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A progressive rebellion in Mississippi

Posted in American, Film, War by Alex L. on June 25, 2016

Newt and Moses from the movie "Free State of Jones"Yesterday, I watched “Free State of Jones” starring Matthew McConaughey. The movie follows the story of Newton Knight, who led a pro-Union rebellion deep in Mississippi during the American Civil War. I liked the movie, and there are a few things that stood out to me about it.

First, the film challenges the idea that all white Southerners during the Civil War were racists bent on preserving the institution of slavery. Newton was a complicated man who bucked convention, married a black woman, and also allowed an ex-wife to live on his property. His rebellion in Jones County seems to have been as much a socioeconomic one as well as abolitionist — he resented the poor fighting a rich man’s war.

Second, the film portrays the transmutation of racism in the south throughout generations very well. There are scenes cut into the Civil War narrative of a 20th-century trial of Knight’s descendant that put the question of his racial composition to the court. The institution of “apprenticeship” during Reconstruction and of course segregation itself illustrate how the South continued to grapple with virulent racism even after the overthrow of slavery.

An interesting article to read as a supplement to the movie is the Smithsonian’s “The True Story of the ‘Free State of Jones.'” It examines attitudes toward the film in the complicated world of the South today. It also clued me into something that I wish the film did portray. Newt Knight was staunchly pro-Union, but strangely ended up voluntarily enlisting to fight in the Confederate Army. I wish the film would have explored Newt’s pre-war life to explain this contradiction, but already being over two hours long, it may have risked excess.

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On “The Cruel Sea” during WWII

Posted in Film, Reading, War by Alex L. on April 2, 2013

HMCS Regina, a Canadian Flower-class corvetteSailors who sailed on Allied corvette ships on the Atlantic Ocean during WWII had an interesting experience of war. Their days were filled with repetitive strain. Escort runs accompanying Allied convoys lasted several week at a time, each day being divided into four hour on-watch and four hour off-watch segments for the crew. The Flower class corvettes were the workhorses of these escort missions, but they were tremendously unstable in heavy seas. And in the North Atlantic, the weather more often found the sailors rocking and slamming against ship parts rather than enjoying leisurely calm waters.

This routine repeated itself endlessly for many servicemen for up to six years. The nature of the fight against their main enemy — German U-boat submarines — meant that they may only see their enemy face-to-face only a handful of times during the entire war. When the corvettes were alerted to the presence of U-boats, it was more often than not in the form of a merchant ship violently and suddenly exploding in the convoy. Then the rescue of survivors and the hunting of the U-boats would begin.

It was a lonely grind of a job. Most of the time, serving on an escort ship meant enduring the violent seas rather than fighting furtive German submarines. That is why Nicholas Monsarrat named his classic novel about two British escort ships in the Battle of the Atlantic The Cruel Sea. A movie was made in 1953 based on the book. I watched the movie first and then read Monsarrat’s novel. Both are excellent, but I enjoyed the film a little more. The latter, directed by Charles Frend, was a rare find for me because it’s the closest movie I’ve ever seen in terms of style to that other classic film of naval warfare, “Das Boot,” a personal favorite of mine.

For many years, I’ve been interested in submarine warfare during WWII. Reading and watching a film about the hunters on the other side of the periscope opened my eyes to the interesting experiences of the Allied sailors on corvettes, frigates, and destroyers who protected merchant convoys like shepherds against the wolves that lurked beneath the waves.

“The Hunley” movie

Posted in American, Film, War by Alex L. on February 16, 2013

Close up of Mort Kunstler's painting, The Final Mission

Having moved back from New York City, I discovered  that my familiar public library in northwest Chicagoland got a facelift. The wall between the children and adult sections has been torn down, creating a pleasant sense of open space. While browsing there last week, I chanced upon a movie I had never heard about before: “The Hunley.”

A TNT movie from 1999, it didn’t win any awards for acting (though it did win an Emmy for sound editing). I enjoyed watching “The Hunley” because it recreates what it may have been like to serve aboard the first effective combat submarine in history. Starring Armand Assante, it has a bit of an action movie feel to it. For a film taking place inside of a weapons platform propelled by the underwhelming power of half a dozen men cranking away at the propeller shaft by hand, the high-intensity aesthetic is a bit of a mismatch. (more…)

Mattie and Achilles

Posted in Bible, Christianity, Film, Greek by Alex L. on January 13, 2011

Mattie Ross from "True Grit"I hadn’t heard of the new movie “True Grit” until my friend Mike called me up to go to the theater a few days ago. Because I was vehemently uninterested in seeing “Tron”, the Coen brothers’ new movie seemed like a good alternative after glimpsing descriptions of shows playing in local theaters.

I saw “True Grit” that evening, and I can’t wait to watch it again while it’s playing on the big screen. The movie was fantastic. I hadn’t heard of the original “True Grit” with John Wayne, nor had I read the novel by Charles Portis on which both movies were based, but I think I appreciated the movie more for having known nothing about it beforehand. If you haven’t seen “True Grit” in theaters yet, I recommend you don’t read the rest of this article.

Stanley Fish of the New York Times has a high-quality article about the religious undertones that he perceives throughout the new “True Grit”. His point is that this movie avoids creating a two-dimensional picture of reality. This is what makes it different from (and perhaps better than) the John Wayne version. Protagonists suffer alongside antagonists, and all display traditional heroic qualities. Reward and punishment for any kind of virtue or immorality, respectively, is not meted out in the way everyone expects; if you have lived virtuously, it is no guarantee that something unspeakably horrible won’t befall you in this world.

And yet “True Grit” is different from the Coen brothers’ earlier Western-style film, “No Country for Old Men”. That film was thoroughly depressing. Evil, in the form of  the cattle-gun wielding character of Anton, stalks every good  person, eventually destroys them all, and leaves nothing redeeming in its wake. “True Grit” has brighter moments.

(more…)

“The Pacific” and “The Hurt Locker”

Posted in American, Asian, European, Film, Television by Alex L. on March 9, 2010

I’m glad Avatar did not win the Academy Award for Best Picture this Sunday, and not just because it was over-hyped. The Hurt Locker was genuinely a much better film. I’ve seen many, many war films and The Hurt Locker was unlike any other. It portrayed a type of soldier that I did not know even existed, but, after seeing the movie, seems very real now. The Hurt Locker is about about a specialist in a U.S. Army Explosive Ordinance Disposal (EOD) team whose personal reasons for fighting in the Iraq War have nothing to do with patriotism, financial need, or even supporting his fellow soldiers. SFC William James is in Iraq because he is addicted to the adrenaline high of high-intensity combat.

The Hurt Locker opens with a quote by a New York Times war correspondent that summarizes the theme of the movie: “The rush of battle is a potent and often lethal addiction, for war is a drug.” For this unique portrayal of war, I think The Hurt Locker deserved all of the Oscars it received.

On another note, I am excited to watch the upcoming HBO miniseries The Pacific. Like the film Saving Private Ryan (1998) and the miniseries Band of Brothers (2001), this is another collaboration by Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks portraying American soldiers during World War II, this time in the campaign against Japan. I am most curious about from what angle Spielberg and Hanks will approach this series to make it different from the others. Spielberg is such a great artist and storyteller, in my opinion, that this won’t just be “another war film”.

Saving Private Ryan is a monumental film – it’s an icon of the horrific events of D-Day, June 6, 1944, in the imagination of a younger generation of Americans. Band of Brothers is also unique in that it follows a single unit of American paratroopers throughout their combat experiences during the entire war, but in a style similar to another HBO series, The Sopranos, where each episode focuses on a different character to create a portrait of the entire group. What will The Pacific be like? I’m eager to find out (the first episode premieres on Sunday, March 14 at 8p CST on HBO).

On a final note, Christoph Waltz, who won the Oscar for Best Actor in a Supporting Role this year for portraying a Nazi “Jew Hunter” in Inglorious Basterds, performed one of the best feats of acting I have ever seen. If you haven’t seen this movie, go see it if for nothing other than to watch Christoph Waltz portray Standartenführer Hans Landa, whom director Quentin Tarantino described as “one of the best characters I’ve ever written and ever will write”.

Love and apocalypse in current pop culture

Posted in American, Culture, Film, Music by Alex L. on February 25, 2010

Hollywood has popularized the idea that romantic love is salvific, that all of one’s problems in life will be resolved by finding “the one true love”. Boy gets girl and they live happily ever after. Unlike old European fairy tales, there is no heroic quest (such as slaying monsters or the like) for the boy to endure before he gets – chauvinistically – the girl as a prize. In a typical Hollywood narrative (gross exaggeration intended), getting the girl is the quest.

In the past decade or so, there have been some works of art that have challenged this traditional Hollywood love story. In fact, they downright portray the opposite: romantic love not as salvific but as apocalyptic. The film Fight Club, with its fascist and destructive undertones, is also surprisingly a love story. The narrator, played by Ed Norton, claims in the opening scene that “the guns, the bombs, the revolution all have something to do with a girl named Marla”.

In music, the young singer-songwriter Josh Ritter’s song, Temptation of Adam, echoes similar themes to Fight Club. The song is an allegory of romantic love compared to both the fall of Adam in the Bible and the nuclear apocalypse of the Cold War. The song ends with these words, which interlace imagery and symbolism from all of those themes: “So I think about the Big One: W-W-I-I-I / Would we ever really cared the world had ended? / And you could hold me here forever, like you’re holding me tonight, / I think about that big red button, and I’m tempted.”

Are these works of art in current pop culture a reaction against the sugary Hollywood love story? And yet the two works mentioned above are not purely apocalyptic; one could argue that they have equally hopeful themes apart from the destruction portrayed in them (a contemporary example where destruction is indulged in for its own sake is the song “Aenema” by the band Tool). Perhaps this theme of ‘romantic love as apocalypse’ has always run parallel to ‘romantic love as salvation’ in American pop culture. I haven’t looked into it too much, but it does make for interesting works of art.

“The Trials of Henry Kissinger”: a provocative documentary

Posted in American, Asian, Film by Alex L. on June 3, 2009

Portrait of Henry Kissinger

The Trials of Henry Kissinger is a documentary by Eugene Jarecki, who also directed Why We Fight. This film has challenged my opinion of Henry Kissinger, who I previously admired for his reputation of being a brilliant diplomat. Genius strategist he was, the documentary admits, but Jarecki also makes the case that Kissinger had committed war crimes that resulted in the deaths of many innocent civilians. According to the documentary, Kissinger allegedly sabotaged peace talks to end the Vietnam War in 1968 (resulting in two more years of bloody conflict), authorized illegal bombings of Cambodia (destabilizing the country which led to the Khmer Rouge genocide), and armed the Indonesian army for mass-murder in East Timor, among other atrocities.

Kissinger has never faced trial for any of these charges. Future historians will judge – when more evidence has been released to the public – whether he was in actuality a war criminal who cared for nothing other than his political ambitions. Though Kissinger will most likely die a free, wealthy, and respected man (unlike the Ottoman sultan Beyazit, whose ambitions led to a degrading demise), if he was guilty, he still serves a sentence no criminal can avoid. This is the punishment suffered by Rodion Raskolnikov in Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. The documentary ends with these words:

“I do think that somewhere down deep he knows what he was doing, he knows it was against a lot of first principles, which is why so much is masked and hidden. There’s so much distrust. It’s a very, very sad way to go through your life. Whatever he did, whatever he accomplished, I’m not sure it’s worth it, because he had to live a lot more years. He’s been out of power for a long time: 25 years now. In it’s own way, the reason I don’t worry about war crimes or anything else is he’s got his own sentence, he’s got to live with himself.”

“Defiance” movie intermixes many stories

Posted in Film, Judaism, Russian, Storytelling by Alex L. on March 18, 2009

Defiance movie poster

A few days ago, I watched the movie “Defiance” with my parents. The plot was engaging, the acting was decent, and there were tasteful doses of action, romance, and philosophy throughout. What most captured my imagination about the movie, though, was a theme I mentioned a few days ago: storytelling. Defiance manages to tell, in one film, a Belarusian, Jewish, and American story. Those three happen to be my personal backgrounds (although I am an Eastern Orthodox Christian by faith, I am also ethnically Jewish) so I found myself drawn to all aspects of the film.

I think the overarching story is a retelling of the Exodus narrative: the Belarusian (technically, what is now western Belarus was eastern Poland at that time) Jews are in the wilderness, escaping from their pursuant enemies – the Germans rather than the Egyptians. Tuvia Bielski is a Moses figure and the film even has a modern rendition of the parting-of-the-Red-Sea tale. In addition to the Jewish theme, Defiance glorifies the heroes of the Great Patriotic War, a common Russian motif. Finally, these familiar narratives are packaged into a Hollywood product. I enjoyed this American take on a Russian story (although my friend Mike, also a Russian, loathed the movie for its American clichés). Russian movies are often tragic and lack the redemptive, life-affirming conclusions of American films. Defiance fits the latter mold and follows the Hollywood forumla in other ways too (such as the obligatory love story). All in all, the movie Defiance is an interesting study in how narratives from different cultures can be synthesized to tell a refreshing, if familiar, story.