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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
January 11, 2004

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


Rumpole, War Movies, and Revisionist History

When Leo McKern died, he left behind a wonderful legacy. A powerful actor wrapped in a stout body and a bulbous face, McKern's comic gifts made his drama more powerful, and his flair for drama made his comedy all the more truthful and poignant.

He was unforgettable in the movie that I still rank as my all-time favorite, A Man for All Seasons, in which he played the manipulative Thomas Cromwell (and got to say the "bat in a Sunday school" speech).

But the greatest disappointment for me was that after several turns as Rumpole of the Bailey in the BBC productions that appeared in the 1970s and 1980s, in which he got to rule the screen instead of playing second fiddle, they never produced further Rumpole stories before he died in 2002.

Still, Rumpole lives on, even if Leo McKern will never be able to play him onscreen again. John Mortimer, the writer of Rumpole stories for book and screen, may wish that his other works were as lovingly embraced by the public as the Rumpole mysteries, but at least he's sane enough to keep coming up with wonderful new Rumpoles.

Last year's Rumpole Rests His Case looked like an attempt by Mortimer to put down Rumpole once and for all, letting him solve his last mystery, at least to his own satisfaction, on what seemed to be his deathbed.

But no, in Rumpole and the Primrose Path, we find Rumpole recovering from his heart attack and struggling to reestablish his position at his firm, which seemed rather too eager to lay his old bones to rest. Mortimer -- and therefore Rumpole -- is in fine form in this book, which suffers only slightly from the obligatory political correctness that seems to plague so many writers' work these days.

If you haven't read any Rumpoles before, you can start with any story -- they are all quite self-contained. Each book is really a collection of short stories that intertwine a bit. And even though they can be treated as light reading, that does not mean they are empty; quite the contrary, there is a melancholy tone and a view of the human condition that laces cynicism with a lovely thread of hope.

I think it's Mortimer's best work -- a writer could do a great deal worse than to be remembered for having created Rumpole of the Bailey.

*

I saw a powerful war movie this week -- one that will join my short list of great films about war.

There are some that have to be on everyone's list -- Patton, The Dirty Dozen. Up to now, my favorite has been the often-overlooked Tora! Tora! Tora!, which is the only good treatment of Pearl Harbor ever made.

Released in 1970, Tora! Tora! Tora! is a dramatization that is almost obsessively fair and complete. The Japanese side is given equal time and equal sympathy with the American side. The tragicomedy of the missed opportunities to avoid or defend against the attack -- or to make the attack as decisive as the Japanese so desperately needed it to be -- is still agonizing sixty-two years after that fateful day in 1941.

When I first saw this movie, my idea of most World War II films was either the overwrought soap opera of From Here to Eternity (which was imitated to the point of bathos in the 1976 Midway and the 2001 Afflecktion Pearl Harbor), or the kind of World War II movie that would contain this dialogue:

"No, Hank! Don't go out there! It's suicide!"

"Don't try to stop me, Steve. They got Joe! I'm gonna kill me some J___s!"

Even The Longest Day, which tried very hard to show both sides of the story of the D-Day invasion and boasted an all-star cast, did not do it quite as well as Tora! Tora! Tora! -- though Longest Day also earns a place on my list, as does The Battle of the Bulge.

One famous war film that does not make my list, for reasons that include those that William Goldman has enumerated far better than I could, is Saving Private Ryan. Of course I cried like a baby when I saw it, but because it was a Spielberg movie, the ending was a cheat and it now makes it almost impossible for me to watch it. It's too much by-the-numbers.

This week I saw the movie that Saving Private Ryan could have been if it had had an honest script. Saints and Soldiers had 1/140th of the budget of Ryan (half a million as opposed to 70 mil), and of course it couldn't match the cinematic impact of the scenes of the D-Day landing.

But as a story of a team of soldiers thrown together to try to get one guy through, showing us how each one of them reveals who he really is and grows as a human being, Saints and Soldiers simply did it right.

The actors were probably paid with sacks of dimes, the budget was so low, but they gave perfect performances. And since we aren't trying to follow the progress of big battles, no time is wasted on needless exposition. The actors are everything: It is their characters' lives we're living in the snow of the Battle of the Bulge.

One of the most important plot points is that one of the soldiers is a Mormon who served as a missionary in Germany before the war. This matters because it makes him fluent in German and sympathetic to the German people -- even as he uses his sharpshooting ability, learned while hunting near Snowflake, Arizona, to kill German soldiers with ruthless efficiency.

But this is not a "Mormon movie" or even a religious one. It's a moral story, yes -- but the values are human ones, not belonging to any one group or religion, and it shows how people can learn decency and trust in the midst of slaughter and betrayal.

Now that I've told you all about Saints and Soldiers, I have bad news. I saw it on a DVD that was provided to me for professional purposes. Though this movie has been shown (and won prizes) at some independent film festivals, it has not had a theatrical release.

Whenever or wherever it is released, though, don't miss it.

*

I started to read Sharon Kay Penman's The Sunne in Splendour with high hopes. This historical novel about Richard III promised to do a good job of debunking the terrible libels that were committed against a man whose only crimes were being too fervently religious and losing a war to the ruthless Henry Tudor (King Henry VII).

While Penman reaches a different conclusion about who killed the princes in the tower than I did, she shares my belief that Richard had no motive for killing them. It was the Tudors whose track record for murdering potential rivals was nearly perfect.

Alas, it takes more to make a good novel than a wish to set the record straight in dramatic form.

My first problem -- and perhaps the most crippling one -- was Penman's archly antiquated language. Everybody seems to use a dialect that is ridiculous, with dialogue like: "None of us be happy with it, Ned" and "I think it be suicidal."

Yet they are perfectly able to use "is" and "are" at other times; the writer simply has no understanding of when the subjunctive is properly used, and tosses in "be" to make things sound archaic instead of where the characters would really use them.

If a writer simply uses modern language in a historical novel, I'm fine with that -- everything is being translated into modern English, as it should be for modern English-speaking readers. But if you are going to use the old language, for heaven's sake know what you're doing! Tolkien could do it because he knew language inside out. Penman doesn't even know that she's out of her depth.

But maybe I could have forgiven the linguistic stumbles if it were not for the overwrought emotional writing. Instead of letting events carry their own natural emotional weight, Penman doesn't trust us to understand that we're seeing something dramatic. Instead she tries to charge the writing with emotion -- but all that tells us is how worked-up the writer is.

I don't know about you, but I run out of patience with: "The darkness was shot through with blood-red haze, swirling colors of hot, hurtful brightness that faded then into blackness."

Or: "This was madness, a delusion of his pain-clouded mind. Less than one hour ago, he'd been standing beside his father in the great hall of Sandal Castle. That was real, but not this. Not this."

It's not that these are bad sentences per se -- it's that they were completely unnecessary. A simple recitation of the events that were happening would have been far more emotional to the reader. Reading this book is like watching Meryl Streep or Charlton Heston act. You never lose sight of the clumsiness and obviousness of the performance.

Still, there are no doubt readers who, more tolerant than I, will be able to appreciate what is a pretty good story with excellent research behind it.

If you want a nonfictional attempt at debunking, though, you might want to look at Jim Powell's FDR's Folly: How Roosevelt and His New Deal Prolonged the Great Depression. I don't think Powell plays the game of "what would have been" any more successfully than anybody else does -- we simply don't know what the results of alternative choices might have been.

What's fascinating is watching the process through which FDR, who was not a committed Leftist, ended up using many of the less-effective ideas of socialism. I'm not sure, however, that Powell gives enough value to the importance of FDR's seeming to be doing something to help the suffering unemployed in keeping public order. Depressions can lead to revolution and civil turmoil if too many people believe the system is working against them.

The issues raised are important, though, and it's about time we had a serious examination of Roosevelt's economic policy, especially because it keeps getting held up as a model of how to save a country in economic trouble. Powell's isn't the last word, but it sets a legitimate agenda for discussion.

Revisions of history are helpful -- when they're based on all the available documents and other evidence, and are not mere brattiness, a young scholar flailing around calling previous historians liars. There should be no sacred cows in history.

*

J.R.R. Tolkien's Sanctifying Myth: Understanding Middle Earth is the best critical study of Tolkien that I've ever read. Written in a clear, non-pedantic style, this book by Bradley J. Birzer gives a good overview of Tolkien's life, and fits the more well-read works into a moral and literary context that is both illuminating and respectful to the work.

What emerges most clearly is the role of his fiercely loyal and conservative Catholic faith in Tolkien's life and writing -- including a bit of deromanticizing of the Inklings' friendship. That Tolkien and C.S. Lewis were important in each other's lives is true; that they had a falling away in later years is also true, and much of the break was caused by religious division between them.

But this is not a biography of Tolkien-with-Lewis -- it's an examination of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit through the lens of Tolkien's life and faith and his supporting and surrounding works. And since Birzer's style is so accessible, this book is a good starting place for those who are looking to dip into Tolkien scholarship for the first time.

*

If you want to see live improv comedy at its best, but without the bad language and sexual humor that make most professional improv somewhere beyond R-rated, then hold open the night of Saturday, the 24th of January. An improv troupe from L.A. is putting on a show and seminar at Southern Virginia University that weekend, but I was able to get them to come down to Greensboro to give a performance on that Saturday night -- free of charge to the public.

I'll tell you more details next week, but mark it on your calendars now!


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