Ireland’s Wars: The Great Retreat

In the aftermath of Mons, and the larger “Battle of the Frontiers”, the Allied forces of Britain and France (and Belgium, technically) were in full retreat. Sir John French’s BEF had held the Germans up for the better part of two days at the canals, but now found themselves in deadly serious peril, backpedalling while the main thrust of Germany’s entire military strategy followed up behind. The peril was magnified in that the I and II Corps of the BEF were going in slightly different directions, and neither was able to adequately support the other. In the course of this “Great Retreat”, that would go on to within spitting distance of Paris, Irish regiments within the BEF took part in a number of crucial rear-guard actions, delaying the German advance and covering the retreat of the larger force. In this, commanders underneath French would be doing much of the work, the “C-in-C” suffering what may well be described as a panic-stricken collapse in his faculties, planning a withdrawal all the way to the sea, and blaming all around him for the BEF’s troubles.

A few days after the first fight, the II Corps of the BEF had united at the small village of Le Cateau, 30 or so miles south-west of Mons, the individual battalions coming in dribs and drabs. By then, many of them were completely exhausted, having been fighting or marching near continuously for days, and the recently arrived 4th Division of the army, that included units of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was also wrecked after a lengthy march across north-eastern France. Despite this, another withdrawal was ordered, until the Corps commander, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, concerned at the state of his army and worried about its ability to remain cohesive, made the decision to direct a desperate rear-guard action against the oncoming Germans so that the majority of his force could escape unscathed.

On the 26th of August, a bitter clash erupted with the German First Army under von Kluck, that would last for 11 brutal hours. The fighting was especially categorized by the fierce artillery fire from both sides, with the British positioning their guns so close to their infantry that German shelling aimed at the British soldiery often landed in among the artillery. Individual battalions designated to the defence repelled numerous infantry advances from the Germans: they included the Royal Irish Rifles, rapidly losing men at the town of Caudry, and the Royal Irish Regiment, that was holding narrow trench lines at Audencourt, their soon wounded commander directing things from a stretcher.

The British, holding a ten-mile line, were located in largely unfavourable terrain, ceding high ground to the attacker, which made their position increasingly untenable. The Rifles avoided a near suicidal order from on high that they go on the offensive when the Germans closed in, the order countermanded in time, but were engaged in clearing a German advance into the town itself. Later, when another order came for an attack, an adamant Major insisted the men were not capable of doing so, and they were kept on the defensive instead.

The British couldn’t hold indefinitely and in a day of confused fighting, they were forced backwards on all parts of the line. Some units, dependent on horseback messengers, didn’t get the orders to retire in time, and found themselves flanked and forced to surrender. The BEF took a terrible amount of casualties – 700 killed, and many times that injured and captured – but the majority of II Corps was able to escape.

I Corps had its own issues, fighting an almost continuous series of small skirmishes as it fled south-west, it’s numerous rear-guards continually assaulted and thrown backwards. On the 26th of August, while covering the village of Le Grand-Fayt, the 2nd battalion of the Connaught Rangers defended a ridge to cover British and French troops retreating, as well as scores of civilian refugees. Cut off from command by the confused morose of the roads, their commanded, Lieutenant Colonel A.W Abercrombie, choose to move into the village under the mistaken assumption that it was empty, when German infantry and cavalry were already there. A firefight erupted, and the outnumbered Rangers were forced to flee northwards through the countryside, victims of constant German small-arms fire throughout. They were eventually able to form up a day or two later at the town of Guise, but nearly 300 of them, including Abercrombie, did not make it. Abercrombie had been captured, and would die in a POW camp the next year.

The next day, it was the Royal Munster Fusiliers’ turn, newly arrived to the front and not yet at full strength, their battalion consisting of around three full companies and a few field guns. A few miles north of the village of Etreux, they held up piecemeal attacks from the German X Reserve Army Corps, that rapidly became a torrent of infantry assaults. Missing the order to withdraw while they still had the chance to, for 12 hours, outnumbered more than six to one, the Munsters held off the enemy, losing 500 men dead or wounded in the process. So terrible were the officer casualties that at one point, the regimental chaplain, technically a Captain, was obliged to temporarily command the regiment until a suitable replacement became clear.

Forced from their initial positions, the Munsters made a desperate attempt to breakout through Etreux itself, but found the village held against them. They retreated instead to make their last stand in a nearby orchard. In a subterfuge worthy of Irish wood-kernes, some of the last German assaults were masked with a herd of cattle and, cut off, surrounded and out of ammunition, the Munsters were forced to surrender. They had accomplished a minor miracle of warfare at the time, buying up to 12 crucial hours for the retreating sections of the BEF that they had been covering. Many of the Germans were astonished by the size of the force that had held them up, exhibiting varying degrees of anger and admiration in the aftermath. A small number of the Munsters were able to escape, but were later discovered hiding alongside members of the Connaught Rangers in the homes of nearby French citizens. The Germans, applying the letter of military law, executed them for operating outside of established military formations, after a cursory trial.

Over the next few days, the bedraggled and exhausted BEF continued to march. The retreat lasted for 200 bitter miles over the course of around a week and a half. By the end of it, the BEF had taken over 15’000 casualties. For all of the numerous engagements it had taken part in, it still remained a small part of a war that was primarily between France and Germany, where the casualties were much higher and the stakes much grander. Moving into September, Paris was directly threatened, and it seemed to many that France was about to suffer a defeat on par or greater than that suffered in 1870. Certainly, few expected much more of Sir John French and his BEF when it came to stemming the German tide.

But they would have their part to play in the last-gasp military operations to follow, and the “miracle” that they produced.

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

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Review: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

Trailer

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Look at those faces. Now imagine them staying that way for two hours.

OK Luc Beeson, let’s try this again. The French visionary’s last effort – the not all that great Lucy, a film whose pretentious display of pseudo-scientific quackery undercut anything else the director was trying to accomplish – was a disappointment, and one could be forgiven for fearing that a man once responsible for such gems as Leon: The Professional or The Fifth Element was entering a nadir. Until suddenly, one day ahead of a different film, I caught a trailer for this, a movie that made it seem like Beeson was going for that Fifth Element vibe all over again, only this time with the kind of budget previously denied to him. Seemingly iconic source material (more on that in a bit), a decent cast, and a premise to hook you in good and proper: if Luc Beeson couldn’t make something out of this, then I was very much betting on the wrong horse. So, were the American critics right, and was Valerian a narrative-less spectacle? Or was it something that would get Beeson’s filmography right back on track?

In the 28th century, cocky, brash Valerian (Dane DeHaan) and confident accomplished Laureline (Cara Delevingne) are the best of an interstellar human police force, tasked with keeping order in an increasingly disorganized galaxy. When Alpha, a travelling space station of innumerable alien species and environments, comes under threat from a shadowy menace, the two agents are tasked with uncovering the root of the problem, inadvertently stumbling on a decades old conspiracy in the process.

The comics this is based on are supposedly some of the most famous and influential for their genre, or so I am apparently supposed to believe. I’ve never read them myself, and in truth I’d barely heard of them before the aforementioned trailer flashed up in front of my eyes. I suspect that a language and national barrier exists between the French-speaking world and everyone else in that regard, and I take a dim view of the idea that, for example, there wouldn’t be a Star Wars without Valerian and Laureline (George Lucas has never been shy about his influences, and Flash Gordon and Akira Kurosawa are much higher up that list). And, being brutally honest, Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is not the kind of film to make me rush out and start reading.

You can talk about a multitude of problems with Valerian, and I will, but perhaps it would be fairer to say some kind words first. The film opens on a high, a prologue that depicts the expansion of a rudimentary space station in Earth’s orbit, through continued cooperation with other nations and, eventually, other species, into this behemoth named Alpha, that eventually sets off into the stars. It’s shiny happy people here, an ode to peaceful cooperation. To the strains of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” (an obvious choice, but a good song is a good song) and with an unexpected cameo from Rutger Hauer, the scene is set for a trip through the kind of universe that The Fifth Element hinted at so effectively, full of diversity and neat science-fiction ideas. Beeson can world build, and world build he does here, between his inter-dimensional marketplace, gaseous and water-based beings living side by side and Pearl lifeforms that shoot slime out of light guns. Yeah.

That’s always the rub when you go into the cosmic depths isn’t it? You stand the risk of going so far that your inventions make progressively little sense, and start being easy targets for ridicule. Like the plot McGuffin here, an alien rodent with the curious ability to replicate anything that it eats (how? Would have loved to have seen Beeson tackle that). It does this by, ahem, “expelling” the copies from its undercarriage. So, in essence, the plot of Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets is literally covering itself in science-fiction shit.

Didn’t take long to go negative there, so I might as well continue in that vein. I could handle problems in the world and in the details if there was a story and characters to prop it up, as The Fifth Element had, and as Lucy didn’t. But the central duo and their relationship falls utterly flat in this film, in both writing and performance.

For the title character, from the way that he is written and from the way that other people treat him, you would expect him to be a sort of space-James Bond, mixed with a little bit of Han Solo roguishness. He’s an effective secret agent with an apparent penchant for womanizing, who isn’t afraid to break some of the rules now and then, just as quickly as he likes to break down walls. You would expect the resulting portrayal to try and feed into that, a little bit of Sean Connery-esque suaveness with a little bit of Harrison Ford-esque cockiness. Women want him, men want to be him, etc.

But instead, we get this remarkably dull performance from DeHaan, playing Valerian with a complete lack of enthusiasm, with the mannerisms of something approaching a douchebro, or a bad Bill and Ted impression. Beeson and DeHaan seem to think that if Valerian acts as if absolutely nothing phases him, the audience will take as some kind of enthralling charisma, instead of as a guy who doesn’t seem to notice the kind of adventure that he is in.

And then there is Laureline. The problem with her is a little different. Delevingne, last seen on here struggling through Suicide Squad as the Enchantress, actually plays the heroine fine, with plenty of moxy, the right kind of verve in the comebacks, with enough room left over for a drop of comedy. But the issue is that, on occasion, the character’s personality does a 180, and she becomes screechingly erratic – screaming at aliens, punching people near to death, etc – or numbly ineffective – like in a healthy portion of the second act, where she becomes a very generic damsel in distress. It is part of an ongoing strain of subtle sexism running through the film (the only other named female characters are a stripper and primitive queen, and there are several “Women go crazy for shopping” jokes). Valerian doesn’t seem like it really knows what to do with Laureline outside of being the love interest, and tries a bunch of different things in consequence. And, whatever about her being left off the title (I suppose I can understand, to an extent, Valerian And Laureline And The City Of A Thousand Planets is one too many “ands”), she is essentially a co-lead.

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At least it looks good. Except when it doesn’t.

That romance angle is the other complete failure, with DeHaan and Delevingne having the kind of chemistry that made Focus a sure-fire disaster in the love stakes. Laureline is, apparently, the woman that is making Valerian want to settle down after a life of building up a female “playlist” (a literal list of pictures of the women he’s had sex with that he keeps on holographic call, not creepy at all) and she does the whole “I’m not interested” thing to his face while giving the furtive glances when he’s not looking thing, but I just don’t buy it. The back-and-forth is limp, there isn’t a trace of genuine sexual tension or romantic interest. This is supposed to be the driving force of this relationship, but one feels that the two of them, and the film, would be better off as just friends.

The lack of feeling permeates other aspects of the plot two, namely Valerian and Laureline’s interactions with other characters. One comparison may serve to make the point: early on, the duo team up with a group of human soldiers/agents as part of a heist plan. The group seems to get on well enough with the two, especially Laureline, with inferring of some kind of past interaction. Slight spoiler: the soldiers come to a bit of a bad end, while Valerian and Laureline make their breathless getaway. Not another word is said about the soldiers, not between the two and not to their commander (even though it would have been a perfect moment to have Clive Owen’s shady commander underline the central theme of his character, and remark that sometimes sacrifices have to be made for a greater good). They’re back to limp flirting within a few seconds. Later, Valerian gets extremely attached to shapeshifter Bubble (Rihanna, when in a human form) even though she’s in the film for somewhere in the region of ten minutes, arriving and departing in remarkable haste. The inter-personal relations are all over the place with the main two, with their lack of feeling at times bordering on sociopathy.

Perhaps just as bad is the narrative structure decision that the production team have made, with Valerian meandering off into side-adventures for almost the entirety of the second act, as Laureline searches for a missing Valerian and Valerian tries to rescue a kidnapped Laureline, while the main point of the plot – saving Alpha from an expanding radiation cloud in its centre – is completely forgotten about. This portion of the film comes well equipped with a number of unique set-pieces – a submersible fishing trip, a trippy psychic journey with the aid of a jellyfish, fishing with butterflies, Rihanna’s futuristic sex show, and a battle with the troll people, among others – but feels like a completely different film. Indeed, it feels more like a few episodes of a TV show than a coherent two hour movie. I caught myself thinking of how Return Of The Jedi sort of pulled this two, with its opening act largely divorced from the higher drama of the films main point, but that at least was at the start, not the middle, and did a better job in intereshing necessary characterisation with the sideways plot: Luke’s potential darkness, Leia’s hidden strength, Han’s relationship with Leia, Lando’s redemption, etc. Here, it just feels like Beeson wanted to make a different film about Valerian and Laureline’s wacky adventures in the middle of the already in progress movie.

The supporting cast could be given more of a chance to help prop things up, but a succession of notable enough names get shafted for screentime here, most especially Clive Owens, whose gruff Commander pops in and out of the narrative whenever Beeson needs to get his plot going (so, he vanishes for the second act) but also Ethan Hawke’s space-age pimp and Rihanna herself, a total stunt casting if ever there was one. For me, some of the actions of the others was bordering on distracting: like Sam’s Spruell’s General character, so like Robert Webb in appearance and voice that I couldn’t help but think of this comedy sketch whenever he flew off the handle, or the weird skulking trader character the Pearl’s bring up in a late montage that had me thinking “Gollum?” in the theatre.

Beeson’s script, much like the one for Lucy, is also not all that great, with the kind of lost in translation errors that he was never displaying previously. Characters, even the human ones, talk in unhuman language, saying things normal people would never say in tones they would never use, the romantic dialogue that I have already mentioned being a particular offender. Generals fly off the handle at the slightest provocation, Commanders cover up past sins with all of the nuance of a five year old, Elizabeth Debicki narrates things like Galadriel without the inner awe. Beeson avoids having the kind of glib quipfest that is part and parcel of so many big budget films nowadays, but still finds reason to include odd moments of slapstick comedy that fly in the face of the kind of tone the rest of the film has. A late monologue from Laureline on the nature of trust and love is so insipid that it rivals Anne Hathaway’s similar words from Interstellar, and as mentioned Valerian is written as if he was preparing for a day at the beach with his bros instead of being an intergalactic secret agent.

I suppose it is visually then that Valerian needs to soar, and I suppose that it does, only not quite as high as Beeson would like it to. Sure, the variety of locales and species is both eye-catching and, in most cases, a good reflection on the CGI and prop teams. Sure, Beeson still knows how to craft a set-piece, with the inter-dimensional marketplace chase/fight being probably the films best example. Sure, the Pearl planet was a beauty, and the differing environments of Alpha make it a really fascinating place to set such a story (if only the story was better).

But at other moments, I was surprised by how not great Valerian looked. Most of the action scenes are very humdrum – a kidnapping featuring aforementioned light guns shooting slime is a good example, as is a later chase where Valerian just starts slamming through walls and the very underwhelming finale shoot-out – and the CGI starts to let things down when the pace is picked up. One aches for the more basic stuff of The Fifth Element, with its overwhelming emphasis on the real physical props and costumes. Here, Beeson has the budget to indulge his imagination through the digital cipher, and something is certainly lost in the difference. Beyond that, there isn’t anything really stand-out about Valerian. This is the same director who talks about how the opening shots of A New Hope made him instantly want to be a filmmaker, but in a film where he has the perfect opportunity to pull something similar, he largely fails to.

That’s pretty much all I can say about it really. I was really hoping that Beeson and this kind of science-fiction, combining again, could produce something really great, just as Beeson and this kind of science-fiction did before. But gone are the days of Korben Dallas and Leeloo, of weird looking golden aliens and Gary Oldman chewing the scenery as the crazy over the top bad guy. Instead, we have intangible CGI, two main characters talking at each other in place of romance and a universe that thinks one more exotic looking alien will make up for the fact that there is nary an effective plot to speak of. Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets simply falls down on too many levels – general narrative, performances, script, character interaction – for even the best kind of visual stew to make up for it, and it isn’t all that spectacular on that score either. A really serious misstep then, one that is unlikely to kick-off any kind of franchise as I’m sure Besson and the studio hopes, and it might be for the best. Not recommended.

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Pass.

(All images are copyright of EuropaCorp, STX Entertainment and Lionsgate).

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Ireland’s Wars: Mons

The early days of the war in Europe, for the men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) anyway, were a helter-skelter affair of rapid mobilisation, a boat ride across the Irish Sea or English Channel and a march through the French countryside, heading east towards the enemy. The confidence among the leadership was high in many respects, but there was also a kernel of doubt: for the first time since the Crimean War, British Army troops were heading into battle against a European power on European soil. How would they perform against an army like that of Imperial Germany, with a much more recent battlefield pedigree?

Along to help answer that question were several Irish regiments, those already in service or in an immediate position to mobilise their reservists and ship out fast. We’ve mentioned the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons already, alongside other cavalry like the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers and the North and South Irish Horse, but there was also battalions of the Connacht Rangers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Regiment, Princess Victoria’s Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), the regiments that had been formalised as Irish in the Childers reforms.

They joined a force that eventually comprised three corps with two divisions each, alongside a cavalry division and a Royal Flying Corps detachment. This was the BEF then, under the overall command of Sir John French, his brief semi-retirement after the Curragh mutiny now over. It comprised roughly half of the total military force available to Britain at the time, the rest still on far-flung imperial garrison service or kept in Britain for home defence (fears of a German landing rather acute at the time). A volunteer force in comparison to the French and German conscripts, the British Army had the advantage of a recognised quality of training, most importantly in the rate of fire the average infantryman was able to loose per minute with a Lee-Enfield rifle.

Still, the size of the force was notable small in comparison with both their allies and enemies. The BEF numbered roughly 80’000 men, which was only a small fraction of the armies of France, and their main enemy Germany, who were fielding forces of over a million men each in the fight against one another, with other armies engaged on other fronts in the German case. Even “little” Belgium’s armed forces were bigger. In the coming accounts then, it is important to note that, in many respects, the activities of the BEF were almost a sideshow when one considers the titanic totality of the clashes in August and September 1914, but a sideshow that has become a very important part of British military history.

Morale among the BEF in France and the public back home was high, with French and his troops expected to do more than their bit in turning back the Germans and then advancing inevitably into Germany itself, as part of a general hope that the war would be over “by Christmas”, or maybe 1915. But everyone was in for a nasty shock.

The German strategy in those early months, dubbed the “Schlieffen Plan” though this may be a misnomer, called for a rapid thrust westwards (through Belgium) to knock France, and by extension Britain, out of the war as quickly as possible, while a more defensive war with less troops was waged in the east against Russia. The German right flank of this attack was to be especially important, and it was this that the BEF would be up against, on the far left of the Allied line. As the BEF marched east, the German Second Army under Karl von Bulow smashed into the French Fifth Army along the Sambre River, sending them into a headlong retreat. The BEF was forced into the fight a bit earlier than expected, just inside the Belgian border, holding a line running from Conde to Charleroi, with the mining town of Mons in-between.

On the 22nd of August, the aforementioned cavalry engagement, wherein the first shots and first kills were recorded, took place between advance elements of both armies. The next day, the BEF was solidifying positions, as best they could, along the twenty-one mile length of the Mons-Conde canal, with three times their number bearing down from the east. General French, ignoring intelligence reports about the size of the advancing enemy forces, still had his army thinking it would keep advancing, and so the rudimentary defences at the canal consisted of little more than the existing embankment and a motley collection of requisitioned beds, tables and other household items from Mons. The canal did not serve as the best kind of barrier, being not very wide, having numerous bridges and lock-gates, and with plenty of cover on the other bank. Fall-back defences in Mons required more time to make than the British had. The length of the line meant there wasn’t enough troops to cover the entirety, and so emphasis was placed on the crossing points, with plenty of gaps in-between, gaps that a quick swim or well-placed barge could easily exploit. The canal was also not a straight line, turning into a loop as it passed Mons, forcing the British into an awkward deployment with an obvious and dangerous salient to protect. Before the end of the day, German artillery was starting to rain down on the defenders at Mons, from Alexander von Kluck’s First Army. French, in the critical moment, would be largely absent elsewhere.

Among the first units engaged were battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Irish Regiment. The Royal Irish Regiment had been posted in reserve at first, but had been forced to move up to plug a gap in the line near a place called Obourg. They fought back a German infantry advance that morning, but could not stop the enemy from forcing a crossing. Later, the two regimental machine guns mowed down a German cavalry attack coming out of the nearby Bois d’Havre wood.

Despite these successes, they were eventually forced back after continued infantry assaults and artillery fire from across the canal, their retreat to new positions covered in part by the Royal Irish Rifles. It was already a sign of changed times, as the two regiments were predominantly south-easterners and northerners, respectively, now thrown together in the same cause. The Royal Irish Regiment had lost 300 men.

Later that evening, the Rifles were responsible for the destruction of a massed German infantry advance against the Conde canal, firing 15 rounds a minute from their Lee-Enfields (a crucial British skill, albeit one that, due to ammunition supplies, could only be demonstrated on occasion). The Germans had gone forward in a fashion more in line with a parade than a military offensive, and were cut down like grass (sometimes exaggerated, as Germans were as liable as any other army to hit the ground as soon as they received fire, and then manoeuvre after). For both armies, there had been wake-up calls for the changing nature of war: for the British, that there was only so much they could so in the face of enemy numbers, for the Germans, that outdated assault tactics would only gain territory at alarming cost.

Despite these partial successes, the British were still hard-pressed elsewhere, and were forced to fall back to a prepared position not far from the canal, destroying as many of the crossings as they could in the process. After a brief truce to allow both sides to collect their dead and wounded, the Germans suddenly found no-one stopping their advance over the canal. But the ongoing retreat of the French Army to the British right made their secondary position untenable, and they were forced to withdraw again. Thus began was became known as the “Great Retreat”, that would go almost to the gates of Paris.

During this movement, the retreating British units suffered badly from artillery fire, being aimed from a hill outside Andregines, a few miles from Mons. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade, that included the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons, was ordered to silence them. What followed was a disastrous cavalry charge, wherein the futility of horse-based offensive action against artillery and machine guns was made painfully evident. The enemy guns were taken or forced backwards, but at enormous cost, the Dragoons and the 9th Lancers cut down in swaths, with the Lancer unit almost ceasing to exist in the aftermath.

Mons had been a battle of mixed results. The Germans took the canal crossings, in some cases displaying great bravery and ingenuity in seizing bridges and exploiting gaps in the defences. Inn line with the Battle of Charleroi to the east, they forced both the British and French back, continuing a steady advance. But everything for the Germans larger strategy relied on speed, and the fighting at Mons had held them up for the better part of 48 hours. It had also come at the expense of over 5’000 casualties, three times as many as the defenders had suffered. The great gamble of the strong “right hook” was still in the balance.

The British had held their own and inflicted more casualties than they had taken. But they had been forced backwards, and would be going backwards for the better part of two weeks. Any Allied hopes of commencing formal war operations with an offensive went up in smoke. Regardless, Mons was held up, then and ever after, as a near-miraculous example of British military strength and skill. Spectacular stories of “angels” assisting the British in the defence would spring up, and a popular story of the German Kaiser referring to the BEF as a “contemptible little army” before the battle – that has never been remotely proven to have actually happened – has also helped to enshrine the battle’s place in the popular consciousness, with members of the original BEF force sometimes referred to as the “Old Contemptibles” after.

Among those Contemptibles were some Irish regiments, with more arriving – just to join in the retreat – in the aftermath. Others had been in the vicinity of Mons, but had not been engaged. That would change in the following days, with the retreat already involving a variety of piecemeal engagements between the rear-guard of the BEF and the advance of the Germans. In these days Irish regiments took part in a number of these crucial delaying rear-guard actions, covering the British retreat, and looking to further delay the German advance.

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

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Review – John Wick: Chapter Two

John Wick: Chapter Two

Trailer

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This seems about right.

Name a relatively successful action movie, and I will probably be able to name an underwhelming sequel to a relatively successful action movie. The DVD bins and straight-to-streaming sites of the world are littered with the likes of Speed 2: Cruise Control, when studio execs just can’t help themselves. I mean, what is there to do with an action sequel, beyond the usual fare of more explosions and gun shots?

Such was on my mind when confronted with John Wick: Chapter Two, the follow-up to the 2014 film that was a largely unforeseen hit. I found the first to be enjoyable, albeit maybe a tad over-rated, but was ready dismiss Chapter Two as just another cashing in from a studio looking to finance the next franchise. That was, of course, until the avalanche of critical praise. I missed John Wick: Chapter Two in theatres but got the chance to view it recently through iTunes. Was it a worthy continuation of Keanu Reeves’ bloody trail through the underworld? Or is it all that I feared that it would be?

John Wick (Reeves) returns home after his bloody revenge quest of the first film, hoping to finally put his former life behind him. But escape proves impossible, thanks to the sudden arrival of old acquaintance Santino (Riccardo Scamarcio) at his door, bearing a blood debt Wick made to him years ago. Compelled by the unbreakable tenants of the underworld to go back into service, Wick must once again show his targets that he is “the bogeyman”.

Chapter Two enters your life with a very notable bang, as the titular character goes about retrieving the car that was one half of what caused all the problems with him in the first film. In the course of doing so, John Wick kills a load of people, and ends up wrecking the very thing he came to collect. The metaphor couldn’t be more clear for what Chapter Two is setting itself up to be: the story of how, in his bid to exchange the life of an underworld assassin with the happy suburban life of a nice house, beautiful wife, cool car and cute dog, John Wick can’t help but destroy everything he comes near. And maybe, just maybe, he prefers it that way. “I’m not that guy anymore” pleads Wick. “You’re always that guy” comes the response.

Reeves steps back into what is arguably his best role and best performance since The Matrix with aplomb, imbuing Wick with the desperately required humanity that the audience needs if they are going to ever overlook the fact that he mows through maybe 200 people in the course of the two hour running time. You really do feel Wick’s horrible dilemma, wanting out of the crazy world of hitmen and hitwomen, but being unable to walk away, tied intrinsically to its traditions and its demands. There is a palpable weariness in this Wick, a step beyond the raw anger and deadly stoniness of the first film, that drives Chapter Two forward, helped by the weasely antagonist, Scamarcio’s Italian mafioso with pretensions of artistic grandeur, the perfect foil for the take-no-prisoners Wick. A spoiled child who happens to have found the bullets for a gun, Santino is just the right amount of smarmy for us to want Wick to turn around and go after him, even though doing so may destroy Wick’s life entirely. They are aided by a suitably restrained but quite effective script, where actions speak louder than words, and delivery makes the most of the sparse dialogue.

That central drama is good enough, but the most notable thing about Chapter Two, indeed the thing that makes it a success more than anything, is the world-building that it does, the universe that it creates, as if writer Derek Kolstad and director Chad Stahelski were conjuring up something from a homebrew RPG and turning it into a film. That probably sounds terrible, but in fact, it’s great: Chapter Two takes everything that John Wick just about set-up, and adds layer upon layers, to form a world that you really do just want to settle into, and all without any needless exposition dumps or lengthy diatribes.

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He’ll be fine.

The “Continental” Hotel and its rules, markers, High Tables, homeless Kings, codes of honour and codes of vengeance, the back-biting gossip and family squabbles turned deadly, and the oh so stylish underworld that is so prevalent that Chapter Two almost seems like it is set in an alternate universe of some kind, where every second person is an assassin of some kind. And having stepped back into that world in the first film, John can’t just step back out of it in Chapter Two. But it’s remarkable in that none of it seems tacked on or rushed or anything like that. Instead, it’s really classic world building, the surface details with enough of a glimpse at largely hidden depths that you aren’t left craving for additional info. Ian McShanes’ “Manager”, Lance Riddick’s concierage, the Anne Rice-esque Italian crime families with their candles, baths and catacombs, Laurence Fishburne’s “Bowery King” (and yes, I did get a kick seeing him and Reeves inhabiting the same scene once again) there’s so much here that I want to see more of. The supporting cast individually don’t get all that much time, but Fishburne, McShane and Ruby Riot (a mute assassin with a penchant for brutal sign language taunts) make the very most of what they have.

And much like the underworld that it depicts, Chapter Two is a film overflowing with panache and confidence in its appearance. It’s the exquisitely tailored suits (with bullet-proofing sewn in), the marvellously realised sets of a sort of neo-Gothic Assassins Creed (and that film could learn a thing or two from this), the drinks, the sleek weapons, the way the villain muses on the quality of duck fat when combined with potatoes. It’s the little touches, like the emphasis on colourful subtitles, or the sheer machismo on display from every other character, a sort of quiet but steely reserve, as if everyone has been taking cues from Connery’s Bond. A montage wherein Wick gets geared up for battle, including a wonderfully brief turn from Peter Serafinowicz as a wine expert/gun merchant, is probably the apex of it, of a criminal society that is fully aware of the murder and mayhem it is responsible for, but still thinks that they ought to all look good when doing so.

As for the murder and mayhem, Chapter Two returns to the frantically kinetic action that was the hallmark of the first one. The gunfights are all choregraphed quite well, but for me it was a real take it or leave it feeling when the guns were firing, largely because things got rapidly formulaic by the time we had reached the halfway point. Wick never misses a shot and has a tendency to shoot people lying prone on the ground frequently, before spinning around and doing it all over again. The crucial thing is the long wide tracking shots, the cleanness of the editing, wherein cuts are used only sparingly, out of kilter with the usual western techniques, but in a good way. There is also a creativity allowed by different environments, most notably a mirror-focused set-piece right near the conclusion, that called to mind the finale of The Rose Of Shanghai. Aside from that, it’s in the hand-to-hand stakes that Chapter Two is at its most entertaining and visceral, in two barn-busting showdowns between Wick and Common’s Cassian, that are on a par with anything else of a similar scope in recent years.

Beyond the scope of action, Chapter Two is shot brilliantly, with Chad Stahelski showing directorial skill beyond what would appear, from a cursory reading of his filmography, to be very limited experience. Stahelski understands that style is more than just sheen, it’s the understanding of the interplay between light and shadow, shining and reflecting. His New York is much like Welcome To The Punch’s London, an illuminated, garish perfection just waiting to be shot to pieces.

The ending of Chapter Two sets things up nicely for what is essentially an inevitable Chapter Three, taking Wick far outside of his comfort zone and offering a glimpse at a quasi-apocalyptic assassin hunt, a far more enticing ending in terms of guaranteeing my hard-earned money to see it than where we left at the end of the first offering. Indeed, John Wick appears to be the launching point for the latest effort to form the new great Hollywood panacea, the “cinematic universe”, and I wish Lionsgate much success, and hope that they can see what is happening with Universal and are taking notes.

But focusing on Chapter Two on its own, I can only say that it’s a thrilling, entertaining even engaging ride, a B-Movie idea with A-Movie ambitions, that it pretty much manages to fulfil. Great script, great cast, great visuals and choreography: all of the right notes are being hit here. It takes what made the first one good and expands things brilliantly, in a manner that really makes you want to see a little bit more of the world being portrayed. I’m going to be waiting. Highly recommended.

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Yay.

(All images are copyright of Summit Entertainment).

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Ireland’s Wars: The First World War Begins

The origins of the First World War have been long-debated, and bare little going into, bar the basic particulars. In the summer of 1914, a generations worth of international and intranational tensions – the naval arms race between Britain and Germany, the resentment between France and Germany since the Franco-Prussian War, Russian-Ottoman rivalry in the Caucuses, Austria-Hungary’s territorial ambitions in the Balkans, the colonial scramble in Africa, the Arab independence movement, the Japanese aim for an Empire, the conflict between American isolationism and expansionism, Italian desires for Austrian territory – finally boiled over, having avoided doing so in several crises in the late 19th and early 20th century.

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, gradually set-off a chain reaction guided by established alliance blocks and diplomatic wrangling. Austria’s declaration of war on Serbia soon had Russian mobilizing to defend its ally, which in turn had Germany declaring war to do the same. France quickly supported its ally Russia, and in its haste to attack France, Germany marched through neutral Belgium, thus drawing in Britain, who had previously made guarantees about Belgian sovereignty. A simplistic explanation, that does not do justice to the complicated nature of national rivalry, jingoistic sentiment and lack of comprehension over state goals tied to military action, but it suffices.  In time, the war would draw in the Ottoman Empire and other powers on the German and Austrian side, with Japan, Italy and the United States throwing their lot in with the Allies.

Ireland, as part of Great Britain, of course entered the war at the same time. The “July Crisis” that came before the start of the war was taking place all throughout the last stages of the Home Rule Crisis, and gradually came to eclipse it as the dominant issue of the day, until the declaration of war on the 4th of August.

The war brought the Home Rule debate to a close, the law formally introduced then suspended for the duration of the conflict. As it would turn out, Home Rule would never be instituted in the way that Redmond and the IPP envisioned, not on the whole island and not with the north excluded, but that would have more to do with internal developments to take place within a few years. For now, the nominal leaders of both the Nationalists and Unionist factions were forced to deal with the reality that a larger conflict had superseded their own quarrel.

The leaders of the Ulster Volunteers of course issued rallying cries that the members of the UVF should enrol en masse into the British military, as proof of their own loyalty and commitment to the United Kingdom. But they did not so with immediate gusto. Carson needed some persuading to become public with the call, arguably bought with the agreement that a separate “Ulster” division would be created, and in the end less than half of the actual UVF would volunteer for that specific division.

It was not quite so certain that the leaders of the Irish Volunteers would have the same attitude, not least because they included so many members of the IRB, for whom the war became, famously, “Ireland’s opportunity”. Redmond initially suggested that the Irish Volunteers could be used as home guard, freeing up the existing Irish regiments for service overseas. But he and his followers in the IPP, under pressure due to the more open support for recruitment from Carson, eventually took a very different tack, exemplified by a speech he would give at Woodenbridge, Wicklow on the 20th of September, in which he encouraged all able-bodied Irishmen to join the British Army and go “wherever the fighting line extends”, an unequivocal endorsement of the cause Britain claimed to be fighting for.

Much like Carson and the other Unionists leaders, Redmond believed that nationalists seeking Home Rule’s safe implementation once fighting was finished – which, remember, few people thought would be over four years away – had a duty to sign up and prove their own worth to Britain. That, and with the right training in arms, they could be an even more effective opposition to the Ulster Volunteers in the future. But, in so doing, the split in the Volunteers that had been so narrowly avoided a few years prior now became manifest, as the more hardline elements, that included thos higher-ups in the IRB, became their own rump entity of maybe 10’000-12’000, still the “Irish Volunteers”, opposed by the majority “National Volunteers”.

It is important to note that, even with the split, the majority of Redmond’s National Volunteers would not enlist in the British Army, partially by British military choice, the leaders of the army preferring to trust in the UVF as a recruiting ground, rather than Irish nationalists. British efforts to increase recruitment in Ireland generally tended to focus on Ireland’s legacy of soldiery, appeals to solidarity between all of the provinces and comparisons between Ireland and “gallant little Belgium”, a small Catholic country being ruthlessly oppressed in a German occupation that had seen countless stories of atrocity – some real, some imagined – fed to the rest of the world. That, in line with all of the usual reasons men would sign up – money, the lure of adventure, etc – helped to insure that Ireland maintained a relatively healthy recruiting ratio in comparison with the rest of Great Britain. By the end of the war, roughly 206’000 Irishmen would have served in some capacity, many of them scattered across a wide variety of units throughout Great Britain.

Alongside the existing regiments, new units needed to be created in order to house all of these new recruits. The Irish regiments would all see numerous new battalions pop up during the course of the war, in an endless dance of raising up, amalgamation and disbandment that would continue to 1918 and beyond, something that, for the sake of sheer expediency, I will not be delving too much into. The scale of the First World War made the division the primary unit on the battlefield, and three new divisions, housing multiple regiments from throughout the country, were formed out of the scramble of recruitment in the latter stages of the 1914, that became Horatio Herbert Kitchener’s “New Service Army”.

The 10th (Irish) Division would be formed mainly from recruits from the Irish Volunteers, and was commanded by Galway born General Bryan Mahon, a veteran of the Boer campaigns. Its symbol was a simple green bar. Formed first from the rush of initial recruits, it was somewhat more representative of Irish demographics than has been popularly remembered, though it was still mostly Catholic in its ranks.

The 16th (Irish) Division was to follow towards the latter end of 1914 once the 10th began to get filled out, and it too was formed around a core of National Volunteer recruits, though one of its three battalions had a distinctive Ulster character in the form of two Inniskilling battalions. It was initially commanded by Tipperary General William Bernard Hickie, a future Irish Senator and Boer War veteran. Its symbol was the Shamrock.

Both the 10th and 16th would have issues getting Irish officers to fill their leadership positions, partially due to the distrust emanating from higher command, partly due to the lack of qualified men coming from the National Volunteers. Hopes that the National Volunteers would be a new “Irish Brigade” were largely dashed by an authority that was hesitant to create what Redmond may well have hoped would be a Home Rule Irish Army in waiting.

The 36th (Ulster) Division was, as the name would indicate, meant as the primary destination for Ulster natives of a Protestant persuasion. Alongside several pre-existing battalions, this unit would eventually host a large amount of the 60’000 Ulster-born soldiers who served in British uniform during the war, commanded for the most part by English-born General C.H Powell. Its symbol was the Red Hand of Ulster.

Numerous other Irish regiments and battalions would serve in other divisions of the British Army, meaning that the scope of Irish involvement in the war, in terms of named units, cannot be condensed to the divisions. Separate battalions of the pre-existing Royal Munster Fusiliers for example, would start their World War One experience in the 1st and 29th United Kingdom Divisions while their “New Army” counterparts were scattered around the 10th and 16th Irish divisions. The existing Irish regiments would eventually come to serve in 12 different Infantry divisions, their ranks swelled by returning reservists. My great-grandfather, Patrick Costelloe, would have been one of those reporting to the RMF at Fermoy over a decade after his service had ended, and rapidly deployed. We must also not forget the four Irish cavalry regiments that would fight in the war, nor the units that would come out of predominantly Irish communities in London, Newcastle and Liverpool.

To adequately cover every single named Irish unit, be they division, brigade, battalion or regiment, is a task that is beyond me, unless I wanted to still be writing about the First World War five years from now. Instead, I will dedicate myself to providing a concise picture of the Irish experience, working on a loose chronological basis, and focusing particularly on some of the more well-known actions that they were involved.

And those actions would begin very quickly. Some Irish units were disembarking on French soil little more than a week after the British declaration of war. On the 22nd of August, the first time that a British unit would come into contact with a German one would be when a cavalry squadron ambushed an enemy patrol while on the Mons-Charlois road. The Germans fled; a Corporal Edward Thomas shot an enemy cavalryman as they retreated, the first British shot of the war in Europe, while Captain Charles Beck Hornby, using a cavalry sabre, achieved the first kill. Both men were English by birth, but the unit was the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons.

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

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Review: Dunkirk

Dunkirk

Trailer

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Take it in.

It’s been a while since I went into a film with expectations this sky-high. It isn’t just that it’s a film about Dunkirk, that pivotal moment in the western democracies’ World War II experience. It isn’t just that it’s Christopher Nolan, easily one of my favourite directors ever, who has been wowing me for years between Batmen and dream heists. It isn’t just that it’s Tom Hardy and Mark Rylance and Cillian Murphy and Kenneth Branagh, all actors I have great respect and admiration for.

It’s that, for the first time in a while, it’s a film whose unanamious praise from the critical community, without any disqualifying addenedums, makes it out to be literally one of the greatest films ever made. I went into Dunkirk a week or so after this critical dogpile of postivity, and was geneinely worried that it would be an overhyped experience. But I still couldn’t help myself. This moment in history, this director, this cast, and all in the IFI provided 70mm format. Is Dunkirk every bit the epic it portends to be?

France 1940: After the military disaster that has seen the German Army over-run huge swaths of France, the British Expeditionary Force finds itself trapped on the beaches of Dunkirk, awaiting a deliverance that seems unlikely to come. The story unfolds from three perspectives: On the beach, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead) and Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) endure the Stuka dive bomb attacks and sinking ships; in the air, Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) protects the vessels evacuating troops, with an ever-decreasing amount of fuel; at sea, Mr Dawson (Mark Rylance) takes his small yacht across the English Channel to save whomever he can. With the Germans closing in on all sides, survival is victory.

I said it’s been a while since I went into a film with such high expectations. And it’s been a while since they have been overwhelmingly met, in this fashion. On just about every single level, Dunkirk is a masterful triumph, any review of which is in danger of being a mere cavalcade of superlatives.

Right from the start, with a limited narrative crawl – that only refers to the Germans as “the enemy”, something the rest of the film, focused overwhelmingly on the British, follows on with – and then a short, sharp brutish firefight in the streets of Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan drops you into the experience of being a lowly British soldier, lost among the crowd of other soldiers amassed on Dunkirk beach, waiting for a rescue with dwindling hope. The silent lines of soldiery let the waves wash over them, non-caring. Corpses are shamelessly looted. Some men, maddened by the limbo they are lost in, drop their guns and helmets to try and swim their way home.

And then the first bombing run from a Stuka comes, and that’s the moment you’ll realise you’re not watching just any old recreation of a famous wartime event. You’re watching nothing less than a supreme effort to recreate the sounds and sights of wartime for a modern-day audience, right down to the dragon-like roar of the German planes as they swoop over the helpless British soldiers. Nolan wants you there, and you will be there, cowering in the theatre from this rush of noise, the crescendo of bombs of dropped bombs edging ever closer, the sound and fury of battle exemplified in a way that no other film, not even Saving Private Ryan, has been able to do.

From there, a loose non-linear narrative kicks in, split between the beach, the sky and the land. The nature of the narrative can be a tad confusing at moments, at least up to the halfway point, but once you settle in and things start matching up, it’s no longer such a big deal, a flaw that barely merits discussion. Nolan wants you upfront for every aspect of what made Dunkirk famous, and this is how he does it. The editing is a wonder, with 106-minute running time somewhat astonishing in a day and age where every other blockbuster is breaching the two hour mark.

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Fionn Whitehead is going to be a star, I just know it.

Much has been said already about how Dunkirk’s character are generally wanting in the characterisation department, and that’s quite true. I’m not even sure if Tommy is ever even named in the course of the film for example, and the amount of dialogue he shares with other characters could be written on a single page. Farrier never says anything other than RAF-speak in the cockpit, and even Rylance’s Dawson, who gets more lines than most other characters put together, is underwritten. What’s masterful is how this doesn’t matter at all, because Dunkirk is not a character study or wartime drama, it’s just wartime: all we need to know is the initial goal of these characters, and all we need after that is enough for us to want them to get home alive. In every desperate glance, be it at an oncoming torpedo, a Messerschmitt in the rearview mirror, or a crazed soldier threatening to sink your boat, Dunkirk gives us that.

And while the film can’t claim to have any fully three-dimensional characters, in many ways you can argue that the film only has one character, that of the British military itself, be it Army, Navy, Air Force, or its veterans. Seen through such a lens, Dunkirk is a brilliant character study of a single entity (I mean the primary character is named “Tommy” for one) on the brink of disaster, showcasing heroism, cowardice, ingenuity, recklessness, loyalty, suspicion, strength and weakness, all in equal measures, all serving to craft a portrait of a military and a nation at large, reacting to the very real and seemingly imminent possibility of their own destruction.

As a tribute to the “Blitz spirit”, that can be said to have begun with the evacuation of Dunkirk, the film is an admirable, and only on occasion saccharine, tribute to the commitment and bravery of the British people (it’s the year for it, with Their Finest being another great look at the period from a very different direction, and the upcoming Darkest Hour potentially also making it onto that list, an “Operation Dynamo” trilogy as it were).

The different strands of the trifecta still allow for separate moments of high drama and tension. The Mole, in some ways the main event, is where we witness the crux of the survival story, as Tommy, Gibson and later Alex (Harry Styles, though barely recognisable) attempt over and over again to get off the beach and get home, by increasingly desperate and eventually near-murderous means. It’s a look at a defeated army coming apart at the seams and the tension is driven by individual reactions as much as the actual dropping of bombs and torpedoes. It’s the equal or better of many other survival stories, driven by remarkably under-stated performances from Whitehead, Barnard and Styles, who grab a hold of your heart with their desperate plight, that simple desire for the nightmare to just be over.

The sequences focusing on the common soldiers are balanced out by Kenneth Branagh’s Commander on the Mole itself, and his interjections with James D’Arcy’s Army Colonel. These serve admirably as tense but needed breaks from the direct life and death peril, and to fill you in on what scant bits of exposition Nolan is willing to ladle out.  They also allow for brief but necessary acknowledgements for how the French held the line around Dunkirk long enough for the British to escape, without getting near the same kind of courtesy from their Allies. Branagh, as he seems to do so effortlessly at times, imbues “Bolton” with a quiet dignity and heroism even as things fall apart around him, the epitome of British military “stiff upper lip”, but D’Arcy too should be praised as a competent but panicky soldier facing the loss of his entire army.

In the air, it’s the Tom Hardy show, almost the entirety of his scenes inside the narrow cockpit of Spitfire Supermarine, one of the few the RAF deigns to release to defend the skies above and near the beach. Here, the cinematography and music are at their finest to drive things forward, notwithstanding the goosebumps Hardy can give you with just a look in his eyes or a glance at the fuel gauge. Never have I seen aerial dogfighting produced in so engaging a fashion, as to really put you into the seat of a pilot whose every shot could be the last he squeezes off. As his fuel reserves decrease, and the situation remains perilous, you’re swept up in the dilemma Hardy’s Farrier faces, to turn back for home and leave the soldiers and sailors to the mercy of the Luftwaffe, or keep going, knowing that, eventually, your engine is going to stop turning.

And then there is the sea, the dramatisation of the “Little Boats”, in this case the Moonstone of Mr Dawson and his son, with local boy George (Ireland’s own Barry Keoghan, who can hopefully shed the unwelcome moniker he garnered from Love/Hate) jumping onboard out of a desire to prove himself a hero. It’s here that Dunkirk moves its closest to the kind of stereotypical war film-making that so defines the genre: unexpected heroism, loss of idealism and innocence, crazed “shell-shocked” soldiers. But the twists and turns, not to mention how it all interacts with everything else, combine to make the Moonstone’s voyage as gripping and eventful as anything else in Dunkirk, helped ably by Cillian Murphy as the aforementioned soldier who would rather not be heading back to France.

In its three and a bit narratives, Dunkirk is not really interested in glorifying the military, not really. In the case of the soldiers, there’s plenty of dishonourable dealings and running away to be spotted. But in terms of portraying this race for survival, and how survival itself is “enough”, as one lately introduced character espouses, Nolan showcases the kind of humanity and character that other films can only dream of doing. The men of Dunkirk are just ordinary people trying to stay alive, and sometimes making difficult choices. That’s why your brain and your heart will latch themselves onto their chances of survival, and why you’ll wince and tremor at every gunshot, bomb splash and roaring Stuka siren. The film does ask, pointedly, if men like those depicted are heroes for what they have done, and if the British public’s adulation of the survivors is justified. No answers are given to the question, just the comparisons with other kinds of bravery being shown in other parts of the film.

Nolan’s visual direction, with Hoyte van Hoytema in the cinematographers chair, is easily one of the greatest examples of the art ever put to film. We’ve seen scope for action in the Dark Knight trilogy, the mind-bending in Inception, the cosmic in Interstellar, but never has Nolan put forth his powers like this, demonstrating his mastery of the wide and the small, the expansive and the intimate. On this journey, he shows us the waves of humanity on the beach from on high, and the grimy sweat and oil-soaked faces below, kited out and made-up to perfection by a production department working their socks off. We see the great wide open of the sky, and the stuffy, claustrophobic environment of the Spitfire cockpit. We see the swallowing enormity of the sea, eating up downed planes and sinking ships alike, and we see the cramped, overcrowded cabins of pleasure yachts groaning with rescued soldiers.

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The Moonstone segments have the most dialogue, and no shortage of their own drama.

I was lucky in that a 70mm option was available to me through the IFI cinema, and I’m delighted for that chance, as the film leaps off the screen wonderfully in the classic format. There’s so much to talk about on a visual level, that it’s hard to know where to stop. That first gasping run onto the beach perhaps, or the way that Nolan’s framing of the dogfights draws your eye all over the screen as if you are the pilot yourself. Maybe the grappling horror of a sinking destroyer’s interior and the men and women trapped inside, or the packed line of men on the Mole dipping down in a wave as the Stuka’s approach. Maybe the Little Boats emerging out of the fog in a moment of pure catharsis or the trudging soldiers in the railyard, moving towards an uncertain future.

What “action” that there is, is far from the traditional gunplay. “The enemy” is only seen in the form of Messerschmitt’s, Stukas and Heinkel’s, never as men, their gunshots and artillery strikes coming from off-screen, usually as the principals cower or flee. Instead, the film is driven by our look at reactions and Nolan’s own form of kinetic, frantic cinematography, where the madness of explosions, blood and roaring water fill your head with terror-struck confusion and fear. This is Christopher Nolan, at the height of his directorial ability, demonstrating more than he ever has before his pre-eminence in the craft.

But all of the glorious cinematography would go to waste if it didn’t have the sound design and score to go with it, but boy does Dunkirk have it. It’s rare on this site that I talk about sound outside of score, but I simply have to here: every bang from a gun, every crash of a wave, every deafening, heart-stopping roar of a plane engine is designed and executed to absolute perfection in this film. The sounds of war have been replicated and instituted in such a manner that you could close your eyes and still get something very important out of Dunkirk.

Then step forward Hanz Zimmer, with what might be his most ambitious and inventive score since, well, Inception. No settling for the traditional booming horns and sweeping violins of the war genre, instead we get something altogether unique, almost futuristic, utilising electronic influences at every turn, every moment of music designed to hypnotise the ear and inspire dread, fear, relief and then dread again. It’s a masterful intermeshing of score and visuals, exemplified best by the ticking clock motif that rallies again and again throughout Dunkirk, driving your heartbeat up and your emotions to a frenzy, a sound that will likely reverberate in your ears days after the screening. It drives the central tension of the film so well, the idea that time is quite literally running out for men in Dunkirk or the pilots in the air or the sailors on the pleasure yachts. The enemy is closing the ring all the time, the U-Boats prowl under the waves, there’s always another Messerschmitt or Stuka or Heinkel, and Hanz Zimmer is committed to the idea that the audience should never be allowed to forget this encroaching reality, not for a moment.

Taken together – plot, performances, visuals, sound, score – and Dunkirk really is more of an experience than a film. I have never been in a firefight, or a battle, or a sinking ship, and I hope I never am, but if film is ever going to create something that I would imagine as a close representation of such an event, then Dunkirk would be it. Every production elemt merges with the others to create a whole that is simply wondrous.

Moving towards a conclusion, I must make three solid declarations:

This is the greatest war film I have ever seen. Direct comparisons to the likes of Saving Private Ryan, Krigen or Der Untergang would be unfair, as they use more traditional narratives and structures, but in terms of depicting warfare and the men and women who endure it, nothing matches Dunkirk.

This is the film of the year. The idea that anything coming out for the next five or so months can best it is heresy. Dunkirk cannot be compared to the MCU’s and the Star Wars and Oscar baits of this world. It’s on a different level entirely. It’s a true epic, in every sense of the term. That contest is over.

This is one of the greatest films I have ever seen. Everything about it is masterful. Everything. It grabbed a hold of me almost immediately and didn’t let go until that infernal ticking stopped. At different points, it made me gasp, shrink and almost cheer. It elated and deflated. It made me teary-eyed, and it made my heart race. Only a handful of films can ever claim to have had such an effect on me.

What else is there to say? Go and see this film. Even if war films aren’t your cup of tea, even if you prefer your film experiences to be more relaxing. Something about Dunkirk will be lost in the transition to the small-screen – not enough to ruin it, not even close, but enough that it will be noticeable – and you will regret not taking a hold of the opportunity to see one of eras greatest cinema offerings the way that the mastermind behind it wants you to see it. Everything about it is near perfection. Highly, highly recommended.

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A masterpiece.

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

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Review: Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage

Trailer

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In a confluence of culture and language, a party of monks takes a trip to Waterford.

Ireland in the early 13th century was a fascinating, and very under-appreciated, historical period. Our understanding of what the situation in Ireland was like at that time is simplistic, in my opinion. Some people tend to think that Ireland was conquered by the “English” in 1169, and was oppressed from then to 1922, but the truth is far more complex. It took centuries for Anglo-Norman dominance over Ireland to be made total – indeed, they weren’t even Anglo-Normans when they were finished – and during that process Ireland was very much the wild west of the day, the edge of civilisation, where law and order extended only as far as the walls of a motte and bailey. There and then, Ireland was a potent, competing and often violent mix of Gaelic, Norman, Norse and Catholic cultures. And it is this world that director Brendan Muldowney, with writer Jamie Hannigan, decided to set his tale of clerical questing. The opportunities here for spectacular story-telling are immense, as are the risks of sentimentality and overly-violent bloodbath film-making. With a surprisingly decent central cast and the backing of the IFB and BAI, was Pilgrimage another Irish film triumph, or a forgettable trudge through the realm of “historical action”?

Ireland, 1209: A Cistercian Monk (Stanley Weber) arrives at an isolated monastery, tasked with transporting a holy relic from there to Rome. Among those going with him on the journey south will be young monk Diarmuid (Tom Holland) and a mute stranger with a violent past (Jon Bernthal). Along the way, they face many dangers, not least the conflict between a rampaging Irish warband and a group of Norman warriors, led by the cruel Raymond (Richard Armitage).

Violence begets violence, would seem to be one of the primary messages of Pilgrimage, which opens with a first century stoning shown in brutal detail, a moment that sets off an historical chain reaction that ends with three different factions killing each other a millennium later, nominally over a “relic” of the first killing. But in reality, they’re killing each other over something that is both grander and lesser: faith, be it in a higher power, or in your own power.

The cipher for this story is Tom Holland’s Diarmuid, a naïve young novice monk who has never left the bare scrap of land his west-coast monastery clings to – exactly the reason he needs to go on the journey, his Master muses thoughtfully – and who imbues the larger story with a coming-of-age plot. He acts as both an audience surrogate and driving moral force of the film, unless his morals get stripped away by what he is witnessing around him. It’s a “loss of innocence” narrative in many ways, and Holland is suited for it, adding something quite important to the “quest” plot, in a quiet and mostly understated performance, absent of the peppy charm from Spider-Man: Homecoming, but no less endearing in many ways.

Alongside him is Jon Bernthal, known only as “the Mute”. The character’s backstory is only hinted at, but is largely predictable when it comes right down to it, and in many ways Bernthal’s presence seems largely to be just so the filmmakers can have a suitable person to start swinging swords in a violent manner when the time calls. Bernthal does try to make the absolute most of what he is given here, but he isn’t quite good enough an actor to make a tour de force out of such a part. Much like some of the Norman characters, the Mute has a kind of agnostic quality to him, combined with some past trauma undoubtedly connected to the Crusades, which does add significantly to a character in need of such rounding out. The Mute serves as an interesting addendum to the action, but the film works better when it focuses on Diarmuid and Geraldus, the third part in the main cast trinity, a monk whose creeping motivations and true faith serve to keep things interesting well into the third act, a representation of the slippery character of the Church in those days, ably played by the unknown Weber.

In Pilgrimage, and in the setting, the Catholic religion comes smack up against ancient mysticism, and struggles to get by. There are constant references to the Holy War being waged to the far east, but in the far west the Church isn’t exactly stamping its authority either. The Irish monks are wary of fairy forts and doors, mush to the disgust of Geraldus, most notably in a scene involving whether to take water from a stream supposedly cursed by Gaelic legend. This could easily be portrayed in a twee, eye-rolley manner, but Pilgrimage takes a different tack, with the older Gaelic culture a vague, shadowy force that indicates little but doom for the Catholics trudging through the countryside.

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Violence begetted by violence is never far away in Pilgrimage.

It comes down to faith for many, such as John Lynch’s excellent senior monk, and even Diarmuid’s quieter, inexperienced kind. But for others, like Geraldus, it’s terror, a terror of what might be coming in the afterlife, and what might befall anyone who takes a wrong step in the kind of world that he inhabits. The Church is a distant power in Pilgrimage, but a power nonetheless. Part of what makes Geraldus so interesting is in seeing someone with first-hand experience of the power of the Church deal with being in a land where that power barely exists. In this world, the Church is not just a thing to be revered and to have faith placed in, it’s something to obey and be subservient to. As Geraldus himself puts it, in reference to someone burned at the stake for heresy, “He didn’t lose his faith in the church, he lost his fear of it”.

It’s a suitable footnote to the situation in Ireland today in some respects, to remember that there was a time when the Church had the power of life and death over its subjects (and that’s what they were). More agnostic characters, like Richard Armitage’s fearsome Raymond, a Norman knight with little time for relics beyond the personal gain he can get from them, have no fear of what the Church represents at all, but in not so empowering a way: instead, perhaps having spent too long on the frontier of civilisation, they have abandoned any respect for law and order in its entirety.

But beyond effective commentary on the Catholic Church and where it has been in its grimy, sordid past, there is the focus on Ireland in 1209, the “end of the world” as Geraldus calls it, a frontier defined by opposing languages. Pilgrimage goes all-in on this concept: the Irish characters speak Irish, the Normans speak French, clerics use Latin and Italian, and it’s only when they are talking to each other that English appears. This means a large amount of the film is subtitled, a risky move, as it essentially destroys Pilgrimage’s ability to attract a large percentage of its potential audience, but the gain in authenticity is more than worth it. It’s really fascinating to see Irish, French and English combine in such a production, and gives you a taste of what things must have been like in the time and setting depicted.

The cinematography too embraces the idea that we are seeing the frontier of civilisation and the very edge of the world. While not exactly dark in tone, Muldowney seeks to frame this Ireland as a grim and uninviting place in many respects, a sort of green desert if I may be allowed the description, where the rainy, windswept vistas of rolling hills and foreboding forests combine to produce a sense of dread in every footfall and nervous glance. A good comparison could be drawn to films like Apocalypse Now and its Heart Of Darkness inspiration, of a long trip into a hostile and deadly environment, where the mental danger is as tangible as the physical. One Norman leaders waxes lyrical that the Irish are hard to defeat as they have a tendency to run into inaccessible bogs and woods at every opportunity, and Pilgrimage gives you a front-row seat to such “wood-kerne” tactics, that conspire to make this emerald isle considerably less friendly than it is traditionally depicted, instead being a place where paths of “bad reputation” outnumber the ones of any other opinion. The filming was actually split between Ireland and the Ardennes forest (Pilgrimage is actually classified as a Belgian film on IMDB, despite being mostly financed by Irish entities, casted and crewed mostly by Irish people and, of course, set and partially filmed in Ireland), and they are suitable locations for the sort of suffocating feel of isolation and encroaching barbarianism that Pilgrimage displays.

The action scenes are actually fairly rare here, with the exception of an ambush mid-stream and a blood-strewn finale. The violence is certainly of the Game Of Thrones-style with an emphasis on sweeping blows of weapons that have a tendency to lodge in the brain. Pilgrimage generally has a lot to thank Game Of Thrones for I think, especially in terms of how it has opened up the possibility of Ireland being used as a filming location for such efforts, something that did not really happen before, excepting Braveheart, in this country.

Other parts of the production also stand-up, for the most part. The score, from Stephen McKeon, is surprisingly effective, usually the first thing to get short-changed in such productions, the choral monk chanting an especially nice addition. The script could do with a bit more confidence in itself at times, especially in the concept of “show, don’t tell”, with some of Geraldus’ lines, especially near the conclusion, being almost laughably expository, but is generally quite strong. Welcome are numerous references to issues of the day, like the conflict between King John and his distant Irish subjects, the denial of Ireland being a peaceful paradise pre-1169 and of course the constant overarching shadow of the Crusades. And the film is edited and paced with skill too, restraining itself from being a constant bloodbath like other films would be, and instead being happy limiting itself to brief small-scale clashes.

While Pilgrimage is destined to be a “straight-to-streaming” option for the most part, having only a very limited theatrical run in Ireland (thanks IFI!) it’s still very much worth checking out. Leaving aside some of its deficiencies, like the script problems, some of the acting and a complete lack of female roles, there is a wealth of stuff to enjoy here: Tom Holland and Stanley Weber’s performances, the cinematography that recreates the era, and the general setting in terms of location and language, the kind of multi-lingual experience that you won’t rightly find anywhere else. Moreover, it’ a confidently-made Irish production that speaks well of our film-making community’s capacity to reach beyond the typical, and one that deserves more viewers than it is likely to get in cinemas. Highly recommended.

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An excellent film.

(All images are copyright of Falcon Films and RLJ Entertainment).

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