Wednesday, December 6, 2017


2.  What movie is this quote from?  "The thing that's always worried me about being one of the few is the way we keep on getting fewer."

3.  What movie is this?   It was released in 1944 and is a black and white classic directed by Preston Sturges.  It is considered by many to be his best movie.  He was nominated for the Oscar for Best Screenplay.  Fans of Sturges will recognize several familiar faces from his “stock company” including William Demarest who made ten movies with Sturges.  The movie came out a year after another Sturges home front satire, “The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek” (which also starred Demarest and Bracken).

Sunday, December 3, 2017

WAR ROMANCE: In Love and War (1996)

            “In Love and War” is the true story of Ernest Hemingway and his romance with a nurse in WWI Italy.  The movie is based on the book “Hemingway in Love and War” by Henry Villard and James Nagel.  Villard was in the hospital with Hemingway and is a character in the movie.  The film covers a relationship that would strongly affect his personality and writing.  He wrote ten short stories with references to his romance with Agnes von Kurowsky and she is a character in his famous novel “A Farewell to Arms”.  The movie was directed by Richard Attenborough. Sandra Bullock worked for a paltry $11 million.  That apparently left little for the rest of the cast.

            The movie is set in Italy on the war front with Austria from July, 1918 until Hemingway’s return to America.  A title card tells us that President Wilson sent the American Red Cross to Europe.  One volunteer was Ernie Hemingway who was a newspaper reporter at the time.  But first we are introduced to a nurse named Agnes.  The head nurse tells her “no fraternization allowed”.  Do you think that rule might come up?  A brief taste of combat depicts some graphic wounds to set up the hospital scenes.  Agnes meets a cocky American named Ernie.  He runs off to the front to get wounded so he can see her again.  Mission accomplished.  Agnes is seven years older than Ernie, but he is persistent.  The usual “he knows she’s in love with him before she does” trope is used.  Also typical of the genre is the love triangle complicating matters.  Actually, in this case it’s a quadrangle.  Ernie’s buddy Henry (Mackenzie Astin) is interested in Agnes in a competitive sort of way and the Italian doctor who agrees to avert amputation takes a shine to her as well.  Even though this is not a romantic comedy, it still insists on the break-up scene.  Have no fear – Ernie is persistent.  Queue the romantic music swelling.  Watch for Sandy’s butt.  Ernie returns home assured that Agnes will be joining him for wedded bliss.  Keep in mind that this is a romance, not a romantic comedy.

            “In Love and War” is about Ernest Hemingway, but it is not written by him.  I’m not sure he would have been impressed with it.  The dialogue is decidedly unHemingwayesque.  It is an average movie and if it was not something of a history lesson about a great writer, it would not be worth the watch.  The production values are those of a made-for-TV movie and the acting is mediocre.  O’Donnell is amateurish, but Bullocks is fine as the jaded nurse.  She is certainly not her usual bubbly screen persona.  She does seem uncomfortable playing the older woman.  There is little chemistry between the leads.

            The movie is not really a war movie.  I would classify it as a romance set in a war.  There is a very brief combat scene and some coverage of military medicine.  Some scenes in the MASH unit resemble the famous comedy without the laughs.  The hospital scenes are stock and include the amputee that takes his own life.

            SPOILER ALERT:  Ernest Hemingway did volunteer for the ambulance corps from his journalism job.  He was swayed by patriotic pleas.  He did get sent to Italy and was wounded early on when he was visiting the front line.  The wound was actually from shrapnel from a mortar.  He did meet Henry Villard and Agnes von Kurowsky in the hospital.  Villard was not a romantic rival and in fact was unaware of the heat.   A romance did develop and marriage was planned when they were reunited in America, according to Hemingway.  Von Kurowsky insisted later that it was a flirtation and never consummated.  Agnes wrote to Hemingway informing him that he was being jilted for an Italian doctor.  That relationship fell through and Agnes returned to the United States, but she and Ernie never met again.  Ernie never forgot her as she influenced his writing career (Catherine Barkley in “A Farewell to Arms” is based on her)  and his personal life.  Hemingway married four times and abandoned each wife before they could abandon him.  Or so psychologists analyze it.

GRADE  =  C-


Tuesday, November 28, 2017

CRACKER? 1939 Battle of Westerplatte (2013)

       “1939 Battle of Westerplatte” is a Polish-Lithuanian movie written and directed by Pawel Chochlew.  It was originally titled “Tajemnica Westerplatte”.  The movie chronicles the “Polish Thermopylae”.  This was the heroic defense on the Westerplatte peninsula in the harbor of Danzig at the start of WWII. 

                The movie opens just prior to the German invasion of Poland.  The Polish commander on the peninsula is a Maj. Sucharski (Michal Zebrowski).  He  is informed that he will have to hold out for twelve hours instead of six.  “This is a fight for honor.”  He is upset because he has only 200 men.  The clock starts ticking when a shell hits his headquarters. The initial German assault is repulsed with excellent explosive effects and graphic wounds, but the combat is brief.  The next seven days are a series of assaults followed by lulls in the fighting.  The Germans bring in CGI Stukas, an armored train, and flamethrowers, but the defenders continue to hold out.  The stress is having an effect on the Poles, but especially on Sucharski.  He is suffering from combat fatigue which looks a lot like cowardice.  On the third day, he wants to surrender.  This leads to command dysfunction as his second in command Capt. Dabrowski (Robert Zoledziewski) wants to hold out.
                “1939 Battle of Westerplatte” was controversial when it was released.  Some Polish patriots were upset with the less than flattering portrayal of the defenders, especially Sucharski.  The fact that the word tajemnica means “secret” implied that it was a revisionist view of the battle.  There is some justification for this viewpoint.  The Battle of Westerplatte  was technically the defense of the Military Transit Depot on Westerplatte peninsula.  The defense was centered on the fortified barracks as depicted in the film.  The battle opened with bombardment by the battleship Schleswig-Holstein.  This was followed by an assault by elite German forces which walked into an ambush.  A Polish soldier that was killed was the first death in WWII.  The Poles used  howitzers and mortars to repulse the attack.  The second attempt was met by felled trees, barbed wire, and heavy fire.  This and a third attack were also thrown back.  The Poles were forced to withdraw to a smaller perimeter centering on the barracks, but they continued to hold out against renewed forays and intense artillery and Stuka bombardments.  An attempt to set the bridge connecting the peninsula to the mainland failed when the fire from the train set the woods afire and allowed the defenders to wreak havoc.  By this time, Sucharski was urging surrender, but Dabrowski took temporary command to prevent this.  However, Sucharski got his way on the Sept. 7.  Only 14 Poles died in the battle so it was not exactly Thermopylae or the Alamo.  Sucharski came out of the battle as the most decorated hero and the defense was an inspiration to the Polish nation.  The movie tarnishes Sucharski’s reputation, but not really the rest of the men.  If anything, the Germans come off much worse.  These are hardly elite soldiers.  They are depicted as cowardly and incompetent.  Since the Poles are far from stalwart warriors, it is hard to see why it takes the Germans a full week to defeat them.

                The logical movie to compare this movie to is “The Brest Fortress” which covers a similar Alamo-type defense by Soviet troops in the early days of Operation Barbarossa.  “1939 Battle of Westerplatte” does not come off well in this comparison.  It is poorly acted.  The dialogue is stilted and there is too much of it.  At one point, Sucharski actually tells one of the men “You won’t die – that’s an order.”  There is plenty of time for talking because there is a shortage of combat throughout the movie.  There is a lot of fizzle to the events.  You expect kick-ass moments, but you get long stretches of boring.  This is disappointing because the initial combat is fairly well staged.  Classic case of bait and switch.  The lack of combat leads you to believe that there is no good reason for Sucharski to surrender.  This is a disservice to the men who held out against incredible odds for a full week.  One thing you can say, the movie is not overly patriotic.

                The only positive thing I can say about the movie is it clued me in on an event in WWII that I was not familiar with.  I was already familiar with the Alamo and as an American I think I would be upset if a new movie came out depicting Davy Crockett as suffering from shell shock and wanting to surrender early in the siege.  For this reason I have to side with the historical critics of the movie.

GRADE  =  D-

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Wonder Woman (2017)

                It took me a while to be convinced that “Wonder Woman” is a war movie, but I finally went to see it along with the masses.  This was a chore since I am not a big fan of superhero movies and I did not watch the old “Wonder Woman” series or read the comics.  However, my wife and best friends dragged me along and I might as well get a review out of it.  Normally I take notes during the movie, but this time I just sat and enjoyed the experience.  Also, normally I do a lot of research on the movie before writing my review, but this time I am going to go just on my gut feelings.  Since I am not immersed in the DC Universe, I will probably make some assumptions that will have fans foaming at the mouth.  I’ll just have to live with that.  Spoiler alert:  the review will cover the whole plot, so if you are one of the few who have not seen the movie, proceed at your own risk.

                I teach about Greek mythology and yet I had yet to encounter the movie’s version. According to the film, Zeus created mankind and was protective of humans.  He created the Amazons to watch over them.  Ares was determined to rid Earth of humans which resulted in a battle with the other gods of Mt. Olympus. Zeus was killed, but before he died he left the Amazons with a sword called “Godkiller” that could finish off the wounded Ares.  Ares was the only god to survive.  This is obviously the comic book version of Greek mythology.  I’ve got my work cut out for me in my Western Civilization class next fall because virtually all this is bull shit.  Zeus did not create man (Prometheus did) and in fact was not happy about mankind ruining the earthly paradise he had created.  There was no battle between the Olympians, plus the gods are immortal so they cannot be killed.  The Amazons were a legendary race of warrior women who were foes of the Greeks.  They were noted for their archery skills only.  Virtually every reference to them has them losing (to Theseus and Heracles) or being on the losing side (the Trojan War).  Nowhere are they described as protectors. 

                After the godly battle, the movie has the Amazons living on an isolated island that is cut off from the outside world.  So much for protecting mankind and keeping the peace.  They constantly train - for what?  They are great archers, but equally adept at swordplay and martial arts.  They are all equivalent to Hit-Girl in “Kick-Ass”.  One of the Amazons is a girl – Princess Diana (Gal Gadot).  She alone ages (up until her twenties when the aging process stops).  Her mother Queen Hippolyta wants to shield her from her destiny like every other superhero parent, but destiny comes calling in the form of a flyboy/spy (double the sex appeal) named Steve Trevor (Chris Pine).  Trevor somehow penetrates the island’s forcefield (the first to do so in 3,000 years or so) in a WWI monoplane (not a biplane in 1918?).  His plane is being chased by a German cruiser (that’s one fast warship!) and a landing party provokes the Amazons into using their 3,000 year-old training to kick some ass.  Not that modern bullets don’t cause some losses, mind you. 

                It turns out that Steve has purloined the recipe for a new German super gas that could change the course of the war.  He needs to get the notes to the good guys pronto.  He reveals his story due to the fact that he was ensnared by the Lasso of Hestia which besides being a lasso/whip, has the power to bring out the truth.  Once Diana hears about “the war to end all wars”, she deduces this must be the work of Ares.  It seems that in carrying out their mission to protect mankind and preserve peace, the Amazons were clueless about great hits like the Hundred Years War and the American Civil War.  Not to mention all the other wars.  Diana decides to take the “Godkiller” and hunt down Ares. Plus after having seen Steve naked, she will go where the penises are.   Diana and Steve sail to London, although they have no sailing ability or navigational aids.  Insert fish out of water scenes when they get to London.  Add comic relief from Steve’s secretary.

                They arrive right at the tail end of WWI.  Politicians are negotiating the armistice.  Seems like a classic case of too little too late, except that an evil German general named Ludendorff (based on the boringly nonevil actual German commander) is working with a female chemist (known to her comic book writing friends as Doctor Poison).  She got her face mask from “Phantom of the Opera R Us”.  She is developing a type of gas that will melt gas masks.  This will force the Allied Powers to give up.  Steve reunites his crack team of agents.  Sameer is master of disguises who will be given no opportunity to show it, Charlie is a sniper who has PTSD and can’t take the shot but will work through it with no drama, and Chief is a Native American who somehow is living on the Western Front.  The unit is as heterogeneous as you can get.  And capable of accomplishing the impossible.  The impossible being crossing enemy lines and killing Ludendorff/Ares and destroying the gas.  Luckily, they are aided by a too-good-to-be-true politician named Sir Patrick Morgan (David Thewlis). 

                The chief uses his tracking skills (and his ears and nose) to find the front line.  But there is a little old thing called No Man’s Land standing in the way.  When Diana finds out there is a village of humans being bullied by the Boche, she charges into the kill zone by herself.  Deathcheatingly, she has a magic shield and the German machine guns fire only at it.  For the single bullets, she has arm bracelets and the incredible reflexes that come with gods.  Her ballsiness inspires her comrades to join her and even though they are not superheroes, they have the powers to not be killed due to the script needing them around.  The village of Veld is liberated as Diana proves that although it is nice to have the shield and arm bracelets, she could not be killed even if a house fell on her.  And her hair is immune to debris.  The citizens of Veld celebrate their liberation at a party hosted by the one undamaged building in the town.  The café’s windows were apparently made of bomb proof glass.  That night Diana and Steve get intimate so in case anything happens to him, it will be very poignant.

                Chief leads them to a soiree attended by all the German bigwigs, including Ludendorff.  Steve infiltrates wearing a starched German uniform he got from a costume shop, Shameer shows off his mastery of disguises by wearing a hat, and Diana steals a ball gown with a special bra for holding a sword.  She walks into the ball in a stunning blue number that distracts everyone from the sword clearly protruding above her bra strap.  She has a very erect posture and if a dance partner had dipped her, he would have been castrated.  Nothing happens because the room is too small for an epic superhero set piece.  We’ll need an airfield for that.

                At said air field, Ludendorff is planning on using a bomber to drop the gas on London.  He figures that instead of demanding revenge, the British people will cave in to German demands.  He does not know the British very well.  Diana has her duel with Ludendorff and she wins suspiciously easily.  She kills the god Ares with “Godkiller”, but the war continues. What the hey?!  Surprise, Ares is Morgan.  Here comes the main event.  It is superhero versus supervillain epic.  How original!  That woman can take a Buffyesque pounding.  Midway through the fight, Ares sheds his twittish David Thewlis look for The Mountain in “Game of Thrones” and it is now really on.  He destroys “Godkiller” but can’t help but blab that Diana has it within herself to kill him.  But she won’t because she will join him in destroying mankind and restoring Earth to a paradise, right?  (Does this make Ares the good guy?  To animals watching the movie, yes.)  Diana goes all Firestarter on his ass and this ends all wars forever.  London is saved when Steve hijacks the bomber and sacrifices himself because Chris Pine was not available for the sequel.  Wait, Doctor Poison lives and Steve doesn’t.  War really is Hell!

                “Wonder Woman” is definitely a well-designed crowd-pleaser.  The plot grabs from the bag of superhero blocks to make its unique castle, but it’s still a castle.  What sets it apart is its female heroine.  Gal Gadot is excellent in the role.  She is sexy and athletic and humane.  And oh so naïve.  And she’s not Linda Carter.  Sorry Linda, but you had only two assets.  The rest of the cast is good.  Pine is perfect as the intrepid Trevor.  There is genuine chemistry between the leads.  I don’t recall much about the dialogue, which is a compliment.  There is some intentional humor to go along with the unintentional.  (Just remember not to laugh out loud at the silly stuff.  Most of the audience will not appreciate that.)  As far as the effects, they are the usual bludgeoning effects we have come to expect from superhero movies.  Sensory assault would be a good description.

                “Wonder Woman” is one of the better superhero movies, although not as good as it's closest equivalent - Captain America: The First Avenger.  But that is not saying much.  As you can figure, I am not a big fan of the genre.  I am a bit upset that each year we get about three war movies and thirty-three superhero movies.  I understand why this is – the public gets what it wants.  This is a sad comment on the public.  Superhero movies are anti-intellectual.  You must turn off your brain to enjoy them and check logic at the door.  Most of them, including this one, insist on plopping their fantasies into the real world.  They choose not to live in a sci-fi or fantasy world where logic can be bent.  Instead, they have creatures with special powers interacting with regular joes in a regular world.  “Wonder Woman” is a classic example of this as she leaves a fantasy world where leaping off a horse while twirling in the air and firing arrows can be believable, to go to 1918 Europe.  She carries her magic rope into the trenches of WWI.  In an act of contempt, the movie does not bother to change the name of the German commanding general.  

               If I had gotten this review out at the time of the movie's release just imagine how much box office it would have reduced.  You owe me one, Warner Brothers.


Sunday, November 19, 2017

CRACKER? Lincoln (2012)

                “Lincoln” is not a war movie, but it is a Civil War movie.  It was directed by Steven Spielberg and was under development for about ten years.  Based on the Doris Kearns Godwin book Team of Rivals, which was about Lincoln and his cabinet, Spielberg was actually working on the movie before the book came out.  The screenplay was by Tony Kirshner who spent years researching the topic.  He took some artistic license as is to be expected, but his heart was in the right place.  Spielberg’s first choice for Lincoln was Daniel Day-Lewis but he declined the role.  Liam Neeson was tabbed, but after the movie was slow getting off the ground, he dropped out claiming he was now too old.  Day-Lewis then reconsidered.  He was rewarded with the Best Actor Academy Award.  The film also won for Production Design.  It was nominated for ten other awards including Best Picture, Director, Supporting Actress (Sally Field), and Supporting Actor (Tommy Lee Jones).  “Lincoln” was a box office success and was critically acclaimed.  As a post script, one impact of the film was the final unanimous ratification of the 13th Amendment.  It seems that when Mississippi belatedly ratified it in 1995, the paperwork was not filed properly.  Prodding from two academicians caused the Mississippi Secretary of State to rectify the error in 2013.

                The movie covers the last four months of Lincoln’s life.  It concentrates on his quest to pass the 13th Amendment.  Although more famous for his Emancipation Proclamation, that Presidential edict did not actually end slavery.  It declared that the slaves in the Confederate-occupied South were free.  The 13th Amendment officially ended slavery, but it was not an easy sell to Congress.  Lincoln had to use all of his considerable political skills to get the amendment through the House of Representatives.  The film chronicles the machinations that led to the climactic vote.  Lincoln is a realpolitician who allows Secretary of State Seward (David Strathairn) to employ a trio of political operatives led by the earthy Bilbo (James Spader).  The trio prove that the “spoils system” was still alive and well in 1865.  Lincoln also allies with Republican Thaddeus Stevens (Tommy Lee Jones) who believes that blacks deserve equality along with freedom.  Not all his colleagues in the House agree with his enlightened philosophy, as the spirited debates in the chamber depict.  There is plenty of 19th Century trash-talking.  In the midst of all this political maneuvering, there is a back-stairs at the White House arc that portrays the dynamics of the Lincoln family.  The death of their son Tad weighs on Abe and Mary.   The aged look of Lincoln can be attributed to prosecuting the worst war in American History and being married to Mary.

                “Lincoln” finished #13 in box office in 2012, which was very good for a movie of its type.  It was the only movie in the top twenty that was non-fiction.  Three of the thirteen were superhero movies, two were teenage trilogy movies, and four were animated children’s movies.  “Lincoln” was the most popular adult drama and its success proves that you can make money with a movie that has a lot of talking in it.  Although I can imagine some audience members might have squirmed like Lincoln’s cabinet when he launched into one of his homespun stories.  The movie is dialogue driven and manages to be set in the Civil War and yet avoid the temptation to throw in explosions.  Kirshner’s script is entertaining in its blend of Lincoln’s brilliant wordsmanship and the political argot of the time.  Did you know they used the f-word back then?  They also used the term “fatuous nincompoop”.  That bon mot was uttered in one of the lively scenes in the House.  Jones gets the best lines as Stevens, but the rest of his distinguished colleagues make you wish C-SPAN had a Civil War archive.   Apparently, back then, they did not use the phrase “my dear friend” before they reamed them.

                The movie is almost flawless in its execution.  It is good Spielberg.  Although the start had me concerned with its lame Spielbergian recital of the “Gettysburg Address” by a white and then black soldier.  After that schmaltzy opening, the movie settles down to straightforward narrative of the events surrounding the passage of the amendment.   The narrative is extremely well-acted by a top-notch cast.  Day-Lewis richly deserved his Oscar and even shambles like Lincoln.  Fields is great (she gained twenty pounds for the role) and gets a scene where she sarcastically tears Stevens a new one.  (Sadly, this did not happen.)  Mary’s insanity is only alluded to.  Jones and Strathairn are strong and there are plenty of familiar character actors to flesh out the film.  The cinematography is showy with the appropriately dark interiors masterly lit.  There is some bravura camerawork, like a domestic scene where Lincoln can be seen in the foreground and in the background in a mirror.  Nicely done. The sets are authentic.

                As far as historical accuracy, I found varying opinions on this issue.  It depended on how nitpicky the historian wanted to be.  But, surprisingly, I also found that there is some disagreement about some of the key facts in the story.  For instance, one of the most provocative plot developments is Stevens shacking up with his black housekeeper.  This seemingly Hollywood invention is based on a well-known rumor/calumny of the time.  Some historians are convinced it was true.  I buy it.  Here is a list of some of the major “are you kidding me?” moments.

1.  Lincoln did have a recurring dream about being the captain of a ship.  The movie implies it was an analogy of the passage of the amendment, but most historians logically feel he was subconsciously associating the ship with the war effort.
2.  Lincoln did tell stories and the ones included in the movie, like the Ethan Allen story, were among his repertoire.
3.  By the time of the movie, Lincoln had culled his cabinet of naysayers, so the movie overplays their opposition.
4.  Seward did employ some shady dealers, but we don’t know whether they actually bribed Congressman.  Lincoln certainly did not meet with them.
5.  Congressmen would not have addressed each other directly in debates, but hurrah (huzzah?) for Hollywood on this one.  Also, the vote would have been by paper ballot.  Ditto.
6.  The Robert Lincoln arc is accurate.  He did insist on enlisting and Abe did get Grant to put him on his staff.  Abe would not have slapped him, even though their relationship was frosty.
7.  The peace delegation arc was accurate, but they would not have been met by black soldiers.
8.  There were blacks in the balcony for the final vote (one was Frederick Douglass’ son Charles), but they would not have entered en masse.  Mary did not attend.
9.  Tad was at a performance of “Aladdin” when his father’s shooting was announced.

                Overall, I consider the movie to be commendably accurate.  This, added to its excellent entertainment value, makes it an outstanding movie.  It is a must-see for every American.  Even if (especially if?) you are a Confederate statue defender.


Thursday, November 16, 2017


WHAT MOVIE IS THIS QUOTE FROM?  "This is the paradox of being a good soldier: To be a good soldier you must love the army, but you must be willing to kill the thing you love."

WHAT MOVIE IS THIS?   The movie is loosely based on the writer/director Samuel Fuller’s experiences with the 1st Division in WWII. The character Zab represents Fuller. The movie was released in 1980 with a substantial amount left on the cutting room floor. In 2004, the director’s cut was released almost doubling the length of the film.  The movie stars a veteran of WWII.  He served in the Marines and was wounded at Saipan.

Friday, November 10, 2017

CRACKER? Andersonville (1996)

                Ted Turner is a Civil War buff.  “Andersonville” was his third foray into the time period.  Most people forget that he produced “Ironclads” in 1991, two years before “Gettysburg”.  Like “Ironclads”, “Andersonville” was made-for-TV.  But unlike the earlier film, a lot of effort went into “Andersonville”.  Turner got John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, The Train) to direct.  Turner also opened up his check book so Frankenheimer could make the film as authentic as possible.  Frankenheimer won an Emmy for Best Direction of a Miniseries or Special.  The movie was nominated for six other Emmys.  The screenplay was loosely based on Andersonville Diary:  Life Inside the Civil War’s Most Infamous Prison by John Ransom.

                A group of Yankees is captured during the Battle of Cold Harbor in June, 1864.  They are shipped to Camp Sumter outside Andersonville, Georgia.  Their first taste (smell) of the camp includes vicious tracking dogs, dead bodies, and stockades with prisoners in them.  The camp has a fifteen-foot wall around it.  When they enter the camp, they are greeted by a seemingly empathetic character named Munn (William Sanderson).  He offers to befriend the “fresh fish” and help them survive.  Fortunately, Pvt. Josiah Day (Jarrod Emick), Sgt. McFadden (Frederic Forrest) and their mates are reunited with a former comrade named Dick (Gregory Sporleder) who clues them in on Munn’s comrades known as the “Raiders”.  The Raiders are led by a bully named Collins (Frederick Coffin).  They prey on the other prisoners. They live fairly well in their sector of the camp by stealing from the vulnerable captives.  Besides the depredations of the Raiders, the camp is a hell hole because of things like lack of food, lack of shelter, lack of clothing, inadequate medical care to deal with diseases, horrible sanitation, and inhumane guards. Do not step across the “dead line”, you won’t be handed your baseball glove and get a stay in the cooler.  To make matters worse, the camp is run by the mentally unstable Capt. Henry Wirz (Jan Triska).  Day, McFadden, and the others hook up with a group led by Sgt. Gleason (Cliff DeYoung).  Gleason’s boys are digging a tunnel and let the new guys in on the digging.  If escape does not work, they will have to deal with the Raiders sooner or later.

                For a made-for-TV movie, the amount of effort that went into the production is incredible.  The movie was filmed on location on a farm about one hundred miles from Camp Sumter.  A less than scale model of the camp was constructed.  It covered nine acres.  A panning shot reveals the painstaking effort to recreate the officers’ quarters, the stockades, the walls, the stream, and the “tents” of the captives.  The fact that it rained consistently during the sixty day shoot helped create the muddy environment that added to the horror of the story.  It was a difficult shoot for the cast and crew.  Plus the 4,000 extras that participated.  Many of them were reenactors, some of whom came from all over the country.  They lent an air of realism to the movie, although it was hard to reenact the emaciation of the prisoners.  You can’t expect reenactors to starve themselves for their hobby.  For the bigger scenes, 3,000 cardboard cutouts of men were used at a cost of $150,000.  (You can’t tell the fakes in the movie.)  Speaking of cost, several reels of film dealing with the trial were lost in transit to the studio and the trial set had to be rebuilt and the principal actors brought back in at a great expense.  If you watch the trial scene, you cannot tell the original footage from the new.

                The laudatory effort goes beyond the production.  The cast is outstanding.  Emick was making his first movie, but he had won a Tony on Broadway.  He does not take acting honors.  Those go to Forrest, Sanderson, Sporleder, and Triska.  Sanderson’s Munn and Coffin’s Collins are great villains.  Triska (a celebrated actor in Czechoslovakia) manages to create some sympathy for Wirz, a man who clearly was in over his head and lacked the personality to be humane.  Special mention goes to Jayce Bartok, who was so good as the drummer boy Billy that his role was expanded.
                David W. Rintals wrote the script and he deserves kudos.  The characters are memorable and the dialogue is fine.  The movie does not slump into melodrama.  The plot builds nicely to the battle between the Raiders and the Regulators.  The ensuing melee is provoked by the charismatic “Lumber Jim” (Peter Murnik) as he calls the victims to arms with his cry of “who’s with me?  who?”  I wanted to jump into the screen and join in.  The brawl is one of the best in cinema history and very satisfying.  The movie could have ended here, but the decision was made to tell the whole story.  Naturally, there is a denouement after the fisticuffs, but the trial does bring closure and more importantly, is based on fact.  The score is excellent and visually the film is intriguing.  Frankenheimer made good use of the Steadicam.

                The movie is not without flaws.  The characters are all good or bad, there is no in between. Heck, Dick is basically a Christ figure.  Rintals adds a visiting inspecting officer played by William H. Macy. Col. Chandler is highly upset with what he sees.   This may have been to show that not all Confederates were bad, but it does allow for a debate between Chandler and Wirz that foreshadows the war crimes trial of Wirz after the war.  The tunneling and escape are short-changed.  There are no underground scenes.  This movie is not “The Great Escape”.  There is no hospital scene, so the full bleakness of the camp is not shown.  It is a film that lacks humor, but having seen so many WWII prison camp movies that make the camp look like a summer camp for men, I can live with that.

                It is a shame that “Andersonville” is not better known.  It could not have been much better for a made-for-TV movie.  Not only is it an entertaining story that is well-acted, but it is a valuable history lesson.  Although fictionalized, you will learn a lot about the most infamous prison camp ever located in America.  I love movies that bring important, but not textbook-worthy stories to the public.  Sometimes those stories are botched and usually there is only one attempt at telling the story.  I’m talking about you “Windtalkers”.  This story was not botched.  It is definitely one of the 100 Best War Movies.

GRADE  =  A-

HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Camp Sumter was built in Feb., 1864 to handle the large number of Yankee prisoners that were being captured after paroling ended.  Gen. Grant ended the exchange of prisoners partly because it benefited the Confederate Army and the South refused to repatriate black soldiers.  (The movie has some members of the 54th Massachusetts in it.)  The camp was originally 16.5 acres, but was expanded to 26.5 soon after.  At its max, the camp held 30,000 prisoners.  That was way above capacity.  Of the 45,000 total, 13,000 died.  Most of the deaths were attributable to diseases like scurvy, diarrhea, and dysentery.  The diseases were amplified by the poor food, clothing, and shelter.  The lack of hygiene was mainly blamed on Stockade Creek which provided the water supply, but was tainted by human waste.  Thankfully, the movie only hints at the role of hygiene in the horrors of the camp.  It has been posited that membership in some type of social network was the most important factor in survival.  Loners tended to die soon.  The camp quickly divided into the Raiders and their victims.  The movie accurately depicts the Raiders and their methods.  Collins stands in for the group of “chieftains”.  Munn is based on another of their leaders.  He was not a lackey as depicted in the film, although the chieftains certainly had plenty of followers who were willing to do the dirty work.  This work included fleecing “fresh fish” and robbing others at night.  Sometimes they killed their victims.  The Regulators evolved in response to their depredations.  Matters reached a head when the Regulators went to Wirz and asked for authority to act as a police force.  Surprisingly, and to his credit, Wirz agreed.  The Regulators rounded up most of the Regulators which included a fight for control of the Regulators' relatively cushy habitat.  Wirz allowed a trial where many were sentenced to stockades, ball and chain, or running the gauntlet.  Six were given the death penalty, including Collins and Munn.  In a reversal of he movie, Collins rope broke during the hanging and he tried to escape, but was reexecuted.  Munn expressed remorse on the scaffold.  As far as the tunnel, there were a 351 documented escapes, which is only .7%  Only a few avoided death or recapture.

                Henry Wirz was the only Confederate to be executed for war crimes after the Civil War.  The movie takes a balanced approach to this controversial figure.  While he undoubtedly could have done more for the prisoners, he was in a difficult position that he did not have the moral strength to deal with.  The food problem, for instance, was not his fault.  His own men were not eating well either.  However, he could have insisted on more humane treatment of the prisoners and more discipline from his own troops.  He appears to have been clueless to the internal dynamics of the camp.  The Chandler character is based on a Dr. James Jones, who spent a day at the camp and wrote a scathing report that helped get Wirz hung after he was found guilty at his trial.    

Sunday, November 5, 2017

NOW SHOWING: Thank You for Your Service (2017)

                “Thank You for Your Service” is the newest war movie to examine PTSD.  It is based on the nonfiction book by journalist David Finkel.  Finkel’s book was a sequel to his “The Good Soldiers” in which he wrote about the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment’s deployment in Iraq in 2007-8.  The sequel deals with the readjustment of the men to life back in America.  It is telling that Hollywood decided to make a movie out of that book instead of his book about combat deployment during the Surge.  I suppose there is more drama in PTSD than in combat.  The movie was directed and written by Jason Hall.  He had written the Academy Award nominated script for “American Sniper”.  This movie is his directorial debut.

                The movie opens with the spongy “Inspired by a true story”.  A squad gets ambushed in an Iraqi city.  One of the men is shot in the head by a sniper.  Staff Sergeant Adam Schumann (Miles Teller) drops the body on his way down the stairs.  That’s got to have a lasting mental effect.  The unit is returned home not long after the incident.  Schumann’s weapon is checked in by a soldier played by the real Schumann in a cameo.  He is confronted by a war widow (Amy Schumer) who wants to know the circumstances of her husband’s death.  Apparently Schumann is going to be tormented by two deaths.  The movie focuses on the adjustment of three soldiers.  Schumann is readjusting to life with his wife Saskia (Haily Bennett) and young daughter.  They are financially challenged and have lost their house.  His best buddies are Specialist Tausolo “Solo” Aieti (Beulah Koale) and PFC Billy Walker (Joe Cole).  Solo is married without kids.  Billy is expecting to get married, but his fiancé is not home when he gets there.  Their arcs will intertwine. 

                Solo is suffering from memory loss.  Schumann is suffering from the inability to communicate that he is torn up by the two incidents.  They visit the Veterans Hospital in a scene that is mandatory for showing the lack of empathy of the System.  Most of the extras waiting interminably in the waiting area are actual veterans.  I’m sure they did not have to be instructed how to act in the situation.  Solo will have to wait 6-9 months to see a psychiatrist.  To add insult to injury, Schumann ex-CO basically calls him a pussy for being there.  “Don’t fold like this.” This is a tipping point for Adam and Solo.  Each takes a typical PTSD Hollywood path.  One will have to confront his demons and the other will get in bed with demons.

                “Thank You for Your Service” is a sincere effort to cover the effects of PTSD on veterans.  It does not break new ground on this topic, but it is entertaining and I will assume not everyone has seen numerous movies on this topic.  If this will be your first one, you could do worse.  Like “Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk”.  Although the scenarios depicted in the movie are not really original, some of the dots that are connected are unpredictable.  The movie is not heavy-handed.  There is a fairly subtle use of a wounded pit bull as symbolic of wounded veterans.  We are reminded of the crass treatment of vets, but not bludgeoned by it.  The movie assumes the audience already knows about the flaws in the system.  This movie is not “Born on the Fourth of July” or “Coming Home”.  But it does make it clear we have not improved much from the Vietnam era.  In an interesting discussion, Adam and Solo debate whether it is better to be wounded physically (like Ron Kovic) or mentally (like Adam and Solo).  Solo argues that an amputation at least results in medals and hero status. 

                The movie reminded me a little of an Afternoon Special for adults.  This week’s film is on PTSD.  Three besties deal with the stress of war and readjusting to their families.  The movie has the pat ending of one of those specials, but it is definitely a worthy effort and just as informative.  The acting is very good.  Teller anchors the film as the stoically tortured Schumann.  His interaction with his wife (Bennett) feels authentic, albeit deja-vuish.  Koale matches him as the stereotypical vet who goes over to the dark side.  You care about these comrades.  You may look back at the movie and realize you had seen all of it before, but while you are watching it, you will be drawn into their story.

GRADE  =  A  

Wednesday, November 1, 2017



"Well, the tank's broke, and they're trying to fix it..."


It is a war movie dedicated to American bomber crews and command in England in 1942. It is based on the novel by Sy Bartlett and Beirne Lay, Jr. It was made with the full cooperation of the Air Force which provided several B-17s and combat footage including from the Luftwaffe. The movie was a hit with the critics and won two Academy Awards (Jagger for Best Supporting Actor and Best Sound Recording) and was nominated for two others (Best Picture and Peck for Actor). It takes its name from the slang for enemy fighters being spotted above and straight ahead.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Spartacus: Film and History by Martin Winkler, ed.

Spartacus:  Film and History by Martin Winkler, ed.

1.  The Catholic Legion of Decency put pressure on Universal to cut shot of severing of limbs. drowning of Marcellus in soup, blood spurting on Crassus when he kills Draba, and hints of homosexuality (“oysters and snails”)

2.  Scenes that were cut and lost included several scenes of Gracchus and Caesar.  So much of his performance was cut that the irascible Laughton sued.

3.  Kubrick disavowed the film because he felt he did not have enough control over the story.  However, he did insist on the final battle scene.
4.  Douglas insisted the theme be “a slave whose vision of freedom almost overthrew the Roman Empire”.  He also bumped up the love story.

5.  The original plan was for an expanded battle with Glabrus, a battle montage of the subsequent battles, and a small version of the final battle.

6.  After Trumbo’s critique of the first rough cut, scenes were added including:  the first meeting with Tigranes, Spartacus’ speech at the gladiator school, Spartacus’ speech on the beach, the duel with Antoninus.
7.  Universal cut the Battle of Metapontum, leaving only a reference made to the loss at the public bath.

8.  Kubrick wanted the cause of defeat to be moral weakness of the slave class and the Crixus split.  Douglas overruled him.

Friday, October 27, 2017


“SPARTACUS” TRIVIA:  I Am Spartacus!  Making a Film, Breaking the Blacklist by Kirk Douglas

1. The screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, was a member of the “Unfriendly Ten” which were nine screenwriters and one director (Edward Dmytryk) who were brought before the House Unamerican Activities Committee to testify about communists in the movie industry.  Congressman J. Parnell Thomas headed the witchhunting committee which included Richard Nixon.  Trumbo refused to answer the question:  “Are you a member of the Communist Party?” and was sent to prison.  Kirk Douglas was not enough of a star to be part of the Committee for the First Amendment which included Humphrey Bogart, Lauren Bacall, Gene Kelly, Danny Kaye, and John Huston.  Stars that supported HUACs efforts included Gary Cooper, Robert Montgomery, George Murphy, and Adolphe Menjou (Douglas’ co-star in “Paths of Glory”).  In an act of karma, Thomas ended up in prison himself for padding his payroll.  He went to the same prison that two of the “Hollywood Ten” (Lester Cole and Ring Lardner, Jr.) were sentenced to.

2. Novelist Howard Fast wrote the source novel.  He was a communist and went to prison for contempt of Congress.  In prison, he began researching the life of Spartacus.  Upon release, he was under surveillance from J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI.  Hoover accumulated over one thousand pages in his file.  When the novel was finished, Hoover put pressure on publishers to not publish it.  Fast ended up self-publishing.  Later, Fast broke with the Communist Party after Khrushchev revealed Stalin’s crimes.  Douglas became interested in a film about Spartacus and optioned the book for just $100, but Fast insisted on writing the screenplay.  Douglas agreed, but was skeptical of Fast’s ability to write a competent screenplay.  Douglas was right.  Fast’s first draft was terrible and Douglas secretly brought in Trumbo who was writing under the name Sam Jackson.

3. The movie almost did not get made because there was already a movie about Spartacus in production.  It was to be based on the novel “The Gladiators” and was to star Yul Brynner.
4. Douglas approached Sir Lawrence Olivier while they were co-starring in “The Devil’s Disciple”.  Olivier was interested in directing.  In an awkward development, Olivier assumed he would be playing Spartacus.  When Olivier decided not to direct, Douglas reluctantly turned to Anthony Mann.  Douglas fired Mann (under pressure from Universal, but with Douglas’ agreement) because Mann was in over his head and had lost control of the cast, especially Peter Ustinov who was rewriting most of his lines.

5. The first choice for Varinia was Jeanne Moreau (Christine in “The Train”), but she turned it down.  Jean Simmons (a friend of Douglas) pushed hard for the role, but Douglas insisted that he wanted an actress that did not have an English or American accent.  He ended up settling on an unknown German beauty named Sabine Bethmann.
6. Douglas brought Stanley Kubrick in to replace Mann even though they had not enjoyed working together on “Paths of Glory”.  Kubrick convinced Douglas to dump Bethmann by proving to him that she was incapable of showing emotion.  (Her movie career collapsed after this.)  Simmons got her chance and it worked out even though the production was set back when she had a health crisis that lasted five weeks.

7. Kubrick was a prick to work with.  At one point, the horse-bound Douglas physically threatened him in order to get him to stop wearing the same clothes every day.  They had several major disagreements on the script.  For instance, Kubrick did not want to include the “I am Spartacus!” scene!  Douglas insisted on it, thank God.  Douglas was apoplectic when he learned that all his time on the crucifix ended up on the cutting room floor.  He was not going to be seen in that final scene.  Douglas won on that one also.  On the other hand, Douglas was concerned about having to say the line:  “I have never had a woman”.  He felt it would result in giggles from the audience.  It didn’t.

8. The biggest dispute was over the overarching theme of the movie.  Douglas and Trumbo wanted the “Large Spartacus” – the slave revolt was a major threat to the Roman Republic and after winning several spectacular victories, was overwhelmed by three Roman armies.  Kubrick and the studio wanted the “Small Spartacus” – Spartacus led a jail break that only had the goal of escaping from Italy, but was defeated by one Roman army.  After the first underwhelming rough cut, Trumbo wrote a brilliant critique which steered the film back towards the Large Spartacus.  However, Universal had the final cut and we ended up with Medium Spartacus.

9. Olivier agreed to play Crassus partly because the movie was to open with narration by Crassus.  This was latter cut.

10. Trumbo threatened to quit over rewrites.  He could not be on the set because not only was it a secret that he was writing the screenplay, but he literally could not come on the studio lot.  Douglas mollified him by promising him screen credit using his real name and 5% of the profits.  During a discussion about whether to credit Trumbo, Kubrick offered to take the credit!  I told you he was a prick.

11. The movie was supposed to cost $5 million, but ended up at around $12 million.  Part of the overrun was due to adding an expanded final battle scene.  Franco provided 8,000 Spanish soldiers (at $8/day), but insisted that none of them being shown dying on screen!

12. John  Gavin (Caesar) went to a Notre Dame at Michigan State football game and got the crowd to yell “I am Spartacus!” for his tape recorder and this is the sound that was used in the scene.

13. That’s Woody Strode, not a dummy, hanging upside down through numerous takes.

14. Douglas broke Charles McGraw’s (the trainer) jaw when filming the soup-drowning scene.  The cut that appears in the movie involves a stunt double.

15. The actor who gets his arm cut off in the final battle was an amputee with a prosthetic arm.  Douglas refused to do more than three takes.

16. Douglas had to talk the prudish Simmons into taking off her bra for the bathing scene.

17. Universal made 42 cuts to the movie before releasing it.  These included:  no severing pf an arm, we don’t see Gracchus’ suicide, no montage of other battles (not even the map and narration), and of course, no “snails and oysters” scene.  In general, the studio cuts reduced Spartacus’ historical significance because the powers did not want the rebellion to appear to have had a chance to succeed.  This might have inspired communists!

18. The “snails and oysters” scene was discovered years later, but the audio was so bad it had to be recreated.  Tony Curtis came in to do his lines again, but Olivier had passed away so Anthony Hopkins did his voice, extremely well.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The "Spartacus" Threads

I just finished showing the movie "Spartacus" for the thirtieth time or so in my Western Civilization classes.  Obviously, I am a huge fan.  It is one of the great historical epics and one of my favorite war movies.  I show it, not so much because of its accuracy, but more because of its entertainment value plus its historical value.  I have done a lot of research on the movie and want to share some of it.  So what follows is a series of threads on this remarkable movie.  You might want to start with my review of it at "Spartacus".


1. Spartacus was a Thracian who was born a slave.
2. Spartacus was bought by Batiatus from a salt mine and trained at his gladiator school near Capua.
3. Spartacus was trained at a gladiator school in Capua.
4. Spartacus’ “wife” was a slave from Britainia who he met at the gladiator school.
5. Gladiators did not fight to the death at the schools.
6. Crassus demanded a show which led to the rebellion.
7. The rebellion broke out in the kitchen.
8. Spartacus vowed to never witness a gladiatorial combat again.
9. Spartacus was the leader of the rebels.
10. Spartacus turned down the suggestion of crossing the Alps and opted for marching south to hook up with pirates 
11. The rebels set up camp on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius and were joined by thousands of slaves.
12. Glabrus came after them with the Roman garrison, but the slaves surprised his unfortified camp.  
13. Spartacus’ plan was to move to the southern tip of Italy and hire Cilician pirates to transport them back to their homes.
14. The slave army defeated several Roman armies.
15. Crassus was appointed First Consul by the Senate and made commander in chief with the purpose of putting down the rebellion.  His plan was to establish order.
16. Crassus was trying to force Spartacus to march on Rome by having Pompey and Lucullus sandwich him.
17. The pirates were bought off by Crassus and betrayed Spartacus.
18. Spartacus decided to march on Rome for a decisive battle and set all the slaves free.
19. Spartacus used fire rollers in the final battle.  Spartacus fought on horseback.  Crixus was killed in the battle.  Crassus won because Pompey and Lucullus arrived as reinforcements.
20. Spartacus and the survivors were crucified along the road to Rome.
21. Crassus took power and exiled Gracchus.  Gracchus committed suicide.

1. Spartacus was a Thracian who was born a slave.  HOLLYWOOD  Although he was from Thrace, Spartacus was probably an auxiliary in the Roman army.  He was probably in the cavalry.  For some reason, he deserted and became an outlaw.  He was then captured.  He was probably about 30 years old at the time.
2. Spartacus was bought by Batiatus from a salt mine.  HISTYWOOD  Most likely Spartacus was bought at a slave auction in Rome.  The Batiatus of the film was based on Spartacus’ owner Lentulus Batiatus (sometimes Vatia).  
3. Spartacus was trained at a gladiator school in Capua.  HISTORY  Batiatus’ school was located in Capua, as were many other schools.  Most of his gladiators were Thracians with the second most being Gauls.  The training would have been similar to what was depicted in the movie.
4. Spartacus’ “wife” was a slave from Britainia who he met at the gladiator school.  HOLLYWOOD Spartacus was probably married, but to another Thracian.  It is possible that she was some type of priestess who played a role in developing Spartacus’ reputation.  The Romans had not conquered Britainia at the time of the revolt.
5. Gladiators did not fight to the death at the schools.  HISTORY  Gladiators were valuable property and their lives would not have been risked at the school.  In fact, even in the arena, it was not common for the matches to end in death.
6. Crassus demanded a show which led to the rebellion.  HOLLYWOOD  There is no reason to believe that Crassus ever visited Batiatus.  If he had, it is most likely that his party would have put thumbs up, not down, to indicate they wanted Draba to finish off Spartacus.  Draba fights as a Retiarius, which was a gladiator armed with a net and a trident.  Spartacus fights as a Thracian with a sword (it should have been curved) and a small, round shield.
7. The rebellion broke out in the kitchen.  HISTYWOOD  It did start in the kitchen. The slaves used cleavers and spits to break out.  It did not start because of resentment about the fights to the death.  Most likely the cause was general mistreatment.  74 gladiators got away and they lucked into finding a wagon load of gladiator weapons on the road nearby.
8. Spartacus vowed to never witness a gladiatorial combat again.  HOLLYWOOD  Spartacus was not the humane individual of the movie.  After one of his victories over the Romans, he made a point of having some of the captives fight to the death.
9. Spartacus was the leader of the rebels.  HISTYWOOD  Spartacus was the most respected of the triumvirate that included the Gauls Crixus and Oenamus.  There were disagreements on strategy between Spartacus and the other two.
10. Spartacus turned down the suggestion of crossing the Alps and opted for marching south to hook up with pirates.  HOLLYWOOD  This is the opposite of the fact that Spartacus’ original plan was to exit Italy via an Alpine pass  When they approached the pass, Crixus and his followers refused to leave the plunder-rich Italian countryside.  Spartacus acquiesced to this for reasons unknown. 
11. The rebels set up camp on the slopes of Mt. Vesuvius and were joined by thousands of slaves.  HISTORY  From there they accumulated recruits, trained, and made raids on the countryside.
12. Glabrus came after them with the Roman garrison, but the slaves surprised his unfortified camp.  HISTORY  Glabrus is based on Claudius Glaber who was a praetor.  There is no evidence that he was an ally of Crassus.  He did not take six cohorts from the Roman garrison.  Actually, his force consisted on 3,000 ill-trained militia.  He proceeded to block the road leading to the rebel camp with the intention of starving the into submission.  Spartacus and his men used vine ropes to climb down the cliffside and surprise the camp which was not fortified.  
13. Spartacus’ plan was to move to the southern tip of Italy and hire Cilician pirates to transport them back to their homes.  HOLLYWOOD  It appears Spartacus plan was to escape Italy by way of the Alps.
14. The slave army defeated several Roman armies.  HISTORY  On word of Glaber’s defeat, the Senate appointed Varinius praetor and sent him after the rebels.  He recruited on the march.  Spartacus ambushed two wings of his army.  The slave army then moved south as Varinius regrouped.  In the ensuing battle, Varinius’ army performed poorly and he was badly defeated.  After this battle, Spartacus had some of the captured legionaries duel and others were crucified.  It was after this victory that the rebels marched north to the Alps, but decided not to cross.  Part of the army broke away led by Crixus with their main goal being plunder.  Two Roman armies destroyed his force in the Battle of Mount Garganus.  Spartacus got revenge by defeating the two Roman armies and at funeral games for Crixus had thousands of captives fight.  Once again Spartacus headed north, but again decided not to cross the Alps. 
15. Crassus was appointed First Consul by the Senate and made commander in chief with the purpose of putting down the rebellion.  His plan was to establish order.  HOLLYWOOD  Crassus was one of the richest men in Rome but he was not ostentatious about it.  He lived in a nonluxurious home.  He was popular with the common people because he catered to them politically.  He was a private citizen at the time that the Senate gave him emergency powers to deal with the emergency.  He was a logical choice because he was a gifted recruiter, wealthy enough to foot a lot of the bill, and had already had military success in Spain and with Sulla.
16. Crassus was trying to force Spartacus to march on Rome by having Pompey and Lucullus sandwich him.  HOLLYWOOD  As Spartacus moved southward, Crassus sent part of his army under Mummius to trail him but with strict orders not to engage.  Mummius got overconfident and disobeyed the orders resulting in a bad defeat that featured some Roman units to panic and run.  Crassus used decimation to punish the offending units and restore discipline.  
17. The pirates were bought off by Crassus and betrayed Spartacus.  HISTYWOOD After defeating Mummius and losing a detachment to Crassus, Spartacus proceeded to the toe of Italy.  He did try to make arrangements with Cilician pirates for transport to Sicily, but they abandoned him.  This betrayal was most probably due to them being untrustworthy pirates.  An attempt by the rebels to construct rafts and float to Sicily was a dismal failure.
18. Spartacus decided to march on Rome for a decisive battle and set all the slaves free.  HOLLYWOOD  Crassus tried to trap Spartacus in the toe by building entrenchments blocking the rebel army in.  Spartacus attempted twice to break through, but failed.  He crucified a Roman prisoner in no man’s land to emphasize to his followers that it was victory or this.  On a snowy night, a good bit of Spartacus’ army managed to escape the trap.  Some of the Gauls broke off and were ambushed by the Romans.  Spartacus arrived in the nick of time to save them, but a few days later Crassus used a diversion to occupy him and finished off the Gauls.  Spartacus moved on and at one point turned on Crassus vanguard and gave it a nice whipping.  He may have been heading for Brundisium hoping for some type of shipping when he heard that Lucullus army had landed.  He decided to turn and face Crassus.
19. Spartacus used fire rollers in the final battle.  Spartacus fought on horseback.  Crixus was killed in the battle.  Crassus won because Pompey and Lucullus arrived as reinforcements.  HOLLYWOOD  Spartacus provoked the Battle of Silarus by attacking some Roman soldiers who were digging a trench.  The two armies then formed up.  The two sides were similar in numbers, but not quality.  Before the fight opened, Spartacus made a show of killing his horse.  During the battle, Spartacus attempted to cut his way to Crassus.  He killed two centurions in the process, but was himself slayed after he was hit in the thigh by a javelin.
20. Spartacus and the survivors were crucified along the road to Rome.  HISTYWOOD  Spartacus died in battle, but 6,000 slave survivors were crucified along the Appian Way.
21. Crassus took power and exiled Gracchus.  Gracchus committed suicide.  HOLLYWOOD  Not only did he not become dictator, but Crassus did not even get credit for the victory.  The remnants of Spartacus’ force ran into Pompey’s army and were finished off.  Pompey got back to Rome first and claimed the lion’s share of the victory.  The two men eventually shared power with Julius Caesar in the First Triumvirate.  Gracchus was a fictional character based on any number of Senators who defended the Republic.

RATING  =  .36

Thursday, October 19, 2017



"Vodka is a luxury we have. Caviar is a luxury we have. Time is not."


It is a war movie based on the novel by James Michener. The movie was released in 1955, just one year after the book was published. The movie was a hit and got an Oscar for Best Special Effects. The producers had the full cooperation of the U.S. Navy which allowed the use of nineteen ships. The credits mention that the movie was made as a tribute to U.S. Navy pilots. The actors playing the husband and wife had an affair during the filming.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

DOCUDRAMA: Hannibal: Rome’s Worst Nightmare (2006)

                The other day, I was absent from school and I needed something for the sub to keep my classes occupied.  Fortunately, I was about to start my unit on the Punic Wars and there is a movie available on Hannibal Barca.  It is free on You Tube.  Netflix is the greatest development as far as my blog is concerned, but second to it is You Tube.  I have gone to You Tube to watch war movies that are not available on Netflix.  For instance, last week I was able to finally watch “Alatriste”.  Not only is You Tube great for watching obscure war movies, but it is the go-to site for documentaries.  “Hannibal:  Rome’s Worst Nightmare” is a combination of those.  It was produced by the BBC in 2006.  What sets it apart from your typical war movie or your typical documentary is it is a hybrid.  It covers Hannibal’s career by way of acting it out.  The cast includes some recognizable actors.  Since it is admirably accurate, this makes it perfect for a Western Civilizations class that is about to cover the Second Punic War.  Especially on a Friday when the teacher is out.

                The movie opens with the famous moment where Hamilcar Barca has the young Hannibal swear never to be a friend to Rome.  A narrator sets the theme by previewing that history will turn on a single decision that Hannibal will make later.  The movie jumps about twenty years and Hannibal (Alexander Siddig) is now commander of the Carthaginian army in Spain.  He meets with a Roman named Varro who tells him to lay off of Saguntum, a city in Hispania that is allied to Rome.  Hannibal is uncowed and lays siege to the city, thus provoking war with Rome.  Fabius Maximus (Ben Cross) leads a delegation to Carthage and gives the Carthaginian government the choice of turning over Hannibal or going to war.  Carthage chooses war.  On a table map, Hannibal shocks his subordinates with his proposal of crossing the Alps to invade Italy.  The pros and cons are discussed, but Hannibal is set on the strategy.  He says goodbye to his Spanish wife Imilce and sends her to Carthage for safety.  Hannibal begins his famous campaign by heading for the Alps with an army that includes war elephants.  It’s on to glory and an answer to the question:  what single decision by Hannibal will change the course of history?

                “Hannibal:  Rome’s Worst Nightmare” is a near perfect docudrama if you are looking for a biography of the greatest general in history.  It is as accurate as you could want.  It does simplify events, but that fits the format well.  You get the basics of his life and the greatest hits of his story.  These include his swearing to his father, cracking the boulders blocking his army’s path in the Alps, having the prisoners fight, sparing Fabius’ estate, the Senators’ rings being emptied before the Carthaginian government, Hasdrubal’s head, the meeting with Scipio, etc.  It’s an amazing life full of priceless anecdotes.  The movie does his life justice while being informative and entertaining.
                What makes the movie wonderful for a high school setting is the fact that Hannibal’s life is acted out by a competent cast.  Alexander Siddig (“Game of Thrones” fans know him as Doran Martell) is excellent as Hannibal.  Ben Cross is strong as the cautious Fabius.  Shaun Dingwall does a good job as Scipio Africanus.  The movie makes the logical decision to give Scipio his own arc.  He goes from a young man who saves his father’s life in battle to a man who can stare down Hannibal before the Battle of Zama.  Another key character is Hannibal’s cavalry commander Maharbal (Emilio Doorgasingh).  The movie lays it on a bit thick by having him question every decision Hannibal makes. He is a whiner, but he does get to set the theme by questioning Hannibal’s decision to wimp out after the Battle of Cannae.  While the movie acts out the biography without the intrusion of talking heads, it does use a narrator effectively to fill in historical details.  Plus Siddig provides a voiceover so we get into Hannibal’s head.  Maps are used to give some geographical framing.  Given the nature of a made-for-TV production, the armies are small with limited use of CGI.  The battles are basically melees and do not stand out.  The showpiece is Cannae.  The movie intercuts between the fighting and Hannibal outlining his strategy to his staff.  The combat is fairly graphic, but simplistic.  As usual the Roman reenactors do not use their pila, but you get the gist of the battle and a cool overhead CGI shot of a plain covered with bodies as the aftermath.

                I’m not sure if I could justify using an entire class period to show a movie about Hannibal, but this movie was ideal for a day when I was absent.  It is entertaining and informative, which is the most you can ask for.  I doubt my students would stay awake for an hour and half documentary on anyone, even someone as fascinating as Hannibal Barca.  I strongly recommend it for anyone who wants to know the basics of Hannibal’s career.  Thank you You Tube for providing it for free.


HISTORICAL ACCURACY:  Most historians believe that the young Hannibal swore never to be a friend to Rome, so that was a good place to start the narrative.  I don’t think Varro met with Hannibal before Saguntum, but the Roman government did warn him not to attack their ally.  The movie does not make it clear that Saguntum was south of the Ebro, which meant it was in Carthage’s sphere of influence.  The siege is dispensed with quickly, but it was actually a slog.  We don’t know much about Imilce, but she was apparently a Spanish woman that he married for political purposes.  Historians do think he sent her to Carthage.  The crossing of the Alps is much too simplistic.  There is no reference to trouble with the hostile natives.  The hardships are downplayed.  For some reason, the cracking of the boulders is done with wine, instead of vinegar, but that is a small quibble.  The reluctance of the Gauls to join and their subsequent support is accurate.  Scipio did rescue his father’s life, but this was not in a forest ambush, it happened at the Battle of Ticinus.  The Battles of Trebia and Lake Trasimene are only alluded to as ass-whippings, but that is accurate. The movie shows Hannibal loing sight in one eye, but does not explain why.  In actuality, he led a march through a marsh and caught an eye disease. After Lake Trasimene, Rome did appoint Fabius Maximus as dictator and the movie does a fair job of outlining his strategy of avoiding battle.  However, the movie insists on making him something of a villain and does not do justice to the success of his delaying tactics.  The reference to Hannibal sparing his estate to sow dissension toward Fabius is accurate.  The movie does do a good job of portraying how the Romans chafed at Fabius’ lack of aggression.  Varro is a good representative of this mentality.  The Battle of Cannae is well done although it would have needed a movie to itself.  Maharbal’s questioning of Hannibal’s decision not to advance on Rome agrees with most historians, but the movie’s decision to have Hannibal claim that his reason is that the war is already over is not realistic.  Hannibal may have been wrong about not at least attempting the attack, but his decision was most likely due to the exhaustion of his army and his lack of siege engines.  (Most historians do not believe he could have taken Rome, so the central theme is flawed.)  Fabius did return to power after Cannae, but the movie once again downplays his strategy’s frustration of Hannibal.  Mago did return to Carthage with a bushel of rings and the government led by Hanno the Great did refuse to reward success and instead sent Mago to Spain.  Scipio did go to Spain and capture New Carthage, although the movie does not show any details, sadly.  The Romans did intercept a message from Hasdrubal to his brother Hannibal, but it does not even mention the Battle of Metaurus, where Hasdrubal was defeated and killed.  The head-throwing incident was a nice way of implying the result of the battle.  The movie does a fair job of showing the opposition of Fabius to Scipio’s proposed invasion of North Africa.  The leadup to the Battle of Zama is a highlight.  The incident involving Hannibal’s spies being given a tour of Scipio’s camp is well-played and the movie follows that with the famous meeting between the two generals.  While it is unclear what exactly they discussed, most historians agree that Hannibal tried to avoid the battle, but the confident Scipio shot that down.  The movie is out on a limb by having Scipio hammer the movie’s theme by taunting Hannibal for not attacking Rome after Cannae.  The battle is disappointing as the movie is running out of gas at this point.  It is a much too complicated a battle to be done justice in five minutes.  The elephant attack and Scipio’s response is accurate, but the nature of the infantry and cavalry engagements is too hazy.  And Scipio was not the type of general to fight in the ranks.  Hannibal’s death by self-induced poison is nicely handled.