Waiting on the Edge of Storms

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A month or so ago I attempted to immerse myself in the drama of the Second Baron’s War through using a pair of games. The connection between Lords of the Realm and the historical conflict was more than a bit of a stretch, but Field of Glory gave me some grounding in reality. In going through this exercise, I had forgotten about another game dealing with that particular period.

Unfortunately, it is a game that turned out to be fairly forgettable. The Wikipedia entry for XIII Century is only 3 paragraphs, and one of those is a single sentence. Yet back when the game came out, this is not what I expected.

XIII Century: Death or Glory was obviously intended to compete with Medieval II: Total War, following the latter by less than a year. It sported a very similar “real time tactics” battle interface where historical and historically-themed battles could be fought out on a 3D battlefield. Like Total War, but unlike the typical real time strategy (RTS), the battles do not feature resource farming or the purchasing of new units. The order of battle is set before the fight begins and ends when the available troops from one side or the other rout from the field. Unlike Total War, however, that is all there is. XIII Century features no strategic layer.

XIII Century is a release from Russian producer 1C, which is know for it’s simulators (IL-2 Sturmovik) and strategy games which mix in simulator-style mechanics (see Theater of War 3: Korea or Men of War). With this series, they brought some of that expertise to medieval warfare.

Obviously, with the strategic layer gone, the competitive advantage for XIII Century was to lie in better strategic battles. Graphically, the game is certainly comparable to Total War. The terrain, in particular, seems to be of a higher fidelity in XIII Century. The interface is similar, and should look familiar to those who have played their World War II offerings (ToW).

I can vaguely remember the pre-release articles surrounding XIII Century. I recall thinking that it looked kind of promising. However, the price point and post-release reviews deterred me from picking it up, and I mostly forgot about it. Some years later, when Strategy First was on the rocks, they had a fire sale on some of their older titles and I finally picked it up. I played through the tutorial, but it didn’t really do it for me.

Strategy and Tactics

Much of the magic of Total War is tied in with the integration of the strategic and tactical layers. As strictly a RTS game, it did not (particularly at that time) rise to the top of the genre. While the lack of typical RTS mechanics such as base-building and unit-advancement grounded Total War more in reality, the combat mechanics leaned more toward RTS than medieval combat simulator. The major complaint from players interested in a wargame was with the speed of units and the rapidity of battle. There is also the scale of the Total War armies. I’ve talked about this with respect to Cold War battles, but there is a question of what you are abstracting when fighting a battle in a tactical, and particularly a “real-time tactical,” system. The answers are probably a little different for medieval warfare.

Particularly when a game has a multi-player component, the length of battles must be managed. Both Total War and XIII Century do have multiplayer support and, for this type of game, commercial success of the franchise often seems to hinge on the success of multiplayer. So the actual duration of a game should fall into the 15-30 minute range. The moniker “real time strategy” implies a 1:1 time scale but I’m not sure the actual simulated clock time is an important parameter in anyone’s mind. I think we would all assume that time is accelerated. Real battles did not allow for multiple contests during a lunch-break. So let us assume that the clock is both abstracted and compressed.

Secondly, the size of the armies is limited by a number of factors. First, as impressive 3D rendering of the soldiers and weapons is also a key factor in commercial success, the scope of the game is limited by the ability of the graphics and how many “figures” can be rendered on the screen. Even without that being a factor, there is the issue of management of all those figures, which are often modeled (at least in some form or another) as individual soldiers. This is both in terms of computer horsepower but also in terms of the player. The RTS genre features individual control over each unit (although grouping of units is common, if not necessary).  Players of the hex-and-counter board game simulators will tolerate pushing hundreds of counters per turn but, in terms of an RTS, that just isn’t feasible.  So we assume also that the size of the armies must be either scaled or abstracted.

In that discussion of 1950s tank action, I explained that there are a handful of ways to make a tactical battle (in those case limited to 45 minutes to an hour-or-so of real time) out of a historical clash. You could focus on a particular limited window, in both time and space, and model that tiny piece of the battle. You might also abstract the larger battle, where instead of 50 tanks you get five, and instead of fighting all day you stop after an hour. For medieval fights, I would expect to lean toward the second choice.

I don’t know if I’ve said it before, but one item I’ve always found interesting about Medieval II: Total War (and its predecessor) is that the scale is actually right for some of the smaller actions that took place during the time period. Contrast with Rome: Total War, where the battles of interest tend to involve tens of thousands on each side, often exceeding the 100,000 mark combined. In the Medieval period many of the major battles that we’ve looked at recently have less than 10,000 engaged on a side. It is not impossible to find a battle of interest where sides number on the order of 1,000. That numbers is well within the range that games like Total War and XIII Century can depict directly.

Once I even considered using Medieval: Total War (the original) integrated in some way with a Role Playing Game (RPG). Essentially one could make one or more of the units into “heroes” and then create a battle that tries to model the “fighting off the hordes” that is so typical of the movies, but completely outside of the parameters of computer RPG combat. I didn’t take it very far so, I only have the vaguest of memories of that exercise. It’s probably for the best.

All that said, even in during medieval times, the most interesting battles will tend toward the large side, whether they be historical reenactments or pivotal battles in a hypothetical war. For this period, scenarios covering small portions of the battle (think of how Scourge of War handles Civil War actions) don’t seem feasible, particularly given the tools at hand. Micromanaging the mounted units supporting the right wing of an army has less meaning when the record of what the entire army did is nearly non-existent. Furthermore, such a treatment (I would think) requires a fairly realistic modeling of combat, so that the results from a hour-or-so of fighting on one wing are realistic and meaningful in the larger context. The RTS template, where units engage fast-and-furious and the body count is extremely high is the opposite of what we need.

Likewise, RTS games aren’t designed to be historically accurate as an abstraction of a battle. In fact, most “realistic” treatments of ancient and medieval warfare start with miniatures rules as a basis. That means they are, from the get-go, an abstraction where each figure represents, say, 800 men. From that angle, it doesn’t seem that much of a stretch to say that the units in an RTS are just “stands” that represent some unit of the army actually much larger than the graphics would suggest. Unfortunately, the way RTS games play (again faster, more maneuverable, more deadly) does exactly the wrong thing. In a set of table top rules, behind everything you do has to be the understanding that that “man” is actually 800. When the game focuses on “finishing moves,” you know the developers aren’t thinking about implications of the abstractions. Furthermore, the “scale up” varies wildly with unit type. A unit representing the nobleman and his entourage of heavy horse is probably close to a 1:1 representation in Total War. Infantry are probably close to 10:1. See Pike and Shot where the units have huge (even an order of magnitude) differences between the manpower counts represented in each maneuver unit.

Unfortunately, I don’t know what exactly it takes to get modeling of a larger-sized medieval battle just right, but I know that the scaled-down representations in Total War (or, and I’ll get to it eventually, XIII Century) just don’t feel right to me.

So that brings us back to the integration of the strategic and tactical layers in Total War. Whatever issues you have with historical accuracy, scale, or balance fall to the background. The important of a battle’s outcome is reflected back in the strategic layer and that result drives the larger game forward. So what do you need if that connection is gone?

Devil in the Details

The climb of the Total War franchise featured a number of also-rans along the way. Takeda was released at the same time as Shogun: Total War. Strength and Honour offered an alternative to Rome: Total War. XIII Century followed the release of Medieval II. Without the strategic layer, it emphasized some different features to try to capture some of that market.

Instead of the free-form strategic level, XIII Century used a campaign format, where battles are presented in order according to a historical theme. The base game campaign was focused on Eastern Europe. The expansion added five-battle campaigns for England, France, Germany, Russian, and the Mongols. These campaigns are organized around a feature that can be very annoying for the casual player. All battles are locked until played (and won) in the order presented. In the fantasy genre, it is a way to both challenge the player (rewarding them for learning the game) and guide the story-telling aspect of the campaign. In a historical game, it is considerably less welcome.

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The English Campaign (screenshot after I won at Evesham). Battles remain locked until the fight preceding them is won.

I began playing in the English campaign which starts with the Battle of Evesham. Once I completed it (and I did), I probably would have wanted to move onto the Battle of Lewes, which is the last battle of the campaign. As such, getting there requires playing and winning the three intermediary battles.  Note there is no “story” involved here; Lewes precedes Evesham historically. It is merely a matter of ranking the battles in terms of their difficulty. I did move on to the second battle, at Falkirk. I did not win, which leaves me stuck on that battle until I figure it out, at least if I want to continue on as the English.

XIII Century does try to improve upon the Total War experience at the tactical level. In addition to the graphics, which I mentioned above, it models some of the battle elements differently. Like the terrain graphics, the effect of the terrain seems to be raised in importance. Not that I tried to quantify the difference, but bad terrain seems to be much more important to the battles than in Total War. The games marketing material boasts higher fidelity in the modelling of combat, with each figure shown on the screen graphically being accounted for separately in combat. Whether that improves realism is a study unto itself. The interface is also different, matching that of Theatre of War. Again, I’m not sure whether it is an improvement or not. For someone only used to Total War, it is new functionality to be learned and, until one climbs that learning curve, it is hard to predict what one might prefer.

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Playing as Edward at Evesham, I move forward to take up my position on Green Hill facing the Barons.

As for how the battle is represented, the scenario’s battlefield seems to be done at least as well as in the Field of Glory version. The hills and river look to be all placed correctly and, unlike Field of Glory (and Total War for that matter), bridges seem to be properly represented. In this scenario, the choice for the Abbey itself is to simply ignore it as not relevant to the battle. That’s aesthetically a superior choice to Field of Glory‘s ridges. Also a reasonable choice to prevent the AI from gravitating to an ahistorical house-to-house fight through the buildings surrounding the abbey.

The Battle of Evesham (from 1910)

A drawing of the battle as presented on dailymedieval.blogspot.com. Simon’s trapped army is forced to fight Edward who is arrayed on the high ground beyond the Abbey.

Relative to the Field of Glory scenario, the player is restricted to taking the side of Prince Edward’s royalists. Also, the fight starts just a little bit earlier. The initial instructions suggest I send a portion of my army to block Montfort’s route of retreat across the bridge near the abbey. I do so, and then move my army forward.

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The AI divided his forces allowing me to defeat him in detail. In the distance, you can see my force of knights guarding the far side of the bridge.

The battle itself was fairly easy, and I won despite still trying to get a handle on the interface. Of course, given the structure of the campaigns, one would probably expect the opening battle of the sequence to be pretty winnable. The second battle, a depiction of Falkirk, is not so easy. As of this writing, I still haven’t cracked that nut.

The Falkirk battle does not have the same accuracy as Evesham when it comes to terrain. And of course in both battles, the armies are considerably smaller than in the actual engagement by about an order of magnitude. The terrain in the XIII Century scenario has the Scots defending a series of hills surrounded by swampland such that there is no direct approach for the English attackers. As my armies try to assault the the Scottish position by winding around to their rear, they are hit in the flanks by Scottish reserves – both the schiltrons and the Scottish horse. It’s a considerable departure from the Battle of Falkirk as I recognize it.

Random Thoughts

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A random battle, as Scotland, shows a horse unit retreating through archers. It also demonstrates some additional terrain features forming a village.

Stymied as I am with the campaign, I tried the random battle feature. As is typical, it is a points-based system. Points can buy you either more units or they can be used to upgrade the units, giving you a smaller but higher-quality mix in your army. You can build the armies manually or let the computer auto-select the composition. Maps can be chosen from those shipping with the game or can be auto-generated. I will say that auto-generating maps produces something much more like the Total War maps with, I would say, a less realistic-looking terrain.

In playing with the random battle function, I noticed something that I’ve yet to see in another game. When passing friendly units through the ranks of other friendly units, the stationary units actually move into columns to allow the advancing units to pass through. Once done, they reform into rank and file. Definitely a big plus, in my book.

I also notice that the battles, which presumably present the proverbial “level playing field,” are no pushovers. Given the typical AI, I would expect an easy victory unless I give the computer some kind of advantage. Yet, even with an even match-up in points, I managed to lose to the AI in the game captured in the previous screenshot. I think the AI was better able to take advantage of terrain than I was.

The existence of a decent auto-battle function might be the hook on which this game could hang its hat. However, what keeps it from being a genuinely effective portrayal of even smaller-sized battles (1000-2000 per side) is that it relies too much on RTS-style gameplay. The battles must be fought to the finish (or to a time limit) rather than having an army morale level. In this, I get the sense that XIII Century is even more so than Total War. In Total War, it seems not entirely uncommon for large chunks of the army to flee the field relatively intact. In fact, you can even force your own unit to break in an attempt to reduce losses. This leads to a choice for the victor “Do you want to continue” which, if you’re trying to maximize your strategic position, must always be selected as “Yes” so that you can slaughter as much of the retreating army as possible. Not that this is significantly more accurate, but I think that without the motivation to preserve an army in defeat, XIII Century rarely decides it should live to fight another day.

At the end of this day, I give some credit to XIII Century for the improvements it did make to the Total War formula. However, it is not enough to make up for the loss of “meaning” that a strategic layer would have provided. It is a bit sad to see what is, by most measures, a decent game all but forgotten, but the reasons aren’t that hard to understand.

 

 

 

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Half a Century

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Yesterday morning, an opinion piece ran in the Wall St. Journal entitled The Year Politics Collapsed. It may or may not be visible behind the WSJ paywall.

The essence of the article where it traces the beginnings of the current political environment to a summer half-a-century in the past. He says that this time when the left began to feel a sense of “moral triumphalism.” The author (regular contributor Daniel Henninger) writes, “[t]he opposition was no longer just wrong. It was morally suspect.” He also offers that this is the time when the media began shifting more and more away from its traditional neutrality and toward a left-leaning viewpoint.

It is impossible to understand the relevance of that year without a timeline.

Given it is a major theme of this blog, I have created a graphical timeline just for this year, and combine the events for the article with the music mentioned as well as the other Billboard #1 hit singles for the year.

 

Decoration Day

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Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States. Or perhaps tomorrow is, if you follow the old ways.

Memorial Day was an ad hoc tradition from the days of the Civil War. It was sometimes known as “Decoration Day.” The decorations, in this case, being the ones that would be taken to the graves of fallen soldiers. A few years after the war’s end, consolidation of the holiday occurred. The date of May 30th was supposedly chosen for its lack of significance to any particular battle.

In 1971, the official date was changed, along with other Federal holidays, to make it the last Monday in May, thus creating a 3-day weekend. The holiday had also long become, not a Civil War memorial, but a memorial for all servicemen killed in the line of duty.

The tradition of lamenting those who fail to remember the true spirit of the holiday also goes back at least 100 years. The Grand Army of the Republic, a fraternal organization of Civil War Veterans, was one of the strongest proponents for the holiday and its observation. They used the date to help push their political agenda (pensions, mostly) as well as urging a solemn and dignified celebration (family were urged to keep their war veterans sober). By the turn of the century, they are on record as complaining about the “younger generation” who “forget the purpose of Memorial Day and make it a day for games, races and revelry, instead of a day of memory and tears.” This is one tradition we keep strong.

For myself, I did not engage in races and revelry yesterday. I cannot credit this to a superior character as it was a little too cold out for merry-making.  My celebration of Memorial Day consisted of rewatching the film We Were Soldiers.

I have seen it said online as well as heard it from Vietnam War veterans that We Were Soldiers is the best Vietnam War film yet made. Hal Moore has spoken favorably of Mel Gibson’s portrayal of him. I cannot speak to that. However, young me spent some years on military bases around that time and there are a handful of scenes that, despite being mere actors doing their thing, absolutely capture the mannerisms and bearing the 1960s American officer.

Since the film was released, both General Moore and Sgt. Major Plumley have passed on. May they, and all those who died in America’s wars, rest in peace.

Unwanted Relations

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How to deal with them.

In Crusader Kings 2, outright assassinating a troublesome relative often ends badly. The assassination may fail, leaving you even worse off. Even if it succeeds, all your other relatives (as well as unrelated vassals) get antsy about your tendency towards murder and become that much harder to govern.

What is a lot easier, however, is imprisoning people. A well-placed relative with claims on your own titles often gets a bit uppity when they feel they aren’t getting the respect they deserve. In turn, this tends to make them do things that violate either the law or just good form. While outright killing the person is very difficult and even fighting them in open battle tends to be problematic, one can generally imprison a proven transgressor with little blow-back.

Once in prison, your options open up. If you’re short of money, you can just use a little bit of extortion and release them in suitably short order in exchange for gold. However, if removing that person for good would substantially improve your situation, you’ll not want to see them released. You could just keep them imprisoned indefinitely and wait for nature to take its course or you could hasten things along. Imprisonment can vary in severity from something more like house arrest, to a standard lockup, to keeping the prisoner in such horrible circumstances that an untimely death becomes quite likely. Setting up a conspiracy to actively snuff out a prisoner under your control (while making it look like an accident) is also much easier than going after a free man.

In my Crusader Kings games, I’ve tried most of these options. It usually takes me considerable longer than I expect it to, but I’ve had the occasional success.

Thus a sense of deja vu as I wrap up the second book in the Accursed Kings series, The Strangled Queen. Depending on what version of events you want to accept, one or more of the Crusader Kings options come to life. Officially Queen Marguerite, wife of Louis X, died in prison from a cold as a result of the poor conditions within her prison. She had been sent away after having been accused and convicted of adultery in the the the Tour de Nesle Affair. Of course it is just possible, isn’t it, that someone who wanted Marguerite out of the way could have hastened that death along with a little foul play? The sooner she was gone for good, the better, particularly once there was a replacement queen waiting in the bullpen.

What I’m coming to appreciate about the series is the author’s fascination with seemingly small decisions that have nation-moving consequences. Something done for temporary political advantage, or even just because the mood strikes, might have the consequence of plunging France into one hundred years of war. It both makes an interesting story and an interesting way to foreshadow the narrative.

I also have noticed (and appreciate) the style of the book where the author is telling the 700-year-old story, but speaking to the reader in the present day (well, 1950s in the case, but close enough). It’s a small touch that adds to the readability of this well-written and well-translated series.

Maschinenmensch

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I have long intended to watch Metropolis.

The desire came upon me in the mid-to-late eighties. In 1984, music producer Giorgio Moroder created a new version of the film featuring a music score by popular artists. The film was also re-edited in an attempt to create a “director’s cut.” In addition to reworking the film to better match the version as originally released, the black-and-white footage was toned sepia, and the title panels were replaced with subtitles.

Let’s back up a bit.

The original version of Metropolis, as premiered in 1926, had a running time of two hours and twenty some minutes. It met with a mixed response. From a technical perspective the film was widely praised. As a piece of entertainment, however, it was not held in such high regard. At least not at the time.

In response, the production company hired playwright Channing Pollock to re-edit the film for distribution in America. He cut the film to under two hours, simplifying and refocusing the film. He cut almost 50 minutes from the running time, including completely eliminating the character of Hel, under the assumption that American audiences would read it as “hell.” The story was also simplified through the removal of much the symbolism from the original work. Director Fritz Lang was not pleased.

Later, a German version was created along the same lines as the Pollock edit, also removing the heavy religious overtones and perceived communist propaganda. As the Nazis came to power, a 1936 theatrical release was related. This entailed further edits which reduced the film to about an hour and a half. Lang, in later life, would express dissatisfaction with the film as a whole. Some speculate that it was the Nazi influence, first altering and then trumpeting the work as supportive of National Socialism, which soured him.

This leads us back to 1984 and the Moroder’s desire to back out the Pollock edits and return to the original story. While I do recall the release in 1984, it was actually a few years beyond that when my interest was piqued. Following the attention and success of the 1984 version, another attempt at restoring the original film was embarked upon, this time by Enno Patalas from the Munich Film Archive. Using records from the German censorship of the film, he was able to restore the content from missing inter-titles. It was the praise of this version that made me decide that I should watch it. And yet I never did.

In some ways, that may have been a fortuitous move on my part. On July 1st of 2008, a copy of the original version of the film was discovered in a museum in Argentina. This was essentially a “backup copy,” a negative print, created during the 1960s or 1970s from a “positive” which was used at that time. It was a lower-quality copy (a 16mm, reduced frame version) created, not from a master, but from a distribution copy of the film. The negative was kept by the distributor, in part as a hedge against the volatility of the chemicals used to make 1920s-era film. This reduced negative passed through the hands of private collectors and into the care of the Buenos Aires Museo del Cine.

While this version still wasn’t 100% complete due to damage sustained during the intervening forty-some years, it did contain the bulk of the scenes that had been considered lost to the ages. Using the academic work done to date, missing scenes from the original were substituted with the 16mm copy of those scenes to reconstruct the original film. State-of-the-art digital technology allowed the repair of damage that the 16mm version had suffered. In the several cases where the original film was missing and the copy was damaged beyond reconstruction, additional inter-titles have been inserted describing the missing scenes. The resulting creation runs close to the original length (2 hours and 20 some minutes) and is believed to be very close to the original content and is shown using Gottfried Huppertz’s original musical score.

It was this version that I finally watched.

Well, most of it at any rate. I was finally prodded to watch it, as is so often the case, by Netflix’s decision to remove it from streaming. The experience being nearly two-and-a-half hours, I split the viewing up over multiple nights. Fatigue and some miscalculation with how Netflix posts the dates of removal meant I watched all but the last 30 minutes or so. One of these days I’ll figure out a way to see how it ends.

The experience of watching a movie often depends on your expectations going in. Something you’ve read was awful, but watch anyway only to find it wasn’t so bad, will generally leave you with a pretty positive impression. A better impression, even, than when a top-billed movie fails to live up to the hype, even if objectively the latter is superior to the former. So what does one expect when watching a silent, black-and-white movie from 1926?

Obviously we’re not going to be expecting Michael Bay. The film has to be appreciated within the context of what it is – a piece of technology that’s pushing 100 years of age. On the other hand, through the years I’ve read about what a monumental achievement this film is that I couldn’t help going in with some pretty big expectations.

First of all, as the critics said at the time, the technical aspects of the film are outstanding. This was possibly the first full-length science fiction film and, as such, sets a foundation for all sci-fi to come. Now the “special effects,” the 1920s equivalent of CGI, are a little goofy – apparently hand-drawn flashes and stars. But the effects of creating a cityscape with models and paintings is genuinely impressive. Near the end (my end, not the real end) I was actually a little bit surprised by a scene where parts of an underground city are destroyed by flood waters. I was surprised because in the flood scene, the models look like models. This got me because they had looked so much more realistic in earlier scenes where the same models were used as background for long shots. There are also some very innovative techniques. For example, a chase scene through catacombs is filmed using flashlights to convey the impression of a wild, winding flight – when all that is actually on the screen is the single character in a circular spotlight.

So technique aside, what about the film as story? I feel like I’m swimming against the modern tide, but I don’t think the original critiques were so far off. Present day appreciation for the film as narrative often brings up the importance of the “message.” Roger Ebert wrote that Metropolis was “audacious in its vision and so angry in its message.” Others wrote of  it as a call for “social change.” I wonder to what extent fans overlook the flaws because they agree with that “message.”

The world premier, on January 10th 1927, followed less than a year after the 1926 British General Strike, where 1.7 million workers walked out in support of coal miners, some 1.2 million of them, who were locked out over wage and hour disputes. Fallout from this strike was a significant factor in the Labour Party winning the plurality of seats in the 1929 elections. In 1927, union power was becoming government power.

In Germany itself, this was the height of the Weimar Republic, with its social and cultural upheaval as well as the financial pressures imposed by First World War reparations. The Communist Party of Germany was, at the time, the largest Communist party outside of the Soviet Union and could draw approximately 10% of the vote. Combine that with other “workers’ parties,” including the Nazi’s, and the strength of “labor” in politics is also evident within Germany. Earlier in the decade, Germany had also seen general strikes, some of which took the form of armed putsches, by militias and war veterans (Freikorps and the Kapp Putsch), by communists (e.g the Ruhr Red Army), and by Hitler’s National Socialist Workers Party (the Beer Hall Putsch). Hold this thought, I’ll come back to it later.

So the context of the time is one of a growing strength of unions and their influence on government. The “dystopia,” then, of the film is one where one hundred years on, workers have been unable to achieve any progress along the then-current trajectory. The film opens showing deplorable working conditions where the laborers are worked to exhaustion in a 10-hour shift, with that exhaustion leading to a deadly industrial accident. It is the witnessing of this accident that starts the protagonist on his journey through the film’s story.

The suffering of the laborers is presented in bombastic fashion that, I take it from the reviews, seemed as such even at the time. Work is shown as a choreographed dance of tragedy. Even the exit of the nearly-dead workers at the conclusion of their shift (10 hours!) shows them trudging in step, an image that the director requires that we dwell upon for many long minutes, to make sure we get the point. As the film progresses, heavy imagery is piled upon metaphor. The city boasts a modern Tower of Babel. As a automatronic flasher is created, Weimar Germany is equated to Babylon. Etc. The hero becomes, not just a “woke” son of privilege with the power to intervene on behalf of the workers, but an actual messianic figure, who will lead the people to the promised land.

This is the bold vision that, I suppose, if you agree with the “workers of the world” narrative, would strike you as a positive. If, from your own world view, it all seems too much, the heavy-handedness detracts (perhaps fatally) from the positive qualities the film does exhibit.

Just to pick on a detail. As the director imagines the future, the wealthy elite are supported by a massive, underground, industrial operation on a scale that dwarfs anything of the “present day.” It is an extension, one supposes, of the German conglomerates of the time and of the industrialization that was taking place in Germany and the world. Point being, the technology portrayed (excepting, of course, the maschinenmensch that graces nearly every movie still) is well within the understanding of those making the film. That is, this massive industrial operation is futuristic only in size and scale, not in technology.

In a scene midway through the film, the protagonist takes over the operation of some equipment from a lower-class worker, having taken pity on his exhausted state. Said operation consists of moving a massive dial, physically moving it by expending tremendous effort, so that the hands of the dial match light-bulb patterns on the dial’s circumference.

Now think this through. The hard part of this process, whatever it is supposed to be, is the control system. The intelligence (and this would have been somewhat futuristic at the time) to determine which light bulb illuminates requires something beyond what 1920s technology was capable. Moving geared levers, however, is something that had been done for hundreds of years. In the film’s earlier scenes we see there is plenty of available power within the industrial operation. There is pressurized steam, giant pistons, and rotating machinery. Once the “system” knows what position the dials are supposed to be in, rotating them would be the easy part, the “low tech” part, if you will. Bleed off a little steam and add in a mechanism to know where the dial stops, and the whole thing could be automated. Yet in our dystopian future, it is for this brute force, physical labor that the workers are employed. They must physically exhaust themselves, unthinkingly following instructions given to them by the machines – by the automated control system that does all their reasoning.

It makes no sense. It makes no sense today when control systems are far more advanced that what was portrayed in the move and human-mimicking robots are becoming a reality. But it also couldn’t have made sense at the time. It’s an “artistic license” to use an absurd situation to create a multitude of suffering workers that simply don’t add up to a coherent portrayal of reality.

Having now missed the end of the movie, I have to not only guess what it all means – the moral of the story – but I have to get that “whole story” from reading about the ending. I haven’t actually seen it. That said, the key theme that the ending expresses was already being used to smack me over the head midway through the movie. “The Mediator Between the Head and the Hands Must Be the Heart.” When focusing on this message, particularly when considering it in the context of the the time, a slightly different take emerges than the labor-empowerment message that dominates most of the film.

Make no mistake – the film is pro-worker-revolution without a doubt. Of all the characters in the movie only the workers (and charity worker, Maria) are portrayed with any sympathy. The “industrialists” are, notwithstanding any life lessons they may be learning, cold and a bit greedy.

But perhaps the message is not meant for society, conveying to them the necessity of being pro-worker. Perhaps the message is to the workers (and those who would support them politically) about the dangers of following the wrong prophet.

Is the movie saying that the “Head,” the captains of industry, as difficult as they may be to love, are still an integral part of it all? Is the message that violence and destruction benefits nobody and it is only through working together that “labor” and “the owners” can move society forward for the betterment of all? Seen in this way, the leaden portrayals of the suffering workers may serve less to illustrate their supposed plight than to connect with the segment of the audience to which the message is ultimately aimed. While one can argue that we need the owners themselves to “have a heart,” that particular message finds no shortage of expression either in 1926 or in 2018.

Another little piece I’ll mention, but I’m not sure of. In several of the more-modern interpretations of the film, it talks about the dehumanizing effects of the “machine.” We see that, particularly in the beginning, as the workers are pretty much enslaved to the giant equipment. However, when the workers rise up and destroy the “heart machine,” it results not in their liberation but rather their destruction. Is this again an example of creating a connection to the audience (those who see industrialization and automation as evil) to only then deliver them the message (destroying the productivity-enhancing machinery will ultimately harm the workers themselves)?

Again, subtleties are lost in both the original presentation and then the attempts to refocus, first by the studios and then by the Nazis, that presentation over the years. I also have to wonder about an interpretation that is a polar opposite of what nearly every modern critic has to say about the film.

Whatever the case, I just don’t see this one as living up to the hype, although the blame for that should probably fall more on the hype than on the production. The industry may owe a debt to this pioneering film, but that doesn’t make it a great 80s film or even, necessarily, bubble it to the top of a “must see” list of the movie buff. When no-one can experience all of histories important film works, two-and-a-half hours may be a bit of an investment just to be able to say, “been there, done that.”

High King

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Shortly after I was fiddling with Medieval II: Total War in relation to the William Wallace campaign, I loaded up a generic campaign just to give it a go. There are a couple of mods that I’ve installed and played with over the years. My main interest has been towards those which are intended to improve realism and historicity.

In this case, I loaded up the mod called Chivalry II: The Sicilian Vespers. The “Grand” campaign of that package begins in 1311, which is right about where I was leaving off with the death of Wallace. Now, my point wasn’t specifically to pick up where that last game left off in any way – I just wanted to refresh my memory about what the Chivalry II mod was all about. But because I was in the mindset, and because it did seem to be the “featured” campaign of this package, I decided to play as Scotland in that campaign.

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Scotland and England struggle for dominance over Ireland.

First things first. The campaign is clearly not set up to represent the situation for Scotland in 1311. Scotland and England start the campaign at peace, even though we’re smack dab in the middle of the First Scottish War of Independence. Wallace remains alive and at the head of an army, even though he should have been dead three years. On top of this it is, of course, a Medieval II: Total War campaign, so the emphasis is on building up cities to unlock a tech tree, not the politics and personalities of the time.

As the campaign opened up, I had little to do. I thought I’d be trying to fend off the English, but they seemed uninterested in anything but remaining at peace with Scotland. I waited a few turns, watching the English do nothing much, and then began looking for something else worth doing. I realized that Ireland was a “barbarian” civilization, meaning (in game terms) ripe for the plucking. So I sent off an army to the Emerald Isle to make them part of my future Great Gaelic empire. Little did I know…

My own ignorance of the period meant that I’d never heard of the Bruces’ Invasion of Ireland in 1315. In my defense, it is not something that gets a lot of attention. To get there, let us start back a century-and-a-half before to develop some context.

The title “Lord of Ireland” (Dominus Hiberniae) was created in 1177 for Prince John (yes, the Robin Hood guy) by King Henry II. Henry became involved in Irish affairs as a reaction to old rivalries.

From 1166, Diarmaid Mac Murchadha, king of Leinster, was fighting to regain the title to the throne he inherited after his brother’s death. Toirdhealbhach Ua Conchobhair, king of Connacht and High King of Ireland feared the power of Leinster and so encouraged his ally, king Tighearnán Mór Ua Ruairc of Bréifne to displace Mac Murchadha. In turn, Mac Murchadha sought English assistance in regaining his throne and struck an arrangement with Richard de Clare, 2nd Earl of Pembroke, in which de Clare would would marry Mac Murchadha’s daughter Aoife in exchange for military assistance. Said marriage put de Clare in line for succession to a recaptured Leinster.

De Clare’s invasion of Ireland met with success and when Mac Murchadha died in May of 1171, de Clare claimed the throne of Leinster. This put him at odds with Mac Merchadha’s son as well as Irish succession law, sparking further Irish-Norman warfare. At this point, Henry II sent an army to Ireland. De Clare had been a supporter of King Stephen in opposition to Henry’s mother’s claim to the English throne and so Henry still viewed him with mistrust, despite decades of water under the bridge. Henry was particularly concerned with de Clare consolidating power in Ireland.  The English king took control of the lands de Clare had seized, Dublin, Wexford and Waterford, in exchange for concessions in France. In 1175, an agreement was signed formally granting Ruaidrí Ua Conchobair (son of Toirdhealbhach) dominion over Ireland except for Leinster, Dublin, and Waterford, which would be controlled by England, in exchange for tribute and fealty from the High King of Ireland to the throne of England.

It was this piece – Leinster, Dublin, and Waterford – that was transferred to Prince John in 1177. The Gaelic lords under English control were never entirely happy about the arrangement and, despite fairly successful administration from the standpoint of the English overlords, conflict remained a possibility.

In 1315, the Bruces came up with what they felt would be a win-win. The Scots would come to the rescue of their Irish brethren and help them to dislodge the English from the Emerald Island. The English, in turn, would have to divert their attention away from Scotland and over to Ireland, thus giving Scotland an edge in their fight with the English. Finally, Edward Bruce, the brother of King Robert, was proposed to be the new High King of Ireland.

In the end, it turned out not so well for Edward, but passably for Robert. The invasion of Ireland corresponded with the Great Famine of 1315-1317, causing poverty, starvation, and disease to spread throughout Europe. The farms of Ireland were unable to support the local population, much less an army from across the sea. So despite initial military success in 1315, the army was worn down by disease and attrition in the following years. In 1318, Edward’s army was defeated and Edward himself killed at the Battle of Faughart. Strategically, the cause of Scotland seems to have been served. Pressure was taken off of Scotland and redirected toward Ireland for the duration of the campaign, and Ireland ceased to be a base for military operations against the Scots.

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The old Field of Glory interface has a description of the scenario as you are selecting it. The Unity version does not.

A series of user-made scenarios covers the most significant battles from the Bruce campaign for Scotland in Field of Glory. The package starts at the end of May with the first battle, immediately upon landing at Larne, which took place just north of Belfast. Next is an ambush scenario, taking place between Newry and Dundalk, as the Bruce armies advanced southward from the vicinity of Belfast. Historically, this ambush failed and the Scottish armies continued on. In early September, a battle at Connor resulted in another Scottish victory and the capture of Richard de Burgh, 2nd Earl of Ulster. In early November, Bruce again met an Irish army in battle, this time at Kells, and won another victory. The Scottish army then sacked and burned Kells, as well as an number of other towns, as they marched through the Irish countryside.

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The setup for the Battle of Connor. The Bruce Campaign maps feature difficult terrain.

Such destruction did not endear them to the Irish people, making them less inclined to see the Scots as liberators from the English. While Scotland was military successful in open battle and captured stronghold after stronghold (razing those belonging to those that did not support Bruce for High King), they were unable to hold the territory after they moved on.

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All of the battles were fairly well balanced, but the Battle of Connor was the closest. Here I’m one broken unit away from a total rout for myself. However, I was about rally enough forces to turn the tide on the Anglo-Irish and pull out the win.

The next battle modeled took place in late January of 1316. It was again a Scottish victory and was again followed by plundering of the local area. The scant accounts of this battle that exist suggest this may have been a close affair. It is suggested that the Irish may have had a significant numbers advantage in this case, but internal divisions allowed Bruce the victory, albeit with heavy losses. In game, the scenario models this as an advantage of 1,200 men (in armies of in the 8,000 ballpark). But in game, this was not the toughest scenario. The Battle of Connor (see the previous screenshot) was the only one that came right down to the wire for me. I did not monitor losses closely. In the context of the records of the time, losses likely meant the deaths of important nobles, as opposed to foot-soldiers killed in battle.

Edward’s final battle, at Faughart, wraps up the scenarios in this series. In this battle Edward met a numerically superior force and was defeated by it, losing his own life and bringing to an end the dream of a Bruce as High King of Ireland. Ultimately Robert’s true views on Irish independence became clear when, after King Edward II’s death, he offered to Queen Isabella that, in exchange for acknowledging Scottish independence, Scotland would never aid Ireland in any rebellion against English rule.

Focusing on the scenarios themselves, this is a nice group depicting a the major fights within a campaign. It provides a context and continuity that can be hard to come by in Field of Glory, consisting as it does of only stand-alone scenarios. While working my way through them all, I discovered another problem with Field of Glory (Unity). If you go back to the original FoG screenshot (the very brown one, and the first of the three above), you see that when browsing the scenarios, there is a description by the scenario author that is displayed. When these scenarios are converted to FoG(U), alas, the scenario description does not convert. In a set like this, this leaves the player blind as to important information like the date of the battle (anything more specific than the year) and setup information. Of course you could always load the battle selection screen in the old version to decide which one to play and then load it again in the newer version to actually play it. But that provides a tough reminder of how the latest version is broken.

In this case, I did not play the two versions of the software side-by-side. I am assuming that FoG(U) is going to give me the better game. It is suitably aggressive in play, and I think that such aggressiveness is important for an AI player, so as to make the best of these scenarios.

I did a little reading of the forums surrounding the playing of these games and noticed some commentary about the different Field of Glory versions. From the looks of the forum, it looks like FoG(U) has hit a dead end. Experienced players are suggesting that new users interested in Field of Glory I purchase the new version only as a means to get access to the older Field of Glory – skip over the Unity upgrade entirely. With much of this, it may be as much related to multiplayer use of the software as anything else. While I understand that bringing Field of Glory II into the middle ages may be a better future than trying to fix FoG(U), it is a shame if this software path were to end in failure.

You Will Learn by the Numbers. I Will Teach You.

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As I am finishing the first book in the Accursed Kings (Les Rois maudits), I came across a particularly interesting paragraph or two.

The setup is that Philip IV has just lost his advisor, the Keeper of the Seals. In the fictional account we, the reader, know that there is foul play involved. Historically, that is not evident and even within the story the assassins seem to have got away scot-free*. Upon said minister’s untimely death, the King moves quickly to seize his important papers so he can get abreast of any critical issues facing the kingdom. While reading, the King begins to see himself as others see him and, in doing so, has difficulty recognizing himself. The remarks from the letters he reads in the fictionalized scene are actually real descriptions of him that have survived to this day.

Now hold that thought.

Recently, there has been a transgender activist in the news. She(?) has been traveling around the country, visiting various legislative buildings, and holding up a sign that says ANAL SEX. Someone I know actually went up and asked her why she was doing this. She explained that she is advocating for First Amendment rights. This set off some private discussions as well as a news article** or two, all wondering about the appropriateness and effectiveness of this particular demonstration.

It is a common for recent expressions of “activism” to involve vulgarity, similar to the well-publicized wearing of “pussy hats.” Left-wing demonstrators carry signs, sometimes related to the cause and sometimes just because, with explicit language on them. “Slut” and “vagina” seem to be particular favorites. I’m sure I’ve seen others but, in general, creativity does not seem to be valued. Having seen it more than a few times, I think I have an idea of what they are trying to accomplish. There is a feeling among a segment of the left that their political opponents will lose their shit if they see certain words or phrases in writing, in public. What the endgame is beyond that, I’m not sure. I guess conservatives, driven stark raving mad by the word “slut,” will no longer be able to effectively advocate for the conservative agenda.

While this view of conservatives is apparently common, I’m not sure I can think of a single conservatives who falls into this category. An example of the yawning gap between how one sees one’s self and how others see us, despite the absolute belief that the image that we hold is the correct one.

Of course, this led me to reminisce about my own youth. When I was but a teenager, I had a girlfriend who was convinced that I was both religious and a prude. She delighted in playing me some of her favorite recordings; Ozzy and Iron Maiden, for its devil imagery, Rocky Horror Picture Show, for its explicit expressions of sexuality, and various other songs/bands which contained expletives in one form or another. I never tried very hard to dissuade her of her conception of me, but I also never quite understood from whence it came. After all, like Philip the Fair, I was familiar only with the me I grew up with.

I had a, I suppose, typical teenage boy’s fascination with the occult, despite never really getting into bands like Iron Maiden (I was a Pink Floyd guy). While I may not terribly prone to public ejaculations of using profanity, I was generally game taking in an explicitly-sexual reference. I also considered myself something of a connoisseur of the swear word.

My father, a military man, had a colorful vocabulary when provoked and, at some point in middle school, I had taken to trying out his (perhaps somewhat dated) arsenal on my fellow students. While the reception was less positive than I expected, I continued to appreciate the ability to express oneself with color all through high school. I also liked stumbling across a good round of swearing hidden in popular media; the movie Patton or the Back in Black album come to mind as particular examples.

The pious and prudish boyfriend of my young girlfriend simply bore little resemblance to my own self-perception. So it goes.

Oddly enough, that titillation that comes with finding a naughty word tucked into the every day didn’t end with my teenage years. Well into my thirties I recall the joy of finding the hidden f-bomb at the beginning of a Green Day song and my adult siblings not particularly sharing my amusement. It is a little strange and not entirely sensible. Let us just say that I am one to appreciate a good bout of cursing, particularly when done with style.

When I use a phrase like cursing with style, the first thing to come to mind might be R Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket. His portrayal of a drill instructor defines for many what boot must be like, at least for those who haven’t had the pleasure of being treated to actual drill instruction. The character’s ability to weaponize profanity is frequently quoted and will surely be for generations to come. To paraphrase Sergeant Harman (and mix up a few movies to boot); Marine Drill Instructors die. That’s what they’re there for. But the tapestry of obscenity that they weave will live forever.

Sadly, Gunnery Sergeant Ermey left this earth on April 15th of this year.

To honor his passing, I re-watched Full Metal Jacket last night. I occasionally watch clips of his performance on YouTube and even have some of his insults mixed in with my digital music, but it has been a few years since I watched the whole film. His is an outstanding performance.

He almost didn’t play the role.

I’ve read or heard the story a number of times and in a number of different ways. Ermey was brought on board with the Full Metal Jacket production as an advisor and had to convince a reluctant Stanley Kubrick to give him the part. Some of the versions of these stories conflicted with others, so I found an interview he did shortly after the film was released so as to get the details of the story straight from the horses mouth, so to say.

He was not, as I had always assumed, a newcomer to filmmaking at that time. After his release from the Marines, he went to Manila to get a college education. While trying to make ends meet, he did some acting in various Filipino television commercials. That work eventually led to several acting roles in Filipino productions and a modicum of local fame. When Ermey heard about Francis Ford Coppola and the Apocalypse Now production coming to the Philippines, he was eager to get involved. He got some of his connections in Filipino show business to get him onto the Apocalypse Now set as an extra. Apparently, because he looked the part, that got him into an impromptu speaking role as a helicopter pilot in the signature Ride of the Valkyries scene of the movie, giving Ermey his first Hollywood acting role.

When Kubrick started filming Full Metal Jacket, Ermey had already played a drill instructor, portraying Sgt. Loyce in the Hong Kong production of The Boys of Company C. That movie was also filmed in the Philippines immediately after Ermey finished working on Apocalypse Now and is similar in structure (boot camp then deployment) to Full Metal Jacket.

Some of the story that I’ve heard attached to Full Metal Jacket actually comes from Ermey’s experience on The Boys of Company C. Specifically, there was a story about his being hired as an advisor to coach the actor playing the drill instructor and that his demonstrations were so impressive that he was moved into the actual on-screen role. This experience was from the earlier movie and its director Sidney J. Furie, not Kubrick.

As with The Boys of Company C, Ermey was hired by Kubrick as a technical advisor on Full Metal Jacket. Ermey was familiar with the source material, however, and greatly desired the on-screen role of the drill instructor (Sgt. Gerheim in the novel). Part of Kubrick’s objection to Ermey in a lead role was that he didn’t think he could be mean enough, based on having seen his performance in The Boys of Company C. Anyway, he was told, the part had already been filled and a contract signed.

Several stories that aren’t true are nonetheless somewhat based in reality. One story goes that all of Hartman’s scenes are improvised, something Kubrick would never have done. Another says that he made his own audition tape, involving performing the lines while having things thrown at him, and that tape sold Kubrick. Also not true.

What really happened, as told by Ermey, was that the staging of the Paris Island scenes came at the end of filming, after the Vietnam scenes were completed. At that point, well into the project, a team (including Ermey) had to select a new group of extras to portray the background characters in the barracks. Rather than interview recruits one-by-one, Ermey decided to dress as a drill instructor and basically act out the opening scene from the movie. The reactions of the recruits were then filmed, allowing the best to be selected and hired. After the first set of “interviews,” Kubrick laughed at Ermey saying that he had told him he couldn’t audition, but he saw he found a way anyway. He had Ermey’s version of the scene sent to be transcribed so as to replace the scripts dialog with Ermey’s version. He also asked Ermey to record the other major Hartman scenes, ad-libbing the dialog, so that the script could be revised there, too. After seeing Ermey as Hartman in all those scenes, Kubrick finally gave him the part.

When I read his obituary, one phrase that stood out a description of him as “kind and gentle soul.” Such words seem quite out-of-place for those who only know him as Sgt. Hartman and for his TV personality. But watching him in that old interview, the description clearly matches his demeanor. I guess that says something about the duality of man.

Full Metal Jacket is divided into two parts. The first half shows the main character, Private Joker (Mathew Modine), and his platoon attempting to survive boot camp under the instruction of Sergeant Hartman. The second half takes place some indeterminate time later in Vietnam. Joker is now a seasoned Marine and has been promoted to Sergeant himself. We find him acting as a combat correspondent for Stars and Stripes. The movie portrays a few days around the Tet Offensive and the reoccupation of Hue City (events distributed over about a month of real time).

For me, the first part is all Hartman/Ermey and is enjoyable to watch in that light alone. The second part is something of a mixed bag. I would have to characterize Full Metal Jacket as an anti-war film, although not  your typical anti-war film. Yes it focuses on the dehumanization necessary to turn a young man into a soldier, a killer. It also portrays the American soldiers in a less than flattering light. At the same time, it also includes the slaughter of civilians by the communists, leaving the impression that for all our flaws, we Americans remain the good-guys. The soldiers themselves are generally patriotic and ready to do their duty, including being eager to kill the enemy.

I suppose, more than being anti-war, it may being trying to suggest something about the duality of man. The Jungian thing.

From a technical standpoint, a few things really bother me. The trigger discipline is for shit. Every soldier runs around with their fingers wrapped around their rifle’s trigger. It’s a good thing the guns are obviously replicas. Now, I’ve actually seen a number of Vietnam era photos with triggers inappropriately covered, but I can’t imagine anything like what we see in the film could have happened without a lot more friendly-fire deaths. Especially since (problem 2), the soldiers are constantly aiming their rifles at the backs or sides of their squad-mates. That bothers me even more. I guess I’ve been well-conditioned. The mere sight of a gun-barrel sweeping across living person gives me the heebie jeebies, and that horror occurs throughout every combat scene in the second half of the movie as well as some of the meandering around scenes. Sgt. Ermey, where are you now?

The third thing that bothered me, although it was not a all atypical for war movies pre-Saving Private Ryan, is the use of special effects for gunfire without regard to how the actual gunfire would look. Bullet strikes on flesh occur with an explosion of red paint. There are also several scenes where the platoon peppers a building with fire directed at an unidentified target. Obviously, filming did not actually involved shooting up a building. Instead, pyrotechnics would have been placed on the target to simulate it being hit. And quite a pyrotechnic show it is. The 5.56 rounds from the M-16s are apt to explode upon hitting wood, creating a fiery spectacle. Afterwards, those same rounds have left grapefruit-sized holes in the outer wall of the building. Kubrick was known for his perfectionism, and things like this just really get to me. Of course, I didn’t really think about it so much in previous viewings. Kubrick was aspiring to maximal realism but, as I said above, the bar for war movies in the 1980s was lower than it is today.

Like me, critics generally found the second part less satisfying than the first part. Their criticisms were different that those above, of course, and I can really agree with many of those complaints. A common theme was a lack of cohesion in the second half of the film. Some were concerned about the lack of a clear moral message. One must remember that Full Metal Jacket was released in a wave of late-eighties Vietnam-themed films. It was said, at the time, the enough distance had finally intervened post-war that it was a finally a suitable subject for film-making. Pronouncement like these come with expectations.

I think the key problem is trying to view the two parts of the film separately. A motif in the second half fits together with something from boot camp. Because, as we hear, being trained to be a Marine does not make you a combat veteran. You are not changed – are not born again – until you are “in the shit.” The second half of the movie is necessary to complete Joker’s training; to complete his transformation. To finally find his war face. Similarly, Animal Mother essentially is the same person as Private Pyle. Just in Animal Mother’s reality, he didn’t snap before he went to Vietnam.  And so on.

Attempting scholarly analysis of Kubrick’s films spending only a few hours on a Saturday afternoon is a fool’s game. I should really read the book.

*The term scot-free has nothing to do with Scotsmen, notwithstanding jokes to the contrary. The term is one that rattled around between Old French and some Germanic languages. In England, a sceat (pronounced “shat”) was a Anglo-Saxon silver coin or, as sceatt a term for money. As variations of the term, by the Normans, began to be associated with land, a “scot” could be used to mean a tax or a fee. Thus, getting of “scot-free” means that you’ve successfully avoided paying taxes.

**It occurred to me that, essentially, asking my readers to google “ANAL SEX” would be a tad cruel. Here is a link to an article.

Ce n’est pas le Nom du Groupe

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Coming off of Netflix tonight is the Irish movie Sing Street. It’s another film that had been on my list for some time, but the threat of taking it off finally made me watch it.

Before watching it, I a saw a piece of someone’s review of the movie, where they called it a “feel-good film.” That’s a phrase that’s hard to get out of your head once it gets in there.

Indeed, Sing Street is a feel-good film. It is a good feel-good film; as good as some and better than most. I also, while watching it, couldn’t help comparing it with We Are The Best, which I watched a couple of years ago. They both have the same subject; teens in (for me) a foreign country who decide, under difficult circumstances, to form a band. They both take place at the same time (1982 for We Are the Best, 1985 for Sing Street, although the kids are probably the same age). But beyond that, the movies are very different.

Unlike We Are the Best, which seemed to try for an accurate portrayal of 1982 Sweden, Sing Street is more of an “80s themed” movie. It uses the cars, the music, and the recession of that time to set the stage, but it’s not exactly a realistic “period drama.” It also isn’t an accurate representation of the high school rock band experience. The Sing Street band goes from non-existent to writing and recording radio-quality pop tunes in a matter of days. While it works for this movie, it isn’t reality.

I was actually shocked to realize, at the end credits*, that the actors really did do their own music. I was sure, watching, that the music was some professional (and famous – I thought I recognized a voice at one point) singer being dubbed in. In fact, I had started to wonder if they used different singers for different styles of music. I am very impressed to see that Irish actor/musician Ferdia Walsh-Peelo actually sang the songs (although he had professional writers to create them).

So if the movie isn’t We Are the Best goes to Ireland, then what is it?

Well, its a feel-good film. The story is about a young man who suddenly finds his family on hard times and moves to a new, rougher school. He meets a beautiful girl and, in order to get her number, tells her he is in a band and they need her to film a video for one of their songs. Having said this, he now needs to form a band, write some songs, and come up with some video concepts.

The movie is a story that’s been told many times, but doesn’t really grow old. A young person, growing up in difficult circumstances, has to overcome those circumstances and find their own way. It is hard to define yourself, for yourself, but not doing so means you’ll forever be held back by those circumstances that you did not create.

The main character’s older brother, Brendan, explains the importance of a “vocation.” By this he means the meaning and purpose of a life (explicitly contrasting it with a job that does not have meaning). Driving a cab can be a vocation, says he (who never leaves his parents’ house) as can music or art. Finding your way and not being defined by your problems is how you become the person that you should be.

As is so often the case, I think the movie is really about the twenty-teens, and not the eighties. The music sounds way too modern. The bullying theme, emphasizing that bad kids are just starving for some positive attention, would not have been treated that way in an 80s movie to be sure. With its meta-references (the songs, speaking about the characters life, are reflected in the film itself), the film is very much a twenty-teens creature. Let me say, too, that the singing often reminded me more of Green Day than Duran Duran.

Also, don’t step in the plot-holes. As I said, the speed with which the band was created is a bit silly. One also might wonder how a kid who can’t afford a pair of shoes can suddenly be in possession of several Boy George outfits. I also had misgivings about the lead female character, Raphina. She’s a beautiful actress and played the part very well, but I’ve met my own “I’m going to be a model.” Let’s just say I predict that relationship is going to turn out very badly in the end.

Other elements of this movie speak to me, particularly. I was of an age, and interested in music, during this time. I had grown up listening to what we know would call “classic rock” and discovered, sometime in the mid-eighties, what we would come to call “alternative rock.” Reading reviews on Netflix, I think many fans of the movie are of a similar age and circumstance. My Raphina didn’t quite look as good as Lucy Boynton does, but life rarely lives up to the fantasy. There was also one scene, where my initial reaction was utter disbelief. At some point our main character (Conor, by the way) is confronted again by “the” bully. He defuses the situation with some existential musings about who exists in whose reality and whether existence without purpose is true existence. “Yeah, that would work,” thought I, sarcastically.

Except that it did. Somewhere around middle school, I figured out how to defuse violent bullying simply by speaking, using a vocabulary far over the heads of my tormentors. I don’t know why it worked, but it did. When they realized they couldn’t understand what I was saying (but, importantly, realized I was in fact making sense using the King’s English), their urge to violent aggression ebbed away.

The movie, and I don’t think one like this can be spoiled, turns out very well in the end. The boy gets the girl, and they head off into the sunrise**, perhaps to fame and fortune. They make friends with the bully and give him a purpose. All is well, and we heard some good songs on the journey. The movie is also fun it a lot of little ways. Little bits, from bits of costumes to a large number of rabbits, weren’t really part of the story itself, but made me laugh out loud as I watched.

How could anyone not love this movie.

I really like this song. It is not an 80s song.

*Another Netflix complaint I’d like to register. Like network TV, Netflix has now decided that rather than watch the credits of a movie, viewers would rather see some previews for something they might like to watch next. You can’t even enjoy the end-credit music while watching indecipherable pixels float by, because they also cut the credit sequence short when the preview is done. I don’t know why, but I’ve always enjoyed sitting through the credits when I rent a DVD or, especially, when I go to the theater. So, in this case, as I always do with Netflix streaming, I had to look up the credits on-line after the movie was over.

**The filmmaker said this scene was deliberately meant to be unbelievable – something out of a music video. He is not suggesting that Conor and Raphina will live happily ever after, or perhaps not even that they went to London in a fishing boat. He said he was surprised that the audience took it so literally.

 

You See? Death Comes to Us All

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The title of this article is a line from Braveheart. It is delivered by soon-to-be Queen Isabella to the dying Edward I. While witnessing William Wallace’s execution, she tells him that her unborn child is not the offspring of her husband, Edward II, but is the result of a tryst with Wallace. She lets the King go to his grave knowing that his line will die with him.

Now, we all know that fictionalization of history can be used to add character and depth to a series of historical facts. We can’t know what the kings and queens of the 11th and 12th century said to each other, so a film must create entirely fictional dialog. This is understandable. Often, we don’t mind a dramatization going even further afield, advancing a compelling drama that capture the flavor of the times, if not the details. But sometimes a situation goes beyond even the absurd.

When William Wallace was executed, in 1305, Isabella was ten-years-old and still living in France, as of yet still 2-3 year away from her marriage to Edward II. It is unlikely she ever met Wallace. But on the outside chance that she did (when he was visiting France seeking political support), she was probably closer to the age of 5. Although Edward I arranged the betrothal of his own son and the daughter of Philip IV of France, the father had passed on before the marriage ever took place and he, likely, never met his future daughter-in-law either.

Stuffing Isabella into the Braveheart story is entirely unnecessary. She makes an interesting subject on her own and has been the subject of dramatizations starting from Christopher Marlowe’s 1592 play The Troublesome Reign and Lamentable Death of Edward the Second, King of England, with the Tragical Fall of Proud Mortimer and continuing to the present day. It is one of those present-day accounts I will turn to now.

Lost in Translation

When I was young, I had a bad experience with foreign novels.

There is no language, except English, where I have the proficiency to read anything of complexity. So any non-English novel that I want to read, I must read a translation of it. The first problem is that relatively few books are translated. I don’t have a handy source for my speculations, but I think that the number of non-English books published each year, which are subsequently translated to English and made available in the American market, is in the single-digits (percentage-wise). I’m talking in general, not classic literature, where the scholarly treatment is considerably different. I would think 5% would be a reasonable figure to use.

Once a book is translated, there is then another factor. Not only is the quality of the writing important, but the quality of the translation as well. Again, with classical works, academics will, over generations, work on refining translations to capture various aspects of the original language. But for a popular work, there is likely one translator, hired by a publisher, to do the work. That leaves us, as English-only consumers, as dependent on the translator as we are on the original author for a quality read. A really good translator needs to be not only proficient in both languages, but also should be a skilled writer (of the translated genre, one might imagine) in his own right as well as something of a literary critic.

I honestly don’t remember what caused it, but for years I simply assumed all translated books were going to be tough reads, and avoided them wherever possible. This finally changed in college when I was assigned a rather nice translation of Stendhal’s Le Rouge et le Noir. But even with my prejudice lifted, there are still so many native language books to read that it is rare for me to take up a non-native work.

An Iron King for an Iron Throne?

I digress so because I was looking at some of the more modern dramatizations of the life of Isabella and I found that there are many. One that stood out for me was the author Maurice Druon and his series Les Rois maudits in that, despite being something like six decades old, the novels are receiving current attention. Most noticeable, the author and the series come recommended by George R. R. Martin, citing it as an inspiration for A Game of Thrones.

This last would seem to be more than just coincidental. As Martin discussed his appreciation for Druon and his works, the series was being re-released in English by Martin’s publisher. The “original Game of Thrones” line could be put on covers and sold to fans waiting, desperate and disappointed, for the next book in the actual Song of Fire and Ice series. Whatever the behind the scenes, it works out well for me. Instead of having to try to find used copies of translations from the 1960s, I can order a newly-printed, English version of The Iron King to be delivered to me two days’ hence and enjoy these books that were, until a couple of years ago, decades out of print.

The book is well written and an enjoyable read. This is a compliment not only to the author, but to the translator. The latter is the original translator of the book; it does not appear that the series was re-translated for the current printing, except that the final book in the series was never translated in the first place.

The opening book of the series ties together the execution of the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar (Jacques de Molay) with the crises of succession that began with the Tour de Nesle affair, the death of Philip IV of France, and the questions of inheritance that ultimate fueled the Hundred Years’ War. Historical events are convincingly, while also entertainingly, told. They are also almost certainly not accurate.

The relationship between Edward II and Isabella, as I said, has been developed over the centuries, creating a narrative of how the “She-wolf of France*” was ignored by her weak and homosexual husband, leading her to resent, hate, and ultimately kill him. While she did indeed play a major role in dethroning her own husband, there is plenty of evidence that their marriage was a happy and loving one. They had, together, four children and, when apart, addressed each other in  letters using affectionate pet names. Written signs of this affection extend even beyond the date when Edward had abdicated and was imprisoned. Isabella’s role in his death is by no means proven. More likely, established story of today is a combination of political rumor of the time combined with fanciful storytelling from future generations.

Even the titular “curse” may be a combination of a several different, yet similar events. There are even historians that doubt the veracity of the accusations of adultery. The proof of them are confessions obtained by torture, which is not the most reliable source of information.

As improbable as the narrative of Les Rois maudits matching the true events of the day may be, it is nevertheless impossible to prove that things did not take place in such a manner. The story fully fleshes out the tale in a way that is believable, compelling, and fun.

Agreed to Have a Battle

The Tour de Nesle was a political event which would not have counterparts in wargames. It is easy to trace the impact of what happened into the future of Europe. For example, with the parentage of the grandchildren of Phillip IV in doubt, French inheritance would come to emphasize the male relatives over closer relatives through the female relations. The difference in French and English interpretations led to Edward III’s claim to the French throne, a claim that led to the Hundred Years War. It is harder to find a companion game to share in the flavor and timeframe of The Iron King.

Instead, I’ll return to the alternate timeline that I had started earlier. My House Neuchâtel continues to rule Upper Burgundy with an eye to either independence or further prominence within the Holy Roman Empire. By this point we are obviously pretty far afield from any direct relation to historical events.

In fact, in this reality, we find ourselves with the Holy Roman Empire at war with England. King George (350 years too early) of England has managed to get himself excommunicated.  Holy Roman Emperor Bořivoj Přemyslid declared war on the Heretic, probably with good reason, but those reasons weren’t shared with me. I saw an opportunity to advance my position.

I managed to “discover” that I had a strong claim on the County of Auvergne, near enough to my coveted “Greater Burgundy,” but currently under the jurisdiction of King George. Having done so, I offered to send my forces in support of Emperor Boris. Now, as far as I know, my claim was rather irrelevant to the whole process. Unlike Europa Universalis, Crusader Kings does not allow a negotiated peace drawing from all sorts of potential concessions. The conclusion of a war results in exactly the peace conditions that were specified when the war was declared. However, I figured coming in on the side of the Emperor would improve my standing in his court, earn me some prestige from my victories, as well as smack England around making it easy to capture Auvergne in some future war. On top of that, the Emperor seemed like he could use the help.

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August 1319. I have sent my armies into Auvergne to occupy the castle to which I claim title. While I got smacked around a bit at first, I managed to win a siege. The Emperor’s main army, besieging Toulouse, is about to face a larger English relief force.

This setup leads a to a battle that is interesting from a strategic perspective in that it engages the vast majority of the troops available to both sides. It is also interesting in that the outcome is by no means preordained. Because of the close match, I’m going to once again create a tactical version of the battle in Field of Glory.

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The armies have engaged. The English have a slight advantage in numbers, but the Germans are operating from a semi-permanent siege camp.

Bringing my Burgundians into the battle gets the two armies very close to evenly-matched in numbers. As the main battle commences, my money was against the Empire. The English have a slight edge in numbers and in organization, although other factors work against them. Reconstructing this fight in FoG(U) creates an even bigger gap.

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I array my army with the flanks anchored against two large hills. It proved to be sufficient to stop the English.

My first and obvious mistake was that I chose a map too big for the armies and the battle. It having been a while since I set up a random battle, I thought the two armies sounded really big. In fact, they are to the large end of medium. With the large battlefield, it took 7 turns for the two armies to move forward into a reasonable engagement distance. As we’ve seen before, the FoG(U) AI moves aggressively forward, without attempting to keep his armies in line. I, on the other hand, did my best to retain my formation until engagement. In addition to its size, this terrain is probably too flat and open for Southwestern France.  In FoG(U), random battle maps are not autogenerated. You must chose from a subset of the existing scenario library.

The last time I tried this, I thought the haphazard AI attack would be their undoing. It turned out not to be. In this case, my own line held together throughout the battle, and I was able to defeat the enemy as the waves came at me. In the end I won a solid victory.

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The English line have broken, and the remnants of their armies flee the field. I cut them down with my pursuit.

Perhaps most surprisingly, the tactical result again matched the strategic result. Now, I’m not saying this is anything but dumb luck. While there may be factors that predicted a German win in Crusader Kings, there is nothing that translated those factors to the tactical battle. I just find it surprising that this exercise has worked, now, twice in a row.

Death Comes to Us All

In the end, everyone died. First King George, then the Emperor, and the my own Duke. The Emperor’s death, in particular, shook all of Europe. With the child heir now nominal Emperor, factions rose up across Europe trying to place a more capable successor on the imperial throne. Suddenly, the war with a now-dead excommunicated English king seemed like a minor worry. England’s armies had been beaten down enough that, while they were left to retake their lost castles rather unopposed, a truce was eventually declared with no clear winner (a White Peace in EU terms).

Somewhere in here, my aging Duke died leaving  his inheritance to his grandson. The claim on the English county died with the elder Duke, leaving the whole episode an exercise in pointlessness. Welcome to the twelfth century.

*The epithet was used by Shakespeare in History of Henry VI, Part III to describe Margaret of Anjou, but was reapplied to Isabella by Thomas Gray in 1757. Isabella is probably most associated with the term today.

Rollercoaster

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It was a struggle, but I finally made it through The Scottish Chiefs. To reward myself, I decided to read a modern (of sorts, it was written 16 years ago) thriller. The book is Utopia (renamed Lethal Velocity, perhaps to entice readers to buy it again 16 years on) by Lincoln Child.

Reading a book like The Scottish Chiefs is like reading poetry. In this particular case, not very good poetry, but poetry nonetheless. You can’t really race through it and much of the time the “story” seems to take a backseat to the exposition. Done right, one imagines, would allow the reader to wallow in the prose and appreciate the beauty of the imagery while, at the same time (still being a novel), being told a story of value. A modern thriller, on the other hand, is like a drug. The text seems to have been weaponized, propelling you through the story as fast as you can read for as late as you can stay up at night.

Lincoln Child has written a few dozen dozen books at this point, many of them as a joint effort with co-author Douglas Preston. The authors (the pair) were recommended to me almost five years ago by a friend who described it as “beach reading.” My first impression on digging into the novel Relic was the similarity to the writing of Michael Chrichton (also considered beach reading, I suppose). I may or may not have been influenced by a suggestion in one of the blurbs that compared Relic favorably to Chrichton’s writing (maybe even specifically Jurassic Park). This, too, was my impression – A more intelligent version of a Chrichton novel.

At some point (unrelated to Relic), I realized there was a formula to Chrichton novels. They will start out with a “prologue” mini-story, related to the events of the book, but absent any of what will come to be the main characters. Those who do appear in the first section are free to be slaughtered, maimed, or otherwise misused, the reader having not yet invested any attachment in them. Then the “real” chapters start andwe meet the main characters. Usually (at least at this point), they removed from whatever the action is. Continue another chapter or two and the main characters begin coming into contact with whatever we, the reader, encountered in that first bit. Often there are multiple characters, multiple story lines, such that the book can jump back and forth between as the story advances. As the reader, many chapters are left with a cliff-hanger ending, meaning you are loath to stop at the convenient break, instead eager to start into the next chapter, just to see what happens. But that next chapter is a different character/story-line, so now you’ve got to read a couple more chapters before turning off the light for the night. Lather, Rinse, Repeat.

Chrichton’s works often have a “moral” lurking below the story itself. If you agree with the moral (think the global warming critique of State of Fear) such deeper meaning may add to the experience. If you’re not quite on board with his thesis (the fundamental uncontrollablity of complex systems in Jurassic Park), then it becomes a distraction.

Utopia shares the subject matter, high-tech control of complex systems, with Jurassic Park. A keystone of the story is the self-learning network that controls the robotics in a (slightly beyond) the state-of-the-art theme park. Unlike with Chrichton, there is no deeper analysis of the societal implications. Cool technology is cool technology – no stern pontifications needed. In terms of the structure, it almost seems like someone picked apart a Chrichton novel and built this one to match. There is a particular cliff-hanging technique used in both Utopia and Jurassic Park. One of the primary characters, either the hero or a close advisor to the hero, has an epiphany and announces to everyone that he sees the big picture and has figured it out. Just as he is about to explain, something else happens and he is cut off in mid-sentence. As they rush off to deal with the sudden crisis, the chapter ends. The next chapter is a jump to another thread in the story, leaving you with a good chunk of the book to read before you can know what the character apparently has figured out. Both books (and many others) follow this formula to the T.

With Chrichton, it was noticeable because it was also frustrating. The “reveal” when it eventually came (many, many chapters later) was often so much less than the promise of it. Indeed, there are more than one of Chrichton’s works where the story just kind of fizzles out at the end. For all the build-up, the ending feels a little tacked on. On this, Child’s writing seems to be an improvement. The endings seem more worthy of the build-ups. And yes, the overall writing style is just a notch more “intelligent” than the Chrichton thriller. One glaring tick in the Child and Preston/Child novels, though, is there is occasionally bits that just seem that they’re trying too hard to be “intelligent.” The example in Utopia is some detailed discussion of fine wine by one of the main characters, attempting to lead into an analogy about a fungus present in wine making versus the rot that is the bad guys who are in the theme park. The analogy pretty much flops and, instead, seems just to be in the book to show off the author’s knowledge of top-tier wines. A little broadcast that “this book is not just beach reading, it’s for smart people!”

That last bit aside, I’ve never turned away a Chrichton novel and don’t expect I’ll turn away a Lincoln Child novel either.