Category Archives: Civil War

Five awesome movie scenes

My personal taste in film runs largely, although not exclusively, to the epic and the heroic, with largely dollops of the tragic and the sort of romance in which true loves die happy because they’re together. After I see films like Les Miserables they generally have to carry me out on a stretcher (it’s not just the film, of course– the stage production does the same thing to me, and I’ve seen it live three times. My daughter finds it soo embarrassing that her father has to bring a full box of kleenex with him to the theater).

Individual movie scenes that kill me with epicness have certain common attributes– a desperate struggle against long odds, someone you want to see succeed (or at least survive) and the ticking clock of looming disaster. Usually for maximum effect you need some really effective music. For extra points, throw in children in jeopardy.

Here’s five scenes from five very different films I find really riveting. NOTE: inevitably each of these scenes involve spoilers. Be warned.

1. From the 2009 J.J. Abrams reboot of Star Trek, the opening scene in which James Kirk’s father sacrifices himself to save his wife and soon-to-be-born son–

This is a wonderfully effective scene, scoring high because it’s basically a father defending his family and sacrificing himself to save them.  Does me in every time.

2. From Captain America: The First Avenger, here is the climactic scene where Cap (Chris Evans) has to intentionally crash the Hydra flying wing into the Arctic ice-cap to save New York City, while talking on the radio with his true love, Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell).

Cap must not only sacrifice his own life in this scene, but also his chance for happiness with Peggy, which brings a poignancy to the interchange between them, and which has continued to resonant through the subsequent Captain America and Avenger films.

3. From the 1993 film Gettysburg, Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s downhill bayonet charge at Little Round Top, which by itself just might have saved the Union–

Whether Chamberlain actually saved the Union is a matter of debate, but he knew his position was vital (the utter left flank of the Union Army), and he and his men held the position with incredible courage and endurance.

4. From the 1964 film Zulu, the famous ‘Men of Harlech’ scene–

Unfortunately, unlike Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain’s charge at Little Round Top, this scene never happened, at least as far the singing is concerned.  But the film captures the spirit of the true story of a tiny force who held off an overwhelming enemy through grit and good tactics.

5. From Return of the Jedi— a fan edit/compilation of the climactic confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader, with the Emperor egging them on. Most particularly, watch the section from 3:17 to 3:53 and listen to the soundtrack .  Those thirty-six seconds have more tragic drama in them than many movies have in their entire running time.

The interesting aspect of this scene is that Luke is trying to save not only Anakin Skywalker from the dark side, but also his sister, and, ultimately, himself– and, in the end, he does it by not fighting.  A nice twist on the classic climactic confrontation between the hero and the villain.

Each of these scenes contain attributes I hope my own writing at least occasionally captures.  I like stories and films in which something genuine is at stake, and the protagonists have to give of themselves to protect or rescue it.  In one way or another, I’m not sure why you would make a movie that did not have this sort of tension at its core, but they get made (e.g., in my biased opinion, American Hustle).  But I try not to dwell on such creations– there are plenty of films out there that spark my imagination and touch my heart.  I focus on them.

Later.

 

Movie Review- “12 Years a Slave”

It often happens that I only see important films long after their first release. Usually this is because of some economic constraint– being generally broke, I have to pick my movies carefully.

In the case of 12 Years A Slave, however, my delay was because I knew the story would hit me hard–

And I was right. This would be a hard movie to watch if you were Russian or Chinese or Bengali. It is harder to watch as an American; it is harder yet to watch as a white American; it is harder yet again to watch as a Southern white American; and it is even harder to watch the movie as a Southern white American who came out of a natal culture in which racism was an acceptable way of viewing the world. I grew up among people who, to put it bluntly, thought George Wallace in the 1960’s was simply doing God’s work.

It’s safe to say I bring a lot of baggage to this film.

***Mild spoilers below***

The film is based on the memoir of Solomon Northup, a free black man living in New York State, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery in 1841. As the title indicates, it took him twelve years to regain his freedom, and during that time he gained an intimate understanding of the institution of slavery, as it played out in the lives of ordinary people, both white and black. In 1853 Northup was able to get a message out to his family and acquaintances in New York. He was liberated, and then wrote his memoir with the help of a white Northern editor.

The film is not 100% accurate to Northup’s memoir– a conversation or two are invented, and a few pieces of the story have been changed. On the whole, though, it is faithful to the spirit of the memoir, which is a hair-raising depiction of the dehumanizing horror of slavery, from the inside. There really hasn’t been a film like this before, on this subject. Roots and such-like treatments pale to near-invisibility by comparison.

The film itself is superbly put together, and well-deserved its three Oscars. The cast out-does itself– Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northup, Michael Fassbender as the erratic and cruel Edwin Epps, Benedict Cumberbatch as Northup’s first, comparatively humane master, and Lupita Nyong’o, now famous as Patsey. Cameo appearances abound, including Brad Pitt, Paul Giamatti and Alfre Woodard. I don’t think there’s a false performance in the whole ensemble. The script, by John Ridley, captures the cadence and tone of the speech of the period, no mean feat.

For me, however, the power of the film is how it takes us into a world we can hardly imagine nowadays– the life of a slave in the antebellum South. Depictions of slavery in film have all-too-often been sugar-coated pieces of Confederate propaganda, and even when they were not, they have rarely penetrated to the depths of what American chattel slavery really meant.

12 Years A Slave, by contrast, does not blink. From the moment Northup wakes up in chains, after having been drugged and kidnapped, we are shoved into a universe in which normal human relationships are twisted out of all recognition by the supposition that some men are property and some are owners. In this world slaves are sometimes not even cattle– they are objects which may be destroyed at will. It’s a descent into some abattoir of human spirit and worth.

It feels, in fact, Orwellian, in that it seems to posit the same soul-crushing hopelessness, the same sense of being obliterated beneath an all-powerful authoritarianism. The movie goes to great lengths to prove this feeling is legitimate. The slave regime of the South before the Civil War was, quite simply, a system of tyranny, carefully designed (in a bitter irony, by people who thundered their love for liberty) to maintain control of the slave population, and to deny it any role other than that of un-recompensed laborer. It was illegal in most or all Southern states to teach a slave to read; slaves needed passes to move about beyond certain areas; and, for the most part, slaves had no appeal against cruel treatment. Aside from the law, there was the willingness of the white majority to engage in vicious vigilante reprisals against even rumored insurrection or disobedience. The movie shows all of this– whippings, rape, the inability of Northup to protect his friend Patsey from Epps’ violence, the slave patrol on the road casually executing runaways, the secrecy which the slaves were forced to adopt to protect themselves from Big Brother in the plantation house. Punishment and terror are routinely meted out to slaves as means of keeping them in line.

It also painfully outlines the extent to which slavery ensnared white as well as black. Even the relatively decent Ford (Benedict Cumberbatch) cannot keep Northup safe, and must yield to the necessity of debt when dealing with his slaves. For other whites, the absolute nature of the power they have over slaves corrupts them, from Giamatti’s heartless slave-dealing to Epps’ rape of Patsey. Because of their corruption, the whites often live in delusion, blaming the slaves for their own failures, or even the vagaries of nature. Mary Epps blames Patsey for her husband’s ‘attentions’ to her, and visits cruelty on Patsey in retaliation. Epps feels at liberty to impose terror on a whim, and another white overseer retaliates against Northup when Northup shows himself to be smarter than the overseer.

There is, thankfully, little or no trace in the film of the Confederate lie that slaves were content with their lot. This is tyranny, plain and simple, of the same species as the Nazis or the Soviets, only with a different focus. And none of the slaves in that focus are signing up for extra helpings of servitude.

This was a hard film to watch, but I am immensely glad I did. It’s a powerful indictment of America’s original sin, which still reverberates in the racism that justified slavery and which still taints us as a nation. This is, sadly, about as American a film as you can find anywhere. And we need to own that history and that truth, so we can do better.

I highly recommend it.

The Angle

Chuck Wendig’s latest challenge is 1000 words of action. I pride myself on my action, it’s one thing I think I do pretty good with, but Chuck’s further injunction to make it a story caused me to hesitate. I’m not so good turning short fiction into a tale with a beginning, middle and end. I fumbled around with a couple of ideas, but nothing stuck.

But then….

I have been reading Ralph Peters’ Hell or Richmond about the Union’s 1864 invasion of Virginia during the Civil War. Peters does a good job conveying the horror of the campaign. This was where and when warfare changed from occasional battles and armies maneuvering for advantage to constant battle and victory through attrition. The fighting prefigured the slaughter of World War I (too bad nobody in Europe was paying attention). One of the worst battles in this campaign occurred on May 12th to 13th, 1864, as part of Hancock’s assault on the Confederate salient known as the Mule Shoe. A Union division moving in to support Hancock hit the Confederate lines on the western side of the salient, and for about twenty-one hours a two hundred yard section of the line was turned into possibly the most savage slaughter-pen ever seen on the North American continent. Ever since it has been called “The Bloody Angle”, which is actually a mild term, considering what happened there.

Thinking about the Angle, I realized I had something I could write, although I will leave it to others to judge if it works as a story.

Warning: this is possibly the most graphic action piece I have ever written. It contains extreme violence and images. Even so, I probably didn’t really capture the essence of what happened at the Angle. I doubt mere words could.

Copyright 2014 Douglas Daniel
*****************************

Timothy crawled.

Screams, thunder, darkness, fire. Curses from men pushing forward, howls of pain from men falling, lances of flame as rifles went off in men’s faces. Rain.

Timothy pulled himself forward. He couldn’t see more than a yard; the rain was coming down so hard that each drop threw up a spray of mud and water in his face. The feet and legs of soldiers– he wasn’t sure which unit they belonged to– trampled about him, over him, on him. One man, then another, tripped over him and fell, cursing. Timothy fought to keep his head above the mud.

Get away from the works. He knew, in his bowels, if he stayed here he would be trampled down and out of existence, like a dog in the middle of a road. Thousands of men were coming on behind the first wave, all cramming into this little section of the line. Along the enemy line, rifles raised as clubs swung downward, the sound of skulls cracking like gourds beneath a hammer. Indistinct forms of men struggled and stabbed one another.

Get away.

Each time he pulled himself forward agony ran through his arm and leg like electric fire. He’d already puked from it, a sickness unnoticed in the muck all around him. His leg had been shot through; he couldn’t stand on it. Even if he could have, he wouldn’t– the air whined thick with Minie balls. Men charging forward were hit more times than Timothy’s distracted brain could count. Some of them just came apart.

His arm– the worst pain of all– dragged useless at his side. He’d been hit twice there. The ends of the shattered bone grated on each other.

Over the thunder and the gunfire, the shouts and cries of pain, Timothy heard officers urging men forward. It was if they spoke a strange language, pointless in its babble. There was no order here. It was some savage corner of existence where the normal laws of life were abolished.

More trampling feet– some soldier or another, anonymous in the mass shoving forward, slammed Timothy in the ribs with his brogans. A fresh, white-hot pain shot through him. He gasped, sucking in mud and rainwater, coughed them back out, making the pain flash through him again. Ribs. It would have been almost adding insult to injury, if it hadn’t hurt so much.

Weeping, his salt tears unnoticed in the rain that soaked him, he crawled on. Every inch was purchased with agony. More men stumbled over him. Was he invisible? Was he already dead? No, death would surely mean the end of pain, and pain was his present reality.

Mud in his eyes– he tried to shake his head to clear them. At the moment a shell burst high above him in the tree-tops. Bright light and a crack beyond thunder, and the tree came down, crushing men beneath it. One man was speared right through by a branch and pinned to the earth, where he writhed like a bug on a pin.

Out of the rain, a captain appeared, waving his sword, urging men forward. A volley tore the top of his head off. The officer fell right on top of Timothy. Blood and brains spilled over him; Timothy hardly noticed, as the officer’s weight crushed him into the mud. Every one of his wounds shrieked. Timothy, for just a moment, knew nothing but a white haze of pain.

He came to with muck choking his nose and mouth. He got his head up, spat it out, gasped for air. He tasted dirt and water and blood.

For a moment, the dead captain pressing him down, the feet of other men trampling him into the mud, Timothy knew he had no more strength. The sounds of the fighting faded. It would be easier, so much easier, just to rest and let it end.

He remembered a garden, a shading tree, the side of a house– Janie, sitting on that bench behind her mother’s house as he proposed to her. She had looked beautiful then. She had always looked beautiful to him– it didn’t matter about her nose, and the freckles. Timothy had never minded the little imperfections of a woman who made him want to be a better man.

This will be hard on her. To be a widow; more than that, a widow with a young baby. Clara, born the fall before. In his imagination Clara had her mother’s red hair.

But he had never seen her.

With a scream as much of rage as of pain, Timothy forced himself up on his one good leg and hand. The dead captain rolled off him. Balancing himself with his wounded leg– ignoring the lances of agony this sent through him– he crawled forward, with a sort of odd, lurching motion. The pain this caused him was expected now, reminders that he yet lived. With his unbalanced posture, he was going as much sideways as forward, but he was moving. Soldiers still moving toward the works saw him now, and dodged around him….

…until one of them didn’t, and blundered right into him. The soldier went one way and Timothy the other. He was blinded by more pain as he rolled down a slope, the back side of one of the undulations in the ground they had crossed in their attack. He came to rest on his back.

When he could think again, Timothy realized he was in a pocket of calm. The ground here was just low enough to shield him from enemy fire. Timothy lay panting. He was utterly spent. He could not go another foot. I’m sorry, Janie.

Other wounded lay scattered around this stretch of ground. One boy, who could have not been more than sixteen, lay against a felled tree, holding in his entrails. He gave Timothy a pleading look. Timothy wished he could do something for the lad. But there was nothing more he could do for himself.

He may have lost consciousness then, for it seemed as if a face suddenly appeared before him. It was young, and round, and smooth-cheeked. It took Timothy a moment to realize it was the face of a youth, leaning over him, peering down at him.

“Hey, there, corporal,” the boy said. “You still on this side of the Jordan? So you are, by the Lord God. I was afraid you’d gone on, like those other poor fellows.”

Timothy managed to lift his head and see that the boy wore the uniform of a drummer. “It’s bad out here, corporal, as bad as I ever seen it, and worse. Good thing you managed to crawl down here– can’t go up into the field to get any of the boys, that Reb fire’s cutting men to pieces. But now you just put your trust in the Lord Jesus and Jim Mahaffey. I’m Jim, not Jesus, by the way, just in case you’re confused. Between the two of us we’ll get you out of here.” The boy reached down and got his arm around Timothy’s shoulders.

“You just lean on me,” the boy said.

A 4th of July reflection no one is going to like

I am probably at least moderately sleep-deprived to want to tackle this topic, but I’m just going to go with it. I have a few things to get off my chest.

I have never been a chest-thumping, America-is-the-greatest-nation-in-the-world sort of patriot. When people say that I have an urge to demand they define “greatest”. We’re not

the greatest, for example, when we have a higher infant mortality rate than Greece or Cuba, nor when our national infrastructure is crumbling and would embarrass a Third-World country.

This tendency makes me unpopular in certain circles.

I do, however, love my country. I love its ideals, I love our instinct for democracy, and I love how Americans, when the elephant dung hits the turbine blades, generally do what is needful and right. Churchill’s remark that “America can be counted on to do the right thing after she’s exhausted all the alternatives” is funny and pretty much spot-on. I love our practicality and our instinct to question ourselves, a trait that, if not unique to Americans, is at least one of our defining qualities.

But….

To be honest and truthful about who you are, you have to start with your own failures and crimes, along with acknowledging the good. Like any other nation we are composed of fallible and failing human beings. Because of that, Americans live, to one degree or another, with a perpetual cloak of hypocrisy about our shoulders. Perhaps it is because our ideals are so high that our hypocrisy stinketh all the more.

Through the 19th and well into the 20th Century Americans regularly slanged the British for their Empire, conveniently ignoring the fact of our own imperialism– just ask the Mexicans, Native-Americans, Canadians and Filipinos about that (quick history question– how many times did the US invade Canada? At least four– once in the Revolution and three times during the War of 1812. They were all miserable failures, to which the Canadians owe their universal health care and the Queen on their coins). We started the Revolution in the name of liberty while holding black men and women in bondage. We proclaim equality for all while giving the rich box-seats and telling the poor and hungry to go around to the back door.

It’s not just our inevitable hypocrisy (who could live these ideals to perfection?) that leaves me in a dour mood, though, despite the (momentary) Seattle sunshine. It goes much deeper than that.

To put it plainly, we’re in deep trouble.

We are a severely divided nation, Red vs. Blue, and probably a dozen factions within those broad categories, to the point that civil discourse has almost come to an end. Our government is so gridlocked that ordinary, even mundane, business falls by the wayside, the victim of political rancor. Large sections of our political landscape have been overrun by know-nothings to whom political compromise– the life-blood of democracy– is akin to mortal sin. Presidents of both parties think it’s just okey-dokey to bend the Constitution, so long as it is in the name of security. And we have a Supreme Court that is down with the idea that a man with a billion dollars should effectively have more say in our political system than a man with one hundred dollars.

All of this, to me, looks like a political system slowly slipping into a tar pit.

I have read too much history; I have probably also read too much science-fiction. I know from history that all nations and governments, at some point, fail, often with terrible consequences. I know, from history and science-fiction both, that a nation is sometimes just one John Brown moment from being shoved into a completely different historical track. We Americans have not purchased immunity from being human nor from the inability to create a perpetually perfect political arrangement. And, at the moment, our divisions look very sharp and deep.

Let’s talk about those possible future-histories, best-case, middle-case, worst-case. Of course, my opinion of best, middle and worst may differ sharply from yours– bear with me.

Best-case– we live up to our own ideals and become a nation of true inclusion and democracy. We reverse the current trend toward plutocracy and find a way to give everyone a equal share of our future. I’m not talking utopia here, but practical, hard-headed measures, such as helping the middle-class, rebuilding our national infrastructure, affirming that free speech belongs to living, breathing human beings, and getting the money out of politics. In some ways, we’re already a long way down this road– we are a far more inclusive country than we were when I was born. But there is no guarantee we’re going to succeed. There are just too many forces working against it.

Middle-case– we cannot overcome our differences and, in some way or another, we end this experiment called the United States, perhaps even peacefully dissolving the Union. The dissolution of empires (and the US is an empire, make no mistake) has been a trend since the end of World War II– the break-up of the Soviet Union was just the grandest example. Regional nationalism in the United States is much, much weaker than it was in the former Soviet Union, however, so a full dissolution may not be in the cards.

Partly because of that, I do not think the middle-case very likely. On the other hand, you’ll note that my middle-case does not consist of us somehow muddling along as we are. I don’t think that is particularly likely, either. Something has got to give.

Worst-case– we cannot overcome our differences, and our political dialogue is so poisoned that we cannot negotiate a peaceful separation– and if you listen to the rancor out there right now, you might think we’re at that point already. In such an environment, perhaps some latter-day John Brown commits a horrific act, which acts as a tipping point, and one faction or another decides to make a grab for all the marbles. Remember how I mentioned that Americans are not immune to being human beings? That includes the impulse to impose your way of believing and doing things on other people.

In plain English, tyranny, or a second Civil War. Perhaps both.

I once had a novella on Amazon about the end of a new American civil war. I eventually removed it because I decided it did not adequately convey the horror of such a future-history– my story-telling skills were not up to the task. The end of democracy in America, whether by a bloodless coup or by a bloody war, would be devastating, not just for us, but for the world. An actual civil war in this country, in modern times, would make Bosnia look like a Sunday School picnic.

Before you say it’s not possible, remember that it already happened once. Yesterday was the 151st anniversary of Pickett’s Charge. The first Civil War has been so long represented as a sectional conflict that we forget that the issues driving it, including slavery, which touched on the meaning of freedom and citizenship, were national in scope– and that the Confederacy had many friends in the North. Those issues of freedom and the role of government keep reappearing in American politics, as they have now, just in different guises.

In some ways, it is 1859 all over again. It is yet to be seen if we can avoid another Harper’s Ferry.

These are my thoughts, sincerely un-cheerful for a sunny Fourth of July afternoon, and probably why I don’t get invited to a lot of barbecues. All to the good, most likely– I’m supposed to be watching my weight, anyway.

How likely is the worst-case? I don’t know. I hope it’s not very, and that I have, in fact, read too much science-fiction. In which, by the way, some of our best authors have discussed the possibility of tyranny in America, starting with Robert Heinlein’s “If This Goes On—” and continuing through Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale”. Both books are scary, but neither of them have yet come true. Perhaps, therefore, I’m just spinning out improbable future-histories that will never come to be.

Perhaps.

But at the moment, it is certain that things are in a serious state. And that is why I can’t really get all chest-thumping patriotic and party like it’s 1776 or 1945 or whatever high-point of our national life you want to commemorate for the day.

But I did manage to put out the flag.

Later.

Scary stories

Not stories about ghosts, werewolves, vampires or IRS tax audits. Oh, no. I’m not talking about stories you read to make yourself shiver. I am talking about story ideas so big, so ambitious, they intimidate me as a writer.

I have a few of these, some of which I’ve been mulling over in my brain for years– but which I have never had the courage to put on paper or hard drive. Perhaps tellingly, these are mainly mainstream literary ideas, rather than genre.

Among these concepts–

1. A contemporary novel, working title Life in the Abyssal Plain. This is only tangentially informed by my own life (a strictly autobiographical novel based on me would be useful only as a door-stop), but I find its protagonist– a man who has always felt out of step with his universe, reaching middle-age with nothing to show for it– compelling. But, frankly, writing about real life is much more intimidating than writing about dragons and space battles.

2. An unnamed Vietnam War novel. Although I have thought about it a lot, this one is so intimidating I will probably never write it, at least as a novel set in Vietnam. I lived through the Sixties, but I was never in Vietnam. I was in the Army, but my service was years later and I never saw combat. If I tried to write a novel about the war in Vietnam, I would almost certainly commit a thousand errors. It would also take a particularly rank sort of hubris for someone like me to write, as a non-participant, about a subject for which there are so many books– If I Die in a Combat Zone, Box Me Up and Ship Me Home, Fields of Fire, and Matterhorn as just a few examples– by people who were there, and who are still around.

But I did live through the Sixties, and I was in the Army after the war, serving with men who were in Vietnam (by-and-large damn fine people), and I can say something about that. I have an unpublished novelette based on my time in the Army, but I need to rethink it pretty thoroughly before I try to recreate it as a novel.

3. A Civil War novel, working title Leaves in the Stream. Yeah, probably a little too close to Hemingway’s Islands in the Stream, but it captures the concept I have of the war sweeping an entire set of families, white and black, downstream through history, with the characters unable to resist the current. Its protagonist is a young Southerner fighting for the North. I relate pretty strongly to this character– I come from a southern family proud of its Confederate heritage, in which I was the only kid impertinent enough to remind everyone about the inconvenient fact of slavery (funny, I’m also the only one who now lives north of the Mason-Dixon. Hmmm…). My novella The Peach Orchard was actually a first essay at telling this story, as well as my first real attempt at historical fiction. It will probably serve as the jumping-off point for the novel when I write it.

This novel is close to my heart. The Civil War in general hovers over Southerners in way it does not for Northerners. More than that, this is family history for me, as well as the history of my nation, and I think there are important things I can say about it.

The problem is that this concept scares me witless.

This is the one story I have to get right (above and beyond just getting it right as a story). More than the overwhelming historical detail (and that alone is staggering), I absolutely don’t want to turn out yet another pot-boiling soap opera (and there have been so many Civil War pot-boilers, starting with that gold-plated turd, Gone With the Wind). That sort of failure would kill me. The terror of doing this wrong has been paralyzing. And then there’s the scale of it– if you do it right and don’t restrict your focus to one battle or one section of the country (as with Across Five Aprils, for example), you’re almost sure to turn out something longer than War and Peace— and length is not necessarily an indicator of quality.

Writing The Peach Orchard was confidence-building, but in the scheme of the whole novel it would be only about one or two chapters. I’ve been reading historical fiction on the war, including The Killer Angels and The March, but in some ways that’s counter-productive– reading works by masters only serves to remind me of far short I fall.

Which is probably what this all boils down to– my sense of inadequacy as a writer. I’m not formally trained, and I feel that most keenly when I contemplate projects like these. The sad truth is that I am far more confident handling science-fiction and fantasy (although Princess of Fire has lately been causing me to question even that) than in making everyday life interesting– which is probably a pointed comment on my writing abilities in-and-of itself.

At some point, however, I will have to screw my courage to the sticking point and just do these stories. Or, to put it another way, close my eyes and think of the book covers. Because, frankly, these projects represent something of a bucket list for me as a writer. And I ain’t getting any younger.