2017 Year in Review

Well, another year draws to a close, and it’s been a quiet year on this blog. That’s bad in some ways, but not terrible.

It’s definitely the case that the heckshow that was 2016 diminished some of my enthusiasm for thinking about the kind of historical stuff I usually write about on this blog. In essence, I try to only write “serious” posts every so often, but I ended last year in a mood that didn’t really allow for the kind of writing I typically prefer. That wasn’t the only reason, though, and the other ones were a little better.

The first reason things went a little quiet is that a new project wound up taking a lot of my time. I’m referring of course to Monster Man, my new podcast about the 1977 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual. I released over 30 episodes in 2017, and also spent a good amount of time blogging and promoting it. I even went up on Patreon, a project that was almost derailed by the recent Patreon shenanigans.

So obviously that project’s been taking up a good amount of my free time, and I’m very pleased with how it’s been going. But it’s not the only thing that I’ve been doing, and the other thing is a little more history-related.

As I have mentioned in the past, I started volunteering at the Centre for Computing History, the computer history museum here in Cambridge. I mostly do behind the scenes stuff, whether that’s adding items to the archive, helping to organise the collections, or just lugging stuff around. It’s fascinating to see the museum at work, and the team there are a great bunch of people. So that’s been good. I should blog a little bit more about it, honestly.

I think the recreated 1970s office might be my favourite part. 

Anyway, all of this adds up to mean that I haven’t had a huge amount of time not spoken for, but hopefully I’ll be able to use the holiday to knock out a couple of posts on things I’ve been reading and watching lately.

Despite the fact that 2017 has been a rough year in many ways as well, I come into 2018 with more a … faint-glimmer-of-hope sort of feeling of optimism compared to the grim resolve of last year. Let’s see how the year develops. I hope that all of you enjoy your new year celebrations and that the coming year is a good one.

2017 Year in Review

Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)


So, first things first. I somehow missed that this movie was directed by Mel Gibson; under ordinary circumstances I would not support or endorse his work. However, I was halfway through this film, looking stuff up for this blog post, when I found it out, so whoops. I decided to finish it anyway.

So, anyway, Hacksaw Ridge is a war movie about a guy called Desmond Doss. Doss was a conscientious objector in WWII: as a Seventh Day Adventist, his beliefs forbid him from engaging in violence or carrying a weapon. he still wanted to serve, however, and ended up becoming a medic. He won the Medal of Honour for doing some stuff that was so outrageous they actually leave part of it out of the movie, presumably because it was either narratively inconvenient or ridiculously implausible. Check it out for yourself here. 

I said this was a war movie earlier; what I meant was that it is a War Movie. I don’t know to what extent the details are based on Doss’ actual experiences, and I’m open to the suggestion that it’s all true, but I mean, he turns up in his unit and within minutes he meets a guy called Tex who is doing a lasso trick. There’s also Grease, Teach, Hollywood, Smitty, and so on. It’s a bit … on the nose.

It’s not shy about its scenes of human destruction, either. It’s like the first 20 minutes of Saving Private Ryan turned up to a million zillion, with bone fragments and spurting arteries and people writhing around on fire and whatnot. I suppose I should have expected that from the guy who brought us The Passion of the Christ and, to a lesser extent, Apocalypto. I think that some indication of the devastation that war wreaks on the fragile human body is 100% valid for a movie about a combat medic who’s also a pacifist; I’m just saying it’s not for the squeamish.

I suppose this validates the decision to create all those one-note squaddie characters, since these are the guys who you see later on getting their various parts blown off and their faces shot full of holes. It does give it more impact, corny as the setup might have been.

It’s kind of interesting to see a movie that takes a religious commitment to pacifism seriously, although the film complicates this with some stuff about Doss’ dad’s traumatic experiences in WWI and also his history of drunken abuse and so on, giving Doss multiple reasons to be unhappy with the idea of violence. In that sense, I guess it’s a morally complex film, at least up to the point of believing that a person’s deep-seated moral convictions come from multiple sources. This fits in with the fact that Doss’ brother served in the navy, apparently lacking the same scruples about violence.

There are a couple of interesting details, like the meal in which we see meat on the plates of Doss’ father and brother, but not him or his mother. Although it’s not a requirement, Seventh Day Adventists do advocate vegetarianism, a point that comes up later on in the film as well. These little moments are interesting and fun, and they do something to humanise Doss, who would be a paragon of downhome folksy virtue if he weren’t also weird. The problem is that this movie is like two and a quarter hours long, and could have been shortened by the removal of at least one tender courtship scene and one scene about military officials being jerks to Doss about his CO status.

(I was very surprised by everyone being such a tool to Doss about being a CO. I assume it’s because he volunteered, putting him outside the normal CO pathways? By WWII, the US had been employing COs in various ways for decades, and their status was — as is eventually pointed out — well understood and protected by relevant legislation. Which doesn’t mean that everyone in an army at war was familiar with all of the relevant statutes, of course.)

Anyway, it’s not bad. It has a moment of genuine (if, again, on the nose) religious content. Andrew Garfield is fine, although he is visibly too old; Doss was in his early 20s, and Garfield is 10 years older than that and it really shows. Ultimately, it’s a regular old war movie with a little bit of a twist, the kind of thing you could enjoy and go away feeling you had learned some fun facts from, even the kind of thing that could genuinely impress you with the character’s selflessness. But then you remember Mel Gibson is involved, and it leaves you with a bit of a sour taste.

Apparently this thing’s based on a 2004 documentary. I should probably just watch that instead.


Movie Monday: Hacksaw Ridge (2016)

Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

I was in London last weekend, and in the hours between arriving and going to the thing we were actually therefore, my wife and I swung by the Tate Britain to see the Ray Harryhausen exhibit. It isn’t a full-scale exhibition; it’s what’s called a “spotlight,” a little one-room exhibit, but if you’re in the area, it’s pretty great.


One of the things I felt like the exhibit did well was go beyond just being a nostalgia trip to locating Harryhausen in his context. By showing art from his collection, as well as art from the Tate’s collection by painters who influenced him (especially John Martin), it situated his work in its tradition. Harryhausen was greatly influenced by 19th-century illustration and spectacular painting. These genres weren’t necessarily respected by critics at the time; they were thought to be unsubtle and focused on popular entertainment, a criticism Harryhausen’s work typically faced as well.

Even if you’re just there for the nostalgia trip, though, it’s a pretty good one. 

Of course, that’s probably no surprise to you if you know more than the smidgen I know about art history. I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the trajectory of adventure entertainment in our culture, partly as a result of my new podcast, Monster Man, which is all about the 1977 Advanced Dungeons and Dragons Monster Manual.

That sounds like a tenuous link, maybe, but I really do think the Monster Manual shows a genre, or set of genres, on the brink of a transformation between the legacy of 19th-century adventure fiction and a new status as a distinct cultural entity. And when you look at these spectacular paintings of classical or Biblical scenes while the trailer for Sinbad and the Eye of the Tiger plays next to you, I think you can see something similar.


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Separated at birth? 
Joseph Michael Gandy, Jupiter Pluvius, 1819


Anyway, I thought it was fascinating. I don’t know that it’s worth making the trip to London for, not being huge, but if you’re in the area it’s definitely worth a look.


Trip report: Harryhausen at the Tate Britain

Movie Monday: Invasion 1897 (2014)

I don’t think it is a big secret around here that a lot of my viewing choices for Movie Monday are based on whatever I happen to find on Netflix. So imagine my delight when I found Launcelot Oduwa Imasuen’s 2014 historical drama Invasion 1897, which is about the destruction of the independent African kingdom of Benin, just hiding out in the epics section.

A Nigerian movie about British colonialism seen from the other side? Sign me up. Even if Invasion 1897 turned out to be terrible, it would be interesting. And it was! Which was good news, because on a purely filmic level, it’s … not great.

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So, OK. The film has a framing narrative about an art student (Charles Venn) who gets arrested trying to take some of the famous Benin Bronzes from a museum. This is a real-world issue — I mean, the legacy of a lot of artefacts in museums is one of a colonial relationship where the artefacts might not be what you’d call freely given. But the Benin Bronzes fall into the category of straight-up loot.

Anyway, during the highly unrealistic argument about the bronzes, we go into flashback mode and see the story of how the British decided to take control over Benin. Basically, resource-rich Benin has stuff the British want, like palm oil and rubber, leading to a trade treaty that the king of Benin, Ovonramwen (Mike Omoregbe) either understands differently or doesn’t intend to keep. When the trade deal is apparently broken, a rash British official leads an expedition into Benin; the expedition gets massacred, and the British, who had been looking for a pretext anyway, move in.

All of this is more or less told in sequence, although some of the complexities are smoothed out. Where it falls down is … well, the execution.

And, I mean, it’s a low-budget film and it looks like it. I’m not trying to say that an inexpensive film can’t be good. But the British flag on the wall in the shack that is apparently the Empire’s HQ is crudely hand-painted, and there is a scene where one of the British characters is wearing, no kidding, a T-shirt. Several of the British characters have American or South African accents, which did make me think about how often that’s probably the case with non-English-speakers in English-language movies. That Spanish-speaking character could be supposed to be Chilean, actually sound Mexican, and I would have no idea at all.

It’s not just production and casting, either. The dialogue is repetitive and … is stagey the word I’m looking for? Sometimes it’s very elaborate in a way that sounds slightly off to my ear; I don’t know if this is a genuine difference between norms in Nigerian English and British English or just a modern-screenwriter-trying-to-sound-old-timey thing. The performances are also wildly variable. Again, I think budget concerns are a factor here: I don’t think too many scenes in this film got lengthy rehearsals or second takes. That means that every scene is played in whatever the actor’s natural inclination is, whether that’s hyped bellowing (for one group of Benin nobles) or sleepy mumbling (for the guy playing Henry Galway). Most of the main characters are fine, but the supporting parts seem to be played by whoever they could round up.

Whoever they could round up got a certain amount of say in directorial decisions, too, it sems. Galway explains the whole rubber-tree plot to one of his subordinates while standing on a porch and tapping a piece of paper loudly with a stick, and the guy just keeps saying “OK” over and over, sometimes interrupting to do so. I’ve got to assume that was an acting choice on his part. A British officer says “these guys are something else!” at one point. That can’t have been in the script, can it?

And the battle scenes … I’m gonna say the battle scenes “could use some work.”

Also, there’s a bit where a god appears in a haze of blue light to tell Ovonramwen that he’s doomed. And at one point Ovonramwen just turns invisible, presumably as the result of a spell he cast on himself earlier. I … did not think that was meant to be taken literally.

I don’t know how much of this is just that I’m, for want of a better explanation, not Nigerian. Like, I know that what I think of as the structure of storytelling is merely the accepted structures of particular accepted genres. Maybe if I were more steeped in Nigeria’s dramatic traditions the disjointed plot would make more sense? Maybe the idea that the king of Benin had magical powers is a well-enough known trope that it wouldn’t require explanation for the intended audience? Could be! I got that with the constant naming of the chiefs, too — if I knew more about the history of the place and period, those names presumably would have meant more to me. So perhaps some of what made the film confusing is me applying slightly-off genre expectations to it.

It still wouldn’t explain why the British officers have anarchy-symbol patches on their uniforms, though. Or why the officer who hoists the flag then appears standing at the bottom of the flagpole still holding the flag. Or … the fake beards.

Anyway, despite the fact that this movie is a weird, disjointed, kind of crude spectacle, I thought it was interesting. I didn’t know much about the Benin expedition before this, and it inspired me to learn a bit more about it. It was also interesting to see the tale told by a filmmaker who wasn’t British — he doesn’t paint the British as pure villains, necessarily, but more importantly he doesn’t assume they were the most important characters in the whole thing. Even if it’s expressed primarily by shouty rambling, the conflict among the kingdom’s various chiefs and leaders over the Benin Massacre (that’s the bit where the British party was attacked) are portrayed in a more complex way than I would expect from your typical historical drama.

The point about Benin artefacts in British and other museums is made briefly but clearly. I don’t know what there is to say about it, really: the question of what to do with these artefacts is a thorny one in practice, but the rights and wrongs of it in principle are pretty clear.

I can’t decide whether Imasuen is making an intentional choice to portray Ovonramwen in an equivocal way. It might just be equivocal writing, or it might be that I’m genuinely supposed to be rooting for him the whole way. He doesn’t actually do a whole lot, and I sometimes can’t tell whether Omoregbe’s going for heroic resolve or misguided aggression in his performance. When he tones it down, as in the final scene, he’s pretty powerful, but it’s not consistent. There certainly seem to be some scenes where the message is that Benin is better than Britain because it’s more … patriarchal and authoritarian? Again, I don’t know if I’m misreading that, but it would be consistent with the patriotic glurge genre.

So yeah, it’s interesting, at least from my outsider’s perspective. It has a lot of ingenuity and ambition, and it’s genuinely affecting in its portrayal of the horrors of the Benin Expedition and the plight of Ovonramwen. And it talks about heritage repatriation, even if it presents the issue as It’s not good in any meaningful sense. But it’s also not just a knockoff of something else, and after umpty-gazillion of these Movie Mondays I can definitely appreciate that. It’s … the best Benin historical drama I’ve ever seen? Number one in a field of one, I guess.

Movie Monday: Invasion 1897 (2014)

Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Last week I went to one of my favourite museums in Cambridge, the Whipple Museum of the History of Science. My wife had noticed that there was an event that sounded fun, and we hadn’t been in a while, so off we went last Thursday night.

The topic was Fakes, Mistakes and Mystery at the Whipple, and it was about forgeries in the museum’s scientific instruments collection. It combined some additions to the collections with a really interesting and informative talk. The study of forgeries is really fascinating, and it’s particularly interesting to me that even within this sub-collection of what is already a pretty niche collection there are lots of different kinds of forgeries.

Items like these seem to be genuine phonies, so to speak. As it became clear that there was a market for antique scientific instruments, forgeries began to appear, some of them good enough to fool experts in what was then a pretty young field.

If you look behind the cylinder above, you’ll see a sundial. This is a different kind of fake: it’s a genuine sundial of the period it purports to be, but it has a prestigious manufacturer’s name on it even though it is definitely not from that maker. I missed whether this was a contemporary knockoff or a later addition trying to make money on the collector’s market.


This Persian astrolabe looks very cool, but it is not an astrolabe; instead of the precisely-calculated star positions on the central dial, it just has a bunch of swoopy floral design. Objects like these were aimed at the tourist market. It’s a bit like the mall katana of the astronomical world. It isn’t really what it looks like, but that also isn’t really the point: it’s just going to hang on the wall and look pretty.

So we have intentional fakes, contemporary knockoffs and imitations, and real scientific instruments being sold as something they weren’t. One of the mysteries referred to in the title was the extent to which antique dealers were selling these to defraud. Like I said, antique scientific instruments was (and is?) a pretty niche field. It seems to have been not uncommon for instrument makers to create copies of classic devices just as a training exercise or for fun. Imagine that you have a collector who acquires one of these and knows what it is, or even the person who created it. That person then dies, and their collection passes to a beneficiary who lacks their expertise. It’s not hard to see how these replicas could be misidentified as the real deal.


Anyway, it was an interesting event, and a fascinating look at the different factors that go into analysing museum collections. Plus there are lots of other good exhibits, including one about Charles Piazzi Smyth and his “pyramid inch.” And these:


Trip report: fakes, mistakes and mystery

Movie Monday: Sarajevo (2014)


The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire by Serbian nationalist Gavrilo Princip in Sarajevo in 1914 is one of those historical events that fascinate people. The idea that an event that was the product of so many chance factors could have such a deadly global impact is a deeply unsettling one; like other assassinations, this is one of those historical events that historians and writers keep probing at like a loose tooth.

Sarajevo is a 2014 German TV film which takes an … unorthodox approach to the story of Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. The actual assassination takes place relatively early in the story, and for the rest of it we follow magistrate Leo Pfeffer as he conducts an investigation into the conspiracy. His investigation is hampered by the fact that his bosses have already come to the conclusion that this was a Serbian plot and the ideal pretext for war with Serbia. As a further complication he’s in love (or something; he’s not very demonstrative) with a Serbian woman in an increasingly anti-Serb atmosphere.

OK, so far, so good, right? The ethnic patchwork of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a principled official trying to do his job in the face of official indifference, a doomed love in a fractured society; that’s all good drama material. But Sarajevo goes to some weird places with it.

See, more than just the idea that the German and Austrian military establishments were spoiling for a fight and took the assassination as a ready-made casus belli, Sarajevo takes the position that the killing of Franz Ferdinand was itself a conspiracy orchestrated by German intelligence and corrupt Austrian government officials. The establishment shuts down the investigation, not out of bureaucratic inertia and war fever, but as a way to cover up actual wrongdoing, which is paradoxically a less terrifying idea than the more complex actual history, don’t you think? Mind you, I tend to think that way about conspiracy theories in general.

It’s well-made enough, and to the best of my limited ability it seems like it does a good job depicting the society and environment of pre-war Austria-Hungary. The decision to make the hero look small and scruffy in comparison to the better-dressed, more old-timey villains is a good one in particular. But the actual plot is weird enough that it serves as a distraction.

Part of the weirdness is … hmm. I’ve spoken before about the kind of visual language of historical filmmaking. From its slow pace to its wistful music, this film has all the signifiers we would normally associate with a character-focused historical costume drama, the kind of thing that would be about, I dunno, a Jewish-Croat civil servant in love with a Serb heiress in Sarajevo on the eve of WWI. This might tend to give the conspiracy plot some spurious credibility, but if you’re not prepared to lend it that credibility it winds up feeling really weird.

Movie Monday: Sarajevo (2014)

What I’ve been up to

Things have been quiet on this blog lately, due to a combination of factors — I haven’t been well, work has been busy, and I’ve felt myself a little lacking in things to say. That being the case, I thought I’d do a quick catch-up on what I’ve been doing, just to kind of get the writing juices flowing again.

Still volunteering at the museum. I continue to volunteer a little time each week at the Centre for Computing History in Cambridge. I work behind the scenes, in the archive, and it’s mostly paperwork and, like, putting up shelves. This is surprisingly interesting and fun. When you go to a museum, you should remember that whatever collections are on display, they’re probably on shelves. And if they’re on shelves, somebody had to put them up.

I kid, but I find this very rewarding.

I started a new podcast. It’s not really about history per se, although do get into folklore and mythology and other nerdy stuff at times. Well, I say nerdy — it’s all nerdy, just a different kind of nerdy. It’s called Monster Man, and it’s just me reading my way through the 1977 Advanced Dungeons & Dragons 1st edition Monster Manual and talking about all the monsters therein. You can check it out here, or subscribe on your favourite podcast app. Episodes are short — about 10 minutes — and they come out every Tuesday and Friday.

Teaching has started again. I usually spend the first month or two filling up my teaching and tutoring schedule, but my normal classes are underway. I feel like I’m getting the hang of the admin side of my classes, which is pretty good considering that I’ve now been teaching them for five or six years. I need to figure out some more enjoyable activities for my students. I feel like for years I’ve been trying to teach the kind of classes I would have enjoyed when I was young, which is not at all the same kind of thing as the kind of classes most people enjoy.

Some upcoming travel. It’s my birthday later this month, and I’m hoping to spend some time in London seeing the sights and maybe checking out the Scythians exhibit at the British Museum. So hopefully there’ll be writeups of whatever I see on my travels.

Anyway: this is just to say I’m not dead, and hopefully I’ll have some more posts up here soon.

What I’ve been up to