Friday, September 28, 2007

Dir. by Kenji Misumi

Comic book fans the world over are familiar with Kazuo Koike’s Lone Wolf and Cub, one of the best action comics ever, and a magnificent evocation of the dark side of Tokugawa Japan. Perhaps fewer people are aware that they were made into a series of movies. Even fewer realize how deeply committed the protagonist is to attachment parenting and taking children seriously, Ogami Itto isn’t known as “the baby-cart assassin” for nothing.

Sword of Vengeance is the first in a series of six films about Ogami Itto (Tomisaburo Wakayma) and his particular Highway to Hell. The time is the 17th century and the Tokugawa shogunate has imposed a police state on Japan. Ogami is the shogun’s executioner, when the orders a noble to commit seppuku (hara-kiri to us vulgar gaijin), Ogami stands by with his very sharp sword to make sure the deed is completed swiftly. But rivals from the Yagyu clan frame Ogami and arrange for his family to be slaughtered, only Ogami’s son Daigoro (Akihiro Tokayama, the cutest little shaver ever to go a killing spree) survives the massacre. Ogami is ordered to commit seppuku. But Ogami goes off the rails and declines that honor. In a touching scene he asks an uncomprehending Daigoro to chose: a life of murder with dad or instant death by his sword. In short order Ogami takes on the entire Yagyu clan with nothing but a stroller and a bad attitude (it’s quite a stroller though). Having done the unthinkable by refusing to commit seppuku when ordered, he has no choice but to become a hired killer. With Daigoro in tow, every day is Take Your Kid to Work day for Ogami.

All of Ogami’s back-story is inter-cut with an account of one of his jobs. It’s a brutal demonstration of just how far out of, not just social norms, but even normal affect Ogami has taken himself in order to be an assassin. The problem is that while the assassination story is good, it can’t bear the weight of Ogami’s fall from grace and the film is rather unbalanced. The one story culminates with a dramatic change in the protagonist while the other ends up with, well, an awful lot of dead guys. In true chanbara fashion, Ogami slices samurai like an automated salami processor. Finally, this may seem a very petty quibble, but I found Tomisaburo Wakayma’s face too fleshy to match the austere visage of Ogami that Koike’s art had burned into my brain.

If you are in love with Lone Wolf and Cub or just like chanbara, you can expect some pretty good stuff here. If you are new to samurai film in general, then consider starting with Yojimbo, or better yet, check out Koike’s comic books first hand.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Dir. by Kihachi Okamoto

The received wisdom is that the Western (Shane, The Searchers, Stagecoach) begat the Samurai film (Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Seven Samurai) which begat the Spaghetti Western (A Fistful of Dollars, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly). Of course it was never so easy, Kill! shows Okamoto’s ability to incorporate all those influences and feed them back with a generous dose of comic comment.

The scene is set in classic fashion: a sandstorm in a burnt-out ruin of a town. A ragged wanderer enters, instead of confidently taking stock of the situation he brashly announces he is a REAL SAMURAI and just as soon as he gets a meal he’s going to get a samurai job. His meal plans devolve to scrabbling in the dust for a chicken even more scrawny and ragged than himself. The “samurai” is Hanjiro (Etsushi Takahashi) a strong but not-too-bright type who’s looking to move up in the world. Sharing his quest for the chicken is Genta (Tatsuya Nakadai), who claims to be no more than a yakuza (a term for gangster derived from a losing hand at cards, the very name encodes the Japanese sense that to be an outlaw is to be a loser). Their quest for chicken tempura is interrupted by an assassination. A group of idealistic young samurai have decided to murder a corrupt official. Seven of the young men survive, only to find out they’ve been betrayed, the lord who connived at their act of political murder wants them dead. The Seven will take the blame and the lord will reap the reward. The only thing that stands in the way of the evil plan is Genta’s ability to sabotage it with a Bugs Bunny-like defiance and wit that is more in the nature of a trickster hero than a sword-swinging killer.

This is of course a re-take of Kurosawa’s classics: Yojimbo, Sanjuro, Seven Samurai, and even The 47 Ronin. The joke is that the idealists are something closer to suckers, the peasant who wants to be a real samurai is disillusioned, and the loner who holds the balance is less a determined avenger than a man trying to live down his own past. Nakadai plays Genta as a marvelously diffident vagrant whose very cynicism allows him to penetrate the follies of the idealists, crooks, and hired swords around him. Takahashi plays off him giving a Hanjiro a wide-eyed acceptance and enthusiasm that literally has him bouncing off the walls. Takahashi conjures it deftly in a scene where the crooked lord is laying out his scheme for the hired thugs, while everybody is listening respectfully Hanjiro is fidgeting like a kindergartner who just had a Pepsi and half a box of Twinkies. Hanjiro is revealed as a true Son of the Earth, he likes his women “earthy” too.

Kill! plays with a comic deflation of samurai ethics in much the same way the Spaghetti Westerns turned the traditional Western on its head. If Tuco Ramirez wandered into the middle of Kill! he’d be right at home. Masaru Sato’s (he also scored Yojimbo, Sanjuro and about over a hundred other films) score is a Japanese echo of Ennio Morricone.

Okamoto was a director of consummate skill. Though never so widely known as Kurosawa, Okamoto’s many masterpieces (Sword of Doom, Red Lion, Human Bullet) have seeped into the consciousness of film fans. Okamoto’s satiric vision deserves to be better known.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Dir. by Kenji Misumi

The story of the wandering swordsman is as deeply ingrained in Japanese cinema as the tale of the Western gunslinger is in American pop-culture. But don’t expect a chanbara (a sword-and-samurai action film) to be just a Western with a samurai for sheriff and swords for six-shooters. Zatoichi, a tremendously popular film that inspired a couple dozen sequels and a long-running TV show, features a uniquely Japanese style of hero, whose anti-hero status paradoxically confirms his idealism.

The tale is set in feudal Japan. Ichi (Shintaro Katsu) is a blind man and a masseur (a rather low-status occupation in a class-conscious society). He calls upon a yakuza boss and proceeds to engage in not-so-friendly game of dice with the boss’s loutish gangsters. After schooling the hoodlums in hygiene and honesty Ichi gets a warm welcome from Boss Sukegoro Iioka. Sukegoro has an ulterior motive for his hospitality: even though he’s blind, Ichi is the deadliest swordsman around. A gang war is brewing with the rival Sasagawa clan. Sasagawa happens to have his own sword-slinger: a samurai who has sunk to being a hired killer for gamblers.

The movie is not all bloody sword-fights. In fact, there aren’t very many at all. A great deal of attention is paid to the sordid lives of the gangsters and Ichi’s growing disgust with the kind of life he finds himself in. Therein lies the distinctive quality of Zatoichi, it is almost sentimental in its appreciation of courtesy, natural beauty, and respect for an honorable foe. Ichi’s uniquely Japanese character is that he is deeply ashamed of what he does and how he lives, even though he continues to live that way. There is none of the cynical posturing of the far more hard-boiled ronin Sanjuro played by Toshiro Mifune. Ichi is not an anti-hero in the sense that he defies society’s norms, but in that he doesn’t even consider himself to be heroic.

Zatoichi is a film that will best engage a viewer who wants a distinctively Japanese story with excellent characterization and just a bit of ferocious action.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, September 21, 2007

By Emilio Salgari

I first came across Sandokan and the Tigers of Mompracem in “Prowl Unceasing” by Chris Roberson in the masterful anthology of swashbuckling SpecFic he published, Adventure Vol 1. Well, is it any wonder that a guy who has published Jess Nevins’ encyclopedias of pulp heroes & penny dreadfuls would know about Italy’s most famous dime novels? Is it any wonder that when I heard about a series of novels about dashing Malay pirates doing battle with James Brooke, one of Victorian Britain’s actual swashbucklers, I had to get a hold of them?

Nope and nope. But, be warned there is only one translation of Salgari’s multi-volume oeuvre. Back in the 1880s Salgari became a tremendous hit with Italian readers. His works have been extensively translated into Spanish and have been the basis for movies, TV series, action figures, and other product tie-ins. How is it that such a popular writer is apparently unknown in the English-speaking world except for some eccentric fans in Texas?

To be certain, Sandokan is a dime novel. Sandokan is a Terribly Romantic Pirate of a kind that would have appealed to readers in Rafael Sabatini’s day, but seems a bit over-the-top in our more cynical era. Sandokan is an exiled Malay prince who commands a band of pirates from his island headquarters of Mompracem. He is the enemy of all colonialists, Dutch, Spanish, and especially British. He and his pal Yanez, a Portuguese adventurer, defy the world. But, alas for Sandokan, he has seen Marianna the Pearl of Labuan, and is obsessed with her beauty. This would be no big problem, except her British uncle (she’s Eurasian), Lord Guillonk (I’m not making that up) is the blood-enemy of pirates. Even worse, she has been betrothed to Baron Rosenthal. All Sandokan has to do is kidnap her from the middle of an armed villa and hold off the entire Royal Navy. Love will do the rest.

It’s fun stuff, with an interesting setting and unusual characters. But Salgari is rather limited when it comes to creating characters that are even remotely credible. I like my characters a bit broad, but these guys are stretched. Sandokan throws his men’s lives away just to get a look at Marianna. Indeed, he falls in love with Marianna more or less on a whim. Although Yanez and Sandokan talk about how his obsession with Marianna means the end for the Tigers, nothing much comes of it, except lots of predictable slaughter. And just how many British peers have Jewish names? I was half expecting Earl Shlomo Mankowitz to show up and help Baron Rosenthal.

Salgari does not let the action slow for more than a nanosecond before there’s a battle with British ships, soldiers, sharks, or orangutans. Sometimes it gets to be a bit much, even for me, and I do love a high body count.

This may sound like excessive negativity from a crabby old man who’s read too many pirate novels. I really wanted to like Sandokan, and I found the book grew on me in a corny, clunky sort of way. So you might enjoy Sandokan if you are a historian of genre writing, or you might enjoy it if you are willing to commit to the utterly improbable and terribly romantic.

-Dave Hardy

By Jonathan Clements

Jonathan Clements weaves a fascinating account of the rise and fall of the Zheng clan. This is several histories in one: that of a Chinese family, the rise and fall of empires, the colonization of Taiwan, the rise of Western colonialism, missionaries in China, and the economic history of the Pacific Rim.

While the title promises a biography of Coxinga, the “Pirate King”, it is just as much a biography of his father, Nicholas Iquan. Clements describes Iquan’s rise from disgraceful scamp to disgraceful scamp ruling a massive confederation of smugglers and pirates. Iquan was the sort of lad to seduce his stepmother (Chinese families wer polygamous in those days) and was exiled to be a trader in Macao. He came under the tutelage of “Captain China”, and was instrumental in running elaborate swindles on the Dutch and English traders based in Japan. Clements describes Iquan’s hustles with frank admiration and gleeful comic timing. Iquan battled his way into succeeding as Captain China’s successor and grew powerful enough that the imperial authorities bought him off with high titles in return for his political and military support.

Clements also lays out the decline of the Ming dynasty. In 1644 a horde of bandits actually captured the capital precipitating an invasion by the Manchu hordes. Compared to the bandits, the Manchu were civilized. They swept south smashing the poorly led Ming armies. A crafty old sea-dog like Iquan knew which way the wind blew and he surrendered to the Manchu.

But he hadn’t counted on his idealistic son, Coxinga (a latinization of Koksen'yua, one of his titles). Coxinga refused to surrender and fought a sixteen year rearguard battle against the Manchu, holding out on his remote coastal lairs. Though the Ming claimant was little more than a fugitive, Coxinga led a formidable rebel fleet whose smugglers were a major economic power and whose marines came within a hair’s breadth of seizing the capital.

Pirate King examines the role of the Dutch. Iquan and later Coxinga prospered as the intermediaries who smuggled goods back and forth to the Dutch. The Dutch in turn sought a trade port in China, but were blocked by the desire of both the authorities and the smugglers to maintain their respective economic strangleholds. The irony is that Coxinga made the break with the Dutch. As the Manchu grew more powerful, he needed a safe base offshore. The Dutch colony on Taiwan would be perfect. Thus Coxinga inaugurated the strategy of using Taiwan as a place of refuge for representatives of defeated Chinese regimes.

Pirate King is filled with fascinating characters such as Wu Sangui, the general who gave up his loyalty for love of a woman. There is Adam Schall, the Jesuit who became the chief astronomer of the Manchu emperor and handled a cannon to defeat the Dutch. Clements tells the story of Reverend Hambroek, who gave his life to carry a message of defiance to Coxinga. Pirate King is a gripping, fast paced, and often funny story of a real-life pirate warlord and the world he lived in.

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, September 20, 2007

By Louise Levathes

When China Ruled the Seas is an account of a little-known chapter in history, the high era of Chinese sea-going voyages of trade and exploration. Many people are familiar with the drive to reach the ports of the Indies that drove European voyages of exploration in the late 1400s and 1500s. A similar impulse drove Chinese mariners onto the Indian Ocean decades early, leaving us with a fascinating might-have-been scenario: what if China had not left the field to the Europeans?

In the late 1300s the Mongol rulers of China were overthrown and a new dynasty came to rule the Middle Kingdom: the Ming. During the mop-up campaigns a lad from a Muslim Chinese family was captured and castrated. His name was Zheng He. The eunuch lad was a prisoner of the Ming prince Zhu Di, who found Zheng He to be an able servant. Lest anyone picture Zheng as a mincing ninny, the eunuch was a strapping six-footer with a booming voice who followed Zhu Di into battle. When Zhu Di came to power as emperor of China, he did not forget faithful Zheng He. Zhu Di wanted to expand Chinese influence overseas, his method was to send a massive Chinese fleet comprised of some of the biggest ocean-going vessels built to that date on a trans-Indian Ocean trading/diplomatic mission. Zheng He was to be in command.

Levathes gives the reader a swift background on Chinese ships and sailing techniques, just enough for a layman, but not so much that it overwhelms. She also describes the nature of building the fleet. Like any other government programs, it was plagued with cost overruns, contract padding, and some outright corruption. The treasure ships were something like the famous Spanish galleons: massive enough to carry plenty of goods and supplies on an extended voyage, but lean enough to go into battle in the distant waters where they were the only Chinese presence.

The mission was not one of war and it was not exactly trade. It was more like an armed diplomatic mission that carried out elaborate gift exchanges. Zheng He’s fleet had no problem smashing pirates when they found them or intervening militarily to back an ally. However, the Chinese weren’t interested in conquest. Zheng He focussed on establishing relations with local rulers who would pay “tribute” to the Chinese emperor. In exchange the Chinese plied the locals with valuable gifts. The relative value of the gifts may have depended more on diplomatic status than market value.

That seems to have been part of why the voyages were eventually discontinued. The Chinese bureaucracy were superb bean counters and they found the trips were not cost effective. After massive spending on the fleet, they never gathered enough tribute to make it pay. Infighting between the Confucian civil servants and the eunuchs of the emperor’s household doomed the project.

Here’s where I find a fault with When China Ruled the Seas. Where was the Chinese merchant class? How did they react to the expeditions and what did they do when they ended? Did private traders take up where Zheng He left off? Why were the Confucians so hostile to private trade? I felt that some of these areas needed to be better explored.

On the other hand, Levathes is a veteran National Geographic writer and she knows how to lay on the colorful detail. We learn a lot about court intrigues, the founding of Beijing, and Chinese beliefs about sex (Korean women were considered just right). When China Ruled the Seas is a colorful telling of a tale that has been overlooked in the West.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Avast ye swabs! Today is, yes you guessed it, National Talk Like a Pirate Day. Shiver me timbers!

In honor of same, I present a bit of shameless self-promotion. You can still get a copy of Black Sails, a collection of pirate yarns from 1018 Press for a mere $11.99 (dollars, not doubloons). The stories range from the comedic to the horrific, from Davy Jones Locker to the skies, and all points in between. Your humble subscriber, Scurvy Dave Hardy, has a salty yarn of piracy, curses and cruelty on the high seas titled “Black Curse of the Noose” in said collection.

-Dave Hardy

I see that the school where I earned my degree, the University of Florida, has made international headlines. During a Q&A with Senator John Kerry a student rambled on at length with his question. The student’s microphone was cut off and then university police moved in. The student was arrested and tasered.

Now as I recall when I was an undergrad, it was unsafe for a young woman to be pretty much anywhere on the streets after dark. It was unsafe for a young woman to be in fraternity house during parties for that matter (except ATO, they at least kept their hands off the girls). Occasionally it was unsafe for a young woman to be in her home. Gainesville was just about a rapist’s dream.

But times move forward and UPD has at least declared war on long-winded bores. Had that been the case in my day, about 9 out of 10 classes would have ended up with the prof being tasered. As for undergrads with stupid questions, well, it would not have been pretty.

I look forward to the day when UPD can end every visiting speaker’s lecture with tear gas and a baton charge. Why stop there? I’m sure Kerry was twice as boring as the presumptuous fool who dared think that questions at UF didn’t involve electric shocks. Let’s just have the police command all “Free Speech Zones”. “Free” as in savage, “speech” as in beating.

So for all you folks palnning to send your kids to UF, look forward to your daughters being raped by thugs and your sons being tortured by the police.

Go Gators!

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Dir. by Zhang Yimou

Perhaps it is natural the Chinese filmmaking is a bit of a grab-bag. Asians were forced to adapt to deal with the inrush of Western culture. In more recent times they have been able to pick and choose, blending foreign elements with home-grown style. The wu xia genre is typically Chinese, with its emphasis on history and traditional social structure. Nonetheless, while watching House of Flying Daggers I found myself thinking how much it reminded me of a Jean Pierre Melville film. Hard-boiled cops and outlaws with a code of honor meet in a world of tarnished honor. And yet, I couldn’t help but remember that Chinese detective stories date back to a time even earlier than the one Flying Daggers inhabits!

The story is set in the 800s. The Tang dynasty is crumbling and China is in the throes of a revolution. The gendarmes are battling a subversive movement known as the House of Flying Daggers. Leo (Andy Lau) a police captain sends his lieutenant, Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro) to infiltrate the Peony Pavilion where the new showgirl is rumored to be linked to the Flying Daggers. The girl is Mei (Ziyi Zhang), not only is she supposed to be the daughter of a recently deceased Flying Dagger leader, she is also blind. Mei can also play a mean game of “echo”, which involves beans, drums on posts, a Chinese orchestra, and evidently, swords on the end of ladies’ sleeves. Leo raids the Pavilion and before you can say “Minsky’s!” Mei is in the calaboose with a front row seat at the torture chamber. Mei is clearly limber, but having your arms pulled out of their sockets is a bit much.

Before Mei can get a Rolfing session from the Chinese fuzz, Jin busts her out of the can and they head for the hills. In true noir style, the viewer finds himself asking who is for real in this situation. Is Jin just an undercover cop doing his job? What are his feelings for Mei and what are her feelings for him? Before it is all over the view finds the veil of deception covers just about everything and everybody.

There’s a curious side note to all this. Zhan Yimou doesn’t exactly romanticize either the cops or the insurgents. Both view their agents as expendable. They are soldiers in war where personal happiness is irrelevant, they are just eggs to make an omelet. That’s a significant subtext in these times.

Flying Dagger is set in a land of lush landscapes, not as stark as the Central Asian wilds served up by Ang Lee in Crouching Tiger, but suffused with color that can be gentle or harsh. There is of course, action galore. The wire-fu is offset by some intense ground battles and Ziyi Zhang has a real dancer’s grace. Zhang Yimou doesn’t neglect the more extravagant traditions of wu xia. There are battles fought in the tops of bamboo stalks and arrows that bank and ricochet like billiard balls. It makes for some spectacular eye candy. If I have one complaint, it is that at two hours the film might have benefited from a bit of trimming. After the midpoint of the story (plot-wise not time-wise), a little less in the way of beautifully composed reaction shots might have been more.

Still it’s hard to deny that House of Flying Daggers is a marvelous blend of action and romance.
-Dave Hardy

Monday, September 17, 2007

Dir. by Ronnie Yu

Sword & Sorcery may seem like it is mired in endless pastiches of Conan coated in a rancid syrup of Tolkein, a fur-clad barbarian finds the magic bowling trophy and slays the evil wizard, thus fulfilling his destiny, at least until the advance is spent. Well, I’m here to tell you that Sword & Sorcery thrives on Chinese movie screens only over there they disguise it by calling it historical. But when you hear a movie called wu xia it’s really a fantasy set in a historical frame.

The Bride with White Hair is set in the last days of the Ming Dynasty in China. Cho Yi Hang (Leslie Cheung) is an orphan adopted by the Chief of the Wu Tang Clan (the Chinese martial arts society, not the NY rappers, though some Dirty Ol’ Bastards are in the mix). Cho is the handsomest guy, the best swordsman, and the most popular fellow, so naturally he’s going to be the next leader. His girlfriend is the beautiful and ambitious Lu (Kit Yang Lam). For Cho the future is bright.

Alas, he lives in interesting times. The foreign tribes are on the move. The Ming are tottering, and worst of all the Evil Clan has awoken. The Evil’s are lead by the Chis (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui, in a hysterically over-the-top performance)a brother and sister pair of twins who do everything (I mean everything) together. Then Cho meets the Wolf Girl, a feral child raised to be a kung-fu killing machine. She might chop a guy into nine parts, but she’s nowhere near the ball-busting shrew Lu is. Though Cho is poised for greatness, he finds it comes at a cost. The people around him start showing a brutal and bloodthirsty streak. Cho just wants peace, but of course he’s not gonna get it.

Bride has a lot going for it. Delirious musical scenes with dancing devil worshippers follow brutal mediations on the nature of power. The sets tend to the minimal, and practically all action takes place at night, as if to emphasize the night that is descending on Chinese culture. Black humor pervades this Chinese Gothic tale of love and betrayal. While some people are put off by the camera tricks and “wire-fu” choreography, this is a movie about people. Sure they can run straight up trees or stop 1,000 falling flower petals with a sword, but they are people. While Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon set the gold standard for wu xia film, The Bride With White Hair deserves a very honorable mention.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, September 14, 2007

Dir. by Walter Hill

Southern Comfort is one of the best works from Walter Hill, a director with a distinguished resume (48 Hours, The Warriors, Trespass, etc.). It is also the best Not-Vietnam film.

In 1981 the Vietnam War was still relatively raw for Americans. One can only imagine what studios said when approached with the idea of filming battle scenes in the jungle. It would be expensive and controversial, two things that are pretty much anathema in Hollywood. Not being Francis Ford Coppola, Hill took a different tack. He made a movie about a group of Louisiana National Guardsmen on weekend maneuvers.

Hardin (Powers Boothe) is a Texan who has just moved to Baton Rouge and transferred to the Louisiana Guard. He finds his new comrades to mostly be ignorant, gun-toting rednecks (“Just the ones I been around all my life,” he says). In this passel of misfits, he gravitates to the only other misfit whose IQ is more than room temperature, Spencer (Keith Carradine).

While the squad is on maneuvers, they steal some pirogues from the swamp-Cajuns. They also indulge in firing blanks at anything that moves. Unfortunately the Cajuns aren’t in on the joke and reply with real guns. Lost and under fire, the Guardsmens’ jaunt across the swamp turns into a bloody nightmare.

By now you may have guessed that this story has bugger-all to do with Cajuns. They are hill-billy stand-ins for the VC. Much of what transpires to Bravo squad is the stuff of Vietnam movie-cliché, except of course it wasn’t cliché at all in 1981. The enemy is mostly invisible, they attack with unpredictable and highly effective means that demoralize the troops. The Guardsmen are book soldiers, they are prey to ferocious conflicts among themselves, and use drugs in the field. The civilians (yes, there are civilians) speak an incomprehensible patois and the troops must either brutally treat them as or enemies trust them with their lives.

The most compelling element of Southern Comfort is the cast and characters. The relationship between Hardin and Spencer is at the core of the film. It’s classic Walter Hill fare: two men bond under the stress of a survival situation. The supporting cast is no less compelling. They are a scruffy, unmilitary lot, alternately oafish and vulnerable. Fred Ward plays Reese, a man who thinks of himself as a hardened killer. Alan Autry (credited as Carlos Brown) plays Bowden, an emotionally unstable high school football coach. The underrated standout is Les Lanom as Sgt. Casper, who plays a desperately unimaginative and naïve squad leader whose doomed efforts to lead the squad are almost painful watch in their folly. Fine performances by Peter Coyote, Lewis Smith, Franklyn Seales, and T.K. Carter, and Brion James (as a Cajun trapper) round out the cast.

The film builds a tour de force of intercut music, image, and action that makes an ending that is of exceptional emotional impact. As in real war, men may survive, but Hill makes it clear that his protagonists will be marked by the struggle. Do the survivors run toward rescue or away from it?

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Dir. by Rudolph Maté

Thermopylae is the Greek Alamo. A small group of Greek soldiers held a strategic pass against overwhelming odds because it was their duty.

Before it became a controversial hit, the battle of Thermopylae was the subject of a film way back in 1962. Staring Richard Egan as Leonidas, the Spartan king, Three Hundred Spartans takes a slightly less extreme look at that critical battle.

Xerxes, the king of Persia, has determined to conquer Greece and avenge an earlier defeat of his father at the hands of the Greeks. Xerxes has two voices competing for his ear: Artemisia, the queen of Lycia, and Demaratus, an exiled Spartan king (the Spartans had two kings). While Artemisia flatters Xerxes and tells him how the Greeks are a pushover, Demaratus warns Xerxes that he’s in for a fight.

Meanwhile back in Sparta King Leonidas is working with Themistocles, an Athenian politician, to get a united Greek force to confront the Persian hordes. Unfortuntely, the Spartan elders won’t go for it and Leonidas is on his own.

Phelan, a young warrior, has an even bigger problem. Queen Gorgo herself has given him his shield, with the classic Spartan injunction: come home with your shield or on it. Phelan’s got a beautiful girl and he’s going to war, that’s heaven for a Spartan. Alas, his father was spotted in the company of Demaratus at the Persian court. Phelan is stripped of his rank. Under these trying circumstances this disparate group meets in one of Antiquity’s bloodiest battles.

Three Hundred Spartans is not exactly Spartacus. The acting is more dinner theater than Hollywood. I half expected Xerxes to twirl his mustache and say, “A curse upon these Spartans! They have foiled me again!” Well, actually that would have been cool, but you can’t get everything.

The battle scenes are actually pretty well done, considering that they did not seem to have enough extras. The troops look like guys who’ve been in a week-long hand-to-hand fight. The big problem with the lack of extras is that the Spartan phalanx is reduced to single lines with large spaces between them. The claustrophobic confines of clashing shield walls gets on screen, but rather late in the game.

Overall, the film holds rather well to history. The real virtue is not so much the rather limited storyline as the sense of drama inherent in the clash of cultures diametrically opposed in their politics and way of life. While I might not pay hard cash to add it to my collection, you can always ask your library to get it for you.

-Dave Hardy

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Dir. by Stanley Kubrick

This is still the greatest of Sword & Sandal films and for my money still the best gladiator film (though Gladiator was pretty damn good). It is also one of many film triumphs by Stanley Kubrick.

The tale is about Spartacus (Kirk Douglas, in all his cleft-chin glory), a Thracian slave bought to be a gladiator. Spartacus is an odd mixture of under-class humility and iron-willed rebelliousness. On other words, he takes a lot of guff, then he snaps really violently. Spartacus takes a liking to Varinia (Jean Simmons), a beautiful slave girl. When Crassus (Lawrence Olivier) an ambitious Roman politician of the ultra-right wing variety, buys her Spartacus leads a revolt in the gladiator school and starts raising hell.

The crux of the film is the idealistic hopes aroused by Spartacus’ revolt in the downtrodden slaves of Rome. When the revolting masses start whipping the Roman troops sent against them, something like a revolution begins to rear its head. While Spartacus and his comrades are advancing the materialist dialectic in the countryside, Crassus is engaged in political battles with Gracchus (Charles Laughton) and the populist faction in the Senate.

This film has always been a favorite of mine. Though over the years I have come to a few criticisms of it. The film is an adaptation of Howard Fast’s novel. Fast was a Marxist who wanted to write about the legendary hero of revolution, in effect a Trotskyite Beowulf. His Spartacus is a slave born of slaves, a man of great humility, except when faced with class oppression. He is an instinctive Marxist. Indeed at the risk of a spoiler, he ends up nearly Christlike.

From studying the records we learn that Spartacus was actually a mercenary and a highway robber before he was a gladiator. That background helps make his phenomenal success against seasoned Roman troops more believable. Crassus was nowhere near the brilliant manipulator of politics that he appears as in the film. Although he beat Spartacus in the final battle, his triumph was stolen by the far more charismatic Pompey. Spartacus was a bit more like Conan than Che Guevara, and Crassus bore more of a resemblance to George W. Bush than Napoleon. But neither version would quite suit left-wing politics.

That’s not to say that I don’t still love this movie. The spectacle of Rome is splendid. The cast is marvelous (did I mention the amazing performances by Tony Curtis and Peter Ustinov?). In fact, Spartacus is part of what helped me develop a fascination with ancient history. It is so good, I think it may even be time for a remake of this classic tale of defiance, hope, and tragedy.

-Dave Hardy

Friday, September 07, 2007


Here are some belated notes on recent appearances by myself. I got my copy of Black Sails, the anthology of pirate-fantasy stories from 1018 Press. Some favorites are “The Death of Captain Eugene Bloodcake and Fall of the Horrid Whore” by Joel A. Sutherland (it’s about as weird as it sounds, and that’s a good thing). “The Siren’s Lure” by Jordan Lapp is a sparkling swashbuckler. There’s a lot of good stuff in here with all kinds of pirates from sheer fantasy to sharply defined history to Zeppelin pirates, in stories that cover comedy, horror, and action. It’s more than I can list right now, when I have a little more time I hope to comment on some of my fellow contributors’ tales in more detail.

From a while back The Cimmerian V4, N3 with my article “Worms of the Frontier” is available. There’s a fine article on Howard’s Sword & Sorcery influence on Heavy Metal by Scott Hall. Gary Romeo looks at the origins of the phrase “Sword & Sorcery”. Paul Shovlin takes a long hard look at Solomon Kane. I consider “Worms of the Earth” as a classic of American writing that imports the American frontier into Iron Age Britain.

Finally, my good friend GW Thomas has gotten Talbot Mundy’s classic TROS OF SAMOTHRACE out in one volume. This is some of the best historical fiction I’ve read. If you like Harold Lamb’s Cossack stories or Robert E. Howard’s Crusader tales, check out Tros. He’s a one man navy with a band of Freedom Fighters out to stop Julius Caesar from turning Britain into a Roman colony. It is way cool. Gary deserves a big hand for keeping this out where the public can get it:

-Dave Hardy

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Dir. by Jim O’Connolly

This is one straight from the good old days of the Saturday afternoon monster movie. It stars the animated creations of Ray Harryhausen, a menagerie of carnivorous dinosaurs, belligerent pachyderms, and a mighty cute lil’ prehistoric pony. Oh yeah, there are some actors too.

A down-on-its-luck Wild West show hits a small Mexican town, the lady boss, T.J. (Gila Golan) is looking for the Next Big Thing. She’s pretty sure it’s not her ex, Tuck (James Franciscus) who has also hit town. Rather it’s a prehistoric horse the size of a housecat. An English paleontologist (Laurence Naismith) recognizes this as the find of the century. The business is complicated because Carlos (Gustavo Rojo), the chap who found the itty-bitty horsy, is from a Gypsy band ruled by his crazy old one-eyed mom (Freda Jackson). She is determined that mini-Dobbin must go back. Pretty soon the cowboys and the paleontologist track down the mysterious valley where the beastie came from. In a thrilling sequence the buckaroos rope, throw, and brand them a meat-eating Allosaurus known as Gwangi.

Pretty soon Gwangi is slated to be star of the show. But one should never cross an eye-patch wearing Gypsy granny lightly, especially when she has a midget sidekick! Gwangi escapes and after dining on an elephant and a dozen or so ticket holders (from the cheap seats, thank God!) he’s gunning for Tuck and T.J. The fastest hand will survive!

Now a cynic might say this is just King Kong in Mexico (if we took care of the dinosaur problem, immigration reform would be a snap). But this has COWBOYS and DINOSAURS, for crying out loud! Who could not love it? Gwangi is rousing good fun and classic special effects from the master of stop-motion.

-Dave Hardy

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

By Neal Barrett Jr.

While Neal Barrett is well known for works that verge on the surreal (e.g. Interstate Dreams) or the grimmest of grim futures (Through Darkest America), he can put together a rousing tale of swashbuckling adventure.

Aldair is a student at the University in Silium. Like many a youth, he runs afoul of the Pigs. But Aldair is something of a boar himself. In this version of Europe, different species of animals form the rival kingdoms. Aldair is a boar from the Venici, a tough border tribe used to acting independently. Rhemia is an empire of pigs, who face the wolfish Stygianns to the north and the sophisticated and snaky Nicieans to the south.

Unfortunately for Aldair, his comfortable life is disrupted when he is accused of heresy. In an off-kilter version of The Defiant Ones (or is it The Three Little Pigs?) Aldair joins up with Rhief, who is literally the big, bad wolf. They are looking for Albion, a mystic land of wonder and terror. But first they travel through a good bit of the known world on picaresque adventures that see them as pirates, slaves, mercenaries, scholars, and child-care specialists.

Aldair in Albion is real rousing fun, but not at the expense of well-drawn characters and a humanistic (or is animalistic appropriate here?) belief in the value of truth. It forms part of a larger body of quality writing given to us by Mr. Barrett, and one that has surely earned him some kind of recognition for a lifetime of achievement as a writer.

-Dave Hardy