I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

I don’t usually write about gaming on this blog, seeing as how I have a whole other blog for just that purpose. When history and gaming interact, however, I do post about it here. And they interacted for me this past weekend, when I went to the UK’s largest miniature wargaming convention, Salute.

In addition to all the shopping and chatting to friends, I spent much of my time playing a game of Lion Rampant, a medieval wargame. We were refighting the Battle of Lodi Vecchio, a 1239 clash between Milanese crusaders and the inhabitants of the town of Lodi, backed by the forces of Holy Roman Emperor Frederick II. You can read a blog about the game’s development here.

The game was only part of a larger project being run out of the University of Edinburgh about gaming and history. They hosted a roundtable discussion last year, which got a write-up in Wargames Illustrated. You can read about that here.

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This is a topic that comes up a lot — lots of historians are gamers, after all, and plenty of gamers are history buffs — and I think it’s interesting to see it explored. A lot of people think of gaming and history as sort of … putting some sugar on top of boring old history to get dumb kids interested in it, which I think a) doesn’t work, b) is kind of insulting and c) assumes that one part of the equation is the most important.

On the other hand, it clearly sort of works. Every year in my history class, I get one kid who is surprisingly knowledgeable about the military history of the ancient world. The first time this happened, I thought it was just weird but when it happened twice I realised that the kids were just big Total War fans. And although they get some funny ideas, they are genuinely pretty well-informed, so clearly something is working.

The other question that gets asked is whether we can use gaming to learn something about history, and here I’m a little more skeptical. Ultimately, simulations encode assumptions about reality, from kriegspiel to its digital descendants. The ideas is to teach people practical skills based on your real-world knowledge. But I don’t know how you take that and turn it into a research tool — creating the terms of the simulation requires provisional answers to the very questions you’re asking. I suppose you could just run a bunch of simulations with different assumptions and see how they come out differently, but even then I have some gut reservations about games as simulations.

I do actually use a simplified wargame in one of my history classes, but I’ve never used miniatures in it, if only because it would be a pain to transport them from class to class and I wouldn’t really have a place to put the map in one of my classrooms. Perhaps that will be different in the coming year? I would just need to paint some Turks and Egyptians.

Maybe.

I fought the Milanese and the Milanese won

Movie Monday: Hysteria (2011)

Well! This one’s a little bit risqué, at least by the standards of Movie Monday. Which is to say not very.

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OK, so, Hysteria is a 2011 rom-com and/or sex farce about the history of medicine. Hugh Dancy is Dr Mortimer Granville, an idealistic youngster who gets a job with a prosperous doctor (Jonathan Pryce). Pryce has two daughters (Felicity Jones and Maggie Gyllenhaal), with predictable results. But the real twist is that Pryce’s specialty is hysteria, which he treats by way of genital massage. This was a real thing, more or less, and it’s mainly what I want to talk about — that and the technological development that goes with it.

So, whimsical Victorian comedy — and idealistic Victorian political subplot — aside, this is a really fascinating period in the murky history of public sexuality. The literature of sexuality had been trending away from the moral literature of the middle ages throughout the early modern period, resulting in a blend of moral and medical writing that gradually came to be dominated by the medical side. That included a lot of quack medical finger-wagging about how you should avoid impure thoughts and sit in cold baths and zap yourself with electricity if you started to think about sex, but it also created this weird moment where a certain class of medical practitioner basically made a living as a licensed and respectable prostitute.

Now how common this was I couldn’t tell you. I believe the standard popular work on the subject is Rachel Maines’ The Technology of Orgasmwhich I haven’t actually read. But it’s interesting to note that this change from moral to medical, which still preserved the usual fierce condemnation of masturbation, essentially created an inadvertent loophole that allowed this strange side hustle to exist for a while.

There is a dark side, though: medicalising masturbation took it out of the realm of the penitential and into the realm of, y’know, surgical intervention. Take, for instance, the case of Isaac Baker Brown. Baker Brown subscribed to all the contemporary theories about masturbation — basically, that it was responsible for everything from indigestion and bad posture to heart disease and insanity. When faced with women who suffered from it, then, the obvious answer was clitoridectomy. He operated on a number of women between the early 1860s and 1867, when he was kicked out of the Obstetrical Society. His opponents don’t necessarily fill you with confidence, though — one critic said that doctors “have scarcely more right to remove a woman’s clitoris than we have to deprive a man of his penis,” which is a weird statement.

So as funny as the concepts behind this film are, it’s not all fun and games in the world of Victorian sexual medicine. In retrospect I sup

As for the movie, it’s funny and full of anachronisms. It’s sufficiently light-hearted that you can’t really criticise it for any of those lapses, though!

Movie Monday: Hysteria (2011)

TV Tuesday: Tokyo Trial (2016)

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Everyone knows that at the end of the Second World War, the victorious Allies put the leaders of Nazi Germany on trial for various war crimes — indeed, not only the traditional violations of the laws of war, but for crimes committed by the regime against its own people and for starting the war in the first place. In Japan, too, the Allies put the leaders of the defeated nation on trial, but the trial is much less well-known outside Japan. Now we have Tokyo Trial, a four-part English-language miniseries created by Japanese broadcaster NHK in cooperation with various Canadian and Dutch bodies.

So what’s it like?

Well, the drama is primarily about the behind-the-scenes deliberation of the justices in the trial, viewed through the eyes of Bert Röling, the Dutch judge on the tribunal (Marcel Hensema). Some parts of it are bits of documentary, presenting actual testimony from the trial. There are personal subplots relating to the experience of postwar Tokyo, but most of it takes place in a conference chamber or courtroom.

Hoo boy, it is worthy. And I don’t necessarily mean that as a compliment. One of the problems of approaching really grim, serious subjects of massive historical importance — a huge, multinational war-crimes trial, for instance — is that any hint of action or excitement might be seen as disrespectful, and the historical characters are so important that introducing personal drama into their narratives might not be appropriate. That means that some historical films descend into a certain confining stateliness — slow, with grandiose music and lush cinematography, but fundamentally history lessons. Most historical movies that get away with this are war movies, because battles are dramatic, spectacular events no matter how serious you’re being about them.

But Tokyo Trial has a further challenge, which is both one of the most interesting and the most challenging things about it. It is a totally international production, with cast members from all over the world, and a presumed audience likewise. Which is good, great, but it does mean that the English you are listening to isn’t quite the English you speak, if it’s English that you speak. If you watch a lot of Indian or Chinese films, think about the way you hear English in them. It’s English, of course, and presented for an audience that can sometimes be quite fluent, but who still don’t have the intuitive familiarity that a native speaker would. So it’s a little slower, with longer pauses, and things are explained very clearly. Again, that’s a good thing — it makes it accessible to a wide range of English ability levels — but it doesn’t exactly make for gripping drama.

It’s also very specifically educational — like, there’s a scene in the first episode where the Chinese justice (David Tse) explains to Röling why the Japanese occupied the Dutch East Indies, like he wouldn’t already know. I expected them to go “I know that.” “I know you do, Justice Röling — but the audience doesn’t.”

I also don’t think there’s a character in this thing who is a genuine character rather than a mouthpiece for a particular viewpoint. Occasionally we do get little moments that humanise characters, or bits where a performance gives life to a set of stock phrases (Irrfan Khan is strong as Radhabinod Pal, for instance). But most of the dialogue is just the various arguments of the trial, which is not … not ideally suited to being expressed in the form of a television drama, shall we say?

Which is a shame, because it does try to be thorough in its exploration of the issues: the division between civilian and military leadership, tensions between the different Allied powers, the implications of the judgement for colonialism, the lack of an existing body of international law, the thorny issue of the Emperor’s culpability. I was interested to see where those would go. In my limited understanding of the popular view of this period in Japan, these are all tricky issues. MacArthur (Michael Ironside) even talks about the role of the emperor in the post-war reform program, which I started but never finished an undergraduate dissertation on back in 1998.

It also does a pretty good job of portraying a group of justices who are on pretty shaky legal ground and under intense political pressure while also trying to find some kind of just outcome. International law is a dicey proposition at the best of times, and much more so back then than now. It’s difficult to avoid the impression that sound technical legal arguments were overruled by the argument of might, but that nonetheless there were sincere attempts to reach a decision that furthered the interests of justice and world peace.

I mentioned Radhabinod Pal earlier, for instance. Pal is an interesting and complex figure, whose objection to the trial verdict seems to have rested partly on procedural questions about the tribunal’s legal validity and partly on an anticolonialist interpretation of the 30s that viewed Japan’s response to American economic pressure as not that unreasonable. He believed that war crimes had been committed, but that they could be addressed under existing war crimes statutes. Pal definitely gets the hero treatment here, which is in line with how he’s viewed in Japan today — he’s very popular in particular with Japanese nationalists. I made the “hrm” face, although the show doesn’t suggest that Pal’s position was all that simple. Author Michio Takeyama (Shin’ya Tsukamoto) is given the role of being critical of Japan’s wartime response to militarism.

Some of the events are really rushed — for instance, the American judge, Higgins, leaves partway through — which really happened — but his reasons are given very short shrift. He says “I have made proposals and they have been rejected,” but we see him sort of disagreeing with the group once for about thirty seconds. Perhaps that’s symptomatic of a general issue: things are explained much more than they’re shown.

It does give you some sense of the scale of the trial, especially toward the end: years of work, huge teams of assistants writing thousands of pages of opinion. The ending of the story goes on and on about sentencing, particularly the sentencing of Togo. The result is that it’s a bit long.

It has the unfortunate quality of some historical shows in that it gets better as it goes on, which means that the first episode doesn’t give a fantastic impression. But still, it’s long, talky, self-important and a little undramatic. It’s clearly intended to be educational, so maybe it’s for people who want to know more about Japanese history but don’t know much about it? It seems like the kind of thing you might watch in class? But it’s nearly four hours long, so maybe not.

TV Tuesday: Tokyo Trial (2016)

Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

In the many years of Movie Monday on this blog — honestly, it’s been the most consistent feature — I have mainly focused on trash. This is for a number of reasons: a lot of it is easy to find on the web, it’s fun to write about and, crucially, it tends to be short, with glaring flaws that I can make funny jokes about.

So here I am writing about a Big Serious Film from Big Name Director Steven Spielberg, and it’s about the Cold War and oh Lord here we go.

Bridge of Spies Launch One Sheet

OK, so. Bridge of Spies is based on a thing that did really happen, and is pretty faithful to its inspiration by the standards of a historical drama. In 1957, the FBI arrested a Russian spy, Rudolf Abel (here played by Mark Rylance); he was defended by a lawyer named James B. Donovan (Hanks), who fought his case all the way to the Supreme Court despite the fact that no one wanted the guy acquitted. In 1961, Donovan was also involved in exchanging Abel for good ol’ Francis Gary Powers, the pilot whose U-2 spy plane had been shot down by the Soviets in 1960, together with an American grad student named Frederic Pryor who had been arrested by the East Germans basically for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

And that’s quite an interesting story, but as we all know, historical movies must be About Something. So what is Bridge of Spies about?

Well, I guess it’s supposed to be about integrity. Donovan is supposed to be a guy who is sort of fundamentally honest, willing to appeal the Abel case because Those Are the Rules, but who grows into a more humane honesty when he tries to save Pryor (who is of no value as an intelligence asset) as well as Powers (who is, of course, very valuable).

Cold War movies tend to be spy thrillers, war movies or stories about finding the shared humanity with people who are supposed to be your enemies. Unless they’re set exclusively in America, in which case they’re about people of principle standing up to a paranoid and repressive American security state (e.g. Good Night and Good Luck). Here, it’s … a little more complicated?

So we start out with the story of Donovan v. Paranoid and Repressive American Security State (hereinafter PRASS). In this one, PRASS, in the persons of a cynical CIA agent (Scott Shepherd), a rich jerk judge (Dakin Matthews), a rich jerk law boss (Alan Alda), and so on, wants Donovan to just bend the rules (inform on Abel, take a dive in court) for the sake of America, but he believes that the rules are America, fights hard for his client and his principles, and incidentally becomes friends with Abel, who is an unassuming guy with a wry sense of humour.

Now that might lead you to think that this is one of those movies about how the Cold War twisted American society into a rotten old maze of institutionalised hatred and partisan self-interest and whatnot, but in the second part of the movie our action moves to East Germany. And of course East Germany is a total shitshow, a mixture of repressive institutions, desperate poverty and the good ol’ Russian boot. And once there things become even twistier and more ambiguous than they were back in the US.

Put these two parts together and the movie becomes both more nuanced and a little simpler: the world is a snaky mess of dirtbags, even if they are dirtbags with nuance and human value, and in such a world it’s important to be as little of a dirtbag as you can be. Something like that, anyway? I mean, you know, Tom Hanks as a figure of weary everyman integrity, just like … most movies.

Historically, it does the things most such films do: it compresses its story, it punches it up and it simplifies it. So, for instance, people were not happy with Donovan in real life, but in the movie someone shoots at his house, which I believe did not happen. Pryor was arrested in East Berlin, but in the movie East German troops beat him up at a half-built Berlin Wall, which was already complete by the time he was arrested. Donovan had a rough time in East Berlin, but he didn’t get mugged like he does in the movie, I don’t think. And of course the film just basically skips the years between 1958 and 1961, making it seem like the whole story takes place in the space of, I don’t know, a few months.

Movie-wise, you know, it’s a film about the Cold War that does, I think, a pretty decent job of showing the murkiness of international relations of the era and which, while critical of American institutions, doesn’t sugar-coat the nature of Eastern Bloc states in doing so. Oh, and it actually deals with the differences between the USSR and its clients, which is something you don’t often see. And it has good performances and a pretty good script and a good general sense of the weirdness of things. It’s not exactly a thrill a minute, but I enjoyed it.

Movie Monday: Bridge of Spies (2015)

Stealing saints

So, a recent episode of the Fencast talked about stealing saints’ relics from one church to take them to another. This might seem like a shocking thing, but it wasn’t actually uncommon in the middle ages, particularly in the early period.

I’ve written about one example before — the removal of the bones of Saint Oswald from Lincolnshire by the Mercians — but there are plenty of others you can look at. This type of thing is known as furta sacra, or “holy theft,” and it rests on a whole bunch of weird assumptions about the power of a saint. I believe, and I speak subject to correction, that the definitive book on the topic is still Furta Sacra by Patrick Geary. It’s not a specifically English thing, either — it happened to no less a luminary than Saint Nicholas, whose remains were swiped and translated to the Italian town of Bari, which is how he became the patron of good ol’ Bohemond of Taranto. Naturally, later sources claimed that Saint Nicholas appeared in a vision to the Italian sailors who nicked them and told them they should take his bones.

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Here’s where they stashed the loot.

Same thing happened with Saint Mark in the 9th century; his bones were “rescued” from Alexandria by the Venetians and smuggled out of Egypt concealed under a layer of pork to confuse the Muslim customs inspectors.

So yeah: stealing saints’ bones is a grand old Christian tradition. Doesn’t seem like it should be, but that’s real life for you.

Stealing saints

Movie Monday: Flyboys (2006)

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Right, so. During WWI, before the Americans joined in, American volunteer pilots sometimes served with the French air force. They were organised into the Escadrille de Lafayette, which is similar to be not exactly the same as the Lafayette Flying Corps. This film is about those pilots, although it plays pretty loosey-goosey with the history.

Honestly, you can make a long list of the inaccuracies in this film, and many have. The airplane models they show weren’t all flying at the same time, for instance, which is the kind of thing people who go to see WWI films notice but not something I would have spotted myself. It simplifies and condenses and exaggerates and so on, but honestly even that’s not the real problem with it.

It’s just … honestly, this thing could just have been called War Movie.

I mean, there’s a rag-tag bunch of pilots: a rich jerk, an idealistic one, a black guy, a grizzled veteran, etc., etc., etc., and each has a one-sentence plotline. There’s a rootless young hero (James Franco) and a gruff French officer (Jean Reno, because who else), and there’s a noble German who gets killed anyway and a vicious German who kills the secondary good guy but gets his comeuppance in the end. And there’s a pretty girl raising some adorable moppets and they have a sweet love story even though, how whimsical, she doesn’t really speak English and he doesn’t really speak French, and, like, basically …

… if I asked you to sit down and write a movie in which James Franco plays an American airman in France in WWI and I didn’t tell you anything else about the plot, you would write this movie, more or less.

So how much you like this movie depends on how much you like dogfighting sequences and scenes of camp life. From that perspective, it’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with it. Everybody in it does a fine job. It has fight scenes and landscapes and clearly they spent some money on the sets and things, but just …

… just who cares, really? If you know enough about American service in France during WWI to fit on the back of an envelope, you won’t really learn anything new, and you won’t really be surprised (other than by the resolution of the love story, which I have to admit threw me). So if you like seeing planes fly around and blow up and you’ve already watched Red Tails, which has really good dogfights to go with its absolutely average script, you could watch this, I guess.

OK, I’m being unfair. Here’s a good thing: this is a WWI movie that makes it clear that this is a French conflict and the Americans are a sideshow, and doesn’t try to make the French look bad in any way. So that’s nice.

Movie Monday: Flyboys (2006)

Listen to my voice!

So, I appeared on a podcast! A few weeks ago I dropped in to Huntingdon Community Radio and recorded an episode of the Fencast, a podcast that is all about the local history and legends of the Fen region. I was there to talk about Hereward the Wake and the siege of Ely; I’m not an expert on that, but it’s my period and I think we had a fun conversation during which I made at least one pretty decent point.

In any event, you can find it by just searching for Fencast in your favourite podcast app, or you can download episodes from their website. If you’re interested in folk tales and local history, definitely check out the other episodes too!

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Listen to my voice!