The Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, 1977

Yesterday marked the 45th anniversary of the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, one of Cincinnati’s historic tragedies. On May 28, 1977, 165 people perished in a fire in Southgate, Kentucky, just across the Ohio River from Cincinnati. Most of the dead were youngish adults in their twenties and thirties. Many were parents of children my age.

This tragedy strikes somewhat close to home for me, even though it was a long time ago, and even though I didn’t actually lose anyone. 

My parents, as chance would have it, were supposed to be there that night. My mom wanted to see John Davidson perform. 

This is not as noteworthy a coincidence as it might seem. In the late 1970s, entertainment options were not what they are now. An appearance by a star like John Davidson, at a local venue, was quite the event.

In the end, my parents decided not to go. They did not have premonitions of doom. There were no omens. Something mundane simply came up, preventing them from going. Two of my parents’ acquaintances did go, though, and they died in the fire. 

Tragedy directly struck a girl in my third grade class. Both of her parents, just thirty-two years old, died in the fire. The girl was in our class the Friday before the Memorial Day holiday. On the following Tuesday, she was not there. 

She was subsequently raised by relatives. None of us ever saw her again. I have, though, seen her appear in local television interviews as an adult. She was interviewed about a decade ago, on one of the annual observances of the grim May 28 anniversary. 

There were lawsuits over the Beverly Hills Supper Club fire, of course. The litigation went on for years. It remains a blight on the history of this area, and will likely remain so, until the last survivors and the last children of the dead are gone.

There have been various explanations for the fire, too, from faulty wiring to arson. The latter supposedly involved the Sicilian mafia, which used to have a significant presence in Cincinnati. This theory remains unproven.

Most of the people who now commemorate the tragedy each year are adults in their fifties and sixties who lost parents that night. Also, some of the actual survivors, who are now in their seventies and eighties.

I had a happy childhood and wonderful parents. If my parents had gone to the Beverly Hills Supper Club as planned, my early years might have been very different. My life would be different today, for that matter.

Each year at this time, I count my blessings, and remember how fragile we are. All of us. 

Most dangerous combat roles in World War II

Being in the infantry in World War II was certainly dangerous enough. But that wasn’t necessarily the most dangerous combat role, as detailed in the article hyperlinked below:

“These 5 World War II jobs were more dangerous than being an infantryman”

My grandfather was a gunner on various US Navy vessels that escorted Merchant Marine ships through the North Atlantic. (Number 3 on the above list.)

He once told me that when a ship capsized or was torpedoed, there was seldom any hope of rescuing survivors. Such was the nature of the North Atlantic.

The Beatles in Hamburg, and ‘The Cairo Deception’

As many of you will know, I recently wrapped up The Cairo Deception, my 5-book World War II series.

One of the final chapters of the book depicts the Beatles performing in Hamburg, West Germany in December 1962. (I won’t go into more story detail than that, so as to avoid spoilers.)

This is actually true. When I discovered this lesser known piece of rock music history, I just couldn’t resist putting it in the book, as an Easter egg for Beatles fans.

The Beatles both resided and performed in Hamburg from August 1960 to December 1962. The Beatles’ Hamburg residence took place shortly before they became a global phenomenon. The band also performed at a music venue in Hamburg called The Star-Club, as described in Postwar: Book 5 of The Cairo Deception. 

The Beatles of the Hamburg period involved a slightly different lineup of the band: John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe and Pete Best. After the group returned to England at the end of 1962, Sutcliffe and Best left the band, and Ringo Starr was hired on as the new drummer.

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Why I’m not a “car guy”

I will freely admit that I have never been much of a “car guy”. To me a car has always been little more than an appliance. Not all that much different from a washing machine or a refrigerator. I spend a lot more time oohing and aahing over the latest Apple technology than I do over the latest offerings from any of the automakers. 

Most men much under 55 are similar, I’ve found. (The exceptions are pickup truck guys, but they’re a different breed, entirely.)

This is definitely a generational thing. Almost all of the car guys I know are over the age of 60, which means that they started driving in the 1970s or earlier. 

I started driving in 1984. It was around this time that cars all started looking more or less the same, and not very exciting at all. 

For example, check out the “K Car”, a popular car of the 1980s. The K Car was basically a shoebox on wheels. Yet so many cars built during the 1980s followed this pattern.

Vehicles of the 1990s, 2000s, and beyond became even more uniform in shape and appearance. Can anyone really tell the difference between a Kia Sorento and a Toyota Highlander without looking at the grill emblem? I certainly can’t—and I drive the latter car. 

Now look at these cars that Chevrolet put out in 1972: the Camaro SS, the Malibu convertible, etc. And (of course) the venerable El Camino. 

Now these were cars worth getting excited about. 

No—I wasn’t driving in 1972. (I was four years old.) But many of these cars were on the road well through my early adolescent years. Trouble was, they already represented the last of the fading classic car era. 

Why are cars so similar today? We can blame Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards, as well as changes in the marketplace. 

The era of the classic car is now over. And with it, I would argue, the era of the “car guy”.

German rocket scientists, Nazi-era anti-smoking campaigns, and history’s interesting ironies

The Nazis were evil; they weren’t always stupid. In some scientific endeavors, Nazi Germany actually surpassed the Allied Powers. 

For example, one of the first things the Americans did, upon conquering Germany, was to scoop up a rocket scientist named Wernher von Braun. During World War II, Braun was a chief developer of the V-2 rocket program. (He was also a member of the Nazi Party and the SS.)

But after the war, the US faced new enemies. The American government brought Braun to the United States, where he worked on American rocket programs, with both scientific and military applications. Wernher von Braun had a hand in the Apollo spacecraft that would eventually lead to eight crewed lunar missions in the late 1960s and early 1970s.

Wernher von Braun, former Nazi scientist, with President Kennedy at Redstone Arsenal, 1963

That may not come as too much of a surprise to many readers. After all, most people know that Nazi Germany had some advanced weaponry. But did you know that Nazi scientists also raised the alarm over cigarette smoking long before anyone else did?

This historical curiosity provided a scene in Book Four of The Cairo Deception

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In Book Four of The Cairo Deception, Rudolf Schenk tells Jack McCallum that the Nazi government had identified cigarette smoking as a major health concern: a cause of heart disease, lung disease, and cancer. Jack  is skeptical; but on this matter, at least, Schenk is actually telling the truth. 

The German medical community actively discouraged cigarette smoking decades before those of other countries, including the United States. Adolf Hitler (as noted in Book Four of this series) was personally opposed to cigarette smoking. Hitler was a teetotaler, too. 

Smoking was never quite outlawed in Nazi Germany. Nevertheless, official propaganda discouraged smoking among German citizens and servicemen alike. 

In this regard, Nazi Germany was ahead of its time, and in a good way. This must be kept in perspective, obviously. Nazi Germany’s prescience regarding the harmful effects of cigarette smoking was overshadowed many times over, by all of the evil that that government committed—both in Germany and elsewhere.

Nazi-era anti-smoking ad

I can’t wait to see ‘The Black Phone’

The Black Phone stars Ethan Hawke, whom you’ve seen in many other films over the years. Based on the trailer and what I’ve read online, this seems to be a supernatural serial killer film set in 1978.

I was 10 years old in 1978. That was an age before cell phones and helicopter parenting. An era of suburban kids disappearing for hours at a time on their bikes. Much of the time, nobody knew exactly where you were. Your parents certainly couldn’t track your whereabouts on an “app”.

This wasn’t parental negligence. It was just the way things were then.

The 1970s was also the heyday of the serial killer. Growing up in that era, we were taught to be on the constant lookout for “stranger danger”. Especially male strangers driving vans. 

This movie seems to tap into a lot of generational fears for people of a certain age (my age).

If the movie is as good as the trailer, I expect it to be a big hit with horror fans over the age of 40…or anyone interested in the fears of that increasingly receding time, the late 1970s.

The Black Phone will hit the movie theaters in June. Count me in!

Childhood memories, and writing about World War II

My grandfather in the Atlantic Ocean, 1943

World War II has been on my mind and in my fiction a lot of late. 

I’m presently finishing up the last book in The Cairo Deception, my WWII-era suspense/drama series. The most recent installment in The Rockland Horror, my historical horror series, takes place in 1945. The plot of The Rockland Horror 4 is intimately bound to the events of World War II.

To be clear about the title of this post: no, I do not have firsthand childhood memories of World War II. I was born in 1968, twenty-three years after the war ended. By the time I became aware of names like Pearl Harbor, Hitler, and Hirohito, the war was at least thirty years in the past.

My grandfather, however (pictured above) was a WWII combat veteran. He served in the Atlantic in the US Navy. His experiences were roughly similar to those depicted in the 2020 Tom Hanks movie, Greyhound.

From a very young age, I was captivated by history. And what better way to learn about history, than by listening to the stories of a relative who actually took part in it?

My grandfather regaled me with his accounts of Egypt, Russia, the United Kingdom, and Syria. He also told me stories about fighting the German U-boats and Messerschmidts. 

My grandfather was, in many ways, my first “action hero”. His experiences, though, were very common among men of that generation, who have been called (for good reason) the Greatest Generation.

I don’t remember a thing about World War II. But some of my fondest childhood memories involve listening, with rapt attention, while my grandfather told me about it. He has been gone for decades now, but I still miss him, and I miss his stories. He gave me an enduring interest in World War II, and it isn’t surprising that the war should show up in some of my stories. 

Thieves and buried treasure

Coming soon:

SHOWDOWN IN CAIRO: Book 4 of THE CAIRO DECEPTION

What follows is a sneak peek at Chapter 6 of the fourth book in THE CAIRO DECEPTION, my World War II-era adventure/drama series. 

The first three books of THE CAIRO DECEPTION are already available on Amazon.

In the excerpt below, Jack McCallum, a soldier turned treasure hunter, has made a discovery in the Egyptian desert outside Cairo. 

The discovery could make him rich, set for life.

But treasure isn’t the only thing waiting in the Egyptian desert…

CHAPTER 6

The gemstone was about the size of a plum. Jack picked it up from among the clay fragments, his heart pounding. 

There were little images on one side of the stone, carved into its oblong surface. Jack recognized these as Egyptian hieroglyphics, too, though he had no idea what they said.

“Tahmid,” Jack said. “Do you realize what this is?”

“Yes, boss. I do.”

It was unbelievable. This was the Garnet of Hatshepsut. Exactly as John Millhouse had promised. 

Jack felt a sudden, not altogether unpleasant wave of dizziness. He paused for a moment, to take in the realization: He was going to be a rich man. 

“Looks like you’ve struck it rich, boss,” Tahmid said, as if reading his mind. 

Jack was distracted by the distant sound of voices, going back and forth in Arabic. 

He looked up over the side of the hole. 

There were roughly a dozen men, dressed in what approximated Arab bedouin attire. They had arrived on about as many camels. 

They were about a quarter-mile away. At present. 

Roughly half of the men were carrying rifles. The rifles appeared old, but they probably still fired. Several of the rifle-bearing men wore bandoliers criss-crossed over their chests. Many of the men were also wearing scabbards with what looked like long fighting knives.

Jack ducked down back into the hole. He raised a finger to his lips, in order to indicate that Tahmid should be absolutely silent. He pantomimed the presence of the men with his hands and fingers. 

Tahmid took a cautious peek, as well. When he ducked down again, the man’s face bore an expression of abject terror. 

“Thieves,” Tahmid said. “Like I tell you, the desert not safe place.”

“You said that it isn’t safe at night,” Jack countered. “This is the middle of the day.” Jack pointed upward, at the blazing sun.

“Sometimes dangerous during the day, boss. Better to stay in the city.”

Jack was tempted to ask Tahmid why—if he felt that way—he had hired on as a digging assistant to begin with. But that was a fruitless discussion that he had no time for.

His only concern now was those men in the desert. It was a dire situation. Those men would think nothing of murdering two treasure hunters in order to take the gemstone.

Jack thought back to his encounter in the alleyway, with the gang of eight hoodlums (led by the short man with the scar), and the advice of Rudy Gunther, who had literally saved his life that day.

Rudy had advised him to acquire a gun. Jack realized now that he should have taken that advice. But he didn’t know how much use a British Webley revolver would be, anyway, against a small army of armed men. 

There was nothing to do but wait. The men were on their way to somewhere, obviously. They had stopped for a rest, or simply to look around, perhaps using the nearby pyramid as a landmark.

If they rode by here, Jack and Tahmid were goners. If they rode in another direction, they could probably escape. 

Jack waited ten minutes. Hearing nothing, he looked up over the edge of the hole again.

The men were gone.

“How long till our ride meets us at the rendezvous point?” Jack asked Tahmid. Jack’s digging assistant took care of arranging their daily transportation. So far, he had done that with reasonable reliability and efficiency. 

Don’t let me down today, Tahmid, Jack thought. Please.

“Two hours,” Tahmid reported.

The rendezvous point was at the intersection of two poorly maintained macadam roads. The spot was out in the open. Completely exposed.

Jack didn’t think it would be advisable to go there now, and risk so much time at a vulnerable location. Not with the garnet in his possession, and with a roving band of thieves afoot. 

“We’ll leave in one hour,” he told Tahmid.

He wrapped the garnet in a clean cloth, and placed it in his pocket.

***

An hour later, Jack and Tahmid set out with their sparse equipment for the spot where their transportation would be waiting.

They reached the spot, and Jack scanned the horizon anxiously. What if the armed men returned?

Then all was lost. But this was the last big risk. If he could make it back to Cairo, he would be set. Or almost set.

A short while later, an old Ford Model A came chugging into view.

“That’s our ride,” Tahmid said.

The car was driven by two Arab men, who greeted Tahmid in Arabic, and nodded unsmilingly at Jack. They strapped the shovels and other equipment to the roof of the car. Then Jack and Tahmid piled into the back seat.

Jack remained acutely aware of the gemstone in the pocket of his trousers. This was the stone that—if he could hold on to it and get it out of Egypt—would change his life.

The Arab men chatted with Jack during the roughly half-hour ride to the edge of Cairo. Jack didn’t mind. By now he was used to people speaking a language that he couldn’t understand. (And Jack had all but given up on learning any Arabic.) Jack, moreover, was lost in his own thoughts; and he now had a lot to think about.

There was another matter, though. Jack knew nothing about these men in the front seat, or their relationship with Tahmid. What was to stop Tahmid from double-crossing him? Tahmid could tell the men about the gemstone, and arrange a robbery. Then they could plan to split the proceeds from the sale of the garnet among them. Never mind that a stone this valuable would be virtually impossible to sell in Egypt. 

When he arrived safely back in the city, however, Jack felt guilty for his suspicions during the ride. True, Tahmid had been an unmotivated and lackluster employee. There was no indication, however, that he was dishonest or prone to criminal activity. Otherwise, Jack supposed, he would having joined the crew of the scarred gangster from the alleyway, or perhaps the men on camels whom they had seen today in the desert. 

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The first ‘Star Wars’ generation

I remember sitting in a cinema one day in the early summer of 1977. I was just shy of nine years old, so I was there with my dad.

My dad wanted to see this new movie called Star Wars.

I didn’t really know what to expect, but my dad (then barely in his thirties) was excited about it. So I went along, too. My mom had no interest the movie. (My mom liked very few movies that didn’t involve horses.)

I remember watching the opening scenes. The big spaceships on the big screen. Oh, man, I was immediately hooked.

I know: this essay has already veered into cliché. By this point, everyone has seen those scenes in the original Star Wars movie. The CGI effects in 21st-century movies like Avatar, moreover, have since surpassed our collective ability to be visually amazed.

But keep in mind: in 1977, the average feature film was a Burt Reynolds movie that relied on conventional car chases. (In fact, one such movie—Smokey and the Bandit—was released within a few weeks of Star Wars.)

Most of the available science fiction in 1977 was campy and already a decade old. There was Star Trek, of course. But Star Trek was made in the 1960s, and it showed in the production values.

There was also Lost in Space, which had its original prime-time run between 1965 and 1968. (Oh, and the first season of Lost in Space was in black and white.)

I won’t tell you about Star Wars and how it was different because well…you already know. But you might not know what it was like to be part of the first Star Wars generation.

To truly get that, you have to have been there.

America in the 1970s was an unsettled place. The country was on a hangover from Vietnam, the counterculture, the 1960s, Watergate.

Many of the Baby Boomers, then at the peak of their childbearing years, were trying to reconcile parenthood with all the Me Generation stuff.

I should note that my parents were the exception in this regard. I had wonderful parents and—on the whole—an idyllic childhood. But my childhood was the exception. This was an era of small families, divorce, and adults working in parenthood as an afterthought. The 1970s was not a child-focused decade, on the whole.

This showed up in the marketplace. Corporate America didn’t put out much entertainment for children, because the demand wasn’t there, like it was from the mid-1980s onward. For most children, circa 1976, Saturday morning cartoons (mostly reruns from the 1960s) were the highlight of the week.

But then there was Star Wars. If you were a kid in that era, Star Wars was not just a movie, but a way of life…or a way of play, anyway.

Star Wars trading card, 1977

Publishers cranked out Star Wars trading cards and comics. Toy manufacturers rushed light sabers and action figures to market. There was always something new to buy…or to beg your parents to buy.

Burger Chef, a now defunct fast food chain, issued a set of Star Wars posters in 1977. Each one was given away with the purchase of a double hamburger meal, or something like that. I talked my parents into acquiring all of them.

My bedroom became a shrine to Star Wars. My room contained not just the posters, but all the paraphernalia I could acquire.

Burger Chef Star Wars poster 1977

I’ve watched the more recent Star Wars movies. I know that the last few have been controversial among longtime fans. I’m not interested in wading into that debate. For me, the first three movies—Star Wars (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Return of the Jedi (1983) are the only three “canonical” ones, anyway.

These three films traced the end of my childhood, effectively. I was nine when the first one came out. When Return of the Jedi hit the local cinema, I had completed a year of high school.

But this is about more than mere nostalgia. In recent years, the culture wars have invaded science fiction, superhero comics, and whatnot. There was little appetite for that in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Why? That era was already full of gloomy, abstruse movies that were overloaded with “message” and “issues”. And in the 1970s, the issue du jour was the Vietnam War, which was still very much in recent memory.

And so we got turgid, barely watchable films like The Deer Hunter (1978), Taxi Driver (1976), and Apocalypse Now (1979). In 1978, I remember hearing a news story about a Vietnam vet shooting himself at a screening of The Deer Hunter. That movie is incredibly gloomy and depressing to watch, as are the other two. (And the Jodie Foster scenes in Taxi Driver, in which she plays a child prostitute, are downright bizarre by today’s standards.)

Star Wars offered a break from all that. Star Wars was a movie about a war in space that didn’t ask you to think about Vietnam. Nor did it ask you to think about the nuclear arms race—another big “issue” of that time.

The original Star Wars trilogy had a relatively diverse cast. It wasn’t all white males in the spotlight. Who can imagine Star Wars without Carrie Fisher, after all? And the third movie of the original trilogy made a major star of Billy Dee Williams.

And yet, Star Wars didn’t ask audiences to engage in endless navel-gazing about race and gender. (These matters now greatly preoccupy the fandom of science fiction publishing, but that’s another “issue” for another time.)

The original three Star Wars movies were simply fun. They weren’t controversial. They didn’t try to change your worldview or your politics. Practically everyone liked them. (Even my mother relented and saw the second and third Star Wars movies, despite their lack of horses.)

And if you were a kid in the late 1970s, Star Wars was larger than life.

I’ll close with a blunt assertion: I think it’s high time for the film and comics industries to retire the franchise. To put this in perspective: I was not quite nine when the first movie came out. I’ll soon be fifty-three, and they’re still riding the Star Wars wagon, trying to squeeze a few more million out of the original story concept.

But who cares what I think? Maybe I’ll see the next Star Wars movie, and maybe I won’t. It’s not like I’m boycotting them. But like I said: for me, the first three are the only ones that really count.

Cicadas and anxiety

There has been a lot of talk in the media of late about the upcoming emergence of Brood X, the next great wave of cicadas. And—in keeping with the spirit of these traumatized, triggered times—some people are now coping with severe cicada anxiety as they wait for the appearance of the red-eyed insects.

For me, any mention of cicadas takes me back to 1987. That was another major outbreak year. I was then 19 years old, and a student at the University of Cincinnati. As this contemporary article from the Los Angeles Times notes, Cincinnati was a major hotspot for the short-lived, unprepossessing bugs.

Cicadas were everywhere in Cincinnati that summer. They crawled on lawns, on the sidewalks of the inner city, on cars. The husks of the dead ones were everywhere, too.

The cicada mania of 1987 even inspired the song, “Snappy Cicada Pizza”.

Let’s return to the issue of cicada anxiety. I can’t say that I like cicadas, or that I would be pleased to come home and find a swarm of them inside my house. But they don’t cause me anxiety, either.

I sympathize, though, with the cicada-anxious. I have an extreme aversion toward wasps. My lifelong dislike of wasps even inspired a short story, “The Wasp”, which you can read here on the site.

Photo credit: Fairfax County, VA

‘The Rockland Horror 3’ and the Model T

The next installment of The Rockland Horror series is set in 1917, early in the age of the automobile. 

That, of course, means Henry Ford’s iconic Model T. The Ford Motor Company  manufactured  the Model T between 1908 and 1927.

The Model T was mass-produced with simple specifications. The car originally came only in black, though a few other color choices were added in later model years.

The Model T was also quite affordable. The base price for a 1916 Model T Runabout was just $345, or $8,324.76 in 2021 dollars.  This was, obviously, much cheaper than just about any car manufactured for the U.S. market today.

But this simplicity came at a price. If the Model T was cheap (even by early 20th-century standards) it was also far more difficult to use than modern vehicles.

The Rockland Horror 3 (now in production) will be a horror novel, not a book about early automobiles. But the story does involve some car chase scenes, and I wanted to make these scenes reasonably authentic.

My maternal grandfather was born in 1921, and even he never owned a Model T. Driving the Model T is one of those experiences that has passed out of “living memory”, so to speak.

I therefore went to YouTube, where there were, indeed, a few videos about starting and driving the Model T. I’ve embedded two of them here.

You probably already know about the crank start. But even that isn’t the worst of it. To start a Model T, you had to arrange a series of switches and levers inside the car in the right combination. Then you had to “choke” the engine by priming it with gasoline, and then…

Let’s just say it’s complicated!

‘1917’: quick review

I finally got around to  watching 1917 last night. This is going to be a very quick review, with one minor spoiler.

1917 is the story of two World War I British soldiers who set off across no-man’s land and German-occupied territory to deliver an important message to a British officer. Not far into the film, one of them is killed. (That’s the spoiler; and I’ll explain in a moment why it was necessary.)

As is usual with journey-based stories, things happen along the way. Obstacles are met and overcome. That’s what keeps you watching.

I would give 1917 a mixed review.  The film is, on one hand, visually stunning.  The journey through no-man’s land is appropriately bleak and gruesome. I’ve read many nonfiction accounts of World War I trench warfare. 1917 seems to achieve some historical accuracy, and it certainly achieves realism. 

The problem, however, is that a story of one soldier walking across the French countryside doesn’t quite have the narrative drive needed to support a movie of almost 2 hours (119 minutes).  The adventures that the main character, Lance Corporal William “Will” Schofield (George MacKay) experiences aren’t connected to any central storyline. As a result, they seem episodic and often disjointed. 

1917 definitely comes up short when compared to similar “journey through the battlefield” films like Fury and Saving Private Ryan. Fury is the story of an entire  World War II tank crew, their interactions, and their final act of self-sacrificing heroism. Saving Private Ryan is a complex movie with multiple storylines and richly developed characters.

The Will of 1917 completes his mission…sort of. But he doesn’t really do anything heroic, and he doesn’t change. Also, for most of the movie, he has no one to interact with. This movie therefore often devolves into seemingly random scenes of Will walking alone for long stretches, dodging this or that, observing this or that. 

It might be unfair to compare a WWI movie like 1917 to modern-day World War II classics like Saving Private Ryan or Fury. The Second World War, after all, is widely regarded as a heroic struggle. Most Americans think of Eisenhower and George Marshall as noble men. The World War II generation—now sadly passing from the scene—is our “Greatest Generation”. 

World War I, by contrast, was a vast waste of lives and resources that should never have been waged by either side. World War I wasn’t a moral crusade against the Nazis. It was a bloodbath with unclear aims and causes, waged against the Kaiser’s Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire over the assassination of an archduke. 

That could be part of the reason why 1917 falls short of Fury and Saving Private Ryan. When there are no real villains, there are often no real heroes, either.

Also, American audiences in particular are less connected to World War I as a film topic. Whereas many of us grew up hearing firsthand accounts of World War II from our parents and grandparents, World War I is a distant conflict that relatively few Americans participated in. (I have met many, many World War II veterans in my lifetime. I have never met a single veteran of the First World War. And many of them would have been alive during my younger years.) A movie about World War I therefore must bring  a lot to the table in order to draw us in. 

1917, in summary, is not a bad movie. But nor is it one that you can’t afford to miss. 

‘The Good Lord Bird’: much better than I expected

John Brown (1800 – 1859) is remembered today mostly for his attack on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. The attack ended with Brown’s arrest, conviction, and hanging.

Before Harper’s Ferry, though, John Brown was also involved in the troubles in Kansas. During the 1850s, pro-slavery southerners clashed with anti-slavery free soilers. The results were often bloody—hence the term, “Bleeding Kansas”. The violence in Kansas never really extinguished itself; it spilled into the larger violence of the U.S. Civil War.

While in Kansas, Brown carried out operations with his own small militia group. Brown was fueled by a mixture of abolitionist fervor, religious zeal, and (probably) mental illness. Stark egotism was also a factor. Brown occasionally freed slaves. But mostly he killed whites whom he deemed guilty of association with slavery—sometimes rightly, and sometimes wrongly.

John Brown was—-in some ways—not unlike the violent white progressives of modern times, who foist themselves on Black-dominated groups like Black Lives Matter, often for purposes of their own agendas and their own self-aggrandizement. For this reason alone, I was extremely skeptical of The Good Lord Bird, a historical miniseries about the latter days of John Brown. This is an election year, and I figured that The Good Lord Bird would be some kind of leftwing Hollywood agitprop.

Having watched the first two episodes, I am happily surprised. The series is actually quite good, and not overtly political.

The Good Lord Bird is told from the perspective of Henry Shackleford, a fictional escaped slave who joins Brown’s militia operations with mixed emotions. We get the sense that Shackleford just wants to get on with his life, but Brown is determined to draft him into a higher spiritual/political cause.

Ethan Hawke is cast as John Brown. Having read several biographies of the real John Brown, I don’t find Hawke completely convincing. I don’t fault Hawke for falling short here. John Brown would be an extremely difficult role for any actor.

John Brown, moreover, isn’t really the star of The Good Lord Bird. Despite the weightiness of this historical period, the miniseries is best described as a coming-of-age drama set against the backdrop of American history. Henry Shackleford (played by the young actor Joshua Caleb Johnson) is the real star of The Good Lord Bird.

In the second episode of the miniseries, Shackleford disguises himself as a young woman in order to make his way through pro-slavery territory with another escaped slave. The two are diverted to a town that is a staunch pro-slavery enclave. While there, Shackleford takes refuge in a brothel, where he teaches a worldly prostitute how to read, even as he develops an adolescent boy’s crush on her.

The Good Lord Bird is set in the 1850s. At this time, slavery was legal in much of the United States. Racial inequalities were taken for granted. What we now refer to as racial epithets and hate speech were then just common speech.

Where appropriate, The Good Lord Bird deals frankly with these shameful aspects of our history. What The Good Lord Bird does not do (so far, at least) is descend into racial guilt porn. The writers and producers of the miniseries assume that you already have a negative view of slavery.

Nor is this a hagiography of John Brown. The Good Lord Bird depicts Brown as the very conflicted moral figure that history reveals him to be. For example, one scene shows Brown executing an innocent Southern sympathizer and family man in cold blood. In another scene, Brown is shown blithely risking the lives of escaped slaves and white accomplices alike in an ill-conceived militia operation.

The Good Lord Bird also has a sense of humor about its subject matter. This is not needlessly edgy, inappropriate humor of the Quentin Tarantino variety, but rather the kind of humor that one would expect in a well-written coming-of-age adventure story.

If you like good storytelling set against a historical backdrop, you can’t go wrong with The Good Lord Bird. The miniseries is available on Showtime.

Remembering ‘Red Dawn’

80sThen80s now is one of the few accounts I follow on Twitter, because, well…I’m nostalgic for the 1980s.

Today the account tweeted this post about the movie Red Dawn (1984). In response to the poll, I gave the movie a 9. 

Red Dawn wouldn’t necessarily be a 9 if it were released today, mind you. But you have to evaluate a movie by the filmmaking standards of its era. A lot of movies in the early 1980s were pretty rough, compared to the slick, CGI-enhanced productions of today. And so it is with Red Dawn. Continue reading “Remembering ‘Red Dawn’”

‘The Far Side’ is back

There are many things about the 1980s that I miss.

The music was better, for one thing. (Def Leppard vs. Taylor Swift? No contest, dude.)

Everyone was much less uptight in the 1980s. Less angry about everything all the time.

Everyone seems to have burr up their keister about something in the 21st century. This is the age of trivial anger.

The 1980s were much more chill.

Also…we had ‘The Far Side’. Continue reading “‘The Far Side’ is back”