Showing posts with label Alternate History. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Alternate History. Show all posts

28 August 2019

Red Dawn

David Edgerley Gates


Red Dawn was released 35 years ago this August. I think it's aged pretty well. The silly stuff is just as silly as it was back then, and the good parts still hold up.

If you don't know the premise, here it is: Russia invades the U.S. Proxy forces from Cuba and Nicaragua come boiling up the middle of the country, between the Rockies and the Mississippi, the Soviets reinforce across the Bering Strait and down into the Great Plains. Caught by surprise, small pockets of resistance spring up, and in a small Colorado town, a bunch of high school kids learn evasion and ambush techniques, and take the fight to the occupying troops. If it all sounds faintly ridiculous, it is.


The writer/director John Milius got raked over the coals for what was widely seen as a Red-baiting, loony Right fantasy, but in spite of the fact that Gen. Al Haig loved it, Red Dawn is deeper than it seems, at first blush. It's not really about Colorado teenagers at all. To me, it was obvious from the get-go that Milius was making a picture about the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the kids were stand-ins for the mujahideen.


Aside from that, or in spite of it, or any and all of the above, I'm always drawn in by the sheer exhilaration of the movie-making. Once you swallow the set-up, the rest of it is inevitable, fated and austere. It's beautifully shot, by Ric Waite, the New Mexico locations framed in wide ratio. The score, Basil Poledouris. The rigorous structure, and the kinetic pacing, but at the same time a sense of natural rhythms, the movement of the seasons, the shape of silence. For an action picture, it's got its fair share of stillness and melancholy.  


And for all that it's about the kids, it's actually the grown-ups who put it in sharper relief. Powers Boothe, the American pilot who bails out over occupied territory. "Shoot straight for once, you Army pukes," has got to be one of the great exit lines. Bill Smith, the Spetsnaz colonel brought in to exterminate the Wolverines. "You need a hunter. I am a hunter." (Bill Smith speaking his own Russian, a bonus.) Ron O'Neal, the Cuban revolutionary who loses his faith. "I can't remember what it was to be warm. It seems a thousand years since I was a small boy in the sun."

Corny? You bet. Affecting? Absolutely.


Red Dawn wears its heart on its sleeve. Its innocence, or lack of guile, is suspect, even embarrassing. But it has an unnervingly specific authenticity. It respects the conventions, and yet - I can't quite put my finger on it. The picture is subversive. It's not about glory, that's for damn sure. It's about loss, although it might be about redemption, too, but it doesn't promise us much comfort.

*

Some years later, I wrote a spy story called The Bone Harvest, set in the early onset of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I have to wonder, the way we do, how much was I influenced by Red Dawn? Which might seem like a dumb question, but let's be honest, we pick up all kinds of stuff, attracted by its texture or reflection, like beach glass or bottle caps. Hemingway once said no decent writer ever copies, we steal.


If in fact I took something away from Red Dawn for my own book, I hope it was a certain naive muscularity, the notion that you can will something to happen. I don't mean this in the meta-sense of getting a book written, I mean that the story I wanted to tell was how raw determination could put boots on the ground. Stubbornness a virtue, not playing well with others. If that's the lesson, it's not just the story arc of Red Dawn, it pretty much defines John Milius' career, but you could have a worse role model.  



10 October 2013

Rewriting History

by Eve Fisher

There is nothing quite like the lure of rewriting history, whether personal, national, or the world at large.  Back in my teaching days, one of the projects students were given was to choose from a list of pivotal points, write what really happened (so that I could know that they knew something about what they were about to mess with) and then what would have happened if...


Charles Martel lost the Battle of Poitiers in 732 CE against the Islamic Umayyad Dynasty, which was trying to move up from (current-day) Spain into the rest of Europe.

William the Conqueror had been slain by a stray arrow in the invasion of 1066.  Or pneumonia.  I wasn't picky. 


The Athenians had won the Peloponnesian Wars of 431-404 BCE.  (HINT:  for one thing, Socrates might not have been tried and executed.)

WWI - What if the French soldiers' mutiny of December, 1916 had succeeded?

WWI - What if Russia had stayed in the war under Lenin?

WWI - What if the United States had maintained its isolationist stance and never gotten involved in WWI at all?

WWII - What if Japan had not attacked Pearl Harbor?

WWII - What if Germany had never declared war on the United States?

WWII - What if Mexico had signed a treaty with Germany and declared war on the US?  (Germany actually pursued this.)

WWII - What if Hitler had not invaded Russia, but stuck with hammering England instead?

I had a lot more of these, and the students loved them.  I got some great papers out of them.  People are fascinated by what might have been.

And they're also fascinated with what might have been on the personal level.  We all know people who are trapped in the "what might have beens", longing, looking, wishing that somehow they could change the past.  This desire to change history is one of the reasons, I think, so many people find it so hard to forgive, and I'm not just talking about the big stuff - because what they really want is not an apology, but for whatever it is NEVER TO HAVE HAPPENED.  And that's impossible, unless the alternate universe theory is true, and even if it is, fat lot of good it does us in this universe.




And, let's face facts, we've all played the game (I believe) on the personal level.  What are the five things that you wish you could change about your past?  If five are too many, try three.  Or one.  What would that change about who you are today?  Would it be worth it?  Maybe.  Maybe not.  I wish I had never started smoking (I'm proud to say that, as of this writing, I have been 3 years cigarette-free, which is still amazing to me).  I wish I had moved to that place, or stayed there, and a few other things I'm not going into here...  But then again (other than the cigarette thing), maybe not.

The truth is, I kind of like being my cranky, eccentric, bookaholic, mystery-writing, perambulating, muttering, sharp-tongued self.  I don't know that I'd trade it in on an alternate Eve.  But it's an interesting thing to think about. 







PS - Which of the above historical "what ifs" would you have picked? 

14 August 2013

Fatherlands

by David Edgerley Gates

We were just walking out of CASABLANCA, the new picture starring Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan....
I always thought this would be a cool opening line for a story, setting up the alternate history angle from the get-go. (There are plenty of these might-have-beens. The original casting Peckinpah wanted for THE WILD BUNCH, for example, was Lee Marvin and Brian Keith.) In the case of CASABLANCA, though, this was a misleading Warners PR plant: Bogart always had a lock on the part.

Alternate history is an interesting genre, usually lying somewhere on the outskirts of SF or even fantasy. The first one I remember reading was packaged in an Ace double novel, and I've forgotten the title, to my chagrin, but the premise was that the Spanish Armada had successfully invaded England, so Spain became the dominant European and New World power for the next four centuries. Often the key to alternate history is just such a defining event. If typhus hadn't ravaged Hannibal's armies in Italy, Rome would have remained a provincial backwater, and Carthage taken control of the Mediterranean trade routes.

What if the Germans had won WWII? This being an enduring subset of the genre, and a fascinating one. Len Deighton's SS-GB takes place in an occupied Great Britain, after the RAF loses the air war. Robert Harris hit the ground running with FATHERLAND, an enormously spooky thriller, hinging on the plausibility that all evidence of the Holocaust could be destroyed, and the memory of mass murder erased from the historical record. The precursor of both these books is Philip K. Dick's THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE.


Japan occupies the West Coast, to the Rockies, Germany the East Coast, to the Mississippi. A weak buffer state exists between them. The engine of the story is the struggle of the two great Axis powers against each other, worldwide, a Cold War that's about blow wide open, and there are also factions and succession rivalries, inside the Reich. The conspiracies, though, are the backdrop to more intimate and familiar characters, and the mechanisms they develop for living in a police state---the Japanese hegemony is nowhere near as brutal, on a daily basis, as the German.

Three dramatic devices surface and resurface all through the book. The first is historicity, the quality an object or an artifact has to absorb and embody the past, a Zippo lighter Franklin Roosevelt may have had in his pocket, say, when he was assassinated in 1932. The play between the counterfeit and the authentic mirrors the storyline. Are we imagining all this? (And there's a huge black market in fakes, such as Zippo lighters.) The second meta-device is a novel within the novel, an alternate history, in which the Allies turn out to have won the war. But this fiction isn't quite the world as we now know it, either. It's skewed in other, odd ways, so again, 'reality,' or authenticity, is slippery, a construct, really, and not immutable. This idea is doubled on itself with the third device, which I think is utterly inspired. Every character in the book consults the I CHING, and the fall of the yarrow stalks or the coins establishes fate. In fact (or, in 'fact'), the novel within the novel is written using the I CHING, each fictional historical development a roll of the dice, in effect. Or to put it another way, pay every attention to the man behind the curtain.

None of this is meant to suggest THE MAN IN THE HIGH CASTLE is self-indulgent, or some elaborate post-modernist prank. It's mischievous, and often deceptive, but always highly entertaining, and entertains the unexpected. Nobody in the story is flat, or arbitrary. Everybody holds their own as a fully-fleshed person, and each of them holds their own future in trust, however the yarrow stalks may fall. The great strength of the book is probably that character is fate, and nothing is fated. There will always be defining events, but history is accident. The choices we make are only inevitable in hindsight. For there to be an alternate reality, we have to decide first which fiction we believe.