Review – Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Trailer

Marvel's Phase Two rolls on with Chris Evans' return as "Cap".

Marvel’s Phase Two rolls on with Chris Evans’ return as “Cap”.

You can count me as one of the people who had a great fondness for Captain America: The First Avenger. I found it to be a welcome spin on the standard superhero film that had been released up to that point, an excellent addition to the “Phase One” Marvel continuity and a damn good World War Two movie to boot. I thought Chris Evans was perfect for the part of “Cap” and his adventure captured the best of the blended genres of comic book and war. It had a great villain, a great supporting cast, and the perfect tone for the title character, as well as leaving off on just the right moment.

After a stopover in The Avengers, Rodgers is back to see if, like Stark and Thor before him, he can make a franchise of his own. Replacing Joe Johnston at the directorial helm are the Russo brothers, Anthony and Joe, whose mostly comedic pedigree before this (Arrested Development, Community) might have sparked concerns about their ability to handle such a venture. Many see Captain America as, in character terms, the weak link of the Avengers line-up. Are they right? Or is this classic American hero just the guy to keep Marvel ticking over in time for Age of Ultron?

Sometime after the events of The Avengers, Steve Rodgers/Captain America (Chris Evans) is continuing to adapt to life in the 21st century, where he struggles to confront an age where enemies and how to fight them are no longer as clear cut as they used to be. After S.H.I.E.L.D director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) is targeted by the mysterious mercenary known only as “the Winter Soldier”, Rodgers is forced to go on the run with fellow agent Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) and aerial combat veteran Sam Wilson (Anthony Mackie) to investigate a deadly conspiracy at the heart of S.H.I.E.L.D and its senior leader Alexander Pierce (Robert Redford).

In-depth discussion of the film, with spoilers, from here on out. For my shorter, non-spoiler, review, click here to go to The Write Club.

As a continuation of the Captain America franchise and, more generally, the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), The Winter Soldier is a success. It has several different elements to it, and most of them intermesh fairly well. On the surface it’s a fairly standard action-thriller, that rises to a higher level because of the competence and variety of its action sequences, from street-level ambushes to the CGI-fest finale involving several helicarriers.

But on a deeper level The Winter Soldier is a more taut conspiracy film, dealing with Rodgers’ procedural-like investigation into some rather unsettling aspects of the S.H.I.E.L.D organisation, many of them surrounding Robert Redford’s Alexander Pierce character, whose role and casting is a deliberate callback to 70’s films like All The President’s Men that The Winter Soldier is trying to emulate a bit. Most of this stuff is interesting enough, if not quite Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It is all in a film that matches the typically brilliant pacing that nearly all of its brethren have shared, with scenes of action and exposition balanced fairly perfectly against each other, with the adrenalin pumping beats coming at the right moments and never any feeling of ever being bored (unlike, say, Iron Man 3). This is a film with a production team that is confident in what it is and the messages that it wants to send out, a considered evolution of everything that we saw with the title character in The First Avenger.

The first act reintroduces us to Rodgers, set up his modern day situation very quickly and efficiently, and then gets us up to speed with everything else. Fury, Pierce, even the minor players like Carter and Rumlow are introduced and expanded enough to get by, all in scenes that let them stand out on their own terms. Case in point, Pierce’s first scene with the “World Security Council”, where he cracks wise and defends the record of Fury and the proposed “Project Insight” plan. Such scenes serve a dual purpose. There’s the simple matter of introducing Pierce and making him unique, but also of convincing the audience that he isn’t a threat without it becoming too obvious. The Winter Soldier succeeds in both respects.

That first act rolls on nicely, punch marked with the apparent assassination of Nick Fury (coming after his escape from the first attempt, making it doubly distressing) and Captain America going on the run. We’ve already seen Rodgers out of his comfort zone in general, now everything has flipped turned on him: the American hero is now a wanted man, and it still isn’t immediately clear as to who the real bad guy is, apart from some shadowy mercenary with the metal arm. That kind of set-up can be difficult to pull off, but the Russo brothers did it, with good dialogue, good characterisation, a patient approach (seriously, this film starts off with Rodgers exercising as a means of introducing Sam “Falcon” Wilson, who else would have thought to do that?) and the right action beats: nothing too flashy, but enough to make the audience sit up and take notice.

The appearance of a digitised Arnim Zola leads to the films worst moment.

The appearance of a digitised Arnim Zola leads to the films worst moment.

But then the second act dawns, with Cap and Romanoff on the run, and the whole thing just goes to hell. Because the plot gets revealed, and in the worst manner possible: with the villain narrating it to the main characters.

Here’s the thing about the central premise of The Winter Soldier. HYDRA coming back is hardly a surprise, they’re the standard S.H.I.E.L.D villain. But The Winter Soldier takes the inferred agreement with the audience, that some crazy stuff will be presented that the much vaunted “suspension of disbelief” will have to deal with, and then just runs and runs with it. You can easily get away with a few nonsensical moments in your overall plot, with only a little bit of “fridge logic” stuff possibly ruining it, but The Winter Soldier expects the audience to buy into just a little bit too much. Let’s go over it. We are expected to believe that:

1. S.H.I.E.L.D was OK with hiring HYDRA scientist Arnim Zola to work for them after World War Two.

2. Zola used this situation to implant a HYDRA cell within S.H.IE.L.D.

3. This HYDRA cell(s) grew in power to such an extent that they were able to control much of the organisations direction, eventually coming to be in a position where they were ready to launch a total coup of its operations.

4. HYDRA did the same to other American institutions.

5. HYDRA was thus able to tinker with and alter the unfolding of world history to suit their “More Chaos” agenda.

6. They were able to assassinate anyone who got close to discovering them without suspicion, like Howard Stark (it is implied).

7. When Zola was diagnosed with a terminal disease he was somehow able to upload his brain onto contemporary computers in a hidden bunker underneath S.H.I.E.L.D headquarters.

8. He was thus able to keep controlling HYDRA operations up to the present day.

9. With the advent of social media and extensive online records of individuals, this Computer Zola was able to invent an algorithm that could search a person’s records and use them to determine that person’s future to a degree where HYDRA could determine their potential worth/threat.

10. HYDRA was able to manipulate the creation of Project Insight and its unstoppable death guns.

11. Further, they were able to ensure that such a project had no kind of non-S.H.I.E.L.D failsafe to wrest away control once it had been launched.

12. HYDRA achieved all of this, and were never discovered by anybody in S.H.I.E.L.D or any other institution in the American government for over 60 years.

This is the premise that The Winter Soldier is asking the audience to accept, and its completely moronic, made worse by the fact that the person outlining it is a long dead Nazi speaking through an ancient computer. Additionally, the film to that point had been a deadly serious conspiracy film, with nary a hint of the ridiculousness that was about to unfold.

The answer you’ll often see to things of this nature is to “just go with it”, and some even applaud Marvel for embracing the more silly aspects of the source material (where HYDRA have, I’m sure, infiltrated S.H.I.E.L.D more than once and will again). I’m not buying that. There’s no need for such an extreme tie-in to the larger universe, to the detriment of the overall tone and plot development of the film. Pierce and his underlings could easily have been part of a smaller conspiracy to undermine S.H.I.E.L.D operations. They could even still have been HYDRA, just without a computerised Arnim frikking Zola directing their operations from beyond the grave, or with such a large focus (check out the latest Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D, HYDRA is everywhere in the organisation apparently). But no, instead the brilliantly executed set-up for The Winter Soldier is largely ruined by this mindmelter of a second act revelation, that doesn’t even seem to have that much of an impact on the later plot, they barely mention Zola again. But the inclusion of it was just too much for me, with the suspension of disbelief state shattered.

(As an aside, I can well imagine that such a plot point can be turned to Marvel’s own purposes, in covering up other plot holes and generally being a catch all for any case of distorted continuity. Got such a problem? HYDRA did it).

Thankfully, The Winter Soldier rapidly veers back to its original tone and level of quality following this moment of superhero insanity. The rest of the second act is largely taken up by some great fight scenes and a much better revelation in the form of Nick Fury’s death faking/the Winter Soldier’s identity (well known to comic fans, but still presented very well onscreen). The stakes are high, but there’s been a great amount of work put in to making this counter-movement, led by Rodgers, into a viable and very dangerous group in the eyes of the audience.

The climax has its ups and downs. This kind of conspiracy film works better with lower-intensity action sequences, and the CGI heavy finale based around the helicarriers was almost an unwelcome reminder that I was watching a comic book movie. The sequences were still competent and exhilarating, but almost felt wrong as the ending to everything that had gone before. There’s an obvious pressure, post Avengers, to have such a finale (Iron Man 3 had its suit extravaganza, The Dark World took part of London to pieces) and here it’s this triple helicarrier bonanza, with lots of explosions, exotic deaths and showdowns on a height. But it can’t be said that the fates of individual characters were written poorly or went to the wrong places, though some might have been a little underdeveloped. But The Winter Soldier set-up a conspiracy to be investigated, punctuated it with great action scenes, and brought things to a coherent conclusion, even if it went off the rails for a time in the middle. The story is clear, precise and well-rounded (again, except for that moment in the bunker) and that is something to be applauded.

While the CGI is brilliant, its overuse at the conclusion sours The Winter Soldier a little bit.

While the CGI is brilliant, its overuse at the conclusion sours The Winter Soldier a little bit.

A big part of that is the effective characterisation and journeys that the main characters go on, starting with Captain America himself. The first act in that regard is simply fantastic, a wonderful re-introduction to a Rodgers who feels so out of place in the modern world, trying desperately to maintain the black and white-type values of the 1940’s in a world of terrorists, espionage and a distinctly grey tone to everyone else’s moral compasses. That struggle manifests itself in different ways, and it was great to watch Rodgers go through the motions on all of them: militarily, with the hostage rescue (very far removed from the work of the Howling Commandos), romantically, with his heartbreaking visit to an ailing Peggy Carter and shyness around his next door neighbour, and on a more direct personal level, as he finds himself unable (or unwilling) to trust the likes of Romanoff and Fury, people who were born into a world where one of the first lessons is “Don’t trust anybody”. He seeks out people like Wilson, fellow soldiers who understand his feelings on a more basic level than anyone else, and who make him feel far more at home than people like Fury with all of their machinations. He has vivid flashbacks to his time as a soldier in a museum exhibit, and before his transformation at Camp Lehigh, as a scrawny weakling, who had all the heart America could need.

Rodgers’ journey is that of a man trying to find a reason to keep fighting. He seems to be almost sleepwalking through his service with S.H.I.E.L.D, seemingly close to packing it in altogether, increasingly disgusted with the propagation of fear over freedom. The crisis of Fury’s murder allows him the opportunity to break free of those shackles and find a more pure purpose, one that takes him all the way back to the Second World War: a clear bad guy, a clear wrong to make right in the form of S.H.I.E.L.D’s ponderous corruption. Zola mocks him by proclaiming his life to be “a zero sum”, but he’s actually shooting himself in the foot: HYDRA’s reappearance is all the motivation that Captain America needs.

Along the way there are friendships to make and trust issues to sort out, with Wilson, with Romanoff and with Fury, injecting some old-fashioned dependability into this modern era where such things are scoffed at. Further, the appearance of his old friend Bucky Barnes makes clear how much the past has come into the present, only in this case perverted and warped into a thing of destruction and evil. Rodgers, as the man he was before and remains still, defeats the schemes of cynical, power-hungry men like Pierce and brings Barnes back from his mind-altered state of emptiness. With S.H.I.E.L.D gone and HYDRA on the run, he then finds his purpose, the thing that will drive him on even more: finding Bucky and saving him, as clear a goal as defeating the Nazis or HYDRA. The man who was aimlessly running around Washington when the film opened has found his goal, and he started finding it the minute he actually stopped to talk to Sam Wilson, an ordinary soldier just like Bucky Barnes was (at least to the naked eye).

Black Widow’s journey is decent enough in its own right, simple, but very compelling. From the off, it’s clear that she’s assumed something of a confidante role for Rodgers, knowing things about his personal desires that nobody else knows, and there are definite hints that she holds some sort of a romantic attraction towards him. She seems confused about these feelings, playfully flirting with him at one moment and warning him that he’s in the wrong business if he expects people to trust him the next.

Things become a bit clearer as time moves on. Her feelings towards Rodgers better match that between Romanoff and Clint Barton in The Avengers, something bordering on a unsaid romantic interest perhaps, but better defined as a friendship that is surprisingly deep for a woman in Romanoff’s profession. Such attachment scares her a little, doubly so since she feels so burned following Fury’s death.

Through the course of The Winter Soldier, Romanoff opens up as much as she is going to, most notably in the scene within Sam Wilson’s home. In Rodgers, she has someone she really can trust, maybe because he is so far removed from the times in which they both now live. She has to earn any kind of reciprocity – Rodgers disgust at her actions early on the boat are very real – but that’s something that she becomes committed to.

The ending of The Winter Soldier subverts the traditional love-plot tropes. There’s no kiss, to confessed feelings, no lingering looks of infatuation. That isn’t Romanoff’s style. After all, “love is for children”. But she has found a partner in life in a different way, someone to place her faith in, to the extent that she’ll let her entire history, one of the only pressure points of her being, get leaked out into the public domain.

The last journey to mention is that of the other title character. Poor Bucky has been put through the wringer, but for somebody who shares top billing with Rodgers, he is surprisingly under-involved in this production. With the exception of a flashback scene set in the 1930’s, the Winter Soldier actually has only around ten lines of dialogue total in the film, a lot of them with only a few words – “Whose Bucky?” “But I knew him”, “You’re my mission” – and that badly effects any real attempts at character development from his end.

While a title character, the Winter Soldier doesn't get a whole load of time, but is still effective nonetheless.

While a title character, the Winter Soldier doesn’t get a whole load of time, but is still effective nonetheless.

There is some though. The Smithsonian exhibit reminds us about Bucky’s part in The First Avenger, and when the Soldier does turn up the eerie look in his eyes is a little terrifying, indicating some very deep seeded trauma. But really the characterisation for Bucky is found by looking at Rodgers. When he finds out who the Winter Solder is, he’s stunned and grief stricken, remembering the young man who reached out to him after his mother’s death over a half a century ago. Seeing Rodgers’ emotional frailty upon this revelation makes us a care a bit more about Bucky’s fate, even if that character himself won’t really get the chance to be anything more than a killing machine.

The conclusion for Barnes is a little weak. Rodgers is able to partially snap him out of it with a line that only the two of them would know, and Barnes goes through a partial redemption by saving Cap from drowning in the Potomac. The post-credits scene does set him up rather nicely for any evolution of his character in a sequel, his own search for the truth about Bucky Barnes and what it will mean for his mangled memory. What moments pass between Rodgers and Bucky, some of them very understated, are still some of the film’s best, living up to what the title and early trailers promised.

Minor characters also get plenty of opportunity to have little arcs of their own. Fury is more involved here than he was in The Avengers, going through much the same experience as Romanoff, only with an even more ingrained distrust of the world and all of the people around him. By the end, he’s literally burned that identity to the ground and has gone off to find a new purpose in life, much like Rodgers. Sharon Carter turns against the establishment that she was a key part of due to the actions of Captain America. Brock Rumlow shows his true colours and promises to be an implacable foe in future. Alexander Pierce, the modern face of HYDRA, see’s his cynicism defeated. Sam Wilson, a mirror for Rodgers, finds a new war to fight that he very much wants to, and a new brother-in-arms. Many of these are small little arcs, barely deserving of “sub-plot” status, but I felt they were effective in story telling terms.

Wilson is actually one of the best parts of The Winter Soldier. It certainly doesn’t hurt to have some racial diversity in the MCU, but Wilson is far more than just a colour. He’s a brave, resourceful and committed guy, a wandering soldier who isn’t quite sure what to do with himself until Captain America shows up running next to him. It’s an obvious parallel to Rodgers himself, only Wilson shows an even greater glee at getting involved in events, having given off a sense of drifting through life beforehand. He plays well on screen with Rodgers and Fury, and seems to me to be a far more interesting character than the somewhat similar James Rhodes/War Machine of the Iron Man franchise, someone who was increasingly maligned as the series went on. Also, on the issue of diversity, it was MightyGodKing that made me realise the depth of The Winter Soldier’s diversity: the good guy team consists of one white guy, two black men and two white women.

The political messages inherent in the story do become eye-rollingly unsubtle long before the credits roll, as the never ending debate of security or liberty is shown as a key part of the plot from the earliest moments. That’s all well and good, and the callbacks to the era of World War Two were a bit better in explaining these choices, even if it came with some stupidity. Much worse was the stuff nearer the conclusion, as Romanoff becomes Edward Snowden and Julian Assange rolled into one. A Congressional hearing berates her for destroying the countries intelligence apparatus (though S.H.I.E.L.D’s always seemed to have some kind of international mandate really) and the word “leak/leaking” is thrown around liberally. The recent remake of RoboCop pulled some of this same stuff, and I was surprised now as I was viewing that, at the blunt way that such allusions came about onscreen. Make no mistake, some of the final scenes of The Winter Soldier play like a salute to the Edward Snowden’s of the world, the only ones standing between us and HYDRA. It is, in my eyes, an unwelcome bit of political point making.

My usual word on female characters must follow. Romanoff is one of three of real note, and easily the most important. There’s a depressing tendency to describe characters like the Black Widow in terms related almost entirely to their clothing and their role in action scenes. Romanoff is a beautiful woman, wears distinctive get-up and is a powerful fighter in The Winter Soldier, but she is much more than any of that. The Avengers showed that she could be a compelling character beyond all of those things, and The Winter Soldier continues that trend. Her running sub-plot of wanting to get into a position of trust with Rodgers showcases some very human vulnerability, and the unfolding of that sub-plot was excellent to watch. Romanoff “only acts” like she knows everything, and that includes an outward persona of sheer confidence that hides some deeper problems: namely her fears over her background becoming public, getting too close to people (lest they hurt you by dying) or allowing such closeness to compromise her own position. By the time the credits roll she’s gotten over a bit of that with Rodgers, Fury and, to an extent, Wilson. She’s not completely flawless, but she’s made significant character progression, and none of it involved her breasts or swooning into the arms of a male hero.

There are also two much smaller roles in the form of Sharon Carter and Peggy Carter.Sharon Carter is only in a handful of scenes, but does exude an aura of competence and decisive initiative, and is sure to play well opposite Rodgers if she gets the chance to do so in a more substantial way. Peggy Carter’s single scene is one of the MCU’s real heartbreaking ones (I believe that it might have been shot for The Avengers, but went unused) and her role in The Winter Soldier seems to be as a very depressing anchor between Rodgers and his life in the 1940’s, a time that, as Carter illustrates so powerfully, it is impossible to go back to. We may yet see more of this character in the world of television if rumour is to be believed, so that is something to look forward to.

So, where do we go from here? In the same vein as The Dark World, and very much opposite Iron Man 3, The Winter Soldier leaves off on a very interesting place, with plenty of opportunity to go to even better places in any sequel, or in Age of Ultron. S.H.I.E.L.D is toast, HYDRA remains a threat in other parts of the world and Bucky Barnes is still out there somewhere (along with a probably vengeful Crossbones). If I was a gambling man, I would bet that Captain America 3 will be some sort of “The Death Of Captain America” story, rounding off Rodgers’ tale with Barnes taking up the S.H.I.E.L.D as the new Cap, matching elements of the official comics continuity. Such possibilities are fascinating to contemplate, and the strength of The Winter Soldier’s conclusion is that the audience is truly looking forward to them greatly. That mid-credits scene (how I do loathe them) is brief and a suitable teaser for Age of Ultron, and that’s about all I can say for a sequence that is (and always is) distracting fan service.

Johannson is better than ever in the Romanoff role, with a great sub-plot surrounding the relationship between her and Rodgers.

Johannson is better than ever in the Romanoff role, with a great sub-plot surrounding the relationship between her and Rodgers.

The plot of The Winter Soldier has its problems. Well, one giant glaring problem in the middle. But the sum of its parts are better than that notable flaw’s ability to detract. The Winter Soldier is great storytelling, on a general and character level, seamlessly blending action and conspiracy plot into a very well-paced and enjoyable experience.

Chris Evans continues to imbue the role of Rodgers with a necessary humanity, this personification of the 1940’s American psyche of good morals, hard work and iron will. He keeps to that, but adds that great inner conflict over reconciling that personality with the needs and demands of the present. He remains one of the least interesting Avengers really, but Evans can never be accused of not giving his all in the role, whether its verbally sparring with Jackson and Redford, reaching out to Johansson or just dealing with his multi-decade absence and the things he must catch up on (which includes Nirvana, Star Wars and the 1966 World Cup Final according to his notepad). More than anything, his Rodgers is just a very genuine person, matching the times that he came from. He despises subterfuge and lying, and his warmth is plaint to see when dealing with friends. Some tend to look down on Evans because this role has none of the witty charm of Robert Downey Jnr or OTT gravitas of Chris Hemsworth, but it’s on the same level, just a bit more understated and endearing.

Johansson expands upon her performance in The Avengers with aplomb, starting off with the action-heavy stuff before opening up into a better character than she has previously been allowed to perform. Her Romanoff is put into emotionally compromised positions here, and shows it, far more than she did with Loki in her last outing. She was good then, but is better now, really making the audience believe in the evolution of the character, all the way up to her showdown with the US Congress, as flippant as required. Johansson is a great female lead, and really does deserve her own film.

Samuel L Jackson has always performed fantastically as Nick Fury, and he does his best work yet here. He was just sort of a plot engager in The Avengers, but The Winter Soldier he is able to insert himself more concretely into things, even if he might just have less screen time. Getting his own action scene was important for that, as was a really great showdown with Alexander Pierce, with all of the intensity and biting cynicism that has come to be associated with Fury.

Anthony Mackie is similarly great in his MCU debut. Wilson is a soldier’s soldier, tough, conditioned but with a certain inner frailty and regret. Mackie portrays his lack of purpose really well, and his exuberance when called back into a fighting position. His back and forth with Evans was of a necessarily high standard, and I have good hopes that he will avoid becoming a side kick cliché in time for Cap’s next adventure.

Sebastian Stan doesn’t really get the opportunity to do very much here, hidden behind a mask or in shadows for most of The Winter Soldier’s running length. That’s OK, because he isn’t really the main villain anyway, and the role called for a stoic, traumatised seriousness. He’ll get the chance to show off more of his acting chops in another film I’m sure.

Robert Redford, the very definition of the old pro, gives his shadowy role as a S.H.I.E.L.D honcho all he has. There are times when it seems as if he should be almost embarrassed by the lines he is given – he certainly doesn’t put that much gusto into “Hail Hydra” – but this is Robert Redford. You could give him anything to say and he would imbue it with the requisite charm, venerability and gravitas. As a villain, he was startlingly chilling when revealed as one, and I almost regret the fact that we won’t get to see him in the role again (though there is a vacancy in the “digitised HYDRA genius” role now).

The lesser players – Cobie Smoulders, the menacing and effective Frank Grillo and surprise inclusion Emily VanCamp (playing what is a potentially very important role in the future of the franchise) – all bring something special to their respective roles despite their limited involvement. Grillo is particular noteworthy as an adversary worthy of sparring verbally and physically with Captain America in future. The rest of the cast – Toby Jones, George St-Pierre and Hayly Atwell – perform to expectations. Generally speaking, the acting on display is of a very high quality, a testament to both the cast and the ability of the Russo brothers to get such performances.

Jackson and Redford essentially give it their all in some of The Winter Soldier's best roles.

Jackson and Redford essentially give it their all in some of The Winter Soldier’s best roles.

The film continues the visual mastery that others in this canon have previously demonstrated, with some slick CGI work and impressive camera efforts. The Russo brothers may not have had a big blockbuster pedigree, but shot The Winter Soldier with skill and aplomb, taking in many great vistas across Washington and making sure that issues of space, lighting and angles were never an issue. Some of the locations were really inspired, not least the Triskellion itself, this impressive office building that the directors take great pleasure in destroying.

Great care has gone into bringing the 1940’s world into the 2010’s, with a sequence set at a Captain America museum exhibition being a particular treat. There had been some pre-release criticism of Captain America’s updated uniform, but I thought it looked perfect, and its creation set up the reversion to the “classic” look of the finale. The Winter Soldier also looked great, and that mechanical arm gave him a very potent motif of warped destruction. When Wilson finally becomes Falcon, it’s a breath of fresh air in a world of armoured suits and flying hammers, and he looks as good as anyone else in the finale.

The action chorography is fast-paced and enjoyable, with Captain America more inclined to visceral hand-to-hand stuff than other Avengers. The dreaded shaky cam does make some appearances, but doesn’t ruin the entire thing thankfully. Nick Fury’s thumping escape from his would-be assassins was a unexpected delight, coming right after an impressive one-on-one bout between Rodgers and French-speaking mercenary Batroc. Rodgers’ escape from the Triskellion, with a tight quarters fight in an elevator with over ten men, was similarly awesome, shot with skill, with a great angle from above. The sequence around the freeway bridge was probably the best of the lot, and while the CGI-heavy finale had plenty of great visual hooks, not least a really well put-together sequence of the helicarriers firing on each other, it was the only thing approaching a weak link when it came to the action parts, and only because it seemed so out of place within the rest of the film.

The script’s great, with plenty of stand-out lines and scenes to supplement the consistent competence of the entire production.  Every character sounds distinct and unique, be it Rodgers’ painfully upfront honesty, Romanoff’s slightly faux-confidence, Fury’s seriousness or Pierce’s flippant attitude. One on one moments, like that between Rodgers and Romanoff in Wilson’s home or Fury’s sermon to Rodgers about his grandfather are particularly well written, with a lot being said in a few lines of dialogue to keep characters evolving and the plot going. When the right punctuating line is called for, it is provided, not least with the likes of Pierce’s “Somebody murdered my friend…I’m going to find out who”. Even Arnim Zola’s monologue was written well enough for what it was, including that brilliant final pop at Rodgers, that they are both “out of time”.

One thing these films have usually been good at is including the right measure of humour, even in the midst of action, and The Winter Soldier is no exception, with the Russo’s timing being as perfect as it can be. The best of it actually goes to Redford, with his snarky “Did you get my flowers?” when Fury re-emerges from the grave. Part of the greatness in the script is how the minor characters, even with a handful of lines – like Maria Hill, Bucky, Sharon Carter – all get to stand out and be counted as separate entities. They have their own voices, and nobody really seems to be a cardboard cut-out of any kind. That’s worth applauding.

Henry Jackman’s score is as good as the effort made for The First Avenger, though I suppose it does get dull as time goes on. The blaring horns can get a bit too much if you know what I mean. The better parts revolve around the Winter Soldier and his suite which, while taking more than a fair share of inspiration from the likes of the Joker theme of The Dark Knight, is still suitably warped and incoherent, suiting that character perfectly.

Theme wise, there are some obvious ones to talk about. There is a running discussion throughout the course of The Winter Soldier on the classic “security vs liberty” question, that engulfs so much popular commentary today: something the Russo brothers are well aware of. It comes as a surprise to see a superhero film take the standard liberty side, with Captain America and his confidantes doing everything they can to destroy the intelligence and security apparatus that S.H.I.E.L.D represents, essentially the anti-thesis to the likes of The Dark Knight. The ends do not justify the means in The Winter Soldier, and characters like Nick Fury, who start out from positions of believing that pre-emptive action, having a bigger gun is better and never trusting anybody is normal, are shown to be wrong by the conclusion: Fury does as much as anyone is making S.H.I.E.L.D crumble, having realised that their introverted world view has allowed HYDRA to subvert their message and mission.

Rodgers, that fossil from a bygone age where morals and issues were as black and white as they could be, is the perfect man to lead this effort, but he’s joined by the right group of people: the intelligence operative tired of hiding her past, a former soldier who lost so much in a faulty war and S.H.I.E.L.D members who have rapidly become disillusioned with the organisation they supposedly protect.

Anthony Mackie's debut marks some of the films best moments, from his back and forth with Rodgers to his flying.

Anthony Mackie’s debut marks some of the films best moments, from his back and forth with Rodgers to his flying.

Their opposites are the fascistic HYDRA members. They want order through chaos, a new system of ruling brought about by pain. They take advantage of mass surveillance and record keeping to make good their goals, which are expressly stated as convincing the population of the world to give up their freedom willingly, having failed to take it by force in World War Two. Zola’s monologue offers a grim view of the way human civilisation has gone since that glorious epoch of freedom over tyranny: a fear mongering decline, which has resulted in humanity loading a gun and putting it in HYDRA’s hand. HYDRA, even the coolly logical Pierce, are undoubtedly the bad guys, and their destruction is a necessary and heroic event. Rodgers and company, the ones who destroy HYDRA, the helicarriers, the Triskellion and dump S.H.I.E.L.D’s info all over the internet, are the heroes. The message could not be clearer on the importance of privacy, reduced government invasiveness and the dangers of a runaway intelligence organisation.

(As another aside, do people know Chelsea (Bradley) Manning and Edward Snowden exist in the MCU? They’re namedropped in Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D).

HYDRA deals in fear, another key theme. That’s all Captain America see’s when he gazes on the helicarriers Fury is overseeing. The S.H.I.E.L.D director looks on them as a security practicality, since you can’t really trust anyone, but the truth is that he’s afraid, even if he isn’t inclined to show it. Terrorists, alien invasions, demigods from another dimension, the Earth has gone through a lot, and has much to be afraid of. Pierce and HYDRA encourage and spread that fear, knowing that it is a far more potent weapon than anything in any Nazi arsenal.

Rodgers, that great American symbol, is the opposite of fear. He’s hope, patriotism and courage wrapped up in a brilliant blue uniform and he’s the exact kind of thing that HYDRA is trying to destroy. Zola, even though he needles Rodgers like he has already won, knows this, from firsthand experience, it’s one of the reasons he stalls Cap long enough for a missile to nearly kill him. People are easily frightened by the things that happen around the, but they can be inspired to greatness too, just as that “Greatest Generation” was. HYDRA wants to make a go of World War Two again, having removed hope from the equation. Rodgers and his friends bring it back, and are victorious. I suppose that trust, something that Rodgers comes back to repeatedly, is the key thing. Only somebody like Rodgers, so upfront and without hidden levels, could take on this immense S.H.I.E.L.D apparatus and win, because he has an ability to unite and lead people like very few else. HYDRA is an organisation of moles and agent provocateurs. Their greatest weapon is a human guinea pig for mind altering experiments and their individual leaders die alone when the plot comes to its main point.

Finding purpose is another key theme, one we see right from the start. Rodgers is aimless, begrudgingly doing S.H.I.E.L.D’s messy clean up jobs but taking no joy in them. He’s keeping busy, just so he can avoid reintegrating back into the world like a normal person, avoiding friendships or romances. In Wilson he finds somebody he can talk to, and discusses openly his sheer lack of direction, a returning veteran who doesn’t know what he wants to do with his life.

The crisis that HYDRA creates snaps him back. Aside from allowing him to revisit his past glories, it gives him an opportunity to hit the thing that he really seems to hate the most: S.H.I.E.L.D itself, and the altered present that it represents. With that behemoth felled, he has the opportunity and the means to do something really worthwhile, something he considers a very prime purpose: to chase down Bucky and help him.

That involves the last theme I will discuss, that of friendship. While he doesn’t really have that much of an impact in The Winter Soldier, Bucky is defined by his former friendship with Rodgers. We see the two in a desperate moment back in the pre-World War Two days, and understand that there was a deeper friendship there than simple museum exhibits can explain. The loss of Bucky was Rodgers’ up close brush with death, and it affected him greatly, as much as Wilson was damaged when his wing man died.

Such a connection allows for an obvious friendship to grow between Rodgers and Wilson, while Rodgers and Romanoff share a evolving bond throughout The Winter Soldier, one with a slightly flirtatious vibe, but which remains platonic by the conclusion. Rodgers needs those relationships, just as he needed them in the Second World War. They’re what set him apart from his enemies, and what give him the strength to keep going when things seem impossible. “I’m with you till the end of the line”. Only a character like Steve Rodgers could get away with such a line, but only because it is clear that he means it so very much.

The Russo brothers have continued the fine work of Joe Johnston and done another sterling job with the Captain America character, managing to bring him into the modern age and give him his own adventure in as seamless a manner as possible, no easy thing when the hero in question is basically a World War Two propaganda caricature in many respects. Elements of the plot – specifically the bad guys plot – are very convoluted and seem too reliant on “fridge logic” for this, the ninth Marvel Studios effort in this universe, to be considered one of the very best of the genre (like say, the first Iron Man and The Avengers, which remain the best films this studio has made). But the other elements of The Winter Soldier make it more than worthy of a place of honour in the MCU. That brilliant (and diverse) cast, the excellent visuals, the memorable script and the generally fine level of the production really do make this one of the better superhero films of our times. Marvel stuttered with Iron Man 3, proved Thor could have his own franchise in The Dark World, and has now righted the ship fully with The Winter Soldier.

But now, bring on the Guardians of the Galaxy, and we’ll see if Marvel’s big leap of faith with one of its lesser properties will bear similar fruit.

An brilliant, enjoyable effort.

An brilliant, enjoyable effort.

(All images are copyright of Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures).

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Review: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Providence”

We are well and truly in the endgame now (or, so I expect). “Providence” reintroduces some old threats and see’s the existing team deal with the aftermath of “Turn, Turn, Turn” and all the events therein. Aftermath episodes, those that follow explosive revelations and action-packed moments of great significance, can easily be a bit of a downer, and with the ratings continuing their fall, Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D could really do with avoiding that. Did they? Thoughts:

-Our intro showcases Raina, that is the “Girl In The Flower Dress”, here given a new one by a dishevelled looking Ward. She was always going to make another appearance since “The Magical Place” and it starts a trend of Garrett getting all of his people onboard.

-Coulson and Skye observe the aftermath of The Winter Soldier/”Turn, Turn Turn”. S.H.I.E.L.D sites all over the world are becoming battlegrounds and it isn’t clear who is winning, a decent set-up for the rest of the season. As Coulson says, it’s the beginning of a war.

-Raina gets introduced to Garrett, operating out of a Cuban barbers for some reason. He’s getting a shave, inverting the usual “Beards = evil” thing. Paxton somehow manages to look creepier with a clean face.

-Raina is a little taken aback when she finds out that Garrett is no “Clairvoyant”. But he’s something better: an “artist” or at least a very good con-artist. Paxton is clearly having a ball here, positively glorying in the villain role he gets to play.

-Fitz and Simmons talk about the aftermath of last week. S.H.I.E.L.D has apparently been declared a terrorist organisation, and has lost any form of mandate it once hand. Uncharted territory, and it’s nice to see someone like Simmons panicking a bit over what this all implies.

-“TURN IT OFF”. Fitz sure can screech.

-Adrian Pasdar, who most of us last saw as Nathan Petrelli in Heroes I suppose, turns up briefly as Colonel Glenn Talbot, apparently in charge of a clean-up operation at the Hub. Talbot has traditionally been a Hulk antagonist, a sort of lesser Thunderbolt Ross, and it’ll be interesting to see how he is used in future episodes.

-“Sounds good…this doesn’t sound good”. See, this is the more small scale verbal humour I can get behind. It fits.

-Coulson and the team are taking off, with a brief delay as Coulson decides whether to ditch Triplett or bring him along. There are natural suspicions about Trip, but it’s unlikely he’s in cahoots with Garrett too, it would just be a bit too much. I imagine this is leading to the Triplett character replacing Ward permanently.

-The team is on the run, and suddenly they have to worry about fuel, food and all the little bits and pieces. It’s good to acknowledge that kind of thing, and how there are no more safe ports of call.

-“Agents of nothing” is a pretty good term to describe where the team is at right now I suppose. Like so much in The Winter Soldier, “Providence” seems to be about finding a purpose and a direction when your original one is taken away.

-Ward and Skye have an interesting conversation on the phone. It’s neat that they’ve kept Ward’s allegiance an unknown thing, and it adds a little something to this blossoming relationship that could yet see Ward redeemed.

-Garrett, turning more and more into a standard villain, has a secret underground lair and a swivel chair. We’re rapidly approaching the point where it all gets too much, but for the moment I really love it.

-A brief name drop of “the cellist” again, who will be turning up in the next episode, played by accomplished Whedon alumni Amy Acker. Obviously she’s going to be put in danger, which will bring Coulson out of hiding to save her.

-As Garrett prances around his base and flips between joking to lethally serious, you can’t but think about how much a certain Heath Ledger has influenced the behaviour of screen villains since The Dark Knight. Garrett isn’t at that level, but he’s fun to watch nonetheless.

-Garrett still has this hang up about finding out how Coulson was resurrected. This is standard bad guy stuff, especially in comics, where the mastery of death is seen as the ultimate goal. Hell, that’s Thanos’ whole bag, and he’s probably going to end up as the “Big Bad” for the entire MCU.

-But in the short term, Garrett is heading to “the Fridge”. I see a plot coming together. Last week was the crisis point of the second act of the first season, now we’re getting the rising tension of the third.

-Amid all of this there are concerns over the status of Nick Fury. Coulson reminisces about being hired straight out of high school by Fury, a nice moment.

-As Coulson finds a direction for his stricken plane to go, he reminds the group what S.H.I.E.L.D is supposed to represent: the last line of defence. “We are the shield.” This scene seems to me to be the first step on the road to a new S.H.I.E.L.D, one that Coulson will have a major hand in creating.

-It was pure humour bait, but I loved Garrett’s reaction to the overblown “HAIL HYDRA” from the underling. “Alright, alright, put your arms down Kominsky, you look like a West Texas cheerleader at a pep rally.” And hey, is that Friday Night Lights callout?

-Of course this conversation (and a few other things) certainly makes you wonder about Garrett’s true belief in HYDRA. It really does seem like a marriage of convenience, and I think that’s for the good of the overall plot.

-Cool hearing Ward talk about his “cover” with Raina, explaining some of his previous actions in “F.Z.Z.T” and “The Well”. It’s all summed up in that line: “I’m everybody’s type”. A common criticism of the Ward character is that he’s rather dull and bland, and it’s strange to think that this might have been the whole point. Or maybe that’s giving the production team too much credit.

-It was also only around this point that I noticed there was a slight change in Ward’s voice, enough to draw attention. It’s softer and a little bit more devious, which is a nice touch.

-“Fury’s dead” says May. Yeah, about that…

-May and Coulson do share a good scene here. She’s still in hot water over her espionage, and for Coulson the revelations keep coming: it’s unknown who exactly was in charge of his surgery, or what their motivations were. Coulson’s starting to get a bit more unhinged, which is important for the episode.

-A rivalry between Fitz and Triplett is being established here, as the two verbally spar over Coulson, with Simmons literally between them as they do so. It’s better than that Ward-Skye-Fitz triangle anyway, because we’ve established better that Fitz has a thing for Simmons.

-Man, the Fridge looks weird, a skyscraper on a beach. I don’t think that’s structurally advised (or possible).

-Nice scheme to get inside from Ward and Garrett, reminding us just how capable the two really are (and how far Ward has fallen).

-Garrett mentions a man locked up in the Fridge who had lion’s paws for hands. A reference to the super villain Griffin apparently.

-The “Slingshot” project was mentioned way back in “0-8-4”, and didn’t make much sense to me then. I asked “Do they really just blast dangerous objects into space?” Turns out they don’t. It makes sense too, because Fury has a track record in this regard, as The Avengers made clear.

-This leads to a look at a few old MacGuffins, like the weird ray gun thing from “0-8-4” and the “Berserker Staff” from “The Well”. It’s good to tie in episodes like that, and show that there is a larger connection between such things: they weren’t just plot devices of the week.

-The team arrives in the wilderness of Canada. I was half-expecting a Department H crossover here, seeing as how it was mentioned in “End Of The Beginning”, but it was not to be (yet).

-Garrett, in classic supervillain style, starts breaking out his fellow miscreants. I thought he’d be incorporating them into his own army, but letting them be distractions for S.H.I.E.L.D on their own works too. I thought I’d see a few old faces here, like Blizzard from “Seeds” for example, but not yet.

-We do catch a glimpse of a threatening looking guy whom Garrett advises to “Follow his dreams”. Meet Marcus Daniels, aka “Blackout”, and he’s the bad guy for next week’s “The Only Light In The Darkness”.

-And they found something “gorgeous” in the secret level of the Fridge. Oh yes.

-“The last thing I want is for things to change.” “Fitz…it’s too late for that.” That line was more than a little heartbreaking.

-May and Skye share a terse exchange out in the snow, but at least Skye’s cattiness makes sense here.

-Coulson, at the coordinates but with nothing there, loses it a little. While Gregg didn’t do the best job, it was still a powerful moment of breakdown, as it becomes clear how much recent events have played on Coulson’s mind and left him a bit of a wreck. Losing S.H.I.E.L.D itself appears to be the last straw.

-Coulson symbolically turns his own back on S.H.I.E.L.D by throwing his badge away, but from that salvation comes. A bit of a clumsy metaphor, but I’ll forgive it.

-Patton Oswalt, also a Whedon alumni from Dollhouse, is Eric Koenig, a guy from the comics but very far removed from that here. In print he’s a German anti-Nazi member of the Howling Commandos. Here, he’s a flabby mid-level S.H.I.E.L.D agent who encapsulates a lot of the roles Oswalt tends to play: weird, nerdish, socially awkward.

-He even namedrops Call Of Duty, which might be a bit of product placement for all I know. Anyway, the character introduces the team to what I assume is its HQ for the remainder of the series (and maybe beyond).

-And one more bombshell for the road: Fury isn’t dead, though only Coulson is allowed to know. Why someone like Koenig is in this circle is a mystery, but for now this sets up the appearance that Samuel L. Jackson is supposed to be making in the final episode of the season.

-Garrett needs Skye to crack open her own encryption. Ward still has a thing for her, but seems more committed to Garrett. We have conflict and a plot for the next episode.

-Ward goes back undercover with a beating from Garrett to send him on his way, reciting a very creepy but effective mantra as it happens: “Grant Ward, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. Grant Ward, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.”

-He enters “Providence” base, like the parasite that Zola infected S.H.I.E.L.D with decades ago. He smiles in the same creepy fashion that Garrett did at the end of “Turn, Turn, Turn”. Perfect. Ward may well turn again, but for now I’m fully onboard with his HYDRA allegiance.

-Ian Quinn makes a return from his captivity, last seen in “T.A.H.I.T.I”, as snarky and enraging as ever. Garrett really is getting all the bad guys that matter behind him, and that makes for some interesting episodes to come.

-Lo and behold, Garrett has his hands on the “Gravitonium” from “The Asset”. That episode was the first sign that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D could be better than it was, and the reappearance of the stuff here – with one Franklin Hall still trapped inside it – could well herald the arrival of Graviton before the season ends. Remember his line: “We have to live by the choices we make. And sometimes we have to die with them too.”

An excellent episode, one of the seasons very best. Character development, stakes are high, the plot is moving forward to an interesting place. And the ratings have stabilised again, so hopefully they’ll stay at that point. Four episodes to go.

To read my thoughts on other episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.Dclick here to go to the index.

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Ireland’s Wars: Clonmel

Kilkenny had fallen, and the Parliamentarians were rampant. Cromwell had been victorious nearly everywhere, and had the Royalist establishment in Ireland on its knees. His New Model Army had reformed into a more single cohesive force that had no match in the country, and was hungry for yet more conquests.

Everything still seemed to be going his way. The Earl of Castlehaven made a brief move into Carlow seeking a victory, but found the place bereft of any allies or opportunities. He was soon scuttling westwards, to join the Earl of Ormonde on the safer side of the Shannon. Ormonde was advised, and eventually had to acquiesce, in the release of most of whatever Protestant soldiery was left under his command, due to suspicions over their loyalty, the increasing criticism of their behaviour and privileges from Catholics and sheer financial necessity. Inchiquin, the once great Protestant commander in Ireland, was adrift with only a small number of men in Limerick, and was soon forced into Connacht himself.

Cromwell made a generous deal with the Protestant royalists, meeting several of their representatives in Cashel in April of 1650. It was essentially a non-aggression pact, as they both forswore violent action against the other, with Cromwell allowing his former enemies to settle in Parliamentarian controlled areas or choose exile in Europe if they preferred. Ormonde and Inchiquin were exempt from its provisions.

Thus the Protestant/Catholic union that Ormonde had presided over for the better part of the last two years came to a bitter end. The Royalist cause in Ireland was now a mostly Catholic one, with its Protestant commander under ever increasing pressure from the people he was supposed to be the leader of. More and more, what military units that still existed, be they field armies or garrisons, took actions of their own accord, away from any suggested central authority.

One of those garrisons was Clonmel, County Tipperary, and it was there that Cromwell was heading next. The Parliamentarian commander was already receiving plenty of calls for his return to England, in the face of increasing hostility from Scotland and the constant political machinations in London, but Cromwell was not content to set sail for home just yet. He wanted matters to be to his liking in Ireland when he made his departure, and that meant removing one more problem. By mid-April his army, over 8’000 strong, was heading towards Clonmel, delayed only by his negotiations with the Protestants.

The man he would be facing was Hugh Dubh O’Neill, a nephew of Owen Roe (and thus a grand nephew of Hugh O’Neill of the Nine Years War). This third generation soldier had been one of the subordinates his uncle had brought to Ireland initially, having already served in the armies of Spain during their wars in the Low Countries. Hugh Dubh had been captured by Covenanters in 1643, released only as part of a prisoner exchange after Owen Roe’s great victory at Benburb, and had been making a name for himself as an increasingly important commander since then. Upon his uncles death he probably would have been one of the leading candidates to take over the command of the Ulster Army, but found himself, as part of Owen Roe’s late agreement with Ormonde, commanding a unit of 1’200 Ulster Army soldiers in Munster, dedicating to resisting the Cromwellian threat. That had eventually resulted in Hugh Dubh being given the command of Clonmel.

It was, though few maybe realised at the time, a good assignment. Clonmel had only briefly seen action in the war, but that incident – when Inchiquin balked at taking on its defences when they were commanded by Alasdair MacColla in 1647 – should give some indication as to its advantages. Its walls were very tall and thick for the time and place: 25 feet in height, over six in breadth, with an additional ditch built around its outer defences to ward off any attempts at mining. Moreover its geographical advantages were considerable: extensive swampland marked the western and eastern approaches, with the River Suir blocking any approach from the south. Thus, any attacker could only realistically approach Clonmel from the north, limiting the sections of the defence that had to be manned, and presenting the attacker with a distinct dilemma.

Hugh Dubh had orders to hold Clonmel as long as he could. Ormonde believed it to be one of the strongest positions in Ireland, greater than Drogheda, Wexford and New Ross put together. In the event that it came under attack, he promised that he would assemble all the forces he could and march to its relief within ten days, there to fight a decisive battle. Hugh Dubh took him at his word.

A partial blockade had been in effect around Clonmel since the early days of the winter offensive, little more than a barrier to substantial supplies. This would have little bothered Hugh Dubh, but Clonmel was not well provisioned in the first place, and then suffered, as Kilkenny had, a bout of plague that left many defenders and townspeople either dead or incapacitated. They received some reinforcement from random groups of Royalist soldiers left scattered from the other garrisons that Cromwell had taken, but were still far from at their strongest.  When Cromwell arrived outside of its walls on the 27th of April, he had reasons to be cheerful: if Hugh Dubh would not surrender, then an artillery bombardment and a storm would soon see the weakened defence overwhelmed, and then he could be on his way back to London.

Things did not go as planned. Hugh Dubh had prepared well for the siege, with an earthen rampart erected in front of the walls to make them less susceptible to any bombardment Cromwell had a mind to make. It took over a week for Cromwell’s standard guns to be put in place and when they began to fire, he quickly realised they would not have the power to make the breach required for his men to storm. Starving Clonmel into submission was an option whose length did not appeal to Cromwell in the slightest, already with his mind on the boat to England, and so he insisted on his heavier siege guns being brought into place, an operation that took another week.

In the meantime, Hugh Dubh refused to be idle. His garrison was badly outnumbered, but busied themselves launching small raids, ambushes and other guerrilla attacks on the besiegers, usually at night, taking these opportunities to disrupt or eliminate work parties or any other effort being out into the siege. Such actions would have delayed Cromwell’s plans for a short time, but probably had a deeper effect in the morale stakes. Hugh Dubh’s men were running short on ammunition and food quickly, so keeping spirits up and discipline enforced would have been important. This was the Ulster Army, which still had much of the backbone instilled by events like Benburb.

Ormonde’s promised movement within ten days never materialised. Paralysed by the conflicts within his command, and with little men to spare anyway, he decided to reinforce Limerick instead of making any effort to relieve Clonmel. It was typical of him, that when Cromwell was actually being held by a walled town, he hesitated and then did nothing to try and pursue a seemingly favourable situation.

Hugh Dubh was not entirely alone though. A lower level Royalist named David Roache, in conjunction with Boetius MacEgan, a Bishop who had been present at Benburb, assembled a force of around 2’000 men out of the Kerry region (doubtless many of them were not of the highest quality) with the express purpose of marching east and bringing relief to Clonmel, the plan probably being to approach from the southern side and crossing the unguarded Suir to get to it.

Cromwell was prepared for such a move however, with the Lord Broghill still in place in the Cork region, with 1’200 infantry and 800 cavalry. He was able to manoeuvre Roache and MacEgan into an encounter at Macroom, Cork, on the 10th of May. A quick cavalry charge scattered the assembling Irish, a rout ensued and next thing anyone knew 600 Royalists were dead, the rest running for their lives. MacEgan was captured alive. Allegedly Broghill brought him to Carrigadrohid Castle, a Royalist holdout in Cork, in the belief he would insist the garrison surrender. MacEgan instead urged them to fight to the last man. He was executed, and after some generous terms were offered the castle surrendered the next day anyway. The destruction of this attempted relief marks one of the only times separate Royalist units attempted to assist others after Cromwell arrived. Regardless of this belated show of cooperation and unity, its failure meant that Hugh Dubh was left alone.

On the 16th of May Cromwell finally had his heavy siege guns on location and placed. Their destructive power was more than the earth ramparts and the old walls could handle, and after a day of fire a breach that Cromwell deemed workable had been created, around 80 feet wide.

The assault would take the place the following morning. The plan called for infantry to pour into the breach, seize it and push back any defenders on the other side. They would then open the gates and allow the Parliamentarian cavalry, led by Cromwell himself, to enter the town and complete its conquest. A simple plan, but the kind that had worked in other places during Cromwell’s campaigns. While it was probably agreed that Clonmel as a bit tougher than other places the New Model Army had assaulted, it is unlikely many had an inkling of what was about to transpire.

The morning came and the infantry went forward. They climbed the rubble, reached the top of the breach and entered a killing zone.

Hugh Dubh had not been idle before the siege had started and had not been idle after the breach had been blown. Another fortification had been rapidly constructed behind the breach, in the shape of a V, with the point directly opposite the oncoming enemy. Made of earth and crowned with wood, it was lined with musketeers. At the point were two cannon, with plenty of chain shot at hand.

A slaughter ensued, counted as one of the worst in the entire civil wars. The Parliamentarian infantry were unable to get past this hidden line of defence and, as more and more of them piled through the breach, were unable to retreat either. A mass of men were trapped in the gap. Musket and cannon fire, with their red hot chains tearing through multiple targets with ease, caused hundreds and hundreds of casualties.

After a terrible period of time, the New Model Army infantry were able to struggle back through the breach to the relative safety of the exterior, leaving scores of their comrades’ bodies behind. A disgusted Cromwell had been waiting by the main gate for his triumphant entry to Clonmel, but now how to deal with his battered and dispirited men. He tried to rally them to make another attempt at the breach. They refused.

Instead, the suggestion came for the cavalry of the New Model Army to dismount and attempt the gap. Wearing better quality armour and helmets than the infantry, and still fresh (and unbattered), it was hoped they would stand a better chance of withstanding the onslaught and forcing a way through. Cromwell, unsuited to adversity of this kind, was happy to order another assault.

The cavalrymen forced back the initial defenders at the breach and then stepped into the same situation as the infantry. The fighting lasted for hours, as both sides vied for control of the inner defences, as the musket fire continued, and as the cannon continued to roar. As the day wore on, the New Model Army had enough, and the second attacking party stumbled back out over the bodies of their fellow soldiers. Hugh Dubh had held, and taken the day decisively.

The actual numbers of the dead at Clonmel are not known for certain, with Cromwell being understandably reluctant to be clear. But they were at the lowest estimate 1’500, and at the higher scale 2’500, astonishing numbers for the day. Even if the lowest number is considered correct, it was still the largest casualties from a single engagement that the New Model Army ever took during its existence.

A distressed and humiliated Cromwell did his best to rally his troops for another assault on the 18th, but found the townspeople suing for terms that morning. Cromwell, desperate to bring proceedings to a close, offered generous terms, guaranteeing the lives and property of the civilian population. Thus agreed, he entered Clonmel, only to find it bereft of military defenders.

Hugh Dubh was gone. He had taken several hundred casualties of his own in the fighting, and his exhausted troops were nearly out of both food and ammunition. Believing that Cromwell would not let up on the offensive, he and his men agreed on a course of abandoning Clonmel, seeing no possibility of relief or any positive aim to be achieved by staying. On the night of the 17th/18th, they scaled the southern wall, crossed the Suir however they could, and then marched away as quickly as possible.

Cromwell was furious upon discovering what had happened, having believed that Hugh Dubh’s surrender was implicit in the giving up of Clonmel. He kept to his word in regards the town, but soon had cavalry chasing down Hugh Dubh’s force, which was heading south-east, towards Waterford, as fast as it could. A few hundred stragglers were cut down by the Parliamentarian horse, a brutal epilogue to the Clonmel fighting, but most of them, Hugh Dubh included, got away. They did not have a happy ending though, with the Waterford garrison refusing them entrance, apparently due to fear of plague (not unreasonable) and a belief that the town could not feed the extra mouths. Hugh Dubh was forced to disband his army into smaller groups, urging them to find their own way back to safer climes in Ulster. The governor of Waterford at the time was none other than Thomas Preston, back in a position of independent command out of sheer necessity. Both he and Hugh Dubh would have further parts to play in the war.

Clonmel was a siege and battle marked by the attitudes of the two commanders. Cromwell was impatient, reckless and more than a little callous when it came to the lives of his men. Hugh Dubh was patient, proactive, resourceful and strong-willed. He made Clonmel a stronger position than it had been when he got there. He refused to just leave the breach exist as it was, and his initiative to fortify its entrance led to one of the most spectacular single day victories the Royalists would ever win in the entire civil wars. The exhausted New Model Army, in the field for months at this point, could not be expected to perform miracles, and paid the price for the refusal of its leader to recognise he had finally reached a situation where he was not guaranteed of victory.

In a strange way, Clonmel was a slight justification for the overall strategy of Ormonde. He had chosen to adopt a defensive posture when Cromwell came to Ireland, largely because of the result of Rathmines. In Ormonde’s mind, he had foreseen every town that Cromwell attacked being a potential Clonmel, where Cromwell might win victories but would be bled white in the process. But this relied on places like Drogheda and Wexford having the same level of defences and, more importantly, commanders, as Clonmel had. If this had been the case, maybe the New Model Army would have been worn down in a brutal war of attrition but it was not. Ormonde’s idea was sound, but he failed to realise he did not have the means to undertake it to the full. Only at Clonmel, and to a lesser extent outside Waterford and Duncannon, did things work out as he would have liked.

The result also smashed the aura of invincibility surrounding the New Model Army. Only outside Duncannon had they really been defeated by the enemy, and that had been a very small scale thing in the larger context of the wars, while at Waterford it had been the elements and not military action that had decided things. At Clonmel, notwithstanding Cromwell’s entry into the undefended town the following day, the New Model Army was very decisively beaten, and badly too. Such a result showed the Royalists, as scattered and demoralised as they were, that the enemy could be beaten, and that his victory was not guaranteed. The example of Clonmel would steel many hearts in the weeks, months and years to come.

Cromwell had achieved his final goal and taken Clonmel, but at a terrible cost. One week later, he was back in Youghal, and setting sail for Westminster. He would never come back. The command of the New Model Army in Ireland was given to Henry Ireton, with orders to complete the destruction of the Royalist cause.

Cromwell’s time in Ireland, not even a year, would have repercussions and invoke powerful feelings generations and centuries after. His ruthless and efficient command gutted the Royalist and former Confederate cause in Ireland, as town after town fell to his troops, the vast majority of which without much fighting at all. Clonmel was a gigantic exception, but if Cromwell had been told before landing in Ireland that his army would suffer just upwards of 3’000 casualties in their entire campaign in the country, I think he would have been happy. For that exchange, Leinster, Ulster and most of Munster were pacified, and what was left of the enemy damaged beyond repair. The massacres at Drogheda and Wexford, though worthy of more in-depth study today, have insured that his is a name that is largely reviled in the popular consciousness of the Irish nation, even to this day, but we cannot forget the brilliance and results of Cromwell’s military command in Ireland, an intervention as decisive as Mountjoy’s had been in the Nine Years War half a century earlier. Now it would be left to other, lesser, men to finish what he had started.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The McClean Quandary

Over the next little while, I’m going to be posting up a few of the articles that I have previously written for the website Lovely Left Foot, which is currently undergoing a hiatus of sorts. They may eventually be hosted on LLF again someday, but for now I felt that they were good enough examples of my writing that they should be up somewhere.

The original publication date for this piece was March 9th 2012.

The McClean Quandary

James McClean has become the great hope for Irish football this season. In good form for Sunderland, scoring goals, at the core of Martin O’ Neill’s renaissance and the clubs improvement in fortunes, a young player with many years ahead of him, and home grown at a League of Ireland club to boot.

But McClean’s emergence provides some problems for the national team set-up ahead of the European championships in Poland and Ukraine this summer. Selection headaches are sometimes viewed as good things – an assortment of riches to choose from – but the situation surrounding James McClean has provoked sharp criticism and pointed questions for the current Irish regime.

There are plenty of issues surrounding the management style and actions of Giovanni Trapattoni. The man doesn’t travel to England to watch games and is on record as being dismissive of the style of game played there (where nearly all Irish squad members play). He has a resistance to making substitutions in games until very late on, even if things are clearly not working on the pitch, and has only rarely changes tactics. He has clashed and had public disputes with several players, from James McCarthy to Anthony Stokes, and has shown a stubborn reluctance to include new players in his plans. The very fact that the James McClean situation has gotten so much attention from the media is evidence of the last point.

“Trap’s” type of game, focused on pedestrian tactics, long balls which frequently squander possession, allowing opposition teams the run of the game, has earned him plenty of detractors in Ireland, perhaps most notably Eamon Dunphy. His diatribe against Trapattoni after a dire display against the Czech Republic last Wednesday may have contained a fair share of hyperbole, but Dunphy is not incorrect on many issues regarding the Ireland team.

There is a potential disaster in the waiting at Euro 2012. Ireland have little expectations to begin with, but no one in the country wants to see the team well beaten or humiliated. As it stands, Ireland have a poor central midfield which has never convinced, an ageing squad that is very reliant on a small number of players, a key defender with a significant injury worries, a main striker (and captain) who seems to miss far more then he scores and a tactical game that has never been able to best higher ranked teams.

Ireland were shown up badly by Russia in Dublin during the qualifiers, and got away with a minor miracle in the return fixture, a point stolen by the defending masterclass of Richard Dunne and hands of Shay Given. Ireland failed to beat Slovakia home or away and struggled at times against Macedonia and Armenia. What does this say about our chances against the current Kings of football in Spain, the unenviable threat of Croatia, or the ever dangerous Italians?

If Trapattoni plays his usual game at Euro 2012, Ireland will go nowhere. Playing for draws against the big boys, the long ball game, isn’t the way to go forward in finals. Luck, which Trapattoni appears to have had in spades, cannot be relied upon. An infusion of youth and attacking potential is called for, but at present time, Trapattoni does not appear to be interested. The reason for the furore over McClean is just this, that people recognise the attacking and midfield weakness of the Ireland team and see a player who may help remedy it.

Therein lies the frustration over McClean, over Trapattoni’s single-minded approach. The Italian simply does not seem to think McClean is worthy of attention. His big chance consisted of a run out against the Czech’s that barely lasted ten minutes (while James McCarthy and Seamus Coleman sat on the bench unused, another example of promising young players left at the wayside).  The irritation being aimed at the manager is one borne out of these kind of sights, of players with great potential, attacking potential, not being given a fair shot to prove themselves or impress. Trapattoni only seemed to include McClean in that friendly squad as an afterthought and showed little interest in seeing what he could do in a green jersey.

These are pre-tournament friendlies after all. They are not meant to be games where the usual squad is trotted out to play the usual game, they are the time to test things out. Give other players a shot. Do things differently.

Being in the squad throughout the qualifiers should never be a guarantee of a place in the finals, as harsh as that may sound. Ireland has wingers, in the form of Stephen Hunt, Aiden McGeady and Damien Duff but little else beside. I would argue that McClean has been showing form just as good if not better than any of those players (Trapattoni has never seemed to have much time for Hunt either and Duff has routine question marks over his proneness to injury).

When Trapattoni calls for respect to be shown to these established players of the squad, he’s missing the point. No one is denying the service McGeady and Duff have given to Ireland or the time they have been involved. But the Euro 2012 squad should not be determined solely on past performances. A measure of notice for current form, for players both in and out of the squad, should also be a factor.

Trapattoni has done much with what would appear to be, on paper, a very poor team but his attitude towards squad selection are not exactly confidence inspiring. He said in a press conference the other week, bluntly, that he considered McClean too young to go to a major finals. I have little time for this argument, given the state of football today, when youth is less of a concern then it has ever been. Ireland’s captain, Robbie Keane, was playing and scoring goals for the national team when he was 18 as was Damien Duff. Moreover, McClean has acclimatized fast to the pressures of Premier League football, indicating that he has the temperament and mindset to deal with high-pressure environments.

McClean still has time. 11 games left in this season, and one more Ireland friendly, against Bosnia, if he gets a chance to play in it. “Trap” appears obstinate to including him in any summer plans and the best thing for McClean to do would be to continue his good run of form, to continue scoring and to continue showing why he is deserving of a place in the Euro 2012 squad. That is all that he can do, after all.

I consider McClean one of the best Irish players playing today. I think he is an excellent winger, playing excellent football. I think he deserves a place in the Irish squad and I am not alone.

But I am not the manager of Ireland. It is Trapattoni’s call to make. I only hope Ireland’s performance in Poland and Ukraine does not leave him open to many bitter questions four months from now.

Posted in Football 12/13, Sport | Tagged , | Leave a comment

Review – 300: Rise Of An Empire

300: Rise Of An Empire

Trailer

The Persian Wars get another crack at the big screen.

The Persian Wars get another crack at the big screen.

300 was one of those films that just instantly inserted itself into the cultural zeitgeist upon its release in 2007. One of the most stylish efforts at depicting warfare ever created, it made the career of Zach Snyder, influenced the beginnings of stuff like the Spartacus TV show and created more memes than Spartans who were actually at Thermopylae. It is no exaggeration to call it one of the most culturally dominant films of the 21st century.

But did it really need a sequel? What more was there to do with the concept? Well, regardless of the answers, director Noum Murro decided to take on such a project and bring us another slice of the Greco-Persian wars, in the form of a film that is one parts prequel and one parts sequel.

After his victory over Leonidas and his 300, Persian King Xerxes (Rodrigo Santoro) prepares to move against the rest of Greece. Democratic Athens is one of the only powers standing in his way, with their fleets led by Themistocles (Sullivan Stapleton), the man who inadvertently set Xerxes’ rampage in motion a decade previously. Themistocles faces Artemisia (Eva Green), Xerxes’ greatest commander, in an epic naval battle for the future of Greece.

If 300: Rise Of An Empire has a problem, it’s that it’s trying so hard to be 300 but it just isn’t. There is a worthwhile story embedded in this flick, revolving around the historically critical naval battle at Salamis, the kind of thing that can stand with the likes of Thermopylae in terms of potential for epic plot. In fact, the whole thing is framed as an epic poem of sorts, almost in the style of the ancient masters, with Gorgo being our author and the action being the stage. It’s hardly Homeric, but it’s the right kind of style to use for a film of this nature, and it encapsulates the kind of tone that Rise Of An Empire should be trying to present. 300 did much the same, very successfully. Hearing Gorgo’s opening narration put me in the right mood very quickly.

But then every character from 300, even the guy Leonidas kicked into the well in its most famous moment, starts cropping back up. The basic structure of the plot apes 300 very liberally, with the action beats, the early victories, the crisis and the resolution all happening at nearly the same moments as they did in 2007, as if Leonidas’ adventure was referred to over and over again as the template. Rise Of An Empire just isn’t comfortable in its own skin, and must try and copy its predecessor at every opportunity. Sure the characters are a bit different and the action scenes revolve around water instead of land. Yes, the Artemsia character is suitably removed from anyone similar in 300. But the truth is that the entire fabric of Rise Of An Empire is cut from the same cloth as 300, with most of the differences being superficial at best. This is a problem, since it makes Rise Of An Empire automatically a bit flat in the eyes of the audience, just more of the same, only without any of the uniqueness and surprise factor that 300 had when it was released. It’s all been done, and Rise Of An Empire is peddling something that we enjoyed seven years ago to the full, but struggle to force down yet again.

Then there is the blood. Blood, blood blood. Spatters upon spatters. Murro appears to have taken a look at 300 – a film that at least had the patience to wait for around half of its running length to go by before the slaughter commenced in earnest – and though “That, but more.” Right from the off, Rise Of An Empire’s plot is drowned in crimson, the “tidal wave of heroes blood” from the opening narration. This is a visual thing of course, but I feel the need to mention it in the same breath as the story and the similarities with 300. This is 300 on steroids, when it comes to bloodshed and gratuitous sex at any rate, and the whole thing gets old very, very fast. Only a few chops into the Battle of Marathon and you’ll be deadened to the sight, and any attempt that the plot further makes to advance with action scenes loses something in the sheer monotony of yet another blood spatter or cut off limb.

The plots better moments revolve around the Persian side of things, some of it in very lengthy flashback sequences. These dominate the opening half, perhaps to too much of an extent, but I easily found them the most gripping parts of the whole production. The story of Xerxes’ mystical rise to the title of “God King” along with Artemisia’s vengeance trip, provide some of Rise Of An Empire’s best visual and storytelling sequences (it helps that the acting is great for those moments too). We come to understand, and almost root for Artemisia to get some kind of revenge for the multitude of wrongs that have been done to her, and her earlier life is as close as a criticism to the Greek way of doing things as Rise Of An Empire gets. Xerxes’ stuff is very different – far more trippy and symbolic in many ways – but it’s still perversely entertaining, to see this relatively normal son of a King transform into this golden behemoth, and to understand the deeper reasons at the heart of his obsession with subduing Greece. Rise Of An Empire can’t claim to have the best story to really tell, at least they way it told it, but these sections are at least something to be proud of, the only parts that really captured the same uniqueness, of story and style, that 300 offered in 2007.

On the other side of things is the lesser part, as Xerxes attempts to drill up some Greek skulduggery, as Themistocles and Gorgo verbally spar on a few occasions, a small running battle on the rivalry between Sparta and Athens. All of this was piecemeal and a little forced. It also played merry havoc with the historical record in a way that the rest of the film doesn’t, as the representations of two of the great slave-owning states of the ancient world debate the finer points of freedom and national sovereignty. It’s all just set-up for Sparta turning up at Salamis at the conclusion, Gorgo and all, but compared to the Persian camp it was very ineffective.

The rest of the film is the fight between the Athenian and the Persian fleets. They allow for some visually interesting action sequences in between Artemisia being generally awesome and Themistocles spouting on about patriotism, but they are as basic in their structure – and mirroring 300 – as they can be. The early fights demonstrate Greek skill against Persian overconfidence and incompetence. The two leaders meet and come to no agreement. There’s a setback for the Greeks at the end of the second act. They rally together for one final battle. Victory. There’s the older friend who doesn’t make it, his younger son who’s eager for war. The only difference is that the Greeks win outright at the end of Rise Of An Empire, compared to the symbolic, but potent, victory of Leonidas at the end of 300. It’s very simple stuff, too simple really, and is simply the vessel for the CGI to do its thing. It doesn’t require too much analysis.

The production team aren’t sure whether they want to focus on Themistocles in Athens, Artemisia with her fleet, or the origin story for Xerxes, to the extent that the whole thing starts to get weighed down just a little with too many plot threads. Weirdly, I think I would have been happy to see Themistocles cut out of that picture: his presence and plot are the weak third in the aforementioned trinity. But he is the hero I guess.

Eva Green absolutely steals the show as Artemisia.

Eva Green absolutely steals the show as Artemisia.

Taking place, for much of its running time anyway, at the same time as Thermopylae, there is also a sense that you’re watching the B-Team operate, with the real drama happening in another movie. We keep seeing cutbacks to Leonidas and his battle, as if Murro is worried we’ll suddenly forget that Rise Of An Empire is a sequel. It speaks to a lack of confidence in the productions own identity, that it feels the need to keep re-establishing its place in a wider franchise.

But all of that aside, I still found Rise Of An Empire to be fairly entertaining. In that it has a lot to thank Eva Green’s character (and her performance) for, her Artemisia driving things forward with a great deal of presence and gravitas when it is sorely needed, head and shoulders above the rather dourly characterised Themistocles with whom she enjoys a rather warped romantic plot (in a good way). The scene where they meet and then stumble into a sordid sexual liaison was extremely odd, one I thought laughable when I first saw it. Thinking about it a bit more, I can appreciate what Murro was trying to get across: Artemisia’s desire to find her equal, which certainly doesn’t exists among the Persians, and a symbolic enactment of the battle between the two commanders in the form of almost violently making love. There is no affection in the act, just a game of one-upmanship and psychological warfare. It was a non-traditional way to approach a romantic subplot anyway, so that should be acknowledged with positivity.

Speaking of all that brings me to female characters. I really enjoyed watching the fall, rise and fall again of Artemisia, in the last place I would have expected to find a strong female character. She’s smart, capable, threatening and undeniably lethal. She doesn’t kowtow to the men around her, least of all Xerxes, whom she treats like a spoiled child. There is some over-sexuality to her appearance, though the one nude scene is anything but erotic, and must be placed alongside an earlier depiction of her younger self facing a life as a sexual plaything. Certainly, I never saw Artemisia as a sexual being, or some kind of femme fatal, as she easily could have been. No, she’s an equal to the hero of the piece, the other main character of Rise Of An Empire, and that’s something to be applauded. The other is Queen Gorgo, who takes on a leadership role in Sparta thanks to the absence of Leonidas. Her scenes are brief and bogged down by the aforementioned “Sparta vs Athens” stuff, but she was still as effective and filled with agency as she was in 300, taken to, perhaps, too much of an extreme by the violent conclusion. Women have their place in Rise Of An Empire, which is very surprising to me.

The historical inaccuracy of the film is widespread and evidenced throughout, far more than was the state of affairs in 300. This will bother some more than others of course, and even I, usually so willing to tolerate “artistic license”, began to roll my eyes at moments. It’s the more encompassing elements that grate – an insane over glorification of Greece as a democratic utopia against a tyrannical and superstitious Persia – compared to the smaller aspects of Salamis’ reinterpretation. Giving Artemisia an expanded role is great, and as much was done with that idea as possible. Turning Athens into a beacon of freedom that it never was is not so great.

If one word has been thrown at this film, and its predecessor, as an insult, it’s “propaganda”. Many people have interpreted, whether the creators intended it or not, this franchise as setting up an idyllic western group of protagonists, positively Aryan in their appearance, against a dark-skinned tyrannical eastern menace in order to propagate an unsubtle political message that resonates into modern times and a so called “clash of civilisations”. It would be pointless of me to try and refute such thinking, beyond merely pointing out that such things are in the eye of the beholder. If the 300 franchise is propaganda, it isn‘t very good propaganda, and anybody with half a brain will be able to analyse and immediately discard any message it is trying to send within its blood-soaked entertainment value. Those that can’t have other problems to worry about.

Personally, I see a glorified and skewed version of real-life events, with a clear good guy/bad guy divide that existed in the writings of Herodotus long before Frank Miller came along and decided to put his own visual spin on it. Perhaps there is some political commentary, but it so basic and moronic if intentional, that it can be easily discarded. Beyond that, there is an attempt at entertainment. I simply want to mention such a thing, since it is almost impossible not to mention.

The other thing that this franchise is often labelled as, racist, is another kettle of fish entirely. The protagonists are nearly all white. The antagonists, save Artemisia of course, are various darker shades. You can’t get beyond this, save to point out some basic geographical/racial realities in the source material. It wasn’t something that really bothered me, as I can separate the modern east from this fictionalised and warped version of its ancient past, and recognise the entire thing for the fantasy that it really is. I’m a white middle class man from Western Europe, so I cannot say that I am qualified to comment on how Rise Of An Empire should make minorities feel. If some feel offended, I can understand that. For me, the presented historical inaccuracy of Greek and Persian politics and society is a greater sin than the colour of protagonists and antagonists, and regardless I believe that the decision taken in that regard are made more for entertainment purposes (attempted anyway) than any kind of racial point making.

The last point I want to make is about the ending, and the title. We see the decisive Greek victory at Salamis, a major portent for the overall defeat of Xerxes’ invasion, though there were still many battles to be fought (like Plataea, at the end of 300). It’s a potent moment of Greek unification against a larger threat.

Stapleton doesn't really have the chops to headline this movie, his Themistocles being rather dull as a character.

Stapleton doesn’t really have the chops to headline this movie, his Themistocles being rather dull as a character.

So, what is the “Empire” of the title? Does it refer to the prequel moments of the story, detailing the creation of the new Xerxes? Hardly, since the Persian Empire did not spring into being with his rebirth. Or are the production team actually calling attention to the rise of Athens and its empire, which saw a surge in its territorial grabbing and power in the aftermath of the Greco-Persian wars? If so, it’s odd that they spent the entire film bigging up Athenian democracy and ideals of freedom. This is probably just a bit of nitpicking really, but it’s something that stuck in my mind. Unless there are plans for 300: The Peloponnesian War, or something similar, where the Athenians are suddenly the bad guys.

I suppose if you’re heading in to watch something like this you should have pretty defined expectations. There are lots of speeches about honour, glory, democracy and love of country, gratuitous sex and violence and lots and lots of loincloth clad men running around with swords and spears. Most of the plot of Rise Of An Empire seems designed to simply facilitate this kind of thing, with the only really interesting moments of narrative surrounding Artemisia and Xerxes’ origin.

On the acting front, Stapleton might be trying to channel Gerard Butler, but he winds up more like Liam McIntyre from Spartacus: flat and stoic, with nary a hint of emotion that couldn’t be prefixed by the word “gruff”. This is the kind of guy who seems to have been hired more for his pectorals than his acting ability. He can swing a sword and shout battle cries, but I remained fairly unmoved by any of his more elongated calls to arms or appeals to the innate heroism of his fellow soldiers. It often seemed like he was playing second fiddle in the really important scenes with the likes of Eva Green and Lena Headey, and Stapleton had nowhere near the kind of presence that Gerard Butler provided, a significant flaw for a large portion of Rise Of An Empire’s running time, and the recurring sub-plot of his guilt for sort of starting Xerxes road to the person he became is fairly lame and poorly executed, little more than the odd scowl and grimace.

Eva Green is far, far better, and takes the films quality up a notch with her portrayal as the vengeance obsessed Artemisia really resonating with every subtle machination and spiteful verbal shot. Her narrations are vivid and memorable, her command scenes with subordinates echo Darth Vader in Empire and her relationship with Xerxes is explored well, like that of a mother who at first coddles then lashes out the progeny she has helped to create. Green is very accomplished, easily the best acting talent that Rise Of An Empire has to offer, whether she’s simulating the most aggressive sex you’ve seen on film or acting as the main instigator behind so much of the overall plot. Even when the material is ridiculous or overly fantastical, she does her vey best at selling it, right up to her characters demise. Wilful, powerful, affronted and vengeance seeking, Green’s Artemisia is Rise Of An Empire’s great talking point.

Rodrigo Santaro, who briefly gets to step away from the plethora of “bling” and CGI height that goes into Xerxes early on, remains as wonderfully childish and grotesquely appealing as ever, this inhuman monster in a man’s form. Given the opportunity to actually act a bit more than he previously did, Santano does good work as the trembling heir turned God King, even if his role is made largely subordinate to that of Artemisia late on.

Lena Headey, David Wenham and Andrew Tiernan all make extended cameo appearances to tie into 300, doing OK work, most notably Heady, who’s a quality of actress that deserves some better material to work with really. The minor cast does similar levels of work, but their roles are just various shades of stock character.

But this is 300, and so it is all about the visual. It’s much on the same level as 2007, only taken to even more of an extreme. The thick blood spatters and gushes happen so often you’ll be deadened to their impact long before the credits roll, and ditto for nudity and dismemberments. But the general green screen and CGI work is as spectacular as it was for Gerard Butler, creating this stylistic world of ancient Greece in which to play around in. It’s dark, it’s brooding and it’s very fantastical, from Xerxes’ gigantic palace to the speaking chambers of the Athenian democracy. The few moments of light, like the scenes set in Sparta, seem positively dazzling in comparison with the general sombreness of the rest of the lighting. But I felt that such a choice was called for given the dark nature of the plot and the story.

The camerawork is impressive and action-orientated, tight upper body shots for the majority of the production, going out a bit wider when swords are drawn. The really impressive shots are almost entirely CGI, or at least have CGI play a very large part in them. They include the likes of Xerxes’ rebirth from a pool of mystifying golden liquid, a backwards panning shot perhaps meant to evoke some sort of womb-type feeling. There’s Themistocles at Leonidas’ funeral, which involves this very symmetrically placed wide shot of Gorgo at her husband’s grave, one of the few moments when simplicity was favoured over excess. And there’s the way that Artemisia’s tragic childhood is explored, full of Dutch angles and uncomfortably close shots, really giving that sense of a warped upbringing.

The CGI work is good, and even the all-out CGI moments don’t falter. The fiery destruction of Athens and the ship battles all look good and remain fairly seamless, though the 3D is, as ever, a bit of a letdown. The fight chorography isn’t very varied though, with the hack and slash getting fairly dour and uninspired quickly enough, even if the locales – the dark, windswept plain of Marathon as an opening battle scene or the numerous ocean battles – make up for it by their sheer grimness. Very few movies in the modern era have really made a go at large ship battles. When they have, they tend to cop out and just go for one ship on one, just like On Stranger Tides.

The sea battles are a great credit to Rise Of An Empire.

The sea battles are a great credit to Rise Of An Empire.

But Rise Of An Empire manages to do it, with some really gorgeous looking action sequences at sea, that thrill simply because something of their level has never really been seen before in this fashion. The boats, the waves, the crashing, the fire, the marine hoplites, they all come together in a series of brilliant moments, from the opening battle, where the Greeks rally the wagons, through an oil-based fire blaze on the surface, to the final clash at Salamis, where even the ridiculousness of riding a horse from boat to boat doesn’t seem too jarring. It’s dark, bloody and very anachronistic, but it is entertaining.

The last thing to note on the visual side is the continuing good work regards make-up, costumes and prosthetics, which are as anachronistic as they come – especially for the Persians – but still look cool and fantastical at the right levels. 300 has a very unique visual style in both its CGI and its physical production stuff, and they make the most of that here.

The script work does occasionally manage to rise to the challenge, with Lena Headey’s recurring narration having a rather haunting effect to it, spoken twice throughout the course of the film, adding that “epic poem” feel to the action that unfolds. But most of it is fairly cut and dry, and I was struggling to keep my attention levels up when Themistocles’ third or fourth appeal to his soldier’s patriotism began. Artemisia’s gets better lines, especially in any scene with Stapleton or Santano, and even when her lines are stereotypical or eye-rolling, Green has the chops to sell them anyway.  I remember the script of 300 being a lot better. It had this snarky quality to it in every defiant utterance of the Spartans, mixing with actual historical dialogue recorded by Herodotus. Rise Of An Empire lacks that, for the most part.

Musically, its’ loud and thumping, heavy on the drums, which I suppose fits, though the symphonic assault on your ears might just grate after a while, not unlike Pacific Rim. Beyond that, I haven’t really a bad word to say about Junkie XL’s music, beyond the most intensely scored sex scene I’ve ever seen, which became laughable very quickly.

Onto themes then. As with 300, the main one is very obviously a continuing discourse and battle between democracy and tyranny. The Greek states, most notably Athens, represent the very pure force of democracy, with speaking rights, general levels of freedom for all and even respect for women to a degree that was sorely lacking in the actual Athens of antiquity. They fight for their country, for their freedom. Their oarsmen are volunteers.

On the other side are the Persians. Ruled by a megalomaniac tyrant whose advisors slaughter each other for position, his is an empire of slaves, debauchery and bloodlust. His oarsmen are chained to their boats, his commanders useful only as far as their first mistake. The Persians quest is dominated by vengeance and a lust for destruction, of conquering foreign lands for the sake of conquering. They fight because they are being forced to fight.

The message on display is even less subtle than it was in 300 then. Democracy, freedom and a rejection of superstition – or religion as some might call it – is the highest good, resulting in the best warriors and the better standard of living. Tyranny, subjugation and an embrace of the mystical leads to nothing but gross death and loss of life on a grand scale. Even the “benefits” of the Persian side, offers of peace and stability, are empty vessels, leading only to a life of slavery, something that the Greeks reject, even if it means being tied to a woman like Artemisia.

This recurring theme of democracy versus tyranny results in the expanding of another, that of patriotism and a love of country. Themistocles never stops going on about how important a mans attachment to his own land is, whether it is Athens, Sparta, or the higher nationalistic ambition of a unified Greece, a concept mocked initially but taken as Gospel late on. Embracing democratic ideals is inherently connected with the idea of loving your country, because without such affection to give, you will never summon the will to fight your enemies enough to defend the ideal of democracy. The Persian Empire is a disparate alliance of various peoples, nations and motivations, united only by the unrelenting cruelty of their masters. They fight in a foreign land, for a cause that most of the rank and file do not even know about, beyond the whips of their commanders. Love of their country does not come into it. It does for the Greeks and, in the end, it is they who win.

Vengeance is another key theme, seen entirely through the eyes of the Persian leaders. Themistocles foolishly goes too far in winning the Battle of Marathon, cutting down Darius when victory was already achieved. Xerxes is bereft without his father, and seems more catatonic than willing to engage on a grand quest for revenge.

Enter Artemisia. Abused physically and emotionally, trained into a weapon of vengeance and propelled into the highest corridors of Persian power, she moulds Xerxes into her own instrument, utilising that most pure and hateful desire, the desire to punish the upstart Greeks for having the temerity to kill Darius. Xerxes becomes a bizarre and grotesque reflection of Artemisia’ wants and desires, a man obsessed with gaining vengeance for a sin that he and his people were mostly responsible for anyway. That’s all part of Artemisia’s game anyway, fulfilling her own long standing vengeance trip. Her motivations are far more understandable than Xerxes though, to the extent that we may actually sympathise with her just a little. But that is largely undone by the viciousness and callousness with which she tries to undertake her quest. As with the larger Persian cause as a whole, she’s tyrannical, single-minded to a fault and unapproachable with logic, reason or pleas for mercy. It’s what makes her, and Xerxes, weak in comparison with the more benign, defensive Greek states.

So, was Rise Of An Empire worth making? Does the story and the message contained within justify its very existence as a venture, or is all just another meaningless cash grab? Though the attempt stumbles and falls a few times, I think there is enough here that Rise Of An Empire can avoid such criticisms. There was a story on a par with 300 somewhere in here, it just wasn’t really brought to the fore enough, with too much falling back on more blood, more sex, more CGI vistas.

The film isn’t just a brainless sequel looking to kick-start a franchise though. There is a lot of effort being put into parts of this film, not least visually, and I can applaud a failure that tries because it’s better than the likes of Grown Ups 2. But you feel like Murro should not have tried to simply make the same movie as Zach Snyder made in so many ways, albeit on sea instead of land, but instead should have tried to impose his own vision. Fans of 300 will find plenty to enjoy here. Others won’t. If there is to be a third instalment, with the Persian Wars pretty much used up, the creators will have to try for something a bit more out of the box if they are going to reengage my interest.

An entertaining, if unengaging, effort.

An entertaining, if unengaging, effort.

(All images are copyright of Warner Bros. Pictures).

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Review: Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D – “Turn, Turn, Turn”

The events of “Turn, Turn, Turn” take place concurrently with those of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, to the extent that you practically have to have seen that film to understand what’s happening. Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D has been on an upturn in quality recently, even as ratings continue their downward trend. Will those trends continue? Thoughts:

-We open with Agent Garrett and “Don’t Fear The Reaper” blaring. A certain symbolism there of course, but I always liked that song.

-The Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D budget takes a hit as Garrett has to dodge some missiles. Taking a leaf out of Anakin Skywalker’s book, he just spins until their trajectories intermingle and they collide/explode off each other. It’s the first of a few allusions to Star Wars (I know someone probably did that before Sith, just bear with me).

-Then we’re back on the plane and one of the shows best scenes to date. May is still being interrogated at gunpoint and there’s an incredibly palpable sense of panic taking hold and things falling apart. Any previous feeling that this team was becoming a family has vanished – now they’re pointing guns at each other and Fitz is terrified of even opening a door to the rest of them. It was the perfect set-up for an episode about losing faith in the things, and people, you once trusted.

-Simmons and Triplett are our eyes in “The Hub”. This undercurrent of attraction remains between the two, though it got taken over fast in this episode. I like this potential coupling, far more than Fitz/Simmons.

-Loved when Coulson just shoots May without a word. No time to talk about it or justify it to others. It’s a time for action and he can’t have her muddling things up.

-The rest of the budget is burned up in a short set-piece with the two drones that are attacking Garrett. This is as close to a modern superhero action scene that Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.D has ever really gotten, and it was fine, if just a tad unnecessary. Also another vague Star Wars riff to the whole thing. “Good kid, don’t get cocky!”.

-“Boo ya”. Oh dear God, what an awful line to put in Coulson’s mouth.

-The episode hints very strongly that Victoria Hand is in HYDRA with her first appearance. Too strongly really. And so the double bluffs began…

-“Out of the shadows, into the light”. HYDRA is back, their emergence marked by the giant word on the planes screens. Maybe a bit much.

-As was the brief discussion about whether it’s HYDRA’s head or hands that grow back. A terrible callback to the comedic dialogue of the opening episodes, that just gutpunches the rising tension. Come on guys, I thought we were past this?

-“We’ll face the music, even if it is the HYDRA theme song.” Yeah, liked this line.

-HYDRA commences a takeover of The Hub (sort of). It’s something I’ve mentioned in my Write Club review and will mention on this site in due time, the extent of HYDRA’s infiltration is absolutely crazy. The idea that they can just take over the running of the entire institution without anyone noticing in 70 years is severely testing my suspension of disbelief.

-Simmons and Triplett share somewhat of an awkward scene. After seeing the evidence of HYDRA taking over other S.H.I.E.L.D institutions, Triplett becomes vaguely threatening for no good reason, to prove a point about trust or something. Was a bit strange.

-May and Ward share a scene in the plane’s holding cell. May is unrepentant for her actions, Ward is sneeringly angry with her. This is the epilogue of their relationship I suppose, as Ward’s infatuation with Skye is lampshaded again.

-“Director Fury is dead.” And with those four words, everything goes to hell.

-May’s sudden revelation that Coulson was never in as much control of his new mission as he thought – that Fury and May hand-picked the crew so they could better monitor him – is interesting I suppose, but seems just a little small next to some of the other stuff being revealed in this episode.

-The plane’s memory has to be wiped to protect the info on various devices and such that the team has bumped into on their travels so far. I’m sure that won’t come up again.

-There was something off about Hand’s offer of HYDRA service to Simmons and Triplett the second she started talking – so melodramatic and over the top – that it wasn’t hard to see through it. Another swerve: Hand is actually at the head of the countermovement to HYDRA. The plot thickens.

-Only she thinks that it’s Coulson who is in HYDRA. Could last week’s theory be right?

-Even more Star Wars allusions, as the team recreate the Episode IV plot of using Chewbacca as a fake prisoner to break into a secure area. Some shot choices even seemed lifted out of A New Hope. Did anyone else notice this?

-“The lies add up.” Fascinating to see Hand just outline all of the suspicious behaviour that Coulson has been involved in. It’s easy to see why somebody would be thinking badly of him at this point. Some of the inconsistencies I’ve previously mentioned – like hiring Skye in the first place – are being spun into plot hooks.

-“Its suicide.” “Not if I don’t die.” Nice reply.

-So this Ward/Skye thing isn’t going away. It isn’t a very good romantic plot in my eyes, with not much work gone into it at all really, apart from the odd glance. In this scene they namedrop their Dublin conversation, which was its deepest moment, and hint at a future coming together. We’ll see how that works out…

-Ward takes on 12 guys single-handed. After dispatching six of them, the production team can’t come up with a way he gets rid of the half-dozen others and decides to just do it off camera. Come on guys.

-Garrett goes on a tirade about killing off Hand – protesting way too much really – and the standard slip comes. He knows more things than he should know. Lo and behold, we have our Clairvoyant.

-I’m actually just a little disappointed that HYDRA and the Clairvoyant are one and the same, even if Garrett admits he’s only part of HYDRA because he thinks it’s the winning side.

-Some nice “monologuing” from Garrett after his reveal, real Republic villain-style stuff.

-Fitz has the best retort to him of course, even as the tears are falling down his face. Garrett is at his most threatening here, but it speaks to Fitz that he’s the one standing up to him the most, even if it is just verbally.

-The fight follows. It’s basic enough stuff, nothing we haven’t seen already. Fitz shooting that guy continues this mini-arc he has with May regards trusting each other.

-A wordless scene, with a real season finale feel, follows. Triplett rails against his former boss. Ward is stunned. But there is still a sense that something is amiss here.

-“Captain America has defeated the helicarriers at the Triskellion.” I can’t imagine how you’d get your head around this episode if you hadn’t seen The Winter Soldier beforehand.

-S.H.I.E.L.D, for the moment, is toast, a rotten organisation that’s crumbled from the inside. A new dynamic is certainly going to come into play for the show now, at least before S.H.I.E.L.D’s inevitable restructuring.

-There was something being noted when Skye gives the plane’s data backup device to Ward earlier on for safekeeping. Seeing Ward insist on accompanying Garrett to imprisonment, and the little look he gives Coulson on the way out, were major hints for what was coming.

-“What are we planning to do next?” “Survive.” That will probably be the theme for the rest of the series.

-So, Ward turns out to be in cahoots with Garrett, and presumably has been from the start, calling into question a lot of his activities and actions in the course of the show so far. Maybe they’re going to replace him with Triplett. Also, regards Star Wars allusions: “Always two there are. A master and an apprentice.”

-The smile on Garrett’s face when Ward turns was amazingly devil-like. Immensely creepy. Paxton has to step up and become an outright antagonist now, and I have no doubt that he has the chops for it.

-Nice touch to replace the usual end card of the S.H.I.E.L.D symbol with that of HYDRA.

-A very unexpected way to end the episode, just focusing in on Ward’s thousand yard stare as Garrett rattles on in his usual style. There’s a lot more to Ward than we’ve seen so far, and some inner turmoil – related to Skye I would imagine – is going to be crucial in the final few episodes.

-I have a friend who was in a position to watch this episode without having seen The Winter Soldier. He was fine with the episode and its reveals, mentioning only that the larger rationale for HYDRA’s reveal goes unexplained.

Another decent episode, heavy on the action and revelations, that ties in nicely to the wider universe. A ratings low is a bit depressing I suppose, but you can’t have everything. We’re into the final act of this season now. Five episodes to go.

To read my thoughts on other episodes of Agents Of S.H.I.E.L.Dclick here to go to the index.

Posted in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D, Reviews, TV/Movies | 2 Comments

Ireland’s Wars: The Siege Of Kilkenny

March 1650, and the city of Kilkenny was increasingly surrounded. The heart of the Confederate movement since the foundation of that entity, it was now just another beleaguered Royalist stronghold, waiting for the Parliamentarian hammer to fall.

The Kilkenny area, including the city, had been put in the overall command of James Tuchet, the Earl of Castlehaven, an appointment he does not really seem to have enjoyed being given. With Ormonde and what existed of the Royalist “government” fleeing west over the Shannon, Castlehaven was left with a great deal of leeway and authority to attempt to resist Cromwell. What he didn’t have was substantial numbers of men. A bout of plague had rapidly reduced the number of soldiers in the Kilkenny garrison to little more than a few hundred troops, and whatever civilian levy was willing to assist them. Castlehaven’s army, bolstered by a strong-ish regiment of Ulster Army men, reached 3’000 according to his own memoirs, but it’s likely that this is an exaggeration.

Ormonde and Castlehaven hoped to be assisted by forces of the Viscount Thomas Dillon, one of the original confederates and a controversial Catholic convert. Accused of corruption and “false musters” by many, Dillon still controlled a few thousand men in the more northerly parts of Leinster that would have greatly aided Castlehaven, but the troops never marched south. Dillon claimed that the troops needed to stay put in case the Ulster Army decided to ravage Leinster; more likely he did not want to throw them into a losing cause, and as one of the Rinuccini’s former confidantes was unwilling to play second fiddle to the likes of Castlehaven.

Castlehaven and his subordinates were on their own. Receiving intelligence from spies among the New Model Army and the Irish countryside, he discovered the marching route of Colonel Hewson’s Dublin column. Marching quickly and avoiding his adversary, Castlehaven swopped on the recently taken town of Athy in Kildare, which (according to him) had a garrison of 700 and a substantial supply of powder. Castlehaven took the place by storm and with very little loss, taking the defenders totally by surprise.

But while this was an impressive success, it was relatively meaningless. Castlehaven had taken the action on his own initiative, as Athy was nowhere near where he was supposed to be, and the taking of it could little help Kilkenny. He lacked the men or the supplies to hold Athy, or even to take care of the prisoners he had taken. He thus abandoned Athy and his prisoners, hoping Cromwell would recognise the mercy. It was shortly before the massacre at Gowran.

Castlehaven’s little venture thus came to nothing. It certainly did not slow the Parliamentarian advance. Castlehaven and his army marched back towards Kilkenny but found it beleaguered upon their arrival. The Ulster Army units left his command and went north, apparently fearing the plague as a sign from God. They took most of Castlehaven’s strength with them.

Kilkenny was on its own. Its commander was a kinsman of Ormonde, Sir Walter Butler. Butler is a little noted figure in history, but at that moment he held the fate of Kilkenny and its residents in his hands. Surrender and he could probably save their lives from a Drogheda-style slaughter. Fight, and they could all suffer.

As noted, he had only a few hundred soldiers to help him resist, facing over 4’000 outside the walls, approaching from three directions. But Kilkenny had other advantages. Essentially split into three separate sections that had their own walls – High Town and Irish Town north of the River Nore, St John’s to the south – Kilkenny could resist an outside attack and survive if one of its thirds was taken. It also had the substantial position of Kilkenny Castle in High Town, one of the more imposing fortifications of the Butler family.

Butler was no fool, and set the townspeople and his soldiers to work on improving the position anyway that they could, with entrenchments and ditches dug behind the walls and defensive positions set-up elsewhere. The bridges over the Nore would be better protected than those at Drogheda had been. Moreover, Walter Butler had the will to resist and the commitment to see such resistance through. When Cromwell called for his surrender, the notice was rejected.

Cromwell had hoped to take the town without a fight, with a much noted incident involving one of its defenders, a Captain Tickell. He allegedly offered to betray the town to Cromwell in return for payment, but Cromwell arrived at the gates to find the conspiracy uncovered and Tickell hanged. Such things were small in the grand scheme of things, but may have affected the morale of the defenders and the attackers in different ways.

Not dissuaded by such things, or the rejection of his surrender terms (which had been generous), Cromwell set about his task. He had arrived at and surrounded the city by the 22nd of March, and by the 23rd his attacks had begun. A cavalry regiment stormed one of the gates of Irish Town on the north-west of the City’s outer defences. However, met by resistance in the form of a unit of civilian militia, they were beaten back. At around the same time, St Patricks Church, outside the walls of High Town, was taken.

The church was the perfect position for a battery of artillery, which Cromwell spent the next day setting up before opening fire on the 25th. It only took a few hours for a breach to be created. Now would have been another moment for Walter Butler to contemplate surrender, but he persisted, trusting in the defence and the defenders.

Cromwell was taking few chances. He called for a two-pronged assault on the city. One unit, led by Colonel Hewson, would assault the breach in the south of the city, while another, under Colonel Isaac Ewer, would attack another of the gates leading into Irish Town. With the defenders divided, it was hoped that if one of the attacks was successful, then the entire city would fall.

Ewer’s force was the more successful, his attack having an infantry component that provided for a great substance of assault than the previous cavalry offensive on Irish Town. The mostly civilian defenders fled and Irish Town fell without much bloodshed. Cromwell now held the higher ground of Kilkenny City.

It was a different story to the south. Hewson’s attack was a bloody affair, as his men fought through the breach only to face an additional entrenchment behind it, one palisaded and guarded by a unit of musketeers. The assault was beaten back with Hewson himself injured in the process. Cromwell quickly ordered a withdrawal, recognising that a continued attack at the point would only result in a terrible defeat. There has also been suggestions that Cromwell tried to get his men to attack again, but they refused.

Butler’s defensive work had paid off in one point, but the situation was increasingly desperate. Cromwell still held the initiative and used it, ordering another of subordinates, Colonel Gifford, to cross the Nore and assault into St John’s. St John’s was the weakest of the three sections, being little more than a suburb really, and quickly fell into Parliamentarians hands without much fighting. The defenders streamed across the Nore and into High Town, holding St John’s Bridge behind them. Gifford attempted to storm the bridge and destroy its gate house, but another valiant defence turned him back with some loss, far more than he had taken in the process of capturing St John’s.

Cromwell was prepared to make another assault, but patient enough to increase his advantage. Another artillery battery was set-up, not far from St Johns Bridge and Kilkenny Castle. Another bombardment was enacted, and quickly another breach had been made in the walls.

Walter Butler had been prepared to continue his resistance at St Johns Bridge and the other breach, but this additional attack was the last straw. A coordinated attack on all three points would be too much for his tiny and exhausted garrison. Moreover, continued resistance only made sense if there was the possibility of relief, and there was none. Ormonde was far away, and Castlehaven could not do anything from his position, other than to grant Butler official permission to seek terms.

On the 27th, before Cromwell was given the chance to launch another assault, Butler signalled his surrender. This time Cromwell accepted, probably fearful that any assault would carry with it tremendous casualties. The city was occupied, as was the castle. The garrison was allowed to march out with its arms and colours. Kilkenny had fallen. Cromwell was delighted upon observing the inner defences, especially those of the castle, being “exceeding well fortified by the industry of the Enemy…which might have cost much blood and time…we look at it as a gracious mercy that we have the place for you (the Parliament) upon these terms”.

The former capital of the Confederation was taken, but Walter Butler and its defenders, both civilian and military, must be given a large amount of credit for their five day defence, which was more than many would have reasonably expected for such a position, so outnumbered and suffering from disease and demoralisation. Butler’s defence was pro-active and dogged, with fortifications improved before the fighting started and civilian levies used to bolster the effort where needed. One can only imagine that if disease had not reduced the garrison to such an extent, that Cromwell could very well have been repulsed before Kilkenny.

On the Parliamentarian side, we might just get a glimpse at some complacency. Kilkenny really was the first place, bar the Waterford/Duncannon region, that had given them any trouble. Certainly it was the only major stopping point in the winter offensive up to that time. Cromwell’s initial attack was fairly small scale, and his decision to leave St John’s unmolested until an initial attempt on High Town took place does seem like the kind of choice that makes little sense in retrospect. Moreover, after over seven weeks of marching and siege work, it’s likely that the New Model Army was just tired, having failed to really find a point to stop and take stock at in the course of the offensive. That may explain the sluggish nature of some aspects of the Kilkenny siege, which Cromwell got away with due to the deficiencies in the defenders numbers.

Kilkenny was not an immensely valuable location in tangible terms, something I have noted before. Most of the surrounding area had been cleared before its fall, there was only a small garrison with small supplies to encounter and the city’s political importance was negligible at that point. The only really major consequence of the siege was that Waterford, now totally isolated on the south-east coast, could no longer be supplied via the Nore, though that was difficult enough since New Ross had been captured the previous year.

But Kilkenny’s worth was better recorded in the symbolic. The former capital of the Confederation, generally considered to be the second city of Ireland and a major seat of Ormonde’s family, it was now held by a force who, by its capture, continued to add to their mystique of invincibility. The Royalists were left scattered and defeated, their war effort focused more and more on the west of Ireland.

But Cromwell was not done with his offensive yet. His time in Ireland was drawing to a close, but now he doubled back and headed for a position he had deliberately ignored in the course of his earlier movement: Clonmel.

To read the rest of the entries in this series, click here to go to the index.

Posted in History, Ireland, Ireland's Wars, War | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments