Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

I tend to just stick any historical film that turns up on Netflix in my list with the aim of writing about it for this blog, even if I don’t really know anything about it. That was the case with The Siege of Jadotville, a 2016 Irish movie about the, er, siege of Jadotville, in which a force of Katangan militia and mercenaries attacked a force of Irish UN peacekeepers in 1961. The film is based on a 2006 book about the battle, which reopened interest in a battle that had basically been overlooked for many of the intervening decades.

The whole thing was part of the Congo Crisis, specifically the Katanga secession, in which a mineral-rich southern province seceded from the newly-independent Republic of the Congo, backed by European mining interests. Bloody civil war over mineral rights in a Cold War context, with massacres, incompetence, and so on. Ugly stuff, today mainly remembered for the death of UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld in a possibly-suspicious plane crash. I suspect that the murky political nature of the conflict — and the fact that the defenders ultimately surrendered to forces that weren’t a real army — is the reason for the general silence about the event, but I’m not an expert.

In terms of war movies, this definitely is one. A tough, smart commander (Jamie Dornan), a bunch of mildly-individualised squaddies, and the double-dealing SOBs back at headquarters who hang the men out to dry. Some historical context, some scenery, plenty of exciting battle scenes and a couple of bigger-name actors in supporting roles (including Mark Strong as Conor Cruise O’Brien, here given a very unsympathetic treatment).

It’s nice to see a movie about a lesser-known conflict. It’s also nice to see a movie that focuses on soldiers who are explicitly not a bunch of battle-hardened tough guys. Indeed, much is made of the fact that this is the Irish army’s first real overseas deployment. You definitely get the appropriate sense of desperate, improvised heroism, like a more frantic Zulu: historians estimate the defenders of Jadotville killed about 300 of their attackers for losses of, er, zero. Whether that’s true or whether they see double when they’re counting enemy bodies as has been the ccase in various conflicts around the world I don’t know.

Anyway, it’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s an enjoyable, well-made war movie about an interesting conflict that’s (mostly) effectively evoked. If you like war movies and feel like watching one some evening, this is definitely worth your time.

Movie Monday: The Siege of Jadotville (2016)

Movie Monday: Belle (2013)

I mentioned earlier that some of my tutoring students are doing a unit on the history of migrant and minority communities in Britain. As part of that, they watched this film: a biopic about the life of Dido Elizabeth Belle, daughter of a Royal Navy officer and a West Indian woman named Maria Belle (or Bell). Raised by relatives in England, Dido Belle had a pretty unusual life for a mixed-race woman of the time. We don’t know every detail, but she seemed to live with the family — and her uncle was the Earl of Mansfield, Lord Chief Justice, so a pretty high-ranking family — on conditions of some (although perhaps not total?) equality.

file_584855_belle-poster

The film fictionalises the story (since, as I said, we don’t know as much as we might about Dido Belle’s life) and focuses on a couple of things: the legal battles concerning slavery in 18th-century England and Dido’s romance with serious-looking legal student John Davinier. She did in fact marry a John Davinier, but I don’t think this guy has much in common with him.

So it’s clearly going for a sort of Austen-movie style, with young ladies worrying about finding suitable husbands and who’s got £2,000 a year, and might the stern son of a local clergyman have feelings for our heroine? The romance, of course, ties in to both Belle’s race and the issue of social class — the challenge set up by the film is that Dido is from an aristocratic family, and therefore shouldn’t marry beneath herself, but because she’s mixed-race British people of the correct social class won’t be interested. Unless, that is, they are handsome fortune-hunters being pressured by Miranda Richardson to do it.

The legal plot focuses on the Zong case, which was a court battle relating to insurance payments on slaves killed by the crew of a slave ship. Mansfield’s decision is seen as a stepping-stone toward the abolition of slavery, and it plays a big role in the film, but the question of romance (with an abolitionist) is definitely foremost. Which is fair enough; I am not a legal historian, but I am given to understand that a) Belle wasn’t particularly involved in the Zong case — that’s just something Mansfield’s critics said as a jab — and b) the idea that Mansfield was moving toward abolition in that case is probably an overstatement. Publicity surrounding the case did stimulate anti-slavery activism, though, and it was seen as important that Mansfield had ruled against the slavers, who were an important economic pressure group.

Mansfield’s summation in the Zong case in the film is actually taken from another important anti-slavery case, the Somersett case, in which he famously said that slavery was “odious” and “incapable of being introduced on any reasons, moral or political,” but it glosses over the more complex context of what he was actually saying — that slavery couldn’t be supported by common law but only by “positive law.” This was the decision that established that slavery was illegal in England and Wales, and is usually given as more persuasive evidence of Mansfield’s anti-slavery position than the Zong case.

It looks good, it’s well-shot and it has a lot of good people in it: Tom Wilkinson, Emily Watson, Miranda Richardson, Penelope Wilton. Gugu Mbatha-Raw is good in the title role. But the dialogue is … well, it could be better; it sounds stiff, and not quite authentic. Some of the exposition is pretty obvious. And it is a little slower than it might be. Perhaps a lot slower in places. That would be fine if the slowness came from character-illuminating digressions or scenes that were genuinely funny or exciting by themselves. But a lot of them are just slow expository scenes in which very good actors explain things to each other in a stately, dignified way.

So as a drama it isn’t completely successful, and as a period piece it has to be treated with caution, simply because we know so little about its very compelling subject. But it’s an interesting piece, and especially good, I thought, in its portrayal of the hurtful racism of people who weren’t trying to be hurtful racists — indeed, who were being as much of the opposite as practicality would allow. Social norms are a hell of a thing, and even people genuinely trying to be kind and caring can use them to hurt others, which is something that often gets overlooked in films about prejudice in historical periods. It’s a shame, then, that much of the rest of the film is kind of … rote.

A note about the painting: one of the subplots is about the famous painting of Dido and her cousin, once thought to be by Zoffany (who I only really know from Gilbert and Sullivan) but now attributed to an unnamed painter.

Dido_Elizabeth_Belle.jpg

In the film, the painting is portrayed as a statement of the characters’ equality — the two women are on the same eyeline, which is something art historians have pointed out about it. But there are also a lot of signs of racial difference in the image — the seated, reading white woman and the almost impish black woman carrying the platter of fruit representing a distinction between culture and nature that was often given a racial edge in the art of the era.

 

Movie Monday: Belle (2013)

Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)

mv5bmjq0ndczmjyymv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmjm3odu4nze-_v1_sy1000_cr006991000_al_

Today’s film is another one of those ones that just cropped up on Netflix and I thought I’d give a spin. At the risk of national stereotyping, my assumption before starting this is that it’s going to be a searching look at the extent of Dutch complicity with the Nazis in WWII — a theme that was famously explored in what (I think?) is the big-name Dutch war movie, Soldier of Orange. Don’t quote me on that, though.

Anyway, I guess my point is that a certain amount of uncomfortable ambiguity or outright condemnation is the norm in European films dealing with this era, which I have to say forms a refreshing contrast to the rah-rah-rah tone in a lot of the other foreign films I watch. But since this movie’s about an asshole who helped the Germans kill Dutch Jews and got away with it, I bet I’m not going to be super happy about the movie, no matter how refreshing it is. Let’s watch.

It’s an interesting approach — we see Riphagen at first as an ambiguous figure, resenting the Germans he works with and seeming to want to protect the hidden Jews he discovers in hiding. And outwardly this seems like a premise with which we’re familiar — a Schindler’s List kind of deal in which someone working within the Nazi system, morally compromised perhaps but ultimately trying to do some kind of good, is going to save some Jewish lives.

Thiiiiis … ain’t that kind of movie. And I almost feel bad about writing it up, because I think that if you went into it cold the twist could be very effective. But who does that? The summary of who Dries Riphagen was is in the Netflix description, and of course I always go and look things up when I’m writing a Movie Monday post (although I don’t speak Dutch, so I’m a bit limited in this case).

There’s a B-plot, as well, in which baby-faced goodie Jan (a cop by day, charged with rounding up Jews and so on) and his buddies in the Resistance try to outwit the Germans and so on. He’s romancing another young patriot, but she might not be all she seems — and perhaps he is not such a baby-faced goodie after all.

There’s a good deal of working the audience based on similarities to other film genres going on here, I think — so a lot of Riphagen’s style (and this seems to be historical) is very based on the kind of American mobster look, and the film plays on that as well; we’re used to seeing really bad, dangerous people as principled in some way or as romantic scoundrels, and the movie plays with that a bit.

But, as it turns out, Riphagen is only helping Jews hide from the Nazis as a means of getting money and valuables out of them for his supposed assistance; once the well is dry, or they start to get wise, they get fed to the Germans, and off strolls Riphagen, pocketing the cash and putting up his mistress in a hapless old Jewish lady’s comfy flat.

One of the Things I Always Say is that it’s a mistake to assume that police states are efficient; most of the time, they’re the same blend of venality, careerism, infighting and incompetence that characterises any human endeavour, but amplified by increased power and lack of oversight. This is a common misconception — perhaps because police states work so hard at presenting an image of ruthless efficiency, or perhaps because people assume that if you try harder at something you get better at it — and I think it’s quite a dangerous one, since it gives people mistaken ideas about public safety policy (to say the least). This isn’t to say police states aren’t dangerous, of course. That was one of the things about The Lives of Others that I really enjoyed: it portrayed the East German police state as a genuine threat without making it seem superhuman.

But actually, most of the film isn’t about Riphagen’s wartime activities: the Allies show up by the halfway mark. A lot of it is focused on Riphagen and his wife and their experiences as the Netherlands fall to the Allies, including his stint as a counter-insurgency type, looking for arms drops for the Resistance and that kind of thing. He keeps playing the double-agent card, and you keep hoping that he’s going to get caught up with, even though you know he won’t. The real people involved in his postwar pursuit and escape, Wim Sanders and Frits Kerkoven, also start to show up as larger characters. It also starts to get into the disorganisation of the late- and post-war Netherlands, including the usual division between Communist and pro-Western Resistance types, just in case you needed a reminder that the good guys aren’t necessarily any better organised.

They do a fine old job of making a city being liberated at the end of WWII — usually portrayed as a sort of joyous holiday — seem sinister and menacing.

So it’s a historical biopic, a crime movie and a spy thriller. It’s a useful corrective to some common notions about the war and at the same time a really frustrating and depressing film. It’s well-made, although to be perfectly honest I’m not sure it quite fills its two-hour-plus running time. Still, I’m glad I watched it, and to the best of my limited knowledge it seems like a reasonable and nuanced portrayal of the complexities and betrayals of wartime Holland.

And in the end, baby-faced goodie Jan comes up short. Virtue is punished, vice rewarded, and everything goes to cold, hard hell.

So … maybe not the ideal viewing choice for a guy like me.

Movie Monday: Riphagen (2016)

Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

A few weeks ago I wrote about the recent TV version of Wolf Hall. This week we’re back in the 16th century with the 1966 film version of A Man for All Seasons, a much more flattering portrayal of Thomas More.

1966a_man_for_all_seasons

And of course it’s a classic, with every son of a gun in the world in it: Orson Welles is Wolsey, Paul Scofield is More, and, well, I mean, just look at that poster up above.

It’s good, of course — won Best Picture, full of great actors, lush visuals, all that kind of thing. Robert Shaw shouts like anything. Leo McKern is a fantastic counterpoint to Wolf Hall‘s version of Cromwell; a real devious son of a bitch but without the motivating principle.

So what sort of picture of More are we painting here? Basically one that portrays him as an example of principle, principle writ large. And that naturally means glossing over all the stuff More did that, while it might very well have been an expression of his principles, rather clashes with ours (More burned heretics, but everyone burned heretics). In essence it builds up to the moments of principled defiance that characterised More’s end and made him famous. There is a fantastic line where the Duke of Norfolk calls his behaviour “disproportionate” as if it’s the worst thing he can think of.

And that’s not a bad eye on an aspect of 16th-century society that has some parallels in a lot of societies — the idea that “go along, get along” is actually a principle rather than a shameful compromise. Not that it’s an original observation, necessarily, but it’s expressed well.

Anyway, it’s a story about moral conflict where Wolf Hall is essentially a political story that presents the moral compromises that result from the political strategies used to serve moral agendas. It’s an interesting contrast between interpretations of a time that has become synonymous with moral conflict.

I’m impressed by the fact that claims to be “a motion picture entertainment for all times,” which is … I’m not sure about that. It’s a little bit of a historical pageant, and visually it doesn’t have much to distinguish itself other than lots of velvet. But this is the kind of thing they put on movie posters back i8n the day.

So I liked it, but you don’t need me to tell you that a movie that won Best Picture is good.

Movie Monday: A Man for All Seasons (1966)

Movie Monday: Rudhramadevi (2015)

Rudhramadevi.jpg

OK, so this 2015 Telugu film about a famous 13th-century queen turned up on UK Netflix a while back and I added it to my list — but it’s two and a half hours long, so I never really sat down to watch it. On Saturday, though, it was rainy, so I watched this bad boy in my pyjamas while eating waffles and petting the neighbour cat and it was very enjoyable. I believe the version on Netflix is dubbed into Hindi (I think?), but I don’t speak either Hindi or Telugu so it doesn’t really make a difference to me.

I don’t know how many Indian historical epics you’ve watched, but just imagine if the people who made Chinese historical epics said “y’know, this is pretty good, but it could have a little more jingoism and sentiment and maybe a little less fidelity to historical fact. And some dance numbers.” That should give you a rough idea of how these things operate. It might not necessarily make a good movie, but it’s a pretty entertaining way to pass a rainy Saturday morning.

You get a lot for your money in two and a half hours: scheming villains, a fairytale story about a princess pretending to be a prince, elephant fights, battles, speeches, the aforementioned dance numbers, a lot of pageantry, a lot of religious allegories (a lot), a little feminism, a smidgen of history, lots and lots of costumes and some of the best moustaches ever committed to film. Also some very, very ropey CGI. Very.

smug

But the moustaches are pretty great.

Have I mentioned that there’s a framing narrative in which Marco Polo explains the story to the … the king … of Italy? I guess? As a feminist parable? In a set that is very reassuring about the fact that goofy stereotypes of other cultures are not exclusively a western thing.

marco

I feel like two and a half hours of inspirational historical glurge is a lot to get through, even though crazy stuff keeps happening, so it actually might be best to watch this thing in five thirty-minute chunks or similar.

So what about the history? Well, there certainly was a Rudrama Devi (“lady Rudrama,” more or less) who ruled the the Telugu-speaking Kakatiya kingdom in the mid-late 13th century. And she was crowned as co-ruler while her father was still alive in a move that displeased many of the local chiefs and stuff. And she did marry a guy who has the same name as her love interest in the movie, although I suspect the resemblance may end there.

I get the impression — and I am far from an expert — that she sort of represented herself with traditionally masculine aspects to lend her rule legitimacy, although I’m not sure that quite translates to being disguised as a boy like she is in the film. So basically this is a fairy tale that incorporates some elements of the history — the Kakatiya dynasty were apparently pretty apathetic about the caste system, for instance, which comes up in the film as another sign of the heroine’s personal virtue — and uses them as a springboard for a full-on fantasy adventure story. That may represent an existing folkloric tradition, in the same way that if you make a movie about Billy the Kid or Robert the Bruce you have a whole lot of not-historical-per-se material to draw on.

Quite a lot of the architectural detail, statues and so on comes from actual remains of Kakatiya dynasty art and architecture:

warangal-fort

Like, there are a lot of these gateways in the movie. I do wonder if some of it is presented out of context. For instance, there’s a sculpture on what seems to be a bit of a ruin that I’m pretty sure is a ruin now — but was it a ruin then?

Irrigation is very important in the film, which I believe is pretty true to the concerns of medieval India.

Anyway, as I say, it’s pretty nuts throughout; bits of it look gorgeous, bits of it look stupid and a lot of it looks gorgeous and stupid. It’s very pageant-y, very much of an older school of filmmaking, and I probably wouldn’t sit down and watch the whole thing with undivided interest from start to finish, but it’s enjoyable.

Movie Monday: Rudhramadevi (2015)

History, horror, Halloween

So I was at FrightFest in London to check out my a new movie that my podcast co-host Jesse Merlin is in, Beyond the Gates. It’s coming out at the end of this year in the US and early next year in the UK, I believe, so look for it when it does. But although I enjoyed it, the movie itself isn’t what I wanted to talk about.

One of the things that was really noticeable about the plot of the film was that although it is set in the modern day and is about confronting the 80s video era as a poisoned past, it’s very not-modern in how the characters react. Most obviously, they find this weird old game, and they’re curious about what it is, and you know what they never do? They never Google it, which any modern person would have done within a minute. In fact, they don’t even seem to own computers.

Which is not me nitpicking: what I’m saying is that an 80s-y structure runs through the film (though there are mobile phones and contacts photos and stuff); the history aspect (and again, weird that that’s a period piece) bleeds into the modern day.

beyond_the_gates

I’ve been working on a historical horror project that I hope to tell you more about within the next few months. And, of course, I wrote a horror story set in the 9th century. And part of it’s got me thinking about how horror scenarios get presented in historical settings. At FrightFest, most of the films were set in the modern day, and that’s pretty normal for horror. Modern settings provide immediacy — it’s easier to put ourselves into the roles of the main characters if they’re in a familiar setting. This is true even for stories that are now told as period pieces — Lovecraft wrote stories set in his present and was punctilious about putting in lots of modern scientific detail.

So when we do get a historical horror story, there has to be a specific reason to use that historical setting. Usually, this is just kind of brutality, superstition, isolation and violence: your Valhalla Risings, your Black Deaths. I guess you might get the occasional plague-and-decadence film. I think of the Herzog Nosferatu like that. And of course there are some Victorian period pieces. I haven’t seen The Witch yet, but it’s supposed to be good.

Anyway, one of the things I’ve been thinking about is how to identify what is both frightening to people from the historical period and frightening to people from the modern day. Lovecraftian horror, for instance, is all about undermining the characters’ sense of who they are in the universe. But in, say, the middle ages, that means something very different than it does today — blasphemy isn’t that shocking to modern people, for example, but if you wanted to mess up a medieval person’s worldview you would go hard after the reality of Christianity.

Now, ironically, in many ways fantasy versions of medieval beliefs are actually a little better at conveying some of these overlapping ideas — that is, they either contain modern beliefs or are exotified for maximum contrast with modern beliefs. See, for instance, how most people think that witchcraft and heresy investigations in medieval England were like a game of Warhammer rather than the weird, compromised things they really were.

I suppose in that sense modern horror films exist in fantasy versions of the real world, but perhaps the fantasy starting point is something closer to reality.

I don’t know; I’m just thinking out loud as usual.

History, horror, Halloween

Movie Monday: Straight Outta Compton (2015)

With this and last week’s TV Tuesday, it seems like I’m on a bit of a music-history kick at the moment. It’s just a coincidence, but it is an interesting one, since both The Get Down and Straight Outta Compton show some of the same traits — traits that are kind of universal in music movies.

Insofar as these traits are problems, they’re exaggerated because both Dr Dre and Ice Cube are credited as producers and other members of the group were involved in the production, as was Eazy-E’s widow, Tomica Woods-Wright. On the one hand, good for the musical side of things, but on the other hand, it’s a pretty rosy portrayal of the characters. My wife pointed out that some of the characters’ flaws sound like job interview answers — although everything I know suggests that Dr Dre is a workaholic perfectionist. Similarly, Ice Cube sometimes shouts and flies off the handle, which sounds like an older man acknowledging that he was a bit hot headed in his younger days.

And maybe that’s all it is, but the film did generate some controversy for its complete lack of anything related to Dre’s history of violence against women. In the movie, his girlfriend leaves him because he can’t support her and his child, which is the usual wife-doesn’t-believe-in-musician’s-artistic-dream plot. In reality, she alleges that he hit her. And of course Dee Barnes. Now, in real life Dre has apologised for all this, talked about his journey to maturity, and so on. But it’s just totally absent from the film. I guess there’s no good way they could have handled it, but still. And I gather Jerry Heller is not too pleased with how he was portrayed.

The other thing you always get in musical movies is compression and simplification. That’s got to suck if you’re left out of the story altogether (like the Arabian Prince) or forced into a villain/naysayer role (like Alonzo Williams). The compressed timeline also means that we see less of the members’ pre-NWA careers, although at least they’re discussed, something that really bugged me about Walk the Line. The musical story of it also highlights the police-brutality aspect: these are characters who live in a poor, violent neighbourhood where there is a lot of crime, but for the most part they themselves (except Eazy-E) aren’t criminals, except insofar as it’s unavoidable in that environment. In the film, Dre gets arrested for a brawl, but he was most often arrested for unpaid traffic tickets — i.e. for being broke. Suge Knight’s guys and Snoop nearly get into a fight over gang affiliations, which are just an unavoidable fact of life in that context. I wonder if that idea came home to people who are always complaining about thugs and criminals in hip-hop, but probably those guys aren’t watching an NWA biopic in the first place.

So the whole thing is enjoyable, but it’s more interesting than moving or exciting. Having been a teenager in the 90s, I got a lot of nostalgia moments and gained some context for some stuff I just casually learned about at that time. I was not a big gangster rap fan, but it was just so present in the culture at the time, and it was fascinating to see some reminders of another point of view. But it’s … y’know, it’s a music bio movie, and they are all more or less the same.

I said to Allison: “I was looking at the kid they have playing Ice Cube, and the resemblance was uncanny,” and she said, “his son?” And I said “yup.”

Movie Monday: Straight Outta Compton (2015)