Thursday, November 27, 2008

"You heard my offer. Water for guns."

The Last Stand: A desperate attempt by a small group to defend a specific location against a larger force.

Gotta do at least one more "last stand" post before moving on.

Bogart did most of his work at Warner Brothers, but in 1943, he jumped over to Columbia Pictures to star in the excellent "Last Stand" war movie Sahara.







Bogie plays the commander of a Grant tank, an odd-looking armored vehicle that carried a light 37mm cannon in its turret and a larger 75mm cannon sticking out of its front hull. He and his two surviving crewman are stationed in North Africa, cut off from their own forces by the attacking Germans.

Soon, though, the Americans join up with a multi-national group of stragglers. They also pick up a couple of prisoners--a rather pathetic Italian infantryman and a hard-core Nazi pilot.

The group finds a water hole located in some old ruins. While filling up their own canteens, they learn that a strong German force is approaching. Bogart wants them to stay and defend the ruins, keeping the Germans from the desperately needed water and thus buying the British Army time to re-organize. The others, some a bit reluctantly, agree. When the Germans arrive, they demand the tiny Allied force surrender. Bogie tells them that instead he'll trade them water for their guns. He doesn't mention that, in the meantime, the well has dried up anyways.

What follows are some superbly choreographed and photographed battle scenes. The Allies dig in the tank, dig trenches and set up machine guns. They do manage to hold off the enemy, but they themselves are getting killed in ones or twos every time the Germans attack. It's exciting and tense, helped enormously by the fact that you really can't predict who is going to get killed at any one time. Bogart gives a typically strong performance, backed up by the pool of skilled character actors that seemed to fill Hollywood to the brim during the Studio Era. Louis Mercier is particularly good as a Frenchman who has seen his country already fall to the Nazis.

It's a wartime production, so it's full of the sort of wartime propaganda you would expect from such a film. The characters are all a lot more likely to break into a patriotic speech than you would realistically expect a soldier to be when he is more immediately worried about getting his head blown off.

But several elements inherent to the film keeps it all from becoming corny. First, the dialogue, including the patriotic stuff, is very well written. Each little speech or comment sounds appropriately in character for whomever is speaking. When one of the British soldiers, for instance, makes a point about the "dignity of freedom," it sounds like something that particular guy would say--even if he wouldn't, in real life, stop to say it in the middle of a life-and-death battle.

The dialogue is also helped by the basic truths backing it all up. There really is an inherent dignity to basic democratic freedom.. There really are ideals worth fighting and sometimes dying for.

The best speech actually comes from the Italian prisoner, played by the great character actor J. Carroll Naish. It comes when the German prisoner tries to convince him that it's their duty to escape. The Italian, who has by now had some time to think things over, replies:

Italians are not like Germans. Only the body wears the uniform, not the soul. Mussolini is not so clever like Hitler. He can dress his Italians only to look like thieves, cheats and murderers. He cannot, like Hitler, make them feel like that. He cannot, like Hitler, scrap from the conscience the knowledge that right is right and wrong is wrong. Or dig a hole in their heads to plant his own Ten Commandments: steal from thy neighbor; cheat thy neighbor, kill thy neighbor... But are my eyes blind that I must fall to my knees to worship a maniac who has made of my country a concentration camp, who has made of my people slaves? Must I kiss the hand that beats me, lick the boot that kicks me, no! I rather spend my whole life living in this dirty hole than escape to fight again for things I do not believe against people I do not hate. As for your Hitler, it's because of a man like him that God - my God - created hell!

It's a great scene--heck, it's practically Shakespearean--played with real passion by Naish.

Black actor Rex Ingram is also in the film, playing a soldier in the French Colonial army. What's most noteworthy about this (considering the film was made in an age when racism was still an accepted part of our social makeup) is that he's just one of the guys, accepted by the others without comment as a friend and fellow warrior. The only time his color is really mentioned is when the German prisoner shies away from being searched by him. Bogie tells the German "Don't worry. It won't rub off." Later, there's a really human moment involving Ingram and Bruce Bennett (who plays one of the tank crew), in which Ingram explains logically why his faith allows multiple wives, then further explains why he personally only dares have one.

Sahara is a classic "Last Stand" movie. With great acting, heartfelt dialogue, well-choreographed battle scenes and beautiful black-and-white photography, it's really worth your time to get hold of a copy and watch it.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--September 1962 (Part 1)


Doctor Doom certainly doesn’t waste any time. Just one issue after his evil plans were foiled by the Fantastic Four, he comes up with yet another evil plan. This one focuses pretty much on simple revenge as he seeks to kill the FF.

To do so, he contacts the Sub-Mariner and talks him into helping with a speech reminding Namor about how the surface people are responsible for driving the Atlanteans from their home. Namor won’t agree to hurt Sue, for whom he still has the hots, but he does agree to help off everyone else.

Doom’s wonderfully evil plan consists of towing the FF’s entire skyscraper headquarters (not yet referred to as the Baxter Building) into space using magnetic force, double-crossing Namor in the process. But it doesn’t pay to tick off the Sub Mariner and Doom ends up clinging to a stray meteor, being dragged away into outer space.

It’s another strong and satisfying issue—the sequences in which the FF makes several attempts to board Doom’s space plane from the now space-traveling skyscraper are particularly fun, both visually and in terms of story construction. Namor has the most fun, though, getting to save the day as he proves he’s just a bit more of a hero than he is a villain.

We also get a few more tidbits about the Fantastic Four. There’s a more detailed cutaway view of their headquarters than we saw a few issues earlier. We also hear the term “unstable molecules” for the first time as Reed explains how their uniforms can stretch/burn/turn invisible along with them. Those handy unstable molecules will pretty much become standard costume material for much of the Marvel superhero population.


Henry Pym, who invented his shrinking formula eight issues earlier, finally decides to try that formula out a second time.

This time, he makes a costume first (made of unstable molecules, of course) and equips himself with a helmet that allows him to communicate with ants via electronic impulses.

In the meantime, the government asks him to invent an anti-radiation gas for use in case of nuclear war. This results in a gang of Communist agents raiding Pym’s lab, taking his assistants hostage as they gather up the notes for the formula.

Pym shrinks down and asks some ants for help. Soon, the commie agents are being swarmed by the insects, who also plug up the barrels of their guns with honey.

Thus, another superhero officially enters the Marvel Universe. Ant-Man doesn’t have the same level of appeal as the Fantastic Four—mostly because Hank Pym hasn’t yet been given much personality. All the same, it’s a well-written if simple story with Jack Kirby art work. What more can one ask for?

Next week, we’ll take a look at what Thor and the Hulk were busy doing in September of 1962.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

"Them that dies will be the lucky ones!"

The Last Stand: A desperate attempt by a small group to defend a specific location against a larger force.

It's a trope that fiction writers and film makers have used time and time again. It shows up perhaps most often in Westerns and war stories, but it pops up from time to time in other genres as well.

When done well, a last stand sequence can be intensely exciting. One of the best can be found in what may still be the best ever adventure novel.

Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island is pretty much the granddaddy of all good pirate stories. Narrated (with the exception of a couple of chapters) by young Jim Hawkins, it generates a true sense of adventure as Jim and a few friends battle the villianous Long John Silver and his bloodthirsty pirates. Everyone's goal--the recovery of a buried treasure.

The novel is almost soley responsible for just about every modern image we have of pirates--from speech patterns to the concept of buried treasure. It also contains some excellent characterizations in Jim and John Silver and wraps their increasingly complicated relationship around a cracking good story.

One of the most famous action set-pieces comes about half-way through the novel, when good guys have taken up residence in an old stockade located on the island. They are surrounded and outnumbered by the pirates, who also control the ship at this point. But the good guys have something the pirates have to have--the map showing where the treasure is buried.

Silver tries to negotiate for the map, but he's rebuffed. Vowing "them that dies will be the lucky ones" (one of the best bits of dialogue in literary history), he marches off to organize an attack on the stockade.

And that sets up the "last stand" sequence, as the heroes attempt to desperately fight off the pirates. At first, they stay in the cabin, popping away with muskets. But when the pirates get close enough to whack a couple of them, there's no choice but to snatch up cutlasses and "fight 'em in the open!"

It's a great sequence--along with Jim's later hijacking of the ship and confrontation with Isreal Hands, it's one of the highlights of the book.

Treasure Island's last stand scene is only a few pages long, but it's exciting, intense and succeeds in carrying the plot as a whole along nicely. It's also a effective snapshot of just how good a book in its entirety Treasure Island is. If you've never read it, please take a moment to feel ashamed of yourself, then run right out and get a copy.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--August 1962


After recent invasion attempts by the Skrulls and the Toad Men are both beaten off, the Rock Men from Saturn take their turn in the latest attempt to conquer all us puny Earthlings. This time, it’s up to the Mighty Thor to save the day.

Taken for what it is, this is a fast, entertaining story. Dr. Donald Blake, who needs a cane to help him walk, is vacationing in Norway when he sees the Rock Men. Hiding from the aliens in a cave, he finds a stout stick about the size of a walking cane. He soon discovers that when he smacks the stick on the ground, it transforms him into Thor, while the stick itself becomes his hammer. He then does battle with the aliens (including a one-on-one tussle with their robotic “mechano-monster”) and chases them away from Earth.

It’s good, silly fun and many of the early Thor stories would be in the same vein. As the character evolves (we only gradually discover that he really is Thor, with several years passing before we get an explanation for his double identity), Stan Lee and Jack Kirby would add other denizens of Norwegian myth to the cast. The stories would become more cosmic-level in terms of both plots and visuals, while Thor (and all the other deities of the Marvel Universe) would develop their faux-Elizabethan speech patterns. Wait three or four years, and The Mighty Thor will be dripping with imagination and powerful storytelling.

But in the meantime, it’ll mostly stick to good, silly fun, thematically similar in some ways to the Superman stories of the late 1950s and early 1960s. Thor will take awhile to find his thematic “voice,” but he’ll entertain us in the meantime all the same.


Stan Lee opted to use artist Steve Ditko instead of Kirby as they gave a new character a trial run in the last issue of Amazing Fantasy.

It was a wise choice—Ditko’s unique style would prove perfect for what would become Marvel’s most successful character—Spider Man.

It’s a great origin. Peter Parker, wimpy high school student, is bitten by a radioactive spider and gains his amazing powers. At first, he uses his powers for personal gain by going into show business. Helping others doesn’t occur to him—he’s always been picked on by bullies so the heck with everyone else.

Of course, this all leads up to the death of Peter’s beloved Uncle Ben, killed by a burglar that Peter hadn’t bothered to help catch a few panels earlier. This leads up to one of the single best sentences that Stan Lee ever wrote—“With great power comes great responsibility.”

It’s an auspicious start for the web-slinger. It’ll be seven months before Spider Man pops up again, this time in his own book. But unlike Thor, he’ll find his thematic “voice” right from the start—a flawed but decent young hero who has to not only fight bad guys, but also deal with real life issues such as paying the rent and getting his homework done. This, along with a great rogue’s gallery of villains, will make Spider Man a success both artistically and commercially.

That’s it for August 1962. September will be a busy month. Thor will have another adventure; the FF will deal with the first super-villain team-up of the Modern era; Hank Pym will give his shrinking formula another try; and the Hulk will…. join the circus?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The toughest-lookin' cowboy ever

Here's really effective paperback cover illustration by James Bama. This guy looks like he could knock down John Wayne with a single punch while casually strollin' by--without even bothering to glance over while he did so. He may very possibly be the toughest looking cowboy ever.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--July 1962


We meet Dr. Doom for the first time. He’s the FF’s true arch-enemy and one of the great villains of all time—visually effective and with a strong back-story and personality.

His first encounter with the FF consists of him taking Sue hostage in order to force the other three to go on a mission for him. Reed, Ben and Johnny have to go back in time (we get our first glimpse of Doom’s oft-used time machine here) to recover the treasure of Blackbeard the pirate. This treasure includes some jewels with magical properties that Doom needs to increase his own power.

This sets up an enormously fun sequence in which our heroes battle pirates. Jack Kirby really seemed to enjoying himself with this issue—his layouts have rarely been more imaginative and entertaining.

We also get an important bit of characterization involving Ben Grimm. Disguised as a pirate (complete with fake beard and eye patch), Ben actually turns out to be Blackbeard. Accepted and respected by the pirates in a way he never felt he was in his own time, he opts to stay in the past and live out his life as Blackbeard. But a sudden storm sinks his ship and he comes to realize he had “lost my dumb head for awhile.”

In following issues, Ben’s bitterness seemed to be abating somewhat and he began to develop the gruff sense of humor that helps make him such an appealing character. This issue represents a real turning point in his development.

Anyway, the FF gets back to the present and manage to foil Doom’s evil plans, with Sue getting a rare early opportunity to pull off some action/adventure-type heroics. Doom escapes, but it won’t be long before the good doctor returns to torment them once more. Stan and Jack, it seems, knew enough not to let a “good” villain stay down.


Well, Earth was invaded by the Skrulls a few months back. In another month (as we’ll see in the next entry), we’re going to get invaded by the Rock Men from Saturn. Right now, we’re being attacked by the Toad Men from Outer Space.

Gee whiz, why are all these aliens picking on us?

The Hulk still hasn’t really found its thematic footing, but this issue is still entertaining enough to get by. Kirby’s layouts, of course, are typically fun to look at. And once again, the plot requires both the Hulk’s strength and Bruce Banner’s scientific genius to defeat the bad guys.

On the downside, the grumpy and sometimes evil personality of the Hulk doesn't generate anywhere near the same pathos as his later more innocent incarnation. Keeping Hulk/Banner confined to the military base is still to limiting for future story possiblities and having Banner maintaining a "secret identity" is just too darned contrived and awkward to really be effective.

Consequently, this issue isn’t the classic that FF #5 is justifiably considered to be. All the same, it's still worth reading.

One other thing—I know that Stan and Jack were not at this point worried about continuity between their comic books, but it’s kind of nice that there is (however coincidentally) an explanation as to why the Fantastic Four wasn’t there to fight the Toad Men. They were too busy 300 years in the past, fighting pirates.

Next time, we jump ahead just one month to see, for the first time, two new and very important additions to the Marvel Universe.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Action sequences the way they should be done: Television

In general, television as a storytelling medium stinks on every possible level. But every once in a while, TV does actually produce something worthwhile.

My all-time favorite TV series is Combat, which ran from 1962-1967 on ABC. For four of its five seasons, it was filmed in glorious black-and-white as it followed a squad of WWII American soldiers slogging across France in face of German resistance.

And my all-time favorite episodes consist of a two-part story from the fourth season. "Hill is for Heroes" involved the squad (along with the rest of their understrength platoon) attempting to capture a hill. Without heavy weapons or significant artillery support, they have to cross a huge chunk of open ground to get to the top of the hill. The Germans occupy a pair of bunkers there--covering every inch of that open ground with machine gun fire.

The platoon leader, Lt. Hanley (played by Rick Jason) knows he can't take the hill with the resources he has, but his own C.O. reminds him of the urgent (and militarily legitimate) need to do the job. Hanley's men know it's hopeless as well--they focus their resentment on him. But Hanley's just doing what he has to do.

It's great drama, with Rick Jason and Jack Hogan (as Pvt. Kirby) giving heart-felt performances. It all leads up to a denoument that might very well hold the world-record for most ironic climax ever.

And the action sequences are superb. The episodes were directed on location by Vic Morrow (who apparently went seriously over-budget and over-schedule to get it all done right). Long shots of the hill and the open ground make it apparent for us just how difficult attacking the hill is. The point-of-view shifts from one part of the battle to another, but we never lose track of the overall situation. It's great stuff from start to finish.

This YouTube clip, taken out of context with the rest of the story, doesn't do a perfect job of showing just how good "Hills are for Heroes" is in toto, but it does at least give a sense of it. Take a look:

Hills are for Heroes

That ends our series on action sequences. The next time you see a poorly choreographed, hyper-edited fight scene in any media, you are now legally allowed to track down the people responsible and beat them up. Just be sure you beat them up in a properly choreographed manner.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

History of the Marvel Universe--May 1962


When Prince Namor, the Sub-Mariner, was created by artist/writer Bill Everett in 1939, he was definitely an anti-hero. The half-human prince of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis, he waged a sometimes very violent war with the surface world.

World War II changed that, as Namor joined the Allies in fighting Nazi tyranny. Namor faded away after the war ended (there was a brief, unsuccessful attempt to revive the character in early '50s), but in 1962, he made his comeback.

Namor is the first of the classic WWII-era heroes to reappear in the modern Marvel universe. Suffering from amnesia, he's found by Johnny Storm in a Bowery flop house. (The Torch is still annoyed with the rest of the FF after the conclusion of the last issue and he's hiding out from them there.) Johnny recognizes him and drops him in the ocean, causing his memories to resurface.

Namor quickly returns to Atlantis, but finds the city deserted and in ruins--the Atlantians had been driven from their homes by underwater nuclear tests.

So Namor quickly returns to his anti-hero roots, calling up a giant undersea monster and ordering it to attack New York.

This is a fun and classic story, not just because of the re-introduction of Namor, but also because of a fast moving story with great Jack Kirby art. As I've mentioned before, Kirby is incapable of drawing an uninteresting monster and he really goes to town in this issue. Every single panel in this issue looks incredible.

Also, Ben Grimm finally gets a moment to really shine--he volunteers to strap a nuke to his back and carry it into the giant monster's mouth to plant the bomb in the creature's belly. That might very well be the coolest plan ever.

Namor is finally driven away, but not before he decides he's fallen in love with Sue Storm. That's a plot point that will return to bug the heck out of Reed Richards in later issues.

Namor works very well in this issue. He's technically the bad guy, but Stan Lee and Jack Kirby endow him with a sense of nobility. He'll return frequently, sometimes as an opponent to the FF and occassionally as an ally.


Bruce Banner, caught in a burst of gamma radiation, soon discovers that he turns into the grey-skinned monster known as the Hulk everytime the sun goes down. Only his companion, teen-aged Rick Jones, knows his terrible secret.

It's clear throughout the short six-issue run of Hulk's original series that Lee and Kirby didn't quite know what to do with this new character. The Jeykl/Hyde concept is classic and always worthwhile, but the devil is in the details. The idea of becoming the Hulk only at night would have been very limiting in terms of plot construction. Also, Banner would continue to hang out at the remote Army base at which he works, keeping his identity as the Hulk a secret. This was another unnecessary limit to the character's potential.

Also, it took awhile to come up with interesting villains for the Hulk to fight. In this first issue, he ends up battling some Commie spies. All well and good by itself, but hardly worth the Hulk's time.

Still, the story is pretty good. Perhaps most importantly, the plot depends on Banner using his intelligence as much as the Hulk using his strength.

It would take awhile for the Hulk to find his proper place in the Marvel Universe, but it would eventually happen.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Oh no--no more Monday posts!!!!!!

With the introduction of the History of the Marvel Universe Wednesday series, I'm going to have to drop doing an entry on Mondays. (Real life is so intrusive sometimes, isn't it?)

So each week there will be:

Wedneday: Marvel U.

Thursday: General post about whatever geeky thing catches my fancy.

Friday: Friday's Favorite OTR

Since, as far as I can tell, I've only got 3 or 4 regular readers (if that many), I'm hoping this decision will not send shock waves through our nation and cause world-wide depression and warfare. We'll just have to wait and see.
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