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The Lighthorsemen (1987)
Half A League Onward!
Nineteen seventeen. Imagine a full-blown 20th-century war fought on horseback. I don't know exactly why this wasn't a more popular movie because it's pretty good. It's made for mature audiences in the sense that so many emotions and attitudes are left unspoken, just as they are in real life, their presence betrayed only by a glance or an expression.
I have no idea what the budget looked like but the movie has characteristics associated with fully fledged feature films, not made-for-TV quickies. The camera catches the sweep of the desert, the impressive arched architecture of the Middle East, the isolation of the units, and the gradual integration of newcomers into sometimes hostile elite groups. I guess the wardrobe is accurate. A casual shot of someone's brown riding boots shows the extra patch of leather across the upper arch to protect against abrasion from the stirrups. Myriad extras.
There's little in the way of back story except what emerges in everyday conversation, and there were times when I was lost while trying to keep the flow chart of command in mind. Perhaps it wouldn't be a problem for an Australian audience. At least at first, it was also difficult to keep the actors straight. It's an ensemble movie and a handful of characters are kept in focus while many others come and go. The identical uniforms are a kind of identity mask and the actors (who are all quite professional) are all handsome and fit young men with similar Aussie personalities -- cheerful, witty, somewhat embarrassed by sentiment, responsible, kinetic, and eager for a challenge, as if it were a sporting contest -- a horse race or a cricket match. I love the Aussies, having lived among them for a while. But this movie is one of those where some familiar Australian faces would be welcome, like Mel Gibson, Eric Bana, Russell Crowe, or -- especially -- Nicole Kidman or Naomi Watts, preferably out of uniform. Not to mention the immortal Chips Rafferty.
When wounded during an air attack one of the men winds up in hospital, attended by a toothsome young nurse. My nurses never look like that. They all remind me of Miss Pavor de Grunt, my fifth grade algebra teacher. There are some amusing scenes. General Allenby arrives to take command. (Jack Hawkins was Allenby in "Lawrence of Arabia.") He and his staff are British. The Australians are subordinates. And the "Pommy bastards" strut around impeccably uniformed even at the rest camp. A British officer registers a complaint that the Aussies are wearing shorts. He knows this is a rest camp but after all. Moments later he's astonished to see men riding their horses bareback -- both man and horse -- through the gentle surf.
There are scenes of combat scattered throughout the plot and a final heroic cavalry charge. The Turks, whom we tend to think of as indecisive warriors, give a good account of themselves and make the Allies pay dearly, although of course there is never any doubt about who are the good guys and the bad guys.
The scenes on horseback are striking. There's nothing like horse in full stride, going like hell, while the horseman stands slightly in the stirrups and doesn't bounce an inch. Staying on a galloping horse requires experience. I once applied for a job as an extra in a cavalry charge in a movie dealing with the pursuit of Pancho Villa in Mexico. They turned me down when they learned how few horses could be seen in Newark, New Jersey.
Mayday: Fanning the Flames (2008)
Lost At Sea.
It's a fine example from an above-average documentary series. A South African Boeing 747 "Combi" (carrying both freight and passengers) is flying from China towards South Africa when it suddenly fills up with smoke from a fierce fire and disappears over the Indian Ocean.
The airline of South Africa is nationalized so a good deal rests on finding answers to some important questions for the government, and of course the 747 is the jumboest jet now flying and we can have them bursting into flame in flight.
The flotsam is recovered and examined. The autopsies reveal that some of the passengers had died of smoke inhalation before the crash. The problem is that the wreckage is scattered all over, most of it on the bottom of the ocean. An American recovery craft is hired but the all-important black boxes can't be found. A million and a half dollars is spent on the search, which increasingly looks hopeless. Two months into the search, no one even knows the precise location of the wreckage. Should a halt be called? No -- the hunt went on.
Years later it finally came to a de facto end with no definite conclusion about the cause. It's not that much of a disappointment because anyone who has lived for a few years is familiar with ambiguity.
The fire in the cargo hold was violent and fast, but nothing on the manifest could account for it -- only the usual cargo of computers and the like, the most dangerous of which might be computer batteries. Whatever burned carried its own oxygen supply. That suggests rockets or similar weaponry. South Africa was under an arms embargo at the time and may have been smuggling in weapons from China. Or maybe not. The ham-fisted South African government yielded to demands for a ban on Apartheid and now the government has a transparency it didn't have before.
Dragnet 1967: The Big Ad (1967)
Kill My Wife -- Please.
Interesting episode that has Joe Friday working under cover as a killer for hire.
A young man with a record, not wanting to get into more trouble, brings a post card to Friday's attention. The man had placed an ad in a "Hippie newspaper" claiming he would do any jobs for $1000. In return he received a post card promising even more if he wanted to "make a killing." It could mean anything but Friday pretends to be the young man, meets the suave author of the post card (incandescently smug and handsome Anthony Eisley) and indeed the job is to commit a murder.
Sneak into Eisley's house, hit his drunken wife over the head with a cast iron pipe. "Hit her as often as you like." Eisley runs Friday around the block a few times to check his willingness to follow directions until the moment arrives. But the police figure out that Eisley has another plan entirely. He's at home, not establishing an alibi elsewhere. He's going to double cross Friday, wait until his wife had her head coshed, and then shoot Friday and claim he was a burglar.
The end? It doesn't work. In the last shot we see Anthony Eisley, looking uncomfortable and put out, and we're told he's serving time for conspiring to commit murder at Chino, which is sort of a rest home for nice, connected criminals.
A US Air flight attempts a mid-winter take off from La Guardia in New York and plows into Flushing Bay. The narration takes us on a flashback to a similar incident in remote Dryden, Ontario.
An Air Ontario Fokker F-28, having waited for an hour for clearance, takes off from the small field in a snow storm and about one hundred yards later, waddles and lands in the trees. Most of the passengers survive but 24 do not.
The culprit: Several unfortunate coincides, an impatient pilot and a layer of snow and ice on the wings; not the leading edges because they're heated internally, but the rest of the wings' upper surfaces. Too much ice, too little lift, so the flight couldn't get airborne.
The design of the Fokker F-28 made them particularly vulnerable to "wing contamination" so the investigators, knowing there were hundreds of the same model in general use, issued an interim warning. It didn't reach the US Air flight at La Guardia fifteen months later. The US Air flight had been de-iced but was delayed at the runway for 35 minutes, which was enough. The accident left 27 dead. The links between the two crashes were finally discovered and corrective measures employed.
These episodes are well written. The technical details should bother no one, and the computer-generated images are so precise that at times it's difficult to separate the newsreel footage from the fakes. This episode is also notable for its use of Shauna Bradley as the actress who plays the role of the flight attendant. Hold, thou art so fair.
Dragnet 1967: The Big High (1967)
The Florescence of Evil.
After some unfunny banter about Gannon's home-made barbecue sauce, a man shows up in distress. His 22-year-old daughter and her husband live in the Valley, Sherman Oaks, to be precise, a well-known enclave of Bohemians and non-comformists.
Well, I'll tell you. She and her hubby have taken to using, well -- marijuana. A plastic bag of the stuff is called a "lid" and the rolled-up cigarette is known as a "joint." Her father doesn't know what to do. He's threatened her with a lawsuit over the custody of their daughter. That is, he wants the court to take their kid away because they've been smoking Mary Jane. Clearly. a thoughtful and concerned parent.
The couple and their baby live in a stylish house in "one of the better neighborhoods" -- in Sherman Oaks! The wife is the demure and delightful Brenda Scott. Yum. The husband is Tim Donnelly, for whom I felt kind of sorry because he is to acting what Don King is to ethics. The both of them don't deny their involvement with marijuana but the house is neat and the child well cared for. There is nothing for Friday and Gannon to do but unleash a lecture about marijuana being just the first step. There is nothing the policewoman at juvenile can do either. The policewoman is played by Merry Anders. Also yum.
The final tragedy follows inexorably. Donnelly goes to jail and Scott winds up in Camarillo State Hospital where I once had a job interview.
This is much more sophisticated than "Reefer Madness," although it's almost as amusing.
A Birgen Airlines flight, a Boeing 757, takes off from the Dominican Republic for Santo Domingo Airport. Everything looks normal until the pilot notices that the first officer's air speed doesn't match his own. The pilot's air speed indicator shows that the airplane is traveling much too fast, beyond the recommended top speed. The co-pilot's indicator shows that the airplane is too slow.
Five minutes into the flight, over the Caribbean Sea, the stall warning begins shaking the controls and the flight disappears from radar. The Dominican Navy arrives to find a large patch of jet fuel, scattered wreckage, and floating bodies. One hundred and fifty-nine people died in the crash. The next morning they're joined by ships of the U. S. Coast Guard from San Juan. The American National Transportation Safety Board agrees to assist the Dominican investigators.
The determinants behind the accident are complicated, as is usual. Air speed is measured by pitot tubes on the outside of the fuselage. The one leading to the pilots instrument was blocked and giving false signals. At the same time multiple warning lights ad alarms were going off. It was all very confusing and the pilot chose to accept the readings of his own airspeed indicator while ignoring the other instruments. It was a lethal mistake.
I'm still impressed by the clarity of the presentation, the graphics and the lucid testimony of the experts. It's not just dramatic, it's informative.
Dragnet 1967: The Senior Citizen (1967)
A burglar has been plaguing a particular neighborhood in Los Angeles, targeting houses that are empty when the owners are at funerals, weddings, or bar mitzvahs. He's pretty tricky too. No prints, no mess, no clues.
Friday devises a scheme to nab the guy, staking out six of the houses listed in the newspapers as vulnerable. They pick up a queer old dude -- the familiar Bert Mustin -- and quiz him. He beats around the bush until Friday and Gannon begin to disparage the methods as sloppy and amateurish.
Offended, the old chap takes them to his stash of burgled goods and proudly displays them. Off to prison or "home", as he calls it.
Kind of neat. Mustin is a haughty burglar proud of his skills -- "a genius" -- and gives the dynamic duo a difficult time during interrogation.
Mayday: Who's at the Controls? (2008)
Into the Mud.
1972, an Eastern Airlines L-1011 trying to land at Miami flies instead into the Everglade swamps at night. Earlier n 1972 I was aboard an Eastern L-1011 landing at Miami. "Might be a little choppy," said the voice of the captain. I muttered something about my being paralyzed with fright because of the possibility of an accident. "Never happen," replied the flight attendant.
This airplane was in a wide circle near Miami International. Told to stay at 2,000 feet, it slowly dropped lower until it flew directly into the Everglades. There is no fire because of the swamp water but always the danger of one. We see the injured survivors crawling through the much and hear the chirp and rattle of night sounds in a swamp.
The program usually hews closely to the facts but in this case slightly smudges it honor with comments about man-eating alligators, as if the violent crash of a huge airliner were an exceptionally large, loud dinner bell. "You could hear the croaking of the alligators as they came back to their natural habitat," although of course by this time their natural habitat had been turned into a slough of toxic jet fuel.
A frog hunter in a nearby airboat arrived quickly at the scene and within half an hour a Coast Guard helicopter. Bodies and wreckage are strewn all about. In all, 77 people survived the crash. Ninety-nine were killed. The mud at the crash site dispersed the airplane parts and passengers. It clogged some of the open wounds and may have prevented some deaths, but at the same time the mud harbors a vicious microorganism that causes gas gangrene, genus Clostridium, which, if it hadn't been invented, there would have been no need to invent. It also causes botulism. Eight passengers are infected and complicated chambers must be found to treat them. The only alternative is amputation.
The airplane itself is mechanically sound, state of the art, and the autopilot is set at the proper altitude of 2,000 feet. So why did it descend? The main cause was that the pilot and copilot were exclusively focused on trying to fix a light on an instrument that shows the nose wheel is down and locked. They disregarded the perfectly audible chime that sounds a warning when the airplane is descending beyond the altitude set by the autopilot. The warning chime was sounded at the flight engineer's station but he wasn't there. He was in the belly of the aircraft trying to view the nose wheel and see if it had come down. The autopilot is easily disengaged by any movement of the wheel. The purpose is to make it possible in an emergency for the pilot to grab the controls and take over manually without having to bother with switching off the autopilot. It only takes the slightest bump to disengage the autopilot and the conclusion is that someone in the crew nudged the controls, disengaging the autopilot, without realizing it. The autopilot still registered its original setting, 2,000 feet, but the altimeter was ignored and the night was too dark for the crew to have any grasp of the fact that they were losing altitude.
The aftermath had positive results. Whatever criticisms one might make of the airlines -- the delays, the long lines -- one thing that can be said for all of them is that they learn from their mistakes. New rules regarding "cockpit resource management" (ie., who does what?) were implemented. Another result of the crash was really bizarre. Some of the L-1010's equipment was in nearly pristine condition and was installed on other Eastern airplanes, whose crews then began to report ghostly passengers who spoke only rarely and then cryptically. A TV film was made of the story, "The Ghost of Flight 504."
The Good Humor Man (1950)
Mainly For Kids.
Do they still make Good Humor ice cream, with those bells and the toasted almonds that I usually couldn't afford? Yum. There's a simulacrum that cruises around these New Mexico neighborhoods in the summer but it always plays La Cucaracha.
I didn't sit through this beyond the first forty-five minute and maybe it gets better, turns into more amusing fare. It could hardly get worse for an adult.
Don't make the mistake of confusing this with one of Red Skelton's better works during the same period. Skelton was a better comedian than Jack Carson. Some of the scenes in Skelton's movies, like "A Southern Yankee", were positively surreal. Buster Keaton was working as one of the gag writers.
This film is aimed at younger sensibilities, those who read Captain Marvel comic books and who think it's funny when ice cream is smashed without adumbration into someone's face. Gee. Look at the chocolate running in streams down his cheeks.
But, as I say, it may improve as the story unfolds. I doubt it.
I sat through the entire film without realizing that Tom Hardy was playing the roles of both brothers -- crooked but handsome Reggie Krey and brutal and deformed Ron Krey, both of whom made headlines in England for their thieving ways.
It's well acted -- on everyone's part, including Emily Browning as the tiny girl friend of handsome Reggie, who is thrown out of her parents' home for hanging around with gangsters.
The Kreys build up their criminal empire, we're meant to understand, although the film is nowhere near as didactic as Martin Scorcese's movies about gangsters. The methods by which the brothers and their gang acquire their ill-gotten goods is more referred to than displayed.
I have to hand it to Tom Hardy though. Reggie is a familiar character in films, the villainous hood who loves a good woman. But Ron is some kind of hulking mutant with a mouth like a limpet, so ugly that if his face were a building it would be condemned. When that repugnant face is bashed in during a fist fight, he stumbles to his feet and wanders around, dripping blood, emitting feral howls. The performance is startling.