I went to see Dinesh D’Souza’s Hillary’s America on Friday with with my bride and my son. We all loved it. My review is beneath the fold. The usual caveat as to spoilers is in force. Continue reading
This Fourth of July long weekend is made for a trip down American history courtesy of John Wayne films. Wayne was an American original. Thirty seven years after his death, in the annual Harris poll of favorite actors, he ranks number four overall, and number one among men voting. In his day he was never shy about declaring his love of country, and he did so when patriotism was fashionable and when it was unfashionable. An American icon, the deathbed convert to the Catholic Church is a symbol of this nation, instantly recognizable around the globe. Here are some of his films set in the history of this land.
- Allegheny Uprising (1939)-The film tells the true story of the Black Boys Rebellion against the British in 1765, with Wayne portraying James Smith the leader of this proto-American Revolution.
2. The Fighting Kentuckian (1949)-John Wayne costars with Oliver Hardy, yeah, that Oliver Hardy, in a tale of veterans of the War of 1812 helping French settlers battle land swindlers in Alabama. Very loosely based on actual events. In one scene Wayne explains that his family never had money due to his father’s health being ruined after he spent a winter at a place called Valley Forge.
3. The Alamo (1960)-The epic story of the battle for Texan Independence. Wayne’s love note to America and freedom.
4. The Barbarian and the Geisha (1958)-One of the more successful American diplomats of the Nineteenth Century, Townsend Harris, a native of New York City, became wealthy in the China trade in the early part of the century. He then turned to public service, serving as the President of the New York City Board of Education from 1846-1848. He founded the Free Academy of the City of New York, later renamed as the City College of New York, in order to provide college educations to low income people in New York.
In July 1856, Franklin Pierce named him the first American consul general to the Empire of Japan. He opened the first American consulate in Japan in the city of Shimoda. Overcoming enormous difficulties, in two years he negotiated what has become known as the Harris Treaty, which established full diplomatic and trade relations between Japan and the US.
On the hundredth anniversary of the treaty in 1958, John Wayne, in one of the oddest films of his career, starred as Townsend Harris in the film The Barbarian and the Geisha. Few men could have been more unlike John Wayne than Harris, and Wayne appears uncomfortable in the role of the diplomat to me. The film played up an alleged romance between Harris and Okichi, a 17 year old housekeeper, which has long been a tale told in Japan. Unfortunately, this aspect of the story is untrue. Harris fired Okichi after she worked for him for three days due to the fact that he considered her to be an incompetent housekeeper. However, the look of the film is splendid, even if the film is the usual Hollywood mix of lies and half-truths.
5. The Horse Soldiers (1959)-In 1959 John Ford and John Wayne, in the last of their “cavalry collaborations”, made The Horse Soldiers, a film based on Harold Sinclair’s novel of the same name published in 1956, which is a wonderful fictionalized account of Grierson’s Raid.
Perhaps the most daring and successful Union cavaly raid of the war, Colonel Benjamin Grierson, a former music teacher and band leader from Jacksonville, Illinois, who, after being bitten by a horse at a young age, hated horses, led from April 17-May 2, 1863 1700 Illinois and Iowa troopers through 600 miles of Confederate territory from southern Tennessee to the Union held Baton Rouge in Louisiana. Grierson and his men ripped up railroads, burned Confederate supplies and tied down many times their number of Confederate troops and succeeded in giving Grant a valuable diversion as he began his movement against Vicksburg.
John Wayne gives a fine, if surly, performance as Colonel Marlowe, the leader of the Union cavalry brigade. William Holden as a Union surgeon serves as a foil for Wayne. Constance Towers, as a captured Southern belle, supplies the obligatory Hollywood love interest.
Overall the film isn’t a bad treatment of the raid, and the period. I especially appreciated two scenes. John Wayne refers to his pre-war activities as “Before this present insanity” and Constance Towers gives the following impassioned speech:
Well, you Yankees and your holy principle about savin’ the Union. You’re plunderin’ pirates that’s what. Well, you think there’s no Confederate army where you’re goin’. You think our boys are asleep down here. Well, they’ll catch up to you and they’ll cut you to pieces you, you nameless, fatherless scum. I wish I could be there to see it.
Both scenes ring home with authenticity. Not a bad effort from the usual history manglers of Hollywood.(Although there are still errors enough, including Union soldiers worrying about being captured and sent to Andersonville prior to the POW camp being constructed by the Confederates in 1864.)
6. The Searchers (1956)-Set in Reconstruction Texas, John Wayne gives the performance of his career as embittered Confederate veteran Ethan Edwards and his vengeance ride against Comanches who slaughtered his family.
7. True Grit (1969)-Set in Reconstruction Arkansas, True Grit is the only film for which Wayne won an Oscar. An accomplished actor, Wayne throughout his career made it all look so easy that he was always badly underestimated. In this film, a skillful mixture of comedy and drama, Wayne was able to give life to Rooster Cogburn, one of the great literary creations of the last century.
8. Rio Grande (1950)-The final installment in Ford and Wayne’s cavalry trilogy was picked for inclusion due to the above rendition of Down by the Glenside. The song of course would not be written until 1916, but any viewer with a drop of Irish blood will forgive the historical anachronism. Continue reading
Posterity! You will never know how much it cost the present Generation to preserve your Freedom! I hope you will make good use of it. If you do not, I shall repent in Heaven, that I ever took half the Pains to preserve it.
This is a repeat from a post last year, with some slight modifications, but I think the logic behind the post still holds true. As we are embroiled now in a struggle to preserve our religious liberty, I think the Fourth of July is a good time to recall the price paid to establish our liberties. It is trite to say that freedom is not free, but it is also true. Winning the American Revolution took eight years and it was a definite David V. Goliath upset. A people who forget this eternal lesson will not remain free for long.
A number of feature films and miniseries have been made about the events of the American Revolution. Here are my top ten choices for Fourth of July viewing:
10. Ben and Me (1953)- Something for the younger patriots. Disney put to film the novel of Robert Lawson, Ben and Me, which related how many of Ben Franklin’s bright ideas came from his mouse Amos. Quite a bit of fun. Not a classic but certainly an overlooked gem.
9. The Crossing (2000)-A retelling of Washington’s brilliant crossing of the Delaware on Christmas 1776 and the battle of Trenton. This film would rank much higher on my list but for Jeff Daniels’ portrayal of Washington as sullen and out of sorts throughout the movie. Washington had a temper, and he could give vent to it if provoked, although he usually kept it under control, but the peevish Washington portrayed here is simply ahistoric and mars an otherwise good recreation of the turning point of the Revolution.
8. John Paul Jones (1959) Robert Stack, just before he rose to fame in the Untouchables, is grand in the role of the archetypal American sea hero. Bette Davis is absolutely unforgettable as Catherine the Great. The climactic sea battle with the Serapis is well done, especially for those pre-CGI days. The only problem with the film is that many of the details are wrong. This is forgivable to a certain extent since scholarship on Jones was badly skewed by Augustus Buell in a two-volume “scholarly biography” which appeared in 1900. Buell was a charlatan who made up many incidents about Jones and then invented sources to support his fabrications. Buell was not completely exposed until Samuel Eliot Morison, Harvard professor of history, and an Admiral in the Navy, wrote his definitive biography of Jones. Here is a list of the fabrications of Buell compiled by Morison. Morison’s book appeared after the movie, which is to be regretted.
7. The Patriot (2000) Finally, a film which depicts the unsung contribution of Australians to victory in the American Revolution! Actually not too bad of a film overall. Heath Ledger is quite good as Gibson’s oldest son who joins the Continentals at the beginning of the war against his father’s wishes. Jason Isaacs is snarlingly good as the evil Colonel Tavington, very loosely based on Banastre Tarleton, commander of Tarleton’s Raiders during the Southern Campaign. The film of course allows Gibson to carry on his over-the-top vendetta against all things English. No, the British did not lock up American civilians in churches and burn them alive. However, the ferocity of the partisan fighting in the South is well depicted, and Banastre Tarleton at the Waxhaw Massacre earned a reputation for slaughtering men attempting to surrender. The final battle of the film is based on the battle of Cowpens where General Daniel Morgan decisively defeated Tarleton.
6. Drums Along the Mohawk (1939)-A John Ford classic starring Henry Fonda and Claudette Colbert. Through the eyes of a young newlywed couple, Fonda and Colbert, the American Revolution on the frontier is depicted in the strategic Mohawk Valley. Full of the usual Ford touches of heroism, humor and ordinary life. Continue reading
The charge of the Scots Greys scene from the movie Waterloo (1970), one of the greatest of war flicks. Rod Steiger as Napoleon and Christopher Plummer as Wellington gave bravura performances. My favorite section of the film: Continue reading
Something for the weekend. You’re A Grand Old Flag sung by James Cagney in the film biopic of George M. Cohan Yankee Doodle Dandy (1942). Cohan wrote the song in 1906 after an encounter with a Union veteran of Gettysburg who was carrying a torn American battle flag. The old soldier smiled at Cohan and said the flag was “A grand old rag!”
I cannot have a post that mentions the film Yankee Doodle Dandy without showing the scene of Cagney as Cohan tap dancing down the White House steps. Cagney did the scene completely impromptu. Continue reading
There are no great men, there are only great challenges, which ordinary men like you and me are forced by circumstances to meet.
Admiral William Halsey, Jr.
Earlier this week I was watching the movie The Gallant Hours (1960), starring James Cagney as Admiral William Halsey, Jr. (Halsey hated the nickname “Bull” that the press fastened upon him during the War.) The film focuses on the time in late 1942 to 1943 when Halsey was theater commander during the Guadalcanal campaign. This was in tandem with my reading of the latest bio of Halsey, Admiral Bill Halsey: A Naval Life, by Thomas Alexander Hughes.
Halsey is an interesting figure partially because his public image is so at odds with the reality. During World War II Halsey was the “Patton of the Pacific”, a fighting Admiral who swore as he viewed the carnage of Pearl Harbor on December 7, that by the time the US was done the only place that Japanese would be spoken was in Hell. Halsey in the popular perception was a rampaging bull in a Japanese china shop.
The reality was different. Halsey, who got his wings at the advanced age of 52, was an inspired commander of carriers. Strike quick and run was his method in the early days of the War, when his daring carrier raids on Japanese held islands in the Pacific gave a very badly needed boost to national morale. (“I hauled ass with Halsey” was a fond remembrance of veterans of those raids for decades after the War.) However, unlike his unwelcome “Bull” image, Halsey was a thoughtful and careful planner, who paid close attention to such un-glamorous, but essential, topics as logistics and intelligence as he plotted every move his forces made. He was also an officer beloved of his men because of his reputation of making sure that they were taken care of regarding food, leave and mail. Throughout his career Halsey was known as a sailor’s officer who always looked out for the enlisted men under his command. (A typical story told about Halsey by his sailors. On board a carrier sailors were waiting in line for some prized ice cream. An Ensign decides to cut to the head of his line. He suddenly hears a stream of profanity directed at him. He turns around to chew out the sailor cussing him. He finds out that the man yelling at him is four star Admiral Halsey who has been patiently waiting his turn in the line with his men.) Continue reading
My bride and I saw the movie Risen in Kankakee, Illinois on Sunday at the Paramount Theater in downtown Kankakee. The Paramount Theater is a well maintained movie palace that was built in 1931. Sitting in its wide seats and viewing its art deco adornments, one is transported back to the Golden Age of Hollywood when attending movies was an event, and people did not expect to see films in cramped, one size fits all characterless shoeboxes. By popular request, this review of the movie Risen will contain only minor spoilers, below the fold. I highly recommend the film, and I thought that I would give the film some historical background that may enhance the enjoyment of viewers. Continue reading
My bride and I saw this film yesterday and vastly enjoyed it. I often appreciate “quirky” and no film makers today are quirkier than the Coen brothers. This film is an homage-spoof of filmmaking in Hollywood circa 1951. The main character is a devout Catholic, a good family man, and, wonders of wonders, he is not depicted either as a hypocrite or a bigot, the de rigueur depictions of faithful Catholics in most films these days. We found the film endlessly hilarious. Some knowledge of the Golden Age of Hollywood is helpful but not essential to the enjoyment of the film. Those of you who have seen the film let me know what you think in the comboxes. I am not going to do a full review, because I think spoilers would really spoil this film. Continue reading
My family and I went to see 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi on Saturday. I found the movie to be an exciting and moving recreation of the actions of the CIA contractors, all former members of elite American military units, who fought against the terrorist attack in Benghazi, Libya on 9/11/12, and a damning indictment of the lack of action by the administration which left these men in the lurch, their criminal inaction leading to the death of former Seals Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty. A strong language advisory as military men under fire have been known to swear on occasion, and I would further note that my wife had to leave the theater because she found the movie too intense. My review is below the fold and the usual warning as to spoilers is in full effect.
The movie 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi is being released tomorrow. From what I have been hearing from people who have had access to advance screenings, it is a gripping tribute to the CIA operatives, former members of special forces units, who during the attack on the American consulate on 9/11/12 in Benghazi, Libya, on their own initiative and against orders from higher ups, rescued 32 Americans from the consulate and then stood off the terrorists at the CIA compound until the people they rescued could be evacuated. Their urgent requests for air support went unanswered, the Obama administration, paralyzed due to the attack spoiling the mendacious campaign slogan of the Obama campaign that Al-Qaida was finished, was unwilling to make the story larger by sending military units to support the brave men holding the compound. In the fighting, two former Seals, Tyrone Woods and Glen Doherty, were slain. It is outrageous that the effort to award each of these heroes the Congressional Gold Medal has been stalled in Congress, but that pales to insignificance in that the villains who left these two men to die have incurred no penalties for the betrayal of the fundamental duty owed by a government to those who fight our enemies: to render them every assistance possible.
A profoundly Catholic movie, Angels With Dirty Faces (1938) is usually not perceived as such. The tale of two slum kids, Jerry Connolly, Pat O’Brien, and Rocky Sullivan, James Cagney, who attempt to steal fountain pens from a train. Sullivan, who can’t run as fast as his friend, is caught after the robbery. Connolly wants to share in the blame for the theft, but Sullivan tells him not to be a sucker and takes all the blame. Sentenced to a brutal reform school he embarks on a life of crime while his friend becomes a priest, assigned to the same slum parish which he and Sullivan attended as boys.
The priest and the gangster renew their friendship with Sullivan quickly becoming the idol of the slum boys that Connolly is trying to keep from a life of crime. Connolly embarks on a crusade against the local gangsters, including Sullivan. Sullivan murders his partner Jim Frazier, Humphrey Bogart, and Mac Keefer, George Bancroft, to save Connelly who they were planning to have killed to stop his anti-crime crusade.
Sullivan, who tells the authorities all he knows about the local criminal operations, is tried for these murders and sentenced to death.
The ending of the film is a powerful look at courage and redemption:
Father Jerry: We haven’t got a lot of time.
I want to ask one last favor.
Rocky: There’s not much left that I can do, kid.
Father Jerry: Yes, there is, Rocky.
Perhaps more than you could do
under any other circumstances.
If you have the courage for it,
and I know you have.
Rocky: Walking in there?
That’s not gonna take much.
Father Jerry: I know that, Rocky.
Rocky: It’s like a barber chair.
They’re gonna ask, “Anything to say?”
I’ll say, “Sure, give me a haircut, a shave
and one of those new electric massages.”
Father Jerry: But you’re not afraid, Rocky?
Rocky: No. They’d like me to be.
But I’m afraid I can’t oblige them, kid.
You know, Jerry, I think to be afraid,
you gotta have a heart.
I don’t think I got one.
I had that cut out of me a long time ago.
Rocky: Suppose I asked you to have the heart, huh?
To be scared.
Rocky: What do you mean?
Father Jerry: Suppose the guards dragged you out of here
screaming for mercy. Suppose you went to the chair yellow.
Abraham Lincoln, who padded up and down
The sacred White House in nightshirt and carpet-slippers,
And yet could strike young hero-worshipping Hay
As dignified past any neat, balanced, fine
Plutarchan sentences carved in a Latin bronze;
The low clown out of the prairies, the ape-buffoon,
The small-town lawyer, the crude small-time politician,
State-character but comparative failure at forty
In spite of ambition enough for twenty Caesars,
Honesty rare as a man without self-pity,
Kindness as large and plain as a prairie wind,
And a self-confidence like an iron bar:
This Lincoln, President now by the grace of luck,
Disunion, politics, Douglas and a few speeches
Which make the monumental booming of Webster
Sound empty as the belly of a burst drum.
Stephen Vincent Benet, John Brown’s Body
Film pioneer DW Griffith is chiefly remembered today for the 1915 film Birth of a Nation which was the film version of the 1905 novel The Clansman, a paean by Thomas F. Dixon to the Ku Klux Klan which, in his view, freed the South from carpetbagger and negro rule. As history the film is rubbish, but from its technical aspects it is an important development in the art of filmmaking. In response to his critics DW Griffith made the film Intolerance in 1916 which condemned religious, if not racial, bigotry.
In 1930 he made the first sound film biography of Lincoln. Several silent film bios of Lincoln had been made, but having Lincoln speak was going to be an added challenge. Walter Huston, the father of actor-director John Huston, portrayed Lincoln. Tall and lanky, Huston looked a bit like Lincoln, but his deep resonant tones helped establish in the public mind that Lincoln had that type of voice, rather than the high pitched voice that the historical Lincoln possessed.
The film script was co-written by Stephen Vincent Benet, a poet who in 1928 wrote the epic Civil War poem John Brown’s Body. The film takes considerable liberties with the life of Lincoln, but, like Benet’s historical poetry, it has a good feel for the period and gives overall a powerful impression of Lincoln. It is well worth the viewing even today, after so many Lincoln films. It is interesting that this son of a Confederate colonel opens the film with a scene aboard a slave ship and that the film is a celebration of the man who defeated the cause his father fought for. Continue reading
(I originally posted this in 2009 when the blog readership was much smaller. I posted this again in 2013, but the scene after the court-martial was not online. That pivotal scene is now available, so I am reposting this with the scene include in the review. The Caine Mutiny has always been one of my favorite films in that it examines two themes, the law and military service, that have ever fascinated me.)
For my sins, perhaps, I have spent my career as an attorney. Over the past 33 years I’ve done a fair number of trials, both bench and jury, and I am always on the lookout for good depictions of trials in films, and one of the best is The Caine Mutiny. Based on the novel of the same name by Herman Wouk, who served in the Navy as an officer in the Pacific during World War II, the movie addresses the question of what should, and should not, be done in a military organization when the man at the top of the chain of command is no longer in his right mind.
The cast is top notch. Humphrey Bogart, an enlisted man in the Navy during WWI and a member of the Naval Reserve, he tried to enlist again in the Navy after Pearl Harbor but was turned down because of his age, gives the performance of his career as Lieutenant Commander Philip Francis Queeg, the captain of the Caine. In the hands of a lesser actor Queeg could easily have become merely a two-dimensional madman. Bogart instead infuses Queeg with pathos and demonstrates to the audience that this is a good man who sadly is no longer responsible mentally for his actions. Van Johnson delivers his usual workmanlike job as Lieutenant Stephen Maryk, the “exec” of the Caine, a career officer who does his best to remain loyal to an obviously disturbed CO, while also attempting to protect the crew of the Caine from Queeg’s increasingly erratic behavior. Robert Francis, as Ensign Willis Seward Keith, is the viewpoint character, too young and inexperienced to make his own judgment he relies on Maryk and Lieutenant Keefer. Fred MacMurray is slime incarnate as Lieutenant Thomas Keefer, a reservist who hates the Navy, spends all his time writing a novel, and eggs Maryk on to take command away from Queeg. Finally, in a typhoon, reluctantly and only, as he perceives it, to save the ship, Maryk, with the support of Keith, relieves Queeg from command.
In the ensuing court-martial of Maryk and Keith, lawyer Lieutenant Barney Greenwald, portrayed with panache by Jose Ferrer, reluctantly agrees to defend them. Continue reading
Something for the Weekend. After hearing this week that Pope Francis plans to canonize Blessed Junipero Serra, the Apostle of California, while he is in this country later this year, the musical score to the heavily fictionalized account of the first missionary journey of Serra, Seven Cities of Gold (1955) seems appropriate.
In 1955 Hollywood told the story of the 1769 expedition to Alta California in the film Seven Cities of Gold. Michael Rennie gave a very good performance as Father Serra and Anthony Quinn gave an equally fine performance as Governor Portolla. Of course Hollywood could not remain completely faithful to history, and a fictional hunt for the Seven Cities of Cibola was given as the reason for the expedition. A love story between an Indian girl and one of the Spanish officers was also grafted on to the story. In spite of the usually Hollywood twisting of history, the film is accurate in its depiction of the goodness and charity of Father Serra and his zeal to spread the Gospel. One scene from the movie has him denouncing the greed of the Spanish soldiers and their desire to exploit the Indians: Continue reading
American history tends to be ignored by Hollywood and therefore it is unusual for a battle to receive treatment in a Hollywood feature film. It is doubly unusual for a battle to be treated in two Hollywood feature films, but that is the case for the battle of New Orleans, the two hundredth anniversary of which is coming up this week on January 8, 2015. The 1938 film The Buccaneer was directed by the legendary Cecil B. DeMille and had Frederic March, an actor largely forgotten today but a major star in his time, as Jean Lafitte. Two future stars have bit parts in the film: Anthony Quinn and Walter Brennan. Hugh Sothern who portrayed Andrew Jackson would also portray Jackson in 1939 in the film Old Hickory.
The 1958 remake was also to have been directed by Cecil B. DeMille, but he was seriously ill at that time, and relegated himself to the role of executive producer, turning the director’s chair over to Anthony Quinn, his then son-in-law, the one and only film that Quinn ever directed. DeMille was unhappy with the film and it received fairly negative reviews, although I think the battle sequences are superior to the first film. Yul Brynner plays Jean Lafitte and Charlton Heston is a commanding Andrew Jackson. Like Hugh Sothern, Heston would portray Jackson twice, the first time being in The President’s Lady (1953), the tale of the great love story of Rachel Jackson (Susan Hayward) and Andrew Jackson. Future stars in this version include Inger Stevens, Claire Bloom and Lorne Green. Adequate coverage of the battle is given in each film, although not much detail. The battle of course is merely an adjunct to the romantic tale of Jean Lafitte. Without the pirate turned patriot, I am certain the battle of New Orleans would have likely received the same indifference that Hollywood has shown for most of American history.
“If I can take it, I can make it.”
Unbroken is the best picture that I have seen in many a year. Its themes are faith, patriotism and endurance in the face of seemingly overwhelming adversity. Everything about the film is superb. My review is below and the usual caveat as to spoilers is in effect. Continue reading