Wednesday, 25 July 2012

THE UNBEARABLE SADE-NESS OF BEING



Note: I recently found the draft of this article, as faxed (remember that?) to the Financial Times, attached to a clipping of the piece as it appeared, in somewhat different form and with a different title, in January 2001 in the FT's Saturday arts section. It was a rewrite of a piece I'd originally written after the London Film Festival in October 2000, expanded to take into account the re-release of Salo and the various books mentioned. Although looking at it now it seems to suffer from a bit of Millennial Overload, it still seems relevant, especially because in the past decade I don't see any big changes, either in interpretations of Sade or in the world that interprets him. On the other hand, I will confess to a certain Marquis OD a decade ago, and re-reading this essay hasn't changed that!

THE UNBEARABLE SADE-NESS OF BEING

The idea of the Marquis de Sade as a spiritual poster-boy for the fin of our siecle may take some beating, but here we are in Stanley Kubrick's 2001 and after two centuries of demonisation as a pornographer, and after reinventions as both revolutionary and counter-revolutionary, we are suddenly confronted with yet another deconstruction of Citizen Sade. This time it's as Celebrity Sade, a posh bad boy born to epater, a sort of Jacobin cross between Damien Hirst and Will Self.

Sade has been reimagined more times than Frankenstein's monster, but presenting his life as a Hammer horror film is one of the more striking features of Quills, the film by Philip Kaufman (The Right Stuff, Invasion Of The Body Snatchers, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being) starring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis, which received its world premiere at the London Film Festival in October 2000, and which opened in London in January 2001. Set during Sade's famous stay at the asylum of Charenton, it climaxes with a burning castle scene whose parallels with Frankenstein's mindless peasants destroying that which they cannot understand is hardly lost for subtlety.

At the same time, Sade the monster is also presented as Sade the artist, persecuted for his avant-garde vision in Sade, by the French director Benoit Jacquet, which also premiered at the LFF last autumn. In Jacquet's film, Sade, played by Daniel Auteuil, is shocked to discover his philosophy of excess translates badly into the political arena. Of course this was a point rammed home, so to speak, a full quarter-century ago by Piers Paolo Pasolini in his Salo: 120 Days Of Sodom, which fortuitously enough was also re-released in January 2001.

Yet positioned between the traditional poles of literary pioneer and misguided sexual madman, something about Sade obviously resonates within our own obsessions with media-hyped art and spin-doctored politics. 'He's such a useful millennial figure,' says Doug Wright, who adapted the screenplay of Quills from his own play. 'His extremes provide a way of examining culture in a time of chaos, millennial chaos. It's no coincidence there were five new biographies of Sade published in the 1990s, and each presented a radically different portrait.'

Wright's Sade suffers persecution at the hands of philistines. Indeed, our first view inside Charenton reveals that Sade's fellow inmates are busy inventing abstract art and atonal music, more than a century ahead of schedule. When Wright wrote his play, which won a 1995 Obie Award for off-Broadway success, he was originally addressing funding controversies within America's National Endowment for the Arts. 'I wrote it to join the debate over artistic freedom,' he says. 'The NEA issue faded but last year (New York) Mayor Giuliani's attempts to ban the Saachi collection from the Brooklyn Museum kept it timely'.

Also timely were the persecutions of America's own Presidential libertine, which convinced Michael Caine to take the role of Sade's inquisitor and tormentor. 'Kenneth Starr's pursuit of Bill Clinton gave us a little more relevance,' says producer Peter Kaufman. 'Michael was sold after he watched Starr facing the press with his inappropriate little sadistic smile. “'I hate Starr—I'll do it!'”, he said. Thus the French Marquis becomes a metaphor for American politics being reduced to sexual burlesque.

Sade proceeds down a similar path but in a more philosophical French way. Set in 1794, during the Reign Of Terror, it has Sade imprisoned at the wonderfully named (for English-speaking audiences) Convent Pricpus, which eventually becomes the site of mass graves for victims of the guillotine. The film opens with Auteuil shrinking away from the sight of the guillotine in action, disillusioned to the point of despair by the excesses of Robespierre, who's played as a somewhat harsher version of Foucalt, bending the world to his own political post-modernism. Saved from the chop himself only by his mistress's whoring herself to Robespierre's assistant, Sade's libertine reputation assumes the mien of an existential response to hopeless absurdity. Unlike theatre of the absurd, however, in this case the absurdity is political.

Interestingly, in neither Quills nor Sade does the Marquis get up to much in the way of the high-jinks for which he is celebrated, apart from Auteuil receiving a few lashes from the gardener. Auteuil's Sade resists nobly the advances of an aristocratic adolescent who wishes to be deflowered before she faces the guillotine; Sade grants her wish but arranges for the busy gardener to act in his stead. Quills seems to hold feminine sexuality in even less regard than Sade did; the film opens with a guillotine scene similar to Sade's, but here presents a woman's seeming pleasure as pain only when the blade actually descends. Meanwhile, Rush's Sade seduces only through his words, and, in contrast to Caine, is remarkably non-sadistic.It's as if he wants to be able to tesitfy to the Directorate: 'I did not have sex with that woman, Mlle. X'!

It's hard to see the last generation's Sade so neutered. In Peter Weiss' play Marat/Sade (filmed by Peter Brook in 1966) Sade the revolutionary threw his revolution back into the faces of the aristocracy who came to see his plays performed by his fellow inmates at Charenton. For Pasolini, Sade was the original blackshirt, drawing the parallel between class domination and individual domination in both sadism and fascism.

As Doug Wright noted, the rebirth of our new Marquis has been underway throughout the past decade. Donald Thomas, in his 1997 biography, saw Sade as a revolutionary of sorts, torn between aristocratic boredom and lechery, as if he were breaking down the barriers of society merely to more freely abuse the lower classes in his quest for libertine fraternity, if not equality. More tellingly, Francine du Plessix Gray in At Home With The Marquis de Sade (1999) drew on Sade's letters to show his being shaped uniquely, and controlled throughout his life, by women, transforming him into an early sort of whipping boy for feminism. For Gray, Sade's writings were responses to the constraints imposed by his wife, his mother, indeed, by society itself—in the classic metaphor of women standing for societal bounds. This is reflected in Sade's prison letters, collected and translated in 2000 by Richard Seaver. There one senses little more than a naughty boy being alternatively spoiled and punished by protective mother figures. For Gray, this translates into Sade stepping forward as a sort of prophet of life-style as politics.

Which makes the 'Carry On Marquis' humour of Rush's performance in Quills all the more apt. In a scene Philip Kaufman asked Wright to add to the film, DeSade welcomes his tormentor to Charenton with a play poking fun at the man and his young bride, whom Caine has literally purchased from the nuns who raised her. While it echoes the play-within-a-play confrontations of Marat/Sade, this is a personal confrontation: if not Kenneth Starr, Sade has become Jerry Springer: Next On Marquis!: Church Sells Child Brides To Powerful Men!

Wright points out that the plays Sade wrote at Charenton were actually 'toothless romantic comedies...he always hoped for mainstream acceptance as a popular playwright.' And he might well have finally achieved that goal. Sade reborn as popular mainstream entertainer? In a sexually obsessed society that sees Anne Robinson or Chris Tarrant as personifications of sadism, we may well get exactly the Marquis De Sade we deserve.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

HOW BLACK WERE MY HAWKS


I didn't pay much attention to DC Comics 'New 52' promotion last year, in which they relaunched and reinvented 52 of their titles. It seemed too much like an exercise in forced marketing, like a soccer team creating a new jersey for its supporters to have to buy. But Barry Forshaw remembered that I had once written fondly of Blackhawk, so he forwarded the first two issues of its reincarnation—I read them and didn't like them very much, so I didn't bother to write about them then. But I was reminded of the new Blackhawk when I recently read Howard Chaykin's Avengers 1959, which seems to be a new concept design from Marvel, called The Heroic Avengers, very much like the DC idea of reinvention. In a nutshell, it seems more a marketing tactic, designed to use existing 'brand names' to sell new stories, rather than create new characters for their own stories.

The connection, of course, is that Chaykin was responsible for a remake of Blackhawk as a mini-series in the mid 1980s (which itself followed a similar sort of revival by Mark Evanier) which succeeded in the sense of establishing a slightly different background for Blackhawk himself and a more up-to-date approach to the ethnic melting pot that was his squadron, with the 1940s stereotyping disappearing--Chop Chop in particular had to be recast as something more than a comedy figure.

The New 52 Blackhawk has literally nothing to do with its namesake, apart from the idea of a muilti-national group. Oddly enough, although we are supposed to have moved on from those days of ethnic stereotyping, the group features The Irishman, who seems to be a red-headed, cloth-capped cross between Wolverine, a leprechaun, and Colin Farrell. Their eyrie seems to be sponsored by the UN, more Tracy Island than Blackhawk Island, and the group includes Canada, Ukraine, Japanese, Hungarian (or at least Hun) and so on. There isn't a lot of character-building done in the first two issues; it's primarily action-oriented, as you'd expect, and Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley's art, reminiscent of Gil Kane, is perfectly suited for that. Oddly enough, Lashley's cover for issue 1 has a Chaykin-esque Lady Blackhawk, complete with eyepatch. The original Blackhawk, from its Will Eisner-Bob Powell days and through Reed Crandall, benefited from great art which helped make up for its lack of super-heroes.

It made me long for the old days. Realistically, the Blackhawks make more sense as a World War II outfit, and indeed Chaykin's speciality seemed to be period pieces (his Shadow, of course, being the best example, and note the pose with the twin .45s, in the Chaykin cover pictured on the right) and proof they could work. But it would not be impossible to revive the storyline in a modern context; it's just that this high-tech Mission Impossible version is lacking in the character development, even in caricature, which made Blackhawk work.

Here is what I would have suggested, had not this remake been killed almost immediately. The group should be fighting, primarily on the ground, but with some air (or helicopter) element, as an anti-terrorist outfit. It should be made up of soldiers who are refugees themselves from the ethnic and religious conflicts of the past two decades: Russian, Chechnian, Bosnian, Serb, Kurd, Yemeni, Sudanese, South African, Sri Lankan, whatever, which would open the opportunity for plenty of internal conflict, and they should be engaged in missions which raise ethical as well as tactical questions on the ground. They could battle pirates and kidnappers as well as terrorists, drug barons and corrupt oil companies as well as fundamentalist tribesmen. The stories would need to have some edge, and with any luck the Army would not want to advertise in them. It's a thought.


As I said, I went back to the New 52 Blackhawk because I came across Chaykin's Avengers 1959, which is supposedly a period piece itself, though it doesn't really create much of a Fifties feel. The choice of time-frame is interesting in comic book terms, because the new-style Marvel superheroes come along only a couple of years later, and I was really surprised we didn't get a more mundane sort of 50s setting, rather than one that could just as easily be today.

Nick Fury is head of the group, which might reflect his presence in the Avengers' movie, which obviously is the springboard for all this brand-recognition business. The group of heroes first appeared, apparently, in the New Avengers, battling The Red Skull, and in this collection they seem to be fighting against the remnants of the Skull's Nazi crowd, but also against the nascent Hydra, which was Fury's nemesis in the old Agent of Shield series. This group of heroes isn't particularly interesting; it's hard to tell what their skills or powers might be, and Chaykin's storyline, which is an interesting one involving former-Nazis harnessing mystical powers, gets lost within its own confines, while trying to both delineate his characters and two separate groups of villains, who are each time given their introductions and then promptly disposed of. It all begs for more time, and perhaps it might have been condensed, and characters drawn more fully. This applies especially to the lead henchman, General Dieter Skul. While he's not the Red Skull, and there's no Captain America breaking out of the ice ahead of skulledule for another epic confrontation, more could have been made of him. There's also the sense that the most interesting story-line, of treacherous elements within the US government, has been left for a sequel which may never appear..

There's the core of a fascinating graphic novel in Chaykin's idea, but it begs for more development and a more continuous battle between Fury's new Avengers and the Nazis. Since this group seems more like a prototype for Fury's SHIELD, and indeed, since that is what the new DC Blackhawks actually amount to,  SHIELD with a nicer logo, I might be missing the point of both. But what I feel I'm missing is the depth of the originals (and in the case of Blackhawk, that may seem strange, but re-read the Chaykin series), the Steranko SHIELD (even though it was obviously a rip-off of The Man From UNCLE), the early Avengers, even when Don Heck took over drawing. The difference lay in the sense of taking their own storylines seriously and not relying on pyrotechnics. Perhaps the video game generation has different needs. Perhaps the marketing guys who came up the concepts insist.

Blackhawks, issue 1-2 (the New 52!) DC Comics Nov, Dec 2011
written by Mike Costa, art by Graham Nolan and Ken Lashley
Avengers 1959 written and drawn by Howard Chaykin
Marvel 2012 $16.99 ISBN 9780785160724
collects issues 1-5, published 2011

NOTE: This review will also appear at Crime Time www.crimetime.co.uk

Monday, 9 July 2012

ERNEST BORGNINE: AN APPRECIATION


Like most kids of my generation, my first exposure to Ernest Borgnine came on the TV show McHale's Navy, one of those comedies in a genre which quickly, during the Vietnam War, lost its appeal (though offbeat variations on the war-is-fun theme survived, like Hogan's Heroes, or F Troop, which could be read as a fantasy of the Vietnam experience, with friendly Indians replacing Viet Cong). But my memory of McHale's is positive, with the interchange between Borgnine's frustrated McHale and Tim Conway's bumbling ensign the key to the comedy. They would reprise their collaboration thirty years later in a Sponge Bob movie.

It wasn't much later, however, that I discovered Marty, one of my mother's favourite movies (I dunno, whadda you wanna do Marty? was one of her catchphrases), and one of Borgnine's best performances. Many years later, living in Belsize Park, I became friendly with Betsy Blair (see this appreciation of her here) and she told me about what a wonderful man Borgnine has been to work with—their chemistry still jumps off the screen in a non-glamorous way that's almost totally gone from movies today.


Then came what I'd call Borgnine's renaissance, the high points being The Dirty Dozen (1967) and The Wild Bunch (1969). In the former he more or less set the template for the rest of his career—playing the good-natured sidekick or foil in a big-name, big-budget cast or film. He did it in Ice Station Zebra, in disaster movies like The Poseidon Adventure, in Sam Peckinpah's Convoy and many others—often he was the most watchable thing about an otherwise bloated movie. But as Dutch in The Wild Bunch he embues the sidekick with great depth. He provides the moral conscience of the film, seems to relish the nihilism of the Bunch's finish, and also plays subtly with the romantic nature of his partnership with Pike Bishop. It's probably my favourite of all his roles. His embrace of nihilism reflects the quality which made him so memorable: under the surface of affability there lurked an explosion of violence or humour--in his best films you never know which is going to appear, and in Marty the brilliance is that under the surface lurks a great sensitive vulnerability

Although you might also say he defined his screen persona in his first creative golden age, with a series of films around Marty. He was Fatso in From Here To Eternity (1952), in Johnny Guitar and Vera Cruz (the prototype Wild Bunch) both in 1954, along with a brilliant piece of cowardly bullying in Bad Day At Black Rock (1955) which made that year a pretty good one for his performances.

I also liked Borgnine because he was a local hero: born in Hamden, Connecticut and went to Hillhouse High in New Haven, he not only spent ten years in the Navy after high school, but then went to drama school in Hartford! And after a spell in stock in Virginia, landed a role as a nurse in Harvey on Broadway: from Harvey to From Here To Eternity!

He did lots of TV, TV movies, voice-overs: he's a better J Edgar Hoover than Leonardo (though maybe not as good as Broderick Crawford) in the very obscure Hoover. He also played Italians in a couple of sports movies, Vince Lombardi in a 1973 TV movie called Legend In Granite and Angelo Dundee in the 1977 film The Greatest.He was a good actor who could do serious, but never seemed to take himself seriously. And he lived to 95 and seemed to have a great deal of fun—his book tour at age 90-something was a hoot, you can see the you tube clip on Fox if you like hearing naughty words in the morning! And he was married five times, including, back to back, to Katy Jurado and Ethel Merman, which is some sort of Daily Double! The marriage to Merman lasted only 32 days—Borgnine claimed that was due to his being more popular than her, due to McHale's Navy; Merman's chapter on the marriage in her autobiography was a blank page.

There is something about the final shootout of The Wild Bunch which resonates in terms of American myth as well as Peckinpah's violent cinema. And it's Borgnine's presence that stops it from going over the top--he provides both the comic relief and the tragic undertones: Oates does the nihilism, and Holden is doing what Joel McCrea did at the end of Ride The High Country. 'C'mon you lazy bastard' says Pike Bishop, and Dutch does come on, to die.

Friday, 6 July 2012

HUNTING IN PIANO TERRITORY: WILLEM DAFOE IS THE HUNTER


Willem Dafoe is the eponymous hunter, sent to Tasmania to follow up on reported sightings of the last Tasmanian Tiger—a species of wolf believed to be extinct since the last known tiger died in captivity in 1936. Dafoe has been sent by a biotech company that wants extracts from the tiger's glands, and then wants it eliminated. When he arrives in Tasmanian he's met by a local guide (Sam Neill) and set up in lodging with Lucy (Frances O'Connor) living in a drug-addled haze since her husband, a zoologist, disappeared in the wilderness searching for that same tiger. She's got two kids, adept at looking after themselves—the younger of whom, a boy called Bike, doesn't speak. Dafoe of course keeps the nature of his hunt secret, but he's also landed in the middle of a dispute over protecting the forests from lexploitation, and is assumed to be another ecologist by the local loggers.

There is a lot to like in this quiet drama, not least the way director Daniel Nettheim and DP Robert Humphreys use the landscape to reflect the story—not only the struggles against the harsh territory, but also the isolation of the characters (particularly Dafoe's Hunter) and the mysteries of the tiger itself. As Dafoe gets drawn closer and closer to the family, he becomes suspicious of the husband's disappearance, and of his own mission, and eventually he too will become hunted, the metaphor of a 'last of his species' kind of extinction never far from our minds.

It's a slow burning film, which apparently reflects the pace and mood of its source novel, by Australian Julia Leigh, which won the Betty Trask award. It was originally adapted by Nettheim and Wain Fimeri before Alice Addison wrote the screenplay. Apparently the result is somewhat different from the book, which I haven't read, so I can't say whether the film is more tragic or less so. But sometimes the film gets trapped in a sort of nether-zone between wilderness family drama and international conspiracy thriller, with the former generally winning out, but only nudging along.

There's a lot of suspense, some ambiguity, and the opportunity for double-cross; though Neill's presence is virtually a give-away from the start. It's odd the way internet coverage can be good and phone coverage bad at the same time, and whole sub-plot with unfriendly locals doesn't go very far. But it's biggest flaw is that when the suspense is finally broken, it happens off-stage, and that dilutes its impact. It does build to another climax, and then a touching coda that seems completely impractical, but I can't an audience by that point worrying about the details. O'Connor's performance is first rate, holding in emotions almost as strongly as Dafoe. She reminds me of a young Barbara Hershey (and in this film, the Barbara Seagull version might be closer), but her part, if anything is understated; her character is never able to fully engage with Dafoe's, which is part of the point, but which ought to be, in contrast with her husband, driving the film. The young actors, . Finn Woodlock as Bike and Morgana Davies as his sister Cass are both very good.


 Dafoe and the landscape are the real stars, however, and both are excellent. But in the end I kept feeling like I was watching a less-prententious but almost as self-consciously arty revisiting of The Piano, with the mother in a daze and the child not speaking, and the man who's gone native replaced with the man who learns to go native. And whether this was simply an instinctive reaction by the adapters, or something lodging in the novel. Either way, this element of familiarity, this suggestion that muteness may be the only way to avoid adapting to the landscape, this sense that maybe the it's trying too hard to be sensitive, is the only thing that stopped my liking this likeable film even more.

The Hunter opens in London today

Wednesday, 4 July 2012

BRITAIN'S VIETNAM? A FOURTH OF JULY SPECIAL: The FT review of A Few Bloody Noses


NOTE: I wrote this review for the Financial Times eight years ago; it must be one of the last book reviews I did for them, and I'd hate to think it was the cause. As you'll see, I thought the book did best things it didn't necessarily set out, or even want, to do, so as I say, it sometimes seems to be arguing against itself. But Harvey provided a new perspective to think about the Revolution, & the concept of Britain's Vietnam is one that makes more and more sense to me. So because I came across it in my files again just before the Fourth of July (or as the Brits call it, Thanksgiving) I thought I'd share it with you now...

History is not always written by the victors; imperial powers often get to rewrite defeats in their favour. This should be kept in mind when Robert Harvey points out Britons have been unusually silent on the subject of the American Revolution. Although Harvey sets out to debunk what he says are myths cherished by most Americans, and, as he says, ‘creation myths are the strongest’, he also concedes that some pretty comprehensive debunking has already been done by the Americans themselves. And in fact, A Few Bloody Noses is most fascinating when it delves into British perceptions of the war.
 
Harvey calls America ‘Britain’s Vietnam’, an apt and telling comparison. It's a comparison he reinforces with his own emphasis on the actual tactical conduct of the Revolution’s few major battles, which reminds one of revisionist histories of Southeast Asia. For example, Saratoga may not have been the overwhelming victory Americans claim it was, but arguing against its symbolic importance is like arguing the US really ‘won’ the Tet offensive. Saratoga gave the revolution momentum at home, credibility abroad, and most importantly forced Parliament to reconsider how winnable the war might be.

In fairness, Harvey makes such points himself, even though his making them is somewhat self-contradictory; that's true of any number of issues. For example, he asserts the colonists already possessed more freedom than the average Briton, thus dismissing revolutionaries as frauds at the same time he concedes that the greater freedom they did enjoy is by nature self-perpetuating. He castigates the Americans for their skill at ‘spinning’ their side of the war, yet recognises such spin arose because, unlike in Britain, the revolutionaries needed public support merely to fight, much less win, the war. Harvey emphasises a low level of popular support for revolution, while recognising that, like the South Vietnamese, many colonials sat on the fence, waiting to join the winning side, while others merely capitulated to ruling power. Harvey will accept some American myths when they suit him, but that can prove dangerous. For example, the myth of the heavily armed yeoman farmer springing to the American cause had been debunked not long before this book appeared, by Michael Bellesiles’ Arming America.

Harvey’s first major triumph is the outlining the many successes but ultimate failure of British military strategy. Here, the story of Saratoga (that's the British surrender pictured above left) suggests he might also have drawn a striking parallel to the Second World War. ‘Gentleman Johnny’ Burgoyne’s campaign was the Revolution’s equivalent of Operation Market Garden, a daring but flawed plan conceived primarily to allow its creator to outshine his rivals. Harvey corrects the American attribution of victory at Saratoga to British incompetence, asserting ‘professional jealousy’ was the real cause. But surely allowing such jealousy to overcome strategic common-sense is the essence of incompetence! In case it isn't, Harvey also details enough incompetence in other areas to nullify his original point. Interestingly, Burgoyne’s reputation, unlike Clive’s or Byng’s, but very much like Montgomery’s, was sullied not a whit by the failure of what was supposed to be his masterstroke.

Harvey also demonstrates convincingly George Washington’s importance as a leader, as well as a myth. Washington won few major battles, but his crossing of the Delaware and wintering at Valley Forge are America’s equivalents of Dunkirk. Indeed, America has not always wrapped itself in the cloth of invincibility; its two most crucial battle myths of the 19th century, the Alamo and Custer’s Last Stand, are both defeats, as is the myth of Pickett's Charge for the Confederacy.
  
Washington was patient, until, when necessary, he moved quickly and with focus. His decisive action in marching to reinforce Nathanael Greene at Yorktown contrasted directly with Sir William Clinton’s inaction, and was the single stroke which won the war. He also understood politics, surviving numerous plots against his command. Continuing the World War II analogy, I was struck by how closely Washington resembles Eisenhower. “His greatest virtue appeared to be his dullness,” says Harvey, but like Ike, he possessed the perfect temperament for unifying disparate and unfriendly factions for a long haul.

Harvey’s other great success is bringing to light episodes American history prefers to neglect. Although Massachusetts recruited black soldiers, the colonials soon banned them from their armies, fearful of encouraging slaves to leave their masters. The British quickly did exactly that. Nearly a century before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, the Earl of Dunmore, then governor of Virginia, offered freedom for any slave who fought for the crown; ‘Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment’ joined and fought on the British side; many black veterans and refugees from slavery found their way eventually to Nova Scotia. The Revolution also provided an excuse for colonists to ignore Britain’s Proclamation Line, beyond which land was reserved for Indians.The colonists waged war ruthlessly against those Indians, most of whom sided with the Crown, in a grim foreshadowing America’s relentless expansion west.

About other atrocities, however, Harvey becomes much more circumspect. The Paoli and Waxhaw massacres, perpetrated by British regulars, lead him to conclude only that 'occasional excesses occurred on both sides’. Although conceding General Alexander Leslie ‘distributed’ some 700 negroes infected with smallpox to plantations in Virginia, he allows that this primitive biological warfare ‘would have been a crime indeed’ only if Leslie actually had infected the slaves himself! He seems unaware Lord Amherst had pioneered such tactics two decades earlier, by 'donating' blankets taken from smallpox victims to unsuspecting Indian villages. The British army saw to it that whole tribes were ethnically cleansed by disease.

His book also contains some strange errors. Far from 'disappearing from American myth', John Hancock’s name remains a synonym for signature. Marching west from Lake Ontario would hardly bring one to the Hudson River, which lies well to its east. Numbers are used oddly; Cornwallis’s rearguard at Monmouth shrinks from 6,000 to 2,000 men in the space of two paragraphs. Characters are frequently reintroduced redundantly. Ethan Allan is described as the ‘thuggish’ leader of ‘a band of hillbillies’; on the very next page he is introduced again as ‘hillbillyish’. He was indeed more of a thug than American history cares to admit, but a hillbilly? And, in a book loaded with assertions, the lack of footnotes is frustrating.

It may not have been his intent, but Harvey actually succeeds  better than he intended in embellishing the reputations of Washington and such neglected rebel leaders as Greene (pictured left), Daniel Morgan,and Henry Knox, rather than debunking any major American myths. In the end, however, as a direct descendant of leaders on both sides of the Parliamentary argument, Harvey succeeds best in giving us a kind of Pentagon Papers view of the British war effort, something that is more than two centuries overdue.

A FEW BLOODY NOSES: The American War Of Independence
by Robert Harvey
John Murray 2004, 480pp, £25.00

ANDY GRIFFITH: THE GUARDIAN OBITUARY

My obituary of Andy Griffith is up at the Guardian website, you can link to it here, and with any luck it will be in the paper paper tomorrow (Thursday). The most interesting thing I discovered was that the great character actor R.G. Armstrong was originally a student of his, though other sources that say he was a classmate, which seems more likely. They remained friends all their lives, but I didn't see anything they did together on the screen.

I have to say that in my youth I never warmed to The Andy Griffith Show, and I still feel suspicious of Ron Howard because of Opie. While writing the obit, it occured to me that Griffith first made his name playing a hick, but found his role as the shrewdly wise folksy good ol'boy, and he was smart enough to leave the pure hick stuff to Jim Nabors (and the broad comedy to Don Knotts). One of the great anomalies of TAGS was Knotts, who was so obviously not southern at all, and didn't really try to be (the same was true of Judy Norton on The Waltons, her nasal California voice belieing everyone else trying to sound southern--in fact thinking about it wasn't Richard Thomas kind of the thinking goober's Opie?).

But from the first time I saw A Face In The Crowd I had the greatest respect for Griffith's talents--the pity is they were stretched so little. Hearts Of The West is a much under-appreciated movie, and he is excellent in it--he virtually reprised the role ten years later opposite Tom Berenger in Rustler's Rhapsody. Think of the kind of roles James Garner played in Twilight, or Slim Pickens in Rancho Deluxe and they would have been perfect for Griffith as well.

I liked the way he returned to Roanoke Island, where he had played Sir Walter Raleigh every summer with his first wife, and lived his life there and got engaged in North Carolina (and national) politics in what seems to be a good way. He even moved Matlock to Wilmington, NC, probably to be closer to home, but also in a sign of loyalty to his home state.