Reluctant Hero

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The Oscar-nominated World War I movie 1917 combines the challenges and strengths of film, live stage, choreography, and music into one sublime work of art. The movie focuses on two soldiers, Lance Corporal Blake (Dean-Charles Chapman) and Lance Corporal Schofield (George MacKay), with a single goal: they must deliver a “stand-down” order to the front lines before dawn, when1,600 British troops are preparing to attack a German encampment. British intelligence has learned that it is a massive trap, and all 1,600 are likely to die or be captured in the onslaught. Making the mission even more compelling is the fact that Blake’s brother is among the soldiers at the front line who will be slaughtered if he doesn’t arrive with the new orders in time to stop the assault. Blake and Schofield must succeed. The allusion to Elbert Hubbard’s essay “A Message to Garcia” is unavoidable: there are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.

The film opens on a sunny day in a flowery meadow. Soldiers are hanging their laundry and taking naps during a lull in the action. It reminded me of the tone and setting of Peter Jackson’s World War I documentary They Will Not Grow Old, with its pastel colorized tints and boyish faces. Schofield even looks like one of the soldiers from Jackson’s 100-year-old footage. Blake is jarred awake from this peaceful nap with an order to choose one other soldier and come to the commanding officer’s bunker. He taps the soldier resting nearest him, and that’s how randomly Schofield becomes part of this mission.

There are times when “I’ll try” or “I’ll do my best” are simply unacceptable responses.

While it’s Blake’s brother who needs rescuing and Blake who refuses to consider delays or abandonment of the mission, this is Schofield’s story. He is the reluctant hero, the one who has joined the army “to get some decent food,” the one selected randomly to accompany the mission, the one who wants to wait until the safety of darkness to begin the mission and then urges that they turn back early, when the going gets treacherous. Yet he is the one we see leaping over bodies, dodging bullets, and throwing himself down waterfalls in his zeal to accomplish the goal. His journey is not just from General Erinmore’s bunker to Colonel McKenzie’s (Benedict Cumberbatch) command post; it is an interior journey to discover what he’s made of when “I’ll do my best” would be tantamount to “I’m ready to fail.”

The other star of this film is never seen on camera, although he fills every frame: it’s cinematographer Roger Deakins. Writer and director Sam Mendes had an idea: to put the personal war remembrances of his grandfather, Lance Corporal Alfred Mendes, into a single story spanning a single night in the footsteps of a single soldier with a singular mission. Cinematographer Deakins brought that idea to life within the immediacy of a single-take presentation. His camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses. Deakins never loses sight of his mission, just as Schofield never loses sight of his task of bringing the message to Colonel McKenzie in time to stop the assault.

Other films have begun with long tracking shots, including The Player (1992), There Will Be Blood (2007), Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) (2014), and the avant-garde Russian Ark (2002), set in the Hermitage. But this is the first one I know that required the camera person to climb steep hills and dodge charging soldiers while carrying a heavy camera and keeping a sprinting actor in the center of the camera’s lens. Thinking about the filming sometimes pulled me out of the story, yet it can’t be ignored or forgotten. Many times I gasped in awe at the immediacy of what I was seeing on screen. Deakins’ use of light and shadow to recreate Schofield’s disorientation after experiencing the concussion of an explosion is also brilliant. We aren’t really sure whether Schofield is alive or dead at that point, or if his indomitable spirit might somehow be muscling through to complete the mission.

Deakins' camera follows our heroes relentlessly to the front line, tracking them through trenches, across battle fronts, up slick muddy hills and over rotting corpses.

Music is another unseen character in this film. Thomas Newman creates several motifs to accompany our heroes on their quest, and these motifs impose their personalities in each scene. A single, sustained bass chord joins people in the tension of tight spaces; a powerful, driving percussion takes over when our heroes are in danger. The music is critical to the overpowering success of this film.

Libertarians will appreciate the few scenes containing dialogue. There they will find bitterly memorable observations:

When you deliver the message, make sure you have witnesses. Some [commanding officers] just want the fight.

Take a look at what we’ve fought over for three years. Better if we’d never come.

They don’t even want us here.

Most of all, 1917 is a powerful story honoring the indefatigable will of an accidental hero. It begins in the peaceful innocence of a flowering meadow and ends beneath the towering reality of a dead and solitary tree.


Editor's Note: Review of "1917," directed by Sam Mendes. Dreamworks, 2019, 117 minutes.



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A Mess of a Movie

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Could there be a happier Christmas movie than Little Women, with its story of generosity, kindness, familial love, and individuality? And yet — do we really need another version of Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece? It has been committed to film at least seven times, including versions starring Katharine Hepburn; June Allyson and Peter Lawford; Christian Bale and a slew of A-list women; and a sadly modernized mishmash just last year that grossed barely a million dollars. Nevertheless, here we are again, with yet another LW, this one purporting to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist (as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago).

There is much for a libertarian to love about Alcott’s Little Women, including (some might say “despite”) its theme of voluntary sacrifice and charitable service. I happen to appreciate that Marmee teaches her girls to care for the poor from their own meager goods rather than expecting a government agency to do it (or worse, suggesting that the poor “got what they deserved”). Moreover, the wealthy landowner Mr. Lawrence (Chris Cooper) is kind and generous toward the March clan, rewarding their generosity toward others with generosity of his own. He may be rich, but he is not evil.

This Little Women purports to bring Jo out of the shadows as a true feminist, as though Alcott hadn’t shone that light on Jo in her original telling, 150 years ago.

In addition, Marmee (Laura Dern) demonstrates prudence, resourcefulness, and self-reliance as the head of the household while her husband (Bob Odenkirk) is serving in the Union army during the Civil War.

A side note: director and screenwriter Greta Gerwig couldn’t resist a few digs at modern white privilege, so she inserts an exchange between two schoolchildren about the war. It goes like this:

School girl 1: “Father says we should let them keep their labor. It’s none of our business.”

School girl 2: “Everyone benefits from their economic system. Why should only the South be punished?”

In another exchange, borrowing liberally from Michelle Obama, Gerwig has Marmee say to a black woman caring for wounded soldiers alongside her: “I spent my whole life ashamed of my country.”

Black woman: “You should still be ashamed.”Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

Me: Ugh! Such anachronisms. No one talked like this back then, least of all schoolchildren or black women chastising white women.

But back to the reasons a libertarian should like this story: Marmee teaches her girls at home, another aspect of the story that should appeal to libertarians. She allows them the freedom to develop their own interests and talents — no public schools deprive them of their time or assign them inane homework that saps their creativity. Beth (Eliza Scanlen) is an accomplished musician, Amy (Florence Pugh) a budding artist, Jo (Saoirse Ronan) a skilled writer, and Meg (Emma Watson) an aspiring actress who loves to wear pretty dresses, and attend pretty parties. She also wants to get married and have babies, and in my opinion that’s perfectly all right (though not in this film, where marriage equals misery). Aunt March (Meryl Streep) tells Jo, “No one makes their own way in this world, especially a woman — unless you marry well.” Yet Marmee and Jo are making their way quite nicely. Alcott gave us a story of resilience, accountability, entrepreneurship, and market forces, regardless of gender.

There is also much to love about this movie, despite its storytelling flaws, especially its light and airy musical score by Alexandre Desplat, its sumptuous outdoor settings, its period costumes, and its artistic cinematography. Gerwig often places her actors as though for a painting or a portrait, almost like a Mary Cassatt or Jack Vettriano painting. At times it can seem a bit schmaltzy, as when she frames a proposal scene with overhanging trees that resemble a Valentine heart. But I rather appreciate the effect, which echoes Alcott’s sometimes-schmaltzy Victorian language, whether that was Gerwig’s intent or not.

But is this a satisfying interpretation of Alcott’s work? Notwithstanding its rave reviews, I think not.

Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response.

Most unsatisfactory is the disjointed telling of the story, with its self-inflicted spoilers, clunky flashbacks, and complicated scene changes. The film begins at the end, with Amy in Europe as Aunt March’s companion — so the audience will not experience the unexpected heartbreak when Jo learns that Amy has been chosen to take her place on the wonderful journey. Laurie (Timothee Chalamet) is also in Europe, where Amy calls him a “vain, lazy, drunken sot.” And he is indeed a falling-down drunk at that point in this movie. This is the feminist version of LW, after all; I guess we can’t have our first impression of our leading man as the kind, generous, noble friend he has been to the March girls throughout their childhoods.

I happened to bring a visitor from Argentina to see the film with me. He had heard of the novel but had never read it or seen a film adaptation. He confessed that he could not follow the story — he knew there were flashbacks, but it was hard to tell which scenes were in which era, because Gerwig did not bother to provide visual markers — the hairstyles, settings and clothing were virtually the same in both the future and the past. Worst of all, Gerwig presents the shocking climaxes first and then tells us the relationships among the characters later, defusing our emotional response. We learn of Beth’s illness before we even know that she is a sister. We learn that Jo has rejected Laurie’s proposal before we have ever seen them together. We see Amy’s treachery in burning Jo’s manuscript before we see the tender love Jo has for her youngest sister, etc. Gerwig then quickly cuts to the past, where she provides brief glimpses of the relationships leading up to those moments.

My Argentinian friend was utterly lost. All he saw was a bunch of women bickering with one another. He didn’t even realize they were supposed to be teenagers because the actresses were all in their mid-20s. The only reason it worked for me at all is that I could tap into my remembered emotions from having read the book. Many young girls were in the audience with their mothers, presumably experiencing the story for the first time. I felt sorry for them. All they got out of it is that marriage is bad.

Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.

Gerwig’s direction is clunky too. She chose to cast older actresses for the four sisters; then, to portray them in the flashbacks, she resorted to whiny petulance and temper tantrums to make them seem young. This does not work, especially for 12-year-old Amy, who is portrayed by the voluptuous Florence Pugh. Meanwhile, Timothee Chalamat as Laurie has a very boyish face and physique, and his head is so much smaller than Saoirse Ronan’s that they look almost freakish together.

The kind and noble Marmee is laughably portrayed as well. To demonstrate the joy and fun of the March household, Gerwig directed Dern to laugh uncontrollably much of the time, even at the simplest moments. (Uncontrolled laughter seems to be Hollywood’s go-to action nowadays for portraying joy; the more you laugh, the happier you must be.) Dern’s giggles create a caricature that feels more like a 1930s Mammy than the strong and gentle Marmee, which is unfortunate, because Dern is capable of so much more with so much less — a comforting touch, a beaming countenance, a disapproving glance could have been much more effective, as seen in her portrayal of the teacher in October Sky. She is allowed to display her full range only once — at the death of her beloved Beth. In most scenes she is a giggling goon.

Gerwig even failed with Meryl Streep, whose wooden performance as Aunt March made me long for the acerbic wit of Maggie Smith as the deliciously officious dowager in Downton Abbey. She delivers her lines with all the enthusiasm of a driver delivering a pizza. And if, as she and Jo claim, women had no rights to property in 19th-century America unless they acquired it themselves as single women, how is it that Aunt March inherited the family estate rather than her brother, the father of those little women? Now there’s a backstory I would love to explore!

My biggest disappointment is with Jo’s character. Not with Ronan’s portrayal — she’s fine. More than fine. But Gerwig, like Alcott, only skirted what I think is Jo’s true nature. Alcott hinted at Jo’s sexual orientation; Jo has a masculine name, while her love interest, Laurie, has a girl’s name. Jo usually plays the pirate and other masculine roles in the girls’ attic theatricals. And of course, Jo becomes the family breadwinner. I have long thought that Alcott planted these clues to hint that Jo is gay, in an era when hints were as far as a writer could go.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts.

Gerwig almost gets there. In the movie, Laurie joins “a club for girls” when he is admitted to the March girls’ thespian society. Jo and Laurie often wear the same clothes, though not at the same time. When Jo rejects his proposal, she tells him, “I can’t love you as you want me to. I don’t know why. I can’t. I’ve tried it and I’ve failed.” And when Meg decides to marry, Jo pleads with her, “Don’t do it! Stay with me! You will be bored of him in two years — and we will be interesting forever!” She adds, “I would rather be a free spinster and paddle my own canoe.” Yes, I thought. This time they will have the courage to get it right. Jo will come out of the closet at last.

And yet, for all the preening about the oppression of marriage — despite Amy arguing with Laurie, “Don’t tell me marriage isn’t an economic proposition because it is! . . . If I marry, my money would belong to my husband and my children would be his property,” and Aunt March sighing, “Until [Amy] marries someone obscenely wealthy it is up to me to keep the family afloat” — the conflict and climax of the movie resides in Jo discovering that she loves Laurie after all. “Women have minds and they have souls as well as hearts and they have ambition,” she admits, “but I’m so lonely!” And so she writes Laurie the love letter telling him she wants to accept his proposal of marriage. (Of course, we’ve known since the first scene of the movie that Laurie and Amy are already loving it up over in Europe, so we don’t experience Jo’s devastation when she learns the truth.)

Gerwig gives in to marketing pressure, and ends her film with a traditional love story, just as Jo gives in to the same marketing pressure from her publisher, Mr. Dashwood (Tracy Letts), to marry off the protagonist of her novel, and Alcott succumbed to the same pressure to provide a husband for her alter ego, Jo. Alcott’s Mr. Bhaer is old enough to be Jo’s father. It’s a marriage of convenience, rather than romance, that was not unusual for women who wanted to hide their sexual orientation within a socially acceptable marriage. Gerwig betrayed Alcott, however, by making Jo gigglingly schoolgirlish as she runs after her Friedrich Bhaer, played by the devilishly handsome — and young! — Louis Garrel, to proclaim her love, while her sisters giggle joyfully in the carriage.

Gerwig claims to have created “a Little Women for the 21st century,” but in my opinion, she failed on all counts. She adds little that we don’t already know about women’s economic rights and capabilities; she utterly rejects marriage as a viable choice for rational and talented women; she then marries off her lesbian protagonist to the sexiest man in the movie. Good grief.

There was a smattering of applause at the screening I attended, probably led by die-hard ’70s-era feminists who cheer anything made for, by, and about women. But do the young girls in your life a favor: give them a copy of the book, and keep them away from this movie.

Little Women, directed by Greta Gerwig. Columbia Pictures, 2019, 135 minutes.




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A Strange and Important Film

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When I first saw a trailer for Jojo Rabbit, I had no interest in viewing it. Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you. The Holocaust was serious business. So was Aryan expansion into all of Europe.

And yet, like a witness at a crash scene, I couldn’t avert my eyes. So there I was on a Tuesday night, ready to see if it was truly Springtime for Hitler in Hollywood. My discovery? Not exactly.

Johannes Betzler (Roman Griffin Davis) is a charming, lonely, 10-year-old, blue-eyed Aryan blond who can’t wait to join the Hitler Youth camp. He is excited to prove his love for Germany, but really he’s “just a 10-year-old kid who likes to collect swastikas and dress up in funny clothes,” as one character observes. Mostly he just wants to belong. The boys run around the forest hollering and laughing. But Johannes flinches and runs away when it’s time to play battle games. The other boys are older, stronger, and more aggressive. He doesn’t want to get hurt. He’s only ten, after all. Just a boy. We never lose sight of that in this film.

Hitler Youth frolicking in the forest like Boy Scouts at a Jamboree? Adolf Hitler sidling up to our young protagonist with an ingratiating grin? No thank you.

The camp is supervised by Captain Klenzendorf (Sam Rockwell), the one-eyed demoted lunatic who invites the boys collegially to “Call me Captain K” in one moment and then stirs them into a killing frenzy in the next. He tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise. When Captain K tells Johannes to wring a rabbit’s neck to prove his willingness to kill Jews, Johannes lets the bunny go and then runs away like a — well, like a frightened rabbit. Hence his hated nickname, Jojo Rabbit.

Here’s what you need to know about this film: The whole time the boys are chanting “Kill! Kill! Kill!” I wasn’t thinking about Lord of the Flies. (Well, maybe just a little bit.) I was mostly thinking about Looney Tunes’ Wagnerian “Kill the Wabbit! Kill the Wabbit!” scene with Bugs Bunny in Valkyrie getup.

And that’s the perverse magic of Jojo Rabbit. It’s insanely funny, utterly serious, and totally bizarre. It manipulates you the way Hitler manipulated the masses. And you go along, the way the masses went along with Hitler, because it’s just so compelling. In an early scene, the Beatles’ “Komm, gib mir deine Hand” plays while Jojo runs exuberantly to the youth camp and masses of screaming Germans present their upraised right hands to the Fuehrer in a thundering salute. Yes, they have come to give him their hands. The idolizing hysteria of the Germans mimics the mass hysteria of Beatlemania 25 years later. And hysteria it is. The message is clear: Hitlerism was fueled by hyperemotionalism and little else. Moreover, “Heil Hitlering” becomes a verb in this movie, being used 31 times in a single minute in one particularly satirical scene.

The captain tells them, “Today you become a man,” ironically echoing the purpose of a bar mitzvah in the religion they are taught to despise.

At home Jojo confesses his shame about the rabbit, his loneliness, and his general cowardice to his only friend, Adolf Hitler (director Taika Watiti). No, not the real Adolf, but Jojo’s imaginary friend who, like Calvin’s tiger Hobbes, gleefully stirs him up, urges him forward, and eventually gets him maimed by an overzealous toss of a practice grenade that happens to be loaded and armed. In the comic strip Calvin blames all of his misdeeds on Hobbes, when in reality his pranks and adventures are entirely his own idea. Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

Many Germans would use the “Hitler made me do it” excuse after the war, when in reality they, too, had choices. Stephen Merchant, who plays a threatening but inept Gestapo agent Deertz, said that in preparing for the role he “imagined members of the Gestapo like his character as ‘quite petty bureaucrats’ who, prior to the war received little respect, and during the war let their power go to their heads.” This may have been true of many Germans who welcomed the opportunity to treat their Jewish neighbors with contempt, while blaming their hatred on allegiance to Hitler and the Fatherland. Yet other Germans resisted Nazism, and many of those gave their lives for freedom.

Jojo’s mother Rosie (Scarlett Johansson) doesn’t approve of the direction in which Germany is headed, nor does she approve of the Hitler Youth organization her son has joined. She is outspoken, feisty, and fashionable in a way that we don’t expect in 1940s Germany. (Director Waititi says that Berliners continued to be sociable and fashionable even during the war, and he wanted to portray that in his film with vibrant colors and bucolic scenery. Kind of like Americans during our wars in other nations.) She is a free-spirited mother who wants to make a difference, even if it means saving just one person. Nevertheless, these are perilous times. Children are being taught to report any examples of disloyalty to Germany or sympathy for Jews. Rosie adores little Jojo, and the scenes between mother and son are endearing and lovely. But she refrains from sharing too much of her philosophy with her son. The fear of snitching is real.

Similarly, Jojo uses his imaginary friendship with Adolf Hitler to gird up his loins and prove his commitment to Germany.

To stir up fear and hatred toward the Jews, outlandish stories are told in camp and at school. An ancestral Jew mated with a fish. Jews have horns, eat babies, and have animal bodies. They read minds and are attracted to ugly things. And they love money. Jojo has never met a Jew (as far as he knows) and believes the propaganda. Of course, Jews are none of these things. And that is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience. Jojo doesn’t realize this, however; he’s just a 10-year-old boy, trained to believe and obey his elders. When he discovers that his mother has been harboring a Jewish girl (Thomasin McKenzie) in his deceased sister’s closet, he faces the ultimate dilemma: should he report his mother to the Gestapo? For Germany?

And what about this Jewish girl? As time goes on, Jojo’s inner conflict deepens. He confesses to Adolf (who is feasting on unicorn head — I’m not kidding), “She doesn’t seem like a bad person to me.” And isn’t that the point? When we base our judgments on our own experience with people, we’ll discover that some are bad, some are good, some are friendly, some are boring. It has nothing to do with labels. But we’ll never learn the truth if we simply believe what others tell us to think about an entire group of people.

John F. Di Leo warned in a recent Facebook post, “This wasn't some ancient, barbaric country, in some uncivilized, undiscovered territory. It was Germany, in Europe, just 78 years ago. . . . It can happen anywhere, if government is allowed to get too powerful . . . and if politicians are empowered to demonize an innocent group.”

That is a major point of this film — hatred and mistrust are taught by others who want us to hate and mistrust, not by personal experience.

Jojo’s dilemma reminds one of Huck Finn, torn between helping Jim escape and worrying about how his own salvation will be affected for doing it. What courage it takes for Huck to say on his knees, before God, “Then I’ll go to hell if I have to . . . You can’t pray a lie. I found that out.” This young, virtually illiterate boy has too much integrity to ask for forgiveness for something he does not regret doing. He likes Jim. Loves him, in fact. And yet, in the end of the book, Huck and Tom still have Jim hidden away in a cage. Jojo does that too. The film abounds with literary references.

Jojo Rabbit is one of the most engaging films I have seen this year. Like Jack Benny’s To Be or Not to Be (1944), it’s delightfully funny yet deadly serious as it reveals the conflict between freedom of thought and the madness of crowds. I highly recommend it to anyone who cares about choice and accountability.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jojo Rabbit," directed by Taika Waititi. Fox Searchlight, 2019, 108 minutes.



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The Last Cargo

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The launch last month of “The 1619 Project” by The New York Times unleashed a barrage of partisan volleys and countervolleys consisting mostly of debatable claims, finger-pointing, and innuendo. It’s predictable for the polarized times we live in. Some of the Democratic presidential candidates are calling for reparations for the nation’s original sin of slavery (were the 360,000 Union deaths not enough?); and we’ve elected a president whom many consider racist — an accusation resorted to glibly, promiscuously, and with a keyword so broadly defined and overused it’s become as meaningless as the word “love.”

The NYT presents the project as an appropriate bookend to the 400th anniversary of the first slave ship, the White Lion, to arrive at the continental US, at Jamestown. But perhaps a more apt bookend might be the arrival of the last slave ship, the schooner Clotilda, in 1859 (or 1860, according to some sources), 240 years after the White Lion docked at Point Comfort in Virginia.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air.

Although the transatlantic slave trade had begun in the early 1500s with destinations to the Caribbean and Brazil, the 20-odd Angolans aboard the White Lion — taken against their will — were classified as indentured servants, some of whom later acquired their freedom, as per that definition. Children of those Africans who did end up as slaves were born free — according to the laws of that time.

It’s taken quite a while for the Clotilda’s story to air. Zora Neale Hurston (1891–1960), whose four grandparents had all been slaves, interviewed Cudjo Kossola Lewis, the second-to-last survivor of the Clotilda, in 1927. She’d trained as an anthropologist under the tutelage of Franz Boas, considered the “Father of American Anthropology,” and this was her first serious project.

Boas had introduced and firmly established the concept of cultural relativity as an investigative axiom: “a person's beliefs, values, and practices should be understood based on that person's own culture, rather than be judged against the criteria of another.” As a field tool, the concept allowed Hurston to present Kossola’s narrative more objectively, through his eyes. She’d attended Howard, Barnard, and Columbia with classmates Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead (who got a bit creatively carried away with the cultural relativity bit in the South Pacific).

Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming.

Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” the book that resulted from Hurston’s interviews with Kossola, remained unpublished until May 2018. Back in 1931, Viking Press rejected it. They would only accept the manuscript if Hurston rewrote Kossola’s vernacular into standard English. They had a point (though not the one I want to make right here). Hurston’s transcription of Kossola’s dialect is inconsistent, slaloming between her efforts at accurate transcription (which she thought essential) and reversion to more conventional English when the task became overwhelming. Additionally, according to novelist Alice Walker’s foreword in the book, “There was concern among ‘black intellectuals and political leaders’ that the book laid uncomfortably bare Africans’ involvement in the slave trade.”

And that’s not the only inconvenient truth buried in Barracoon. Hurston, a black female anthropologist, was an independent thinker. She opposed school integration and programs that guaranteed blacks a right to work. In 1955 she claimed that "adequate Negro schools" already existed. (See John M. Eriksen, Brevard County, Florida: A Short History to 1955, chapter 13; and "Negro Writer Opposes Court Ruling,” Titusville Star Advocate, September 30, 1955, p. 2.) And she was a Republican during the New Deal.

Although John McWhorter, a linguist and Associate Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian by David and Linda Beito ("Isabel Paterson, Rose Wilder Lane, and Zora Neale Hurston on War, Race, the State, and Liberty," Independent Review 12, Spring 2008) She was no social conservative and, in foreign policy, was a noninterventionist. And then there are the controversial watermelons.

Although John McWhorter has called Hurston "America's favorite black conservative," she’s been more properly characterized as a libertarian.

Kossola lived life to his own rhythms, tending his gardens and active in his church. To ingratiate herself with him and unlock a volubility concealed behind an apparent reticence, Hurston would bring peaches, hams, and watermelons as gifts. Once they shared an entire iced watermelon, gnawed down to the rind, taking up all their allotted interview time but unlocking a trust and warmth that sealed a lasting friendship. Whether the association of watermelons and blacks’ taste for them already existed is a question best left to pop historians. But Alice Walker in her foreword to Barracoon again picks up a racial trope, “Imagine how many generations of black people would never admit to eating watermelon!”

* * *

Kossola, an Isha Yoruba, was captured in a slave raid by the army of King Glélé of Dahomey (in present-day Benin), which consisted of about 7,000 male and 5,000 female warriors — the renowned Dahomey Amazons. He was 19 and engaged to be married. His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle. Kossola reported that they were the equal of any man. The old and infirm were decapitated on the spot (so much for the nurturing nature of the gentler sex). Meanwhile, the male Dahomey warriors were stationed at the gate posts to ambush and capture the fleeing villagers, Kossola among them.

After about four weeks in transit, three spent in a barracoon — a holding cell for newly-captured slaves — the captives were treated to a big feast by their captors: “the people of Dahomey come bring us lot of grub for us to eatee ’cause dey say we goin’ leave dere. We eatee de big feast,” recalled Kossola.

Captain William Foster, owner, builder, and skipper of the Clotilda — which was anchored outside the surf zone (the port of Whydah lacking any docking facilities) — purchased 130 of the captives. He chose equal numbers of males and females. Although offered, he “preemptorily” [sic] forbade their branding. Each captive cost $50 to $60 on the coast but could be sold in Alabama for about $800 apiece (nearly $23,000 in today’s money).

His village was stormed by the Amazons, all belted with the dangling heads of opponents killed in battle.

Foster’s fellow investors in this slaving venture consisted of the brothers Jim, Tim, and Burns Meaher from Maine. The Captain carried $9,000 in gold. The Clotilda was manned by a crew of 12 (all Yankees), including him. Although the importation of slaves had been illegal since 1808, the Meahers, who owned a mill and shipyard, built swift vessels for blockade running and “filibustering expeditions.” At the time, smuggling slaves from Cuba was common practice.

Transporting and loading the captives into the Clotilda through the heavy Atlantic surf required the services of skilled men of the Kroo tribe, men, an ethnic group of independent operators who specialized in negotiating breakers with sleek surf boats. Their skills as mariners were so expert that the Royal Navy enlisted many of them from 1820 to as late as 1924. But Kroo canoes had limited capacities. Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded onto the Clotilda.

After 116 of the slaves had been brought on board, Foster became aware of possible treachery involving Dahomans planning to recapture the cargo and holding him hostage. He immediately gave orders to abandon the cargo not already on board “and to sail away with all speed.”

Kossola, naked and terrified, thought he’d breathed his last. He was the last captive loaded on board.

The Clotilda got away, but the next day was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail. The slaves down in the hold were in cramped conditions (although they had much more space — five feet of headroom — than many slaves in previous Middle Passage transports) After being kept below decks for 12 days, mainly because of real or false alarms, they were brought on deck so they might limber up. The captain ordered the crew to help them walk and exercise. For the rest of the passage, except for the twentieth day, when another British cruiser was spotted, and near the end, on the approach to Mobile, they spent most of their time on deck — 116 slaves to 12 crew. Only two died. The crossing took 70 days.

According to Hurston, the Clotilda arrived in Mobile Bay under cover of darkness in August 1859 (other sources say July 9, 1860). Fear of discovery and prosecution, and the fact that blacks illegally brought in could not be enslaved, made their sale problematic. In fact, Foster and the Meahers were later tried in federal court in Mobile, though not convicted, for lack of evidence: the Clotilda and its manifest had been burned and sunk, the black captives well hidden. Other sources say they were found guilty and charged heavy fines, which were never paid. The outbreak of the Civil War prevented further pursuit of the case.

Forty-eight of the slaves were secretly sold. The remaining 60 (according to one of the discrepant sources) were divvied up among the principals: James Meaher took 32 (16 couples), Burns Meaher took ten, Tim Meaher eight, and Captain Foster ten. Kossola went to Jim Meaher, where he acquired the name Cudjo Lewis. “Cudjo” was a name given by the Akan people of Ghana to children born on a Monday, while “Lewis” is probably a corruption of Kossola’s father’s name, Oluale, which Meaher had difficulty pronouncing.

The Clotilda was chased by an English cruiser on the lookout for slavers. Foster escaped by pressing sail.

Cudjo reported that they were not immediately put to work; first they were trained by American slaves, who ridiculed the Africans for their ignorance and “savage” ways. He became a stevedore loading wood for Jim Meaher’s cargo boats on the Mobile to Montgomery run. He was worked hard, but praised his master for taking good care of his slaves:

Cap’n Jim, he a good man. He not lak his brother, Cap’n Tim. He doan want his folks knock and beat all de time. He see my shoes gittee ragedy, you know, and he say, ‘Cudjo, if dat de best shoes you got, I gittee you some mo’!’ Now das right. I no tellee lies.

“Cap’n” Tim’s brother Burns was also cruel, but it seemed to have its limits. Cudjo reported that their slaves worked the brothers’ plantation fields:

Dey got overseer wid de whip. One man try whippee one my country women and dey all jump on him and takee de whip ‘way from him and lashee him wid it. He doan never try whip African women no mo’.

This astonishing account of slave resistance without repercussions is reminiscent of a similar incident reported by Frederick Douglass in his autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave.

* * *

Douglass was a proud, headstrong man. Like my brother John, who was drafted for the Korean War — and looking forward to proudly serving his country, only to be discharged for being “temperamentally unsuited to taking orders” — Douglass was not cut out for servitude, though instead of “proudly serving his master,” he just complied with performing his duties . . . as long as he was treated with respect.

As a boy, Douglass had not only been treated well, he’d been taught to read and write. But he ended up with a master with “quite a number of differences” with him. During the nine months he spent with Master Thomas, “he had given me a number of severe whippings, all to no good purpose.” So Thomas decided to send Douglass to Edward Covey, a man who, for a price, specialized in breaking recalcitrant slaves.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back.

Covey set about the task with alacrity, putting Douglass to brutal work in the fields: “During the first six months, scarce a week passed without his whipping me.” He was treated so brutally that he admitted that at one point “Mr. Covey succeeded in breaking me.” But this was not to be permanent.

After a series of particularly brutal beatings, Douglass decided — to his own surprise — to fight back . . . come what may. During a two-hour tussle, Douglass “drew blood” and got, by far, the better of the encounter. Covey retreated. “The whole six months afterward, he never laid the weight of his finger upon me in anger. This battle with Mr. Covey was the turning point in my career as a slave.” From then on, civility — or what passes for civility in a master-slave relationship — was the order of the day. Douglass performed his duties; Covey let him be.

Douglass’ analysis of the event demonstrates the intelligence and wisdom of this young man. Covey could only go so far. Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide — not to mention that Douglass wasn’t his slave (or that Douglass had seriously beaten Covey).

Mr. Covey enjoyed the most unbounded reputation for being a first rate . . . negro-breaker. It was of considerable importance to him. That reputation was at stake; and had he sent me — a boy about sixteen years old — to the public whipping post, his reputation would have been lost; so, to save his reputation, he suffered me to go unpunished . . . I was nothing before; I was a MAN NOW.

The incident was so pivotal to his life that Douglass filled 11 pages of his first book on it, and 32 in the subsequent autobiography. In contrast (and I digress here somewhat), David W. Blight in his Pulitzer Prize-winning biography, Frederick Douglass: Prophet of Freedom, gives it only two pages and ignores Douglass’ analysis and insights.

Slaves were extremely valuable property: to render one unfit for service was financial suicide.

I suspect an ideological bias, such as surfaces in his introduction:

[Douglass was] a proponent of classic nineteenth-century political liberalism . . . he strongly believed in self-reliance . . . but fundamentally was not a self-made man.

Let’s take a closer look at these assertions. Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies, to these libertarian sensibilities, that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth. Classic liberalism is alive and thriving today. And to say that Frederick Douglass, the epitome of a self-made man, was not a self-made man is to contradict all the evidence contained in Blight’s flawed tome. In at least a dozen instances in the book — instances of Douglass solving problems, escaping bondage, rising to the occasion, creating opportunities, helping others — Blight is unambiguously forced to aver that Douglass was in fact a “self-made man,” using those exact same words (p. xv).

Inserting “nineteenth-century” between “classic” and “liberalism” implies that classic liberalism was an outdated, even discarded philosophy. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Douglass’ examination of Mr. Covey’s behavior is a classic liberal analysis of conduct based on economic self-interest, a perspective that Blight either refuses to acknowledge or completely ignores. It does not fit his worldview, and he refuses to give it air time — in spite of the fact that Douglass’ analysis of the event was a formative experience in his life.

Blight reveals his biases more artlessly whenever he mentions Republicans — never mind that, for abolitionists, Republicans were the only game in town. About the 2013 unveiling of a statue of Douglass in Washington DC, Blight’s introduction condescendingly observes:

Congressional Republicans walked around proudly sporting large buttons that read FREDERICK DOUGLASS WAS A REPUBLICAN. Douglass descendants present, as well as some of us scholars with, shall we say, different training and research, smiled and endured.

Yes . . . that was in 2013. But Blight can’t help projecting modern biases into the past, through subtle wording and innuendo throughout the book, especially when Douglass becomes active in Republican Party politics. This is but one reason why the book was a chore to get through. Blight is no Ron Chernow or Robert Caro.

* * *

But back to Cudjo Kossola Lewis. The Africans were unaware of the start of the Civil War, but when the Union blockade and the surrounding fighting made food scarce, “Cap’n Jim Meaher send word he doan want us to starve, you unnerstand me, so he tell us to kill hogs. He say de hogs dey his and we his, and he doan wantee no dead folks.”

On April 12, 1865, only three days after Robert E. Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, but five or six (some sources say four) years of Cudjo’s life as a slave in America, Union soldiers told him he was free. The Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.” Their first inclination was to return to Africa: “dey [the Meahers and Foster] ought take us back home.”

When they discovered the cost of such an improbable venture, they nonetheless worked hard and saved their money. But finally deciding that going back to Africa was unrealistic, they deputized Cudjo to approach the Meahers for land to settle on. Tim, the meaner of the Meahers, jumped to his feet and responded, “Fool, do you think I goin’ give you property on top of property? I tookee good keer my slaves in slavery and derefo’ I doan owe dem nothing? You doan belong to me now, why must I give you my lan’?

Union soldiers told him he was free. Cudjo and the other Africans celebrated by making drums and beating them “lak in de Affica soil.”

Notwithstanding Tim’s rebuff, James, the kinder and gentler Meaher, might have helped finalize the deal. The Africans bought Meaher land three miles north of Mobile at Magazine Point, establishing a settlement they called Africatown — but now known as Plateau — in 1866 (the date Hurston provides, but according to Sylviane A. Diuf, in the Encyclopedia of Alabama, Cudjo bought two acres on September 30, 1872 for $100 — or about $2,000 today).

Cudjo became a naturalized American citizen, married, had six children, and became sexton of his church. In 1902, while driving his buggy over train tracks, he was hit by a train and injured. A sympathetic white lady who saw the accident ensured he was well taken care of and told him he had a case against the railroad. Cudjo knew nothing about American law. The lady hooked him up with a lawyer who took on contingency his case against the Louisville and Nashville Railroad. Cudjo won and was awarded $650.

But he never collected. Cudjo reported that after the verdict, a yellow fever epidemic hit Mobile. The lawyer and his family headed north to safety, but on the way the lawyer died. Yet another source (Encyclopedia of Alabama) says that the verdict was overturned on appeal.

Cudjo Kossola Lewis died on July 17, 1935.

* * *

In these times of “fake news,” the publication of Barracoon — finally — should be a breath of fresh air. I say this notwithstanding the fact that while writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them: a year’s difference in the arrival of the Clotilda in Mobile; the number of years Cudjo spent in bondage; the resolution of Cudjo’s lawsuit; Hurston’s purported plagiarism from earlier sources; and other, more minor controversies. They seem to be endemic to the genre.

Whatever the causes of the discrepancies in Kossola’s story, at least they don’t seem to be rooted in ideological manipulation — a shortcoming that has bedeviled American slave narratives since at least the times of William Lloyd Garrison. Antebellum abolitionists resorted to widespread hyperbole concerning the horrors of slavery in order to convince an ill-informed and often indifferent public.

While writing this review I discovered so many discrepancies in the account that I’m left wondering how to account for them.

Yes, I know, you’re thinking, How can one overstate the evils of slavery? It’s like exaggerating the fires of hell. I don’t know about you, but accuracy works best to convince me about anything. When people resort to lies, or just don’t check their facts well enough, I lose trust, no matter how well-intentioned the narrative may be.

The altering of facts continues to this day. The movie 12 Years a Slave, based on the book by the same title (and reviewed in these pages by Jo Ann Skousen, “A Slave Narrative, and More,” November 10, 2013), contains at least four falsifications, all of which are ideologically based. As Jo Ann points one out:

Some of the vignettes simply don’t ring true, as when the lecherous and sadistic slave owner, Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbender) whips Patsey (Lupita Nyong’o) almost to death because she has spoken back to him. Patsey is his most productive slave. She picks twice as much cotton every day as any of the men do. She is a valuable, unblemished piece of property, even if he doesn’t acknowledge her humanity. It does not make sense that he would destroy such a valuable capital good in a fit of pique.

The movie depicts William Ford (played by Benedict Cumberbatch), the slave owner, in quite another light than Northup, the slave (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor), described him in his book: “There never was a more kind, noble, candid, Christian man than William Ford.”

Only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Falsifications like the one Skousen points out are particularly egregious. Not only do they go against basic economic theory but they paint human nature in the worst light possible.

This out of The Atlantic:

In the film version, shortly after Northup is kidnapped, he is on a ship bound south. A sailor enters the hold and is about to rape one of the slave women when a male slave intervenes. The sailor unhesitatingly stabs and kills him. This seems unlikely on its face — slaves are valuable, and the sailor is not the owner. And, sure enough, the scene is not in the book. A slave did die on the trip south, but from smallpox, rather than from stabbing.

But the worst one, which I haven’t seen referenced, was a passage in the book where Northup is sent on an errand that requires crossing a gator-infested bayou. Along the way, he encounters an alligator, and sweats bullets. In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

Please!

The heydays of lynching blacks were after the Civil War, not the 1840s, when slaves were worth about $23,000, average, in today’s money. And though crackers were the foot soldiers of the Ku Klux Klan during and after Reconstruction, only the well-off could afford to own slaves before the war, and they weren’t likely to burn $23,000 for fun.

Barracoon discloses some inconvenient truths, and in doing so, to my mind, enhances the credibility of the horrors of slavery by revealing not just its inhumanity but the glimpses of humanity that at times appeared. Caricatures and satire only succeed with the ignorant and the convinced.

In the movie the scene is changed. Instead of an alligator, he encounters two rednecks whooping it up hanging a black.

And instances of behavior that tempers the conventional narrative of slave societies run through many slave biographies. Besides Douglass’ and Northup’s (dictated, despite Northup’s literacy, to David Wilson), check out The Life of Olaudah Equiano, Prince Among Slaves; Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; The History of Mary Prince; and The Barber of Natchez (a free black in 1830s Mississippi).

Perhaps it’s our knowledge of the Holocaust that makes some of us project its atrocities back onto our slavery era. I don’t know. But for now, let’s keep the two separate and not make too many generalizations about universal human behavior. Truth is the best antidote to propaganda, however well-intentioned.


Editor's Note: Review of “Barracoon: The Story of the Last ‘Black Cargo,’” by Zora Neale Hurston. Amistad, 2018, 171 pages.



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Despised, But Not Resisted

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After reviewing Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight (2015), I swore I had seen my last QT film. The acting was stagy, the bloody violence gratuitous, the storyline beyond unbelievable. He hadn’t just “jumped the shark”; he had catapulted the cow jumping over the moon. I was done.

But something about his latest offering, Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood, drew me back. The stellar cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio and Brad Pitt, promised committed, unexpected performances. The setting, 1960s southern California, was where and when I grew up, and I was drawn to the nostalgia I would certainly experience. And the story, leading up to the Manson murders, was not only tragic but also somehow romantic in the classical sense — a story of people who captured the interest of the nation when it occurred. Many say the ’60s died that day, along with Sharon Tate and her friends. Yes, I assumed there would be blood (and there is) but at least it wouldn’t be gratuitous this time. And in fact, it doesn’t show up until late in the film. I was willing to give QT another look.

Similar to Tarantino’s breakout Pulp Fiction (1994), Once Upon a Time presents multiple disconnected storylines while foreshadowing an explosive climax. Rick Dalton (DiCaprio) is a TV western star nearing the end of his TV career. Dalton is based not-so-loosely on Clint Eastwood in “Rawhide” or Steve McQueen in “Wanted Dead or Alive.” Like Eastwood, Dalton is encouraged to move to Europe to make spaghetti westerns with a director named Sergio. And like McQueen, he is a bounty hunter in his TV series. Also like McQueen, Dalton carelessly knocks a young girl onto the floor in a movie scene; McQueen is reported to have knocked an actress across the room during a “method acting” improvisation for the great Constantin Stanislavski. After the scene cuts, the little girl tells Dalton, “That’s the best piece of acting I’ve ever seen.” Stanislavski said the same to McQueen after he smacked the young starlet in acting class.

Many say the ’60s died that day, along with Sharon Tate and her friends.

McQueen shows up in the film by the way — played by Damian Lewis, who utterly nails McQueen’s piercing eyes and brooding mouth. The film is full of homages and allusions such as this, and one could enjoy it just looking for the Easter eggs. Tarantino knows his Hollywood trivia! But there is much more to this movie than homage.

Another storyline focuses on Cliff Booth (Brad Pitt), who works as Dalton’s stunt double and gofer. He drives Dalton around town, grabs him a beer when he’s thirsty, runs his errands, fixes his antennae, listens when he’s despondent, and does it all with that winning Brad Pitt smile. Audiences at the premier in Cannes whistled and clapped when Pitt stripped off his shirt to work on said antennae. At 55, Pitt is still plenty buff. Dalton might be the protagonist, but Booth is clearly the star. Even the way he side-clicks his tongue, signaling to his dog that it’s time for dinner, is gobsmacking.

Dalton lives next door to Roman Polanski, who he hopes will notice him and cast him in a movie. Meanwhile, Sharon Tate (Margot Robbie), Polanski’s pregnant wife, is luminously happy about her breakout role in a Dean Martin movie, The Wrecking Crew. Having started her career in TV shows like “Mister Ed” and “The Beverly Hillbillies,” she is understandably ecstatic to see her name and image on a movie poster. Robbie plays her shy excitement just right — almost embarrassed to look at the poster in the movie theater lobby, wanting to be recognized, finally having to say who she is, then basking in the recognition she has created and positively glowing as she listens to the crowd reacting to her scenes. You can’t help feeling empathy for this pretty girl whose life was cut so gruesomely short, back in 1969.

Tarantino knows his Hollywood trivia! But there is much more to this movie than homage.

And then there’s Charlie Manson (Damon Herriman), who makes a brief appearance at 10050 Cielo Drive in Benedict Canyon, looking for its previous resident, Terry Melcher. We see him almost as a shadow, a ghost that hovers and lingers without really touching down. His “family” — Squeaky Fromme (Dakota Fanning, all grown up and sporting a potty mouth); Froggie (Harley Quinn Smith); Pussycat (Margaret Qualley), and Tex (Austin Butler) — provide a constant simmering background to the film and an ongoing foreshadowing of the climax we know is going to come. They dive into dumpsters, thumb rides on street corners, maraud though the town like bandits, and preen like sirens. They are spooky and scary, even without blood. Take a note, QT.

As expected, the stories eventually come together, but in unexpected ways. And that’s all I’ll say about that.

Despite its length and somewhat slow development, this is Tarantino’s best work since Inglourious Basterds. I will probably see it again, next time to focus more on the Hollywood allusions and Easter eggs. And, reluctantly perhaps, I will continue to see and review Tarantino’s movies. He is the most maddening and brilliant of directors. I despise him — but I can’t resist him. Ironically, I think that’s what the “family” said about Manson.


Editor's Note: Review of "Once Upon a Time . . . in Hollywood," directed by Quentin Tarantino. Sony Pictures, 2019, 161 minutes.



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Four Theories about the Great Depression

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More than most people, libertarians have beliefs about the Great Depression. Having spent several years studying the matter, I have some conclusions about four such beliefs: first, that what caused the depression was the Federal Reserve allowing a drop in the money supply; second, that what made it terrible was the passage of the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, which collapsed America’s foreign trade; third, that the New Deal really began under Herbert Hoover; and fourth, that what lengthened the Depression was fear of what the New Deal government would do.

In addressing these questions, I am relying heavily on my hometown newspapers — the Seattle Times, Seattle Post-Intelligencer and Seattle Star — because newspapers are “the raw material of history.” They are not the only sources available, and they have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables. As sources for general research about a period, I like newspapers best. I know newspapers. I spent 37 years working for newspapers and magazines, about half that time on the business and financial pages.

The first of the four beliefs, associated with Milton Friedman and the Chicago School, is that the Federal Reserve was responsible for turning a recession into a depression — the deepest and longest in American history — by shrinking the money supply. It’s true that there was less money in people’s pockets, and that was a bad effect. But when economists talk about the Fed shrinking the money supply, they mean shrinking the money available to the banks — and during most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with money. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money in US Treasury bonds and local bonds and warrants (thereby helping to finance their local governments and the New Deal). Bankers talked about this on the business pages, and showed it in the year-end bank balance sheets presented in newspaper display ads. For those reasons I find it difficult to indict the Fed for starving the banking system of money.

Newspapers have their mistakes, omissions, and biases. But they are broader than politicians’ collected personal papers and broader, in a different sense, than the economists’ statistical tables.

A variant of this argument is that the Fed mistakenly turned a recession into a depression by raising interest rates.

Overall the Fed lowered interest rates in the depression. In the two years following the Crash of 1929, the Fed cut its rate on short-term loans to banks, going down from 6% to 1.5%. But to stop the outflow of the Treasury’s gold during the currency crisis of September 1931, the Fed temporarily raised the rate to 3.5%. This 2% bump is the “mistake” that the economists holler about. At the time the Fed did this, critics said it would retard recovery, and when recovery didn’t come, the critics pronounced themselves right. But at the time, the financial editor of the Seattle Times noted that the Fed’s supposedly stimulative 1.5% interest rate hadn’t done anything to stimulate recovery. (The Keynesians would later say the Fed was “pushing on a string.”) Investors weren’t holding back because of two percentage points. They were holding back because they were afraid to borrow at all.

I’m not a historian of the Fed, and am not claiming the Fed made no mistakes. But pinning the depression on the stinginess of the Fed to the banks doesn’t seem right. If it were true, the interest rates would have been higher. Also, there would have been furious complaints in the newspapers, even in Seattle. And I didn’t see it.

During most of the Depression banks were loaded to the gunwales with cash. With few willing and qualified borrowers, they simply parked depositors’ money.

The second belief is that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff caused the Depression by posting the highest taxes on imports in the 20th century. The figure usually cited is that the average tariff rate under Smoot-Hawley was 59% — a horrible rate. This, however, was the rate on dutiable goods, and excludes the many goods on the free list. The average rate on all goods was 19.8% — still bad, but something less than torture.

Free traders always reach for the Smoot-Hawley argument. I have heard it not only from libertarians but from supporters of the WTO, TPP, NAFTA, and the promoters of trade in my hometown. And politically, I am on free traders’ side. I agree that the Smoot-Hawley Tariff, signed in June 1930 by Herbert Hoover, was bad medicine. And in this case, there was protest in the newspapers, with voices saying it was a terrible, self-defeating law, and predicting that other countries would retaliate. The newspapers ran stories when the other countries did retaliate.

Smoot-Hawley was also a contributing cause of the collapse in the international bond market in 1931, because it made it more difficult for America’s debtors — Britain, France, Germany, Brazil, Bolivia, Peru, and others — to earn the dollars to repay their debts. But this one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

I can think of four reasons why. First, the Depression was already on, so that by June 1930 imports and exports were already headed downward. Second, if you want to blame tariffs, put two-thirds of the blame on the tariffs in place before Smoot-Hawley was signed, which were an average of 13.5% on all goods. Third, in 1930 exports made up only about 5% of US output (versus 12.5% today), so that the shrinkage in trade, though dramatic in itself, was only two or three percentage points of the overall economy.

This one bad law cannot bear all the blame for the subsequent implosion of America’s imports and exports.

Finally, in September 1931, the British Commonwealth went off the gold standard. The British, Australian, and Canadian currencies were immediately devalued by 15 to 20%. Austria, Germany, Japan, and Sweden also went off gold, effectively devaluing their own currencies. The products of these fiat-money countries immediately dropped in price relative to the products of the United States. One example: Swedish wood pulp pushed US pulp out of world markets, so that almost all the pulp mills in Washington state shut down.

When Franklin Roosevelt came into office in March 1933, he ended the convertibility of the dollar into gold at the old rate of $20.67 an ounce. The reason for doing this was not a shortage of gold; the Treasury had stacks of it. The reason was to match the foreign devaluations and make American goods competitive again. And it did. Trade, the stock market, and the real economy jumped immediately when the dollar went off gold. From April to July 1933 there was a kind of boom, even though Smoot-Hawley was still in effect. (The boom ended because of the National Industrial Recovery Act and some other things, but that is another story.)

If you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more.

The third belief, that Herbert Hoover was an interventionist and implemented a kind of proto-New Deal, is a thesis of Murray Rothbard in America’s Great Depression. Rothbard recounts that after the Crash of 1929, Hoover called leaders of industry to the White House and made them promise not to cut wages. The theory at the time was that this would maintain “purchasing power” and thereby prevent a depression. That was a precedent for the New Deal. It was noted at the time by business columnist Merryle Rukeyser (father of Louis Rukeyser, host of PBS-TV’s “Wall Street Week” from 1970 to 2002). Merryle Rukeyser wrote in December 1929 of the Hoover meetings, “The old-fashioned idea of leaving such matters to the individualism of business leaders — known as the doctrine of laissez faire among economists — has been formally laid to rest and buried.”

So Rothbard had a point: in principle, Hoover was an interventionist. But if you focus on principles, which libertarians like to do, you can lose sight of magnitudes and proportions that matter more. The larger fact is that the Hoover and Roosevelt regimes were hugely different in what the federal government undertook to do, what constitutional precedents they set, how many people they employed, how much money they spent, and how much they affected the world we still live in.

The fourth belief, that the New Deal prolonged the depression by frightening investors, is the thesis of libertarian historian Robert Higgs in his essay, “Regime Uncertainty: Why the Great Depression Lasted So Long and Why Prosperity Resumed After the War.” (Reprinted in Depression, War and Cold War, Independent Institute, 2006.) Higgs argues that the Depression lasted for more than ten years because of “a pervasive uncertainty among investors about the security of their property rights in their capital and its prospective returns” during the later New Deal of 1935–1940.

I can’t comment on much past the beginning of 1935, because that’s where I am in my reading. But I can verify that “regime uncertainty” was real, and that I saw evidence of it beginning in mid-1933, when the initial Roosevelt boom faltered.

At first Forbes advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself.

In the newspapers I read, the best barometer of this is B.C. Forbes’ business-page column. Forbes — the founder of the eponymous magazine — was very much a pro-capitalist guy. (The magazine calls itself a “capitalist tool.”) Forbes once wrote that his job as a newspaper columnist was to explain the economy to ordinary readers by interviewing industrialists and bankers. Much of the time Forbes was a transmission belt of their doings, thoughts, and feelings along with his own.

It was predictable that Forbes would not like the New Deal. At first he advised his business readers to swallow it and said he was loyally swallowing it himself. But he quickly began choking on the two principal “recovery” programs, the Agricultural Adjustment Act (AAA) and the National Recovery Administration (NRA). The NRA’s boss, Gen. Hugh Johnson, was a loud, imperious man who had been President Wilson’s boss of military conscription during World War I. During the early New Deal, Johnson helped to popularize two expressions: to chisel, meaning to lower one’s price below the government minimum, and to crack down, meaning to punish. In July 1933, Johnson went right to work, cracking down on the chiselers in American industry.

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator. In August 1933, Forbes called him “a Vesuvius, in epochal, thundering eruption . . . Not even Teddy Roosevelt in his most explosive days matched General Johnson’s Titanic energy and action — or his wielding of the big stick.”

And: “Mussolini has nothing on him in readiness to undertake multitudinous tasks and to swing the Big Stick.” (This was when Italy’s dictator, Benito Mussolini, was popular with many Americans.)

General Johnson was the closest that peacetime American business ever had to a military dictator.

In the fall of 1934, when Gen. Johnson was replaced by labor attorney Donald Richberg, Forbes wrote: “Reason is expected to replace ranting swashbucklerism.” Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

In March 1934, Forbes quoted an anonymous industrialist (probably Charles Schwab of Bethlehem Steel, whom he named elsewhere in the column): “No, don’t quote me as saying anything that would sound like criticism of the administration or any branch of it. It’s too dangerous. I don’t want to be cracked down on at this time when Washington has unlimited power to do what it likes.”

Later in the same month Forbes wrote, “The fear today is not of the law but of bureaucrats. Few employers regard themselves as in a position to stand up against dictation as Henry Ford has done.” (Ford had refused to accept the NRA’s “voluntary” price and production controls, and was not allowed to display the Blue Eagle and its motto “We Do Our Part.”)

One of Forbes’ October 1934 columns was an open letter to Franklin Roosevelt, titled in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer “Mr. President, All Employers Aren’t Crooks.”

Forbes loved to publicize good omens, but during these years he was repeatedly disappointed.

Forbes is not the only wellspring of business angst. Here is Merryle Rukeyser, a man more sympathetic to the New Deal than Forbes, in September 1934: “Business men are in a timid mood because of lack of assurance as to their tax liability and as to the attitude of the powers that be toward business profits.”

A doubter might argue that a handful of newspaper columns aren’t enough to prove Higgs’ thesis. I suppose so; but how would you prove it? It is about a state of mind — “confidence” — and how do you demonstrate that except by considering what people say and do? In fact, investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment. And in fact, there were statements by Roosevelt and by Hugh Johnson, Harold Ickes, Henry Wallace, Rexford Tugwell, and other New Dealers that might very well cause investors to lack confidence. And it was not only the New Dealers, but also their opponents on the left: Dr. Francis Townsend, who wanted every American over 60 to have $200 a month of government money (about $3000 in today’s terms); Upton Sinclair, the Democratic nominee for governor who wanted to set up a socialist economy in California; Father Coughlin, a radio priest who ranted against the rich; and Sen. Huey Long, the “Kingfish” of Louisiana who called his program “Share the Wealth,” and who was stopped only by an assassin’s bullet. This was a different time — and newspapers give you a flavor of it.

Of the four beliefs about the Depression I mentioned at the beginning, I think Robert Higgs’ “regime uncertainty” is most clearly verified. (Read his essay!) The crucial fact about the Depression of the 1930s is not that America got out of it; it always gets out. It’s that the getting out took more than ten years, which was longer any other depression in US history, and that Canada, Britain, Germany, and most other countries got out sooner, and that it took a worldwide war and the eclipse of the New Dealers for America to get all the way out.

Investors talked and acted as if they lacked confidence; statistics show a shortage of long-term investment.

But I don’t think the depression of the 1930s — the onset of it, the depth of it, the duration of it — was caused by any single thing. The commercial world is more complicated than that. I think the Austrian theory of overinvestment, or “mal-investment,” explains much of the setup of the crash, because in the late 1920s and into 1930 there were a lot of bad investments in real estate, commercial buildings, holding companies, and junky stocks. The Crash in 1929 shrank people’s assets and, more important, their confidence — for years. The Dow Jones Industrials went down almost 90%. The reparations owed by Germany to Britain and France, the sovereign debts owed to the United States by Germany, Britain, and France, as well as by Brazil and other South American republics, all had something to do with it, because in 1931 this grand edifice of debt went down in a heap. The bond market was so thoroughly wrecked that counties, cities, school districts, and corporations were locked out of long-term borrowing for several years. Smoot-Hawley and the whole movement toward economic nationalism had a bad effect. The gold standard deepened the Depression because it imposed a discipline on government finances — heavy spending cuts — at a time when they were painful, and when some countries freed themselves of that discipline it shifted the pain to the other ones. Finally, the anti-capitalist political currents and the ad hoc, experimental, extralegal character of the New Deal frightened investors, whose long-term commitments were needed for economic recovery.

That’s the best I can do. I’m still reading old newspapers.




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The Two Socialisms

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When I was in college, the selling point of socialism, communism, revolutionary activism, all of that, was something called “participatory democracy.” That’s what the mighty SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) stood for. That’s what the neo-Marxists stood for. That’s what all the “community organizers” stood for. The idea, endlessly reiterated, was that “decisions must be made by the people affected by those decisions.” No one talked about Medicare for all, or government-funded preschools, or government-mandated revisions of the environment. The idea was that centralized “state capitalism” was wrong, not primarily because it was inefficient, or even inequitable in its effects, but because its decisions were not “democratic.” They had not been made by the people affected by them. If it was inequitable or “slow” (i.e., inefficient), that was why.

Now we are witnessing an immense revival of “socialism,” led by Democratic Party opportunists and hacks. And it is all about laws that need to be made to increase the power of the centralized state. It is about giving professional politicians sole power over healthcare, housing, education, transportation, employment, qualifications for voting, and the possibility of self-defense — and all this without the tiniest hint that anyone except the Philosopher Kings who compose the Democratic Majority in the House of Representatives should be consulted. Participation? What’s that?

American “socialism” has shifted, in our time, from a demotic and “participatory” style to a rule-from-the-top dogmatism.

I have to be honest. I am a foe of “participatory democracy.” I do not believe it is optimal, in any sense, to give power over the individual’s existence to whoever happens to be a coworker, a fellow student, or just a guy who happens to turn up at a meeting. I find myself unable to decide whether a regime of little Red Guards is more repellent than a regime of Bernie Sanders bureaucrats arrayed, rank on rank and cube on cube, to decide what the width of my bathroom door should be.

But I think it’s worthy of notice that American “socialism” has shifted, in our time, from a demotic and “participatory” style to a rule-from-the-top dogmatism, constantly twisting in response to the whims of the politicians but always determined to enforce those whims.

I wonder whether any of the socialists have noticed this. Perhaps they are as ignorant of their own traditions as they are of economics or sociology, or respect for anyone except themselves.




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Somebody’s Favorite

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In the wake of last year’s militant #MeToo movement, when actresses haughtily proclaimed, “We will no longer be pressured into trading sex for jobs” (and bullied other actresses into wearing black at the event to show their solidarity), the Academy this year has bizarrely honored The Favourite with ten Oscar nominations, tying Roma for first place in number and confirming once and for all (as if there were any doubt) that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has zero credibility and doesn’t know what the hell it is doing.

Loosely based on the reign of Queen Anne and her relationships with Sarah Churchill, Duchess of Marlborough, and a servant named Abigail (eventually Lady Masham), the film suggests that the silly and childlike Anne made all of her decisions based on which woman’s tongue pleased her best — and I don’t mean by talking. The film fairly drips with transactional sex, from stagecoach wanking to arranged marriages to child trafficking to extortionate sex to withholding of affection for political positioning to ordinary prostitution. We even see ducks mating.

A young social climber, formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne.

Despite its praise from a supposedly “woke” Hollywood culture, the film’s theme is simply appalling. Yet Rachel Weisz, who plays Sarah Marlborough, called the film “a funnier, sex-driven All About Eve.” In that film, an established star (Margo Channing) befriends an aspiring actress (Eve Harrington), only to see her try to usurp her position in the theater. Similarly, in The Favourite, a young social climber, Abigail (Emma Stone), formerly an aristocrat but working now as a servant, worms her way cunningly — or in this case, cunnilingually — into the favor of Queen Anne (Olivia Colman) by befriending and then pushing aside the queen’s long-standing confidante and advisor, Lady Churchill (Weisz), simultaneously finagling a financially and socially beneficial marriage to regain her aristocratic status.

Don’t misunderstand my objection — I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different. The Favourite doesn’t just joke about sex; it celebrates the use of sex to gain political power, and hypocritically undermines everything these same preening, moralizing Hollywood hotshots stood up for just last year.

It also seems to justify rape, as long as it’s funny and as long as the women are in charge. When Lord Masham enters Abigail’s servant quarters without being invited, she asks him, “Are you here to seduce me or to rape me?” He responds, “I’m a gentleman.” “To rape me, then,” she deadpans, and the audience chuckles.

Forgive me if I’m wrong, but I thought rape had ceased to be funny, even in the movies. And nary a trigger warning in the trailers. Tsk, tsk.

All I’m asking is that the Academy pick a side and stick with it. Or admit that it really has no backbone or underlying moral principles whatsoever, and quit pretending to have the upper hand on social morality.

I enjoy a good bedroom farce, with doors slamming, lovers hiding, comic timing, and double entendres galore. But this is different.

So why the accolades for The Favourite? It’s all in the technique (to mimic Lady Abigail to Lord Masham on their wedding night as she turns her back and offers him her hand — you get the idea). First are the obvious awards: all three women have been nominated, and all three deliver stellar performances. Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention. Colman’s Queen Anne is gouty, needy, dumpy, screechy, and even develops a convincing stroke midway through. She’s amazing. Nominations for the Big Three — Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Screenplay — bring the tally to six.

Of course, any time you make a “costume drama,” you can expect to see a nomination for Best Costume Design, and in this case, it is well deserved. The early 18th century is not a common era for filmmaking, so costume designer Sandy Powell couldn’t just rent the costumes from a local supplier; most of them had to be made specifically for this film. And they are spectacular. The opulent textures and colors, and especially the tailoring details of the pockets, lace, and scarves are stunning, although the fabrics — including recycled denim and a chenille blanket — are far from authentic. The massive 18th-century wigs are impressive too, and even more impressive because, due to budget restraints, Powell often took the wigs apart after they were used in one scene and remade them for another. Interestingly, Lady Sarah is often dressed in men’s fashions. It prompts the question: can a woman only be powerful if she’s manly?

The opulent costumes fit perfectly within the opulent production design, also nominated for an Oscar, as it demonstrates the aristocratic decadence of the time. England is at war with France, and Queen Anne keeps threatening to double the taxes, but her courtiers are fiddling while the figurative fires burn. We see duck races inside the castle. Live pigeons, used for skeet shooting overlooking the sumptuous lawns. Exotic pineapples, imported from who knows where. A naked courtier being pummeled with blood oranges in one of the palace salons, just for fun.

Weisz and Stone are deliciously nasty to one another and grovel appropriately, if disgustingly, for Anne’s sexual attention.

Lord Harley (Nicholas Hoult) says, “A man’s dignity is the one thing that keeps him from running amok,” but we don’t see much that inspires dignity among these characters. In one scene, Queen Anne’s cheeks are painted with heart-shaped rouge, and in a later scene she murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

Adding to that looking-glass sensation is the bizarre use of fisheye lenses and dizzying panorama shots of interiors that create distorted scenes, almost as though we are looking through a giant peephole. And to a certain extent, we are. Screenwriters Deborah Davis and Tony McNamara based their characterization on letters between Queen Anne and Lady Churchill that indicate an intimately affectionate friendship and chose to play up the lesbian angle as the driving force in their characters and in their politics. All three important women in this filmwere married, but that doesn’t necessarily indicate heterosexual preference, especially in court marriages.

Still, the sexual relationship between Anne and Sarah — if indeed it existed — was intended to be private and, I hope, loving and intimate and true. The fisheye lenses and peephole angles reinforce that sense of peeking in on something we aren’t supposed to see — and that we might have a distorted impression of what really happened. Although Abigail did eventually take Sarah’s place as the Queen’s Mistress of the Robes, there is no historicalindication that Abigail used sex to win the Queen’s affection. Sarah and Anne did indeed have a falling out, possibly over money for building Blenheim Palace, and the Marlboroughs were banished to the continent. Abigail then became the “queen’s favorite,” or personal lady-in-waiting. After Queen Anne’s death the Marlboroughs returned to England and finished building Blenheim. That’s what we know.

In a later scene the queen murmurs distractedly, “Off with her head. Off with her head!” It does feel as though we have fallen through the looking-glass.

The Favourite opened with a limited run in November to a dismal $442,000 box office its first weekend. Trailers had been somewhat misleading, suggesting that the story was a more audience-friendly knock-down, drag-out catfight between two ladies-in-waiting, not a fairly graphic lesbian love triangle. Either way, it didn’t do well at first. After its Oscar nominations, however, it returned to theaters and as of January 31 had grossed over $42 million worldwide, from an audience of mostly bewildered moviegoers. That’s the power of an Oscar nomination.

Liberty readers might well enjoy The Favourite, depending on where they stand on the situations I’ve described. It’s bizarre in many ways, but it’s also witty, opulent, and well-acted. It presents three powerful women controlling the throne and politics of England in their own womanly way, especially Lady Sarah, who evidently really did have the queen’s ear from their childhood and ruled from Anne’s shoulder until the war with France ended. All three women use their sex for trade, but they do it willingly and deliberately, from a position of power rather than victimhood. Is it possible —even probable — that women in Hollywood have been doing the same thing for over a century, and only cried “outrage!” (and somehow managed to blame Republicans) after they were caught?

The Favourite might even turn out to be your favorite, even though it isn’t mine.


Editor's Note: Review of "The Favourite," directed by Yorgos Lanthimos. Element Pictures, 2018, 119 minutes.



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No Escape from Human Nature

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Are humans instinctively brutal? Do we attend hockey games, boxing matches, and race car events hoping see blood? Do we rubberneck at car accidents hoping to see death? Have we really made no moral progress since gladiator games were used as public executions?

The producers of Escape Room want us to think so. From The Most Dangerous Game (1932) to The Naked Prey (1965) to The Hunger Games trilogy (2012–2015), movies have explored the concept of humans hunting humans and have tapped into the idea of execution as entertainment. And that’s what happens in this movie.

Inspired by the escape-the-room genre of video games, real-life escape room adventures have become popular over the past decade in cities all over the world. Contestants are locked inside a room decorated to resemble a haunted house, prison cell, space station, or other isolated location and are given a time limit during which to discover clues, solve riddles, and find the escape hatch. It’s a fun, socially interactive, real-life alternative to sitting in front of a computer screen discovering clues, solving riddles, and finding the escape hatch.

They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you?

The premise of Escape Room is simple. Six strangers are invited to compete for a high-stakes prize by solving a series of puzzles in order to escape from a series of rooms. Danny (Nik Dodani) is a videogame nerd who has played in nearly a hundred escape rooms before. Zooey (Taylor Russell) is a shy math prodigy with a talent for solving puzzles. Jason (Jay Ellis) is an investment banker with expensive tastes. Ben (Logan Miller) is a stock clerk for a grocery store. Amanda (Deborah Ann Woll) is an army veteran, and Mike (Tyler Labine) is a blue-collar worker. What has brought these six together? And how will they interact under pressure?

The six soon realize, of course, that this is no game. If they fail, they die.

With its PG-13 rating, Escape Room is high on suspense and low on blood and guts, making it an entertaining film as the audience members work along with the characters to solve the riddles and unlock the doors.

What makes the film interesting are the gradual reveal of the characters’ backgrounds and their interaction with one another as they do what it takes to survive. They soon realize that one person will die in each room. Who will it be? What would you do to make sure it isn’t you? They’re all strangers, after all. They only just met, and they have no personal connection with one another. Will self-interest lead to treachery? Or will goodness win out?

You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must.

Despite being driven by self-interest, we still seem to want our heroes to be self-sacrificing — at least in Hollywood. We cheered when Han Solo, that maverick businessman of the cosmos, returned to help the resistance in Star Wars. We took heart when Katniss Everdeen refused to kill her youthful opponents in The Hunger Games. We even approved when Hombre (Paul Newman), the ultimate libertarian hero, reluctantly risked his life to rescue the wife of the thieving, racist Bureau of Indian Affairs agent from the stagecoach robbers.

But in reality, when push comes to shove and our own lives are on the line, what would we do to survive?

I recently listened to The Women in the Castle, by Jessica Shattuck, a fictionalized account of the widows of Jewish resistance leaders and their experiences during and after World War II. It’s a sappy, sentimental novel full of 21st-century morality and clichés. For example, Shattuck refers to “racial profiling” when her characters are asked to show their papers, a term that did not exist in World War II. Moreover, her protagonist is cloyingly egalitarian. She comes from an aristocratic background and thus has special access to food and protection. Yet she refuses to accept those special favors, or at least expresses consternation about accepting them. To hell with accuracy; Shattuck seems compelled to imbue her 20th-century protagonist with 21st-century values, no matter what. Such egalitarianism is a fine principle in times of plenty, but when your children are truly starving or threatened by death, you will accept any special opportunity offered to feed and protect them.

Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation.

Actual Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl belies Shattuck’s politically correct fantasy about genteel survival morality in his concentration camp memoir Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl reveals a particularly troubling source of survivor’s guilt — he admits that in order to live through the kind of brutal starvation they experienced in the camps, those who survived had to be ruthlessly selfish at times. There might be one piece of potato in the soup pot, and that one piece of potato would determine who had enough sustenance to survive the march to work the next day, and who would collapse in the snow. You couldn’t share. There simply wasn’t enough. So you did what you must to scavenge that bite of potato, reach the warm spot at the center of the mass of prisoners, avoid the front of the line when the camp guards were looking for someone to shoot. You might feel guilty. You might be furtive. But you did it anyway.

In such films as Escape Room, Hollywood conveniently whitewashes the truth about the survival instinct in order to celebrate community, sacrifice, and cooperation. The hero manages to be self-sacrificing and self interested, to fall on the grenade and make it out alive. And that’s OK. After all, we’re looking for escapism, not realism, in entertaining movies like this one.


Editor's Note: Review of "Escape Room," directed by Adam Robitel. Original Film Production, 2019, 100 minutes.



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Remembering the Great War

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As the world prepared to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the ending of World War I on November 11, 1918, director Peter Jackson accepted a daunting commission: to create a documentary that would honor the soldiers who fought in the trenches, using the original footage that was filmed 100 years ago.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war. Jackson would not interview modern historians about the significance of the war or provide any scripted narration. Instead, Jackson would bring these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

The result is a magnificent piece of work, both in the story it tells and in the technology Jackson used to tell it. This is a film made entirely in the editing room.

This would not be a documentary about generals, military strategy, assassinations of obscure archdukes, or theaters of war.

To create the storyline, Jackson and his team reviewed over 600 hours of interviews with survivors, conducted during various commemorations of the War to End All Wars. Jackson then began selecting portions of the interviews, taking a snippet here and a snippet there, until he was able to cobble together a narrative line that begins with young 16- and 17-year-old boys sneaking off to lie about their ages in order to join the army; follows them into the trenches, villages, and battlefields; and ends with the survivors returning home, many of them injured, many of them “loony” (an earlier term for PTSD), and many of them (according to one of the narrators) facing employment signs that said “Army veterans need not apply.” Their remembrances, told with voices that are cracked with age, are moving and authentic. No historian’s expertise could tell their story better.

Once the storyline had been established, Jackson reviewed 100 hours of footage from the war, selecting the best scenes to match the narration. Much of the footage was third- or fourth-generation, meaning it was a copy of a copy of a copy, each generation becoming less and less crisp. Much of it was either too dark or too light to be viewed clearly. And all of the movements were jerky and unnatural as the filmmakers had to crank the film through the camera by hand, trying to keep it steady at approximately twelve frames per second, which is only half the number of frames per second that we are accustomed to seeing in today’s movies.

And here is where the magic begins. Jackson used computer technology to add frames to the footage, smoothing out the action and making it feel as normal as any film you would see today. Then he colorized the film, using actual uniforms, tanks, and other artifacts from his own considerable collection of WWI memorabilia to help the artists get the colors just right. Next he enlisted professional lipreaders to figure out what the men were saying in the footage, and hired voice actors from the actual regions of each regiment, so the accents would be authentic. He added sound effects made by recording actual tank movements, mortar explosions, bayonet affixions, and other background noises. Finally, he created a natural musical score largely based on whistling and other natural music of the battlefield. The result brings these antique films to life. We simply forget that cameras couldn’t do this 100 years ago.

Jackson brings these long-dead soldiers to life by allowing them to tell their own story.

I’m not usually a fan of colorization; while it does make a film feel more natural for modern viewers, it neutralizes the skillful play of shadow and contrast designed deliberately and carefully by directors of the ’30s and ’40s. They knew what they were doing, and they did it well. However, in this film the colorization is a masterful addition. It brings out details in the film that in black and white were hidden or completely lost. Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

We also see how terribly young these soldiers were, marching off to war and grinning for the cameras. Although we never know their names, Jackson edits the footage so that several of the men come into view several times, and we begin to identify with them. We see not only the war, but how they lived, what they ate, how they slept, and even how they played. And in many cases, we are seeing them just before they died. It is a sobering, respectful, and impressive film.

They Shall Not Grow Old is neither pro-war nor anti-war; it simply asks us to consider the cost of war — not in the billions of dollars that are spent, but in the millions of lives that are lost. The title of the film is based on a selection from Laurence Binyon’s Ode of Remembrance called “For the Fallen,” which has been used as a tribute to all who die in war:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England's foam.

Lee Teter’s painting “Vietnam Reflections” pays a similar tribute to the fallen, but from a different perspective, that of the grieving survivor. It depicts a man, clearly a veteran though he wears no uniform, mourning at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC, where the names of all the fallen are etched on a long, low wall deliberately situated below ground level. His head is bowed in quiet anguish, his arm outstretched and his hand leaning heavily against the wall, willing it to reach inside and touch his comrades on the other side. Unseen by him, because his eyes are closed, several soldiers seem to be standing inside the wall, their reflections ghostly as they reach out, hand to hand, to console the man who, having survived the war, continues to carry its burdens. His guilt is understood by the clothing Teter chose to give him. He is dressed in a business suit; the soldiers wear army fatigues. A briefcase rests on the ground beside the veteran; the soldiers carry field kits. The businessman’s hair is flowing and tinged with gray; theirs is dark and crew cut. The fallen soldiers shall not grow old, start businesses, or have children.

 Most notable is the blood; we simply don’t see blood as anything but dirt in black and white.

And therein lies the survivor’s grief. “We that are left grow old,” as Binyon says in his poem, but survival is neither a reward nor a relief. It is a burden. Age does weary them, and the years do condemn.

No one knows the true story of war except those who experience it, and even then, it is a private, individual grief that none of them can truly share or understand. Consequently, using the voices of the actual soldiers to tell their story was a brilliant narrative strategy for They Shall Not Grow Old. They speak next to one another, but not in conversation with one another. The viewer remains enveloped in the currency of the story and simply observes their experience without explanation, editorializing, or the distraction of a modern historian’s modern interpretation.

The film is moving and impressive, but you’ll have to find it on Netflix or another platform because its theatrical release was limited to just December 17 and December 27. And that’s a shame, because the moment when Jackson switches from the jerky, original, black and white footage to his colorized and edited version is breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see it on a full-sized screen. If you do see it, make sure you watch the director’s cut with Peter Jackson’s interview explaining how he did it. It’s like listening to a magician’s reveal.


Editor's Note: Review of "They Shall Not Grow Old," directed by Peter Jackson. WingNut Films, 2018, 99 minutes.



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