George Bernard Shaw, Hillaire Belloc and GK Chesterton

Wednesday, 4 June 2014

Making Lists of War Films

Available from 6th June
Being male and an internet user, I’m a sucker for lists. It seems that currently everything on the internet that isn't porn or a cat video is a Buzzfeed-style list. And being an over-educated male in his 30s, I’m obsessed with World War Two (more of which here). So, since it’s the anniversary of D-Day – and I have a book out on the subject (right) – I thought I’d compile a list of war movies.

But it’s not that simple. I mean, there must be a Top Ten Classic War Movies. You can ink in half a dozen straight away: Where Eagles Dare; A Bridge Too Far; The Great Escape; The Dam Busters; Battle of Britain; Bridge on the River Kwai – but are they great movies? The story of the Battle of Britain is exciting and stirring because the story of the real events is astonishing and stirring, especially if you’re British. But the film itself, if memory serves, is rather pedestrian. Likewise, the achievements of Barnes Wallace and the Dam Busters make a good story (although it’s effect on the war has been overstated) but is it a great film? I'm not sure. 

Where Eagles Dare is on the cusp, too. It’s more of a spy story than a war story. And it does veer on the side of the ridiculous. There’s probably a list of Preposterous War Movies, which would undoubtedly include The Dirty Dozen, Kelly’s Heroes, and be topped by the most absurd of the lot, Escape to Victory. (I suspect the idiotically-spelt Inglourious Basterds is in this category too, but I've not seen it.)

Then there are the Important War Movies, like The Longest Day and Dunkirk. And then the Meaningful War Movies like Catch 22, which, let’s be honest, is a bit of a mess. And there's A Matter of Life and Death, a popular ‘classic’ which I find to be insufferably naff. Then there are more recent classics like Saving Private Ryan; Letters from Iwo Jima; Flags of Our Father; The Thin Red Line which I’m prepared to believe is every bit as boring as most people say it is.

But which list does Schindler’s List go? Confession: I’ve never seen. I just haven’t. I bought it on VHS, then my video recorder broke and I switched to DVDs. But is it a ‘great war film’ given it’s more about the effects of the war than the war itself? Also in this category Wartime Movies is Casablanca which is pretty much the perfect movie. Funny, moving, evocative with the perfect ending. Plus there’s the Indiana Jones movies where the Nazis provide some good villains and plenty of cannon fodder - but it's not actually Wartime.

Oh, it's also confusing and arbitrary. Ultimately, the lists are meaningless. So here’s a list that’s at least meaningful to me. I love all the classics, however you define them, but here are some war films that have stuck with me for a variety of reasons.

War Movies I’ve Never Forgotten
Downfall (2004) – A war film told from Hitler’s perspective. Genius. Hitler is tired, furious and insane. And everyone around him is terrified. This is a not a film anyone can forget in a hurry.

The Heroes of Telemark (1965) – I suspect the Norwegians are offended by this movie given Hollywood stars are playing their war heroes, but Norwegians are decent chaps, so probably don’t want to make a fuss. I haven’t seen this film for years, but the bit that really sticks out for me a section of the movie that’s completely silent. No soundtrack. No extra suspense needed. Just sit and watch the drama. Have I remembered this right? Comments below.

Escape from Sobibor (1987) – I’ve not seen this movie referred to or mentioned since I saw it at school. Someone had it on VHS. It’s a TV movie about a mass-escape from a death camp. I remember that having seen it, it puts The Great Escape into perspective.

Conspiracy (2001) – Kenneth Branagh at his chilling, creepy best as SS-Obergruppenf├╝hrer Reinhard Heydrich (I obviously cut and pasted that from Wikipedian) in this BBC/HBO TV movie about the 1942 Wannsee Conference where the Final Solution was put into action. Brilliantly written by Loring Mandel.

Operation Daybreak (1975) – Again, someone had a VHS of this film at school. It stayed with me a long time, although I can no longer remember the details of it. Looking it up, I see that it’s about the attempted assassination of SS-Obergruppenf├╝hrer Reinhard Heydrich from the film, Conspiracy. All I do remember is the intrigue and the secrecry and the realisation that a lot of the war was not running up beaches with guns or clearing machine gun nests, but keeping your mouth shut and trying to act normal.

To Be Or Not to Be (1983) – This Mel Brooks remake isn’t really a war film, but a screwball comedy set during the war. But it has a good heart to it and genuine peril. It stayed with me because of the Hitler parody song which I found very funny, having not seen The Producers up to that point. If you'd seen The Producers first, this might have been a bit of a disappointment.

Five Graves to Cairo (1943) – I watched this film on a small TV on a canal boat on a family holiday about 25 years ago. I hadn’t planned to watch it, but found that once it was started, I couldn’t turn it off. It's probably dreadful. But I've never forgotten it.

Black Book (2006) – Tense, brilliant, intriguing and shocking. And at the time, the most expensive Dutch movie ever made.

Good (2008) – Viggo Mortenson and Jason Isaacs play friends who drift apart through the pressures of life in Germany during the war. According to Wikipedia “The film was poorly received by critics and its release was limited. It currently holds a 34% Rotten rating on RottenTomatoes.” Seems that they all found it a bit meh. I rather liked it. I also see it's based on a play, which isn't surprising. It's a bit talky.

Life is Beautiful (1997) – Is it possible to have a romantic comedy partly take place in Concentration Camp? Yes. Yes it is. Amazing.

Come and See (1985) – Once you’ve seen this film you can’t unsee it. Some critics rate it as the best war film of all time. They may be right. It is certainly the most harrowing as it covers the Nazi occupation of a Eastern Europe where unspeakable atrocities happened.  This film brilliantly highlights how disorientating, disgusting and destructive war really is.

And finally, Enigma (2001) – This was memorable because it was a bit of a disappointment. I really enjoyed the book and was looking forward to it. Robert Harris spins a good yarn. Plus I love the subject matter: Bletchley Park and codebreaking. Heck, I wrote three series of a Radio 4 sitcom based on that world (Hut 33). But it was a bit underwhelming. Mind you, I know from personal experience that doing stories about breaking a very complicated code is not easy.

So I decided to do it again in a novel I’ve just written called Crossword Ends in Violence (5). It features Bletchley Park, crosswords, chess, spies, D-Day and a Russian Gulag. I sometimes describe it as Robert Harris meets Terry Pratchett. Or a quintessentially British thriller. But you can make up your own mind from June 6th, when it’s available as an e-book HERE.

Do please leave a comment about your favourite war films - and why they stuck in your mind.

Thursday, 8 May 2014

Halal Dolly

New Zealand is full of surprises. It’s part Middle Earth and part Middle East, apparently. A couple of years ago, a newspaper not known for its broad-mindedness and tolerance reported that all lamb that comes from New Zealand is halal – that is, killed according to certain Islamic food regulations, including given a blessing. Given the newspaper’s popularity, based on the knee-jerk xenophobia and Islamophobia across large parts of Britain, I assumed the story would be picked up and splashed across other newspapers. But it was not. Although it has been now.

What are we to make of this? Well, I'm a card-carrying Christian so should I eat meat that has been offered to Allah? I don’t believe that the God of the Bible and the God of Islam can really be the same, so would eating meat sacrifice to Allah make my God cross?

Then I remembered St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 10, especially after I looked up various words in a concordance. The Apostle Paul writes ‘Eat whatever meat is sold in Tesco without raising any question on the grounds of conscience.’ (N.B. some early manuscripts omit the words Tesco and read meat market or Asda.) In the rest of 1 Corinthians, and also the Letter to the Romans Chapter 14, Paul explains that if these things don’t bother you, then they don’t bother God, so tuck in. Tagines all round. But if it feels wrong, don’t. And if others around you find this hard to stomach, refrain when you’re around them and have the less exciting tagine with the apricots. (Paul was much more sensitive than some would have us believe.)

Holy Supermarkets
Given that supermarkets don’t sell Holy Water, it seems odd that supermarkets would sell meat that had been killed in a certain way – a cruel way, in my opinion – and then dedicated to Allah ‘the Most-Gracious, the Most Merciful’ before being shrink-wrapped, frozen and labelled as merely ‘New Zealand Lamb’.

Milk and meat - Let's not get into that.
Pic by Jack Hynes via Flickr
Aside from whether Islam's deity would like to be mentioned by name just above ‘Cooking instructions’ or ‘Suitable for Home Freezing’, I was concerned that the supermarkets were not being entirely straight with us. After all, livestock in Britain is carefully indexed and its movements and provenance dutifully catalogued. What about religious provenance, residuals blessings and possible theological fall-out? So for the first time in my life, I decided to do some actual journalism, posing as a regular customer and, under the cover of darkness, wrote them an email.

Almost immediately, they replied, telling me that my email had been registered and would be answered ‘as soon as possible’. I could tell my methods were rattling them because I heard nothing for an entire week.

When I nudged them, I received two replies from two different people. The shorter was the more revealing, explaining that they com- plied with UK regulations and hadn’t done anything illegal (known as the ‘Fat Bankers Defence’). They also argued that extra labelling would cost more money that I, as a consumer, would have to pay. They realise that shuts most people up. They also assured me that the vast majority of their meat was produced on British farms without receiving the Halal blessing – and that their British Organic Lamb and their Willow Farm and Finest Chicken were certainly not Halal.

Food regulations require supermarkets to painstakingly list e-numbers, riboflavins and emulsifiers, display fat content (as a pie chart, ironically). It seems only fair that they should also mention whether or not the food was dedicated to a Supreme Being, whose legitimacy, identity, character or existence is questioned by at least half of the world’s population.

Presumably, they would also not need to tell us if the animal in question was once the property of White Supremacists, dedicated to Bunjil (aboriginal god of the Sky), or cloned in a lab just outside Edinburgh.

The second email added that some of their suppliers also supply Lamb to Muslim customers, but that all animals are properly stunned and feel no pain. Given the assurances of Food Standards Authority labelling regulations, the Apostle Paul and, most powerful of all, Tesco, is there really anything to worry about?

Effective Blessings
After all, even within Christianity, does blessing objects even work? Numerous church traditions can become vexed about consecrated things in a way that doesn’t seem to chime with the New Testament. As a whole, the Bible doesn’t go in for magic swords and talismans of invincibility (more’s the pity, some would say). Moses’ staff wasn’t magic. You couldn’t steal it and part rivers with it. Granted, the Ark of the Covenant was deadly to anyone who touched it, but as a rule all power and blessing comes from God, not blessed or spiritually super-charged objects. Ceremonial items, like wafers, wine and water are consumable and do not last – like the manna in the desert so that God’s people would depend on Him for their daily bread.

So should I eat Halal lamb? Fortunately, I’m spared the dilemma. Lamb – holy, Halal or British organic – is just too expensive.

This article - along with many others like it - can be found in James Cary's book Death by Civilisation available in Paperback and for Kindle.

Wednesday, 23 April 2014

Why Flying a St George’s Flag Shouldn’t Make You Feel Like A Racist (Even though it does)

St Patrick’s Day is a cheerful, boozy affair, full of Guinness and good will. St David’s Day is a jolly day too, with its curious blend of daffodils, leeks and red dragons. St Andrew seems to have been usurped by Rabbie Burns and Hogmanay. Fair enough. But the Scots have their day. Two, in fact.

Pic via Flickr
But what about the English? How should they celebrate their national day? Obvious traditions would be gathering around Nelson’s Column – or makeshift versions of the same in town squares up and down the land – singing ‘Jerusalem’ by Blake and then ‘Vindaloo’ by Fat Les before someone reads out Henry V’s Agincourt speech, a claim is made on behalf of the Crown for the French throne and the Tricolour is solemnly set on fire. (Come on, would it kill the French to at least hand back Calais?) Then it’s all down to the local pub to watch a big-screen football match in which England lose to Germany on penalties.

Instead the English are far more comfortable playing it down, and worrying about whether flying a St George flag will cause offence. The flag makes some uncomfortable as it has those ‘Eng-er-land’ nationalistic overtones. But then, isn’t that what you’d want on your national day? Apparently not. The problem is that St George’s flag has other associations: that of a crusading knight.

All of this is beautifully riddled with irony upon irony which is convenient given that quietly appreciating irony is a popular English pastime. One irony, though, is that irony is now used to denote something that technically isn’t irony. But we digress. There is irony all over the St George’s Flag/Englishness debate.

Irony One is that England has produced a number of fine Christian men who would make more suitable Patron saints than St George – who is not even English. Should George have to re-apply for his own job, he might not even get an interview. Aquinas and Anselm who would surely be on the shortlist (with Edward the Confessor and Thomas a Becket on the long list).

Irony Two is that England has been a Protestant country for nearly five hundred years – so we don’t really do canonisation and saints. In the Protestant denomination, all Christians are considered saints, since this is how the New Testament most commonly uses the term. So all English Christians could lay claim to being an English saint. This would fit well with the times. Just as Time Magazine Person of the Year in 2006 was ‘You’, what better way for a self-obsessed, narcissistic population to celebrate itself than by making ‘Everyone’ a patron saint of England 2.0? Wow, just typing that makes me feel slightly unwell.

Irony Three is that St George famously slew a dragon. Dragons, it hardly needs saying, no longer exist. And this seems unlikely to be St George’s fault. There is no evidence that he hunted them to extinction, not least because dragons have never existed. Irony Three Subsection One is that the dragon is the symbol of the Welsh, so right away the English have a saint who is crassly offensive to neighbouring inhab- itants of their own island.

Irony Four is that St George’s flag has associations with crusaders. Crusades were, of course, launched against the Turks and St George was probably Turkish. How fitting that England has a patron saint who is primarily in conflict with himself.

So can we fly the flag of St George for a day without being considered a White Van Man – or one of those people who say things like ‘It’s not racist for wanting preferential treatment for the British’ when that is, in fact, a good working definition of racism? What is a Christian response to this dilemma, given that Christians are citizens of heaven – where there will be people of every nation, tribe and tongue?

What’s the real issue here? It’s the same issue that’s behind why at every sporting contest the Scots will support anyone against the English. The English have traditionally been the dominant power within Britain, asserting themselves over the Welsh, the Scots and particularly the Irish, sometimes with shameful brutality. What’s more, the English, as the dominant power within Britain, have flexed their muscles all over the world. Less than a hundred years ago, the British Empire covered a quarter of the world’s land and population; 458 million were under the Union Jack – which, at the centre, has St George’s Cross.

How we respond to this dilemma rather depends on your attitude to power. And St George is a brilliant example of how Christians should behave in positions of power. He was a Roman soldier, probably a tribune, and as such must have felt unstoppable. But he was a Christian. And when an edict came that all Christians in the army should offer a sacrifice to pagan Gods, he didn’t hold onto that power. He gave it up and was executed. Does that sound like anyone else? (Hint: His name begins with ‘J’.) The flag of St George may be associated with intolerant military strength but there is also a wonderful blood-red, cross-shaped streak of Christian humility.

This article - along with many others like it - can be found in James Cary's book Death by Civilisation available in Paperback and for Kindle