Operation Mincemeat

Operation Mincemeat

Hollywood seldom makes World War II epics like it used to anymore: dad’s favorites like The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone. Christopher Nolan’s 2017 Dunkirk comes close, but other recent World War II movies tend to be either visual-effects extravaganzas or satires, like Inglourious Bastards and Jojo Rabbit. Both are fine, but they are of a different genre. They lack the patience of those earlier movies.

Operation Mincemeat, directed by John Madden — who is better known for making very different films, like Shakespeare in Love and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel — is the closest thing to the classics of the 1950s and 60s I’ve seen in years.

It stars Colin Firth as the real-life Ewen Montage of British Naval Intelligence, who concocted the plot to wash a corpse dressed as a British officer ashore in Spain carrying papers suggesting that the Allied invasion of Europe was going to come through Greece instead of Sicily. The operation, which really was called “Operation Mincemeat”, was at least partially successful. The Germans moved several divisions from Italy to Greece as a precaution, easing the invasion of Sicily for the Allies, which in turn hastened the fall of Benito Mussolini.

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Let the Mountains Be My Grave

Let the Mountains Be My Grave

A number of countries in Europe define their World War II histories by their resistance fighters. Partisans have been made into heroes since the end of the war, in movies and in novels. In Let the Mountains Be My Grave, Francesca Tacchi (xe/xem) puts not one, but two unique twists on this familiar narrative.

The main character, Veleno, is a partisan in 1944 Italy, fighting the Germans as the Allies move north up the peninsula. Veleno is not aided solely by worldly means; he is in the possession of a locket sacred to Angitia, a goddess of various peoples of central Italy before the Romans conquered the region. His hatred of the occupiers of his homeland is so profound that he has vowed to kill as many Germans as he can before he dies, a fate he feels is inevitable and imminent.

The second element that makes Let the Mountains Be My Grave unique: its central romance is between two men.

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Volhynia

Volhynia

The region known as Volhynia is not obvious on most maps of Europe. It is remembered in the name of the Volyn Oblast in Ukraine. The region’s boundaries are vague, but today it is somewhere between northwestern Ukraine, southwestern Belarus and southeastern Poland. Before Ukraine gained its independence, it was ruled by the Soviet Union. Before World War II, Volhynia was the southeastern fringe of the Second Polish Republic. It is a region historically populated by Poles, Ukrainians and Jews. During World War II, it descended into a nightmare not unlike what became of Yugoslavia after its dissolution in the 1990s. Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered Poles, and the Poles retaliated in kind.

Volhynia (in Polish Wołyń, on Amazon in English as Hatred, derived from the short-story collection by Stanisław Srokowski on which the movie is based) is a 2016 Polish war drama directed by Wojciech Smarzowski, which dramatizes that awful period in the region’s history.

It is a film that begins, strangely enough, quite happily, with a wedding. There is much singing and dancing and general merriment. Making this even more hopeful is the fact that it is a wedding between a Polish girl and a Ukrainian boy. A Ukrainian priest talks of tolerance. The sister of the bride, Zofia — the main character — is in love with another Ukrainian boy, but her father has decided she is to marry an older Polish municipal authority. Even so, she continues to dally with her beau.

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The Last Battle

The Last Battle

In The Last Battle, Stephen Harding tells the unlikely tale of Allied and former Nazi troops making common cause to protect prominent French prisoners of war from the Waffen-SS.

This Battle of Castle Itter really happened, on May 5, 1945 — three days before victory in Europe. Elements of the American 12th Armored Division, Austrian resistance fighters, defected soldiers of the German Wehrmacht and several of the French prisoners themselves held off an attack by SS diehards before they could be relieved by the 142nd Infantry Regiment.

Among the prisoners were former prime ministers (and bitter rivals) Édouard Daladier and Paul Reynaud, former army commanders Maurice Gamelin and Maxime Weygand, and the former leader of the French far right, François de La Rocque, who had turned against Marshal Philippe Pétain and his collaborationist Vichy regime to secretly provide intelligence to the British.

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Catch-22

Catch-22

Ever since I read it my senior year of high school, Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 has been one of my favorite novels. It is a farce of bureaucracy, and as life becomes more and more bureaucratized, more and more people find themselves neck deep in this farce. It is a book that describes that unmooring, niggling internal monologue of “this is cruel and insane and it kills people and it could be changed so WHY ARE WE STILL DOING IT?!” that permeates so much of life in the twenty-first century. I quite enjoyed the 1970 film adaptation, and was excited to see how the 2019 miniseries would work out.

The series is overall quite faithful to the book. Many incidents are taken straight from the pages of the novel, and some are all the more impactful now that we can see, rather than imagine, them. I know that sounds trite, but it is one experience to read about a reckless pilot, McWatt, accidentally killing Kid Sampson; it is another to see the propeller of the plane scatter human gore across McWatt’s cockpit and then the explosion when he rams his plane into a mountain to atone for his crimes.

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The Eight Hundred

The Eight Hundred

Few may have expected that the second-highest grossing film of 2020 (and the highest-grossing live-action film; the first was an anime from Japan) would be Chinese. The Chinese market is so enormous that its filmmakers can focus on their domestic audience and still make good money. The COVID-19 pandemic’s shuttering of so much of Hollywood gave The Eight Hundred a global boost.

Does the film hold up?

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My Way

My Way

Even in a world of bomber fleets and atomic weapons, legends have their way of enthralling us. In South Korea, there is the mythical survivor Yang Kyoungjong, a hero in an ancient sense, whose main achievement is simply surviving World War II in service to three different armies. The story is that he started in the Imperial Japanese Army, was captured and pressed into service by the Red Army, then captured and pressed into service once again by the Wehrmacht, until finally being captured by the Americans at D-Day in Normandy. It’s a story that begs for a film.

In 2011, Kang Je-gyu made that film: My Way. Kang changed a number of things about the myth, but in doing so created a story that is perhaps even more potent. It starts in Japanese-occupied Korea, about rivals in running Kim Jun-sik (Jang Dong-gun) and Tetsuo Hanegawa (Joe Odagiri), who are both drafted into the Imperial Japanese Army to fight in China. The broad strokes of their journey mirror the original story.

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The Bridge over the River Kwai

The Bridge over the River Kwai

One of Alec Guinness’s greatest roles was as Colonel Nicholson in the 1957 The Bridge on the River Kwai. The World War II movie is rightly remembered as one of the greatest ever made. But few remember it was based on a novel: Pierre Boulle’s 1952 The Bridge over the River Kwai, translated in 1954 by Xan Fielding (who also translated Jean Lartéguy’s The Centurions, reviewed here).

Boulle served in the French armed forces in Indochina during World War II, and it seeps into the narrative. There’s a grottiness, a putridness, in the novel that could only come from first-hand experience.

If you’ve seen the film, you know the story: British soldiers captured by the Imperial Japanese Army after the fall of Malaya are made to work on the Burma Railway. You will recognize many characters, Saito and Nicholson in particular, as portrayed by the actors who are now immortal.

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What If Poland Stopped the Blitz?

I’ve always been one to root for the underdog, and underdogs don’t come much more quixotic than the Poles at the start of World War II. I’ve always thought about doing a scenario where the Poles survive the German Blitz. I finally decided to do one.

Usually I restrict myself to one change. I tried that with this scenario and couldn’t make it credible. It takes at least three changes to give the Poles a fighting chance. (None of those changes are particularly unlikely, but I’ll admit that I prefer one-change scenarios.)

  1. A Polish secret weapon. Bazooka-type anti-tank weapons are invented in Poland in early 1937, about six years early and secretly, but widely deployed by 1939.
  2. A brilliant Polish aircraft designer does not die in a plane crash in the mid-1930s.
  3. Due to some sort of bureaucratic snafu, the German army is unable to completely reequip itself with a new version of its Enigma coding machines by September 1939.

Ironically, Polish survival might lead to Germany being first with the atomic bomb, and possibly to German world dominance.

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Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer

Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer

Confessions of a Marrano Rocketeer fell into my lap through fortuitous chance. I learned of it through BookBub, an email service that gives subscribers book deals. That is how I came to Daniel Schenker’s debut novel — and what a debut it is!

Arthur Waldmann is a strange collection of attributes: ethnically Jewish, religiously Lutheran, living in Germany in the interwar years, obsessed with rocketry. Although a recent ancestor converted to Christianity (as many Jews in Germany did in the period), Athur grew up with the wisdom of the Zohar, the foundational text of Jewish mysticism. He is a man thoroughly at war with himself over who he is in light of his ancestors and his society, and how he trespasses against those in trying to pursue his passion.

From the very beginning of the book, the specter of Nazism hangs over Arthur’s life. He meets multiple people, with steadily increasing resources behind them, to build machines that will take humankind into space. This is harmless enough at first, but becomes very murky when he and his compatriots are contracted to build rockets for the German military and the country rearms in violation of the Versailles Treaty. Arthur begins to see the deal with the devil he has made, including the imposition of Nazi race law. He nevertheless soldiers on, having to see the nightmare unfurl as he enables it.

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