Sunday, January 31, 2010

The Hound of the Baskervilles and Peter Cushing

I am visiting the hallowed ground of Sherlock Holmes once again thanks to my good friend Mangus. Not only did he hit me with the weekly question: "What you going to blog about?" But he also let me know that the A&E network had released the BBC series of Sherlock Holmes that starred Peter Cushing as Holmes. Most people now probably remember Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin from the original Star Wars: A New Hope… when it was just Star Wars. He also portrayed such notable characters as Abraham Van Helsing and Victor Frankenstein in the wonderfully atmospheric Hammer films.

I had seen Cushing portray Holmes in the Hammer version of "The Hound" with Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville. Well, thanks to Mangus I got to enjoy him again in the BBC version.

The basic plot of The Hound of the Baskervilles is that Sir Henry Baskerville has inherited his family estates after the death of his uncle. His uncle apparently died from fright because the spectral hound that has cursed the family line for two hundred years or more was chasing him. Holmes is brought in, not necessarily to solve the crime, but rather to protect Sir Henry from the curse and perhaps persuade him to not take up the family residence. Holmes of course does not believe in any supernatural agent and sends Watson to guard Sir Henry. The investigation is pursued and the ending is a climax of gun fire and the villain doing himself in.

This is one of my favorite Holmes stories, mostly because it is the first one I read as a boy (read 10 or 12 years old), coupled with the super natural elements it left an impression that started my love of the character and the Victorian mystery. My only complaint, like all the Holmes "novels" is that Holmes is off stage most of the time. The movies are no different. But it is still a great Holmes story with its intrigues and subtle clues.

I found myself pleasantly surprised when I watched Peter Cushing's portrayal of Holmes. He was lively, energetic, and, above all, convincing. He was wonderful actor. I had forgotten how much so.

Holmes was personable, warm, and entertaining. His gestures were those of a stage performer making his point; as much as Holmes is want to do as his experience upon the boards left him with the desire to create a sense of showmanship with his own performances. The character WAS Sherlock Holmes, an engaging and charismatic individual, not just a reasoning machine. His affection for Watson was heart felt and warm, as true friends would share and perfectly in line with the dialogue Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself wrote. What also struck me was how Peter Cushing looked like Sherlock Holmes as he was illustrated in the Strand magazine and how he was envisioned in so many other incarnations. His hawkish, sharp features and harsh profile is Holmes. He was even tall enough for the role, being almost six foot himself. (When standing next to Darth Vader, aka David Prowes he looked short).

After watching Cushing's performance in this dramatization I look forward to the rest. My regret is that of the BBC series, apparently only five of these classics survived.

Outside Cushing's performance the BBC production was interesting in its own right. Nigel Stock played Dr. John Watson, which broke away from the Nigel Bruce portrayal of Watson as the bumbling side-kick…. a portrayal I always detested. This Watson is as Doyle intended, he is a man of action, ready to bring a villain to immediate justice.

The production had definite 1960s feel to it, as programs like The Avengers and Dark Shadows did. So there is a little television nostalgia thrown into the mix for me.

If you are a Sherlock fan and you have not seen Peter Cushing as the Master Detective you would do worse then to look for the DVD collection of his work.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Leviathan-Pulp Fiction for Kids!

Leviathan is a novel by Scott Westerfeld with illustrations by Keith Thompson is described thus by one book selling blurb:

It is the cusp of World War I, and all the European powers are arming up. The Austro-Hungarians and Germans have their Clankers, steam-driven iron machines loaded with guns and ammunition. The British Darwinists employ fabricated animals as their weaponry. Their Leviathan is a whale airship, and the most masterful beast in the British fleet. Aleksandar Ferdinand, prince of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is on the run. His own people have turned on him. His title is worthless. All he has is a battle-torn Stormwalker and a loyal crew of men. Deryn Sharp is a commoner, a girl disguised as a boy in the British Air Service. She's a brilliant airman. But her secret is in constant danger of being discovered. With the Great War brewing, Alek's and Deryn's paths cross in the most unexpected way...taking them both aboard the Leviathan on a fantastical, around-the-world adventure. One that will change both their lives forever.

I read this book because of the pulp implications, steam-punk walkers and genetic splicing out of the Edwardian age? Not to mention World War One through the prism of alternate history. I also picked this book up for its lavish production value. It even has a video trailer!

This is a good book regardless of its intended audience. The premise was unique and well executed, the story, while not deeply complex, was engaging. For the younger reader some of the tropes are standard: a young woman passing herself as a boy, and a prince on the run. That doesn't matter, because both characters are well drawn and fleshed out and not stick figures in the tale.

Alex is a boy coming into manhood who has been relatively sheltered by his parents until their assassinations spark the beginning of the Great War. Fortunately he has four men loyal to him: his fencing master Wild¬count Volger and Otto Klopp, his master of mechanics, and the two soldiers that help pilot the Stormwalker clank that they take in their escape. Young Alex is the true heir to Austrian Empire and his enemies would make sure that he never sees the throne. Throughout the story Alex grows as a man and as a warrior with a compassionate heart.

Deryn Sharp is common true, but uncommon in her courage and practical sense. She is a midshipman aboard Leviathan. Deryn is adventurous and loyal; straightforward and earthy. She is, of course, an excellent foil for Alex.

The supporting characters are well drawn themselves, the Austrians and the Brits. The setting is almost a character to itself, with the Darwinist using gene spliced creatures as transport and weapon delivery systems.

The production value of this book cannot be overstated. The outer cover is high quality metallic, colorful, meant to catch the eye. The inside covers are detailed illustration of Europe's map, but with the countries stylized as Clanker tech or Darwinist creatures. Through out the book pen and ink illustrations show cases the characters and the creations from a Huxly, think an octopus-jelly fish highbred filled with hydrogen, to the Hercules, a massive war machine.

This the first book in a series and I am looking forward to the rest of the books. There are secrets and plots that are tantalizingly held out to bring readers to the rest of the series.

I would recommend this book to anyone who has a love of steam punk or adventure. The young people this is targeted to might actually become curious about the real history this novel diverts from and learn something as engaging as the fiction spawned by it.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Spartacus: Blood and Sand Pornographic History

STARZ network has just launched a new series Spartacus: Blood and Sand, starring Andy Whitfield in the title role. This show is as close to pornography that I have seen on any network, and I have watched Deadwood and Rome. No let me rephrase that, this Spartacus IS porn. Just softcore porn. (So much for my family friendly rating for the blog)

First: I was really looking forward to this series, I was excited. I was expecting something that would emulate HBOs' Rome and the movie 300. And it does….badly…. it takes the elements that made both such wonderful adult entertainment and visually stunning production so over the top that it crashes spectacularly under its own weight!

Now, just a little back ground so one might put what is to be harsh critique into perspective. I grew up on the epics of the 50s' and 60s': Spartacus from 1960 starring Kirk Douglas and Ben Hur, 1959, with Charlton Heston. I am a product of simpler and more prudish mind set, if one would define it that way. I still prefer Errol Flynn's Robin Hood above all others. I don’t need graphic violence or sex but I do need story and acting, even cheesy well intentioned acting. Unfortunately this Spartacus is so lacking in many key areas and overdone in others I could hardly watch the first episode all the way through.
Quick back-story: Spartacus was a slave in Rome that would lead a slave revolt that caused the empire to shudder at the implications. While Spartacus led his rebels, the Senate and generals played politics. This is the stuff of awesome fiction and it is history!

Now I was not expecting anything remotely like a documentary on Rome and its gladiators, but what I saw had me reaching for the remote. The story opens in Thrace with the barbarians looking to repel their enemies and willing to align with Rome to do it. The Romans play politics and decide to pursue the Greeks to the south rather than pursue the enemies of Thrace that are circling to attack the Thracians' unprotected villages. Spartacus, though he is given this name later, smacks around the Roman leader and takes his men to save their villages, and his wife. He arrives in time to save her, but the village is lost. They spend the night entwined to be captured by the Romans in the morning. Spartacus' wife is dragged off and he is sent to the gladiator pits.

Sounds good right? Nice set up for the series. Well, let's look at how we get there: first BLOOD!!!!!!! Oh the blood, sprays, fountains, geysers, splatters, splotches, and gouts! Now, for battle scenes and people getting run through with pointy things you would expect this. Like 300, this show slows it down so you can enjoy every gory second. It worked in 300 stylistically; in Spartacus: B&S it becomes annoying. Maybe because EVERY blow is slowed down so the carnage can be fully savored. Even when Spartacus is in a fist fight, a good clip to his opponent's jaw sends splatter into a spectator's eyes. Now, I love good fight scenes, mass combat or single duels, its visceral and gets the blood up when well done, Spartacus bored me by the time we got to the above mentioned fist fight.

The blood, like the majority of sets seems to be green screen animation in the 300 style, on this point I can understand artistically and on a budget that this is not a bad move. This actually works for the story they wish to tell. It is one of the few things that do work for this series.

The acting: if Spartacus isn't mooning over his wife's thighs someone is using language you wouldn't hear in a brothel. Now, this is sad because there are several good actors in the production, and I am not referring to Lucy Lawless. Craig Parker, who played Haldir in Lord of the Rings and John Hannah of The Mummy franchise, are both in the series in pivotal roles, at least initially. The fake British accents that ancient Romans apparently had becomes annoying when actors can't do them well. Viva Bianca as the vapid, though ambitious Ilithyia comes to mind. The dialogue goes from well thought out and flowing to someone yelling "You ****** sucker!". This language gets worse as if the characters try to outdo each other in vulgarity. Even in casual conversation reference to anatomical impossibilities abound. Do people talk this way? Yeah if they have Tourette's.

Language and nudity is to expected and actually effective story telling devices in a program. Spartacus: B&S has taken the idea from Deadwood and Rome in that if they could shock and be successful with excessive nudity and language, then we should do MORE!

When I call Spartacus: B&S softcore porn, I do not exaggerate. Male and female nudity is thrown out there almost like backdrop, as a side note I read that prosthetics were used in male enhancement. Not sure if this is true, but if it is COME ON!!!!!! That borders on the ludicrous. The sex scenes leave nothing to the imagination, but rather, slow it down so that the voyeur can enjoy ever moment. Like bad slasher flicks something is lost when the actual act is shown fully, not allowing the audience to provide their own emotional response to the scene.

I really wanted to enjoy this show, I found Rome great and engaging, 300 was visually awesome with a basic but gut-kicking story. I had hoped that the blend produced by STARZ would at least be entertaining. It was not. Others might find it so, and they are welcome to it, I will put in my copy of Stanly Kubrick's epic, (still on VHS for me) and enjoy the story and drama to be found there.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Benedict Arnold: Tragic Hero

Much has been written about Benedict Arnold over the years, and recently movies. Mostly they had been unflattering, so much so, that “Benedict Arnold” is synonymous with treachery and betrayal, much as “Judas Iscariot” was to the generations before Arnold’s plan to surrender West Point during the American Revolution.

With revisionist trends in history which seem to tear down our heroes in the pursuit of “truth” the investigation into Arnold’s actions do not justify them, but explains and offers a more balanced view. After two hundred and more years after his death a more complete Benedict Arnold emerges, one that was a hero, a tragic hero that on the outset, loved and fought fiercely for his country.

Born in 1741 to what would be considered well to do family, the family fortunes changed rapidly over the years, with poor business practices, his father’s drinking, and eventually the passing of both parents. The reversal of fortunes over time left Arnold with his own drive for personal wealth and financial security. He had apprenticed as an apothecary to a family member, taking time away from the business to fight in the French and Indian War. Eventually he purchased wares in Europe and opened his own shop in New Haven.

With the Crown restricting trade and increasing taxation Arnold earned extra income through smuggling. This would foreshadow the practices he would be accused of during the revolution.

He entered the fight for independence as a captain when he heard of the battles of Lexington and Concord. Eager for battle, he proposed an attack on Fort Ticonderoga. On his march he encountered Ethan Allen and his Green Mountain Boys, a group of rough, free booting rangers. As a commissioned soldier Arnold felt Allen should be subordinate to him, but had no way to enforce it, the rangers simply went about as they liked including celebrating the taking of the fort with the British stock of rum.

During the invasion of Canada Arnold showed his determination as well as his temper, especially when feeling slighted. He and Ethan Allen once more could not work well together, but they cobbled together a navy of small gun boats to challenge the British on Lake Champlain, these were to be the first naval engagement between the rebels and the Crown.

During this fighting, Colonel Easton, serving under Arnold had returned to Massachusetts, diminishing Arnold's contributions, while trying to highlight his own. Eventually Arnold's temper would force him to challenge Easton to a duel, which the other refused. With the violence pending, Allen and Easton left and Arnold was ordered to serve under another commander. Arnold refused, resigning his commission and writing Congress over the affronts.

Arnold had also attempted to regain his expenses from the Massachusetts Committee of Safety, which only paid him a fraction of what he was owed. During the Revolution, soldiers, officers especially, paid out of pocket, even outfitting their men. Arnold was not rich but affluent, and he wanted to stay that way, he would go to Congress to recoup the rest of the amount. This constant struggle to receive his monies as well as addressing congress with grievances was a pattern Arnold would continue throughout the war.

Awarding Connecticut the lion's share of the plunder from Fort Ticonderoga over Arnold's Massachusetts further incensed the soldier. The above is an example of events through out Arnold's career. Benedict Arnold lived for glory and recognition; he was a brilliant warrior and wished to be recognized as such. He vied against many others that also chased such accolades but he lacked others' political savvy.

One ally Arnold had been George Washington. The General proposed Arnold to the Continental Congress to join the expedition into Canada under General Schuyler. Schuyler gave Arnold free rein and the soldier conducted an incredible march into Quebec; earning him accolades as a Hannibal for the Revolution. Weather, desertions, and lack of supplies plagued Arnold, but he held his company together to reach the St. Lawrence. December 1775 saw battle and small pox decimating Arnold's troops. Arnold took a bullet to the leg, shouting orders even when he was laid up wounded. Montreal could not be held, the battle was lost, but for his efforts he was made Brigadier General.

The Battle of Saratoga in the fall of 1777 once more showed Benedict Arnold's importance as a leader of men and a general that was vital to the revolution. Arnold was under the command of Horatio Gates. Arnold was eager for battle but Gates held him back, actually relieving him of his command for insubordination. The battle was engaged and Arnold, tiring of sitting it out took his horse and led a body of men into the center of the British forces, causing a collapse that allowed the American forces to capitalize to victory. During this battle Arnold had his mount shot out from under him, reinjuring the leg that was wounded in Canada.

The result of the American victory convinced France to throw its full support behind the fledgling nation. Horatio Gates, who had been hesitant and arguable an overly cautious if not out and out bad general, took credit for what was really Arnold's victory. Gates was vying to take Washington's position as Commander and Chief of the Army, and went so far as to send his reports directly to Congress rather than to Washington as commander of the army.

Benedict Arnold was now crippled, joining Washington at Valley Forge for the infamous winter, his seniority restored by Congress though the damage had been done and the stage set. Washington appointed Arnold as commandant of Philadelphia after the British abandoned it. It was there that Arnold met his second wife Peggy Shippen.

Shippen, twenty years Arnold's junior, came from an affluent family, giving Arnold the status he craved, but his income could not afford it. He engaged in inappropriate shipping practices, using his position as commandant. He was court-maritaled on the charges, and was convicted of improperly using government property and speculation. It should be noted that, like today, it was an atmosphere of "do as I say not as I do" Congress members were speculators in their own fight for freedom, back room deals for supplies and bankrolling their own privateers which put them at odds with the fledgling Navy. The attacks on Arnold were politically motivated, as much as Arnold had few supporters. The attacks were likely aimed at Washington as well as Arnold's friend and ally.

Benedict Arnold would war with Congress, defending his good name, seeking redress for financial losses, and protesting the slights he was given in promotion and responsibility. Time and again he was hailed a hero but those junior to him would be promoted over him, many because of patronage within Congress.

Arnold, through his wife, a Tory from her time with the occupying British in Philadelphia offered to turn coat to them. The prize was West Point, and some speculate, Washington himself. The price: 10,000 pounds and a commission as a provincial Brigadier General. During the negotiations Major John Andre served as the go between (a friend of Peggy Shippen and possibly former lover) Andre was captured and a missive between Arnold and General Clinton was discovered. Andre was tried and hanged as a spy. Arnold escaped down river on the British sloop Vulture. It is speculated that Arnold actually offered to trade himself to win Andre's freedom.

Arnold would not be entrusted by the British with anything important; he served in command during a couple of raid like battles in Virginia. He would attempt to serve his new country as well as restart his shipping business, but he had earned the reputation of being untrustworthy, having betrayed one country might he not do so again? He died in London in 1801.

Benedict Arnold was a great general, brilliant leader of men, and a patriot. Had he the patronage that men like Gates enjoyed, or the charisma and wealth of Washington his story might have been different.

He was also a tragic hero. Arnold had personality flaws that led to his downfall. He could not control his temper; he took slight easily, making him a political sitting duck. He did not have the resources or networks that Washington had to keep him informed or whisper in the right ear in Congress. He had the patronage of Washington, but the General was trying to win a nation. He also had the misfortune of marrying into a moneyed Tory family. Had he not married Peggy Shippen, he might have taken the battle-command offered to him by Washington instead of West Point.

Benedict Arnold was the tragic hero of fiction, but on the stage of History. He was the dark mirror of George Washington. Washington was of the South, Arnold the North, both men were moneyed, yet Washington was able to magnanimously serve his country without pay, where Arnold struggled to receive recompense. Both men were seekers of glory and adventure, yet Washington was understated, almost humble in his pursuit. Both had a love of their fledgling country, Washington was able to stay the course and Arnold fell.

A clever writer would have been fortunate to write such characters! Through the lens of history, as a person might read a novel, we see the speeding freight train that is Benedict Arnold's hurtling career. We see time and again he is looked over, abused, and ignored. He suffers indignities despite his valiant efforts in the cause of freedom. One could see what was coming for Arnold and wish they could look away because of the tragedy unfolding. The reader knows Arnold is doomed, they see what is driving him to his end, through his own choices he is damned, yet one could almost sympathize with him.

What glory might he have known then? Would his name be revered with the other great generals like Greene? Or would his debts and temper have led him to obscurity instead of infamy? Is it better to be a villain than to be forgotten? But such is the speculation of fiction. What we have is history. Arnold was an unfortunate man who made a fateful decision that resonates to this day.