I finished my review of Overlord, the fantastic 2018 World War II zombie movie, with a call on Hollywood to be so bold as to green-light more movies like it. I was greatly pleased when I encountered Ghosts of War, a 2020 World War II horror film that seemed to be following in Overlord‘s footsteps. I’m an alternate historian, and so I’m a sucker for anything that mashes up history and the supernatural like this.
The film revolves around five American soldiers after D-Day who are tasked with holding a chateau in the French countryside from the Germans until a relief force comes. It’s a simple plot, at first, and a natural way of combining two wildly different genres.
The vast majority of actors here are people you’ve likely never heard of, with the exception of Theo Rossi, who you may recognize from Luke Cage on Netflix.
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Sometimes the conventional wisdom is right.
When Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1969 French Resistance classic Army of Shadows was released in the United States in 2006, many reviewers listed it as their favorite movie of the year. Newsweek called it a “fatalistic masterpiece”, The New York Times an “austere mise-en-scène in which Resistance fighters carry the shame of a nation on their squared shoulders.” LA Weekly described it as the “crowning achievement” of a director who specialized in minimalistic film noir. “Unlike the romantic images of freedom fighters perpetuated by the popular media, Melville’s movie is stripped of self-congratulatory hero worship and other puffery,” wrote the Austin Chronicle.
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The 1973 Yom Kippur War was short and pointless, lasting under three weeks. It was, however, a war that changed the Middle East. It was another attempt by the Egyptians and Syrians to humiliate the Israeli titan, and ended with the Arabs emboldened, even though they lost.
The Egyptians had successfully crossed the Suez Canal into Sinai. This was a war Egypt and Syria could not blame on Israel, the way they did in 1948 and 1956 and 1967. It paved the way for peace between Egypt and Israel, which in turn led to Anwar Sadat’s assassination.
In 2002, Amos Gitai interrogated the heroic myths of the first Arab-Israeli war in Kedma (review here). Two years earlier, in Kippur, he interrogated the myths of the Yom Kippur War.
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The 1980s were a tense time in the United Kingdom. There was the bombing campaign by the Provisional IRA that almost succeeded in assassinating Margaret Thatcher, the prime minister who brought neoliberalism to the shores of Great Britain. There are two other things from that period that linger in the memory: the miners’ strikes and the burgeoning gay rights movement.
Those last two are more connected than you might think. To make a long story short, one of the reasons that the gay rights movement in the country got as big as it did was due to a campaign by London-based gay and lesbian activists to support the miners, who were being targeted by the Thatcher government. This became Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners, which raised money for those on strike. The National Union of Mineworkers reciprocated by using its clout in the Labour Party to bring about support for gay rights.
This struggle is dramatized in the 2014 film Pride, directed by Matthew Warchus. It’s a film that starts among the gay community of London, revolving around a number of activists who take the bold move of finding solidarity with those who are unlike them. One of its central characters is Mark Ashton (played by Ben Schnetzer), the firebrand of our set of characters who brings with him a fuming rage against societal injustice. He is the sort of activist that brings about real change, one who is willing to get his hands dirty and speak truth to power.
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George W. Bush once told John Kerry, “You forgot Poland!” when the Democrat listed the few countries that supported the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
We history buffs can use a similar reminder that Poland is, in fact, not lost. World War II in Europe began when German tanks stormed across Poland’s border after a flagrant false-flag at Gleiwitz (or Gliwice). The Red Army came not long afterward. Auschwitz, the most infamous of the Nazi death factories, is remembered by many, but we sometimes forget it was built in the Polish town of Oświęcim.
When the Poles feature in (alternate) history, they are often reduced to victims of German and Soviet armies. This does them a disservice: the Polish fought, and fought hard. There was the Warsaw Uprising and the Polish forces under Władysław Anders that fought in Italy.
The movie Hurricane, released as Mission of Honor in the United States, is about some of those Polish warriors, specifically those who served as foreign pilots in the Battle of Britain. These were men who had escaped Poland, often served in the French Army of the Air, and then made their way to the UK after the Fall of France. At a time when Poland as a country could not do much, her sons were doing everything they could to defeat her enemies abroad.
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Cold War Germany is often reduced to the playground of the colossi of the postwar order jostling above the abyss that was nuclear annihilation. As the old joke goes, “a tactical nuke is one that goes off in Germany.” In many ways, the two German states were the foremost pawns in a great geopolitical game, but just as much they were their own countries, contemporary incarnations of a culture that can be traced back to the Germanic tribes of Roman times. They had their own business during the Cold War, and some of it was violent.
West Germany in the 1960s and 70s was subjected to much of the same social unrest that happened in other Western countries during those years. This was over Vietnam in the United States and Algeria in France. The period was a violent one. There were bombings by left-wing radicals in both countries.
In West Germany, that violence took the form of the Red Army Faction, also known as the Baader-Meinhof Gang (or Group), named for their leaders Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof. They caused great chaos in the West Germany of the Cold War. Their actions are dramatized in the 2008 film Der Baader Meinhof Komplex.
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Sometimes, you watch or read something that seems to be the apotheosis of a movement or genre. In my case, that movement is steampunk and that something is Steamboy, the 2004 animated film directed by Katsuhiro Otomo (of Akira fame). Take any screenshot of this film and it oozes steampunk. It feels, in its own strange way, almost pure steampunk, if there is such a thing.
Despite being a Japanese production, the film is set in Britain, the country that, more than any other, is the lynchpin of the steampunk genre. The smoke-filled skylines and dirty cities come straight out of a Dickens novel.
Steampunk exists to reimagine the Industrial Revolution, and that is what Otomo does. Specifically, the plot takes place in Manchester, that great city of textile work that was one dubbed “Cottonopolis”, and one of the birthplaces of modern industrial society. It is only fitting that such a quintessential steampunk story should take place in such a quintessential location.
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It can sometimes feel we’ve run out of ground to cover in terms of World War II fiction. To the untrained yet experienced eye, the likes of Band of Brothers (2001) and Saving Private Ryan (1998) may appear to have told all there is to tell, at least about the American war in Europe. (Other theaters are sadly underutilized. I’d like to see more about Burma and the Philippines, to name just two.)
Books including Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See (2014) and Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief (2015) have somewhat shaken up the genre. But there is still room for innovation.
Enter The Liberator, an animated limited series on Netflix concerning Felix Sparks, a man who led a battalion of men from Oklahoma to Italy, France and Germany. In terms of setting, it’s fairly well-trod ground, but in presentation it is quite new.
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Northern Ireland can feel far away from the rest of the United Kingdom. Its political party system is different from Great Britain’s. Its politics are intensely sectarian in a way that seems out of place in modern Europe. The level of violence it sustained in the twentieth century makes it an outlier in post-1945 Western Europe.
We tend to think of the United Kingdom as a peaceful Western democracy committed to the values of justice and peace. Those of us who have studied its history know that the truth is more muddled. That postwar period saw the birth of the National Health Service and other aspects of the welfare state, but it was also the time Britain left Palestine in civil war, employed a brutal system of concentration camps in Kenya and did much the same in Malaya.
But none of that violence was as old as the one that plagued Ireland.
Continue reading “Bloody Sunday”
9‘s marketing can make this animated film by Shane Acker seem deceptively childish. It revolves, after all, around talking rag dolls. But the movie can get disturbingly dark in a conceptual, atmospheric way that is absolutely unnerving.
The world of 9 is a post-apocalyptic hellscape with barely a sign of life. It is a world brought about by overuse of resources and man’s creations turning against him. This is a land of bombed-out houses and abandoned factories, where wreckage litters the cracked remnants of boulevards. It is a nightmare, one so awful there is no human left to dream at all.
Watch closely and it appears 9 is set in a dieselpunk world, where certain technological advances in the interwar era brought wrack and ruin to the world in a way reminiscent of, but in some ways scarier than, the firebombs and atomic weapons of World War II. At least those left survivors.
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