Ireland’s Wars: The Early Years Of The Irish Brigade

Before the War of the Two Kings had even ceased, Irish troops had travelled to France to join the armies of Louis XIV.

Of course, Irish soldiers had been serving in continental armies, in dribs and drabs, for a while before that. But this was different. In May of 1690, a specific unit within the French Army was created, for the purpose of accommodating Irish soldiers within the larger military. Initially just five infantry regiments sent to France in exchange for more professional, experienced French troops – an exchange that didn’t gain James and the Jacobites all that much in the long run – these units formed the centre of what would be known as the “Irish Brigade”. Initially under the command of Justin McCarthy, the Viscount Mountcashel, they numbered somewhere in the region of 5’000 men, whose subdivisions would soon be better known by their initial commanders: the regiments of Mountcashel, Butler, Fielding, Dillon and O’Brien.

The Irish were there to serve Louis XIV since he was one of James’ staunchest allies, and any service for the French King was a service for the larger Jacobite cause. The dream was still for Ireland to be turned into a Jacobite stronghold and for James to be placed back on the throne in London: after the end of the War of the Two Kings, when a huge influx of “Wild Geese” came to France and swelled the size of the Irish Brigade, the larger goal became the execution of an invasion to liberate the homeland from Williamite control. Of course, the Irish Brigade, as big as it got for a time, couldn’t do this on its own.

Initially, it had other problems. The huge numbers of Irish troops that had travelled to France after the end of the war in Ireland, many bringing wives and families with them, could not all be initially taken care of. The Irish Brigade was billeted in Brittany initially, in the north-western corner of France, to train and join in coastal defence duties, but there were never enough billets for a unit that may have grown to the size of 15’000. So numerous were they that a large proportion did not become part of the Irish Brigade proper, instead classified as James Jacobite army, though still in the pay of France. Soldiers sleeping rough became a problem, then desertion, ill-discipline and all the other associated problems of garrison duty reared their heads. Troops, though given new uniforms and a place in the armed forces, were paid less than they had in Ireland and were given less to do, things that traditionally have resulted in poor morale in troops. Combined with the fact that nearly all of these soldiers were recent immigrants, unsure of their decision to leave Ireland and many already regretting it, and you did not have a picture of a battle-ready brigade.

But people like Mountcashel, Patrick Sarsfield and others had a more optimistic outlook, seeing in the brigade an army that, when supplemented with French allies, could prove very capable of resuming the war, be it in Ireland or Britain. The first possible opportunity came only a year after the Treaty of Limerick, when Louis gave his blessing and support for a combined Franco-Irish army to cross the channel and land in England. James expected that a successful landing would lead to widespread support and the raising of additional Jacobite forces in England. With a large army assembled in Normandy, the operation might well have stood a chance of success if a crossing could be achieved. But it was not to be: the French fleet and transports were roundly defeated by a larger Royal Navy fleet at the Battles of Barfleur, Cherbourg and La Hogue in May and June of 1692, ending any possibility that the Irish Brigade would reverse the outcome of Limerick quickly.

The Irish units were somewhat scattered in the aftermath, Mountcashel’s brigade remaining in being, others being subsumed into other parts of the French army, navy and Marines and many being simply cast out of the armed services altogether in the years that followed, to become homeless vagrants throughout France, hardly the glorious life in exile many had been hoping for. High ranking men like Sarsfield became Marshal’s of France and took part in the war against William afterward, but the Irish Brigade’s service in this conflict, for the rest of the war, is not especially well noted. They served in numerous clashes, most notably at Steenkirk, Landen, Neerwinden and Marsaglia, in places like Flanders and northern Italy. While considered solid and reliable, Irish regiments would not create their lasting reputation in this conflict, which came to an end in 1697.

It was in the “War of the Spanish Succession” that this reputation would start to be created. This was a dynastic conflict that, as the name suggests, centred around a disputed succession to the Spanish throne, a dispute that eventually drew in most of the major European powers of the day, with France and Britain locked on either side. The war began in 1701, and 1500 Irish troops were part of a French campaign in Italy, facing Austrian soldiers under the famed Prince Eugene. At Chiari in September 1701 Irish troops drove Austrians from fixed positions in farmhouses and mills, taking heavy losses, in a battle that would eventually become a French defeat. But in later actions in the same campaign, most notably through the performance of a cavalry regiment made up largely of Westmeath men, the Irish gained some renown, to the extent that Louis soon increased their number and their pay.

After a difficult few months of campaigning, a large section of the French army retired to winters quarters at Cremona, a walled city on the Po River, not too far from Milan. The 5’000 or so French garrison included 600 Irish. In February of 1702, Cremona was the target for an audacious surprise attack by Eugene’s Austrians, several thousand of which were able to bypass the city’s outer defence in the dead of night via a sewer entrance, while an additional force attacked one of the gates. The operation went smoothly at first, with most of the town secured while the garrison was sleeping. But Irish troops were not taken completely unawares, holding the Po Gate and a few other vital points, such as the town’s citadel, despite repeated Austrian attacks and volley fire at close range. Their resistance broke the back of the Austrian attack, and resulted in an unlikely rally: though the French commander was captured, the Irish and the French were able to force the Austrians out of the town, despite heavy losses. Saving the position and the French garrison was vital to extending the war in Italy: “The Irish performed there the most important piece of service for Louis XIV, that, perhaps any King of France ever received, from so small a body of men” said one English commentator. Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, in a book of poetry, declared “The Austrians failed to take the town, for better men were there, from Limerick and Clare.”

For 350 casualties, the Irish helped Cremona hold and sealed their reputation in the French army. Honours, pay rises and promotions resulted, and the opinion of the Irish Brigade as a sort of crack force really begins to be seen more clearly from this point on. Additional fighting in Italy shortly after, at Luzzara, Bondanello, Riga and Brescello, heavily involved the Irish Brigade and Irish commanders.

In 1703 most of the Brigade was redirected to fighting in Germany. Irish cavalry distinguished itself at Spyerbach on the Rhine, helping to drive forward a right flank attack that resulted in victory over a combined Palatinate/Hesse-Kassel force. Irish troops formed a major part of a storming party at the Siege of Kehl that same year, as part of a larger French campaign to clear German resistance along the Rhine River.

In 1704, many Irish were heavily engaged at the famed Battle of Blenheim, in August of that year. It was a terrible experience for the French, one of the largest land victories that an English commander – none other than the Duke of Marlborough, facing a more difficult challenge than Cork or Kinsale – ever won, as a dangerously unsupported French centre was unable to deal with an unexpectedly ferocious assault. Irish regiments served in that centre, and helped to prevent the complete destruction of the larger army, but were still forced to retreat with not inconsiderable loss.

Irish regiments continued to serve in the back and forth war being fought in Italy. Victory at Cassano and stiff resistance at the Adda River were triumphs, but unsuccessful efforts to take Turin eventually resulted in the French armies having to withdraw from Italy altogether, notwithstanding a victory, featuring a crucial Irish bayonet charge, at Calcinato in early 1706. Further defeats were to occur in other parts of the war, such as at Ramillies in Belgium, though again, Irish regiments distinguished themselves by going toe to toe with enemy units, capturing colours and inflicting sizable casualties.

By 1708, the French position in the war was not great, following a series of defeats and territorial losses. Several Irish regiments were present at the titanic clash at Oudenaarde, when over 150’000 men were engaged. Another French defeat, it was followed by the loss of the key fortress at Lille, that was partially defended by Irish troops in a vicious four month siege.

The most famous battle of the war, Malplaquet, followed the previous year, as French armies scrambled to repel the invaders. With 86’000 men of the “Grand Alliance” of Britain, Prussia, the Holy Roman Empire and the Dutch besieging Mons, 75’000 French soldiers marched to the nearby village of Malplaquet to attempt a relief. Five Irish regiments were part of the force. The Grand Alliance attacked this position several times, and early in the battle a combined defence of Irish, Swiss and French regiments repulsed these efforts, before a counter attack sent Prussian soldiers flying from their own positions. At the Sart Wood location of the battlefield, one French Army Irish regiment exchanged fire with a Royal Irish Regiment – both were led by Kilkenny officers. It was not until after the fighting had come to an end that the opposing units realised they were from the same land. Rolling British fire won this particular engagement, and the Irish Brigade regiment had to withdraw. Soon the whole French army was obliged to retreat, despite having attempted numerous attacks on the enemy – several were led by James Stuart, James II’s son, and the proclaimed Jacobite King James III. But despite the loss, the end result of the battle was a disaster for the Grand Alliance, due to the huge casualties that they suffered. The Irish suffered too: over 10’000 of them may have fought at Malplaquet, and nearly a third may have perished there.

Much of the attention on the War of the Spanish Succession changed afterwards, as Spanish and American theatres began to take precedence, and numerous political developments, temporary truces and peace negotiations became the norm. Battles and sieges were still fought on the continent and in France, but will less of the vigour that they had been prosecuted with earlier in the war and, by extension, less Irish involvement. Louis, his country suffering financially and socially from the fighting, wanted out, and eventually got what he wanted in 1714, with a peace treaty where France gave significant territorial concessions in their north-eastern frontier and in America in exchange for their candidate for the Spanish throne being recognised. Irish interests lay primarily with Louis’ recognition of the Williamite takeover of the British throne (again). While they had fought bravely in the war and become famous, the Irish Brigades would find no fulfilment of their political ambitions out of it, with “James III” left as a King in name only. Soon enough though, he would try changing that himself.

Before we concern ourselves with his travails though, we will go a bit further south. While the Irish Brigade of France is undoubtedly the most famous of the Wild Geese units, many Irish also travelled to Madrid to became part of the Spanish military. They had their part to play in the War of the Spanish Succession too, and I’ll cover that next week.

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

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Firefly: Dualism In “Bushwhacked”

It was this time around, rewatching “Bushwhacked”, that I first began to notice the streak of dualism that was evident throughout.

Dualist motives and plot beats are nothing new, and plenty of films and TV are littered with them. The introduction, and then later revisiting or inversion or reimaging of a location, a visual cue, a line of dialogue, a stated theme or a crucial plot device is a commonly used writing tool, to add some distinctiveness to an episode, to make the most important points that the production team want to make clear and just add a nice sense of roundness. And “Bushwhacked” has this in spades, maybe to a greater extent than other Firefly episodes. There is a great deal of, well “two by two” (but no Hands of Blue, not this time).

The entire episode is framed around “looking into the darkness”, a Nietzsche quote turned into plot. In the course of Firefly, it’s the common explanation for the Reavers, men who got to the edge of populated space, saw nothing in the abyss beyond and went crazy. That this explanation doesn’t make any sense at all is never elaborated upon, but that doesn’t actually matter: the stated suspicion is supposed to be a poetic campfire story, helping to cover over the actual truth.

Anyway, it’s the crew of Serenity staring into the darkness and not liking what they see in “Bushwhacked”, eventually discovering the truth of what happened on the derelict. The survivor is taken onboard, but Mal knows that it’s all pointless. He chooses his words very carefully in his interrogation scene to enunciate his views:

They made him watch. He probably tried to turn away, and they wouldn’t let him. You call him a survivor? He’s not. A man comes up against that kind of will, the only way to deal with it, I suspect, is to become it. He’s following the only course left to him. First, he’ll try to make himself look like one. Cut on himself, desecrate his flesh and then, he’ll start acting like one.

Such an experience is made out to be a terrible thing, staring into that blackness. But then there is River, a disturbed character who spends most of the episode being creepy and making odd pronouncements on the derelict ship itself. But later, while hiding on the exterior hull of Serenity, we see her essentially happy, joyful even, for the first time. And what is she doing? Staring out into the black, gazing wistfully at the stars all around, an experience that leaves her wanting more. It’s both a nice vision of what a look at the stars can do, in positive terms, and a reminder that staring out into the void is not a one way ticket to the loony bin. There is happiness out there somewhere, for those with a mind to see it.

The space suits themselves, which River and Simon wear in that scene, are another dual thing. The episode previously depicted them as an object of terror for Simon, who struggled to imagine being just a small amount of material away from the howling dark. Later, when he is obliged to put on a suit, the direction and progress make it clear that it is a worrying claustrophobic experience for Simon, who stumbles around the derelict, not even aware that he has the suit on wrong. Of course, as per Jayne’s mocking humour, he doesn’t even need to be wearing it, adding a layer of futility to the whole thing.

Then later, while hiding with River, the suit transforms into something else. It’s a vessel of protection, a way for him to keep his sister safe from the men inside the ship, and a chance for her to experience some happiness for the first time in a while. The inversion is noticeable, and points to the larger journey of Simon and River, two characters getting familiar with a very different environment than they are used to, finding use in things they hitherto had no use for, or an actual fear of.

The Alliance themselves demonstrate some duality through “Bushwhacked”. The scenes where they ransack Serenity, which I mentioned last time out as a good contrast, also link to earlier in the episode, as Serenity’s crew ransack the derelict, which is a largely ruined spacecraft. Much like earlier, the Alliance later turns Serenity inside out and leaves it wrecked, and later Mal is threatened with losing his ship altogether, the vessel too, perhaps, to become its own derelict. At the end of the episode, as Harken orders Mal forward in the search for the survivor, Mal enters his own ship cautiously and with a slow, steady camera movement, rather like how he and other crew members entered the derelict earlier, with the air of a horror movie instead of a sci-fi show. The point is clear enough then: the moment is one of crisis, when the barbarity I talked about last week threatens to overwhelm civility, with Serenity becoming more and more like the environment of the derelict before the situation is resolved.

Of course, the most important point of duality is in the idea of surviving an atrocity but not being able to move on. Mal makes it crystal clear as he addresses his crew about the survivor:

Doesn’t matter that we took him off that boat, Shepherd, it’s the place he’s going to live from now on.

Evocative words, on how people damaged by surviving an event like a Reaver attack – a mix of survivors guilt and trauma induced mania – leaves them unable to move on, mentally trapped in the horror of their past. It could just be a nice little scene on the way to a straightforward finale.

But then, in the scene shared between Harken and Mal, it becomes clear what writer/director Tim Minear is doing. Harken brings up Mal’s service record, including his days at Serenity Valley. Mal is flippant in his responses, but Harken notes that he even named his ship after the battle.

In other words, Mal is living on Serenity. He’s more like the survivor than he would perhaps care to admit, albeit not as overtly damaged. Mal, and Zoe of course, lived through the cataclysm at Serenity Valley. While Zoe was able to find a measure of peace, perhaps through her marriage to Wash, Mal isn’t able to get over it as easily. He names his new home after the battle, never forgetting what happened there. Not being able to move on. And perhaps, in a way, that draws a line between Mal and the survivor, and allows us to understand how Mal, in plot terms anyway, is able to offer an insightful analysis of the survivor, and help track him down in the finale.

The point is actually made clearer in one the pilot episodes deleted scenes, shared between Simon and Zoe. Simon looks up some info on Serenity Valley, and gets some reality checks from Zoe. It’s easy to see why the scene was cut: it’s clunky, too upfront with the exposition, and depicts Zoe as opening up too quickly to a man she barely knows. But it does have this exchange:

“If that battle was so horrible, why’d he name the ship after it?”

“Once you’ve been in Serenity, you never leave. You just learnt to live there.”

At Serenity Valley, Mal was the man “made to stare” into darkness, and then forced to change himself in order to survive it, never leaving the battle behind properly.

And, let’s not forget the show’s theme song:

“Ain’t no place I can be, since I found Serenity…”

So, this is actually an overriding theme throughout a good bit of the series. But it is in “Bushwhacked” that it is most pronounced, as Mal deals with another man who will never leave a site of terrible slaughter, a man who is on a dual path but, too far gone, must be put down.

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Review: Ant-Man

Ant-Man

Trailer

Paul Rudd takes up the MCU mantle, in one of its more unlikely projects.

Paul Rudd takes up the MCU mantle, in one of its more unlikely projects.

While it might be due to more of a quirk in scheduling than intention, Phase 2 of Marvel’s cinematic universe has come to end with another new property, in a section of their multi-film and TV epic narrative that has been mostly replete with sequels. I’ve been looking forward to Ant-Man for a long time now, and can count myself as one of the few who wasn’t even all that dismayed when Edgar Wrights much publicised leaving of the project was announced. I was excited for Ant-Man because of the visual possibilities in a genre that has hit stale territory, and because the cast looked so immense. With the right director and screenwriter, something great could be made, something to really capture the imagination in a way that the MCU has stuttered a bit in doing since Guardians Of The Galaxy. Were my expectations men, or would Ant-Man be the MCU’s first distinctive flop?

Expert burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), having finished a three year stint in prison, struggles to make something of himself so he can get back into his daughters life. He soon comes to the attention of reclusive scientific genius Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), who has developed the means to shrink man and matter to tiny, capability-altering, sizes. Lang finds himself, along with Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), enlisted on a crusade to stop the machinations of Pym’s weaponizing-obsessed protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll).

Watching Ant-Man, I did feel, like many others, that I was watching a return to basics for Marvel Studios, a film producer which went big, big, big with their last few projects, but seems to want to tone things down significantly, especially in terms of budget, for their last offering of 2015. Comparisons to 2008’s Iron Man have abounded, in terms of narrative style and characters, and it’s easy to see why. This is not a unique story, or even one that I would say is extremely compelling in comparison to some other MCU efforts, but it is one that is (mostly) well told, a fun superhero adventure that adds a both a new dynamic to the power-fuelled world of the MCU, as well as some interesting new characters.

Like my pointer for sports films, perhaps I can amend it slightly for this, so saturated, genre: the best kind of superhero film are those that are not about superheroes. And so I think it is, in parts, for Ant-Man. This is a film about a man who gets to shrink in size and control ants, a premise so ludicrous that only the films abandon with depicting keeps it from getting silly. But, more than that, it is a film about fathers with estranged relationships with their daughters, through Lang and the child he barely gets to see, and Pym and the woman whom he has actively destroyed what little he had with. At that level, director Peyton Reed and several screenwriters have crafted a story that the audience can get swept up in: no other MCU film, or superhero film lately, have offered superpowered characters whose motivations are so wrapped up in fatherhood and being a good example for a following generation. That’s a somewhat unique hook, and was one of the reasons I was as engaged with Ant-Man as I was.

And there was another angle to it as well, in form of “sons I never had”. Pym is haunted by his failure with Cross, a man who, in maybe the scripts best moment, he “saw too much of himself” in. He takes on a new protégé to stop the first, a do-over that he is more determined to succeed in, and in the middle of the all the players is his own emotionally frustrated daughter, that both Lang and Cross end up bouncing off of. The family politics are complex enough in Ant-Man, but never get too complex. It’s a story about redemption, and it easy to line up behind Lang, a man who just wants to be the hero that his young daughter thinks he is, and not an ex-con schmuck who isn’t capable of making child support payments. You can also feel much for Hank Pym too, a man full of regrets for things long done, and emotionally incapable of making up for them in the present day.

The film is dominated by conversations featuring Pym and other characters – Lang, Hope and Cross, generally in that order – and must stand or fall in those conversations, whether they are exposition laden diatribes on the nature of the Ant-Man suit or more emotional conversations on the story of his life and the losses he has incurred. They both work and don’t: Michael Douglas, like Anthony Hopkins, Robert Redford and Glenn Close before him in Phase Two, adds a gravitas and legitimacy to proceedings in his depiction of the wounded Pym, desperately trying to put the cap back on the bottle he opened so long ago. And Rudd is perfectly cast as the ingenious, sarcastic and imminently likeable/sympathetic Lang, even if the character he plays is a walking cliché.

But where that all doesn’t work is in the script, which as most are aware has had to undergo several revisions, to the extent that there may have been as many as four proper drafts. Such a reality would take its toll on any story, and Ant-Man is no exception, with some holes and character problems evident throughout. Things are introduced, like, say, Lang’s apparent pacifism, that disappear during the course of the story or ore never elaborated upon. But the general script work is also not up to scratch either, bar in the humour stakes, where the jokes and cynical asides are well-timed, well-executed by the cast and mesh far better with the superhero drama than the same dynamic in Age Of Ultron. But in the quieter moments, between Pym and Lang talking about fatherhood and second chances, between Pym and Hope talking about the death of her mother and past regrets or between the maniacal Cross and anybody, a large measure of cliché, unexceptional musings and bland sentiment is evident. Beyond the jokes, and one or two moments here and there, Ant-Man is not a quotable film, in the way that other MCU offerings have been.

Where Ant-Man falls big time, repeating a problem that I would say the majority of MCU films have suffered from, is in its antagonist. From the moment that Darren Cross is introduced his villainy is beyond question, as he ramps up from sleazy businessman to murderous between opening scenes, and spends other ones openly talking about how much he hates Pym and how his “Yellowjacket” creation will be perfect for breaking international law and getting away with it. Over the top bad guys can work in superhero films – Loki isn’t subtle, and he’s still the MCU’s best antagonist – but the sort of instant crazy that Stoll has to portray here – and he does as well as he can I should add, avoiding Peter Russo comparisons – just doesn’t work all that well, with one scene involving animal test subjects being especially egregious, a moment ripe for mockery rather than horror. The films structure doesn’t allow Cross to make the kind of impact that he needs to make, and much like Jeff Bridges’ Obadiah Stane in the already oft-compared Iron Man, Cross is stuck in just being this bombastic villain, good for a CGI-heavy set-piece but never making the right impression (he could have used a “WITH A BOX OF SCRAPS!” moment).

Unfortunately, you can add Yellowjacket to the long list of MCU antagonist duds.

Unfortunately, you can add Yellowjacket to the long list of MCU antagonist duds.

But Ant-Man is still fun. It’s an origin troy, and I always love those, since it is in origins that you usually find the best exploration of character. The MCU has long since perfected the art of making such explorations a blast as well, and Ant-Man’s bloated mid-section, the “promise of the premise” in Snyder-speak, is great, as Lang trains in the myriad of new powers open to him, does some macro-exploring and organises the caper that forms the backbone of the films third act. You can see a bit of Edgar Wright in some of the funny lines, and that comedy/drama mix, that I have felt the MCU has gotten wrong repeatedly in Phase 2, reaches a much more enjoyable level.

That being said, it must be noted that not all may be comfortable with the Michael Pena headed group of criminal misfits that accompany Lang on his journey. While avoiding total “bumbling sidekick” status thankfully, it is fair to say that there is a level of minority exploitation for humour going on with them, and a weirdly placed dig on “gypsies” by an eastern European character was a real “took me out of the film” moment. The film couldn’t just be a three-hander, and Pena and co add a nice dash of ethnicity to a cast that is as white as anything else Marvel has made in recent times, but you want more Anthony Mackie-style minority actors than those whose entire character is wrapped up in, admittedly funny, urban “speak”.

The MCU also needs more women with plot-critical roles, and Evangeline Lilly, while putting in a strong performance, doesn’t really get to provide that with Hope Van Dyne. As an actress and a character, she’s caught in the middle of a large group of men who get more lines, more screen time, more action and more plot impacting moments than she does, and by the time we reach the last act, Hope is just sort of there. She makes a bigger impression than the likes of Natalie Portman or Cobie Smoulders, but there was a chance here, hinted at in a few moments, for Hope to be a far bigger character. Maybe, in the future, she may get her chance, and I really hope that she does.

Ant-Man saves most of the action for an extended finale, which also seems to be mostly standard for the MCU nowadays, but this was one finale that was built towards and executed well. The nature of the premise allows for a delightfully fresh take on superpowered battles, with the micro world one where lots of unexpected environments can become battlefields and lots of unexpected things can become weapons. The trailer’s money shot of a child’s train set being one such environment is just a taste of what Ant-Man has to offer, and I was in love with the skilful way that this micro world, with its ants, time dilation and chorography possibilities, was implemented. For the first time in a while, maybe since The Winter Soldier and its tightly shot hand-to-hand combat scenes, I was really engaged fully with the action, with that action being diverse, exciting and inventive, everything that got me pumped up for Ant-Man in the first place, reaching true trippy territory as the possibilities of shrinking reach quantum levels. Beyond any trouble with his appointment, Reed has gotten that part of proceedings just right, though I suppose it is only fair to point out that Ant-Man, beyond the right sense of detail and warmth created in interior home sequences, is just a competently shot production beyond that.

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-Interesting way to frame that story with an opening scene in the 80’s. Cameo appearances from John Slattery as Howard Stark and Hayley Atwell as Peggy Carter were neat touches, along with the CGI work to make Michael Douglas look younger. Leading with the mentor character, rather than the nominal lead, was a risk, but it paid off I think.

-Our actual introduction to Lang is a good example of marketing inversion. Trailer shots showed him being beaten up in prison, but in the actual film it’s just a good natured, if bizarre, goodbye ritual upon his release from incarceration. I’m seeing such deception in film promotion all the time now, though this is a fairly mild example.

-Some good and bad product placement in Ant-Man. Baskin Robbins gets a funny inclusion as an unlikely all knowing corporate entity, but then later an iPhone is garishly included in the final battle.

-Judy Greer pops up as Lang’s estranged partner, mother to his daughter. Third film in a row I’ve seen her as a mom from a broken home. What a weird typecast to be locked into.

Ant-Man also features Bobby Cannavale in another typecast role, this time as the good cop frequently outwitted by the hero. He was decent though.

-Scott’s idea of calling the Avengers to deal with the problem of Cross was a well-timed bone to an audience that is always wondering, in the individual movies, where the superhero team is. Pym’s reasoning for leaving them out of the loop was sound enough.

-There’s a great moment during the heist, when a shrunken Ant-Man dodges bullets in a model city, material exploding around him, that was a great parody/satire of the sort of urban dirt-cannon filled set-pieces that have come to dominate this genre.

-HYDRA’s unlikely cameo as part of Cross’ nefarious plan really fell flat, if for no other reason than they never even said anything.

-“Bring me more lambs to slaughter! Muhahahahaha!”

Douglas adds something very important to the film, but poor Evangeline Lilly is sidelined too much.

Douglas adds something very important to the film, but poor Evangeline Lilly is sidelined too much.

-The unexpected Falcon cameo started the tie-ins to the MCU’s next instalment, and doubled as the only bit of more traditional action before the third act. A decent fight scene too, and I’m not bored of Anthony Mackie Sam Wilson yet.

-Gotta love the intricacy and changing environment of that finale. From well orchestrated heist, to a fight inside a briefcase, to a slobberknocker built around a Thomas The Tank Engine set, Ant-Man delivered big-time on its premise in its last 20 minutes.

-Obviously the moment Hank Pym mentioned the quantum realm we knew we were going to end up there at some point, and Lang’s journey to it as a Kubrick-esque LSD trip of a sequence. But where I expected there to be some sight of glimpse of Janet, Pym’s lost wife, none came, and it felt like a strange omission.

-A romantic angle to the Scott/Hope relationship is thrown in at (nearly literally) the last minute, and felt a little cheap. It was played for laughs of course – Gotta like Douglas’s “You’re full of shit Scott” – but still felt very tacked on.

-The mid-credits hinting towards Evangeline Lilly as a new “Wasp” was much more appreciated, and I hope that Civil War might find some room for her.

-Call me terrible, but I did find Michael Pena’s roundabout trips through memory lane to be hilarious, if only because of the “speak” being forcibly placed in the mouths of characters who don’t talk like that. That final moment, which seemed to be a “Yes” to Lang’s request to become part of the Avengers, was an appropriate mix of funny and serious.

Ant-Man featured the first post-credits scene in a  while that I actually liked, setting up the Avengers divide in Civil War and the re-reintroduction of one Bucky Barnes. Lang looks like he will be firmly on the side of what I presume will be the renegades, which is already shaping up to be quite the heavy hitting side of a superhero strife (Cap, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Ant-Man, presumably Scarlet Witch against Iron Man, War Machine, Black Widow and presumably Vision, with Spidey and Hawk-Eye yet to be picked?).

Spoilers end

Phase Two of the MCU has been an up and down affair, hitting a height with The Winter Soldier, and an early low with Iron Man 3, with plenty of entertaining offerings in-between.  Ant-Man has now joined the canon, and his inventive little addition is a nice palette cleanser in-between two films of universe altering scope.

It has its problems, which are all but inevitable considering the slightly troubled pre-production: The script, through so many re-writes is a weakness at times. The villain is another poor effort from Marvel Studios and Hope Van Dyne is too sidelined. These would be experience destroying problems in other films, but somehow Ant-Man makes it through.

And that’s probably because the key duo of Paul Rudd, long overdue for a shot at a true megastardom, and Michal Douglas are so effective in their roles, and because the film is, generally, the kind of vehicle that allows for funny moments that feel well placed in the narrative as well as very inventive and memorable action sequences. In a world where the amount of buildings superheroes have destroyed has reached amazing levels, the action of Ant-Man is a true breath of fresh air, and worth the price of admission alone. Capping off Phase Two with a strong effort, the MCU has also do the requisite legwork for the coming Civil War, an Avengers 2.5 that means it won’t be too long before we get to enjoy the presence of Scott Lang again. Recommended.

An enjoyable comic-book adaptation.

An enjoyable comic-book adaptation.

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

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Ireland’s Wars: The Long Peace Of The 18th Century

The War of the Two Kings came to an end in 1691. With a few short-term exceptions, Ireland would not have another sustained bout of political violence for over a century. This time has been dubbed, by academics like Ian McBride in his history of the period, as “the long peace”. It would be a mistake to take that as meaning that Ireland was some kind of happy carefree land during the 18th century, because there were plenty of problems, dissensions and plotting. But major wars and rebellions largely passed Ireland by until the very end of the century. In this post, I’ll discuss why this occurred.

There is no single factor that determined why Ireland, after a century of unrelenting bloodshed, should suddenly become so peaceful. A multitude of influences combined to produce this result, but if I was to place one above the others it would be the complete dominance of the Protestant Ascendency, which held a position of strength and power over the traditionally subversive sections of society – namely, the Catholic underclass – that no English-backed force in Ireland has enjoyed up to that point. The War of the Two Kings and its aftermath left Irish Catholics at the mercy of Protestant overlords, many of whom had little interest in fair rapprochement with those of the “Popish” persuasion. The Treaty of Limerick promised much to Catholics in terms of individual and property rights, but the first half of the 18th century was a time when all of this was gradually rejected, overruled or distorted.

What we today call the “Penal Laws” first began to be implemented shortly after the end of the war, and continued to be added to over and over as years passed and legislatures in Dublin and London became entrenched in their sectarianism. Their goal was not just to ease the subjugation of Ireland and to prevent another rebellion, but to essentially end the Catholic religion in the land, by making it extremely uncomfortable, legally, socially and financially, to be one.

Some of the laws were subtle, others less so. Catholics were barred from holding most public offices, which guaranteed Protestant control of government. Intermarriage with Protestants was banned. Membership of Parliament was refused, and this would remain until the 19th century. From 1728 Catholics had no right to vote in elections, so could not even influence the political direction of the country. Catholics could not join legal professions, insuring domination of the law went against then. Access to places of higher learning, like Trinity College, was banned.  In 1695 Parliament attempted to ban Catholics sending their children abroad to be educated, though many continued to do so. Catholics couldn’t buy a lease for land if the lease was over 31 years, limiting Catholic ties to land. Catholics could not inherit Protestant land. Catholics could not adopt orphans. Catholics could not own horses worth more than £5, a ruling perhaps driven by memories of Jacobite cavalry. Catholics could not be teachers. Catholic Churches were not permitted to be made from stone. Protestants were banned from converting to Catholicism.

The most important though, were a set few, that included a ban on serving in the armed forces, a ban on holding firearms privately, and the institution of “gavelkind” inheritance law for Catholics whereby land would be divided between sons upon the death of the father as opposed to going just to the elder son, a situation that encouraged Catholics to convert (in fact, there was a tradition of Catholic families raising their elder son as Protestant in some parts because of this). These laws left Catholic landowners with gradually diminishing holdings, refused them the opportunity to defend themselves, and barred them from gaining the kind of training and experience that could be useful in a rebellion.

Now, it is important to note that the Penal Laws were unevenly implemented and enforced, with their particular effect depending more on the mood and disposition of local officials and magistrates than the national government. It is also important to note that most of them would be repealed before the 18th century was out, for numerous reasons. But, for a time, they left the Catholic class in Ireland crushed under the weight of Protestant power, which held all the cards in terms of the government, the law, the military, educational services and land distribution. Such a reality meant that many Catholics had less thought for large scale rebellion, and more for simple survival.

And even if they had the impetus to rebel, they lacked the leadership. Much of the Irish Catholic gentry had either been killed or imprisoned during the War of the Two Kings, and much of the rest had left the country to take up service in foreign Kingdoms. Those that were left had much to lose and little to gain from attempted revolt, and often sent their sons abroad to join the “Wild Geese” in the service of France or Spain. Such people, as I will discuss in greater detail in the coming weeks, never forgot the aim of freeing Ireland from the tyranny that now held sway, but the organising of such an effort had many difficulties and pitfalls. As we know, known of them came to fruition, and without that outside intervention or the presence of a class of Catholics with the means to rebel – as there had been in 1594, 1641 and 1689 – Irish resistance was neutered.

Other, more devastating, factors also played their part. In late 1739 and carrying on into 1740, Ireland and the rest of Europe suffered through the “Great Frost”, a bizarrely harsh winter that was extremely abnormal for the period. Records are sparse, but confirmed temperatures as low as -12 degrees Celsius occurred. Stockpiles of fuel were used up quickly, and frozen waterways often prevented the importation of any more. Deaths by hypothermia spiked. Crops of potatoes planted in autumn were destroyed, not even yielding seeds for next year’s planting.

The frost ended in the spring of 1740, but simply yielded to a similar calamity, a sustained period of drought. Continuing into the summer, the drought left herds dead in the fields and resulted in the destruction of tillage crops, which at the time were even more important to the national diet than the potato. Starvation levels rose sharply, along with price inflation for what food existed, leading to numerous food riots in places like Dublin and Drogheda, port towns where people grew angry and resentful at the continuance of exportation of Irish foodstuffs at a time of crisis. War in the continent also affected Ireland in this way, disrupting imports. When the time came for the autumn harvest, the results were poor, with a shortage of milk, due to undernourished cows and a falling cattle population generally, the newest crisis. Another frost, shorter than the first but no less devastating as it unfolded, brought snowdrifts and floods to Ireland late in the year.

Food supplies remained low into the following year, and it was not really until into the summer of 1741 that things improved enough that the crisis eased. The death toll was gigantic, though cannot be known with exact certainty: some of the more thorough academic research has suggested that as much as a third of the Irish population, then in the region of 2.4 million, may have perished. Even estimates at the lower end of the scale are terrible, and would have caused significant demographic change. Proportionally, what is now called the “Irish Famine”, was worse than the Great Famine of a century later.

In terms of the political situation in Ireland and the likelihood of violent rebellion, the famine had a gigantic effect. It was the Catholic population that suffered most, and in the years after, thoughts were more firmly set on rebuilding lives and surviving than trying to overthrow the government. The famine had practically been a war in itself when you consider how many must have died in it, and it is easy to see how its effects would have stunted any groundswell of support for any kind of violent political action. Harvests improved markedly in the following years, but full recovery took some time.

Added to all that may simply have been a sense of war exhaustion among large parts of the Irish population. At the start of the century, Ireland had just suffered through a hundred year period with three larger scale wars that had all ended badly for Catholics. The Jacobite cause was floundering abroad with many Catholic gentry attached to it, and with the effects of the Famine, the dominance of the Protestant Ascendency and the crushing weight of the Penal Laws, the popular will for violent resistance was quashed.

At least for a time. Resentment over the laws, the governments perceived failure during the famine (not as well commented upon as that during the Great Famine, but similar in many respects), the continued links with the Wild Geese abroad, the influences of foreign revolutionaries, not to mention a growing sense of nationality (that occurred just as strongly in Protestant circles) all came to the boil during the 18th century, bubbling just under the peaceful surface. The end result would be the explosion of 1798, but that is still some ways off.

Before I get to that critical moment in Irish history, I’d like to spend some time on the Wild Geese. In 1691, they left Ireland to take up arms for France, Spain, Austria and others. Soldiers, singing Irish songs and marching under a green banner, fought in numerous battles, always keeping in mind the homeland they wished one day to liberate. Those wars were Ireland’s wars too.

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

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Firefly: Civility And Barbarity In “Bushwhacked”

“Bushwhacked” is Firefly’s first step into the land of storytelling proper, with both pilots – the original “Serenity” and the second effort “The Train Job” – out of the way. And it is, perhaps, my favourite episode for contrasting the series’ view of “civilisation” with the barbarity of the rim.

The majority of the episode, the first two thirds really, deal with the barbarity, in many different ways. Serenity stumbles upon the “derelict” and investigates, less out of a desire to help potentially in need people, but to see if there is anything worth salvaging. Mal is willing to give lip-service to the idea of helping survivors, but he’s more like the single-minded Jayne then is immediately apparent: once he gets on the ship he’s all about finding where the best stuff will be stashed, essentially ignoring the apparent mystery over where the crew of the derelict have gone until he can’t ignore it any more. Serenity is a ship of vultures, as an Alliance officer pointed out in “Serenity”, more than happy to pick over the bones of the dead. But it isn’t because they are gleeful grave robbers – with the exception of Jayne maybe – it’s because they are survivors, and this is how a crew survives out in the black, where the ideal of civilisation is still a ways off.

In fact, the whole set-up is about an uncivilised thing. The derelict is the Marie Celeste in space, that tantalising mystery of a drifting ship with no crew, and seemingly little sign of where they went. “Bushwhacked” eventually subverts that with the discovery of the bodies, but up to that point the episode is framed like a ghostly horror story, with the warning alarms, tense music, pullback camera shots, the darkness of the derelict and the claustrophobia of atmo suits. Jump scares, gory reveals of bodies and tripwires that appear to bleed(!?) dominate the notable moments, with more than a few cues taken from the likes of Alien. The lone survivor is mentally deranged. The ships’ resident weirdo has an odd affinity to the derelict. Mal tricks members of his own crew to get them out of the way so he can deal with a terrible Reaver booby-trap. “Bushwhacked” could have been just that and nothing more, if the last act had focused on the crews interaction with the survivor alone, and a lesser show would have taken just that course. Here is the world of Firefly, out on the edge, where a small crew has to deal with the horrific aftermath of a terrible atrocity, and the idea of calling the authorities in just seems rather stupid. Mal’s sarcastic “Yeah, I’m sure they’ll send someone right out to check up on these poor taxpayers” rings really true in our ears.

Until the authorities actually do turn up. Civilisation, a place of tall sleek ships, men in uniform, rules, regulations and responsibilities, pokes its head into the uncivilised world right outside its borders, acting like it owns the place. And the encounter inevitably turns violent.

Here we have a ship whose leader is introduced to us charging Serenity for improper markings on its hull, a ship that has a nursery that needs to be guarded, whose troops ransack Serenity looking for wrongdoing (a nice visual contract between the civility of the uniformed Alliance federals and the barbarity of the destruction they uncaringly cause) that deals with the derelict as a “piece of evidence” that must be catalogued and quantified, not simply destroyed as something that mankind is not meant to deal with or dwell on. The contrast between the last third and the first sections of “Bushwhacked” couldn’t be more pronounced, to the extent that a brief genre switch actually occurs, the ghost story turning into a police procedural for a few minutes.

The Commander of the Alliance ship, named in the script as Harken, isn’t some green officer with no idea of what he is doing. The episode implies he is a veteran of the war, and no stranger to seeing torture. But it is his first tour out on the border, as Mal so unnervingly guesses, so a perfect way to see how the Alliance acts in such a situation, when it encounters something it can’t rightly deal with the way it wants.

The episode then becomes about this little bit of the Alliance, through Commander Harken, learning to deal with things out on the rim the way that they must be dealt with. And I think it’s important to show that, in the end, Harken has the derelict destroyed and Mal released, after witnessing the horrifying reality of the second-generation Reaver first hand. Up to this point, in “Serenity” and “The Train Job”, the Alliance has been a fairly anonymous entity, a figuratively faceless organisation, who care little for the lives of its ordinary citizens and are content to ignore problems as they arise. But here we have Harken, a man who proves himself willing to follow the lead of an apparent criminal, and then undertake a very unorthodox approach to settle the central matter of the episode. When the survivor cuts the throat of one of his men, and the blood splatters onto his face, it acts as a sort of gory baptism, a gruesome welcoming to how the rim works, and how limited the effects of “civilisation” really are out here. The derelict is blown to smithereens, the darkness it bore witness too erased from the record, and both ships drift away.

The final lines of the episode reinforce the contrast. The crew of Serenity witness the missiles blowing up the derelict, as Jayne remarks that Harken couldn’t even let them keep the salvage they pulled off the ship. Mal isn’t too perturbed: “Couldn’t let us profit. Wouldn’t be civilised”. “Bushwhacked” also makes the point about how “the way we treat our dead is what makes us different” to the likes of the Reavers, and in a way this final line also ties into that idea. Harken, and the Alliance in this instance, is willing to follow the barbarian line and salt the earth. But there still has to be an air of civility, of rules and regulations being followed. I really liked that, because it introduces that crucial shade of grey to the Alliance for the first time. They aren’t all faceless. There are people like Harken, who are willing to do the morally right thing, while also maintaining a semblance of the socially right thing also, both aiding and impeding the progress and enrichment of the more nominal protagonists. So, “Bushwhacked” has no happy ending, and not really a sad one either if we go just by the main characters. But, as Greg Edmonson’s dirge in the final moments reminds us, there were innocents who suffered and died, and they will not be avenged.

So, “Bushwahcked” is largely about the contract between civility and barbarity. But, as I’ll discuss next time, it’s also about duality.

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Review: An Honest Liar

An Honest Liar

Trailer

"Amazing" James Randi has spent his life exposing charlatans. But what about the deceptions in his own life?

“Amazing” James Randi has spent his life exposing charlatans. But what about the deceptions in his own life?

In my younger years, I could count myself as one of those who got sucked in to the kind of performances that psychics, ESP artists and other paranormal exhibitioners put on. But the time comes when, as you grow older and develop a healthy scepticism, you have to apply some rationality to such things. Or, at least, that’s what you should do. By the time I hit college, I was free of any notions that spoon bending, faith healing, divining or channelling was in anyway mystical, and interactions with like minded people reinforced that view. And it was in college that was introduced to the life and times of one James Randi, a former escape artist whose life has been dedicated to the struggle against “flim-flam”. A documentary on his works was enticing, but such projects can easily fall too far into the realms of hero worship. Did directors Tyler Meason and Justin Weinstein avoid this pitfall, or is An Honest Liar, like many of its subjects, all about promotion over substance?

Once a stage magician, then one of the pre-imminent investigators of the paranormal, a now elderly James Randi looks back on a career where he repeatedly butted heads with and outed the purveyors of paranormal hoaxes and religious trickery. Once a master of deception, a significant part of Randi’s life is also a lie, and he might not even know it.

Lacking any outside narrator, James Randi himself opens up this documentary, with a stern lesson to his audience and, maybe, himself: “No matter how smart or well educated you are, you can be deceived”. And perhaps no better man to expound that lesson. Randi built an early career on deceiving an audience with magic tricks and escape art, before becoming a man synonymous with “outing” those who claim to have any kind of psychic or supernatural power, usually doing so with a bluntness and biting wit that made it all the more satisfying, with tonnes of excellent curated archive footage doing the trick to showcase this part of Randi’s life.  But in An Honest Liar, through present day handheld follow-arounds, we see sometimes a very different James Randi: an old man in the final years of his life, whose relative serenity is torn apart by some troubling revelations.

Those revelations, and much of An Honest Liar, revolve around Randi’s partner of many decades Jose Alvarez. For a man with a life like Randi, it should come as little surprise that he was, for a long time, a closeted homosexual, and early sections of the documentary portray his partnership with Alvarez in wholesome terms. But it doesn’t take long for things to take a certain direction change, as An Honest Liar recounts how Alvarez was used by Randi as a honeypot-style scam to discredit various media platforms, by pretending to be a conduit of the supernatural.

 

The Anti-Randi.

The Anti-Randi.

Such activities go to the heart of the film Meason and Weinstein are making, asking the simple question: “How far do you go with such deceptions before they start to become immoral?” Randi is straightforward in his assessment of those who allow charlatans the platform to sell their deception, or those scientific minds whose methods of analysing the same are less than rigorous. But one can’t help but feel a bit queasy as a recounting is done of some of Randi’s more audacious schemes, the most notable being the infamous “Project Alpha” stunt, a two year deception undertaken by a pair of street magicians, claiming to have psychic powers, who were able to successfully fool a team of scientists on Randi’s instructions for a long period of time. The divide between those out for a quick buck and those attempting to construct a viable, if badly performed, study of paranormal phenomena is starkly portrayed, and figures like Steve Shaw and Michael Edwards seem uncomfortable with the memory of deceiving people they grew to like for so long, all in the name of Randi’s crusade. Was Randi overly-manipulative with them? Perhaps (they were only teenagers at the time), and it adds a shade of grey to his legacy.

But I suppose we can forgive Randi, considering some of the terrible treatment he’s had to put up with. Early in his life and career, he came to understand that being a good magician, and being able to pass yourself off convincingly as a psychic or wielder of supernatural powers, was a powerfully seductive thing, as lines of people suddenly start treating you as some sort of demigod. Some face such a revelation and decide that they can use this power to make money. Randi decided otherwise. A mission to discredit Uri Geller, despite numerous instances of proving him a fake over and over (most notably on the Johnny Carson Show, where Randi’s advice to the producers left Geller completely unable to perform his act), never seems to land properly, with Geller himself,  a late interviewee, still blithely insisting that the “belief” of his audience proves his claims, or something, his act so far gone that it is impossible to tell anymore whether Geller actually believes it himself or not, as he namedrops the National Inquirer as a publication in his favour without a hint of irony. The Geller interview is amazingly entertaining really, with the Israeli psychic sounding like a deranged supervillain.

Archive footage shows Randi putting up with dogs abuse for the crime of telling people what they don’t want to hear, whether it is in exposing Geller, or the much worse “faith healer” crowd like Peter Popoff, the investigation into which is similarly impotent: despite Randi’s work in proving definitively that Popoff was a total fraud, he still continued to operate with impunity, despite a brush with bankruptcy. Very few people that Randi enlightens seem happy to be corrected, with the best reaction usually being just surprise and disappointment, and the worst being outright anger and rejection. It is a hard thing to accept, that many people in this world will happily forgo the blindingly obvious in favour of false, yet comforting, tricks and sleight of hand, but An Honest Liar makes the point well.

Those moments form the meat of An Honest Liar, but the production team had to cast the net wider to find a story worth telling. Recounting the life and a career of Randi seemingly wasn’t enough, and through a tangled web of false identities and American immigration law, An Honest Liar moves on to an unexpected conclusion. I’m always wary of biopic documentaries that feature a dramatic ending, and An Honest Liar is one where the whole thing seems rather forced: an attempt is made, somewhat botched, to portray Randi as a man easily fooled himself, who is struggling to deal with a certain level of deception in those close to him. But it doesn’t quite work out: a confessional style interview late on with Randi in his home seemed framed to show a negative side of a man seeking some privacy, but only come out as uncomfortable and a little bit unprofessional from the filmmakers, overegging what I felt was a fairly minor existential crisis within Randi’s mind, a temporary lessening of his innate confidence. Discussing Randi’s homosexuality and how he and others were forced to hide this is one thing, but that is taken to an extreme late on.

In the end, An Honest Liar suffers from a common enough flaw in films of this type: the filmmakers successfully avoid hero worship, but most of the film is basically preaching to the choir. There are no really substantial and incisive attempts at challenging Randi’s message or career here, nothing to make you ponder about whether it was all worth it. Certainly, there is a discussion to be had over whether Randi went too far on occasion, but while those moments are probably the best that An Honest Liar; has to offer, they are disappointingly fleeting. I feel like an entire documentary about “Carlos” or Project Alpha might have been a bit more worthwhile. An Honest Liar won’t be getting any kind of wide release after all, and will probably be sought out by those, like myself, who are already firmly on the side of James Randi and his stated work.

Meason and Weinstein have managed to craft a film that hits the right notes at points and contains a few moments here and there of genuine interest, and the narrative that they have put together is at its highest quality when shining a light less on the psychics Randi has debunked, but more on the audience that sees the debunking and then ignores it, with further discussion of morality in the debunking process also to be enjoyed. But the apparent necessity of present day drama, so that the audience can feel more attached to Randi I suppose, didn’t wow me, with portions of it passing into truly clumsy territory. While admirers of Randi will find much to enjoy here, I do feel like An Honest Liar was, in some respects, a missed opportunity. Still recommended, but with those strings attached.

An interesting, but limited, effort.

An interesting, but limited, effort.

(All images are copyright of Abramorama).

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Firefly: Mal’s Choices In “The Train Job”

“The Train Job” circles around issues of morality. Namely, how desperate do you have to be, or how much are you willing to risk, in order to do the right thing?

Contrastingly, the episode also ends up asking in what circumstances is cold-blooded murder acceptable as an action, when undertaken by the nominal protagonist?

And, of course, how can you reconcile the two answers with each other in order to form a heroic character?

In the course of “The Train Job”, Mal discovers that the task he has been hired to do for Adelai “Rep-uh-tae-shun” Niska will doom an entire town suffering from a degenerative illness. Despite the loss of money the crew badly needs and the likelihood of incurring the enmity of Niska, Mal decides to go back on the deal, and return the medicine that he stole. Later, after defeating Niska’s chief henchman, the bulging tattooed “Crow”, Mal decides to kick him into one of Serenity’s engines when he does not prove open to Mal’s change of mind.

In terms of characterisation, the whole thing is clear enough. Whedon wants Mal to look heroic to the audience in two different ways. In the first instance, he makes a clear moral choice, putting the interests of complete strangers, a lot of them, over his own, and those of his crew. In the second, a moment with more than a hint of black comedy to it, he is meant to look like a heroic devil-may-care Han Solo-ish rogue type, a man not to be under-estimated and perfectly willing to, well, shoot first.

While “The Train Job” draws out the eventual reveal, Mal actually makes the decision to go back on the Niska deal very quickly. He’s horrified after getting off the train and seeing what the heist actually entailed. His revulsion is even more marked because of what we have seen up to that point: Mal was positivity giddy about pulling off the robbery while on the train, especially when it came with the chance to humiliate Alliance troops who were in an adjoining carriage. That glee extends to the rest of the crew too: Kaylee’s conversation with Simon as Jayne prepares for his “thrilling heroics” is marked by her cheerful answer of “Oh, crime!” when the doctor asks her what she’s doing. Jayne is later willing to abandon Mal and Zoe just to complete the transaction. For the crew of Serenity, stealing and plundering are all in a day’s work.

But still, Mal and Zoe are dumbfounded when it becomes clear that what they have stolen this time is something of greater value than money or even the super Nutrigrain bars they sold to Patience in the pilot. Mal describes the situation as “a nightmare” and while he keeps up his cover under the questioning of the town Sherriff, he turns the conversation to finding out more about what is happening, what disease the people are suffering from, and what exactly they are going to do now. He wants more information.

When he and Zoe eventually do get away, thanks to Inara, they instantly inform everyone that the deal is off and they’ll be returning the medicine, without anymore debate. I think Mal decided the moment he got off the train and saw what was what in the town that he needed to do this, but in a manner that wouldn’t get himself thrown in jail. Whether it is because Serenity’s crew is just used to stealing from the rich, or because this kind of job is just a step too far, Mal simply does not have the lack of empathy to leave the town and its people to their fate.

He’s sharply, and deliberately, contrasted with the Alliance itself. The “Feds” on the train fail totally to do anything about the theft in the first place, and the corpulent Commander we see onboard the cruiser later couldn’t care less, ordering the same troops to move along and for the situation to be subsequently ignored, an issue beneath his notice. The Alliance, again, is seen as the impersonal, uncaring machine of bloated bureaucracy, while Mal, the Browncoat, still see’s people as people.

The second question is certainly more complex. We have to remember that Crow initiates a fight with Mal when it becomes clear that the deal is off and Serenity’s crew are trying to walk away, a situation that cannot be tolerated. Mal is able to win out in the following fight, but doesn’t kill Crow or his goons then and there.

Instead, he tries to talk it out. You can infer some moral righteousness in this too, but for me it was more simple self-preservation: Mal knows that Niska is a man to be feared, and is willing to try anything to try and get the slate wiped clean. Crow rejects this offer, and resumes his threats, promising to hunt Mal down and kill him personally.

So, Mal takes the initiative and kicks Crow into the engine. We can view this as an act of necessity – it is easily believed that Crow is going to come back and kill Mal one day if he lets him go – as an act of warning or as an act of bloodthirsty murder. In the end, I choose to take it as a little of all three, with Mal reacting the only way he knows how to such an obvious danger to his life and livelihood, one that he would be foolish to let go – though this is at odds with his attitude towards a similar adversary he will encounter at the end of the overall Firefly/Serenity story.

Still, it is not too hard to reconcile Mal the medicine returner with Mal the Crow killer. Mal understands that, in the first case, there really isn’t a choice to be made, not if he wants things to be squared away with his own conscience. And he also knows, in the second case, that you can only make the offer so many times. Twice Mal tries to talk things through with Crow, and twice he gets threats in return, threats that could easily be made real in future. So Mal remains a man with a soft side, understanding of the plight people face out on the edge. But the hardness isn’t absent either, and can make itself evident with the need arises. Mal is a righteous man, and righteous men are not to be trifled with.

So, the people of the town get their medicine back, and Crow gets a face full of engine. And we get a good look at one Malcolm Reynolds, a man with a strong grey look to his moral compass, but maybe a little more light grey than dark. He isn’t perfect. He isn’t a white knight. He isn’t weak. He isn’t boring.

He is heroic.

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