Ireland’s Wars: Second Ypres, Second Artois

For the BEF and the Irish regiments, the winter of 1914/15 was a miserable enough time. First Ypres had been a grinder: nearly 75% of the overall force were casualties. The famous truce passed quickly, and was only observed in certain sections of the line, with differing repots on how involved the Irish regiments were. At home, people crowded around casualty lists. Troop depots continued to busy, shipping out reserves. Those units still coming in from Imperial garrison duty, like the Inniskilling Dragoons and the 1st Dublin Fusiliers, were moving to the front line. There, units cycled in and out of the still rudimentary trenches, dealing with the biting cold and flooded surrounds, while also dodging snipers and shells. There was still hope that 1915 could prove a year of victory, but that hope was to be dashed in a succession of bloody encounters on the western front.

By March, the initial engagements of what would become the Second Battle of Ypres were already beginning, with veteran and newly arrived Irish regiments thickly involved. South of Ypres, the Royal Irish Regiment and Royal Leinsters attacked the village of St Eloi and “the Mound”, a rise outside the village. St Eloi was taken with little trouble, but the Germans were better dug-in at the Mound, and machine gun fire caused terrible casualties among the Royal Irish. The Germans counter-attacked into the town, and brutal street-fighting resulted, that’s soon had the main thoroughfare littered with bodies of both armies. St Eloi and the ground around it would become a hotbed of mining and counter-mining, wherein both armies would attempt to dig through No Man’s Land and get under opposing trenches, and part of the reason this became such a feature of fighting in the area was the casualties that occurred when surface actions were taken.

The fighting now began to focus on the previously mentioned town of Neuve Chappelle, where the BEF planned an offensive that they hoped would open up enough of a gap that a dash to Lille could even be thought of.  As elsewhere, the Germans were not of a mind to give up the town lightly, covering its approaches with machine guns and artillery: when the BEF advanced on the 10th March, the results were predictable. The Royal Irish Rifles were part and parcel of a truly heroic effort wherein the first few lines of German trenches were taken, despite fearsome casualties, with the town itself within sight. But the advance was not sustainable, and the BEF didn’t do enough to exploit their limited breakthrough, allowing the Germans time to organise a counterattack. The Rifles, their position surrounded on three sides, were ordered to attack again the following day. They were cut to pieces, suffering 400 casualties. The next day, the Germans swept the British back to their original positions, having inflicted over 11’000 casualties overall. In terms of World Wat One’s reputation for being a war filled with bloodbaths undertaken for no gain, Neuve Chappelle was an excellent example.

Now it was time for the hellish Ypres sector to take centre-stage yet again, as the weather improved, a bit, and both sides again contemplated the possibilities of a breakthrough. The British began to take the opportunity to train new arrivals in the rudimentary art of trench storming, making liberal use of grenades and other innovations. At the same time, the Germans were preparing what they hoped would be their own path to victory through military innovation, albeit of a much more insidious sort.

On the 22nd of April, the Germans attacked around the aptly named hamlet of Gravenstal, releasing over 170 tonnes of chlorine gas before they did so, marking the start of a new phase of murderous technological development in the ear. The gas, as it would do throughout the war, was only partially effective: dependent on favourable wind, it would often blow right back into the faces of those that had released it, and it often caused those it was supposed to be aiding to be overly-hesitant in advancing in its wake. Still, it could have a devastating and disruptive effect on enemy defences: It was French and French-colonial troops who took the first bitter taste of chrlorine on the western front, with the Germans opening up a sizable gap in the Allied lines as a result. The Germans had, in fact, under-estimated what the gas would do, and thankfully for the Allies, didn’t have enough men to fully exploit the glorious opportunity that had come their way.

At the town of St Julian was where the Irish regiments were introduced to their battle, with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers the first to face gas attacks. Gas masks were still to be made widely available, and often the only defence men had was to hold a soaked rag around their mouths. Usually, the only liquid readily available was urine. Already heavily engaged in a more conventional sense, this battalion of the Dublins was effectively annihilated that day and in the days that followed. The Germans took St Julian, but rapidly deployed reserves stemmed the tide somewhat, among them the Royal Irish Regiment, that seized nearby heights and used the advantage to great effect.

On the 25th what was left of the Dublins, in concert with the Fusiliers, counter-attacked St Julien, and were felled in droves, taking many of the 2’000 BEF casualties. The day after, the Connaught Rangers were thrown at German positions nearby at a place called Mauser Hill, and were promptly thrown back with a combination of small arms fire and gas, losing over 350 men. They were just small cogs in a huge effort to stem the tide and stabilise the line, a process that the Allies succeeded at, at huge cost, as the fighting continued on into May.

While Second Ypres continued, the BEF was also called upon to play a part in what became known as the Second Battle of Artois, south of the Ypres sector. It was a largely French attack, that helped alleviate pressure in Ypres, but to little overall strategic gain. The British were tasked with the taking of Aubers Ridge, which they attacked on the 7th of May: on the 8th, the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munsters was sent forward to attack the small settlement at Rue de Bois. Ahead of the fighting, 800 men assembled at a road-side shrine to receive a general absolution from a Father Francis Gleeson, the battalion chaplain, the source of a famous painting of the era. The subsequent Munster charge towards the German trenches took heavy casualties from machine gun fire, caught haplessly by barbed wire defences the pre-attack artillery strikes had failed to destroy. While the few men who had advanced far enough to contest the forward trenches fought a near hopeless battle, the rest stuck in No Man’s Land were soon the subject of friendly fire from their BEF artillery. Eventually, the Munsters fell back, with over 400 men killed, and a few hundred others incapable of parading back at the shrine.

On the other flank of the assault, at Fromelles, other Irish regiments were thickly engaged. The Irish Rifles too were caught up in wire and found themselves unable to advance effectively. Their brigade commander, Brigadier-General A.W.G Lowry-Cole from Fermanagh, was shot dead at the front of his troops, almost at the lip of the German trenches. The Rifles took over 450 casualties and gained ground, but the BEF couldn’t sustain the advance, and what the Ulstermen had bled to win was quickly lost. The overall battle was another disaster for Sir John French, whose BEF took 11’000 casualties.

Despite the losses (and, perhaps more importantly, the negligible gains they had won) French was persuaded to continue the BEF’s support of the French offensives elsewhere in the Artois sector, and on the 15th May they attacked again, this time at Festubert, south of Neuve Chappelle. A multi-day artillery bombardment again largely failed to do what the British leadership hoped it would do, and when the infantry went forward, they again went straight into barbed wire entanglements and machine gun fire. The 2nd Innsikillings lost 650 men in a few hours on the right flank of the advance, with the British taking over 16’000 casualties overall, for a gain of roughly three miles when the offensive petered out a few days later.

Second Ypres came to a merciful end in late May, with Second Artois following suit a month later. Between the two battles, 300’000 men had been killed, injured or captured. The end result was that the Ypres salient was compressed back to a narrow bulge outside of what was left of Ypres itself, and in Artois the Allied line had advanced a few miles. Just as in the aftermath of First Ypres, a lull in active operations followed, as both sides took stock of what had occurred, and exhausted, battered armies did their best to restore their strength.

The fighting of 1914 had, up until its last months, been characterised by a significant amount of manoeuvre, but the first six months of 1915 cast an ugly light on what the First World War had become. Neither side had managed to catch up, in terms of military innovation, with what the machine gun and trenches represented. That would, very slowly, start to change in the latter half of the year, but not soon enough to help the heaps of dead men littering the churned ground between the lines. The Irish had suffered terrible casualties, and many battalions had all but ceased to exist.

Yet even while the flower of the British army was being ground into the mud on the western front, another military operation of breath-taking ambition and jaw-dropping failure was being played out at the other end of Europe. The epic effort to take the Dardanelles was already well under way, and the Irish were there too.

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

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Review: The Dark Tower

The Dark Tower

Trailer

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Looking cool. For a moment.

Which The Dark Tower quote should I use to open this up? “Go then, there are other worlds than these”? Or “The man in black fled across the desert, and the gunslinger followed”? Some variation of “Forgotten the face of his father” maybe, or a simple “Thankee-sai”? Or maybe the under-rated “‘Geez Roland’, said Jake, ‘I sure hope a bunch of studios don’t make a terrible movie about our story someday'”.

I guess you can see where this is going. I’m a fan of Stephen King’s unorthodox fantasy/sci-fi series, that I devoured quickly in college, seeking, like so many others, to find out what would happen once Roland reached the titular structure (for the record: horrible disappointment). In preparation for this film I recently re-read The Gunslinger, and it’s good as I remember, a great introduction to this mish-mash world of wild west shootouts, Arthurian legend and dark inter-dimensional magic. And a great introduction to Roland Deschain, a character crying out for an adaptation worthy of his quest.

Instead, he got his.

13-year-old New Yorker Jake Chambers (Tom Taylor) is haunted by vivid nightmares of another world, a demonic “man in black” (Matthew McConaughey), a gun carrying wanderer (Idris Elba) and an imposing dark tower that lies at the centre of the universe. As New York is ravaged by mysterious earthquakes, Jake discovers his nightmares are real as he crosses over to “Mid-World”, where gunslinger Roland, the last of his kind, endlessly pursues Walter, a dark sorcerer who aims to bring down the Tower and unleash the horrors of the abyss beyond our universe.

It doesn’t take much research to see what went wrong here. You have two competing studios, that require compromise on every production decision of consequence to satisfy both. You have an original author who retains enough control over the property that he also has a say in what is finally shown to audiences. You have a director tackling a project of this scope and budget for the first time. You have a more experienced producer who probably should have been the one in charge. And you have poor test screening results that result in the most morale sapping word in film-making: “re-shoots”. Taken together, what should have been an adaptation that captured the spirit and tone of this ambitious and discussion-worthy series, is instead little more than a forgettable 90-minute action movie, that strays so far from the source that it would be easier to turn it into something new entirely than go for the purist approach.

And it really isn’t a case that I object to the changes from the source material. Being truthful, King’s The Dark Tower is a sprawling mess of a series that goes down numerous strange avenues and narrative dead-ends, and it’s perfectly possible to make an adaptation of the story that remains faithful to the series while still altering details. Adaptation is a fascinating art form in itself, and when it’s done right, it can be a joyous thing to witness. But retaining that spirit is all-important, and Nikolaj Arcel’s The Dark Tower does not do that.

It comes down to, primarily, to problems of character, of the three main players in the story that Arcel is telling. Mistake #1 is making Jake Chambers the central pole, as opposed to Roland. In a first act that felt far lengthier than the 25-30 minutes that I presume it actually was, we get an in-depth look at Jake, his nightmares, his fractured family, his douchebag stepfather, his best friend across the hall, his problems at school and his therapy sessions, a lot of which seems very superfluous – the best friend especially, who pops up in a few scenes to no effect – before we finally, gratifyingly, get into the meat and bones of the issue, with Jake finding a portal to Mid-World, wherein he lands in a desert that a man in black may be fleeing across and that a gunslinger may be following over (but not really). Altering the manner in which Jake ends up in Mid-World from that of The Gunslinger, is all well and good, but not if it takes over the narrative to this extent. Jake, played in a reserved manner by Taylor throughout, doesn’t have enough in him to carry this film in the way that he is expected to, and, at the end of the day, this should always be Roland’s story primarily.

But Roland’s story it isn’t. Idris Elba is commanding enough as the jaded wild-west knight, but no performance could overcome the side-lining that occurs here, along with the numerous cuts and edits that rip Roland’s character development apart. At no point do we get a proper feel for Roland, who he is, what he’s doing or what he wants out of life, beyond blind, simple revenge. A brief flashback with his father – Dennis Haysbert, in a one-note cameo, in a film full of those – is all we really get to fill him out, and what should be a surrogate father relationship with Jake is not given the consideration it should have. I guess maybe the missing internal narrative is a serious obstacle to overcome for making us get on-board with Roland, one this film is not all that interested in clambouring over. In a crucial, and in my view regrettable, departure from the books, Roland here doesn’t care a jot about the Dark Tower itself, or any quest to find it or keep it standing. In the books, Roland’s single-minded desire to reach the Tower was a huge part of what drove the narrative forward and what kept the audience hooked: here, sure we want the Tower to stand because it’s what the villain is trying to undo, but no one else seems to care all that much.

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He’s good, but he can’t save this.

Speaking of, what about Matthew McConaughey’s Man in Black/Walter Padick/Randell Flagg/whatever Stephen King called him somewhere else? McConaughey is pretty much perfect casting for O’Dim, as he could be charmingly creepy if asked to do so in any role. And he is easily the best actor in the production, given free reign to chew the scenery a bit here, but still coming off as eerily threatening and spooky whenever he is needed to be. The problems lie in everything else around him: the fact that his plan to take down the tower revolves around something I have decided to describe as the “child cannon”; the never-rightfully explained nature of his magic powers, that are near omnipotent when used against anyone but Roland; or the fact that he himself never gets to expand on his own motivations for doing what he is doing. McConaughey has the demeanour down pat, but there’s little depth to him really, he’s just an obstacle for Jake and Roland to overcome.

The central, pivotal point of the whole thing, the Tower itself, doesn’t get the due diligence it deserves either. In a way this is faithful to the books, where, in the first few entries, the Tower was a distant intangible concept that was intentionally difficult to comprehend. But what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on the screen, and the Tower is a weird MacGuffin thing in this film, a distant structure that is somehow holding the fabric of reality together (yet, “the mind of a child” can bring it down?). The general world-building in the film is alright, replete with references to King’s other works, and there is something fun and engaging in taking the kind of character Roland is – a cowboy/Arthurian knight/Dirty Harry type – and plopping him down in the middle of New York and seeing what happens. The film could have used a bit more of that grab your attention at times, even if it is in the pursuit of predictable laughs (most notably in a scene where a wounded Roland gets attention in an ER, paying his way with silver coins).

But the messed-up editing job, tonal problems and pacing would bring any story down. The cuts are so jarring at times: one example, where Roland dangles Jake over a cliff-edge and in the next scene they are sudden companions, reminded me of a similar disastrous production choice in The Room. The film dallies with the idea of being the kind of dark, grimy, oft-sexually charged affair that the books are, but always turns away in favour of largely PG action and obscured libido. Not that the film needs romance or sex, but that only makes another bad editing job, wherein Jake briefly interacts with a Mid-World girl his own age only for her to vanish, all the stranger. And the pacing is regretfully manic: slow and steady at the start, too fast for the rest, the film struggling (and failing) to say everything that it needs to say in just 90 minutes.

Like every film that has been cut to pieces in the editing room and pulled apart from studio interference – Josh Trank’s Fantastic Four and David Ayers’ Suicide Squad immediately spring to mind – there are elements of this production that do work. When Roland recites the gunslinger creed – “I do not kill with my gun, he who kills with his gun has forgotten the face of his father”, etc – it actually does get the heart stirring (provided you’re a veteran of the books of course). The action is generally shot well, with Roland’s almost magical skill with his eponymous guns brought to life really well on-screen, from the trick re-loading to an especially awesome moment when he seeks out a distant target using only his ears (probably the films best moment). That’s all notwithstanding the henchmen of the antagonists, that my girlfriend likened to Power Rangers’ Puttymen. The film as a whole is directed with passable skill really, meshing well with the fine job from the production/set construction department.

But then there is so much else, so much fridge logic and odd choices, that you can’t help but get distracted by them. Jake discovers a portal in a decrepit old house: rather than use any one of the pieces of debris around him, he takes off his shoe and throws it through. Walter literally has the power to stop people breathing, but for reasons never explained, it doesn’t work on Roland. Walter keeps a bullet that Roland tried to kill him with, refers to it later, but then it is never seen again. No one seems to be all that bothered by a series of earthquakes hitting New York (or the red skies that accompany them). Monsters appears, are dealt with in seconds, and are never brought up again. There’s a somewhat touching scene where Roland teaches Jake to shoot, then he suddenly declares that Jake’s psychic powers are his weapons, and that’s it. The famous opening line of the book is used, but doesn’t actually apply to the story being told here (the Man in Black isn’t fleeing across the desert, and the gunslinger doesn’t even know where he is).

And there is the ending too, so consider this lone paragraph SPOILER-filled. The final moments of The Dark Tower miss the point of the film so much that it’s hard to think that it was formulated for any other reason than to wink at the audience to inform them to look for a sequel. Jake and Roland tag-teaming up to go on further adventures, complete with an off-camera flash and bang as they disappear through a portal, is more Rick and Morty that Dark Tower in my estimation, and just feels wrong considering the source material: it’s too “fun”, too child-friendly, and not doing nearly enough to capture the darker essence of the books.

It’s my understanding that a TV show is on the way, an adaptation of Wizard and Glass (my favourite of the eight books) and I do think that this series will benefit from such an elongated format, where the (moronic) necessity of cutting what must have been a two and a half hour film down to 90 minutes is not a factor. The Dark Tower deserves some Game of Thrones-esque treatment. It would be a damn sight better than this: a film that misses the point of its source material, that puts the focus on the wrong characters, that sucks the life out of the kind of story that it is telling, and is just all-round kind of unexceptional. I wanted a film that would make me shout “Gunslingers, to me!”. Instead, I got a film that made me murmer “Gunslingers, back away”. Not recommended.

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The studios have forgotten the face of their fathers.

(All images are copyright of Columbia Pictures).

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Ireland’s Wars: To The Trenches

The Battle of the Marne, known also as the “miracle of the Marne”, took place between 6th and 10th September 1914. The battle is primarily known as a French and German one in popular remembrance, the clash of arms wherein Paris, and the war itself, was saved for the Allies and where the eventual fate of Germany was sealed. There is much merit in this, as of the millions involved in this pivotal engagement, only a small fraction belonged to the British Expeditionary Force of Sir John French. But the BEF did have a role to play, as it did in the following battles that would lead back to the north-west, and eventually into the grim world of trench warfare.

The Marne’s result hinged on a sizable gap that opened up in the German line of advance, between the First Army of von Kluck and the Second of von Bulow, after heroic French counter-attacks and a succession of poor decisions made by German leadership. Despite their exhausted state, the BEF was thrown into the breach, widening it even more, and in the face of this setback, the German leadership reluctantly ordered a retreat. Many consider the moment a decisive one in the overall war, when a German victory became essentially impossible.

The Irish involvement in the battle was primarily in its later stages, as the Germans began a retreat to the Aisne River. At a smaller river, the Petit Morin, the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons were utilised in attacking a German position defending a bridge, capturing the crossing. In the nearby village of Boitron, the Irish Guards, in concert with elements of the Coldstream Guards, charged a series of German machine gun positions, in a fight taking place during a torrential rainstorm. The weather may have helped the Guards avoid destruction, as they captured the guns without the usual result of infantry advancing against machine guns. Later still, the 5th Irish Lancers served as part of the forward vanguard of the BEF, engaged repeatedly as the British advanced to the Aisne River.

On the 13th September, the BEF made their own crossing, commencing their portion of the battle named after the river. Some of the first units across were companies of the Connaught Rangers and Royal Irish Fusiliers, traversing the shattered remains of girder bridges at Pont Arcy and Bucy de Long respectively. The Inniskillings crossed at the village of Venizel, operating under heavy fire and holding a precarious bridgehead on the other side.

Crossing was one thing, but holding the position and advancing again was another. The Connaught Rangers withstood a spirited German attack on the 14th, stopping the enemy advance just short of their defences near the river, while the Irish Guards attacked other German positions uphill at a farm called Cour de Soupir, taking it after a difficult day-long fight. But then, and the in the days following, neither the British nor the French were able to make any serious progress advancing into the teeth of the German Army. By then, the BEF’s 6th Division, containing the Leinster Regiment, had arrived at the front, and the Leinsters were sent straight into the fight at Cour de Soupir.

Both sets of armies, Allies and German, now moved northwards, seeking to outflank and to avoid being outflanked. Just as at the Aisne, this “Race to the Sea” ended in stalemate, with Sir John French already ordering his increasingly stretched army to dig “strong entrenchments” all along the line of battle (around the same time, he proclaimed his fantastical belief that the situation was “stalemate in our favour”). By the end of it, the BEF was back in Belgium, in the Flanders region. Numerous Irish regiments had difficult times of it during the race, usually when they were placed too far ahead of supporting units.

By now, the manoeuvre warfare that characterised the early months of the war had essentially ended. Trench warfare is the defining aspect of the First World War, though it was neither invented nor refined in that conflict. People have been digging entrenchments for as long as they have been fighting wars after all, and even the style of trench warfare that came to dominate the popular consciousness of the First World War – largely ignoring the more fluid battlefields elsewhere of course, but I digress- could be partially glimpsed in places like Petersburg in the American Civil War or Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

But it was on the western front of the First World War that the concept of trench warfare found its highest level of notoriety. There was an inevitability about it all of course: both sets of armies now adapted to the reality that quicker firing artillery and massed firepower from dug-in infantry (with machine guns) made the idea of large mobile units of men, advancing in step, dangerously obsolete, and mounted cavalry suffered a similar fate. With armies equally matched, with the shells raining down, with the “mad minute” firing rate and growing amount of machine guns, digging in was a matter of practicality. The zig-zag patterns, duck boards, barbed wire, undermining, and bunkers would come later, as the duration of the war stretched out and it became patently necessary to make the trenches more liveable and defendable. But, for the moment, in the Ypres sector, the trenches were basic things, dug with whatever was to hand, with little thought for drainage, sanitation or long-term sustainability.

It was now October, and the almost non-existent drainage of these trenches encouraged the spread of disease and the first signs of what would become known as “trench foot”, wherein prolonged exposure to damp cold water caused sores, fungal infections and even gangrene to ravage soldiers’ feet. Neither army, but especially the Germans, were properly equipped to dig the kind of entrenchments that would later become endemic (the common answer when told to entrench being “With what?). And the terrain too turned against them, with the arable farmland of the region liable to transform to the consistency of “cream cheese” in the late Autumn and Winter, as one British chronicler put it. The various canals, hills and woods of the area, along with other obstructions, made the terrain difficult, if not impossible, for effective use of cavalry and artillery.

As such the holding of towns and other strongpoints remained critically important, and so it was that the unfortunate Belgian town of Ypres became a focal point for both the BEF and the Germans. In a series of clashes that stretched to over a month – the first Battle of Ypres perhaps would be better described as a campaign – the Allied and Germans armies sparred for position, with the need so great for infantry at points that cavalry men were obliged to dismount and join the ranks. During Ypres, battalions of Irish regiments were arriving from other overseas service, most notably in India, and were thrown directly into the firing line also. The aim was for a joint British-French-Belgian advance that would split the German armies operating in Belgium apart. At the same time, the Germans were initiating their own advance, hoping, like the Allies, to pin their enemies against the sea.

The Irish regiments were part and parcel of the growing horror show, with many regiments, like the Royal Munsters, dependent on fresh drafts of troops sent from reserve units back in Britain. On the 17th October, the Royal Irish Fusiliers secured the village of Armentierres and pushed on, before suffering terribly from German sniper fire, a prologue to the constant threat from sharpshooters that would be a normal part of life in the trenches. A few days later, the Royal Irish Regiment captured the village of Le Pilly from the Germans, taking heavy casualties in the process, but were then left enfiladed when both units on their flanks, French to the right and the Middlesex Regiment to their left, either failed in their own attacks or fell back in the face of German counter-moves. The battalion of the Royal Irish, cut off, grimly held on to what they had won, depending on a counter-attack from their own forces to save them, but such an advance never came, the BEF not in a position to do so. Bombarded by artillery, raked with machine gun fire, and running out of ammunition after a day of perilous combat, the Royal Irish eventually surrendered, having lost 340 men dead or wounded, with over 300 other men now marching into captivity.

While all that was going on, the fresher Leinster regiment was also thickly involved in the fray, taking ground, losing it and attacking again just outside the nearby city of Lille. If they were late to the war, they now suffered as much as anyone, their 2nd battalion losing 400 men in just a few days. Shortly after, they were moved to the Neuve Chappele sector of the line, an Irish one in many ways, with the Irish Rifles and Inniskillings also engaged there. Here again was a mess of rudimentary trench warfare, of sudden advances, negligible gains and sudden counter-attack, as the BEF and Germans vied over their hastily made defences. The Royal Irish Rifles were particularly hard-pressed here, forced to withstand repeated German infantry assaults, later almost ceasing to exist after exemplary defensive actions at Heronthage Chateau.

On the 1st November, it was the Inniskillings turn to be the victim of bad communications, command orders still largely dependent on mounted or foot-based messengers. A withdrawal order for the 2nd battalion failed to reach two companies as they held a place called Douve Farm, south of Ypres itself. As the majority of the regiment fell back, the two companies faced an entire Corps of German infantry, and turned them back from their water-logged trenches.

The Irish Guards were placed at the Zillebecke section of the line, which they defended for the better part of nine days in early November, under near-constant attack from infantry and artillery. So bad were the casualties – over 600 in a week – that by the end of this specific deployment, other regiments were obliged to lend the Guards officers. The Connaught Rangers too suffered horribly at Ypres, to the extent that some of its battalions had to be merged to take into account what they had left.

“First Ypres” piddled out in mid to late November, as the sheer exhaustion of both armies made further large-scale operations impossible. It had been a truly miserable affair, even by the standards of the First World War, as the opposing armies, bereft of specific strategic guidance, with tattered clothes and positions in flooded, filthy trenches, largely stood and died or advanced and died, for a number of hellish weeks.

The Allies had won a victory of sorts, repelling the German attacks, preventing a breakthrough, and now held a salient outside of Ypres. The cost had been huge, especially for the focus of this series: it is estimated that in those frantic early months of the conflict, over 10’000 members of the Irish regiments were killed, wounded, captured or recorded as “missing”. In line with the larger casualties taken by the BEF in general – nearly 90’000, over half of those at Ypres – it was a shocking expenditure of experienced soldiery. From Mons to Ypres, it was little less than the destruction of the regular army, that now had to be made up with new recruits. Both armies settled in for the Christmas period, knowing now that any illusions about the wars length were just that.

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

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The Villain Checklist: Credibility

And we’re back after a bit of a hiatus. In the last entry, I discussed the importance of an antagonists capability, that they have the means, in whatever format, to turn their goals into reality and to threaten the hero in some capacity. Capability goes hand-in-hand with the focus of today’s entry, because it doesn’t matter if you have all of the capability in the world, if you have no credibility. Capability is having a loaded gun; credibility is the audience believing that you’ll pull the trigger.

How does one best showcase credibility then?  We’ve discussed defining statements and “Kick The Dog” already, and these are good moments to start instilling the credibility of the villain in terms of the nefarious actions they will undertake, but it goes beyond that. Consistency, also previously discussed, is important too. But credibility goes beyond that. From start to finish, the audience has to believe that the villain is a threat, and that they are going to do everything that they set out to do, if given the chance.

In my eyes, credibility is a mixture of goal and action. Making a bad guy credible involves clearly showing their goal/motivation and then marrying that to what the villain actually does to reach that target. To focus on a particular section of the narrative, when we reach the culminating point of the plot, the moment when the villain is at his/her closest to victory, we have to fully believe that the antagonist is going to follow through. We do this by comparing the finale action to previous moments in the narrative and evaluating their relative believability. When the con-man gets close to scamming the old lady, we might believe he is credible because we’ve seen every section of the scam up to that point. When the maniacal supervillain gets close to taking over the world, we must have seen their efforts to build their superweapon and moral compromises along the way. When the Galactic overlord moves to blow up a planet, we should have no problem believing in his ability to do so, based on said galactic overlording.

It’s best I think that we look at a few examples of what I mean, so let’s jump right into it.

Credibility_Vader

That was a sweet ass TIE fighter.

At the end of A New Hope, Darth Vader has taken the lead in exterminating the Rebel Alliance forces attacking the Death Star, in his own personal TIE fighter. In the climactic moments of the narrative, he’s closing in on Luke as Luke skims towards the exhaust port. At this point, we have to buy into Vader’s credibility in terms of his willingness to pull the trigger on Luke. And, realistically speaking, we have no problem doing that. At every turn, we have seen Vader’s ruthlessness in pursuing his goals and his willingness to expend lives in the process. Only a few moments before, he takes Biggs Darklighter out without a second thought. Vader, through is piloting skill, mastery of the force, and general amoralness, is a very credible threat to Luke at this moment.

Goal_Maul

Snarly snarl

Then, take Darth Maul. At the end of The Phantom Menace, he faces off against Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi in the depths of the Theed Palace. This confrontation’s emotional stakes bank considerably on Maul’s credibility with the audience, in terms of whether he has it in him to slice and dice the two Jedi apart. Generally speaking, Maul passes this test, albeit without the flying colours of Vader. Maul is the designated bad guy by his appearance and demeanour, and as an acknowledged Sith the larger canon is just about enough to mark him a credible threat. More than that, we have seen him take a few swings at Qui-Gon already, and he was also happy to run over a small child in the process. On a purely physical threat level, Maul has plenty of credibility.

Consistency_Stane

This film got away from them fast, huh?

Into the realms of the MCU then. Going back to the first Iron Man, we have Obadiah “Ironmonger” Stane, whose erratic behaviour in the last act of that film is something that I have gone over already. In the finale itself, Stane dons a huge suit of power armour and takes on Tony Stark in a fight that goes from Stark Industries, to a freeway and back again. The problem here is that, while Stane has been portrayed as ruthless in a detached “get other people to do the dirty work for me” kind of way, we have had no indications about either his own ability to pilot such a suit of armour, or to actually start firing missiles willy-nilly all over the place. His credibility as a threat takes a hit as a result, not because he isn’t shown as credible in his actions, but because the requisite set-up has not been done before hand. I’ve said before that the finale of Iron Man basically only makes sense if Stane is legitimately crazy, but even that wouldn’t explain why he is able to pilot tis massive mech-suit perfectly.

Credibility_Loki

Brothers, amirite?

In comparison, consider Loki in The Avengers, specifically a moment in the final battle when he squares off with his foster-brother Thor on the top of Stark Tower. The moment is yet another opportunity for Thor to try and talk Loki down from the path of warfare and destruction that he is engaged on, and Loki, at first, appears to be convincable. But then, when Thor lets his guard down, Loki strikes to kill. This moment tests our belief in Loki’s credibility, but he still passes, as The Avengers has already shown him as extremely duplicitous, uncaring about his sibling’s fate (he dropped him out of a flying aircraft carrier) and completely obsessed with his grand future as a warlord of Earth. Stabbing Thor in the back is small potatoes really, and we should have no problem buying that Loki would be credibly capable of doing so.

Credibility_Silva

“Mommy was very bad”

Going back to James Bond villains, let’s look at Silva in Skyfall. His final action is to threaten to kill Judi Dench’s M while shooting himself in the process, a rather insane action. The tension in the scene lies in both the audiences expectation that James Bond will come in and save the day, and in whether or not we truly believe that Silva is going to pull the trigger, ending his life as he ends M. That means, in a weird sense, his insanity has to be credible, and I think that Skyfall does a good job of showing that it is. From the moment we first meet him, we are shown that Silva has a penchant for power plays and demented parlour games, of being in control all the way to the end of his perfect plans. What better example of this then ending his own life while taking that of the subject of his rage? When Silva outs his head to M’s and the gun to his temple, we fully believe that he is going to do what he is threatening to do.

Consistency_Greene

Yeah…

Then there is Greene from Quantum of Solace, my favourite EON Productions punching bag. At the conclusion of the film, we find Greene engaging Bond hand-to-hand for some godforsaken reason, all while a burning hotel collapses around him. The issue here is not so much “Is Greene a credible threat to Bond physically?” because we know he isn’t, laughably so. The issue is whether his behaviour is credible. Now, we know from the course of the film that Greene is a little crazy, maybe even psychopathic. But at no point have we been given any indication that he is capable of this kind of attempted violence. There’s no credibility here: it just seems like the writers suddenly decided “Wait, Bond has to fight someone at the end”, and rather than set that character up as being both physically capable and narratively credible, they did neither.

Credibility_Valerian

The robots were better.

Let’s finish by looking at a couple of examples from films I’ve watched recently. In Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets, the primary villain is eventually, in a long-winded way, revealed to be, SPOILERS, Commander Arun Filitt (what a name), played by Clive Owens. Unfortunately, Filitt is a bit of a lame-duck. His involvement in proceedings is limited, his villainy is almost entirely through flashbacks, etc. At the climax of the film, his robotic guards are engaged in a firefight with the good guys, and in terms of his credibility in sicking them on the heroes, his “Greater Good” shtick that he espouses earlier in the film sort of covers it. What it doesn’t is his own personal role in the finale, which is getting punched repeatedly by Laureline while he lays prone in a space ship. While an indirect physical threat, Filitt has little credibility in himself, and in combination with other problems with his role in the narrative, this makes him a weak antagonist.

d2

Looking into the abyss.

Lastly, let’s talk about my inevitable film of the year, maybe decade, maybe ever: Dunkirk. Dunkirk, of course, doesn’t have a singular villain. The Germans, or rather, the “enemy” are seen only in the form of airplanes, artillery strikes and torpedoes. This kind of intangible threat is easily credible as a villain, as they are killing British soldiers from almost the first minute of the film to the last. But, in truth, the “enemy” isn’t the real antagonist of Dunkirk. In my view, the real villain is a different intangible concept, that is, humanity’s capacity for moral compromise in the face of imminent destruction. There are a lot of choices: letting a boat full of wounded sink so it doesn’t block up a dock, having to decide whether to defend helpless sailors or fly home due to your decreasing fuel, making a judgement call on an erratic and violent shipwreck or just deciding whether the life of a non-British ally is worth the same as your fellow soldiers. It’s hard to apply the concept of credibility to such an idea, at least in some ways. But Dunkirk is very careful to showcase mankind’s capacity for inhumanity early on, so by the end the idea of soldiers turning on fellow soldiers just to survive is no longer the kind of thing that we might struggle to believe.

So, that’s credibility. Next, we must turn to something that may, at first, seem strange, even counter-productive, when it comes to the idea of a villain. We must discuss sympathy for the devil: the idea that a bad guy can garner our own sympathy in the course of their actions.

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Ireland’s Wars: The Great Retreat

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Review: Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

Valerian And The City Of A Thousand Planets

Trailer

v2

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

v3

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

v1

Pass.

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

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Ireland’s Wars: Mons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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