Friday, December 30, 2011

Top Ten war movies on my hard drive.

   Time for some fun Holiday stuff.

   I've gotten a lot of emails from readers of this blog over the past year (Holy Shit! This blog is a year old already!) requesting articles on 'this war' or 'that world event' which, I must say, I really do appreciate. People requesting articles makes me feel all warm and fuzzy inside so thank you all for that. One of the most common questions I get asked is what kind of stuff I watch or read. So I thought I'd do movies since the 'holiday season' is here and there'll be good stuff on TV to sit down and feel fat and satiated over. Ain't First world problems grand?

   Naturally, I'm talking war movies here.

   The thing about war movies is that you can probably really only enjoy them if you've never actually been in a war. So long as it remains theoretical, war is entertainment. In many ways movies are the lingua franca of our time, the place where ideas get disseminated into the global culture and the  Zeitgeist gets measured by box office tickets sold. Movies today are a lot like how the Romans amused themselves in the amphitheaters only today, nobody really dies, they don't give out free bread and instead charge you a day's salary for the popcorn and sugar water at the in house feeding station. Seven bucks for popcorn! What the fuck?

  In writing this movie post, I was thinking of scanning my memory and coming up with some default list of war movies that "the critics" would agree with to make myself sound all erudite and intelligent. But then I'd be bullshitting you. So I came up with a novel strategy. You see, I moved house a while back and had no Internet or TV for a whole five days. To entertain myself, all I had were movies I'd stored on my external drives. And I said to myself, these must be the movies I really like and not the ones I should like since those on my drives were the ones I'd deemed worthy of digital storage. So I used that criteria to compile this list...

  Sure, I'm probably leaving out a whole bunch of great movies and your favorite war movie but what the hell. Here, in no particular order, are the war movies I re watch when I find myself getting philosophical at 3AM and need to remind myself how fortunate I am not to have been born in the wrong place at the wrong time and conscripted as a foot soldier into some general or politician's pocket shooting war.



   Seriously, they don't make them like this anymore. Made in 1970, before today's CGI (where today they hire fifty extras to run around in the foreground while bulking out the background with 50,000 pixelated enemy formations), this is a movie that truly 'spared no expense' and hired real actual men to act out the pew-pew. And it sure does show on screen. You get to see thousands of guys dressed in period costume run around that Belgian field re enacting one of the most decisive battles of all time. It really puts you there. Muskets, line formations, cavalry attacks, infantry squares, the whiff of grapeshot, cannon balls, it's all just brilliantly rendered by actual men. Wide shots reveal huge line infantry ranks while you can almost hear producer Dino De Laurentis shitting bricks in the background wondering if this production was going to pay off. Rod Steiger plays the titular little man with the emperor complex and Orson Welles shows up as "the unavoidable" Louis XVIII, the last French monarch to die without being king. Watch this if you want to see 50,000 extras in full period costume run around on screen for real!


   This is classic stuff. Made by seventies era logic, a different time when WWII was still fresh in the Zeitgeist's memory. As a kid back then, all the comic books were still WWII based; Victor, Warlord and Commando. The WWII generation were entering their golden years (we survived the war but we're going to die anyway...argh!) So war movies as retrospective were popular. And it was a time when it was still possible to make an epic movie with a shitload of Hollywood stars who took a pay cut to make something huge possible. Check out that cast list! Directed by Richard Attenborough, it was all for a movie about a 'little' operation called Market Garden; Montgomery's 1944 dick waving attempt to end the war fast and prove he had balls and could be as unpredictable and foxy as the great man in the desert himself, Rommel. In the end, Montgomery's gambit failed. Maybe it should have been planned by my favourite British general of WWII, Richard O'Connor. The idea that you could para drop 30,000 men behind German lines, capture bridges and clear the way for an armor thrust into the heart of Nazi Germany to end the war quickly was pure hubris built on the Allied success at Normandy and the capture of Paris. Here, in 1944 on the Western Front, the Wehrmacht proved it still had teeth! The scene with Robert Redford rowing across a Dutch canal under enemy mortar fire stands out. "Holy Mary...mother of God..." Brilliant war movie stuff!

   Before you think I only watch '70s war movies, let me throw Spielberg's amazing movie into the mix. I remember watching this in a Santa Monica theater in the '90s and it was like all my stupid fascination with men killing each other got thrown against the fire of visceral reality. War is fucking horrible. And that's why it sells tickets. Because we humans love it. From the nail biting 20 minute Normandy opening sequence, on through the accurate representation of WWII equipment (that Tiger tank looked really real!), you cannot escape this movie if you want to get your war on. It's a total experience. It really does put to rest that movie trope where, after guns get fired, people handily die neatly so the main characters can move on with the rest of the plot. That's the shitty thing about war movies generally. They always leave out the awkward wounded, that sad fact that after an engagement you're left with say 20 dead but 60 more wounded screaming in pain and calling out for their mom. Fucking reality, how does it work? This movie doesn't flinch when it comes to examining the ugly truth of pulling the trigger on a live human. Men die and it's ugly. War is the worst thing about our species. And, worse still, sometimes it's justified.


   'Nam. The jungle. Napalm. A soundtrack by The Doors. A script by John Milius based on Conrad's Heart of Darkness. And directed by Coppola who remortgaged his house to get it finished after the studios pulled funding after the whole production turned into a cluster fuck in the Philippine jungle. This is the Vietnam war movie for me. Hell, they even made a movie about the war zone making the movie became! But how can you not like the end product? One of those rare auteur movies that don't get made anymore because everything that gets green lit in Hollywood these days has to pass through shitloads of corporate fucktards who run market analytics and get back to you on Thursday.

  Marlon Brando showed up on set 100lbs overweight after cashing the million dollar check Coppola wrote him, so Coppola had to improvise on the fly, filming the final Col. Kurtz scenes in close ups and shadow. He made it work! It's an artistic vision, a philosophical journey and damn tour de force film making. The newly released Redux version adds a good fortyish minutes to the original and highlights French history of meddling in Indo China by way of a dinner conversation and a sensuous opium smoking lady. If you're partial to the 'herb', there's no better war movie to sink your mind into and become one with the screwed up violent nature of us upright apes.


   The definitive D-Day movie. Hands down the best. Based on Cornelius Ryan's book (again) with a slew of military consultants on hand who actually participated in the landings, this is the movie to see if you've got three hours to sink into epic war. Again, the cast list is a who's who of Hollywood at the time and all actors took a pay cut so it could get made. One of my favorite aspects of this movie is the accurate rendering of all participants (the Germans are not portrayed as mindless goose stepping Hitler lovers and speak actual German with subtitled English) and so too is the role of the French Resistance (not brain dead frog surrender monkeys with a penchant for wine and running away) like the American Right liked to portray when they came up with "Freedom Fries" in the cafeteria, this movie is detailed and accurate. Sure, there are some hokey bits with John Wayne showing up but we're talking early 60s here so we've got to forgive the iconophry and get with the program.

   This is strict by the book narrative and it works. It's pure war movie goodness.


   Yeah sure, that choice is going to throw some of you. Sure, the hill assault scene is amazing. But you know what? This whole war movie sticks with you. Sure Terence Malick is the kind of director that gets accused of masturbating onto film but I "get it". It's art. It's war. Sometimes they meet like the WWI poetry of Siegfried Sassoon. Who doesn't realize the thin line between life and death more than a soldier in war? That's the question that gets asked here. The philosophical wonderings are sweet. In a way, they capture what soldiers really think (at least in the eyes of an artist). Plenty of people think it's not a great war movie but I re watched it recently, and, as I get older, I really can connect with the life and death philosophy of war that Malick here tries to explore. It's a superior war movie and you should like it.

   Not exactly a full on war movie I know. But I'm throwing it into the mix because I love it so much and fuck everything. James Woods as the gonzo journalist in an impossible war zone is my fantasy alter ego. If only I had the balls to sneak into Syria right now. Oliver Stone wrote the script, directed the movie and I suppose it should be mixed up with 'Platoon' and 'JFK' which means I'm tipping my hat to those movies too. But Salvador is my favorite Oliver Stone movie. Gringos meddling in South America has never led to anything good (just ask Cortez) but this gritty movie highlights that in spades. The harrowing scene at the end where border control seizes his newly acquired wife wrecks my head every time I watch it. It's as relevant today for all nationalities where 'small people' get caught up in global chessgame proxy resource wars. After we wreck your country because we don't like your government, don't show up on our border as a refugee. You'll get called an 'illegal alien'.


Can you leave Stanley Kubrick out of any favorite movie list? Probably not possible. Sure, who doesn't love Dr Strangelove or Barry Lyndon? But Kubrick knocked it out of the park in this study of how ordinary men get mind fucked into being 'soldiers'. This movie is the ultimate meditation on war. Young kids plucked from adolescence and transported into a reality devised by old men. Old men that run countries and see war as a solution. The hierarchy of human affairs is on display here against the background of the Vietnam War. This movie is ugly, visceral and somehow quiet. It's kind of like war itself.


I love Australia. And I love Peter Weir. This is probably the greatest 'anti war' movie ever made. Seriously. And it was all Churchill's fault when he was  'First Lord of the Admiralty".  Chucking the ANZACs against the Turks, hoping to open up a new "Southern Front" versus German allies sounded like a good idea, but in practice, it turned out to be one of the worst ideas in military history. Those guys got bogged down into one of the worst impossible situations in military history. But the Aussies and New Zealanders were thrown against the problem nonetheless. The ANZACs have always been great fighters as far the the British Empire went but this was not their finest hour. Why? Because Churchill fucked up. He wasted divisions in an amphibious assault that got bogged down on a beach and a rocky coastline versus machine guns. This movie not only shows the futility of that operation but also the totality itself. Young men seek adventure. And old men equip them with weapons and point to an enemy and say that is where adventure is.


  Do you have an interest in the Age of Sail? Sure you do. This movie depicts it brilliantly. There was a time before our Facebooky, Twiterized world when shit was really real. That means you getting pressganged onto a Royal Navy ship in the 18th century. That sure was a scary time. (By that logic I suppose, when was there a time in human history that wasn't scary). Still, if you want to know how the British built their empire, this movie approaches it. Sea power. A dominant navy. The world got explored by wooden Euro ships and this movie captures that idea. Rival Euro powers killing each other for golden trinkets stolen from foreign shores? Sure. But this movie has more. It recognizes science too and how warfare and enemies propel us forward as a species. The British gave birth to a Darwin in the wake of conquest. In a way, the US landed on the moon to beat the Russians. We humans are propelled forward by conflict. It's ugly. We're sad. But it is.

   Oh yeah, and there are great cannon battles on roiling sea. Do you aim at sail or hull? This movie puts you there and makes you realize how lucky you are not to be a crew member. Your life today is basically the dream of every sailor. Food, clothing and shelter are today things we take for granted. There was a time when your life now was the dream of the ages. Even if you're poor as fuck, these days the life of a poor man is so much better than a poor man's life in the past. These days, the poorest pleb has a better diet than the King of England in 1750. The modern world scares the shit out of me but you know what, the visceral reality of the past and this Royal Navy movie scares me even more. I got born in the perfect zone! A rare 1980s incarnation which will be seen by future historians as the perfect war free zone in comparison to the global proxy resource wars that will come later in the 21st century.


    I'm throwing this movie into the mix and yeah, I know it has no place here. But you know what, it's probably my favorite war movie. Yeah sure, that's horrible. Why? Because it's war as comedy. War as something other than tragedy. That's so wrong. And yet I love it. I remember watching it as a kid and crying buckets when it ended. The camaraderie. Soldiers in war. The idea that being shot at binds you together as men. Roman legions operated off this principle. All soldiers do. And as a kid, this movie made my child's brain realize that. Sure, there's something wrong with us as humans if we organize ourselves into armies and make it an industry and devise elaborate ways of killing each other. But in my child's brain, there was something in this movie that appealed to that dark side of my brain.

    War as comedy. War as binding men together for a common goal. Sure, I'm bullshitting here but tell me you don't love this movie. Oddball coming out of the tunnel in a Sherman tank gunning down Nazis, Don Rickles weighing up the price of gold and that classic scene where Eastwood, Oddball and Telly Savalas confront a Tiger Tank with Sergio Leone music. War is terrible. But for some reason this movie turned war into fun. For whatever reason, my ten your old brain cried when it ended. WW II was probably the last 'good war'. War will never be so simple again. The bad guys will never be so easy to define in our proxy resource war future. This movie, for me, harks back to a time when war was worth it.

  Anyway, that's my mind dump on war movies.


Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Kim Jong Il: Crazy like a Fox!

  2011 has been a pretty shitty year for dictators who like holding on to power and not dying.

  Dictator expiration dates this year started in Ivory Coast and spread to Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya and Yemen. That left Laurent Gbagbo and Mubarak locked up awaiting war crimes trials, Abidine Ben Ali and Saleh looking for beach front property in Saudi Arabia and Gadaffi dead. Assad is barely holding on in Syria and that is probably why it's the only civil uprising I haven't written about this year. Probably because it's been the least likely to succeed.

   The death of Kim Jong Il on Sunday at the age of 69 means he's the only dictator to lose power this year due to "natural causes". That's pretty funny when you think about it. But seeing all these tongue in cheek obituaries of the Korean leader on the likes of CNN or Fox News, hinting at the fact that he was a crazy mother fucker, mental or certifiably insane, well, that kind of bullshit wasn't so funny to me and did bother me a little more than watching any US news network usually bothers me.

   Why? Because Kim Jong IL was crazy like a fox.

   Sure, Kim Jong Il had a fucked up hairdo and got wasted on Hennessy XO and ate caviar while his country starved but that's not really how you judge a dictator these days. Most men have foibles and eccentricities, hell, I'm a walking nightmare myself and wouldn't stand up to too much scrutiny if some media outfit stuck cameras in my face but that's not how you judge dictators in our current sci-fi dystopia. No, these days, and probably always, at least going back as far as the Greek city-states and their occasional 'tyrant' rulers, the general rule is that bat shit insane rulers get judged on one thing and one thing only.

   How long do they manage to stay in power?

   Thing is, crazy people don't stay in power very long. Just like Roman emperor Caligula, it doesn't take more than a few years of crazy shit (making your horse a general, constantly banging your sister) before the army gets sick enough of your shit to stab you to death in your sleep. By this logic alone, the only thing that really matters when you talk about dictatorships is longevity and by this accounting we can say one thing about Kim Jong Il...

   He was not fucking crazy.

   In fact, from a maintaining power perspective, the guy was smart as hell.

   From the moment his bigger and greater and much beloved daddy (the father of modern North Korea) Kim Il Sung died in 1994, people wondered if Kim Jong JR could pull off his father's job and fill daddy's shoes. That's never been an easy job for less gifted sons and in 1994 that job was getting even more difficult for North Korea and Kim Jong JR in particular.

   A lot of people don't realize that North Korea wasn't always totally screwed up.

   In fact, during the Cold War and in the years after the Korean War, the North was actually more prosperous than the South. Not because they were churning out cool stuff or selling anything on the world market but simply because they had a superpower friend in the Soviet Union who supplied them with mega tonnages of grain from the Ukrainian steppe and filled out the North's army with the latest Warsaw Pact military equipment. China too, with their baby brother commie neighbor next door still hadn't turned into the hyper capitalist police state it is today. They too had a policy of making sure that their  commie Southern neighbor had enough food to feed everybody and nothing tarnished communism's "good name" around the world.  Kim Jong's daddy presided over all this while experimenting with his very own little Orwellian pocket country and cast himself as the cult leader of his own totalitarian police state. Seems he read Nineteen-Eighty Four as an operational tech manual and missed the idea that it was supposed to be fiction.

Kim Il Sung: Still worshipped by everyone.

   But this free ride was dying by the time Kim Jong Il got his chance to lead North Korea in 1994.

   The Soviet Union was gone now along with all that free food and monetary aid. China was turning free market and their sickly neighbor to the south was being seen as more and more of an embarrassment and liability. China to this day views NK like some famous movie star might view an awkward retarded brother who has a habit of masturbating in public and ruining famous older brother's PR. Sure, you can slap him around for doing it but that'll just draw more attention and get you in  trouble for child abuse. Your only choice is to sit there and enjoy your prosperity and fame while accepting the fact that your awkward brother occasionally jizzes on your leg.

   And that's been Kim Jong JR's leadership plan since the day he took power.

   Pretending he's crazy and jizzing on people.

   Kim Jong Il took power with a pretty shitty hand and managed to play bluff poker with it for 17 years. He threatened the South Korean capital with thousands of artillery pieces and pretended everyday he was just crazy enough to use them. The South responded with a policy of "Sunshine Diplomacy" which was basically a policy of giving Kim Jong lots of cash in return for him keeping his dick in his pants.

   To get his hands on some American dollars, Junior started work on a nuke and even played crazy enough to get the Americans, the Japanese and the South to help build him a $4.6 billion light water nuclear reactor in Kumho in 1994. This was seen by the West as a better deal than continuing to have the North  operating its two  existing gas-graphite reactors which were unstable but easier to breed plutonium from. Kim Jong IL played crazy and bagged the cash.

   Every time Kim Jong felt the Japanese were getting too big for their britches, he'd rustle up a missile 'Test" over the Sea of Japan and pretend it was 'necessary' which invariably made the Japs go screaming to the Yanks looking for them to do something about the crazy person next door. Usually, this meant another few million tonnes of food aid, energy supplies and a wagging finger hoping the crazy guy doesn't do it again. If the West didn't have such corporate controlled media, this whole strategy would be labeled 'appeasement' by Fox News. But instead the likes of CNN and Fox called Kim Jong Il crazy and threw their hands in the air and accepted the politician's line that there were no better options.

   Kim Jong Il played bluff and if he played crazy enough, there was always, from a Western point of view, the chance he might deliver in spades and press the big red button of win on Seoul. That'd be a lot of Star Craft games interrupted. For all his rich neighbors, it was easier to just pay the 'protection' money the 'crazy' guy demanded.

   Where things got interesting was when North Korea went through with an actual nuke test in 2006. They finally broke into the fission club even though Kim Jong had signed the NPT. Sure, seismic readings indicated the underground test was a failure on the Richter Scale and the expected kilo tonnage was below yield and only a partial chain reaction. But it still made everyone in the region shudder and food and monetary aid finally dried up. It was a bridge too far. Carrots weren't worth it anymore for his neighbors. Kim Jong Il knew his country was dying and he needed more aid and cash if he wanted to pass off the goodies to his son. At home, he was forced now to rely on the cult of personality state he'd inherited from his father and total lock down of information from the outside was key. The huge Army and security apparatus meant that information on the State was in lock down even when the people starved.

   Sure Kim Jong would up the stakes every now and again and sink a SK Destroyer, shell a disputed SK Island and threaten madness on Seoul but Kim Jong always had survival in mind and was never interested in an actual shooting war. An Apocalypse on the Korean Peninsula was never his goal. It was a war he knew he could never win.

   Despite the mega casualties, he knew South Korea would always win a war with the North. The US and SK would lay waste the North in a month. And that's where China would come in. That's why they never wanted this war to happen either and preferred North Korea as some kind of metaphorical buffer zone against the West. After the initial flurry of steel rain on Seoul, the usual disruption and loss of life  would ensue. There would be street battles in Seoul between SK troops and the North's special forces who might infiltrate the capital through tunnel networks under the DMZ. Still, without modern armor this force would always be a symbolic force so Kim Jong could feel good about being the mighty leader of his brainwashed zombie population in Pyongyang. The battle of 1970s Warsaw Pact equipment versus modern laser guided and night vision equipment would stand no chance and the counter attack would be merciless.

   Kim Jong Il never had any illusions he could win this war.

  The US and South Koreans would begin a co ordinated air campaign after the initial NK artillery barrage on Seoul, targeting North Korean radar sites initially and also going after as much of that arty North of Seoul as they could. I can see that being a turkey shoot of epic proportions for the US and South Korean pilots. That along with counter battery fire from the US and SK in the South would lay waste the North's artillery to a manageable level (mobile potshots from self propelled arty hiding under bridges and in tunnels excepted). Interestingly, this might be the time North Korea decides to break out the chemical or biological weaponry and lay down a plague on Seoul.

    You see how the crazy never ends?

   Any actual shooting war on the Korean peninsula would lead to regime change and if the current elite in Pyongyang are interested in anything, it is self preservation. That's why the political elite will probably go along with this power transition to Kim Jong -un. At least for the time being. They'll wait and see if he's their kind of crazy. The kind that can maintain the status quo and power structure in North Korea for another 30 years. In many ways, that's a special kind of calculated crazy that keeps the elite in power, the people starved, afraid, dependent and the state itself in control of all information.

   Shit's so scary these days, the real crazy question in all of this is if North Korea is the past or the future of our crazy species.