Review: Minions



I can't tell if they are trying to sell anything in this picture...

I can’t tell if they are trying to sell anything in this picture…

OK, I did really enjoy Despicable Me. And, despite serious apprehension, I did end up enjoying Despicable Me 2 as well. They were fun movies, with lots of laughs that could be enjoyed by an adult audience as well as by kids. And part of that was to do with the Minions, those strange yellow-skinned nonsense speaking characters, who provided quick bits of humour in-between the more plot relevant scenes.

I suppose, in the modern day and age of constant franchise creation and the milking of properties, it should be viewed as inevitable that the Minions would get their own adventure. I went into this one with a bit of the same apprehension I had for Despicable Me 2. Was I right to have those feelings, or was Minions another animated adventure to surprise?

Minions: these strange creatures have been wondering around the planet for longer than humans have, always seeking the baddest and most wicked overlord to serve. When the tribe hits a real slump in the “Serving the evil one” stakes, minions Kevin, Stuart and Bob strike out on their own to find salvation for their people, perhaps in the form of super-villainess Scarlett Overdrive (Sandra Bullock) and her weapon-creating husband Herb (Jon Hamm).

This will be a short enough review, because I only have so many points to make. Before this film, and before many films over the last few months, on TV, on Facebook, on Twitter, in stores and on billboards, I have been assaulted by the Minions in a visual sense, their image plastered over anything and everything: books, lunchboxes, lunches, TV subscription packages, broadband deals, schoolbags, inspirational memes, whatever people feet needed improving by having one of these animated characters slapped on top of it, with most of it meant as something we can exchange money for.

And man has it gotten tiring, wearying. There is only so much toleration of a franchise cashing in you can muster up before it starts to affect your view of the franchise as a whole, and I would be lying if I claimed that seeing the characters I had come to see shill a few products in the ads before the actual movie didn’t leave somewhat of a bad taste in my mouth. I had feared, before I saw it, that Despicable Me2 was a cash-in. I was wrong. Minions is the cash-in.

And that really does follow through into the actual film itself, which is a rather pedestrian stroll through paths well travelled. A few jokes, lots of physical comedy, references to pop culture, some celebrity voices, slapstick, repeat until around 90 minutes have passed. There are a few moments in Minions that will make you laugh, but so much of the exercise is a stretching of material that really shouldn’t be stretched.

The Minions, between their indecipherable voices and frequent costume changes, simply aren’t the kind of characters that can carry a whole movie and still be any good. They are perfect when employed as intermission fodder, the guys to do a quick joke or sketch in-between scenes, for a cheap laugh to keep the audience ticking over. When the entire film becomes the Minions, the joke, unfortunately, gets old very quickly, and Minions was a film that I liked less and less as time went on, climaxing in a finale that I was mostly bored by. In that vein, some of the best jokes and moments are in the films prologue, depicting Minions, throughout history, working for a succession of bad guys – dinosaurs, cavemen, Pharaohs, Dracula, Napoleon – but the problem is that nearly the entire sequence was used in early promotional material, so it was nothing I hadn’t seen already. Having poured their best work into trailers, the team behind Minions is left scrambling to keep the audience engaged and entertained.

Sandra Bullock, phoning it in.

Sandra Bullock, phoning it in.

Since the main trio are so lacking in character – the Minions are, by and large, all the same character really, with maybe one of them being slightly sillier, one being slightly more serious – if Minions is going to pull it off it needs the supporting cast – the actual voice talent – to pull through. And they really don’t. Sandra Bullock’s Scarlett Overdrive is kind of fun, but the performance is limp. Michael Keaton and Allison Janney are regrettably underutilised. Geoffrey Rush’s narration isn’t all that. Only Jon Hamm, really enjoying himself in the role of Overkill’s devoted inventor husband Herb, really stands out, carrying on brilliantly from his zany turn in the recent Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt on Netflix.

On the visual side of things, it’s all fine, dandy and colourful, but we really have gotten to the stage in 3D animation where a certain level of competence is easily reached, and any attempt at aiming for something more goes by the wayside. I take no pleasure in saying that, but it does need to be said: when forced to come up with a scene of various character designs, at a super villain convention, the team behind Minions does well, but so much else of what’s on display isn’t all that impressive, not anymore. At least the soundtrack is good though, but I wonder if it might not actually be a negative to say that some of the best parts of the 90 minutes was listening to tracks from the 60’s play over the actual action.

A great compare and contrast can be made between this film and last year’s Penguins Of Madagascar which, while regrettably not doing all that well at the box office, was a film that I really enjoyed. Both films are 3D animated, both feature supporting characters from a main franchise striking out on their own adventure, both are aimed primarily at a younger audience but with an ingrained sense of blacker comedy for the adult crowd. But Penguins Of Madagascar worked in a whole lot of ways that Minions didn’t. The Penguins, being able to actually talk, could form lots of comedy moments that the Minions can’t, and had a bedrock of character interplay to work from. The team behind Penguins didn’t have to rely on good musical choices or crass commercialisation to cover up cracks, and also made far better use of celebrity voice talent: compare John Malkovich’s amazing turn as “Dave” in that film to the way that Sandra Bullock goes through the motions in Minions for an idea of what I mean. Simply out, the Penguins were the perfect supporting characters, capable of carrying their own film, to give a spin-off to, and it’s a shame that it didn’t work out for them in the same way that it apparently has for the Minions, whose solo offering has only a fraction of the charm and worth, in my opinion, of Penguins Of Madagascar.

I won’t belabour this point any longer than I have to. There were moments I enjoyed in Minions, when darker comedy came to the fore or whenever Jon Hamm was talking, but for most of it I can say that I was not all that impressed. There are better films of this type out there, and Minions strikes me as a very lazy way to cash-in on the popularity of the central characters, without doing anything to justify creatively its own existence. A few laughs here and there, but not one that I would recommend.

Minions 2 will be here before too long, don't worry.

Minions 2 will be here before too long, don’t worry.

(All images are copyright of Universal Pictures).

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Firefly: “Our Mrs Reynolds” As Grounded Sci-Fi

I think that the episode “Our Mrs Reynolds”, more than any other episode of Firefly, is the one that is the most sci-fi “lite” in the series. Firefly is, of course, a sci-fi western, one with a character drive. Well, “Our Mrs Reynolds” is one that’s heavy on the character and the western, and not so much on the sci-fi, not until very late in the game. It’s an example of how people differ in their approach to modern visual sci-fi, with some trying to mesh two elements together, and others trying to keep them apart. Firefly has already done this to an extent in “Bushwhacked” with horror/procedural, but “Our Mrs Reynolds” is something else. It’s an episode where the future meets the past at a very set point, with the two staying apart elsewhere.

I mean, the first 33 or so minutes of “Our Mrs Reynolds” have barely any sci-fi in them at all, bar the fact that much of it takes place on a spaceship. But that’s just a setting: the story told here could just as easily be on a transport boat or a wagon convoy or something like that. It opens with as western a scene as you can find, with Mal, Zoe and Jayne talking care of some bandits, with everyone being on horseback, and proceeds to a very parochial looking party, with moonshine, dancing by firelight and nary a piece of fancy technology or other future elements to be seen. From there it becomes a story about arranged marriage and a captain’s relationship with women, with a nasty sting in the tale.

When the sci-fi does come in “Our Mrs Reynolds”, it’s an unwelcome intrusion in a way. The episode is at its strongest as Mal blunders through his interactions with Saffron, alienating numerous people on the ship as he rejects her and then tries to “do right” by her, and as she is revealed to be far more manipulative and sinister than she first appeared. But then a space station with an electrical ring turns up, and there’s gunfire in space and vacuums and such. It’s not bad, far from it, but it is a very different kind of thing to what “Our Mrs Reynolds” presented up to that point.

It calls to mind Jayne’s words, having briefly embraced the rustic superstition of the rain stick but is then confronted with something much prettier: “You got a wife!? All I got was some dumbass stick ‘sounds like its rainin’”. “Our Mrs Reynolds” exhibits, or perhaps thinks its audience will, a kind of attitude like that, where because it is, nominally, a sci-fi show, it has to have a sci-fi finale. The sci-fi stuff is there to grab the attention of the viewer in a more normal way for a sci-fi show, and it comes like a stunning reminder that the program we are watching takes place far in the future and not in the past. By the final scenes, the episode has reverted back to type, with Saffron being apprehended, dressed like a Wild West showgirl, in an actual log cabin.

I do think that director Vondie Vurtis Hall and writer Joss Whedon do bring these two elements together properly. The space station guys are just characterless vultures ambushing unwary travellers, but they get an added zing through their collaboration with the far more fascinating Saffron, a character that would probably have ended up playing a far more significant role if the series had been allowed to continue (I always saw her as a sort of Anya-type character, destined to wind up on the ship in some capacity, maybe as a replacement for Inara in the event she left). It isn’t complicated science-fiction at all, and neither is the resolution that the crew come up to deal with the problem (it is, basically, “shoot them a bunch of times”).It’s essentially the same thing that they did at the start of the episode. That the brush with proper sci-fi is kept so limited, helps to keep the attention on the other aspects of the story, and I think that this is for the best.

“Our Mrs Reynolds” is a great example of what you would call “grounded” science fiction, where the sci-fi part of the whole experience is just basic setting and a few other bells and whistles. “Our Mrs Reynolds” is about the roles people play and the way they play each other, whether it is by keeping secrets or manipulating people to your advantage. It isn’t the kind of narrative that needs space battles or laser guns or anything like that to succeed, and is a prime example of how well Firefly does with its characters, using the setting to accentuate the main focus on them. It’s an episode where the opening, from the gunfight to the party, enthrals the audience in different ways. It’s an episode where the normally commanding and confident Malcolm Reynolds is faced with a situation that he has little comprehension of, and it’s both amusing, and important, to see him stumble through that, insofar as it showcases a more vulnerable and weak side of him. It’s an episode about how new people can turn existing relationships fractious. And it’s an episode that also serves to add a bit more to the Mal/Inara relationship, that got a temporary respite from attention in “Safe”, but that Whedon and company clearly wanted to be the main spine of the inter-character conflict and drama on the show, since it will have a similar focus on a few of the limited number of episodes. And all of this is done, and can be done, without Reavers or Hands of Blue, or Alliance behemoths. Only the barest hint of technobabble permeates, and is forgotten just as quickly as it appears.

Other sci-fi shows handle such plots very differently. I recall Enterprise’s “Bound”, where the duplicitous sex-crazed females are explained away with pheromones or something. Same story on SG-1’s “Hathor”, while BSG’s “Six Degrees Of Separation” had a radically different narrative and ending, that delved into hints about otherworldly powers. The archetypal plot of “Scheming female character seducing her way to what she wants” has been told a lot on sci-fi, but rarely have I seen a sci-fi show approach in the way “Our Mrs Reynolds” did, where the fantastical elements are actually downplayed in favour of actual character.

“Our Mrs Reynolds”, that has a certain whiff of “bottle episode” about it at times, provides the right setting for all of that. It’s a keen example of Firefly’s ability to mix genres and narrative elements, and to keep things fixed squarely on the people involved, as opposed to the thing they are travelling on or the universe they are a part of.

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Review: Fantastic Four

Fantastic Four


Everything's looking rosy for this franchise!

Everything’s looking rosy for this franchise!

Between the unspectacular efforts that it was a reboot of, the widespread derision that every aspect of this films promotional material garnered from the “community” (by which I mean websites, forums and other media sources claiming to represent “nerd” and “geek” sub-culture), the alleged on-set antics of director Josh Trank, the panic-induced editing frenzy of the studio and the probably justified feeling that the entire production is meant more as a license retainer than an attempt at legitimate franchise creation, Fantastic Four had a hell of a lot going against it.

And that seemed to be reflected in the way that critics did react to it, the film holding an astonishingly low 8% on Rotten Tomatoes at time of writing. But there was something about those early reviews – most of them describing something lacklustre as far as I could see, as opposed to a train wreck – and subsequent “second wave” pieces that are always a little more reasonable, that got me interested. I’ve never been a fan of the comic books and had little time for the Tim Story films, but in the end I just couldn’t resist going in to see this one afternoon. I guess I just wanted to see if the critical dogpile was deserved, or maybe I was attracted to the idea of a darker themed superhero movie, that happens to have a really brilliant cast that have all been in things I loved, from Whiplash to House Of Cards to Friday Night Lights. Is Fantastic Four as bad as they say, or is it, upon mature appraisal, redeemable?

Scientific prodigy Reed Richards (Miles Teller) is brought into the prestigious Baxter Foundation by Dr Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) to pursue the dream of achieving viable teleportation to another dimension. Working alongside Storm’s daughter Sue (Kate Mara), son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan) and protégé Victor von Doom (Toby Kemmel), and eventually bringing in former assistant Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell), Richards makes teleportation possible. But, after a disastrous first mission, Reed and the others are irrevocably changed, exhibiting powers and abilities beyond their understanding.

This is a really strange one for me, because I can’t bring myself to say that Fantastic Four is a good movie. At best, I’d say its average, the very definition of “Two Stars”, coming with a host of very evident problems. But I find myself in a situation where I feel compelled to defend it, this 98 minute mediocrity, because it is my belief that the critical drubbing it has taken is not justified. This is no 8% movie.

I mean, I could go on and on for quite a while about everything that it does wrong. An opening featuring a young Reed and Ben experimenting with garage-built teleporters could have been endearing, but I found the introduction to Richards more obnoxious than fascinating, and the friendship between the future Mr Fantastic and Thing was set-up and executed alarmingly fast (notwithstanding that great “Reed, you’re insane” “…Thanks” exchange). It continues into the next scenes, as everyone acts remarkably blaze about Reed and Ben’s actual working teleporter, Richards invited by a rapidly introduced Franklin Storm to come join him at his prodigy-filled lab. The film is so break-neck in the first 15 minutes, that you’re left wondering what the rush is. Unlike many others, I enjoy a good origin story, and I can appreciate it when a film takes its time with one.

But then suddenly Trank’s film turns the tempo way down, and a well-paced and patient origin starts to play out, and it’s in this section – I suppose the 20-50 minute mark – that Fantastic Four shines the brightest. Our five central characters are introduced to each other and actually get a chance to bounce off each other, with Kemmel’s unique version of the ridiculously named antagonist, a nihilistic but accessible young man struggling with a lack of direction and a subtly explored attraction to Sue, one of the stand-outs. But everyone is doing right in this section: Miles Teller brings a passion for scientist Reed, Mara gets her best moments as Sue, Jordan makes you really like the fiery (hey ooo) Johnny while, for a time, even Bell’s straightforward and stoic Grimm is endearing. A brief montage of the group working together and becoming friends, without any dialogue, does more to establish these characters and the bond that will define them than the entire first 20 minutes. Superhero films have really failed to take onboard the lesson of The Incredible Hulk, which is that reams of characteristion and backstory can effectively be told in this way, and fast.

But even I was starting to think that things were moving a bit too slow by the time that the central plot-forwarding event actually occurs. It must have been on or after the half-way mark, and that’s just simply too far into the narrative for the superhero origin to come about. Imagine if Peter Parker got bitten by that spider an hour in, or if it took one and half acts for the Wayne’s to get shot down. And that’s an ironic complaint, given the sudden ramp-up in tempo and narrative speed as we move forward.

There’s a period after the inevitable disaster that what must have been Trank’s personal vision comes to the fore the most, or at least I think so. Fantastic Four suddenly transforms into less of a superhero origin story, and more of a horror movie. The titular team are transformed utterly, and the framing and direction screams terror as opposed to wonder. They’ve been altered against their will, and the reaction to it is one of blind fear and desperation. And while I am no horror fan, I loved these moments. It’s such a fresh way to approach the superhero idea, in a market that was saturated long ago. These people don’t want their powers initially, they want their lives back, and the feeling is strong in some more than others. Jamie Bell successfully moves from live-action to CGI/voice work for the Thing, whose horror at his initial condition is effectively turned into a stoney-faced (hey ooo) coldness towards all around him. He even gets the best line of the film: “I’m not your friend…you turned me into something else.”

The horror continues right into the final act, but by then other problems have reared their heads. An inexplicable and badly thought out time jump occurs, placed way too late in the narrative and resolved remarkably quickly. The speed is on if Fantastic Four is going to get just over that 90 minute mark it seems, and the production just powers through its last act, where the main antagonist, while chillingly effective (a sequence featuring Doom demonstrating his powers might be the films best) is far too absent from the screen. A generic “Earth in peril” angle is slapped together, and a traditional superhero/supervillain battle erupts, lasting only a short time, any previous aspirations of anything more unique largely discarded. The film wraps everything up very quickly – way, way too quickly – with a closing scene that is as slapdash as it was unpalatable. The tempo and tone of Fantastic Four is all over the place, at its best when slow and cerebral, and at its worst when trying to pander to younger, less attentive, movie goers.

This film should have been two hours, at least. That extra 25 minutes could have given the film a lot more: the chance for a slower approach to the titular group getting their powers, more with a transformed and villainous Doom, maybe an action scene for the mid-section (badly needed, it’s still a superhero film after all) and a method to simply relax the frantic pace of the last act. Just a scene here and there, and this would automatically have added up to a better product. But that simply does not occur, and the signs of finicky studio editing is all over the final cut of Fantastic Four like a bad rash.

The film, at times, tries to go for a "wonder of science" tone/theme, but it doesn't last long enough.

The film, at times, tries to go for a “wonder of science” tone/theme, but it doesn’t last long enough.

Whatever the stories of Trank’s behaviour on set and off it during production, I can appreciate the effort he put in here. The masses and the “community” spend a large amount of time decrying anything that has a dark colour palette when it comes to superheroes (while, you know, giving Man Of Steel over $200 million in pure profit) but I like it, and I liked the way that Fantastic Four looked. Right from the off, in Reed’s dingy little classroom, the overall mood is one of grey and dark blue, with the brighter colours of Tim Story cast away, a more realistic, almost militaristic, look to things, from the sets to the uniforms. Fantastic Four was made, relatively speaking, on the cheap, with mostly indoor locations and green screen, but I never felt like that showed. When Trank’s own vision for the film is playing out, like in that great Doom introduction or in the more patient moments in the first act, the camerawork is done with poise and skill. Elsewhere, it’s all a bit more rushed and unsatisfying, and I guess we’ll never really know who was responsible for what. The script, that Trank is partially responsible for along with X-Men alum Simon Kinbeg and relative newcomer Jeremy Slater is similarly hit and miss. You’ll groan over Sue Storm’s lame pop psychology interactions with Reed during the start, and you’ll despise that closing scene. But elsewhere, especially with a pre-catastrophe Doom, the interactions between the elder and junior male Storm’s and the attempts to place a wonder of science at the forefront, there is better, more carefully crafted wordplay on display.

Some brief spoiler-talk follows.

-Grimm as the quiet reserved guy next to Reed’s more overt scientific craziness could have worked very well if it had been handled just a bit better. But Grimm gets a little hard to like when he’s so stoic that he fails to exhibit the proper reaction to the creation of the teleporter, actual teleportation, or his first look at “Planet Zero” all of which he does with a look on his face of “Oh, this is nice”.

-I’m sure there was something to Tim Blake Nelson’s character constantly chewing gum – even in his quarantine suit – but nothing ever came of it.

-I can’t have been the only one put off by the plot point of Reed, Johnny, Victor and Ben going on their teleportation expedition sozzled. It didn’t exactly make them endearing.

-“Planet Zero” was pretty cool, and works a lot better as a plot device than “cosmic radiation”. But not enough time is really spent there. Presumably any planned sequel/will would have gone back to the concept.

-Sue Storm needed more to do in this film. The way she gets her powers is largely passive – she’s just a bystander to the stupidity of the male characters – and after that all she really gets to do in terms of character is be the non-militant one, who tracks down Reed (what the hell was up with that?) and tries to talk her brother down. Lacking the traditional romance plot-line, the film runs out of ideas for her early.

-The “One Year Later” angle was moronic. Somehow Reed is successfully staying on the run, and the other three are given huge leaps in characterisation that we never see. The horror element is lost completely, and it’s hard to stay engaged.

-Case in point, we see brief glimpses of the Thing out on assignment kicking ass and taking names, but it’s all on TV’s in the background. Why not actually have a sequence where the Thing takes on some terrorists or something? Better yet, why not have a sequence where all of the Four do that?

-The angle of Reed being the runaway and being sundered from a bitter Ben had some legs, but got lost somewhere in the morose of the third act.

-I really did like Doom’s look, which was far enough from his traditional appearance to feel new and close enough not to piss all over tradition.

-The sequence where Doom stalks the halls of the military installation, blowing up heads with his mind, was amazingly done, with Trank clearly calling back to the super powered horror elements of Chronicle.

-It was a major step-up in the visual blood stakes though, with little subtlety in showing heads exploding and blood splattering (though they were careful not to make Franklin Storm’s head pop).

-A real shocker to see Franklin Storm buy it. Noooooot.

He looks cool, but that doesn't change how stupid the name is.

He looks cool, but that doesn’t change how stupid the name is.

-That led into the final fight, which was fine on its own merits – individually they fail, but together they beat him, which is surely one of the central tenants you want to get across with this property – but did feel so rushed in many aspects, not least the sudden peril to Earth and the way Doom just disintegrates.

-I did struggle to suddenly buy Reed as the authoritative leader, perfectly able to direct the others and engage with Doom hand to hand. Again, just very sudden characterisation.

-And the tone shifts were all over the place by then. In sequence, we had horror with the origins, then a sort of fugitive story for a while, then back to sci-fi with the return to Planet Zero, then more horror with Doom’s rampage, a bit of family drama in the middle, then traditional superhero showdown to cap it all off. Tone is so important for film, and changing gears scene to scene is never a good idea.

-I do appreciate Reed’s last line to Doom: “I am smarter than you”.

-The US military all too easily agrees to the Four’s demands. I really hated that. Why even have that scene? Also, no one really seems to care all that much that Franklin Storm died.

-The final scene was truly atrocious. I can only imagine the embarrassment on set as they went through the motions on that, all the way up to that dire last line.

Spoilers end.

Is Fantastic Four a good film? No. Is it a bad film? Not really. It’s average, with good and bad elements. The tone shifts are jarring, the tempo changes way too much throughout, and some characters get unjustifiably side-lined. But the meat and bones of the origin tale are solid, the cast is fine for the most part and the visual direction was interesting. Obviously, I think that whatever Josh Trank’s preferred version of the film would have been a better overall product, but Fantastic Four, as it is, is not the pile of trash that it has been made out to be.

I mean, I think that this film stands up as a good barometer for problems with the film criticism industry. To tell me that Fantastic Four can be 8% on the most referenced review aggregator, while badly written, sexist, and frequently insulting dreck like Jurassic World can be 71%, just seems crazy. Fantastic Four is a better film than Jurassic World, and I have no doubts about saying that. And, though I haven’t seen it, I absolutely refuse to believe that the latest edition of the Adam Sandler comedy swindle, Pixels, is twice as good at 16%.

I fear that the latent hostility of the “community”, that was never interested in giving Fantastic Four a fair shot if we’re all being honest with ourselves, and the tendency of film reviewers to gleefully bring out the knives when even the smallest hint of production trouble rears its head (see John Carter for another appalling example of that) doomed Fantastic Four, as much as any of those aforementioned production troubles or studio interference. Because Fantastic Four is not all that bad. I found myself enjoying a lot of it, and I certainly did not feel like the price of the ticket was wasted. Indeed, if for no other reason than I think that Fantastic Four deserves more consideration from people, I have no problem in recommending it.

Worth considering.

Worth considering.

(All images are copyright of 20th Century Fox).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Jacobite ’45

In 1715, the Jacobites had made the largest concerted effort to retake the British throne since the initial War of the Two Kings. The effort had proven a failure, with James Francis Stuart chased out of Scotland, what soldiers his cause had in the land dealt with easily enough shortly afterwards. After the failure of the grandiose Spanish plan of 1719, the Stuarts were left as political pariahs in Europe, King’s without a Kingdom, with their cause falling more and more as time went on.

The War of the Austrian Succession and the success of the inherently Jacobite Irish Bridge of France at the Battle of Fontenoy in 1745, suddenly threw the Stuart cause back into the limelight once more. James, the “Old Pretender”, was by then 44, living in Rome but no longer really considered the prime moving force of the movement surrounding his family. That honour has passed to his eldest son, Charles, the “Young Pretender”, born in 1720 and named “Prince-Regent” by his father by age 23. He had spent almost his entirely life in Italy, but had grander ambitions of fulfilling his dream of putting the family back into power in Britain.

France, at war with Britain, was certainly not blind to the potential benefits of again backing the Stuarts, in an effort to undermine the Hanoverian regime in Britain, or overthrow it entirely, but the usual concerns remained. Louis XV was not interested in an enterprise where France would have to take the greatest risk, be it in ships to transport troops across the British dominate channel, or soldiers to do the actual fighting in England. It took some convincing and secret tours of Britain for the idea that there was strong Jacobite support in the islands to take root. There were indeed many Jacobites in Britain, but while they were happy to voice their approval for any potential effort to get James or Charles on the throne, they were careful to add the caveat of desired French assistance: men, guns, supplies. With much of Britain’s fighting strength engaged on the continent, the time did seem ripe to make an effort to land troops across the channel.

The first effort of this war, in 1744, came to nought, delayed for various reasons and then impossible to carry out after a storm scattered the waiting transports. Charles had hoped to lead at least 1500 soldiers of the Irish Brigade to Scotland, but this was not to be. Deflated, the French cancelled any plans for an invasion, much to Charles’ chagrin. He thought that Britain could be taken without the need for any fighting, such was the strength of Jacobinism – as he saw it anyway. Angered, Charles pushed forward with his own plans, deciding to test the true strength of French resolve to back him and attack Britain, by organising his own invasion and rebellion himself.

Charles, now basing himself in France, borrowed a large amount of money from members of the exiled Jacobite community (many of them Irish) and bankers, and set about purchasing equipment and transports. In this, he was advised by Lord Clare, the commander of the French Irish Brigade, its numbers full of volunteers who were eager to join the Pretender in his mission.

Charles was eventually able to purchase the services of two ships, and was accompanied by several hundred volunteers from the Irish Brigade, along with several key Irish advisors. One was Colonel Sir John O’Sullivan, of the Kerry O’Sullivan-Beares, who had left Ireland to seek education and position in France, fighting in several Italian campaigns, becoming close friends with Charles in the process. Setting sail in June of 1745, the aim was for Scotland, still the hotbed of Jacobite support in Britain. Royal Navy patrols and some brief combat immediately put a dent in Charles’ plans, and only his own personal ship, and around 500 of his Irish Volunteers, actually made it to Scotland, the rest turning around and sailing back to France.

The British were not entirely ignorant of Charles’ design – it was impossible to completely hide the planning of such an ambitious operation – but did pay it very little heed, especially in terms of any possible uprising in the Scottish Highlands. The Duke of Cumberland, who we have already encountered as the leader of Allied armies at Fontenoy, was more cautious, and was prepared to move himself and his army back over the water in the event of any rebellion breaking out. Cumberland was worried, as Britain’s defence was largely dependent at this point on promised soldiers from Dutch allies.

Charles arrived in Scotland, on the Outer Hebrides, on the 23rd of June, travelling on to the mainland a few days later. The first Highland leaders he met with had little hope of a rebellion succeeding, and advised Charles to leave: he refused, insistent that the Highland clans would rally to support him. He spent the next while sailing up the west coast of Scotland, having further meetings with Highland leaders, before disembarking at Glenuig Bay and travelling inland to the small village of Glenfinnan, for a larger meeting with the important clans of the Clanranald MacDonalds and the Camerons. There, he raised his standard, read out a proclamation from his father – “King James” – and rallied support for the cause. The response was apparently enthusiastic: Highland detestation for the Hanoverians and the Act of Union had never really cooled. Moreover, Charles had the charm, charisma and personality that his father has so notably lacked in 1715, well earning the nickname “Bonnie Prince Charlie”, handing out his supply of guns in person and adopting Highland dress and language.

The following weeks were a hive of activity, as forces were raised, by both sides, though what combat that was occurring in August remained very small scale. The Irish unit, dubbed “Irish pickets” by many sources, after the small military unit that is usually responsible for guarding a larger camp or force, had initially been seen as the primary group that would form the vanguard of Charles’ army, but they were overshadowed more and more as time went on by the Highlanders, with officers on either side of that divide coming to detest each other. Much of the Irish involvement in the subsequent fighting was downplayed or ignored entirely because of this, but it is clear that Charles’ ambition were wrapped up with those of many Irish. The British, for their part, put a huge bounty on Charles’ head and called for Cumberland to come home with a large portion of his army, while additional forces were withdrawn from garrison duty in Ireland.

Charles cobbled together an army of at least 3’000 men by mid-September, and captured Edinburgh without fighting, the city gates left open to him, one taken by O’Sullivan, now appointed an adjutant General of the Jacobites. The Jacobites were met by a gigantic cheering crowd, though the castle of the city held out. Charles’ father was proclaimed King James VIII of Scotland, with Charles as his regent. The British were simply in no position, holding out in small Scottish forts with meagre amounts of soldiers, to do anything about it. The French were impressed enough by Charles’ initial gains to send gold, muskets and artillery pieces to aid him, but no substantial amounts of troops. More small units of the Irish Brigade, and Scottish units in French service, did manage to break through the Royal Navy patrols and land in Scotland over the next while, carrying word that the French were prepared to send a huge invasion force of 10’000 men across the Channel, but these reports were optimistic exaggerations.

The first proper battle of what became known as “the ‘45” took place at Prestonpans, east of Edinburgh, on the 21st of September. Sir John Cope, then commander of British forces in Scotland, decided to try and stem the retreats by engaging what he was led to believe to be a numerically inferior, badly armed Jacobite army, led by Charles himself. A surprise early morning charge by Jacobite Highlanders broke the British lines and sent them routing, with most of Cope’s army killed, injured or captured. Though a relatively minor engagement in retrospect, with only around 6’000 men engaged in total, the result of the clash sent shockwaves throughout Britain, as Charles’ rebellion suddenly appeared far more dangerous and credible.

In the aftermath, Charles and the Jacobites were left with a choice. They could consolidate their position in Scotland, focus on what forts remained in British possession and await French reinforcements they were sure would be provided eventually, a plan many of the Highland chiefs preferred. But Charles disliked this plan, perhaps deeming it too passive, and instead proposed an invasion of northern England, before the Hanoverians could organise a suitable response to his initial gains. With the possible aid of French landings in Wales or western England, Charles hoped that his army would swell with volunteers as it moved south, and that a substantial march would deliver the rest of Britain, and the crown, into Stuart hands.

A council of Charles’ chief supporters and advisors just about agreed with the regents plan – the Irish officers especially were eager to march south – and on the 8th of November, Charles and his army, including many Irish, crossed into England. By then, money was getting tight and a lack of support in the border region was making things difficult, but Charles’ plan was not foolhardy: if he could get his army marching deep into England, before the government could react properly, there was every chance that a reversal of the Glorious Revolution could take place. For the time being, the way south was open. But the government was not going to just roll over, and were already mustering their response. As the winter of 1745 overtook the land, the cause of the Wild Geese hung in the balance.

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

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Firefly: Family In “Safe”

The obvious central theme and allusion in “Safe” is that of contrasting families, both traditional and non-traditional. Five episodes in was a good time to do such an episode, as its clear the cast was getting more comfortable with one another, and with their roles on the ship. “Safe” is about presenting Serenity’s crew as more than just individual elements interacting with one another, but as something more congealed.

Writer Drew Z. Greenberg and director Michael Grossman hit the nail dead on in the contrast between Simon and River’s present day situation and their past life at home with their socialite parents. We move from an idyllic scene of the two siblings as children (Zac Efron grew up a lot huh?) to more heartbreaking stuff, as Simon’s drive to discover what is happening to River flies in the face of his father and mothers desire to simply let things be. It culminates in a moment where the elder Tam essentially threatens to disown Simon if he doesn’t stray from his current course, placing the family name and its reputation above everything else, even evidence that his daughter is being abused. “I will not come for you” he states bluntly, to the idea of having to bail his son out of jail again.

The contrast with the present day events of “Safe” is clear. Simon’s father was willing to abandon his son over the apparent social embarrassment of a brush with the law. When River is threatened by an angry mob looking to burn her to death, Simon voluntarily joins her on the stake. Nothing will make him leave his sister, and that’s what marks him out from his father. For Simon, family is that blood tie, and not just the name. They are close in a way that they never were with their parents, as we see repeatedly in “Safe”, especially in the hodgeberries scene. It’s actually one of the first scenes – maybe after the “You’re a dummy” scene in “Serenity” – where we really do understand that these two are brother and sister, with a closeness that makes Simon’s desire to protect and care for River completely understandable, important to show as a bookend to an episode where River’s mental problems seem initially to be an unbreakable barrier in their relationship.

And of course, Simon and River get saved by their new found family, their figurative father, mother and angry big brother or uncle, bursting into the scene guns ready, willing to risk their own safety to come to the rescue. Later Simon is somewhat bewildered by what happened, asking Mal why he came for him, perhaps remembering how his father, who has that blood tie, threatened not to over something comparatively trivial. Mal is confused, even slightly irritated, at the question, stating simply “You’re on my crew. Why are we still talking about this?” We can read between the lines easily enough, though not so easily that it becomes a blunt hammer of symbolism. Simon might still be new to this world and to Serenity, but he has a place on the ship, and that makes him – and his sister – family. Mal will come for Simon, and River, because they are family, even if it is in such a way that stands apart from the usual definition of the term.

But there are many other aspects to “Safe” that make it an episode about family. Because the crew of Serenity are a family, or at least are becoming one, in a lot of different ways. This is especially clear with the three “additions” to the established crew.

Families have their squabbles, as we see between Simon and Kaylee in this episode. A stressed and barely coping Simon thoughtlessly insults Serenity and, by extension, Kaylee, and Kaylee gives him the cold shoulder, much to Simon’s embarrassment. It’s a very minor tiff, but it adds something to that familial dimension, that it is so affecting (and yes, it’s obviously a romantic relationship in the works, I’m using the word “family“ in a loose non-literal sense here). It has a nice simple resolution too, as Simon, showcasing some of the more positive side of his civilised upbringing, holds Kaylee’s chair out for her in the final dinner scene and she smiles. No words are spoken, but it is clear that forgiveness has occurred.

Families have their concerns. Mal started out not especially liking the presence of Book on his ship, and in “The Train Job” he has only moved to a sort of tolerance, albeit a good natured one. In “Safe”, Book gets badly wounded in a shoot out, and the episode takes the time to show that Mal’s concern for the preacher’s fate is clearly more than that of losing a reliable fare, its genuine worry over somebody that he has started to become attached to.

Families have their understandings of each other. Mal knows well enough not to push Book on some surprising aspects of his recovery. He knows well enough that Simon could do with some fresh air and to get away from the ship. And he’s even starting to get River a bit more (“Is it weird that what she said made perfect sense to me?”).

Families have their understandings of how things work in the home. When Simon and River appear to be gone for good, Jayne wastes no time in pilfering their belongings. You can understand why if you take a look at the larger reality: if the sibling pair really are off the ship permanently, then it only follows that what they had left on Serenity wouldn’t go to waste. But when Simon and River are recovered intact, Jayne wastes zero time in putting the stuff he took back, covering up his transgression. You might wonder why, since Jayne is so amoral in so much of the show. But it makes sense: Simon and River are crew now, are part of this unlikely family, and that means that their belongings are theirs. Jayne wouldn’t last very long if he was stealing things off others onboard, and we can well imagine Malcolm “You’re on my crew” Reynolds, who has been shown to have a power over Jayne, not tolerating such things. Just like, say, a parent dealing with filching children. Later in the shows run, Jayne will break that covenant, and will nearly pay for that transgression with his life.

And families have their secrets. Book gets his life saved by the Alliance in mysterious circumstances, much to Mal’s curiosity. But Book refuses to tell all, and Mal respects that, in a way that might surprise. After all, this is the same guy who wouldn’t dare put up with a passenger keeping secrets from him in “Serenity”, in the form of Simon, but by “Safe” his mood seems to have mellowed, and Book’s secrets are honoured: to the extent that we will never find out, in the series or the film, what it was.

Book sums up the new way of things onboard in his last lines of the episode. He, Simon and River were outsiders to begin with, but they have, in the course of only a few episodes, melded into the already existing closeness and connection of the other crew members, to the extent that it feels perfectly OK when Book declares simply that “It’s good to be home”. And that’s one of the key strengths of Firefly/Serenity, in the way that it captures the audience’s heart. Because this ship really does feel like a home by now, far more than the sleek nuance-less likes of the Enterprise or the military functionality of a Galactica. And the people that inhabit it really do feel like a family, something depicted in no better way than in the final moments of “Safe”, as all nine crewmembers sit down for a meal together, bathed in a warming light.


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Review: 13 Minutes (Elser)

13 Minutes (Elser)


This biopic of Georg Elser cuts to the heart of Nazi domination in Germany.

This biopic of Georg Elser cuts to the heart of Nazi domination in Germany.

Recently, after signing up with the film site Letterboxed, I thought about what I would put in my “Top 5 film list. Not in a ranking, but just what five films would I consider the best I have seen (Letterboxed actually only gives you room for four in your basic profile, which I found quite odd). Leaving aside the general trilogy, Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship Of The Ring would make it. George Lucas’ A New Hope would be up there too. Joss Whedon’s Serenity would find a comfortable niche and with some thought, Coppola’s The Godfather, while almost a cliché choice, would also probably rise above others.

The last spot could go to any number of films I suppose, but after putting some thought into it, it had to be Oliver Hirschbiegel’s Downfall, or Der Untergang, his haunting portrayal of the final days of Adolph Hitler and the Nazi regime in 1945. It’s weird how the internet meme inspired by the film has become better known than the film itself, which is an absolutely astounding depiction of the world’s most infamous man and his last days, as Berlin crumbles under Soviet assault around him. Bruno Ganz’ performance, the visceral atmosphere created, the contrast between the dark and light aspects of humanity, the direction, the music and the wholehearted commitment to showing just what the fall of such an empire was like: Downfall is a singular film, which has an amazing ability to leave the viewer wrecked emotionally.

You would think that Hirschbiegel was poised to really make a name for himself, but his three offerings after Der Untergang – a disappointing remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, an intense but regrettably unknown Troubles drama Five Minutes of Heaven and the widely panned Diana biopic – have not exactly set the world on fire. But now, Hirschbiegel has gone back to Hitler’s Germany, to that territory where he worked up something so wonderful, to tell another story of the Third Reich and its people. Is 13 Minutes, in aiming to shine a light on the German resistance to Hitler, up to the standard of Downfall, or is Hirschbiegel a real flash in the pan director?

In 1939, a bomb meant to kill Adolph Hitler goes off 13 minutes too late. The bomb-maker, a carpenter/musician named Georg Elser (Christian Friedel), is apprehended soon after, and subjected to brutal interrogation by the Nazi authorities, demanding to who he did it with and why. But Elser acted alone and, in the course of numerous flashbacks on his life under the Nazi jackboot, he begins to expand on why.

For me, the story of 13 Minutes is about answering a simple question: Why did Georg Elser do what he did? Staying firmly fixed on Elser throughout its running time, with his target being just a briefly glimpsed figure in the opening minutes (I believe dubbed over with actual audio of the real Hitler, a clever move), Hirschbiegel looks at Elser’s possible motivations through three different aspects of his life and experience: the political, the moral and the personal.

Elser is strangely apolitical for much of 13 Minutes, lending support to the communist cause in a limited sense, but never actively espousing its philosophy with any real vigour. He is drawn into conflict between left and right leaning elements in Hitler’s Germany during the 30’s, but it’s all just a sideshow. It may seem astounding that somebody with such little genuine political feeling could go as far as try and murder the leader of the country, killing eight innocents – as far as devout Nazi’s were innocent – in the process. Part of the drama of the film is how the authorities are unwilling to accept that this “lone wolf” could take a shot at the beloved leader, insisting over and over again, in the face of all evidence, that he must have been acting with subversive internal elements or in concert with foreign governments. For the Nazi’s, Elser’s act is an unfortunate reality, that not everybody in Germany is singing to the same hymn sheet, and such an individualistic act of defiance is almost more to be feared than any imagined fifth column.

On the moral side, Elser is shown to be somewhat of a religious man, turning to prayer in moments of stress and always keeping his attack on Hitler within the scope of the “greater good”: that the murder of Hitler and however many of his flunkies that are around him when the bomb goes off is a small price to pay to avert a war that will leave Germany and its people in ruins, if not exterminated. Elser’s logic has its strengths, but I did feel that Hirschbiegel was somewhat remiss when discussing this aspect of Elser’s life. At times he appears to be not entirely devout, at others he is almost priest-like. There is a lack of consistency that may be intentional: but lacking any firm elaboration on Elser’s religious beliefs and how much they drove him on, this part of his character is, for me, frustratingly limited.

It doesn’t take a religious martyr to see that the Nazi regime was an immoral one from its top to its bottom, and the way that Elser was shown to be waking up to this – witnessing the persecution of the faithful, the shaming of Jews and their friends, the growing number of “forced labourers” toiling themselves to death in factories – while a necessary facet of any story like this, did not enthral me in the same way that Downfall did, maybe because they are plot beats to be expected. The likes of Europa Europa, Berlin 36, The Pianist and Toyland are various examples of other cinematic works that have done the same thing to different extents, and a certain staleness is thus evident. It might seem as if I am being too numb to the crimes of the Nazi regime, but I’m just trying to explain why these sections of the 13 Minutes didn’t resonate with me as strongly as they might have.

The film pivots around why Elser did what he did, as he witnessed the growth of the Nazi state in every facet of his life.

The film pivots around why Elser did what he did, as he witnessed the growth of the Nazi state in every facet of his life.

Hirschbiegel decides that the majority of Elser’s motivation, the part that he wants to explore the most, must be the personal, through Elser’s relationship with Elsa, a married woman from his home town that he conducts an affair with, played with great humanity and life by Katharina Schuttler. The scenes featuring the two are long and drawn out (maybe to too much of an extent, inflating the running time past what would have been a more appetizing length) , but they serve the purpose of portraying a young man frustrated with many parts of his life: his self-destructive family, the close-mindedness of his neighbours and society’s lack of understanding for the love shared by him and Elsa. It’s almost cliché as Elser rants about the unfairness of what the society of Nazi Germany expects of them, and his strike at Hitler can almost be seen as an extension of this, not just a blow to the particular evil of the Nazi state, but against the way that the world is. The plot with Elsa is a meandering disjointed thing, that robs 13 Minutes of a lot of its momentum I feel, but it does give us the best look at the kind of “warts and all” depiction of Elser that Hirschbiegel is going for.

Because Georg Elser was an asshole, let no one be under any illusions about that. Beyond his attempted killing of Hitler and his bravado-filled resistance to the brutal Nazi interrogation, the Elser we see in 13 Minutes is not a particularly nice guy. He’s a flagrant and uncaring womaniser, who has already left one woman with a bastard child by the time he gets back to his hometown and doesn’t wait too long before gleefully getting into an adulterous affair with a married woman. The two seem to have a genuine connection, but long before 13 Minutes reaches its climax, you begin to see the signs that Elser is a serial “love them and leave them” kind of guy, happy in the intense rush of romance but rather finicky and unreliable in dealing with the consequences. By not flinching from showing Elser in this way, Hirschbiegel does raise 13 Minutes up to a point that it might otherwise have struggled to reach, and Friedel’’s performance, strong through-out if not quite Bruno Ganz level, is probably at its best as he vacillates between being the suave lothario and the deadbeat absentee father and lover.

All these various strands of flashback pivot around Elser in 1939, his interrogation at the hands of cruel Gestapo chief Heinrich Muller (the creepily intense Johann von Bulow) and the more sympathetic Germany Army Colonel Arthur Nebe (the great Burghart Klaußner), a good cop/bad cop duo that really add a great deal of verve and tension to the “present day” scenes. There is brutality and horror to spare at these moments, and portions of 13 Minutes are not for the faint of heart, though they make some powerful statements. A scene depicting a prison secretary, calmly waiting outside the interrogation room and reading a book while Elser’s screams fill the air is one of the most poignant visual metaphors for the citizenry of Nazi Germany and their willing acquiescence that I have ever seen on screen.

But more interesting than that was the progression of the interrogation, which turns from being a primitive beat-down of Elser’s psyche into something else entirely, as the Nazi authorities become almost fascinated by the details of Elser’s plot, but always with that barely restrained edge of tyrannical power, obsessed as much with the popular perception of Elser’s act as to the manner in which it was carried out. Elser begins his custody fully expecting to be shot at any moment, and any uninitiated students of history are bound to feel that constant underlying tension that such a thing could come to pass. Both Muller and Nebe want to understand why Elser did what he did, and one cannot help but see the cracks form in their own, previously cast-iron, faith in the Nazi system as their interactions with Elser continue. Muller, one of the worst of the worst, is beyond all hope, but Hirschbiegel effectively makes us take a close look at Nebe, and wonder if he is as devout as he might proclaim to be.

As a character study, 13 Minutes is a success then, insofar as it presented a three dimensional figure, not quite a fully fledged hero, not quite a villain in his personal life, but a human being who found himself at the middle of extraordinary circumstances. A strong script, that loses nothing in the translation and reliance on subtitles, helps give Elser the right kind of voice, whether he is seducing women on a lakeside beach in happier times or essentially dictating his last will and testament. It would have been all too easy for a hero worship exercise to be undertaken here, akin to the palatable but not exactly stellar Valkyrie of 2008, which was almost a heist film with a Hollywood action hero vibe to its central focus. Instead, 13 Minutes is a fuller project, that does lag at times in its fixation on Elser’s past and his romantic relationships, but does succeed in the effort at making the audience really think about how worthy of praise Elser was.

While Hirschbiegel might be hit and miss in terms of success, his skill as a director is unquestionable. 13 Minutes lives and breathes with numerous moments of great visual power. I’ve already mentioned that hallway scene, but he has a way of constructing many sequences to really make what is happening in them get inside your head. Early on, the recurring “Sieg Heil’s” delivered to Hitler by a packed auditorium of adoring bootlickers booms around your ears, seductive and repulsive in equal terms, as we gaze down from on high like somebody pushing to the front of the rafters. The practicalities of Nazi torture, from the all too evident tools of the trade that Elser is forced to contemplate to the bowl purposefully left on the floor to catch the inevitable spew of pain-driven vomit make the experience all the more visceral. The cramped confines of Elser’s dank cell, lit by searing bright light and covered in vague graffiti of hominoid forms provide a contrast between humanity and Nazi inhumanity. Late on, a hanging scene is given a grisly but necessary length, so that we can see and understand once more the cold detached operating procedure of the Third Reich, the camera squarely set on the dangling and shuddering legs of the unfortunate victim. And, in the same vein as Steve McQueen with Chewital Ejiofor in 12 Years A Slave, Hirschbiegel frequently just puts Friedel directly in front of the lens and allows him the opportunity to stare out at the audience, most notably in the final shots, both seeking sympathy and understanding, as well as perhaps challenging: in a strange way, I was reminded of Mark Miller’s Wanted, adapted by Timur Bekmambetov in 2008, and it’s closing message to the audience: “What the fuck have you done lately?”

Some brief spoiler talk follows.

-The breakdown of Elser’s relationship with Elsa, signified by his cold reaction to the birth of their child – an insistence that he has to go to work, rather than hold him for even a moment – really marks out the real Elser, a man terrified of any binding commitment, and rushing headlong into a suicidal plot to kill Hitler. The subsequent scene at the cemetery, where Elsa refuses to hold Elser’s hand, was heartbreaking.

-The scene where Elser takes part in staged propaganda pictures, showing him cooperating with his interrogators, was a potent example of how the Nazi’s, obsessed with framing everything in their way, went about displaying Elser to the nation, almost like an attraction at a zoo. But always there is the constant possibility of violence, as the end of that scene showed vividly. There’s almost a feeling of embarrassment from Muller and Nebe as Elser gets up from his assault silently, blood streaming down his nose, as if he is challenging those present to continue taking the photographs and show the country what Nazi justice is really like.

-I was actually a bit disappointed by the turn of the secretary by the end, as she becomes more and more openly sympathetic to Elser’s plight. I felt like she was a powerful metaphor for the German people in the 1930’s, and her sympathy for Elser by the end of the film ruined that impression a little.

The Georg/Elsa relationship forms a huge part of the film, with good and bad results.

The Georg/Elsa relationship forms a huge part of the film, with good and bad results.

-The trippy drug sequence was a well put together segment, the final example of how the Nazi’s were willing to do anything, up to the point of chemical manipulation, other than admit that a single member of the citizenry could get as far mentally and practically in trying to kill Adolph Hitler.

-Muller is never convinced by Elser, reacting with stone faced anger to his claims that Hitler is bad for Germany, matched by some of his superiors who inflict random violence on the accused. But Nebe, later to be caught up in the July 20th plot, clearly has more time for him, and 13 Minutes very subtly draws the line between the Elser interrogation and Nebe’s later activities.

-It ends badly for Nebe of course, and his execution scene, a reminder of how easily the Third Reich could turn on people it previously placed in positions of high power, was gruesome and effective. Muller watches passively on as Nebe is treated to a terrible and undignified end, any trace of their previous relationship long gone. Muller vanished at the end of World War II, and his exact fate has never been properly ascertained. You really hope the bastard got his though.

-Elser is not immediately executed after his final confession, and instead is kept alive, a sword of Damocles over his head, just so he can witness the outcome of his perceived failure: the ruination of Germany, illustrated by the sight of bombs falling on nearby cities. It’s the most cruel and ironic of Nazi punishments: they considered Elser a madman for thinking that Hitler would lead Germany into catastrophe, and his fate is to be detained and forced to witness this very eventuality.

-The turnaround in Elser’s treatment – respectfully regarded by a maimed prison guard, who gleefully tells Elser of his recent acceptance into a musical school – is the last sign that his argument has won out. By then disillusionment with the Nazi regime was almost total, and the Third Reich was in its last gasps. But Elser, despite this apparent victory, remains defeated, simply waiting for an end he can’t escape.

-The Nazi’s, spiteful and self-destructive to the end, extinguish Elser’s life before he can be liberated, the would be assassin accepting his fate stoically, long since numbed to the possibility. The final shots are evocative, Elser looming into your eyes and asking questions of you and your life.

-Hirschbiegel is still set on the relationship with Elsa though, the final words going to her subsequent life and inability to “get over” her one true love. That was a little forced, and I feel like a simple acknowledgement that she survived the war and was able to make a life for herself would have been enough.

-If I had to make another comparison, it would be to Morten Tyldum’s The Imitation Game, both films about singular figures in World War II, telling their stories in an interrogation room while facing extreme censure for their supposed crimes. I think I did prefer The Imitation Game a bit more, with its larger story and better supporting cast, but 13 Minutes gives it a run for its money, showcasing individual genius and commitment from the other side of the war.

-So, what if Elser’s plot had succeeded? It’s a tantalising question of counterfactual history, the decapitation of Nazi Germany at the very beginning of the Second World War. Who would have taken power? Would the military have established control? Would there have been Civil War? Would Elser’s aim of avoiding a larger European conflagration have been achieved, or was the fighting, already underway, inevitably going to escalate? Its fun to think on the “What if?” of it all, but we can’t go too far down that road.

Spoilers end

13 Minutes isn’t up to the standard of Downfall, lacking the same gargantuan performance in its lead, the same creation of atmosphere, the same emotional power. But it is in no way a bad film, and for a director like Hirschbiegel, that is an important thing. His last effort at biopic was a disaster, but this is much stronger fare, a portrayal of a figure who has been senselessly sidelined in modern remembrance of the “German resistance” in favour of the more traditionally heroic figures like Count Von Stauffenburg, whose overall aims in their plots were far murkier and unappealing, if you care to look into them. Elser, a poor father, a worse partner and a man with conflicting passions and drives, is a much more interesting figure to explore, as 13 Minutes tries to answer the question over his defining act. In the end, there is no single answer, but the journey is an effective exploration at the same time, a character portrait of high quality, for a subject that truly deserves it. Do I think Elser was a hero, after watching 13 Minutes? I think the answer can only be a firm “Maybe” and I do think that this reflects quite well on the film.

A strong central figure, a strong take on his life, a strong cast and strong direction: Hirschbiegel has done very well here. 13 Minutes is a film to engage and a film to entertain, more in line with the director’s talents than most of his intervening work since Der Untergang. I see little indication that it will win the same international recognition of that film, which is a shame, because there is much to enjoy and ponder here, a proper biopic that presents divergent sides of its subject and shines a light on a too often ignored or dismissed facet of Nazi history. Highly recommended.

Good stuff, from a director back on top of his game.

Good stuff, from a director back on top of his game.

(All images are copyright of NFP Distrubution).

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Ireland’s Wars: The Irish At Fontenoy

In the decades following the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, the Irish Brigades of Europe, most notably France, found themselves as soldiers without a war, relegated to garrison duty and minor adventures on unimportant campaigns, usually just to settle down areas with the potential for revolt. Irish born generals in French service would serve in foreign fields, but the service of the Irish Brigade itself in this period is fairly unremarkable.

Further, as the 1710’s became the 1720’s and into the 1730’s and 40’s, the Irish Brigade began to change. More and more of their rank and file were not Irish, but descendents of Irish or non-Irish, usually commanded by Irish officers. More and more of these officers were not fully fledged Jacobites, politically influenced in their decision to join up and seeking to get the Stuart’s back on the throne of Britain, but just Catholic nobles from Ireland, looking for fame, fortune and position away from a homeland where none of these things were possible anymore due to the Penal Laws. But the fighting character of the Brigades was never extinguished, and they played their part in the next great bout of political violence to engulf Europe, as the major powers of the day lined up against each other once more.

The War of the Austrian Succession, which took place between 1740 and 1748, was a battle over the rights of a woman, Marie Therese, to succeed her father to the Hapsburg Throne in Austria.  France, Prussia and Spain, eager to grab territory and influence in Europe, didn’t think she did. The Hapsburgs themselves, Britain, Hannover and the Dutch Republic thought she did. Drawing in numerous smaller states, Kingdoms and principalities, the war would spill over into North America, the Caribbean and India.

The war swung back and forth in Europe and elsewhere for several years, marked by the growing emergence of Prussia as a great power, France’s lack of support for its colonies and hesitance from Britain to commit large scale ground forces for the fight. Through the first few years, there are little records of the deeds and actions of the Irish Brigade, but this was to change in 1745. Fighting in the Low Countries had been continuing for some time, and a major French offensive in 1744 had firmly established them there, with the capture of places like Menin and Ypres. A French Army of around 60’000 men had been given by Louis XV to Maurice de Saxe, a Marshal of France. He aimed to initiate a grand offensive in the Spring of 1745, to force the Allies further back in Flanders and directly threaten what remained of the Hapsburg holdings in the Low Countries. Facing him would be an army of the “Quadruple Alliance”, also known as the “Pragmatic Allies”: Britain, the Dutch Republic, Saxony and Austria, commanded by the 24 year old Duke of Cumberland, the son of Britain’s King George II.

Saxe’s offensive went well: he successfully tricked the Allies into thinking his aim was the besieging of Mons, when the bulk of his army actually went after Tournai, arriving there on the 30th of April. Deceived, Cumberland reacted late, and by the time he had marched his 50’000 or so men to the area, Tournai had been under siege over a week. Saxe, having gained the advantage of picking the site of the coming conflict, fortified a position near the small village of Fontenoy, a few miles away from Tournoi, and awaited an inevitable Allied attack.

Six regiments of the Irish Brigade – those of Dillon, Bulkeley, Clare, Rooth, Berwick and Lally – were with Saxe, commanded by Charles O’Brien, the Viscount Clare who claimed the title Earl of Thomond.  Somewhere in the region of 4’000 men – battalion sizes on a campaign are a notoriously tricky thing to discover – would have been with the Irish Brigade at Fontenoy, with an addition cavalry regiment, that of Fitzjames, joining them. Saxe himself was no stranger to the capabilities of the Irish Brigade, having witnessed the slaughter at Malplaquet when he was just 14, and trusted them enough to give them an important placement in his order of battle.

Saxe placed his army in a strong defensive position, just ahead of Fontenoy at the centre, and behind several slopes that could be used to pour fire down on any advancing enemy. The construction of several earth and wood redoubts made the position even stronger. The Irish were placed on the French left, alongside Norman and other French units, near the village of Ramcroix and behind the Barry Wood.

Cumberland attacked on the 11th of June, by which time Louis XV and famous French writer/philosopher Voltaire had arrived to witness the fighting. Initial Allied assaults on the centre and right were driven back by skilful French cannon fire, and after the repulse of these efforts Cumberland turned to the French left, hoping to use the cover of the Barry Wood to his advantage, personally marching 15’000 troops in a column towards an apparent gap in the French line. But the gap was actually well covered, especially by the redoubt at d’Eu, and Cumberland’s advance suffered terrible casualties from enfilade fire as it went up the hill. But the Allied column, a mix of British and Dutch primarily, persisted, add despite taking great hurt, was able to engage and drive back several French regiments, creating a dangerous breach in the French line.

It was at this point that the Irish Brigade, still waiting behind the wood, was sent forward for the first time, with Dillon’s regiment attacking with the Normandy troops. But they were repulsed, the Dillon losing its Colonel in the process, with Fitzjames’ horse also suffering terribly from enemy cannon fire at the same attack. The Allies pushed forward through the created gap, and for a time it seemed as if the French were beaten, Louis XV preparing to ride off.

But Saxe wasn’t done yet. What followed has been mired in some confusion due to conflicting first-hand accounts, but the rest of the Irish Brigade was sent forward by Saxe, along with whatever cavalry he could muster up. Allegedly going forward with cries of “Cuimhnigi ar Luimneach Cuimhnigiis ar fheill na Sasanach!” – “Remember Limerick and Saxon perfidy!” or “Remember Limerick and English lies!” as you like – they joined a last ditch assault on the advancing Allied column, smashing into it from the right, while other units and artillery hit it in the centre and left. It was one of the most famous attacks of the period.

The fighting was a vicious brawl, between Dutch and Scots on one side, Irish and French on the other. Rolling musketry fire wiped out entire lines, before bayonet charges struck deep. Withdrawals were ordered to prevent too far an advance, and then second lines would do it all again, with cannon fire adding to the slaughter. Despite taking huge casualties, the Irish Brigade, in concert with other French regiments but doing most of the fighting themselves, ground the Allied column to a halt, and then turned it back, with a Sergeant Wheelock of Bulkeley’s actually going as far as capturing an enemy colour, likely to have been one from Sempill’s Regiment of Highlanders, though it was oft claimed to be from the more famous Coldstream Guards. The Allies, having been battered and bloodied for hours, had nothing left for any kind of counter-attack, and instead opted for an ordered withdrawal, Cumberland ceding the ground and the day in the face of French advances on all parts of the field.

7’000 soldiers of Saxe’s army had been killed or wounded, and around 12’000 Allied casualties. 656 soldiers of the Irish Brigade fell, along with roughly a ¼ of their compliment of officers, nearly all of them in that last desperate assault. For this sacrifice, their reputation within the French military and in the eyes of the British was made forever, their performance at Fontenoy considered the height of the Irish military diasporas’ achievements. Lauded by Louis XV and rewarded with promotions and pay rises, the Irish Brigade could exult in being, perhaps, the key military unit that had insured a French victory at Fontenoy, their victory noted in foreign courts as well as in France itself: one likely apocryphal story has George II railing against the Penal Laws in the aftermath of Fontenoy, as they prevented him from recruiting Catholic Irish into the British Army wholesale.

Of course, it wasn’t as simple as all that. Voltaire, never one to willing give credit to anyone other than Frenchmen, downplayed the role of the Irish, preferring instead to lavish praise on Norman regiments, rumps of which had accompanied the Irish into the last attack, and his much-distributed accounts were influential. Some British commentators, for obvious reasons, were also not keen to acknowledge the role played by Irish soldiers fighting for France, not least because of the lost colour.

But the Irish role in this moment of the battle has been confirmed by numerous other eye-witnesses, including Saxe himself and his immediate subordinates, one of whom said “whatever the Parisians may say, the victory is due to the Irish”. The Allies could have done more in their pursuit of victory – most notably, a failure to attack Fontenoy itself contributed to the overall Allied failure to send the French fleeing – but would likely have carried the day but for that final charge, in which the Irish Brigade played the central part. There was little tactical nuance to the moment of course, just fighting skill and one side reaching the breaking point before the other.

From Fontenoy, the French were able to launch further attacks throughout Flanders, severely destabilising the Allied position there and grabbing a great deal of territory. The Irish Brigade, following another stretch of coastal garrison duty, were heavily engaged again at the Battle of Lafelt, in modern-day Belgium, in 1747, pushing Allied forces from the village of Lafelt and helping to secure a French victory, taking even larger casualties than they had at Fontenoy in the process. The war would end the following year with the Treaty of Aix-le-Chapelle, which brought peace but was remarkably unpopular in France, with Louis XV giving up most of the land his armies had won. Regardless of that, the two battles, but Fontenoy in particular, became heavily associated with the Irish Brigade. In terms of the Wild Geese, the Irish performance at Fontenoy had a much more important outcome, helping to inspire one of the other major events of 1745. The Stuart’s had never given up their claim, and soon would try and enforce it once again.

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

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