April 5th, 2014


A Glorious Train Wreck

There are plenty of movies that I haven't seen, but I am always surprised when I come across a big budget Technicolor wide screen epic that I haven't even heard of. Such was the case last night on Turner Classic Movies, when I ran across this movie on late night and watched nearly all of it.

55 Days At Peking

A 1963 movie with post-WW II and pre-Vietnam sensibilities of patriotism and war set in Beijing during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The big three stars are Charleton Heston as Marine Corps Major Matt Lewis, David Niven as the Britsh diplomat Sir Arthur Robertson and Ava Gardner as some sort of disgraced Russian baroness slash doomed love interest for Heston. The 55 days in the title refers to seige of the Eight Nation legations all trying to get their share of China, opposed by the Dowager Empress who is seeing her country and her throne whittled away.

It all sounds like an abbreviated Risk board game -- let's see if I can get all eight players. The United States, Great Britain, Russia, Germany, Italy, Japan, Austria and... oh, and France. The Boxers are portrayed as anywhere from a criminal band to a secret society and war gang.

There's an over-the-top European hotel with all the excesses of Victorian and Chinese red brocade. An imposing throne room in the Forbidden City. A Battle of Helms Deep At The Alamo walled edifice for the Eight Nations to hide in. A doomed Doctor Zhivago-esque romantic subplot, mixed with a healthy (or unhealthy if you prefer) dose of The Green Berets movie. And tons of fireworks, both for celebration and weapons.

The story is complicated. A bizarre mixture of trying to keep up normal European life in a foreign land. What I found hard was the head snapping mix of trying to put a 2014 perspective on a 1963 interpretation of a 1900 event told by "the victors". Politically correct? No. Culturally sensitive? No. Racially diverse cast? Not really -- apparently all the major Chinese parts were done by whites, though the major Japanese characters are Japanese, go figure. Historically accurate? Dunno, but given Hollywood, probably not.

But... it didn't seem a totally worthless exercise to me either. The original director, according to Wikipedia, Nicholas Ray had previously done Rebel Without A Cause. The Europeans are depicted, in part, as greedy bastards hoping to hang on to their spoils of China. And squabbling? At the beginning and end of the movie the Eight Nations forces are all shown playing their anthems and marching music at the same time in a cacophony of patriotism. Interestingly, the U.S., U.K. and Japanese military commanders are shown as more practical and professional. So it's not as if the whole movie is anti-Chinese or pro-Western propaganda. If anything, the movie's slant seems to be about how stupid and worthless it all was.

Still, the gist of the story seems to be rooted in fact,or at least the victor's version:
The diplomatic compound in Peking was under siege by the Wuwei Rear Troop of the Chinese army and some Boxers (Yihetuan), for 55 days, from June 20 to August 14. A total of 473 foreign civilians, 409 soldiers from eight countries, and about 3,000 Chinese Christians took refuge in the Legation Quarter. Under the command of the British minister to China, Claude Maxwell MacDonald, the legation staff and security personnel defended the compound with small arms and one old muzzle-loaded cannon discovered and unearthed by Chinese Christians who turned it over to the allies; it was nicknamed the International Gun because the barrel was British, the carriage Italian, the shells Russian, and the crew American.
I wonder what the Chinese view of this movie is. I missed any of the intro or afterword commentary on TCM.

So I'm glad to have seen this Technicolor flop at the box office. David Niven ends up winning this movie for me -- we expect Charleton Heston to be chewing up the scenery to good effect, but Niven's character is not what he seems at first, something he's very good at.

Dr. Phil

We Hates Uncertainty

We live in an Internet and information age. We are spoiled with how easy it is to look up things. So when life gets complicated and we can't solve a problem, we get frustrated.

And on the Internet, frustration leads to people being asses and making stupid, ignant comments.

It has been about a month since Malaysian Airways flight MH370 disappeared. You can't even properly say "since it crashed", because we just don't know. In all likelihood it did go down. There's information that it changed heading. There's information that it just kept on going...

How can we lose an entire Boeing 777? You ever see one of those things? They're BIG. Except... the Indian Ocean, where we're looking, is REALLY BIG. Those of us in America think of that region of the world, when we think of it at all, as about a 2-inch square on the edge of the map. Definitely not in terms of thousands and thousands of square miles. I reference Jim Wright and Stonekettle Station below -- he had good words on this topic, too.

And this for a modern aircraft that has been in service since 1995 -- wait, the Triple-7 has been in service nearly twenty years? I remember when 767s were new, along with their thinner cousins the 757. My Weekly Reader had a big cover story in 1968 or 1969 about the coming of the jumbo jets when Pan Am was getting ready to deal with the first commercial flights of the 747 and needed to rebuild facilities. I remember what a big deal it was for United to fly the DC-8 Super 61 to Hawaii -- a giant long airliner with two plugs totalling an extra 61 FEET to the length of the plane. Hell, my first airplane ride was on a Boeing 727 when they'd just been in service for around 18 months.

How the hell can we lose a 777 in 2014?

Well, obviously something happened. I've been chatting with my Aviation and Aviation Maintenance majors about their opinions. Me? Most commercial jet crashes aren't the result of single point failures, but a cascade of failures -- the aviation kids call this dominoes. I think an electrical fault or fire caused the cockpit crew to start having to throw breakers, change heading towards an airport with a long runway AND like the bizjet with the golfer maybe ten years ago, there was an oxygen crisis and the crew passed out, then died, while the autopilot was still engaged. We don't have Google self-driving cars and we don't quite have Google self-flying jets yet.

Today's news says a Chinese patrol ship has picked up a signal that may be from a black box -- it's been almost a month and the batteries will go soon. We may still never find the wreck or figure out what happened. But I bet that soon black boxes will be backup devices and that commercial jets will be broadcasting all that data to satellite in real time.

Meanwhile, in Washington state, there was a tremendous mudslide. How could this happen? How could we not have found all the victims even after several weeks? How could, at one point this last week, we still have 90 missing?

None of these complainers, once again, have the foggiest idea of the conditions or how difficult this work is. It's raining. The mud is deep and still unstable and liable to get liquidy. Dogs have to get within ten feet of victims. They've put down a roadway of plywood and other bridgework so you can walk. The mud won't support the heavy excavating gear. This is the worst sort of backbreaking manual labor.

But we don't KNOW yet, the Internet whiners whine.

Finally we get to this year's edition of The Fort Hood Shooting Show. Even as people in the media say it's too soon to know, we don't have the information yet, we shouldn't speculate -- the pressure to get on the air and say Something right now means that in the next breath, they're speculating. Just like with airliners and mudslides, we can't stand not knowing everything Right Now. The news cycles abhors a vacuum. Conspiracy and agenda nuts rush to fill in the gap, with statements as empty as the news vacuum.

One of the greatest writers that I know, Jim Wright, has put up an excellent post on Stonekettle Station about the so-called solutions to mass shootings and military security. I added my own thoughts there, even as I was thinking of this post, so I'll include them here:
Dr. Phil (Physics) April 5, 2014 at 7:17 AM AKDT

It's not just Transformers movies -- it's whole generations raised on TV, movies and books where The Good Guys™ are able to suss out and neutralize The Bad Guys™ in 46 minutes or less. In the better shows, this happens on the third attempt, so heaven help you if you're involved with the first or second incident.

Real cops discharge their weapons or kill a perp FAR less often than we see on TV. Just one incident As Seen On TV™ would make a career in real life.

Yeah, and folks like Jim Wright are to be vilified for being out of touch with the REAL solutions.

Yeah, right.

Jim, I knew the Facebook scenario you described would have to become a full Stonekettle post the moment I read it. Alas, not enough people will read it, and many who will read it will not comprehend what you're saying. Which is why there will be a Bang Bang Crazy Part 10 -- eventually enough for a book.

Dr. Phil
Still, not all the news in this instant age is bad. Word out of Chile, where an 8.1 magnitude quake offshore shook the country, that tsunami alerts lit up the west coast of South America immediately, then were scaled back as no tsunami detected. And in the cities, thousands were called to safety by automated SMS text alerts, given the severity of the quake, the threat of aftershocks and the number of power and communication lines disrupted.

We do learn from past history. And the priority in a crisis is NOT to fuel the news machine or breed the conspiracy monsters. It's to help people, gather the right people with the right equipment and search for survivors.

Dr. Phil

Blue on Blue

So... the Men's NCAA Division I championship will be UConn and Kentucky.

Connecticut defeated Florida first, 63-53, I believe it was. Then Kentucky versus Wisconsin... And the lone surviving Big Ten representative had the last shot, but it was an inch off. Kentucky wins, 74-73.

Can't dislike it coming down to a final shot as time runs out. But man, I cannot pick 'em. I had Michigan-Michigan State. Both out. I had "the cons", UConn-Wisconsin. The Big Ten strikes out.

If I say UConn over Kentucky Monday, have I jinxed the Huskies?

Women's Final Four tomorrow.

Dr. Phil