“THE PACIFIC” (2010) Episode Three “Melbourne’ Commentary

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I wrote this commentary on the third episode of “THE PACIFIC”:

“THE PACIFIC” (2010) EPISODE THREE “Melbourne” Commentary

Following their evacuation from Guadalcanal in January 1943, members of the U.S. Marines First Division enjoyed a respite in Melbourne, Australia. There, characters like Bob Leckie and Sidney Phillips enjoyed romances with local Australian girls. John Basilone enjoyed a period of heavy drinking and dodging the MPs before receiving his Medal of Honor for his late October actions on Guadalcanal.

Unlike 2001’s ”BAND OF BROTHERS”, this third episode featured the very first one that did not include any combat. Instead, the First Division Marines enjoyed a respite filled with booze, women, a medal ceremony and more training. This episode featured two of our major characters confronting their demons. But let me focus on the minor stuff first.

Some of the funniest romantic scenes featured Sidney Phillips romancing a young Australian girl, under the watchful eye of her grandfather. Ashton Holmes was a hoot portraying Phillips’ struggles to suppress his desires and somewhat more questionable actions (like leaving the “base” without a pass) in order to impress his new girlfriend’s Draconian grandfather and behave like a Southern gentleman. His funniest moment occurred in a scene inside a pub where Phillips was trying to assure the girl’s father that he intends to be the perfect gentleman, when the MPs appear. Although he assured both his girlfriend and her grandfather that he had a pass, he subtly suggested that they leave the pub through the back door.

Other funny moments featured Leckie’s friends, Hoosier and Chuckler. From the moment when the Marines are bivouacked at a cricket stadium, Hoosier and his government issued blanket are never apart. Never. He quickly fell asleep, while Leckie, Runner, Chuckler and other Marines left the stadium without permission – clinging to his blanket. And for several days, it never left his side. Another moment featured the Marines back in formation at the stadium, the day following their first night of liberty. Most of them looked as if they had spent a week of debauchery with no sleep . . . including Lieutenant Corrigan. One Marine could not even remain standing and in a moment of pure slapstick, fell flat on his face. Corrigan did not say a word. But the funniest moment – at least for me – featured a drunken Leckie coming upon poor Chuckler on guard duty at the stadium. Why did I call Chuckler “poor”? In a scene that brought back memories of my mad dashes to the bathroom, poor Chuckler was dancing his ass off, while trying to convince Leckie to stand guard in his place so he could relieve himself. I have to pause for a moment to keep my laughter in check. Excuse me.

This episode did not feature any scenes of Eugene Sledge. However, I suspect that viewers will be seeing him in the next episode. It did feature Basilone receiving his Medal of Honor. Like the other Guadalcanal veterans, Basilone and his friend, J.P., hit the streets of Melbourne for a night of heavy drinking and debauchery. The pair found a convenient bar where they indulged in a great deal of booze and a brief, yet violent encounter with Australian servicemen. Fortunately, their hostile encounter with the Australians became friendly. But when Basilone reported to Chesty Puller’s office the following day, Basilone was not so fortunate. One, he learned that he was to receive the Medal of Honor, which produced a delicious “WTF” expression in Jon Seda’s eyes. Then his expression became even stranger, as Puller chewed out Basilone for failing to set a good example in Melbourne . . . before eventually throwing up. Next to Chuckler’s “dancing” moment, I thought this was the funniest scene in the episode.

However, matters did not seem that funny when Basilone finally received his Medal of Honor in a formal ceremony at the cricket stadium. Poor bastard looked as if he wanted to flee for his life, instead of receiving that medal. I do wonder if something within him suspected that medal would separate him from J.P. and the rest of his men, as surely as death had separated Manny from him. The expression in his eyes seemed to hint it not only during the medal ceremony, but also when he bid good-bye to J.P. and on that flight to San Francisco near the end of the episode. And I have to give kudos to Seda for expressing this emotion without saying a word. In fact, he did a damn good job all around.

Finally, we come to Leckie. Man, I do not know what to say about him. Actually, I do. But I suspect that describing James Badge Dale’s interpretation of Leckie’s character would take a multi-page essay. It is that complicated. In fact, Robert Leckie seemed to be one of the most complicated characters I have come across in any biopic either in a movie or on television. I cannot recall any character in ”BAND OF BROTHERS” as complicated as him. Judging from his conversations with his Australian girlfriend Stella and her Greek-born mother, his demons had already been established before he saw combat or had joined the Marines. As much as he loved his family, Leckie apparently did not like being part of a big family – especially as the youngest member. He seemed to have felt crowded, yet at the same time, ignored. His description of his father made me revised the father-son good-bye scene in “Episode One. At first, I thought Leckie Sr. was simply reluctant to bid his son good-bye. I had no idea that the older man was also suffering from slight mental problems.

The episode started well for Leckie. He met Stella on a trolley car and managed to garner her interest, despite being drunk. The two seemed to take to one another like duck to water. And watching Badge Dale and Australian actress Claire van der Boom act together made me realize that they have a strong screen chemistry together. Although their loves scenes were slightly explicit, they were still very tasteful. Frankly, I saw nothing that anyone could complain about. Thanks to van der Boom’s excellent performance, Stella proved to be just as complicated as Leckie. Upon his return following a three-day hike for the Marines, she eventually dumped him. She claimed that her mother, who had taken a shine to him, would have great difficulty in dealing with his death. But Leckie had witnessed her reaction to the news of a friend’s death and immediately surmised that she was simply guarding herself from possible future heartache.

Needless to say, Leckie did not take the end of his romance very well. Not only did he get drunk, lost his temper with Lieutenant Corrigan after the latter confronted him for taking Chuckler’s place during guard duty, while the latter was taking a piss. Not only did Leckie ended up in the brig for a period of time with Chuckler, he was booted from the company and his friends, and assigned to become an intelligence scout. Poor Leckie. But I must say that the more I watch Badge Dale’s skillful portrayal of the complicated Leckie, the more I have become impressed by his talents as an actor.

Episode Three proved to be an entertaining episode. Viewers got a chance to see how some of the characters behaved away from the threat of combat. However, I rather doubt that it will ever become a favorite of mine. Aside from the personal conflicts of Leckie and Basilone, it lacked the edge that Episode One and Episode Two possessed. I suppose that is due to the lack of combat shown.

 

 

Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” (1988) Review

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“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” (1988) Review

I have come to the conclusion that any movie producer willing to do a project on Wallis Warfield Simpson, later the Duchess of Windsor would eventually realize that said project is bound to generate a great deal of emotion – not only in Great Britain, but even in the United States. I have never come across a female historical figure who has polarized the public the way this 20th century American-born socialite has.

The first screen production about Wallis Simpson and her romance with Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and the Duke of Windsor I ever saw was the 1978 BBC miniseries, “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”. But I have seen screen portrayals of both Mrs. Simpson and Edward VIII in other productions, including this television movie called “THE WOMAN HE LOVED”. The television movie aired on CBS in 1988. I wish I could say this movie was the best on-screen interpretation of the infamous romance that rocked the British monarchy back in the mid-1930s. However, I would be lying if I did. But I certainly do not believe it is the worst.

“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” told the story of the famous romance mainly from Mrs. Simpson’s point-of-view, via flashbacks. The movie began in 1972 with her arrival in Britain for the first time in years to attend the funeral of her third and final husband, the Duke of Windsor. While the recently widowed Duchess seeks solitude inside Buckingham Palace as a guest of the Royal Family, she reminisces about about her marriage to American-born businessman Ernest Simpson in 1928 led to her entry into British high society and her relationship with Edward Windsor. Aside from the 1972 flashback, most of the movie began with Wallis’ marriage to Simpson and ended with her marriage to the newly created Duke of Windsor in May 1937. It also covered Wallis and Edward’s affair, which began when he was Prince of Wales and continued after he became King Edward VIII. Also, Wallis’ marital problems with Simpson, along with their divorce and the Abdication Crisis, which occurred during the fall of 1936 were also covered in this film. This is not surprising, considering this is the narrative formula that is used in most productions about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

How did I feel about the movie? Well . . . I did not hate it. But I did not exactly love it. I must admit that its production values were top notch for a television film with a foreign setting. One has to give Kenneth Sharp credit for a detailed re-creation of London and Great Britain between 1928 and 1936. If there is one thing I can say about “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” is that it is a beautiful looking period drama. Sharp’s work was ably assisted by Brian Morgan’s sharp and colorful cinematography. Hell, his work looked better than many period dramas I have seen on both the small and large screen. Although I found Allyn Ferguson’s score not particularly memorable, I thought he and director Charles Jarrott did an excellent in selecting certain tunes that added to the movie’s 1930s setting. But one aspect of the movie’s technical aspect that really blew my mind was Robin Fraser-Paye’s costume designs. Can I say . . . WOW? Or better yet, below are images of Fraser-Paye’s work:

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On the other hand, William Luce’s screenplay did not have the same effect upon me. As I had hinted earlier, the screenplay for “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” was the basic narrative used for most productions about the historic couple. I would go even further to say that Luce’s work was a paint-by-the-numbers job. There were moments that did impress me. Most of those moments featured conversations between Wallis and Simpson – especially when their marriage was breaking apart. I was especially amused by one particular quarrel between them that ended with Wallis sharply ordering their dog from her bed. Some of the biggest problems I had with “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” is that Wallis and Edward’s story is treated solely as a movie adaptation of a romance novel. And I am not a fan of romance novels. I did not expect the movie to be some Charles Higham-style trashy revelation about the Windsor couple. I have seen plenty of recent productions – “UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (Season One)” and “THE KING’S SPEECH” – that portray Wallis as some kind of gauche, gold digging whore. Unfortunately, “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” went to another extreme – painting Wallis as some kind of American-born Cinderella and Edward as this poor, misunderstood prince who had been denied some sliver of happiness due to royal tradition. The movie did offer crumbs of the couple’s ambiguity – Wallis’ affair with Edward and the latter’s determination to steal another man’s wife. But despite these moments of ambiguity, “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” was simply an exercise in romantic gloss.

“THE WOMAN HE LOVED” featured the screen reunion of Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews, who first co-starred with each other in the 1982 television costume movie, “THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL”. Both were outstanding in that film. I wish I could say the same about their performances in “THE WOMAN HE LOVED” . . . but I cannot. I am not saying they gave bad performances. Both Seymour and Andrews offered some examples of their talent in a few scenes. Most of Seymour’s best scenes were with actor Tom Wilkinson, who portrayed Ernest Simpson. Perhaps her performances in these scenes led to her Emmy nomination. Perhaps. However, I find it easy to question this nomination, due to Seymour being forced to portray Mrs. Simpson as an occasionally star-struck adolescent. I could blame her questionable Upper South accent (the American socialite came from an old Baltimore family), but I never believed that a bad or questionable accent could really harm a performance. Andrews had a particularly effective scene in which his Edward angrily expressed his frustration with the British Establishment, who refused to accept Wallis as his future wife. I found this scene to be a breath of fresh air, considering most of his consisted of dialogue that struck me as wooden. But in the end, both actors were simply hampered by Luce’s romantically one-note screenplay.

Olivia De Havilland also received an Emmy nomination – a Best Supporting Actress nod for her portrayal of Wallis’ aunt, Bessie Merryman. And if I must be honest, I find this puzzling. I am not criticizing De Havilland. I thought she gave a solid performance, considering the slight amount of screen time given to her. But there was nothing about it that dazzled me. Lucy Gutteridge portrayed Edward’s previous mistress, the American-born Thelma, Viscountess Furness. By some ironic twist, Gutteridge portrayed Furness’ twin sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, in the 1982 television movie, “LITTLE GLORIA, HAPPY AT LAST” and earned an Emmy nomination. As for her portrayal of Thelma, it was pretty solid, but not particularly mind dazzling. In fact, none of the other supporting performances in the movie – Julie Harris, Robert Hardy, Phyllis Calvert and David Waller – did not strike me as particularly memorable. I must admit I was surprised to see Waller reprise his role as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, which he had originated in “EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON”. Only Tom Wilkinson’s wry and cynical portrayal of the cuckolded Ernest Simpson came close to really impressing me. While everyone else seemed to be a bit too theatrical or simply going through the motions, Wilkinson made the low-key Simpson a rather interesting personality.

I really do not know what else to say about “THE WOMAN HE LOVED”. I cannot deny that visually, it is a very beautiful looking movie that did an excellent job of re-creating Great Britain during the two decades between the two world wars. But instead of providing a balanced and ambiguous portrait of Wallis Simpson and her third husband, King Edward VIII; director Charles Jarrott and screenwriter William Luce decided to portray their relationship as some kind of cinematic romance novel. And I believe their work may have hampered the performances of the cast led by the usually talented Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews. If you want a realistic feel of the Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII affair, this may not be your movie. But if it is a onscreen fairy tale romance you are looking for, this might be your flick.

“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1939) Review

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“THE FOUR FEATHERS” (1939) Review

There have been seven versions of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel, “The Four Feathers”. At least three of them were silent films. In 1939, British producer Alexander Korda released the first sound adaptation of the novel. This version was also the first one to be filmed in color. Directed by Korda’s brother, Zoltan Korda, “THE FOUR FEATHERS” starred John Clements, June Duprez, Ralph Richardson and C. Aubrey Smith.

Not only was this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” the first to feature both sound and color, it is regarded by many as the best adaptation of Mason’s novel. Fifteen years has passed since I last saw this movie. When I first saw it back in the mid-1990s, I was very impressed by this film. After seeing it fifteen years later (or more), I am still impressed. Somewhat. Granted, my admiration for the movie has dimmed slightly, but I still believe that it is a first-class movie.

Unlike Mason’s novel or the recent 2002 version, this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is not set right after General Charles Gordon’s death in 1885. Instead, the movie is set in 1895. Harry Faversham is an officer in the British Army and his regiment has been ordered to the Sudan to avenge the death of Charles “Chinese” Gordon from ten years ago. On the eve of its departure, British officer Harry Faversham (Clements) resigns his commission. As a result, his three friends and fellow officers, Captain John Durrance (Richardson) and Lieutenants Burroughs (Donald Grey) and Willoughby (Jack Allen), express their contempt of his supposed cowardice by each sending him a white feather attached to a calling card. When his fiancée, Ethne Burroughs (Duprez), says nothing in his defense, he bitterly demands one more from her. She refuses, but he plucks one from her fan and leaves. While the officers go off to war, he admits to his old acquaintance Dr. Sutton (Frederick Culley) that he is a coward and must make amends. He departs for Egypt. There, he adopts the disguise of a native with the help of Dr. Harraz (Henry Oscar), choosing to play a despised mute Sangali to hide his lack of knowledge of the language.

What can I saw about “THE FOUR FEATHERS”? For one, it is a beautiful looking film. I understand that it had been filmed in both Great Britain and in Sudan. And photographers Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile did a beautiful job in capturing the scope and color (via Technicolor) of both countries. It was not surprising for me to learn that the film had received an Academy Award nomination for Best Cinematography. I also found Miklos Rozsa’s score, Vincent Korda’s uncredited production design, W. Percy Day’s matte paintings, along with Godfrey Brennan and René Hubert’s costume designs impressive, as well.

But I am merely procrastinating. I have not discussed the meat of the movie – namely the story and the acting. Well, I might as well start with the first. R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis created a solid adaptation of Mason’s novel. They made a few changes. As I had stated before, they set the movie in the 1890s, enabling them to incorporate the British victory at the Battle of Omdurman in September 1898 into the plot. The novel was set around the mid 1880s. The character of Abou Fatma (featured in both the novel and in other versions, including the 2002 movie) is not this film. But these changes did not hurt the plot. “THE FOUR FEATHERS” still turned out to be a rousing action-adventure film. When I first saw the movie back in the early 1990s, the patriotic jingoism surrounding the British Empire did not bother me at all. Fifteen years later, it did. Somewhat. I have seen plenty of old films from the 1930s and 1940s that painted the British Empire in a positive light. Unfortunately, this version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” did so at a level that sometimes came off as a little too heavy-handed for my taste. I suspect that the reason behind the three screenwriters’ decision to set the movie in the mid-to-late 1890s in order to allow the movie to feature an actual British imperialist victory – Omdurman – and a chance to wave the flag. The movie did question the idea of what constituted bravery or cowardice. But once Harry arrived in the Sudan, the topic never reared its ugly head again. Hmmm. Too bad.

The movie featured a solid, first-rate cast. John Clements gave an excellent performance as Harry Faversham, who is emotionally torn between his aversion to the idea of serving as a British officer and continuing his family’s military tradition. My only quibble with his performance was that I found his . . . ‘portrayal’ of a mute Sangali exaggerated. The other first-rate performance featured in this movie came from Ralph Richardson, who portrayed Faversham’s best friend and romantic rival, Jack Durrance. I was especially impressed by how Richardson conveyed Jack’s desperation to hide his blindness from his command and his hopeless infatuation with Harry’s fiancée, Ethne Burroughs. Who, by the way, was portrayed by June Duprez. Ms. Duprez gave a charming performance. But aside from two scenes – one that featured her discovery of Harry’s resignation from the Army and her regret for pushing him away – Miss Duprez’s Ethne seemed to lack depth. Well known British character actor, C. Aubrey Smith gave a sprightly and funny performance as Ethne’s father, the irascible General Burroughs who continues to live in the past glories of his service during the Crimean War. In fact, the movie’s running joke turned out to be the General’s embellishments of his favorite war story – the Battle of Balaclava.

When one comes down to it, the 1939 version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” is a rousing and entertaining tale about a disgraced British Army officer who finds redemption through his private heroic acts to protect his former colleagues and friends during the last year of the Mahdist War. My main quibble with the movie centered around the script written by R.C. Sherriff, Lajos Biro and Arthur Wimperis. Granted, they did a first-rate job of adapting Mason’s novel. But aside from the first third of the movie in which the script briefly questioned society’s idea of bravery, the story seemed lack depth and in the end, came off as a propaganda film for the British Empire. However, Georges Périnal and Osmond Borradaile’s Technicolor photography of both England and the Sudan are absolutely breathtaking and deserving of an Oscar nomination. The movie featured a solid cast that included excellent performances by John Clements and Ralph Richardson. And Zoltan Korda kept it all together with his skillful direction that featured some excellent dramatic moments and great action.

I realize that many consider Korda’s version of “THE FOUR FEATHERS” to be the best of the seven already made. This is an opinion that I cannot honestly share. It is also an opinion I have not harbored in the past decade. It is a little too jingoistic for my taste. And aside from the Harry Faversham and Jack Durrance characters, most of the other characters do not strike me as possessing enough depth. But it is a first-rate action-adventure film. And it is easy to see why so many fans still love it after seventy-three years.

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

 

“MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” (2005) Review

I have read several novels about the historic event known as the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857-1858 (aka The Indian Mutiny, or aka the First War of Indian Independence). And the main characters in each novel have been British. I have not seen one movie about the event. And after seeing 2005’s ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”, I still have not seen one movie about the Sepoy Rebellion. But this is the first movie I have seen that touches upon the subject.

Actually, ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is really a prelude to the Sepoy Rebellion itself. Directed by Farrukh Dhondy, it is based upon the life of Mandey Pandey, an Indian sepoy (soldier) of the British East India Company, who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 rebellion. The movie began with Pandey facing execution for violently protesting against the use of new rifles issued by the East India Company. Pandey, along with his fellow soldiers believe that the rifles’ cartridges have been greased by animal fat – beef, pork or both. Since many Hindus and Muslims view this as an abhorrent, they consider the cartridges an insult to their religious beliefs. Pandey’s conflict with the Company (East India Company) rule also manifests in a few violent clashes with an aggressive and bigoted British officer named Hewson. In the end, not even Pandey’s friendship with his company’s sympathetic commander, Captain William Gordon, can save him from being convicted and executed by the regimental commander. His execution eventually inspired other sepoys to view him as a martyr and continue the major revolt against British rule he has instigated.

I have been aware of ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” for nearly two years – ever since I read about it on the Wikipedia site. But I never thought I would get a chance to view it, until I discovered that Netflix offered the movie for rent. And if I have to be perfectly honest, it is a pretty damn good film. However, it is not perfect. I suspect that it is not historically accurate. This does not bother me, considering that most historical dramas are not completely accurate. However, I have one minor and one major complaint about the movie. My minor complaint centered on the occasionally melodramatic dialogue of the British characters. Aside from Toby Stephens, who portrayed William Gordon and Coral Beed, who portrayed the daughter of the regimental commander, Emily Kent; I was not that impressed by the British cast. I found them rather hammy at times. However, I had a real problem with the occasional musical numbers that interrupted the story’s flow. The last thing I wanted to see in a costumed epic about a historical figure are three to five minute musical numbers. They seemed out of place in such a film.

But if I have to be honest, there was one musical number that did not interrupt the story’s flow. It featured a dance number in which a group of courtesans – led by a woman named Heera. Heera’s performance attracted the drunken attention of Pandey’s main foe, Lieutenant Hewson. And Pandey found himself in a fight against the British officer to prevent the latter from pawing and sexually assaulting Heera. But that was simply one of many interesting dramatic scenes featured in ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING”. Another featured a tense moment in which Pandey attempts to help Gordon convincing the other sepoys that the cartridges used in the new rifles are not greased with animal fat, by loading the rifle. However, this action backfires when Pandey eventually becomes convinced that he had been wrong. But the cartridges and Pandey’s reaction to them turn out to be the tip of the iceberg in the conflict between the growing resentment of the sepoy and the British rulers.

Although most of the movie centered on the dark aspects of the British Empire, it did touch upon one aspect of Indian culture with a negative note – namely the funeral practice of sati. Pandey and Gordon had saved a young Indian widow from the sati funeral pyre and Gordon spent the rest of the film saving her from being killed by her in-laws. However, the movie is about Mangal Pandey and the negative aspects of British imperial rule by 1850s India. The movie featured the corruption generated by the East India Company’s production of opium in India and its trade in China. The movie also featured the continuation of the slave trade in which Indian women are used as sexual slaves for the Company’s officer corp. This introduced one the movie’s major characters, the courtesan named Heera, who bluntly expressed her view on the Indian male population who willingly sign up to serve the East India Company’s army. When Pandey expressed his contempt toward women like her for selling their bodies, she responded with equal contempt at all of those who ”sold their souls” to the East India Company. All of the resentment over British rule and the distrust regarding the new Enfield rifles and the greased cartridges finally spilled over in an ugly encounter between Pandey and Lieutenant Hewson. Their second encounter became even uglier when Hewson and a group of fellow officers pay Pandey a visit at the regiment’s jail to brutally assault the imprisoned sepoy even further. Violence finally spilled over when Pandey convinced the other sepoys to mutiny. And after he is executed, the mutiny at the Barrackpore will inspire other sepoys throughout many parts of India to rebel against British rule.

I was not exaggerating when I say that most of the performances by the British cast members came off as over-the-top. A prime example was Ben Nealon’s portrayal of Pandey’s main nemesis, Lieutenant Hewson. One could say that Nealon was at a disadvantage from the start. His character was just as one-dimensional as many non-white characters that could be found in old Hollywood movies with a similar setting. However, Coral Beed, who portrayed Emily, the daughter of the Barrackpore commander, fared better. In a way, Emily came off as another cliché from the British Imperial literature of the 20th century – the young, open-minded English girl who is not only sympathetic to the Indians, but also interested in their culture. But Beed managed to portray this cliché without coming off as a second-rate version of the Daphne Manners character from 1984 miniseries, ”THE JEWEL IN THE CROWN”. Fortunately, most of the Indian cast did not engage in hammy acting. However, there was one exception – the actor who portrayed the “Untouchable” sweeper who mocked Pandey for demonstrating the new Enfield rifle. I do not know his name, but gave the hammiest performance in the entire movie. I felt as if I was watching an Indian version of a court jester perform. Perhaps that was director Dhondy’s intent. If it was, it did not work for me. However, I found myself very impressed by Rani Mukherjee’s performance as Pandey’s love interest, the courtesan Heera. Mind you, I found the idea of a devout Hindu like Pandey becoming romantically involved in a prostitute – especially one used to service British officers – hard to believe. But I must admit that Mukherjee and actor Aamir Khan (who portrayed Pandey) had a strong screen chemistry. And the actress did give a very charismatic performance.

Finally we come to the movie’s two lead actors – Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens. And both actors gave superb performances. Aamir Khan is considered one of India’s biggest stars. He is at times compared to George Clooney. Well, he deserves the comparison. Not only is he a handsome man, but he also possesses a dynamic screen presence and is a first-rate actor. And he did an excellent job of developing Mangal Pandey’s character from the loyal sepoy who seemed to be satisfied with his life, to the embittered rebel whose actions instigated a major uprising. Khan conveyed this development with great skill and very expressive eyes. Toby Stephens was equally impressive as the British East India officer, Captain William Gordon. One might find his character a little hard to digest, considering that he is portrayed as being very sympathetic to the Indian populace and their culture (save for the sati ritual) with hardly any personal flaws. Fortunately, Stephens is skillful enough as an actor to rise above such one-dimensional characterization and portray Gordon as an emotionally well-rounded individual.

”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” is not perfect. It has its flaws, which include some hammy acting and questionable historic accuracy. But its virtues – an interesting and in-depth study of a man who made such an impact upon both Indian and British history; superb acting – especially by the two leads Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens; and a rich production made it a movie worth watching. It is rare for a Westerner to view or read a story relating to the Sepoy Rebellion from the Indian point-of-view. I am aware that other movies, novels and history books have focused on the topic from a non-British POV. But ”MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING” was my first experience with this point-of-view and I believe that director Ketan Mehta and screenwriter Farrukh Dhondy did a pretty solid job.

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Flashman

“FLASHMAN” (1969) Book Review

Forty-one years ago, an old literary character was re-introduced to many readers, thanks to a former Scottish journalist named George MacDonald Fraser. The author took a character from a famous Victorian novel and created a series of novels that placed said character in a series of historical events throughout the middle and second half of the 19th century.

The 1857 novel, “TOM BROWN’S SCHOOLDAYS”, told the story of a young English boy named Tom Brown and his experiences at the famous school, Rugby, during the 1830s. One of Tom’s travails focused on his abuse at the hands of an older student – a bully – named Flashman. However, Flashman got drunk at a local tavern and in the following morning was expelled by Rugby’s famous headmaster, Dr. Thomas Arnold. Fraser took the Flashman character, gave him a first name – Harry – and continued his story following the expulsion from Rugby in the 1969 novel, “FLASHMAN”.

The beginning of the novel saw the seventeen year-old Harry Flashman trying to find a new profession following his expulsion from Rugby. Due to his father’s wealth and his maternal Uncle Bindley Paget’s social connections, Flashman found a position as a junior officer in one of Britain’s most elite Army regiments, the 11th Hussars aka the Cherrypickers. And thanks to his talent for toadying and projecting a sense of style (inherited from his aristocratic late mother), Flashman managed to win the support and favor of the regimental commander, the haughty James Thomas Brudenell, 7th Earl of Cardigan. Unfortunately, Flashman’s ideal life as a leisurely Army officer came to an end. His involvement with the French mistress of a fellow officer kicked off a series of events that led to Flashman being swept into the First Anglo-Afghan War (1839-1842). One of those events included seducing one Elspeth Morrison, the sixteen year-old daughter of a wealthy Scottish merchant. After being forced to marry her by her relations, Flashman was kicked out of the 11th Hussars and sent to India by Lord Cardigan, who regarded the marriage as a step down the social ladder for the usually favored young Army officer.

It was in Afghanistan that Flashman earned the nickname, “Bloody Lance” by taking credit for his servant’s killing of four Afghan attackers. There, he also met one Ilderim Khan, the son of a pro-British Afghan nobleman and became the latter’s lifelong friend and blood brother. This friendship would end up saving Flashman’s life during the Sepoy Rebellion in “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. Flashman also managed to earn two deadly enemies – an Afghan warlord named Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife), a dancer named Narreeman. The source of the pair’s enmity toward Flashman originated with his rape of Narreeman.

More importantly, “FLASHMAN” allowed readers to view many important events of the First Anglo-Afghan War. Not only did Flashman meet many historical figues such as Lord Cardigan, Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, but also Alexander Burnes, Akbar Khan, William Macnaghten, Thomas Arnold, and the incompetent commander of the British Army in Afghanistan, General William Elphinstone.

I must admit that my opinion of the novel has changed a great deal over the years. Originally, I held a low opinion of “FLASHMAN” for years, comparing it to the more epic-like sagas such as “FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973), “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975), “FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” (1982) and“FLASHMAN AND THE DRAGON” (1985). I still regard these four novels in a higher regard than“FLASHMAN”. But I must admit that perhaps I had been a little unfair in my regard for the 1969 novel. It is actually a solid adventure story filled with historical interest, witty humor, sharp action and excellent pacing. Some fans of The Flashman Papers have expressed disgust or disenchantment with the Harry Flashman character portrayed in this novel. I suspect that a great deal of these negative opinions may have stemmed from Flashman’s rape of Narreeman. And I understand. However, many of these fans also complained about the young British officer’s crass style and manner – especially toward his father’s mistress, Judy. One has to remember that Harry Flashman aged from 17 to 20 years old in this story. He did convey some semblance of the style, common sense and instinct that would fool many people and serve him for years. But as an adolescent on the threshold of twenty, he had yet to learn some of the hard facts of life. As for his rough treatment and negative opinion of Judy, I suspect that his ego suffered a massive blow, when she rejected him, following a one-time bout under the sheets. A blow that he obviously had failed to recover from after six decades, while “writing” his memoirs.

“FLASHMAN” also had its share of interesting fictional characters. I have already mentioned the villainous Gul Shah and his mistress (later wife) Narreeman. I have also mentioned the young Afghan who became a close friend of Flashy’s, Ilderim Khan. But he had an even larger role in “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. And as I had mentioned, Elspeth also appeared in the novel. However, her presence in the novel would not be truly felt, until the last chapter that featured Harry’s homecoming. Fraser barely explored her personality in the novel, but he did allow a peek into her promiscuous and self-absorbed nature in that last chapter. One particular character, Sergeant Hudson, proved to be a reliable source of defense for Flashman during the retreat from Kabul. During this event, Flashman experienced one of the most bizarre moments of his life, while being rejected by the young wife of an Army officer named Mrs. Betty Parker, whom he was trying to seduce:

“‘What the devil’ says I. ‘What’s the matter?’

‘Oh, you brute!’ she hissed – for she had the sense to keep her voice down – ‘you filthy, beastly brute! Get out of my tent at once! At once, d’you her?’

I could make nothing of this, and said so. ‘What have I done? I was only being friendly. What are you acting so damned missish for?’

‘Oh base!’ says she. ‘You . . . you . . .’

‘Oh, come now,’ says I. ‘You’re in very high ropes, to be sure. You weren’t so proper when I squeezed you the other night.’

‘Squeezed me?’ says she, as though I had uttered some unmentionable word.

‘Aye, squeezed. Like this.’ And I reached over and, with a quick fumble in the dark, caught one of her breasts. To my amazement, she didn’t seem to mind.

‘Oh, that!’ she says. ‘What an evil creature you are! You know that is nothing; all gentlemen do that, in affection. But you, you monstrous beast, presume on my friendship to try to . . . Oh, oh, I could die of shame!’

If I had not heard her I shouldn’t have believed it. God knows I have learned enough since of the inadequacies of education given to young Englishwomen, but this was incredible.”

This last encounter with Mrs. Betty Parker struck me as a hilarious metaphor for the blindingly naïve morality that had began to encroach early Victorian society.

“FLASHMAN” also provided some interesting historical vignettes from the First Anglo-Afghan War. And young Flashman managed to witness or participate in a good number of them. The novel allowed him to be the sole surviving British witness to the murder of political officer, Sir Alexander Burnes and his younger brother, Charles. He also witnessed the murder of another political officer named Sir William Macnaghten, along with Last Stand at Gandamak and the Siege of Jalalabad. But Fraser’s pièce de résistance in“FLASHMAN” proved to be the disasterous Kabul retreat in which the British contingent under General Elphinstone were forced to march from Afghanistan to India in cold weather and dire circumstances:

“From other accounts of that frightful march that I have read – mostly Mackenzie’s and Lawrence’s and Lady Sale’s – I can fit a few of my recollections into their chronicle, but in the main it is just a terrible, bloody nightmare even now, more than sixty years after. Ice and blood and groans and death and despair, and the shrieks of dying men and women and the howling of the Ghazis and Gilzais. They rushed and struck, and rushed and struck again, mostly at the camp-followers, until it seemed there was a slashed brown body every yard of the way. The only place of safety was in the heart of Shelton’s main body, where the sepoys still kept some sort of order; I suggested to Elphy when we set off that I and my lancers should ride guard on the womenfolk, and he agreed at once. It was a wise move on my part, for the attacks on the flanks were now so frequent that the work we had been doing yesterday was become fatally dangerous. Mackenzie’s jezzailchis were cut to ribbons stemming the sorties.”

Reading the above passage made me wonder about the wisdom of the current Western presence in Afghanistan. And there is nothing like a British military disaster to bring out the best of Fraser’s writing skulls. It proved to be the first of such passages in novels like “FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” and“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”.

In the end, Fraser did a solid job in initiating what would proved to be The Flashman Papers in his first novel, “FLASHMAN”. Granted, the novel’s first part set in England struck me as slightly rushed. And the Harry Flashman character seemed a bit crude in compare to his characterizations in the novels that followed. Like many other readers, I found his rape of the Narreeman character hard to stomach. But Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating early Victorian Britain, British India, Afghanistan and the First Anglo-Afghan War. In short, “FLASHMAN” turned out to be a solid start to an excellent series of historical novels.

“DR. NO” (1962) Review

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“DR. NO” (1962) Review

This 1962 movie marked the cinematic debut of EON Production’s James Bond franchise, created by Cubby Broccoli and Harry Saltzman. Sean Connery also made his debut in this film as the MI-6 agent, James Bond. Although many critics and fans consider film as one of the more impressive in the franchise, I honestly cannot say that I share their opinion.

Based on Ian Fleming’s 1958 novel, “DR. NO” begins with the murder of MI-6 agent Strangeways and his secretary by a trio of assassins in Jamaica. Fellow MI-6 agent James Bond is ordered by his superior, “M”, to investigate the agent’s death and eventually stumbles upon a plot by Dr. Julius No, an agent of the criminal organization SPECTRE, to disrupt the U.S. space program for the Chinese Republic.

As I had stated earlier, I have never considered “DR. NO” as one of the more impressive entries of the Bond franchise. In fact, it is one of my least favorite Bond movies of all time. The main problem I had with “DR. NO” was the schizophrenic script written by Richard Maibaum, Johanna Harwood, and Berkely Mather that featured an unbalanced mixture of genres. I suppose they had no choice. After all, they simply wrote a close adaptation of Fleming’s novel. And Fleming never struck me as the world’s greatest novelist. The story began as a mystery thriller, as Bond tried to figure out who was behind Strangeways’ death. Unfortunately, the movie transformed into a fantasy-style adventure when Bond and one of his CIA contacts, Quarrel made their way to Dr. No’s Crab Key Island in order to disrupt the villain’s plot. A part of me wish that Young and the screenwriters had made changes in Fleming’s story.

The stilted dialogue peppered throughout the movie only made matters even worse for me. The worst line came out of the mouth of former beauty pageant winner, Marguerite LeWars, who portrayed a photographer working for SPECTRE. It is so bad that I will not even repeat it. Even Connery was guilty of spewing some wooden dialogue. In fact, his performance seemed as uneven as the movie’s story and production style. In many scenes, he seemed to be the epitome of the smooth British agent. And in other scenes – especially with Jack Lord, who was the first actor to portray CIA agent Felix Leiter – he came off as gauche and wooden. Mr. Lord, on the other hand, gave a consistently polished and performance as the sardonic Agent Leiter. Much has been made of Ursula Andress’ performance as “Bond Girl No.1” Honey Ryder – especially her famous first appearance when her character emerges upon a beach. Frankly, I have never been able to sense the magic of that moment. Nor did I find Andress’ presence in the movie particularly impressive. Not only was her character irrelevant to the story, she did not really aid Bond’s attempts to defeat Dr. No.

I first became a fan of Joseph Wiseman ever since I noticed his sly and subtle performance as a 1960s gangster in the Michael Mann TV series, “CRIME STORY”. But I was not that impressed by his Dr. Julius No, a character that simply bored me to tears. I might as well say the same about Anthony Dawson’s performance as SPECTRE agent, Professor Dent. Many fans have been waxing lyrical over a scene featuring his death at Bond’s hand. Personally, I found Bond’s actions unprofessional. The MI-6 could have easily drugged the SPECTRE agent, remove any inconvenient cyanide pills and have the authorities “question” him. Instead, Bond killed him in cold blood . . . and lost any chance to get more information from Dent. Moron. “DR. NO” can boast first-class performances by American-born John Kitzmiller as the exuberant Jamaican CIA contact, Quarrel. And Zena Marshall gave a solid, yet subtle performance as Professor Dent’s Eurasian secretary and SPECTRE agent, Miss Taro. It is only too bad that the producers and Terence Young could not find genuine Eurasians for both the Dr. No and Miss Taro roles. But I guess that would not have been possible in 1962.

“DR. NO” featured some beautiful photography of Jamaica from cinematographer Ted Moore. Monty Norman not only provided a first-rate musical score, he also delivered the original “James Bond” theme. However, some of the movie’s flaws – namely the uneven script and direction by Terence Young, along with the wooden dialogue, makes “DR. NO” vastly overrated in my eyes. But what can I expect from a movie that consistently threatens to put me to sleep two-thirds into the story?