In the days before CGI, epic war films were massive and costly undertakings. You wanted a shot of 10,000 guys marching across a field in full battle uniform? Well, you had to get them! You couldn’t just have Johnny the Computer Whiz draw them in after the fact.
As in actual warfare, there are innumerable logistical difficulties with re-creating these battles. You’ve got to have men in position, knowing how to use their equipment, and then film them as they maneuver in the field.
All that’s quite hard enough. But when you are making a film for wide release, you have to have all that plus a story the audience can follow, structured so as to play out in a coherent and satisfying way over the course of two hours.
It’s this last bit that’s really tricky, because while history offers plenty of incredible and compelling stories, they rarely fit into neat three-act schemes that can be concisely portrayed in a couple of hours.
Waterloo starts out well, showing Napoleon’s abdication to Elba in 1814 and subsequent return in 1815. Especially memorable is the moment when the Emperor walks alone to face his former soldiers, now under orders to kill him, and through sheer bravery and charisma wins them back over to his side. This is one part of the Napoleonic legend that seems made for the movies, and it certainly is a high point of the film.
After that, however, problems arise in this dramatization of the final chapter of Bonaparte’s career. There are unnecessary voice-overs in which Napoleon (Rod Steiger) thinks in exposition for the benefit of the audience. Many lines of dialogue uttered by officers on both sides seem like they were lifted from history books and changed to the present tense.
An inordinate amount of time is spent on Wellington’s staff at the Ball hosted by the Duchess of Richmond. This scene also includes the introduction of a totally fictional and pointless love story that goes nowhere. The only upside is the chemistry between Wellington (Christopher Plummer) and the Duchess (Virginia McKenna).
The film dwells on things like this, Napoleon’s illness, and some peculiar episode involving a British soldier stealing a pig, and yet glosses over incidents like the Battles of Quatre-Bras and Ligny with a couple lines of dialogue.
It’s not that the film is inaccurate–indeed, they seem to have gone to some lengths to describe things in historically correct fashion. (Except for the romance and a reminiscence about Major-General Ponsonby’s father) The problem is that the film depicts these events in a strange and sometimes incoherent manner.
The biggest technical flaw is probably the mud. The battle was famously delayed by wet ground after a rainy night, and indeed the film states this correctly. Where it falls down is the fact that the ground we see on screen is demonstrably dry, as evidenced by the huge clouds of dust kicked up by the columns of cavalry and infantry.
The end result is the comical visual of a frustrated Napoleon sinking in an obviously artificial mud puddle while all around him is a vast expanse of dry land. The fundamental historical fact is correctly depicted, but not in a dramatically effective way.
There are lots of issues like this. After Marshal Ney’s ill-fated cavalry charge against the famous infantry squares, Napoleon rushes back to the field from his sickbed, crying, “What is he doing? Everyone knows not to make a cavalry charge without infantry support!”
While completely factually accurate, this seems unlikely to be what Napoleon actually said at the time. It comes across as a line delivered for the benefit of audience members who aren’t familiar with the battle of Waterloo.
And this is the other difficult thing about making historical movies: balancing the history lesson aspect with the need to depict real characters, as opposed to instructional puppets designed to illustrate a historical lecture.
Chances are, if someone is watching the movie Waterloo, they are already a Napoleonic history fan. Sure, there might be the occasional viewer who is an ardent follower of Rod Steiger or Christopher Plummer, but if I were overseeing the production, I would make the executive decision that any viewer who doesn’t already know how the battle went is just going to have to piece it together as best they can–no reason the script should go out of its way to help them out.
Despite all of that, the movie isn’t horrible. As an instructional device, it is not bad, and there is something inherently impressive about seeing huge lines of soldiers and horses advancing across a smoky field. It gives you some vague hint of what it might have felt like to be in the battle.
It’s just that the film lacks a dramatic narrative. Napoleon and Wellington don’t “come alive”; they just repeat their famous quotes and stoically watch the battle. Because of this, it feels more like a recording of an elaborate re-enactment rather than a truly epic historical drama.
It’s not a coincidence that Bannon got removed from the NSC and two days later, Trump orders missile strikes that Bannon and his “alt-right”/”America First” crowd oppose.
My question is: did Trump simply become outraged because he saw the pictures coming out of Syria, and decided he didn’t care what Bannon said? Or is this the result of Trump’s long-term dissatisfaction at the series of apparent failures spearheaded by Bannon?
Or is it that Trump is now listening more to his daughter Ivanka and her husband Jared Kushner than he is to Bannon? (Possibly as a result of said Bannon-led failures?)
There are a number of different explanations, all of which suggest that Trump is pretty impulsive and won’t hesitate to radically change his mind in short order.
But of course, that goes both ways. If Bannon can get thrown in the doghouse this easily, he can get pulled back out just as quickly. And that’s the main takeaway for me: Trump acts quickly–some would say decisively, others would say recklessly. Even his apparent friendly relations with Russia couldn’t quell his desire to take action in Syria. It must have really been important to him, because it meant reversing one of his core campaign positions, and losing a lot of his most zealous supporters.
When I was in college, I took an elective course called “Introduction to Military Intelligence”. It was one of the best courses I took during my four years in college. The teacher was a retired Army Major, and a very nice guy. (Our first day, he made the old joke about military intelligence being an oxymoron.)
One of the big things I remember him saying was that “the bad guys always have a tactical advantage”. I’d never thought about it before, but it’s true, and it’s something counter-terrorism and intelligence officers have to contend with.
Bad guys are people who attack other people. Good guys are just minding their own business, not looking to hurt anyone. That’s one of the things that differentiates good from bad. This means, among other things, that the bad guys know when they are going to attack and how, and so always have the element of surprise on their side. The good guys are forced to be reactive and defensive, which is a tactically bad position to be in.
Now, there are lots of quibbles or counter-arguments you can make about this, as well as arguments over what constitutes a true “attack” (e.g. “weren’t the good guys ‘attacking’ at the invasion of Normandy?”) The larger point, though, still holds–bad guys are usually on the attack, and as such have an advantage.
So, what to do about it?
The solution most good guy nations came up with is to have people on stand-by, watching for and guarding against attacks by bad guys. This works pretty well, but they are still operating at a disadvantage because they usually don’t have first-strike capability.
It’s also important to note the difference between “tactical” and “strategic”. Tactical stuff is on a smaller scale, meaning one battle or one individual action. Strategic is a longer-term, big-picture thing. So, it’s possible to be at a tactical disadvantage but a strategic advantage, and vice-versa.
Before we begin, here’s some irony for you:
Well, I was obviously wrong when I predicted that Clinton would win comfortably.
To be honest, I screwed this up badly. My gut instinct told me that Trump fit the model of a winning candidate, and Clinton fit the model of a losing one. Why? Because of the all-important “charisma” factor, which I have now spent nearly seven years analyzing.
But because most polls said otherwise, and because most experts thought it was impossible, and because of all the appalling things Trump has done and said, I went with the conventional wisdom and assumed the charisma theory wouldn’t apply.
Instead, it was vindicated.
I had the following exchange on Twitter with Paul Graham, the entrepreneur and venture capitalist who wrote the original essay that introduced me to the charisma theory of politics:
I know I’ve said it a million times, but read Graham’s essay. Parts of it are prescient:
The charisma theory may also explain why Democrats tend to lose presidential elections. The core of the Democrats’ ideology seems to be a belief in government. Perhaps this tends to attract people who are earnest, but dull. Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry were so similar in that respect that they might have been brothers. Good thing for the Democrats that their screen lets through an occasional Clinton, even if some scandal results.
Talking of which, this post of mine from 2010 was also rather disturbing to reread:
The blind loyalty felt by the devotees to their political messiahs is something which fundamentally alters the nature of the political conflict. And it is this, I believe, which drives the oft-bemoaned lack of “civility” and “moderation” in today’s discourse. Cults are not rational, but emotional.
What makes this all the more troubling is not that it is a corruption of the democratic system, but rather that it seems to be the logical conclusion of it. The average voter, after all, cannot really be expected to keep up with the nuances of the issues. To do so requires too much time…
…So I think we must resign ourselves to the fact that charisma–and the resultant cults of personality–are going to be the driving energy of our political system for the foreseeable future. The best we can hope for, at this point, is probably that our elected leaders will not abuse their charisma. Given the corrupting influence of power however, that seems unlikely.
The point here is that even people like me and Graham, who had devoted a lot of time and thought to how this sort of thing could happen, failed to realize it even as it was happening.
Over the years, I’ve written a lot about charisma, about rural nationalism, about political advertising–even about Vladimir Putin–and in this election, almost all of it played out like I would have expected, if I’d only trusted what I knew, rather than assuming that others knew better.
Of everything I’ve written about politics, I suppose this post was the most explicitly relevant:
The only charismatic Republican I can think of is too undisciplined and arrogant to organize an intelligent campaign. The reason they are always going on about Reagan is because even after all these years, they have never found anybody half as charismatic as him to sell their contradictory policies.
But all the same, if they do manage to scare up somebody half-way likeable, the former Senator and Secretary of State will have a hard time winning. Especially since history suggests people will be reluctant to elect another person from the same party that has controlled the White House for the previous eight years.
The Republican I was thinking of was Palin. Trump wasn’t even on the radar at that point.
And, as it turned out, being undisciplined and arrogant was no hindrance to running a successful campaign.
That said, the truly arrogant ones here were political analysts–including myself–who refused to believe in what we were seeing; who stubbornly clung to the notion that a candidate as obnoxious and scandal-plagued as Trump could not win, even after he proved us wrong once.
If I had simply been honest with myself about how Trump’s campaign corresponded to everything I knew about how politics works, maybe I would have been more vocal about the surprisingly high probability he would win. And that might have motivated more people on my side to do things differently.
Paradoxically, if more people had believed he could win, his chance of actually winning probably would have declined.
I remember when I was 15 years old reading in a book of military history about how, at the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon ignored some of his own long-standing tactical rules, leading to his defeat. At the time, I made a mental note that ignoring one’s own beliefs was usually a bad idea.
The warfare analogy is pretty apt in a larger sense, too. Trump’s campaign resembled a lot of successful military campaigns throughout history, in the sense that it won by being smaller and more able to change and adapt quickly than its larger, better-funded, but also more conventional opponent. (This is also the same logic that leads to small startups defeating big corporations.)
Finally, the Trump campaign won by challenging conventional wisdom and proving it wrong. Nearly all professional political strategists took for granted that you couldn’t win by appealing to nationalist sentiments. Trump’s campaign challenged that idea, and proved it incorrect.
I’ll have much more later. This is going to require a lot of work.
One of the things I like to do in my spare time is watch history videos online. I like the ones that I can cue up and then do something else (e.g. cleaning) while listening to the narration. Audiobooks are also good for this. My first preference would be to just read about the stuff, but often I’m just too busy.
Strangely, some historical incidents–especially battles–have tons of videos made about them, and others have next to nothing. For instance, there are plenty of documentaries about the Battle of Marathon, but almost none about the Battle of Plataea.
What I was really looking for was something in-depth on the Battle of Tours. (Which is also sometimes called the Battle of Poitiers, which is confusing, because there was another Battle of Poitiers, some 600 years later. I know this because my friend P.M. Prescott wrote a short historical fiction story about it.)
Of course, there is an absolute wealth of material on World War II. It just never ends. I think its better documented even than more recent wars, especially Korea, the “forgotten war”.
[WARNING: This post contains spoilers for all four of the things mentioned in the title.]
About five years ago, I read Joseph Conrad’s novella Heart of Darkness. Then, last year, I played Spec Ops: The Line and Far Cry 2, which are based in part on that book. And then, yesterday, I watched Apocalypse Now, the 1979 movie also based on that book, and which influenced both of those games.
As you may know, it has long been my contention that video games are an art form on a par with books and film. And of these four works, it is my belief that one of the games–Spec Ops–is the best. That said, it is also the most recent, and it uses the expectations built by the preceding tales to weave its narrative.
To begin with, I didn’t really like Conrad’s novella that much. It wasn’t awful, but I didn’t see what was so great about it. So there’s this guy, Kurtz; and this other guy Marlow, has been sent to find him in the Congo. But, turns out, he’s gone nuts and is dying. And the reason this happened to Kurtz is because being in the Congo was brutal, and he couldn’t take it.
It was never clear to me what the point was. I guess it was that it was no fun being in the ivory business in the Congo, and that colonialism was awful, both for the colonized and the colonizers. Well, yes–and I suppose that was more of a shocker in the era when “colonialism” was not a dirty word–but I didn’t really see any major moral depth to it.
Apocalypse Now is an adaptation of the story, set in the Vietnam War, in which Marlow is named “Willard” and has been sent by the U.S. military to assassinate Col. Kurtz who has gone mad. And so he does.
A big problem I had with the movie was that it is really thin. In the first 10 minutes, we are told that Kurtz is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. And then, two hours later, we meet Kurtz and find out that, sure enough, he really is insane and ruling over a bunch of the natives. There is a strong implication along the way that the Vietnam war generally is also insane, but that wasn’t much of a revelation to me.
(Aside–the theme of “War Is Insane, And Makes Everyone In It Insane” was done much better, in my opinion, in the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai. It ends with the line “Madness, madness”, which would have fit Apocalypse Now as well.)
Kurtz has no character development. Neither does Willard, really: he starts off as a battle-hardened, PTSD soldier and finishes it as an even more battle-hardened PTSD solider. I guess his crew-mates on his boat are supposed to show the ravages of war taking their toll, but they all had “doomed” written all over them from scene one.
I read on Wikipedia that they considered a different ending, where Willard joins Kurtz and fights off an airstrike on the base. While seemingly impossible logically, that ending would make more sense thematically. Personally, I would have liked to see an ending where Kilgore showed up and destroyed Kurtz’s base. It would at least justify why they spend so much time on his character early in the movie.
(Another aside: Wikipedia also says that “Coppola decided that the ending could be “‘the classic myth of the murderer who gets up the river, kills the king, and then himself becomes the king — it’s the Fisher King, from The Golden Bough'”. For the record–this is the version of the story I remembered, not the one in the 1991 movie of the same name I wrote about a few months ago. But that’s mythology for you.)
(Last aside: this post has too many asides. One of them should be removed.)
I already wrote about Far Cry 2 in this post pretty thoroughly, so I won’t dwell on it overmuch. The short version is that it, like Heart of Darkness and Apocalypse Now before it, is well done, but empty. Although, I suppose it does sort of do what I criticized Apocalypse for not doing, in that there is some vague hint of character development in the sense that the player’s character is being sent to eliminate the Jackal in the beginning and winds up siding with him at the end.
To recap, in Heart of Darkness, we have this guy Kurtz. Nobody is quite sure what his deal is, and we gradually find out that he went crazy in the jungle because everything was brutal. Then, in Apocalypse Now, we have this guy Kurtz who everybody thinks went crazy in the jungle because everything was so brutal–and indeed, so he did. And then in Far Cry 2, we have this guy the Jackal, who goes crazy in the jungle because everything is so brutal.
Now, you will immediately see where Spec Ops is really different–here we have this guy Konrad. And nobody is quite sure what Konrad’s deal is… and he’s in a desert!
Just kidding, that’s not the difference.
Well, we heard the big guns roar behind the battle line;
Every member of the Corps, by our officer’s design,
Affixed his bayonet to his trusty laser gun.
The order, as of yet, had not come to anyone,
But we knew we’d have to charge at the foemen’s barricade,
So, in battle armor large, in a phalanx we arrayed.
Our satellites looked down at the enemy’s artillery
Which was set up in a town that our cavalry would pillory.
The UAV’s report went directly to the Colonel
(Who was resting in the Fort, with an injury internal)
The plan that he devised had been centuries rehearsed,
It would have been recognized by Napoleon the First.
But for every gee-whiz gadget, and with all of our technology—
The upper management has yet to send us an apology.
The strategies they made were completely obsolete
And so our whole brigade met a horrible defeat.
All our battle droids broke ranks, and we knew our fate was sealed–
So we took our hover tanks and retired from the field.
This game stunned me. I had heard rumors that it was “more intelligent than your typical shooting game”, and that it was based on Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. I figured “oh, great, another game trying to prove how intelligent it is by stealing from other media.”
It is influenced by Conrad, that’s for sure. But it’s more than that. If you’re a fan of military action games, then you need to play this game. It’s best if you go in knowing as little as possible about it, so if you haven’t played it but think you want to, I advise you to stop reading this now and go play it.
I’ve been sort of following the news about the re-enactments of the battle of Gettysburg that are being held for the 150th anniversary of the battle.
Re-enactors provide a valuable service to those interested in history, no doubt, but I can’t help feeling they just can’t imitate the feeling of urgency which the real battle must have had. I imagine it was much more frenetic on that day 150 years ago when Pickett’s men charged across the field.
It’s easy to see now that tactics like that, tactics that led Prussian Field Marshal von Moltke to dismiss the Civil War as simply “armed mobs”, were disastrous and borderline insane. But then, people who were tired and starving and under fire can hardly have been thinking clearly when making these decisions.
(Aside: in the CBS video above, isn’t it ironic that Professor Goodwin and that reporter talk about how Lincoln’s speech was what made the place matter, when in the address itself President Lincoln said: “the world will little note, nor long remember what we say here; while it can never forget what they did here”?)
I went to Gettysburg years ago, and I do remember that it was an eerily peaceful place. Like it had seen enough violence for all its existence, and was exhausted.
It’s also fitting that what was effectively the deciding battle in a war that redefined the United States and ended the institution of slavery that had been such a terrible stain on the country from its birth, ended right before Independence Day. As so many others have noted, there’s something poetic about it.