Tuesday, 26 February 2013

FILM REVIEW

The Descendants and The Dilemma (2011)

Released in 2011, these two films strictly don't make the Overlooked Films grade at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom this Tuesday. If they do it's because I overlooked them.

Sunday night, I went to bed after watching Matt King (George Clooney) agonise over the secret affair of his dying wife Elizabeth (Patricia Hastie) and the gulf between him and his two daughters in The Descendants. I thought I’d wake up just before 6 am, Monday, do yoga, have a cup of tea, and catch the Oscars live. I overslept, though the milkman rang twice. Instead, I watched a recording of the Academy Awards at 8 pm and missed out on a rerun of the very enjoyable Everybody Loves Raymond at half past eight.

The half-hour or so of red carpet stayed true to the cobwebbed script and then the greatest show biz on earth started. Seth MacFarlane, a young man with gleaming white teeth (an Oscar for his dentist, please), came on stage with a quiver full of bawdy jokes and ill humour. I have absolutely no idea who MacFarlane is. I googled and discovered that he is an “American actor, voice actor, animator, screenwriter, comedian, producer, director and singer.” I still don’t know who 
MacFarlane is. I wonder if he thinks he looks like Gene Kelly. 

Ten minutes into the MacFarlane-Shatner enterprise and I was shattered enough to switch channels. I caught Alexander Payne’s The Dilemma on HBO and this time around found Ronny Valentine (Vince Vaughn) agonise over the secret affair his best friend and business partner Nick Brannen’s (Kevin James) wife Geneva (Winona Ryder) is having with a complete stranger.

Two men torturing themselves over the extra-marital affairs of two of the most trusted people in their lives. Another man tormenting millions of viewers from Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. The week had ended and begun on one heck of a note.

Just the previous night, I had seen Clooney, a Hawaiian land owner in half pants and seemingly without a shave or bath for days, trying to come to terms with his comatose wife’s fling with real estate agent Brian Speer (Matthew Lillard). She is off life support, as per her will, and is about to die. Clooney decides that the only way to get over the pain of betrayal is to confront her lover and ask him to say a final goodbye to his wife while she is still alive (who does that? Clooney is nuts!). Instead, his wife Julie Speer (Judy Greer), who I mistook for Tilda Swinton, lands up at the hospital and, between loud sobs, forgives her for sleeping with her husband.
 


Give the man a break, will you? I mean, look at Clooney. Inside Dolby Theatre, he looked like he hadn't shaved since attending his ‘wife’s funeral’ and ‘making up with his daughters.’ On top of it, you have MacFarlane (above) jabbing him with sexual innuendos over poor nine-year old Quvenzhané Wallis, nominated for Best Actress for Beasts of the Southern Wild, and throwing a small whisky bottle at him.

Clooney was actually smiling. What could he do? He was in the front row. Well, he could have thrown his shoe at MacFarlane. Angry Indians often fling their shoes and chappals at politicians and ministers.

Meanwhile, Seth MacFarlane’s audacious ‘boob’ number, in spite of its deft execution, was enough to make me switch back to The Dilemma where Vince Vaughn, who is living in with Beth (Jennifer Connelly), is fighting his own demons—to tell or not to tell Kevin James the bitter truth about his wife. The delay in opening up to his best friend lands Vaughn in trouble with family and friends.

Vince Vaughn is tall, big, and loud while Kevin James is short, fat, and quiet, but they click together, even though Vaughn grabs all the attention like a spoilt child. They reminded me of that other long-and-short couple, Will Smith and Kevin James, in Hitch. You wonder if director Ron Howard was reliving a successful formula.

The Descendants and The Dilemma with a somewhat common thread are reasonably good films that you can watch if you have a lot of free time or, better still, avoid agonising over Seth MacFarlane’s emceeing at next year’s Oscars.

Sunday, 24 February 2013

BOOK REVIEW

The Hessian by Howard Fast (1972)

American novelist Howard Fast is a wonderful storyteller. Like Jeffrey Archer across the Atlantic. Many of their books, especially Fast's, have historical and biblical significance; their stories are plain and simple, yet compelling; their narrative and substance is devoid of hyperbole; and their characters are extraordinary in an ordinary sort of way.

Howard Fast died in 2003 but I refer to him in present tense because of his impressive body of work comprising some 50-odd novels that include the Masao Masuto Mysteries under the E.V. Cunningham pseudonym and a few works of non-fiction and short stories. I haven't read many yet.

I read Howard Fast books many years ago and, I think, The Hessian is his first book I read this century. It turned out to be an educative and entertaining read, a fictional account of what might have been a factual event.

Author Howard Fast
© Wikimedia Commons
The Hessian is set during the American Revolutionary War or the American War of Independence in the second half of the 18thcentury. The Hessians were German soldiers hired by the King of England to fight against the 13 colonies that revolted against Great Britain’s rule. The Hessians were so called because a majority of the soldiers came from the Hesse region of Germany. They were called “mercenaries” by the American colonists.

The Hessians wore boots and shining black hats and green jackets with bright yellow facings, sported waxed moustaches, and carried bayonet scabbards that slapped against their thighs. The sight of the Hessians, as they marched in tandem with the beat of drums, sent chills down the spines of their opponents.

The story in The Hessian is narrated in the first person by Doctor Evan Feversham, a colonel in the Continental Army (a precursor to the United States Army) during the American Revolution. He is a Catholic from England and married to a Protestant woman. He lives with her community and practices medicine on the Ridge in Connecticut, in the New England region.

A detachment of 16 Hessians preceded by a youthful drummer boy named Hans Pohl and their commander Wolfgang Hauser disembarks from a British frigate and marches towards the Ridge. They belong to the Jäger Regiment, a German light infantry unit.

Hessian soldiers
© Wikimedia Commons
As the troops make their way towards the Ridge, they meet Saul Clamberham, an orphaned and oversized halfwit, and hang him to a tree. The lynching is witnessed by Jacob, the 12-year old son of farmer Raymond Heather, a Quaker, who lives on the Ridge with his family.

The news of Saul Clamberham’s killing spreads through the Ridge. In no time Squire Abraham Hunt, the rigid and influential Yankee aristocrat and chief of the local militia, leads a band of armed men in ambush of the Hessians and kills them in cold blood, even as Doctor Feversham, his medical kit in hand, watches in horror and helplessness.

In the mayhem, Hans Pohl, the drummer boy, is seriously wounded but manages to escape and is eventually sheltered by Raymond Heather’s courageous and compassionate Quaker family which, apart from his son Jacob, includes his wife Sarah and 16-year old daughter Sally.

As Doctor Feversham treats and heals the drummer boy, he realises the enormous sacrifices made by the Quaker family in protecting Hans Pohl, the surviving Hessian. He is nursed back to health by Sally who falls in love with him. This is their story.

Meanwhile, Squire Hunt, who has certain differences with Doctor Feversham, is desperately hunting for the drummer boy so they can try him for murder of Saul Clamberham and hang him. The Squire and the small New England community he represents believe in an eye for an eye and tooth for a tooth because they know no other way in war. Theirs is a land without mercy.

If I go any further, I’ll have to sound a spoiler alert.

This period image shows Hessian soldiers as heartless warriors.
© www.ushistory.org

While the hunt for the sole survivor of the brutal Hessian massacre on one hand and a beautiful girl’s love for the drummer boy on the other form the main plot of The Hessian, there are several elements in the story that I found interesting.

For example, narrator Doctor Feversham has seen the worst of war and he is in a perennial state of mental conflict over what is right and what is wrong, frequently brooding over the “desolate wasteland” of his life and the “meaningless fragment” he has become on the Ridge. The Heather family’s kind attitude towards Hans Pohl and their willingness to take him as their own reveals to him the goodness in people, in this case the Quakers on the Ridge.

Feversham, a Catholic, is unable to come to terms with the Protestant community’s hunger for Hans Pohl’s blood even as his wife Alice tries to clear his misgivings by stating, “We are not barbarians, Evan, we are plain Christian people who were persecuted and driven for a hundred years before we came to this land.” A bitter Doctor Feversham remains unconvinced.

Squire Abraham Hunt is determined to hang the surviving Hessian even as he battles his conscience, indicated subtly in the overall narrative.

Doctor Feversham’s unspoken and undeclared love for Sarah Heather adds to his emotional conflict but he remains loyal to his American wife, Alice, who knows he continues to harbour feelings for the Quaker woman.

At 219 pages, The Hessian is a poignant and compelling story but it lacks the intensity, particularly the avowed passion between Hans Pohl and Sally Heather, which one might expect at the start of the book. Instead, the narrative focuses more on Doctor Feversham’s inner battles that rage in the backdrop of a war that has thought man to hate and to kill. Although the story moves at a fairly dramatic pace, you can guess the events as they unfold right up to the end. Nonetheless, Howard Fast has written The Hessian in his inimitable style, a unique historical story told in a beautiful way.  


Notable lines from the book

“Believe me, there are no better soldiers in the King’s army than the Hessians and it was no great risk for them to come up onto the Ridge with sixteen muskets.”

“God damn that,” I cried. “Every soldier who set foot from a ship onto our soil killed for hire—Hessian, British, French, Scot! What damn difference does it make? They all kill for hire! This whole filthy game is played for hire! I’m only asking you not to make us like them, to show some Christian mercy!”

“No one in his right mind wants war in his back yard, and since the war was down in Virginia now, only a damn fool would take measures to introduce it into Connecticut.”

“What eats you, Feversham? You were a soldier, I was a soldier. When we fought the big battle on the other side of the Ridgefield, there were ten times that many dead, and not Germans either but our own kids. You want me to weep for them?”

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Crime fiction anthology for Maxine Clarke

This post is long overdue. 

Maxine Clarke © www.nature.com
On February 10, Margot Kinberg, mystery novelist, university professor, and prolific blogger, announced a novel project on her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist… by way of a well-deserved tribute to Maxine Clarke who passed away in December last year.

Maxine, as many of you know, loved crime fiction and supported crime fiction writers in many ways. At her blog Petrona, Maxine used to write about “intelligent crime fiction from around the world” and introduce readers to many new writers and their books. Her reviews of crime fiction novels were read widely. I looked forward to reading her final word on the book in the last paragraph of her review. She also worked as an editor at Nature. You can read the science magazine's tribute to Maxine here.

In her memory, Margot will compile an anthology of crime fiction short stories and the proceeds from the collection will go to the Princess Alice Hospice, UK, which was very supportive of Maxine and her family in their hour of need.

“Maxine Clarke was an avid reader and strong supporter of crime fiction and crime writers. The world of crime fiction lost one of its dearest members and I lost a good friend when Maxine passed away in December 2012. As a way of giving back just a little of what she gave to us all, I’ve decided to put together a crime fiction short story anthology,” Margot says in her February 10 post.

Margot has invited authors to contribute stories for her proposed anthology, whose focus will be “on crime in the world of editing, publishing, writing and/or reviewing.” Readers can help by spreading word about the project. It deserves to reach as many people as possible, both writers and readers of crime fiction.

For more details about this project, you may write to Margot Kinberg at margotkinberg@gmail.com.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Something happened

Not very unlike what happens to Bob Slocum in Joseph Heller’s namesake book. Little events not connected to each other…a global conference, slight indisposition, dental treatment, procrastination, work overload, print deadlines, lethargy…enough to drive me round the bend and question my sanity. Before I knew it, I had stayed away from my blog for a week though not from other blogs. Frankly, it felt good. 

I used the self-imposed and self-inflicted diversions doing a little of this and that. I read very little during this period. I am still ploughing through The Iron Tiger by Jack Higgins and Transplant by Frank G. Slaughter, authors I'd usually finish reading in a couple of days. The Great White Army by Max Pemberton remains on the backburner. Pemberton is a very good writer and his books deserve to be read and reviewed. They are available on the internet.

At this point reading a book seems like an uphill walk. I have had more luck with comic-books.

I bought and read part of a western comic-book Wes Slade: The Living Dead, written and designed by George Stokes who initially drew it as a comic strip for Britain’s Sunday Express. While the black-and-white illustrations are fantastic, the print in the speech bubbles is tiny and hard on the eyes.

I also purchased a handful of Amar Chitra Katha (Immortal Picture Stories), India’s indigenous and largest-selling comics that retell stories from Indian history, epics and mythology, and fables and folklore. I picked up The Story of the Freedom Struggle that affords a chronological look at India’s independence movement from the time the British occupied the country in early 19th century to its independence on August 15, 1947. Although I know most of the famous and the not-so-famous freedom fighters of India, thanks to my school history textbooks, this particular comic-book threw up several unsung heroes and their selfless acts of valour.

The other three ACK comics I bought were Tales from the Upanishads: Tales of Peace and Wisdom, the ancient Hindu scriptures; Sea Route to India: In Quest of the Ultimate Destination, which explores the trade expeditions to India by European explorers like Bartholomew Diaz, Christopher Columbus, and Vasco da Gama; and Marie and Pierre Curie: A Passion for Science that requires no explanation.

The rest of the week was spent reading a couple of spiritual books and listening to spiritual music, something that I have been doing off and on for years. A little soul-searching always helps.

I hope to get back to active blogging this weekend, hopefully, with a review of The Hessian by Howard Fast, fiction steeped in history, and respond to generous comments left under my posts. For now I have a few more comics to read.


Saturday, 16 February 2013

Stamp of a Writer: Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings


This year marks the completion of 75 years of the publication of The Yearling by American author Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings (1896-1953). The novel, which is now included in the young-adult or teen fiction category, was written in 1938 and won the Pulitzer Prize a year later. It was made into a film in 1946, starring Gregory Peck and Jane Wyman.

Rawlings lived in rural Florida which shaped much of her writing that includes many short stories and novels which, apart from her best-known work The yearling, include South Moon Under (1933) and Cross Creek (1942). The 1932 Gal Young Un short story won the O. Henry Award First Prize.

The Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings Historic State Park in Cross Creek, Florida, will celebrate the 75th anniversary of The Yearling with several programmes planned from April 2012 to April 2013.  

"Even after 75 years, this story of a young boy and his pet fawn, as they mature from one spring to the next in the Florida scrub, rings with authenticity and life," the Historic State Park said.

According to the Park's website, "Visitors to this Florida homestead can walk back in time to 1930s farm life where Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings lived and worked in the tiny community of Cross Creek. Her cracker style home and farm, where she lived for 25 years and wrote her Pulitzer prize-winning novel The Yearling, has been restored and is preserved as it was when she lived here." 

The United States Postal Service released the above commemorative stamp in 2008 honouring Rawlings and the literary arts. In 2007, the Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings house and farm yard was designated as a National Historic Landmark.

Below are a few of her quotes that include lines from The Yearling and Cross Creek.

"Sorrow was like the wind. It came in gusts."

A woman has got to love a bad man once or twice in her life to be thankful for a good one.

"Somewhere beyond the sink-hole, past the magnolia, under the live oaks, a boy and a yearling ran side by side, and were gone forever." 

"You know what I wisht I had, Ma? A pouch like a 'possum, to tote things."

“Madness is only a variety of mental nonconformity and we are all individualists here.” 

“I do not understand how anyone can live without some small place of enchantment to turn to.” 

“Now he understood. This was death. Death was a silence that gave back no answer.”



For previous Celebrity Stamps, look under Labels.

Wednesday, 13 February 2013

MUSIC & LYRICS

Nightflight to Venus and Take the Heat Off Me
by Boney M.


If you belonged to the disco generation of the 1970s and early 1980s, then you are definitely familiar with Boney M. and most of their popular songs, many of which had biblical overtones. And if you listened to Boney M. in your teens, then I am equally sure you must have listened to Abba too. They belonged to the same disco era though their songs were very different. Most kids of my generation were dedicated fans of Boney M. and Abba and many other music groups and singers of the time like Tina Charles, The Carpenters, BeeGees, Lipps Inc., and Donna Summer. 



We used to listen to these songs on a white-coloured cassette player of Polish make which my father had purchased for a princely sum of Rs.600 ($12). Some of my cousins and friends heard the songs on the more popular National Panasonic with its trademark blue key for Record. Others had Murphy tape recorders.

For a long time I thought Boney M. were an American pop band till I found out that the music group was created in 1975 by German record producer Frank Farian (Franz Reuther) and initially comprised Jamaican-born British singers Liz Mitchell, Marcia Barrett, Maizie Williams, and Bobby Farrell, its public face. As far as I can remember Farrell never sang a full song; instead, he lent his deep and infectious voice to many of the songs sung by the three women in the group. The often bare-chested Farrell died in 2010.



Back then, Brown Girl in the Ring was one of Boney M.'s most popular songs heard and sung at parties in India, although Ma Baker and Daddy Cool were some of their cheekiest numbers. Ma Baker threatened you with her catchy lines that went...

Put your hands on your head and give me all your money
She was the meanest cat
In old Chicago town
She was the meanest cat
She really mowed them down
She had no heart at all
No no no heart at all


Many of the European pop groups like Boney M. and the Swedish group Abba were more popular in Asia than in USA. I suspect not many Americans have heard their songs assuming, of course, that they have heard of the music bands.

I will leave you with two of my favourite Boney M. songs, Nightflight to Venus and Take the Heat Off Me, courtesy YouTube.



Tuesday, 12 February 2013

FILM REVIEW

Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970)

The indefatigable Todd Mason has all the links to yet another edition of Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at his blog Sweet Freedom.

Hogan (Clint Eastwood): “See, I spent two years in a war in the States. Right now, all I'm interested in is money.”

Sara (Shirley MacLaine): “If money is all you care about then why did you fight in that war?”

Hogan: “Everybody's got a right to be a sucker once.”

In Two Mules for Sister Sara, Hogan (Clint Eastwood) becomes a sucker twice when he discovers that the “nun” he rescues from being raped by three Mexican bandits is actually a prostitute.

He suspects the whiskey-drinker, cigar-smoking, badmouthing Sara (Shirley MacLaine) to be more than a devout member of the order of the nuns, but he doesn't find out she is a whore until the end.

Sara flashes her shining cross and invokes the lord’s name so often that it leaves “Mr. Hogan” nonplussed throughout their comic adventure across the border.

Hogan: “I'll say one thing, Sister. I sure woulda liked to have met up with you before you took to them clothes and them vows.”

By then, Hogan and Sara, as unlikely a pair as you’ll see on a horse and a donkey, succeed in their mission of joining hands with Mexican rebels led by Col. Beltrán (Manuel Fábregas) and overrunning a fort occupied by the French, with plenty of gunfire and dynamite.

Hogan, an opportunistic drifter, agrees to help the rebels for half the share of gold hidden in the fort. En route to the rebel camp, he comes across Sara and the bandits. He rescues the nun stripped off her habit and shoots her molesters dead. It doesn’t take long for Hogan and Sara to hit it off: they take an instant liking to each other and become good friends, with Hogan’s suspicions of her true identity lurking not far behind.


I enjoyed Two Mules for Sister Sara for several reasons.

1. It confirmed my belief that Clint Eastwood, the unshaven, rugged and unassuming western hero, looks good as a cowboy on a horse; better than most of his contemporaries did. He was born to play the part with cowboy hat, neck scarf, poncho, six-gun, cigar, drawl, grimace, and all.

2. The film is a light comedy laced with tongue-in-cheek humour throughout its hour-plus length. By the time I was through watching the film, I was wondering if I had seen a western or a romantic comedy. Sample this:

Hogan: “Did I or did I not hear you call me a bastard?”

Sara: “Well! I suppose whiskey can make a man hear anything. Oh, Dear Lord, forgive him for the impurity of his thoughts!”

3. The original score by Italian composer Ennio Morricone who also gave us the memorable music for spaghetti westerns like The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Love the beat.

4. In one scene, Hogan drinks himself to death, nearly, to numb the excruciating pain he is about to feel as Sara pulls out the arrow shot into his left shoulder by the Yaquis, I think the Mexican variant of the Indians. Check out the ingenious way in which Hogan tells Sara to remove the arrow.

I could go on some more but that would spoil the fun. In Two Mules for Sister Sara Eastwood is as Eastwood does in all his westerns, larger than the film and yet inconspicuous in the saddle. MacLaine is not new to a tart’s role: she is as natural as Sara as she is as Irma la Douce. What I liked about this film, in addition to their performances, was the novelty of dialogue between Hogan and Sara.

Don Siegel shot the film entirely in Mexico, most of it on location, capturing the country and the village life in all its naked reality, common to all the spaghetti westerns.

Clint Eastwood owes his success as a western hero in large part to Don Siegel and Sergio Leone. In a fascinating interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actors Studio, Eastwood recounts how he accepted the challenge of working in the first non-American western A Fistful of Dollars co-produced by the Italians, the Spanish, and the Germans that gave the world the unforgettable Man With No Name.

Sunday, 10 February 2013

BOOK BUYS

The Speaker of Mandarin by Ruth Rendell


Last week, I bought nearly two dozen paperbacks from the secondhand bookstore I frequent. The books cost Rs.10 each, less than 25 cents. They were dominated by westerns but also included such books as Transplant by Frank G. Slaughter and The Hessian by Howard Fast, both old favourite writers of mine. I might review The Hessian, a historical fiction, this Friday. 

I also purchased my second book by Ruth Rendell, the famous English crime writer of psychological thrillers and murder mysteries. I have never read anything by Baroness Rendell yet, not even after the purchase of The Copper Peacock and Other Stories last year (I can't say why I haven't read that book yet) or even after reading some fine reviews of her novels on a number of blogs and websites. 

Every author has his or her day, I guess. Ruth Rendell might have hers soon with The Speaker of Mandarin (1983) which I picked up last week. I intend to reverse the singular disservice I have done to her "cleverly plotted" fiction by reading about a murder mystery that takes Chief Inspector Reginald Wexford all the way to China. The last book based in the East that I read was the political thriller The Chinese Assassin by Anthony Grey, the well-known British journalist and author. I recommend all his books, especially the tome Saigon.

The blurb on the back of The Speaker of Mandarin says: "Chief Inspector Wexford always dreamt of visiting China, and was sure he never would. But for once he was wrong..." I think this is a mystery that moves back and forth between England and China. Only way to find out is to read the book.

Now why can't I find the exact covers of books that I buy? Oh, I did! That's the one up there.

Friday, 8 February 2013

BOOK REVIEW

Buchanan’s Siege by Jonas Ward (1973) and 
Blade: The Navaho Trail by Matt Chisholm (1981)

Todd Mason has all the links to this Friday’s Forgotten Books at his blog Sweet Freedom.


Last month, I read two entertaining westerns that were similar in many ways.

Both Buchanan’s Siege and Blade: The Navaho Trail were written by prolific and pseudonymous authors.

While Jonas Ward was William Ard, who wrote detective and western novels with equal ease, Matt Chisholm was Peter Watts, a master of western fiction who also wrote as Cy James, Luke Jones, Duncan Mackinlock, and Tom Owen. Both writers have passed away.

Buchanan’s Siege and Blade: The Navaho Trail have not dissimilar heroes.

Tom Buchanan is a tough drifter. He is strong and dangerous and friendly depending on the situation. He calls himself a “peaceable man” and doesn’t like guns because he has had his share of firearms. In this novel, at least, he doesn’t wear a holster in the beginning, preferring to parley with friends and enemies. Buchanan fights for the underdog and once he takes up a cause he won’t leave until he is through with it, one way or the other. He is willing to risk his life for those whose battles he is fighting.

Joe Blade is called the hero of the savage west, and not without reason. Like Buchanan, he is a drifter who takes on dangerous assignments for anyone willing to pay, usually the government. Blade is also a considerate man who doesn’t think twice before sticking his neck to rescue someone from danger, even if it means running into an explosives-ridden school, hauling a wounded man on his shoulders, and running out again. And, like Buchanan, he would rather go about his task peacefully than exchange bullets with the enemy.

Buchanan and Blade, nemesis of evil and all that is unjust on the Frontier, are two good men to have on any side.

A ranch in Laramie, Wyoming. © Library of Congress

While the plot in the novels is different, their theme and setting are quite similar.

In Buchanan’s Siege, the six-foot-four Buchanan is on his way to Buffalo, Wyoming, to help Colonel Brad Bradbury, the owner of the biggest ranch in the country, reach a peaceful settlement with the smaller ranchers and farmers, which actually means forcing them to sell out and walk away. But, Bradbury’s “friends” in the powerful Cattleman’s Association have sinister plans. They want to take over the other ranches and grab their land by brute force, starting with the framing and lynching of farmer Adam Day for rustling. Buchanan hates lynchers and double-crossers and ends up defending Adam Day’s estranged wife, Amanda, and the owners of some of the smaller outfits holed up in the more impregnable stone house belonging to the Kovacs and Raven, the half Crow girl they have adopted. This is where Buchanan’s siege plays out, as the big man and the handful of honest and unthreatening people, including mountain man Dan Badger toting his Sharps rifle, defend the fortress against more than a hundred gunmen of all shades. They have no choice.

The military Sharps rifle, also known as the Berdan Sharps rifle (above),
was used during and after the Civil War. © Wikimedia Commons

In Blade: The Navaho Trail, which takes plays shortly after the Civil War, Joe Blade is on a federal mission to bring back Colonel Warren Haffner for crimes against the Navaho tribe. Haffner, who served under Brigadier General Christopher ‘Kit’ Carson, thinks the legendary frontiersman was too soft on the Indians and hatches a plot to create trouble on the reservation where the Navaho people are living peacefully. Haffner, who lords over his three grown-up sons, kills Juanito, chief of the Navaho, in the hope that it will lead to an uprising in the Navaho Nation, the largest reservation. Armed to the teeth, the insane Haffner and his sons take over the Indian Agency located on the reservation and wait for the Navaho to come to them. With a bloodbath imminent, it is left to Joe Blade and his girl, the vivacious Charity Clayton, to put an end to Haffner’s evil plans and make peace with the Indians.

Navajo chief Manuelito
© Wikimedia Commons
Yet another similarity in both the novels is the important role played by the Indians.
 
While Raven brings her Crow people to help Buchanan and the Kovacs against the Cattleman’s Association in Buchanan’s Siege, it is Indian Police Chief Manuelito who casts his lot with Blade and succeeds in pacifying the Navaho clansmen, thus averting a bloody uprising, in The Navaho Trail. In both the stories, the Native Americans are portrayed as more sensible and restrained compared to the war-hungry whitemen and their divisive and destructive activities.

One of the reasons I enjoy reading westerns immensely is the many fascinating elements in the stories, retold in the backdrop of historical events, places, and characters, with the Frontier always the focal point of the narrative. A recurring theme in these stories is the triumph of good over evil, of right over wrong, of virtue and vice, of the brave and the coward, of honest and hardworking men and women versus greedy men and profiteers, and of the human spirit that never dies.

In Buchanan’s Siege, for instance, the good and brave people, the Kovacs and the Whelans, have seen hard times that would break most others. They would rather face the bullet and go down fighting for the piece of land they worked so hard to build. The Frontier belongs to them as much as it belongs to power-hungry ranchers, cattle thieves, and shady gunmen who lynch innocent men and burn their houses.

As the likeable mountain man Dan Badger tells Buchanan, “Me and them afore me, we didn’t open God’s country for men like these to hog it, to kill other folks. Some of us had a vision, we seen it is the promised land. Everything’s here, all good. Better the Injuns kept it for themselves, so sez I.”

This is the message that Buchanan’s Siege and The Navaho Trail convey to the reader.

At this point I ought to say a few words about the narrative styles of William Ard (Jonas Ward) and Peter Watts (Matt Chisholm) but I seriously cannot because I am not an expert on western fiction and the many excellent writers who occupy the genre. As an outsider, all I can say is that I enjoy reading westerns and I like the way every one of them is written, each absorbing and entertaining in its own way. I might add, though, that I become so engrossed in all the action taking place that I often overlook the style altogether. What I don’t fail to see is the profundity of the narrative and there’s a fair share of it in westerns.


I am looking forward to reading more  books in the Tom Buchanan and Joe Blade series.


References

Cullen Gallagher has reviewed The Name's Buchanan by Jonas Ward (William Ard) at his blog Pulp Serenade.

You can read more about William Ard and his hardboiled detective and western heroes at Dennis Miller's website and about Matt Chisholm — The Man behind McAllister! over at David Whitehead’s website.

Monday, 4 February 2013

FILM REVIEW

Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) and Pearl Harbour (2001)

Over the next three days, I will be covering an international expo and conference on construction equipment and machinery in Mumbai. The mighty machines are good to look at and photograph. Meanwhile, here’s a review of two war films that Zero in on a common theme, for (not exactly) Overlooked Films, Audio and Video at Todd Mason’s blog Sweet Freedom.

Yesterday, December 7th, 1941—a date which will live in infamy—the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.
— President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in his Day of Infamy speech to a joint session of Congress, a day after Japan attacked the Pearl Harbour Naval Base in Hawaii.

Tora means Tiger in Japanese but here
it alludes to a torpedo attack.
Tora! Tora! Tora! is a realistic docudrama about the events before, during and after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour. In contrast, Pearl Harbour is a love story dramatised around the events of that fateful day.

I saw veteran director Richard Fleischer's Tora! Tora! Tora! some 30 years ago, in an old, rundown cinema hall called El Dorado in the tourist haven of Goa, on the west coast of India. Except for one scene, I don’t remember anything about this film. In that scene a Japanese torpedo snakes its way just beneath the earth, past a tall tree, still standing, towards men and women who jump out of its explosive path. This could yet be a sketchy recollection. I need to eat almonds.

I certainly don't remember the roles played by the fine cast of Martin Balsam, Joseph Cotten, James Whitmore, and Jason Robards. But I do remember enjoying the film a lot.

Then, last evening, I watched the final leg of Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbour, which I had previously seen in two sessions (way I usually watch movies on television). The love tangle of Rafe (Ben Affleck), Evelyn (Kate Beckinsale) and Danny (Josh Hartnett) on one hand and the Rafe-Danny friendship on the other does little to elevate the film even though the two related elements are the pivots around which the Japanese bombing of the Harbour takes place. The historical event, which forced America to enter the war, seems like happenstance.

What lifts Pearl Harbour above plot mediocrity is the special effects that make it a visually stunning film, in particular the destruction of the naval base and the US Pacific Fleet by modified torpedoes dropped from the air. In one memorable scene, a warship is shown tilting on its side before turning turtle and taking much of the crew with it. As we see in Titanic (1997), here too sailors slide down the broad deck of the ship and thrown overboard, into the burning sea.

A film like Pearl Harbour, with its historical import, does not require a review; a few observations will suffice. Here are some of mine…

1. I thought Jon Voight made a very good President Roosevelt in the wheelchair. The resemblance is striking. Voight’s FDR is shown smoking a cigarette though I haven’t seen pictures of the real New Deal president smoking one. I know he smoked.

2. One of the things that I don’t like about Hollywood films is the jingoism built into the plot of a film associated with war or an alien invasion. In this film, for instance, Rafe and Danny’s boss, Lt. Col. James Doolittle (Alec Baldwin), mouths lines to stir patriotic fervour among his motley crew of pilots flying to their death. I thought some of his lines were inane and served little purpose. But then, this is Pearl Harbour and America has a right to be super-patriotic. Towards the end Doolittle, Rafe, Danny and some of the survivors salute smartly in what I felt was an overdose of salutes.

The real General James Doolittle
Incidentally, General James Harold “Jimmy” Doolittle was an American aviation pioneer and a lieutenant colonel in the USAF during WWII. He was assigned to Army Air Forces HQ and led 16 B-25 bombers on a secret mission to bomb targets in Japan. Spencer Tracy also played Doolittle in Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (1944).

3. Apparently, Baldwin’s portrayal of the distinguished general created a furore among those who knew Doolittle. I can partly see why. He appears out of sorts as the commander of a task force out to avenge the attack. He looks as if he is on a picnic. The depth and intensity of the character, in the backdrop of the horrific invasion, is missing. In fact, he looks little different from his character in It’s Complicated (2009) where he woos ex-wife Meryl Streep.

Alec Baldwin as Lt. Col. James Doolittle
4. Petty Officer Dorie Miller (Cuba Gooding Jr.) has a bit role in the film. In spite of graduating from the academy, he is assigned a cook’s job. When his ship is attacked and his mates fall around him, an enraged Miller grabs hold of an anti-aircraft gun and downs a couple of Zeros — “Yeesss!”

Of the three main actors, only Hartnett shows intensity of character. Affleck and Beckinsale are rather expressionless. Their ordinary love story apart, Pearl Harbour scores high for its historical value and special effects, as does Tora! Tora! Tora!

Friday, 1 February 2013

BOOK REVIEW

British Comics: Commando, Love Stories, 
and All Girls

Evan Lewis has the links to this Friday’s Forgotten Books at his blog Davy Crockett's Almanack of Mystery, Adventure and the Wild West where you’ll find many interesting entries. 

A childhood without comics is like a newspaper without the comics page.

Issue No.1, July 1961
Last Friday, I took a trip down memory lane and relived the many hours I spent reading the Hardy Boys with my childhood friends. Not surprisingly, I took a few blog friends with me on this nostalgic whirligig. We shared the joys of reading the adventures of amateur detectives Frank and Joe, and Nancy Drew.

A week later, I am still in memory lane, pottering around in the library of my youth, shaking the dust from some more books, and comics, I read as a kid. Of these I have fond memories of three kinds of comic-books I read back then—war, romance, and young adult.

These comics had four common features: their pocket size, impressive cover art, black-and-white illustrations, and speech bubbles. Otherwise, the themes and stories were as different as Daredevil and Donald Duck.

Commando: For Action and Adventure (originally known as Commando War Stories in Pictures), published by D.C. Thomson and Company of Dundee, Scotland, since 1961, remains my favourite war comic-book, though there have been several offshoots the size of your palm.

The Commando comics, numbering more than 4,000 including reprints in celebration of 50 years in 2011, are usually set during WWII and feature stories of bravery, friendship, patriotism, nobility, defection, and cowardice. Most of the time the enemies are the Nazis and the Japanese, who are depicted as very evil, but it is not uncommon to see an Allied soldier and a German soldier becoming friends and risking their lives to save each other. In a typical scene one enemy soldier will carry the other on his shoulder and run to safety. In one particular comic, two enemy soldiers discover, in the thick of battle, that their fathers knew each other, as friends or foes I don’t recollect.

My favourite Commando comics are the ones where the battle plays out in a different war theatre, such as North Africa, the desert sands of Arabia, or the battlegrounds of Indo-China. Likewise, I have a preference for non-combat troops like the French and Italian partisans who fought alongside the Allies.

There is no dearth of ideas for the storyboard and nearly every one of the 68-page comic-book seems real. The stories are fictional, of course, but they leave you wondering if the events really took place. The comics are known as much for their cover art in colour and black-and-white sketches inside as they are for the stories and their often exaggerated plotlines.

Their popularity is evident in the continuation of the series over more than 50 years, new reprints in a size falling between a pocketbook and a regular comic-book, and omnibus editions. These modern-day Commando comics sell for Rs.60 (a little over $1) in India. However, a few years ago, I was fortunate enough to buy a big lot for as little as Rs.5 (almost free in dollar terms), all original.

Unlike Commando, which I still read, I don’t have much recollection of the pocket-sized romance comics called Star: Love Stories in Pictures published by D.C. Thomson or Love Story Picture Library published by the Amalgamated Press, both British imprints. These romance comics also had covers in colour and illustrations in black and white. The stories and pictures were never erotic or vulgar and kissing was the maximum you could get out of a man and his gal. They were milder versions of M&B except they were in comic-book format.

D.C. Thomson, which used to publish the popular Beano and Dandy comics, also brought out a series of pocket-sized comics for young girls under the age of 16. These were known as Bunty, Judy, Mandy, and Debbie. In later years, some of these comics, Judy in particular, were merged with Emma and Mandy and it’s all very confusing. If I remember correctly, the comics were only titled as Bunty, Judy, Mandy, and Debbie and there were no real characters by those names. 

The comics told stories about the everyday lives of teenage girls, their trials, their triumphs, and their glories, with a moral in the end. The all-girls comics were around until the 1990s and I think they have long ceased publication.

Do you remember reading any of these comics? What are your memories of early comic-books?