Jack Kirby is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century

Saturday, November 6th, 2021

The new Eternals film is a reminder that, while he may not be widely recognized as such, Jack Kirby is one of the most influential artists of the 20th century:

His signature style — a fusion of pivotal artistic movements such as cubism, expressionism, surrealism, avant-garde, op art, indigenous South American, midcentury commercial and futurism, blended into a visual language all his own — and innovation in composition, dynamism and design, can be found today in virtually all forms of visual media and art, from film to advertising to photography.

Kirby was born Jacob Kurtzberg in 1917 to Jewish immigrants from Austria who lived in New York’s Lower East Side tenements and eked out a living in a garment factory. A Pratt Institute dropout at 14, he found success early on when he and studio partner Joe Simon created Captain America for Timely Comics in 1941, reportedly selling almost a million copies a month. His hyperkinetic, hyper-stylized, hyper-everything art seemed barely contained by the page, helping define the nascent art form and establish the superhero genre and comic book industry.

When superheroes’ popularity waned after the war, the versatile Kirby made an indelible mark on a variety of other genres, including western, horror, space adventure and giant monsters. His rampaging behemoths paralleled the rise of creature features like “Them!” in the US and kaiju films like “Godzilla” in Japan, helping make them a lasting genre. But it was teen romance, of all things, that he influenced the most; together with Simon he created “Young Romance” for Prize Comics in 1947, a runaway hit that surpassed a million copies monthly and inspired nearly a hundred copycat series. Breaking with the Archie Comics mold, it introduced Shakespearean melodrama to youth entertainment, a revolution that’s evident in today’s numerous teen shows on TV.

Just as Kirby helped define superhero comics in the 1940s, he helped redefine them in the 1960s. Timely was now called Marvel, and his and Simon’s former office assistant was now the editor-in-chief and head writer, Stan Lee. Lee brought Kirby on for what became an unprecedented, and unsurpassed by either, period of manic creativity. They created together the Fantastic Four (1961), the Hulk (1962), Thor (1962), Ant-Man (1962), Iron Man (1963), Avengers (1963), X-Men (1963), Silver Surfer (1966), Black Panther (1966) and hundreds of other heroes, villains, cast and concepts. Kirby also played a role in the creation of Spider-Man in 1962 and Daredevil in 1964 and auteured solo properties like the Eternals.

More than just a new pantheon, they created a whole new approach. They recast monsters as outcast heroes and added the drama of teen romance, appealing more to high school and college readers. Their stories had greater realism and deeper characterization, featuring heroes with relatable faults and action informed by Kirby’s youth in a street gang and combat experience as an infantry scout in France, for which he received the Bronze Star. Marvel came to be known as “The House of Ideas,” Lee as “Stan the Man” and Kirby as “King of Comics.”

Kirby also created much of the mythology for the other big publisher in comics, DC. His radical “Fourth World” saga, a magnum opus spinning off Superman into four series from 1970 to 1973, was a grand space opera about warring alien gods. It introduced Darkseid (pronounced “dark side”), a towering, imperious villain who commands the mechanized war planet of Apokolips in a quest for galactic conquest. Opposing him is his own son Orion, raised by the noble gods to be their champion, who struggles with his dark heritage and nature. Their religion and source of power is a metaphysical life force called, simply, “the Source.”

Four years later “Star Wars” was released, featuring strikingly similar concepts like Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker, the Dark Side, the Death Star, and the Force. Vader also resembles Kirby and Lee’s Fantastic Four villain Dr. Doom, who hides his horrific burn scars under high-tech armor.


In 1979, he was commissioned to create concept art for a big-screen adaptation of Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, “Lord of Light” (ironically, spurred by the success of “Star Wars”).

The same producer also hired him to design an entire theme park in Colorado called Science Fiction Land. Neither would come to fruition, but Kirby’s art found an even better purpose. The CIA used it for its mock production of the film “Argo,” a now-famous covert operation for the rescue of US embassy members from Tehran during the Iran hostage crisis.

Dune has never been unconditionally admired

Friday, October 29th, 2021

In the spring of 1984, the American Booksellers Association held its annual convention in Washington, and Washington Post critic Michael Dirda was there:

One evening, Book World — The Washington Post’s then stand-alone literary supplement — hosted a cocktail party on the roof of the paper’s now demolished headquarters at 15th and L streets NW. As I wandered around, doing my feeble best to be sociable, I noticed one gentleman standing alone, looking a bit overwhelmed but also vaguely familiar. It was Frank Herbert, whom I didn’t at first recognize because he had recently shaved off his iconic beard.

At that point I simply abandoned my attempts at glad-handing. Over the next hour Herbert and I sat in the fading sunshine and talked and talked, though only a little about “Dune” because our conversation kept drifting back to Jack Vance, Herbert’s good friend and probably the most imaginative world-builder in postwar science fiction. That conversation led me to suspect that “Dune” was, in part, Herbert’s attempt to rival Vance by envisioning every aspect of an alien civilization, including its people’s clothing, cultural traditions and religious rituals.


As a hotshot young editor back in 1984, I didn’t allow many weeks to go by before phoning my new buddy to see if he would review a book. Given that David Lynch’s then much-anticipated film of “Dune” hadn’t yet been released but was already in the news, I asked Herbert to write about a splashy, comparably promoted fantasy novel, Stephen King and Peter Straub’s “The Talisman.” In the end, he didn’t much like it, not that this mattered. Just getting Herbert to review it was a minor coup and we featured his piece on the front of Book World.


As a novel, “Dune” has never been unconditionally admired. I know sophisticated readers, devoted science fiction fans, who can’t stand it, finding Herbert’s prose inept, the action ponderous, and the whole book clumsy and tedious. But sf readers are contentious, often cruelly so, and nearly all of the field’s most beloved novels and series also have cogent and vocal detractors: Isaac Asimov’s “Foundation” trilogy is dismissed as period pulp; Robert A. Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers” and “Stranger in a Strange Land” preach either militaristic jingoism or pretentious ’60s claptrap; Samuel R. Delany’s “Dhalgren” is well nigh unreadable and Gene Wolfe’s “The Book of the New Sun” too subtle, too theological, too clever by half. Perhaps so. Yet imaginative works that people still argue about — and “Dune” certainly belongs in this category — demonstrate their continuing vitality and relevance. They remain — to borrow a vogue phrase — part of the conversation.

If someone in America was ever obsessed with a story as a 12-year-old, it’s probably being made into a movie or TV show right now

Saturday, October 23rd, 2021

For Hollywood, it is a golden age of intellectual property, Peter Suderman says, which is to say it is a golden age of adaptation:

Seemingly every beloved genre story from the last century has been optioned and auctioned, put into development, and often produced with lavish budgets and production in hopes that this old favorite will become the next Game of Thrones, Walking Dead, or, if one is really dreaming big — and who in Hollywood isn’t? — Star Wars or Marvel Cinematic Universe. Hollywood’s hit-makers have dug deep into the post-war canon of beloved adolescent fantasies: If someone in America was ever obsessed with a story as a 12-year-old, it’s probably being made into a movie or TV show right now.

If there is something missing from this bounty of adaptable IP, it’s classic science fiction. Although there have been scattered attempts to adapt the Golden Age masters — Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Frederick Pohl, Arthur C. Clarke — and their many literary successors in the half century since Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, few of these efforts have made much impact. (Remember Will Smith’s I, Robot? That’s what I thought.)


Part of the problem is that these sci-fi stories tend to be challenging to adapt: They operate at a level of scale and socio-scientific complexity that is difficult to fit into the demands of a mainstream feature-film format, or even a prestige TV series. Classic sci-fi is thinky, intricate, idiosyncratic, and sprawling in a way that so far has largely resisted successful big-screen treatment. The best of it is almost too big for the big screen.

It is with a combination of joy and relief that he declares Villeneuve’s Dune the real deal:

It is a love letter to a science fiction classic, and, in a way, to all the classics of science fiction. It is a no-compromises future-fantasy epic that operates at a scale I’ve never quite seen before. I’ve already bought tickets to see it again.


Denis Villeneuve’s Dune is half a masterpiece in a long-neglected genre, and half a science fiction masterpiece is far better than nothing at all.

The Caucasians wrote love poems to their daggers

Thursday, October 21st, 2021

With the new Dune movie about to come out, I started reading one of the books that inspired it, Lesley Blanch’s 1960 novel, The Sabres of Paradise, a book I’ve discussed before:

Anyone who has obsessed over the mythology of Dune will immediately recognize the language Herbert borrowed from Blanch’s work. Chakobsa, a Caucasian hunting language, becomes the language of a galactic diaspora in Herbert’s universe. Kanly, from a word for blood feud among the Islamic tribes of the Caucasus, signifies a vendetta between Dune’s great spacefaring dynasties. Kindjal, the personal weapon of the region’s Islamic warriors, becomes a knife favored by Herbert’s techno-aristocrats. As Blanch writes, “No Caucasian man was properly dressed without his kindjal.”

Herbert is ecumenical with his borrowing, lifting terminology and rituals from both sides of this obscure Central Asian conflict. When Paul Atreides, Dune’s youthful protagonist, is adopted by a desert tribe whose rituals and feuds bear a marked resemblance to the warrior culture of the Islamic Caucasus, he lives at the exotically named Sietch Tabr. Sietch and tabr are both words for camp borrowed from the Cossacks, the Czarist warrior caste who would become the great Christian antagonists of Shamyl’s Islamic holy warriors.

Herbert also lifted two of Dune’s most memorable lines directly from Blanch. While describing the Caucasians’ fondness for swordplay, Blanch writes, “To kill with the point lacked artistry.” In Dune, this becomes “[k]illing with the tip lacks artistry,” advice given to a young Paul Atreides by a loquacious weapons instructor. A Caucasian proverb recorded by Blanch transforms into a common desert aphorism. “Polish comes from the city, wisdom from the hills,” an apt saying for a mountain people, becomes “Polish comes from the cities, wisdom from the desert” in Dune.

Dune’s narrative, however, owes more to The Sabres of Paradise than just terminology and customs. The story of a fiercely independent, religiously inspired people resisting an outside power is certainly not unique to the Caucasus, but Blanch’s influence can be found here, too. The name of Herbert’s major villain, Baron Vladimir Harkonnen, is redolent of Russian imperialism. Meanwhile, Imam Shamyl, the charismatic leader of Islamic resistance in the Caucasus, describes the Russian Czar as “Padishah” and his provincial governor as “Siridar,” titles that Herbert would later borrow for Dune’s galactic emperor and his military underlings.

The introduction to the novel uses “Caucasian” literally, in its original sense, to unintentionally comedic effect:

The Caucasians wrote love poems to their daggers, as to a mistress and went to battle, as to a rendez-vous. Fighting was life itself to these darkly beautiful people — the most beautiful people in the world, it was said. They lived and died by the dagger. Battle-thrusts were the pulse of the race. Vengeance was their creed, violence their climate.


The baby prince Georghi Melikov, at an age when he might have been sucking his thumb, was running it over the blade of his kindjal, or two-edged dagger, lisping that it had been made for him by Mourtazali the celebrated armourer.


Severed enemy heads or hands were always good coinage in the Caucasus. A Tousheen girl’s dowry was reckoned in these trophies. The more dashing a young Caucasian delikan, or brave, the more severed hands dangled from his saddle bow. Right hands, of course; left hands hardly counted and the loss of one never stopped a Caucasian from fighting. Sliced-off ears, a less cumbersome method of indicating the number of heads taken, were usually strung along the whip thong. When one Chechen chieftain found his son dead of wounds, he cut his body into sixty pieces and sent out horsemen across the mountains and valleys, each with a fragment, to be given to his kinsmen and vassals. For each piece, an enemy head was returned. Thus was his son’s death avenged. Vengeance, vendetta or kanly, was often pursued through three or four generations, decimating whole families, till there was no-one left. A household was only reckoned poor, only pitied, when there was no-one fit to fight.

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, I read Dune, and it didn’t really work for me, but I did find it oddly compelling, and I think back to it more than I would have expected.

At the very least, it will teach you how to overthrow an empire and launch a new religion.

The Battle at Lake Changjin was sponsored by the Chinese government and deliberately timed for release before the country’s National Day holiday

Wednesday, October 20th, 2021

The Battle at Lake Changjin is a three-hour-long war epic about the Battle of the Chosin Reservoir, and it has grossed $769 million in China since its release less than three weeks ago:

It’s currently on track to become the highest-grossing film in Chinese history, surpassing “Wolf Warriors II,” which made $882 million upon its release back in 2017.

As the Chinese box office is the largest in the world, “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is technically the biggest film in the international movie market, even outearning the new James Bond flick, “No Time To Die,” according to the industry outlet.


“The~ Battle at Lake Changjin” was sponsored by the Chinese government and deliberately timed for release on Sept. 30 — a day before the country’s National Day holiday.

The release of the big-budget blockbuster — which cost $200 million to make — also comes just months after China’s Communist Party celebrated its 100th anniversary.

The film’s release also coincides with Beijing’s growing aggression against Taiwan.

Over the weekend — as millions of Chinese moviegoers flocked to watch the film — it was reported that China has recently tested a nuclear-capable hypersonic missile.

John Lennon was embarrassed by his former radicalism

Saturday, October 9th, 2021

Today is John Lennon’s birthday, and I’d like to once again remind people that by 1979 Lennon was embarrassed by his former radicalism — at least according to Fred Seaman, who was his assistant at the time:

John, basically, made it very clear that if he were an American he would vote for Reagan because he was really sour on Jimmy Carter.


I also saw John embark in some really brutal arguments with my uncle, who’s an old-time communist… He enjoyed really provoking my uncle… Maybe he was being provocative… but it was pretty obvious to me he had moved away from his earlier radicalism.

He was a very different person back in 1979 and 80 than he’d been when he wrote Imagine. By 1979 he looked back on that guy and was embarrassed by that guy’s naivete.

Innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell

Thursday, September 30th, 2021

I had been meaning to read the copy of The Quiet American on my shelf for some time, when I finally got the audiobook and listened to it instead. As Wikipedia explains, Greene worked as a war correspondent for The Times and Le Figaro in French Indochina 1951–1954 and was inspired to write The Quiet American while driving back to Saigon from Ben Tre province in October 1951, when he was accompanied by an American aid worker who lectured him about finding a “third force in Vietnam”.

The two main characters are the first-person narrator, Thomas Fowler, a jaded British journalist in his fifties who has been covering the French war in Vietnam for more than two years, and the quiet American of the title, Alden Pyle, an idealistic Harvard man working for the recently renamed OSS.

I wasn’t even aware of the 2002 film, but its casting seems perfect: Michael Caine as Fowler, and Brendan Fraser as Pyle. There’s a reason I hadn’t noticed its release:

The first rough cut was screened to a test audience on September 10, 2001 and received positive ratings. However, the September 11 attacks took place the next day, and audience ratings dropped with each subsequent screening. Reacting to criticism of the film’s “unpatriotic” message, Miramax shelved the film for a year. It was finally screened publicly at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 2002 to critical acclaim. The film received an Oscar qualification release in November 2002 and a limited release in January 2003.

Fowler is painfully cynical, and Pyle is painfully earnest, leading to remarks like these:

  • I wish sometimes you had a few bad motives, you might understand a little more about human beings.
  • That was my first instinct — to protect him. It never occurred to me that there was a greater need to protect myself. Innocence always calls mutely for protection when we would be so much wiser to guard ourselves against it: innocence is like a dumb leper who has lost his bell, wandering the world, meaning no harm.
  • Thought’s a luxury. Do you think the peasant sits and thinks of God and Democracy when he gets inside his mud hut at night?
  • I never knew a man who had better motives for all the trouble he caused.
  • He was impregnably armored by his good intentions and his ignorance.
  • God save us always from the innocent and the good.
  • They killed him because he was too innocent to live. He was young and ignorant and silly and he got involved. He had no more of a notion than any of you what the whole affair’s about…

The novel seems oddly prescient — and, like Cassandra, unheeded:

However, after its publication in the United States in 1956, the novel was widely condemned as anti-American. It was criticised by The New Yorker for portraying Americans as murderers, largely based on one scene in which a bomb explodes in a crowd of people. According to critic Philip Stratford, “American readers were incensed, perhaps not so much because of the biased portrait of obtuse and destructive American innocence and idealism in Alden Pyle, but because in this case it was drawn with such acid pleasure by a middle-class English snob like Thomas Fowler whom they were all too ready to identify with Greene himself”.

One small line from the novel caught my attention: “the restaurant had an iron grille to keep out grenades.”

Many people would like to do what Ayn Rand did

Wednesday, September 29th, 2021

Ayn Rand pretty much failed as a philosopher, Michael Huemer says, but she was a brilliant novelist:

Most literature buffs disagree with this; indeed, most would probably say Rand was a terrible novelist. I think the reason for this is not that Rand was objectively terrible, but rather that the overwhelming majority of literature fans (especially, e.g., students and professors of literature) fall within a certain range of tastes, which are connected to their general personality traits. This is a selection effect, i.e., only people with a certain psychology choose to become literature experts.

Rand intentionally wrote a particular kind of novel, which literature people happen not to like; thus, no matter how good the novels are within that category, most literature people will hate them.

And what category was that? You might call it “the propaganda novel” (where “propaganda” is of course used in a purely descriptive sense, not as a term of abuse). They are novels designed to advance a philosophical worldview, and to do so in a clear, forceful, and (to those who might be receptive to that worldview) inspiring manner. They are not subtle, nor are they supposed to be. They are supposed to dramatize Ayn Rand’s worldview.

Leaving aside (for now) the question of whether Rand’s worldview is right, is this a worthy goal for a novel? Well, consider all the novels whose central goal is to provoke a feeling of horror (horror novels), or wonder (science fiction and fantasy), or excitement (action novels). Communicating one’s philosophy is at least as worthwhile and reasonable as those goals. Whether this counts as “literature” or not is neither here nor there.

Given that this is in principle a worthwhile thing to do, and given that that is the type of novel Rand set out to write, her works have to be judged by the standards of that genre. By those standards, she succeeds about as well as anyone has ever done. Can you think of another novel that has created as many devoted followers of a philosophical movement as Atlas Shrugged?

Many people would like to do what Ayn Rand did — many would like to communicate their ideas to people all over the world, and many would like to write bestsellers. Some of the world’s smartest people have tried to do those things. Almost none of them can do it. If you or I try to do what Rand did, we will not succeed. So let’s admit that Rand had an exceptional talent for that kind of writing.

That said, I understand very well what some people hate about her writing. It is very heavy handed, black-and-white, and often angry and deliberately insulting towards people with different ideas. These characteristics, however, are part of how Rand succeeded. If she had communicated her ideas in a manner that most literature fans would like, then you would have never heard of her and we wouldn’t be talking about her now.

Rand’s most subtle novel, by the way, was her first: We the Living. It is the only of her works that features a socialist character who has integrity. It’s also far less popular than her more propagandistic novels.

In sum: Ayn Rand set out to do something that is in principle worthwhile, that hardly anyone is capable of doing, and she succeeded better than just about anyone ever has. That requires enormous talent.

What if Audrey Hepburn played chess?

Monday, September 27th, 2021

I haven’t watched Netflix’s Queen’s Gambit, but I’ve heard good things. It never occurred to me that it was based on a 40-year-old book — which does not describe its protagonist as looking like the show’s star, Anya Taylor-Joy:

Beth learned of her mother’s death from a woman with a clipboard. The next day her picture appeared in the Herald-Leader. The photograph, taken on the porch of the gray house on Maplewood Drive, showed Beth in a simple cotton frock. Even then, she was clearly plain. A legend under the picture read: “Orphaned by yesterday’s pile-up on New Circle Road, Elizabeth Harmon surveys a troubled future. Elizabeth, eight, was left without family by the crash, which killed two and injured others. At home alone at the time, Elizabeth learned of the accident shortly before the photo was taken. She will be well looked after, authorities say.”

In the Methuen Home in Mount Sterling, Kentucky, Beth was given a tranquilizer twice a day. So were all the other children, to “even their dispositions.” Beth’s disposition was all right, as far as anyone could see, but she was glad to get the little pill. It loosened something deep in her stomach and helped her doze away the tense hours in the orphanage.

Mr. Fergussen gave them the pills in a little paper cup. Along with the green one that evened the disposition, there were orange and brown ones for building a strong body. The children had to line up to get them.

Foundation is hard science fiction at its least aesthetic and humanistic

Friday, September 24th, 2021

Isaac Asimov began writing his Foundation when he was in his early 20s, after reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Toynbee’s Study of History and coming up with the idea of a Science of History that predicts the future:

This is an idea that only a very young man who hasn’t much experience with how inevitably wrong his predictions will turn out to be could dream up.

On the other hand, it’s also a really interesting idea. Foundation is hard science fiction at its least aesthetic and humanistic. Asimov wasn’t all that good at writing characters, but his mathematical psychohistorian Hari Seldon and The Mule who upsets Hari’s careful plans are useful shorthand references when talking about forecasting.

The scheming nephew of the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen does not appear in Villeneuve’s Dune

Wednesday, August 25th, 2021

The Los Angeles Times details changes made in adapting Frank Herbert’s Dune to the screen:

In one of the biggest departures from the novel, the film changes the gender of the character of Liet Kynes, a planetologist who has a deep understanding and love for Arrakis and its native people, the Fremen. In Herbert’s book, Kynes is a man but in the film she is a woman, played by British actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster.

The switch was suggested by Spaihts as a way to make the story feel more up to date.

“Herbert’s novel is, to some extent, an artifact of its time and it definitely skews male in ways that don’t feel completely contemporary now,” he says. “Of all the messages in the story, the message brought by Liet Kynes of planetary stewardship, of the preciousness of resources, of the necessity of building bridges to local communities to sustain ourselves going forward — those are modern messages, and it seemed right to modernize the messenger.”

Even after splitting the book into two movies, there were still some elements that Villeneuve decided to pare back to avoid overloading the film with too many characters and subplots.

Memorably, if campily, played by Sting in Lynch’s movie, the character of Feyd-Rautha Harkonnen — the scheming nephew of the villainous Baron Vladimir Harkonnen (Skarsgard) — does not appear in Villeneuve’s “Dune.”

At the same time, the characters of Thufir Hawat (Stephen McKinley Henderson) and Piter De Vries (David Dastmalchian) — cognitively super-powered “mentats” who work for the Atreides and Harkonnen families, respectively — have less prominent roles in the film than they do in the novel.

“British” actress Sharon Duncan-Brewster is, of course, black.

I suspect most of Dune’s fanbase would opt for more mentats.

If you haven’t read it, it could be described as Star Wars meets Game of Thrones. I recently enjoyed the audiobook version.

Bond’s beloved Bentley was his only personal hobby

Sunday, August 8th, 2021

Before James Bond was the dashing and debonair secret agent on the silver screen, Jordan Golson notes, he was the tormented and brooding assassin of Ian Fleming’s novels, and in those books, he drove a Bentley:

In Fleming’s first 007 novel, Casino Royale, published in 1953, Bond tooled around in a 1931 4.5 Litre Blower Bentley. It wasn’t so sleek or sexy as the Astons that Bond would come to be known for, but it was among the finest cars of its day and just the thing for getting around in all due haste with style.

Bond was, in Casino Royale, something of a car nut and his beloved Bentley was “his only personal hobby.” He bought it in 1933 and kept it in storage while serving in World War II. “Bond drove it hard and well and with an almost sensual pleasure.”

Blower Bently 4.5-Litre Inline

Built by Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, one of the famous “Bentley Boys” who raced the cars at Le Mans, the supercharged, two-ton Blower was based on the brand’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race car. It produced 240 horsepower from a 4.4-liter inline-four motor with a four-speed unsynchronized manual transmission. The supercharger, which forced more air into the engine to generate more power (thus “Blower”) was gigantic and easily spotted at the front of the car, between the headlights. Top speed was in the 120 mph range, impressive for the era. Just 55 supercharged units of the car were produced between 1929 and 1931.

They waste that money on bad haircuts and pop stars, making them ripe for Communist picking

Saturday, August 7th, 2021

Scott Bradfield of The New Republic reviews Oliver Buckton’s new Fleming biography, The World Is Not Enough:

After he lost his father, his overbearing mother dominated his life and prevented him from marrying the first woman with whom he formed an engagement. And his brothers (especially the elder, Peter) achieved greater successes in their studies and occupations than Ian ever did. Like many middle children who feel lost, Ian retreated into a love of writers who transported him into extreme landscapes of love and adventure — such as Robert Louis Stevenson, Jules Verne, H. Rider Haggard, and those early spy novelists who depicted tough-talking, well-bred men willing to fight for God and country, John Buchan and Sapper (the pseudonym of H.C. McNeile).

It’s surprising how little Fleming’s view of international politics differs from that of Sapper, even though they lived and wrote nearly half a century apart. Like Bulldog Drummond, who frets about those international forces who want to “Bolshevize” England by empowering “members of the Do-no-work-and-have-all-the-money Brigade,” the characters in Bond are filled with suspicion of working-class agitators and foreigners. As General G. brags in From Russia With Love, the Russian state is “quietly advancing” on the West through “strikes in England” and the “great political gains” of liberal governments in Europe. And as Bond reflects early in Thunderball, this postwar liberalizing of Britain is leading to a generation of soft-shelled young people who don’t understand how hard their parents worked before the war. (From Fleming’s spotty employment record, he probably wouldn’t have understood this, either.) On a taxi ride, Bond notices his taxi driver playing with a comb and takes it as a mark of disrespect. “It was typical of the cheap self-assertiveness of young labor since the war,” he thinks to himself. For the young man “born into the buyer’s market of the Welfare State,” he fulminates, “life is easy and meaningless.”

In Bond’s view, the problem with postwar British youth is that they expect good pay for their not-hard work; and they waste that money on bad haircuts and pop stars, making them ripe for Communist picking. At the same time, there are isolated, patriotic types like Bond himself, capable of rising above the world’s naturalistic soup by knowing what to wear, what to eat, and how to best serve the desires of a woman. Beneath the high-gloss glamor of his novels, Fleming’s disdain for the working class veiled his frequent bouts of incompetence, just as it masked his concerns about the country that was changing around him, turning into a place that was no longer entirely his.


What most distinguishes Fleming is how adroitly he adapted these adolescent power fantasies to his job in British Naval intelligence, where he was recruited after failing a Foreign Office civil service exam and after lackluster stints at Reuters and in the City. (His business partner famously called him “the world’s worst stockbroker.”) In the Navy, Fleming was best known for creating Assault Unit 30, also dubbed “Ian Fleming’s Commandos” or “Fleming’s Red Indians.” And while Fleming’s unit (which he directed from afar, since his superiors considered Fleming too knowledgeable to be captured) achieved several successes, many of Fleming’s wild imaginings never survived their earliest brushes with reality.

For example, there was Operation Ruthless, a plan to repair a captured German plane, fill it with British soldiers dressed in German uniforms, crash land in the Channel, capture a German U-boat, and bring home the Enigma machine. Or another one code-named Operation Goldeneye, which involved digging an underground bunker in Gibraltar, filling it with British intelligence agents and their equipment, and fighting off a predicted occupation by Germans (which never materialized). After the war, Goldeneye provided the name of Fleming’s beloved home in Jamaica, where he often went to write the first drafts of his novels (and to escape his quickly failing marriage); and the idea of an underground spy network was used in his short story, “From a View to a Kill.”

Fleming preferred fiction to reality; and whenever he could put fiction to use in real life operations, he did. Inspired by a detective novel, Basil Thomson’s The Milliner’s Hat Mystery, Fleming is credited with proposing Operation Mincemeat, in which Naval Intelligence attached an identikit of fake documents to a dead body and released it from a submarine into Spanish waters; the Spanish, as expected, passed on the false information to the Germans, causing them to leave Sicily unprotected against Allied invasion.

Why not make a teen Rambo and turn the project over to John Milius?

Tuesday, July 13th, 2021

I recently rewatched Red Dawn for the first time in decades, and it wasn’t nearly as cheesy as I expected. The Wikipedia entry explains how it got made:

Originally called Ten Soldiers, it was written by Kevin Reynolds. It was set in the near future as a combined force of Russians and Cubans launched an invasion of the Southwestern U.S.. Ten children take to the hills when their small town is captured, turning into a skilled and lethal guerrilla band.

Producer Barry Beckerman read the script, and, in the words of Peter Bart, “thought it had the potential to become a tough, taut, ‘art’ picture made on a modest budget that could possibly break out to find a wider audience.” He got his father Sidney Beckerman to help him pay a $5,000 option. Reynolds wanted to direct but the Beckermans wanted someone more established. Walter Hill briefly considered the script before turning it down, as did several other directors.

The Beckermans pitched the project to David Begelman when he was at MGM and were turned down. They tried again at that studio when it was being run by Frank Yablans. Senior vice-president for production Peter Bart, who remembers it as a “sharply written anti-war movie…a sort of Lord of the Flies“, took the project to Yablans.

The script’s chances of being filmed increased when Kevin Reynolds became mentored by Steven Spielberg who helped him make Fandango. MGM bought the script.

Bart recalls that things changed when “the chieftains at MGM got a better idea. Instead of making a poignant little antiwar movie, why not make a teen Rambo and turn the project over to John Milius, a genial and rotund filmmaker who loved war movies and also loved war? The idea was especially popular with a member of the MGM board of directors, General Alexander Haig, the former Nixon chief of staff, who yearned to supervise the film personally and develop a movie career.”

Bart says most of MGM’s executives, except for Yablans, were opposed to Milius directing. Bart claims he made a last minute attempt to get Reynolds to direct the film and went to see Spielberg. However, by this stage Fandango was in rough cut, and Bart sensed that Spielberg was disappointed in the film and would not speak up for Reynolds.

Milius was signed to direct at a fee of $1.25 million, plus a gun of his choice.

Milius set about rewriting the script. He and Haig devised a backstory in which the circumstances of the invasion would take place; this was reportedly based on Hitler’s proposed plans to invade the U.S. during World War II. Haig took Milius under his wing, bringing him to the Hudson Institute, the conservative think tank founded by Herman Kahn, to develop a plausible scenario. Milius saw the story as a Third World liberation struggle in reverse; Haig introduced Nicaragua and suggested that, with the collapse of NATO, a left-wing Mexican regime would participate in the Soviet invasion, effectively splitting the U.S. in half. Bart says, “Even Milius was taken aback by Haig’s approach to the project. ‘This is going to end up as a jingoistic, flag-waving movie,’ Milius fretted. As a result, the budget of this once $6 million movie almost tripled.”

Other changes included a shift in focus from conflict within the group to conflict between the teens and their oppressors, and the acceleration of the ages of some of the characters from early teens to high school age and beyond. There was also the addition of a sequence where some children visit a camp to find their parents have been brainwashed.

Milius later said, “I see this as an anti-war movie in the sense that if both sides could see this, maybe it wouldn’t have to happen. I think it would be good for Americans to see what a war would be like. The film isn’t even that violent — the war shows none of the horrors that could happen in World War III. In fact, everything that happened in the movie happened in World War II.”

Bart says Yablans pushed through filming faster than Milius wanted because MGM needed a movie over the summer. Milius wanted more time to plan, including devising futuristic weaponry and to not shoot over winter, but had to accede.

The Pentagon withdrew its cooperation from the film.

Dahl himself would be exasperated over the 1971 film’s endurance

Friday, July 2nd, 2021

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory came out 50 years ago:

Dahl himself would be exasperated over the 1971 film’s endurance. Though he was nominally billed as its screenwriter, his original adaptation was scarcely detectable beneath all manner of uncredited rewrites, and he was vocal in his disdain for the result, Wilder and all. His list of grievances was long: Dahl had wanted the arch British peculiarity of Spike Milligan or Peter Sellers for Wonka, he was unhappy with the film’s foregrounding of Wonka over Charlie, he resented plot alterations and additions that muddied the cautionary neatness of his original tale, and he wasn’t a fan of Leslie Bricusse and Anthony Newley’s perky song score.


Stuart, a workmanlike film-maker hitherto best-known for documentaries and sitcom-like farces, directed it with a halting, gear-grinding rhythm and an erratic sense of pace: it’s a stately 45 minutes before Wonka even makes his first appearance, whereupon the film rushes through its fantastical factory setpieces with businesslike indifference.

It does take shockingly long for Wonka and his factory to make their appearance.

I didn’t realize the film introduced “The Candy Man”, which became Sammy Davis Jr.’s hit.

According to Wikipedia, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was originally going to feature a little black boy, and the Oompa-Loompas were described (and illustrated) as African pygmies, but the film announcement launched a reaction from the NAACP.

Addendum: I also forgot that the film was the source of the oft-quoted, “I said, ‘Good day,’ sir!”