The 18th Century in Television

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Recently, I noticed there were a good number of television productions in both North America and Great Britain, set during the 18th century. In fact, I managed to count at least six productions. Astounded by this recent interest in that particular century, I decided to list them below in alphabetical order:

 

THE 18TH CENTURY IN TELEVISION

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1. “Banished” (BBC TWO) – I do not whether this was a miniseries or regular series, but it was basically about a penal colony in New South Wales, Australia; where British convicts and their Royal Navy marine guards and officers live. Russell Tovey, Julian Rhind-Tutt, and MyAnna Buring star in this recently cancelled series.

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2. “Black Sails” (STARZ) – Toby Stephens stars in this prequel to Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel, “Treasure Island”, about the adventures of Captain Flint.

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3. “Book of Negroes” (CBC/BET) – This six-part miniseries is an adaptation of Lawrence Hill historical novel about a West African girl who is sold into slavery around the time of the American Revolution and her life experiences in the United States and Canada. Aunjanue Ellis, Lyriq Bent and Cuba Gooding, Jr. star.

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4. “Outlander” (STARZ) – This series is an adaptation of Diana Gabaldon’s “Outlander” book series about a 1940s woman who ends up traveling back in time to 18th century Scotland. Caitriona Balfe, Sam Heughan and Tobias Menzies star.

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5. “Poldark” (BBC ONE) – Aidan Turner and Eleanor Tomlinson star in this new television adaptation of Winston Graham’s book series about a former British Army officer who returns home to Cornwall after three years fighting in the American Revolution.

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6. “Sons of Liberty” (HISTORY Channel) – Ben Barnes, Rafe Spall and Henry Thomas starred in this three-part miniseries about the Sons of Liberty political group and the beginning of the American Revolution.

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7. “Turn: Washington’s Spies” (AMC) – Jamie Bell stars in this series about a pro-American spy ring operating on behalf of General George Washington during the American Revolution.

 

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) Review

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” (1994) Review

Many television viewers and moviegoers might be surprised to learn that Hollywood had aired a good number of television movies that featured the topic of U.S. slavery. One of those movies proved to be an offshoot of the 1977 miniseries,“ROOTS”. However, another was the 1994 television movie called “RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD”.

The 1994 television movie is a story about the Underground Railroad, a loose network of secret routes and safe houses occasionally used by willing 19th-century slaves in the United States to escape to free states and Canada with occasional aid of abolitionists and allies sympathetic to their cause. Before one assumes this movie is about the history of the actual network . . . it is not. Instead, “RACE TO FREEDOM” told the story of four fugitive slaves from North Carolina, who made the journey north to freedom during the fall of 1850. Since their journey took place not long after the passage of the Compromise of 1850, the four fugitives were forced to journey to Canada, instead of a Northern state above the Mason-Dixon Line.

The story began with two events – the capture of a slave named Joe, who is owned by a North Carolina planter named Colonel Fairling; and the arrival of a guest of Farley’s, a Canadian ornithologist (studies birds) named Dr. Alexander Ross. Fairling is an amateur bird watcher who had invited Ross to observe the migration of certain bird in the area. Unbeknownst to the planter, Dr. Ross is also an abolitionist and newly-recruited member of the Underground Railroad. He has also arrived at the Fairling plantation to offer help to any slaves willing to escape. In the end, four slaves take up his offer – a blacksmith named Thomas; two field slaves named Minnie and Walter; and a house slave named Sarah, who is also Thomas’ love and Joe’s younger sister. After his men’s failure to capture the four runaways, Fairling hires a professional slave catcher named Wort and his slave/tracker Solomon to find and capture them.

Unlike some people, I believe that stories (in novels, movies, television, stage plays) about slavery (in any country) can be told in a variety of ways – as a family saga, a historical biopic, or even as a comedy satire on the sanctity of American history. “RACE TO FREEDOM” turned out to be an adventure tale in the form of a road trip, with history, action and romance for good measure. It is not the first movie about the Underground Railroad I have seen. But it is one of my two favorite productions on the topic.

One of the reasons why “RACE TO FREEDOM” became such a favorite with me is that . . . well, screenwriters Peter Mohan and Nancy Trites-Botkin created a first-rate, solid screenplay. The pair did an excellent job of setting up the narrative with the two events mentioned – Joe’s capture and Dr. Ross’ arrival at the Farley plantation. The screenplay also allowed viewers to become acquainted with the movie’s four protagonists, as they debate over whether or not to make the bid for freedom. It did the same for the two antagonists – the slave catching duo of Wort and Solomon. Mohan and Trites-Botkin’s screenplay also did a solid job of presenting obstacles for the protagonists to overcome, as they made their way north from western North Carolina to Canada. And the screenplay also presented a northbound route that did not come off as implausible. I still shake my head in disbelief over the California-bound route that author George MacDonald Fraser plotted in one of his FLASHMAN novels. But more importantly, “RACE TO FREEDOM” proved to be a first-rate adventure filled with a well-written narrative, solid action, strong characterization, nail-biting suspense, a strong, if not perfect, grasp of history, and a surprising twist in the end.

As I had earlier stated, “RACE TO FREEDOM” featured some strong characterizations. And this would not have been possible without a first-rate cast. The movie included some solid performances from Falconer Abraham, Jennifer Phipps, Peter Boretski and James Blendick. Dawnn Lewis gave a funny and sardonic performance as the pragmatic Minnie. Also, Tim Reid, Nigel Bennett and Alfre Woodward all made solid cameo appearances as abolitionists Frederick Douglass andLevi Coffin, and Underground Railroad conductor Harriet Tubman. However, in my opinion, the movie featured five performances that really impressed me. Both Janet Bailey and Courtney B. Vance gave superb and subtle performances as the two of the four slaves who attempt the journey for freedom. Not only was I impressed by how they conveyed the complex aspects of their respective personalities, I was also impressed by their strong, screen chemistry. Michael Riley gave a very interesting performance as the Canadian ornithologist, Dr. Alexander Ross, who heart seemed to be in the right place, despite his obvious lack of experience with the Underground Railroad. I especially enjoyed his interactions with Vance’s character, Thomas. However, I feel that the two most interesting performances in the movie came from Glynn Turman and Ron White, who portrayed the two slave catchers, Solomon and Wort. The two actors did a superb job in conveying one of the most interesting and complex slave/master relationship I have ever seen on screen. Turman and White really made it easy for me to understand how emotionally complex that relationship can be.

There is a lot to admire about “RACE TO FREEDOM”. However, I did managed to spot certain aspects that I found questionable. The performances of the actors who portrayed Colonel Fairling’s neighbors struck me as wooden and bad clichés of the typical Southern planter found in antebellum South movie and television productions of the last forty years. Two, actor Tim Reid was too old to be portraying abolitionist Frederick Douglass at the time. I guess I should not be surprised. “RACE TO FREEDOM” marked the third time this has happened. Reid was almost fifty when this movie was in production. And the abolitionist was 32 years old during the movie’s setting of 1850. Finally, although I found Alfre Woodward’s portrayal of Harriet Tubman rather entertaining, I found myself wondering why the historical figure was in this movie. Tubman usually operated as an Underground Railroad conductor between the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Canada – which meant she never went anywhere near Cinncinati, Ohio. Yet, this movie had her escorting runaways from Cinncinati. Worse, Trites-Botkin’s screenplay strongly hinted that Tubman was a veteran conductor for the Underground Railroad. This is not true. Tubman had ran away from Maryland in December 1849. She did not begin her activities as a conductor until the late fall or early spring of 1850. During this movie’s time setting, she was as much of a newbie as Dr. Ross.

“RACE TO FREEDOM: THE UNDERGROUND RAILROAD” may not be easy to find. The television movie first aired on a cable network (unbeknownst to me) some twenty years ago. And I would have never found out about it, if it were not for the channel guide I had received from my cable company on a weekly basis. And thank goodness I managed to stumble across it. The production became one of my all time movies – television or otherwise – about U.S. slavery. If you can find it in a store, on Netflix or even on the Internet, I highly suggest that you watch it.

TIME MACHINE: Battle of New Orleans

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TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF NEW ORLEANS

This year marked the 200th anniversary of the last of a series of engagements that marked the Battle of New Orleans. This battle marked the last one of the conflict between the United States and Great Britain, known as the War of 1812.

The Battle of New Orleans consisted of a series of engagements fought between December 24, 1814 and January 8, 1815. The two countries had been at war since June 1812 – for two-and-a-half years. With the end of the Napoleonic War (before it was briefly renewed, thanks to Napoleon Bonaparte’s escape in early 1815), Great Britain was finally able to focus its full attention upon the war against the United States. The British military decided to focus its strategy upon capturing the port of New Orleans, Louisiana, which had been under American control for eleven years. Capture of the city would give the British control of the Mississippi River and sever the Americans’ vital commerce route to the Gulf of Mexico and beyond. Capture of the city would also allow full control of the agriculture industries that dominated the lower Mississippi River Valley region – namely sugar and especially cotton.

The British Army began gathering its invasion force in the summer of 1814. The army’s defeat at Fort Bowyer prevented it from capturing Mobile, Alabama in September 1814. Alerted, the U.S. government dispatched a frantic message to GeneralAndrew Jackson to immediately proceed to New Orleans and defend it. Jackson marched his army from present-day Alabama to New Orleans and arrived in the city on December 2, 1814. Ten days later, a large British fleet under the command of Sir Alexander Cochrane with more than 8,000 soldiers and sailors aboard, anchored in the Gulf of Mexico to the east of Lake Pontchartrain and Lake Borgne. At Lake Borgne, the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy engaged in a battle on December 14, 1814 that left the British victors, but heavily battered. Although the British won control of the two lakes, the battle gave Jackson enough time to strengthen his defenses around New Orleans.

By December 23, 1814; a British Army vanguard of 1,800 troops under Lieutenant-General John Keane reached the east bank of the Mississippi River, nine miles south of New Orleans. When Jackson learn of Keane’s presence, who was awaiting reinforcements at Lacoste’s Plantation, he led a brief three-pronged assault on the unsuspecting British troops, who were resting in their camp. Then Jackson pulled his forces back to the Rodriguez Canal, about four miles south of the city. The unexpected attack made Keane even more cautious and he made no effort to advance. As a consequence, the Americans were given time to begin the transformation of the canal into a heavily fortified earthwork. The main body of the British Army underMajor-General Edward Pakenham arrived on January 1, 1815. The army attacked the earthworks using their artillery. An exchange of artillery fire lasted for three hours. Several of the American guns were destroyed or knocked out and some damage was done to the earthworks. The British guns ran out of ammunition, which led Pakenham to cancel the attack. Unknown at the moment to Pakenham, the Americans on the left of Line Jackson near the swamp had broken and run from the position. Pakenham decided to wait for his entire force of over 8,000 men to assemble before launching his attack on the city.

Pakenham finally ordered a two-pronged assault against Jackson’s position during the early morning hours of January 8, 1814. The attack began under darkness and a heavy fog, but as the British neared the main enemy line the fog lifted, exposing them to withering artillery fire and musket fire. Poor leadership of the British forces, confusion on the battlefield, the swampy terrain and American tenacity combined to create a debacle for the British, as they tried to overcome the parapet that served as the Americans’ defense position. Two large assaults on the Americans were made. Only a handful of British troops made it to the top, but they were either killed or captured. The only British success was on the west bank of the Mississippi River, where a brigade under William Thornton, which comprised of the 85th Regiment and detachments from the Royal Navy and Royal Marines, attacked and overwhelmed the American line. Since Pakenham was dead and both Keane and Major-General Samuel Gibbs were wounded, command of the British forces fell upon Major-General John Lambert. Lambert decided not to renew the attack and withdrew his forces.

In the battle’s aftermath, the Royal Navy attacked Fort St. Philip on the following day, January 9, 1815. The British laid siege to the fort for ten days before its ships withdrew on January 18, 1815. On February 4, 1815, the British fleet, with troops aboard, set sail toward Mobile Bay, Alabama. The British army then attacked and captured Fort Bowyer at the mouth of Mobile Bay on February 12, 1815. The following day, the British army began making preparations to attack Mobile, when news arrived of the Treaty of Ghent. The treaty, which officially ended the War of 1812, had been signed on December 24, 1814; in the city of Ghent, Belgium. The British abandoned Fort Bowyer and sailed toward the West Indies. Although the Battle of New Orleans had no influence on the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, the defeat at New Orleans did compel Britain to abide by the treaty.

For more detailed information on the Battle of New Orleans, I recommend the following books:

*“Battle of New Orleans, The: ‘But for a Piece of Wood'” (1814) by Ron Chapman

*“The War of 1812, Conflict and Deception: The British Attempt to Seize New Orleans and Nullify the Louisiana Purchase” (1814) by Ronald J. Drez

“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

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“AMAZING GRACE” (2006-07) Review

Ever since the release of the 2012 Oscar winning film, “12 YEARS A SLAVE”, there seemed to be this idea – especially with the British media – that Hollywood has remained silent regarding the topic of American slavery. I find this opinion ironic, considering my failure to find many U.K. films on British slavery.

When I first read McQueen’s criticism of Hollywood’s failure to produce a good number of films about American slavery, I decided to check the Internet to see how many slavery movies that the British film industry had produced. So far, I have only come across three – and one of them is “AMAZING GRACE”, the 2006 movie about abolitionist William Wilberforce‘s efforts to end Britain’s participation in the Atlantic Slave Trade.

Looking back upon “AMAZING GRACE”, I could not help but feel that it would have made an appropriate companion piece to Steven Spielberg’s 2012 movie, “LINCOLN”. Although one focused upon the slave trade throughout Britain’s Empire around the Georgian Era and the other focused upon the United States’ efforts to officially end slavery during the last year of the Civil War, both explored the political impacts on the institution of slavery in their respective countries. But there were differences. “AMAZING GRACE” focused upon the end of Britain’s official participation in the Atlantic slave trade and received only a few accolades. “LINCOLN”, on the other hand, focused upon the end of slavery altogether (the country’s participation in the slave trade ended around the same time as Great Britain) and received a great deal of accolades.

“AMAZING GRACE” begins in the middle of its story with a very ill William Wilberforce traveling to Bath with his cousin Henry Thornton and cousin-in-law Marianne to Bath for a recuperative holiday in 1797. The Thorntons decide to play matchmaker and introduce him to their friend, Barbara Spooner. Although the pair initially goes out of their way to resist any romantic overtures, Barbara ends up convincing Wilberforce to relate the story of his career.

The movie flashes back some fifteen years into the past, when Wilberforce was a young and ambitious Member of Parliament (MP). After he experiences a religious enlightenment and aligns himself with the evangelical wing of the Church of England, Wilberforce contemplates leaving politics to study theology. But friends such as William Pitt, Thomas Clarkson, Hannah More, and Olaudah Equiano convinces him that he could be more effective doing God’s work by fighting for the issue of Britain’s slave trade. Wilberforce’s convictions are deepened by a meeting with his former mentor, John Newton, a former slave ship captain turned Christian, whose regrets of his past participation in the slave trade led him to become an evangelist minister and writer of the poem that led to the song, “Amazing Grace”. Despite great effort and assistance from his fellow abolitionists, Wilberforce’s efforts fail, thanks to the pro-slavery cabal in Parliament after fifteen years. Following his marriage to Barbara Spooner, Wilberforce takes up the cause again with different results.

I am going to be brutally frank. “AMAZING GRACE” did not strike me as superior or at the same level of quality as “LINCOLN”. I am not stating that the 2006 movie was terrible or even mediocre. I simply feel that it is not as good as the 2012 Oscar winning film. There is something about the style of “AMAZING GRACE” that lacked the more complex nature and characterizations of“LINCOLN”. I found it . . . well, ideal and very preachy at times. I realize this movie is about the institution of slavery throughout the British Empire. But I believe that just because a story ( in any form) centers around an unpleasant topic like slavery does not have to be told with such a lack of moral complexity. I suspect that screenwriter Steven Knight tried to inject some kind of complexity in Wilberforce’s original reluctance to take up the cause of the abolition of the slave trade and in his despair over the failure of the abolition cause by 1797. But the movie simply lacked that murky ambiguity that made movies like “LINCOLN” and “DJANGO UNCHAINED” more complex to me. Even worse, there were times when the movie fell into the danger of transforming Wilberforce into some idealized character – what is known by those familiar with fan fiction as a Mary Sue. The movie seemed to hint that the success of Britain’s abolitionist movement centered around Wilberforce. And I found that annoying.

I have one last problem with “AMAZING GRACE”. The use of flashbacks struck me as a bit . . . well, confusing. This especially seemed to be the case in the first two-thirds of the movie, which alternated between the present setting (1797) and the past (between 1782 and 1797). I hate to say this, but director Michael Apted and editor Rick Shaine did not handle these shifts in time with any real clarity. After my third viewing of the film, I finally got a handling on the shifts between the narrative’s past and present. Many film critics have pointed out the movie’s historical inaccuracies, which include the time period in which Wilberforce became interested in animal rights and the Duke of Clarence’s erroneous service in the House of Commons. Honestly? They are simply bloopers and nothing for me to get excited over.

Despite its flaws, I must admit that “AMAZING GRACE” is a first-rate and stirring film. It touched upon a subject that I knew very little of . . . namely Britain’s abolition movement. In fact, when I first saw the film, it reminded me that countries like the United States, Cuba, and Brazil were not the only ones with strong ties to slavery and the Atlantic slave trade. These ties were especially made apparent in scenes which Wilberforce and his allies battled with the pro-slavery forces like Banastre Tarleton and the Duke of Clarence and St. Andrews (the future King William IV). Although “AMAZING GRACE” mainly focused on the political aspect of abolition in Great Britain, there are two memorable scenes that reflect the horrors of slavery – Wilberforce and Olaudah_Equiano’s tour of a slave ship and Newton’s verbal recollections of his time as a slave ship captain. However, “AMAZING GRACE” also touches upon Wilberforce’s personal life – especially his courtship of and marriage to fellow abolitionist Barbara Spooner. And it is to Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai’s credit that they had created a strong and very believable screen chemistry.

“AMAZING GRACE” is also a very beautiful movie to look at. And that is an odd thing to say about a movie about slavery. As always, I tend to look at the production designer as the one responsible for the movie’s overall visual style. In the case of“AMAZING GRACE”, the man responsible was Charles Wood, who did an amazing job in recapturing Great Britain during the late 18th century. His work was ably assisted by the art direction team led by David Allday and Eliza Solesbury’s set decorations. And since “AMAZING GRACE” is a period drama, I cannot ignore the costumes designed by film icon Jenny Beavan. Needless to say, her costumes were beautiful and perfectly adhered to the movie’s time period and the characters. I especially enjoyed her costumes for actresses Romola Garai and Sylvestra Le Touzel.

All of the beautiful costumes, magnificent photography and impressive production designs in the world cannot save a movie. Aside from a first-rate narrative, a movie needs a talented cast. Thankfully for “AMAZING GRACE”, it had one. Ioan Gruffudd, whom I tend to associate more with television, gave an excellent and passionate performance as the dedicated William Wilberforce. Also, Gruffudd more than held his own with the array of more experienced performers that were cast in this film. I do not know when Benedict Cumberbatch first made a name for himself. But I cannot deny that he gave a superb performance as William Pitt, the politician who eventually became the country’s youngest Prime Minister. Cumberbatch did a first-rate job in portraying how Pitt’s idealism, political savy and professional ambiguity sometimes clashed. Romola Garai gave a beautiful performance as Barbara Spooner Wilberforce, the politician’s wife of thirty-odd years. By expressing her character’s own passionate beliefs in the abolitionist movement, Garai portrayed her more than just Wilberforce’s love interest.

Albert Finney made several appearances in the film as former slave ship captain-turned-evangelist John Newton, who became Wilberforce’s mentor. Despite his limited appearances, Finney brilliantly portrayed Newton’s pragmatic nature about his past and the guilt he continued to feel for his role in Britain’s slave trade. I also have to comment on Rufus Sewell’s very entertaining performance as abolitionist Thomas Clarkson. I do not think I have ever come across a performance so colorful, and at the same time, very subtle. The movie also benefited excellent support from the likes of Michael Gambon, Ciarán Hinds, Toby Jones, Jeremy Swift, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Bill Paterson. Senegalese singer-activist Youssou N’Dour gave a solid performance in his acting debut as former slave-turned-abolitionist Olaudah Equiano. And Nicholas Farrell and Sylvestra Le Touzel, who co-starred in 1983’s “MANSFIELD PARK” together, reunited to give entertaining performances as the Wilberforces’ close friends, Henry and Marianne Thornton.

Without a doubt, I regard “AMAZING GRACE” as an entertaining, yet very interesting look into the life of William Wilberforce and his role in Britain’s abolition of the slave trade. Granted, the movie came off a touch pretentious and there were times when the Wilberforce character came off as too idealized. But the movie’s visual style, intelligent script and excellent performances from a cast led by Ioan Gruffudd made this film worthwhile for me.

“PATRIOT GAMES” (1992) Review

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“PATRIOT GAMES” (1992) Review

I tried to recall the number of Hollywood movies made about Irish militants and their conflicts against the British government. And it occurred to me that very little have been made in which pro-Irish characters are portrayed as antagonists. Very little. One of them happened to be the 1992 movie, “PATRIOT GAMES”. And considering the rarity of such a scenario, it still surprises me that it was a big box office hit during the summer of 1992.

Based upon Tom Clancy’s 1987 novel, “PATRIOT GAMES” is a sequel to the 1990 film, “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER”. The movie began with retired CIA agent Jack Ryan on vacation with his family in London. They witnessed a terrorist attack on Lord William Holmes, British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and a cousin of Queen Elizabeth II by terrorists. When Ryan intervened, one of the terrorists wounded him, but he managed to kill one of the assailants, Patrick Miller, while his older brother Sean looked on. The remaining attackers fled, while Sean was apprehended by the police.

While recovering, Ryan was called to testify in court against Miller, who turned out to be a member of a breakaway group of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. Miller’s compatriots, including leader Kevin O’Donnell and a woman named Annette, helped Miller escape before he could be shipped to a prison on the Isle of Wright. Thirsting revenge for his brother’s death, Sean convinced his compatriots to help him murder Ryan and the latter’s family before they can continue their activities against Lord William Holmes and the British Crown.

“PATRIOT GAMES” proved to be a pretty solid action thriller. The narrative provided plenty of action, personal drama, political intrigue and suspense to maintain my interest in the story. I also have to give kudos to the three screenwriters for ensuring that each aspect of the story balanced well, without one aspect overwhelming another. The interesting thing is that all of this happened because of two things – Jack interfered in the assassination attempt on Lord Holmes and killed a young man, and two, the young man’s brother wanted revenge for his death.

The movie also featured some solid acting. And I mean solid. Aside from one performance, none of the others performances in the film did not particularly rock my boat. Samuel L. Jackson was two years away from stardom, when he appeared as Jack Ryan’s close friend, Lieutenant-Commander Robby Jackson. Patrick Bergin gave a decent and strong performance as leader of the IRA breakaway group, Kevin O’Donnell. Polly Walker ably supported him as his fellow compatriot and lover, a mysterious Englishwoman named Annette. James Earl Jones repeated his role as Admiral James Greer and gave a solid, if not memorable performance. James Fox was entertaining as the Royal Family’s cousin, Lord William Holmes. Thora Birch struck me as very charming in her portrayal of the Ryans’ young daughter Sally. And both David Threlfall and Alun Armstrong gave intense performances as British police officers, Inspector Robert Highland and Sergeant Owens. I was especially impressed by Threlfall. Fans of the “AGATHA CHRISTIE’S POIROT” series will be surprised to find Hugh Fraser (who portrayed Arthur Hastings) portray Lord William’s private secretary, Geoffrey Watkins. In fact, his performance was so low-key that I barely noticed him, until the final action sequence. J.E. Freeman was equally intense as CIA official Marty Cantor. I especially enjoyed Freeman’s scenes with star Harrison Ford in which their characters engage in quarrels over Ryan’s interest in rejoining the CIA.

When I had earlier stated that the movie featured one performance that did rock my boat, I did not mean Ford. The actor took over the Jack Ryan character, when Alec Baldwin (who had portrayed the character in “THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER”) proved to be unavailable. I thought Ford did a pretty damn good job and managed to capture Ryan’s more subtle personality rather well. But I did not find his performance particularly dazzling. Anne Archer replaced Gates McFadden (“STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION”) in the role of Dr. Cathy Ryan, the main character’s wife. And like Ford, she gave a performance that I thought was pretty good, but not particularly dazzling. Richard Harris proved some oomph in the role of Paddy O’Neil, the IRA spokesman, who struggles to convince the world at large that O’Donnell’s compatriots no longer are connected with his organization. But the one performance that really impressed me came from Sean Bean, who portrayed Sean Miller, the terrorist who wanted revenge against Ryan.

Despite my praise of the film, many will be surprised to learn that “PATRIOT GAMES” is my fourth favorite of the five movies based upon Clancy’s series or characters. Many would find this especially surprising, since the last two movies,“THE SUM OF ALL FEARS” (2002) and “JACK RYAN: SHADOW RECRUIT” (2014), were not critically acclaimed. That would mean that I have a higher preference for one of the latter two films over “PATRIOT GAMES”. How could that be? Beauty or art is in the eye of the beholder . . . and I cannot help how I feel. I am not saying that “PATRIOT GAMES” is a terrible movie . . . or even a mediocre one. It is pretty damn good. But it did not take my breath away or fascinated me. My problem is that I did not find its plot – namely Jack Ryan dealing with a vengeful ex-IRA member – particularly fascinating. There did not seemed to be anything mind-boggling about it. Perhaps the subject matter was too personal for a tale penned by Tom Clancy. Another problem I had with “PATRIOT GAMES” is that aside from Sean Bean’s performance, I did not find the rest of them particularly dazzling or memorable. The most fascinating aspect of this film is that it featured three veterans of the “STAR WARS” movie franchise – Harrison Ford, James Earl Jones and Samuel L. Jackson.

Nevertheless, “PATRIOT GAMES” is still a pretty damn good movie. Harrison Ford managed to effortlessly take over the role of Jack Ryan from Alec Baldwin. He was supported by a solid cast that included a superb performance from Sean Bean. In the end, I believe it is still worthy of purchase for repeated viewings.

TIME MACHINE: Battle of Bladensburg

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TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF BLADENSBURG

August 24, 2014 marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, which was a major conflict fought during the War of 1812. The battle was fought on August 24, 1814 in Bladensburg, Maryland; and played a major role in the fate of the United States’ capital, Washington D.C. and a future battle fought around Baltimore, Maryland.

Although the Royal Navy had controlled the Chesapeake Bay region since early 1813, the lack of substantial British troops due to the Napoleonic Wars had limited to mounting small-scale raids. However, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by April 1814, leaving the British Army to focus full attention to the war on the North American continent. Major General Robert Ross, assumed command of veterans from the Duke of Wellington’s army and other British troops serving along the East Coast. They were transported to Chesapeake Bay to create a diversion from a British invasion of New York, led by Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada and commander in chief in North America. Although Ross commanded the troops, the point of attack was to be decided by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s North American Station.

When Ross and Cochrane’s forces arrived at the town Benedict, along the Patuxent River, President James Madison sent Secretary of State James Monroe to reconnoiter. President Madison received a dispatch from Secretary Monroe on August 23 that stated – “The enemy are in full march to Washington, Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges, PS – You had better remove the records.” Unfortunately, Madison and his advisers ignored Monroe’s warning and reports. The Washington and Baltimore area served as the Tenth Military District and it was under the command of General William H. Winder, who had been an attorney before the war broke out. In theory, Winder was supposed to have at least 15,000 militia troops, but he actually had only 120 Dragoons and 300 other Regulars, plus 1,500 poorly trained and under-equipped militiamen at his immediate disposal. Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr. and other advisers incorrectly assumed that the British were destined for Baltimore and that Washington would not be attacked since he deemed it strategically unimportant.

Winder ordered the destruction of the two bridges across the Anacostia River as a precaution to protect the Capital. This act left a route through Bladensburg as the logical approach. He also sent troops to Marlborough to intercept the British at Upper Marlboro on August 20. Unfortunately, those troops quickly returned when the Americans learned that British troops were already entering Blandesburg. Following a brief clash with Ross’ leading forces on August 22, Winder ordered a hasty retreat. Several Maryland militia regiments were summoned from Baltimore to defend Washington. Winder ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move from Baltimore to Bladensburg and take the best position in advance of Bladensburg in order to resist as long as possible. The latter deployed his force atop Lowndes Hill, just east of Bladensburg. The road from Annapolis crossed the hill, and the road from Upper Marlboro ran to its south and west. Furthermore, the roads to Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore all intersected behind between it and Bladensburg. From this position, Stansbury dominated the approaches available to the British while controlling the lines of communication. Then on August 23, Stansbury received a message from Winder, informing the former that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch and he intended to fire the lower bridge. A surprised Stansbury was seized by an irrational fear that his right flank could be turned. Instead of strengthening his commanding position, he immediately removed his exhausted troops and marched across Bladensburg bridge, which he did not burn. Stansbury ended up tossing away almost every tactical advantage available to him.

The British forces reached Bladensburg on August 24, around noon. Around noon on 24 August, Ross’s army reached Bladensburg and Stansbury’s tactical errors quickly became apparent. Had he continued to hold Lowndes Hill, Stansbury could have made the British approach a costly one. With the use of Bladensburg’s brick structures, which were ready-made mini-fortresses, Stansbury might have drawn Ross’s troops into bloody street fighting. Since Stansbury failed to burn the bridge, he was forced to defend it. Stansbury’s infantry and artillery were posted too far from the river’s edge to contest an effective crossing. The British sweep across the Bladensburg Bridge proved to be very strong. Although the Americans repulsed the British forces three times by artillery fire and launched a counter-attack led by U.S. Naval officer Commodore Joshua Barney and his almost 600 seasoned Marines and sailors. Despite their valiant repulse, the authorities in Washington simply forgot about Barney for several days. Without orders they were tardy arrivals on the field of contest. Had they been supplied with sufficient ammunition and supporting infantry, the course of the battle could have been changed. But in the end, Barney and his men were flanked and overwhelmed by British forces. Barney was wounded and captured.

Although the British had suffered heavier casualties than the Americans, thanks to Barney’s guns; they had completely routed the defenders. The British are believed to suffer casualties of 64 dead and 185 wounded. Some of the British dead “died without sustaining a scratch. They collapsed from heat exhaustion and the strain of punishing forced marches over the five days since landing at Benedict. General Winder had not given any instructions to his commanders before the battle in regard to a possible retreat. When the American militia left the battlefield, he issued contradictory orders – either to halt and reform, fall back on the Capitol where Secretary of War Armstrong hoped vainly to make a stand using the Federal buildings as strong points, or retreat through Georgetown to Tenleytown. Most of the militia simply fled the field with no destination in mind, or deserted the ranks to see to the safety of their families. The Americans actually fled through the streets of Washington, D.C. President Madison and most of the rest of the federal government had been present at the battle, and had nearly been captured. They too fled the capital, and scattered through Maryland and Virginia. That same night the British entered Washington unopposed and set fire to many of the government buildings in what became known as the Burning of Washington.

If you are more interested in reading more information on the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington, I suggest you read the following books:

*“When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington (2014) by Peter Snow

*“The Darkest Day: The Washington-Baltimore Campaign During the War of 1812” (2003) by Charles G. Mueller

Top Favorite WORLD WAR I Movie and Television Productions

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July 28, 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I.  Below is a list of my favorite movie and television productions about the war:

 

TOP FAVORITE WORLD WAR I MOVIE AND TELEVISION PRODUCTIONS

1 - Paths of Glory

1. “Paths of Glory” (1957) – Stanley Kubrick directed Kirk Douglas in this highly acclaimed anti-war film about French soldiers who refuse to continue a suicidal attack. Ralph Meeker, Adolphe Menjou and George Macready co-starred.

 

2 - Lawrence of Arabia

2. “Lawrence of Arabia” (1962) – David Lean directed this Oscar winning film about the war experiences of British Army officer T.E. Lawrence. The movie made stars of Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif.

 

3 - All Quiet on the Western Front

3. “All Quiet on the Western Front” (1930) – Lew Ayres starred in this Oscar winning adaptation of Erich Maria Remarque’s 1929 novel about the experiences of a German Army soldier during World War I. Lewis Milestone directed.

 

4 - The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles

4. “The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles” (1992-1993) – George Lucas created this television series about Indiana Jones’ childhood and experiences as a World War I soldier. Sean Patrick Flannery and Corey Carrier, George Hall
and Ronny Coutteure starred.

 

5 - Gallipoli

5. “Gallipoli” (1981) – Peter Weir directed this acclaimed historical drama about two Australian soldiers and their participation in the Gallipoli Campaign. The movie starred Mark Lee and Mel Gibson.

 

6 - The Dawn Patrol 1938

6. “The Dawn Patrol” (1938) – Errol Flynn and David Niven starred in this well made, yet depressing remake of the 1930 adaptation of John Monk Saunders’ short story, “The Flight Commander”. Directed by Edmund Goulding, the movie co-starred Basil Rathbone.

 

7 - La Grande Illusion

7. “La Grande Illusion” (1937) – Jean Renoir co-wrote and directed this highly acclaimed war drama about French prisoners-of-war who plot to escape from an impregnable German prisoner-of-war camp. Jean Gabin starred.

 

8 - Shout at the Devil

8. “Shout at the Devil” (1976) – Lee Marvin and Roger Moore starred as two adventurers in this loose adaptation of Wilbur Smith’s novel, who poach ivory in German controlled East Africa on the eve of World War I. Directed by Peter Hunt, the movie co-starred Barbara Parkins.

 

9 - Biggles - Adventures in Time

9. “Biggles: Adventures in Time” (1986) – Neil Dickson and Alex Hyde-White starred in this adventure fantasy about an American catering salesman who inadvertently travels through time to help a British Army aviator during World War I. John Hough directed.

 

10 - A Very Long Engagement

10. “A Very Long Engagement” (2004) – Jean-Pierre Jeunet wrote and directed this very long romantic war drama about a young French woman’s search for her missing fiancé who might have been killed in the Battle of the Somme, during World War I. Audrey Tautou starred.

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

 

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” (1935) Review

For years, I could never understand Hollywood’s penchant for making so many films about the British Empire during the first half of the 20th century. The film industry had released films about imperial outposts under the control of other countries – like France, Spain and even the United States. But why did they film so many about British Imperialism? One of those films is the 1935 feature,“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”.

“THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” is based upon the 1930 memoirs of a former British Army officer named Francis Yeats-Brown. But if you are expecting the movie to be a clear adaptation of Yeats-Brown’s book, you are in for a big disappointment. I suspect Paramount Pictures and producer Louis D. Lighton simply used the book’s title and setting – Imperial India – to create their own movie. The movie’s screenwriters, who included Waldemar Young and John L. Balderston, wrote a story about the experiences of three British Army officers serving with the 41st Bengal Lancers on the Northwest Frontier of India. The Scots-Canadian Alan McGregor welcomes two replacements to the 41st Bengal Lancers, the well-born Lieutenant Forsythe and Lieutenant Donald Stone (Richard Cromwell), who happens to be the son of the regimental commander, Colonel Tom Stone. McGregor is regarded as some kind of North American savage, who needs to reign in his aggression. Forsythe, who comes from an upper-class family, takes pleasure in mocking McGregor’s Scots-Canadian ancestry. And Stone grows to resent his father, who is determined to treat him coldly in order not to show any partiality.

The three officers, who find themselves sharing the same quarters, slowly develop a grudging friendship. However, when word reaches the regiment from intelligence officer Lieutenant Barrett that a local chieftain named Mohammed Khan might be preparing an uprising against the ruling British, Colonel Stone and his senior officers respond with a display of both friendship and power to the chieftain. Unfortunately, Khan kidnaps Lieutenant Stone, using his mysterious “associate” Tania Volkanskaya (portrayed by a rather unexceptional Kathleen Burke) as bait. While Khan tries to extract vital information about a British ammunition caravan from Lieutenant Stone, the latter’s father refuses to make any attempt to rescue him. Outrage, McGregor and Forsythe go after their younger colleague without orders.

As I had stated earlier, I never could understand Hollywood’s penchant for Imperial British adventures for many years. Until now. I read in a few articles that “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first of its kind in this genre. Well . . . not really. The previous year – 1934 – saw the release of John Ford’s World War I adventure, “THE LOST PATROL”. And the silent era produced such films as 1929’s “THE FOUR FEATHERS”. But it was the box office and critical success of “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” that kicked off a major influx of British Empire movies that clogged the theaters up to the end of the 1930s.

How do I feel about “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”? Well . . . I certainly do not view it as a bad movie. I thought it was pretty decent. There were aspects of it that I found unoriginal – namely the “bromance” between the three major characters and the conflict involving a rebellious chieftain. How can I put this? I have encountered both scenarios before in other British Empire movies. The three buddies? Hmmm . . . the friendship between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone strongly reminded of a similar friendship between the three protagonists in 1939’s “GUNGA DIN”. One could accuse the 1939 film of plagiarizing the 1935 film, since it was released four years later. But the friendship featured in “GUNGA DIN” was based upon Rudyard Kipling’s collection of short stories called “Soldiers Three”. Who is to say that the movie’s screenwriters used Kipling’s stories as inspiration for the “bromance” in “THE LIVES OF THE BENGAL LANCER”?

Speaking of the movie’s trio, why did Paramount cast three American-born actors in the leading roles? Was there really a serious shortage of British actors? As I recall, Ray Milland was under contract with Paramount around that time. The writers made excuses for Gary Cooper and Richard Cromwell’s characters by portraying the former as a Canadian and the latter as an Anglo-American raised in the U.S. Franchot Tone is another matter. He portrayed the upper-class Englishman, Lieutenant Forsythe. Mind you, I have no problems with the actors’ performances. But I had a difficult time watching a movie set in British India . . . and starring three American actors.

I realize “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER” was the first movie to really utilize the whole “local chieftain rebels against British Imperial authorities” into its plot. This was also used in subsequent movies like “GUNGA DIN”, “THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, and “WEE WILLIE WINKIE”. The problem is that I have seen these movies before I saw the 1935 film. And if I must be brutally honest, the screenwriters and director Henry Hathaway’s use of this trope rather dry and bloodless. Hell, even the torture that Richard Cromwell’s character underwent was handled off screen.

After viewing “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”, it occurred to me that the movie’s character studies impressed me a lot more than the “action-filled” subplot. The interactions between the characters – especially between McGregor, Forsythe and Stone – struck me as a lot more interesting and complex. First of all, the screenwriters and Hathaway did an excellent job in portraying the problems (or lack of them) that the three major characters had with the film’s other supporting characters – especially their fellow British officers. I was especially impressed by the film’s portrayal of the officers’ low regard for McGregor’s so-called North American aggression, and with the younger Stone’s cool relationship with his estranged father. I was also impressed by how the three disparate leading characters developed into a strong friendship by the movie’s last act. But the screenwriters and Hathaway are not the only ones who deserve the praise. The movie’s strong characterization would have never worked without the first-rate performances from the cast – especially Gary Cooper as McGregor, Franchot Tone as Forstythe and Richard Cromwell as the younger Stone. The three actors were ably supported by solid performances from Guy Standing, C. Aubrey Smith and Douglass Dumbrille.

Do not get me wrong. I do not dislike “THE LIVES OF A BENGAL LANCER”. I think it is a pretty solid film. But I find it difficult to believe or accept that it received a total of seven Academy Award nominations. Despite the movie’s strong characterizations and excellent performances, I did not find it particularly exceptional. A part of me believes simply believes it would have been better off as a character study (with a shorter running time) than an epic British Imperial adventure.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

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“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” (1975) Review

Over four decades ago, 1969 to be precise, a play written by novelist Barry England was first staged at the Theater Royal in Bristol, England. Set during the height of the British Empire, England’s play focused upon an Army regiment stationed in India. The play became a hit and was eventually adapted into a movie released to the public in 1975.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” begins with two young British officers arriving in Indian to join a prestigious regiment. Lieutenant Drake comes from a middle-class background and is eager to make the right impression. Lieutenant Millington is the son of a General and does not seem enthusiastic over the idea of a military career. He plans to leave the Army at the first opportunity. While Drake manages to make a positive impression with his fellow officers, Millington antagonizes them with his cynical behavior, causing the other officers to dislike him. A military ceremony takes place, honoring the deceased members of the regiment and their widows, including Mrs. Marjorie Scarlett, whose husband won a posthumous Victoria Cross after being killed during a battle on the North-West Frontier.

Later that evening, the regiment holds a ball. The younger officers take part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig in the mess. Lieutenant Millington tries to charm Mrs. Scarlett, but is lightly dismissed. Later, the disheveled widow bursts into the mess, claiming to have been attack. She identifies Milington as her attacker. During an evening in the mess, involving the younger officers taking part in a ceremonial tradition that involves the pursuit and sticking of a pig, Mrs Scarlett runs in claiming to have been attacked, and identifies Lieutenant Millington as her attacker. Although he is innocent, Millington sees the potential disgrace as an easy way to leave the Army and return to England. He does not bother to cooperate with Drake, who has been selected to defend him at his secret trial. But when both men realize that Millington might suffer a more serious punishment other than a dishonorable discharge and Drake discovers that another widow had been similarily attacked six months earlier, the latter officer goes out of his way to clear Millington.

I have not seen “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” for a good number of years – over a decade and a half, to be exact. I recall being very impressed when I last saw it a long time ago. I still am – to a certain extent. But there were two aspects of the movie that left me feeling a little unsettled. One of them focused upon the movie’s setting. With the exception of the first ten to fifteen minutes, most of“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” was either set in the regiment’s mess, other exterior shots or on the cantoment grounds, which could have easily been shot on a sounstage. By the time the movie ended, I felt as if I had watched a filmed play. And I never could understand Lieutenant Millington’s original attitude toward the charges against him. I mean . . . this is the Victorian Age we are talking about in which women – especially white upper and middle-class women – were put on pedestals by men. I could understand Millington’s attitude if he had been accused of assaulting the other acknowledged victim in the story – an Indian soldier’s widow named Mrs. Bandanai. But surely he should have realized that he could have suffered serious repercussion for assaulting someone as cherished as Mrs. Scarlett, right off the bat.

Despite these shortcomings, I must admit that “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” is a first-rate movie. Playwright Barry England wrote a tantalizing peek into the world of British India that featured not only a psychological drama, but also a very interesting mystery and the damages causes by misogyny and racism (in the case of Mrs. Bandanai) that was rampant during the Victorian Age (as well as now). I feel that England created a murder mystery that would have done Agatha Christie proud. I also feel that Robert Enders did an excellent job in adapting England’s play.

The movie began with a great set-up of the mystery – the ceremony honoring the dead Captain Scarlett and the other men who died with him, intertwining with with the arrivals of Lieutenants Drake and Millington at the regiment’s cantonment. The movie also had a rather creepy scene that featured the younger officers engaged in the “stick-the-pig-in-the-anal” game, which foreshadowed the attack on Mrs. Scarlett later in the evening. But what I really admired about the film is that it did not make it easy for the audience to guess the identity of Mrs. Scarlett’s attacker. For that I am truly grateful. If there is one kind of mystery I cannot abide is one that gives away the culprit’s identity prematurely.

“CONDUCT UNBECOMING” also benefited from a first-rate cast. The movie featured solid performances from the likes of James Faulkner (who portrayed Millington), Michael Culver, Rafiq Anwar, Persis Khambatta and James Donald. Christopher Plummer gave an interesting performance as the intimidating Major Alastair Wimbourne. Although there were moments when I found his performance a little theatrical. I certainly cannot accuse Trevor Howard’s performance as theatrical. He gave an appropriately poignant performance as the regiment’s aging commander, who finds it difficult to accept a possible scandal within his command. Richard Attenborough proved to be equally complex as Major Lionel E. Roach, who seemed to live and breathe the regiment. I was surprised to see Stacy Keach in this cast as Captain Harper, the officer charged with prosecuting Millington. He did an excellent job in developing his character from the hard-nosed, blindingly loyal officer, to one who finds himself appalled by the possibility of a serial attacker. Susannah York gave a superb role as the enticing Mrs. Scarlett, who seemed first amused by Millington’s attempt at seduction and later, angry over what happened to her. But the film actually belonged to Michael York, who more than carried his weight as the main character. I was impressed by how he managed to dominate this film, while retaining his character’s quiet and reserved nature.

Would I consider “CONDUCT UNBECOMING” a classic? I do not know. I certainly would not consider it a candidate for a Best Picture nomination. And it certainly had its flaws. But due to its first-rate story, solid direction from Michael Anderson and an excellent cast led by Michael York, I still would consider it a very good story that is worth viewing time and again.

Top Ten Favorite HISTORY Documentaries

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.