Wednesday, July 1, 2015

WAR SHORT STORY READALONG: "Chasing the Major-General"

Chasing the Major-General” is a short story by the famous artist Frederic Remington.  Remington is the artist most associated with the West of the Indian Wars.  His paintings of cowboys, Indians, and the cavalry helped establish our image of the Old West.  Most people do not know that he also fashioned himself a writer.  This particular short story was for Harper’s Weekly.  Remington’s presence was requested by Maj. Gen. Nelson Miles.  Miles was one of the more well-known Indian fighting generals.  He had made a name for himself in the Nez Perce (Chief Joseph) campaign and the capture of Geronimo.  The story is set in a mission by Miles to escort an Indian commission to negotiate with the Northern Cheyennes.  Miles had a dream of becoming President and saw Remington as a means to that end.  He had to put up with Remington’s excessive drinking which ironically held up the commission on occasion, but the flattering story was worth the trouble. 

                The story is about Remington trying to keep up with the gung-ho general.  Although not meant to be comical, the image of the portly general galloping ahead of his column is the big take-away from the story.  Miles is the model of a general who leads from in front – far in front.  The weird thing is that Miles was not conducting a campaign to catch and defeat hostile Indians.  So what was the hurry?  Personality is the key.  Speaking of which, we get a good impression of Remington from the story.  He was known as “The Soldier’s Artist” because he idolized the cavalry and lionized them in his paintings and writings.  (He later would justify Wounded Knee as the soldiers defending themselves.)  He has some very interesting opinions that come through in the story.

                Remington declares that there are two types of cavalry generals in the West – wagon-men and horse-men.  Wagon-men rely on wagons for logistics and horse-men travel more quickly by packing supplies on horse-back.  Or rather mule-back.  Miles was a horse-man.  Obviously Miles also believed in a general riding on horse and setting the standard for his men.  This could be dangerous especially at night.  One unlucky step into a gopher hole or one unseen ravine could result in death.  Riding like a maniac brings questions as to Miles fitness to lead a nation, but apparently Remington and Miles felt the story bolstered his chances.  One also wonders about the attitude of Miles toward the horses.  Remington describes the horses as inferior.  He criticizes the military for paying $125 for $60 horses.  It’s clear that the profligacy of the Pentagon is not new.  And these horses were expected to gallop sixty miles in a day!  And in the case of Remington, carry a 215 pound artist attempting to ride in the “European style” with legs tucked to his chest.  He humorously describes trying to ignore the catty comments of the Westerners.  Remington does seem to know horses.  He offers the interesting opinion that “while you can teach a horse anything, you cannot unteach him.” 
when you do a self-portrait,
you can trim some pounds

                Remington also has some interesting things to say about the Army.  He is scathing in his comments about the reason for the poor support from Washington.  His theory is that by the time a soldier reaches the higher ranks and go off to the capital, they feel they have earned the right to slack off.  This results in the leadership of the Army being conservative and cheap.  He specifically had some opinions on the Battle of Little Big Horn when they visited the site.  Not surprisingly, Remington blamed the defeat on the lack of initiative of Reno and Benteen.  He opines that the role of these subordinates should have been to march to the sounds of the guns.  When in doubt, go in and fight until you drop.  Best to end up a “dead lion” than a live survivor.  He has insights on the officers as well.  He describes them as being cogs in the machine except when their individuality comes out in battle and before breakfast.

                The piece is well-written.  I did not expect Remington to be competent as a writer.  I was very familiar with his paintings as I am a big fan, but I was only vaguely familiar with his literary endeavors.  He has a booze-flavored style to his writing.  I did not find about his fondness for the bottle until after I read the story, but it makes sense.  The story has a sense of humor typical of a genteel toper.  He doesn’t mind poking fun at himself.  The story is excellent at portraying the personalities of two famous men.   Although nothing particularly exciting happens, the story is charming and worth reading. 

GRADE  =  B-

Next month's story:  The Colonel's Ideas

Sunday, June 28, 2015

SHOULD I READ IT? Angel’s Wing (1993)

                “L’Instinct de L’Ange” is a French film that had a remarkable run in my recent tournament to determine the best film about dogfighting.   It is set on the Western Front in the early years of the war.  It is not your run of the mill air combat movie and has a unique central character. 

                Henri (Lambert Wilson) is a rich boy who has tuberculosis.  His health condition prevents him from volunteering when France goes to war with Germany.  Refusing to give up on his dream to serve his country, he gets flying lessons in anticipation of eventually passing an induction physical.  He learns to fly in a rickety monoplane and when the hole in his lungs closes, he is allowed to join the French air corps.  On arrival at his base, he is counseled by a veteran pilot named Devrines (Francois Cluzet).  He gives him practical advice like how you can tell when you are flying over the front because the German anti-aircraft shells are black and the French are white.  He also learns the best tactic is to hide high in the sun, get in the enemy’s blind spot, and then close to fifty meters to be sure to hit your target.  His initiation is a bit rough as he crashes upon landing twice which gets him put on probation.  Eventually he gets to prove himself against the daily German observation plane.  He uses his back seat machine gunner to get the kill and becomes an instant hero with the nickname “German Smasher”.  This must be early in the war.

                It turns out Henri is a born fighter pilot.  Unfortunately, as his success grows, so does the resentment from his squadron mates.  Part of it is envy and part of it is the belief that his luck is draining their stock of luck.  That’s right he is the opposite of a Jonah, to use a nautical equivalent.  Even the commander suggests he take it easy, he is putting too much stress on his mess mates!  This is not your typical fighter squadron, although it could be a typical French squadron.  He does get wounded and crashes after his thirtieth victory, but since he survives he gets no cred from his mates.  When Devrines predicts that the experience will cause him to become timid, we get a remarkable scene where he tails an observation plane and allows the machine gunner to expend all his ammunition without fighting back.  Things come to a head when his comrades start sabotaging his plane.  This results in an aerial duel between Henri and one of his comrades.
Henri is the only pilot in the French air force
who wants to shoot down Germans

                I did not like “Angel’s Wing” at first.  Wilson was a bit wooden as Henri, but he grows on you as does the character.  Henri is patriotic, but not obsessed.  He is not a glory hound like you see in a lot of dogfighting movies.  He just believes the war is about shooting down enemy planes and is perplexed (as was I) over his peers’ lackadaisical attitude toward that simple strategy.  They look forward to the reward of two days off if they shoot down one plane.  The Devrines character is intriguing as well.  He wavers between being Henri’s mentor and his critic.  The two actors dominate the film with the supporting cast making little impression.

                The strength of the movie is its unusual script and its unique take on WWI air combat.  The movie had a limited number of aircraft available, but they are vintage.  You get to see a Morane, Farman, Spad, Rumpler, and Fokker Dr. 1.  The acrobatics are outstanding.  There is no use of CGI so the movie is the opposite of “Fly Boys”.  The movie gets some nice touches in.  We see a listening post that has four giant hearing aids.  It is really neat to see Henri have to stand up in flight to change his machine gun drum.  There is not a lot of actual dogfighting and all of it is duels instead of melees.  No one shoots down a plane except Henri.  The movie could have easily been a play and that’s a compliment.

                It’s not the best dogfighting movie, but it is worth the watch.  It avoids almost all the standard clichés and is unpredictable.  Just be aware that if you watch the subtitled version, the translation sucks.


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

CRACKER? Von Richthofen and Brown (1971)

                “Von Richthofen and Brown” was another recent participant in my Best Dogfighting Movie tournament.  It did surprisingly well for a movie that is not very well known.  It was Roger Corman’s  attempt to go beyond his B-movie / cult movie reputation.  He had a much bigger budget than for films like “Bloody Mama” and Gas-s-s-s”.  It was his second war movie after the classic “The Secret Invasion”.  Unfortunately, his experience in the filming of “Von Richthofen and Brown” resulted in his directing only two more films in the next 37 years.

                The recently arrived Von Richthofen (John Phillip Law) arrives at his squadron and has a rough landing.  He then proceeds to show his mindset by rushing to take a souvenir from his first kill.  He has trophies made for each subsequent victory.  Pilot obsessed with glory – check!  Von Richthofen meets the famous Oswald Boelcke who advises him to come from out of the sun, get in close, don’t waste ammunition, and only fight if you have an advantage.  Soon the Red Baron has ten kills and is fast becoming a celebrity.  Meanwhile, Roy Brown (Don Stroud) has arrived at his RAF squadron where he makes an immediate impression by refusing to join in a toast to Von Richthofen.  He does not believe in that chivalric bull shit.  He is a modern warrior.  “I’m just a technician, I change things.  Put a plane in front of me with a man in it – I change him into a wreck and a corpse.”  He is also a cynic.  When asked “who’s next?”, he responds “we’re all next”.  Somehow Brown bullies his way to leadership and has his squadron hunt in packs with a plane as bait.  These two main characters are bound to duel.  The Knight of the Air versus the Hunter of the Sky.
Don Stroud don't give a damn about his hair

                The movie is a roller coaster ride of scenes that are either entertaining or farcical.  The entertaining ones include Von Richthofen’s  encounter with the British ace Hawker and the climactic duel with Brown.  In between we get the Red Baron crashing in no man’s land so we can get a small-scale fire fight and not one but two attacks on air fields.  This being a Roger Corman film, there is a truly ludicrous moment when Fokker shows off his new plane while a hottie caresses it and he speaks in sexual innuendo!  This is a fun movie if you are in the right mood.

                Corman made no claims to historical accuracy and it’s a good thing he didn’t.  In spite of that, there is a smidgen of accuracy to be found here.  The Red Baron did replace Boelcke, but did not contribute to his death.  He did shoot down Hawker, but not in spite of the Brit motioning that he was out of ammo.   He did collect silver cups and his combat tactics are pretty close to his philosophy.  The script inserts Herman Goring as the villainous counterpoint to Von Richthofen when actually he did not join the Flying Circus until after the Baron’s death.  At one point, Goring actually argues that it is okay to strafe nurses and even “gas them”!  On the other hand, the Brown character is almost totally fictional.  He was not in the RAF.  He was in the Royal Canadian Air Force.  Instead of being a jerk, he was a well-respected squadron commander who insisted his charges be well-trained before seeing combat.   As far as the final duel, the movie basically sticks to the official version that credits Brown with the death of the Red Baron.  Most authorities feel Von Richthofen was actually killed by a bullet from an Australian anti-aircraft gun.  It is not surprising that the movie does not show that version.
Law did some of his own flying -
just like in "Barbarella"

                It is hard to get a hold on this movie.  “Directed by Roger Corman” sends a signal that the movie should be inferior to most war movies.  However, VR&B is definitely not your typical Corman movie.  It was a labor of love for him and he went all out on it with a much larger budget than he had ever had before.  This started with the purchasing of most of the aircraft used in “The Blue Max”.  VR&B used twelve planes including replica Pfalz DIIIs,  S.E. 5s, Fokker D.VIIs, and Fokker Dr.Is.  It’s a very nice line-up for a glorified B-movie like this.  The planes do not just sit at the airfield.  The movie has a large amount of dogfighting in it – 24 minutes.  That quantity is the most of any of the sixteen movies in the dogfighting tournament.  The quality is fairly high.  There are fine acrobatics by the stunt pilots, one of whom was killed.  Stroud and Law learned the rudiments of flying and they were filmed in the back seats as though flying.  Unfortunately, although the cinematography is well done, it is repetitive.  We get a lot of pilot’s faces, guns firing, and the use of smoke trails to indicate a plane has lost the battle.

                While the film deserves an A for effort and a B for dogfighting, it is inferior in all other areas.  The acting is wooden from the B-list cast.  Law was a poor choice for Von Richthofen, but Stroud does bring charisma to his role.  Still, we are talking about Don Stroud here.  The actors are not helped by the dialogue which is stilted and pious.  They are also placed in some ridiculous scenarios like the German attack on the British airfield while they are celebrating their attack on the German air field.  It does result in numerous cool explosions (from fighter planes bereft of bombs). 

                Does it crack the 100 Best War Movies of all time?  No way, but it is a nice time waster if you don’t invest any brain cells in it.  Make sure you do not watch it to get the true story of the death of the Red Baron.


Monday, June 22, 2015

CRACKER? The Red Baron (2008)

                “The Red Baron” ("Der rote Baron") is a biopic about the most famous fighter pilot is history.  It was written and directed by Nikolai Mullerschon.  The movie was filmed in the Czech Republic, France, and Germany.  The decision was made to use English for the dialogue.  It was very expensive, but was a terrible flop at the box office.  Apparently German audiences were not interested in a movie that glorified a war hero, even if he fought in the less evil of the world wars.

                The movie opens with the tired trope of the boy seeing a plane and dreaming of flying.  Ten years later that boy is now a pilot in Northern France in 1916.  Lt. Manfred von Richthofen (Mathias Schwieghofer) drops a wreath honoring a fallen foe with amazing accuracy into the grave itself.  The Red Baron should have been a bombardier!  The first dogfight comes only five minutes into the movie.  The Red Baron shoots down an S.E. 5 and then goes to the crash site where he helps get medical care for the downed pilot Roy Brown (Joseph Fiennes).  They both meet a comely nurse named Kate (Lena Headey).  Love triangle alert!
                Every hero needs a villain and the Red Baron gets his in a British ace named Hawker.  The torch is passed when Richthofen shoots down Hawker.  This is one factor in the Red Baron being awarded Le Pour L’Merite (“ the Blue Max”) and command of the famous Flying Circus.  Higher command, including the Kaiser, wants to make Richthofen into a celebrity for morale purposes.  He is uncomfortable with this and his pacifist beliefs do not jibe with his superiors’ win at all costs attitude.

  His squadron is a small unit featuring a variety of characters including his brother Lothar.  Lothar is younger and more aggressive than Manfred.  They disagree on tactics and philosophy.  Manfred counsels his men to target the enemy planes, not the pilots. One of his men is the famous Werner Voss (Til Schweiger) who acts as a cynical counterpoint to the Red Barons chivalric nature.  He is also something of a friendly competitor.  Voss is a fascinating character, but he does not get the screen time of Kate and Brown.  They keep showing up.  Richthofen shoots Brown down (again) and they meet in no man’s land for some manly bonding.  It’s Brown’s turn next time and Manfred ends up in the hospital where he is able to renew his tense relationship with the snippy Kate.  In real life these two would never get together, but this is a movie so …  Will he choose her and a promotion to head of the Imperial German Air Service over continuing to lead his men into battle?  Which choice is most likely to lead to a climactic duel with Brown?
Von Richthofen and Brown - the revisionist version
The obvious question is how accurate the film is.  The answer is not much.  You don’t have to know much about von Richthofen to guess that large parts of it are bull shit.  It begins immediately with the young baron seeing a monoplane before they would have existed in Germany.  The real Red Baron may have dreamed of flying, but when he entered the military he volunteered for the cavalry.  He only switched to the air service after his unit was dismounted and given boring tasks.  Before he ended up in Northern France to start his rise to fame, he was a back-seater on an observation plane on the Eastern Front.   A chance encounter with the famous ace Oswald Boelcke got him into fighter training.  The movie’s early lead-up to his command of Jagdstaffel 2 is fairly accurate.  He did shoot down Hawker, win the Blue Max, and get command of the squadron after Boelcke’s death.  He did have his plane painted red, but the movie’s implication that he did it to scare the enemy seems farfetched.  Manfred does suffer a bad head wound and undoubtedly did meet at least one nurse during his convalescence, but there was no romance with a nurse named Kate.  Needless to say he also did not have an ongoing bromance with Roy Brown.  They only met once and it was very briefly.  That one brief encounter was the day the Baron died.  Boringly the movie decides to do that famous encounter off camera.  The final scene implies the legend that Brown shot down Richthofen.  For a movie that showed no compunction in violating the truth, it is puzzling why they did not recreate the refuted, but official version of the death.  Most experts feel that the incident did involve Brown coming to the rescue of a friend, but his stay on the Red Baron’s tail was brief and very unlikely to have resulted in the single bullet that killed Manfred.  Most likely the .303 bullet came from an anti-aircraft gun.  How boring!

The biggest faux pas of the movie is the way the Red Baron’s character and philosophy are depicted.  The movie gets this almost completely wrong.  Although he was a cautious pilot, he was not cynical about the war and it is very doubtful that he mouthed off to his superiors.  He also did not avoid targeting enemy pilots.  Quite the contrary, he urged his men to aim at the pilot.  The real Red Baron was primarily a hunter who was driven to accumulate victories.  (The movie conveniently leaves out his famous commissioning of silver trophies for each win.)  His cold personality is realistic, but then the movie undercuts this with the sappy romance which was totally out of character.

“The Red Baron” is competently made.  The acting is average.  Schweighofer was apparently cast mainly for his boyish good looks, not his acting chops.  Headey seems to have wandered into the movie.  There is little chemistry between the two and the romance is forced and implausible.  Of the supporting cast only Schweiger makes an impression as Voss.  He has the charisma Schweighofer lacks.  Fiennes participation feels like they decided they needed a name actor.  He seems bored with the role.  Perhaps he was unmotivated due to the shameful shoehorning of his character into the script.  It is just one of many unrealistic elements in the film.
"Don't fret, Kate.  Few women can compete
with my beauty."

The action is the only thing to recommend the movie for war movie fans.  The CGI is acceptable and better than in “Flyboys”.  The cinematographer sticks to the usual frontal cockpit shots intercut with machine guns firing.  There are eight dogfighting scenes and there is some attempt to have some variety.  This can result in some silliness like a cool, but ridiculous night dogfight.  One nice result from the campy multi-coloring of the Flying Circus planes is this is one dogfighting film where you can follow the various characters.  The movie does not avoid the clichés common in this subgenre.  The young boy sees a plane and dreams, the villainous foe,  the hero loses his best friend(s) and becomes increasingly disillusioned, the air field is attacked, romance with a local girl but bros before hos, missing lucky charm = death, WWI pilots live in a chateau.  And we get the trip to the trenches to remind us how dirty war actually is.
Actual gun camera footage from WWI

How this movie was green-lighted is perplexing.  In an age where anti-heroes are de rigueur, “The Red Baron” looks like it should be playing on a double bill with “To Hell and Back”.  But then again, portraying von Richthofen realistically as a jerk probably would have been just as box office blah.  What the Hell, just watch it because it’s pretty entertaining.  Your girlfriend will enjoy it and you can feel superior as you snort at the silliness.