War Tech and Shakespeare’s Propaganda

LongbowIn the last article about Edith Piaf and “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” I referenced the St Crispin’s Day Speech from Henry V. It is not a play I’m that familiar with. I think I’ve read it all once (but I’ve read bits of it many times while trying to answer various questions). And I’ve seen Kenneth Branagh’s filmed version several times. But the Battle of Agincourt is very strange in the play. Henry and his “band of brothers” are standing around thinking that they’ve lost the battle. Then Montjoy shows up and says, “No. You crushed us!”

Okay, fine. It’s a play. But it is supposed to be based upon historical record. And if there’s one thing I know about war, it is this: when one army is out gunned 5 to 1, it almost always loses. And when it doesn’t, there is a reason. Well, it turns out that the English really were badly outnumbered by the French at the Battle of Agincourt. And the English won. And there is one reason and one reason alone that they won. But first, some Shakespeare:

And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered—
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.

Well, I don’t believe that. I think most men of that time just want to tend to their farms or trades and had no real interest in that war that had been going on for 78 year and would continue on for another 38. It, like most wars, was pointless and stupid. It was a war about who ought to sit on the French thrown. Henry himself died 31 years before the whole bloody thing was over.

What won the battle for the English was the same thing that had won most of their battles in the first half of the war: the long bow. So again, it is not a question of heroics or will to power. Wars are won based upon what the resources each army has to use. Historically, it was just humans. But over time, technological advantages have made the difference. And sometimes it is just bad leadership. Does anyone really think that Hitler would have lost WWII if he hadn’t decided to pull Stalin back into the war?

I love the St Crispin’s Day Speech. It is beautiful. It is also pernicious propaganda. It wasn’t Henry’s “band of brothers.” It was his lowly artillery men with their cutting edge long bows. At the Battle of Patay, things were almost reversed, with the English having overwhelming numbers. But the French were able to destroy the archer position. As a result 1,500 French massacred 5,000 English. It was the beginning of the end of for the English. It’s all discussed in the three Henry VI plays, if you can bear them. They were among Shakespeare’s earliest plays. It isn’t that they are especially bad. But you can see how the English Empire would push Henry V all over the world because it makes the British look good. But the Henry VI plays make the British look like a bunch of impotent back-biters.

Afterword

You know what’s a good Shakespeare historical play, Henry IV, Part 1. Do you know why? Because Henry IV isn’t a major player in it. It’s mostly about Falstaffe and Harry, before he became the annoying King Henry V.

Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien

Edith PiafWhen I think of songs that are about strength and self-reliance, I think of Frank Sinatra. Songs like “It Was A Very Good Year” and “My Way” and “New York, New York” (even though I too know it from Liza Minnelli singing it in the film). But when I want to pick myself up, it is not one of these songs I turn to. It is instead Edith Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien,” or in English, “No, I regret nothing”!

I always associate Piaf with strength, just as I do with her American counterpart Billie Holiday. And I find that really interesting because if you’ve listened to Frank Sinatra at all, you know that he is just a male ripoff of Holiday. Listen to his phrasing. And Sinatra wasn’t hiding it. He said, “It is Billie Holiday who was, and still remains, the greatest single musical influence on me.” But that is not what I want to talk about; it’s just an interesting aside.

As much as I love the work of Sinatra, there is something missing that really is there with Holiday and Piaf. Both women were extremely strong, but they were not afraid to bare their undersides. And that brings us back to “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” If I had an army and we were about to go into battle, I would play it for them.[1]

The lyrics in English are (very roughly):

No, nothing at all
No, I regret nothing
Neither the good that I’ve done
Nor evil, it’s all the same to me!

No, nothing at all
No, I regret nothing
It is paid, swept away, forgotten
I’m happy about the past!

And it continues on—unrepentant. Oh how I wish that I ever felt like that. Instead, I could sing, “Oui, je regrette tout!” (Yes, I regret everything!) Except. Not in the most fundamental way. I regret all the embarrassments of the past. I regret the stupidity of the past. I regret all the lessons that I had to learn. But I do not regret all the lessons that I have learned. And I do not regret the man that I am. So in that sense, “Non, je ne regrette rien!”

Of course, the song itself is a sucker punch. It is strong until the very end, when it is weak indeed. In the last line of the song, she explains why she regrets nothing:

No, nothing at all
No, I regret nothing
Because my life, because my joys
Today, it starts with you!

Oh! Yes, I see now. I really cannot imagine falling in love again. But a friend of mine at 60 was heart sick over a girl half his age. So who knows? But there is something about being in love that makes you feel that you are starting over—that the past does not matter. You are off one train and onto another. And everything on that last train, regardless the good and the bad, brought you to this new train—to this new life. Of course, I don’t need a lover to feel that way. I feel that way every day. Of course, the refrain is not “I regret nothing!” Instead, it is, “There is nothing else I can do.”

The end of the song shows emotional weakness. If Frank Sinatra had ever sung the song, I’m sure he would have had the last line changed. No manly man could ever admit that a woman would be the making of them. This is despite the fact that in my experience, this is exactly what most men think. Most men want their wives to be Lady Macbeth. Instead, most wives are far more practical, “Now why would you want to go an kill King Duncan? He’s given you a good job. You’re retirement is secure. So you become King of Scotland. Then what? Macduff comes in and kills you. Thane of Cawdor is a good job. I just don’t see why you’d want to risk that!”

But for a woman to admit that a man makes all the vicissitudes of the past worth while, is perfectly okay. And it was even more so back in 1960. But I still see the song as an anthem of acceptance and pride. Because I believe the woman who sang all those lyrics up to that final one doesn’t need that man. And if he brushes her off, she will still sing, “Non, je ne regrette rien!”


[1] I do love this but I would still go with Piaf!

Not Having Nixon to Kick Around Anymore

Nixon Fights BackOn this day in 1901, Chic Young was born. He was the creator of the comic strip Blondie. I really liked it when I was a kid. Now, it seems kind of pathetic. But I think it is like all art: you have to put it in historical context. Look at the other comic strips of the 1930s: they’re dreadful. What is most amazing is that the strip is still actively being produced. Young’s son Dean writes it and it is drawn by whomever. He is currently on his fifth artist since he took over the strip from his father in in 1973. By the way, the Dagwood Sandwich really is named after Blondie’s husband.

The great guitarist Jimmy Page is 70 today. I’m not a big Led Zeppelin fan, but Page was a very innovative guitarist. But I’ve look for a decent bit of video of him playing his guitar somewhat recently. All I find is a lot of Led Zeppelin that really annoys me. So go look it up yourself if you want.

Other birthdays: playwright Thomas William Robertson (1829); composer John Knowles Paine (1839); chief engineer of the Golden Gate Bridge Joseph Strauss (1870); actor Fernando Lamas (1915); one of the greatest villains in film history, Lee Van Cleef (1925); playwright Brian Friel (85); football player Bart Starr (81); actor Bob Denver (1935); actor J K Simmons (59); actor and crush of mine Imelda Staunton (58); and singer-songwriter Dave Matthews (47).

The day, however, belongs to my beloved Richard Nixon who was born on this day in 1913. Look, the man was imperfect. He had a real paranoia problem—but not without cause. And his foreign policy was a disaster. But was it worse than Johnson’s? Well, I don’t know. It certainly wasn’t a lot worse. And he did eventually decide it was time to pull the cord. He also wasn’t bad on domestic issues. But the reason that I love him is that he is the most successful loser in the history of humanity. Even at the peak of his fame, I think he still felt like a loser. And, of course, there are my puppet plays about the Nixon administration. So in a sense, Nixon is no longer a person to me; he’s a character. And in that group, he’s an okay guy. Kind of a Caspar Milquetoast compared to the rest of the cast.

Here’s another thing. Here’s what Nixon said after he lost his election to become the governor of California:

How do you not love that man? He’s angry. He’s sad. But he thinks he’s being funny. And do you know what? I think he was funny! I present the video because when people quote it, they get the tone all wrong. That’s understandable. There’s a lot going on inside him at that point. But it isn’t an angry denunciation the way people usually say it, “You won’t have Nixon to kick around anymore…” He wasn’t just talking about the media there either. He was talking to the world generally. It’s poignant.

One thing I definitely think: Richard Nixon was not bad for this country in the way that Reagan, Bush the Younger, and even the New Democrats have been. That’s not to say that he wouldn’t be a crazy Tea Party guy if he were in politics today. But even in his own time, the conservative Republicans didn’t much like his liberal social policy. If Nixon had been more of an economic conservative, his party mightn’t have abandoned him so willingly over Watergate. I for one am damn sad that we don’t have Nixon to kick around anymore.

Happy birthday Richard Nixon!

The Count of Monte Cristo

The Count of Monte Cristo - 1975In 1844, Alexandre Dumas started serializing The Count of Monte Cristo. It was kind of his War and Peace—a novel with so many characters, you need a chart to keep track of it. Really! Wikipedia provides one: Count of Monte Cristo Relations. And even the highest resolution version is hard to read. But let me say what should not be a controversial statement: he’s a whole lot more fun to read than most of the English writers of that time who I admire.

The Count of Monte Cristo is a revenge story. And everyone loves a good revenge story—especially filmmakers. So the book has been turned into a film countless times. In fact, David Goyer (a really typical and talentless film director) is working on one as we speak. In his case, I doubt that the problems of adapting the book to the screen will really matter. The book has roughly 50 major characters, but I suspect a modern Hollywood interpretation of the film will only be guaranteed to have: Dantes is wrongly imprisoned, escapes, becomes Count of Monte Cristo, and kicks some major ass. Will he wear a shirt with MC emblazoned on it? Time will tell.

But in 1975, a big-budget (for the time) version of the book was made for television starring Richard Chamberlain. And yes, it changes a number of things in the book, but overall, it is about as close as you could get in under two hours. And perhaps most important, it doesn’t lose the thematic basis of the book, which is that vengeance changes a man. The Count of Monte Cristo is not Edmond Dantes. There is a lovely scene at the beginning of the film where Dantes will not turn over a thief to the authorities, “I wouldn’t imprison any man who is used to the freedom of the sea, sir.” Wonderful foreshadowing, of course. But the scene contrasts nicely to a later scene where the Count watches approvingly as the same man his killed. (The details are completely different in the book.)

The film has quite a cast. In addition to Chamberlain, who almost defined this kind of made-for-TV drama, there was Trevor Howard, Donald Pleasence, and Tony Curtis. Howard is really great as Dantes’ prison companion, Abbe Faria. But what most stands out, and I really am not trying to be mean here, is what a limited actor Tony Curtis is. In the final scene between Curtis and Chamberlain it is especially obvious. All I could think was, go back to what you do best: Some Like it Hot and The Great Race. His performance as Mondego was an embarrassment. One final point on acting: this film is from that wonderful period when no one cared about accents. I actually kind of like it. Few things are as annoying as watching Leonardo DiCaprio trying to do an accent.

When I was a kid, I watched this version on television—probably on its premiere. My mother was not only a lover of old books, but I think she had a crush on Richard Chamberlain. And why not? The man has it all, except, in the case of my mother’s crush, any interest in women. But does that matter, anyway? The great thing about such crushes is that they will go unrequited by definition. Anyway, I loved it as a kid. But I didn’t get the more important aspects of the story. It was just great to watch the man so badly abused get his revenge. The funny thing is that having watched it last night, it was still all that and I still delighted in it. But it was also more. It was inspiring because justice was done, but also sad because no amount of justice could bring back the idealism of the young Dantes.

I highly recommend watching it. And it is available for free on YouTube. I will say what I usually say: it is much better than what you probably will watch:

Afterword

Wikipedia had the following to say about Richard Chamberlain’s personal life:

Chamberlain was romantically involved with television actor Wesley Eure in the early 1970s. He resided in Hawaii with his partner, actor-writer-producer Martin Rabbett, from 1976 to 2010, and whom Chamberlain had legally adopted to protect his assets. Rabbett and Chamberlain starred together, among others, in Allan Quatermain and the Lost City of Gold, in which they played brothers Allan and Robeson Quatermain. In the spring of 2010 Chamberlain moved from Maui to Los Angeles because of work possibilities, leaving Rabbett in Hawaii, at least temporarily. Chamberlain was outed by the French women’s magazine Nous Deux in December 1989 at the age of 55, but it was not until 2003 that he confirmed his homosexuality, in his autobiography, Shattered Love.

I think it shows an amazing amout of progress that the entry does not start with, “Chamberlain is gay.” Or, “Chamberlain was outted in 1989.” The thing is, even in the 1970s, we all assumed that Chamberlain was gay. I remember my mother remarking that it was a shame that all the great looking men were gay.

By the way, I just looked up the net worth of Chamberlain: $20 million. That’s not bad and about what I think we can all agree that a man of his enormous success should be worth. So I looked up Leonardo DiCaprio’s net worth: $200 million. DiCaprio is in no way more successful in his time than Chamberlain was in his time. Our winner-take-all markets have become even more winner-take-all. It makes me think of the line, “I am big. It’s the pictures that got small.” The actors just get smaller but their paychecks just get bigger.