The Villain Checklist: Consistency

Character is everything in stories, in my opinion. You can have the most thrilling plot imaginable, the most dazzling special effects, the most triumphant score, but if you don’t have the characters, for the audience to root for, hiss against or engage with, then you’ve got nothing. You need to have interesting, compelling, well-written characters. And it is possible that no other single thing is as important for characters as consistency.

Consistency – The actions of the villain must have a consistency to them, the same as any character.

Characters, hero, villain or in-between, have to be consistent. They have to act in a manner that makes sense, and their actions down the line of the narrative need to match up with actions previously taken. Consistency means that the characters are believable and, in the right situation, the audience can suspend disbelief. When the character lacks consistency, the audience won’t buy them, and engagement, that most critical of connections between the story being told and the people watching be told, unravels. Once we have understood who any particular character is at their core – hopefully this is something we have understood at any rate – we can judge their subsequent actions and determine whether they pass this test.

In the context of antagonist characters, consistency is as key as anything else. Going back to our stock villains that I’ve talked about before, the con-man might have a change of heart late on in the story if his actions up to that point have had a consistent swing towards a redemptive arc: a refusal to take extra harsh steps with the target for example, a stated aversion to what he/she is doing, etc. The megalomaniac taking over the world will presumably kill and run rampant in his efforts to achieve his or her goal, and we wouldn’t expect them to just give it all up and walk meekly into police custody late-on in the story. And the planet-destroying supervillain probably won’t balk from killing a minion or two for humanitarian reasons after being responsible for the slaughter of millions.

As we can plainly see, consistency covers just about everything in some way: the villains relationships with other characters, how they go about achieving their goal what lines they will and won’t cross. To put it another way, everything that the bad guy does has to make sense: the audience shouldn’t look at what the villain is doing at any point and think “Wait, why are they doing that?” The logic has to be there, contradictions should not be.

Let’s have a look at some examples, good and bad.

I will never not be talking about Darth Vader. His actions throughout A New Hope show clear consistency. Early on he’s murdering rebels in interrogations, and that cruel sense of purpose continues throughout in the actions he undertakes, like contemptuously choking the Imperial officer, torturing Leia, killing Obi-Wan and shooting down rebel fighters in the finale. The time will come for Vader to be remorseful and seek redemption, and Star Wars will build to that, but for now Vader is a remorseless killing machine with no problems pulling the trigger himself: we never have any doubts about his capacity or commitment to such acts, and we never question them either.

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By the time he does this, it is no longer surprising. Still awesome though.

Then take a look at Darth Maul. The failure of consistency here is actually only partial, as for what we see of Maul we can see that there is an element of consistency there. He hunts down the heroes on Tatooine on the orders of his master, has a brief fight with Qui-Gon, then with Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon late on. Through all this, we can detect an angry viciousness hidden under a layer of somewhat cold calculation, But it’s really shallow, as the failure for Maul is a more general failure of character: it’s hard to judge his consistency because we know precious little about him at all.

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You just don’t know who he is. “Snarly” isn’t enough.

I’m also coming back to Heath Ledger’s Joker a lot, because he’s a very interesting case study. As with my thoughts on his goal or motivation, the initial appraisal would say that his consistency is lacing as the character’s actions are all over the place, inherently unpredictable, chaotic. But really there is a consistency there, and the underlying consistency is one of simple, clear malice. The motivation behind it may be questionable, but it’s existence is there: as Joker kills his bank-robbing accomplices, as he murders Gamble and sets his men against each other, as he uses the mentally ill as pawns, as he continually – and consistently – treats other characters as either tools for his own demented will, useful only as long as they continue to be so, or as targets to be physically and emotionally tormented. The Joker would be inconsistent if he showed a capacity for mercy or just restraint, but he never does. From start to finish, he’s unpredictable, but not inconsistent.

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A man with a plan. Even if he says otherwise.

On the bad side of things, superhero wise, is a character I’ve talked in-depth on before, namely Obadiah Stane from Iron Man. Stane is all well and good up until the third act, when his character arc threatens to swamp the film through his own illogic. Stane is showcased as a character of financial clout who gets others to do the dirty work for him, as evidenced by how he deals with Raza and the Ten Rings: he might be present at the massacre, but it’s his men pulling the triggers. Later, he goes a small, step further in sideswiping Tony Stark and taking his miniaturised Arc generator. But from there things go sideways: realising that he has been discovered by the authorities and is facing imminent arrest, Stane’s reaction is not logical or true to the character we have seen before. Instead of running for it, or hiring someone else to deal with it or anything like you would expect such a powerful businessman to do, he instead dons a mechsuit and starts murdering government agents, before engaging the titular hero hand to hand. From being the man with a plan – getting the Ten Rings to kill Stark so that he can take control of the company and maintain dominance over the arms trade – Stane becomes a deranged maniac, without the film adequately explaining why.

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When you make this big of a leap by the end of the movie, the journey to get there better be consistent.

Similarly, Dominic Greene in Quantum Of Solace has a consistency issue in terms of how far he is willing to go physically to make sure his schemes come to fruition. Throughout the course of the film, he’s portrayed as a very hands of sort of guy, who gets his goons to do the shooting and the killing for him. Then, suddenly, in the finale he decides to try and take James Bond on hand-to-hand in a hotel that’s burning to the ground around him. It’s a bizarre juxtaposition, likely included only so Bond would have a bad guy to actually fight at the end, without due consideration for the sort of character that Greene is supposed to be. Having set-up Greene as a bit of a wimp, it’s impossible to buy into him as being both mentally prepared and physically capable of taking on a professional spy/assassin.

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Greene should not be doing this.

Let’s talk about a few films I have watched recently. 2010’s The Karate Kid is a passable remake, that has a couple of antagonist characters, the most prominent being Master Li, the cruel operator of a martial arts school. We only see Li in a few scenes but his actions and characterisation remains consistent throughout: he treats his students ruthlessly, punishing weakness and failure. He decisively attacks opponents any way that he can. While we never get a real opportunity to see him as anything other than “Bad Guy”, his consistency marks him out as a dangerous opponent for the two protagonist characters. Not all that better than, say, Maul, but at least there is some consistency there.

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I bet you do Master Li.

Then there is Ego from Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2, only revealed as the villain late on, but a villain nonetheless. In many ways, I think that Ego could have stood to have been written a bit better, most notably a scene where he reveals that he inserted a brain tumour into Peter Quill’s mother so that he wouldn’t be tempted to stay on Earth with her, a somewhat lazy effort at making clear that “Yes, Ego is the bad guy”. But that being said, it is at least consistent with the Ego character as he is presented throughout the film: as, well, an egotist, a defiant and arrogant blowhard, who loves talking up his own accomplishments and enlightening smaller minds. To him, Peter’s mother was a disposable plaything, a biological means to a genetic end, and in his efforts to get his son inside for the “expansion” plan, he just casually drops the information that he was responsible for his death. Hammy, unsubtle and a bit tired? Yes. Inconsistent? No.

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Damn Kurt Russell played him well.

Lastly, the last film I watched (or re-watched) prior to writing this post, 2001’s Shrek. I’ve actually mentioned Lord Farquaad on this series before in relation to the introduction of a comedic villain, but it was just coincidence that the film popped up on my Netflix queue recently. A Napoleon complex is Farquaad’s defining trait, and everything about him – his sudden temper, his desire to appear grander and more dignified than he actually is, and his tendency to get bigger, tougher looking guys to do all of the hard work for him – stems from that. He’s a bit of a deceiving weasel at times, and loves pouring on the charm, but that barely hidden childishness is always within reach, from the moment we first see him torturing the Gingerbread Man, to the finale wedding scene when he contemptuously dismisses the titular character as being incapable of emotion. Farquaad is remarkably consistent for an animated comedy villain, all the way up to when he is devoured by the dragon, helplessly swinging a relatively tiny dagger around in a vain attempt to get his own way. At no point does Farquaad actually inhabit the role of the valiant hero that he so desperately wishes that he was: he is consistently the smaller man.

 

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One of the great Dreamworks villains, really.

And in connection to that will come our next topic, the last piece of the puzzle when it comes to the antagonist’s character. We’ve covered goal, risk, consistency, but now we have to move on to something often missing, but so vital: justification.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Irish Commandos

An oversight on my part prevented this post from going up on its usual day last week, and I only realized this the other day. Apologies!

Due to the gold and diamond trade, South Africa was a popular destination for immigrants throughout the world, and Ireland was no exception. Settlers would flock to work in mines and elsewhere, and some would grow attached to their new homeland, and resentful of outside efforts to exert domination. Numerous Irishmen and men of Irish descent would serve in the Boer armies of the Boer War, in various commandos. But there were two “named” Irish units as well, the brainchild’s of two men from different parts of the globe, but with the same idea.

John McBride was born in Mayo in 1868, the son of a shopkeeper. In his younger days he was swept up in the growing nationalist environment, becoming part of the so-called “Gaelic revival”, involved in Irish literary societies and the nascent Gaelic Athletic Association. As part of this he soon become friends with one Arthur Griffith, a printer and newspaper writer, and they both eventually became members of the Irish Republican Brotherhood. By the mid 1890’s, his activities had garnered him attention from the British authorities, who deemed McBride to be a “dangerous nationalist”, and someone to keep an eye on. For that reason maybe McBride volunteered to emigrate to the United States to work there for the IRB, and later moved to South Africa.

In 1896, McBride was working as a gold miner in a facility not far from Johannesburg, one of the “uitlanders” that were the main political issue of the day. McBride however, didn’t consider himself as being in need of British rescuing, and was continuing his nationalist activities whenever he could, organising a commemoration of the 1798 rebellion in the Transvaaal upon its centenary, around the same time Griffith visited the area. By that time, McBride had established himself as one of the leading lights of the local Irish nationalist community.

When the war began, McBride was quick to offer his services to the Transvaal Republic, and to attempt to organise a unit of similarly minded men. What McBride would organise would be officially known as the “Irish Transvaal Brigade” and more colloquially as the “Irish commando” or “McBride’s Brigade”. The majority of its make-up would have been men of Irish birth or Irish descent employed in the mines on the Rand, eager to either strike a blow against Britain now that the occasion allowed, or to continue earning pay as the mines closed for the war. Many of its membership would be Irish-American especially. While its overall numbers would fluctuate wildly during the fighting and would never reach true “Brigade” status, the commando was still able to put 150 to 300 or so men in the field at any one time.

McBride did not initially lead the Brigade. That honour instead went to Colonel John Y.F Blake, a former US cavalry officer who had been prospecting in South Africa, and now grasped at the chance for some adventure: McBride would his second in command. The Boer Republics were more than happy to form such units from foreign nationalities – as long as they were white of course – and indeed much of the overall political strategy of the war for both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State would involve attempting to win the sympathy and support of outside powers, especially Britain’s rivals in Europe, like the German Empire. Europeans flocked to join the Boer banner, and the Irish would not be the only foreign unit to fight on the side of the Boers.

McBride’s Irish were to prove a useful addition to the Boer armies. Their first major engagement was as part of the Boer defence at the Battle of Ladysmith, where General George White launched his failed multo-pronged offensive to try and prevent the siege from beginning. The Irish were part of the force that defended Boer artillery at a position called Pepworth Hill: they carried ammunition through fire-zones to other guns, taking their first casualties in the process. These included Colonel Blake himself, hit in the wrist, and his injury led McBride to take overall command.

The Irish remained as a sort of informal guard for the best of the Boer artillery – the famed “Long Tom” gun – in the earlier stages of the resulting Siege of Ladysmith, before being moved to the opposite front, to take part in the Battle of Colenso. During the furious artillery duel and desperate efforts to save the British guns left stranded in front of the Boers, the Irish were unexpectedly moved up to plug a gap in the overall Boer line. McBride was thrown from his horse during the maelstrom, but survived, as did the overall commando.

When Roberts took overall command of the British and began his slow, ponderous but otherwise irresistible advance, the Irish Brigade were obliged to fight in a series of low-intensity retreating movements, as the forces of the Orange Free State and the Transvaal gave ground at a steady rate. The Irish performed admirably in this period, even if the overall Boer strategy was a demoralising one. Being miners by trade, the Irish were often used to guard and then blow-up bridges ahead of the British advance.

With the coming of the guerrilla war, the commando was largely disbanded: some left to return back to Ireland or America, others to neighbouring African territories like Mozambique  while others merged into other Boer units. Capture by, or surrender to, the British was a dangerous thing, as any Irish would still be seen as British citizens, who could then conceivably be charged for treason and executed.

A second commando was organised in the early weeks of 1900. It was primarily the vehicle of Arthur Lynch, an Australian of Irish descent, who had travelled to South Africa to work as a war correspondent for a French newspaper. Heavily pre-disposed to the Boers, Lynch soon abandoned journalism and joined up with the Transvaal, volunteering to raise a unit made-up of Irish and Cape colonists, opposed to the British.

Like the first commando, dubbing Lynch’s unit a “brigade” was a gross over-statement: Lynch may have been given a Colonel’s rank and been treated as such, but he led little more than 70 or so men at a time. However, the optics of such a unit were not to be discarded, and soon a “Brigade” they were. On the other side of the world, no one would know the reality, only that another unit of Irish were fighting under the Boer flag.

They saw active service, but of a more limited amount than McBride and his commando, used primarily to aid in the Boer retreat from Ladysmith when the siege was broken. They fought in numerous small-scale engagements until the main bulk of the Boer armies reached Johannesburg, and there they were essentially disbanded as the Boers broke up. Those who wanted to keep fighting were subsumed into other commandos.

Though their service could do little to stem the tide against the Boers and they vanished into the ether before the guerrilla phase of the conflict really got going, the Irish contribution to the Boer war effort was still notable, another example of Irish abroad proving a thorn in the side of the British. For their individual commanders, there was still drama and adventure to come, especially MacBride, as they both made their way back to Britain and Ireland.

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

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Review: Sand Castle

Sand Castle

Trailer

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We’re back in Iraq, for Netflix’ latest original project.

The Iraq War is already proving itself to be an historical quandary, not even 15 years after it began. The war was, in the title of the best expose of its incompetent motivation and planning, a fiasco of the highest order, a tragedy and a scandal that has marred the 21st century United States in much the same way that the Vietnam War did for the 70’s version. But for all that, the Iraq War is slipping out of our consciousness, a past mis-step that no one has been adequately called to task for, an awkward little war that few seem to want to remember or record properly. This holds true for film too, where the days of The Hurt Locker or Taxi To The Dark Side already seem very far away, replaced by jingoistic militaria like American Sniper. Enter Netflix, director Fernanda Coimbra, and writer Chris Roessner, whose Sand Castle is based on his own experiences in Iraq. Ahead of the more command focused War MachineSand Castle was a more traditional war movie offering to take a look at the US’ Middle-Eastern catastrophes. Could the streaming carry on from the success of The Siege Of Jadotville? Or is this a tired look at a tired war, slowly vanishing from the headlines?

On the eve of the American assault on Iraq, Private Matt Ocre (Nicholas Hoult) slams a car door on his fingers to try and get out of the fighting but is denied a reprieve. In the aftermath of the invasion he and his squad must deal with the contradiction of an insurgency war when they are tasked with repairing a bombed out water system in a remote part of the countryside.

I think the problem with Sand Castle, an otherwise fine if pedestrian war movie, is that it has pretensions of being something far greater, that it never really comes close to fulfilling. The film opens with the cowardly Ocre narrating how he doesn’t feel “lucky” to have been given a war, and that “a war story can’t be true unless it has some shame attached to it “, right as he tries to inflict an injury that will prevent him from rolling out. This isn’t your typical war film then, of someone overcoming their fears as they head into combat. Instead, it will be about an unabashed yellowbelly, being dragged kicking and screaming into the firing line. But not really, because while Sand Castle sets itself up in this way, in reality it very quickly moves beyond such a conceit, and into every cliché you were fearing to encounter.

A lot of them pop up here: the squad of competing personalities pumping iron before the fighting begins; the no-nonsense Sgt-Major; the professional Sgt who cares about his men; the Lt out of his depth and more concerned with optics; experiencing the adrenaline rush of combat; experiencing the heartbreak of seeing dead and wounded comrades; the bullshit mission with impossible to fulfill requirements; FUBAR talk of quitting and walking away; dow-eyed civilians caught in the crossfire; a coming of age in terms of participating in combat; a grizzled special forces veteran giving advice; and a somewhat downbeat “The job isn’t done, so why are we leaving?” ending. Even the general narrative is predictable to a fault, with its ups and downs, act breaks and ending.

A lot has been written and said about the difficulties of “COIN”, and you can magnify those a hundred fold when the army undertaking the practice is an unprepared and under-supported as the Americans in 2003. Sand Castle does a decent job representing them without descending into hysterics, and it interestingly also doesn’t really make any argument for the opposite “Grab them by the balls” strategy either. The vacillation fits in a film that wants the audience to understand how impossible a conundrum Iraq in the summer of 2003 was: you can blow up the bad guys from the air, but in the process you destroy an entire regions ability to get water; you can supply the locals water from a tanker on a daily basis, but when you ask them to help repair the water system, they’re too intimidated by the insurgents to show up; you can try and pay locals for their work or even just pay them after thinking they are out topkill you when they aren’t, but you run the risk of insulting them in the process; you can kill the bad guys without killing anyone else, but others will start strap bombs to themselves and willingly become human weapons.

Sand Castle succeeds in that way, but falls flat in other areas. Most crucially, Sand Castle just doesn’t have enough new to say about war or the experience of war. Ocre doesn’t grow or change enough in the course of Sand Castle, the war is the story in itself. In much the same way as The Last Patrol attempted to answer questions of masculinity as it relates to military service, Sand Castle tries to frame a story of men in combat dealing with that strain, and then men dealing with the desire for safety, comfort, revenge and release in such an environment. But it isn’t done to the required degree.

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While the character is sub-par, Hoult’s performance is not.

It helps that the film is acted and written actually rather well. While Hoult will never really be true Hollywood leading man material in the same vein as others, he’s still proving himself a remarkably versatile actor in both role and accent. He carries off the American jarhead very well, adding a nice degree of pathos in early exchanges as he contemplates and then hides his inner cowardice. In many ways the kind or role Hoult is inhabiting here is that of an audience surrogate, viewing the war and its tribulations through his eyes, but it then suffers from the fact that we have seen it all before. Hoult is able to vividly portray a soldier struggling to keep his emotions in check, excelling when the mask slips, such as when an air strike is called in very close to him, or when tragedy strikes later on, but the character itself is lacking: often, films of this type have to bring in the element of home life to flesh soldiers out, as Krigen brilliantly did last year, and Sand Castle chooses not to do this. Indeed, it’s probably the one war movie cliché the film doesn’t embrace.

The others in the cast have limited time to make an impact: Logan Marshall-Green’s Sgt’s has a moving humanity to him in his tiff upper lip in front of his men that morphs into a very raw emotional need in private, while Henry Cavill’s seems a bit miscast in a relatively throw-away role as a special forces operator. Navid Negahban and Nabil Elouahabi fulfill the main Iraqi roles as brothers who risk their lives to help the Americans fix the water system, and they’re decent too, but it’s fair to say that Sand Castle isn’t really about Iraqis.

The script is the other reason that Sand Castle is not a write-off. Roessner knows what he’s talking about clearly, and Sand Castle has that smack of realism in the interactions between the cast, not unlike Generation Kill, that Sand Castle is, knowingly or unknowingly taking plenty of cues from. Hoult’s brief narrations are effective, and there are plenty of stand-out verbal moments, such as Syverson’s discussion with Ocre on his pet dog, the back and forth between the US military and local Iraqi civilians (one, an engineer, expresses astonishment that you have to pay for college in America), Ocre having to decide “are you more likely to get shot in the front or the back?” when handed extra ceramic plating and a late postscript on the point, or pointlessness, of the war.

It ties in nicely with Coimbra’s direction, which is inventive enough given what I can only presume was a limited budget: the arid slopes of the Iraqi desert are  all-encompassing in wide shots, giving the land a bleak feel, until bullets start flying and the cinematography makes it clear that danger has a thousand places to hide behind. Restrained one-shotters follow Ocre through a staging area and then through combat. Ocre later lingers looking at a broken piano in a palace his unit occupy, that, outspokenly, becomes a potent metaphor for Iraq itself, once  beautiful, but now irrevocably trashed by the carelessness of others. And the combat scenes have a nice sense of restraint that translates decently into actual tension: the “bad guys” are only seen all too briefly, and in a third act firefight you don’t see them at all. Coimbra embraces the madness too, like in an early dash through a fire zone where one soldier curses a trailing radio that suddenly drops from his belt, perhaps an adlib.

In one of its final shots, Sand Castle casts a lens at the absurdity of the Iraq War in contrast to the comforts of modern life expected by western societies: as two characters discuss the insanity they have endured before re-entering a FOB, fellow soldiers queue up at a lunch buffet behind them, making sandwiches, having presumably just exited the nearby swimming pool. Iraq is a wasteland outside the walls: to a large degree it remains a wasteland still. No one would claim that Iraq was a paradise under the Hussain’s, but it is hard to still say, with a straight face 14 years on, that Iraq is better off. Sand Castle may struggle with parts of its message and narrative, but it at least puts some brief focus back on America’s greatest mistake of this century, a mistake that, in an age of a new Trump scandal every 15 seconds, is receding from view. Sand Castle won’t stay long in the memory either, but has plenty going for it even so: it’s well worth a watch despite its flaws. Recommended.

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Worth some consideration.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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The Villain Checklist: Risk

In establishing what our villain wants and how they will go about getting it, the story we are experiencing we hopefully do one other thing of immense importance. All going well, it will establish the critical element of risk:

Risk – The antagonist should have something to lose in the course of trying to achieve their goal/motivation.

Risk is all-important for all characters because it can do more than anything else to make a viewer engaged in what is happening. If there’s nothing to lose for a particular character, be they hero or villain, you can’t say that what they are going through is all that interesting. You can have the most clearly defined goal/motivation that you like, but if the character with that goal/motivation has nothing to risk in trying to obtain/fulfill it, you are wasting your time, because why should I care?

The important thing I want to make clear about this, is that when I talk about risk and villains, I’m talking about a risk that the villain is consciously taking. That is, on whatever scheme or plan they are embarking on, they know what kind of stakes they are playing for. In the course of the story that kind of risk may evolve and change, but in terms of defining an antagonist character well, I’m talking just about what they are voluntarily risking.

The most obvious kind of risk is physical. In the course of trying to achieve their goals or fulfill their motivation, the villain may risk physical harm and even death. Indeed, in most of the films I’ve been using as examples, this is an ever-present thing, just as it is for the heroes, which is why I differentiate between conscious risk and unintentional risk. There are shades to this, and often it is fair to say that the risk of physical harm is an extension to a different kind of risk (more in a second) but it does tend to always be there in some form. You can’t amass a criminal empire, seek vengeance on the hero or try to take over the world without putting yourself in harms way occasionally after all. The important thing is that it be mixed with something else, as physical risk alone is generally not enough to craft a good villain. Your action or adventure movies will often have villains showcasing this kind of risk primarily.

The other more prevalent kind of risk is what I would call “Positional Risk”, which would be a sort of amalgamation of political and financial risk, wherein the villain is risking a loss of status, of power, of ability to influence and such. This often goes hand in hand with physical risk without having its finality, and it’s perfectly fine to mix and match. Political and crime dramas will often focus on this.

Lastly, there is emotional risk, wherein what is at stake is, for example, the avoidance of humiliation or something to that effect which again, can often be tied into positional risk and to a lesser extent physical risk. Comedic villains and kids show bad guys will often settle for this alone, but it can be used to great effect in more serious villains, especially those that are meant to be engendering sympathy from the audience to some degree, or at least be a bit compelling.

This is all tied to the magnitude of the villain’s goal of course, which must be connected intrinsically to the risk involved. The con-artist trying to scam the old lady can be said to be risking his freedom and financial future (positional risk) but is unlikely to risk his life (though it could happen inadvertently). The supervillain trying to take over the world on the other hand knows he’s risking physical harm and positional damage if he is thwarted, but probably won’t care as much about the emotional side of things. Plenty of villains will have just one of these categories of risk, and the very best of them will have all three in the right amount.

Let’s look at a few examples.

Darth Vader mixes physical risk well with positional risk in A New Hope. In so far as he puts himself in the firing line three times in the movie – boarding the Tantive IV, the lightsaber duel with Obi-Wan Kenobi and then in fighter battle over the Death Star trench – the physical danger to Vader is real, and he openly accepts that this is part of his role. But the real risk to Vader is positional: his goal is to get back the Death Star plans to stop any danger to the station, and thus to the Empire that he is a high-ranking member of, a position worth protecting. In the course of the saga Star Wars will add emotional risk to Vader’s character in the form of his internal battle between light and dark, and in the risk to a family member, but by then Vader is no longer the villain of the story: the Emperor, who stands to lose physically and positionally, is.

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Well, not much physical risk in this scene I guess…

On the other hand, Darth Maul is obviously risking himself physically in The Phantom Menace, but not much else besides. In a positional sense, he’s risking his status as being Sidious’ apprentice, but this goes hand-in-hand with the physical risk to the extent that they are indistinguishable. There is no emotion to the character, so there is no emotional risk. As a result, we’re less engaged with Maul than we could ever be with Vadar.

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Yeah. he’s risking a lot…

A good cross-body of the three risks in the superhero genre is Loki in Thor. He risks himself physically throughout the story, in his joining of the attack on Johtunheim and later in his fight with his brother. His primary risk is positional, as the scheme he has crafted is to get himself on the throne of Asgard and to solidify Asgard’s dominant role in the nine realms, and if he gets found out, he stands to lose his freedom if not his life. And there is also a big emotional risk that Loki is making as-well, as he stands to lose the love and respect of the parents that he seems to genuinely care for (the sequel making that clear) as well as that of his brother (a less important concern).

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It’s from Thor 2, but it’s more or less the same thing.

The Dark Knight’s Joker is an interesting case on this score also. There is physical risk insofar as the Joker is deeply emmeshed in the dangerous world of Gotham’s criminal gangs, and later he’s going toe-to-toe with the Batman. But in another sense, the physical risk is actually minimal to the Joker, because he doesn’t seem to care about pain or even death, gleefully laughing when Batman is beating him half to death in the interrogation room. Later, in his final confrontation with Batman, the Joker mocks the idea of his plans being undone when the physical risk becomes manifest: “Did you really think I’d risk losing the battle for Gotham’s soul in a fistfight with you?”. For the Joker, it’s all about the positional, and to a lesser extent emotional risk, really, as the crux of The Dark Knight is that battle for Gotham, a philosophical war that the Joker loses when the people on the boats choose not to blow each other up. Joker risk his ability to influence and terrorize, and the conclusion shows that his ability to do this has its limits. And he risks finding out that not everybody is as ugly as he is, which turns out to be true.

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He risks getting blown up in that hospital for one thing…

A quick detour into the world of fantasy will bring us to The Lord Of The Rings: The Two Towers, where the primary villain is Saruman. The Lord Of The Rings has a bit of a villain problem itself in many ways, and Saruman in the middle installment in part of that. The physical is only sort of half-there: the White Wizard stays locked up safely in his towner throughout the proceedings, and is never in direct physical danger, even when the Ents are over-running Isengard. The positional risk is much clearer, though Saruman is never seen as acknowledging its potential existence, even when he sends his entire army out to crush Rohan leaving Isengard undefended. The emotional stakes are comparatively lacking for Saruman, who does have a back-and-forth with Gandalf that might cover this, but which only happens onscreen in the first and third installments (and only in the extended edition in the latter).

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He risks his army, that’s for damn sure.

Let’s look at a slightly more ridiculous villain next: Ivan Drago from Rocky IV, the human embodiment of the Soviet Union in what was little less than a Cold War propaganda picture. Drago risks physical pain and even death in the ring, though he is more likely to dish it out really. Beyond that, things get progressively more sketchy: there’s a positional risk in Drago’s matches against Apollo Creed and then Rocky, insofar as Drago’s privileged position as one of the USSR’s top athletes will be in jeopardy if he loses. But there’s very little emotional risk at the end of the day, as Drago remains, by and large, an expressionless mask of a character, not unlike Maul.

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“If he dies” etc

As a change of pace, let’s look at a different villain that I thought was quite good even if the film as over-rated. FitzGerald in The Revenant manages to hit all of the three risk elements fairly well. Throughout the film, he’s putting himself at physical risk, in the wilderness, at the hands of Native Americans and then when being hunted down by Glass. He’s at positional risk throughout as well, as his entire livelihood is based on getting the pelts back for profit, and if his ruse in leaving Glass for dead is discovered he will likely be arrested (at the very least). And there is a certain, subtle, emotional risk as well: FitzGerald’s entire mental state hinges on a hatred for Glass and his “half-breed” son, and he is at risk of an emotional disintegration as the narrative proceeds and his position becomes increasingly untenable.

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Still not a great movie though…

I’d also like to talk about the last villain I watched in something which was in Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2. Spoilers ahead. The villain of this piece is initially made out to be a Golden Space Queen of a people called the Sovereign, but that turns out to be a bit of a swerve ahead of the revealing of the real villain, which isn’t exactly made clear until well past the half-way point. It turns out that the real antagonist of the film, on a “Galaxy in peril” scale, is Kurt Russell’s Ego, a “celestial” who wants to, essentially, remake the galaxy as he sees fit, and needs the quasi-celestial power in his son, Peter “Starlord” Quill, to do it. The risk involved is multi-faceted. There’s a physical risk insofar as the beating heart of Ego, his “light” at the centre of the planet that truly represents him, is nearby, a MacGuffin that if blown up kills Ego. There’s a positional risk, insofar as Ego’s desire to remake the universe, with himself at the centre, is at risk if his plan goes south. And there’s an emotional risk, as Ego risks alienating the son he has just discovered, by revealing the depth of his ambitions and having Quill reject them. Ego ends up losing on all counts.

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“I learned it from you Dad!”

So, risk is an easy thing to introduce, but a hard thing to perfect. The next entry will be discussing a much more important issue related to characterisation, wherein the audience opinion of the antagonist character will be sorely tested: consistency.

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Ireland’s Wars: The End Of The Boer War

Having gone this far with the Boer War, it’s only fitting that we finish things off, even if there is very little else to talk about in terms of the “named” Irish units of the British military engaged in the conflict. Oh, there was fighting and killing to be done in the remaining years of seemingly endless guerrilla struggle, but in terms of anything resembling a large scale or multi-day engagement, the rest of the Boer War was mostly lacking. Looking up the Irish unit histories and notes of this period is a long, depressing list of garrison and patrol duty, punctuated by an occasional ambush or distant exchange of fire with a well-hidden and then vanishing enemy.

In the autumn of 1900, the Boer nations were in apparent disarray, their towns and capitals captured by the British and their armies scattered. The political leadership of both the Transvaal Republic and the Orange Free State, men like Paul Kruger, fled the country, in some cases never to return. Lord Roberts was hopeful that the fighting would be coming to an end, and that the formal annexation of the region could be completed.

But of course, the Boers were not willing to react to the setbacks in the manner that Britain expected. Before Pretoria fell a policy of guerrilla war, carried out by men like Christian De Wet, had been agreed upon, taking advantage of Boer mobility and local knowledge of terrain. And soon, the British realised that their control of the Boer nations extended only as far as where their troops were at any given time. The British, who had already been undone numerous times in regular engagements, now found themselves underprepared and undertrained to engage in an asymmetrical conflict.

The Boer commandos, in most cases operating near their own home areas, would hit railways, supply depots and other isolated British positions, and then vanish back into a countryside full of sympathisers willing to aid and hide them. There were some very notable successes in this period, as the typical Boer soldier was still more than a match for his British counter-parts, and in 1900 still had certain advantages in supplies that would vanish later. But still, there was a major problem for the Boers, namely that the guerrilla campaign lacked a strong strategic objective. The British were intent on turning both countries into colonies as part of a plan to federalize all of South Africa, and Boer capability to maintain their independence had been essentially eroded. Men fought on for different reasons, with a clear divide opening up between those who would soon be seeking a negotiated agreement with the British and the “bitter-enders”, who were content to fight and die to the last man.

British reactions to Boer attacks tended to have little material impact, as a regular army found itself unable to engage in regular battles. Lord Roberts was no longer in command at this stage, having gone home and been replaced by his right-hand man, Horatio Kitchener. Kitchener was a famous individual owing to his command in the Mahdist War, most notably at the Battle of Omdurman, the atypical colonial battle where British regulars had annihilated attacking natives. But his abilities were to be sorely tested in South Africa, where Kitchener soon found himself somewhat out of his depth, struggling to bring the conflict to a final end.

Kitchener’s tactics to accomplish this were forced to change over time. Sweeping movements over the veld could never be completely successful in the vastness of the South African countryside and the British would routinely drive Boer troops away from an area only for it to be reoccupied as soon as the British had left. Starting under Roberts and then more actively under his successor, the praise of farm-burning became more and more common-place, as both a retribution-tactic against those aiding the guerilla effort, and as a practical means of eliminating Boer sources of rest and supplies.

The farm-burning went hand-in-hand with a general policy of rounding-up Boer civilians in large parts of both the Transvaal and the Orange Free State, relocating them to poorly-maintained and sanitised concentration camps, which eventually had opposition groups in Britain baying for blood. The death toll in such camps, from the spreading of disease, poor drinking water and lack of basic provisions, soon sky-rocketed, making a mockery of any effort to convince opponents that the British Empire was the welcoming beacon of western civilization it pertained to be.

From a military standpoint, Kitchener soon turned to a strategy of restricting Boer movement, establishing an intricate network of “blockhouses” and barbed wire barriers to try and stop commandos from criss-crossing the country-side at will. In combination with better organized sweeps and the growing lack of supplies available to the stretched Boers, these policies resulted in a gradual eroding of Boer military strength, from soldiers killed and captured, or others who simply took offered British terms and went home. Some Boers would even join British forces against former comrades. Hated as collaborators by many, they had chosen the winning side, as became more and more clear.

All throughout this time, Irish infantry and cavalry served, manning bridges and blockhouses, occupying towns and farms, and infrequently engaging with the actual enemy. Battalions were rotated in and out of South Africa, and if nothing else the Boer War was good experience for an army that had become too lackadaisical since the Crimea, and would again before 1914. Few Irish came out of this portion of the war with any kind of thrilling heroics or glory to their name, though the actions of Irish regiments in the regular phase of the conflict had inspired Queen Victoria and the British military to create a new “named” Irish regiment: the Irish Guards, who joined the other Foot Guard units as the military garrison of London and primary security for the monarchy.

De Wet and others were able to launch some spectacular but largely immaterial invasions of Cape Colony during the guerrilla phase, but by the latter half of 1901 the writing was on the wall. The Boer commandos were in large part short of food, forage for their horses and respite from British sweeps, their ability to move in veld limited and the larger aim of the struggle muddled. They could, and many did, fight on, but it had become clear that the only question was how much more the Boers could take.

By May of 1902, the Boer war effort had essentially collapsed, and the Treaty of Vereeniging, ending the war, was signed at the end of that month. Britain, desperate to bring the affair to a close owing to its exorbitant and unexpected cost in lives and capital, were generous in their terms, promising and delivering on granting the Boers self-government within a few years. In 1910, the Union of South Africa was formed, the amalgamation of the ex-Boer Republics with Natal and Cape Colony, wherein the Boers held all significant political power in exchange for loyalty to Britain. It was an ironic end to a war that was, on the surface, fought partially for native rights in the area, a cause that was now largely forgotten. Three of South Africa’s first four Prime Ministers would be Boer generals. Having lost the fight for their independence, they now forged on as the leaders of a larger and even more racially discriminatory state that would fight in both World Wars at Britain’s side before quitting the Empire democratically in 1961.

For the Irish regiments then, the Boer War was a harsh, and then a dull, plodding experience, that highlighted deficiencies in leadership and shortcomings in adapting to new weaponry and tactics, shortcomings that most major powers would soon find costing them thousands of lives on a daily basis. Irish units were at the heart of the eventually successful efforts to take over the Transvaal and Orange Free State, but the war, and their experiences, are little remembered today in Ireland, which is only just waking up to the reality of the Irish experience in World War One. We should, perhaps, take a step further back and remember the Irish who were led to disaster at Colenso and then the Tugela Heights, who got cut off and were left to their fate at Lindley and who prosecuted, as well as they were able, a grim guerrilla war for the furtherment of tarnished imperial ideals.

But we are not quite done with the Boer War, because there is was another aspect of the Irish experience there. As previously noted, there were plenty in Ireland who had sympathy for the Boers, those of the nationalist persuasion who saw Britain’s imperial overreach as an extension of their policy in holding Ireland. And of them, there were some ready to go the extra mile and actually serve as part of the Boer war effort. One of them was a chemist turned miner from Mayo, named John McBride.

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

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Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol. 2

Guardians Of The Galaxy, Vol. 2

Trailer

 

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Quip!

 

My enthusiasm for the “MCU” has been cooling at a steady rate for the last number of entries. They have their strong central performances, the right kind of spectacle and tend to look good. But the same old problems keep appearing too: the non-stop quips and jokes, even in scenes that are screaming for seriousness, the bad female roles and the plethora of terrible antagonist characters. Marvel Studios is either unaware of such problems or, distracted by a routinely impressive take at the box office, don’t care about them. Well, I certainly can’t claim that anything is broken on the financial side of things, but in terms of film-making, the last number of MCU offerings have, in my eyes, been decidedly average.

And so, James Gunn’s sequel to the 2014 Hail Mary pass that turned into one of Marvel’s greatest success stories. I had my problems with Guardians Of The Galaxy – see aforementioned quips, bad female characters and terrible villains – but I couldn’t deny its sheer sense of vibrancy, colour and inventiveness in its every production detail, song choice and general tone. Lightning striking twice is always rare – Marvel are, in my eyes, yet to make a sequel that surpasses an original – and the promotion for this one made me nervous with its inane emphasis on the soundtrack and a certain lack of plot description. Was Vol. 2 the moment the MCU righted its listing ship, or another step on the long road to mediocrity?

Peter “Starlord” Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldano), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper) and Baby Groot (Vin Diesel) continue to adventure together, taking advantage of their galactic fame and unorthodox, but effective, team dynamic. But things unravel when Rocket steals some precious artefacts from a client, leading the Guardians on a chase involving the gold-skinned Ayesha (Elizabeth Debecki), Ravager captain Yondu (Michael Rooker) and Gamora’s revenge-seeking sister Nebula (Karen Gillian). And additional complication emerges when Quill runs into Ego (Kurt Russell), a god-like alien who claims to be his father.

Well, it comes down to this I suppose: if you liked the first Guardians Of The Galaxy, you’ll more than likely enjoy Vol. 2. But, if you’re anything like me and came out of Vol. 1 with reservations, then Vol. 2 will feel like a largely missed opportunity: the same ingredients cooked in a slightly different way, for a negligible change in taste. You’ll swallow it down, but you’ll wonder if you shouldn’t have spent your time and money on something a bit more satisfying.

Perhaps the worst of it is the general aimlessness of things. It takes a very long time for the actual meat and bones of the plot to become apparent in Vol. 2, as nearly a whole hour breezes by in set-up, punctuated by short, intense action sequences. Vol. 2 attempts to solve the MCU villain problem by not having one for the majority of its running time, unless we count Debecki’s bizarre golden princess who mostly just pops up now and then to snark at the heroes, and is never portrayed in any kind of effective sense.

Which is a shame because when things finally do get going – once the Guardians arrive on Ego’s world, and the paternal status of Quill takes centre stage – Vol. 2 actually does become quite decent, and I feel like Gunn should have had more confidence in the spine of his narrative. Instead, it is largely relegated to the latter half, and indeed, latter third, of proceedings. A lot of other stuff is allowed to develop, at varying speed, to muck the rest of it up.

Oh, there is melodrama a plenty here, no doubt about it. Quill and Gamora verbally spar back and forth about their “unspoken” attraction, Gamora and Nebula have at it as the film tries to make Gillian’s previously all-out villainous character more sympathetic, Drax connects, as only he can, with Ego’s servant Mantis (Pom Klementieff), Yondu tries to gain some redemption for previous misdeeds while dealing with a growing mutiny, Rocket’s aggressive personality starts losing him friends and, all the while, Baby Groot does the necessaries to make toy versions of him very popular I’m sure. The script chugs along trying to keep up with all this, but the unending bickering between the principles does get a little bit tiring after a while (another reason why Russell’s intrusion is welcomed) and you can’t help but notice that there is very little new for characters to say (and a failure of the Bechdel test to boot).

You can’t deal with this many sub-plots properly in two hours, and you definitely can’t when you start them at random points in the narrative. And you super duper definitely can’t when the entire film is laden down with comedy at every moment, the kind of comedy that more than succeeds at making you laugh, but which conspires to kill the drama and engagement of the audience at every turn. I’m repeating myself all the time with the MCU on this score, but I’ll say it again for the record: you cannot expect an audience to remain engaged with drama and action when you feel the need to stuff jokes – and really dumb low-brow jokes on occasion – into every dramatic scene.

 

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Quip!

 

The worst offender in Vol. 2 is a surprise cameo from one of the internet’s favourite quasi-celebrities during a villain monologue that’s pivotal to setting up the entire finale, for no other reason than self-reverential, nostalgia bait yucks. It’s dumb, it’s lazy and I suppose as long as people keep paying money to see it, it will never change. But its stuff like this that stops the MCU films from individually standing as good films or even the best examples of the genre.

Not that I want to dismiss the film entirely. As stated, the Quill/Ego stuff is really rather good, and most of the sub-plots would be able to stand up better if given just a little more time. Ego in general is written excellently, like in a prologue featuring he and Quill’s mother, before things devolve into a Guardians/Space monster fight, and he could have been a real stand-out character in the larger canon. You can sense the effort being made by the writers and directors here to give Vol. 2 a bit more heart and substance than the first had, with the emphasis on family and the potential depth of many of the sub-plots. Even 20 minutes or so more, to really flesh things out, would have worked wonders here.

The individual portions of the production are up to scratch for sure. It’s easy to get lost in this cast – there are at least 12 I would describe as plot pivotal – but the performances are fine, as the returnees step back into roles they are used to and the new guys bounce around inside this cosmically-tinged universe. Pratt, Saldano, Cooper, Bautista and Diesel are very much at the same level they were before, their interactions as crisp even if the arguing gets a bit boring. At times they do struggle with the script and it’s joke a second predilections that can’t mesh properly with the action they are often a part of, but for the most part the titular team-members are a serious part of the attraction still.

The others are eye-catching of their own accord. Russell is having a ball as the appropriately named Ego, and the film could honestly have used more of his sheer enthusiasm and gung-ho. Rooker is subdued for the most part, but it fits with what the character is up to here, up to and including what I found to be a bizarre comedy scene where he goes about slaughtering a large amount of people with his magic space arrow (a legitimate question to ask for Vol. 2 might be how much murder and theft the “heroes” can get away with it before we start thinking of Batman V Superman). And Gillian tries her hardest with some of the melodrama sent her way, and just about gets it done, though one must wonder if her chance to transition to big screen star might have passed. The roles given to Debecki, Chris Sullivan and even Sylvester Stallone in a three scene cameo, are throwaway at best, but at least they are able to grab your attention on a visual level.

And what a visual treat it is. The “cosmic” description is apt, because here Gunn and his effects team go wild, just as they did before, in presenting a universe that is the apex of the MCU’s visual style. Living planets abound with unique abnormal fauna. Gravelly space pirates enjoy a robot brothel on a snow-filled world. Remote controlled drone fighters chase their quarry through fields of “quantum” asteroids that blink in and out of existence. Giant blobs of celestial mass expand and take over planets. Every character, ship and lifeform is different in some way. It’s a testament to the breadth of Gunn and his team’s imagination, a loving tribute to the Jack Kirby style of comics, and if nothing else, Vol. 2 is a film that you can get lost in visually, it’s worlds, its people, its technology. The actual cinematography – from Henry Braham, taking over from Ben Davis – is nothing all that special really, the sort of competent job that the MCU has long since settled into, the basics with a few instances of flash, like the opening fight scene, a Baby Groot focused romp to the strains of “Mr Blue Skies”.

Much like its approach to the villain problem, Vol. 2 approaches the MCU’s score problem by barely having one. The soundtrack is a nostalgia-fuelled audio rollercoaster, that dramatically overshadows what few instances of even vaguely memorable score Vol. 2 has (Exhibit A: the soundtrack album is nearly ten minutes longer than the score album). Instead, embark on your cross-galactic trip with the music of George Harrison, Fleetwood Mac and others in your erars, and it’s all well and good, provided you can ignore that little voice at the back of your head saying that such production decisions are as bad as any nostalgia bait any other film has been guilty of recently (cough, Suicide Squad, cough). Sure, it’s placed and melded with what’s on screen a bit better, but that doesn’t make it any less a cheap an d overly-praised attempt to play on sentimentality for a by-gone musical era.

So, in the end, the MCU is limping on. Vol. 2 is not the game-changer it really should be, merely more of the same – same tone, same quips, same villain problems – mixed with a few new problems, like a lack of direction throughout, best seen in the manner that sub-p[lots are introduced and resolved. Sure, there is stuff aplenty to attract interest here as well, like the good performances, the great visuals, and the comedy, when it works. But it’s all so samey when compared to the first one, and Vol. 2 certainly doesn’t improve on the lackadaisical last few MCU films. It’s perfectly acceptable entertainment, but the brain is missing. One wonders if the MCU will ever find it again. Partially recommended.

 

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Quip!

 

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

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Ireland’s Wars: The Yeomanry At Lindley

In order to better understand the focus of today’s entry, we have to better understand the concept of “yeomanry”. I’ve talked about yeomanry before now, largely in the context of the 1798 Rebellion, but I’ve never gone into specifics.

A “yeoman”, historically speaking, was the owner and cultivator of a small estate, sometimes dubbed a “freeholder”. From there comes the “yeomanry”, which could be simplified as being a cavalry militia service, raised, equipped and commanded by landed gentry, subsidised by the state. The yeomanry as a military unit sprang up in Britain during the French Republican and Napoleonic Wars as a means of bolstering home defence, with the British Army’s regular cavalry units engaged overseas. The yeomanry were expected to act in concert with regular forces to engage threats on home soil, just like the United Irishmen in 1798. The yeomanry, being, of course, civilians who trained part-time and had little practical experience of combat, had decidedly mixed records when push came to shove, more notable for their roles in quelling civil disturbances, like in the “Peterloo Massacre” of 1819, than anything else. By 1838, the yeomanry had largely ceased to exist.

The Boer War granted the yeomanry the chance to be relevant once again. As discussed last time, the Boers excelled as mounted infantry, using their lifetime of experience at horsemanship to great effect in terms of rapid mobility. The limited British regular cavalry were not suited to counter-act this, still being trained in the manner of the Brigades that rode to slaughter at Balaclava. Such opportunities were rare in the Transvaal and Orange Free State. In the early months of the war, it became dreadfully apparent how out-matched the British were when it came to such forces, and how useful a light infantry contingent could be in the wide-open spaces of South Africa. The British regular army could not supply such forces quickly, and so the Empire looked elsewhere, both to the volunteers of colonies like Australia and New Zealand, and to the long-neglected yeomanry.

A warrant issued in the last days of 1899 created the “Imperial Yeomanry”. Existing yeomanry units were asked to supply companies of 115 men each, with gear and horse. These were the days of “Black Week” when patriotic fervour and support for the war effort reached a crescendo, as much to do with revenging the setbacks as dictating politics in South Africa. The new Yeomanry found itself with no shortage of volunteers from the middle and upper-class, many of them coming from Irish estates. Despite formally strict requirements in terms of competence with horses and arms, the Imperial Yeomanry would end up accepting a great many unsuitable candidates, who were soon on a boat to South Africa. Between February and April of 1900, over 10’000 of them would arrive, organized into 20 battalions of four companies each.

Many of these light cavalry units were sent into the veld soon after arrival, despite the inadequate training most had received. They were used as reconnaissance units and scouts, but their role was limited owing to their inexperience with both military operations and the local area. Men who had gotten used to rising horses in the Irish countryside found the vastness of the South African plains, under a frequently baking sun, a very different proposition. Still, the first serious Yeomanry engagement boded well, as elements of the 3rd and 10th battalions rounded up a Boer force at Boshof on April 3rd 1900, their enemy largely consisting of Dutch and German troops commanded by a French count. It was nearly two months later, on the 27th of May, when the next serious clash between Yeomanry and Boer took place. This one would not go quite so well, and the larger situation surrounding it provides a glimpse at both the failures of the British command in the Boer War and one of the last meaningful actions of the war carried out by an Irish unit before the devolution into guerrilla struggle.

The 13th Battalion of the Imperial Yeomanry was commanded by a Lt-Colonel Basil Spragge, and three of its four companies were almost entirely Irish (with a mostly Protestant make-up). Among their number were very notable men: the 45th Company was commanded by Thomas Pakenham, the Earl of Longford, who would later die during the Gallipoli landings; Charles Clements, the Earl of Leitrim, who would run guns for the Ulster Volunteers during the First World War and whose grandfather had been assassinated during the Land War; James Craig, the future Lord Craigavon who would become Northern Ireland’s first Prime Minister in 1921; and Sir John Powers, of Powers whiskey, one of Dublin’s most significant men and employers.

So well off were these yeomanry that they were known as the “Irish Hunt Company”. Most of this force were men of means, and many of them contributed what pay their got to military charity, being present in South Africa out of patriotism and an urge for adventure. While some were part of regular cavalry units and were “attached” to the Yeomanry, the unit at large had little preparation for what they were about to face.

The campaign the 13th got sucked into was one of hide and seek. The capture of Bloemfontein had not ended the war as Roberts had hoped, with the Orange Free State simply moving their government, first to Kroonstad to the north, then Lindley to the west of Kroonstad, which were all abandoned in turn when the British got too close, the Boers retreating to the next town, and the next, making a mockery of the British efforts to reduce the war to a game of capturing capitals. The initial capture of Lindley took place on the 19th of May, by a force led by General Ian Hamilton and including young Winston Churchill: the future Prime Minister noted the fiercely pro-Boer nature of the town, advising a local British couple to stow any Union Jack’s until a proper garrison had arrived. Hamilton’s force moved on quickly in pursuit of the retreating Boers.

Coming in his wake were troops under the command of General Henry Colville, who thus far in the war had not proven himself a military genius, having been in a position to help the British defeated at Sanna’s Post but refusing to act. Colvile was meant to be mopping up any Boer’s showing their faces after Hamilton’s advance. He and his men were in Lindley on the 26th of May.

The 13th Imperial Yeomanry were supposed to be with them – it has been suggested that the order to rendezvous there was a Boer subterfuge, as they had a sympathiser working the telegraph line, and Colvile would later deny sending any such orders – , but owing to delays in their being released from training camps and problems with transport, they never marched with Colvile, and were tasked with catching up with him themselves, moving out from Kroonstad on horseback, 75km’s from Lindley. Going at a reasonable pace, they approached Lindley on the 27th, just in time to see the distant dust of Colvile’s force, already departed.

The Boer’s had done what they had become adapt at doing, and just gotten out of the way of the regulars. With their departure, they moved back in. The Lindley region had been the command of a Marthinus Prinsloo, with additional men under Piet De Wet – Christian De Wet’s younger brother – stationed to the north. They had already re-occupied Lindley when Spragge and his 500 men got near. They opened fire, and Spragge pulled back.

Much of what happened next revolved around what Spragge, a career soldier from the regular military, did next. He had arms and ammunition for a fight, but only a day’s rations, having fully expecting to join up with Colvile’s larger force by that time. He could stay and fight, he could try and outflank Lindley and continue on after Colvile, or he could have headed back towards Kroonstad. Moving in either direction carried the risk of Boer attack out in the open, and the Boer’s were better horsemen (and fighters) than the Yeomanry, which Spragge presumably realized. Retreating back to Kroonstad did not mesh with the orders to become part of Colvile’s column, and would have carried some degree of embarrassment with it: the 13th, with its landed make-up, being especially susceptible to notions of honour and battlefield bravery. So, Spragge decided to pick a spot, dig-in, hold off the Boers and await either relief from nearby allies or a Boer retreat.

There was a spot, just to the north-west of Lindley, that was ideal for such an effort: a series of kopje’s spread out over a few kilometres that could not be easily approached if defended. Water and pasture was available in valleys between the kopje’s, as well as a stone farmhouse that could be used as an outpost and hospital. Spragge scattered the companies under his command to the kopje heights and other defensible positions, and sent messengers after Colvile seeking assistance.

These would reach Colvile the following morning. If the British General had turned his column around and marched the 29 kilometres back to Lindley everything that happened after would presumably have been avoided, but Colvile did not do this. Some have blamed Spragge’s wording in his message as not stressing sufficiently the danger of his position, but regardless Colvile did not feel he could go back, as a Boer force was between him and Spragge. He instructed Spragge instead to retreat back to Kroonstad, orders that did not reach Spragge. Spragge’s situation did reach the ears of other nearby commanders, who sent messages to others in a position to help, most notably Paul Methuen, marching with a column out of Kroonstad. For the meantime though, Spragge was on his own.

It took a night for the Boer’s to get into a position surrounding Spragge, and firing on the kopje’s commenced on the morning of the 28th of May. Both sides exchanged small-arms fire, with the Yeomanry able to bring a Colt Machine Gun, an early model of the armament, into use as part of the defence. For the rest of the day and then the next, the pattern continued, neither side having artillery readily available. The Boers maintained their fire, the Yeomanry piled up rocks to improve positions. Several casualties did occur for the British at this time, but surrender was not thought of yet.

On the 29th the Boers set fire to the veld near the Yeomanry positions in a bid to drive the enemy horses from shelter, but unfavourable winds nixed this plan. Spragge sent out more messages pleading for help and ordered sorties against nearby buildings and farms believed to be held by the Boers, correctly in this case. On the 30th the Boers set fire to the veld again, this time succeeding in bathing the British position in smoke.

By then the younger De Wet had arrived with his men, the Boers deciding that observing Colvile and waiting for an opportunity to attack the British general was less likely to garner a success than focusing on the beleaguered Yeomanry. De Wet had brought his own machine gun and, more crucially, artillery pieces. The Boers tightened the noose gradually, encroaching on land set aside from the grazing of the horses and some captured sheep. A small ridge ahead of the larger position was captured as part of this process: an initial Yeomanry counter-attack forced the Boers back before being surrounded in turn and forced to surrender. The following day, the 31st, the Lord Longford led a bayonet charge on the ridge, successfully re-taking it again, before being obliged to retreat in the face of Boer artillery.

Just as at Reddersburg, the falling shells made little physical impact on the defences, but its psychological effect was dramatic. Prinsloo took advantage of the shells and made a successful attack on the southern slopes of the kopje’s, with the yeomanry contracting backwards. What remained of the fighting consisted of a series of piecemeal gunfights as position after position surrendered, the gradual nature of it providing controversy: one white flag raised did not equal the entire force surrendering, and there was anger from both sides as firing continued from elsewhere, the Boers at the apparent “trick”, and the British at the idea of surrender. It was all academic anyway: with half of the kopje’s in Boer hands and the British wagons and horses captured, Spragge knew the game was up, and surrendered his entire force that afternoon. 23 of the Yeomanry were dead, and a further 57 injured. The dead included Sir John Power, the wounded James Craig and Lord Longford, hit in the neck but miraculously surviving. The Boer losses are disputed, but were probably quite low. The prisoners were rounded up and marched off to captivity, but for most of them this would be quite short: the Boers, be they from the Transvaal or the Orange Free State, were in no position to be handling prisoners, and the coming capture of Johannesburg and Pretoria would see the liberation of most (as the war went on, British soldiers made prisoner were usually just stripped of equipment and released).

Relief had been relatively close at hand, through the force of General Methuen, made up substantially of other Yeomanry. Spragge had sent him a message indicating he thought he could hold out until the 2nd of June; as it was, Methuen was approaching Lindley on the 1st of June when he received word of the surrender the previous day. Part of his column did attack the retreating Boers, attempting to intercept the prisoners and captured wagons, with partial success, before being ordered the break off. Lindley was re-occupied, with the British finding many of the wounded who had been left behind.

Owing to the multitude of failures on the road to and during the fighting at Lindley, the result was essentially inevitable. The orders Spragge had received looked questionable, though he was exonerated from following them later. He rode only supplied for a few days in terms of food. Colvile refused to stay and wait for the Yeomanry, and then refused to ride back and assist them. Spragge had options other than a fight at Lindley, but refused to take them. The Boers were allowed to encircle and then push in on the British position throughout the fighting, and nearby British commanders other than Colvile did not respond quick enough. The Boers, supposed to be defeated if Lord Roberts’ statements were any indication, took advantage of their opportunities, used artillery to proper effect and captured a force of nearly 500 men with little casualties sustained.

In truth, the stand of the 13th Imperial Yeomanry had been gallant enough by the standards of the day, but there was some embarrassment by what had occurred there, namely because of the death and capture of men who were part of the House of Lords, and a perception that they had been abandoned by General Colvile. The reaction back home was mixed: Irish nationalists, naturally pro-Boer, would have celebrated the result of Lindley as a humiliation for the Protestant Unionists circles that had formed the 13th, while the British military was soon arranging numerous inquiries. Colvile took the brunt of the blame for what had happened, and ended his career in Gibraltan obscurity.

While his abandonment of Spragge’s small force was somewhat callous, he had ordered Spragge to retreat to Kroonstad, a prudent move, but this did not get through to the Yeomanry. With the lack of other instructions, Spragge would have been better off attempting a break-out back in a westerly direction, where he would have been rising in the direction of Methuen and relief. Spragge also severely over-estimated the amount of time he could hold out at the Lindley position, especially when one considers his limited food supplies. While Colvile is hardly worthy of full exoneration, it is clear that Spragge deserves some share of the blame.

The entire affair was another marker that the Boer War was not going to end as neat and tidily as the British hoped it would. Conventional fighting was drawing to a close, but the guerrilla war would roll on and on.

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

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