Favorite Films Set in the 1950s

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Below is a list of my favorite movies set in the decade of the 1950s:

FAVORITE FILMS SET IN THE 1950s

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1. L.A. Confidential (1997) – Curtis Hanson directed this outstanding adaptation of James Ellroy’s 1990 novel about three Los Angeles police detectives drawn into a case involving a diner massacre. Kevin Spacey, Russell Crowe, Guy Pierce and Oscar winner Kim Basinger starred.

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2. “Grease” (1978) – John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John starred in this entertaining adaptation of the 1971 Broadway musical about a pair of teenage star-crossed lovers in the 1950s. Randal Kleiser directed.

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3. “The Godfather, Part II” (1974) – Francis Ford Coppola directed his Oscar winning sequel to the 1972 Oscar winning adaptation of Mario Puzo’s 1969 novel. Al Pacino, Diane Keaton, Robert Duvall and Oscar winner Robert De Niro starred.

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4. “Quiz Show” (1994) – Robert Redford directed this intriguing adaptation of Richard Goodwin’s 1968 memoir, “Remembering America: A Voice From the Sixties”, about the game show scandals of the late 1950s. Ralph Fiennes, Rob Morrow and John Tuturro starred.

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5. “The Mirror Crack’d (1980) – Angela Landsbury starred as Miss Jane Marple in this adaptation of Agatha Christie’s 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie also starred Elizabeth Taylor, Rock Hudson and Edward Fox.

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6. “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls” (2008) – Harrison Ford returned for the fourth time as Dr. Henry “Indiana” Jones in this adventurous tale in which he is drawn into the search for artifacts known as the Crystal Skulls. Directed by Steven Spielberg, the movie was produced by him and George Lucas.

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7. “Champagne For One: A Nero Wolfe Mystery (2001)” – Timothy Hutton and Maury Chaykin starred as Archie Goodwin and Nero Wolfe in this television adaptation of Rex Stout’s 1958 novel. The two-part movie was part of A&E Channel’s “A NERO WOLFE MYSTERY” series.

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8. “Hollywoodland” (2006) – Adrien Brody, Diane Lane and Ben Affleck starred in this intriguing tale about a private detective’s investigation into the life and death of actor George Reeves. Allen Coulter directed.

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9. “My Week With Marilyn” (2011) – Oscar nominee Michelle Williams starred as Marilyn Monroe in this adaptation of Colin Clark’s two books about his brief relationship with the actress. Directed by Simon Curtis, the movie co-starred Oscar nominee Kenneth Branagh and Eddie Redmayne as Clark.

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10. “Boycott” (2001) – Jeffrey Wright starred as Dr. Martin Luther King in this television adaptation of Stewart Burns’ book,“Daybreak of Freedom”, about the 1955 Montgomery bus boycott. Directed by Clark Johnson, the movie co-starred Terrence Howard and C.C.H. Pounder.

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Honorable Mention: “Mulholland Falls” (1996) – Nick Nolte starred in this entertaining noir drama about a married Los Angeles Police detective investigating the murder of a high-priced prostitute, with whom he had an affair. The movie was directed by Lee Tamahori.

Papa Rellena

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Below is an article I had written about a dish called Papa Rellena:

 

PAPA RELLENA

During one of my previous visits to the Walt Disney World Resort in Florida, I came across a dish served at a Cuban restaurant called Papa Rellena. I had assumed that this dish originated in Cuba. But I eventually learned that it originated elsewhere.

Actually, the Papa Rellena dish originated in Peru. Between 1879 and 1883; the countries of Peru, Chile and Bolivia were engaged in a conflict known as the War of the Pacific. The Peruvian soldiers had to march through extensive lands that were long distances from cities or towns in order to prevent the Chilean forces from discovering their position and where the next attack would come from. Due to these long journeys, the soldiers had to carry previously prepared food that could remain fresh, despite the lack of 20th century preserves.

The Peruvian troops cooked, chopped and seasoned either beef or some other meat. Then, they made dough from the previously cooked potatoes that grew naturally in the Andes Mountains. They formed a hollow in the potato dough and filled it with the cooked meat and sometimes, hard-boiled eggs. Then they would seal the dough, form it into a torpedo shape and fry it. The “Papa Rellenas” or stuffed potatoes were wrapped in cloth and carried by the soldiers. The Papa Rellenas were sometimes accompanied with Salsa Criolla, or an aji sauce. Other Latin American countries like Cuba and Puerto Rico eventually created their own variation on the dish.

Below is a recipe for “Papa Rellena” from the About.com website:

Papa Rellena

Ingredients

1/2 cup raisins
3 pounds yellow potatoes
1/2 cup chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon minced aji pepper, or jalapeno
1 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 pound ground beef
1 cup beef broth
1 egg
Flour for dusting
Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation

Place the raisins in a small bowl and pour 1 cup boiling water over them. Let them soak for 10 minutes.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Peel the potatoes and place them in the pot. Cook the potatoes until they are tender when pierced with a fork.

While the potatoes are cooking, cook the onions, garlic, and peppers in the vegetable oil until soft and fragrant.

Add the cumin and paprika and cook 2 minutes more, stirring. Add the ground beef and cook until browned.

Drain the raisins and add them to the ground beef. Add the beef broth and simmer for 10 to 15 minutes more, until most of the liquid is gone.

Season mixture with salt and pepper to taste. Remove from heat and let cool.

When the potatoes are cooked, drain them in a colander. Mash the potatoes thoroughly, or pass them through a potato ricer. Season the mashed potatoes with salt and pepper to taste. Chill the potatoes for several hours, or overnight.

Once the potatoes are very cold, stir the egg into the mashed potatoes until well mixed.

Shape the papas rellenas: with floured hands, place about 1/4 cup of mashed potatoes in one hand, and make a well in the center. Fill the well with 1-2 tablespoons of the beef mixture. Mold the potatoes around the beef, adding more potatoes if necessary, and shape the whole thing into an oblong potato shape, with slightly pointy ends, about the size of a medium potato.

Repeat with the rest of the mashed potatoes. Coat each stuffed “potato” with flour.

In a deep skillet or deep fat fryer, heat 2 inches of oil to 360 degrees. Fry the potatoes in batches until they are golden brown. Drain them on a plate lined with paper towels.

Keep the potatoes warm in a 200 degree oven until ready to serve.

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Top Ten Favorite HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

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Below is a list of my favorite history documentaries:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE HISTORY DOCUMENTARIES

1 - Ken Burns The Civil War

1. “The Civil War” (1990) – Ken Burns produced this award-winning documentary about the U.S. Civil War. Narrated by David McCullough, the documentary was shown in eleven episodes.

 

2 - Supersizers Go-Eat

2. “The Supersizers Go/Eat” (2008-2009) – Food critic Giles Coren and comedian-broadcaster Sue Perkins co-hosted two entertaining series about the culinary history of Britain (with side trips to late 18th century France and Imperial Rome).

 

3 - MGM - When the Lion Roared

3. “MGM: When the Lion Roared” (1992) – Patrick Stewart narrated and hosted this three-part look into the history of one of the most famous Hollywood studios – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM).

 

4 - Africans in America

4. “Africans in America: America’s Journey Through Slavery” (1998) – Angela Bassett narrated this four-part documentary on the history of slavery in the United States, from the Colonial era to Reconstruction.

 

5 - Queen Victoria Empire

5. “Queen Victoria’s Empire” (2001) – This PBS documentary is a two-part look at the British Empire during the reign of Queen Victoria. Donald Sutherland narrated.

 

6 - Motown 40 - The Music Is Forever

6. “Motown 40: The Music Is Forever” (1998) – Diana Ross hosted and narrated this look into the history of Motown, from its inception in 1958 to the 1990s.

 

7 - Ken Burns The War

7. “The War” (2007) – Ken Burns created another critically acclaimed documentary for PBS. Narrated by Keith David, this seven-part documentary focused upon the United States’ participation in World War II.

 

8 - Manor House

8. “The Edwardian Manor House” (2002) – This five-episode documentary is also a reality television series in which a British family assume the identity of Edwardian aristocrats and live in an opulent Scottish manor with fifteen (15) people from all walks of life participating as their servants.

 

9 - Elegance and Decadence - The Age of Regency

9. “Elegance and Decadence: The Age of Regency” (2011) – Historian Dr. Lucy Worsley presented and hosted this three-part documentary about Britain’s Regency era between 1810 and 1820.

 

10 - Ken Burns The West

10. “The West” (1996) – Directed by Steven Ives and produced by Ken Burns, this eight-part documentary chronicled the history of the trans-Appalachian West in the United States. Peter Coyote narrated.

 

HM - Fahrenheit 9-11

Honorable Mention: “Fahrenheit 9/11” (2004) – Michael Moore co-produced and directed this Oscar winning documentary that took a critical look at the presidency of George W. Bush, the War on Terror, and its coverage in the news media.

Gumbo

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GUMBO

Gumbo is a dish that is not only popular throughout Deep South states like Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama and South Carolina; but is available to many Americans at restaurants that featured Gulf State cuisine throughout the country. For me, my first real introduction to gumbo was at a food stand inside Los Angeles’ Farmers Market called “The Gumbo Pot”. It is probably one of my favorite dishes ever . . . if prepared properly. 

It is believed that gumbo was first introduced in southern Louisiana sometime during the 18th century. No one knows exactly where in Louisiana or when it first appeared in the Americas. It is basically a stew that consisted of stock, meat or shellfish, a thickener, and seasoning vegetables that usually included celery, bell peppers and onions (known as the“holy trinity”). Gumbo is often categorized by the type of thickener used. Cooks usually used the African vegetable okra, the Choctaw spice filé powder (dried and ground sassafras leaves), or roux. The name of the dish either came from the Bantu word for okra – “ki ngombo” or the Choctaw word for filé – “kombo”.

Gumbo combines the ingredients and culinary practices of several cultures like West African, French, Spanish, German, and Choctaw. Gumbo may have been based on traditional West African or native dishes, or may be a derivation of the French dish bouillabaisse. Some believed that gumbo is a reinterpretation of traditional West African cooking. West Africans used the vegetable okra as a base for many dishes, including soups, often pairing okra with meat and shrimp, with salt and pepper as seasonings. In Louisiana, the dish was modified to include ingredients introduced by other cultural groups. Surviving records indicate that by 1764, African slaves in New Orleans mixed cooked okra with rice to make a meal. Some believe that gumbo may have been derived from traditional French soups, particularly the fish stew bouillabaisse. When the Acadians moved to Louisiana in the mid-18th century, they were unable to find many of their traditional ingredients for the soups they usually made for the winter months, so they substituted fish, turnips and cabbage with shellfish and ingredients from other cultures. Culinary experts like Celestine Eustis insisted that gumbo was an early dish for native tribes. It was first described in 1802 and was later listed in various cookbooks in the second half of the 19th century. Gumbo gained more widespread popularity in the 1970s, after the United States Senate cafeteria added it to the menu in honor of Louisiana Senator Allen Ellender. It is now the official state dish of Louisiana.

There are many types of variations on gumbo. Among them are:

*Gumbo Ya-Ya
*Seafood Gumbo
*Chicken and Sausage Gumbo


Considering there are so many different types of gumbo dishes out there, I tried to find a recipe of the most basic kind prepared in Louisiana. Below is a recipe found on the Smithsonian Institute magazine website, from an article written by Southern Louisiana native, Lolis Eric Elie. The recipe came from his mother:

Creole Gumbo

Ingredients

• 5 quarts water
• 1 dozen fresh crabs, raw, boiled or steamed 
• 2 pounds medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined (reserve the shells and heads to make seafood stock) 
• 2 pounds smoked sausage, cut into 1 inch rounds (1 pound each of two different sausages is optimal)
• 3/4 pound Creole hot sausage (if available), cut into 1 inch rounds 
• 2 pounds okra cut into rounds
• 1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons vegetable oil 
• 1/2 cup all-purpose flour
• 2 large onions, coarsely chopped
• 6 large cloves garlic, chopped
• 1 bunch flat-leaf parsley, chopped
• 5 stalks celery, chopped 
• 1 bunch green onions, tops and bottoms, chopped
• 1 large green bell pepper, chopped
• 1 pound crab meat, picked and cleaned of shells and cartilage 
• 2 tablespoons Creole seasoning, such as Tony Chachere’s Original Creole Seasoning
• 4 bay leaves 
• 4 tablespoons filé powder 
• Salt and pepper to taste 
• 6 cups steamed white rice


Preparation

Clean the crabs, removing the lungs, heart and glands and other parts so that only the pieces of shell containing meat (including the legs, swimmers and claws) remain. Refrigerate the meaty parts of the crabs. Put the portions of the crabs that have been removed into a 6- or 8-quart stockpot. Add the shrimp heads and shells and 5 quarts water to the pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 30 minutes. Remove from the heat. 

Cook the sausages in a skillet in batches over medium heat, turning occasionally, until the pieces are slightly brown and much of the fat has been rendered. Remove the sausage and set aside on a paper towel-lined plate to drain. Discard the excess fat remaining in the skillet before cooking the next batch of sausage.

Once all the sausage has been cooked, wipe the excess oil from the skillet, being careful not to scrub away those bits of sausage that have stuck to the bottom of the skillet. Add the 2 tablespoons vegetable oil. Heat the oil over medium heat and then add the okra. Lower the heat to medium and cook the okra until it is slightly brown and dried, stirring frequently, about 45 minutes. 

While the okra cooks, place the 1/2 cup vegetable oil in a 12-quart stockpot. Heat the oil over medium heat. Once the oil is hot, a tablespoon at a time slowly add the 1/2 cup flour to prepare the roux, stirring constantly. Once all the flour has been added, continue heating and stirring the roux until it becomes a medium brown color, somewhere between the color of caramel and milk chocolate, about 10-15 minutes. Add the onions to the roux, stirring constantly. Once the onions are wilted, add the garlic, parsley, celery, green onions and bell pepper. Strain the seafood stock into the large stockpot. Add the browned sausage and bay leaves and bring everything to a boil over medium-high heat. Then reduce the heat to medium and continue to cook.

Once the okra is cooked, add it to the gumbo pot. Continue cooking the gumbo for 60 minutes. Add the reserved crabs and shrimp and cook for 15 minutes longer. Remove the gumbo from the heat and stir in the Creole seasoning and filé powder. Let the gumbo rest for 15 to 20 minutes. As it cools, oil should form on the top. Skim the oil with a ladle or large spoon and discard. Stir in the picked crab meat. Taste the gumbo and adjust seasoning with more salt and pepper as needed. Serve the gumbo ladled over steamed rice.


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“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode One “Only the Rocks Live Forever” Commentary

“CENTENNIAL” (1978-79) – Episode One “Only the Rocks Live Forever” Commentary

Over thirty-two years ago, NBC Television aired a sprawling miniseries called ”CENTENNIAL”. Produced by John Wilder, The miniseries was an adaptation of James Michner’s 1973 novel of the same title. Because the miniseries stretched to twelve episodes, NBC aired the first seven episodes aired during the late fall of 1978. After a one-month hiatus, the remaining five episodes aired during the early winter of 1979.

Michner’s tale followed the history of the fictional town of Centennial, Colorado and its surrounding region from the late 18th century to the 1970s. By focusing upon the history of the town, ”CENTENNIAL” managed to cover nearly every possible topic in the Western genre. Some of those topics include Native American societies and their encounters with the white trappers and traders, American emigration along the Western trails, the Indian Wars, a gold rush, a cattle drive, the cattle-sheep range wars and environmental issues. The first episode ”Only the Rocks Live Forever” centered on an Arapaho warrior named Lame Beaver, his daughter Clay Basket, a French-Canadian fur trader named Pasquinel, and his partner, a young Scottish-born trader named Alexander McKeag.

”Only the Rocks Live Forever” began with the death of Lame Beaver’s father in the mid-1750s, at the hands of the Pawnee. The episode also covered moments of the warrior’s life that include his theft of much needed horses from the Commanche for the survival of his village, his first meeting with Pasquinel and later, McKeag; and his village’s wars with their nemesis, a Pawnee chief named Rude Water and his fellow warriors. The episode focused even longer on the fur trader, Pasquinel. Viewers followed the trader on his adventures with various Native Americans such as the Arapaho and the Pawnee; and his two encounters with a keelboat crewed by murderous French Canadian rivermen. After being wounded in the back by a Pawnee arrow and barely escaping death at the hands of the French Canadian rivermen, Pasquinel made his way to St. Louis, then part of the Spanish Empire. An American doctor named Richard Butler introduced him to a German-born silversmith named Herman Bockweiss and the latter’s daughter, Lise. Pasquinel formed a partnership with Bockweiss, who provided him with trinkets to trade with the Native Americans and fell in love with Lise.

Upon his return to the West, the Pawnee introduced Pasquinel to the Scottish-born Alexander McKeag, who became his partner. After experiencing a series of adventures, the two arrived at Lame Beaver’s village. There, Pasquinel strengthened his ties with Lame Beaver, while McKeag fell in love with the warrior’s daughter, Clay Basket. The pair eventually returned to St. Louis with a profitable supply of furs. There, Pasquinel married Lise. During the two partners’ visit to St. Louis, Lame Beaver and his fellow Arapaho became engaged in another conflict with the Pawnee in an effort to rescue a child that had been snatched by the other tribe. The conflict resulted in the rescue of the child, Rude Water’s death at the hands of Lame Beaver, and the latter’s death at the hands of Pawnee warriors. When Pasquinel and McKeag returned to the Pawnee village, they discovered that Rude Water had been shot by a bullet molded from gold by Lame Beaver. They also learned about Lame Beaver’s death. And upon their return to the Arapaho village, they learned from Clay Basket that her late father had ordered her to become Pasquinel’s wife. Because of the French Canadian’s desire to learn about the location of Lame Beaver’s gold, he agreed to make Clay Basket his second wife, despite McKeag’s protests.

Directed by Virgil W. Vogel and written by producer John Wilder, ”Only the Rocks Live Forever” was a surprisingly well paced episode, considering its running time of two-and-a-half hours. Viewers received a detailed look into the society of the Arapaho nation (despite the fact that many of the extras portraying the Arapaho were of Latino descent). And through the adventures of Pasquinel and McKeag, viewers also received a detailed and nearly accurate look into the perils of the life of a fur trader in the trans-Mississippi West. Wilder managed to make one historical goof. When asked in late 18th century St. Louis, circa on how far he had traveled upriver, Pasquinel said, “Cache La Poudre”. However, that particular river was not known by this name until after the 1820s, when a severe storm forced French trappers to “cache their gun powder” by the river bank. And although the episode never stated outright, it did hint that St. Louis and the rest of the Mississippi Valley was part of the Spanish Empire during that period, through the characters of Senor Alvarez and his wife, portrayed by Henry Darrow and Annette Charles.

This episode also benefitted from the strong cast that appeared in the episode. I was especially impressed by Michael Ansara’s charismatic performance as the Arapaho warrior, Lame Beaver. Well known character actor Robert Tessier (of Algonquian descent) gave an equally impressive performance as Lame Beaver’s main nemesis, the Pawnee chief Rude Water. Not only was I impressed by Raymond Burr’s performance as St. Louis silversmith, Herman Bockweiss, I was also impressed by his use of a German accent. Whether or not it was accurate, I must admit that his take on the accent never struck me as a cliché. Sally Kellerman’s own handling of a German accent was also well done. And I thought she gave a poignant performance as the slightly insecure Lise, who found herself falling in love with Pasquinel. Barbara Carrera gave a solid performance as Clay Basket, but I did not find her that particularly dazzling in this episode. Hands down, ”Only the Rocks Live Forever” belonged to Robert Conrad and Richard Chamberlain. Both actors did an excellent job in adapting foreign accents. And both gave exceptional performances in their portrayal of two very different and complex personalities. Superficially, Conrad’s portrayal of Pasquinel seemed superficial and very forthright. However, I was impressed how he conveyed Pasquinel’s more complex traits and emotions through the use of his eyes and facial expression. And once again, Chamberlain proved to be the ultimate chameleon in his transformation into the shy and emotional Scotsman, forced to learn about the West and who seemed bewildered by his morally questionable partner.

”Only the Rocks Live Forever” is not my favorite episode in ”CENTENNIAL”. I can think of at least three or four that I would personally rank above it. But I must admit that thanks to Vogel’s direction and Wilder’s script, this episode proved to be a perfect start for what I consider to be one of the best minseries that ever aired on television.

“PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES” (2011) Review

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PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES” (2011) Review

When the Disney Studios and producer Jerry Bruckheimer had first released news of their intention to make sequels to their 2003 hit movie, PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”, I reacted to the news with a great deal of wariness. In fact, I was against the idea. But after seeing 2006’s “DEAD MAN’S CHEST” and 2007’s “AT WORLD’S END”, my opinion had changed. I ended up enjoying the two movies just as much as I had enjoyed “CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”. . . especially the second film. 

About two years after “AT WORLD’S END” hit the theaters, the Disney people and Bruckheimer had released news of their intention to make a fourth film. Again, I expressed wariness at the idea. I thought the three movies released between 2003 and 2007 made a neat little trilogy. There was no need for a fourth movie. But Disney and Bruckheimer went ahead with their plans and a fourth movie was recently released. But unlike “DEAD MAN’S CHEST” and “AT WORLD’S END”, I found it difficult to enjoy PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: ON STRANGER TIDES”.

I cannot say that I disliked the film. There were aspects of it that I genuinely enjoyed. Both Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush were in top form as Captain Jack Sparrow and Captain Hector Barbossa. But I noticed something odd about their characters in this movie. For once, Jack did not have a particular goal to attain in this film. In “CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”, he was after the Black Pearl. He was after the chest that contained Davy Jones’ heart in “DEAD MAN’S CHEST” to be used to avoid a debt that he owned. And in “AT WORLD’S END”, he was still after Jones’ heart in order to gain the opportunity to become master of the Flying Dutchman and immortality. In this fourth movie, Jack seemed to have become swept up in Blackbeard and the British Crown’s agendas. And Barbossa seemed out of place as a privateer for His Majesty King George II and the Royal Navy. There was a scene that featured him eating slices of fruit arranged on a plate. He seemed to be doing his best to project the image of an officer and a gentleman . . . only he looked rather odd. However, both actors gave top notch performances and I could find nothing to complain about.

I could also say the same about the performances of Penelope Cruz, Ian McShane and Stephen Graham as Angelica, Edward “Blackbeard” Teach and a sailor named Scrum, respectively. All three were perfectly cast in their respective roles. Cruz did an excellent job in portraying the complex Angelica, who happened to be the daughter of Blackbeard. Although it is obvious that she is attracted to Jack – a former lover, she seemed to have this . . . need for her father’s love that made her into some kind of twisted Daddy’s girl wannabe. Unfortunately, McShane’s Blackbeard seemed like poor father material. There were times when he conveyed the image of a concerned and loving father. And yet, he proved to be nothing more than an emotional vampire who would easily kill his daughter if she got in the way of his goal – the Fountain of Youth. And I must admit that not only did McShane made a witty and terrifying Blackbeard, he handled his character’s twisted relationship with Angelica beautifully. Graham’s Scrum almost struck me as a younger version of Jack’s old friend, Joshamee Gibbs. And considering that the latter’s appearance in this film seemed somewhat limited, it seemed just as well that Graham received more screen time.

There were other aspects of “ON STRANGER TIDES” that I enjoyed. Or should I say, scenes? The mermaids’ attacks upon Blackbeard’s men and upon the H.M.S. Providence were among the most terrifying scenes I have seen in the franchise since the Kracken’s attacks in “DEAD MAN’S CHEST”. I also enjoyed the scene that featured Jack’s mutinous meeting with members of Blackbeard’s crew. Personally, I found it very funny and it brought back memories of former characters such as Pintel, Ragetti, Marty and Cotton. Jack’s meeting with King George II proved to be somewhat entertaining. And it led to an equally entertaining chase sequence through the streets of mid-18th century London. But my favorite scene featured Jack marooning Angelica on a deserted island, following the death of Blackbeard. The humor not only permeated strongly in their verbal exchange, but also in director Rob Marshall’s visual style. And I must admit that I also enjoyed the photography featured in the London scenes and the “island” where the Fountain of Youth was located. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski did justice to the lush Hawaii jungle that served as one of the movie’s settings.

So, if I had so much to enjoy about “ON STRANGER TIDES”, why did it fail to resonate within me in the end? What went wrong? At least for me? My main problem with the movie is that I felt it tried to repeat many aspects of the first film,“CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”. This is odd, considering that “ON STRANGER TIDES” was allegedly inspired by Tim Powers’ 1987 novel, “On Stranger Tides”. The fourth film did not come off as a remake or anything of such. But there were too many aspects of the first film that seemed to be repeated in “ON STRANGER TIDES”. One, Jack’s reunion with Angelica in a London tavern almost seemed like a remake of his first meeting with Will Turner in “CURSE OF THE BLACK PEARL”. Scrum almost seemed like a remake of Joshamee Gibbs. This is not surprising, since he had more scenes with Jack that Gibbs and the latter (along with actor Kevin McNally) seemed wasted in the movie. Two of Blackbeard’s crew turned out to be zombies (if you can call them that). And they seemed like remakes (physical and otherwise) of Barbossa’s first mate from the first film, Bo’sun. More importantly, the romance between missionary Philip Swift and the mermaid Syrena almost seemed like a remake of the Will Turner/Elizabeth Swann romance . . . but without the character developments. If I must be honest, Philip and Syrena’s romance nearly put me to sleep on several occasions. I feel sorry for actors Sam Claflin and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey. They seemed like two decent actors forced to work with a pair of boring and undeveloped characters.

There were other problems I had with “ON STRANGER TIDES”. The movie saw the return of Royal Navy officers Theodore Groves (from the first and third film) and Gillette (from the first film). What on earth did Terry Rossio and Ted Elliot did to their roles? Both characters almost seemed lobotomized. Well, Gillette did. Groves seemed to have lost his sense of humor. I recalled that he was a big fan boy of Jack in the first and third films. Yet, when he finally met Jack . . . nothing happened. He was too busy being a rather boring and stiff character. What happened to Jack and Barbossa’s own quests for the Fountain of Youth, which was first introduced in “AT WORLD’S END”? After a few years of failure, the audience is led to believe that Jack simply lost interest. And Barbossa’s earlier encounter with Blackbeard and the latter’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, led to the loss of one leg and the Black Pearl. And how did Barbossa managed to survive the loss of his leg. Apparently, Barbossa had to cut off his leg to free from Blackbeard’s enchanted ship lines. So, how did he manage to keep himself from bleeding to death in the ocean? How did he manage to swim to safety with one leg?

And then we come to the mermaids. How did the mermaids manage to destroy Barbossa’s ship, the H.M.S. Providence? It was one thing to lure men from small boats or smash said boats. It was another to do the same to a large frigate. I have never heard of such a thing in the mermaid mythology. One last major problem I had with the movie dealt with the presence of the Spanish. Like the British, they were after the Fountain of Youth. Only their leader, known as the Spaniard (portrayed by Óscar Jaenada), called himself destroying the Fountain in the name of his king and the Catholic Church, as some kind of stance against paganism. Worse, he possessed the very chalices that needed to be used to drink the Fountain’s water. Yet, he did not bother to smash them, until he was at the Fountain’s location. Why? And what in the hell were Elliot and Rossio thinking? Why include such a storyline that proved to be irrelevant, epsecially since Jack was able to use the Fountain’s water after its so-called destruction?

I hear that Disney Studios and Bruckheimer are planning a fifth movie. I can understand this decision, considering that“ON STRANGER TIDES” raked up a great deal of profit at the box office. Frankly, I wish they would change their minds. I honestly do not care how much money the movie had made. After watching it, I realized that a fourth movie should not have been made . . . at least from an artistic point of view. It featured too much sloppy writing and characterizations for me to truly enjoy. “ON STRANGER TIDES” might prove to be the first PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movie that I cannot consider as a favorite.

“THE SEA HAWK” (1940) Review

“THE SEA HAWK” (1940) Review

If anyone has ever read Rafael Sabatini’s 1915 novel, ”The Sea Hawk”, he or she has clearly seen that the so-called 1940 film adaptation with the same title . . . is not the same story. I have never read Sabatini’s novel. But I have a friend who has. And according to him, the 1924 silent film adaptation bore a closer resemblance to the novel. 

In the end, it is not surprising that this 1940 adventure bore little or no resemblance to Sabatini’s novel – aside from the main protagonist enduring a stint as slave aboard a Spanish galley. Although Warner Brothers studio had owned the film rights to the novel and released the 1924 version, one of their staff screenwriters – Seton I. Miller – had written a treatment that happened to be an Elizabethan adventure called ”Beggars of the Sea” in 1938. Warners decided to use Miller’s treatment and the title of Sabatini’s novel for an Errol Flynn vehicle.

”THE SEA HAWK” told the story about an Elizabethan privateer (official pirate for the English Crown) named Captain Geoffrey Thorpe (Flynn) who belongs with a group of other privateers known as the Sea Hawks. Thorpe’s capture and plunder of a galley carrying Don José Alvarez de Cordoba (Claude Rains), the Spanish ambassador to the English Court and his niece, Doña Maria de Cordoba (Brenda Marshall); attracts the attention of Spain and a traitorous minister in Elizabeth I’s court – Lord Wolfingham (Henry Daniell). The privateer proposes to Elizabeth (Flora Robson) an expedition to plunder Spanish gold in Panama. Lord Wolfingham and Don Alavarez learn of his plans via one of their English spies and set a trap for Thorpe in Panama. At the same time, Don Alvarez uses the privateer’s capture as an excuse to pressure the Queen to disband and arrest the other Sea Hawk captains.

I had noticed something rather curious about the movie’s cast. A good number of them happened to be American-born – including leading lady Brenda Marshall (born in the Philippines to American parents), Alan Hale, Edgar Buchannan (of”PETTICOAT JUNCTION” fame) and a good number of others. This was not the first Flynn movie with an English or British setting. After all, Hale had appeared in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD” (1938), along with fellow American Eugene Pallette. And actor Ross Alexander had appeared in ”CAPTAIN BLOOD” (1935). But this is the first time I can recall this number of Americans in a Flynn movie set outside the United States. I wonder if this had anything to with the possibility that many younger British actors – leading and supporting – had left Hollywood to join the British forces after the war began.

Amongst the supporting players in the cast was a veteran from one of Flynn’s past – namely Ona O’Connor. As she had done in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, she portrayed another plain-faced maid of a noblewoman, who manages to find romance with one of Flynn’s men. In ”THE SEA HAWK”, the lucky fellow in question turned out to be Hale. And if one is sharp, one would recognize Gilbert Roland as the Spanish sea captain, whose ship is captured by Thorpe in the film’s first action sequence. Being just as handsome and dashing as Flynn, it seemed only natural that Roland’s character would get his revenge in the movie’s second half. I must say that the collection of supporting actors and extras that had made up Geoffrey Thorpe’s crew did a first-rate job, despite the number of American accents. Unlike those who portrayed Robin Hood’s Merrie Men in the 1938 film, the actors that portrayed Thorpe’s crew had the opportunity to display their talents for on-screen suffering during two major sequences in the film.

Another one of Warner Brothers’ top character actors and veteran of past Flynn movies was Alan Hale, who portrayed Thorpe’s first officer Carl Pitts. I have been trying to think of something original to say about Hale, but why bother? Let’s face it. Everyone knows that he was a talented actor until his death in 1950. ”THE SEA HAWK” not only provided enough proof of his talent, but also his obvious screen chemistry with Flynn. I had especially enjoyed one of their scenes that involved a humorous discussion on Panamanian mosquitoes. And it still amazes me how an American actor can project an Old World aura while sporting a questionable accent. ”THE SEA HAWK” also marked legendary British character actress Flora Robson second portrayal of the Tudor queen, Elizabeth I. She had first portrayed this role in the 1937 movie, ”FIRE OVER ENGLAND” with Laurence Olivier and Vivian Leigh. In this movie, her Elizabeth possessed a witty and extroverted nature that easily became commanding and a little frightening when crossed. I have only seen”FIRE OVER ENGLAND” once and it happened over a decade ago. But I must admit that I enjoyed Robson’s interpretation of Elizabeth in this movie, very much. And her scenes with Flynn crackled with the obvious chemistry of two people who seemed to enjoy each other’s company.

One could always count upon an Errol Flynn swashbuckler to include first-rate villains. ”THE SEA HAWK” certainly had two – namely Henry Daniell as the traitorous Lord Wolfingham and Claude Rains as the Spanish ambassador, Don José Alvarez de Cordoba. Rains had already appeared as the backstabbing Prince John in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. Although his Don Alvarez is clearly Geoffrey Thorpe’s enemy, one could never accuse the character of being perfidious, like Prince John. Don Alvarez is first and foremost a patriot. Despite his plotting against Thorpe, the other Sea Hawks and the Queen, his actions clearly stemmed from his patriotic fervor and loyalty to Spain and outrage toward Thorpe’s piratical actions against his country. He also seemed to have a close and warm relationship with his Anglo-Spanish niece, Doña Maria. Their kinship turned out to be strong enough to withstand her feelings of love toward Thorpe and her decision to remain in England, instead of returning to Spain with him. Henry Daniell’s Lord Wolfingham turned out to be a different kettle of fish . . . a true villain. He was an Englishman who clearly seemed bent upon working against the English Crown. One could assume that he was a practicing Catholic with hostile feelings toward Elizabeth’s Protestantism – like the Duke of Norfolk character in the 1998 film ”ELIZABETH”. But Miller and Koch had never offered any hints of his religious affiliation. It did reveal his desire for more political power if Spain had ever conquered England. Which made his betrayal all the more distasteful. And I must say that actor Henry Daniell had superbly portrayed Wolfingham with a lively relish I have rarely seen in his other roles.

One of the commentators for the movie’s DVD featurette had described actress Brenda Marshall as ”good at playing outraged”. That was it . He said nothing about her skills as an actress or screen presence. As for other critics, they tend to point out that in ”THE SEA HAWK”, the leading lady was not Olivia De Havilland. As if that is supposed to explain everything. I have been a fan of the movie for years and to be frank, I have never been bothered by Brenda Marshall as Flynn’s leading lady in this film, instead of De Havilland. The American-born actress seemed more suited for this role as the Anglo-Spanish Doña Maria, who found herself falling in love with her uncle’s enemy – Geoffrey Thorpe. She may not have generated the same level of chemistry with Flynn as De Havilland did. But she and Flynn certainly managed to create a strong screen chemistry. And what I especially liked about Marshall’s performance was her ability to flesh out Maria’s strength of character beneath the delicate façade. Especially when the character helped smuggled a wanted Thorpe into the royal palace for an audience with the Queen. Yet, Marshall’s finest moment in ”THE SEA HAWK”occurred during Doña Maria’s encounter with the British galley slaves pouring from beneath the ship, following Thorpe’s victory in the film’s first quarter. The mixture of shock and embarrassment on Marshall’s face seemed to confirm her skills as a talented actress.

Based upon some of the online reviews I have read for ”THE SEA HAWKS”, most critics seemed impressed by Errol Flynn’s portrayal of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe. They seemed to be impressed by his on-screen daring-do and sense of command. The critics labeled Flynn’s Thorpe as a mature Captain Blood or Robin of Locksley. Like the critics, I was impressed by Flynn’s performance. However, I certainly do not agree with their assessment of role merely as a “mature Captain Blood”. Geoffrey Thorpe struck me as a different kettle of fish. Yes, believe that Thorpe was a more mature character than his previous ones. But I saw him as a mature professional that possessed an intense, no-nonsense personality. Yet, Thorpe also managed to retain a sharp sense of humor that seemed to come from nowhere and bite his victim in the ass. When it came to romance, he became a shy, tongue-twisted lover-to-be – something that has never been apparent in his previous roles. And Flynn captured all of these different nuances of the Geoffrey Thorpe character with a competent skill that should have garnered him more professional respect from Warners Brothers and the Hollywood community at large. I view Geoffrey Thorpe as one of Flynn’s best roles during his twenty-something long career.

I have one last thing to say about both Errol Flynn and Brenda Marshall’s roles in ”THE SEA HAWK”. The last time I had viewed this movie, something about their characters that I found curious. The characters of both Geoffrey Thorpe and Doña Maria Alvarez reminded me of two literary characters from a novel I have not read in over a year. Has anyone ever read ”The Shadow of the Moon” by M.M. Kaye? It is a novel about the 1857-58 Sepoy Rebellion in India that was first published in 1957 – seventeen years after ”THE SEA HAWK”. The two main characters – Contessa Winter de Ballesteros and Captain Alex Randall – bore a strong resemblance to Thorpe and Doña Maria. Both Thorpe and Alex Randall are two military men that possessed an intense, professional demeanor countered by a sharp sense of humor. And both Doña Maria and Winter de Ballesteros are two young Anglo-Spanish women who hide their emotional personalities behind a reserved manner. Curious indeed.

I have never read Rafael Sabatini’s novel. But I have read the synopsis. And I must say that it read like a first-rate adventure. I can honestly say the same about this 1940 film version as well. Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch (who co-wrote ”CASABLANCA”) had created a top-notch script that eventually became one of Errol Flynn’s best movies. It provided plenty of humor, action, intrigue, pathos and romance. And like some of Flynn’s better movies, it possessed something unique that made it memorable. ”THE SEA HAWK” had been released about year after World War II began in September 1939. Many film critics and fans have pointed out that the movie’s plot seemed to serve as some kind of allegory of the war in 1940. In the movie, England stood alone against the growing threat of Imperial Spain. Around the time of the movie’s release in July 1940, Great Britain found itself standing alone against the growing threat of Nazi Germany. Sixteenth century Spain. Nazi Germany in 1939-1940. I get the feeling that Miller and especially Koch knew what they were doing when writing the movie’s script. Especially since Spain (under Franco’s Fascist rule) happened to be one of Germany’s allies in 1940. The strongest indication of ”THE SEA HAWK” being an allegory of World War II’s early years came in the form of the Queen’s speech in the final scene that hinted for all free men to defend liberty, and that the world did not belong to any one man. She might as well have been speaking to the British subjects of 1940, instead of 1588.

Right now, I want to speak about some of the movie’s major sequences. At least those sequences that left a big impression upon me. The first major sequence involved Thrope’s sea battle against the Spanish galley conveying Don Alvarez and Doña Maria to English. In all honesty, I found myself feeling less impressed with this sequence. Although filled with thunderous canon fire, men swinging from one ship to the other and plenty of swordplay, the entire battle seemed to possess a lack of urgency. And the large number of men participating in the battle struck me as over-the-top in a way that made me wonder how so many people – a good number of them that became Thorpe’s prisoners – managed to reach England without the English ship sinking from the sheer weight. I wondered if producer Hal Wallis and director Michael Curtiz had originally mistaken this sequence with the final cavalry charge from ”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”.

Thankfully, there were other sequences in ”THE SEA HAWK” that I found impressive. Thorpe’s private meeting with Queen Elizabeth had allowed Flynn and Robson to sparkle on screen. I understand that they were very fond of each other. In fact, Flynn had so much respect for Robson that he eschewed his usual lax discipline and appeared on the set on time and always knew his lines. This behavior baffled director Michael Curtiz, who had grown used to Flynn’s less than admirable on-the-set behavior.

The one sequence that left a strong impression in my mind featured the adventures of Thorpe and his crew in Panama. Thanks to cinematographer Sol Polito, the entire Panama sequence had been filmed with a sheen of yellow sepia to evoke a tropical world filled with humidity and corruption. This became especially effective in the scenes that featured Thorpe and his men’s attempts to escape the Spanish troops hunting them down in the jungle. Personally, I found the entire sequence rather chilling . . . at least a first. It became downright depressing when one of Thorpe’s men – an elderly sailor – dies in the longboat taking them back to the ship.

And if you thought that the Panama sequence seemed a little horrifying, try watching the following one that featured Thorpe and his surviving crew as slaves aboard a Spanish galley. Stripped to the waist and sporting torn breeches and scraggly beards, Thorpe and his men readily physically reflected the hellish situation in which they found themselves. While the galley is docked in Cadiz, Thorpe learns from a new prisoner (an English spy) that there are papers aboard ship indicating Wolfingham as a traitor and Spain’s plans to send an armada against England. The escape attempt that followed harbored an air of a grim deadliness, resulting in the deaths of some Spanish crewman.

Thorpe and his men finally make their escape from the Cadiz docks to the tune of a rousing Korngold score. The movie eventually shifts back to England, where Thorpe reunites with Doña Maria. She helps him overcome obstacles in his efforts to acquire an audience with the Queen. One of these obstacles turned out to be a duel between Thorpe and Wolfingham. Frankly, I consider this duel to be one of Flynn’s best on screen. Unfortunately Henry Daniell, Flynn’s opponent, lacked the experience and skills for on screen fencing and the Australian actor ended up fighting against a stunt double. Despite this little setback, Curtiz managed to create a more than credible fencing duel by mixing actual fighting between Flynn and the stuntman with occasional close-ups of both Flynn and Daniell, and shadows of the two swordsmen reflected on the palace walls. In terms of action, I consider this to be one of Curtiz’s finest moments. I must also say the same for Flynn. I had noticed a series of cuts on the actor’s upper body and face, following Thorpe’s fights with Wolfingham and the palace guards. I cannot ever recall Flynn looking so exhausted and bedraggled following an on-screen duel in any movie – before or after this one.

The last major sequence in ”THE SEA HAWK” featured Geoffrey Thorpe being knighted Queen Elizabeth for his service. A patriotic speech by the Queen followed, in which she urged the English citizens to persevere against the upcoming threat of the Spanish Armada. This speech was a clear indication that the movie was more than just another Flynn costumed adventure. It was also an allegory of Great Britain’s wartime position in 1940. Unfortunately, the speech bored the pants off me. Miller and Koch’s attempt to express their sympathy toward Britain’s struggles against Nazi Germany struck me at best, heavy handed.

For years, ”THE SEA HAWK” used to be my favorite Errol Flynn movie. After a recent viewing of the 1936 movie,”THE CHARGE OF THE LIGHT BRIGADE”, the movie has slipped to number two on my list. But thanks to solid performances by Flynn and a first-rate supporting cast, superb photography by Sol Polito, Erich Wolfgang Korngold’ stirring score, an excellent yet occasionally heavy-handed script by Seton I. Miller and Howard Koch, and exciting direction by Michael Curtiz; ”THE SEA HAWK” is still a superb costumed adventure that has not lost its touch in the past seventy-one (71) years. I feel that it is a must see for everyone.

“INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULLS” (2008) Review

 

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”INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” (2008)  Review

As much as I enjoyed this latest installment of the INDIANA JONES saga – ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL”, I had found myself perplexed by it. There was something about the movie’s tone that failed to strike a chord similar to the past three movies. It took a second viewing of the movie for me to understand that it had a lot to do with its setting. 

”INDIANA JONES AND THE KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” is set in 1957, in which Colonel-Doctor Irina Spalko (Cate Blanchett) leads a convoy of Soviet troops, dressed as American soldiers on a mission to infiltrate a military base in the Nevada desert called “Hangar 51”. Spalko and her men force Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) to lead them to a crate holding the remains of an extraterrestrial creature that crashed ten years before in Roswell, New Mexico. When Jones attempts to escape, he is foiled by his old partner, George “Mac” McHale (Ray Winstone), who reveals that he is working with the Soviets. Jones then escapes on a rocket sled into the desert, where he stumbles upon a nuclear test town and survives a nuclear blast by hiding in a lead-lined refrigerator. While being debriefed, Jones discovers he is under FBI investigation because his friend Mac is a Soviet agent. Jones returns to Marshall College, where he is offered a leave of absence to avoid being fired because of the investigation. As he is leaving, Jones is stopped by Mutt Williams (Shia LaBeouf) and told that his old colleague, Harold Oxley (John Hurt), disappeared after discovering a crystal skull in Peru.

Like 2007’s ”LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD”, I had harbored some serious doubts on whether George Lucas and Steven Spielberg could relive the old magic of their previous three Indiana Jones adventures of the 1980s. Needless to say, my fears proved to be groundless. Like the Bruce Willis “DIE HARD” movie, this fourth installment ended up being very entertaining. And although it had some of the old magic of ”RAIDERS”,”TEMPLE OF DOOM” and ”LAST CRUSADE”, it had a tone that made it different from the other three. It took a movie review by someone named Lazypadawan and a second viewing of the movie to not only notice the difference, but to eventually appreciate it.

The main problem I originally had with ”CRYSTAL SKULL” was the presence of a spaceship at the end of the story. The City of Gold that Indy, Spalko, Oxley and others wanted to find, ended up with something to do with . . . an inter-dimensional being. One might as well call it an alien, judging by its look. This is something that has never been seen in an Indiana Jones film before. And of course it has not. The other three movies had been set in the 1930s. It would be only natural that they had a feel of a 30s B-serial adventure. But I made the mistake of expecting a 1930s serial adventure in a story set in the late 1950s. What I should have realized – and what Lazypadawan had pointed out in her review – was that ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” was not supposed to be a 30s serial adventure set in the 1950s. It was supposed to be a send up of the 1950s “B” movies. And what are the elements of a “B” movie from the 1950s? Here are just a few:

*atomic power
*the presence of Soviet troops or spies
*science fiction
*horror
*hybrid of science fiction and horror
*conflicts between biker hoods and high school/college jocks
*the “Red” scare
*Soviet (and American) interests in psychic paranormal activities and UFOs

”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” had most, if not all elements in the film. I had just read a review in which someone had complained that the movie seemed like a “rip-off” of a cheesy B-movie. I had made that same mistake when I saw the spaceship sequence near the end of the movie. But now I know better. Lucas and Spielberg had every intention of the movie being a “rip-off” of 1950s B-movies. Like I had said before, it would only make sense.

Someone else had mentioned that Harrison Ford had not seemed this animated in years. I am not surprised. Indiana Jones had always been amongst his favorite characters. And it really showed in his performance. It is also nice to see that after 27 years, his chemistry with Karen Allen (Marion Ravenwood) seemed as strong as ever. By the way, she was great. And I was very impressed by Shia LaBeouf as Marion and Indy’s love child – Mutt Williams aka Henry Jones III. As much as I liked his performance in ”TRANSFORMERS”, I have always thought it seemed a bit too frantic for my tastes. I much preferred his role as Henry III (I’m sorry, but I can barely bring myself to say – let alone write – “Mutt”). LaBeouf managed to convey a strong screen presence that matched Ford, without resorting to the frantic acting he had utilized in “TRANSFORMERS”. Like Ford, I could tell that Cate Blanchett really enjoyed her role as the villainous Soviet Colonel-Doctor Spalko. She was as obsessive and ruthless as the past Indy villains. But Blanchett’s performance had a verve and theatricality I have not seen since Amrish Puri’s portrayal of Mola Ram in ”THE TEMPLE OF DOOM”. And John Hurt filled Denholm Elliot’s role as friend/mentor of the Jones family quite beautifully. But unlike Marcus Brody, Harold Oxley had a good reason for his loopy behavior. I also enjoyed Ray Winstone’s performance as Indy’s treacherous old friend and colleague, McHale. In a way, he reminded me of the Elsa Schneider character in “LAST CRUSADE”. But as much as I like Alison Doody, I must say that Winstone’s take on a very morally ambiguous character had been handled with more skill.

Is there anything about ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” that I disliked? Well, I was not impressed by John Williams’ score. There was nothing original or memorable about it, aside from moments of the old Indy theme being rehashed. Rather disappointing. Nor was I fond of the movie’s heavy-handed style of action and special effects. However, I could honestly complain about the same about the other three films. But the one thing that really irritated me was the sequence featuring the villain’s defeat/destruction. In the end, it was not Indy who had defeated the villain or set her destruction in motion. It was the inter-dimensional being. In other words, Indy became nothing more than a passive bystander of the villain’s defeat. This is the one major fault I have noticed in two other Indiana Jones films. And it gave those films – at least in my eyes – an anticlimatic feeling that I found disappointing. In ”RAIDERS”, the opening of the Ark of the Covenant set in motion Belloq and the Nazis’ deaths. Both Indy and Marion were tied to a pole, unable to do anything except keep their eyes closed. In ”THE LAST CRUSADE”, Elsa Schneider turned out to be responsible for the main villain’s death and the destruction of his men through her handling of the Grail Cup. Perhaps Lucas and Spielberg were trying to convey some message about humans being too arrogant to take heed of things/beings that are more powerful or more evolved than mankind. But that same message had also been conveyed in ”TEMPLE OF DOOM”. Only in that particular movie, it was Indy’s actions – invoking the power of Shiva with the Sanakara stone – that led to Mola Ram’s destruction. Perhaps this is why I have always found the 1984 movie’s finale a lot more impressive than those of the other three movies.

But despite my initial confusion on what Lucas and Spielberg were doing with the movie’s 1950s theme, along with my disappointment of the score and the handling of the villain’s defeat, I found ”KINGDOM OF THE CRYSTAL SKULL” to be very enjoyable. It was great to see Indiana Jones back in action, again. And even more satisfying was his marriage to his lady love, Marion Ravenwood, in the end. After 30 odd years, those two finally got it right.

“FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) Book Review

Below is my review of George MacDonald Fraser’s 1971 novel, “FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, which featured the character of British Army officer Harry Flashman:

“FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” (1971) Book Review

In my review of ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975), I had stated that there are at least six novels from George MacDonald Fraser’s series about the adult adventures of Harry Flashman, the cowardly bully from ”Tom Brown’s School Days”, that I consider among the best that the author has written. One of these six novels happens to be ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!”.

Published in 1971, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences with the Atlantic trade of African slaves and the American slave system in the antebellum South. The novel took that great English symbol of cowardice, lechery and bigotry from the coast of Dahomey in West Africa, to the Caribbean, Washington D.C., New Orleans, the Mississippi River Valley, the Ohio River Valley and finally back to New Orleans.

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”FLASH FOR FREEDOM!” began with Flashman’s arrival from the European continent, where a series of revolutions had appeared during the early spring of 1848 (see ”ROYAL FLASH”). Fearful of a class uprising that seemed to be brewing within a British radical group called the Chartists, Flashy’s father-in-law, John Morrison, arranged for Flashman to meet political figures like Benjamin Disraeli and Lord George Bentinck at a country house party in order to seek help in jumpstarting his own political career. But an encounter with an old nemesis from ”FLASHMAN” (1969) framed Flashman with card cheating . . . and the surprisingly innocent Flashy assaulted him. Morrison has Flashman shipped out of the country to ride out the scandal . . . on a slave ship bound for the western coast of Africa.

I had not been kidding when I claimed that ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” was one of Fraser’s best novels. His passages featuring Flashman’s experiences aboard the Balliol College are masterful. Not only did the author give a detailed description of life aboard a 19th century slave ship, he provided readers with probably his best fictional creation – master of the S.S. Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. Not long after Flashman becomes a member of the Balliol College’s crew, he realize that his father-in-law has put him under the thumb of a Latin-quoting psychotic. In one sequence, Spring discoveres that another crewman, a mentally challenged young man named Looney, has pissed on the food prepared for the slaves:

“They gave Spring a hastily made cat, and he buttoned his jacket tight and pulled down his hat down.

‘Now, you b—-r, I’ll make you dance!’ cries he, and laid in for all he was worth. Looney screamed and struggled; each time the lashes hit him he shrieked, and between each stroke Spring cursed him for all he was worth.

‘Foul my ship, will you?’ Whack! ‘Ruin the food for my cargo, by G-d!’ Whack! ‘Spread your pestilence with your filth, will you?’ Whack! ‘Yes, pray, yes you wharfside son-of-a-b—h, I’m listening!’ Whack! ‘I’ll cut your b—-y soul out, if you have one!’ Whack! If it had been a regulation Army cat, I think he’d have killed him; as it was, the hastily spliced yarn cut the idiot’s back to bits and the blood ran over his ragged trousers. His screams became moans, and then silence, and then Spring flung the cat overboard.

‘Souse him and let him hang there to dry!’ says he, and then he addressed the unconscious victim. ‘And let me catch you at your filthy tricks again, you scum, so help me G-d I’ll hang you – d’ye hear!’

He glared at us with his madmen’s eyes, and my heart was in my mouth for a moment. Then his scar faded, and he said in his normal bark:

‘Dismiss the hands, Mr. Comber. Mr. Sullivan, and you, supercargo, come aft. Mrs. Springs is serving tea.'”

Needless to say, Spring’s enraged whipping of poor Looney would turn out to be an event that Flashman would later attempt to exploit for his own means.

Upon the Balliol College’s arrival upon the coast of West Africa, Fraser gave readers a bird’s eye view of how African slaves were purchased from African rulers like King Ghezo of Dahomey and European traders along the West Africa coastline. Fraser also provided readers with a peek into the kingdom of Dahomey (which eventually became Benin), its ruler and the latter’s famous female warriors – Dahomey Amazons – some of whom the Balliol College’s psychotic captain longed own for scholarly reasons.

When King Ghezo hands over six of his “Amazon” warriors to Captain Spring, the remaining women attack the Balliol College’s landing party during its trek back to the ship. One of the women (who had taken a slight fancy to Flashy) wounds one of the crewmen, an Englishman named Beauchamp Comber. Just before his death aboard the Balliol College, Comber confessed to Flashman that he was a Royal Navy agent charged with gathering evidence against Captain Spring and the other owners of the ship. One of the ship’s investors turned out to be Flashman’s pernicious father-in-law. The Balliol College eventually reach the Honduras coast, where the crew deliver the new slaves and pick up a half-dozen mulatto slave prostitutes to be delivered in New Orleans. But a U.S. Navy sloop under the command of the young and ambitious Captain Fairbrother spots the Balliol College and a brief sea battle ensues in which the slave ship is damaged and Springs is shot by a mentally challenged mate named Looney, at Flashman’s instigation. To avoid facing arrest for illegal slave trading, Flashy assumes the late Lieutenant Comber’s identity.

Once more, Fraser used his journalistic skills to good use in his description of what is known by historians as the Middle Passage. He went into great detail about how slavers dealt with captured slaves being held below deck. Fraser also described the practice of some sailors to mate with female slaves in order to impregnate them. This sexual practice was used to ensure a higher value among these female slave and any racially mixed children they might produce. Flashman is assigned to have sex with a Dahomey female slave he has named Lady Caroline Lamb.

Another interesting aspect about this passage in the novel was how Fraser revealed the racism and herd mentality of white Westerners like Flashman, Captain Spring and the Balliol College’s first mate, Mr. Sullivan. Following Comber’s death, Spring refused to immediately bury the Royal Navy officer at sea, after one of the slaves had died on the same day and was tossed into the sea. Apparently, the slave captain found the idea of a white man and a black man being “buried” in the same area within hours of each other. And in the following passage, Mr. Sullivan seems to have a ready answer for Flashman’s ponderings about the slaves’ docile behavior:

”If they’d had a spark of spirit the niggers could have torn them limb from limb, but they just sat, helpless and mumbling. I thought of the Amazons, and wondered what changed people from brave, reckless savages into dumb resigned animals; apparently it’s always the way on the Coast. Sullivan told me he reckoned it was the knowledge that they were going to be slaves, but that being brainless brutes they never thought of doing anything about it.”

I found it interesting that both Flashman and Sullivan used race as an excuse to the newly captured slaves’ ”docile”behavior. Neither man bothered to consider the possibility that a series of traumatic experiences – being captured as prisoners of war, enduring a trek from the interior to the coast; and being tossed into a barracoon or holding place, before being loaded aboard the Balliol College. Instead, they indulged in some kind of herd mentality and dismissed the slaves’ behavior as typical of their race.

—————–

Forced to continue his disguise as Comber, Flashman becomes acquainted with various American politicians that happened to be sympathetic to the abolitionist cause. One of them turned out to be one-term Congressman Abraham Lincoln. I must admit that I enjoyed Fraser’s portrayal of the future president as a shrewd, manipulative and humorous man. Lincoln not only spotted Flashman as a rogue, but suggested that he might also be one. The novel also featured a dinner conversation in which Lincoln expressed his exasperation with the abolitionist movement and especially the presence of blacks in the United States. If ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had been published for the first time in the past twenty years, Lincoln’s opinion of blacks would not have seem surprising. But in 1971 (when the novel was first published), his opinion probably did. Ironically, many 19th century abolitionists – black and white – had harbored ambiguous or even contemptuous feelings toward Lincoln’s moderate views.

Congressman Lincoln manages to blackmail Flashman into traveling to New Orleans in order to testify against Captain Spring. It seemed the sea captain had survived Looney’s attack. Having no desire to be exposed as a charlatan, Flashman manages to escape from his U.S. Navy escort in New Orleans and seek refuge at a brothel owned by an English Cockney madam named Susie Wilnick. Fraser must have visited New Orleans, while researching for this novel . . . and fallen in love. Not only did he describe the Crescent City circa 1848 in great detail, but also allowed Flashman to fall in love with the city. This segment also introduced the character of Susie Wilnick, the red-haired madam who will end up having a major impact upon Flashy’s life in the novel, ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”. Before Flashman can board a ship bound for Europe, local agents of the Underground Railroad, an organization that aids escaped slaves, snatches him. They deliver him to their leader, a Mr. Crixus. He “recruits” Flashman into escorting a wanted escaped slave named George Randolph to Canada, via a steamboat journey up the Mississippi River.

Flashman’s meeting with Mr. Crixus of the Underground Railroad is where Fraser committed a major mistake. The mistake centered around Crixus’ description of the Underground Railroad as an organization that sent agents into the Southern states to help slaves escape to the North and Canada. And according to Mr. Crixus, many or most of these agents happened to be white. This might be one of those rare times in which Fraser’s research may have failed him. The Underground Railroad was not as organized as the author had indicated. It simply consisted of anti-slavery sympathizers who assisted any runaway slave that managed to reach their homes in the Free States. Granted, there were a few like the wanted runaway Harriet Tubman and the white Virginian John Fairfield, who made excursions into the South to free slaves. But their numbers were few and usually operated in the Upper South. Either Fraser had known this and made the Underground Railroad more organized for the sake of the story, or he simply embraced the myth of it being highly organized and mainly operated by white abolitionists.

———————

This segment also introduced the character of George Randolph, an infamous runaway slave whom Flashman was recruited to escort up the Mississippi Valley. Randolph’s self-righteousness and conceit proved to be a thorn in Flashy’s side. Yet, his presence in the story allowed Fraser to sharpen his writing skills and describe the society that existed in the Lower Mississippi Valley with his usual penchant for detail. Flashman’s journey up the Mississippi not only revealed steamboat travel in the antebellum South, but also the colorful characters that populated that particular region – including slave traders and planters that acquired new money from the slave trade and the cotton plantations. Fraser also contrasted these slave and cotton magnates to the more haughty and refined planters from older regions of the South like Virginia, Kentucky and the Carolinas:

”All very fine, in a vulgar way, and the passengers matched it; you may have heard a great deal about Southern charm and grace, and there’s something in it where Virginia and Kentucky are concerned – Robert Lee, for instance, was as genteel an old prig as you’d meet on Pall Mall – but it don’t hold for the Mississipi valley. There they were rotten with cotton money in those days, with gold watch-chains and walking-sticks, loud raucious laughter, and manners that would have disgraced a sty.”

The dialogue spoken by these Mississippi Valley citizens seem a lot more cruder than what one would have heard coming from Robert E. Lee’s mouth. Which makes me wonder if Fraser had read Kyle Onscott’s 1957 novel about slavery,”MANDINGO”:

”Don’ you give me none o’your shines, ye black rascal! Beds, by thunder! You’ll lay right down where you’re told, or by cracky you’ll be knocked down! Who’re you, that you gotta have straw to keep your tender carcase offen the floor? ‘Tother hands is layin’ on it, ain’t they? Now, you git right down there, d’ye hear?”

———————-

George Randolph’s refusal to play the docile slave ends up endangering his life and Flashman’s chances to leave the South. The runaway slave’s conceit ends up attracting the attention of a slave trader named Peter Omohondro (my God, what a name!). Flashman makes his escape over the rails and into the Mississippi River and swims toward the state of Mississippi. He eventually ends up at a cotton plantation called Greystokes, where he is hired as an observer. There, Flashman’s use of slave women as concubines attracts the attention of Greystokes’ mistress, Annette Mandeville.

I must say that was a little disappointed that Fraser never bothered to delve into any detail about life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s misery at being stuck in the U.S. and far from home. He also touched upon the English officer’s frustration at his dalliances with women he viewed beneath contempt – namely Greystokes’ female slave population. This segment also dealt with Flashman’s observations of the Mandevilles’ pathetic marriage. Mr. Mandeville, who was a noveau riche cotton planter, had married the daughter of a Creole aristocrat. Mandeville had married for love and his wife, for money. And yet, it is the haughty Annette who regards her husband with contempt. And Flashman ends up sharing her feelings whenever Mandeville brags about Annette’s non-existent sexual desire for him.

——————–

Not surprisingly, Flash realizes that the haughty Mrs. Mandeville has a yen for him and the two embark upon a sexual affair for a few months. The affair becomes easy to conduct, due to Mr. Mandeville’s frequent business trips. Flashman tries to incite expressions of emotion or passion from his mistress, but she seems to regard him as nothing more than her own personal bed warmer. The affair eventually ends when Mandeville returns home earlier than expected:

”We had just finished a bout; Annette was lying face down on the bed, silent and sullen as usual, and I was trying to win some warmth out of her with my gay chat, and also by biting her on the buttocks. Suddenly, she stiffened under me, and in the same instant feet were striding up the corridor towards the room, Mandeville’s voice was shouting:

“Annie! Hullo, Annie honey, I’m home! I’ve brought –“ and then the door was flung open and there he stood, the big grin on his red face changing to a stare of horror. My mouth was open as I gazed across her rump, terror-stricken.”

I must admit that I found the above passage a little evocative. How often does Fraser allow Flashman to be caught in a compromising position, while nipping his bed partner’s ass? On the other hand, I found Harry’s attempts to provoke some kind of passionate response from Annette Mandeville rather irritating – and a little out of character. It was quite obvious that she saw him as nothing more than a mere stud. And she was not the first female character to use him in such a manner. So, why was it important to Flashman for Annette to express some kind of affection toward him? Ego? These scenes between Flashman and Mrs. Mandeville seemed a bit off to me.

———————

Upon discovering his wife in bed with Flashman, Mandeville goes ballistic and threatens the former’s life. However, one of the planter’s slave trading friends offer to sell Harry as a mixed-blood slave to his cousin, an Alabama cotton planter with a plantation near the Tombigee River. Harry finds himself tossed into a slave cart bound for Alabama. Also in the cart is a beautiful light-skinned slave named Casseopeia “Cassy”.

Mandeville’s discovery of Flashman and Annette’s affair was a well-written segment that featured one of the Englishman’s most terrifying moments in the novel. I found it terrifying not because of the possibility of Flashman facing death, as he had done fleeing the Dahomey Amazons, facing gunfire from the U.S. Navy or fleeing from Peter Omohundro’s suspicions. What made this sequence terrifying was that Mandeville’s friends, Luke Johnson and Tom Little, were sending him into the constant hell of black slavery. I think that Mandeville had put it best:

”One of my friends here, he got a prime idea. His cousin a planter over to Alabama – quite a ways from here. Now my friend goin’ over that way, takin’ a runaway back to another place, and he ready to ‘blige me by takin’ you a stage farther, to his cousin’s plantation. Nobody see you leave here, nobody see you git there. An’ when you do, you know what goin’ to happen to you? You goin’ to be stripped an’ put in the cane-fields, ‘long with the niggers! You pretty dark now – I see mustees as light as you – an’ by the time you labored in the sun a spell, you brown up pretty good I reckon. An’ there you’ll be, Slave Arnold, see? You won’t be dead, but you’ll wish you were! Ain’t nobody ever goin’ to see you, on account it a lonely place, an’ no one ever go there – ifn they do, why you just a crazy mustee! Nobody know you here, nobody ever ask for you. An’ you never escape – on account no nigger ever run from that plantation – swamps an’ dogs always git ‘em. So you safe there for life, see? You think you’ll enjoy that life, Slave Arnold?”

——————

During their first hours together inside the slave cart, Cassy tries to comfort Flashman. But when she realizes that he is a white man being punished by Mandeville, Cassy’s own racism towards whites – generated from years of enslavement – kicks in:

”’Well, now one of you knows what it feels like.’ She went back to her corner. ‘Now you know what a filthy race you belong to.’”

Cassy ignores him for several more hours, while Flashman tries to convince Johnson and Little to release him. Eventually, she overcomes her disgust toward Flashman’s race and conspires to free them both from the slave cart. She attracts the two slave traders’ attention by faking sex with Flashy (must have been a great temptation for the poor devil), before killing the pair. Cassy and Flashman dump the bodies and head for Memphis.

The above sequence brought back memories of Flashman’s conversation with the Balliol College’s first mate about the Africans’ disposition to be docile about becoming slaves. Yet, in a near ironic twist, the very same thing nearly happened to Flashman inside the slave cart. Especially after Luke Johnson and Tom Johnson refused to heed his pleas to release him. Just before Cassy could laid out her plans for escape, Flashman seemed on the verge of surrendering to years of slavery for himself. And I found it interesting that Cassy turned out to be the one instrumental to their escape. Then again, I should not have been surprised, considering the Englishman’s cowardly and obsequious nature.

———————-

The pair arrives in Memphis, Tennessee; where Flashman puts Cassy on the market to be sold. Again, Fraser’s journalistic eye comes to the fore. Flashman’s description of the Tennessee metropolis seemed to center around two words – rain and mud. But his account of a slave auction struck me as another example of Fraser’s ability to send his readers back into the past:

If you’ve never seen a slave auction, I can tell you it’s no different from an ordinary cattle sale. The market was a great low shed, with sawdust on the floor, a block at one end for the slaves and auctioneer, and the rest of the space taken up with the buyers and spectators – wealthy traders on seats at the front, very much at ease, casual buyers behind, and more than half the whole crew just spectators, loafers, bumarees and sightseers, spitting and gossiping and haw-hawing. The place was noisy and stank like the deuce, with clouds of baccy smoke and esprit de corps hanging under the beams.”

Very colorful indeed. Yet, there was something about the slave auction segment that disturbed me. Through Flashman’s eyes, Fraser focused on the entertaining and colorful auctioneer, the auction’s location and the male attendants’ reaction to Cassy’s attempts to raise her price (via a strip tease, apparently). Not once did Fraser give the readers a glimpse – however brief – into the other slaves’ reaction to being sold like stock on parade. Granted, Flashman is not the type who would care about their feelings. But being an observant man, surely he would have noticed the reaction of those slaves who were sold before Cassy? Like I had said, I had found this particular aspect of the sequence slightly disappointing.

———————-

In the end, someone buys Cassy for $3,400 dollars. After Flashman purchases steamboat tickets and clothes for them both, Cassy escapes from the Memphis slave pen and board a northbound steamboat with Flashman. During the trip up the Mississippi River, Flashman and Cassy become lovers. And the Englishman discovers that his companion has great ambitions and an exceedingly strong will. He also discovers that her trust of him is not as strong as he had assumed:

”And yet I know that you are not by nature a kind man; that there is little love in you. I know there is lust and selfishness and cruelty, because I feel it when you take me; you are just like the others. Oh, I don’t mind – I prefer that. I tell myself that it levels the score I owe you.”

Unfortunately, the pair discovers that Flashman had purchased tickets for a steamboat bound for St. Louis, Missouri, instead of their intended location, Louisville, Kentucky near the Ohio River. They are forced to travel all of the way to St. Louis. There, Flashman discovers that he is wanted for slave stealing and the murders of Luke Johnson and Tom Little. Flashman and Cassy board another steamboat to take them from St. Louis on the Mississippi Rover to Pittsburg, Pennsylvania at the end of the Ohio. However, the Ohio River freezes near Owensboro, Kentucky and the pair is forced to leave the safety of the steamboat. At a Kentucky tavern near the river, Flashman and Cassy have an unpleasant encounter with a slave catcher named Buck Robinson. Flashy ditches Cassy and flees across the frozen Ohio, with the escaped slave, along with Robinson and his friends close at his heels. Cassy proves to be more dependable when she saves Flashman after he had been shot in the ass in this well written passage:

”It was so bitter that I screamed, and she turned back and came slithering on all fours to the edge. I grabbed her hand, and somehow I managed to scramble out. The yelping of the dogs was sounding closer, a gun banged, a frightful pain tore through my buttock, and I pitched forward on to the ice. Cassy screamed, a man’s voice sounded in a distant roar of triumph, and I felt blood coursing warm down my leg.

‘My God, are you hurt?” she cried, and for some idiot reason I had a vision of a tombstone bearing the legend: “Here lies Harry Flashman, late 11th Hussars, shot in the arse while crossing the Ohio River”. The pain was sickening, but I managed to lurch to my feet, clutching my backside, and Cassy seized my hand, dragging me on.”

I strongly suspect that Fraser may have been inspired by Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous 1851 novel, ”UNCLE TOM’S CABIN”; when writing Flashman and Cassy’s flight across the Ohio River. The pair eventually seek refuge at an abolitionist’s home in Portsmouth, Ohio. There, Flashman is reunited with Abraham Lincoln. Buck Robinson catches up with them and Lincoln defends Flashy and Cassy in a scene that has become legendary with fans of the FLASHMAN novels:

”Buck was mouthing at him, red-faced and furious, but Lincoln went on in the same hard voice.

‘So am I, Buck. And more – for the benefit of any shirt-tail chawbacon with a big mouth, I’m a who’s-yar boy from Indiana myself, and I’ve put down better men than you just by spitting teeth at them. If you doubt it, come ahead! You want these people – you’re going to take them?’ He gestured toward Cassy. ‘All right, Buck – you try it. Just – try it.’

The rest of the world decided that Abraham Lincoln was a great orator after his speech at Gettysburg. I realized it much earlier, when I heard him laying it over that gun-carrying bearded ruffian who was breathing brimstone at him.”

In the above passage, Fraser continued to tear down the prevailing view of Lincoln as some modest, gentle giant who found himself caught up in national politics. Fraser’s portrayal of Lincoln revealed a tough and intimidating man to the rough-neck Buck Robinson. And once more, he managed to blackmail Flashman into returning to New Orleans for John Charity Spring’s slave smuggling trial. Before Flashman could leave Ohio, a Canada-bound Cassy says good-bye to him in one of the funniest scenes in the novel:

”’There,’ says Mrs. Payne. ‘I think you may kiss your deliverer’s hand, child.’

I wouldn’t have been surprised if Cassy had burst out laughing, or in a fit of raage, but she did something that horrified Mrs. Payne more than either could have done. She bent down and gave me a long, fierce kiss on the mouth, while her chaperone squawked and squeaked, and eventually bustled her away.

‘Such liberties!’ cries she. ‘These simple creatures! My child, this will never-‘

‘Good-bye,’ says Cassy, and that was the last I ever saw of her – or of the two thousand dollars we had had between us.”

As noted the recent passage, Flashman discovers that Cassy had quietly taken the remaining money they had “earned” in Memphis. No wonder she remains one of my favorite female characters in the FLASHMAN novels.

———————

After a U.S. marshal escorts our hero back to New Orleans (thanks to Lincoln), Flashman appears in court to testify against Spring for smuggling slaves into the U.S. Due to the testimonies of two of Spring’s “cargo”, Flashman realizes that the insane captain had been conveying American-born slaves to New Orleans, when the U.S. sloop had captured the Balliol College. Which meant that Spring had not broken the law by conveying American slaves. This also meant that Flashman had the means to avoid testifying against Spring and avoid being exposed as a fraud.

I must admit that this latest sequence featured one of the funniest moments in the novel. I especially enjoyed the testimonies of two female slaves named Drusilla and Messalina. The novel ends with the charges against Captain Spring are dismissed and Flashman asking for passage back to Europe aboard the Balliol College. From the psychotic Spring, Flashy learns that his father-in-law had passed away; leaving his beloved Elspeth a rich woman. Unfortunately for Flashman, another year or two will pass before his return to England . . . as ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS” will reveal.

———————

As I had stated at the beginning of this article, I consider ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” to be one of the best from the FLASHMANseries. Through Flashman’s jaundiced eyes, Fraser revealed a richly detailed account of the African slave trade during the mid 19th century. In fact, Fraser’s account of the trade is one of the most detailed I have ever read in any fictional story – from the Balliol College crew’s preparation of the slave deck, to the crew’s expedition to Dahomey and King Gezo’s court; from the Middle Passage across the Atlantic Ocean to the slave marts of Honduras and Cuba; and finally the Balliol College’s encounter with a U.S. Navy frigate in the Gulf of Mexico. I have to admit that Fraser’s writing was supreme in the novel’s first half.

Once Flashman reached the United States, the story became unevenly paced. From the moment Captain Fairbrother sent Flashman to Washington D.C. to the moment when the Englishman boarded the Sultana Queen with George Randolph and black Underground Railroad agents posing as slaves, the story raced at a fast pace. Perhaps too fast for my tastes. The story managed to slow down to a leisurely pace in order to describe Flashman’s trip up the Mississippi River aboard the Sultana Queen. But upon his arrival at Greystokes, the Mandevilles’ plantation, the story’s pace quickened again. And for the second time, it slowed down when Mandeville caught Flashman in bed with the missus. This meant that Fraser never bothered to give readers a detailed account of life on a Mississippi cotton plantation. Instead, he focused upon Flashman’s affair with Annette Mandeville.

I also found myself surprised by Fraser’s description of the Underground Railroad. For a writer who usually went through a great deal to incorporate historical accuracy into his novels as much as possible, he certainly failed to do so in regard to the abolitionist organization. The Underground Railroad had never been as organized as Fraser described it in the novel. Most of the agents lived above the Mason-Dixon line. And they simply assisted those slaves that managed to reach the Free States with food, clothing and temporary shelter. The Underground Railroad was never dominated by white agents that escorted runaways out of the South. Granted, personalities like Harriet Tubman, John Fairfield and John Brown may have engaged in such activities, but they were rare in numbers and usually operated in the Border or Upper South. Regardless of whether they were successful or not, the runaway slaves bore most or all of the responsibilities for their bids for freedom.

And I never understood how Captain Spring managed to avoid being convicted of slave smuggling in the end. Granted, the slaves he had picked up in Honduras and Cuba were all American-born . . . save for one. There was also the Dahomey slave, Lady Caroline Lamb. Captain Fairbrother of the U.S. Navy had certainly met her. I never understood how the Federal judge managed to overlook her presence aboard the Balliol College. Flashman claimed that she had not been shackled. And because of this particular testimony, she was not deemed a non-American slave aboard Spring’s ship. Frankly, I found this a bit too thin . . . but what can one say?

One last problem I had with ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” centered around Fraser’s portrayals of non-white characters. Mind you, he had provided strong portrayals of West African characters in the novel’s first half. However, King Gezo was a historical figure, Lady Caroline Lamb was a passive bed mate for Flashy, and not one of the Dahomey Amazons had a name – not even the leader who had taken a fancy to Flashman. With the exception of two, the African-Americans featured in the novel’s second half ended up being mere background characters. Even worse, the only two slave characters of African descent were light-skinned. George Randolph was one-quarter black and Cassy was one-eighth black. Both were light enough to pass for white, bar a few physical characteristics that hinted their African ancestry. And once again, I stumbled across another disappointment. Granted, Fraser probably needed Cassy light enough to pass for white during her and Flashman’s flight up the Mississippi River. But why Fraser thought it was necessary to portray Randolph as light-skinned? What exactly was the author trying to hint? That only light-skinned African-Americans were intelligent enough to be interesting characters?

But despite my misgivings about ”FLASH FOR FREEDOM”, I still consider it to be one of Fraser’s better works. First of all, I thought it took a great deal of guts on his part to write a serio-comic story that featured African slavery as its main theme. The only other works of art that I can recall that dared to even touch upon the subject seemed to be an episode of”BEWITCHED” called (5.02) “Samantha Goes South For A Spell” in which Samantha Stevens ends up trapped in 1868 New Orleans, the 1971 movie ”SKIN GAME” and its 1974 remake, ”SIDEKICKS”. And despite the novel’s grim subject matter, Fraser provided some very funny moments:

*Flashman’s attempt to seduce Fanny Locke (soon to be Duberly) at the political house party at Cleeve House

*A cabin boy’s offer to sexually service Flashman

*One of the Dahomey Amazons’ interest in Flashman

*Abraham Lincoln sniffs out Flashman as a scoundrel

*Cassy’s passionate farewell to Flashman

*Captain Spring’s trial in New Orleans

*Flashman’s reaction to John Morrison’s death

But there are two humorous scenes that truly stood out for me. One involved Flashman’s description of Captain Spring and his wife:

”At any rate, he lost no opportunity of airing his Latinity to Comber and me, usually at tea in his cabin, with the placid Mrs. Spring sitting by, nodding. Sullivan was right, of course; they were both mad. You had only to see them at the divine service which Spring insisted on holding on Sundays, with the whole ship’s company drawn up, and Mrs. Spring pumping away at her German accordion while we sang ‘Hark! the wild billow’, and afterwards Spring would blast up prayers to the Almighty demanding his blessing on our voyage, and guidance in the tasks which our hands should find to do, world without end, amen. I don’t know what Wilberforce would have made of that, or my old friend John Brown, but the ship’s company took it straight-faced – mind you, they knew better than to do anything else.”

Another passage that I found particularly hilarious was U.S. Navy Captain Fairbrother’s reaction to finding the slave Lady Caroline Lamb inside his cabin, aboard the Balliol College:

”’Mr. Comber,’ says he, ‘there’s one of those black women in my berth!’

‘Indeed?’ says I, looking suitably startled.

‘My G-d, Mr. Comber!’ cries he. ‘She’s in there now – and she’s stark naked!’

I pondered this; it occurred to me that Lady Caroline Lamb, following her Balliol College training, had made her way aft and got into Fairbrother’s cabin – which lay in the same place as my berth had done on the slaver. And being the kind of gently-reared fool that he was, Fairbrother was in a fine stew. He’d probably never seen a female form in his life.”

”FLASH FOR FREEDOM” had its share of virtues. But what really stood out in the novel was its collection of some of the most interesting fictional characters created by Fraser. Yes, the novel had its share of historical figures like Benjamin Disraeli, King Gezo and Abraham Lincoln. But the fictional characters proved to be the novel’s finest assets. Fraser introduced his readers to characters like the imbecilic and pathetic Looney, the Dahomey Amazon that took in interest in Flashy, the intense and enthusiastic Underground Railroad agent Mr. Crixus, the conceited and self-involved George Randolph, the ever suspicious slave trader Peter Omohundro, the pathetic Mandeville and his cold and controlling wife Annette, and the brutish slave catcher Buck Robinson. But two characters stood above the rest. They were the beautiful, yet ruthless and determined fugitive slave, Casseopeia; and the psychotic master of the Balliol College, Captain John Charity Spring. In fact, I would say they were among the best of Fraser’s creations.

I might as well add that the novel was not perfect. Its description of the Underground Railroad was historically incorrect. Most of the African-American characters were poorly conceived, with the exception of two that happened to be light-skinned. And the novel’s second half seemed to be marred by uneven pacing. Fortunately, the virtues outweighed the flaws. Fraser did an excellent job of creating semi-humorous story from the grim topic of slavery. The story had its share of drama and action. It provided a detailed account of the Atlantic slave trade during the mid 19th century. And the novel also featured some of the most fascinating fictional characters in the entire FLASHMAN series. In the end, I believe it is one of the best novels written by George MacDonald Fraser.

“ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” (2007) Review

“ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” (2007) Review

Nine years after the release of 1998’s “ELIZABETH”, director Shekhar Kapur returned to direct a sequel called, “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE”. Like the 1998 movie, it stars Cate Blanchett as England’s “Virgin Queen” and Geoffrey Rush as the sovereign’s most trusted spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham. The movie covers a period during Elizabeth I’s reign in which she had faced the double threat of Philip II of Spain (Jordi Mollà) and Mary, Queen of Scots (Samantha Morton). The movie also features a romantic triangle for Elizabeth that features Clive Owen as Walter Raleigh, famous poet and explorer (and the Queen’s object of desire) and Abbie Cornish as one of Elizabeth’s ladies-in-waitng and Raleigh’s future wife, Bess Throckmorton. 

Despite having the same director and star as the previous film, “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” seems like a different kettle of fish from its predecessor. Michael Hirst and new writer, William Nicholson’s screenplay seem more somber and less violent than the 1998 film. The most graphic violence shown in the movie is actually heard as Mary Stuart’s neck is severed by a sword (or axe). And its sensuality almost seem subdued in compared to the earlier film. The most titillating scene seemed to be Cate Blanchett’s backside after she disrobes in one scene.

The movie covers a period in Elizabethan history that has been featured many times in the past – namely Elizabeth Tudor’s decision to execute Mary Stuart for plotting treason. It also covers the consequences of this act – namely Spain’s decision to send an armada to England. Although I found this mildly interesting, I wish that one day in the future, some filmaker would focus upon a period in Elizabeth’s reign that did not cover her early years as queen, Mary Stuart’s death or the Spanish Armada. Unfortunately, these incidents seem to define her reign in history. Perhaps that is why I found the story’s main conflict anti-climatic. At least the royal triangle between Elizabeth, Raleigh and Throckmorton managed to provide some spark in the story . . . even if this actually played out in the early 1590s, instead of the 1580s as shown in the film.

The performances are basically first-rate – especially by Rush, Owen and Cornish. Although I must confess that I found Owen’s presence in the movie to be almost irrevelant. Aside from participating in the defense of England against Spain, he had no serious role in the movie’s main story – namely Elizabeth’s conflict with Mary and Philip.

I really do not know what to make of Jordi Mollà’s portrayal of Philip II. I guess I found it rather odd. I think he had tried to portray the Spanish sovereign as someone more eccentric than he actually was. And quite frankly, screenwriters Hirst and Nicholson did not serve him well by dumping some rather pedantic dialogue upon him that seemed focused around insulting Elizabeth’s character. I do not know what he had called English queen more – ‘whore’‘bastard’ or simply ‘darkness’. Quite frankly, he had made a much better villain in “BAD BOYS II”.

As for Blanchett, I really enjoyed her performance in the movie’s first half. She seemed more self-assured, mature and perhaps manipulative than she was in the 1998 movie. Yet, once when affairs of both the state and the heart began to sour for her, she engaged in more over-the-top mannerisms than Bette Davis did during her entire 17 years at Warner Brothers. Before one starts thinking that I was more impressed by Blanchett’s performance in “ELIZABETH”, let me assure you that I was not. If anything, her twitchiness in the movie’s second half only reminded me of the same mannerisms that I almost found annoying in the first movie. Yet . . . she still managed to turn in an excellent performance.

Like its 1998 predecessor, “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE” is not perfect. It lacks the previous movie’s colorful panache, despite the lavish costumes and sets. In fact, those very traits nearly threaten to overwhelm both the story and its characters. Thankfully, Kapur manages to prevent this from actually happening. And although it is historically incorrect, at least it is not marred by an unforgivable revision of history as was the case with the Elizabeth/Dudley storyline in the first film. Despite its imperfections, I suggest you go see “ELIZABETH: THE GOLDEN AGE”. Especially if you enjoy lavish costumes in a historical setting.