Saturday 23 June 2018

Book Review: Broadsword Calling Danny Boy, Geoff Dyer

Geoff Dyer uses the same (admittedly very obvious) choice of title for his book as I used for my Amazon UK book review of the classic 1969 WWII epic, Where Eagles Dare. This fun little Penguin paperback, published ahead of the films 50th anniversary, essentially embeds a pretty thorough plot synopsis into a more wide-ranging socio-cultural ramble. 

This little book is totally up my boulevard: a relaxed multifaceted review-cum-synopsis of a 'classic' WWII blockbuster. I suppose I'm almost bound to like this, as I write similar-ish if much shorter reviews here. I originally gave the film itself just four stars, because, whilst I do actually love it, there's a lot to be critical of as well. If you're interested, my review of the movie is here.
Festung Hohenwerfen became Schloss Adler for the film. 

Eastwood on his Triumph, during filming.

If I was being harsh I'd give this semicentennial, or golden jubilee 'celebration' of the film just three balkenkreuz. It's very flippant, and slightly self-consciously pleased with itself, in terms of wittiness and cross-cultural cleverness. But, as Dyer makes clear when he quotes Clive James on the subject of film itself, it really is, like the film, damn good fun. Especially if you already know and love the subject. Which I suspect the target market for this will do.

References to childhood viewings, Action Man dolls and their outfits, Airfix kits, and other books and movies, often of similar vintage or subjects, but sometimes casting the net wider (as an art and art history bod, finding a book such as this referencing Anselm Kiefer's art, and mentioning auteur Tarkovsky with great reverence, was refreshingly unexpected) is very soothing and gratifying. So much contemporary cultural production alienates me. It's nice to find something that does the reverse, and resonates or chimes with my own interests.

Der frauleins mit der goodies...

... unt ze baddies.

The only reason I'm giving my copy of this book four and a half balkenkreuz, and not five, is that my free Amazon Vine review copy is a proof edition. Perhaps the real thing will, as well correcting some editorial mistakes and having a nicer cover, also have some pictures? In a book about a film, that'd be a bonus! As already mentioned at the top of this review, the book basically tells the story of what occurs onscreen. And does so pretty comprehensively, and with plenty of wit, and many a cross cultural reference. If you like this sort of punditry - sometimes I do, sometimes I don't - you should like this. 

One Amazon UK reviewer claims this book adds nothing to the enjoyment of the film (but they don't like the film to start with!). I disagree. The book explores, albeit briefly and lightheartedly, a much broader set of ideas that the film triggers, from the ahistorical anomalies - such as Eastwood's post-Elvis hairdo, or the postwar American helicopter [1] - to the sexual under/over-tones, and the mythology and romance that the massive post-WWII film industry (and other mythmakers, such as former SOE agents turned historians) have propagated.

An old poster for the movie.

And this one's a stunner; vertiginous and explosive, like the film.

A short easy read. I read my copy in two relaxed Sunday sittings, the day it arrived. And, dammit, in the time it's taken to finish this review, I've decided that both book and film are going to get five stars, because, frankly - and for all that's wrong with either - I love 'em!


[1] The Germans did actually have a few helicopters by the end of the war. Just not any postwar American ones.

The twin peaks of Ingrid Pitt. [2]

Book me a chalet, right away...

[2] Pitt survived three years in a Polish concentration camp, during WWII.

Thursday 21 June 2018

1/72: Offensive Miniatures, WWII German cyclists, Part 1

An image from the Offensive Miniatures website.

At long last... having had to recently rearrange our lounge, for the umpteenth time, I'm getting back into making and painting my minis! This was why I recently built myself a paint rack, to make space for actually moving my several wargaming projects forward. 

Things kind of stalled. At least on the making and painting fronts. For ages! My first project now is to assemble and paint, and, incidentally, I guess, review my only figure purchase from my most recent Salute. And that is this set of WWII German cyclists, by Offensive Miniatures.

The painted examples looked superb, on the Offensive Miniatures stand, at Salute. I also like a lot of the Defenders of The Reich set. I was rather shocked at the very steep price. I paid £22, making these eight 20mm figures, and their gear, £2.75 each. That is, in my view, way too expensive. But I threw caution to the wind, as they were my only figure purchase of the show.

All eight assembled. [1]

Before I move on to documenting painting, I'll do a quick review if the figures themselves. Obviously I like them. In fact I love them. So how come they don't get a higher rating? Well, for one thing, they're overpriced, in my view (mind you, so are most metal figs these days). And secondly, a number of parts on my castings are less than perfectly cast. I note that even on the company website some of the bike frames haven't cast entirely successfully. And most noticeable of all, my pointing man figure is sans pointing finger! 

Also, as nice as these are, there are some fitting/assembly and pose issues. Getting my riders onto their bikes, and then adding the handlebars so they fitted both onto the bikes and into the riders hands, was pretty tricky and time consuming. And it involved bending stuff. Mostly handlebars, but even bikes and sometimes even hands/arms. I also filed a few hands out, and drilled some of the handlebar mounting holes, to try and get stuff seated and aligned better.

Compare how OM pose this particular figure...

Finding a decent superglue that actually works for this sort of glue up has also been a pain. In the end I'm using a rather pricey Gorilla brand gel type.

In terms of the poses, they are mostly very nice. Offensive figures are a bit on the stocky side. But then so are most 20mm white metal minis. The two open mouthed figures are my least favourite, in terms of looking natural and realistic. Six of the figures are riding their bikes, whilst one stands to the side of his, and another lies prone, on one elbow, field glasses in his right hand. It's nice that each bike is festooned with a different array of clobber, from blankets and boxes to sundry weapons and other gear.

with how I've opted to do it. [2]

I opted to pose my standing guy differently to how they show him on the OM website. They have him holding the bike lengthwise, by one handlebar and the seat. I decided I wanted mine as if 'pushing off', before mounting the bike. So he's holding the handlebars with both hands - which involved angling the front wheel, etc. (as did the bike laying on the floor for the recce fig) - which involved much jiggery-pokery!

Today I undercoated them in grey, and started blocking in base colours.


[1] I'll probably only use a few of the many panzerfaust supplied with these guys. The rest will go in the spares box, for use elsewhere.

[2] I prefer the drama of my solution!

Book Review: Napoleon's Military Machine, Philip Haythornthwaite

An excellent book: wide-ranging and comprehensive, detailed and thorough, and written in clear, precise prose (almost all [1] the 'military buff' type info - inc. technical terms and suchlike jargon - is clearly explained in such a way that the general reader can get to grips with it). The author's expertise in the field appears to be prodigious, making this a fantastic resource for those with a borderline fanatical interest in the subject, like me.

Austerlitz, by Pascal [2]

Nonetheless, I did find one instance where he seemed to be at odds with other sources: in discussing Boney's artillery he states, on p. 49, ''counter battery fire' (artillery firing upon artillery) was rare'. From my limited reading of Napoleonic history I'd got the distinct impression that 'artillery duels' were notoriously common, and, despite the ire and much to the chagrin of commanders, once started, nigh on impossible to stop. Barbero mentions that this significantly affected artillery effectiveness on both sides at Waterloo, in his excellent book The Battle: A New History of the Battle of Waterloo.

The author's companion piece on the British army.

Haythornthwaite has also written an equivalent book on Wellington's army, as pictured above. I don't have that one, as yet. As readers here will no doubt know, he's a very prolific author on military history. He's certainly written some titles about the Russian Napoleonic forces for the Osprey Men-At-Arms series, which I'd like to check out some time soon (with my dormant but still strong interest in the 1812 campaign). But, I wonder, is there a single volume book of this sort on the Russians?

An excellent resource for those interested in the organisation, tactics and campaign history of Napoleon's military machine, living up to it's title admirably.

A Gribeauval 12 pdr, perhaps even one of Napoleon's 'beautiful daughters'?


[1] * I feel books of this sort ought to supply translations of foreign language quotes as a matter of course, and not assume we're all multilingual (wish I was!); Haythornthwaite is amongst those who don't always remember to do this.

[2] This fabulous painting of Napoleon and his immediate entourage, at the height of one of his most famous victories, shows the rich pageant inherent in the military machine of this era.

Wednesday 20 June 2018

Film Review: Master & Commander, 2003

Nautical but nice (boom boom!)

Rollicking good fun. Crowe suits his role perfectly, as Capt. Jack Aubrey - tho' I didn't quite believe in him as a violinist! - and plays it (his role, not the violin [1]) with gusto. Too many modern films sacrifice character and even plot to endless action and special effects. Master and Commander is a near perfect balance of all these things. How refreshing.

Bettany as Maturin, and Crowe as Aubrey. 

Even on board ship, the officer class keep a good table.

As a lover of war films, I feel there are far too few films set in the Napoleonic era (WWII by contrast continues to spawn countless movies). And of those there are, too many are duff. This isn't, thank goodness. I must admit, I really do love the scene that climaxes in the pun, 'One must always choose the lesser of two weevils!' This occurs around the dining table, possible even in the very scene pictured above.

I won't synopsise the plot, as there are plenty of others out there on the interweb who've already done that.

Aubrey and young Midshipman Lord William Blakeney.

Aubrey lends a hand at the guns.

Drawing alongside the french ship, Acheron.

Boarding the Acheron.

There's a good sub-plot, concerning the ship's doctor and naturalist, Dr Stephen Maturin, exploring his friendship with Aubrey, and the conflicts that arise between personal and professional loyalties. Another sub-plot pertains to the Christian/seafaring superstition of 'the Jonah', a curséd soul whose presence brings bad luck to all.

Anyroad, all told this is a very enjoyable depiction of British sea power in the age of sail. I often dislike CGI heavy productions, as they sacrifice everything to visual thrills (and, to my eye, are often so overdone as to look unconvincing anyway). But that's not the case here.

HMS Surprise. [2]


[1] Actually both Crowe and Bettany do a very good job of miming playing their instruments.

[2] Actually a copy of HMS Rose, a sixth rate ship launched in 1757, and actually scuttled before the Napoleonic Wars got underway.

Film Review: Tigerland, 2000

In some very loose way, Tigerland follows the format of Full Metal Jacket, being split between a big first chunk in training, at the eponymous Tigerland training centre (a U.S. Army training facility at Fort Polk, Lousiana), and a second lesser chunk, in combat in Vietnam.

Colin Farrell, as Pvt. Roland Bozz. On a Bus...

... and with his buddy Paxton, hanging out in the latrines.

Full Metal Jacket just seems better on every level; better conceived, better executed, better acted and better directed. Just plain better. Given that Full Metal Jacket's already out there, I'm not quite sure why Joel Schumacher made this more insipid movie.

I don't remember any part of the film being as exciting as this image suggests.*

At the time of first writing this (ages ago now), I had only just watched it, very recently. And yet I could remember almost nothing about it. Other than it seemed to be a papiér-maché light edifice built of weakly acted thinly characterised clichés. I found it reasonably watchable - i.e. I got through it all - but totally unmoving and forgettable. 

Not recommended!

* Actually, I don't remember anything about this film, other than it seemed like a waste of my time.

Film Review: They Who Dare, 1954

Warning: spoilers.

Set in 1942, They Who Dare tells the story of a British Commando Raid on Rhodes, the goal of which is to simultaneously attack and destroy two German airfields, thereby lessening the Luftwaffe presence/threat in the North African theatre, as Monty prepares for El Alamein.

Directed by Lewis Milestone [1], and filmed in Cyprus, in bright technicolor, the intense sun and saturated colour give the film a very strong visual look, which I love. Dirk Bogarde plays Lieut. Graham, a plummy British officer leading a tiny group, comprising just ten men: six British soldiers, two Greek officers, and two local Greeks as guides. 

Lt. Graham (Bogarde, right) and his team. Denholm Elliot at left.

A nice contemporary promo card.

After a briefing on the Greek sub that will drop them off, at which blood red wine is spilt over the map - an ill augur, perhaps? - the mission gets off to a shaky start. First they find their eagerly anticipated water source has dried up, and then Patroklis, one of the local guides, jeopardises the mission by visiting his family, which in turn leads to one of the Greek officers with the expedition injuring himself, whilst trying  to stop him.

The first priority becomes getting water, which proves nigh on impossible. Bogarde gets into a funk, and is ready to return to the rendezvous and scrap the whole mission. But Patroklis' sister and two local shepherd boys come to the rescue, with a priest and a donkey loaded with provisions [2]. The mission is back on. The group splits into two teams, and separates, to do the job.

A selection of attractive period posters for the film. [3]

Bogarde - who I often find rather unsympathetic; he frequently plays abrasively self important characters - is, true to form, a bit of a toff cock. His derring-do at the airfield ends up raising the alarm. And then after that they freak out a nun at the church where they're supposed to rendezvous. She ends up ringing the church bells, thereby blowing their cover. However, that's not all that's blown. 

Mission accomplished?

Bogarde's six man team is down three men, and of those left one is the wounded Greek officer, whereas the other team, lead by caricature-sketching Lieut. Stevens, R.N, are all ok. But they all still have to get back to the rendezvous with the sub. This part of the film is every bit as tense and exciting as the mission itself. And mishap piles upon mishap, such that you anticipate all will be killed or captured. Anyway, I'll leave the plot synopsis there, not wanting to give it all away.

Bogarde, irritating but charismatic. Totally believable as an officer class type. [4]

The delightfully named Alec Mango, as Patroklis, visits his relatives.

As much as I dislike a Bogarde's character, he does have onscreen charisma. A young Denholm Elliot also turns in a strong performance. Many of the other characters verge on caricature, from the portly, jovial Pappodopolous (Eric Pohlman [5]), Captain of the sub, to the rank and file Commandos, with their 'salt of the earth' banter. Having said this, all play their parts well, for all that, and they are a likeable bunch.

The Germans are, in fact, mostly Italians, including the planes. The vehicles look like a strange mish mash, but I didn't see anything beyond uniforms and guns that I recognised as definitely German, or even Italian (except the aforementioned planes). But whilst such issues of inauthentic matériel help ruin a film like Battle of the Bulge, they don't do such damage to this film.

A Daimler Scout Car, badly disguised as an Axis AC.

In many ways this is run of the mill stuff, based around British pluck of a David vs. Goliath variety. But something about it - perhaps the realism of a mission dogged by so many unforeseen problems, perhaps in part the actors, or maybe even primarily the visual side? - makes it somewhat more singular. Not an out and out classic, by a long chalk, but a strong film in its own way.


[1] Milestone is most famous for the 1930 version of All Quiet On The Western FrontHe also directed another film I recently watched and reviewed here, A Walk In The Sun.

[2] Let's be clear: the priest is part of the donkeys' load, he's not carrying anything! In fact, why did they bother? They should've left the priest and loaded more provisions in the donkey. I think the useless priest is included to add local Greek Orthodox colour! Speaking of which, the flute-tooting shepherd boys also serve that purpose. At one point a particularly striking looking young shepherd even contrives to save the Commandos from capture via his mellifluous noodling!

[3] I really wanted to find some pictures of the opening and closing scenes on board the sub. But, aside from the bottom left image to which this footnote is appended, I couldn't find anything usable.

[4] Self-assuredly confident they're born to lead, no matter how badly they do the job!

[5] Pohlman's submarine Capt, whilst a caricature, is endearing. I knew I recognised him. But I couldn't place him. Turns out he's 'The Fat Man' in The Return of the Pink Panther!

Film Review: Attack, 1956

It's 1944, and somewhere near Aachen a platoon of American troops of Fragile Fox company [1] are attacking a German pill-box. Jack Palance plays Lt. Costa, whose 'boys' get badly chopped up by machine gun and mortar fire, their promised support never materialising.

Capt. Cooney (Eddie Albert) is the vacillating, non-committal commander responsible for the debacle. Confronted with a challenge, he simply freezes. Holding his rank by dint of his father's society connections - daddy is a judge (and bully) - his costly failures look remarkably like rank incompetence, perhaps even cowardice. [2]

Lt. Joe Costa (Palance, right), can't stand Capt. Erskine Cooney (Albert, left).

After the initial opening battle sequence, we spend a while behind the lines. Capt. Cooney prepares to receive Lt. Col. Bartlett (Lee Marvin), who he knows from pre-war days, at HQ. A card game with booze and cigars is laid on. Cooney and Bartlett each intend to milk the occasion, laced with Southern bonhomie, for their own careerist ambitions. Cooney wants to win disapproving daddie's approval, by returning home as a decorated war hero; Bartlett seeks postwar office, with Daddy and Cooney Jr. as backers.

But rankling grievances that have been festering just below the surface erupt, and things turn sour. Costa simply cannot contain his anger over the Aachen affair. And it's soon clear that morale in the unit as a whole is close to breaking point, thanks to Cooney's lacklustre leadership. Lt. Harry Woodruff wants Costa to back him up in getting Cooney 'kicked upstairs'. Costa's too jaded to even try. And Bartlett manages to fob Woodruff off, saying that it's 100-to-1 they'll be pulled off the line.

A great still, looking very like a documentary photograph.

Instead, they're caught up in the Battle of the Bulge. Bartlett gives Cooney and Fragile Fox co. the task of taking and holding the strategically important town of La Nelle. Cooney requests Costa's platoon take the key initial position, on the edge of town. 

Like the pill-box near Aachen, it's a dirty dangerous job. But Costa reluctantly if fatalistically agrees, telling Bartlett that if the promised back up doesn't arrive this time, and promptly, and if he loses any more men as a result of Cooney's incompetence, he'll come back and shove a grenade down the Captain's throat and pull the pin!

Pulling the pin on a grenade is an image key to the film's pent-up violence.

Well, it's pretty clear what's going to happen. Exactly how it unfolds, however, is very well handled. Palance is just great, so ruggedly masculine you feel he might well be made of granite! Albert is also excellent, as the less than sympathetic Cooney. Marvin, another amazing looking fellow, is also reliably rugged, but with an added layer of viciously smooth careerist snakeskin. 

Costa is a man who drives himself over the edge, Cooney one who never finds his footing, and Bartlett cracks the whip, as they teeter on the brink. Amongst the officers only Harry retains any balance and composure. Or does he? The film promoted itself with the tag 'rips open the hot hell behind the glory', and has been described as cynical. Certainly it's not a straightforward 'heroes of America fight and defeat their evil foe' type affair.

Palance and friend during filming.

Actually I think it's a quite remarkable film. Palance really is great. His character, whilst extremely charismatic, in a homely yet gung-ho way, is damaged by the war. Yet we sympathise with him. Ultimately we may even sympathise with and feel pity for Cooney, who's the wrong man in the wrong place at the wrong time. Desperate to win the approval of a bullying father, but fully aware he hasn't the character to achieve his goal.

What transpires, over several well managed scenarios, is the evolution of this toxic set-up, under the rigorous strains of modern armed conflict. Us war buffs might grimace at the incorrect matériel - in particular the rather poxy looking M3 Stewart Light Tanks [3] standing in for magnificent panzers - but the film is good enough to surmount such limitations.

Palance prepare to bazooka a 'Panzer'.

Indeed, whilst on some levels this could be seen as a run of the mill WWII potboiler, in others, it clearly isn't. Palance's performance is almost Tolstoyan in intensity, but with a touch of neo-operatic grindhouse ham. There are some familiar faces, like Richard Jaeckel, and some low-budget workaround shots. But there's also an almost Francis Wolff (of Blue Note records, the famous jazz label) aesthetic to the black and white photography, and the opening title sequence. [4]

And in addition to a gripping well performed story, there's the moral complexity and the compromised systems of values that interplay. The denouement is appropriately messy and confused, much like the fighting depicted. Mixing the homely with the brutally cynical, it depicts a sad reality, in which humanity seems to oscillate under the polar lures of compromise and integrity.

Lee Marvin, as the jaded and cynically practical Lt. Col. Clyde Bartlett.

All told, I love this film. Lee Marvin is great, Palance is like some kind of pagan deity in the flesh, attractively primitive and dangerously, combustible volatile, Eddie Albert plays an unattractive role with real vigour and credibility, and William Smithers (who I didn't know prior to this) is the Everyman, trying to fathom his moral compass on the storm-tossed seas of war. Fab!

Smithers as Woodruff, the Everyman character.


[1] The film is based on a play, originally titled Fragile Fox.

[2] In fact actor Eddie Albert was a decorated veteran of WWII!

[3] Aldrich had to buy his own tank, and rent another, to make the film, as the US military refused to cooperate in the making of the film.

[4] It turns out it was graphic design maestro Saul Bass who did the superb title sequence.