottom line

OpenRangeColtSAA-16Westerns are not to everyone’s taste, and we have observed that the current generation of Westerns are less to one’s taste if one like the “original” Westerns: John Ford, John Wayne, all the usual suspects. Open Range is a standout exception to that rule. If you loved the Westerns of the 40s and 50s, this 21st-Century Western has a clean, non-ironic, good-vs-evil story, good, understated acting, and enough of both action and romance that the guys and gals can enjoy it together (even if they’re enjoying different scenes).

For more information

These sites relate to this particular film.

  • Amazon.com DVD page:

http://amazon.com/Open-Range-Robert-Duvall/dp/B0000TANUI/

also available on instant video:

http://www.amazon.com/Open-Range-Robert-Duvall/dp/B003QSMDWQ/

 

  • IMDB page:

http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0316356/

  • IMFDB page:

http://www.imfdb.org/wiki/Open_Range

  • Rotten Tomatoes review page (79%):

http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/open_range/

  • Wikipedia  page:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_Range

  • History vs. Hollywood Page. (“no results.”)

http://www.historyvshollywood.com/

Notes

none

Weaponsman Expert Book Reviews No. 2

weaponsman_eibWe’re expert, you’re expert, everybody’s expert! So we don’t need more than a few sentences to review a book. We put books into five categories:

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

We also sneak in an online reading suggestion or two.

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

Read It Even if you Gotta Buy It

elmer keithHell, I was There! by Elmer Keith. Keith was for many years the dean of pistoleros and gunwriters, and we were privileged to enjoy his writing while it was fresh. Today, he is remembered as the promoter of handgun hunting and Smith & Wesson’s .357 and .44 Magnums, but Elmer Keith was also a Westerner when that meant something, and a lawman and a writer at various times — and what a writer! You don’t need to see a gun in his hand to enjoy his writing:

One day a kid picked a fight with me at school by punching me in the back of the neck with a sharp pencil when the teacher’s back was turned. At recess I proceeded to give him a good licking. Word later got home to my folks via the teacher, and some of the boy’s friends put me to blame. So they made me go over across town and apologize to his mother. I went across town all right, knocked on the door, and apologized to his mother. The kid stuck his head around her shoulder and thumbed his nose at me, so I reached up and glommed him and I proceeded to give him another good licking until his mother beat me off with her broom.

In just about the next scene after that, his young nose is a bit out of joint because his father and uncle won’t let him shoot a Winchester .95 in the punishing .35 Remington caliber. “Too much for a kid!” And that’s all before he really gets going. Hell, I was There! was a sort of anecdotal autobiography that Keith put out in 1979 at the height of his own popularity (he had previously published a more conventional autobiography, Keith, tying the President for self-regard, but perhaps with more accomplishments before the biographies started).

Not every scene, even of youthful hijinks, is that charming. (Think 4th of July + Firecracker + stray cat). If you’re a member of the gun culture, you need to know Elmer Keith, and there is no better way to know Keith than in his own words. Unfortunately the book is now long out-of-print and insanely expensive. You can haunt used bookstores or roll the dice on bootleg e-books. For a more affordable (but still expensive!) dose of Keith consider Tim Mullin’s Letters from Elmer Keith. 

Get it at the Library

Playing to the Edge by Michael Hayden. A somewhat self-serving, yet informative, memoir from an intelligence community insider. Like all such tomes, it raises the question: if those above you were doing that badly, why didn’t you resign in protest? One suspects the reason is, a resignation in protest would have put a crimp in Hayden’s post NSA, DNI, CIA career as an influence-peddler with Michael Chertoff’s lobbying firm. But reading Hayden makes the Weaponsman.com cynical take on the intelligence and national security community sound mild. They really are full of bozos.

For those who are patient and want to own a copy of this, it was overprinted and will be in cut-out bins and library discard sales in a few months to a year.

trident deceptionThe Trident Deception by Rick Campbell. We have never read anything by Campbell before, but with Seat B in the human mailing tube beckoning, and we wanted something physical as an alternative to continental Kindle squinting. Voilà! This paperback jumped into our shopping cart, just because it had a submarine on the cover (Give the cover artist a cookie). It was a page-turner with some remarkable twists and turns, clearly delineated good guys and bad guys and a plot that makes the good guys have to fight the bad guys, and a bunch of submarine stuff that sounds authentic enough to us. (Later in the book, when he talks about handguns, Campbell loses some of the accuracy he had talking about boats). It’s funny that as much as we love submarine stories (which reminds us, we have some incomplete…) we never could have served in them, or in the Navy at all, and so we doff our caps to the special breed who do, and the authors who can write engaging books about them. (Rick Campbell is both, being a retired sub officer. He has his own website). Not great literature, but pretty good entertainment — just what we needed. Finished it on arrival. There’s a sequel out, Empire Rising, and two more coming; we’ll probably read those, but a submarine series is always a stretch: the sub service is so intense and proceduralized exactly so that submariners don’t have a hair-raising adventure every year. (Well, apart from the whole, “months of underwater cat-and-mouse, while living with a reactor, a bunch of nuclear delivery systems, and 100 roommates you didn’t pick,” bit). The Kindle edition is overpriced at $10, but at the paperback (linked above) you can get used copies for as little as a penny plus shipping, or buy it in a department store for about $7 like we did. (Used copy sales doesn’t pay the author, but we didn’t do it to him with that $10 Kindle price — his shortsighted, greedhead publisher did).

Read it if You’re a Specialist

A Respectable ArmyA Respectable Army: The Military Origins of the Republic, 1763-1789 by James Kirby Martin and Mark Edward Lender. This is a collegiate history textbook about how the US Army came to be, from its origins in the militia and colonial regiments of the French & Indian War through the campaigns of the War of Independence, up to the replacement of the Articles of Confederation by the Constitution.

It is a serious and somewhat dry tome, without illustrations, but it is concise and accurate for its day (1982) and does not have the race/sex/class overlay of currently trendy historiography. Widely available because it was once a common college text. There are more recent editions available (2005) (2015) but they should probably be avoided, as they have only minor changes (i.e. pagination). There are claims of vast improvement in the new ed., but we didn’t see it; the maps are better in the new editions, but we have a atlases already; the bibliography is longer in recent editions, but many of the new books are the product of the post-1968 marxian race/sex/class warrior cohort of professors, and are as incompetently written as they are tendentious. Writing should be communicative, not hortatory, in anything one is not forced to read.

A word on why publishers frequently churn out mildly revised old works as new editions: it’s a short-sighted racket between publishers who sell books and professors who write them. Making minor changes every few years means professors can require the latest edition, guaranteeing them a sale to every undergrad enrolled in their class, by undermining the used market’s capability to cannibalize textbook sales.

Of course, it also assures that a textbook like A Respectable Army, which is a worthwhile read for many history buffs not presently confined to a college class (a much bigger market than current college inmates), does not find that market. As is usual for New York publishing houses (Wiley in this case), the e-book of the more recent editions is prohibitively overpriced.

Online Reading: If you’re interested in publishing this week’s feature is a thoughtful post at Forgotten Weapons. Do read the whole thing, and the comment thread.

Don’t Waste Your Time Reading It

gun show nationGun Show Nation by Joan Burbick. This is one we plucked out of a Florida remainder bin for $2.99. There’s some comfort in knowing the publisher and author didn’t get paid, because it really is that bad. This is the sort of anthropological study that Professors of English and “American Studies” at third-tier colleges write (and that is, in fact, what Burbick is. “American Studies,” by the way, is not any kind of American history but the lightweight modern race/sex/class grievance theory of what is wrong with America. It really should be called “Anti-American Studies”).  It is the sort of missionary-among-the-cannibals tome, with its matching condescending tone, that the New Press (a billionaire sponsored “non-profit” screedprinter) publishes, and they did. Brief samples:

The gun in America reeks of white power. Its history is inseparable from keeping arms in hands of whites and disarming black men to prevent their access to political and economic power. (p. 27);

When I asked men at my visits to gun shows what they’re gone would say if he could talk, they often don’t carry on about who it wanted to shoot, but how it wanted to shoot with deadly aim. The rifle had no ethical voice. (p.40);

Those millions of hours that American spent watching cop shows and vigilante heroes helped pump up the psychic investment in guns. (pp. 154-155).

She also (in 2006!) was still clinging hard to the Prohibition-era legal position, long abandoned by the legal academy, that the 2nd Amendment granted rights only to the National Guard. Like most people in grievance-studies programs, including the PhDs who perch atop them, Burbick doesn’t seem terribly bright. Give this one a pass. There is a second edition, which is a publisher’s racket we explained above in reference to the much better textbook, A Respectable Army.

We Read It, But We’re Still Not Sure

Nothing in this somewhat unwanted category this time around. Isn’t that good?

To the Readers:

Thanks for the positive feedback on #1. We’ll try to do one a week… no promises