Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Why Do The Good People Always Die?

I've just been reading a Lady Mechanika story called La Dama de la Muerte, in which our heroine heads off for a holiday after a difficult time in which she has lost someone she loved.
She turns up, almost at random, at an inn in a small village near Mexico City, where she is welcomed, and invited to join the Day of the Dead celebrations. The family is kind; the little kid is cute - and then the bad guys arrive, and Lady Mechanika steps up to defend the village.
So far, so good.
While Lady Mechanika is following the trail of the bad guys back to their base, they double back, burn the village, and kill everyone in it.

In the film Logan, Logan and Professor X are on the run when they are taken in by a good, wholesome family. Some time is spent showing what nice people they are, with hopes and dreams for the future. Then the bad guys arrive and slaughter them all.

It happened in the film of the Punisher, too - wonderful, happy beach party with hero's extended family, and then everyone is slaughtered.

The message to take away from this is surely - if you are a good, nice person, with a loving family and a superhero turns up on your doorstep, DON'T LET THEM IN!

The message is also, of course, if you identify with the superhero, you can never have a normal family life, but must live burdened with guilt because you couldn't save that nice ordinary family that helped you when you needed it.

I get that the hero is supposed to be motivated by the deaths to go out and kill all the bad guys - but in the Lady Mechanika case, she was already motivated by the kindness of her hosts to defend them. Also, they took refuge in the church when she went off after the bad guys, and churches are usually built solidly enough that they can survive a siege of more than half an hour, even if the rest of the village burned. They shouldn't all have died.

I don't know if this is happening more in stories, or whether I'm just noticing it more - but I wish writers would stop doing it - or at least, let some good, ordinary people survive!

Monday, 29 January 2018

Rudolf Valentino in The Sheik

A while ago I came across Blood and Sand and The Eagle, both starring Rudolf Valentino - I have to say I found The Eagle, about a Russian outlaw, much more enjoyable than the bullfighting tale, which I feel has dated badly.
Then I realised I'd never seen the film that made Valentino famous, which is, of course, The Sheik.
Oh, my!
I liked him - he looked good in Arab robes, and seemed to have a cheerful disposition. He spends a lot of time creeping into the heroine's bedroom and not quite having his wicked way with her, though I gather the audience is supposed to assume that they have, in fact, been to bed together. Apparently (according to the Wikipedia entry) the song The Sheik of Araby was written as a response to this film, with the line "At night when you're asleep, into your tent I'll creep".
And then there's the racism. The writers tied themselves in knots trying to make him not actually an Arab, - it's revealed at the end of the film that his parents were actually Spanish and English, and the old sheik brought him up as his own when they died in the desert. With this revelation that he is really white, our heroine is free to fling herself into his arms.
The heroine irritated me. One minute she's planning a trip into the desert and sneaking into the Casino in Arab dress to catch a glimpse of our hero, like a plucky adventuress - but as soon as she's captured she spends most of her time fainting or weeping. She also comes over all terrified when being guarded by a black man while a prisoner of Omair the bandit (who really does want to rape her - she struggles and Sheik Ahmed arrives to save her in the nick of time).
I don't really see why Sheik Ahmed had to kidnap her either - I assume they were following the plot of the novel the film was based on, but Ahmed had already had a word with the Arab who was going to guide her into the desert, so I don't see why he didn't just guide her straight to Ahmed's camp.
They obviously spent quite a bit of money on the film - there are lots of extras with horses, and some camels; it'd be interesting to find out where they filmed it, with all those sand dunes. The film was so successful that they made Son of the Sheik five years later, also starring Valentino as both father and son. I'm not sure I'll be going off in search of that, though. I can see why it was popular in 1921, and it's interesting as a period piece, but that's about it, I think.

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Eagle of the Ninth

As a child, I adored the work of Rosemary Sutcliff, and one of my favourites was the Eagle of the Ninth, telling the story of the Ninth Hispana Legion as it marched north into the mists of Caledonia and into legend.
At the time, the early 1950s, Rosemary Sutcliff was working from current archaeological research, by which the Ninth really had marched north and disappeared. Since then, traces of the Legion have been found at a later date, elsewhere in the Roman Empire, but when she was writing it really did seem that they had vanished into the mists.
And the other inspiration for her story was archaeological work at Silchester, where a Roman eagle statue had been found hidden in the hypocaust of a villa there. You can still see the Silchester eagle, at the Museum of Reading, though now it seems that it may have been part of a statue in the town, and not a legionary eagle after all.

In 2011 a film was made of the book, starring Channing Tatum and Jamie Bell, and though Donald Sutherland was perfect as Uncle Aquila, the plot of the film left out about half the book, jettisoning Cottia (the girl next door), Cub (the wolf cub), and Marcus's disguise as the oculist Demetrius of Alexandria completely. And they changed the ending.

In 1977, though, BBC Scotland made the story into a series. I loved the series when it was first shown, starring Anthony Higgins as Marcus and Christian Rodska as Esca, so I was delighted when I learned that it was now available on DVD, from Simply Media - and a little apprehensive. Would it be as good as I remembered?
They obviously had a tiny budget, but they did have the advantage of the rolling Scottish hills to film in, which gave it that epic scope. The director also managed to film battle sequences quite cleverly using overlaying images and only about a dozen extras.
It's a difficult book to make a story of, with a lot of the action in flashback as the story of what happened to the Ninth is told by a Roman and a Caledonian tribesman, and towards the beginning of the book, Marcus spends months recuperating from his wound at his uncle's house with not a lot happening. They manage to fit the story into six episodes quite satisfactorily, though.
I was very happy. They got it right.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Memories of Ursula le Guin

There has been a lot of coverage of the death of Ursula le Guin over the last couple of days.
Here are my memories:

In 1973, I think it was, our school building was found to have asbestos in it, and was closed down until the asbestos could be removed. For a week or two, we were supposed to turn up at school at intervals to be given work to complete at home, but after a while it became clear that the work would take a long time to complete, and we were bussed to a redundant Victorian junior school at the other end of Salford - a rough area; we were warned not to linger on the pavement when crossing from the schoolyard to the bus in case we were beaten up by the local kids!
Because we didn't have access to our own school library, we got a temporary one, with books that did not appear in our own library. I read quite a few of these - and with three days to go before we moved back into our refurbished school building, I found The Wizard of Earthsea. It was this one:

Acutely aware of the deadline before I had to give it back, never to see it again, I read the book in every spare moment. I practically lived in Earthsea, only emerging to do whatever was essential before I plunged back in again. Even now I only have to close my eyes and see the old classroom where I was reading on my knee while eating my packed lunch - and feeling totally immersed in that magical world.

Pretty soon after that I found The Tombs of Atuan - and I could navigate the labyrinth perfectly, just like Arha, in the dark.

The Farthest Shore gave me nightmares of that low wall over which the dead pass - but also showed me the importance of living well, unlike the people Ged and Arren met on their journey, who had given up and were waiting to die.

A couple of years ago, the BBC adapted The Left Hand of Darkness and the first three Earthsea stories on radio, and I got that same thrill as when I first read them.
I haven't seen any of the film adaptations - I don't really want to....

As an adult, I discovered The Dispossessed and The Word For World is Forest and The Left Hand of Darkness, as well as the Hainish stories and some of the Orsinian Tales, and her additions to the Earthsea saga.

I have only been able to read The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas once.

One birthday, my mum presented me with a thick book, saying that she knew I liked this author. It was Always Coming Home, and was possibly the best birthday present she ever gave me, considering that she thought my reading tastes were a bit weird.

More recently, I've read her blog posts in the Book View Café blog, so Ursula le Guin has been a part of my reading background for most of my life. I was very pleased to see her honoured by the literary establishment, as well as her many SF and Fantasy awards.

Most weeks, I go to an acoustic music session locally - there's singing, but also poetry reading and other readings. I often perform something when a famous person has died - if a TV star, I'll sing the theme of their TV show, for instance. For Ursula le Guin, I found a quotation which has been doing the rounds of Twitter and Facebook - the one that finishes: "I'm going to go unbuild walls."
It seemed to go down well.

Tuesday, 23 January 2018

The Avengers - Warlock

Even the Avengers veered into Dennis Wheatley territory on occasion, though they dressed it up with a plot about physicists who had secret formulas which a foreign power was trying to get hold of via their interest in the occult.
Here Cathy Gale is seen working at the British Museum as an anthropologist, when Steed goes there to consult her about the possible use of black magic against the physicist he's interested in.
Interestingly, the black magician does seem to have real power over people, summoning first the physicist and later Cathy herself to the place where the magical rites are taking place - with lots of hooded robes in evidence so that Steed can mingle with the crowd secretly.

Monday, 22 January 2018

Bell, Book and Candle

I've seen a lot of James Stewart films over the years, but this one seems to have passed me by until now. I saw it mentioned in a blog about classic films (I forget which one), thought it looked interesting, and sent off for it - and what great fun it is!
James Stewart had already starred alongside Kim Novak earlier in 1958, in Vertigo - this film is a lot more light hearted, with Kim Novak playing a witch who decides to seduce the batchelor who lives upstairs - James Stewart. To add interest, he's about to marry someone she detested at college. The film also has good roles for Elsa Lanchester as Kim Novak's auntie who lives upstairs (also a witch), Hermoine Gingold (another witch) and Jack Lemmon (Kim Novak's brother, and a warlock).
James Stewart is a publisher, so a further complication to the plot is a writer who is writing a book about the magical scene in Manhattan, aided and abetted by Jack Lemmon.
And then there's Pyewacket, the Siamese cat who assists with Kim Novak's magic - and has to do some pretty complicated things onscreen (apparently there were several cats in the role).
The cinematography is by James Wong Howe, so the film always looks gorgeous.
It's fairly obvious that James Stewart and Kim Novak are having hot sex from their very first encounter, but the only onscreen indication of this is a variety of passionate and fully clothed kisses, and one scene where they are sitting together on a couch, fully clothed, with their bare feet entwined.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Daemons of Devils End

The Daemons is probably the most fondly remembered of the UNIT stories of the Jon Pertwee era of Doctor Who. Let's face it, it had everything - UNIT (and that classic line "Chap with wings, five rounds rapid"), the Master, and the most English of English villages, with church, village green and pub, and morris dancers for May Day. Plus, of course, archaeology, black magic and the Daemon of the title. Every member of the regular cast had a chance to shine.
And there was also the white witch of the village, Miss Hawthorne, played by the wonderful Damaris Hayman.

Thanks to Reeltime, a small company which made Doctor Who videos during the time that the series was not on the BBC, we can now find out what happened to Miss Olive Hawthorne in a DVD set called The Daemons of Devil's End.
The project started in 2010, with Damaris Hayman already in her eighties, and was only finished recently, with the addition of dramatization of some of the scenes from the stories Damaris narrates. The project was first thought of as a "talking heads" sort of production, like the Alan Bennett monologues, since the actress can't do too much running around at her age! It was also the first time she had ever used an autocue, but she takes to it like the true professional she is.

So there are six linked short stories telling important episodes from Miss Hawthorne's life - she knows she is close to death, and is telling her tale to a spirit she has summoned, because of her concern about who will be the protector of Devil's End when she is gone. We start with her childhood, when she gets her Grimoire and her vocation in life (based on a memory from Damaris's own childhood), and how she got her cat - the apple thief in that story, a good looking lad with very pale hair, is Sophie Aldred's son. There's a doomed love affair, a rival witch, the aftermath of the Daemons story, and finally a very satisfying conclusion.
Bonus features have the making of the series, interviews, and a music video for the title music of the series.

The second and third discs have documentaries, starting with the 1992 Return to Devil's End, which brought many members of the original cast and crew back to Aldbourne in Wiltshire, where the original story was filmed. They even track down the morris dancing team, and speak to some of the dancers who took part in the filming. There's also footage of a question and answer session at one of the conventions that was held in the village.

I really enjoyed this DVD set, and it's a great addition to my classic Doctor Who collection. There's also a paperback, made to look as much like the old Target paperbacks as possible, which expands on the six episodes of Miss Hawthorne's story, with a few extra features like photos from the filming of the original story. I actually bought that first, by mistake, but I'm glad I did.

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Peter Wyngarde has died

Here he is in his heyday, back in the late 1960s and early 70s, when he played Jason King in Department S and later his own spin off series Jason King. The character was a flamboyant author and spy, and quite frankly the two other leads in Department S were completely forgettable. I recently re-watched some episodes on DVD, not having seen any since they were on TV, and had no memory of them at all. And although he was portraying a notorious ladies' man, he was in a long term relationship with fellow actor Alan Bates. One of his first leading roles was in South, the first gay drama on British TV, in 1959.
Peter Wyngarde was 90 when he died, a couple of days ago, having been unwell for some time. Or at least, he was possibly 90, as there is some dispute about his date of birth, and place of birth, and even his parentage. I do remember seeing him giving an interview in which he described being interned by the Japanese as a child in Shanghai during the Second World War, where he said his father was a diplomat.
Before he co-starred in Department S, he was a guest on several British TV series, including the Saint, the Champions, the Avengers and the Prisoner. In the Saint, he was supposed to be Turkish, and had to wear blackface, something he said he was uneasy about - but had hoped to be cast as Othello if he did it! In the Avengers, he was the leader of the Hellfire Club, who menaced Emma Peel. Later, he also appeared in Doctor Who - I think he was Turlough's uncle, or something. The story was Planet of Fire, when Turlough returned to his home planet.
He also appeared as the King in The King and I on stage - which must have been quite a different portrayal of the role from Yul Brynner's.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

Mustang: a lost Tibetan Kingdom

A friend lent me a book she thought I'd enjoy - I do like travellers' tales about remote places, and Michel Peissel was one of the first Europeans to visit the Kingdom of Mustang, on the northern edge of Nepal, and surrounded on three sides by Tibet. He visited at a difficult time, 1964, when there were Chinese troops in Tibet, and Khampa troops loyal to the Dalai Lama actually in Mustang. The country itself, though, was so remote few elements of modernity had arrived there.
Michel Peissel had the advantage that he could actually speak Tibetan, at least in the colloquial form, and he had a Tibetan friend, Tashi, who could handle the more formal language and reading the books they were searching out at the various Buddhist monasteries of the country. They were looking particularly for history books about the region.
He's a fascinating guide to the country, from the king's summer palace to remote villages, and the capital city of Lo Mantang, a walled town where he lodged in a "duke's" house, sleeping in a chapel on the roof. He was also fortunate to find a local friend early on, Pemba, who gave him a lot of useful information and went with him on some of his travels round the country.
Near the end of the book, he mentions that he also wrote an article for National Geographic, which appeared in the October, 1965 issue - which I managed to find! Here, the pictures are in colour, and rather better than the black and white ones in the book.

So I've been looking online to see what the country is like today, and I see from the Wikipedia entry that Jigme Dorji Palbar Bista, the prince who was seriously ill during Michel Peissel's visit, later became king, and ruled until 2008, when his title was abolished by the republican government of Nepal. He died in 2016 in Khatmandu, where he moved shortly before his death.
There's also now an airport, at Jomsom - it took Michel Peissel fifteen days to walk up the Kali Gandaki River with his porters and yaks when he went there. Tourism is limited, though, in an attempt to preserve the unique culture of the area. However, there are now solar panels on rooftops, and TV and radio, and cheap Chinese clothes coming over the border. There are even mobile phones, a few computers, and some internet connection. There are also post offices, police stations, health centres and piped water for many households - in 1964 the women were still going down to the river for drinking water.
Looking further, I find that the novel Merlin's Keep, by Madeleine Brent, is mostly set in Mustang - I read it and loved it when I was a teenager, but hadn't remembered that detail!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Pimpernel Smith

I happened to catch the second half of a new dramatization of The Scarlet Pimpernel on Radio 4 over Christmas.
It was a bit odd, to be honest. Marguerite and Chauvelin had Northern accents - I suppose to indicate that they were lower class French people - and Sir Percy sounded more French than either of them! But it did remind me of the original film Pimpernel, Leslie Howard, and his 1941 anti-Nazi propaganda film Pimpernel Smith, which I remembered with some fondness.
So I sent off for a DVD.
There is, of course, a scene of horrendous sexism at the beginning of the film, where Professor Smith insults the women archaeology students so that they leave the lecture hall, so that he can offer a trip to Germany for a summer dig only to the young men. This is a cover for the activities of the mysterious man who has been spiriting intellectuals out of Germany from under the noses of the Gestapo - the year is 1939. The mysterious man is, obviously, Professor Smith, who is not the typical absentminded professor of archaeology that he appears.
The film was obviously made on a very tight budget, but they disguise it well, especially in the scene at the party in the British Embassy in Berlin, with the wide, sweeping staircase.
In the original Scarlet Pimpernel story, Chauvelin is trying to discover the identity of the Pimpernel at a ball, and is blackmailing Marguerite to help him because her brother is imprisoned in France. In this case, it is General von Graum who is trying to discover the identity of the mysterious rescuer of intellectuals, with the help of Ludmilla, the daughter of a Polish newspaper editor who he has imprisoned.
She makes a very bad secret agent, though the young American archaeology student (I assume he was there to encourage the United States to join the war on the Allied side) pretty much gives the whole game away when he talks to her. Von Graum manipulates her quite easily, but he can't just arrest an Englishman - he has to have the proof that he's helping Germans to escape.
There's a fair bit of comedy as the Nazis try to work out what the tune is that the mysterious rescuer whistles, and a running joke about the identity of Shakespeare, as well as von Graum trying to get to grips with English humour: "'T'was brillig and the slithy toves did gyre and gimble in the wabe' - is that funny?" he demands.
Meanwhile, there's a romantic sub-plot as Professor Smith changes from a man besotted with the statue of Aphrodite he discovered twenty years before, who says that he deplores the presence of women students at the university, into someone who has romantic feelings for Ludmilla, who he goes back to rescue when the rest of the party crosses the frontier.
As in the original story, the Scarlet Pimpernel and Chauvelin talk at the end of the story, with Chauvelin anticipating the Pimpernel's death by firing squad very shortly, so Professor Smith and von Graum come face to face at a railway station on the frontier, where Professor Smith gives a fine speech opposing Nazism, before escaping with the words: "I'll be back.... We'll all be back."
Those speeches opposing Nazism are still relevant today - sadly.

So, though it's an old and somewhat creaky film, I think it's still worth rewatching.
And without Pimpernel Smith, there might not have been an Indiana Jones....