Showing posts with label wars. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wars. Show all posts

14 October 2020

The Charge of the Light Brigade (1968)


I saw Tony Richardson’s Charge of the Light Brigade in London, the year it came out, and was enormously impressed.  (Apparently the U.S. release was cut by some six minutes, and the DVD is missing that footage.)  Watching the picture again – has it really been fifty years? – I recognize its strengths and weaknesses, but I think I gave it more credit than it was due, at the time.

 

For example, what is Vanessa Redgrave doing in the movie?  She was big box office, after Blow-Up and Camelot, but her character in Light Brigade is a superfluous distraction.  She sleeps with her husband’s best friend, but other than demonstrating the impenetrable superficiality of the ruling classes, it has no dramatic purpose.  For another, they don’t manage to make it entirely clear why Cardigan leads the Light up the wrong valley, and charges directly into the Russian cannon, instead of flanking them – which leaves a pretty big hole in its pretense to historical accuracy.

 



That being said, the movie has wonderful virtues.  The production design, which conjures up the dense ecosystems of David Lean’s postwar Dickens adaptions, and the cinematography by David Watkin, he of Robin and Marian, Chariots of Fire, and Night Falls on Manhattan.  But chiefly, the inspired casting.  Some of the actors weren’t even Richardson’s original choices – amazingly, Trevor Howard as Lord Cardigan, a part Richardson offered to Rex Harrison.  No disrespect to Rex, but seriously?  In a career that includes Brief Encounter, The Third Man, The Roots of Heaven, and Sons and Lovers, watching Howard chew on his mustaches in this performance is nothing short of heart-stopping.  His glaring matches with Harry Andrews as Lord Lucan (in life they were brothers-in-law and cordially disliked one another) are sulphurous.

 


Howard and Harry Andrews aside, there’s the gloriously nasal John Gielgud as Raglan; the inimitable Peter Bowles (later of Rumpole) at his most fatuous, and Jill Bennett as his lion-hunter of a wife; tragically memorable, Norman Rossington, Albert Finney’s best mate in Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, the Beatles’ manager in Hard Day’s Night, as the Sergeant Major compromised by his commanding officer, Cardigan, and broken to the ranks – one of the more brutal and graphic flogging scenes in any movie.  David Hemmings, though, is disappointing in the pivotal role of Nolan, too languid and too pretty.  (And reportedly insufferable during filming.)

 


The other point to make is of course the context.  Like many pictures from the late 1960’s and early 70’s, Charge of the Light Brigade falls under the shadow of Viet Nam.  In this case, not so much metaphorically, because the Crimean War was itself a huge folly.  The mismanagement of the war, and the management of public opinion, were two sides of a coin.  Cardigan was a hero in Great Britain after Balaclava; Lucan was in disgrace.  It was years before Cardigan’s reputation began to suffer, and even after he was exposed as an incompetent, there were people who refused to believe it.  (Cardigan’s bravery wasn’t doubted, but his leadership was a joke.)  The very real benefit that came out of the Crimea’s “confusion of purpose” was the reform of the British Army that did away with the purchase of commissions and brought in a policy of promotion by merit.  Not perfect, but a start.

 


Viet Nam was often seen at right angles, or in reflection, not in our direct gaze.  Lost Command, Mark Robson’s version of Larteguy’s The Centurions, came out in 1967, and The Green Berets in ‘68.  They weren’t box-office bombs, but opinion was divided on their merits.  The more common approach was peripheral.  M*A*S*H supposedly took place during KoreaNicholas and Alexandra is a lot more about the year of its release, 1971, than it is about the fall of the Romanovs: it’s Nixon, Cambodia, and Kent State.

 


Charge of the Light Brigade came out in 1968, after the Tet Offensive.  The timing is coincidental, but the movie’s antiwar sentiments were sharpened considerably by what was widely viewed as an American military and political embarrassment.  (Historically, it was a defeat for the NVA and Viet Cong, but the public perception in the U.S. and Europe was quite different.)  Light Brigade, then, becomes a provocation, and a warning against foreign adventurism.  It’s not about a war a century old, but a war very much in the here and now.  And the generals bickering over who gets the blame for the slaughter remind us uncomfortably of the tone-deaf Westmoreland, with his talk of a light at the end of the tunnel.  No accident. 

 

We imagine we made peace with Viet Nam.  Not with Viet Nam per se, a country that makes us sweatshop sneakers, but with Viet Nam as an American failure, which is complete nonsense.  Missing in Action is psychological denial, Chuck Norris fighting the war over again, but winning this time.

 

Charge of the Light Brigade is a moment frozen in time.  Not the Crimea, but 1968.  It betrays its own period.  I don’t think it’s a bad picture, far from it, but I think it shows its age.  You look at a movie like The Thin Man, and admire or indulge its representation of its own time and place, but still think it has a universal charm, whether or not it’s dated.  You give it the benefit of the doubt.  Light Brigade is too much the product of its own particular period; it can’t breathe.  It’s trapped in its immediate context.  That immediacy, which made it seem so genuine and alive back then, makes it an artifact now.  It’s a fossil.

11 June 2014

Treading Water


[I was of two minds whether to post this at all, since it's bound to piss people off on both side of the divide, but it's really more a piece about politics, than in itself political. You're welcome of course to take issue with me, but I'm not trying to tell you how to vote.]
The biggest mistake John Kerry made in his campaign for the presidency was not to slap down the Swift Boaters right away and call them out as liars. (Not that Kerry had any particular qualifications to be president, other than coveting the job since he was an underclassman at boarding school, but you could say the same about Mitt Romney.) The point is that the Swift Boat 'controversy' should never have gotten legs, but Kerry thought the story would dry up and blow away. He woefully underestimated the venom of his opponents, and the shelf life of a Big Lie.

We've been seeing a page out of a similar playbook, lately, and it's equal opportunity. Bush was roundly detested by the Left, and Obama is violently disliked by the Right. Not to rehash the rights and wrongs of going into Iraq, or the disputed failures or successes of affordable health care---I'm talking about three things that have recently dominated the news cycle: Benghazi, the VA scandal, and the prisoner exchange for Sgt. Bowe Bergdahl.

I might as well be clear about my sympathies. Maybe all the facts really aren't in yet, but I think Benghazi is a Republican fever dream. Of course, the real target's Hillary Clinton, and Obama's just collateral damage. The questions raised are what Ambassador Stevens was doing there in the first place, without adequate security; why CIA apparently didn't put State in the loop, that they had contractors in Benghazi; and whether the attack was mounted as a planned terror operation, not a popular demonstration that got out of hand. There's also the issue of whether air support could have been scrambled in time, but that's a non-starter. The fleet commanders in the Med say it would have taken a good two hours to get their planes in position over the target area, and without ground observers to call in fire, you wouldn't know who you were dropping ordnance on. You can research this on your own, and look at the after-action reports. The plain fact is that it was a security failure. It's not a cheap shot, either, to point out that Congress cut the State Department's budget for protective services. In other words, there's enough blame to go around, but I think that game has been pretty well exhausted, and the only purpose of a select committee is to keep the story alive, and to try and make HRC the goat.

On the other hand, the VA scandal is all too real, and a shameful lapse. It may go back to the Bush administration, but it came out on Obama's watch, so he owns it. It's unfair that Eric Shinseki had to fall on his sword, but that's how it goes. Jack Kennedy reportedly said to his CIA director Allen Dulles, after Bay of Pigs, that if this were Great Britain, and a parliamentary system, I'd have to resign. But it ain't, and your head has to roll. This is the hard fact of duty. We hang on princes' favors. Nor is Shinseki entirely blameless. The VA system is enormous. It serves eight million vets, at last count, and its budget numbers in the billions. Gen. Shinseki couldn't possibly be a hand's-on manager, but as they say in the military, you can delegate authority, but not responsibility. I have to say that my own experience with the VA health care system, here in New Mexico, at both the Santa Fe clinic and at the hospital in Albuquerque, has been first-class. I can't speak for other people, but I got timely treatment, I was respected, and there was remedial follow-up. The hospital food sucked, except for breakfast, and even then the coffee was terrible, but what do you expect?

Let's talk about Sgt, Bergdahl, though. This is the one that really gives me a cramp in my bowels. These are the facts as we know them. Bergdahl was captured by the Taliban in 2009. He was held captive for almost five years, and for much of that time, there was no proof of life. In the end, we made a deal. Him for them. Was it honorable, or honest? We got him back. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, a former Afghanistan commander, has said that that's the point. You don't leave a guy behind on the field. (I doubt, too, if Stan McChrystal is much of an Obama fan. The guy fired him.) What else do we know? There's been some selectively-released information, some of it from unnamed DoD sources, muddying the waters.

The most damaging charge is that Bergdahl deserted his post. Then, when his unit sent out patrols to find him, it got guys killed. The train of thought, here, leads from dereliction of duty, meaning it was his own damn fault he got picked off by the guerrillas, to the suggestion that he didn't deserve to be rescued. It wasn't worth the cost, and Bergdahl's got blood on his hands. This is pernicious. The trending storyline seems to be that if you discredit Bergdahl, then everything that followed is the fruit of a poisoned tree. We should have written him off, and anybody who advocated a recovery effort was being careless with men's lives. WTF? No responsible commanding officer or platoon sergeant in the field would sign their name to this. It would damage morale and unit cohesion, for openers, and probably end up getting you court-martialed. You don't abandon your people. It's the first rule of war.

Then there's this whole other narrative. John McCain and Nancy Pelosi – strange bedfellows, they – complain that the oversight committes weren't put in the loop. I'm sorry, but no. That's utter baloney. Trading the guys from Gitmo, and these same five guys, by the way, has been part of the conversation since late 2011. And why is McCain stepping on his dick? He's on record as supporting a trade for Bergdahl the last two-and-a-half years, and all of a sudden he claims he never did. It beggars the imagination, spreading snake oil on troubled waters.

Last but not least, the mantra that We Don't Negotiate With Terrorists. Hello? This is more hooey. Even the Israeli government, who despise Hezbollah, sat down with them to cut a deal for IDF prisoners captured in Lebanon, and released hundreds of suspected terrorists in custody to get their soldiers back. And who in fact were we negotiating with? Not the Taliban leadership, but a subset, the Haqqani network, a CIA client during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and now deeply enmeshed with Pakistan's spook shop, ISI, the very same who admitted no knowledge of Osama bin Laden's safe house in Islamabad. We've been in bed with these dirtbags for years---"I'm shocked, shocked"---and turned a blind eye to both criminal activity, like the drug traffic, and support for terrorism (India suspects ISI involvement in the Mumbai attack, for example).

What are we supposed to make of this? I guess there might be some smoking gun to the Benghazi story, although I don't believe it myself. And for sure the VA health system mess is way beyond damage control, or maybe even repair. It's a complete management failure. But fitting Bergdahl for the noose is something else again. There must be enough ways to poke a stick in Obama's eye, people who think he usurped the presidency, and he's dangerous for America, or just in over his head---not that people of a different political persuasion didn't think the same of George Bush---and I don't why I'm surprised these people have no shame, but it sticks in my craw. It's humiliating. We deserve better. Years ago, during the Red Scare of the 1950's, and the rise of Joe McCarthy, my dad remarked to a friend of his that McCarthy represented the worst product of democracy. This being liberal Cambridge, Massachusetts, she said, "Isn't it terrific that it's embarrassing a Republican president?"

Makes you wonder, really, about whose ox is being gored. I think we start with the political process, and what we actually hope to accomplish by it. Politics is the art of the possible, not scorched earth. The perfect is the enemy of the good.

12 November 2012

Known Only to God


Are you off from work today? Although yesterday, November 11th, was Veterans Day, today is the official legal holiday for government workers and bank employees. I never understood why educational districts in SC didn't (and still don't) schedule Veterans Day as a holiday for students and teachers. After all, what's a parade without kids there to watch and how does the non-holiday instill an appropriate respect among youngsters ?

A little history: World War I, "the war to end all wars," stopped at the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. November 11 was proclaimed Armistice Day. If, indeed, that war had ended all wars, we would still have an Armistice Day, but in 1939, World War II began in Europe.

On November 11, 1947, Raymond Weeks organized a parade in Birmingham, Alabama, to honor American military members for loyal service. He called it a Veterans Day Parade. Later, US Representative Edward H. Rees of Kansas proposed legislation that changed Armistice Day to Veterans Day. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower signed a bill proclaiming November 11 as Veterans Day and issued a Presidential Order for Americans to rededicate themselves to the cause of peace. In 1968, Congress moved the holiday to the fourth Friday of October, but in 1978, the date was returned to November 11 because of its historical significance.

A little explanation: Some people confuse Memorial Day with Veterans Day. Aren't they both meant to honor and thank our military? As I used to tell my elementary students, Memorial Day honors the dead while Veterans Day honors all veterans, both living and dead. They understood that and gladly took part in assemblies and making cards to send to those in the military. (We watched the Veterans Day Parades on television.)

National Veterans Day
Arlington Cemetery,
November 11, 2011.
What they didn't understand was the Tomb of the Unknowns--originally called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier when the unidentified body of an American soldier was buried on a hillside in Virginia in 1921 and put under military guard twenty-four, seven to symbolize dignity and reverence for all of American's veterans . "But, why, Ms. Rizer, why didn't they send him home to his family?"

I explained about the national ceremony every November 11 when the President of the United States or his representative lays a wreath on the tomb and there's a parade of flags and many dignitaries giving speeches, but the question remained, "But why, Ms. Rizer, why was he 'known only to God' and why didn't they send him home to his family?" Back then, it was okay to mention God in the classroom, but even back then, the symbolism of the unknown was difficult, and I didn't want to explain war and corpses to children.

This isn't the photo that went
viral, but it's my favorite of
the Tomb of the Unknowns
because of the lighting.
A photo that went viral on the Internet during Sandy showed the Tomb of the Unknowns being guarded by military during bad weather, and many thought this was actually taken during Sandy. I immediately thought, "What a great teaching tool!" and saved the picture though I'm no longer teaching. Turned out the picture was made in September, but it still made a valid point because the guards did remain on duty during Sandy.

Recently, I cleaned out my mother's bedroom closet. Hanging way back in the corner was a World War II soldier's uniform. It brought back memories. Not that I remembered my dad wearing it though I'd seen pictures of him in uniform, but I recalled a story I'd heard hundreds of times. When the USA entered the second World War, my father was deferred because he was a professor. As he told me,

I knew that one day I'd have a son and he'd ask, "Daddy, what did you do in the war?" I didn't want to have to tell him I stayed home and taught, so I joined the Army. Well, later, I did have a child and I've never been disappointed that you are you and a girl, but could you just one time ask, "Daddy, what did you do in the war?"

And being the sweet spirit I've always been, I always answered, "But Daddy, I love you no matter what you did during the war." I was grown before I realized he really did want me to ask about what he did during that war of national unity, common goals, and war rationing that our generation and especially our children's generation will never understand.

As a child, I assumed that my daddy was
probably one of these men photographed
in February, 1945,
Since then, my life has been filled with military men and women. My father-in-law was retired Navy; my sons' father served in both the Army and Navy; my sons' service has been both Marine and Navy; and my grandson's mother was in the Navy when he was born.

Uniforms have surrounded me most of my days--both personally and in everyday life since Fort Jackson, U.S. Army training facility, is located in my hometown and Shaw Air Force Base is only about forty minutes away.

The recruits look handsome and healthy in their uniforms when they're downtown on leave but sometimes they come back in different conditions.

During World War II, my father suffered permanent injury that led to his being bedridden most of his adult life, and I remember hearing of men who were shell-shocked. (I was grown before I realized they weren't saying "shell shot.") Is there any difference now? Men and women still come home with permanent injuries and with post-traumatic stress disorder.

World War I turned out not to be "the war to end all wars." Why? Students asked, "Why, Ms. Rizer, why is there war?" It's easy to say wars are fought because of differences in beliefs and goals, but I believe the real answer to that question is like the identity of the unknown body in that grave under military guard in Arlington Cemetery--known only to God.
Some of our Iraq and Afghanistan vets.

Veterans Day means more than little flags on graves in our cemeteries and big flags folded and placed in survivors' hands as "Taps" is played. It's more than American Legion and VFW clubs. It's more than the many veterans organizations who provide help and scholarships to vets and their families. It's more than projects like the national program to preserve veterans' memoirs. It's more than flag-waving and parades and a day off from work. It is a time to honor all vets, the living and dead, the healthy and the injured, and to give them our most sincere
THANK YOU!

God, please bless America, our veterans, and their families.