Ireland’s Wars: Ballinalee

The opening days of November 1920 affords us the chance to look at a hither-to unexplored part of the Irish War of Independence. The midlands region of Ireland was one that remained relatively quiet throughout the war, but there was a significant exception. That exception was Longford, and more specifically the north of that county, which up to November had seen raids for arms, harassment of the RIC and some of the earliest attacks on barracks buildings. This marked them out seriously in comparison to their neighbours. But in November, things were to take a much bloodier turn.

There were a few reasons why the coming ferocity of the war in Longford should not be considered too surprising. The county had a strong core of republican tradition dating back to 1798. The by-election campaign that had been fought there in 1917 had proved a potent avenue for recruitment to the reborn Irish Volunteers, and to Cumann na mBan. Michael Collins, and others, spent a disproportionate amount of time in the area too, linked to his courting of a woman named Kitty Kiernan, living in Granard at the time. And Longford also benefited from a number of energetic officers to propel things along, chief among them a young blacksmith named Sean Mac Eoin.

Mac Eoin was to leave a lasting impact on Ireland, in a military and political career that would continue until the 1960’s. Inheriting his father’s business, he had been a blacksmith in Ballinalee, Longford, since 1913. Already a committed nationalist, Mac Eoin joined the Volunteers the same year, and in short order was sworn in as a member of the local IRB. The Brotherhood largely controlled the Longford Volunteers, and Mac Eoin’s rise in that secret organisation afforded him later opportunities in connection with the IRB’s status in the later set-up GHQ. Mac Eoin formed a key friendship with Collins, and proved an able organiser and officer in his own right, with the IRA exerting a great deal of control in North Longford very quickly.

Under his leadership, Longford’s 1st battalion became the most active in the county, and Mac Eoin was later promoted to being the second in command of the Longford Brigade, and its director of operations, as well as the head of the Longford IRB and a member of the Supreme Council. Mac Eoin, often with another highly-regarded Volunteer based in Ballinalee named Sean Connolly, led several raids for arms, and this made the units he commanded some of the best prepared for a fight in the area. And eventually a fight found them.

The first instigating point was the assassination of RIC District Inspector John Kelleher. Kelleher had been involved in some brutal raids in the area and was marked for death quickly enough after his arrival in the county in July, though GHQ only endorsed the proposed killing if it were to take place after the expected death of Terence McSwiney. Kelleher was killed on the 31st October, shot dead in the Granard hotel of the aforementioned Kiernan family that he was staying in, ironically while he was drinking with members of the local Sinn Fein organisation.

The following day another RIC man was killed, Constable Peter Cooney, who was apparently returning from leave when he was shot between Ballinalee and Granard, though Mac Eoin would later claim that he was a target of opportunity after he was spotted near Ballinalee, possibly observing republicans. Numerous sources claim that Cooney was especially despised as a man who wore women’s clothing as part of his efforts to observe the IRA, though it isn’t really clear how true this is. Either way he was killed, another victim of GHQ’s desire to avenge Terence McSwiney’s death.

The IRA leadership in the area was well aware that the killings would inevitably inspire a reaction from the local RIC and Black and Tans. Reprisals were commonplace in Ireland, and on occasion there had been times when IRA units had attempted to ward against them, by stationing Volunteers near villages and towns close to ambush sites. Such tactics were dangerous, as the IRA of 1920 was not a force – and never really would be – that was designed for conventional defensive warfare, but such efforts were seen as necessary by some commanders, who felt that reprisals were too damaging to the morale of their fighting men if they went uncontested.

Of course the reprisals were a positive for the cause of the republic in terms of how they played out on the national and international stage, but it was hard for local men and women to accept this when it was their homes, businesses and churches being attacked. Mac Eoin was confident enough in the forces that he had to hand that he mobilised them after the killing of Kelleher and Cooney, with an eye for defending the main urban areas of his district, namely Granard and his own Ballinalee.

Granard was the first site of contact, as extra RIC and Black and Tans from surrounding areas entered it on the night of 2nd of November. The local IRA, commanded by Mac Eoin, was waiting for them. Mac Eoin had put the main body of his force in Ballinalee, but having obtained reports that Granard was the first town marked for reprisal, he had set-out in that direction with enough men to make a stand, doing so from positions in the south of the town. When a group of RIC left their barracks and were observed burning a local business, Mac Eoin and his men opened fire. No one was killed, but the RIC beat a hasty retreat from their actions, and no further reprisal attempts took place.

Mac Eoin retreated back to Ballinalee, around 10 kms to the west. There, he broke the men he had under his command into five sections, as he was unaware from which direction an attack would come, with forces of the RIC, Black and Tans and the military in Longford Town to the west, but also possibly coming from other avenues. They took positions in a few different places, like the local Protestant church, a school and the crossroads that formed the nucleus of the town. Mac Eoin had a mostly free hand to do so, as the majority of the locals departed Ballinalee, fearing reprisals and the possibility of being caught in a firefight. Mac Eoin’s general plan was not to try and attempt to keep enemy forces out of Ballinalee, but to allow them entry and then to open fire from multiple directions when their movement was limited. Specifically Mac Eoin set his men so that the four entry points to the town were covered.

That evening, with heavy rain falling, Mac Eoin received word from scouts that eleven lorries had left Granard heading in their direction, and that a red glow could be seen on the horizon. Granard had indeed been the subject of a successful reprisal, with the IRA stationed there withdrawing in the face of what was seen as too many of the enemy. Now that same enemy, a force of RIC and Black and Tans, was heading towards Ballinalee, along with a platoon of escorting military. They did not arrive until after 9PM, at which point Mac Eoin was prepared. After a brief stop to investigate Mac Eoin’s forge – unoccupied, naturally – the Crown Forces entered the village properly, with the majority of the trucks assembling near the Catholic Church of the town before their occupants dismounted. Mac Eoin had set up his command post at a building caused Rose Cottage on the crossroads at the centre of town, and from here he and his men were in a very favourable position. Mac Eoin called out an order to surrender. The RIC refused. A gunfight broke out almost immediately.

There followed several minutes of seemingly confused fighting. The RIC had turned off their lights so now the only illumination was the flash of gun barrels, including a Maxim and Lewis gun being fired by the Crown Forces. The Volunteers for their part, being reasonably armed, fired back with rifles, pistols and grenades. After a few minutes of firing a brief ceasefire afforded Mac Eoin the chance to offer the RIC the chance to surrender again, which was refused, whereupon firing broke out again. In all of this there does not appear to have been any key inflicting of casualties by either side, though IRA accounts claim the RIC mistakenly fired at their own men in the darkness.

Those immediately engaged could not keep up the fight forever, and Mac Eoin attempted to get the other detachments in Ballinalee to back him up, but without success. He claims that the firefight went on for the better part of two hours, at the end of which the RIC mounted back up into their lorries and left, one by one, heading in the direction of Longford Town. By that time, the Volunteers were down to a handful of rounds per man. The following morning, when daylight dawned, the IRA in Ballinalee were greeted with the sight of abandoned war material, including arms and ammunition, as well as household items seemingly looted from Granard.

Mac Eoin also noted pools of blood strewn about, but there were no bodies. The amount of people wounded or killed at Ballinalee that night remains clouded. Neither side reported much in the way of casualties, but both claimed to have inflicted many. Similar confusion surrounds the number of men who were actually engaged, with both sides making outlandish claims as to the strength of the enemy: even today, if you read around, you will see claims that 900 RIC attacked Ballinalee, and similarly that Mac Eoin commanded hundreds of men in his turn. Mac Eoin himself later gained a reputation of an exaggerator, especially when it came to enemy killed in Longford, so his account, though detailed, should be taken with a grain of salt. It seems more likely that a confused gunfight in the middle of a rain-soaked pitch-black night may have resulted in no deaths and maybe even no wounded to either side.

What was in not in doubt is that the RIC entered Ballinalee, and were then forced back out by the IRA, deaths or no deaths. In that, the performance of Mac Eoin and his men was to be commended. They had set-up some well-defended positions, lured the enemy into a weak position, and were then able to force them into a retreat. The IRA had taken ground and held it against a larger force of the enemy. In the process they captured valuable supplies, and demonstrated the weaknesses of the Crown Forces. For the part of the RIC, they appeared to have blundered into Ballinalee without a true inkling of what they were facing and may have been lucky to get out of the town relatively unscathed.

Mac Eoin and his men, enlarged by more Volunteers moved from Granard and Longford Town, continued to hold Ballinalee for the better part of two weeks, convinced that the enemy would not let their repulse stand. A delegation from Longford Town was permitted entry to retrieve the body of Constable Cooney and his family. Tensions remained high, even as the residents of the town slowly made their way back to their homes. Several days after the “battle”, Mac Eoin’s account relates an embarrassing incident where lights on the horizon in the darkness had he and his men convinced they were about to be encircled by thousands of Crown Forces, even though scouts and contacts in Longford Town assured them there had been no such movement of troops. Mac Eoin went as far as moving his men from Ballinalee and out into the countryside to avoid an encirclement, only to discover that the lights were “will-o-the-wisps” from neighbouring bogland.

The IRA presense in Ballinalee was a notable committeemen to a standing defence in the context of the larger war. Journalists visited Ballinalee to interview its defenders, and Collins was able to maintain contact with Mac Eoin, who had breastworks erected and trenches dug to improve his position. But the Crown Forces did not return. Impatient after all of this waiting for an expected attack that never seemed to come, Mac Eoin eventually left. It remains a fairly extraordinary episode in the history of the Irish War of Independence, one where, for a short time and in a small area, the IRA operated more as a conventional standing army than the guerrilla force they are popularly remembered as being. Mac Eoin’s reputation, already high enough, was also essentially made.

Within a few weeks, and while Mac Eoin’s men were preparing to ambush Crown Forces elsewhere, Ballinalee was occupied by the RIC, who belatedly got to initiate their reprisal. This included the burning of Mac Eoin’s home and forge, along with several other buildings. Mac Eoin did attempt to interfere, launching a series of attacks on RIC positions in the town in late November and early December, but was unable to drive them from Ballinalee this time, though they were able to inflict some casualties despite the terrible weather, which was always cold and frequently snowy. These subsequent operations are less well-remembered than the “battle” of the 2nd November, but form part of a running series of minor engagements that Mac Eoin and his men were involved in, almost for the rest of the war. We may look at some of those in more detail before this series is over.

So the war in the countryside was continuing apace, but now we must turn back to the war in the Irish capital. A fateful date was fast approaching, but before we get to the events of Bloody Sunday, we must discuss the finer details of the intelligence war in Dulin in the days, weeks and months leading to November. Michael Collins and his Squad had been the men dictating so much of the war there, but in the summer of 1920 the British had attempted to fight back.

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

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

NFB Watches Wrestling #3: Mid-South Wrestling (03/03/1986)

And so, to the vault! It’s Mid-South Wrestling, coming to you from the Tulsa Fairgrounds Pavilion on the 3rd March 1986. After a very 80’s opening title, replete with side-swipes and synth chords straight out of Stranger Things, we join father and son duo “Cowboy” Bill and Joel Watts on commentary. Advertised as tonight’s main event: Koko B. Ware vs “Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert.

Not to be a damper on things right from the off, but this is actually the end of the road for Mid-South, as owner Bill Watts takes the opportunity, after plugging a Jim Crockett Promotion show, to announce that it will be re-named the “Universal Wrestling Federation” in two weeks. Mid-South was doing pretty well for a territory at the time, and Watts wanted a name-change to help take the brand national, and in so doing compete against the WWF. As you can guess, Watts’ ambition was to be ill-fated.

We open with a look back at a match a few weeks back, Dick Slater vs Jake “the Snake” Roberts for Mid-South’s North American and Television Championships in a No-DQ/Dark Journey In A Suspended Cage match. A super young Jim Ross on commentary, alone, in a packed Sam Houston Coliseum, Texas. It’s just the final minute of the contest, as Dark Journey, Slater’s valet, throws him a chain, but Jake nails a clothesline before it can be used. Roberts with the chain, goes for a punch but gets very awkwardly back body dropped over the top rope. Slater to the top as Jake comes back in, hits an elbow for the pin and both titles.

As Joel Watts very hesitantly explains, Mid-South won’t allow one man to hold both of these titles. In a hastily arranged “press conference” – an interview on a bridge somewhere – Slater gives a standard heel promo about how he’s being mistreated by such a ruling. Hard to take it too seriously though, seeing as how windy it is wherever he is and how he stumbles over every second line. Anyway, forced to relinquish the TV Title, Slater “retires” it by chucking the actual medal (yeah…) off the bridge he’s on, but not before knocking his sunglasses off his head while taking it off (this was not live). Slater gloats that the title “doesn’t float”. Back in the Pavilion, a not-very-annoyed sounding Bill Watts promises a response. Is there where WWE got the idea for Austin to chuck Angle’s Olympic medals off a bridge?

Back from a break, and Bill Watts introduces more highlights from a previous match. We’re a quarter of the way through this show folks. This time it’s once again Jake “The Snake” Roberts, this time taking on Terry Taylor in a #1 Contenders Match for the North American Title. This is, apparently, a rare (for the territories anyway) face-vs-face match. Roberts hits the DDT on Taylor, but rolls Taylor past the rope before the pin. Taylor dodges a running knee, and reverses another DDT into a roll-up for the pin. Watts calls this a controversial ending, but I don’t really see how. Anyway, it leads us to our first actual match of the show.

Terry Taylor vs Mike Scott

Mike Scott, getting the “already in the ring” treatment, is a burly looking guy from Alaska, and that’s all I could say about him. Terry Taylor has the women in the audience screaming with his arrival. No idea who is on commentary. Women screaming anytime Taylor does anything, which includes such basic offence as a snapmare, backbreaker and an armbar. Scott’s is even more basic, just clubbing blows to the head. Out of nowhere Taylor hits a jumping forearm they call a “Flatiron” for the 1, 2, 3 in under two minutes.

Winner: Terry Taylor and fans of meaningless territory squashes.

Verdict: How was this kind of thing the standard match for the era?

Back from break, and they are already in the ring for the next match, the apparent main event.

“Hot Stuff” Eddie Gilbert vs Koko B. Ware

Gilbert on the mike addressing his opponent. Calls him “Koko Ware”. Taylor says he could beat Koko in under two minutes, and “as head of Hot Stuff International”, Taylor offers him a position with his stable. Koko responds in the negative. He knocks Taylor down and out, and the bell rings.

Commentator also calling him “Koko Ware” which is baffling to me. Ware on top, showing off his drop-kicks, with Gilbert skittering away any-time he can. Crowd’s popping big for the drop-kicks. We go to a rest-hold pretty quick though. Gilbert takes over an offence, and has massive heat from this crowd whenever he poses. An Atomic Drop, haven’t seen one of those in ages.

On commentary they note that Gilbert has a “sugar-mama” which makes him a bad person: “I guess I grow up in an era where if a man was living off of a woman, they only had one name for him, and it was four letters and started with “P””, and that’s a bit of a thinker as well as being remarkably sexist. “As sickening as Jim Cornette living off his mother” is the follow-up, which saves it a bit. Gilbert floors Ware with a thumping clothesline followed by a cradle for a near-fall.

Going to rest-holds after only a short bit of action. Gilbert busting out some flips and dives, missing a crossbody off the second rope. Ware hits his second rope drop-kick for the 1, 2, 3 in under four minutes.

Winner: Koko B. Ware

Verdict: Better than the first match anyway, but just brief bits of action interspersed by rest-holds.

Hot Stuff International beats down Ware in the aftermath, but the victor fights them off with the help of a chair, to a big pop from the crowd. Ware was off to WWF shortly enough, while Gilbert would bounce around a few places, and would be the pre-Heyman booker for Eastern Championship Wrestling.

After another break, it’s on to the Mid-South Tag Team Title picture. Your champs are “Dr Death” Steve Williams and pre-Million Dollar Man gimmick Ted DiBiase. They are, astonishingly, working face right now, and their foes are the amazingly named “Sheepherders”, an anti-American team from New Zealand of all places. They are, of course, the future Bushwhackers. We see an in-ring promo from the Sheepherders, who appear to just be the hillbilly archetype you’ve see variations of everywhere. They needed to turn full-on to comedy to get anywhere. Jim Ross holds up the microphone, 34 years ago, and damn he looks so different. Standard foreigner promo, with the Kiwi team lacking appropriate accents.

Despite the fact that the previous match was billed as the main event, there’s another match starting now.

Ted DiBiase & Dr Death Steve Williams vs Gustavo Mendoza & Sean O’Reilly (non-title)

Mendoza is a Fidel Castro lookalike, I kid you not. I loves me some Million Dollar Man (AHAHAHAHA), so sad to see the guy lacking any character here, he’d get that rub the following year when he moved to WWF. DiBiase throwing O’Reilly around for a bit with a few hip-tosses. Williams in, hard to tell him and DiBiase apart at this point in their careers. Crowd chanting “OU” for Oklahoma University. People hate Fidel Castro, who would have thought?

The Sheepherders show up dressed up in Union Jack shirts, described as “New Zealand flags”. Not quite. In-ring, the champs just keep throwing the jobbers around, and Dr Death ends it with a big body slam that momentarily bends the ring noticeably in the middle, in around two minutes.

Winners: Ted DiBiase & “Dr Death” Steve Williams

Verdict: Just waiting for “MONEY, MONEY, MONEY, MONEY”

Sheepherders try to jump the champs in the aftermath but get fought off. They invite the representatives of America’s greatest enemy into the ring for a match, but the villainous New Zealanders take a powder instead.

Back from break, and another match is about to begin.

Ron Ellis vs Korchenko

Eddie Gilbert is back out to introduce fellow Hot Stuff International member Korchenko, who is your standard Soviet behemoth, complete with Soviet flag, this one with fur boots. “Look at the size of those thighs!” proclaims the commentator. Korchenko beats Ron Ellis up for a bit, hits a delay reverse backbreaker for the pin in just over a minute.

Winner: Korchenko

Verdict: A heel squash is a nice change of pace.

After the break, it’s another match about to begin.

The Blade Runners (Rock and Sting) vs Steve Doll and Perry Jackson

The Blade Runners, and yes that is the Ultimate Warrior and Sting, are more members of Hot Stuff International, who appear to be Mid-South’s version of Evolution with the way they turn up in every segment. After a brief bit of enhancement talent gusto the Blade Runners take over for an extended beat-down, that seems to bore Bill Watts enough that he starts talking about Dick Slater again. After a few minutes the Blade Runners get the pin off of something like the End of Days. They actually remind me of the Ascension a bit.

Winners: The Blade Runners

Verdict: Man, Mid-South had little faith in going outside the TV Squash formula, huh? Who have liked to have seen a bit more of Warrior and Sting before they were really Warrior and Sting.

A break, and another tag match about to begin.

Dick “Captain Redneck” Murdoch & The Masked Superstar vs Ricky Gibson & Tracey Smothers

We’re down to “television time remaining” for this tag match that had zero build. Gibson is a cousin of the much more famous Robert Gibson in the Rock N Roll Express. Murdoch keeps going for a suplex pin over and over again. Some mat wrestling extends things a bit before the beatdown segment of proceedings takes over. It’s quicker than usual, with the Masked Superstar pinning Smothers off of a clothesline in under two.

Winners: Dick “Captain Redneck” Murdoch & The Masked Superstar

Verdict: Meh.

The Watts family promotes a few upcoming shows as the credits roll. Hacksaw Duggan is on next week. I’ll pass.

Best Match: I guess Gilbert/Ware by default, as it was pretty much the only actual match.

Worst Match: Take your pick of the squashes.

Best Wrestler: Koko B. Ware can jump higher than anyone else (and would probably be a bigger deal if the industry wasn’t super racist).

Worst Wrestler: Take your pick of the squashes

Overall Verdict: For a younger fan, it still boggles the mind that the formula for TV back then was squash after squash after squash, with maybe one actual match, but all of them short. This was the norm for so, so long, up until the mid-90’s really. From a few decades in the future, it makes for awful television, but I have to admit that the crowd is happy, so what do I know? Anyway, avoid.

 

 

Posted in Reviews, TV/Movies, Wrestling | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Review: Birds Of Prey

Birds Of Prey

Trailer

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Holt voice: “Yas Queen”

It’s taken me a while to get to Birds Of Prey (and I will not be using the rather silly full title, sorry), not through lack of interest per-say, but there just always seemed to be something else coming out that caught the eye a little bit more. I didn’t hate Suicide Squad, and placed the Will Smith/Margo Robbie interactions contained therein as one of its best elements, with Robbie performing ably as Harley Quinn. But a full film of that character?

Seemingly DC/Warner Brothers/whoever is in charge over in that direction nowadays shared some of my concerns, because they decided to try and one-up the competition on the female front once more, with an attempt to adapt DC’s premiere female-centric superhero team into a film, while Marvel is still to get round to only its second female-led film (and they already killed her off). Such a team-up is certainly well-suited to the modern film-making environment, and will naturally be a breath a fresh-air in comparisons to male-centric Avengers’ and even more male-centric Justice League’s. But with a largely untested director at this level, and with the never-ending sense that the DC film’s are struggling for traction from the moment they get green-lit, could Birds Of Prey make good on Suicide Squad’s key redeeming element?

After being dumped by the Joker, Harley Quinn (Margo Robbie) finds herself alone in a suddenly very hostile world, searching for meaning and a reason to go on. The opportunity arises when she becomes involved in the search for a particularly valuable diamond, desired by ambitious, yet deranged, crime boss Roman “Black Mask” Sionis (Ewan McGregor). The search soon hooks in others: disillusioned GCPD detective Renee Montoya (Rosie Perez); metahuman singer Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollet-Bell); vengeful vigilante Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and adolescent pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco).

I did enjoy Birds Of Prey a fair bit. There is a hell of a lot to like about this film, from the strength of the central performance, through to the action and with its aggressively pro-feminist credentials, as debatable as some of them might be. But, much like Suicide Squad, there are plenty of things dragging Birds Of Prey down, and one of them is that unnecessarily long, but undoubtedly eye-grabbing, addendum to the title: Birds Of Prey (And The Fantabulous Emancipation Of One Harley Quinn) which naturally had me thinking of The Contrabulous Fabtraption of Professor Horatio Hufnagel.

Because this isn’t really a Birds Of Prey movie. Oh, some of the more recognisable members of the Birds Of Prey team are in it (thought some of the most recognisable aren’t) and at least one of them is a very important character to the story (well, kinda, we’ll get into that). But this Birds Of Prey is never able to get away from the reality that it should really be called Harley Quinn And The Birds Of Prey. And it also can’t get away from the feeling that the the second part of that title is only here to pad things out. It’s the Harley Quinn movie that (some) fans have been crying out for, but, not unlike Deadpool, the Quinn character is one that works best in small doses: this much of her and her psychotic brand of peppiness might begin to grate, and that’s with the reality that there isn’t enough of her to fill the movie.

Birds Of Prey is simply too long for too little story, and that’s especially damning seeing as how the film actually isn’t that long, especially by the standards of the genre. Sans credits, it’s clocking in at a rough 95 minutes, yet still seems like it is padding things out to a fair degree, especially in its first hour, where director Cathy Yan struggles, hesitantly, to get to the point. She does this through a spate of timeline fudging, attempting to turn this quasi origin for Harley Quinn and the Birds Of Prey into something akin to Reservoir Dogs, where we jump from narrative to narrative, character perspective to character perspective in a haphazard manner. The effect certainly keeps a viewer on their toes, but it does not necessarily a good movie make. In Birds Of Prey the effect is more confusion, like you’re trying to piece together the events of a night-out years ago, your recollection made hazy by the passage of time and alcohol.

Instead of something more grounded and, to use what may be seen as a dirty word, traditional, it feels like we are consistently putting the promise of the premise, and the title, on the long finger. It might surprise you to learn that it takes a very long time for the titular team-up to actually happen, and when it does it is nasty, brutish and short. Instead, we spend the better part of an hour following the various named characters around – not just the Birds, but the film’s villain as well, and his psychotic sidekick Zasz – on seemingly separate adventures that, while they have an underlying unity, are still separate adventures. It is not until Quinn gets her hands of Cassandra Cain – who has, unfortunately, swallowed a diamond that could lead the way to an even vaster fortune – and buddied up to her that the film actually feels like it has gotten past a state of elongated prologue, and by then we’re actually nearing the home straight.

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McGregor has been better to be honest.

Is it, like Suicide Squad, an issue of having too much to show. The film is overloaded with characters that all compete for limited screen-time, and in a way you could watch a narrative on any of them and be potentially entertained, with the cast all being generally great. Robbie has some great manic energy as Quinn, though as the film’s protagonist she does come off an extraordinary unlikable at times. And she has a very strange case of pigeon-holing in that, for I think the fourth film in her career, she’s breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. Perez’ Montoya might not be the version of the character I was expecting (much older for one thing), but she still captures the hardness of a Gotham gumshoe. Smollet-Bell’s Lance is intense, dynamic and relatable, but perhaps spends too much of the film following others around. Winstead’s Huntress lacks a certain amount of depth for what amounts to a Arya-esque revenge quest, but at least provides an interesting basis for a socially awkward superhero. And Basco’s Cain is essentially the film’s living MacGuffin, and largely treated as such by other characters and the script which, from Christina Hodson, is actually pretty good in terms of characters if not so much plot.

Arraigned against them is McGregor’s Black Mask, and to only a slightly lesser extent Chris Messina’s Zasz. They’re both OK, but ridiculous brutality is exchanged for genuine character building in their cases. Making time for all of them is hard to do, so Yan basically spends a huge portion of the first two acts introducing and fleshing them out as best she can, and only getting into the nitty-gritty of the plot in the last half-hour.

A larger debate can be had about the film’s feminist credentials. It’s certainly designed to be seen as an ode to women power, and to a certain extent also POC in its mostly minority cast, though Robbie and McGregor still eat up most of the camera’s attention. It’s undoubtedly a film where women kick a lot of ass while putting up with a great deal of idiocy from men. Quinn is left bereft by the callous Joker and is the subject of repeated physical and sexual threats. Lance is pretty much the same, Montoya is the victim of male-centric promotion grabbing in work, Huntress’ whole family was murdered by men, Cain may or may not be the victim of in-family abuse.

They all have to stand-up to their abuser and to a male-dominated criminal world, and they all get to do so with aplomb, showcasing independence in every act of aggression, cunning or refusal to bow down. Perhaps this kind of pro-feminist film-making will turn some off because of the loud, garish and exceedingly violent nature of it, with the women of Birds Of Prey imitating the violence of men without ever rising above it. Moments of genuine emotion – like Quinn’s drunken admission of regret for past actions – are rare, as are subtler examinations of female reaction to male dominance (like a silent Dinah Lance debating whether to get involved with a date-rape in progress).  But a female-centric superhero film can’t be all essays on the topic or lone wolf character dramas like Wonder Woman or Captain Marvel, and at least Birds Of Prey knows exactly what it wants to be in terms of women-dealt violence, pulling no punches and making no apologies for its irreverent, flat-out zany tone in doing so (among many random jokes, we gt to see uber serious Montoya in a “I shaved my balls for this?” t-shirt, which is the perfect example of what I mean).

That violence is straight out of the Suicide Squad playbook, though at least it might be better lit. It’s cartoony in many ways, with Quinn sending numerous charging men into somersaults with her crazily-sized hammer, or the way that Huntress fights a guy while going down a carnival slide or Cain pick-pocketing serial killers. Yan loves to use the Suicide Squad joke of having ditzy information typed on-screen (this time, it’s the reasons why various people are out to kill Quinn) even while the mot horrible kinds of physical assault is being perpetrated. By the end of the production you’ll have gotten desensitized, maybe even a bit bored, by it all, with Yan substituting creativity with shock value on more than one occasion.

The familiar neon aesthetic is back in force, with an entire action sequence based around Quinn firing clouds of luminous pink and yellow at police officers as she raids a GCPD station (and lets not forget a multi-colured explosion scene early on, that sets the tone nicely). Indeed, so much of Birds Of Prey is like Suicide Squad from an aesthetic and cinematography standpoint that it is almost a surprise to not see David Ayer’s name on the marquee. There’s perhaps a bit too much forced cool and moments of badass to make up for some well-shot, kinetically entertaining beat-em-up scenes, no matter how good the soundtrack is on this occasion. An animated prologue is fun, as is a crime reconstruction from Montoya’s perspective and a Marilyn Monroe-themed fantasy sequence is a nice distraction from the reality of Quinn getting punched in the head.

Birds Of Prey is a bit of a melting pot movie in many ways, with a lot of characters and ideas thrown in, for a final product that is mostly pleasing but which, in the end, lacks a bit of substance. It’s well-acted and generally looks fine, and one can appreciate the integrity of what it is, and the message that it is trying to present. But on the other hand it dilutes down its story with an excess of characters and focal points, gets a bit tedious with its violence and edginess by the end, and seems more like a set-up for future films featuring these characters than a fully-formed idea of its own. It’s largely female, largely POC cast is to be appreciated however, and I would deem it at least a slight improvement on Suicide Squad, and a welcome sign that DC/WB are content to continue a certain amount of adventurousness in their properties. For that, recommended.

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What did you think of BOP: ATFEOOHQ?

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

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Ireland’s Wars: The 1920 British Counter-Offensive

Not too long ago we briefly discussed the starkly divided approaches of the British political leadership when it came to the Irish conflict. The opposing camps – those who wanted to enact harsher military-driven policies, and those who preferred to find some conciliation with the nationalists – were unable to come with a firm direction. In this entry I wanted to discuss the military situation in Ireland from the British perspective, and how their war effort was progressing from those Summer 1920 discussions at the higher tables.

The Crown Forces now consisted of a sizable amount of regular military situated throughout the country, but particularly concentrated in Cork, Limerick, Tipperary and Dublin; the pre-existing RIC for all of its weaknesses; the RIC reservists, aka the Black and Tans; the RIC Auxiliaries; and the special Ulster-based organisations. A significant problem, that was not fully appreciated by political leadership at the time but certainly was by those on the ground, was unity of command. Too often military and police were operating separately or at cross purposes, and Dublin Castle was unable, or unwilling, to offer direction to the degree that was needed. John French, derided by many around him as a shadow of his former self, was increasingly occupying a symbolic role, with Hamar Greenwood the main civilian player in government. But in many ways his role was detached from the situation on the ground.

The goal of the British war effort was still to defeat the rebel forces, who were frequently couched in the language of criminality, as opposed to military. There had been a relative flood of soldiers and reservist/auxiliary police into Ireland, but finding the best way to utilise that flood was the issue. Crown Forces’ ability to project their power was compromised by several factors.

A major transport boycott consistently undermined the British military position in Ireland during this time, with train unions and dock workers routinely refusing to move British war material or British troops. Such things were a combination of republican sentiment, pressure from the IRA/Dail and anti-British sentiment from left-wing unions (the British authorities often referred to the strikes as being a result of “Bolshevism” as much as republicanism). They did not completely cripple British ability to move, but they did force the administration to rely to a greater extent on the roads than they may otherwise have done. Water-based transport, for example, became extremely difficult to carry out if dock-workers would not load ships.

Emphasis on road transport exposed British deficiencies in vehicles, both in terms of troop transports and in terms of offensive warfare. Beginning in the second half of 1920 more and more vehicles began to enter Ireland for the use of the military and police, with the most memorable probably being the Peerless armoured car, whose single or twin machine gun armament made it extremely formidable when engaged in combat. But it, along with many of the other vehicles employed by the Crown Forces, were suited to only the better roads, and not to the country lanes and mud-tracks that so much of the War of Independence was fought besides.

In bad weather – and it being Ireland, bad weather was never far away – the Peerless and other vehicles would not get too far in the countryside. There were also a few tanks deployed to Ireland, whose limited maneuverability and difficulty with certain terrain made them essentially useless, despite their guns. Over abundance of firepower has never been a major deciding factoring guerrilla warfare anyway, and there was a recurring issue over the availability of engineers to maintain the vehicles. Sometimes the trucks given to the military or RIC were not entirely fit for purpose: many units were forced to perform ad-hoc “up-armouring” on their own transports as the reality of ambushes became clear. But, it can’t be denied that the availability of such vehicles helped, at least from a morale perspective.

Beginning in the Autumn of 1920, the British attempted to project force more, using key urban centres as nodal points from which patrols in force were sent into the surrounding countryside. We have covered some of the outcomes of these tactics already, with the IRA finding targets with those patrols that followed predictable and repeated routes, and who exposed themselves to danger by not travelling in enough force. The extent of British ability to utilise vehicles also pushed the IRA into practicing more counter-mobility operations to impede their enemies’ progress, by cutting trenches through roads or felling trees, anything that could slow down or frustrate the military or the police.

But it is clear that the British approach, dubbed as an Autumn counter-offensive by some, bore dividends of a sort. For much of 1920 up to that point the British had essentially surrendered huge parts of Ireland to republican control, but now they were back, even if it was frequently quite temporary. Surprise raids became common-place. There was a massive increase in the amount of confirmed or suspected IRA members being arrested, and an increase in the number killed. The “Restoration of Order in Ireland” Act helped with all of this, as it was easier to detain and convict suspects than it had been before. The abolition of coroner’s courts also gave Crown Forces greater leeway in pursuing their objectives, as they had less legal consequences to worry about. British presence in rebel-heavy areas was thus increased, and their control over large swaths of the country where IRA activity was not as pronounced were further solidified.

As a result of a flood of Crown Forces in their areas of operation, many Volunteers were obliged to go on the run. The British undoubtedly viewed such such expediencies from the IRA as a victory of sorts, but it was a double-edged sword: many of the men forced on the run had no other option but to coalesce with others, which naturally caused the formation of more flying column units, or the expansion of others. In essence, the Crown Forces created a number of more dangerous enemies in the pursuit of a wider clutch.

And of course there were other negatives as well. RIC and military casualties also increased as engagements became more frequent: many of them still had no adequate training to deal with warfare characterised by ambush, and they still did not hold the initiative when it came to the military engagements that defined the conflict. For every IRA Volunteer arrested or killed, there was the possibility of negative press and international condemnation, arenas that were more important for the overall struggle than many realised. The strangulation of county councils could not deflect from the fact that Dail courts and republican police still ruled significant parts of Ireland. And control of areas like Kildare or Louth was all very well, but “control” of territory has never been the key indicator of success in the fighting of a counter-insurgency war.

And no number of IRA men killed or captured could undo the self-inflicted wounds of reprisals, which remained, aside from ambushes and assassination, the major activity of the war from a military perspective. They remained an impromptu enough affair at this point, driven more by anger at the deaths of comrades-in-arms and frustration with the reality of guerrilla war, and less by a cool, calculated decision to seek the attainment of military goals by means different to engagement with the enemy. So many towns, villages, creameries and farms had been wrecked or partially destroyed at this point, and many more were to come. The British could claim that reprisals cowed previously hostile towns and made it easier for them to do their jobs, but it is debatable how submissive the victims of reprisals really were in the aftermath.

For most of 1920, reprisals were only a semi-formal thing, often directed by the most senior officer on the scene, but an officer who had little fear of repercussion. Dublin Castle did not have any stated aversion to reprisals, but they stopped short of formally endorsing them at the same time. When reprisals took place, it was common practice for the official response to be one where the incident was downplayed dramatically, or was blamed on republican elements, or was denied altogether. At the same time, the political figures at the heart of the British war effort continually tried to steer the conversation back to accusations or murder and terrorism, and the idea that Crown Forces in the field were entitled to fight back in the best manner that they could.

Few in Ireland, the press or the House of Commons were fooled by the denials and the obfuscation. The dark joke from the period that has been repeated since is that everyone agreed that “there were no such things as reprisals, but they are having a very good effect”. The facade could not be upheld indefinitely. It was not until the end of the year that the government made the move to more formally recommend the policy of reprisal. In line with the official imposition of martial law in large parts of Munster, they became official doctrine in December, where units operating in the field were instructed to carry out actions of collective punishment on communities thought to be supporting the IRA.

What appears clear is that, whether members of the government really believed it or not, thy were perfectly happy to act as if the tide had been turned, and as if the conflict in Ireland would soon come to a speedy conclusion. The most remembered comment of this era is David Lloyd George’s exclamation, delivered in a speech on the 9th of November, that they “had murder by the throat” in Ireland. It was to prove the most painful of false dawns for Lloyd George and his government. By the end of November events in both the capital and in the countryside would show that, far from being in a position to bring an imminent end to the conflict in Ireland on favorable terms, the British were still vulnerable, and arguably more vulnerable than ever.

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

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NFB Watches Wrestling #2: ECW Hardcore TV (20/05/1997)

Onto TV land, and to Paul Heyman’s blood-soaked baby. ECW basically prided itself on being down and dirty when it comes to production values, so before I hit play on this I’m expecting to be confused very quickly. And I was not to be disappointed!

It’s the 20th May 1997 (internet says this aired on the 17th though), and we are in a crammed-looking Flickinger Centre in Buffalo, New York, for one of ECW’s occasional forays outside of Philly.

Because this is ECW and it’s the wild west of wrestling, we open with no fanfare and a match – a title match no-less – in progress. Joey Styles and…is that Rick Rude on commentary?

Shane Douglas (c) vs Chris Chetti (ECW Television Championship)

Chetti is a guy I remember as being a bit of an ECW mainstay for a good period only to never make the transition to the big leagues. Chetti on top, hitting a superplex, and a swinging neckbreaker for two near-falls. Misses a cool looking double-springboard moonsault, Douglas hit’s a belly-to-belly suplex for the 1, 2, 3 in who knows how many minutes. Joey Styles is upset.

Winner (and stiillllll Television Champion): Shane Douglas and people who like in media res openings.

Verdict: I dunno, Chris Chetti was made to look good I guess.

The actual show opening titles follow with all of the jumpy footage, blood drip effects and, with hindsight, horrifying unprotected chair shots you could want.

It is indeed Ravishing Rick Rude that is with Joey Styles, making a very obscure comment about Kathy Lee Gifford that I do not get. I had forgotten that his return to wrestling started out with a colour commentator gig with ECW, he’d be back in WWF within a few months helping found DX before being completely written out of history. They briefly set-up tonight’s main event, a “dream” tag match where long-standing rivals Tommy Dreamer and Raven will face each other with mystery tag-team partners. Rude plays this up with all of the emotion of the Terminator. Styles and Rude also mention “Mr Monday Night” Rob Van Dam, currently working heel. Don’t worry, there will be a lot on him later. Then they set-up our next contest, featuring a pissed-off “Suplex Machine” and the smallest Dudley

Taz vs Spike Dudley

Big reaction for Taz, back when he was still a feared monster. Spike already in the ring, looking markedly different, and much creepier, than his later iterations. “Taz is going to kill you” chants. Rude’s interjections are devoid of any emotion whatsoever: “I think Taz’s weight advantage will be too much” he says, like he’s Michael Cole recording lines alone for a video game. Some nice back and forth to start, with the first big spot a top-rope plancha to the outside from Spike.

An Alabama Slam from Taz gets “E-C-Dub” chants. Is Bob Holly watching? Taz all over Spike, starting to hit suplexes. Spike hits a low-blow, and because this is “EXTREME” and the ref’s are just window dressing it means nothing. The littlest Dudley hits a Dudley Dogg for a two-count, tries for another and gets tossed around the ring, before another suplex. Very fast-paced now, lots of running and counters, before Taz gets in the Tazmission. Spike taps out in around five minutes.

Winner: Taz, and those looking for reminders that amid the terrible production values ECW could have awesome short matches.

Verdict: Great fast-paced stuff, that made Taz look like Goldberg and Spike like a scrappy underdog you shouldn’t underestimate.

After the break, Styles and Rude talk about Shane Douglas’ valet Francine that Rude has apparently been kissing recently. Robot Rude reads off a cue card that Francine just needed some “mouth-to-blouse resuscitation”, which I swear is not a slip, but makes no sense to me. “If that weren’t extreme enough” Styles responds, and I’m more confused as we jump to a highlight package of matches from “The Buffalo Invasion” (that I think this show’s matches were also from).

It’s quick bootleg style highlights, including: The Pitbulls in a brawl with the FBI (“Farm Breed Idiots” declares Rude), Balls Mahoney vs Bill Wiles, a Mr Sandman entrance, Dreamer taking a tumble down the arena steps and a mental looking triple threat tag team match. They all get a bit of time, the kind of standard blood-and-guts stuff you would expect, delivered without a shred of context to the TV audience.

But enough about that, let’s talk about RVD, currently in some kind of arrogant cocky heel mode, calling himself Mr Monday Night (Mr “Not Appearing Tonight” is more like), implying he’s off to the Fed, to the annoyance of all decent faces everywhere. This was part of a brief “invasion” angle done on Raw that month, with Jerry Lawlor turning up on ECW in response. Lawlor is even name-dropped here tonight, just as he was running down (read: promoting) ECW on Raw’s commentary desk.

Rude has a bit of a wonky rhyme for RVD: “What’s the poop, RVD’s flying the coop, heading to the WW from the ECW” before suggesting Van Dam should bring some KY jelly with him. Styles looks confused. A bunch of ECW wrestlers, including Raven, the Sandman, the Dudley’s, Douglas, Dreamer and ECW champ Terry Funk, talk shit backstage about RVD seemingly moving “to New York”. It’s a lengthy segment, perhaps featuring the entire roster, all about running down WWE, Vince McMahon and choosing to give up your “freedom”.

You gotta hand it to Paul Heyman and his talent, they knew their audience and how to rile them up with stuff like this, portraying themselves as the edgy alternative, where the biggest heels are the “sell-outs”, when just about everyone featured in this segment would end up “selling out” (but not really). And it goes on and on and on and on, over ten minutes of how Van Dam is the most hated guy ever. It ends with Commissioner Tod Gordon suspending Van Dam indefinitely. You would assume this kind of segment would have some input from Van Dam himself, but nothing doing, so it lacks a little something.

Raven and ??? vs Tommy Dreamer and ???

Raven out with his flock, Dreamer with just a blonde woman I don’t recognise (is it Beulah?). Dreamer’s mystery partner is…ECW Champion Terry Funk! Oh boy. This was around the time that Funk was featured in Beyond The Mat: he’s 53 years old here, and had no business being in a ring, soon to embark on the first of many retirements (the most recent one was three years ago). His profile did help ECW at the time though, with him headlining, and winning the title at, ECW’s first PPV the previous month. But if Barely Legal was the highlight, these kinds of shows will not be quite as glamorous. Raven’s mystery partner is…Stevie Richards! That’s an strange bedfellows combination, or so the commentators play it up, and Richards looks confused at his selection as he comes out.

After a break the match is in progress, with Dreamer and Stevie in the ring. Raven gets on the mike to give Richards some helpful hints, earning a shove from the Blue World Order stalwart. Chop exchanges to a very enthusiastic crowd. In comes Funk, whose offence consists of a shoulder block, a wrist-lock, and a chop. Dreamer drags Richards over to the opposite corner, wanting Raven to tag in, but Raven takes a powder. Dreamer and Raven had a lengthy feud in ECW that has become semi-legendary, and this is a neat extension of that.

Raven back on the mike again, cussing Richards out, and is unwillingly tagged in, but tags right back out again. Funk has enough, and the Funker and Raven exchange blows on the outside. Funk set-up on a table, and Raven with a corkscrew dive from the ring to send Funk through it. Off into the arena for some crowd-brawling, always a good way to cover up a lack of ability, closely followed by Dreamer and Stevie. Very chaotic as we go to break.

Back, and Richards and Funk are in the ring, with Stevie hitting a piledriver. There’s a random plastic chair in the ring no-one is doing anything about. Punches and sleeper-holds to Funk, when Dreamer comes in the ref sends him back, because low-blows are OK but tag rules are sacred. Richards gives Funk a nasty chair shot to the knee. Raven whips Funk into a weird table stack a few times for an ECDub chant. Dreamer in hot, but double-teamed into oblivion. When Stevie puts Funk in a leglock, Raven back on the mike to run down Richards, demanding to be tagged in. Raven locks in his own toe-hold, but is knocked to the outside by Dreamer for more brawling. Very sad to see Funk spending so much of the match on his back.

Richards and Raven arguing over who gets to put Funk in another leg-lock, and Raven eventually hits Stevie with a DDT. Dreamer with a roll-up on Raven for a near-fall, then hits his own DDT. There was a ref-bump at some point, so no count. Louis Spiccolli out suddenly to take Dreamer down, and this is really chaotic now. Funk smashes Raven in the back with a chair, shots to Spiccolli. Spiccolli sets Funk up for the Death Valley Driver, Richards nails Spiccolli with the super-kick instead, and Funk lands with a crash. Stevie with the cover on Funk because being legal suddenly means nothing, 1, 2, 3 in around 12 minutes I think? What a weird ending.

Winners: Raven, Stevie Richards, and all fans of ultra Crash TV-style booking.

Verdict: A mess of a main event. Your tolerance for this will say a lot about you as a wrestling fan, and between Funk’s limited ability to go, the crowd brawling, the selectively enforced rules and chaotic finish, I wouldn’t say I’m a fan.

Best Match: There was only two, but I suppose Taz/Spike Dudley was good fun.

Worst Match: The main event, which encapsulated the ethos of ECW, with all of its flaws, very well.

Best Wrestler: Actually will give this one to Spike Dudley, whose is successfully able to play himself off as a chumpish runt and imminently dangerous at the same time.

Worst Wrestler: Funk was in bad shape at this time, and he wasn’t getting any younger.

Verdict: If you like car crash wrestling where any semblance of rules, story or structure is out the window, then this episode of Hardcore TV is for you. But if, like me, that isn’t your forte, then this 43 minutes and change will just leave you mildly confused. It’s a pass. To the extreme!

Bonus Content: Quick Thoughts On Money In The Bank 2020

Jeff Hardy/Cesaro – Surprisingly long for a Kickoff match, but the number of rest-holds bodes poorly for Hardy’s latest run. Skippable.

Tag Team Fatal-Four Way – To be expected fast-paced, manic action that’s difficult not to enjoy. Not sure the New Day should have retained though. Watch.

R-Truth/Lashley – Nobody comes out of this pointless squash looking good. Miss.

Bayley/Tamina – What you’d expect. Tamina shouldn’t really be in this spot. How much longer are they gonna tease out the Banks turn? Skippable.

Strowman/Wyatt – Good fun, but thought that the ending was a bit of a bore. More to come though. Check it out.

McIntyre/Rollins – Really good, McIntyre’s best match in a bit, but could do without the kick-outs at 1. Give it a watch.

Money In The Bank – Incredible, glorious insanity. WWE with these pre-recorded highly-produced “matches” are three for three in my book. Good choices for winners too. A must see.

Overall: You can skip the middle hour, but the rest of the show is pretty good.

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Review: Becoming

Becoming

Trailer

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Everyone’s Bestie?

Barack Obama is old news, long live Michelle. In the years following their departure from the White House both of the Obama’s have been active enough, releasing books, engaging in philanthropic work and, relevant to this production, making deals with Netflix through their own company, Higher Ground Productions. I have already been able to take in the fruits of that arrangement, through last year’s excellent documentary American Factory, an in-depth expose into the plight of the American worker at a time of growing Chinese influence. But it is fair to say that it is Michelle that has taken the primary focus on the Obama family for herself over the last little while.

This documentary appears to aim to continue that process. For me, the worthiness of it, as I think for all such documentaries, would come down to what exactly the point of the exercise was. Was it to be just a recordation of Michelle Obama’s book tour? Was it to be an in-depth profile of the woman, a biography in visual form? Or was it to be something more investigative, something that could tackle why adoring crowds still scream the name “OBAMA!” every time they see Michelle or Barack pass by? Would the film dare to try all three approaches? Or would it be something more basic, something fluffier, something altogether less interesting?

In late 2018, Michelle Obama releases Becoming, a book that serves as both a memoir and an exposition of her own ideals and hopes, and perhaps also points to her becoming more of her own person after eight years as First Lady. A tour to publicise the book takes in huge stadium crowds and more intimate round-tables, as Obama explores the state of American today, especially in relation to the status of minorities and women.

Becoming does indeed proceed from the start as a recordation of Michelle Obama’s book tour, one where her stops consist of Q&A’s hosted by a laundry list of famed interviewers, from Oprah to Colbert. Clips of the actual interviews are good for the odd joke and amusing anecdote: one where she had trouble getting her daughters to move on Inauguration Day 2017, having to revert to saying “The Trumps are coming” as a threat, is especially good. Her energy is tangible, and her charisma undeniable. But there is nothing in this section of the documentary, where it seems like a promotion for the book that remains in bestseller lists today, that one could not experience from a Youtube compilation. More intriguing are the moments when we get to go backstage and see the work behind the scenes: the prep, the nerves and the interaction with friends and family.

Those seeking undeniable honesty will probably be a bit dissapointed. Like Miss Americana earlier this year, or, perhaps more relevantly, 2014’s Mitt (hard as it is to recall, that was one of Netflix’ very first original projects), you never lose the sense that you are watching people well-used to being on camera, who are well-trained in how to retain poise, control and an aura of calm while the lens zooms in. To that extent Becoming is a bit of a puff piece, because the Michelle Obama that it showcases is just that little bit too perfect.

Becoming’s Michelle Obama is not a three-dimensional woman: she never argues with family or staff, never clashes with her husband, never expresses even the slightest fatigue with the legions of people who want to pour their hearts out to her. Her moments of weakness amount to admitting that she cried when she left the White House for the last time. It is a film where director Nadia Hallgren does not appear all that interested in digging beyond the surface level of what she sees. She previously worked as a cinematographer on a TV documentary about Michelle Obama’s efforts to improve education for women, and one must naturally wonder if she has become too close to her subject: interviews that the director has given post-release certainly give that impression.

That does not mean that Becoming is a lost cause, but it does mean that we must look beyond the central focus to find something worth seeing. The prime opportunity for that is through the film’s depiction of women in America, which are the main topic of conversation at several round-tables that Michelle Obama attends as part of her book tour. The round-tables are populated almost exclusively by women, and almost exclusively by minority women. On the one occasion when a white participant is featured, its a discussion of how her parents were perpetrators of a racially-motivated “flight” to the Chicago suburbs in respond to an increasing black presence in their original neighbor hoods (brilliantly visualised, by the difference in racial make-up of Michelle Obama’s early school classes and later).

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Could she be President?

Her book tour and these events where she tries to get more in-depth and personal with her readers are very much seeking to empower and represent the views, hopes, ideals and dreams of young black, Hispanic and other minority women. And I suppose that must be considered the documentary’s primary focus really, an effort to record the stories of these women, and how Michelle Obama is attempting to change their viewpoints. It’s a worthy goal, but if that is the main point then not enough time is spent on it.

Other than that, it is only as a biography or an expose that Becoming can find some solid ground. The film offers a fairly comprehensive but somewhat shallow, summation of Michelle Obama’s life to this point, a life dominated by a battle against low expectations. A loving and supporting family could only do so much, especially in the face of institutional racism that has a guidance counsellor in high school telling her that she should set her sights lower than the Ivy League. Even here everything is framed to paint Michelle Obama in as good a light as possible, a never-say-die crusader, who among all of her other successes found the time to marry a future President of the United States, even when right-wing news coverage tried to paint her as some kind of duplicitous danger to the White House. There isn’t a hurdle that exists that Michelle Obama could not overcome, or so it seems.

I perhaps should clarify what I mean when I talk about all of this positivity. I do not mean that I am looking for juicy details of Michelle Obama’s faults, or for “Gotcha” moments that will show her up. I am certainly not looking for a Fox News-inspired examination into, as one clip purports, the reasons why Michelle Obama hates America. But it is impossible to not think that you are viewing a well-rehearsed performance when the film is as positive as this is about its subject, the perfect daughter, sister, wife, mother and First Lady (and ex-First Lady, arguably a trickier task than the first part).

There is a scene in this documentary, right around the halfway point, when Barack Obama decides to surprise (or maybe it is a staged event) his wife while she onstage as part of her book tour. As he walks backstage, he and his detail walk by what I assume are stadium workers, who stare slack-jawed at the sight of the former President. One of them just screams “OOBAAMAAA”, exhibiting an hysteria akin to Beatlemania. Hallgreen never really is able to capture just why the Obama’s frequently get so loud and boisterous a reaction, with most of her film focusing on calmer, more emotionally meaningful interactions with the public, and part of me thinks there might have been a missed opportunity there.

Becoming simply lacks a bit of punch. Miss Americana felt a bit more honest, because Taylor Swift dedicated plenty of time to talking about her own self-disgust and unhappiness with her celebrity. Mitt felt a bit more honest because it revolved around a life-defining failure in getting elected. In comparison, Becoming feels like a PR exercise. And, take it from someone who would have happily voted for Barack Obama twice if I was an American, or would probably take Michelle Obama over a large number of other candidates in the same circumstances: this film doesn’t really tell me anything about Michelle Obama that I either didn’t know or are surprised to find out.

Hallgreen directs a fairly standard documentary given the subject matter. Massive stadiums become car rides become book signings. In the moment interviews become staged confessionals. It seems almost at pains to seem in the moment, with the sometimes jittery cinema verite camerawork or the almost uncomfortable amount that the lens is in Michelle Obama’s face. Talking head interviews of family and friends are framed as if they occurred in an off-the-cuff manner, but it’s not hard to see through it. Cold hard reality only really comes into it when Michelle Obama’s fans and well-wishers are filmed gushing with praise about her in the moment, but of course we are only seeing a cropped few that Hallgreen deigns to show to us. There simply must be a more critical side that we are not seeing, and of course it comes as little surprise that Michelle Obama had some degree of input on the cut.

Whether Michelle Obama has political aspirations remains a question that will presumably keep being asked for at least another few years, though some of her comments in this movie would point to the negative. But, regardless of anything else, if I was told that Becoming was a film released as part of a political campaign, I would not be surprised. This does not mean that Becoming a bad film, but it does mean that it is lacking a certain amount of sincerity: the entire project seems set-up to present its focus in as saint-like or as positive a manner as possible. It is PR, and lacks the beating heart or stinging expose of American Factory. Those looking for a revelation, or something in-depth, will be need to look elsewhere. For those who want their positive opinions of Michelle Obama, and the Obama’s in general, to be reinforced, then I guess this one is for you. Not recommended.

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Man that’s a minimalist title card.

(All images are copyright of Netflix).

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Ireland’s Wars: The October 31st Attacks And The Siege Of Tralee

October 31st did not have the significance in 1920 that it does today, and few in Ireland that year would have been too worried about the dangers of ghouls, ghosts and goblins. They had more tangible things to be concerned about. For the nationalist community, the growing intensification of the conflict meant that reprisals on people and property were never too far away, while for the Crown Forces catching a bullet through an ambush or assassination was a constant fear. The news of the day was dominated by two things inflaming the situation to greater peaks: the imminent death of Terence McSwiney on hunger strike in Britain, and the imminent execution of Kevin Barry, who would be hanged on the 1st November.

GHQ was of a mind to mark the dates, and issued orders to IRA units throughout the country to make attacks, whether it was on people or on buildings, as a response to McSwiney’s death (when it happened) and Barry’s seemingly destined hanging. I suppose this was to be something along the lines of the Easter operation of the same year, which had seen so many barracks’ destroyed all at once. But those barracks’ had been mostly unoccupied: what the GHQ was proposing now was something more akin to a grand offensive, but one without adequate planning or forethought. According to one Volunteer’s account, the order amounted to being told that “if McSwiney died every Tan and every R.I.C with a bad record was to be shot on sight”, and little else besides.

For that reason, among many others – plenty of IRA units in the country would have been in no position to do anything, or simply wouldn’t have had the inclination – GHQ rescinded the order fairly quickly. But that countermand did not reach everyone. There would be a few strikes at RIC and Crown Forces targets throughout the country on October 31st, from people who either did not get the message or disregarded it. A prominent area that did not get the message, was County Kerry.

While the war being fought there was not as noticeable as the one being fought in Cork or Dublin, Kerry had been a hotbed of republican activity nonetheless, albeit without a major shedding of blood. Huge portions of the county were under IRA/Dail control, with RIC barracks’ abandoned, magistrates resigning left and right, and Crown Forces subject to constant harassment. The police there were in a sorry state, with Kerry the site of the Listowel Mutiny. Black and Tans and Auxiliaries had conducted a fairly ruthless campaign of reprisals and general harassment of the local population, which included random acts of violence and the burning of many cooperative creameries, something that was devastating agrarian communities. But Kerry had still not seen a great deal of death. That changed on October 31st. In a series of operations throughout the county that day and that night, numerous policemen, Black and Tans and military personnel were targetted.

In Abbeydorney, a group of IRA led by a George O’Shea – later to be killed at the Ballyseedy Massacre – shot dead two RIC personnel, identified as either full RIC or Black and Tans, depending. One member of the RIC was killed and two more wounded fatally at Ballyduff, in attacks on the local barracks and a police patrol in the village. In Killorgan, two members of the RIC were killed in somewhat shadowy circumstances, the most we know coming from the account of the Constable who discovered their bodies outside the village. In Dingle, two Black and Tans were wounded but not killed in an attack. In Tralee it was a similar situation, along with two RIC men, one a Black and Tan, who simply vanished that night, their fate, and bodies, undiscovered. A popular story is that the two were thrown alive into a local gas furnace, but there is no evidence to back this up. Other attacks would take place in the following days, most notably the shooting dead of two Black and Tans in a train carriage at Ballybrack: after they were killed their attackers put their bodies on the station platform and used the same train for a getaway.

Nearly all of these attacks prompted reprisals of a vicious sort. Buildings and a creamery were burned in Abbeydorney. A member of the local IRA company was bayoneted to death and numerous buildings looted and burned in Ballyduff. The Killorgin killings prompted the burning of the local Sinn Fein hall and the killing of an uninvolved civilian in reprisal, and two members of the IRA would also be killed later in the week nearby. In Ballylongford, two members of the RIC were abducted and beaten, but were released after Crown Forces insisted they would destroy the village otherwise. One, traumatised by the experience, took his own life within a month. But it was in Tralee that the worst of the reprisals would take place.

There, the RIC hoped that threats similar to those leveled at Ballylongford might be fruitful, but they were to be dissapointed: there were more than likely no captured RIC to return alive, because they had probably already been killed and their bodies disposed of. What occurred after RIC patience expired has subsequently become known as “the Siege of Tralee” and if similar sobriquets had been hyperbole earlier in the war, this one fit a lot better.

It is said to have begun with the harassment of parishioners leaving a Sunday service on the 1st November, who were the subject of random volleys being fired over their heads. From there the RIC – many of them Black and Tans of course – took systematic control of the town. A curfew was imposed, and all businesses were ordered to close. The roads leading in and out were guarded and shut. Those attempting to flout either of these measures were liable to be shot where they stood, and several civilians were killed over the course of the next few days.

This was a reprisal of a different sort. Usually such attacks lasted a night or a day, and involved rapid, and often indiscriminate, violence. Buildings would be burned, businesses looted and sometimes people were killed, but by the following morning the attackers would generally be gone. Such things were often used as evidence of alcohol playing a part, and perhaps this was true in some, or many, cases. In Tralee the goal was a more drawn out attack on the civilian population: this was collective punishment, a humiliation, taken to a new extreme.

With businesses closed and all import/export stopped, Tralee and its population – as a good-sized town, this would have been over 10’000 people – had no means of feeding itself. It’s unclear how bad things got in Tralee during this week of terror, and some have claimed that the “starvation” of the town’s inhabitants was exaggerated for effect. However, with nothing allowed in and shops closed, tighter belts would have been a requirements for the citizenry, especially as the conditions seem to have lasted over eight days. And the typical behavior of reprisal’s also occurred, with buildings that could be connected to “Sinn Feiners” burned down.

A commonly retold element of the “Siege” is that it was, somewhat ironically, only the intervention of British Army personnel that spared Tralee even greater destruction, though I’m unable to find much in the way of concrete details. It is my understanding that a depot for the Royal Munster Fusiliers was based in Tralee, at Ballymullen Barracks, so they may have been the soldiers described, but it could also just be a bit of myth-making or exaggeration, an effort to make the RIC/Black and Tans look even worse by having them be reeled in by their martial counter-parts.

The situation lasted for over a week, and proved to be yet another nightmare for the British administration on a publicity level. The length of the reprisal meant that numerous national and international journalists had the opportunity to travel to the vicinity to report on what was happening, and what most of them reported did not paint a good picture for Dublin Castle. Some called it “a War on Women and Children”, in dispatches that went worldwide claiming that Tralee’s population was being starved to death. Some journalists further claimed they had been threatened with death by RIC personnel. Tralee and the situation there was front-page news throughout the British Empire, Europe and the United States, and even made copy as far away as Japan.

The authorities stood frozen, perhaps by indecision, perhaps out of sympathy for the Crown Forces that had been so fatally assaulted on October 31st. It was not until the 9th November that Hamar Greenwood dictated an order that the “siege” was to be lifted, even while he was dodging questions about the situation in the House of Commons, but, of course, by that time, all of the damage had been done. In the same moments that the British were being castigated for the death of Terence McSwiney in captivity and the execution of Kevin Barry, here was yet another situation where they blundered into being easily portrayed as vicious, cruel and uncivilised to what were supposed to be their own citizens.

A ridiculous attempt to release a filmed account of an ambush that supposedly took place near enough to Tralee around this time, dubbed the “Battle of Tralee” was another own-goal for the British often remembered in line with the larger reprisals. The actual event was a brief encounter near Tralee a few days after the siege was lifted, where Crown Forces were able to shoot two IRA Volunteers dead when they attempted to prevent the burning of a creamery: a not inconsiderable success in terms of enemy combatants killed, given the nature of the war. The film was a complete fabrication, and exaggeration, very obviously created in Dalkey, Dublin. It included a “dead” rebel picking himself off the ground and dusting himself off after the ambush, and was easily exposed by republicans as a fake, another propaganda coup.

The war in Kerry had taken a bloody turn. Where deaths and casualties had been limited before, in ten days upwards of 15 people had been killed or wounded, many of them civilians. The genie was out of the bottle too, and many more would be killed in Kerry between early-November and the truce of the following year. Such was the nature of an insurgency war, where escalation by both sides was hard to reverse.

We are on the verge of entering into perhaps the most critical and best-remembered month of the conflict, where two major events, among others, would go a long way to determining the final outcome of the conflict. Before we get there though, the focus of the next entry will be on the evolution of the British war effort, from political direction to military execution, as they walked, heedless in many respects, into that maelstrom.

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

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