Friday, January 29, 2016
"THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM" (2008) Review
Set in present time South Boston and Ancient China, "THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM" is a martial-arts/fantasy film that was directed by Rob Minkoff. The movie also co-starred two of the most famous names in the martial-arts genre – Jackie Chan and Jet Li. The movie is basically about a South Boston teenage fan of Hong Kong kung fu films, who is transported back in time to Ancient China via a magical staff. There, he must undertake a quest to free the fabled warrior Sun Wukong aka "The Monkey King".
In a nutshell, "THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM" is an entertaining action film with strong fantasy and comedy elements. Our two martial arts stars portray Lu Yan – the Drunken Immortal (Jackie Chan) and The Silent Monk (Jet Li), who help Boston teenager Jason Williams (Michael Angarano) free Sun Wukong (also Jet Li) from the clutches of an evil immortal called the Jade Warlord (Collin Chou).
"THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM" is not perfect. To be frank, I only two complaints about the movie. One, the editing by Eric Strand seemed rather choppy. There were moments when the movie lacked a smooth segue from one scene to another. And two, I found the backstory for Jason’s character rather clichéd. It seemed straight out of the rulebook for typical teen angst films that started with 1979’s "MY BODYGUARD". You know what I am referring to - shy geeky adolescent who is terrorized by the local bully, has profound experiences before successfully confronting bully in the last reel. Come to think of it, I saw something similar in the 2007 fantasy-comedy, "STARDUST".
Despite the above-mentioned flaws, "THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM" is an entertaining movie. Jackie Chan and Jet Li proved that despite their different styles and approaches to the martial arts genre, they could generate screen chemistry together. Michael Angarano is perfectly disarming and funny as the Boston teen who finds himself in an unfamiliar world. Portraying his potential love interest is Liu Yi Fei as Golden Sparrow, a young female orphan who seeks vengeance against the main villain. Speaking of villains, both Collin Chou (the Jade Warlord) and Li Bingbing (Ni-Chang, the White-Haired Assassin) provided a solid villainous challenge to the four heroes.
On the surface, "THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM" provides solid entertainment and martial arts action. However, I must commend on two matters. One, I really enjoyed the superb fight sequence between the two martial arts stars – Chan and Li. Whatever expectation I had about their fight, the two stars and fight choreographer Yuen Woo-ping more than fulfilled it. I have not enjoyed such a fight scene since Jet Li’s fight with Donnie Yen in "HERO" or the two Michelle Yeoh/Zhang Yi fight sequences in"CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON". I would also like to point out the film’s cinematography shot by Peter Pau. The various landscapes of Ancient China, whether the characters are in the tropics, the forests, the desert or in the mountain regions, are exquisite.
In short, "THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM" is an entertaining film filled with solid action, drama, comedy, and great cinematography. As long as you are not expecting another "CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON" or "HOUSE OF THE FLYING DAGGERS", you will not be disappointed.
Sunday, January 24, 2016
Below are images from "GODS AND GENERALS", the 2003 prequel to the 1993 movie, "GETTYSBURG". Based upon Jeff Shaara's 1996 novel; and written and directed by Ronald Maxwell, the movie starred Stephen Lang, Jeff Daniels and Robert Duvall:
"GODS AND GENERALS" (2003) Photo Gallery
Saturday, January 16, 2016
Part 2 – The second part in a series of letters from a Philadelphia matron and her companion during their journey to the Pre-Civil War West.
"WEST TO LARAMIE"
April 28, 1860
Mrs. Adelaide Middleton Taylor
231 Green Street
Nearly twenty-four hours after you and Harold had deposited Patricia and myself aboard the train for New York City, we finally arrive in Chicago. Despite a delay in Princeton, we managed to make our connecting train for Chicago in time. The basket of food that you had insisted upon giving to me proved to be most fortuitous.
The trip to Chicago provided no complications, I am happy to say – aside from the boorish behavior of our conductor. An unpleasant man with a sour face, the conductor had insisted that Patricia leave the first-class coach and sit in the car reserved for colored passengers. Patricia became irritated by his manner and an argument ensued between the two. I must say that man conducted himself in the most ridiculous manner! At least Patricia did not carry on like some hysterical child. I had firmly insisted that she stay with me, claiming I would require her services at all time. I doubt that the conductor believed me, but he had no proof to doubt my word. Patricia remained in my company throughout the entire trip. The conductor obviously must have been the type who was too cowardly to make further scenes. Especially with a white woman.
The basket of food proved to be more than fortuitous. It was God-sent. Both Patricia and I discovered in Pittsburg how atrocious the food served in these railway dining depots can be. One bite of a smoked sausage had sent us both scurrying back to the train for your basket.
We finally arrived in Chicago covered in dust and soot. The station master informed us that the next train for St. Joseph, Missouri was due to leave tomorrow afternoon. Patricia and I shared a room at a local boardinghouse located near the railway station. A plump, cheerful woman named Lenora Clarke owned the place. We had assumed that she would raise a fuss regarding Patricia’s presence. Unlike some of her fellow citizens of Illinois, Mrs. Clarke turned out to be a very tolerant woman. In fact, she and Patricia took to each other like ducks to water.
Chicago struck me as being a thriving city with great vitality. Within two decades, it has become the railway center of the West and the major stockyard for the entire country. Mrs. Clarke informed us that the city is preparing for the Republican convention for the next presidential election. There is talk that Illinois will push for one of its prominent citizens – an attorney named Abraham Lincoln from Springfield – as a potential candidate. He was the fellow who had ran against Stephen Douglas for the U.S. Senate seat, two years ago. He had made that famous "house divided against itself" speech.
After supper, I had hired a local cab to drive Patricia and myself on a little evening excursion along Lake Michigan. We stopped briefly to stretch our legs and encountered a Mr. McPherson, a local businessman and congenial companion. When I informed him of our travel plans, he assured us that unlike the stagecoaches here in the East, the Western coaches were the latest models built in Concord, New Hampshire. They should prove to be very comfortable. Patricia remained silent, but there seemed to be a "wait and see" expression in her eyes.
Dearest Addie, I do hope that you and Harold will take care of yourselves. I hope to meet the third member of your little family by the time Patricia and I return to Philadelphia.
I love you always,
May 3, 1860
Mrs. Elizabeth Evans
64 Anderson Road
Dear Cousin Elizabeth,
How is Samuel and the rest of your family? And how is my favorite cousin, Charlotte? Is she still working as an assistant for the town’s doctor? I cannot say that I approve of her working for him. After all, nursing is an inappropriate profession for a young lady from a respectable family. I hope, for her sake that she is happy.
As you know from my last letter, Mrs. Middleton and I are on our way to Fort Laramie to attend her son’s wedding to the daughter of an Army major. We have finally reached St. Joseph in Western Missouri, two days ago. Frankly, I still find this little metropolis rather uncomfortable and cannot wait to leave. Do not misunderstand me. St. Joseph, I must admit, is a pleasant-looking community. There seem to be a large number of emigrants waiting to form trains for the trek west. It is situated directly north of the Missouri River and just east of the Missouri-Kansas border. Because it is a jump-off spot for westbound travelers, St. Joseph has grown quickly in size over the past decade.
Mrs. Middleton and I stayed at a hotel situated across the street from the Russell, Major and Widdell office of the Pony Express. Unlike a pleasant woman we had met in Chicago named Mrs. Clarke, the proprietor of the Hatten Hotel had at first refused to allow me to share a room with my employer. Claiming he did not want any "free niggers" in his place, he bluntly suggested that I find another place to board or sleep in the stables. Frankly, I would have preferred another hotel or boarding house than stay under the same roof with the narrow-minded fool. But Mrs. Middleton lied by informing him that I was her "bond servant" (Dear God!) and lacked extra money to pay for a room elsewhere. How humiliating! Mrs. Middleton’s ploy only reminded me that the North still practiced indenture servitude. The proprietor did not mind my new . . . "status" and allowed me to remain. However, I was forced to eat in the kitchen with the slaves.
During our tour of the town, we stopped at the Central Overland Stage Line office. The clerk assured us that we will have a comfortable trip. He added that the Indians would be no trouble. Apparently, the Army is keeping them away from"civilized" settlers and back on their lands. It amazes me that so many people have insisted that we had nothing to worry about the trip by stage. I feel that the Government and private businesses seem bent upon inducing people to settle in the West. And for some reason, my doubts regarding this journey have increased.
As I had stated before, the headquarters for the Pony Express is located across the street from our hotel. This postal service delivers mail and small packages between St. Joseph and San Francisco on the West Coast, using orphan boys and young men as dispatch riders. These young fellows travel hundreds of miles across the wilderness to deliver the mail in record speed. The Pony Express service has been in operation for only a month so far. I do not think it will last very long. Already, there is word of telegraph lines scheduled to be erected in the near future.
Yesterday afternoon, I came face to face with a very unsettling scene. It not only made me more than anxious than ever to leave this town, it reminded me that St. Joseph is part of Missouri – a slave state. Upon finishing my supper, I stepped outside for some air and spotted a gang of slaves shackled together and being herded toward the local slave mart. The sight of the ragged prisoners slowly making their way down the street, accompanied by a white man driving a wagon, sent chills down my spine. Not only did I remember that I was presently in a slave state, but that said state has sent hundreds of men into Kansas in order to turn that territory into a slave state.
At the moment, Mrs. Middleton and I are at the stage depot, waiting for the horses to be harnessed to our coach. All of the passengers were given two blankets (in May?) and a canteen of water for the journey. Four other passengers wait with us to board the coach. I will write to you when I can. Give my love to your family.
Your loving cousin,
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
"NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" (1986) - EPISODE ONE "JUNE-JULY 1861" Commentary
Judging from past articles I have written about the "NORTH AND SOUTH" Trilogy, one would surmise that of the three miniseries that have aired in the past decades (two in the 1980s and one in the 1990s) that I seemed to have the most problem with the second miniseries in the trilogy, namely "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II". And if I have to be honest, one would be right.
It is odd that I would choose the second miniseries as the most problematic of the three. "NORTH AND SOUTH: BOOK II" is set during the four years of the Civil War – a historical conflict that has heavily attracted my attention for so many years that I cannot measure how long. "HEAVEN AND HELL: NORTH AND SOUTH BOOK III", which had aired at least seven-and-a-half years after the second miniseries, was set during the early years of Reconstruction and has a reputation among the "NORTH AND SOUTH" fans as being inferior to the other two. But for some reason, I have had more of a problem with "BOOK II". So I have decided to examine each of the six episodes of the 1986 miniseries to determine why this chapter in the "NORTH AND SOUTH"trilogy is such a problem for me.
Without a doubt, Episode One of "BOOK II" is my favorite in the entire miniseries. It re-introduced the main characters from the first miniseries in the story. It also set the stage for the main characters’ experiences during the war, for the rest of the miniseries. It featured an excellent opening shot on the streets of Washington D.C. that introduced both Brett Main Hazard, and the slave Semiramis. It also featured a well shot sequence that centered around a colorful ball at the Spotswood Hotel in Richmond, attended by Ashton and James Huntoon, and Elkhannah Bent. Most importantly, it featured one of my favorite battle scenes – namely the Battle of Bull Run that was fought near Manassas, Virginia on July 18, 1861. If I have to be frank, this interpretation of Bull Run remains my favorite. Director Kevin Connors filmed the entire sequence with great style and skill and composer Bill Conti injected it with a brash, yet haunting score that still give me goose bumps whenever I watch it. Even better, the sequence ended with actress Wendy Kilbourne uttering one of the best lines in the entire trilogy.
I certainly have no problems with the miniseries' production values. Jacques R. Marquette's photography struck me as rather beautiful and colorful. This was especially apparent in the opening Washington D.C., the Spotswood Hotel ball and Bull Run sequences. If I have one complaint, I wish the photography had been a little sharper. Joseph R. Jennings and his production designs team did an excellent job in re-creating the United States during the Civil War era. Bill Conti continued his excellent work as composer for the saga's production. But if there is one aspect of the miniseries' production values that really blew my mind were the costumes designed by Robert Fletcher. I was especially impressed by the following costumes:
I do have a few quibbles about Episode One. First of all, it introduced Charles Main’s role as a cavalry scout for the Confederate Army. Considering that he started out as a Captain in this miniseries, it made no sense to me that he and another officer - a first lieutenant - would be participating scout duties without the assistance of enlisted men. I guess one could call it as an example of the story being historically inaccurate. And I wish someone would explain why the Mains' neighbors (or slaves) sent word to Brett Main Hazard in Washington D.C., of the injuries her mother, Clarissa Main, had suffered when Mont Royal's barn was set on fire by Justin La Motte. Would it have been a lot easier (and quicker) to send word to Orry Main, who was on duty in Richmond, Virginia?
I find the idea of both George Hazard and Orry Main serving as military aides to their respective political leaders - Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis - very improbable. Following their graduation from West Point in 1846, the two friends had only served at least 18 months in the U.S. Army before resigning for personal reasons. Yet, after the outbreak of a civil war, thirteen years, the audience is supposed to believe that both were able to secure such high positions within their respective armies? Especially when one considers the fact that neither were politically active between 1848 and 1861? I find this very illogical . . . even for a work of fiction.
My last major quibble featured the character of Elkhannah Bent. What was he doing with the portrait of Madeline Fabray LaMotte’s mother? The audience knew that he had procured it from an expensive whorehouse in New Orleans. But Bent had no idea that Madeline was romantically involved with one of his nemesis, Orry Main, until after Ashton Main Huntoon informed him. So, why did he bother to get his hands on the painting at a time when he was ignorant of the romantic and emotional connection between Orry and Madeline?
I certainly had no problems with the episode's performances. The cast, more or less, gave solid performances. But I was especially impressed by a handful. Two of the better performances came from Parker Stevenson and Genie Francis, who portrayed the recently married Billy and Brett Hazard. I was especially impressed by one scene in which the two nearly quarreled over Billy's decision to transfer from the Corps of Engineers to Hiram Berdan's Sharpshooters Regiment. Terri Garber and Philip Casnoff literally burned the screen in their portrayal of the early stages of Ashton Main Huntoon and Elkhannah Bent's affair. This episode featured another quarrel . . . one between George Hazard and his sister, Virgilia, who had arrived in Washington D.C. to become a nurse. Both James Read and Kirstie Alley were superb in that scene. And finally, I have to single out Forest Whitaker, who did a superb job in expressing the resentful anger that his character, Cuffey, felt toward his situation as a slave and toward his owners, the Mains.
Although Episode One featured some stumbling blocks that I have already mentioned, I must say that it turned out rather well. For me, it is probably the best episode in the entire 1986 miniseries. Not only did it featured some excellent performances, it was capped with a superb sequence featuring the Battle of Bull Run, directed with skill by Kevin Connor.
Saturday, January 9, 2016
"TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" (2011) Review
Between the late 1970s and early 1980s, author John le Carré wrote a series of popular novels called The Karla Trilogy that featured MI-6 officer George Smiley as the leading character. At least two versions of "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy"had been made The most recent is the 2011 movie in which Gary Oldman starred as Smiley.
Set in 1973, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" has George Smiley, who was recently forced to retire, recalled to hunt down a Soviet mole named "Gerald" in MI-6 (a.k.a. the "Circus"), the highest echelon of the Secret Intelligence Service. The movie began with "Control" - the head of MI-6 - sending agent Jim Prideaux to Hungary to meet a Hungarian general who wishes to sell information. The operation is blown and the fleeing Prideaux is shot in the back by Hungarian intelligence. After the international incident that followed, Control and his right-hand man, Smiley were forced into retirement. Control, already ill, died soon afterwards. When field agent Rikki Tarr learned through his affair with the wife of a Moscow Centre intelligence officer in Turkey that the Soviets have a mole within the higher echelon of MI-6, Civil Service officer Oliver Lacon recalled Smiley from retirement to find the mole known as "Gerald". Smiley discovered that Control suspected five senior intelligence officers:
*Percy Alleline (new MI-6 chief)
*Bill Haydon (one of Alleline's deputies)
*Roy Bland (another Alleline deputy and the only one from a working-class
*Toby Esterhase (Alleline's Hungarian-born deputy, recruited by Smiley)
I have never seen the 1979 television version of le Carré's 1974 novel, which starred Alec Guinness. In fact, I have never been inclined to watch it. Until now. My interest in seeing the television adaptation has a lot to do with my appreciation of this new film version. I enjoyed it very much. I did not love it. After all, it did not make my Ten Favorite Movies of 2011 list. It nearly did, but . . . not quite.
Why did "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" fail to make my favorite 2011 movies list? Overall, Tomas Alfredson did an excellent job in translating le Carré's story to the screen. However . . . the pacing was slow. In fact, it crawled at the speed of a snail. It was so slow that in the end, I fell asleep some fifteen to twenty minutes before the movie ending, missing the very moment when Smiley exposed "Gerald" at the safe. However, I did wake up in time to learn the identity of "Gerald" and the tragic consequences of that revelation. I have one more problem with the film. Benedict Cumberbatch portrayed Peter Guillam, a former division head recruited to assist Smiley in the latter's mole hunt. There was a brief scene featuring "DOWNTON ABBEY" regular, Laura Carmichael, in which Guillam revealed his homosexuality. Cumberbatch did an excellent job in conveying this revelation with very little dialogue and a great deal of facial expressions. And yet . . . this revelation seemed to have very little or no bearing, whatsoever, in the movie's main plot. Even Smiley's marital problems ended up being relevant to the main narrative. End in the end, I found the revelation of Guillam's sexuality a wasted opportunity.
But there is a great deal to admire about "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY". One, it is a fascinating tale about one of the time-honored plot lines used in more espionage - namely the mole hunt. I suppose one could credit le Carré for creating such a first-rate story. But I have seen too many mediocre or bad adaptations of excellent novels to solely credit le Carré for this movie. It would not have worked without great direction from Alfredson; or Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan's superb script. I found Maria Djurkovic's production designs for the film rather interesting. She injected an austere and slightly cold aura into her designs for 1973 London that suited the movie perfectly. And she was ably assisted by cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema, and art designers Tom Brown and Zsuzsa Kismarty-Lechner.
The heart and soul of "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" was its cast led by Gary Oldman, as George Smiley. The cast almost seemed to be a who's who of British actors living in the United Kingdom. Toby Jones, Colin Firth, Ciarán Hinds and David Dencik portrayed the four men suspects being investigated by Smiley. All four did an excellent and kept the audience on their toes on who might be "Gerald". However, I do have one minor complaint. Hinds' character, Roy Bland, seemed to have received less screen time than the other three. Very little screen time, as a matter of fact. Mark Strong gave one of the movie's better performances as the MI-6 agent, Jim Prideaux, who was betrayed by "Gerald" and eventually forced to leave "the Circus" following his return to Britain.
Both Simon McBurney and Kathy Burke gave solid performances as Civil Service officer Oliver Lecon and former MI-6 analyst Connie Sachs. However, Roger Lloyd-Pack seemed to be a bit wasted as another of Smiley's assistants, Mendel. I have already commented on Benedict Cumberbatch's performance as Peter Guillam. However, I must admit that I found his 1970s hairstyle to look a bit artificial. I can also say the same about the blond "locks" Tom Hardy used for his role as MI-6 agent Rikki Tarr. Fortunately, there was a good deal to admire about the actor's emotional, yet controlled performance as Tarr. I really enjoyed John Hurt's portrayal of Smiley's former superior, the gregarious Control. I thought it was one of his more colorful roles in recent years.
However, the man of the hour is Gary Oldman and his portrayal of MI-6 officer, George Smiley. Many found the selection of Oldman to portray Smiley a rather curious one. The actor has built a reputation for portraying characters a lot more extroverted than the mild-mannered Smiley. His minimalist performance in "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY"took a great deal of people by surprise. So much so that Oldman ended up earning an Academy Award nomination for his performance. And he deserved it, as far as I am concerned. Hell, he had deserved to win, if I must be honest. I consider George Smiley to be one of Oldman's best screen performances during his 30 odd years in movies. In fact, I suspect that the actor has made George Smiley his own, just as much as Alec Guinness did over thirty years ago.
As I had stated earlier, "TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, SPY" is not perfect. Its pacing is as slow as molasses. I thought actor Ciarán Hinds and the plot revelation regarding Peter Gulliam's homosexuality was vastly underused. But thanks to Tomas Alfredson's direction, Bridget O'Connor and Peter Straughan's Oscar nominated screenplay, and an excellent cast led by the superb Gary Oldman; the movie turned out to be a surprising treat and has ignited my interst in the world of George Smiley.
Monday, January 4, 2016
Below are images from "THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG", the second in a trilogy of movies based upon J.R.R. Tolkien's 1937 novel, "The Hobbit". Directed by Peter Jackson, the movie stars Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage:
"THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG" (2013) Photo Gallery
Friday, January 1, 2016
Below is my attempt at a review of the late George MacDonald Fraser's fifth installment in his highly acclaimed series,The Flashman Papers - "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" (1975):
”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” (1975) Book Review
That great fictional bully and poltroon, Harry Flashman, once said. ”Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye and helpless, and there’s no end to it,” in one of George MacDonald Fraser’s installments of The Flashman Papers - a series of novels written in memoir form about a British Army officer in Victorian Britain. Well Fraser certainly proved that momentous statement in the series’ fifth installment, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME”. First published in 1975, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion aka the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858).
In order to understand Flashman’s encounters with certain characters in the story, one must remember one thing -”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is a direct sequel to the series’ fourth novel, ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE” (1973). At least two characters featured in the novel about the Crimean War also appeared in ”GREAT GAME” - Count Nicholas Ignatieff, a ruthless Russian intelligence office; and a former schoolmate of Flashman’s named Harry “Scud” East, who had also been a fellow prisoner-of-war of Flashman during the Crimean War.
The Sepoy Rebellion had been a bloody and emotional conflict for both Britons and Indians alike. It began as an uprising of sepoys of the British East India Company's army on May 10, 1857, in the town of Meerut, and soon erupted into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to Company power in that region, and it was contained only with the fall of Gwalior on June 20, 1858. The sepoys were a combination of Muslim and Hindu soldiers. Just before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, there were over 200,000 Indians in the army compared to about 40,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: the Bombay; the Madras; and the Bengal. The Bengal army recruited higher castes, such as "Rajputs and Brahmans", mostly from the"Avadh(or oudh) and Bihar" region and even restricted the enlistment of lower castes in 1855; in contrast, the Madras and Bombay armies were "more localized, caste-neutral armies" that "did not prefer high-caste men." The domination of the Bengal high-caste in the army has been blamed in part for the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. It has been suggested that after the annexation of Oudh by the East India Company in 1856, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might augur. Others have stressed that by 1857, some Indian soldiers, misreading the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were persuaded that the East India Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The final spark was provided by the controversy over the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. To load the new rifle, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. It was believed that the paper cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as anathema to Hindus.
One could say that Fraser had attempted to present the conflict from both views. One could say that he gave it his best shot. But it would have been impossible in the end. Especially since the novel was written from Flashman’s point of view. But I must give Fraser some credit for allowing Flashman to witness the emotions expressed by those Indians that had fought against the British . . . especially the beautiful and very memorable Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi.
The story began with Flashman receiving a summons from Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to join him at the Royal Family’s Scottish estate, Balmoral, in the early fall of 1856. Much to Flashman’s horror, he discovered that Palmerston wants him to journey to India and investigate a secret message that is being transmitted to many native villagers, sepoys(Indian soldiers under British command) and rulers alike, via a small stack of chapattis (Indian bread). Even worse, Flashman endured an unpleasant reunion with his former Crimean War foe, Count Ignatieff. The reunion resulted in a terrifying episode in the Highlands during a deer stalking party. And Ignatieff learned about Flashman’s India mission, thanks to the latter’s beautiful, but scatterbrained wife, Elspeth. Once Flashman arrived in India, he commenced upon his mission to investigate the mysterious chapattis exchange and guarantee the loyalty of Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi. But fate ended up dealing Flash Harry a cruel blow when a group of Thugee assassins attempted to kill him, following a clandestine tryst with the beautiful Rani. Suspecting mischief from Ignatieff (who has also arrived in India), Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim Khan, urged him to hide from Ignatieff’s plots by impersonating a sepoy at the British cantonment (fort) in Meerut. Unfortunately, Flashman’s choice of location proved to be disasterous, for the cowardly officer found himself at the very place where the sepoy uprising began.
If I had to choose my favorite Flashman novel of all time, it would not be ”GREAT GAME”. Quality has nothing to do with my choice. I just happen to be a fanatic about the American Old West, which is why ”FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS”remains my favorite. However, if I had to choose the six Flashman novels I consider supreme over the others,”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” would be one of them. It is, without a doubt, one of Fraser’s finest works and one of the best historical novels I have ever read. There were times I found myself wondering about Fraser’s talent as a journalist. I believe that he certainly put it to good use in re-capturing not only London and the Scottish Highlands in the mid-19th century, but also British India.
The novel’s gem or centerpiece started with Flashman’s arrival in Jhansi and ended with his escape from the siege at Cawnpore. Mind you, I was impressed by other passages in the novel:
*Flashman’s frightening encounter with Ignatieff and a Russian assassin at Balmoral
*Flashman’s lustful last moments with his wife Elspeth and her feather fan
* Flashman and an Irish wannabe hero named Thomas Henry Kavanaugh’s hilarious journey through the streets of war torn Lucknow in an attempt to contact British military forces
*Flashman’s terrifying moments with the British artillery at Gwalior
Earlier, I had mentioned how Fraser gave readers glimpses of the 1857-58 uprising not only from the viewpoints of Flashman, other Britons and loyal Indians, but also from those who had fought against the British. This was very apparent in the passages that featured Flashman’s impersonation as a sepoy in Meerut. Fraser gave readers a solid peek into the sepoys’ discontent and suspicions toward British regard for their beliefs – feelings that eventually to their uprising. In the following passage, Fraser described the Meerut sepoys’ refusal to drill with the new Enfield rifles with its infamous greased cartridges:
It wasn’t the most tactful thing to say, to that particular sepoy; I thought Sardul would go into a frenzy, the way he wept – but he wouldn’t touch the cartridges. So it went, along the line; when the end had been reached only four other men out of ninety had accepted the loads – four and that stalwart pillar of loyalty, Flashy Makarram Khan (he knew his duty, and which side his bread was buttered).
So there it was. Carmichael-Smith could hardly talk for sheer fury, but he cussed us something primitive, promising dire retribution, and then dismissed the parade. They went in silence – some stony-faced, others troubled, a number (like old Sardul) weeping openly, but mostly just sullen. For those of us who had taken the cartridges, by the way, there were no reproaches from the others – proper lot of long-suffering holy little Tom Browns they were.”
After surviving the outbreak of the uprising in Meerut, Flashman return to Jhansi for safety and discovered that another sepoy rebellion had occurred at its British cantonment. Flashman, Ilderim and a few other Ghazi (Afghan) soldiers decided to head for the British cantonment at Cawnpore. Once more, Flashy’s bad luck reared its ugly head when he and his companions discovered that the sepoys had revolted there, as well. However, the British commander at Cawnpore – General Hugh Wheeler – had foreseen a possible revolt by the sepoys and made plans to create a makeshift garrison for the British community (military and civilian), Eurasians and loyal Indians. Fraser painted a detailed description of Wheeler’s command at Cawnpore. But his description of the sepoys’ attack on June 23, 1857 really blew my mind:
”They were re-forming, a bare hundred yards off; the ground between was littered with dead and dying beasts and men. I had barely time to gulp a mouthful of warm, muddy water and seize my musket before they were howling in at us once more, and this time there were pandy infantrymen racing behind them.
‘One more volley!’ bawls Wheeler. ‘Hold your fire, there! Aim for the horses! No surrender! Ready, present – fire!’
The whole wall blasted fire, and the charge shook and wavered before it came rushing on again; half a dozen of them were rearing and plunging up to the entrenchment, the sabres were swinging about our heads, and I was rolling away to avoid the smashing hooves of a rider coming in almost on top of me. I scrambled to my feet, and there was a red-coated black devil leaping at me from the parapet; I smashed at him with my musket butt and sent him flying, and then another one was at me with his sabre, lunging. I shrieked as it flew past my head, and then we had closed, and I was clawing at his face, bearing him down by sheer weight. His sabre fell, and I plunged for it; another pandy was rushing past me, musket and bayonet extended, but I got my hand on the fallen hilt, slashing blindly; I felt a sickening shock on my head, and fell, a dead weight landed on top of me, and the next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, with the earth swimming round me, and Wheeler was bawling.”
Ironically, one of my favorite passages featured some of the rebelling sepoys’ reaction to encountering their former commanders, following General Wheeler’s decision to surrender to their new leader, the Nana Sahib. I personally feel that it featured some of Fraser’s best writing:
”Four mutineers were hurrying up and down the untidy convoy, calling out and searching, until they spotted Vibart and his family – and then they ran hallooing and calling ‘Colonel sahib! Mem-sahib!’, and seized on the family’s baggage, and one of them, beaming and chuckling, lifted Vibart’s little lad on to his shoulders, piggyback, while the others shouted and shoved and made room for Mrs. Vibart in a wagon. Vibart was dumbfounded, and two of the mutineers were weeping as they took his hand and carried his gear – I saw another one at it, too, an old grizzled havildar of the 56th, standing on the entrenchment gazing down into the ruin of the barracks with tears running down his white beard; he was shaking his head in grief, and then he would look no more, but turned about and stared across the maidan, still crying.”
Despite the grim tone of the novel’s subject, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” featured some hilarious moments. I had already pointed out a hilarious scene that involved Flashman traveling through the streets of Lucknow with an Irish hero wannabe named Kavanaugh. Two of them included quotes made by Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim. While they were still in Jhansi, the Ghazi not only commented upon Flashy’s successful womanizing, but also mocked the British officer’s stubborn belief in Lakshambai’s alleged affection for him:
”Ilderim glanced at me witheringly, and bit his nail in scorn.
‘Bloody Lance,’ says he, ‘ye may be the bravest rider in the British Army, and God knows thou art no fool – but with women thou art a witless infant. Thou hast coupled this Hindoo slut, hast thou not?’
‘Damn your impudence –‘
‘I thought as much. Tell me, blood-brother, how many women hast thou covered, in thy time?’ And he winked at his mates.
‘What the devil d’you mean?’ I demanded.
‘How many? Come, as a favour to thy old friend.’
‘Eh? What’s it to you dammit? Oh, well, let’s see . . . there’s the wife, and . . . er . . . and, ah-‘
‘Aye – ye have fornicated more times than I have passed water,’ says this elegant fellow. ‘And just because they let thee have thy way, didst thou trust them therefore? Because they were beautiful or lecherous – wert thou fool enough to think it made them honest? Like enough. This Rani has beglamoured the – well then, go thou up and knock on her palace gate tonight, and cry “Beloved, let me in.” I shall stand under the wall to catch the pieces.’”
But one of the funniest moments focused upon Flashman acting as a native escort for a red-haired British widow named Mrs. Leslie at Meerut, out for an afternoon ride. Apparently, the attractive lady had developed a lust for our hero, not realizing that he was a British officer impersonating an Afghan-born sepoy:
”’You Pathans are not truly . . . Indian, are you? I mean . . . in some ways you look . . . well, almost . . . white.’
‘We are not Indian at all, mem-sahib,’ says I. ‘We are descended from the people of Ibrahim, Ishak and Yakub, who were led from the Khedive’s country by one Moses.’
‘You mean – you’re Jewish?’ says she. ‘Oh.’ She rode in silence for a while. ‘I see. How strange.’ She thought some more. ‘I . . . I have Jewish acquaintances . . . in England. Most respectable people. And quite white, of course.’
Well, the Pathans believe it, and it made her (Mrs. Leslie) happy, so I hurried the matter along by suggesting next day that I show her the ruins at Aligaut, about six miles from the city; it’s a deserted temple, very overgrown, but what I hadn’t told her was that the inside walls were covered with most artistically-carved friezes depiciting all the Hindoo methods of fornicating – you known the kind of thing: effeminate-looking lads performing incredible couplings with fat-titted females. She took one look and gasped; I stood behind with the horses and waited. I saw her eyes travel round from one impossible carving to the next, while she gulped and went crimson and pale by turns, not knowing whether to scream or giggle, so I stepped up behind her and said quietly that the forty-fifth position was much admired by the discriminating. She was shivering, with her back to me, and then she turned, and I saw that her eyes were wild and her lips trembling, so I gave my swarthy ravisher’s growl, swept her up in my arms, and then down on to the mossy floor. She gave a little frightened moan, opened her eyes wide, and whispered:
‘You’re sure you’re Jewish . . . not . . . not Indian?’
‘Han,mem-sahib,’ says I, thrusting away respectfully, and she gave a contented little squeal and grappled me like a wrestler.”
The novel also featured more memorable incidents and moments – including Flashman’s reunion with his old classmate and fellow prisoner-of-war, Harry “Scud” East that proved to be at first, caustic, and later, bittersweet; and his terrifying experience at being mistaken for a rebellious sepoy, following General Hugh Rose’s victory at Gwalior. But . . . there were a few flies in the ointment, so to speak. One, the last third of the novel seemed like an aftermath following Flashman’s experiences at Jhansi, Meerut and Cawnpore. He spent most of that period as an intelligence staff officer or as a prisoner of the Rani of Jhansi.
Speaking of the Rani, she and Flashy had a curious conversation about the British Empire, and also the differences between British and Indian customs that left me baffled. I found myself wondering why Harry Flashman, of all people, would go to such lengths to defend the Empire and the British way of life to an Indian queen. Mind you, I am certain that he had nothing against it, being both patriotic and racist. But why did it mattered so much to him that Lakshambai agree with his opinion on the joys of the British rule? One could say that he was simply doing his job. Yet, there was something about Flashman’s responses that made him look like an over earnest schoolboy. Especially when one considers that despite his patriotism, the Empire has kept Flashy from England and safety more times that he care to remember. The entire conversation . . . or should I say Flashman’s responses to the Rani’s objections against the Empire rang false and out of character for me.
Another problem I had with ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” turned out to be the presence of Count Nicholas Ignatieff in the story. Granted, he seemed just as ruthless as he had been in ”FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE”. But aside from his attempt to get Flashman killed at Balmoral, his presence in the story seemed rather weak. Almost unnecessary. Ignatieff did have an opportunity to torture Flashman in the dungeon beneath the Jhansi palace. But Lakshambai cut short the torture session, made Flashman her prisoner and Ignatieff permanently disappeared from the story.
Despite these minor flaws, ”FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME” is still a magnificent historical novel. Fraser filled his story with enough different elements – drama, action, comedy, terror, tragedy and suspense – that allowed it to become one of the most well written novels I have ever read. Through Flashman’s eyes, the author left me laughing, breathless and surprisingly enough, in tears. In fact, I find it surprising that the novel never won any literary awards. A shame, really. For I believe that it certainly deserved a great deal of them.