The Great War of Archimedes

The Great War of Archimedes

As a half-white Filipino American, I am not a neutral reviewer of The Great War of Archimedes, a Japanese movie about the construction of the battleship Yamato. I was raised on stories about the Japanese occupation of the Philippines. My grandfather served as a decoy for the resistance and my great-grandfather was a resistance fighter. A 14 year-old girl was married off to a 40 year-old man, so that she would not be taken as a comfort woman; that union produced an entire branch of my family.

Perhaps that is why, at the end of the film, I recalled that Joseph Goebbels is purported to have said that The Battleship Potemkin could turn anyone into a Bolshevik. The Great War of Archimedes might just convince anyone of the benevolence of the Japanese Empire. It is a deeply problematic, frankly jingoistic film, but one that is doubtlessly well-made and resembles, in isolation, a decent message about humanity.

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To Climates Unknown

To Climates Unknown

For want of a ship, a nation was lost.

Such is the point of divergence of Arturo Serrano’s To Climates Unknown: the premature sinking of the Mayflower. Otto von Bismarck said that “God has a special providence for fools, drunkards and the United States of America.” In this world, that civilization, Anglo-America (which includes Canada, much of the Caribbean and Belize), simply never comes to pass.

It is a strange point of divergence, one that a pedant could poke ample holes in. I certainly could; it makes an assumption that usually irritates me, for I am from Virginia. I remember in fourth grade having the saying “Jamestown was the first permanent English settlement in the New World” drilled into my head. As such, an overemphasis on Plymouth irks me.

The nitpicker might discount this novel for that oversight. They would be making a grave mistake, for I can say without hyperbole that To Climates Unknown is the best alternate-history novel I have ever read.

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The Anarchist

The Anarchist

Anarchists can be scary. Their philosophy abjures any form of hierarchy. As such, they are seen as bomb throwers and little else.

Today, the anarchist movement is relatively harmless, as few have rallied behind the philosophy to affect social change. That was not always the case. In the late nineteenth century, anarchists were terrorists. Alexander II of Russia was assassinated by a group slandered as anarchist, as was Umberto I of Italy. The assassination of the Italian king was an inspiration to Leon Czolgosz, who assassinated William McKinley, the twenty-fifth president of the United States.

John Smolens dramatizes that fateful assassination in his 2009 novel The Anarchist. It is a book that brings the city of Buffalo, New York — McKinley was felled — to vivid Gilded Age life. You are swept into cramped barges and squalid whorehouses, the sort of place where the lumpenproletariat of America suffered and radicalized. As you experience their agony, you begin to understand how one of them could decide shooting the president was a good idea.

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Beneath Hill 60

Beneath Hill 60

The memory of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps in World War I is all too often focused around a single battle, one ignominious defeat. I refer to the Battle of Gallipoli, a botched attempt to capture Istanbul.

But men from those countries were involved in other fronts, such as Iraq and Palestine. In 2010, Jeremy Sims made a movie about Australians serving in Belgium, at the Battle of Ypres: Beneath Hill 60.

One word describes this film superbly: claustrophobic. Many scenes are set underground, deep within the sprawling trenches that pockmarked the countryside of Belgium and France during the First World War. It is a dark movie, both in content and visuals. What little light there is serves to show you mere glimpses of the people and things that drive the war; you see them only as the trenches have cast them. The effect is dehumanizing. The Australians in Beneath Hill 60 might as well have been ants.

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The Bridge at Andau

The Bridge at Andau

If James Michener is remembered for anything these days, it is for his epic historical novels that regularly pass the thousand-page mark. He was an historical writer in a grand tradition, one that has suffered from the declining attention spans of the digital age.

But he was also capable of writing leaner books that were just as gripping as his generational sagas. Caravans, his novel about Afghanistan, is one. Another is The Bridge at Andau, which is somewhat hard to categorize.

I found this book in the nonfiction history section of my local library, but the interior note with the publication information says it is a work of historical fiction. It is, puzzlingly, both.

Michener was a journalist covering the events around which the book is based; he was standing there at the titular bridge at one point. He interviewed a great many survivors of the events he covers, and the book is in large part based on their testimonies. Many of his sequences involve anonymized versions of real people, or composites thereof.

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Lebanon

Lebanon

Not all wars are as quick and decisive as the Six Day War. Some drag on and on and on. Such was the Lebanese Civil War, which ran from 1975 to 1990. In 1982, Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin ordered his army, under General — and future prime minister — Ariel Sharon to enter Lebanon to retaliate against rocket strikes launched by Yasser Arafat’s Palestine Liberation Organization. As Israeli tanks and infantry rolled into that powder keg, they embarked on a long, pitiless savage war of peace.

This is the backdrop to the 2009 film Lebanon: an Israeli example of a war movie told from the perspective of the invaders, who are sent to die in a foreign land where life seems cheap. Americans like to make these films about Vietnam: Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket are classic examples. More recently, American Sniper brought this type of film into the twenty-first century. The Spanish-made 1898: Our Last Men in the Philippines (review here) and Britain’s The Bridge over the River Kwai arguably count as well.

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Hidden Figures

Hidden Figures

The American space program has been tarred as the home of white scientists who didn’t care for anyone who wasn’t white and male. Certainly there were problems in that regard, as there were in American society generally at the time. You had Gil Scott-Heron’s Whitey on the Moon calling the space program a theft from African Americans. This is a strain that has continued; Scott-Heron’s poem was used in the 2018 film First Man, about Neil Armstrong and the Moon landing.

Enter Hidden Figures, the 2016 film about the African American “computers” (as it was a person’s job in those days) Katherine Johnson (Taraji P. Henson), Dorothy Vaughan (Octavia Spencer) and Mary Jackson (Janelle Monáe). Overlooked and forgotten by popular history, this film shines a spotlight on the women who did the math that took John Glenn to space.

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The Forgotten Battle

De Slag om de Schelde

In war, that which sounds mundane can lead to compelling drama. Such was the Battle of the Scheldt, the fight to control a river route to the port of Antwerp in order to supply the Allied armies as they marched from Normandy through France into Germany. On paper, this may sound like the stuff of wargames or spreadsheets. In reality, it put human beings in a warzone.

Such is The Forgotten Battle, a 2021 Dutch World War II movie about the Battle of the Scheldt. (Antwerp is in Belgium, but the fighting took place in the southwestern Netherlands.) It is a film tinged with the sense that the war will soon be over, that Germany will be defeated, that the Wehrmacht will retreat, and that the Netherlands will soon be free. If you’ve played Company of Heroes, you may notice a similarity to that game’s Panzer Elite campaign (which, incidentally, was also set in the Netherlands).

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The Aviator

The Aviator

Martin Scorsese is a director of many talents. He is best known for the crime films set in the New York of his youth, but he has tackled other themes: a harrowing medical drama in Bringing Out the Dead, a sports drama in Raging Bull, a psychological thriller in Shutter Island, and, of all things, a children’s adventure in Hugo (review here).

This review discusses another non-stereotypical Scorsese venture: his biopic of inventor Howard Hughes, entitled The Aviator.

The Aviator may not be an easy watch. It borders on three hours of runtime. As such, it is something of a marathon through the life of Hughes, a man who very much deserved a biopic. (See The Aviator: The Life and Legend of Howard Hughes) He was an eccentric and troubled genius, one who was all too prone to self-destruction. He was a movie pioneer and an aviation pioneer, and the film shrinks on neither aspect of him.

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Nightfall

Nightfall

For decades, science fiction has dreamed of stepping through portals and entering new worlds. It were these sort of fantasies that birthed the modern alternate-history genre. To this day, stories are told with this device, such as Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series and Tom Sweterlitsch’s The Gone World.

Here, I will discuss a modern example of this subgenre: Nightfall, the first book in Andrew J. Harvey’s Clemhorn series.

The book follows various members of the Clemhorn family in high places of the Cross-Temporal Empire, a polity which rules multiple alternate incarnations of Earth. Each of these worlds is run by a bureaucratic hierarchy, which meet in the central imperial government. The Clemhorns are aristocrats, related to leaders of this empire. Through their eyes, they experience a massive upheaval in the empire, with threats from within and without.

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