We Can Remake It for You Wholesale


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I’ve lived long enough that the films I once watched new, when they were the latest and greatest available, are now being remade. I could probably start listing examples, but I am afraid the result would probably be more depressing than informative. Not long ago I talked about Blade Runner. Technically that was more sequel than remake, but the issues were similar. Today, I’ll move forward a half-a-dozen years and we’ll talk about another Philip K. Dick adaptation.

When Paul Verhoeven’s Total Recall came out (1990), it was by almost any measure a big deal. In its time, it was one of the most expensive films ever made. It rivaled the record holder, Superman (1978), although not in inflation adjusted dollars, and was roughly on par with its contemporaries, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Die Hard, and Rambo III. Star Schwarzenegger was then a huge box office draw. Female lead (well, sort-of) Sharon Stone wasn’t really yet, but she was about to become one (in part, due to the exposure she got in Total Recall). The supporting cast sported familiar faces from other popular late-80s action films. Total Recall was both popular and successful; one of the top money-makers of 1990, it earned well beyond its substantial investment. Of course, neither Verhoeven nor Schwartzenegger were (or are) particularly know for serious, or even good, filmmaking (I’m looking at you, Starship Troopers). It may have been a big budget blockbuster (blah blah blah), but we all expected campy, superficial fun.

The screenwriters had purchased the rights to the short story more than a decade before, but had difficulty selling their concept. Instructively, one attempt at getting it on the screen had the original writer (Ronald Shusett) arguing with David Cronenberg, who was brought on board by Dino De Laurentiis. As a dozen different rewrites by Cronenberg were unable to meet with his approval, according to Cronenberg, Shusett criticized, “You know what you’ve done? You’ve done the Philip K. Dick version.” When Cronenberg asked, “Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?” he was told “No, no, we want to do Raiders of the Lost Ark Go to Mars.” In the end it came to naught. De Laurentiis dumped the project when Dune turned out to be a disaster.

It was Arnold Schwarzenegger ultimately pulled the concept through to fruition. He had been aware that De Laurentiis was working on the project, but was unable sell himself as the lead. When De Laurentiis dropped it, Schwarzenegger talked his Terminator 2 production company into picking the title up as well as giving him substantial control over the production. It was Schwarzenegger who brought in Verhoeven (impressed, as he was, with Verhoeven’s recent RoboCop). Thus history was made.

But could it be remade? In due time, the ebb and flow of the movie biz meant that the rights to Dick’s story came up, again, for grabs. This put a new, modernized production on the table. The result was the 2012 remake.

But why do it? OK, twenty years is kind of a long time and any good-but-twenty-year-old story might seem open to reinterpretation by-and-for a new generation. On the other hand, the technological and cultural shifts between 1990 and 2009 (when the new film went into production mode) just don’t seem, to me, to be that significant.

The obvious answer is, of course, “to make money.” Whatever creative reasons for redoing Total Recall ultimately would have to get approved and funded by a studio with their eye on the bottom line. In this, and we’ll just cut to the chase, it didn’t exactly succeed. The cost of production ran more than double that of the original, although such a monetary figure is considerably less remarkable in the 20-teens, where now a “big budget” is closer to $200 million. By contrast, the domestic box office, at under $60 million, was more like the cost of the original. Fortunately for the money-men, the international take was well beyond the U.S. take, making the overall venture profitable, but hardly the glowing success that the original was. Nevertheless, this may reinforce the idea that remakes and sequels are the way to go if you want to guarantee a return on your investment. Still, let’s think about the creative side.

Is the remake meant to be for fans of the original film who want to see the story updated? Is it meant for a younger generation that would never have seen the original? In some sense, it has to be both, because you need the numbers from both audiences to be successful, right?

One of the reasons I watched it (despite Netflix warning me that it wasn’t so hot) was because of a handful of positive viewer comments I had read. One in particular was written as a counter to all the negative reviews based, presumably, on unfavorable comparisons to the 1990 film. This reviewer said that the comparisons to the Verhoeven/Schwarzenegger version were off-base because this film was based on the original short story, not the 1990 film. In this, his comments seem to be taken directly from some Jessica Biel (the other leading lady – not Sharon Stone’s upgrade) pronouncements made on The Daily Show being interviewed by John Stewart*. The problem is, this explanation is not accurate.

Clearly, anyone working on a 2012 version of this film would have, as reference points, both the 1990 movie and the 1966 short story and so influences are going to come from wherever**. However, one of the main missing pieces – the fact that Mars gets nothing but a bare mention – comes not from the original short story, which is Mars based. In the interview with Biel, Jon Stewart (correctly) states that the short story takes place entirely on Earth. In fact, Dick’s original takes place entirely in either Doug Quail’s (he is Quail, not Quaid, in the book) apartment, the Rekal offices, or a police station. That said, the focus of Quail’s fantasy/memory is unequivocally a trip to Mars. Similarly Biel’s character doesn’t exist in the original story; she comes entirely from the 1990 movie. For that matter, so does the “action” that makes up the bulk of the new film.

It is that action that seems to be the primary raison d’être for the newer version. In the 20-teens, films are now dominated by CGI and, shall we say, Matrix-style combat sequences. Ironically, another viewer review comment that I focused on was that the science fiction of the new version was more realistic. This couldn’t be further from the truth. Those comic-book style combat sequences which fill the bulk of the film may start out stylish but they quickly end up becoming exhausting. Bullet fly, bodies tumble, but nobody really gets hurt. We see people that are constantly fighting, but the conflict has no meaning since it has no consequences***.

Beyond the superficial action, the fundamental premise is simply absurd from an science/engineering standpoint. The voyage to Mars has been replaced with a giant core-traversing earth elevator that allows a 17 minute transit from England to Australia. It’s so outrageous that we’re probably foolish to even try to analyze the details, but it seems they get every single thing about it wrong.

It may just be me, but this version seemed to be trying to make more of a “statement” in a try-hard fashion. The 1990 original, itself, had a bit of environmentalism and class-struggle politics built into it, but that probably didn’t skew the story for most viewers. In the remake, the philosophical assumptions that underlie the premise, like the math and science, seem wildly off. First of all, this marvel of technology – a machine that can allow near-instant commuter transportation between England and Australia, in the end, has no other meaning except that it is a tool for oppression. Likewise, the destruction of the majority of Earth in a chemical warfare episode is insurmountable by this incredible technology. Despite this, we see hero Colin Farrel traverse the dead zone with nothing more than a black facecloth. In the end, it all seems contrived to create, for story purposes, an artificial scarcity with in the small world of a film universe. That scarcity, unlike the preciousness of oxygen in the original, allows the manufactured resurrection of the WWII bugbears of nationalism and ethnic conflict projected onto the future.

Finally, after having now seen both versions, I elected to at last read the original story. It was published, in April 1966, as a short story in a magazine. Over the years, it has been included in anthologies. Fortunately, for me, it was released as a stand-alone ebook, presumably as a tie-in for the 2012 Total Recall film promotion.

It being a short story, it does not have, nor should it be expected to have, a lot of depth. The magazine submission origins emphasize something of a one-note composition; the story is all build up to the one big twist at the end. That’s OK, of course. The simplicity should only be a disappointment to those who sought out the “book” to find more depth behind the action-focused movies.

Most interesting to me is what the content of the various stories have to say about the contemporary society in which they were created. We Can Remember It For You Wholesale comes from a time when humanity was on the verge of escaping the bonds of Earth. We were about to go to the Moon; unmanned tests of the lunar mission vehicles were taking place and we were less than a year away from the deadly Apollo 1 mission. Space-wise, it was a time of eager optimism. After the Moon, the solar system and perhaps the galaxy was sure to open up to human exploration. But with these things still just over the horizon, the fantastic potential of alien life – around other stars, on Mars, or even on the Moon – had yet to be quelled. Thus, We Can Remember It For You Wholesale is full of alien encounters and extra-terrestrial life.

By 1990, the Space Race had come and gone, but a new era of more modest exploration had begun. NASA was pushing its robotics missions to Mars which, while still a few years out, were also beginning to peek at us over the horizon. Talk about a renewed man space program and manned colonization of Mars was not entirely unheard in politics. While the fantasy of “little green men” on Mars was known to be just that, there remained (and still does, despite a lack of evidence so far from the completed Martian missions) the possibility of finding evidence of past life on Mars, perhaps during and earlier era of a warmer climate. Thus, the 1990 film cleverly combines a plausible view with wild, speculative fantasy about what a Martian colony might look like.

So what does the 2012 version say about us today? The post-apocalyptic setting contrasts with the reach-for-the-stars future of the originals. The political structure of oppression and genocide completely overwhelm any sense of wonder at the future tech (what was there besides fancy cell phones?). Even the extreme emphasis on cartoony action and violence – completely absent from the original story and considerably less prevalent in the original movie – surely makes a statement about how we view ourselves as a society today. Let’s leave that out, though, as a exercise for another time.

*Here I thought 1990 doesn’t seem that long ago. Since Total Recall became a mainstay of the home video rental market, Jon Stewart has come and gone as host of The Daily Show.

**Personally, I see an attempt to work in The Time Machine‘s construction of a bifurcated civilization which then attempt to dominate each other.

***This isn’t a problem with this movie in particular – the comic book world is taking over the film world and bringing with it “superhero” -style combat.

Valhalla, I am Coming


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So far, the closest I have come to feeling the stories of The Saxon Chronicles is the Viking Conquest conversion for Mount & Blade: Warband. I am almost ashamed to say it, but it is my story and I’m sticking to it. Viking Conquest is also, for me, a very addicting game; much like Patrician III and for pretty much the same reasons. The campaign games for both the original and the conversion are open ended worlds where one must build power over time. The necessary money can be made by trading between cities or by taking on quests (which often involves fighting). The grind gets very repetitive but for some reason it is difficult to stop.


I watch in admiration as my warband delivers a beat down to some nasty highwaymen.

Mount & Blade was a long time being developed. After it finally came out, it was a long time before I broke down and bought it. Even after buying it, it took until now for me to even try the Viking Conquest version of the game.

The first beta versions of the game were released in 2004. At the time, the concept had me very excited. The idea was to create a realistic, first-person game of medieval combat; no magic or fabulous creatures – something historically plausible. A particular emphasis was to be placed on mounted combat. I recall, first, my thrill with the whole concept but then I lost track of it as development drew on. I may have even tried an early beta-build and couldn’t quite get the hang of it.


Each town on the map has a detailed layout with residents wandering to and fro.

Eventually, the full release came out and the mixed reviews delayed my decision to buy. I really should have started on this article back then, because I don’t remember what my concerns were – only that I had them. Even at release, some of those free pre-release builds were still around, which made the price point for the release version seem even more expensive. Did the game look all that much better than the version that I had downloaded for free? The original game was released in 2008 and an upgraded version in 2010. One impression I had of that second release is that, once multiplayer was supported, this seemed to de-emphasize the single player experience. Some critics complained that single-player was under-developed. For myself, I was only interested in single-player.

More years slid by and eventually versions of the game got discounted to a point where I couldn’t say no. By then, another expansion had been released, called Mount & Blade: With Fire & Sword (2011) as well as total-conversion mods for the Napoleonic Wars and the Viking Age. I think I bought the base game when it went on sale as a teaser for the DLCs and then a packaged version when that went on sale. Confusingly (for me) my licenses for the games are split between GOG and Steam so that I have to be sure to install from the right source, depending on what version I am after.

So now I had the full 2010 release of Mount & Blade: Warbands copy in hand and it was time to try it. The game has you take on the persona of a wandering warrior in a mythical medieval land. There is a tutorial to teach you the combat system (more on that later) before you begin your campaign. In the campaign portion, you can wander from town-to-town taking on quests, buying high and selling low, or just fighting people and taking their stuff. It is an open-ended environment you can use to build your own story as you collect wealth, followers, and status against a background of politics and warfare between kingdoms. On several fronts, the game didn’t completely thrill me, but these were all minor issues. The killer was the mouse configuration. While the assignment of the mouse buttons to in-game actions is configurable, the defaults for the game override your Windows settings. I played for a few hours (I can see the records in Steam) and then never went back.

Sometime after this experience, I had a chance to pick up the Viking and Napoleonic DLCs cheap. I think, at that time, the Napoleonic one was something I had read some good stuff about and I figured it was worth the price. The horrific trauma of the left-handed mouse problem had either softened with time or was forgotten. Yet, the opportunity to buy didn’t translate into an urge to play. It didn’t help that I would have had to delete my existing installation and reinstall from another source, one of those things that just makes me nervous.

And so it sat until I read that Viking Conquest had a historically-interesting representation of the Battle of Ashdown. I also know how to switch the mouse buttons in the hardware controller, so I was ready!

Viking Conquest moves from a mythical medieval land to the real England, Ireland, Scotland (plus the coastal area around the Low Countries) shortly after the Viking conquest of Northumbria. Beyond that, the premise is pretty much the same as the unmodified Mount & Blade. The campaign opens with you traveling with your mother to get her some medical attention. Before you arrive, you are ambushed at sea by a minor Viking warlord. In the attack, you to lose both your mother and all your worldly possessions. This sets you on a journey to avenge her death while trying to make your fortune in the England of around 870.

As I indicated at the outset, the gameplay is similar to many multi-faceted strategy games based on an open world and user-driven (somewhat) stories. You move from town to town so as to engage the key people you can locate. You need money, which you can obtain through trading or by performing quests. You can also attack other forces on the map and, upon defeating them, take their stuff. Depending on whom those forces were aligned with, it popularity among the factions on the map will shift with your actions. Thus you gradually make friends as well as enemies.

You have plenty of ways of spending that money. You can upgrade your own gear or recruit a body of armed men, which then allow you to engage ever the larger groups of warriors that are also wandering the map. You can also build your own fortune, buying land, wooing young women of nobility, and forming alliances with the powers that be. It is, as I said, reminiscent of other economic/empire building strategy games except that the lowest level interface is a first-person control of your own character.

That first-person system gets points for the attempt but, for me, the result is a little on the clumsy side. I’m not all that familiar with the genre the Mount & Blade developers were trying to improve upon – Elder Scrolls has been cited as an inspiration – so I don’t know how others might have done it the same or better. To me, the control scheme of holding down a mouse button and then moving the mouse (right button to parry or block, left to attack) has hints of the gesture system of Black & White. In other words, it seems to be one of those promising but dead-end concepts of early-aughts UI. While mouse-gesture-based combat would seem to be a way to immerse the player by focusing on movement rather than keyboards and control panels, this type of control is simultaneously imprecise and hell on the wrists. It makes me wonder how they’ve translated the control system to the gaming controllers for their console ports, but I’ll not dig that up right now.

One nice bit of depth to this gaming system is that while its a first-person interface, it does kind of feel like a fully-populated world. As you’re attributes develop, you can lead more and more men, very quickly bringing 100+ fellow soldiers with you into the fight. Unlike some first-person semi-strategic implementations, you’re not required to personally defeat the opposing hoards in hand-to-hand combat. In fact, you could easily win most fights by hanging back and watching your men take the lead. Besides simply your druthers as a player (isn’t the reason you’re playing so you can, you know, play?), there will be some advantages to actually leading your army and being out in front slaughtering enemy. I believe it will help with their morale to see you winning fights and the experience you gain in a fight will increase your leadership skills going forward.


I’ve earned enough street cred that one of the Earls explains how to use group tactics in battle.

In addition to first-person control, you also have battle commands to order your followers. Like the first-person control system, I’ve so far found the command system a bit awkward to use. Also like that first-person control system, I’m not sure how I would do it better. In this case, it is similar to other first-person tactical command interfaces. Specifically, I have ARMA in mind. Function keys pop up submenus which allow to to give formation or movement instructions to your followers. The commands can be given to your force as a whole, or to the unit-types separately (horses can be held back while the spearmen are ordered to charge, for example).

While the interface is simplistic and a tad difficult, it also more closely approximates the level of control a warlord might have had over his troops much better than your typical RTS interface (or even, let’s say, a Field of Glory battle). Simulation-wise, it isn’t completely unrealistic but, in particular, it fails in approximating the earlier stages of a battle. In my gaming experience, battle lines close quickly after only a brief exchange of missiles and the shield infantry don’t stand for very long. However, my experience does not include two veteran shield walls facing each other, so the program may handle that better than I am anticipating.


Historical chrome. I pay a visit to Hadrian’s Wall.

As I started off with, this game has been both the most immersive Viking experience I’ve so far found as well as the most compelling Viking gaming experience. Both of these results surprise me. Not only does one expect first-person games to be among the sloppiest at getting the history right, but given the generated-world substrate, it is surprising that it can still approximate a historical feeling. Of course, a good chunk of that is my own good will. I can be generous when I want to be, willing to project my own storytelling on top of what the game provides me. Generous I must be because there are plenty of shortcomings. Like plenty of other games, there is really no room to let up – if I’m not slaughtering a couple of bands of thieves per week, I’m not going to have enough money to pay my followers. (At least, in this case, I do have to let everyone sleep.) The greater world, also, seems to be hurtling forward way too fast. I have less than a year of in-game time behind me and yet I’ve seen nearly a dozen wars started and stopped throughout England and Scandinavia. It seems like the NPCs feel compelled to keep as busy as I do.

By way of contrast, what has become far less immersive than it was the last time I wrote about it is Vikings. Causing the show’s issues (especially Season 5, Part 2) to stand out is that its narrative has entered the same territory that is cover by the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and, perhaps more significantly, by Bernard Cornwell’s historically-based embellishment of the existing sources. So while it was charming to have a semi-mythological person like Ragnar Lothbrok depart on various flights of fancy, it is considerably less charming when it is a relatively well-documented figure such as Alfred the Great. Pained, I watched Alfred’s (ahistorical) mother Judith kill his older brother, King Æthelred I, who, in the show, never became king because… oh, never mind.

Also the epic/hero treatment of battles is taken to further levels of unreality. We see Saxon England saved, not by Alfred’s leadership, but by the fact he is joined by Ubbe and Björn Ragnarsson to defeat attacks first from King Harald Finehair and then from Danes-by-way-of-Ireland. Note it is the physical presence of this handful of individuals (shieldmaidens Lagertha and Torvi also figure) that alters the winds of war; they have come from Norway as refugees, arriving alone in a single boat. Ironically, there is a scene where Björn announces his intention to dethrone his brother from the rulership of (again, entirely made up) Kattegat. He is reminded that he doesn’t have an army. Nobles supporting a King (or a pretender, for that matter) were of value because of the men and resources they brought with them, not for their skill with the sword in battle.

Then there is this weird religious thing going on. Old Norse, Christianity, Islam, atheism, and even Buddhism all vie for the souls of Floki and the sons of Ragnar. Religion is a critical facet in the transition of England from a backwater of the Roman Empire to the global Ruler of the Waves. It’s something that Cornwell handles so well in his series. This is just goofy.

I’ll keep playing Viking Conquest and finish watch season 5 of Vikings, but I do the latter under protest.

Mars Ain’t the Kind of Place to Raise your Kids


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I completely missed it when The Expanse began airing on SyFy.

The main reason is I don’t watch “live” TV anymore, so a new series showing up on cable just isn’t relevant to me. Secondarily, while SyFy occasionally puts out remarkable original content (Battlestar Galactica anyone?), the channel’s name on a project generally isn’t to be seen as a mark of quality. Eventually, the show did show up on Amazon, but its rather generic name and image (Julie Mao floating in space) did nothing to change my mind.

What did change my mind was a bit of misunderstanding. It was around the time I was reading Back Channel. In a Cold War related search I read a comment to the effect of “The Expanse is based on Twilight Struggle.” The actual quote had more depth and talked about developers being fans of the Twilight Struggle game. Shortly thereafter, someone I respected posted on Facebook a positive comment about The Expanse, so I decided, between those two bits of information, I must watch the show. As it turned out, the Twilight Struggle comments had nothing to do with the TV series; it was some pre-release/Kickstarter press about the boardgame The Expanse. But I didn’t know this at the time I watched my first episode.

The TV series had me from the very opening. While the credits didn’t win their own award, I found them both stunning and mood setting. The second big surprise was an actual approximation of orbital mechanics within the drama. That first episode demonstrated the trauma and expense of a “flip and burn” maneuver. Later, the intentions of distant ships were ascertained by the amount of deaccerlation burn they were undertaking. Elsewhere, trajectories are plotted relative to planetary motion.

I don’t recall another science-fictional depiction* of space ships thrusting backwards. I can’t say that the durations and other numbers for orbit transfers are accurate, but they at least seem plausible. In doing so, I can watch while suspending my disbelief in the more fantastical elements to focus on the story.

Similarly, the depiction of “artificial gravity” as the result from either acceleration or spin is shown early on and the “mag boots” introduced as a way to obviate ubiquitous floating in all of the space scenes. The weapons are plausibly futuristic without being the sci-fi fantasy of phasers and planet-killing super-lasers. They are realizations of the actual technology being developed today; railguns and guided missiles on spacecraft and modified versions of current handguns and rifles for the individual firearms.

I watched all the Amazon Prime had to offer me and only after realized that there was a series of books that was the basis for the television show. I’ve just now begun reading the first novel. Notably, my impression upon starting the book was also about the television series. I am even more thoroughly impressed by the the TV adaptation.

When someone announces plans to turn a great book into a movie (or series), it is always cause for trepidation. A film could absolutely destroy the source material (I’m looking at you, Starship Troopers). Even an honest but less-than-perfect transfer of media can cheapen the whole enterprise. For a project which is absolutely at the top of the game, say a Lord of the Rings or the first few seasons of Game of Thrones, there are compromises made** that may make it difficult for dedicated fans of a book to accept the movie versions.

Adding still more anguish to the psychological fire is what to do, as a consumer, when you’ve neither read the book or seen the movie. In most cases, a film treatment is a truncation of the underlying tale. So do you watch the movie first then augment that experience with the deeper book? Or do you go for the full-force of the literary work and save the film until afterward? Will that ruin what would otherwise be a perfectly fine movie, if left to stand alone***?

In this case, as I explained, I didn’t really have a choice. I hadn’t heard of the books when I watched the TV series, so I had no choice but to do my reading second. As a result, reading the book doesn’t allow me to observe an unfolding mystery; that already took place as  I watched the show. Instead, I particularly notice how the screenwriters translated the story from book to film. The story follows very closely. In fact, like I thought the first time I watched Game of Thrones, it felt nearly perfect. Of course, that’s not true (in either case).

For example, just in the opening episode, the Canterbury‘s Captain, McDowell, is portrayed as an incompetent drunk and Holden, as his Executive Officer, is shown to be really running the ship. Presumably this provides a lead-in to how the survivors of the Cant‘s destruction instantly follow Holden’s leadership. In the book, the Captain is shown as a competent and respectable figure, who launches Holden into his universe-changing adventures with some final orders. I also got very annoyed with the Rocinante‘s hovering over the moon Ganymede using attitude thrusters to fly. This artifact of the show’s realistic depiction of zero-g can’t also be used in light gravity. Not to dwell on such differences, but I don’t want to make the point that the TV show is a perfect retelling of the books’ stories. It’s not.

That said, for the most part the story is faithfully reconstructed on the screen. In fact, the changes I’ve found, so far, tend to be in service to the change in media. Scenes that are portrayed in words, particularly through the inner-thoughts of main characters Holden and Miller, must now be expressed in sound and image. Thus a change like having Holden held as a prisoner on the bridge of the Martian ship Donnager, rather than confined with his shipmates, seems to have been necessary to provide a visual of the battle for the TV viewer. In the book, we rely on Alex’s knowledge of outer-space battles to let us know what is going on, a scene that would have felt rather boring on TV.

It is telling that it takes several seasons of television to get through just the first book in the series. I know I’ve remarked on it before, but TV may be the best medium for the filming of a novel. It is one of the fatal flaws of many novel-to-cinema conversions that it is impossible to condense the experience of reading a good novel (much less a series of novels) into a 2-3 hour film. It takes me weeks, if not months, to get through most books. Although that’s not total reading time, it means I’m, mentally and emotionally, spending that much time with the characters as their story develops. It is difficult to create that in a theater****. In The Expanse, we can see just how long it can take for a book to be illustrated on the small screen.

The show did something that, to my mind, was incompletely realized. I noticed it, but didn’t dwell on it, when I saw it on TV. It became very obvious when reading the books. A key theme throughout the books is that the cultural differences between Belters and Inners are accompanied by significant physical differences. In an early TV episode, a captured OPA terrorist is shown on earth being “tortured,” which means mostly being subjected to the full effects of Earth’s gravity. In this short scene, the Belter is as described in the book – much taller and thinner than an earthman. In the episodes that follow, however, we have Belter actors (Naomi, for example) mixing with earthers and being physically indistinguishable from them.

Perhaps because of these “technical difficulties” or perhaps because TV is inherently a little lighter than the written word, the book seems to have a little more by way of social commentary. Racism, governance and rebellion, and the morality of killing all seem to take on a little more significance for the present time in the book. In fact, while the TV show had me thinking Cold War and Cuban Missile Crisis, the book would not have done that. This, just perhaps, suggests that the show’s authors deliberately de-politicized the story a little so as not to impact their ratings with the current culture wars.

Which brings me to one last thought about the present time and the future. Although the precise dates in The Expanse are vague, fans have worked out that the story takes place about 230 years into the future. Yet, the styles, fashions, and even the bulk of the technology remains decidedly that of today. As unlikely as it is that the culture will remain largely static for more than two centuries forward, this is probably the smartest way to film “hard” science fiction. I contrast to Logan’s Run. The preference of the 60s and 70s was to project the current trends into the future and dream up a futuristic world. Today, the futuristic style of Logan’s Run has a silly, hippie vibe that makes it look the exact opposite of futuristic. Compare with the classical works of the Renaissance where Greek and Roman mythology, the lifetime of Christ, and any other works past/present/and future were painted as late-medieval culture. These images, despite the obvious anachronisms, persist as looking appropriate, even into the present. Fifty years from now, The Expanse will look archaic. At least it won’t also look silly.

As I watched the opening credits, the “realism” relative to current concepts of extraplanetary settlement gave me a hankering for games that dealt, also realistically, with Martian colonization. I haven’t yet been able to scratch that itch, but I’ll link here when I finally do.

*In film or television. I’m specifically remembering a similar scenario in one of the Ender’s Game prequels as well as an aerobraking maneuver in another book (Red Mars, maybe?).

**In Game of Thrones, the number of characters on screen are greatly reduced from what appear in the corresponding book scenes. It’s understandable and often wasn’t noticed, although completely eliminating a battle by having Tyrion knocked unconscious certain was. In Lord of the Rings, I have difficulty getting over The Eye™. Dammit, Jackson, there wasn’t literally “a giant eye;” it was a metaphor.

***In some cases, film conversions seem to put things in without context, specifically catering to fans of the book. I know I have a particularly film in mind when I say this, but as I write I can’t remember what it is. Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy was another film that seemed to show portions of the the story but failed to complete the whole, thus being only entirely comprehensible to prior readers of the book.

****Yet another shortcoming of Fellowship of the Rings, which I only pick on because it is one of the better film versions of a great novel that has been created, follows: By the time Aragorn is revealed to be the heir to the throne of Gondor, the Hobbits have all come to know him as Strider, the Ranger. So have we, the reader. In the film, though, it seems that no sooner do we meet this mysterious stranger than all about him is revealed. Emotionally, this can’t be reproduced on the screen without the passage of time. This is yet another reason why today’s film industry has become so dominated by sequels. Characters become familiar faces, already invested with emotional depth at the start of a serial film.

We’re Here Because We’re Here


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Putting in a third entry for my trifecta of Peter Jackson in so many weeks, I watched They Shall Not Grow Old. This comes with sky-high expectations. As of when I am writing this, it has a 100% rating on Rotten Tomatoes and “universal acclaim” (91/100) on Metacritc. Newspaper reviews of the film, at least what I saw, were all extremely positive. The only “social media” comment I recall was telling people not to wait for the CD as the it was necessary to get the full effect from the big screen.

For anyone who missed the media barrage, the film was created using British Imperial War museum’s footage and oral history interviews combined with near state-of-the-art digital film technology to give the archived material a new depth. This isn’t Ted Turner’s colorization by any means; while hardly flawless, the digital restoration effort is truly impressive. Combining the visual restoration with the addition of studio-created sound really does enhance the emotional impact.

For anyone who saw the publication of French color photographs from 1917 that made the rounds a few years back, you may have anticipated that images take on a lot more “reality” when they are in color. A series of black-and-whites of guys with strange mustaches from a hundred years ago feels like something from another world. The color photos makes one feel a kinship to those young men. Yes, their clothes are a little different, but otherwise they look much like us. The effect goes double for moving pictures.

The style is to forgo the big-picture history lesson in favor a individually focused narrative. The narration is (mostly, all – I don’t recall if I heard any exceptions) WWI veterans, recorded in their own voices. The specifics of battles and maneuvers are deliberately left vague. It gives it a more serious as well as a fresh feel when compared to the standard History Channel fare, mismatching well-worn visuals with stock narration. Instead, it tells the chronological story of the soldier’s life, starting with induction, moving through life in the trenches, an assault on the German lines, and then the armistice and the return to civilian life. It is well done for sure, although I’m not sure it is “universal acclaim” done.

Likewise, it is technically excellent. As I said, the film restoration and colorization is good but the full reconstruction to color and sound is extraordinary. Going overboard in complimenting the production may be the price we as a society pay so that projects like this one actually can get done. I guess I can live with that.


Rather Uninformed than Misinformed



It is a melancholy truth that a suppression of the press could not more completely deprive the nation of it’s benefits, than is done by it’s abandoned prostitution to falsehood. Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. Truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle. The real extent of this state of misinformation is known only to those who are in situations to confront facts within their knowledge with the lies of the day. I really look with commiseration over the great body of my fellow citizens, who, reading newspapers, live & die in the belief that they have known something of what has been passing in the world in their time: whereas the accounts they have read in newspapers are just as true a history of any other period of the world as of the present, except that the real names of the day are affixed to their fables.


I will add that the man who never looks into a newspaper is better informed than he who reads them; inasmuch as he who knows nothing is nearer to truth than he whose mind is filled with falsehoods & errors. He who reads nothing will still learn the great facts, and the details are all false.

From Thomas Jefferson to John Norvell, June 11, 1807

Run, Logan, Run


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Netflix removed Logan’s Run from streaming. I don’t think it was on there very long. I had it on my DVD list, so I was notified when it became available to stream. I hesitated to watch it, though.

This is a movie that I watched, maybe, a couple of years after it came out. I saw it when it was shown on TV and loved it. I eagerly looked forward to the TV series although even the little kid that I was knew that it didn’t turn out all that well. Seeing it on DVD, I wanted to watch it but, then again, I didn’t.  However much I had loved the movie, something told me it actually wasn’t all that great.

I was surprised to see the film attain (at least what appears to be) some impressive accolades. A science fiction awards group (Saturn Award) granted it the title Best Picture for its year and it has ranked highly amongst “science fiction films of the 1970s.” One must remember, though, what faint praise that can be. To be the “best,” it had to outdo films like Westworld sequel Futureworld and David Bowie in The Man Who Fell to Earth. Reviews good and bad aside, when Netflix announced they were pulling it, I realized it was (as Elvis would have said back in 1976) now or never.

The movie is an adaptation of a book written in 1964. The film’s story deviates quite a bit from the written version, not least in terms of the maximum age allowed. In the book, nobody could live past 21. In the film, this was changed to 30. In part, this was probably necessitated by wanting to employ adults in the lead acting roles. Indeed, Michael York, Richard Jordan, and other key characters were well into their 30s when they performed their parts.

The book (which I have not read) explicitly draws a connection to the social unrest at the time of its writing. The introductory page to the book says:

The seeds of the Little War were planted in a restless summer during the mid-1960s, with sit-ins and student demonstrations as youth tested its strength. By the early 1970s over 75 percent of the people living on Earth were under twenty-one years of age. The population continued to climb—and with it the youth percentage.

In the 1980s the figure was 79.7 percent.

In the 1990s, 82.4 percent.

In the year 2000—critical mass.

Note that the book (again, unlike the movie) takes place in 2116, generations beyond the 1967 publishing date of the book, but still much sooner than the 2274 of the film. The movie, for its part, may have taken 30 as a convenient-yet-universal milestone in adulthood (like 21) or it may have been a reference to the the protest-movement catch phrase, “Don’t trust anyone over 30.”

Again, not reading the book, I can only speculate on the messaging within it, but I’ll do so in contrast with the lighter and less-focused film version of the story. In addition to the extrapolation of the youth-revolution of the sixties, there are obvious ties to the Malthusian overpopulation crisis worries that were part of the sixties angst. Erlich’s Population Bomb was still a year out when Logan’s Run was published, but its ideas were clearly being discussed. The world of Logan’s Run came about because of a desire (whether founded or not*) to curb population, implemented by a computer-controlled totalitarianism. In the book version, the computer is failing and thus the under-21 society is headed for disaster unless liberated. The film is different in a number of ways and, I suspect at least some of those changes are updating the mid-1960s counter-cultural ideas to the been-there, done-that 1970s.

The victims of the film version of Logan’s Run‘s dystopia go willingly. It is a combination of a willing suspension of disbelief in the potential for immortality through the “Carrousel” process combined with the hedonistic paradise created for those who are still under thirty (another reason to allow everyone to live past 20).

Actually, having watched it previously only on TV, I was unaware of the sexual content of the original version. Particularly the scene of having the escape route pass through some sort of weird sex-orgy club seems incompatible with the generally-accepted idea of science fiction as entertainment for youth. Those behind the film version of Logan’s Run seemed a bit surprised by the popularity of the movie with teens but geared the TV show spin-off toward that audience.

In any case, the movie makes the case for freedom as the ultimate virtue – an idea that seemed far more natural in the 1970s than in 2019. As the befuddled but youthful masses emerge from the wreckage of the collapsing dome city, we have faith (or had faith, in the 70s at least) that they were destined to survive and thrive in this new world of freedom. I think it also says something about the 70s in that “Sanctuary” (the safe place sought by all runners) is found to be as non-existent as “renewal.” While freedom and individuality are celebrated, so to is “humanism” over “faith.”

As a science fiction visual epic, Logan’s Run comes out a bit weak. The city-scape is built from small models filmed in close-up. That they are models, and cheap-looking ones at that. This means that any “big screen” special effects and long shots are far too fake looking, although the way they got the moving parts to work on them wasn’t half bad. By contrast, the live-action sets, while limited, do look pretty good for their time. Any special effects, explosions and the like, are very poor by today’s standards. Before we again look to “the 70s” to absolve the filmmakers we should remember this is only one year before Star Wars.

The story, too, seems somewhat cobbled together without much thought given to consistency. Logan and his fellow officers are called “Sandmen,” a slang term from the book. In the book, they are officially “Deep Sleep Operatives,” providing enforcement for those who refuse to report to “Sleepshop” at 21. Thus the term “sandmen” makes sense. In the film, they seem to be all-around enforces of social contract with killing runners as only one of their duties. I won’t try to do the math, but despite seeing two runners (besides Logan and Jessica) during the course of the film, it doesn’t seem like its a very frequent problem. Yet we have this significant caste of soldier/cop who are engaged full time fighting the problem. Called Sandmen. Strange.

The replacement of the Sleepshop with Carrousel likewise creates logic holes. In an original version of the film script, anyone who made it all the way to the top in Carrousel was renewed – which makes more sense except it would have been obvious to everyone if nobody ever renewed. As released, the film seems to imply that “renewal” is based around reincarnation. And yet, while it seems that it takes little thought for several of the characters to realize that nobody has ever been reincarnated, nobody except Logan ever makes that logical leap. One scene that continues to baffle me is that Logan makes that connection when he realizes how many runners there have been. Surely, he asks, some must have renewed? So is renewal entirely independent of the Carrousel spectacle? If so, what is the purpose of Carrousel? Is it just a “bread and circuses” act that deceives those who are entirely willing to be deceived?

The film adopts, I assume from the book, the idea that the city and its infrastructure are decaying, absent the stewardship of the great minds that built it in the first place. In the film, however, nobody seems threatened by this decline. While indications that power and food sources have been failing, this apparently hasn’t had any detrimental effect to life under the domes. Instead, the film’s recurring threat to humanity seems to be the limits of Artificial Intelligence. The dream of Sanctuary has been destroyed by an out-of-control robot who assumes that the runners are a new source of food. The city itself is brought down by confusing the master AI, in a trope that seemed popular at the time. Apparently, any all-powerful computer system will collapse when trying to solve a problem that runs up against the limits of logic. Given the ubiquity of these failures in 60s and 70s fiction, I wonder why we, as a society, didn’t anticipate code injection cyber attacks a little better? But that’s neither here nor there.

Along with removing Logan’s Run, the original Poltergeist is also removed. Granted, the two films were released six years apart, which can be a long time in special effects technology – but it isn’t really that long. In Poltergeist, the special effects have held up very well in the intervening years. I’d say its a combination of Spielberg being both talented and ahead of his time as well as his understanding the limits of what he worked with. One scene stood out as I was watching – a portal effect that was shown distorted and out-of-focus. This successfully deflected from the limitations in his special effects crew to produce a realistic effect on film.

After watching it, a younger viewer told me how impressed she was that they could make a film today that so successfully captured the look-and-feel of the 1980s. She was surprised when I told her that Poltergeist IS an 80s film – it was portraying “the present day” for the time that it was made. If that’s not a compliment, I don’t know what is.

*The film does imply a true over-population crisis and an environmental collapse beyond the domes. I can’t speak for the book. In the film, however, it is clear that the outside world is just fine for human habitation. Again, I can’t speak for the book but do note that the book’s Sanctuary is off-planet.

Из России с любовью


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The novel From Russia, with Love came out in 1957, written by Fleming as Diamonds Are Forever was going to publication.

Although it was the fifth James Bond novel, it was made into only the second James Bond film. This meant, first of all, that the events portrayed in the film (assuming “present day” for the 1963 film release) are reasonably close to those in the book (let’s say about eight years). Second, the swapping of Dr. No and From Russia, with Love aside, there is considerably less divergence between the written and film “universes,” making it less tempting to stray from the novel’s material. Third, this is still in the “pre-camp” era of James Bond. I haven’t watched From Russia with Love for a while, but I recall that, along with Dr. No, it ranked among the better James Bond films.

While the divergence between the book and film is small relative to future film projects, it is naturally still there to some extent. All film adaptations must make some changes to fit the media. The Bond series, from the beginning, seemed considerably “lighter” than the books. An obvious difference is that From Russia, with Love (the film) features the criminal organization SPECTRE, Bond’s nemesis from the first film. By contrast, the books pits Bond against SMERSH and the MGB. As I mentioned last time we met them, SMERSH (смерш is a shortened form of Смерть Шпионам, meaning “Death to Spies”), was a real counter-espionage organization during the Second World War which, by that time, had been absorbed into the Ministry of State Security, or MGB*.

For several chapters, this James Bond book doesn’t show James Bond except through photographs in the hands of the Russians. Furthermore, unlike the film Bond, novel-Bond spends his downtime serving on excruciatingly pointless committees rather than traveling the world and engaging in exciting (while less exciting, presumably, than the featured stories) adventures. Combined with the author’s introduction, this focus on Moscow alters the tone of the novel considerably.

One can speculate on why this was done and what it means, and I’m sure better-informed literary analysts than I have done so. Fleming may have added the trappings of reality to the story to lend gravitas to his own work. Or perhaps a connection to popular events. The public, recently exposed to the defections of two of the Cambridge Five, may have been eager for fiction which involved these events in the headlines. He may have been trying to go so far as to comment on the state of the Cold War through his work. Or perhaps this was just Fleming himself transitioning from his World War II -era spy business, with which he was directly familiar, to the Cold War as a new “Great Game.”

Assuming the second of these three, what is Fleming saying about the Cold War? Perhaps he is emphasizing that there was a real and deadly struggle going on between England (alongside America) and the Soviet Union. The true extent of that may not make the headlines, but Fleming is trying to hint at the “reality” of Cold War espionage. He may also be trying to reassert England’s place in a world increasingly defined by the dueling superpowers of the United States and the Soviet Union.

One other side-effect from reading this book for me: On several occasions, the titular female character Tatiana Romanov (of THE Romanovs, it is told), is described as looking very much like a young Greta Garbo. Through most of the period that my lifetime overlapped with Garbo’s, she was merely an old woman who used to be famous for films  – now technically so out of date (silent pictures and early “talkies”) as to not be of interest to a youngster like myself. I’m sure around the time she died (1990) there were photographs on TV and in the papers, although I have no such recollection. If I had seen stills from her films, however, even those wouldn’t have spoken to me much – the women of the 20s-and-30s cinema often wore “stage makeup” and just don’t look to me like “young women” as much as old women pictured when they were younger. To understand the references from this book I, for the first time, searched for pictures of Greta Garbo and, honestly, they took me by surprise. Some eyebrow weirdness aside, her non-film-costume headshots could have been taken today.

Readers of late 1950s, of course, would have had to recall the work (and the early work at that) of a decades-retired actress. One assumes, however, that this wouldn’t be such a stretch. It is also a hallmark of even the lighter fiction of this time that books make references that would seem to be over-the-head of the majority of readers. From Russia, With Love is peppered throughout with untranslated foreign-language phrases and obscure (at least to me) architectural and style references. Did these references connect well with the audience? Also, I have to wonder, is the fact that Garbo look rather modern to me a sign that she might have appeared “exotic” in the 1930s or even the 1950s?

Arguments abound as to whether From Russia, With Love is one of Fleming strongest or weakest Bond novels. It does seem to hit a new stride in terms of the the quality and structure of the Bond series. Interestingly, in 1961, Life magazine published an article on President Kennedy’s reading habits. He listed From Russia, With Love as one of his 10 favorite books and mentioned Fleming and the Bond series generally. The film version was the last movie Kennedy watched before his assassination. Kennedy’s approval of the Bond novels likely gave them credibility among more “serious” readers and almost certainly boosted their popularity.

*In fact, it looks like Fleming’s intelligence information was out of date across the board. By 1957, when the novel was published and even by 1954, when the story is proposed to be taking place, Fleming’s organizations had already been reorganized or renamed. The MGB was merged briefly with the MVD (Ministry of Internal Affairs) and then, in early 1954, functionly transfered to the KGB (Committee for State Security) formed under Ivan Serov, who features briefly in the novel.

Leeefffft FACE!


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The focus of Moment of Battle on the Roman Legion as a linchpin of Western Civilization doesn’t end at the Battle of Yarmouk. While the battlefields of Medieval Europe were ruled by the heavy horse, the preeminence of infantry returned in the late Middle Ages.

The military innovations of Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus were many. Moment of Battle emphasizes his study and use of ancient Roman drill and applying those lessons to the combined pike and shot formations of his time. He wasn’t the first to study and learn from Roman military writings, a hallmark of the Renaissance. Furthermore, modern analysis suggest that he may occasionally be given too much credit personally – that the innovation is due to the Swedish system rather than the brilliance of a single mind. Also, his combined pike, musket, and cannon formations could also be seen as part of a steady innovation following the introduction of hand-held firearms to the battlefield. Be that as it may, the extent of his innovation should not be downplayed. The likes of von Clausewitz, Napoleon, and George Patton have all cited him of one of history’s great military innovators.

In the book, one particular innovation is highlighted. The Swedes found and translated the Roman parade drill. It took a flash of insight, however, to understand that the Roman two-beat commands were necessarily given by drawing out the first as a preparatory phase with the execution falling on the second (e.g. Attennnn – SHUN, Riiiight – FACE). It describes that the work they did to modernize the Roman system has survived, pretty much intact, to the militaries of the present day. From Gustavus Adolphus’ time onward, nations either learned from his example or would be conquered by those who did.

The other reason the Battle of Breitenfeld is included as one of the Twenty Clashes is that the authors credit Gustavus Adolphus as having saved the Reformation as a national movement. The Hapsburgs were on the verge of eliminating all non-Catholic rulers from Germany which then may have been the beginning of the end of their power in Europe (although we also just witnessed the triumph of Elizabeth’s protestant England over Spain, anchoring the Western end of Europe in Protestantism as well).


Some nice research went into the Sweden’s High Noon campaign.

Breitenfeld is part of the 30 Years’ War stock campaign and, as such, I’ve played it before. Since that time, however, a user has made a mini-campaign of three battles featuring Sweden called Sweden’s High Noon. Once again, it provides an opportunity for a compare and contrast between scenario styles.

Sweden’s High Noon is a scenario of the style I’ve talked about before in Field of Glory (in all its various incarnations). I’ll use the developer’s own description to explain:

It uses a special events-based design language characterized by cut-to-the-chase initial setups, accessory counters, artillery & light troops abstraction, distance for activation time trade-off, reduced weapons range (arquebuses standing in for muskets) & movement rate (subjected to command & control and historical battle behaviour in lieu of pure physical capability), and most obvious of all, map overlays (impassible) that serve to channel units into their proper, historical sphere of action. It aims at placing the players within strict historical parameters.

In other words, the game engine is twisted and bent to attempt to reproduce the historical outcome in the most accurate and detailed way possible. Unfortunately, while this may have been an interesting exercise for the scenario designer, it’s not so great on the player. At least, not for me.


Your forces are directed down narrow channels with movement restricted until it is the right time to move.

The first negative result is how that interesting period art that makes the map is wrecked by the impassible terrain that is striped across the map to prevent the wrong forces from engaging the wrong opponent and the wrong time. It also means you can’t look at the “board” and conceive of a strategy, because normal movement might not be available to you. Perhaps if you had a good idea about how the actual battle took place, you might be able to anticipate, as well as follow along, with how the events release your forces into play. And while it is nice to see the detail in recreating the historical forces as they were positioned that day, that benefit of that detail is all but offset by the fact that the designer has had to substitute out the historical unit types because they didn’t perform to his liking. There something missing when you command the forces of Gustavus Adolphus only to not have access to Sweden’s unique combined-arms formations.

I did play through the scenario and I lost but got little out of the experience. I was initially excited to see a user-made scenario for this battle (because I had already played the 30 Years’ War version). I recalled eventually winning that scenario after one or two false starts, so I was hoping for something different – I wanted to look at the battle again in light of my Moment of Battle read but I’d rather not just play a scenario that I’d already found beatable. At this point though, I felt I had no choice but to return to that original.


By contrast, a wide open field and the massive tercio formations at the Catholic center give you the battle you want to see from the stock scenario.

Reloading the original version, I was rewarded with a view of the battlefield looking just how I thought it should look. One of the best things, aesthetically, about Pike and Shot is the animation of gunpowder units. The sound (which I’ve modded) and animated puffs of smoke (pictured just above) really give a visceral appreciation for the period. Most of what I’ve read comparing Pike and Shot with Field of Glory II in graphics term talk about how Field of Glory represents an upgrade. In general, they are right but I still think I favor the look of Pike and Shot and this is one of the reasons.

Now, the first time I played this, when Pike and Shot was new to me, I knew absolutely nothing about the battle. I did know that the allied Saxon forces would be controlled by the computer and realized they would be reluctant allies, but I did not realize the extent of that reluctance. My first attempt as I attempted to shore up a left flank that had no chance of holding.

Moment of Battle suggests that perhaps Gustavus Adolphus knew full well that his allies would be utterly unreliable. That left flank would have provided a juicy target, drawing in the Count of Tilly to attack it with his best Catholic forces. Those attackers were unprepared for how quickly the Swedish forces could turn and move against them. So in a sense, the total failure of the Protestant left flank may have been a key to victory in the overall battle.


The centers engage and I conduct a left flanking maneuver.

Refighting the battle with this theory in mind, I wanted to reproduce this mindset. Unfortunately, it seemed like I did worse than when I knew nothing about the strategy (although that might just be because I don’t remember how badly I lost the first time). My intention was to lend little support to my Saxon allies and save my strength for smashing Tilly’s own left wing, where he had his weaker forces. The problem it, in the calculations of Pike and Shot, the fleeing Saxons count against the Swedish score and break level. By the time I had managed to engage the Catholic center, I was starting to lose good Swedish forces on my left. My army broke before I could gain the advantage.

With this timing in mind, replayed the scenario. In fact, I played twice more, losing all three times. Each time I came a little closer. In my last try, screenshot above, I managed to hang the battle right in the balance, where it sat for several turns in a row. In the end, the numbers still tipped against me.

Again, I think of the inadequacy of the strategy game when it comes to simulating the iconic battles of history. After accounting for captured prisoners and desertions, the result was a lopsided victory in favor of the Swedes. Breitenfeld also introduced Sweden as the military power to reckon with for the foreseeable future as well as saving Protestantism as a national religion and as a major political factor for centuries to come. The totality of the victory, says Moment of Battle, was the inability of the Catholics to anticipate the speed and cohesion of the new Swedish pike and shot formations. Reproducing would mean a) giving the Swedish units transformational capabilities and b) making the German player forget that the units work that way. Neither of these fit into a gaming solution. Units differ from each other by degree. To somehow say that the Catholic formations cannot react to flanking maneuvers or that the Catholic commander must ignore the threat on his flank (Tilly shifted his entire force to the right which left him open to to the Swede’s battle-winning flanking maneuver) would hardly fit into any game. Without crippling the Catholic player, the forces are, in fact, fairly evenly matched and it would be almost impossible to reproduce the historical result.

One quickly sees what would tempt one to build a scenario such that the Breitenfeld battle in Sweden’s High Noon. It’s not clear, though, why one would want to play it.

A Little Melancholia on the Prairie


Hostiles showed up a year or two back, being pushed by Netflix streaming. It certainly looked like it had potential. Lead actors Christian Bale and Wes Studi tend to be impressive in much of what they do and the previews of the wide-open spaces of Western America looked beautiful. The story, on the other hand, raised suspicions. Bale plays a veteran frontier Indian fighter who is tasked to escort an old enemy, and Indian chieftain, from New Mexico to Montana. He objects, saying in his mind the Chief shouldn’t be allowed to live, much less return to his homeland to live free for the rest of his days. However, over his feelings and objections, he must escort Chief Yellow Hawk (Studi), safely across the wilderness.

In finally watching it, it felt like I had seen it before. In particular, Hostiles was similar to The Homesman, a 2014 film directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones with Hilary Swank. As tempting it might be to accuse Hostiles of borrowing, there may be more to it than that. The original script was found by the widow of screenwriter Donald Stewart, who died in 1999. For whatever reason Stewart had not shopped the script around anywhere and so it existence was unknown upon his death. When his wife moved houses, she found the script and contacted Scott Cooper to direct, based on what she liked from some of his earlier works. Cooper rewrote the script but shares the screenwriting credit with Stewart. Obviously Stewart could not have relied on any twenty-teens moves for inspiration, although Cooper may have.

It hardly seems like giving away the ending to tell it, but ultimately Bale’s Captain comes to appreciate and respect Yellow Hawk as a fellow veteran of the wars between their respective cultures. Along the way, we discover that heroes and villains come from all races and cultures and that, while we forgive “us” for what we condemn in “them”, in the end we have to live with ourselves.

The script and story also don’t seem to be inspired by real events. While taking place against the background of America 1892, there do not seem to be any real people or events behind this story. Instead, one assumes, the purpose is to reflect the struggles and animosities of the present day. Maybe, even, it is a warning to us about the evil that men can do, either on their own initiative or because they are “just doing their job.” In the end, though, it seems there is less to it than meets the eye. However, what meets the eye – the vast expanse of the American West and a handful of mounted soldiers traveling through it – it quite impressive indeed.