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