Monday, March 2, 2015

"I'm Still Standing" by Shoshana Johnson (2010)

In this well constructed memoir Shoshana Johnson recounts her ordeal as an Iraqi Prisoner of War in the early days of the fighting to topple Saddam Hussein. If I countenance the book as unusual it is only because it is only in the past few years that women have been involved in combat roles in our military. This may be the first memoir I have read about combat which was written by an American woman-soldier. I don’t know why this book did not garner more attention at the time it was released.

Perhaps; and I offer this with a bit of cynicism, although there is some truth to it; we were all too wrapped up in the story about Jessica Lynch; the pretty blond white woman who was in the same convoy as Ms. Johnson.  If you recall she was the first captive rescued and has had books, movies and television specials lauding her courage under fire. The initial reports claimed that she fired her M-16 until it was out of ammo were later proved to be incorrect.

Much to her credit is the fact that she testified before Congress in 2007 that in actuality she never fired her weapon; which jammed at about the same time she was knocked unconscious. When asked about all the media hype that stated otherwise she responded by saying, "That wasn't me. I'm not about to take credit for something I didn't do. I'm just a survivor."

I could not go on to review this book without noting the inequity in the media coverage of the two women. And I can’t help but notice that when a white woman goes missing the word goes out a lot quicker than for an African-American one. It’s sad; but unfortunately true. I don’t know whether to blame the media or society itself; I can only note the difference. Now; on to the book.

This was a pleasure to read. It was written with alternating chapters; one would take place in Iraq; and then the next goes back to her childhood. There are chapters on her schooling; her decision to join the Army; and what it is like to be a woman in the Army. And of course, the clincher here is her account of how she was treated at the hands of her captors in a Muslim country. Surprisingly, they weren’t treated too harshly; although being locked in a cell all day could hardly be called humane.

The captives were given medicine for their wounds, as well as surgery in Ms. Johnson’s case. She had sustained serious wounds to both legs; leaving her at the mercy of her captors in matters like using the toilet, etc. Of all the POW accounts I have read, this may be one of the most interesting in respect to the treatment of women POW’s; which is a new thing for Americans.

Her description of the debacle which brought them under fire to begin with is interesting. Had they gone around the town where they were ambushed; rather than through it; the attack may not have occurred.   Also of interest is how the communications equipment did not function at all. The constant jamming of the M-16’s; which are designed for close range jungle fighting, and also urban warfare; were ill equipped to deal with both the distances involved in desert fighting, as well as the problem with sand jamming the weapon.

Having been in the service I can tell you that it is elementary knowledge that sand is a problem. Remember the attempted rescue of the Iranian hostages in the late 1970’s? It was either 1979 or 1980. But the point is that the helicopter which malfunctioned during refueling in the desert went down for lack of a burlap sack to act as  a filter for the sand entering the engine intakes. Sometimes the command decisions just don’t add up.

The book goes on to describe Ms. Johnson’s rehabilitation upon her return to the states via Germany; a place she was once an “Army brat” while growing up. Her father; a Panamanian immigrant to the United States was a career soldier I the U.S. Army; as is the author’s sister.

This book is an interesting and informative narrative of what it is like to be on the front lines of the war on terror as a soldier; a minority; and as a woman. The special needs of the woman soldier; leaving children behind, and more; are mind boggling. You can’t read this book without developing admiration for Ms. Johnson, and all the rest who serve.  Whether you agree with mission or not, people such as Ms. Johnson are highly motivated in their desire to defend the freedoms which we take for granted. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

"The Sea Wolf" with Edward G. Robinson, John Garfield and Ida Lupino (1941)

I can hardly believe that I have never reviewed this film here before. It’s one of my favorite books; as well as films; so you would think that I’d have reviewed it in the 6 years I have been doing this. But I haven’t. Well, no time like the present, so here goes.

In this film adaptation of the novel by Jack London, 'Wolf' Larsen; played by Edward G. Robinson; is the skipper of the ill-fated vessel “The Ghost”. With a fiery reputation as a hard and cruel man, Larsen doesn’t have an easy time in keeping a crew.  He resorts to “shanghaiing” unsuspecting prospects at the local waterfront bars. When his men try to do this to George Leach; played by John Garfield ; they are surprised to find him a willing recruit. He is on the run from the police in San Francisco, where this story begins at the turn of the 20th century.

At the same time as these events are unfolding in a seedy bar, Ruth Brewster; played by Ida Lupino; is on a ferry in the Bay, surrounded by dense fog. A fellow passenger, Humphrey Van Weyden; played by Alexander Knox; is also aboard. The two are unacquainted with one another and so Van Weyden is surprised when Ruth snuggles up to him as two detectives are searching the ferry for a runaway prisoner. It is easy for Van Weyden to figure out she is the person the two detectives are seeking, but just as he is about to give her up the ferry is rammed by a ship and sinks.

Van Weyden and Brewster are picked up by a ship which is outbound for a long voyage to the seal grounds in search of skins. At least that is the story they are told. Van Weyden demands that he and Ms. Brewster be taken back to San Francisco, but the Captain considers this to be a waste of his time. He informs them that they are aboard for the duration.

As the two begin to know the ship and the Captain better they realize that they are in the grips of a mad man. Larsen discovers that Brewster is not the lady she pretends to be and mocks her for it. He correctly sizes Van Weyden up as a man who has never made a living with his hands and begins a deadly game of intellectual “one up man ship” with the hapless man.

The basic premise held by Larsen is that “might makes right”; and that only the strong survive, at the expense of the weak. To Larsen the two castaways are merely prey to be toyed with while he decides their fate. And why shouldn’t he? They are weak and he is strong; isn’t that the natural order of things?

As the relationship between the Captain and Van Weyden grows; so do the stakes at hand rise. Noticing that the Captain has a library stocked with the greatest literature ever written he decides to challenge the Captain in his beliefs. They use Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost” to test one another’s beliefs.

While this is happening the crew learns that this voyage is not about seal hunting at all. It is, instead, a voyage of revenge. Captain Larsen has a brother who is also a Captain on a sealing vessel, and that brother intends to kill him; unless Larsen gets him first. But he has an Achilles Heel which only Van Weyden knows about; the Captain has a tumor of the brain which causes him blinding headaches. He has been able to keep this from the crew, but Van Weyden figures it out and uses this as a weapon against the Captain.

Meantime, a relationship has formed between Ms. Brewster and George Leach; arising no doubt out of the fact that they are both running from the law, as well as trying to escape the hell of the world inhabited; and controlled; by Wolf Larsen.

There are two characters worthy of note among the crew, as they represent two very different things. Pure evil is of course represented by Larsen himself; but he has a companion in his dark ways in the form of the ship’s Cook; known as “Cooky” and played expertly by Barry Fitzgerald. The other character is the ship’s Dr. Prescott; played by Gene Lockhart; a hopeless drunk who is constantly hounded by the crew and the Captain. He plays the part of innocence to the more aggressive part of Van Wyden as passively good. 

But true innocence is actually represented here by the relationship between Leach and Brewster, who; even as convicts on the run; never have the ill intentions of either Larsen or the manipulative qualities of Van Weyden. Their motives are pure.

When all is said and done in this wonderful adaptation of the novel, Wolf Larsen is proven to be correct when he says that everyone; when necessary; will resort to whatever is necessary to survive. When the choice is life or death, morals go by the wayside. And, inadvertently, Van Weyden proves him to be correct.

If you have never read the book you should. Next to “Moby Dick” by Melville, this book stands as a monument to the ever present battle between good and evil. And although the film adds two characters who were not in the original novel; the presence  of Leach and Brewster serves as a gentle counterbalance to the black and white struggle between good and evil.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

"Goodbye Mr. Chips" with Robert Donat and Greer Garson (1939)

I have to confess that this has always been one of my favorite films, mainly due to the personality of Mr. Chips. He reflects my own lack of confidence and shyness when I was younger. And, just like Mr. Chips, I required time and patience to overcome those obstacles. Even today;to some extent; I still identify with his character.

This movie; like so many others; begins at the end. It is 1937, and Mr. Chips is instructed by his physician not to attend Graduation ceremonies at Brookfield; an upper crust English boarding school; for the first time in 57 years, due to his health. Naturally he attends at the last possible moment before retiring to his cottage, where he falls asleep in front of the fire, reminiscing about his life as a teacher; and later as Headmaster of Brookfield. The rest of the movie is a flashback of his life there; from his first days as a novice teacher until his final ones as the most beloved and respected of both his students and his peers.

When “Chips”; as everyone called him; first arrives at Brookfield he is unsure of how to proceed. For a while it looks as though he has chosen the wrong profession for a shy and gentle man. His first days as a new Master are an exercise in futility. But time wills out and he slowly becomes an object of affection to his students.

When a German colleague takes him home for the holidays, Mr. Chips is transformed in many ways. He goes hiking in the mountains and gets stuck in the fog, forcing him to wait it out alone. Hearing a woman's voice calling out, he begins a perilous climb in search of the woman he assumes to be stranded. The woman turns out to be Katherine; an Englishwoman played by Greer Garson in her first screen role, for which she received an Oscar Nomination. She is the exact opposite of Chips; modern and outgoing. She even rides a bicycle! They spend the evening together on the mountain waiting for the fog to lift.

They become close quite quickly due to the anonymity provided by the fog and being so far away from the real world down below. Their affection for one another is palpable, but Chips dares not act upon his feelings, fearing rejection and humiliation. Actually, until he meets Katherine he is called by his surname of Mr. Chippings. It is actually Katherine who renames him "Chips."

When he and his German colleague Max; played by Paul Henreid; continue on their walking tour of the mountains they encounter Katherine and her lady companion once again. They become inseparable for the remainder of the trip, although Chips is still too "proper" to make his feelings known to this forward thinking woman. Indeed, it is she who engineers his asking her to dance on their last night together. And at the train station, while saying goodbye, she kisses him goodbye. To his way of thinking he is now engaged! Katherine has successfully maneuvered him into a de-facto proposal of marriage.

When Chips arrives back at Brookfield with his new bride, she quickly becomes the object of curiosity and attention at the all-male school. His students are simply shocked that he has a wife at all, while his bachelor peers are in awe at the beauty she brings to the school. They cannot understand how the shy and uncertain Chips could have managed to acquire such a lovely and beautiful woman for a wife.

His marriage marks a wonderful change in Chippings life. Katherine has the boys over for tea and becomes a part of the school. She helps Chips bring a new way of thinking and teaching to the institution. When she passes away during childbirth; on April Fool’s day; Mr. Chips is left alone once again. It is almost as if fate is mocking him. Surely he was a fool to believe that lasting happiness could be his. But the lessons he has learned from Katherine about taking chances and looking at things in a different light never leave him, and serve to endear him to both students and faculty.

When the First World War breaks out he watches as several of his students and colleagues march off to war, some never to return. When he reads out the name of Max, the German Professor; who had returned to his country at the outbreak of the war; along with the names of the English dead, the students; and the viewer; cannot escape the message.  ALL lives hold value, even the lives of "so-called" enemies like Max.

As a result of the shortage of manpower due to the war Chips is finally made Headmaster, a position he has dreamt about for the last 50 years. And when he does eventually retire; and subsequently passes away; it is with contentment. He has tasted of love and left his mark on several generations of young men, who are better off for his having taught them.

This movie is a gem. A more poignant film would be hard to come by. The book which sparked this film was written by James Hilton. Carefully directed and performed, this was a wonderful viewing experience which you will not want to end.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Stealing Lincoln's Body" - History Channel (2009)

I’d always heard about the attempted abduction of President Lincoln’s body in 1876, but I have never found a book; or a film; which told the story behind it. It was; in effect; relegated to the back of my memory with the rest of the trivia. Then I saw this film.

Abraham Lincoln was the first President who dealt with the problem of counterfeiting currency in a meaningful way. Before the War Between the States; which was anything but “civil”; paper money was a convenience and minted by banks. If you lived near one of those banks; say in the same city; it was no problem to authenticate the bills. But for travelers it was a nightmare. Lincoln set up the Secret Service to combat this crime. His was also the first Presidency to have the motto “In God We Trust” appears on American currency; hard coin or paper.

The reason I mention the counterfeiters is that it was a group of such men who set about; in 1876; to steal Lincoln’s body from its tomb in Springfield, Illinois. The film traces the journey of Lincoln’s body from the moment he is shot at Ford’s theater in 1865 until he was finally permanently entombed in Springfield in 1901.

You read that right. While John Brown’s body was a Moldering in its Grave, Lincolns was stuck in an odyssey which could never have been invented; for the antics of man are greater than any fiction.  James Brown’s body has been in limbo since his death in 2006; but even his 8 year ordeal pales in comparison to what happened with Lincoln. Not wishing to ruin the film for you I will just give you a brief outline of what the film covers, leaving out the best parts.

Mary Todd Lincoln was too grief stricken to make the journey to the President’s funeral. She was actually holed up in the White House for about a month after her husband’s death, unable to leave.

Meantime the largest funeral procession ever undertaken in perhaps the history of the world was unfolding, with the Presidents funeral train traveling from Washington to New York. From there it would take a long route back to Illinois through just about every major stop on the line.
Each town had its own funeral procession; requiring that the coffin be removed from the train and paraded through streets and even exhibited in City Halls. New York was one of those places, where the body lay in state indoors at City Hall for 8 hours as almost half a million people attempted to pay their respects. Some towns actually held the ceremonies outdoors to accommodate the crowds.  There were 25 such stops made before the train arrived in Springfield.

It almost didn’t make it that far. Mrs. Lincoln, back in Washington, heard that the plans were for her husband to be buried in town when it arrived in Springfield. She wanted him buried at Oak Lawn Cemetery and if that was unacceptable to the “committee” which had decided upon this, then she would have the President buried in Chicago. The President was buried at Oak Lawn.

That should have been the end of the story. But it wasn’t. In 1876, amid the most contested election in the history of our country; 82% of Americans eligible to vote, did so. This was deemed by the conspirators as the perfect time to snatch the body; election night 1876. The hullabaloo surrounding the election results; which would not be resolved for weeks; pushed the story of the attempted abduction to the back pages of most newspapers; if they were reporting it at all.

One of the conspirators was an informer for the Secret Service and due to his presence in the gang the Service was alerted and arrived at the tomb earlier than the robbers themselves. They would wait for a signal from the informant before making the arrest. The local police were kept out of the affair altogether. When the signal was given there was a terrific gun fight and a chase through the woods, leading to the capture of some of the men. They were later tried for tampering with a body and sentenced to 1 year in prison. And that should have been the end of the story; but again, it wasn’t.

That was in 1876. For what happened over the next 25 years you will need to see the film or look it up. Suffice to say that Lincoln was disinterred 10 more times before he was finally allowed to sleep undisturbed. And when he was finally buried his pallbearers were 6 workmen, and the only witness present was a 13 year old boy.

Thursday, February 26, 2015

"The Appointment in Samarra" from "Targets" with Boris Karloff - (1968)

In his last film, “Targets”, Boris Karloff gives a chilling rendition of the classic story about Death by Somerset Maugham. It was later used by John O’Hara to pen his 1934 novel “The Appointment in Sammara.”

“DEATH SPEAKS" by Somerset Maugham

There was a merchant in Baghdad who sent his servant to market to buy provisions and in a little while the servant came back, white and trembling, and said, “Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture; now lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and find my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me.”

The Merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop, he went. Then the merchant went down to the market-place and he saw me standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, “Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?”

“That was not a threatening gesture”, I said, “it was only a start of surprise. I was astonished to see him in Baghdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra.”

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

George Harrison - Happy Birthday!

Today is George Harrison's birthday. The "quiet Beatle" was one of the most unusual musician/singer/songwriters to come out of the 1960's. After having propelled Indian Music, along with Transcendental Meditation to the forefront of the era, he went on to invent the rock and roll benefit concert when he did the Concert for Bangla Desh in 1971.

He had a spotty solo career post Beatles, until the late 1980's when he fronted the Traveling Wilburys. They went on to become one of the most beloved bands since the Beatles. With different names to identify them all as brothers, they all wrote, sang and played guitars. In a way that was funny, because the Beatles had first been turned down for a record contract themselves in 1962 because "groups of guitars were on the way out."

The group began almost as an accident, with Harrison doing some recording and inviting a friend, who invited a friend etc. And when one of them talked Roy Orbison into coming along, well, that was the moment they became the Traveling Wilburys. Along with fictitious names as a band of brothers, they also listed all the songs as having been co-written by the entire group.

Their first album relaunched Roy Orbison's career and gave him his first #1 record in years, just before he passed away. He was slated to make the second Wilburys album, but fate had other plans. And the group was a gift to Harrison as well; he would now not be remembered solely as a member of the Beatles; but as a wonderful singer, songwriter with some very cool friends and a band of his own.

Married for decades to his second wife Olivia; whom he met on his first solo tour of the US in 1974 when she worked at Capitol Records; she went on to save his life when an emotionally disturbed man broke into Friar Park and stabbed Harrison. Olivia knocked him cold with a table lamp. A devotee of Krishna and no-violence she has said that it was a conflicting moment for her; as her husband chanted to Krishna for deliverance, she was engaged in an act of aggression. She has no regrets.

It should be noted that Olivia Harrison; along with the other Beatle wives; organized the Romanian Angels Appeal; formed to combat the neglect of the thousands of orphanages created by the abuses of Nicolae Ceaucescu, and were rampant in the country after the fall of the Communists. They are still doing good work there today. The Traveling Wilburys gave them the recording "Nobody'd Child" as a gift to help them get started.

Still remembered with affection today, almost 14 years after his death from cancer in 2001, we wish him a Happy Birthday and Hare Krishna!

This is the new biography of George Harrison by Graeme Thomson. In my opinion, this is the best and most accurate biography of George Harrison and particularly his life post-Beatles.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

"The Very Best of Freddy King" - (2005)

If you are an Eric Clapton fan then you are a Freddy King fan. You just might not know it. Quickly scanning the first 3 decades of Eric Clapton’s career will give you some proof of that. From “Hideaway” with John Mayall in the 1960’s; to “Have You Ever Loved a Woman” in the 1970’s; and even on into the late 1980’s cover version of “Tore Down” on his “Journeyman” album; Clapton has never been shy in giving credit to those who came before him.

All of the songs represented here were recorded between August 1960 and July 1961 in King’s own studio in Cincinnati, Ohio. He used a house band instead of his usual working band based in Chicago. I don’t know why he did this. But the result is a collection of some of his all-time best work done in a clear and sharp style.

A native of Texas, King was born in 1934 in Gilmer. At 16 he moved to Chicago and worked in a saw mill. He spent nights working in the nightclubs, at first playing with 2 harmonica players; Little Sonny Cooper and Earl Payton. He cut his first record at age 22 in 1956. By 1958 he kissed the saw mill goodbye and began working full time as a musician.

At about the same time as this he was introduced to Sonny Thompson, a piano player who would go on to co-write most of King’s hits with him. 11 of the 25 songs on this CD were co-authored by King-Thompson. And, with the exception of 3 tracks his name appears in some capacity; even solo; as the composer of all the rest.

Peter Green of the original Fleetwood Mac was another huge fan of Freddy King and he recorded many of the same songs as Clapton did. The two were both products of the John Mayall music machine which seemed to spout great guitarists non-stop throughout the 1960’s. And while they all had somewhat different styles; they all had one big thing in common; they were all influenced by Freddy King.