Thoughts on ‘Midway’

The other night I got out to see ‘Midway,’ wanting to catch while it was still in theaters. I must say, despite the overuse of CGI and some melodramatic touches, I was very impressed.

The film is of a type that was never very common and is almost non-existent now; a simple and straightforward depiction of historical events. The filmmakers don’t impose any kind of agenda or artificial drama on the story, they just tell what happened more or less the way it did happen and allow that to be enough.

The closest film I can think of would be to Tora, Tora, Tora!, which took basically the same straightforward (and scrupulously fair) approach to the events of Pearl Harbor. A Night to Remember, which took a similar approach to the sinking of the Titanic is another notable example of this particular mini-genre.

Basically, from what I can gather from more historically-literate people, almost everything that happens in this film actually happened. The main characters were all real people. The events and many of the incidents really happened, from aircraft from the Enterprise running smack into the middle of the Pearl Harbor attack to the American bomber trying (unsuccessfully) to ram the Japanese carrier as it goes down in flames.

Even more impressively, the filmmakers allow the characters to speak and act as men and women of their own time and place. There’s no effort to impose a feminist or racially conscious agenda on the events, or to make the characters more ‘modern.’ The Americans have the rough-hewn, devil-may-care, can-do attitude of men who grew up in the Depression. The women are warm and supportive, domestically-focused, but proud of their men. The Japanese have a rigid dignity and class structure bound by intense discipline and sense of honor (though the brutality of the Japanese military is also fairly shown, without any effort to explain the apparent contradiction).

The interesting thing is that, by simply showing these things, the film allows them to be intensely admirable in their own way. When a captured American pilot spits a final defiance in the Japanese face before being executed, it’s a stirring image of American courage. Later, two Japanese officers calmly decide to remain on their ship as its scuttled, after commending the men for their courage and taking responsibility for the defeat on themselves, and it’s a striking and fine instance of distinctly Japanese courage (earlier, Admiral Nagumo, whom we have seen criticized for his very real blunders and whom the film mostly presents as fairly incompetent, has to be convinced to leave his burning flagship under the idea that the remaining men need his leadership. Again, the film makes an effort to be scrupulously fair, not only to the two sides but to individuals on either side).

As for the female characters, there’s a wonderful little vignette where Layton – the codebreaker in charge of determining where the Japanese will strike next, and who tried to warn about Pearl Harbor – comes home late and sets immediately to work at his desk. His wife snatches his glasses to try to make him rest for a while. He pleads for more effort, since he doesn’t want any more men to die because he didn’t work hard enough. She gives him his glasses back and says she’ll make him a sandwich. A sweet, and very human image of domesticity in warfare. Earlier Layton ruefully tells Nimitz that he “plans to spend the rest of his life making it up to her” once the war is over. This matter-of-fact depiction of the different priorities of men and women, where each regards the other with gratitude and affection rather than resentment and hostility, is almost unknown in contemporary fiction. It’s as though the film literally stepped out of the 1940s.

On the subject of raw courage, the film does more than most to show just how insanely dangerous carrier operations of the time were. Again and again we see aircraft malfunction, or crash, or fail to take off or land properly, not due to enemy action but simply because the technology was still in its infancy. Navy fliers, the film makes clear, had to be a little crazy and thoroughly accepting of the possibility of death (one character explains his unflappable courage with an anecdote of how his father survived working on the Empire State Building only to be killed by being hit by a car on his way to church, saying that you simply never know what’s going to get you). We see the futile attacks of the Torpedo Squadrons during the battle, which do absolutely no damage and result in the near-total destruction of both squadrons, but prove unexpectedly crucial by keeping the Japanese pilots busy while the dive bombers set up their runs. And, in what I found to be one of the more striking displays of courage, we see the already-battered bomber squadron, after returning to the Enterprise following their initial run on the Japanese carriers, realizing that they have to get up and go out again to finish the job. Because it’s their job.

We also see the high command, in the form of Admiral Chester A. Nimitz, who is tasked with finding a way to hold off and defeat the superior Japanese navy until American industry gets up to speed. He, and the codebreakers under Layton, are the ones who have to tell the sailors and pilots where to go, and if they get it wrong then more men will die and, as the film makes abundantly clear, the Japanese will be able to threaten Hawaii and the West Coast. The two halves of the military – the commanders and intelligence and the soldiers and sailors – have to have each other’s back if they’re to get anywhere, and the Battle of Midway is an example of them working in harmony to pull off a spectacular and much-needed victory, ultimately turning the tide of the war in the Pacific.

But again, we see both sides. There’s a striking sequence after Pearl Harbor where we cut back and forth between the American brass in Washington and the Japanese command in Tokyo, each discussing what to do next. Admiral Yamamoto is a major figure throughout (showing him listening to FDR’s “Date that will live in infamy” speech was a great touch, as was having him reading Grant’s memoirs). The reasons for the war on either side are presented, but the film shrewdly avoids making an actual judgment on them, focusing more on the events now that the war has begun than on making a historical statement about it.

As I say, my main problem with the film is the overabundance of CGI. While I applaud the film for its minutely accurate depictions of the ships and planes of the time, the whole thing is very, very obviously animated, which takes some of the impact off. They would have been better advised to use a blend of computer and model work (as Emmerich did to great effect in Independence Day) to give a more tactile and solid feel to the film.

There is also a slightly uncomfortable aspect in that the film is largely founded by the Chinese government. Though, as far as I could tell, this didn’t affect the story – which, again, is scrupulously fair and admirable in its depiction of both sides – apart from omitting any mention of Chiang Kai-shek in the scenes set in China, which, as the film covers so much ground, wouldn’t have been necessary anyway.

At times the battle scenes go so far as to feel over the top, almost like a video game. The opening Pearl Harbor sequence, for instance, has a young sailor trying to escape the burning Arizona by climbing across on a rope suspended over flaming waters while Zeros strafe him. Now, for all I know that might have happened, but it feels a little much. Everything being shot from the most dramatic possible angles also lends a sense of unreality and artificiality to the film.

But overall, I was very impressed with the movie, and subsequent consideration has only increased my admiration. Emmerich and his crew have made a true atavism in modern Hollywood; a historical drama that is actually fair and honest about historical events, that presents the men and women of a past age in their own idiom and allows them to speak for themselves rather than being made the mouthpiece for modern platitudes. It is a fitting and honest tribute to the heroism, courage, and skill of the men on both sides who fought one of the most important battles of the twentieth century, and that in itself is a fine thing indeed.

 

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place, and in the sky,
The larks, still bravely singing, fly,
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the dead; short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe!
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high!
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.
-Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae

Saint John Henry Newman

It’s rare that we get good news from the Church these days, so cherish it when it comes! Cardinal Newman, the great English convert of the 19th century, whose return to Rome sparked something of a Catholic renaissance in that noble, yet obstinate island kingdom, is now declared a Saint. 

Cardinal Newman is one of those writers whom I regard as something of a personal spiritual master – though alas, I haven’t read as much of him as I would like – along with St. Francis de Sales, Dietriech von Hildebrand, and Professor Tolkien. What I mean is that his approach to spirituality, his understanding of the world, and his insights are of the kind that fit especially with my own personality and make the most sense to me. This, incidentally, is one of the glorious things about the Communion of Saints: there are so many and they are all so unique that if one doesn’t make an appeal to you, there are always others who will. The transforming power of Christ can be expressed through an infinity of personalities; in one it leads to the recklessly joyful abandon of a St. Francis, in another the intense focus and genius of a St. Thomas, and in still another the energy and regal authority of a St. Lewis.

St. John Henry Newman (not to be confused – though I’m sure he will be – with St. John Neuman, Bishop of Philadelphia) was more of the St. Thomas school; a crushingly brilliant scholar and masterful writer, he found his way into the Church through careful study of the early fathers and church history, along with his perceptive understanding of the flaws in Anglicanism and Protestantism. The account of this journey he laid down in his masterful autobiography Apologia pro Vita Sua, then later presented a fictionalized account of his experience in Loss and Gain: the Story of a Soul, both of which I have read and highly recommend, not only for their spiritual and theological insights, but also for the beautiful portrait of a now lost world of manners, intellect, and peace: the world of the middle and upper class England of the early-to-mid 19th century. Newman was as much a part of that world as St. Thomas was of the Medieval, and his example and ideas of gentlemanly behavior are, perhaps, as important a witness as any other to us today.

Loss and Gain mostly amounts to intelligent young Englishmen sitting around holding intellectual discussions. For me that’s enough to make it interesting, but I suppose it’s an acquired taste (though there is a very funny scene near the end where the hero is besieged by advocates for fashionable new religious communions, apparently figuring that if he’s considering Rome he must be up for grabs). Apologia is definitely worth reading both for the insight into his own life and for the brilliant argumentation on display (it was prompted by a slanderous attack by the Reverend Charles Kingsley, author of Westward Ho!, who was a virulent anti-Catholic and accused Newman of being secretly in the employ of the Roman Church all along. Seeing the Saint destroy his accusations is a delightful exercise in proper argumentation).

Alas, I’m not in a position to give a really good overview of St. John Henry Newman’s life or works: I’ve read (or listened to) several, but he is a great river and I can’t claim to have explored more than a few stretches. Suffice to say, he is an ornament to the Church, and his kind of clarity and intellectual insight are desperately needed today.

I shall let him have the final word:

“[T]here is no medium, in true philosophy, between Atheism and Catholicity, and…a perfectly consistent mind, under those circumstances in which it finds itself here below must embrace either the one or the other.”
-Apologia

Lead, kindly Light, amid th’ encircling gloom,
Lead Thou me on;
The night is dark, and I am far from home,
Lead Thou me on;
Keep Thou my feet; I do not ask to see
The distant scene; one step enough for me.

I was not ever thus, nor prayed that Thou
Shouldst lead me on;
I loved to choose and see my path, but now
Lead Thou me on;
I loved the garish day, and spite of fears,
Pride ruled my will; remember not past years.

So long Thy pow’r has blest me, sure it still
Wilt lead me on,
O’er moor and fen, o’er crag and torrent, till
The night is gone,
And with the morn those angel faces smile,
Which I have loved long since, and lost awhile.

Ora pro nobis.

It Came From Rifftrax: ‘Flying Stewardess’

This is one of those shorts that’s as fascinating as a window into the past as it is amusing. In this case, a look at air travel in the 1940s. I do not recommend watching this short just before taking a trip, as thinking of the roomy seating, tasty-looking four-course meals, and sleeper berths of the past may make you feel as though you’ve been badly cheated as you wedge yourself onto cramped seats in the packed, germ-ridden, thermostat-challenged tube that will be your world for the next six or seven hours.

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“There’s not a man on the wing of the plane! I just wanted to sound the all-clear on that.”

The short is the documentary of a young stewardess from the classroom to her first solo flight, covering quite a lot of ground (literally and figuratively) in about eleven minutes. Did you know that stewardesses of the era took classes on radio theory? I didn’t. Not to mention that planes of the era flew low enough that you could actually make out key sights on the ground, such as the skylines of major cities and even Niagara Falls (“Oh, my God, you’re taking us to Canada?! Let me off!”). We get a quick cross-country tour of the old America, which is pretty cool, to be honest, including my home-town of Detroit (gets a hilariously underwhelmed “Yay” from Bill).

Though the short itself is pretty interesting, it nevertheless provides lots and lots of good riffing material, from roasting each location in turn (upon arriving in Los Angeles: “The morning vomit has been hosed off the streets and it’s shining like a jewel!”) to the sometimes overblown narration (“No use articles here Chicago”) to just riffing on the passengers and the scenario in general (“I’m Bob Executive; which way is business?”). As usual, there are a few ‘sexist forties’ jokes, but not very many or very notable ones, and the riffing imagines the stewardesses abusing far more than being abused (“try not to snore like a breeder hog, will yah?”).

Air travel in general just lends itself to humor, especially from our perspective given how I don’t think anyone really likes the experience these days (“It’s like eating at ‘Denny’s’, but with a much smaller risk of death”). This short shows us that it, perhaps, wasn’t always like that. I was particularly fascinated by the look at the ‘sleeper’ flight, where face-to-face booths were made up into actual sleeping bunks like on a train car. It’s almost as though the passengers expected a comfortable and convenient flight and the airlines meant to oblige.

Of course, the problem with that is there’s clearly a much lower capacity on each flight, and no doubt they were proportionately much more expensive. It is, I suppose, a trade-off, though I can’t help wondering whether we’ve traded too far in the opposite direction. That’s a whole other issue, of course, but still, looking through this little keyhole into the not-too-distant past, it’s clear to me that we’ve lost something along the way.

Meanwhile, other highlights of the short include a look at the stewardesses on break time, where they keep fit by sailing (amusingly, they really look like they’re about to tip over at one point and there’s an abrupt jump-cut, making me think they had to pause filming for a moment to make sure no one went overboard). The narrator helpfully clarifies that, though most stewardesses marry within a few years, they do not typically marry pilots. Mike gets a great moment with a fussy baby, while Kevin delights in finding synonyms for the solo flight and sniggers when the narrator apparently joins in.

All in all, a very fun short providing a legitimately interesting look into a vanished world amid some solid riffing. Recommended, especially for those who like a little view into the past.

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“The captain thanks you for keeping the plane snake-free.”

Bishop Sheen on the Three Confessions

Broadcasted 1957: Ven. Bishop Fulton Sheen traces the course of human sentiment through three great ‘Confessions:’ those of St. Augustine, of Abelard, and of Jean-Jacque Rousseau:

 

Money quote: “Jean-Jacque, therefore, gave birth to an entirely new concept of how to handle a conflict: namely, give way to it and call it right.”

A Record of the Past

One way or another, I watch a lot of old films, whether old TV shows, old movies, or even old instructional videos.

It’s informative, and not just in the way the original filmmakers intended. As C.S. Lewis pointed out, consuming work produced in a different time doesn’t just tell you what the work is about, but also how people thought and their basic assumptions about life. The point isn’t that it’s completely accurate to how life was back then, but that it does show what at least some people thought and felt at the time regarding the subject. It also gives a sense of how that subject might have been generally viewed by the audience, depending on the assumptions the creator felt he had to cater to.

For instance, viewing 1946’s Miracle on 34th Street, we can tell that having a woman in a position of authority in a major corporation like Macy’s Department Stores was not considered particularly unusual or surprising at the time it was made, since no one comments on or expresses surprise at Maureen O’Hara occupying such a position, and the film feels no need to provide any explanation for it. We can likewise gather that having a Black day servant was fairly normal for a well-off businesswoman, since again, the film feels no need to explain the character’s presence. On the other hand, the film does need to explain the difference between a hearing and a trial, because it’s not something the average audience member might be expected to know or take for granted, and they might become confused as to what the stakes are and the rules of the proceeding.

A steady exposure to the thoughts of many different ages is an indispensable defense against blindly following the zeitgeist and prejudices of one’s own particular age. Because what you get is actually what was said or filmed or thought at that time; not someone’s reconstruction of it.

For an example, consider the following short. It was intended for a proposed Mystery Science Theater 3000 tie-in CD that never got off the ground. Looking past Mike and Bots’ typical irreverent humor, we see an image of what Venezuela used to be like (sorry for the poor sound quality).

Now, obviously it’s a very positive portrayal, since the film is Creole Oil showing their employees how great it can be to work there, but look at what’s on screen; the clean, busy streets and beautiful buildings of Maracaibo and Caracas (many of them recently constructed, according to the film), the Sears store, the full car lots, the stores crammed with American products. This is, at least in part, what the country looked like in the 1950s, and how an American company interacted with the country.

Picture of the Day

Hat-tip: Church Pop

John Wayne and his son, Patrick, venerate a statue of the Blessed Virgin in Cong, Ireland in 1950 during filming of The Quiet Man.

For those who don’t know, the great John Wayne, though far from perfect (especially regarding marital fidelity), was a devout believer his whole life, and throughout his life was surrounded by Catholic influences. These ranged from his wives (all three of his wives were Mexican, and at least the first and third were enthusiastic Catholics) to his main leading lady and close friend Maureen O’Hara (incidentally, though Wayne had many affairs, by all account he and Miss O’Hara were never more than close friends). This was back before the entertainment industry became the monoculture it is today (in those days you often had things like ultra-conservative John Wayne working side-by-side with super-liberal Henry Fonda) and when religion was still a matter of common experience in the film industry, so during his career Wayne made friends with people from all different backgrounds and faiths. In the end, he was received into the Catholic Church two days before his death. He is said to have expressed regret that he waited so long, blaming a “busy life” for his late conversion.

My Imperialism

I like to describe myself as an imperialist, or at least as having imperialist sympathies. That’s admittedly a bit of an exaggeration, but is certainly true relative to most of my contemporaries, if only because I don’t automatically equate ‘colonialism’ and ’empire-building’ with ‘evil.’ My admittedly-limited knowledge of history tells me that the world is at its safest and most prosperous when one or two large ruling powers of high culture exert dominance over most of the world. Nor am I much moved by talk about it not being ‘their land.’ For the vast majority of mankind, who is ruling them matters much less than how they are ruled, and, especially, how much they’re left alone. If an imperial power rules a certain region, and in so doing largely leaves the locals to manage their own affairs while shielding them from invaders, preventing local rivalries from boiling over into violence, and linking them up with a prosperous economic system, I don’t see how that can be considered a worse state of affairs as far as the local populace is concerned than that region being left to govern itself, fight off its own enemies, deal with its own inner rivalries, and sift for itself in the global economy.

(On the subject of this kind of benign neglect, I remember reading about a survey conducted after the British departure from India where some people travelled around to see what the rural villages and farming communities thought of the British departure. The most common response was ‘who are the British?’).

Now, I’m not discounting the great evils done by the various colonial empires, but we should note that in most cases the alternative was not ‘brutal dominance by Western powers’ and ‘free and happy independence.’ The alternative is more ‘brutal dominance by Western powers’ and ‘brutal dominance by the nearest powerful neighbor’ or ‘brutal dominance by local ruler, with accompanying sectarian violence, probably soon to be followed by dominance by nearest powerful neighbor.’ Whatever the flaws of the Western powers, they at least had the temporizing influence of civilized and Christian values that might conceivably restrain them.

I also note that, at least as far as the British Empire is concerned, the two main counter-arguments to British rule – Ireland and America – were instances where they did not practice the kind of benign neglect that they generally employed elsewhere. And there are other issues there (i.e. the religious question in Ireland), but that’s for another time.

In any case, I think there are serious arguments in favor of western imperialism. Actually, I think it would be more justified today than it was in its heyday (since today, unrest in one region can lead to violence and humanitarian crises on the other side of the world), but that hardly matters, since it’s not coming back any time soon. Mostly this was all just a long intro to the following video, which is a summation of the positive effects of the British Empire. It’s a little over-sunny, but since most people today tend towards the opposite extreme I’m not going to knock it for that. Enjoy!