17 December 2014

The tars react to Omdurman

From Rudyard Kipling's A Fleet in Being (1898, subtitled 'Notes of two trips with the Channel Squadron'), an account of Royal Navy sailors' reaction to fleet signals detailing General Kitchener's major victory in the Battle of Omdurman against Mahdist forces in the Sudan on 2 September 1898:

One peaceful morning the Yeoman of Signals came to the captain's cabin at the regulation pace, but with heightened colour and an eye something brighter than usual. 'Signal from the flagship, sir,' said he, reading off the slate. 'Omdurman fallen: killed so many, and wounded so many.' 'Thank you,' said the captain. 'Tell the men.' On this, I went forward to see how the news would be received. We were busy painting some deck-houses, and the work continued to an accompaniment of subdued voices--the hushed tones of men under the eye of authority. Word was passed to the lower deck and the stokehold: and the hum of talk rose, perhaps, half a note. I halted by the painters. Said one, dipping deep in the white lead: 'Um, ah! This ought to make the French sickish. Almost 'ear 'em coughin', can't you?' Said another, reaching out for the broadest and slabbiest brush: 'I say, Alf, lend us that Khartoum brush o' yours.' After a long pause, stepping back to catch the effect of a peculiarly juicy stroke--head a little aside and one eye shut: 'Well, we've waited about long enough, 'aven't we?' Bosun's mate with a fine mixture of official severity and human tolerance: 'What are you cacklin' for over there! Carry on quiet, can't you?' And that was how we took the news of the little skirmish called Omdurman.
- Rudyard Kipling, A Fleet in Being, 1898

Today Omdurman is a suburb of the Sudanese capital Khartoum.

16 December 2014

Ships that pass in the night

Liner Voyager of the Seas departing Wellington, 16 December 2014.

15 December 2014

Meet the gang 'cos the boys are here, the boys to entertain you

Today's special find in the second-hand bookstore was this fine example of New Zealand social history: The Songs We Sang, by Les Cleveland and the D Day Dodgers, on Kiwi Records (LA-3). It's in excellent condition, and contains 11 examples of military tunes belted out in quick succession. You can hear the recordings here, and that website thinks the LP was released in 1959 - it's not clear from the disc itself, which is not dated. Historian Jock Phillips has written an excellent biography of Cleveland, who turns out to have been a multi-talented chap who (amongst other things) was a lecturer in the Political Science department at Victoria University of Wellington.

The back cover of the LP contains a blurb for each of the tracks. Here's the one for track 4, side 1: My Africa Star:

This is a satire based on one of the red-hot grievances of the New Zealand Division in the Middle East. The Eighth Army was formed in September, 1941. To qualify for a small metal figure eight which was worn with the Africa Star ribbon, it was necessary to have served in the Eighth Army on or after October 23, 1942. But the formation had been fighting for a year prior to that arbitrary date, so that all those men who had been knocked out with wounds, invalided out with illness or transferred to non-operational units were denied this small but significant award. Some of them were veterans of the first desert battles and their remarks were often voluble and loud when they saw less-worthy soldiers—including girls serving ice-cream in army canteens and "those who were in Palestine"—wearing "the eight".
Les Cleveland died in January 2014.

See also:
History: NZ Film Unit - Behind Our Planes (1942 WAAF short) 

14 December 2014

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies

After more than a decade of film-making, Peter Jackson's Tolkien saga has finally ended, with the third and final film in what unfortunately became a trilogy of the 1937 children's book The Hobbit. Seeing The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies at Wellington's Embassy Theatre, it was prefaced by a brief recap of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit productions, with warm reminisces from the main cast-members. Then it hurtled straight back into the action with the dragon Smaug's assault on Lake-town, which is suitably wrack-and-ruin until this trilogy's Aragorn substitute, Bard the Bowman, plies his trade. Harking back (or, chronologically speaking, forwards) to the corrupting influence of the Ring on Gollum, Thorin Oakenshield has his judgement clouded by possessiveness and paranoia over the mountains of gold he has won from the dragon. That lasts until the made-up-for-the-movies jolly nasty orc fellow, Azog, the one who has serious difficulty picking his nose, turns up with a whole heap of iron-clad orcs and trolls for a mighty old ding-dong that you were kind of expecting from the title.

It's to Jackson's credit that the enormous barney at the end is a proper highlight and not just a re-hash of the sturm und drang at the end of the second and third Rings films. The film's High Frame Rate 3D imagery shows the action in razor-sharp detail and sets a very high standard for those hoping to follow in the fantasy genre. At times you just want to press pause and savour the beauty of the scenery, the intricate detail in the set-dressing, and the effort that's been put into the costumes and armour. It's also fortunate that nearly all of the regrettable video-game-like moments from The Desolation of Smaug are missing from this film. (Well, there is one now-traditional moment for Super Legolas, but that can be forgiven). The sound design is adept too, of course, making full use of the subtleties and power of a great rig like that in the Embassy.

Apart from an inconsequential love story, which is serviceably handled (Evangeline Lilly already has an elf name to begin with!), there is little in the way of particularly meaty acting for the cast to do, unless fight choreography counts as acting. That's not a complaint, because the fighting is excellent. But The Hobbit hewed much closer to the action film genre than the previous trilogy, and it's only near the very end of Five Armies, when Ian McKellen and Martin Freeman provide a wordless scene with a commendable spot of acting 'business' that you remember that characters can interact with each other without the scenery crashing down around them or gigantic orcs bearing down to cleave them in two. And while the desire to tie up the loose ends and link back to the outset of The Fellowship of the Ring is understandable, Jackson again shows his unwillingness to opt for a snappy ending; instead, goodbyes must be drawn-out and somehow profound.

No matter - at least in the rush to expand two films into three the resulting finale was an entirely bearable 144 minutes long. This is a much more humane length than the epic runtimes of the earlier films. And now we can hope that Jackson & co. leave Tolkien for good, because the last drops have surely been squeezed from that particular source. No Silmarillion, no The Children of Hurin, please! I think like many people I've had my fill, and that's from someone who was a big fan when the series commenced. Now after umpteen views of those smug Air New Zealand inflight videos I'd like a healthy break. Maybe now's the time to make that Tintin sequel, Peter?

See also:
Movies: Sunset Boulevard, 25 September 2014
Movies: Die Nibelungen, 8 July 2014
Movies: The history of film aspect ratios, 28 June 2013

13 December 2014

How to park a skyscraper

A time-lapse video of the US$750m cruise liner Celebrity Solstice arriving at the port of Wellington this morning. Naturally, the weather turned to custard shortly after the ship arrived, which seems to be the hard-and-fast rule during the cruise season.

12 December 2014

The Green Manalishi

Fleetwood Mac, in its pre-Californian guise as a British heavy blues-rock quartet, perform their Peter Green-penned single The Green Manalishi (With the Two Prong Crown) to a Swedish audience in 1970, its year of release. The single reached number 10 in the UK charts, and was their last charting single in the UK for three years until the 1973 re-entry of their classic instrumental Albatross. Then it would be another three years before the next chart appearance with Say You Love Me, which commenced the radically reshaped band's mid-70s soft-rock avalanche. There's also a well-known cover of Green Manalishi by Midlands metallers Judas Priest on their 1979 album Hell Bent for Leather (the US version of their UK album Killing Machine), which added Manalishi as an extra track for the American market. This 1983 US outdoor performance is so Spinal Tap it will hurt your brain.