Ireland’s Wars: The Pigeon Hill Raid

With the end of operations in the west, the attention turned back to the east. The original plan for the Fenian Raids, as envisioned by T.W. Sweeney, was for multiple attacks at different points on the border, as part of a coordinated strategy of diverting enemy forces and seizing a small amount of territory on a permanent basis. The failure to assemble the requisite number of soldiers and arms had put paid to this ambitious plan, but the success – of a kind – that had occurred with John O’Neill’s force propelled additional Fenian operations in the year 1866.

By then though everything was moving against the Fenian designs, on both sides of the border. Tens of thousands of militia, not to mention regular troops, had been mobilised to defend the Canadian border, and while there would never be enough to defend the entire length of the frontier, Canada was unlikely to be caught by surprise at any point. In any proposed operation, the element of surprise was vital, and the Fenians had largely cede that.

Inside the United States, the authorities were no longer playing softball with the Fenians. While the hunt for the Irish vote and a certain antipathy towards Canada had not gone away, the activities of the Fenians thus far that year were more than a little mortifying: they were, after all, American citizens essentially operating as a private army from American soil, making a mockery of neutrality laws designed to prevent conflicts like the War of 1812 from erupting again. The United States had just ended the worst conflict in its history, and there was little appetite for a clash with Great Britain to be borne out of the action of renegade Irish nationalists. The proclamation of President Andrew Johnson, condemning the Fenian Brotherhood and their actions, signalled a new approach by the authorities, that now began to be more pro-active in their efforts to clamp down on the Fenians. In the days after O’Neill’s retreat, numerous Fenian leaders were rounded up and arrested.

While travelling to join other Fenians on the St Lawrence River, Sweeney was actually just a train carriage ahead of General Meade, yet managed to avoid arrest for the meantime. Seeing substantial Canadian defences on the other side of the river, he ordered the forces available to move east to Vermont, seizing back some lightly guarded arms that had been previously taken in the meantime. He would eventually be detained on the 6th of June, the day before he planned to cross the border himself.

The Fenian commander in Vermont was a man named Samuel P. Spears, a regular officer in the American military, graduate of the West Point military academy and well-regarded Civil War commander. He had allegedly been promised somewhere in the region of 12’000 men by Sweeney for the forthcoming operations: in the end, he estimated he never had more than a thousand on hand. He was supposed to be the man to capture the town of Sherbrooke so it could serve as the seat of an Irish republican government in exile, but he had few illusions about the actual capability of the army he was being asked to lead.

Spears took the men he had and crossed the border on the 7th of June, but there was precious little he could realistically have expected. Maybe, in the right circumstances, he might have been able to win his own Ridgeway, but the Canadian militia were better prepared and better forewarned now, having been mobilized in some cases for over a week. In Montreal, only 30 or so kilometers from the border with Vermont, 2’000 regulars and 3’000 militia were ready to be engaged. While they had the same deficiencies in training, arms and leadership as they had in the west, the chances of another Ridgeway taking place were slim.

In the end, the primary problem for the Canadians was overestimation of Fenian numbers. As Spears assembled his troops, the militia forces in his way decided to retreat, relying on inaccurate information that over 5’000 well-armed enemy soldiers were coming towards them. The retreat was entirely unnecessary, but caused a minor panic in the area’s civilian population, who were essentially being abandoned without any pretence of a fight.

So, when Spears and his men did cross the border, they entered into territory that had largely been abandoned by both its civilian population and its defenders. They didn’t go far, only a few miles, before looting became the order of the day, followed by problems of desertion. The Fenians were poorly supplied, and most of the men were starving.

Barely a mile from the border, Spears stopped and made his HQ at a farm owned by a man named Eccles, with his soldiers basing themselves on a nearby rise called Pigeon Hill. Small detachments were sent to the closer settlements: a very brief engagement took place between Fenians and local militia at a place called Frelighsburg where some horses were wounded and a British flag taken, later to be paraded in New York like a war trophy.

By the 9th, the militia retreat had ended and regular troops were streaming towards the area in numbers: Spears had few options open to him. A defence from Pigeon Hill might have been possible, but Spears was rightly concerned about the ammunition supplies, the morale of his force and the likelihood of continued desertion. Unlike O’Neill to the west, he didn’t have to worry about crossing a river to get back to safety, and he didn’t share his compatriot’s desire to make a glorious stand.

The Fenians had barely been in Canada two days and they were already leaving. The majority of Spears’ force marched the short distance back to the border where they were met and disarmed by US military personnel, all to be released before too long. But a portion decided to linger at Pigeon Hill and make somewhat of a stand behind improvised barricades when the regulars arrived. But, when they saw the numbers they faced – infantry, cavalry and even artillery – their courage failed them, and they fled back to the border as well. The only real combat of the entire affair occurred here, as the cavalry was released to chase the enemy, their commander ordering them to use the flat of their blades rather than the edge. 16 Fenians were taken prisoner. The rest reached the border. No one was killed. The only casualty recorded from those days was an unfortunate old woman killed by the regulars in the dead of night as she went to fetch water, having run after being ordered to halt.

The Fenian Raids of 1866 were over. Both sides claimed to be satisfied with what had occurred, and both sides were lying. The Fenians had won a clear victory over a force of the enemy, and twice occupied British territory for a period of time, legitimising their movement and providing ample opportunities for additional fundraising and recruitment in the times ahead. But their grand ambitions of having an Irish government-in-exile, or of using Canada as a bargaining chip, were not only unfulfilled, but shown to stem from a gross exaggeration of their own military potency and the potential support of Irish-Canadians and the American government.

For Canada, they had successfully repelled an enemy invasion and had not taken too many casualties in the process. The whole affair galvanised support for a closer union of the provinces, that helped to propel the creation of a Canadian Confederation in 1867, the exact opposite outcome that the Fenians would have wanted. But Ridgeway and Fort Erie, as well as the unnecessary retreat from the Pigeon Hill area before a Fenian had even crossed the border, showcased serious weakness in the Canadian militia, who performed better on a parade ground than they did in the field. As previously stated, Ridgeway was an embarrassed that subsequently took a great deal of time for Canadian governments to acknowledge. Indeed, the rush for Confederation was as much about a perceived recognition that the Canadian provinces could not survive on their own as it was about uniting politically.

So, both sides had reasons to be happy and both sides had reasons to be unhappy. While attention now swung back to Ireland and the imminent rebellion there, the Fenians in America would draw plans against Canada again in time.

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

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Serenity: It’s Never Easy/The Warrior And The Wind

Before we move on to the very later Serenity comics release, I’d like to take a look at two more of the short-form comics that have been released over the years on Free Comic Book Day, with two very varying stories, styles and tones.

First up is It’s Never Easy, written by Zach Whedon, with artwork by Fabio Moon. I had actually almost forgotten It’s Never Easy, which is another post-Serenity story, indeed, it is a post-Float Out story. It’s another simple one: With the rest of the crew, led by a pregnant Zoe, on a supply run, Mal is waylaid by a random opportunist who tries to to steal the ship out from under him, taking a bullet in the shoulder for his trouble. But all ends well when a hidden River takes out the highwayman, before Serenity goes on its merry way.

It’s Never Easy is, like the other 12 page Serenity comics, just about alright. It doesn’t have enough time to have much depth or much characterisation, and it certainly doesn’t have enough time to offer a lot of interesting viewpoints on a post-Serenity era: no time for Mal/Inara or Kaylee/Simon, that’s for sure. But it still has some great moments in its limited time, not least a focus on Mal that some of the other comics have eschewed. This is the heroic lone wolf Mal that we have very occasionally got a glimpse of before, the Patriarch leader willing to risk life and limb for his ship and his crew. The antagonist is a nobody, but that’s OK: It’s Never Easy actually manages to turn that person into a believable threat to Serenity and its captain.

It’s also neat to see a bit of River post-Serenity, now seemingly in full control of her martial arts faculties even if she still appears to be a little flimsy on the mental side of things. While It’s Never Easy falls into the same trap as Downtime and The Other Half of having River as a very predictable and easy plot resolver, this time I like it a bit better because it is out in the open and not some vague creepy secret: here, Mal gets to actually express some gratitude for River’s actions, which have rapidly become an indispensable asset to the crew’s daily lives. It’s Never Easy also allows us a glimpse into the kind dramatic story-telling that could have come from Zoe’s pregnancy – here, arguing the case for her to continue take a leading role in the crew’s activities – to the slight objections of Mal, caught between respect for Zoe his right hand woman and Zoe the expectant mother.

But It’s Never Easy has its flaws, not least the art work, which I think is horrible, goofy and altogether distracting. Let me tell you, the only time comic characters should have pin pricks for eyes is if they are the Joker. And a frame where River takes down the would-be thief with the stupidest look of insanity on her face is rather laughable to say the least. This is a recurring complaint of mine I know, but there has consistently been something that bothers me about the artwork for the Serenity comics.

It’s Never Easy stands in stark contrast to the most recent of the 12 page stories, The Warrior And The Wind, written by Chris Robertsom, with artwork by Stephen Byrne. This is a radical departure from the others, being, essentially, the story of Serenity in the form of a fairytale, told by River to Zoe’s baby daughter, Emma. The characters take on fantastical forms: a pirate captain, a possessed preacher a surly giant, a beautiful archer, a lost doctor and a broken dancer.

But at the centre of it are the titular pair, the Warrior, Zoe, and the Wind, Wash. River’s story paints the relationship between the two in the most romantic way possible, as two very lonely people, in different ways, brought together by happenstance. It’s unbearably sweet and achingly sad to see, especially the stories resolution, was the Wind, in order to save the Warrior and the crew from a legion of foes, sacrifices himself to conjure up a storm. That’s actually amazingly done, the author and the artist effectively combining both the finale of the film with some of Wash’s lines in the pilot: “Here’s something you can’t do”. All that’s left is for baby Emma to be found up a tree, just as the Wind was, and for Zoe in “real life” to thank River for her version of their story.

I think one of the reasons that I like The Warrior And The Wind as much as I do is because I have always been a fan of Elseworlds and alternative universe, from Bearded Spock to evil Teal’c. Firefly was never going to have such a thing, save in dream sequences, or the exact kind of thing that The Wind And The Warrior depicts. And what an episode that could have been. It’s always fun to see familiar characters in new ways, even if it’s such a radical departure. This comic does that, and while it has more than a faint whiff of fan fiction, at least it’s a good smell. The art’s also a wonderful change from some of the crudeness and unimaginative depictions of previous Serenity comics: here, the artwork is a wonderful way of depicting the story, full of colour, soft imagery and life. And it’s just an original piece: it doesn’t need River to save the day at the end, and it doesn’t have to include some moment of barbaric violence to grab your attention or to get its point across. It’s clever, refreshing and it looks great. The comics of this canon could use more of that.

We haven’t seen the last of Serenity once-off’s I’m sure. If anything it seems to have become a convention for one of them to be released every year. And whole there have been a few duds in the bunch, I’ll take Serenity and Firefly where I can get them, and in whatever format.

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Review: Allied

Allied

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All that’s missing is the trenchcoat…

Trailer

OK, it’s fair to say that this film has the right mix in its most important trio right? In the male lead, Brad Pitt, if not the most famous actor on the planet, then the kind of guy you have no qualms putting in the top 5 of that category, and he actually has the talent to back it up too. In the female lead, Marion Cotillard, if not the most famous actress on the planet, then the kind of woman you have no qualms putting in the top 5 of that category. The last two films I saw the two in The Big Short for Pitt, Macbeth for Cotillard – showcased the exact kind of brilliance they can offer starkly. And then, behind the camera, Robert Zemeckis, the man in the chair for such classics as Back To The Future, Castaway and…The Polar Express. House Of Wax. Beowulf. A producer on Ghost Ship…and Mars Needs Moms.

OK, Zemeckis has had his share of duds, critically and commercially (and creepily, The Polar Express is haunting) and he very much has struck me as a director who hit his zenith in the 80’s, briefly got close to it again in the 90’s, and has since been treading water with a succession of poor or forgettable projects. But the man can still direct, and look at the pair he has to direct here, and in just the kind of story to make lots of hay with: a tense World War Two spy thriller whose premise and setting easily evokes shades of Bogart and Bergman. Was Allied the kind of film to live up to those expectations, or another Zemeckis “also responsible for…”?

In 1940, Canadian SOE agent Max Vatan (Pitt) teams up with French Resistance operative Marianne Beausejour (Cotillard) on a near-suicidal mission behind enemy lines: the two fall in love and marry afterwards, raising a baby girl in the suburbs of London. But their idyllic existence is torn apart when Vatan is informed that his wife is suspected of being a German operative: if found to be true, he will be required to execute his wife personally.

Unfortunately, I have to put Allied in the substandard category of Zemeckis films, and in the forgettable pile when it comes to the lead two. It’s a film where the people behind it seemed to be in love with the early part of the premise, but couldn’t bring it all together for the middle, and especially not in the end, largely wasting otherwise good performances from the lead and competent camerawork for a story that fails to dazzle.

That first act, set in Casablanca, is where the film successfully grabs a hold of your attention. The Casablanca comparison is quite apt, and not just because of the same setting: Pitt and Cotillard are no limp fish, and their quasi-romance/assassination mission is a fine narrative to set their budding relationship too. There is tense manoeuvring with the local Nazi officials, dalliances with the Vichy French and grim encounters with Abwehr operatives. Zemeckis would never have been able top reach the heights of Michael Curtiz certainly, but he gives it a fair old shot: really, Allied feels like the kind of film where an expanded version of the first act, mixed in with a sub-plot exploring the motivations and possible betrayal of the Marianne character, would have made a wonderful film. But instead it’s basically just the prologue, maybe 40% at a push of the overall experience. And the problem isn’t that Allied is two different movies, one set in Casablanca and the other set in Hampstead. The problem is that the same characters, tone and tension can’t work as well in the second setting as they did in the first.

The crux of the plot is set up well enough, with a creepy cameo from Simon McBurney as the British “ratcatcher” helping to raise the stakes, as he icily informs Pitt of the “Intimate Betrayal Rule” that will require him to play executioner if his wife falls foul of a so-called “blue dye” operation. But after that it’s all so much melodrama and mundane soul-searching, as Max investigates himself and struggles to keep the pretence of a happy family life going. Decent performances and potentially interesting characters pop up in abundance here. You have Matthew Goode as an embittered airman left mutilated after an SOE mission gone wrong, Daniel Betts as a newbie pilot Max gives an off-the-books mission too, Lizzy Caplan as Max’s lesbian sister, Thierry Fremont as a drunken French resistance fighter with vital information, even Jared Harris is here, in a surprisingly understated role as Max’s immediate superior.

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The central pair is great, it’s just a shame about the rest.

But no one gets enough time to make a lasting impression, Zemeckis intent on the drama around Brad Pitt’s character, and the “Is she/Is she not?” of Cotillard. The events of the middle and ending don’t have enough verve or momentum to them to make this something worth getting really engrossed in, as we swing between drunken “Cest la guerre” parties and Max gazing wistfully into his wife’s eyes. Things only pick up when Max takes a more active role in trying to find out the truth about his wife, and at that point the film is back, briefly, to being a behind enemy lines spy thriller, not a relationship drama.

I won’t spoil the ending’s content, other than to say that the resolution, and what occurs between it and the credits, is rather flat. This seems to me to be a story that could have used a little bit more ambiguity: not on the question of whether Marianne is a double agent or not, but on the morality and inner motivations of that character, which gets laid rather bare in an unnecessary epilogue section that clashes significantly with the tenor of the rest of the finale. We don’t need to know everything, and someone like Marianne, first seen on screen perpetrating a giant falsehood, deserved something a bit murkier as an ending. Allied should have been a film to keep the audience guessing, a character study without a conclusion. It now only has a conclusion, but it gives you a bibliography and some notations to boot.

But, the film is not a loss, or even truly terrible, thanks largely to Pitt and Cotillard, who I would be willing to see again sharing the big screen. Pitt is reserved, haughty and silently courageous, making the moments where he softens up or loses control all the more memorable. Cotillard exudes that old school, grace, charm and sexuality in every turn, easily playing a manipulate agent at every turn. The relationship between the two evolves nicely, aided by some well framed and choreographed sex scenes that litter the production, some art-like, others crude, but all of them serving a purpose to the narrative. Allied is a film that, to a point, wants to keep you guessing about Marianne, and wondering whether Max would have the fortitude to actually take her life if she was proven to be in the Nazi pocket. Pitt and Cotillard do their part, but the story and script don’t.

That script, by the little-known but writer Steven Knight (perhaps best regarded for the excellent Locke), peaks early in the Casablanca interactions between Pitt and Cotillard, and never quite gets back to the same level. Indeed, it’s method of telling the story leads to some inevitable examples of fridge logic, not least in its over-estimation of the abilities of the Abwehr, probably the worst sin of historical accuracy that Allied has. At least it does a half-decent job of showcasing World War Two era London with its sexual promiscuity and liberal indulgences, framed neatly against a backdrop of searchlights, flak cannons and Luftwaffe bombers crashing to the earth in flames.

That cinematography, with Zemeckis’ frequent collaborator Don Burgess in that role, is another reason why Allied isn’t a write-off. An opening statement is definitively made with its opening shot, an African sun left murky in the haze of the desert, and there are nice moments throughout the rest: that sandstorm sex scene, a faux one-shotter approach to the assassination job, a painfully intimate look at Blitz life and, my favourite, Pitt’s slow descent to the bowels of his SOE base to see the infamous V Section, slowly wandering into the darkness of a deep staircase and walking past a succession of oddball wireless techs.

So, if you want to see two screen icons lighting things up for a while in the hands of a great director, Allied is for you. But too much of what’s left over is not up to scratch. The supporting cast doesn’t get enough time, the story is humdrum past that 33% point, things never really get into that higher gear to make Allied great. Instead, in a genre that is fairly overdone if we are being honest with ourselves, it is in that position worse than outright failure, which would bring notoriety at the least: instead, it is frustratingly average in so many ways, and utterly forgettable because of it. No one is going to look back at 2016 and think Allied. Not recommended.

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Regretfully meh.

(All images are copyright of Paramount Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: Fort Erie

The Fenians under John O’Neill had won a victory at Ridgeway, sending the first column of militia they had come up against reeling backwards. But even as they were enjoying that success, additional threats were moving in, in the form of both additional militia and professional regulars, intent on defending local resources and driving the Fenians back over the border.

The remainder of the campaign in the area revolved largely around the small settlement of Fort Erie. The name was a misnomer, as the location was not really fortified, consisting of little more than a single street along the waterfront, covered by a handful of buildings. Fort Erie had been the first place the Fenians had taken after they arrived on Canadian shores, but only stayed briefly before moving out to what eventually became Ridgeway: now, lacking the kind of numbers or supply train to keep advancing, they were coming back in that direction barely a day since they left. The next moment of combat would take place there, but would come with the same terrible miscalculations and farcical decision making as had occurred at Ridgeway.

This time, the man on the spot would be Lt Colonel John Dennis, the other militia commander of note in the area, who had essentially gone off on his own authority in the previous few days, seeking to transport his own militia troops via boat to attack the Fenians at their supposed HQ, Fort Erie, or at least to hit them in the rear while Booker was advancing into their teeth. As we saw last time, that didn’t really work out.

Dennis’ was sailing on a tug dubbed the W.T. Robb, with a ramshackle amount of militia, some with uniforms and some without, backed up by part-time artillerymen who had joined them at Port Colbourne, only without any artillery to speak of. On getting close to Fort Erie, Dennis saw that there were no Fenians present; he kept going to the second reported Fenian encampment, and found that similarly abandoned.

Lacking anything better to do, and completely ignorant of what had occurred at Ridgeway, Dennis put some of his men ashore with the intention of sorting out Fenian pickets and patrols, an operation undertaken with partial success. After trying to get in contact with nearby regular troops, Dennis embarked his en back on the Robb and sailed back in the direction of Fort Erie.

Dennis busied himself there trying to make arrangements for Fenian prisoners, still ignorant of everything that had been going on elsewhere. When he heard word that the Fenian army under O’Neill was nearby, coming back from Ridgeway, he was left with a choice: to retreat in the face of the superior numbers he was suddenly facing, or to fight it out. Dennis, so far hardly showcasing himself as an exemplary leader, briefly took the first option before changing his mind and re-landing his men, taking up positions around Fort Erie.

The Fenians were aware that they were marching back into trouble. Their advanced units, under a Colonel Bailey, swung into the town street from the north and engaged Dennis’ troops: after a brief firefight they withdrew, attacked again, and were forced back again, with Bailey killed. While they was going on, O’Neill had sent other troops to seize the high ground above the town, that Dennis had ignored. With firing coming in from the north and the east, Dennis ordered a retreat. His men essentially had to scatter, with some, including Dennis himself, holding up in whatever houses and buildings they could get access to, until Fenian pressure and a lack of ammunition forced them to surrender. Dennis would later be unsuccessfully court-martialled. A few made it back onto the Robb, which steamed away, all the way back to Port Colbourne.

While it was not as bad a defeat as Ridgeway – Dennis was badly outnumbered – the Fort Erie skirmish still illustrates some catastrophic failings on behalf of the Canadian militia. Dennis was floundering around in the hunt for something pro-active to do, and allowed himself to be caught out by O’Neill’s numerically superior force. He should never really have attempted to hold Fort Erie, and a handful of casualties was the result, as well as an embarrassing number of prisoners temporarily falling into Fenian hands (not that the Fenians had the capability of looking after them, most being let go quite quickly). His indecisiveness was obvious, and the result was yet another Fenian victory, albeit a very minor one, even while the campaign generally had turned against O’Neill.

Because the end was in sight. Despite Ridgeway, and despite Fort Erie, the Fenians in Canada were already on their last legs. They were running short on everything, not least ammunition and food, with little left to scrounge in the local area, and no sign of anything else being sent over the river: the American Navy was now doing its job, and no more supplies or men would make it over the border. Worse, tens of thousands of troops, regulars and militia, were now within only a few hours march of O’Neill and his 700 or so Fenians.

O’Neill, recognising that Fort Erie could not be held, took his men to a position called the “old Fort” by locals, probably the remnants of the fortification that had given the settlement its name, just south of the town itself. A brief council of war had presented O’Neill with two options: to either fight it out in a last stand where they stood, or to retreat back over the water to America. O’Neill was actually of a mind to take the first option, at least to a certain extent: he felt the Fenians might still have the capability to engage in one last action, especially from prepared defensive positions. But he was over-ruled by the majority of his men, who were hungry and worried about the size of the foes coming in on top of them. They had won their victories, and now they wanted to go home, not die for Ireland.

At midnight on the 3rd of June, the Fenians commenced their final retreat over the river. On the way, they weree intercepted by the US Navy, and the leaders detained while the rank and file were left to wait, briefly mistaken as reinforcements for the invasion by Canadian militia who rapidly “liberated” Fort Erie when they realised what was actually happening.

The Fenian invasion was over, but the aftermath went on. Within a few days, tens of thousands of militia were on site, for a battle they had all missed. On the other side of the border, what Fenians that were not in US custody dispersed from Buffalo, while those that were were paroled on lenient terms, with some allowed to retake commissions in the American military. They had lost 18 men killed and 24 wounded in the few days they had been in Canada.

The end of the campaign was undoubtedly a defeat, and the Fenians activities provoked a bigger enforcement of neutrality laws on the part of US authorities than the Fenians might have expected. By the 6th, President Johnson had issued an official proclamation condemning the organisation, ending any pretensions of official American support, but the propaganda value of what had occurred at Ridgeway was gigantic, generating new revenue and recruitment streams for the Roberts wing of the Fenians for years afterwards.

And yet, the 1866 raids were not quite over. On a different part of the frontier, the Fenian efforts were not going quite as spectacularly.

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

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Ron Glass

Saturday evening brought the sad news that Ron Glass had passed away at the age of just 71. Glass has a storied enough career with plenty of notable roles, but of course I and many others associate him almost entirely with the part of Shepherd Book on Firefly and on Serenity.

Book was as vital a cog in the overall narrative machine as anyone else, which didn’t have to be so. In the hands of someone less professional, emotive and engaging, Book could really have been the odd one out, the old man on a crew of the young, just sort of there. But instead, Book was a charming, vital and altogether fascinating member of the crew, thanks to Glass’s performance. From the moment you first see Book looking at the ships instead of looking at the destinations in the Eavesdown Docks, to the moment of his death at the hands of the Alliance, Glass gave us Shepherd Book, the preacher, the badass, the mysterious enigma with the shady past. Glass was good enough of an actor to make this all fit together, to resent to us this sympathetic charitable and friendly Shepherd who could turn as hard as steel and cold as the void in a moment. Watch that switch in the opening moments of “Objects In Space” again to see what I mean.

And when the time came for Book to go, Glass again succeeded, imbuing his performance in Serenity with all of the wisdom, the guidance and that continued air of tantalising mystery, all the way up to when Book “kills the ship that killed us”. Book’s dying words are the final catalyst for Mal’s most fateful decision, and Ron Glass, playing a man bleeding to death in a desert planet, nailed that perfect mix of desperation, knowledge and spiritual insight.

So how come you don’t care where you’re going?”

Cause how you get there is the worthier part.”

RIP Ron Glass.

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Review: Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

Fantastic Beasts And Where To Find Them

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A new era of magic. Well, an old era. Never mind, doesn’t he look like he’s auditioning for Doctor Who?

Trailer

It was absolutely inevitable that the Harry Potter franchise would continue. Not a question about it. You don’t make something that financially successful and let it actually end, not in this day and age. Hell, they already have multiple sequels for this lined up, and I’m sure the recent play will get an adapatation soon enough, probably multi-part.

And so be it. While my opinion of the Harry Potter franchise is considerably cooler than than of legions of others, I can still appreciate the movies. The last one was a very well made action drama, that made good on the dross that was Deathly Hallows, Part One. Now, David Yates is back for more, but with the vital appointment of JK Rowling as scriptwriter, something that gave me pause the moment I read it. Could the gravy train be propelled forward again? Was Fantastic Beasts the continuation that Harry Potter deserved? Or was all so much grabbing at cash?

New York, 1926: The Magical Congress of the Unites States struggles to keep the wizarding world under wraps after a series of strange incidents in the city, even while it’s Director of Magical Security Percival Graves (Colin Farrell) follows his own agenda. Into this volatile situation comes Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) a British magizoologist looking to breed some fantastic beasts, but an unlucky encounter with “No-Maj” Frank (Dan Fogler) results in Newt getting caught up with the law, in the form of disgraced auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), and the “Second Salemers”, a non-magic group intent on lifting the lid on the magical community.

I will say that I was looking forward to Fantastic Beasts, and the opening moment, where the traditional Harry Potter theme melds into something just a bit different, had me going. But then Fantastic Beasts almost immediately began to stutter in its first images, where I successfully guessed the plot twist that was coming later, and from there it was very much an experience where for everything good Fantastic Beasts was doing, it was falling apart somewhere else.

And the main problem is one that many of the big budget Hollywood spectaculars of recent years have had, namely that Fantastic Beasts is trying to be two different movies with two different tones, at the same time. On the one hand, you have what you would expect from the title: Newt and his band of friends going after the titular magical animals, a sub-plot full of impressive visuals, lashings of whimsy and a broad dollop of comedy. It’s mostly light-hearted stuff – Newt trying to stop a hippo-like creature mating with his new No-Maj friend, tricking a flying snake into a teacup, the many and varied encounters with a solver obsessed platypus…thing – and that’s fine.

But when it is put next to the other plot, the contrast is so stark as to be distracting. This is the story of magical power politics: of racial enmity, unconscious human subservience, and some real, full-on darkness, of the kind that Rowling only so rarely ventured into in the course of the Harry Potter franchise. This stuff is Gothic, and horror-like – one scene involving the magical death penalty being enacted was haunting to the point of terror – but you can’t have this stuff in a movie and then go straight back to the whimsy. Case in point: one scene where a particularly nasty beast kills a major character, framed every bit as an Insidious-esque horror, is immediately followed by Newt and his friends chasing the platypus in a department store. The effect is jarring to say the least.

Redmayne is doing alright here, playing Scamander with a certain awkwardness that borders on Aspergers: not at all a bad way to play such a character, more at home in the presence of his animals than with people. He only comes out of his shell a little bit here, but just enough that the promise of more in a sequel is still tantalising. He’s ably contrasted with Fogler (who I remember from Europa Report) as Frank, who rather steals the show as the audience surrogate muggle: the two strike up quite a good back and forth almost immediately, and God knows this franchise needs more muggle characters to offset some of its issues (see below).

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I don’t trust that Graves guy…

Where things with the cast struggle is with the ladies, unfortunately. Waterston doesn’t really grab you the same way Emma Watson was able to, this sheepish government bureaucrat more Ginny than Hermione. Her sister, played in a slightly disturbing way by Alsion Sudol, grabs the spotlight a bit better, largely through the unique mind-reading abilities of her character, but in the end they are let down by rather forced romantic sub-plots with the two male leads: if Rowling has another over-rising flaw in her writing, be it on the page or in a script, it’s that she’s hopeless when it comes to picking and choosing her romance plots. Fantastic Beasts doesn’t need two of these.

The other major problem is the villain, or rather his role in the resolution. Colin Farrell does just fine as Graves (Rowling again demonstrating her utter lack of subtly with names) but there is a moment involving his character in the finale, and the well-noted cameo appearance of a certain actor, that makes Fantastic Beasts such a hard film to take seriously. I can’t say more without spoiling the film entirely, but suffice to say that a combination of terrible make-up, facial hair and accent contrives to make a late plot twist into a moment of ridicule. Once that moment occurs, and if you are anything like me, you will be glancing at your watch and eagerly awaiting the credits, but those take a while to come, as Rowling’s script exhibits another of her recurring pitfalls, the inability to write a succinct ending, as character relationships that haven’t quite earned it take a while to wrap up.

Of course, I have some sympathy for Yates and the people at Warner Brothers: how exactly do you tell someone like JK Rowling to cut down on things? A pointless sequence with a goblin gangster speakeasy? Sure, why not. A brief and very unappreciated comparison between American racial politics and magical racial politics? Go right ahead. A finale that undercuts the entire message that the “No-Maj’s” can’t be trusted with knowing magical secrets? Why not? References to flaming farts? Uh huh. I mean, I understand, you don’t have Rowling to sue you.

And that central issue remains in the film and its script, as it has throughout the entirety of the Harry Potter mythos: the magical users keep the muggles in the dark, about magic, about the horrible beasts that occasionally kill a few of them, about everything, and the film portrays this monstrous conspiracy, and racially tinged hypocrisy, as not just a positive, but as a triumph. Magic Hitler, a sort of back ground threat, is depicted as a crazed renegade for thinking that magic users should rule the world, yet when a grieving No-Maj father cries out for justice after a magical monster kills one of his children, we’re apparently supposed to root for the guys who want to wipe his memory of the event. The poor humans trying to expose all of this are portrayed as crazy child beaters. It’s always bothered me, and it never won’t not.

Visually too, Fantastic Beasts is a mixed bag. The actual beasts themselves are great, Yates and his team going with the good idea of starting with realistic animals and then changing them a bit – but not too much – to make them fantastic. Take yourself a rhino, and give it a horn that can inject lava into things. Take a platypus and turn it into a magpie with a bag of holding in its belly. Take a bald eagle and give it an extra set of wings and a large growth spurt. Nothing too out there, nothing unimpressive. The costuming and the magical world building is great too, not least a brief look at something approaching a magical UN (or would magical League of Nations fit better?)

If only the rest of the film, dark and Gothic to a fault, was as impressive. The action sequences get old fast, little more than the beasts slamming into buildings (so much crumbling masonry) before the magic police come along to zip it all away, while the human characters throw blue lasers at each other and teleport away anytime they get remotely close to actual peril. The stakes are low in Fantastic Beasts, unless you happen to not know how to perform magic, in which case you are essentially cannon fodder. Add an regretfully unimpressive and forgetfable score from James Newton Howard, a poor follow-on from Alexandre Desplat’s work on Deathly Hallows, Part Two, and the production side of things is just all over the place.

So, Fantastic Beasts is a poor continuation of the larger franchise, though maybe this is as much to do with my expectations as anything else. I loved Deathly Hallows, Part Two because it was a very polished action drama that was a blow-out for a lot of nonsense that had come before. I liked the look of Fantastic Beasts for its director, its cast, its setting and for some of what it appeared to promise. But in the end, the same old problems for the wizarding world are here in abundance: unevenly contrasting tones, poor villains and some warped racial relations only barely disguising a rich vein of elitism. Fantastic Beasts should be doing better with the elements that it has, but just doesn’t, the fault lying with a badly meshed story, some humdrum cinematography and that twist ending that almost ruined the film on its own. Maybe Harry Potter just isn’t for me, not really, a film franchise that grabbed me once, properly, but has not reverted to form. Not recommended.

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Not so…

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

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Ireland’s Wars: The Battle Of Ridgeway

The first Fenian Raid on Canada had been a rather anticlimactic non-event, with the O’Mahony wing of the American Brotherhood left in tatters in the aftermath. But the Campobello operation had been mere prelude to the main event of the Fenian designs on the Canadian provinces, which would now began much further west. The events in Maine contributed to a certain air of complacency at many different levels of Canadian administration, from governors to militia captains, who felt that the Fenian threat might well have been exaggerated. But they were soon to find out the hard way that, when properly led, the Fenians could cause a great deal of trouble.

There were plenty of warning signs. A large amount of Fenians were noted as assembling in the town of Buffalo, New York, on the Canadian border, in late May. This invasion was largely the brainchild of T.W Sweeney, one of the leading men of the Roberts Wing in the Fenian Brotherhood. A Cork man who emigrated to the States in 1832, Sweeney had fought in the Mexican War, the Indian campaigns and the Civil War, where his achievements eventually led him to the rank of Brigadier-General. As part of the Fenians, Sweeney stepped into a role analogous to that of a Secretary of War, formulating the plan to send Fenian soldiers over the border while not taking an active part in the operations himself.

Sweeney’s overall plan was an extremely ambitious affair. It called for multiple crossings all along the border, utilising over 10’000 well equipped men. Two columns would attack Canada (the province) in the west, designed as a feint to draw the defenders away from the key urban areas of Toronto and Montreal, an effort to be supported by attacks around the area of Detroit. Then, to the east, more columns would be free to threaten Montreal and the surrounding townships. The strategy called for the capture and temporary occupation of numerous forts and towns, most notably Sherbrooke, chosen as the future capital of the Irish Republic in exile.

Sweeney’s plan was largely a fantasy, its every facet based on wishful thinking. The Fenians would never be able to rally enough men to implement it, let alone arm them all properly. The Fenians had little cavalry and no artillery to speak of. The weather would have been a debilitating factor – Sweeney actually called for winter operations, so rivers frozen over could be crossed easier – and Sweeney blindly dismissed both the potential threat of Canada’s militia defenders and the possibility of intervention from the French-Canadian community, whom he insisted would either stay neutral or actively aid the Fenians. Lastly, he also seemed to dismiss the actions of American authorities, who might (and would) turn a blind eye to singular short-term raids, but were unlikely to stand idly by if such a grand advance took place. The overall objectives of this campaign remained as grandiose and out of reach as ever: the Fenians were in no position to hold ground in Canada for a long period of time. This raid would be as much about keeping the Fenians and their cause in the headlines as it was about achieving tangible results.

In the end, the operations designed for the far west stuttered due to the inability of local transport links, rail and boat, to assemble the Fenian regiments being called up fast enough: only half of the expected amount of troops arrived at their Chicago assembly point. There was more success in the assembly of troops in the Cleveland area though, where Fenians from Tennessee and Kentucky were posted, a varied bunch all wearing various scraps of uniform from the Civil War.

The leader that emerged of this force was a man named John O’Neill. O’Neill, a Monaghan native, had emigrated to American in 1848, served in the Morman War, deserted and then re-enlisted for the Civil War, where he volunteered to command a company of black soldiers for a chance at faster promotion. After the war, he had gravitated to a position of leadership among Tennessee Fenians, leading the “13th Regiment” of that state to Cleveland in 1866. When the actual appointed commander of that section of the operation failed to appear, O’Neill found himself as the ranking officer, and was ordered to proceed with an attack across the border.

O’Neill and his troops moved to Buffalo, which had a sizeable Irish-American community they could use for lodgings and support. Arms had been stockpiled there as far back as February, though never in enough numbers.

In the early hours of the 1st of June, O’Neill made his move, now being in command of regiments from Ohio, Indiana and Buffalo as well as those from Tennessee and Kentucky. That morning, O’Neill marched his 900 or so men to the Niagara River, crossing on canal boats pulled by tugs, and landed a short distance from the Canadian town of Fort Erie. Due to the geography of the area, the Fenians actually moved west over the border, not north. This on its own was a momentous step in purely propaganda terms: the Fenians unfurled their flags on British territory, the crossing itself already more of a victory than anything the Fenians had achieved before. The American Navy did have forces nearby, but it took over 12 hours for them to start intercepting the barges.

But what was O’Neill to do from there? He was supposed to be leading a raiding force that formed a diversion for others, but as it turned out O’Neill would be largely on his own. But O’Neill’s military career had no experience with such things. Lacking any higher instructions, he and his men marched to Fort Erie, occupied it bloodlessly and cut communications around the town. Fort Erie provided food and some horses for his troops, begrudgingly, before O’Neill ordered his men to entrench around a local farm. More arms were ferried across, but the expected reinforcements that O’Neill needed to do more did not materialise.

The local authorities, woken out of their slumber by what had happened and by the rumours that had been oft heard in the build-up, assembled a force of militia in nearby Chippawa in the north and Port Colbourne further west. By the 2nd of June, news of these two forces force had reached O’Neill ears, thanks largely to the scouts he had been able to send out on horseback. Not wanting to be caught by forces moving in from two directions, O’Neill decided to advance, heading down a road towards the small settlement of Ridgeway.

The arrival of the Fenians had sent local authorities scurrying to get militia companies out into the field, but it took a critical 24 hours for any force to get within striking distance of O’Neill. So quickly was the mobilisation sent out that the orders were somewhat bungled, and only infantry militia were called up. Regular troops were called up too, but were further away from the site of the campaign. The forces advancing towards O’Neill were a mixed group of various companies now operating in Battalion strength for the first time. They were variously armed with older guns and newer models, and were similarly supplied. The vast majority had no real military experience, and no capability of staying in the field for too long. Even in uniform they differed, some with the traditional redcoats and others with the more modern green.

They were commanded a Lt Colonel Alfred Booker, a career officer who had never been in a battle, a common trait among militia officers. Other commanders in the vicinity became victims of some hapless miscommunications: regular troops under a Colonel Peacocke followed a plan of campaign that was changed by others without him being adequately informed and another militia leader, Lt Colonel John Stoughton Dennis, followed a plan that was abandoned by the others without him being told. As a result, different columns of militia, regular troops and even naval assets in the area were all operating independently, without any sort of useful cohesion, a situation exacerbated even more by the lack of cavalry to use as scouts.

Booker advanced on the morning of June 2nd, towards where he thought the Fenians still were, entrenched around the farm outside Fort Erie, where he hoped that a bold attack would scatter them, especially after some inaccurate reports reached him that they were drinking. He ignored other reports that the Fenians were actually advancing towards him. O’Neill, hearing that militia were ahead of him, did the opposite. He took high ground at a place called the Lime Ridge Road, ordered his men to put up breastworks and barricades, and sent out lines of advanced guards to act as an outward line of defence, who also set up pickets in wooded areas on either side of the road.

Around 8am, the advanced units of militia suddenly encountered the Fenians: fire was exchanged at distance, to no casualties. Booker ordered his militia, maybe 850 men in all, to deploy in a wide front and advance: the initial units were relieved as the militia pushed up, firing all the while. Casualties on either side were few, and the militia looked like they were prevailing: the advanced units of the Fenians, outnumbered though better shots, were obliged to fall back, but did not do so in any kind of panic: it must be remembered that most of the Fenians had very recent experience in the most modern kind of warfare. The kind of men that had faced Confederate advances at Gettysburg or made desperate assaults like those at Cold Harbour were not the kind who would cut and run in the face of this kind of attack.

It was at this point in the fighting, as the Fenians withdrew back to the ridge where they were based, that the tide began to shift. Booker’s troops were far too strung out, blundering into woods where little Fenians were to be fought. Moreover, there was confusion as rival companies melded into each others’ lines. The militia, under fire for the first time in their lines, were not advancing to inevitable victory.

O’Neill, in a position where he wasn’t even sure of what kind of troops he was fighting, was worried about being outflanked, and decided to make an attack before this became a reality. This advance was a loose enough one, but made an immediate impression on the elements of the militia it came into contact with, who wavered under the strain.

It was the critical moment of what we call the “Battle of Ridgeway” today. A better quality of soldier commanded by a better quality of officer would have been able to adsorb the Fenian advance and throw it back. But Booker and his militia were not those men. Instead, in a truly infamous moment for Canadian military history, Booker saw a small amount of enemy cavalry – in reality, the entirety of the Fenian horse, who had only been used for scouting – and thought that a massive attack of cavalry was upon his men. He gave the critical command for his reserve companies to form square.

I’ve talked about infantry squares before, but a quick recap may be in order: it is an excellent formation when dealing with a cavalry attack, as horses cannot be compelled to attack a square that has massed bayonets facing outward. However, it’s next to useless against infantry or artillery: indeed, it essentially cuts into quarters the effective firing line of an infantry force.

Booker soon realised his mistake when no more enemy cavalry appeared, but by then it was too late. The retreating militia ran into the siltation of companies that had formed square and were now being ordered back into line. Confusion reigned supreme, and when the advancing Fenians pressed the attack, the confusion became a rout. The militia simply disintegrated, and nothing Booker or his other officers could do would stem the tide. Indeed, the number of different counter-orders now only added to the confusion.

The militia struggled back in the direction of Port Colbourne. The Fenians did not pursue after taking the field. The battle was over. The casualties were light: ten killed on the militia side, with 37 wounded, in exchange for an estimate of ten Fenian dead and several wounded.

It was a strange reversal of fortune for soldiers fighting for Irish freedom, to be the ones with all of the advantages in men, experience, guns and terrain. The result of the battle, with all of the negatives that Booker was dealing with – some that he wasn’t even fully aware of – was not at all surprising when one looks at the entirety of the circumstances.

Regardless, Ridgeway was a major moment for the Fenians and Irish nationalism as a whole. It was claimed as the first military victory for Irish republicanism since 1798: essentially true, unless you count the odd raid of the Ribbonmen as a “victory” for such a cause. It would go on to be claimed as the only republican victory between 1798 and 1919. As such, regardless of what came after, it gave the Fenians exactly what it wanted: it gave their movement success, relevance and notice. The Fenians had advanced into British territory and won.

Ridgeway, despite the poor performance of the militia, also holds a special place in the history of Canada, the first battle where Canadian born soldiers fought under Canadian born officers. The events of the battle, and its result, would mean it would take over 30 years for the people who fought there to be recognised officially, but today Ridgeway is seen as a vital part of Canadian military history.

Of course, the campaign wasn’t over. O’Neill had won a victory, but other militia and regular troops were in the area, even if they were temporarily waylaid. The Fenians would have more fighting to do in Canada before it was all done.

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 , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments