Tag: history (page 2 of 2)

In Memoriam 2012

I know it may seem a bit lazy to rehash an old post, but this one is special and my sentiments towards our veterans has not changed. It’s likely I’ll do the same this Independence Day, but we’ll set off those fireworks when we get to them. In the meantime, please read, enjoy, and remember. Thank you.

American flag

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” – George Santayana

We have the country we have today because people got pissed off enough to fight for it.

I think this country has a long way to go before it fixes all the bridges that have nearly been burnt to the ground because of the actions we’ve taken in the name of securing our borders. That doesn’t mean that the men and women who died in service to the country should not be remembered, or that their sacrifice should be downplayed or marginalized. They were called upon to do their duty, to fight while others stand idle, and they answered.

America’s military is based entirely on volunteer service. People enlist for various reasons, from pure-hearted desire to serve the country to paying for a college education. And those who can already afford college can embark upon a career as an officer right from the start. The important fact, though, is that none of it is compulsory. Nobody is making these young men and women sign up for service that could ultimately mean they’re going to die far from home, in some foreign land, possibly alone with no one to remember them save for a line item in a report listing them as “Missing In Action”.

Other countries compel their citizens to join the military from an early age. There’s no choice in the matter. Regardless of how you feel about your country, you’re going to be serving in its military. As much as I admire Heinlein, the idea of compulsory military service being the only route to citizenship is a pretty scary one. But unless I’m mistaken, no country has gone completely that far yet.

Here, though, every person who puts on that uniform, male or female, young or old, gay or straight, left or right, does so for the same reason. They want to serve. They chose to answer the call to duty. Nobody made them.

And if they died on a foreign shore, they did so as the ultimate result of that choice. As lonely, painful, cold and dark as it might have been for them, it is a deep hope of mine that they do not consider themselves forgotten.

We have not forgotten.

Wars are horrible things. The necessity of force to further political or economic gain is an indication that cooler heads and well-spoken reason have not prevailed over base, animalistic instincts. Canny leaders and generals will at least do what they can to end the fight as quickly and directly as possible. Sun-Tzu teaches us “There is no instance of a nation benefiting from prolonged warfare.” He was right 2000 years ago and he’s right today. However, this doesn’t mean that those that fight in wars are as horrible as the wars they fight.

Indeed, war can show the very best of human nature. Comrades helping one another through the battlefield, nobility in the face of unstoppable odds, compassion for one’s enemies; these are all things I feel we do not see or read often enough. In the pages of dry, procedural after-action reports are many such stories yet untold. In finding and telling them, we help to remember what it is to be a volunteer soldier, to choose to fight, to exemplify in our conflicts who we are as a country and what we stand for.

It’s probably my idealism creeping back into my rhetoric, but I’d like to think that, more often than not, on the front lines in foreign lands, the men and women of the American military ‘being all they can be’ means professionalism, respect, audacity and resolve. These volunteers should represent the best and bravest of us. They chose to defend our interests and our country, and we in turn are compelled to remember. For them it was voluntary; for us, back at home, living our lifestyles the way we are due to countless sacrifices born of their choices, remembering feels compulsory.

To all the men and women of the past and present who have chosen to serve America, making sacrifices from a few lost years to the one that means you’ll never see us again:

Thank you, and God bless you.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! History of the World, Pt 1

Logo courtesy Netflix.  No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


Satirists are more important to civilization than you might think. While critics may highlight, underscore or outright assault a work in a mostly straightforward manner, a satirist does so through humor or hyperbole. It’s no wonder that satirists tend to be more popular, even if some periods of history were less tolerant of them than we are today. The sorts of things that can crop up on YouTube and Blip taking the piss out of a government or public figure won’t get you lined up against the wall and shot. Until they add a provision for this to ACTA, that is. Anyway, adding hindsight to satire is a great excuse for gags based on older societies, which is the basis for the entire span of the Mel Brooks opus History of the World, Part 1. In case anybody doubted Mel was a top-flight satirist when this was released in 1981, here’s all the proof you need.

Courtesy Brooksfilms

This sprawling historical epic covers the Stone Age, the Old Testament, the Roman Empire, the Spanish Inquisition and the French Revolution. In each period we get at least a cursory opening narration from Orson Welles. He serves as the voice for the Stone Age section, as cavemen hadn’t yet discovered means of communication beyond grunting. During the reign of Nero, a ‘stand-up philosopher’ must try not to die on stage at Caesar’s Palace – that is to say, he needs to avoid execution. The depiction of Grand Inquisitor Torquemada shows the lighter side of the Catholic Church’s rather strict conversion practices, and the French Revolution shows us that King Louis XVI may not have been who history thinks he was. Each of these vignettes moves at their own pace without the benefit of a framing device, but there’s bound to be something in each period of history to make you laugh.

Given its structure, the film doesn’t have the coherent flow of Blazing Saddles or Spaceballs. The film plays more like a series of self-contained Vaudeville routines than it does a single narrative. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, however, as if you find yourself disliking a particular section of the movie, you just need to wait for the next section to begin. The exception to this, of course, is the French Revolution section at the end… or is it? Let me just skirt around that spoiler and get back to the movie.

Courtesy Brooksfilms
It’s difficult to find images that don’t give away some of the big jokes.

Another difference between this and the aforementioned films is the consistency of the jokes. Without a pervasive theme such as racism or giving Lucas a shot to the jaw (provided you can find it), some of the gags feel a bit unmoored. This is especially apparent in the Stone Age section, where the movie jumps from gag to gag as quickly as possible. Mel doesn’t always quite stick the landing, and some of the jokes seem to wobble a bit. This is my very elaborate way of saying it was my least favorite section of the film. I felt it dragged a bit. Likewise, the French Revolution section at the end may run a bit long, and in fact I get the feeling some of it may have been cut for time. Finally, it seems that Mel wanted to make sure he was involved as much as possible in his picture. Unlike Blazing Saddles or Spaceballs where he only gives himself a couple incidental roles, here he plays 5 different characters, including 2 at the same time! I hope you like Mel Brooks as a comedian as well as a writer and director, because you get a LOT of him.

None of this really causes the historical journey to jump the rails, though, and when the movie’s on it’s a scream. The Roman Empire in particular has a couple really nice jabs at inherent problems with representative government and a couple Blazing Saddles-esque moments, with a great performance by Gregory Hines and a royal tag-team of the always memorable Madeline Kahn and Dom DeLuise. The French Revolution is saved by Harvey Korman (that’s HEDLEY Lamarr), the character of Bearnaise and several lovely young women. And the Inquisition… well, I can’t really do the Inquisition justice here. Not without breaking into song. Believe me, it has to be seen to be believed.

Courtesy Brooksfilms

Having noticed the amount to which I’ve mentioned my previous review of a Brooksian comedic diversion, you may be wondering how this one compares. I’m glad you’re asking! With it’s occasionally dodgy composition, it doesn’t quite reach the level of Blazing Saddles, Young Frankenstein or even Spaceballs. There are laughs to be had, sure, and it’s certainly not as steeped in direct pop-culture references as anything produced by the Wayans brothers. Despite 20 more years of history having gone by since it’s release, there’s something timeless about the humor in History of the World Part 1 that certainly makes it worth calling up on Netflix. And keep your eyes out for John Hurt and the late Nigel Hawthorne. You may be surprised where Mister Ollivander and King George III show up.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

IT CAME FROM NETFLIX! The Hunt for Red October

Logo courtesy Netflix. No logos were harmed in the creation of this banner.


I’m aware that some of you may have been born around or after, say, 1995. That terms like ‘Soviet Union’ and ‘Cold War’ are entries on Wikipedia or chapters in a history book rather than memories of an ominous time. I’m not sure if public school still conduct ‘weather drills’, but when I was young we were herded into the hallways and taught to sit against the wall with our heads between our knees. We didn’t know for certain – well, some of us didn’t – but in later years it became clear that nuclear war was the most likely disaster for which we should be prepared. Doomsday weapons lurked in the imaginations of many writers of fiction, and it was Tom Clancy who showed us what a responsible person would do with such a weapon, in The Hunt For Red October.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures

The weapon is the largest ballistic missile submarine ever built, the Soviet Typhoon-class. The Red October is the newest of that line, equipped with a new propulsion system that renders it silent. Let me repeat that: it’s a submarine roughly the size of a World War 2 aircraft carrier armed with hundreds of nuclear warheads to be showered on a major metropolitan center, and nobody would see it coming. Taking her out on her maiden voyage is Captain Marko Ramius, a haunted man with years of experience, a loyal crew and a fresh grudge to nurse. When he takes Red October away from her planned course, everybody assumes the worst. Everybody, that is, except for a slightly nerdy CIA analyst specialized in fighting sailors like Ramius: Doctor Jack Ryan.

Tom Clancy wrote the book in ’84, and this film adaptation came to us in 1990. Most of the narrative remains intact, and the characters behave as described. A few were cut along with a couple superfluous sub-plots, but you wouldn’t know it given the pace and tension of this fim. It moves smoothly, delivers memorable characters and goes to some interesting places, a journey unhindered by the minutae of submarine warfare.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
Trust me, there is nothing “minute” about a Typhoon-class submarine.

Oh, there’s plenty of warfare to be had. Hunts through underwater canyons, games of chicken deep underwater with torpedoes, sabotage and intrigue; everything you need to make a good submarine war film is here. The film wisely dispenses with some of the technical details, however, which Clancy used to make his novel nice and thick. By using these volumes of text as a reference and information for visual stylization rather than as a means to directly inform the audience of the goings-on, director John McTiernan makes pehaps the nerdiest form of modern warfare an exciting thing to watch.

This is the same John McTiernan, after all, who brought us the seminal action movie Die Hard. He shows his skill and diversity in Red October, directing a taut Cold War thriller with the same adeptness and wisdom as he does a run-and-gun action flick. He gives the characters time to breathe and grow, then contracts the scene into a tight, tense atmosphere perfectly. The score of Basil Poulidorus and the presence of actors like Sean Connery, Alec Baldwin, Scott Glenn, Sam Neill, Stellan Skarsgaard and the late Robert Jordan deepen and empower the experience, coming together to make a great thriller. He also executes a very clever transition from subtitles to spoken English, helping underscore a message the film conveys which I’ll touch upon in a moment.

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
“Sean, you’re not even going to try and do an accent, are you?”
“I’m Sean Connery, Sam. I don’t
need to do an accent.”

Red October does have a few rough patches here and there. The speaking members of Red October’s crew don’t necessarily pull off convincing Russian accents. Sean Connery in particular clearly remains a Scotsman even when he’s speaking Russian. This doesn’t take that much away from his performance, other than perhaps a little good-natured chuckling at the fact that he’s not even bothering with an accent. The plot isn’t necessarily all that complex, relying less upon screenplay slight-of-hand and more upon smart dialogue and canny scene construction to keep the audience interested. And it’s highly likely you won’t just be interested. I’ve seen this movie several times, and re-watching it recently still had me on the edge of my seat in some scenes despite me knowing the outcome.

It’s doubtful that The Hunt For Red October would be made today the way it was in 1990. While it might still have a good plot and good characters, there was an atmosphere to it in the early 90s that was undeniable, that lent additional weight to its message and meaning. In the course of the film, the message comes across that Americans and Russians, despite an ocean of both seawater and cultural disparity between them, are not so different. In the days when the Soviet Union was barely staying together and the Berlin Wall was coming down, it was important for Americans to not just be given this message but also to embrace it, to help those in Russia seeking a new way of life stay on their feet as the regime that had caused so much suspicion and oppression began to crumble around them. Both the Americans and the Soviets had so many other things to which they could have applied their energies, rather than spending it on pointless arguments, hyperbolic hate and decades-long dick-measuring contests. Thank the Maker we’re so much more enlightened in this day and age, eh?

Courtesy Paramount Pictures
This photo is nowhere near as impressive as the actual shot in the scene this is taken from.

Sarcastic soapboxing aside, I think this is definitely a film worth your time. It belongs on your Netflix queue if you enjoy a gripping thriller, Sean Connery or Sam Neill in snappy black uniforms, some very nerdy in-jokes, great use of several tropes or submarine warfare. It works on a lot of levels, builds atmosphere extremely well and remembers that levity and touching moments are just as important as explosions and military jargon. Even if just for hisorical study and reference, I highly recommend The Hunt for Red October. And no, it’s not just because I have half the lines memorized.

It’s not my fault some of them are so damn memorable.

Josh Loomis can’t always make it to the local megaplex, and thus must turn to alternative forms of cinematic entertainment. There might not be overpriced soda pop & over-buttered popcorn, and it’s unclear if this week’s film came in the mail or was delivered via the dark & mysterious tubes of the Internet. Only one thing is certain… IT CAME FROM NETFLIX.

Does That Banner Yet Wave?

Courtesy Betsy Ross

One of the reasons I love living near Philadelphia is the history. So much happened in that little port town in a short period of time before New York grew to gargantuan proportions and Washington, DC became the capital city. The reason Americans have a holiday to celebrate on this date, in fact the reason why Americans have a country, was a document signed in Philadelphia 234 years ago this year.

It was signed because a few colonial land-owners didn’t want to pay taxes to the British crown anymore.

…Okay, all right, there’s more to it than that. The English had demonstrated that America was something of an annoying step-child, a sore spot with the French and while its resources were valuable to the Empire, the populace was somewhat irritating. After the French were beaten in the North American front of the Seven Years’ War (commonly known as the ‘French and Indian War’ in America, because who cares what the rest of the world calls something), England turned their attention to some of things America had been doing that the English didn’t like. Americans were skirting mercantile procedures to bolster their own profits, pushing westward despite angering the native tribes and were training militia rather than relying on troops from England. King George’s response was first to ask the colonies to help with the cost of the war fought on their soil (this was the ‘no taxation without representation’ thing), and then to tax the colonies directly, quarter troops in colonial homes and refuse to recognize colonial commissions of officers, basically sending the message that American soldiers were not as good as English ones.

So everybody was a little pissed off all around.

Thomas Paine wrote Common Sense, which became a best-selling book on American shores with over 500,000 copies in circulation during the first year – impressive even by today’s standards. It glossed over the philosophies of Rosseau and Locke that were informing the impulses of American movers and shakers towards libertarian thinking, and presented the argument for independence to common American folk, by way of making the argument something of a sermon. So the American rhetoric began as it meant to go on, it seems.

Back in those days, freedom for Americans means freedom from foreign rule. Nowadays, freedom for most Americans seems to mean freedom to do whatever the hell we want to whomever the hell we want, whenever the hell we want. That sounds less like a democracy and more like anarchy to me, or at the very least an autocracy. Most Americans need someone to tell them what to be afraid of and who to hate today, at least. But there I go again, breaking the promise I made that I wouldn’t let this blog get political.

What bothers me is that this holiday, the day on which Americans celebrate the fact that they did win freedom from foreign rule, has been ‘dumbed down’ in a sense, at least for me. In fact American nationalism feels kind of dumb of late. Instead of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner,” which is in fact our national anthem, a lot of sporting events and whatnot begin with “God Bless America.” The implication of that, for me, is that God should bless America and no place else. I hate to break it to these so-called patriots, but there are nations in the world other than America that need help from the Divine a lot more than we do. The worst thing we have to worry about is running out of oil or pissing off another country so much that they nuke us. Other countries have people wondering what the hell they’re going to feed their kids today.

Americans have that problem, too, but ask the average conservative Republican if they care.

I’m going to veer into political territory one more time, if you’ll indulge me. To me, being an American means having freedom of thought and expression. We are forgers of our own destinies as individuals, and any force that seeks to oppress, dumb down or stifle our ability to think and decide for ourselves should be our enemy, not necessary a foreign power with a different point of view. We should be worrying about how to feed and educate our children, honor and care for our elderly, employ those in need of a job and play a positive role in the future of our planet.

Instead we are told to buy what we can, even if we can’t afford it, that we should be afraid to go anywhere outside of America and any notion of health care or fuel supplies that cost less (if indeed they cost anything) are decidedly un-American. All “good” Americans should bow down to the Free Market the way they bow down to the blond-haired gun-toting Jaysus that loves little fetuses and hates anybody who worships anything other than Himself, meaning Jaysus is “a good American.”

I hope I don’t need to go into detail as to why that line of thinking is bullshit.

Francis Scott Key asks the question “Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave o’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?”

To me, it does, and it will. As long as people continue to think freely, and bravely rail against notions that seek to stupefy, retard or oppress the rights of the individual, it’ll wave proudly. This is why I call today ‘Independence Day’, not ‘the 4th of July’. This is why I pay as little attention to fanatical rhetoric from either side of the political debate as possible – in the case of the right, I follow some folks on Twitter just to know what the enemy is thinking. I want to engage my brain when I salute my flag, you see. I don’t want to do it just because some bloated blowhard tells me I should. I want to be proud of this country and, in a way, I am.

I’m proud of the fact I can bang out all of these words without fear of getting dragged away in an unmarked van to be shot behind the chemical shed. I’m proud that the people with whom I disagree can be marginalized or even ignored because nobody in this country has absolute power. I’m proud that in spite of all of the free-floating negativity, people are still out there trying to do good, making an effort to improve the world around them instead of just fattening their own pocketbooks and being kind to one another – and some of those people happen to be Americans, thank God.

Yes, Americans are arrogant. Yes, we throw our weight around a bit more than we should. And yes, we have a lot of humble pie to eat from the last decade or so of shenanigans we’ve perpetuated in the name of defending ourselves.

But America is still a country worth defending, and even if in the future the word ‘expatriate’ might follow my nationality, I’m proud to be an American.

Happy Independence Day, everyone.

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