Favorite Films Set in the 1940s

The-1940s

Below is a list of my favorite movies (so far) that are set in the 1940s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1940s

1-Inglourious Basterds-a

1. “Inglourious Basterds” (2009) – Quentin Tarantino wrote and directed this Oscar nominated alternate history tale about two simultaneous plots to assassinate the Nazi High Command at a film premiere in German-occupied Paris. The movie starred Brad Pitt, Melanie Laurent and Oscar winner Christoph Waltz.

2-Captain America the First Avenger

2. “Captain America: The First Avenger” (2011) – Chris Evans made his first appearance in this exciting Marvel Cinematic Universe installment as the World War II comic book hero, Steve Rogers aka Captain America, who battles the Nazi-origin terrorist organization, HYDRA. Joe Johnston directed.

kinopoisk.ru-Devil-in-a-Blue-Dress-1807368

3. “Devil in a Blue Dress” (1995) – Denzel Washington starred in this excellent adaptation of Walter Mosley’s 1990 novel about a laid off factory worker who becomes a private detective, after he is hired to find a missing woman with connection to a local politician in post-World War II Los Angeles. Directed by Carl Franklin, the movie co-starred Don Cheadle, Jennifer Beals and Tom Siezmore.

3-Bedknobs and Broomsticks

4. “Bedknobs and Broomsticks” (1971) – Angela Landsbury and David Tomilinson starred in this excellent Disney adaptation of Mary Norton’s series of children’s stories about three English children, evacuated to the countryside during the Blitz, who are taken in by a woman studying to become a witch in order to help the Allies fight the Nazis. Robert Stevenson directed.

4-The Public Eye

5. “The Public Eye” (1992) – Joe Pesci starred in this interesting neo-noir tale about a New York City photojournalist (shuttlebug) who stumbles across an illegal gas rationing scandal involving the mob, a Federal government official during the early years of World War II. Barbara Hershey and Stanley Tucci co-starred.

5-A Murder Is Announced

6. “A Murder Is Announced” (1985) – Joan Hickson starred in this 1985 adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1950 novel about Miss Jane Marple’s investigation of a series of murders in an English village that began with a newspaper notice advertising a “murder party”. Directed by David Giles, the movie co-starred John Castle.

6-Hope and Glory

7. “Hope and Glory” (1987) – John Boorman wrote and directed this fictionalized account of his childhood during the early years of World War II in England. Sarah Miles, David Hayman and Sebastian Rice-Edwards starred.

7-The Godfather

8. “The Godfather” (1972) – Francis Ford Coppola co-wrote and directed this Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel about the fictional leaders of a crime family in post-World War II New York City. Oscar winner Marlon Brando and Oscar nominee Al Pacino starred.

8-Valkyrie

9. “Valkyrie” (2008) – Bryan Singer directed this acclaimed account of the plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler in July 1944. Tom Cruise, Bill Nighy and Tom Wilkinson starred.

9-The Black Dahlia

10. “The Black Dahlia” (2006) – Brian DePalma directed this entertaining adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1987 novel about the investigation of the infamous Black Dahlia case in 1947 Los Angeles. Josh Harnett, Scarlett Johansson, Aaron Eckhart and Hilary Swank starred.

10-Stalag 17

Honorable Mention: “Stalag 17” (1953) – Billy Wilder directed and co-wrote this well done adaptation of the 1951 Broadway play about a group of U.S. airmen in a prisoner-of-war camp in Germany, who begin to suspect that one of them might be an informant for the Nazis. Oscar winner William Holden starred.

“SHINING THROUGH” (1992) Review

“SHINING THROUGH” (1992) Review

Many years have passed since I saw “SHINING THROUGH”. Many years. But after reading several reviews of the film over the years, I found myself wondering why I had enjoyed it in the first place. Why? Not many people really liked it.

Based upon Susan Isaac’s 1988 novel, “SHINING THROUGH” told the story of a woman of Irish and German-Jewish ancestry named Linda Voss and her experiences during World War II. The story begins when Linda applies for a job as a secretary at at prestigious Manhattan law firm. Linda is initially rejected, due to not being a graduate of a prestigious women’s college. But when she reveals her knowledge of German, she is hired on the spot. Linda serves as a translator to an attorney named Ed Leland, who is revealed to be an O.S.S. officer after the United States enter World War II. They also become lovers. Despite personal conflicts and separations, Linda and Ed resume their working relationship, until she volunteers to replace a murdered agent in Berlin on short notice. Much to Ed’s reluctance, Linda heads to Berlin and eventually becomes the governess to the children of a high-ranking Nazi officer named Franz-Otto Dietrich.

I eventually learned that “SHINING THROUGH” has developed quite a bad reputation over the years. Many consider it inferior to Isaac’s novel. It is even part of the “100 Most Enjoyably Bad Movies Ever Made” list by Golden Raspberry Award founder, John Wilson. This low opinion of “SHINING THROUGH” has led me to avoid it for years after I had first saw it. In fact, I became even more determined to avoid it after reading Isaac’s novel. Then I recently watched the movie again after so many years and wondered what was the big deal. I am not saying that “SHINING THROUGH” was a great movie. It was not. But I found it difficult to accept this prevailing view that it was one of the worst movies ever made. More importantly, my opinion of the novel is not as highly regarded as it is by many others. Basically, I have mixed feelings about the novel and the film.

The technical crew for “SHINING THROUGH” did a first-rate job. Production designer Anthony Pratt did an excellent job in re-creating both the eastern United States and Germany during the early 1940s. He was ably assisted by cinematographer Jan de Bont, whose photography struck me as particularly rich, sharp and colorful. I found Peter Howitt’s set decorations particularly effective in the Berlin sequences. I especially enjoyed the late Marit Allen’s costume designs for the film. I thought she did an excellent job in ensuring that the costumes effectively reflected the characters’ nationalities, gender, class and positions.

Before I discuss the movie’s virtues and flaws, I have to do the same for Isaac’s novel. I was very impressed by how the writer handled Linda Voss’ relationships with attorney John Berringer, his wife Nan Leland and the latter’s father, Ed Leland rather well. I found Isaac’s handling of Linda’s private life very romantic, complex, detailed, rather messy and very realistic. In fact, I remember being so caught up by Linda’s personal life that by the time the story jumped to the Berlin sequences, I realized that this segment had taken up over half of the novel. But once Isaac’s moved to the story to Linda’s wartime experiences as a spy in Berlin, I found myself feeling very disappointment. It seemed so rushed and unfulfilling. I was also surprised by how my feelings for the novel seemed to be the complete opposite of my feelings toward the movie.

Unlike Isaac’s portrayal of Linda’s private life, I was not impressed by how David Seltzer handled the character’s romance in the movie’s first half. I had no problems with Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas. They had a decent chemistry, if not particularly spectacular. But the Linda/Ed romance lacked the detailed complexity and realism of the literary romance. Instead, I found it turgid, somewhat simple-minded and a bad rehash of clichéd World War II romances found in many past movies. I even had to endure a rendition of the old wartime standby, “I’ll Be Seeing You”, while Linda and Ed hash over his disappearance during the war’s first six months. I also noticed that Seltzer eliminated the John Berringer and Nan Leland characters, which reduced Linda and Ed’s romance into a one-note cliché. All I can is . . . thank God the movie shifted to Linda’s experiences in Berlin. I realize that many fans of Isaac’s novel would disagree with me, but I feel that Seltzer handled the story’s second half – both as the movie’s director and screenwriter – a lot better than Isaac. I realize that this revelation might seem sacrilege to many of the novel’s fans, but I stand by my opinion. Seltzer’s screenplay seemed to go into more detail regarding Linda’s mission in Germany – from the moment when the elderly, German-born Allied spy called “Sunflower” escorts her from Switzerland to Berlin; to Linda’s search for her Jewish relations; and finally to when Linda and Ed’s attempt to cross back into Switzerland. This entire sequence was filled with exciting action, drama, surprising pathos and some first-rate suspense – especially between Linda and two particular characters. My three favorites scenes from this entire sequence were the development of Linda’s friendship with Sunflower’s niece, Margrete von Eberstein; her outing to Berlin’s zoo with the Dietrich children; and her showdown with a Nazi spy after escape from Dietrich’s home. I found Linda’s developing friendship with Margrete fun to watch. The entire sequences regarding both the visit to the zoo and Linda’s showdown with a spy two very suspenseful, yet fascinating sequences.

As I had earlier stated, Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas did not exactly burn the movie screen as a romantic couple. But I thought they managed to create a solid romance . . . enough to rise above Selzer’s turgid writing that seemed to mar the movie’s first forty minutes or so. Griffith did a first-rate job as Linda Voss by conveying both the character’s passion and clumsy skills as a spy. My only problem with Griffith’s performance is that she did not seem to make an effective narrator. Her voice was too soft and Seltzer’s words struck me as over-the-top. Michael Douglas portrayed Ed Leland – Linda’s boss and eventual lover – and gave a very good performance. I thought he was very effective in conveying Ed’s no-nonsense personality. But in my opinion, the best performance came from Liam Neeson, who portrayed Linda’s second employer – Franz-Otto Dietrich. First of all, I have to give kudos to Neeson for portraying Dietrich without the usual negative overtones usually associated with on-screen Nazi officers. Neeson portrayed Dietrich as a soft-spoken and charming man, who also seemed to be a devoted father and very observant man. At the same time, Neeson took care to convey to audiences that Dietrich could also be very ruthless with great skill and subtlety.

“SHINING THROUGH” was the second time I had become acquainted with Joely Richardson. I was very impressed by her portrayal of Linda’s only Berlin friend, Margrete von Eberstein, who happened to be Sunflower’s niece and also a spy for the Allies. Richardson gave a particularly effervescent performance as the very charming Margrete. She also clicked very well with Griffith on screen. John Gielgud probably gave the most crowd pleasing performance in the film as Sunflower, the German aristocrat-turned-Allied spy. Gielgud provided some memorable zingers, while his character delivered scathing criticism of Linda’s skills as a spy. The movie also featured brief appearances of veteran character actors Wolf Kahler and Thomas Kretschmann, who later became a rather busy character actor in the U.S. It also featured solid performances by Patrick Winczewski, Ronald Nitschke, Sheila Allen, Sylvia Sims, Francis Guinan; along with Anthony Walters and Victoria Shalet as the Dietrich children.

Do I believe that “SHINING THROUGH” deserved the movie critics’ contempt, along with the numerous Razzies awards it acquired? No. Not really. It is not the greatest World War II melodrama I have ever seen. And I certainly would not have placed it on a “best movies” list of any kind. “SHINING THROUGH” is basically a mixed bag, much like the Susan Isaac novel upon which it is based. Like the novel, the movie is a study in contradiction. Writer-director David Seltzer’s handling of the Linda Voss-Ed Leland romance could be called a cinematic embarrassment. It is only a miracle that Melanie Griffith and Michael Douglas’ performances were not marred by such bad writing. On the other hand, Seltzer did an excellent job in writing and directing the sequences featuring Linda’s adventures in Germany. If you are not expecting a cinematic masterpiece, I would suggest watching it . . . even if it means enduring the movie’s first forty minutes or so.

Top Favorite WORLD WAR I Movie and Television Productions

worldwar1somme-tl

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.

TIME MACHINE: Assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria (1875-1914)

Postcard_for_the_assassination_of_Archduke_Franz_Ferdinand_in_Sarajevo

 

TIME MACHINE: ASSASSINATION OF ARCHDUKE FRANZ FERDINAND OF AUSTRIA (1875-1914)

June 28, 1914 marked the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in Sarajevo, Austria-Hungary (present day Bosnia-Herzegovina). Also killed was his wife, Sophie, Duchess of Hohenberg. Franz Ferdinand was not only an Archduke of Austria-Hungary, but also a Royal Prince of Hungary and Bohemia; and from 1889 until his death, the heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne.

The assassination had been planned by a group of assassins (five Serbs and one Bosnian) coordinated by a Bosnian-Serb named Danilo Ilić. The political objective of the assassination was to break off Austria-Hungary’s south-Slav provinces so they could be combined into a Yugoslavia. The assassins’ motives were consistent with a movement that will later became known as Young Bosnia. Also involved in the plot were Dragutin Dimitrijević, Chief of Serbian Military Intelligence; his assistant Major Vojislav Tankosić, and a spy named Rade Malobabić.

During a meeting held in January 1914, the group discussed possible Austro-Hungarian targets for assassination that include Archduke Franz Ferdinand. The participants eventually decided to send Mehmed Mehmedbašić to Sarajevo, to kill the Governor of Bosnia, Oskar Potiorek. However, Mehmedbašić ditched his weapons, while traveling from France to Bosnia-Herzegovina via the train, when the police was searching for a thief. Upon his arrival in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Mehmedbašićhe tried to search for new weapons. When his searched delayed the attempt on Potiorek, Ilić summoned Mehmedbašić and on March 26, 1914; informed the latter that the mission to kill Potiorek had been cancelled. The group decided to assassinate Franz Ferdinand, instead. Ilić recruited two Serbian youths, Vaso Čubrilović and Cvjetko Popović on April 19, 1914; to kill Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Unbeknownst to them, three Serbian youths living in Belgrade – Gavrilo Princip, Trifko Grabež and Nedeljko Čabrinović – expressed an eagerness to carry out an assassination. They approached a fellow Bosnian Serb and former guerrilla fighter to transport arms to Sarajevo and participate in the assassination.

Franz Ferdinand, the Duchess of Hohenberg and their party traveled by train from Ilidža Spa to Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. Governor Oskar Potiorek met the party at Sarajevo station. Six automobiles were waiting. Three local police officers got into the first car with the chief officer of special security. Franz Ferdinand, the Duchess, Governor Potiorek, and Lieutenant Colonel Count Franz von Harrach rode in the third car. The motorcade passed the first assassin, Mehmedbašić, who had failed to act. Vaso Čubrilović armed with a pistol and a bomb, also failed to act. Further along the route Nedeljko Čabrinović, who possessed a bomb, tossed the latter at Franz Ferdinand’s car at 10:10 am. However, the bomb bounced off the folded back convertible cover and into the street. The timed detonator caused it to explode under the next car, wounding 16 to 20 people. Čabrinović swallowed his cyanide pill and jumped into the Miljacka River, but his suicide attempt failed. The police dragged Čabrinović out of the river and he was severely beaten by the crowd before being taken into custody. Franz Ferdinand’s procession sped away towards the Town Hall.

Franz Ferdinand and the Duchess returned to the motorcade at 10:45 am. and entered the third card. In order to avoid the city center, General Oskar Potiorek decided that the royal car should travel straight along the Appel Quay to the Sarajevo Hospital. The driver, Leopold Lojka, turned right into Franz Josef Street. After learning about the failed assassination attempt, Princip decided to make another attempt on the Archduke’s life on the latter’s return trip. He moved to a position in front of a delicatessen off Appel Quay. The Archduke’s motorcade made the mistake of following the original route. Governor Potiorek, who shared the Imperial couple’s vehicle, ordered the driver to reverse and take the Quay to the hospital. Lojka stopped the car close to where Princip was standing. The latter stepped forward and fired two shots from a Belgian-made 9×17mm Fabrique Nationale model 1910 semi-automatic pistol. The first bullet wounded the Archduke in the jugular vein. The second bullet hit the Duchess in her abdomen. Princip was immediately arrested. At his sentencing, Princip stated that his intention had been to kill Governor Potiorek, rather than the Duchess. Both victims remained seated upright, but died on the way to the Governor’s residence for medical treatment. As reported by Count Harrach, Franz Ferdinand’s last words were “Sophie, Sophie! Don’t die! Live for our children!”, followed by six or seven utterances of “It is nothing.” These mutterings were followed by a long death rattle. Sophie was dead upon arrival at the Governor’s residence. Franz Ferdinand died 10 minutes later.

Alfred, 2nd Prince of Montenuovo, Franz Joseph’s Chamberlain, hated Franz Ferdinand and Sophie with a passion and with the emperor’s connivance, decided to turn the funeral into a massive and vicious snub. He disinvited foreign royalty, the dead couple’s three children were excluded from the few public ceremonies and only the immediate Imperial family attended. Even the Austro-Hungarian officer corps was forbidden to salute the funeral train. However, this was nothing in compare to the political aftermath of the assassinations.

Not only was Princip captured, but also his fellow conspirators. They were all tried and convicted by early 1915. Ironically, Princip, who had actually pulled the trigger, was sentenced to 20 years in prison, where he died from malnutrition and disease in 1918. Only three of the conspirators were executed on February 3, 1915 – Danilo Ilić and Veljko Čubrilović. Anti-Serb rioting broke out in Sarajevo and various other places within the Austria-Hungary Empire, hours after the assassination. Country-wide anti-Serb pogroms and demonstrations were also organized throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Oskar Potiorek, the Austro-Hungarian governor of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

The assassinations produced widespread shock across Europe. There was a great deal of initial sympathy toward Austria. Within two days, Austria-Hungary and its ally, Germany, advised Serbia that it should open an investigation on the assassination, but the Serbian government responded that the incident did not concern them. After conducting its own criminal investigation, Austro-Hungary issued what became known as the July Ultimatum, which listed demands made to Serbia regarding the assassinations within 48 hours. After receiving support from Russia, Serbia agreed to at least two out of ten demands. The government mobilized its troops and transported them by tramp steamers across the Danube River to the Austro-Hungarian at Temes-Kubin. Austro-Hungarian soldiers fired into the air to warn them off. On July 28, 1914; Austria-Hungary and its ally, Germany, declared war on Serbia. Under the Secret Treaty of 1892, Russia and France were obliged to mobilize their armies if any of the Triple Alliance (Germany, Austo-Hungary and Italy) mobilized. Russia’s mobilization completed full Austro-Hungarian and German mobilizations. Soon all the Great Powers, except Italy, had chosen sides. World War I had begun.

Top Ten Favorite HISTORY Documentaries

thecivilwar_fullsize_story1

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.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

 

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” (1989) Review

After a mixed reaction to the darker tones of 1984’s “INDIANA JONES AND THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”, George Lucas and Steven Spielberg decided to compensate by ending what was then planned their Indiana Jones trilogy with a movie lighter in tone. The result of this decision is the 1989 movie, “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”.

The movie began with a prologue set in 1912 with a 13 year-old Indiana Jones riding with his Boy Scout troop in Utah. He stumbles across some robbers in a cave finding an ornamental cross that once belonged to Spanish explorer Coronado. Indy manages to steal the cross from the robbers and make it back to town to report the crime. His father, Henry Jones Sr. is oblivious to what his happening, due to his obsessive research on the Holy Grail. And Indy is forced to give up the cross to a mysterious man for whom the robbers worked for. Twenty-six years later, Indy finally gets his hands on the cross from the mysterious man, off the coast of Portugal.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” proved to be the only film in the franchise in which its prologue had little to do with the movie’s main narrative, aside from a brief peek into Henry Sr.’s obsession with the Holy Grail. Still in 1938, Indiana is contacted by an American businessman named Walter Donovan, who also happens to be a collector of antiquities. He informs Indy that Henry Sr. had vanished in Venice, Italy while searching for the Holy Grail on his behalf. Indy also receives a package in the mail that contains his father’s “Grail Diary” – a notebook featuring the latter’s research on the artifact. Realizing that Henry Sr. is in trouble, Indy and his mentor, Marcus Brody, travel to Venice and with the assistance of Dr. Elsa Schneider, Henry’s Austrian-born assistance, search for the missing archaeologist. During their adventures, the trio discover that Henry’s disappearance is either tied to a Christian secret society called the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword or the Nazis.

From the time I first saw “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, I enjoyed it very much. Actually, I can say the same for just about every INDIANA JONES movie I have seen, save one. It really is a fun movie and I suspect this is a result of Lucas and Spielberg’s decision to make its tone lighter than either “TEMPLE OF DOOM” and 1981’s “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”. Just like in the previous movies, “THE LAST CRUSADE” saw Indiana Jones on a globe-trekking adventure to acquire a famous artifact on behalf of someone. In this case, he seemed to be working on behalf of both Walter Donovan and especially his father, Henry Jones Sr. But there was one aspect of this movie that made this movie particularly enjoyable was the casting. Lucas and Spielberg, along with screenwriters Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard (uncredited), decided to make this movie a family affair by including Indy’s dad into the story. They also broadened the role of Indy’s mentor (and Henry Sr.’s college chum), Marcus Brody, who was featured in probably the movie’s funniest scene. And this is the only INDIANA JONES film and the second one for Lucas that featured a villainous leading lady. In fact, I suspect that Lucas was inspired by the Princess Sorsha character in 1988’s “WILLOW”, who started out as a villain and ended up as a sympathetic character. With Dr. Elsa Schneider, Lucas and Spielberg had a leading lady who started out as a heroine, slipped into villainess mode and ended up as a very ambiguous anti-heroine. I am not claiming that Elsa was the best of the movie franchise’s leading ladies, but she was certainly interesting.

The movie also featured some first-rate action sequences. My favorite included Indiana and Elsa’s conflict with the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword in Venice, Indy and Henry Sr.’s hasty departure from a Zeppelin that was returning to Germany and especially their escape from the German Army controlled Brunwald Castle on the Austrian-German border. The extended action sequence featuring Indiana’s clash with Colonel Ernst Vogel aboard a tank in the fictional Hatay desert ended with one of the movie’s best scenes – namely the tank falling over a cliff along with Indy and Vogel. This particular sequence must have been so successful that I suspect producer-director Peter Jackson more or less used it in one important scene in 2003’s “LORD OF THE RINGS: RETURN OF THE KING”. But the movie was not sustained by interesting characterizations and action sequences alone. The main narrative for “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” – the search for the Holy Grail and belief in its existence and power – not only set in motion a series of adventures for the main characters, but also served as a backdrop for Indiana’s complicated relationships with both Elsa Schneider and especially, Henry Sr. In fact, one of my favorite scenes in the entire movie featured a brief conversation between Indy and Henry Sr. aboard the Zeppelin in which the former pointed out that the latter’s obsession with the Holy Grail and inability to communicate led to a twenty-two year estrangement between father and son.

But as much as I enjoyed “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE”, it is probably my least favorite in the franchise. Aside from the leading lady’s characterization, the movie strikes me as the least original of the four movies. The other three movies offered something truly original to the franhcise – especially in regard to narratives. I cannot say the same about “THE LAST CRUSADE”. Despite its unusual addition of the Elsa Schneider and Henry Jones Sr. characters, it was more or less a rehash of “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, which included a search for a Judeo-Christian artifact, Nazis, a Middle Eastern setting, the return of both Marcus Brody and Sallah Mohammed Faisel el-Kahir (Sallah), and a non-German collaborator of the Nazis who seemed more interested in the artifact than ideology.

Also, I was not that impressed by the 1912 Utah prologue for the movie. I did not find it particularly interesting, even though I am thankful that it served as a forerunner to “THE YOUNG INDIANA JONES CHRONICLES” television series from the early 1990s. And as much as I enjoyed the relationship between Indy and Elsa, there was one scene between them that I found unappealing. It concerned Indy’s efforts to retrieve his father’s “Grail Diary” from the Austrian art historian in Berlin. The retrieval led to an angst-filled quarrel that struck me as rather false. I got the impression that Lucas and Spielberg were trying to capitalize on the emotional relationship between the James Bond and Kara Milovy characters in the 1987 Bond movie “THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS”. The problems were that I never got the feeling that Indy and Elsa were that emotionally involved for such angsty fight, and Harrison Ford and Alison Doody never really sold it for me . . . at least in that particular scene. Like the other three movies in the franchise, “THE LAST CRUSADE”suffered from some heavy-handed action sequences. This was especially apparent in the Hatay desert sequence featuring the Nazi tank. And could someone please explain how that Zeppelin traveled from Berlin to Southeastern Europe so fast? It was in the latter region where Indy and Henry Sr. encountered the German fighter planes sent to kill them. Also, “THE LAST CRUSADE” suffered from a fault that also marred both “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK” and 2008’s“INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS”. In the film’s final confrontation scenes, Indy played no role in the main villain’s downfall. Like in the 1981 and 2008 films, he mainly stood around with this thumb up his ass while someone else . . . or a supernatural entity dealt with the main villain. And like in the other two movies, I found this anti-climatic and rather disappointing.

But I was certainly not disappointed with the cast. They proved to be first-rate . . . not surprisingly. Harrison Ford returned as the intrepid archaeologist Indiana Jones and was superb and more relaxed in the role. Okay, I did criticize his acting in that Berlin scene with Alison Doody, but it was only one blot in an otherwise excellent performance. Dr. Henry Jones Sr. has to be my favorite Sean Connery role of all time. I adored him as Indy’s priggish and high-minded father who finds working in the field a new experience. And he also got to speak one of my favorite lines in the entire film, while repelling a German fighter plane in Eastern Europe. In fact, it is my favorite Connery quote of all time. Alison Doody was at least 21 or 22 years old when “THE LAST CRUSADE” went into production. She only had at least 2 to 3 years of acting experience. And yet, I was more than impressed by her portrayal of the amoral Austrian art historian Dr. Elsa Schneider. Doody had once complained that dealing with the Austrian accent was difficult for her. I would think dealing with Elsa’s complex nature would be more difficult. And I believe that despite her limited experience at the time, she did a pretty damn good job in portraying the very ambiguous Elsa – aside from that Berlin scene with Ford.

Julian Glover gave a smooth performance as Walter Donovan, the American businessman for whom the Jones family sought out the Holy Grail. His Donovan also proved to be just as complex, thanks to his skillful performance. Both John Rhys-Davies and Denholm Elliot reprised their roles as Sallah and Dr. Marcus Brody. And both were not only entertaining, but also gave first-rate performances. I especially enjoyed Elliot’s display of humor in a scene featuring Marcus’ arrival in Turkey. Michael Byrne’s portrayal of S.S. Colonel Ernst Vogel struck me as both subtle and intimidating. Back in 1980, Kevork Malikyan first tried out for the role of Sallah for “RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK”, but the role went to Rhys-Davies. But Spielberg remembered him and hired the actor to portray Kazim, a member of the Brotherhood of the Cruciform Sword, whom Indy and Elsa encountered in Venice. Malikyan’s skllful portrayal of Kazim proved to be a complex mixture of intensity, religious fevor and a deep-seated calm. And River Phoenix did a marvelous job in portraying the 13 year-old Indiana. He proved to be quite adept in capturing Ford’s mannerisms and speech pattern, while maintaining the persona of a boy in his early teens.

As I had stated earlier, I found “INDIANA JONES AND THE LAST CRUSADE” to be the least original of the four movies in the franchise. Because of this, it is also my least favorite. But despite being my least favorite “INDIANA JONES” film, it is still very entertaining and I never get tired of watching it, thanks to a solid story penned by Jeffrey Boam and Tom Stoppard, first-rate direction by Steven Spielberg and an outstanding cast led by Harrison Ford and Sean Connery.

“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review

monuments-1

“THE MONUMENTS MEN” (2014) Review

A rarely known aspect of World War II was recently explored in this recently released war film. “THE MONUMENTS MEN” told the story about a group of men, established under the Monuments, Fine Arts, and Archives program in 1943, to recover pieces of art stolen by the Nazi, before they could be destroyed on the orders of Adolf Hitler.

Produced and written by George Clooney and Grant Heslov, and directed by Clooney; “THE MONUMENTS MEN” began in 1943 in which art conservation specialist and museum director Frank Stokes convinces U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow him to assumble an Army unit compromising of museum directors, curators, and art historians to search for stolen art treasures of the Western world and return it to the rightful owners. Stokes, portrayed by Clooney, assemble six other men:

*Lieutenant James Granger, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Donald Jeffries, British Army
*Sergeant Richard Campbell, U.S.A.
*Sergeant Walter Garfield, U.S.A.
*Lieutenant Jean Claude Clermont, French Army
*Private Preston Savitz, U.S.A.

Stokes also recruited a U.S. Army enlisted soldier named Sam Epstein to act as his interpreter and driver. And in occupied France, In occupied Paris, an art curator named Claire Simone is forced to allow Nazi officers like Viktor Stahl to oversee the theft of art for either Adolf Hitler’s proposed Führermuseum in Linz, German; or as the personal property of senior commanders like Herman Goering. She is nearly arrested for helping her Maquis brother unsuccessfully recapture such items. And later, all seems lost when Claire discovers that Stahl is taking all of her gallery’s contents to Germany, while the Allies approach Paris. Stokes’ unit is split up for various objectives throughout Western Europe. While most of them are frustrated by the Allies’ combat units, which refuse to restrict their tactical options for the sake of preserving architecture; Granger, who ends up in occupied Paris, meets Simone and discovers that she will not cooperate with the Allies, whom she suspects of also being art looters.

I suspect that true art lovers – especially those enamored of European art – might find “THE MONUMENTS MEN” to be an emotional and satisfying tale in which the Allies not only persevered over the Nazi Army, but also saved a great deal of important art work from being destroyed. And there are those who were probably disappointed that “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was not some kind of stylish caper film in the style of Steven Soderbergh’s “OCEAN’S ELEVEN”trilogy. How did I feel about “THE MONUMENTS MEN”? I found it entertaining, emotional, and surprisingly old-fashioned. Then again, this is a World War II drama about the preservation of famous Western art, in which the ages of the main stars range from early 40s to early 60s. More importantly, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” was released in February – a movie season that usually feature mediocre or bad films.

I could never regard “THE MONUMENTS MEN” a great film. I found the pacing uneven . . . especially in the movie’s first half. I felt that both Clooney’s direction and the script’s depiction of the men’s separation following their basic training rather confusing. I was especially confused by the whereabouts of the Donald Jeffries character. One minute he was in France with Stokes and Epstein. And in his next scene, he is in Belgium with no explanation in the movie’s narrative of how he got there. Come to think of it, both Campbell and Savitz end up in Belgium . . . without Jeffries. Or was it Italy? Very confusing. Perhaps it is my imagination, but I found Matt Damon’s performance rather flat. It almost seemed as if he was phoning it in – especially in the movie’s first half. In some way, I think Clooney tried too hard to make the movie so profound that it ended up feeling . . . hmmm . . . flacid.

Thankfully, the movie’s second half managed to be an improvement on the first. Especially since the Monument Men encountered more danger and their efforts to find the stolen art seemed to improve. Actually, the second half featured some action sequences that managed to inject some energy into the film’s story. Audiences finally get to see the dangers that the Monuments Men faced in order to achieve their goal – Nazi troops in a Belgian convent, straying into the middle of a battleground that became deadly, an encounter with a lone armed German soldier, and a close encounter with a land mine. The second half also featured a few excellent scenes – including Campbell’s reaction to a recorded letter from home during Christmas, Savitz’s exposure of Stahl, Granger and Claire’s near-romantic encounter inside her apartment, and Stokes’ interrogation of one of the S.S. officers responsible for the attempted destruction of some of the stolen art.

Technically, “THE MONUMENTS MEN” is a beautiful and elegant looking film of the old-fashioned kind. First of all, I have to compliment Phedon Papamichael’s sharp and colorful photography of England and Germany, which stood in for World War II-era Western Europe. Production designer James D. Bissell and his team did an admirable job in re-creating Western Europe during that period. I was especially impressed by his work, along with Bernhard Henrich’s set designs in the sequences that featured the Allied camps near the Normandy beaches and the German mine, site of the first batch of art recovered. Louise Frogley’s costume designs struck me as solid reflections of the years 1943-45. However, I must admit that I was not particularly impressed by Alexandre Desplat’s score. I simply did not find it that memorable.

The performances in “THE MONUMENTS MEN” also struck me as solid, despite the star power featured in this film. I really do not see anyone receiving an award, let alone a nomination, for their work in this film. Hell, I would be surprised if anyone’s performance was particularly singled out by critics or moviegoers alike. However, I did notice that Clooney, as a director, allowed each major character a chance to shine in a particular scene. Clooney got a chance to shine in the scene featuring Stokes’ interrogation of the German officer. Both Matt Damon and Cate Blanchett generated a good deal of heat in the scene featuring Granger’s near romantic dinner with Claire Simone. Bill Murray gave one of the most poignant performances in a scene featuring Campbell’s silent reaction to a recording he had received from his family for Christmas. Bob Balaban was marvelous in the scene in which Savitz exposed Claire’s former “supervisor” Stahl as a Nazi and thief with cold precision. Both John Goodman and Jean Dujardin, who had previously worked together in the Oscar winning film, “THE ARTIST”, managed to create a strong chemistry in two scenes that featured Garfield and Claremont’s encounter with a German sniper and their accidental wondering into a battlefield. But I feel that the best acting moment came from Hugh Bonneville, who did a marvelous job in conveying Jeffries’ passion and sense of danger in a scene featuring the character’s encounter with Germans at a Belgium convent.

Look, “THE MONUMENTS” is no classic. And I do not think it is the best movie I have seen this winter. It might be a bit too old-fashioned for the tastes of some (I can endure it). And if I must be brutally honest, the first half of Clooney and Grant Henslov’s script came off as limpid and confusing. But a strong second half and some golden moments by a talented cast led by Clooney more or less saved “THE MONUMENTS” for me.

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

tumblr_lmu207apRT1qc1gppo1_500-1

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” (2003) Review

There have been a great deal of movies, plays and television productions about four of the five former Cambridge University students who became spies for the Soviet Union. One of the more recent productions turned out to be BBC’s four-part television miniseries called “CAMBRIDGE SPIES”

“CAMBRIDGE SPIES” followed the lives of these four men between the years of 1934 and 1951, when two of them defected to the Soviet Union for good. The fifth man, John Caincross, merely served as a supporting character in this production. The more famous four include the following:

*Anthony Blunt
*Guy Burgess
*Harold “Kim” Philby
*Donald Maclean

The story begins somewhere in the early-to-mid 1930s with our four protagonists serving as instructors or students at Cambridge University. During their time at Cambridge, all four men openly express their radical views in various incidents that include defending a female Jewish student from harassment by elitist and pro-Fascist students like the one portrayed by actor Simon Woods, and supporting a temporary strike by the mess hall waiters. During this time, both Blunt and Burgess have already been recruited by the Soviet Union’s KGB. And the two set out to recruit the other two – Philby and Maclean. By the end of the 1930s, the quartet have ceased expressing their radical views out in the open and go out of their ways to show their support of both the British establishment and any support of the Fascist regimes in other parts of Europe. When World War II breaks out, all four have become fully employed with either MI-5 or MI-6 and full time moles for the KBG.

When “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” first hit the television sets in Britain, there were a good deal of negative reaction – mainly from the right – toward a production that portrayed the Cambridge Five (or Four) in a sympathetic light. Others also pointed out that the miniseries failed to give a completely accurate of the four men’s lives. I had no problem with the miniseries’ sympathetic portrayal of the four men. After all, this is their story. Since the story is told from their point of view, it would not make sense to portray them as one-dimensional villains. And despite the sympathetic portrayal, the personal flaws of all four are revealed in the story. The criticisms of historical inaccuracy are correct. Why is that a surprise? Since when has historical fiction of any kind – a movie, television production, play, novel or even a painting – has been historically accurate. In fact, historical accuracy is pretty rare in fiction. As I have pointed out in numerous past articles, the story always comes first – even if historical facts get in the way.

There are some aspects of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” I found a bit off putting. I wish the story had ended with “Kim” Philby’s defection in 1963, instead of Donald Maclean and Guy Burgess’ defection in 1951. I feel that an ending in the early 1960s could have given the production more of a final note. Also during 1963, Burgess died from complication of alcoholism. And less than a year later, Blunt finally confessed to British authorities of being a KGB mole. Another aspect of “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” that struck me as unpleasant was the anti-American sentiment that seemed to taint the production. I am aware that many left-wing Europeans like the main characters harbored a deep dislike of Americans. In fact, this sentiment has remained firmly intact even to this day. But I noticed that the script seemed to be filled with ugly generalizations about Americans that are rarely, if never, defended by American characters such as Melinda Marling Maclean and James Jesus Angleton. There is one scene between Maclean and his future wife Melinda in which the former explained why he disliked Americans to the latter:

Donald: I hate America.
Melinda: Are you gonna tell me why?
Donald: For the way you treat workers, the way you treat black people, the way you appropriate, mispronounce and generally mutilate perfectly good English words. Cigarette?

I am not claiming that Maclean’s criticisms of America – back then and today – were off. My problem is that he had also described what was wrong with Britain then and now – including its citizens’ mispronunciation and mutilation of good English words. And the script never allowed Melinda to point this out. Or perhaps this was screenwriter Peter Moffat’s way of stating that even those with liberal or radical views can be diehard bigots toward a certain group. I also learned that Moffat created certain scenes to make his protagonists look even more sympathetic. The worst, in my opinion, was the sequence that featured Kim Philby’s decision on whether or not to kill the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco on the KGB’s orders. I found this scene completely unnecessary and rather amateurish, if I must be brutally frank.

However, the virtues in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” outweighed the flaws. Moffat, along with director Tim Fywell and the movie’s cast and crew did a stupendous job in re-creating Britain, parts of Europe and the United States during the twenty-year period between the early 1930s and the beginning of the 1950s. I was especially impressed with the miniseries’ production in Episode Two that covered the four protagonists’ incursion into Britain’s diplomatic and intelligent services during the late 1930s. Production designer Mike Gunn, along with cinematographer David Higgs re-created Great Britain during this period with great detail. Charlotte Walter had the difficult task of providing the cast with costumes for a period that spans nearly twenty years. I cannot say that I found her costumes particularly exceptional, but I have to give her kudos for being accurate or nearly accurate with the period’s fashions.

As I had stated earlier, I had no problems with most of the production’s sympathetic portrayals of the four leads. After all, they are human. Portraying them as one-note villains because of their political beliefs and actions, strikes me as bad storytelling. I can honestly say that “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” is not the product of bad storytelling. I feel that it was an excellent production that led me to investigate further into the true lives of these men. Also, one has to remember that the four men – Blunt, Philby, Burgess and Maclean – were human beings with their own set of virtue and flaws. Some of their flaws and beliefs led them to make an incredibly bad decision – namely spy on their country on behalf of another. Some accused the production of glamorizing four men who had betrayed their country. That is an accusation I cannot agree. All four men came from privileged backgrounds. It is only natural that the miniseries would express the glamour of their origins.

Mind you, the series could have revealed more of the suffering that Britain’s working-class experienced that led the four men into becoming radicals. But what “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” truly excelled was the emotional consequences that they experienced for betraying their country. The miniseries was packed with scenes that included Philby’s aborted romance with Litzi Friedmann and his growing cold-blooded actions against anyone who was a threat to his identity; Burgess’ increasing inability to repress his distaste against the British establishment, their American allies and his alcoholism; and Maclean’s insecurities and struggling marriage with American Melinda Marling. Of the four, Blunt seemed to be the only one holding up under the pressures of being a Soviet mole . . . except when dealing with Burgess’ embarrassing outbursts and Maclean’s insecurities. No wonder he was happy for Philby to handle the two when he finally resigned from MI-5 to work as Surveyor of the King’s Pictures on behalf of the Royal Family. One could complain about the miniseries’ historical inaccuracy. But I can never agree that their careers as moles for the KBG were glamorized.

The miniseries featured some solid performances from the likes of James Fox as British Ambassador Lord Halifax, Anthony Andrews as King George VI, Patrick Kennedy as Julian Bell, Benedict Cumberbatch as a young British journalist in Spain, Lisa Dillon as Litzi Friedmann and Simon Woods as the bigoted Cambridge student Charlie Givens. I have mixed feelings about John Light’s performance as CIA agent James Angleton. I thought he did a good job in capturing Angleton’s intensity and intelligence. However, his Angleton still came off as the typical cliched American male found in most British productions – gauche and loud. There were two supporting performances that really impressed me. One came from Imelda Staunton, who gave a witty performance as Blunt’s distant cousin Queen Elizabeth (later the Queen Mother). The other supporting performance that impressed me was Anna-Louise Plowman, who superbly portrayed Donald Maclean’s witty and passionate American wife Melinda Marling.

However, our four leads did the real work in “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” and carried the miniseries beautifully. Toby Stephens did an excellent job in conveying Kim Philby’s emotional journey from the womanizing, yet naive university radical who slowly becomes a cold-blooded, yet weary Cold War spy. Samuel West gave a sophisticated, yet tough performance as the cool-headed Anthony Blunt. Tom Hollander had garnered most of the praise for his vibrant performance as the emotional and unreliable Guy Burgess. However, there were times I found his performance a little too showy for my tastes. Personally, I feel that the most interesting performance came from Rupert Penry-Jones as the youngest of the four moles, Donald Maclean. Penry-Jones did such a superb job in portraying Maclean’s insecure and emotional nature, there were times I wondered how the man managed to be such a successful mole for over a decade.

Yes, “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” has its flaws. Even some of the best movie and television productions have flaws. And after viewing the miniseries, I cannot agree with this view that the actions of the four traitors – Philby, Blunt, Burgess and Maclean – were glamorized. But it is a first-rate production with a detailed glimpse of European politics and diplomacy from the 1930s to 1951. Thanks to a well-written script by Peter Moffat; an excellent cast led by Toby Stephens, Samuel West, Tom Hollander and Rupert Penry-Jones; and first-rate direction by Tim Fywell; “CAMBRIDGE SPIES” proved to be one of the best dramas about the Cambridge KGB moles I have seen on the big or small screens.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” (1999) Book Review

Out of all the books featured in George MacDonald Fraser’s The Flashman Papers, only one featured more than one tale. This turned out to be “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER”, first published in 1999. Instead of one novel, the book contained three novellas featuring an aging Harry Flashman between the ages of 56 and 72. 

As I had stated earlier, “FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” featured three novellas – “The Road to Charing Cross”“The Subtleties of Baccarat”, and “Flashman and the Tiger”. The first story deals with Flashman involved in a plot to thwart the assassination of Austria’s Emperor Franz Josef. The second involves the infamous Tranby Croft Scandal, which involved the Prince of Wales (the future Edward VII) and someone close to Flashman. And the third story featured Flashman’s encounters with the villainous Tiger Jack Moran during the Anglo-Zulu War, and later in London of the 1890s. Let us begin . . . shall we?

“The Road to Charing Cross”

The longest novella in the book, “The Road to Charing Cross” begins in 1878, when Flashman is invited by the famous journalist,Henri Blowitz, to help get a copy of the Treaty of Berlin. During his trip to Germany, Flashman will a beautiful member of the French Secret Service named Caprice. Five years later in 1883, Flashy is invited by Blowitz to journey on the inaugural trip of theOrient Express. Flashman accepts the invitation as an excuse to avoid being sent to the Sudan. During the train journey, he is introduced to Princess Kralta of Germany, who has expressed interest in him of the romantic nature. As it turns out, Kralta’s interest in Flashman is nothing more than a ruse devised by his old nemesis from , Chancellor Otto von Bismarck, in order to get the British Army officer to help prevent Emperor Franz Josef from being assassinated and prevent a major European war. One of Flashman’s colleagues in this plot turns out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Rudi von Starnberg, another former nemesis from the 1970 novel. In the end, it turns out that von Starnberg has other plans of his own.

For me, “The Road to Charing Cross” turned out to be the best of three novellas. Regardless of its length, I thought it was a well-written adventure set during the political upheavals of Central Europe. Fraser did an excellent job in re-creating the first rail journey of the Orient Express. He must have did his homework in researching this piece of history. And the sequence featuring Flashman’s efforts to save the Austrian emperor and his own hide were truly outstanding. His characterizations of Princess Kralta, Henri Blowitz, and Emperor Franz Josef were first-rate. Fraser’s pièce de résistance turned out to be Willem von Starnberg, the son of Flashman’s old nemesis, Rudi von Starnberg. Dear old Willy turned out to be a chip off the old block . . . and a lot more. He possessed Rudi’s wit, joie de vivre and ruthlessness.

Did “The Road to Charing Cross” have any flaws? Well . . . it had one. And that flaw had a lot to do with the character of Willem von Starnberg. Although Willem was well written by Fraser, the latter described him as being half-German (Prussian) and half-Hungarian. Which meant that according to this story, Rudi von Starnberg was Austrian. Apparently, George MacDonald Fraser seemed incapable of determining Rudi’s nationality. Fraser described him as an Austrian in “Royal Flash”, as a Hungarian in the 1975 movie adaptation of the novel, and as a German in this story. Whatever. Despite this major flaw, “The Road to Charing Cross” is still an excellent story.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat”

This novella finds Sir Harry Flashman and his wife, Elspeth, Lady Flashman; visiting Tranby Croft, the estate of one Sir Arthur Wilson in early September 1890. Sir Arthur is hosting a house party in honor of his royal visitor, Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. During the house party, both Flashman and Elspeth witness a baccarat game, which was considered illegal in Britain. The legalities were brushed aside, due to the Prince of Wales’ love of the game. During the days between September 8 and 9, several guests claimed that one of the players, Sir William Gordon-Cumming, cheating. Guests informed the Prince of Wales, who confronted Gordon-Cumming. To the very end, the latter claimed that he was innocent and even sued the Prince of Wales and a few others for defamation of character. Alas, the label of cheat stuck and Gordon-Cummings became a social pariah. But “The Subtleties of Baccarat” did not end with Gordon-Cumming’s downfall. Instead, it ended with a surprising revelation that left Flashman in total shock.

“The Subtleties of Baccarat” was an interesting little tale. But I cannot say that I would ever love it. At least most of the story. The problem is that I am not a card player. And I found it difficult to follow the card games, while the scandal unfolded. It was not until Flashman learned the truth about the scandal from the surprising figure of Elspeth that the story truly became interesting to me. If I must be honest, Elspeth’s revelations on what really happened during the baccarat games not only shocked me, but made me become an even bigger fan of Lady Flashman. The novella had a surprising, yet satisfying finale to an otherwise bearable story.

“Flashman and the Tiger”

The book derived its title from its third novella set in both 1879 and 1894. “Flashman and the Tiger” is mainly about Flashman’s encounters with a character named Tiger Jack Moran, who had been originally created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle for hisSHERLOCK HOLMES stories. Flashman first meets Moran during the Zulu War, when both experience the retreat from the Battle of Isandlwana and the defense of Rorke’s Drift. The pair does not meet again until fifteen years later, when Flashman discovers that Moran is blackmailing his granddaughter, Selina, in order to sleep with her. Moran turns out to be a cabin boy (who had propositioned Flashy) on Captain John Charity Spring’s ship, the Balliol College, who had been traded to King Gezo as a white slave in the 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”. Moran spent years seeking revenge against the surviving crewmen. He found his opportunity to seek revenge against Flashman, when he learned that the latter’s engaged granddaughter was a mistress of the Prince of Wales. The story ended with Moran’s arrest and Flashman’s brief, yet humorous encounter with Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson.

This novella was a problem for me. One, I found the addition of Flashman’s experiences during the Zulu War unnecessary. Fraser could have used the Zulu War as a major novel, instead of adding this useless scene that really had little to do with the main narrative. What made the use of this topic even more unnecessary was that Flashman’s first encounter with Moran occurred in 1848, aboard Captain Charity Spring’s ship. It was this encounter that a much bigger impact on the story. I have the deep suspicion that Fraser used this story as an excuse to indulge in a little Imperial flag waving. After all, “Flashman and the Tiger” did not focus on the Battle of Isandlwana, in which the British suffered one of their worst defeats at the hands of the Zulu. Instead, it focused on the following battle at Rorke’s Drift, in which the British managed to repel several attacks by the enemy.

My second problem with this novella was the fact that Fraser used Tiger Jack Moran, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson as supporting characters. I found that rather cheap. I found it bad enough that Fraser used Sir Anthony Hope’s novel, “THE PRISONER OF ZENDA” as a premise for his 1970 novel, “ROYAL FLASH” and a historical character as Flashman’s love child in“FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. But using literary characters created by another author as supporting characters in one’s own story? Hmmm . . . cheap.

Finally, Fraser must have done a piss poor job in researching the love life of Albert Edward, Prince of Wales. The latter’s mistresses were usually sexually experienced women who were either married society women, actresses or prostitutes. I do not recall the Prince of Wales ever taking the virginity of a 19 year-old debutante . . . especially one who was engaged. Yet, we are supposed to believe that Flashman’s unmarried granddaughter was one of Bertie the Bounder’s mistresses. The only redeeming trait of this story was Fraser’s description of the Isandlwana retreat and the Defense of Rorke’s Drift. Apparently, he saved all of his top-notch research for this particular sequence.

“FLASHMAN AND THE TIGER” was not a bad piece of literature from George MacDonald Fraser’s pen. It possessed a first-rate novella, “The Road to Charing Cross”, and a mildly entertaining story with a juicy, surprise ending in “The Subtleties of Baccarat”. The book’s only misstep . . . at least for me . . . proved to be the last story, “Flashman and Tiger”.

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” (2011) Review

“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” (2011) Review

Following the success of his 2009 movie, “SHERLOCK HOLMES”, Guy Ritchie returned to helm a sequel about 19th century detective Sherlock Holmes’ battle with his famous arch nemesis, Professor James Moriarty. Both Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law reprise their roles of Holmes and Dr. John Watson. 

Loosely adapted from Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1893 short story called, “The Final Problem”“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS” picks up sometime after the end of the 2009 movie. Thanks to Irene Adler’s disclosure of the master criminal, Sherlock Holmes has been investigating Moriarty’s activities. The latter brings him to the attention of Irene, who is still working as an agent for the professor. He follows Irene to an auction, where she delivers a package to a Dr. Hoffmanstahl as payment for a letter he was to deliver to Moriarty. The package holds not only money, but a bomb that would have killed Hoffmanstahl, if Holmes had not intervened. Unfortunately, Hoffmanstahl is assassinated upon leaving the auction house. And when Irene meets with Professor Moriarty to explain the events, he poisons her, deeming her compromised by her love for Holmes.

Holmes reveals to his friend and colleague, Dr. Watson, that Moriarty might be connected to a series of murders, terrorist attacks and business acquisitions. During Watson’s bachelor party, Holmes meets with the Gypsy fortune-teller Simza, the intended recipient of the letter he had taken from Adler. It was sent by Simza’s brother Rene, who has been working for Moriarty. Holmes defeats an assassin who had been sent to kill her. Later, Holmes meets with Moriarty after Watson’s wedding to Mary Morstan. Moriarty informs Holmes that he murdered Adler and will kill Watson and Mary if Holmes’ interference continues. After Holmes help Watson and Mary fight off attack by Moriarty’s men aboard a train during their honeymoon, the two men travel to Paris to find Simza. Their journey to Paris, Germany and Switzerland lead them to uncover a plot by Moriarty to instigate a world war and profit from it. This plot will be set off by an assassination at a peace conference in Switzerland.

Although the movie was a hit at the box office, it received mixed reviews from the critics. A good number of them and moviegoers claimed that although it was entertaining, it was not as good as the first movie. In my review of“SHERLOCK HOLMES”, I made it clear that I enjoyed it very much. And I still do. But after watching“SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS”, I realized that the villain’s plot featured in the first movie struck me as a little . . . illogical. Using the illusion of sorcery to assume control of the British Empire? James Moriarty’s plot to assume control of the arms market in Europe and instigate a world war for profit strikes me as a lot more logical. And James Moriarty made a scarier villain than Lord Blackwood.

Another advantage that this sequel has over the first film, was the change of location in the second half – from Paris to Germany and later, Switzerland. I loved it. The color, squalor and grandeur that production designer Sarah Greenwood, cinematographer Philippe Rousselot and the visual effects team created for Victorian London in“SHERLOCK HOLMES”, were not only re-created for the same setting in this new movie, but for also late 19th century Paris, Germany and Switzerland. My only quibble about the movie’s German setting is that Kieran and Michele Mulroney’s script failed to inform moviegoers the name of the German town where Holmes, Watson and Simza found themselves.

One outstanding sequence featured a gunfight between Holmes, Watson and Mary and Moriarty’s men, disguised as British Army troops. Not only did I find it very exciting, I especially enjoyed that last shot of a half-destroyed train racing forward, with Holmes and Watson staring ahead. But the real outstanding sequence featured the heroes’ flight from Moriarty’s German arsenal through heavy woods. Yes, Rousselot used slow motion photography during this sequence. A good number of people did complain about it. But you know what? Not only did it fail to bother me, I actually enjoyed it. And watching this sequence made me realize that I would love to see a war movie directed by Ritchie.

As in the first movie, the cast was outstanding. Rachel McAdams returned to give a beguiling, yet brief performance as the doomed Irene Adler. As much as I love this movie, I am PISSED OFF that Ritchie had her character killed. Paul Anderson was very effective as Moriarty’s henchman, villainous marksman Colonel Sebastian Moran. By the way, this same character was used by late author George MacDonald Fraser in two of his books, the 1971 novel “Flash For Freedom!” and the 1999 novella “Flashman and the Tiger”. Geraldine James made an amusingly brief appearance as Holmes’ beleaguered landlady, Mrs. Hudson. Stephen Fry gave a hilarious performance as Holmes’ equally brilliant and arrogant older brother, Mycroft. His scenes with Kelly Reilly especially had me in stitches. I was happy to see that Reilly had more to do in this movie, first as one of Moriarty’s intended victims, and later as an assistant to Mycroft, as they help Holmes and Watson stop the master criminal. I am a little mystified that Eddie Marsan maanged to receive such a high billing as Scotland Yard’s Inspector Lestrade in the end credits by only speaking one line.

Noomie Rapace was passionate in her portrayal of the Gypsy Simza, who is determined to prevent her brother from makingt the mistake of getting caught up in Moriarty’s plot. Jared Harris made a subtle and scary villain in his portrayal of Professor James Moriarty. At first, he did not seem that threatening – almost mild mannered. I supposed this was due to Ritchie and the Mulroneys’ decision to give the character a position in society as a reputable scholar within Europe’s diplomatic community. Bit by bit, Harris revealed Moriarty’s greed and penchant for sadism.

I am trying to find the words about Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law’s portrayals of Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson. I really am. But what can I say? I know . . . they were perfect. They really were. I am not claiming that they were the best to ever portray the two characters. Frankly, I cannot name any one screen team as the best to portray Holmes and Watson. Some might claim Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce. Others might claim Jeremy Brett and Edward Hardwicke, or the recent television pairing of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman. I refuse to claim that Downey Jr. and Law were better than the other three teams. But I do not believe any of them were better than Downey Jr. and Law. What was their best scene together? Hmmm . . . I find I cannot name one particular scene. Every time they were together, they were magic.

Do I have any complaints about the movie? Well, I did not care for Irene Adler’s death, considering the character was a favorite of mine. I found the fight scene between Holmes and Irene’s bodyguards a bit confusing and contrived. I wish that Ritchie and the Mulrooney had clarified the name of the German town where Moriarty’s arsenal was located. And I finally wish that after the mental strategies of their upcoming fight on one of the balconies at Reichenbach Castle, Holmes and Moriarty’s actual fight had lasted a lot longer before the detective pulled his surprise move.

I believe I have said all I could about “SHERLOCK HOLMES: A GAME OF SHADOWS”. Even though I had a few complaints, I ended up enjoying the movie anyway. Hell, I loved it. The movie became my favorite 2011 movie. Although I had slight doubts, once again, Guy Ritchie, Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law managed to create magic for another Sherlock Holmes adventure.