They Shall Not Grow Old -- I was blown away by this film, if that's not an inappropriate term for a movie about the trenches of the First World War. What a commentary on the Academy Awards that it didn't win an Oscar! Not only the best foreign film of 2018/2019, but the best film, and one of the best in the history of cinema. The link is to the DVD on Amazon.com though we watched streaming, on a trial subscription from HBO. We sat in our chairs, riveted to the TV monitor, for an hour and a half, with only occasional mewing from the woman who shares my life, and who doesn't care for blood and guts. I was deep into the film before understanding that I wasn't watching modern actors but colorized newsreels from 1914-1918, and mostly hearing the recorded voices of Tommies who survived. (There was some lip-synching by professionals. As for the French, the only mention of them is in the closing credits, and there's nothing at all about Americans, Irish, or other lesser nationalities -- not even the Canadians who volunteered to fight in France!) Beyond the colorization, the film speed has been adjusted to normal theatrical standards, except for the small-screen, herky-jerky beginning and end, where people jog along in the usual fashion of newsreels in the first two decades of the 20th century. The effect is indescribably powerful. Even the closing credits are unforgettable, accompanied as they are by verse after verse of "Mademoiselle from Armentieres [Parlez-vous?]." Wonderful!
Operation Chastise: The RAF's Most Brilliant Attack of World War II -- Well, if it was the RAF's most brilliant, the "dam buster" raid of May 1943 is a dour comment on the leadership of Britain's air force (which included an astonishing number of Canadians in this particular operation, plus an American and the occasional Australian and New Zealander). But it was certainly spectacular, though at a horrific cost to the mostly-young airmen who rode their Lancaster bombers at wave-top and treetop level to the mighty dams that powered Germany's industrial Ruhr Valley. As the book's cover shows, each four-engine bomber carried a huge, barrel-shaped bomb beneath its belly, five feet wide, three feet in diameter, and packed with three tons of high explosives. Weirdly, a hydraulic motor was mounted in front of the bomb, with a V-belt that spun the bomb backwards at 500 rpm. Released 60 feet above the water, 450 feet short of the dam, it was supposed to skip along the surface, avoiding torpedo nets, until it was 50 feet short of the target, whereupon it would sink, finally exploding and sending a shock wave to breech the dam.
Max Hastings is a brilliant writer, and I always enjoy his histories of the War, marred though they are by his rather comical bias against American men and materiel. He sniffs that the Lancaster carried twice the bomb load of a B-17 Flying Fortress, even as he notes that RAF bombers couldn't operate over Germany in daylight, and that even full moonlight made for a "suicidal" mission -- while B-17s with their tougher construction and long-range escort fighters operated almost entirely by day. Never mind! It's a great story, and this is a great telling of it. Sir Max is especially good on the private lives of the airmen, on the awful price they paid, and on the suffering of the civilians (not all of them German) swept away by the floods unleashed by the dam busters.
Road to Disaster: A New History of America's Descent Into Vietnam is a brilliant book and a maddening one. Like most academic historians, Brian VanDeMark regards the Vietnam War as a catastrophe, not only for the country that was bombed, napalmed, and defoliated, but also for the one that inflicted most of that damage. (He teaches at the Naval Academy, but I can find no evidence he ever wore a uniform.) Nothing the United States did with respect to Vietnam, except to abandon it, ever gets a good word from such people. A second flaw in Road to Disaster is the author's explanation for each American misjudgment, trotting out a psychological experiment by a "cognitive scientist" for instant pscychoanalysis. But I enjoyed the book, and I came away from it feeling rather sorry for Lyndon Johnson, trapped as he was by Jack Kennedy's legacy, the ever-receding "light at the end of the tunnel," and his own inner demons. I also found myself with renewed respect for two of the war's primary architects, Robert McNamara and Clark Clifford. Perhaps a cognitive scientst somewhere can explain why, of the hundreds of men who paved the road to our inglorious retreat from Vietnam, the two who come looking good also happen to be the two for whom Mr VenDerMerk worked as a research assistant and ghost-writer. Blue skies! -- Dan Ford
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