Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Heartbreak Ridge: Eastwood stars and directs a war movie set during Grenada invasion



Heartbreak Ridge, the 13th film directed by Clint Eastwood, is a strange war movie that takes very familiar stock characters and situations and attempts to give them some contemporary (at least in 1980s terms) twists to a story about the training of a Marine platoon and its eventual baptism by fire in battle. 

Eastwood, who also produced Heartbreak Ridge, plays Gunnery Sergeant (GySgt) Tom “Gunny” Highway, a 30-plus year veteran and holder of the Medal of Honor who is facing retirement after seeing combat in Korea, the 1965 intervention in the Dominican Republic and – of course – Vietnam.  Because he has been in the Corps since he enlisted as a young adolescent, Highway is not too thrilled at the prospect of mustering out and feels he still has some role to play in the service. 

Naturally, since the Marine Corps is one of the smallest branches of the military and “Gunny” is well-connected within the network of noncommissioned officers, he arranges to be transferred to the same unit in which he saw combat in Korea.  En route to his new billet via a Greyhound bus, Highway meets a young, insouciant musician named “Stich” Jones (Mario Van Peebles). At a stop in a highway rest area, Stitch asks Highway if he can borrow some money to buy a meal, then steals the older man’s bus ticket and leaves the older man high and dry at the rest stop. 

Highway eventually arrives at the Second Marine Division base at Camp Lejeune in North Carolina.  To his dismay, his new commanding officer, Maj. Malcolm Powers (Everett McGill) is a former Supply officer who has recently transferred to command an infantry unit. A pompous Annapolis graduate, Powers does not like Highway because he is too old-school and doesn’t seem to fit within the more modern Reagan era Marine Corps.    
  
Maj. Malcolm A. Powers: I don't know what strings you pulled to get back into this division but I can assure you that I don't like it. This is the new Marine Corps. The new breed. Characters like you are an anachronism. You should be sealed in a case that reads break glass only in the event of war. Got no tolerance for you old timers who think that you know it better and can have it all your own way. Understand? 
  
Highway: I understand a lot of body bags get filled if I don't do my job, sir. 
  
Choozoo: Major, Division has assigned Gunny Highway to our reconnaissance platoon. 
  
Maj. Malcolm A. Powers: Yes, Recon. Their last sergeant was an old time combat vet, too. But he went road on me. Retired on active duty. Had a few months to retirement. Figured he'd coast. Allowed the men to lapse into mediocrity. You're close to mandatory retirement yourself, aren't you, Highway? 
  
Highway: That's right, Major. 
  
Maj. Malcolm A. Powers: Well, I ask for Marines, the division sends me relics. The men in Recon Platoon are less than highly motivated to say the least. I want those men in shape. 

Eighway is flummoxed even more when he is assigned to take charge of the battalion’s Recon Platoon, a supposedly elite unit which has gone to seed because its previous platoon sergeant has allowed its members to go to seed.  Sloppy, lazy and exhibiting un-Marine-like attitudes, the Recon unit includes an imposing giant of a man named Swede Johanson (Peter Koch),  Profile, a nerdy-looking radio operator (Tom Villard), Lt. Ring, a wet-behind-the-ears officer (Boyd Gaynes) and Highway’s bus stop nemesis, Corporal Stich Jones. 

Using non-politically correct motivational language and kick-butt training techniques (such as firing live rounds from a Soviet-made AK-47 over the platoon’s heads), Highway begins the process of re-making the young Marines into a fighting unit, fighting Major Powers' efforts to hinder the gruff old Gunny. 

With no immediate enemy to fight other than a theoretical Soviet attack on NATO or perhaps some terrorists in the Middle East, Highway’s efforts seem at first to be academic.  But Highway, who has been around long enough to know better, pushes his new charges to become battle ready warriors worthy of wearing the Marines’ globe and anchor insignia. 

Meanwhile, on the domestic front, Highway embarks on a more personal campaign to reunite with his ex-wife Aggie (Marsha Mason), a sweet but tough woman who is now dating the Marine-bashing owner (Bo Svenson) of a bar near Camp Lejeune. Knowing that his devotion to the service and his failure to understand how it pushed Aggie away, Gunny is willing to try anything to woo her back. 



My Take:  War movies, especially war movies about the U.S. Marine Corps, tend to follow the same narrative arc as 1949’s The Sands of Iwo Jima.  Many stories abound of tough sergeants that must turn young Marine recruits into hardened fighting men, though in this case Highway is actually retraining Marines who have devolved into uniformed slackers. 

There are also quite a few movies about NCOs who have dramatic conflict with commanding officers who are ill-trained or unsuited for combat commands. The mutual dislike between Powers and Highway isn’t just a personality clash; it’s also a generational one, with Powers showing no patience for Gunny’s decidedly post-World War II philosophies about training Marines and how to fight wars.  Add to this Powell’s recent career move from a support branch of the Corps to the combat arm and his arrogant pride at being an Annapolis grad, and the conflict between the major and the NCO is bound to heat up when – inevitably – the Second Marine Division is sent into combat. 

Interestingly, screenwriter James Carabatsos, an Army veteran who would later write and produce Hamburger Hill, chooses not to create a fictitious conflict and sets Heartbreak Ridge’s combat sequence during the 1983 invasion of Grenada. 

Code-named Urgent Fury, this somewhat modest – in comparison to Korea, Vietnam, and the later Gulf War of 1991 – military operation was the Reagan Administration’s response to a bloody coup in the former British colony of Grenada, a small Caribbean nation located 100 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Internal strife within the ranks of the leftist-leaning New Jewel Movement had resulted in the murders of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and several of his loyalists, and the resulting chaos gave Washington an excuse to launch the first major combat operation by American forces since the end of the Vietnam War. 

(Two of the reasons given by the Reagan White House to justify Urgent Fury were that the Soviet Union and Cuba were building an airport with a 9,000-ft. runway capable of handling large Soviet transport planes and MiG fighters, and that American medical students at the True Blue Medical Facility were in danger of being held hostage by either the Cubans or the Grenadian Marxists.) 

Carabatsos’ screenplay doesn’t delve much into the background of the invasion, and it keeps the story focused on the small Marine unit’s contribution to the short and unequal struggle between the Americans and the Cubans.  Indeed, to match Heartbreak Ridge’s Marine-centric story to the palatable justification for the still-controversial invasion, Carabatsos changes history by having the Second Marine Division “liberate” the medical students from their threatened captivity. (The actual operation at True Blue was carried out by Army Rangers.) 
  
Heartbreak Ridge works well if audiences are not familiar with the workings of the U.S. military in general and the U.S. Marine Corps specifically. The one Marine officer I know personally – who was a forward air controller during Operation Desert Storm – told me that Maj. Powers’ disrespectful attitude toward Gunny Highway might make for good drama but is totally unrealistic. No Marine officer worth his salt would be so demeaning to a senior NCO the way Powers is portrayed in Heartbreak Ridge, much less show contempt to a Medal of Homor winner.  (There are, sadly, more goofs regarding the Medal of Honor and how other characters react – or don’t – to a Marine who earned it, but I won’t delve into them here.) 

Another goof – among many, I’m sorry to say – is evident when the young lieutenant in command of Highway’s platoon is sent to Grenada wearing full camouflage gear and silver lieutenant’s bars on his collar tabs.  A tiny mistake, you might say, but those blackened rank insignia on combat uniforms are there for a reason.  Shiny metal insignia reflect ambient light (especially the sun), so an officer who wears silver bars (or oak leaves, or eagles, or stars for that matter) is essentially sniper bait.    

Eastwood tries to make Heartbreak Ridge as appealing as possible to a wide variety of viewers. For war movie buffs, of course, he takes a stock plot from the 1940s and 1950s and almost succeeds in updating it to 1986-era standards.  For the general public, including the female demographic, his character tries hard to balance his tough-as-nails Marine personality with a more mellow side that he’ll need if he is to woo Aggie and win her heart in time for his appointment with retirement. 

In the film’s B story, Highway is so determined to make amends with his ex-wife that he turns to such women’s magazines as Cosmopolitan in order to say “the right things” so he can compete with her current boyfriend Roy, a bar owner who dislikes anyone in a Marine Corps uniform.  This is, perhaps, a bit corny, but Eastwood (as both actor and director) makes it work.

The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission (1985)

Considering the success of director Robert Aldrich’s 1967 war-action film The Dirty Dozen, it’s not surprising that MGM/United Artists – the studio which owned the film rights to E.M. Nathanson’s 1965 novel – decided to produce a sequel which would depict the further missions of Maj. Reisman (Lee Marvin), Sgt. Bowren (Richard Jaeckel) and their wily superior officer, Maj. Gen. Worden (Ernest Borgnine). 


As anyone who is remotely familiar with how the film industry works, studios are usually owned and operated by very conservative (in the fiscal sense of the word) men and women who tend to focus on how to make movies economically while making huge profits from them. This point of view also means that studio heads and producers tend to prefer “safe bets” rather than take huge cinematic gambles which may hurt the profit line and even sink their studios. 


Because sequels and franchises tend to be “safer bets” than truly innovative movies, Hollywood tends to take a property – such as The Dirty Dozen – an milk it for whatever its worth.  Thus, it’s not a huge shock to realize that MGM greenlit The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission and handed it to director Andrew V. McLaglen (The Devil’s Brigade, The Wild Geese) to follow in the huge footsteps of Robert Aldrich. 



Unfortunately, MGM’s decision to make a sequel to The Dirty Dozen with three of the original cast members on board as a made-for-TV movie nearly 20 years later seems to be one of those “too little, too late” projects that may look interesting on paper but result in movies that are barely watchable. 

For more commentary and information on The Dirty Dozen: The Next Mission, please visit my Epinions review.

Friday, October 26, 2012

They Were Expendable (1945)

In December of 1945,  Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Loews released director John Ford's They Were Expendable, a film about a U.S. Navy motor torpedo boats fighting against the Japanese during the dark days of late 1941 and early 1942.

Starring Robert Montgomery, John Wayne, and Donna Reed, They Were Expendable is an adaptation of William L. White's 1942 best-selling book of the same title.  Written by Frank "Spig" Wead, a former naval aviator, the screenplay dramatizes White's "non-fiction" account of Motor Torpedo Boat Squadron  Three and some of its officers and men, covering the dark days of the Japanese invasion of the Philippine Islands (December 1941-May 1942).

Though its factual veracity is, shall we say, doubtful, is one of the best war movies made during World War II, (or the period shortly after) partly because - except for the score - They Were Expendable tries hard to capture the emotional truth of the PT men's struggles to survive under the worst conditions imaginable.

Want to read more about They Were Expendable? Check out my Epinions review here!

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

John Hersey's A Bell for Adano (with link to full review)

For full review,  please see A Bell for Adano: Humor and pathos in WWII Sicily

In 1981, shortly after my maternal grandmother died, my Mom traveled to Bogota, Colombia to help her brother and sister clear out my grandparents’ apartment and divide some heirlooms among themselves. 

My aunt Martha and uncle Octavio ended up taking way more than two thirds of the apartment’s contents; they lived in Bogota and had definitely more kids than Mom, soit just made logistical sense for my mother to only claim two pieces of Grandma’s antique furniture for herself, some family pictures and a ring for my older sister and a few books – in English – from my grandfather’s library for me. 

Though two of the books were paperback editions of tomes published before 1977 (the year of my grandfather’s death), one of them was a small and thin hardcover with no dust jacket.  It looked – as many of my grandfather’s books did – well-cared for and had that indescribable but pleasant “old book” smell, and on the spine it said A Bell for Adano – John Hersey.  (It is, as it happens, a wartime edition; it was printed in January 1945 and includes a note from the publisher informing readers that the book is smaller than prewar hardcovers due to rationing of paper and other materials.)
  
Although I had not yet read Hersey’s Hiroshima – his famous 1946 non-fiction account of the atomic bombing of that Japanese city – I knew who he was because I had read an excerpt of his book Into the Valley: a Skirmish of the Marines (1943) in an American Heritage book about World War II; Hersey, then a young war correspondent for Time magazine, had covered part of the 1942-43 campaign on the island of Guadalcanal, and Into the Valley described a minor battle between a company of Marines and a Japanese unit in vivid – if sparingly written detail. 

Like many war correspondents, Hersey reported from various theaters of operations, including the Mediterranean.  His experiences during the July 1943 invasion of Sicily and its aftermath inspired Hersey to write his first novel, A Bell for Adano, which was originally published in 1944 and won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction the following year. 

Even though it begins on July 10, 1943 with a vivid description of the arrival of a small infantry unit at the fictional town of Adano, Sicily, A Bell for Adano is not a “men in combat” story.  Rather, Hersey’s focus is on the more mundane aspects of the military governance of former enemy territories such as Italy, and Major Victor Joppolo, his central character, is Adano’s de facto Army-appointed mayor and not a “gung-ho” infantry commander.  

Hersey makes his intentions crystal clear in his foreword: 

Major Victor Joppolo, U.S.A., was a good man. You will see that.  It is the whole reason why I wrote this story. 
  
He was the Amgot officer of a small Italian town called Adano.  He was more or less the American mayor after our invasion. 
  
After a brief – and drily humorous – explanation of what the Allied Military Government Occupied Territory did and his opinion that “(t)here were probably not any really bad men in Amgot, but there were some stupid ones,” Hersey writes: 

That is why I think it is important for you to know about Major Joppolo.  He was a good man, though weak in certain attractive, human ways, and what he did and was not able to do in Adano represented in miniature what America can and cannot do in Europe.  Since he happened to be a good man, his works represented the best of the possibilities. 
  
America is the international country. Major Joppolo was an Italian-American going to work in Italy.  Our Army has Yugoslavs and Frenchmen and Austrians and Czechs and Norwegians in it, and everywhere our Army goes in Europe, a man can turn to the private beside him and say: “Hey, Mac, what is this furriner saying?  How much does he want for that bunch of grapes?” And Mac will be able to translate. 


© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved

ST-TNG's Relics: Episode Review (with link to full review)


In late 1986, when Paramount Pictures announced that its television division was producing a syndicated follow-up to Star Trek,  creator Gene Roddenberry decreed that  there would be very few links between Star Trek: The Next Generation (ST-TNG) and The Original Series (TOS) in order for the new show to stand on its own. 

Published articles in contemporary science fiction-related magazines such as Starlog reported that Roddenberry had deliberately set ST-TNG 100 years after the first season of Star Trek so that there would be very few possibilities for crossover appearances of the original series cast.  There would also be no references as to the fate of major characters such as Kirk, Spock, McCoy and the rest of the familiar crew, presumably because the actors who played them would still be making feature films in those roles. 

As it turned out, Roddenberry’s Prime Directive that there would only be some residual linkage between the two television shows proved to be a mirage. DeForest Kelley made a cameo appearance in the series pilot Encounter at Farpoint, while the first regular (one hour) episode, The Naked Now, was essentially a remake of TOS’ The Naked Time. 
  
(Another thespian link between the two series: Majel Barrett Roddenberry, the actress who played Nurse/Dr. Christine Chapel in TOS and two of the feature films, provided the voice to the Enterprise-D’s computer and made several guest appearances as Laxwana Troi, Counselor Deanna Troi’s (Marina Sirtis) mother.)  

For the most part, however, ST-TNG “charted its own course without using its TV/feature films stable-mate as a storytelling crutch. The time gap between the first Starship Enterprise and its fourth successor was wide enough so that at least the TOS  human characters would all presumably be either too old (like McCoy at 137) or dead.  (Vulcans, of course, could – and did – make guest appearances; Mark Lenard, who played Sarek, guest-starred twice, while Leonard Nimoy reprised his role as Spock in Unification, Parts 1 & 2.) 


In 1992, ST-TNG’s writers – with the approval of executive producer Rick Berman – decided to attempt a serious crossover episode featuring one of TOS’ most popular characters: Captain of Engineering Montgomery “Scotty” Scott. 
  
James T. Kirk: How much refit time before we can take her out again? 
Montgomery Scott: Eight weeks, Sir, [Kirk opens his mouth] but ye don't have eight weeks, so I'll do it for ye in two. 
James T. Kirk: Mr.Scott. Have you always multiplied your repair estimates by a factor of four? 
Montgomery Scott: Certainly, Sir. How else can I keep my reputation as a miracle worker? 
James T. Kirk: [over the intercom] Your reputation is secure, Scotty. – Star Trek III: The Search for Spock 

Scotty is, of course, one of The Enterprise Six, the main recurring characters from Star Trek and its six feature film spinoffs. As portrayed by the late James Doohan, Mr. Scott was the “miracle worker” whose prowess with the inner workings of the original Starship Enterprise and  her immediate successor, the Enterprise-A, always managed to save the day (and his crewmates’ lives) whenever there were problems with the transporters or the warp drive. 

Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: The tank can't handle that much pressure.
Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: Where'd you get that idea?
Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: What do you mean, where'd I get that idea? It's in the impulse engine design specifications.
Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: Regulation 42/15: “Pressure Variances in IRC Tank Storage”?
Lt. Commander Geordi La Forge: Right.
Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: Forget it. I wrote it...A good engineer is always a wee bit conservative, at least on paper


Relics 
Stardate 46125.3 (Earth Calendar Year 2369) 
Original Airdate: October 12, 1992 
Written by: Ronald D. Moore 
Directed by: Alexander Singer 
  
Early in its sixth year of exploration, diplomacy and defense of the United Federation, the Starship Enterprise (NCC-1701-D) intercepts a  subspace distress call from the USS Jenolen (NCC- 2010), a Sydney-class transport which was reported missing and presumed lost in the year 2294. 

When the Enterprise, commanded by Capt. Jean-Luc Picard (Patrick Stewart), drops out of warp speed into normal space, it is affected by the gravitational field of a sphere-like object of tremendous size (around 200 million kilometers in diameter. The ship’s scanners initially miss this when Enterprise slows down to sub-light speed, but the bridge crew tracks the source of the gravitational field and discovers what appears to be a real Dyson Sphere. 

Until stardate 46125.3, Dyson Spheres (named after Earth scientist Freeman Dyson, a real person) were thought to only exist in theory; they are hollow artificial constructs built around a star. A civilization advanced enough to build a Dyson Sphere could – if equipped with a life support system – use it like a substitute for a planetary system since its interior could literally duplicate the surface area of millions of planets. However, the concept of a Dyson Sphere was long considered to be impractical due to the structure’s sheer size, as well as the cost and the problem of  availability of raw materials. 

The Enterprise, with its sensors recalibrated to compensate for the Dyson Sphere’s gravimetric interference, scans the surface of the immense object and discovers the wreck of the Jenolen, which apparently crashed there 75 years earlier.  Amazingly, the Enterprise scanners detect power readings from the crashed transport…and that the life support systems are still functioning.  Intrigued, Picard allows first officer Cmdr. William Riker (Jonathan Frakes), chief engineer Lt. Cmdr. Geordi La Forge (LeVar Burton) and security chief Lt. Worf (Michael Dorn) to beam down to the Jenolen and investigate. 

At first glance, the away team finds only a deserted ship, but La Forge notices that the Jenolen’s transporter has been jury-rigged in a peculiar fashion.  The unit has been hooked up to the ship’s auxiliary power system, and some of the transporters essential sub-elements (especially the phase inducer, the emitter array, the pattern buffer) have been  ingeniously reconfigured.  Even more astounding, La Forge and his companions discover that there is a pattern still contained in the buffers. 

Riker wonders aloud if someone could conceivably survive being suspended in a transporter pattern three quarters of a century. La Forge, ever the inquisitive engineer, intends to find out. He fiddles with the transporter controls, and when the beam energizes, out steps a legendary figure from the past: Capt. Montgomery Scott, the retired chief engineer who served about Capt. Kirk’s original Starship Enterprise and her first successor, the Enterprise-A! 
  
Upon realizing where and when he is, Scotty runs to the transporter console and desperately tries to retrieve the pattern of fellow crash survivor Matt Franklin.  Sadly, the buffer in question has broken down, and too much of Franklin’s pattern has degraded for Scotty to pull off one of his engineering “miracles.” 


Capt. Jean-Luc Picard: How are you feeling?

Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: I don't know. How am I feeling?
Dr. Beverly Crusher: Other than a few bumps and bruises, I'd say you feel fine for a man of 147
Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: And I don't feel a day over a hundred and twenty. 



The away team brings Scotty aboard the Galaxy-class namesake of the old engineer’s “old girlfriend” – Kirk’s twoStarships Enterprise – and, after a medical checkup, assigns him to guest quarters which (not surprisingly) are shockingly sumptuous to the old-school Starfleet veteran. 

Although he is officially retired, Scotty is happy when he is allowed to work with Geordi to retrieve the Jenolen’s log.  Capt. Picard knows that Scotty needs something to do while he comes to term with Franklin’s death and re-emerging in an era where most of his former shipmates are gone. 

While Geordi and Scotty attempt to access the Jenolen’s log, Lt. Commander Data (Brent Spiner), discovers a portal on the Dyson Sphere. Theorizing that this may be the sphere’s “front door,” the Enterprise attempts to hail the Sphere’s inhabitants.  But when the hatch opens, there is no audio-visual reply; instead, the Dyson Sphere activates multiple tractor beams and begins tugging the Enterprise aboard! 

  
My Take: 
  
Ship’s Computer: Please enter program. 
Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: The android at the bar said ya' could show me ma' old ship. Lemme see it. 
Ship’s Computer: Insufficient data. Please specify parameters. 
Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: The Enterprise! Show me the bridge of the Enterprise, ya' chatterin' piece of... 
Ship’s Computer: There have been five Federation ships with that name. Please specify by registry number. 
Capt. Montgomery “Scotty” Scott: NCC-1701. No bloody A, B, C, or D. 
Ship’s Computer: Program complete. Enter when ready. 


© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved


Sunday, October 14, 2012

Antony Beevor covers the Iberian tragedy in The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939

(C) 2006 Penguin Books



In 1976, only a few months after the death of Generalissimo Francisco Franco, a young ex-British Army officer named Antony Beevor began working on a book titled The Spanish Civil War, the very conflict which had ended with Franco's Nationalist faction as the victors after nearly three years of vicious fighting with the vanquished "reds" of the Spanish Republic.

Beevor's book was published in 1982, but because it was written before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, many important aspects of the Soviets' "internationalist" support of the Spanish Republic were not covered in depth, making The Spanish Civil War's first edition worthy of the term "a work in progress" even if the author didn't realize it at the time.

By the turn of the 21st Century, however, the Russians began granting access to the vast archives to scholars, researchers and authors from the once-feared West, and Beevor is one of those authors whose works (includingStalingrad: The Fateful Siege 1942-1943, The Fall of Berlin) have benefited greatly from the vast treasure trove of heretofore secret records kept by all branches of the Soviet government and the Communist Party.

Because the 70th anniversary of the Spanish Army's revolt was imminent, Beevor's Spanish-language publisher convinced the author to update The Spanish Civil War with new material based on the information contained in both the Soviet and German archives that reveal the extent of Stalin's and Hitler's support for the opposing factions in Spain.

Now bearing the title The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939, Beevor's account of one of the 20th Century's cruelest conflicts gives readers a more complete view of both the military and political aspects of the highly ideological struggle on the Iberian peninsula.

Divided into seven parts and 38 chapters, The Battle for Spain focuses, of course, on the civil war as both a political struggle and a series of military campaigns; because of its highly ideological nature, Spain's internecine clash needs to be studied from both angles to be fully grasped by the reader.

Thus, Beevor gives readers a somewhat complicated but necessary introduction which delves into how and why Spanish society split into two diametrically-opposed camps: the highly-conservative trinity of Church, army and nobility that wanted to hold on to age-old traditions and power, while on the opposite side of the fence stood the modernizing liberals, republicans, anarchists and - in the late 19th Century - Marxists.

Beevor also points out how these two forces found themselves in a collision course after World War One as fascism began to compete with the Communists for power in Europe and democracy lost its luster in the bleak political and economic environments of the 1920s and 1930s.

This struggle between the extreme right and left was accentuated by Spain's particular cultural aloofness from the rest of the Continent, and the political instability of the late 1920s resulted in King Alfonso XIII's abdication and the formation of the second Spanish Republic.

Though it was democratically elected, the Republic was unmistakably leftist in nature and its policies - such as confiscating Church properties and attempting agrarian reforms that benefitted landless peasants at the expense of wealthy landowners - were feared and loathed by traditionalist and rich Spaniards who saw the Republic as a Western bastion of Soviet Communism.

And even though many army officers were eager to support the new liberalism which they thought would kick Spain into the 20th Century and bring positive change to the people, many, like Franco, Sanjurjo and Queipo de Llano feared that the "reds" would allow Spain to break apart into autonomous nations and usher in a new Dark Age of atheism, bolshevism and anarchism.

In mid-July 1936, the Nationalists attempted a lightning-fast coup intended to take all of Spain's large cities - including Madrid - under the control of conservative elements of the army.   However, the accidental death of the junta's nominal leader in a plane crash and other setbacks prevented a swift takeover, and the rebels, who would eventually be led by Franco - had to settle for a slow and drawn out war of attrition....a war which would be marked by German and Italian assistance for the Nationalists, Soviet advisors and logistical support for the Republicans, and cynical maneuvering by Britain, France and even the United States.

Though Beevor sometimes annoys the reader by repeating salient points within a chapter several times, The Battle for Spain: The Spanish Civil War 1936-1939 is a fine example of modern historical writing at its best.

Though it's not as intricately detailed as Hugh Thomas' The Spanish Civil War and does not get too deep into the details of specific battles, Beevor's work nevertheless is rich in descriptive narratives and personality sketches.  

For instance, I found it hard to not flinch when I read about the ultra-religiously motivated Carlists' cruel habit of making their prisoners yell "Viva Cristo Rey!" while their limbs were being hacked off, or how Franco's Moroccan soldiers of his Army of Africa drove wounded Republican prisoners out into the countryside and bayoneted them to death in their stretchers.

Readers should also read the various reference sections at the beginning of the book which list all the Nationalist and Republican political parties and associations, as well as the list of abbreviations used in the book to denote them.

As in Stalingrad and 2009's D-Day: The Battle for Normandy, Beevor manages to strike a fine balance for the "big picture" of high-stakes politics and strategy and the more detailed look at the human experience of the men, women and children caught in the maelstrom of Spain's cataclysmic civil war and its aftermath.  

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Bobby McFerrin & Yo-Yo Ma's Hush (CD Review)

Who says classical music can't be fun, or that it's just old, slow, and uninvolving stuff fit for rich people with stodgy tastes? 

Considering that there are so few classical music commercial radio stations left, I suppose that's the popular notion of the genre. I mean, the section devoted to classical music in stores such as FYE and CD Warehouse is tiny when compared to the pop-rock, hip-hop, even country-western departments. And when has an American Idol contestant even bothered to offer a single aria from "Carmen" or "Madame Butterfly," hmmm? (The answer, of course, is "never.") 

Having been bitten by the classical music bug at the age of 14 after hearing several orchestral film scores, I am not one of those persons who prefers loud rhythmic confections over strongly melodic compositions. I also like to listen to artists who are able to shift musical gears as time goes by and refuse to be pigeonholed into one category such as "pop-rock star" (Billy Joel comes to mind). 

One of the most unusual recordings -- and more enjoyable -- recordings in my CD library is Hush, a collaborative effort which combines the talents of vocal artist Bobby McFerrin and classical cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Without the accompaniment of a symphony orchestra or even a quartet, Ma's cello and McFerrin's amazingly flexible voice blend seamlessly in this 13-track album which is comprised of an eclectic selection of McFerrin-composed songs and works by such composers as Vivaldi, Bach, and Gounod. 

Although McFerrin is perhaps best known for the ditty "Don't Worry, Be Happy" which is either his most popular or least liked song, he has a clear love for classical music; indeed, this album is a reflection of his almost child-like (and I mean this in the positive interpretation of the term) wonder of the genre. Listen, for instance, to his interpretation of Rimsky-Korsakov's "Flight of the Bumblebee;" his vocalization here conjures up images of a playful child imitating a buzzing bumblebee. 

More impressive to me was the loveliness of the interplay between McFerrin's voice and Ma's flawless-yet-never-cold performances with the cello, particularly in the performances of Vivaldi's Andante movement from the Baroque composer's Concerto in D minor for 2 Mandolins, Rachmaninoff's Vocalise, and the beautiful Ave Maria by Gounod. 

Not all the tracks are adaptations of classical composers; there is a jazzy but sweet rendition of the traditional "Hush Little Baby" lullabye (track 5), plus five McFerrin-composed songs --"Grace," "Stars," "Coyote," "Hoedown!" and "Goodbye." 

McFerrin is a serious musician, in the sense that he treats each note with skill and love for the genre (classical). He has worked with various opera companies and conducted Beethoven's Seventh Symphony (at his own 40th birthday party, no less) in San Francisco. Yet, his intention here is not to preserve the myth (perpetuated by the music industry) that classical music is boring material intended for old rich folks but rather explodes it. Listen to the parody of a concert emcee's stuffy announcement preceding Bach's Musette from the Notebook for Anna Magdalena Bach and you'll understand what he means when he states that the goal of Hush was to release the child in the adult.