Movie Monday Metapost: Cowboy up

For reasons, I have been considering characters who appear in multiple films and the different ways they are portrayed. I think this may come from having seen like a million films about Ip Man. But the other day I was considering Wyatt Earp and John Henry “Doc” Holliday.

I’m not saying these two have been played more times than any two other historical characters, but they must have one of the weirdest spreads of actors to go with their almost total dissociation from history.

Actually, that’s not totally true. Wyatt Earp is almost always played as a sort of restrained example of frontier manhood. Go down the list: Kevin Costner, Kurt Russell, Bruce Boxleitner(!), Harris Yulin (I guess that’s kind of an exception), Burt Lancaster, Henry Fonda, Randolph Scott. I mean, some are a bit more rugged and some are a bit more civilised, but they’re all at some fundamental level people you would credit as cowboy actors.

But Holliday … Holliday is fucking weird. In the same film order: Dennis Quaid, Val Kilmer, Jeffrey DeMunn (Dale from The Walking Dead), Stacey Keach, Kirk Douglas, Victor Mature, and Cesar Romero.

Cesar Romero! He looked good, too.

frontier marshal

That’s kind of weird, isn’t it, how you could drop Romero into Tombstone and he would look perfectly at home, but Randolph Scott just looks like nothing so much as Randolph Scott? Perhaps my thesis needs to be reevaluated.

In other news, I’m back, and this is the kind of top-tier content you can look forward to this spring. My history/Doctor Who podcast, Pledge Break, is also back with a new episode about everybody’s favourite, Pyramids of Mars.

Movie Monday Metapost: Cowboy up


Ah, deadlines, my old foe. We meet again.

The blog is going to be going a little quiet for the next few weeks. I have a lot of work-work that needs to get done by the end of the month and I’m finding it hard to write long things that aren’t work – related. I may post the occasional small thing, but I can’t promise anything too thrilling until March or so. I hope I will be able to make it up to you with some fun stuff then.


Sounding modern

People like to talk about how you can look at parts of the distant past and be struck with a sense of modernity, as if the person you were reading could be around today. I’ve definitely seen it with burials; you occasionally get (what appear to be) little personal gestures of grief, the kind of thing you can imagine a bereaved loved one doing today.

I was thinking about this as a student and I talked about Epicurus yesterday. Consider, if you will, this excerpt from the Vatican Sayings (which are probably mostly attributable to Epicurus):

We have been born once and cannot be born a second time; for all eternity we shall no longer exist. But you, although you are not in control of tomorrow, are postponing your happiness. Life is wasted by delaying, and each one of us dies without enjoying leisure.

You’re not in control of tomorrow, don’t put off living your life, etc., etc. Sounds like someone could easily have said it in 2016.

Then we got on to his epistemology and talked about how all objects emit thin films of atoms which collide with your reason — which is located in your chest — to create your thoughts.

Sounding modern

Reader question: toy soldiers

Reader Adam asks:

What are your thoughts on the history of toy soldiers?

I don’t know that I’d go so far as to say that I have “thoughts,” which is funny considering how much of my mental energy is taken up by thinking about present-day toy soldiers.

Part of the question of the history of toy soldiers — of toys in general — comes down to the vexed question of intent. That is, we definitely see figurines of various kinds throughout history, but are they “toys” per se? In some cases, doubtful: like, these soldier figures from an Egyptian tomb have a ritual/magical function, but I definitely always think of them as a wargame unit when I see them in museums.


I knew a guy when I was doing my MA who was very fascinated by what these kinds of figurines could tell us about the Egyptian military — and he was a wargamer.

You also get what appear to be toy figurines of knights in the middle ages, I do know that: see some examples here.


But it’s really in the 18th century that “toy soldiers” as we know them become a thing, particularly in Germany. I assume this is to do with changing trends in consumer culture — this is also when we get “shopping” as a leisure activity, for instance, and my guess would be that this is also when you start to get any kind of large-scale production (even if not that large-scale) of dolls, dollhouses, jacks, etc. But it’s also true that this is an age of militaries with standard, elaborate uniforms, where a bunch of identical monopose brightly-coloured tin figures is what an army would idealise itself as.


This kind of thing, you know what I mean? That’s the War of the Austrian Succession, so it’s about right era-wise.

And of course, this is also the era that I associate in my mind with the rise of militarism that goes with the nation-state, the idea of armies as institutions. Rrrrroughly; we’re talking long-term trends here.

Now, a lot of these early tin soldiers are made using two-part flat slate moulds, so they’re very thin. When I was getting into wargaming, the books on the topic in my local library made mention of these, although they were understood as primarily a German thing and an older thing.

These are from the Roscheider Hof museum in Germany, for instance. 

As the mould-making technology develops (I assume as rubber moulds get easier and cheaper to make and hollow casting becomes easier? I legit don’t know how that works), you start to get the three-dimensional toy soldiers that most British kids remember. I even had some of these in the day, although heaven knows where they came from. These are the kinds of things H.G. Wells wrote his wargame rules for, I believe.

This kind of thing, y’know. 

And then there’s Elastolin and then plastic moulding becomes practical and you get cheap 1/35 or 1/72 model soldiers, like Airfix toys, and plastic army men in bags and then Gary Gygax is gluing cardboard wings to dime-store dinosaurs to make dragons and then you have D&D which begat Warhammer and so on and so on. I actually like 1/72 plastic figures and buy them compulsively, even though I have almost no use for them. But they’re so varied and economical! Heck, I don’t know. There are a lot of them out there, though. 

So yeah — “toy soldiers” in the sense we understand them are probably a product of the technology and economy for mass-production being available plus uniformed militaries being the norm plus society being very into the pageant and spectacle of the military. Note that a lot of early toy soldiers aren’t in any kind of combat position and there are a lot of military bands, colour parties and so on — you’re clearly meant to be creating a parade with them.

Tangentially, there’s quite a lot of good stuff on the evolution from military wargaming to modern fantasy and adventure gaming in Jon Peterson‘s excellent book Playing at the World, which I wholeheartedly recommend if you have not read it.

Reader question: toy soldiers

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland

I was feeling sorry for myself about how I didn’t have anything to write about today. “Gee,” I thought, “I wish I’d just done a single post on the Kibbo Kift Kindred and save the British Library’s Alice in Wonderland exhibit for a second post.” And then I remembered that that’s what I did. Nice.

Anyway, on Saturday I had some time to kill because my wife was buying some new skates for roller derby. The skate shop is near St Pancras station, so I popped over to the British Library and checked out the Alice exhibit. It isn’t very big — it’s not in the big exhibit space, but the little one up on the mezzanine level thingy.

So, it’s the British Library, which means it’s got all kinds of cool stuff like the manuscript and the rare first edition with crappy printing. It’s not in a very big space, and since I was visiting at lunchtime on a Saturday, it was very crowded. I only skimmed the later arty stuff, but even if I had done the whole thing I don’t think I would have taken more than about twenty minutes or so.

Alice-in-Wonderland-009.jpg I think the thing that was the most interesting to me was the extent to which Alice was a brand, with Carroll heavily involved in the merchandising, right down to the official Alice in Wonderland stamp albums and stuff like that. I’m not up on the history of children’s literature, but was it the first such brand? I genuinely don’t know.

Trip report: Alice in Wonderland

The other KKK

On this weekend’s brief trip to London, I saw a couple of museum exhibitions, both small ones but both interesting. I’ll talk about the first one in another post, but the second was an exhibit on the KKK at the Whitechapel Gallery — no, not the Ku Klux Klan, but another bunch of robe enthusiasts, the Kibbo Kift Kindred.

These guys are an interesting bunch — pacifist Romantic types big into physical fitness, ceremony, ritual, Old-English-ish neologisms and having all kind of crazy modern-art badges and totems. I love these totems — 60 years later these guys would have been painting these designs on the shoulder pads of their Space Marines. You can read their history here.


Back in the 20s, the Kindred actually exhibited their stuff at the Whitechapel Gallery, so this is an interesting continuation. I think what really struck me about the whole thing was its amazing combination of crazy super-modern 20s design such as you might find on a Soviet propaganda poster with intentionally primitive-looking “tribal” stuff.

A couple of books on the subject came out last year:

That seems like the mass-market one; there was also a big tome called Intellectual Barbarians, but as far as I can see it’s not easy to find; even the gallery shop only had a display copy.

And then there’s this thing:

I have no idea.

Anyway, if you have the chance, I suggest you check it out. It’s a pretty small exhibit, but free and definitely interesting.

The other KKK