Archive for the ‘World War I’ Category

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp

March 20, 2014

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The Criterion Collection has released a restored version of the 1943 British film, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, directed by Michael Powell and Emeric Pressberger. The title refers to a recurring character in the cartoons of David Low: an elderly Army officer who spouts reactionary nonsense. This film’s main character, Gen. Clive Wynne Candy (Roger Livesy), is clearly meant to be associated with Col. Blimp.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp tells, in flashback form, the life story of Gen. Clive Wynne Candy, from the Boer War to the beginning of the Second World War. In the film’s early scenes, Candy is on leave from the Boer War, where his courage has earned him a Victoria Cross. On his own initiative, Candy follows a German agent named Kaunitz to Berlin. Kaunitz has been spreading stories about British atrocities in the Boer War, inciting anti-British feeling among the Germans. Candy is determined to stop him. What makes this part of the film a bit icky is the fact that the British did commit atrocities in the Boer War. This is somewhat ameliorated by the fact that the film implies that Candy is a bit self-deluded, although this is never made explicitly clear.

However, in the next section of the film, detailing Candy’s experiences during World War I, we learn that his biggest fault is actually that he is too decent. He is reluctant to resort to the ruthless measures needed to defeat the Germans. This problem continues into the Second World War, when everyone around him becomes exasperated with Candy’s niceness. Even his Prussian friend, Theo (Anton Walbrook), lectures him about the need to get tough with the Germans.

At this point, I had to begin to question this film’s honesty. It seems to be saying that the main fault of the British is that they are too nice to their enemies. I suspect that many people in India and Africa and Ireland might beg to differ about this. (No doubt, Gandhi had the British in mind when he made his famous quip about Western Civilization being “a good idea.”) Early in the war, Noël Coward recorded a “satirical” song titled Don’t Let’s Be Beastly Towards the Germans, which also argues that the British are too nice to their foes. This idea of the British being “too nice” to their enemies strikes me as a back-handed form of self-flattery. (Sort of the way we’re often told that the U.S. is “generous” towards its enemies, even though it actually isn’t.)

What the film also seems to be saying is that Col. Blimp – and by extension all the “Blimps” in England – is not really a bad person after all. (The filmmakers apparently did this with David Low’s blessing.) This is in keeping with the “we’re all in this together” rhetoric of the British government during this period.

So, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp is actually wartime propaganda, albeit of a subtle and sophisticated kind. What is odd is that this film was the subject of much right-wing criticism at the time of its release. (Churchill tried to prevent the film from being made.) One of their objections seemed to be that the film contains a sympathetic German character. In the U.S. at about this time, John Steinbeck’s The Moon is Down was harshly criticized for the same reason. War demands the dehumanization of the enemy.

This movie is gorgeously filmed. (The technicolor was lovingly restored for the DVD.) I was impressed by the high production values, considering that this was made during wartime rationing. The acting is superb. Livesy is impressive, convincingly aging over the course of the film. Deborah Kerr acts as the Eternal Feminine, playing three roles over the course of three generations. Her characters illustrate how women acquired greater personal freedom during this period.

One other thing that I found icky about this film is that the directors indicate the passage of time by filling up Candy’s house with the heads of animals that he killed while on hunting trips all over the world. At first, I thought this was meant to be satirical, but I gradually had the disturbing realization that this was something that the audience was supposed to find endearing about Candy. Ah, for the good old days when the British upper hunted species to the verge of extinction. Nostalgia can be a bitch sometimes.

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Obama’s Speech on Syria

September 11, 2013

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The speech that President Obama just gave on Syria was a depressing example of the empty rhetoric and hypocritical moral posturing that make up the political discourse in this country. He begins by saying:

    Over the past two years, what began as a series of peaceful protests against the repressive regime of Bashar al-Assad has turned into a brutal civil war. Over 100,000 people have been killed. Millions have fled the country. In that time, America has worked with allies to provide humanitarian support, to help the moderate opposition, and to shape a political settlement. But I have resisted calls for military action, because we cannot resolve someone else’s civil war through force, particularly after a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
    The situation profoundly changed, though, on August 21st, when Assad’s government gassed to death over a thousand people, including hundreds of children. The images from this massacre are sickening: Men, women, children lying in rows, killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth, gasping for breath. A father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk. On that terrible night, the world saw in gruesome detail the terrible nature of chemical weapons, and why the overwhelming majority of humanity has declared them off-limits — a crime against humanity, and a violation of the laws of war.

Images of people killed by conventional bombs are every bit as sickening as the images described here. So what is it that makes chemical warfare a “crime against humanity”? It’s not until the middle of the next paragraph that Obama tries to give an answer to that question:

    Because these weapons can kill on a mass scale, with no distinction between soldier and infant…

Conventional weapons can also kill on a mass scale, and they also do not distinguish between soldier and infant. The idea that chemical weapons are more inhumane than other weapons has no basis in fact. If there is anything peculiarly destructive about chemical weapons, it is the fact that some chemicals, such as Agent Orange, can linger in the environment and do long-term damage. (Although I’m guessing that Obama doesn’t consider Agent Orange to be a chemical weapon.)

Obama cites two examples from history of the use of chemical weapons:

    In World War I, American GIs were among the many thousands killed by deadly gas in the trenches of Europe. In World War II, the Nazis used gas to inflict the horror of the Holocaust.

Obama conveniently neglects to mention that Saddam Hussein used poison gas against the Kurds and Iranians, back when he was still a U.S. ally. The president at that time was Ronald Reagan, a man for whom Obama has expressed great admiration. (I think it worth noting here that during World War I, more people were killed by artillery and machine guns than by deadly gas.)

The President goes on to say:

    When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying pictures fade from memory. [Uh, you mean like Saddam Hussein?] But these things happened. The facts cannot be denied. The question now is what the United States of America, and the international community, is prepared to do about it. Because what happened to those people — to those children — is not only a violation of international law, it’s also a danger to our security.

    Let me explain why. If we fail to act, the Assad regime will see no reason to stop using chemical weapons. As the ban against these weapons erodes, other tyrants will have no reason to think twice about acquiring poison gas, and using them. Over time, our troops would again face the prospect of chemical warfare on the battlefield. And it could be easier for terrorist organizations to obtain these weapons, and to use them to attack civilians.

This is a sophisticated reformulation of the “if we don’t fight them over there, we’ll have to fight them over here” argument that was wildly popular back when G.W. Bush was in the White House. First of all, our troops already face the prospect of chemical warfare, which is why they are trained in the use of gas masks. I think it a fair guess that many governments – dictatorships or otherwise – possess chemical weapons of one kind or another, regardless of any treaties. As for terrorists getting a hold of chemical weapons, that is a real possibility, I’m afraid, but it would be naïve to think that bombing Syria is going to prevent any possibility of that happening.

    If fighting spills beyond Syria’s borders, these weapons could threaten allies like Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. And a failure to stand against the use of chemical weapons would weaken prohibitions against other weapons of mass destruction, and embolden Assad’s ally, Iran — which must decide whether to ignore international law by building a nuclear weapon [which is not against international law], or to take a more peaceful path.

So, this is really about Iran? Obama thinks that if he kills a bunch of Syrians, this will convince the Iranians that they shouldn’t build any nuclear weapons? Might not the Iranians draw the exact opposite conclusion? They might decide they need nuclear weapons so the U.S. won’t attack them the way it did Syria.

The President’s speech ends on an optimistic note. He tells us he has decided to postpone asking Congress to authorize the use of force, so he can pursue a proposal by Russia to have Syria turn over its chemical weapons so they can be destroyed. It appears that Putin has saved Obama from the humiliation of Congress voting down the authorization. Bullshit can only get you so far in this world. Obama has once again benefited from dumb luck.

Paths of Glory

April 3, 2013

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Stanley Kubrick’s 1957 film, Paths of Glory is one of the greatest war films ever made. Indeed, I would rank it as second only to Renoir’s Grand Illusion.

Colonel Dax (Kirk Douglas) is serving in the French Army during World War I. His commanding officer, the ambitious General Mireau (George Macready) orders him to lead his regiment in a suicidal attack on a heavily fortified hill. When Dax shows reluctance to do this, Mireau questions his patriotism. An incensed Dax tells Mireau that he will lead the attack. The next day, Dax leads his men into battle, but an intense artillery barrage forces them back into the trenches. Refusing to admit that the attack was a bad idea, Mireau claims that it failed because the soldiers were cowards. He orders that one soldier be picked from each battalion to be tried for cowardice. Dax, who was a lawyer in civilian life, announces that he will defend the men in court. The trial turns out to be rigged, however, and despite Dax’s best efforts, the men are condemned to death.

This film is filled with powerful images. There is, for example, a long tracking shot of Dax walking through the trenches just before the attack. The soldiers are lined up along the walls, and shells are exploding outside the trenches. We can see from the expression on his face that Dax has convinced himself that he can somehow make this insane plan work through sheer willpower. The scene is a striking depiction of the self-willed bravado that make war possible.

Paths of Glory is about bureaucratic corruption and incompetence. It makes the point that the military system actually rewards cynicism and ambition rather than courage and honor. (One can see this in the Army’s treatment of Bradley Manning.) In a scene between Dax and General Broulard (Adolphe Menjou), the latter assumes that Dax has opposed Mireau because he wants the latter’s position. When Dax tells him that he was actually trying to defend his men, Broulard reacts with a mixture of surprise and comtempt.

Paths of Glory is based on a novel by Humphrey Cobb that was inspired by an actual incident in the First World War. This film wasn’t shown in France for many, apparently because members of the French military objected to its portrayal of French army officers. (I guess these guys were a little touchy after their less than stellar performance during World War II.)

A great film.