Roundup: Pop Culture & the Arts ...
Movies, Documentaries and Museum Exhibits
This page features links to reviews of movies, documentaries and exhibits with a historical theme. Listings are in reverse chronological order. Descriptions are taken directly from the linked publication. If you have articles you think should be listed on the Pop Culture page, please send them to the editor email@example.com.
SOURCE: Salon (9-11-10)
Perhaps taking its cue from Nucky, HBO is now focused on giving the people what they want: more gangsters. After a long dry spell in the wake of "The Sopranos," the network is finally offering up the kind of drama that a wide audience can sink its teeth into, created by prominent "Sopranos" scribe Terence Winter with a pilot episode directed by Martin Scorsese. And one week before the show's highly anticipated premiere, a little celebration seems justifiable; it's hard to think of a series that's looked more likely to succeed. From its breathtaking cinematography to its meticulous period costumes to its smart, snappy dialogue to its talented cast, "Boardwalk Empire" presents a TV program that's so polished and beautifully executed, each episode feels as rich and memorable as its own little Scorsese film. In fact, the Academy should save itself a little time and effort and just roll a big truck full of Emmy statuettes over to the "Boardwalk Empire" studios right now....
SOURCE: Lee P Ruddin (12-25-09)
But did the intelligence services really plot to keep Britain out of World War Two? Stephen Poliakoff believes so. So much, in fact, the acclaimed director dramatises how the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS or MI6) did their utmost to stop Winston Churchill becoming Britain’s wartime leader in his latest outing.
There’s much to admire in Glorious 39. Poliakoff challenges the simplistic version of Britain’s entry into war just twenty years after the horrors of the Great War. Indeed, he should be applauded for accusing the aristocracy of near-treason in their attempt to forestall the end of what was for them a golden age. The main protagonist, Romola Garai, likewise, deserves praise for her utterly magnetic role as a child of the British elite who uncovers the dastardly conspiracy to destabilise the Churchillians. Make no mistake about it; this is the film of 2009.
While he’s right to highlight that the intelligence services sponsored a magazine called “Truth” which regularly criticised the anti-appeasers off screen, however, on screen his sinister Nazi appeasement plot involving the aristocracy and SIS is a gross falsification of history.
This would be forgivable only Poliakoff says that this element is “true”. The murderous conspiracy at the heart of the film was an invention, he confirms, but the historical context was not. Granted, Neville Chamberlain did all he could to avert war with Germany upon becoming Prime Minster in 1937. He acceded to Hitler’s demands at Munich a year later and returned a national hero, promising “peace for our time”. But did Chamberlain’s Government really use the SIS to suppress all opposition to its policy of appeasement?
The record says no (and I emphasise record). The fortunes of the SIS in the interwar years were recently described in unprecedented detail by Gill Bennett, yet Churchill’s Man of Mystery: Desmond Morton and the World of Intelligence uncovers no plot.
Subversive activities of the Comintern had the effect of taking the SIS eye partially off the Nazi ball, admittedly, but it took steps to try to ameliorate the situation which enabled SIS to cope with increasing demands placed upon it, the former chief historian at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office writes. More significantly, rather than supporting the policy of appeasement, SIS intelligence – unfounded pertaining to an imminent German attack on Holland – passed to allies in 1939 revived “an atmosphere of mutual distrust and recrimination between Britain and Germany just at a time when the Prime Minister was trying to carry out his policy of appeasement,” much to the fury of the Foreign Office.
Professor Keith Jeffrey’s forthcoming official history of MI6 is unlikely to conclude any differently.
Let’s just say, however, Poliakoff got his intelligence services mixed up and that he intended to say the Security, not Secret, Service. What does the record reveal about MI5?
Akin to Bennett’s book, Christopher Andrew’s The Defence of the Realm is an unprecedented publishing event: it’s the first authorised history of MI5. And like her 2006 biography, his 2009 tome reveals the exact opposite to Poliakoff’s plot. Indeed of all the 400,000 files the Cambridge University don was given access to, it was the discovery that Vernon Kell (founder of MI5) tried to dissuade Chamberlain from appeasing Hitler with a 1938 assessment peppered with tales of der Führer mocking him as an Arschloch (“arsehole”) which made a real impression on him.
“MI5 warnings to the government that Hitler was serious, that ‘Mein Kampf’ should be taken seriously, had no effect,” the history professor writes.
“So it fell back to the thing that any prime minister is always going to pay attention to, that he’s been insulted by his opponent,” Andrew added. “It was the only way of getting through to him.”
But to a radical playwright prone to reciting his father and grandfather’s experience at the hands of MI5 and MI6 over Churchill’s hearing aid, this evidence will undoubtedly fall on deaf ears.
SOURCE: Lee P Ruddin (9-15-10)
Enter Woman Without Men, a Persian drama exploring the limited range of options available to women in Mossadegh’s Iran. Based on the 1989 novel of the same title by Iranian writer Shahrnush Parsipur, the debut feature from director Shirin Neshat won the Silver Lion for Best Director at the 2009 Venice Film Festival. Notwithstanding the addition of the political import, however, the movie remains an art house one with limited appeal, cataloguing as it does the personal stories of four oppressed women – an activist, a traditionalist, an intellectual, and a prostitute – who seek freedom in, what one reviewer calls, “a kind of Adam-less Garden of Eden.”
The 99-minute drama is set in 1953, two years after Iran’s first elected PM passed a law nationalizing the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company. The threat to the westward flow of oil forced the hands of those in Washington and London to act and a clandestine operation was carried out to return the Western-leaning Shah to the Peacock Throne. “My belief,” states Neshat, “is that the 1953 coup paved the groundwork for the Islamic Revolution, and the beginning of the antagonism between the U.S. and Iran.” While it is necessary to illustrate the legacy of Anglo-American involvement in Iranian affairs, especially at a time when the world appears to teeter on the brink of nuclear war, Neshat fails to illuminate any British and American culpability.
Given that many in the West only go as far back as 1979 in Iranian history, returning to the 1950s, you hope, would serve a greater purpose and remind those outside (as well as inside) the country of its secular society. After all, “the Western idea of Iran is post-Islamic revolution,” says Neshat in the 25-minute DVD interview, “and most people have amnesia about the period before it.” With this film, the Iranian-born, American-based artist endeavors to contribute to “the vast narrative of Iran’s history, reminding us of the voice of a nation that was silenced in 1953 and that has risen again.”
Yet despite the political dedication (in memory of “those who lost their lives fighting for freedom and democracy in Iran – from the Constitutional Revolution of 1906 to the Green Movement of 2009”) and efforts of restaging the 1953 protests in Casablanca, Morocco, less than nuanced scenes, such as an unoriginal scene of members of Tehran’s intelligentsia talking politics in a radical restaurant, are the one’s viewers will take away. This is not the film, then, for Tony Blair (who, according to comic Shappi Khorsandi, replied blankly “who?” when Channel Four news anchor Jon Snow said that Mossadeq was the reason why Iran hated Britain so much), or the rest of us Brits for that matter, to brush up on Anglo-Iranian history.
For those interested in Iranian cinema, particularly its unapologetic feminist variety, see the 2007 animated film Persepolis. Despite being set a generation later, Marjane Satrapi deals with the repression of womanhood in Iranian society so successfully that it earned an Oscar nomination. For those interested in learning about the anti-Western sentiments that have swept across the Middle East, though, and, more specifically, how the Anglo-American coup purportedly planted the seed of this contemporary rage, read Stephen Kinzer’s All the Shah’s Men: An American Coup and the Roots of Middle East Terror (2003).
Iranians were aware, as Neshat demonstrates, of this conspiracy at the time, and its facts have been public knowledge for some four decades – well before U.S. involvement was publicly acknowledged by then-Secretary of State Madeleine Albright in 2000. The story, however, is well worth retelling since its aftershocks are believed to be felt today. New York Times reporter Kinzer argues that “it is not far-fetched to draw a line from Operation Ajax [CIA code for the August ’53 coup] through the Shah’s repressive regime and the Islamic Revolution to the fireballs that engulfed the World Trade Center in New York.”
“Nothing in history happens in a vacuum,” Kinzer said in a 2005 interview with Rick Shenkman. Linking the CIA’s first successful regime-change operation with September 11, though, takes unintended consequences to a whole new level and is, quite frankly, “far-fetched”. The author himself pointed out to the founder and editor-in-chief of HNN that “the coup in Iran was hardly the only factor that led many Muslims to begin considering the United States an enemy.” (Indeed, as Iranian historian Abdollah Shahbazi argues, four other factors played a greater role in Middle Easterners’ anti-Americanism: the 1952 CIA/SIS coup in Egypt; President John F. Kennedy’s reforms imposed on the Shah; support for Israel during the 1967 Six-Day War; and funding of the Afghan mujahideen.)
That said, the opening quote in Kinzer’s book by Harry Truman – “There is nothing new in the world except the history you do not know” – is one that Blair and others should heed in an effort to understand whether or not what happened then matters today. Although All the Shah’s Men often reads like, what one reviewer calls, “a screenplay,” it is thought-provoking in a way the magical-realist Women Without Men can only dream of, rendering it a must-read. And while a couple of fascinating hour-long BBC documentaries (Abadan: The First Oil Crisis and Iran and Britain) provide some much-needed nuance, there remains a film to be made.
As I said at the outset, it is about time a movie chronicled the events surrounding the overthrow of a democratically elected Iranian government. President Barack Obama’s gesture of conciliation when he admitted America’s (lead) part in the British-backed coup d’état which ousted Prime Minister Mohammad Mossadegh and the rise of the Green Movement more generally, both in June last year, only add to the demand.
SOURCE: Lee P Ruddin (8-31-10)
Historian Dan Snow’s Empire of the Seas: How the Navy Forged the Modern World takes all the headlines, though. And deservedly so, viewers would agree. The four-part documentary tells the story of how the navy grew from a simple outfit into the most complex industrial enterprise on the face of earth; of how the need to manage it laid the foundations of the British civil service; and of how it transformed Britons’ sense of national identity and Britain’s democracy. It is, in short, the magnificent tale of a 400-year struggle fought at sea for mastery of the waves and how it drove Britain into the modern age and changed the world.
Little wonder, then, The Box That Changed Britain does not feature in the review pages. Yet the fact remains that this, too, explicates how Brits entered the modern age. The only difference being, of course, the entity in question. As hard as it might be to believe, though, but an hour’s viewing of Graeme McAulay’s programme leaves you wanting to know more about how a simple invention – the shipping container – changed the world forever and forced Britain into the modern era of globalisation.
With a mixture of archival footage and modern-day filming, the extraordinary impact of a metal box is told through the eyes of the dockers, historians and ship spotters. From quayside in vast container spaces to on board ships the size of an athletics track, the sixty-minute documentary reveals how the shipping container has transformed Britain’s communities as well as its coastline.
Heart-warming one minute, heart-rending the next – it is a must see for those interested in British (industrial) history. In fact, those interested in transatlantic history more generally would find it equally insightful. Modern containerisation, let us not forget, began with American entrepreneur Malcom McLean. Often referred to as ‘the father of containerisation’, we learn how, along with engineer Keith Tantlinger, they designed the container and decided to share the patent within the industry so as to encourage standardisation, meaning today any twenty-foot equivalent unit (TEU) can be handled by any of the globe’s leading ports without any problems of compatibility whatsoever.
The container revolution played a fundamental role in the (further) demise of the Port of Liverpool. In the twenty years after McLean’s inaugural transatlantic voyage in 1966, Liverpool slipped from second to sixth in the hierarchy of UK ports (handling roughly a quarter of Britain’s manufacturing exports in the late 1960s to dealing with less than 10 per cent within the space of a decade). The city’s prominence came from cargo liners and this radical approach to the transportation of goods by sea rendered obsolete these conventional ships.
An 11,000-ton container ship took just 500-odd working hours to load and unload, readers are told in John Belchem’s (ed.) Liverpool 800: Character, Culture and History, compared with 10,000-odd working hours for a cargo ship. It was, as McGough succinctly illustrates, “like going from sail to steam”. Notwithstanding the fact that container ships rapidly grew to carry the equivalent of six cargo liners, port turnaround times reduced quite significantly. As a result, the numbers of those working on the docks halved in the decade between the 1960s and 1970s, falling from 11,500 to 5,200.
It was not only waterfront employment per se, however, that felt the brunt of this revolution. The multiple effects of the container phenomenon were particularly far reaching in Liverpool. As well as those firms dotted around the docklands who serviced its traditional needs for sacks and slings and who found demand for their products evaporate, pubs and cafes that lined the Dock Road and Scotland Road were soon forced out of business. The vanishing of the connection between port and city, to be sure, is the most devastating fallout and one for which the documentary-makers deserve plaudits for illuminating.
The story is not all bad, though. Granted, the advent of containerisation ended the days of mass workforces loading and unloading ships. But Liverpool’s docks now handle more cargo than they ever did – and this despite the area missing out on the first generation of containerisation (McLean based the head of his British operations in the Port of Felixstowe, Norfolk, given Liverpool’s unionised workforce not to mention its antiquated dock system). The port adjusted and built a new set of container links with North America and northern Russia, operating in niches around the main global trading routes such as those incorporating New York and Rotterdam. The 500,000 increase in the TEU’s Liverpool’s Seaforth terminal handled in the two decades between the early 1980s and early 2000s is evidence enough of its rebirth.
While few on Merseyside celebrate the invention of the shipping container, Scousers should celebrate the work of those behind this prduction and commend them for what is an original take on the region’s past and present. After all, Liverpudlians are open-minded enough to know you cannot stop progress and that Liverpool’s bright future is thanks to the metal box’s victory over militant strikers. As McGough poignantly concludes, “The dockers may have gone from the docklands, but the cargo hasn’t.”
SOURCE: Hollywood Reporter (9-7-10)
The feature film, titled "Reagan" and sporting a $30 million production budget, is set for release late next year and will be based on two best-selling biographies of the 40th U.S. president by Paul Kengor: "The Crusader" and "God and Ronald Reagan."
Mark Joseph, who optioned the books four years ago, is co-producing with Ralph Winter and Jonas McCord wrote the script....
"Only in Hollywood could you make an insulting, condescending movie about a much-loved historical figure, hire an actor who loathes the man, watch it flop and then somehow conclude that Americans don't want to see a movie about him," Joseph said. "I watched Americans line up and wait for 10 hours for the simple privilege of passing by his closed casket. They love this man."...
SOURCE: NYT (8-30-10)
Less documented was a similar fashion overhaul in China, which is now the subject of an exhibition at the Hong Kong Museum of History. “The Evergreen Classic: Transformation of the Qipao,” showing until Sept. 13, is a beautifully presented, and sometimes humorous, display of 280 Chinese gowns created over the last 130 years. The exhibition is augmented by photographs and commentary showing how the bulky Qing Dynasty robe — which covered everything but a woman’s face and hands — altered and shrank until it became the slinky “cheongsam” worn today, while retaining the gown’s distinctive diagonal lines. Unlike the Western dress, which has a vertical construction, the qipao follows the flow of wrapped fabric.
“We wanted to highlight the qipao’s role in history, and how it came to have greater meaning,” said Terence Cheung, assistant curator of the Museum of History. “The dress changed with the times.”...
SOURCE: Atlanta Journa-Constitution (9-2-10)
It's a string, not much more than a thread really, tying the left temple to the frame of Abraham Lincoln's wire-rimmed spectacles, one of the items in his pockets the night he was assassinated.
"It's probably Lincoln's repair. His glasses broke and he got a piece of string and fixed it," Jones speculates. "Here's a guy who's literally installed in marble, memorialized, but he literally put his pants on one leg at a time like the rest of us, and this is a reminder of that."
"With Malice Toward None: The Abraham Lincoln Bicentennial Exhibition," opening Saturday, delivers both what Jones calls the "big-ticket stuff" (such as the Gettysburg Address) and more human-scale objects....
SOURCE: Guardian (UK) (8-25-10)
A treat for lovers of high art, this is also a timely allusion to the great artistic inheritance of the Vatican. The message is surely: forget the recent scandals, remember the church-sponsored glories of the high Renaissance. But is that epoch really such a good one to stress if you want to distract from the moral failings of the clergy?...
SOURCE: The Canadian Press (8-25-10)
Now an exhibition about innovation in Muslim civilization seeks to highlight what organizers say is an overshadowed period of history, a "Golden Age" in which advances in engineering, medicine and architecture laid groundwork for Western progress from the Renaissance until modern times.
In a play on the old stories, it is titled: "1001 Inventions: Discover the Muslim Heritage in Our World."
The show seeks to be strictly academic, and shuns political or religious pronouncements. But the robust response of many young Muslims suggests a thirst for cultural pride against a contemporary backdrop of conflict and suspicion between the West and Muslim countries....
SOURCE: NYT (8-25-10)
Deas got lost.
In the mid-1800s, Deas (pronounced days) specialized in portraits and multilayered scenes of life on the frontier as American Indian and European heritage collided and intermingled. He painted brilliantly and prolifically for a decade and became, briefly, a sensation on the New York art scene.
Then, at age 29, he went insane. He lived out the rest of his life in mental institutions, and by the time he died, at age 48, right after the Civil War, he and his paintings had fallen into obscurity. But dozens of them, it turns out, were only in hiding, and now they are considered national treasures, painted by a doomed artist with a back story made for Hollywood and an eye that captured a fast-fading West.
And thereby hangs the tale of new exhibition at the Denver Art Museum, the first-ever retrospective of Deas’s work, assembled by an art history professor, Carol C. Clark, who found herself compelled by the art, and the story of Deas’s life, and finally by the hunt for his lost works....
SOURCE: Independent (UK) (8-18-10)
The Brook Street address where Handel resided for 36 years until his death in 1759, and where Hendrix lived between 1968 and 1969, will be opened to the public next month in commemoration of the 40 years since Hendrix’s death.
The surprisingly modest looking flat, which currently serves as administrative offices for the Handel House Museum, will be cleared out and in its place a haul of Hendrix memorabilia will be installed as part of the ‘Hendrix in Britain’ exhibition....
SOURCE: Telegraph (UK) (8-24-10)
The actress, who is playing Jackie Kennedy in The Kennedys, looked uncannily like the former First Lady as she sat next to Greg Kinnear, who also bore a startling resemblance to his character as he portrayed the former president.
The pair were recreating events leading up to the moment when Kennedy was shot dead while he and his wife were riding in a presidential motorcade in Dallas, Texas on November 22nd 1963.
Holmes wore a replica of the famous candy-pink suit and pillbox hat worn by Mrs Kennedy on the day of the assassination, and the actors rode in a convertible limousine like that in which the Kennedys were travelling when the shooting took place....
SOURCE: USA Today (8-19-10)
On Friday, Beresford's latest film, Mao's Last Dancer, based on Cunxin's best-selling 2003 autobiography, arrives in U.S. theaters, following a successful opening last year in Australia and a fistful of nominations and awards. Besides spectacular dancing and music, the film packs an emotional wallop about the power of art and love to transcend borders and America's continuing allure to freedom-seekers.
"It may be the only pro-America film done in 25 years," says Beresford (Breaker Morant, Driving Miss Daisy), exaggerating just a little. "I was aware when I was making the film that a lot of people, at least in the Australian press, think life in China under Mao was better than life in America under Bush (either one).
"I'd like to tell them they're wrong," he adds. "This film shows someone's amazing dedication to his art and the value of the freedom to practice it, which is what he had in America."...
SOURCE: NYT (8-19-10)
As the story begins in 1941 in occupied Paris, Germany has just invaded Russia. Manouchian, along with fellow Communists, is rounded up and detained at a nearby camp from which he is released after signing a document disavowing his politics. A reflective soul, scraps of whose poetry are heard in the film, Manouchian does not believe in killing. And the scenes of his rendezvous with his beautiful, adoring French wife, Mélinée (Virginie Ledoyen), who risks her life to bring him food while he is interned, lend the movie a faint romantic blush.
But when the Nazis crack down on the Resistance, Manouchian’s philosophy toughens. He joins the FTP-MOI, an armed unit of anti-fascist partisans — mostly Communist, mostly Jewish immigrants from Spain, Hungary, Poland, Armenia and Italy — and becomes its commander. For his terrorist initiation, he tosses a grenade into a group of German soldiers, as two younger colleagues swoop in and finish off those who are still alive....
SOURCE: NYT (8-19-10)
The second season of “Jersey Shore,” which takes place in Miami, is even more popular than the first, and “Keeping Up With the Kardashians” is returning on Sunday for a fifth season, carrying in tow a spinoff about publicists, “The Spin Crowd.”
There is no need to panic.
Reality shows that exalt indolent, loud-mouthed exhibitionists may seem like almost biblical retribution for our materialistic, celebrity-obsessed age. But actually, these kinds of series are an extension of a time-honored form of entertainment, one that reaches back to the era of landed gentry, debutantes and social seasons in places like Newport, R.I., or the French Riviera.
More than a century ago, ordinary people avidly followed the follies of the idle rich in the society pages and passenger lists of liners like the Atlantic or the Mauretania. (The maiden voyage of the Titanic was a style story — until it hit the iceberg.)...
SOURCE: NYT (8-17-10)
Like the flickering shadows in Plato’s Cave, these images were subjected to a radical rereading with the appearance of another reel in 1998: 30 minutes of outtakes showing the extent to which scenes had been deliberately staged. Over and over, in multiple takes, we see well-dressed Jews enter a butcher’s shop, ignoring the children begging outside. In a similar scenario, prosperous-looking passersby are directed to disregard the corpses abandoned on the sidewalk. The propagandists’ manipulation of their half-million prisoners was now clear, even as its eventual purpose — perhaps more than just to manufacture scenes showing callousness on the part of wealthy Jews toward their less fortunate brethren — remained as murky as ever....
SOURCE: Bloomberg News (8-15-10)
Research by art historian Philip Sohm shows that in recent decades more has been written about him than that other Michelangelo (Buonarroti), previously top of art pop charts.
A steady stream of Caravaggio news stories appears, intensifying this year to mark the 400th anniversary of his death. In June, Italian anthropologists claimed to have identified his bones by DNA analysis in Porto Ercole, the town on the Tuscan coast where he died.
Caravaggio was an art star. He instigated one of the most startling revolutions in all of painting. When he arrived in Rome at the end of the 16th century, it was the end of the Renaissance. The standard style was vapid, idealized: in a word, academic. Suddenly, around 1600, Caravaggio started to produce pictures that looked totally different.
His dark, violent, sinister, sexy world -- in which the angels look as if they might pick your pocket and the saints resemble street people -- is profoundly in touch with our contemporary sensibilities. The question is why.
SOURCE: NYT (8-16-10)
After 70 years that wait has now ended. This year the National Jazz Museum in Harlem acquired the entire set of nearly 1,000 discs, made at the height of the swing era, and has begun digitizing recordings of inspired performances by Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Coleman Hawkins, Lester Young, Bunny Berigan, Harry James and others that had been thought to be lost forever. Some of these remarkable long-form performances simply could not be captured by the standard recording technology of the time. (Mr. Savory used a different format.) The Savory collection also contains examples of underappreciated musicians playing at peak creative levels not heard anywhere else, putting them in a new light for jazz fans and scholars.
“Some of us were aware Savory had recorded all this stuff, and we were really waiting with bated breath to see what would be there,” said Dan Morgenstern, the Grammy-winning jazz historian and critic who is also director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers University. “Even though I’ve heard only a small sampling, it’s turning out to be the treasure trove we had hoped it would be, with some truly wonderful, remarkable sessions. None of what I’ve heard has been heard before. It’s all new.”...
SOURCE: Lee P Ruddin (8-16-10)
Palin had just taken up the role of president of the Royal Geographic Society and, in an interview in October’s Geographical Magazine, he said: “If we say that all of our past involvement with the world was bad and wicked and wrong, I think we’re doing ourselves a great disservice.” The travel writer singled out “lines of communication between people that are still very strong,” as a particular virtue.
Nowadays it is coventional wisdom to think that all “was bad and wicked and wrong.” The main reason for its fall into disrepute was its involvement in the slave trade. And rightly so, you would agree. “The difficulty with the achievements of empire”, however, writes Niall Ferguson in the introduction of Empire: How Britain Made the Modern World (2004), “is that they are much more likely to be taken for granted than the sins of empire.”
No doubt, then, Ferguson would have welcomed Palin’s view given that, as fellow British historian Andrew Roberts pointed out last fall, hand-wringing risks overshadowing the virtues of Empire such as, for instance, the building of the Indian Railways. For those who question the Empire’s living legacy to India, John Sergeant’s two-part, two-hour documentary, John Sergeant on Tracks of Empire (BBC Four), is required viewing. Since, as the British reporter-cum-broadcaster states in part one (Unite and Divide), “If you understand the railways, you can begin to understand India.”
Starting in Kolkata (Calcutta), Sergeant embarks on a 3,000-mile journey across the “inland sea of the interior”, from east to west, along a “river of rail”. Proposed in 1853 by Governor General Lord Dalhousie, the railway would become the largest engineering project of its time, instrumental in every chapter of India’s history. No wonder its first mover described the enterprise as “vastly surpassing in real grandeur the aqueducts of Rome, the pyramids of Egypt, the Great Wall of China and the palaces, temples and mausoleums of the great Moghul monuments”. Today it runs on 40,000 miles of track and has 7,000 stations. With a staff of 1.5 million (together with a further 500,000 in associated industries), it is the fifth largest employer in the world.
As splendid as the footage of the magnificent Victoria Terminus in Mumbai (Bombay) – what reminds the presenter of “the Houses of Parliament” – and as historic as retracing the (21-mile) route 400 people took in the first ever passenger service to neighbouring Thane in 1853 is, though, it is the railways’ unifying force that is most fascinating. It not only physically linked distant regions, but also united India’s myriad of castes, languages and religions. (Director Gerry Troyna’s 2005 film, Monsoon Railway, also screened on BBC Four recently, illuminates the idea of togetherness among “railwaymen” who overlook their Punjabi or Bengali backgrounds.)
As Sergeant reminds viewers, this “network of steel” helped solidify a disparate collection of states into a united country for the very first time. It could even be argued that Gandhi might not have been the nationalist hero he was were it not for the railways. He needed, let us not forget, the railways he despised to disseminate his literature. Put another way, the vast railway network - originally constructed for the transportation of raw materials - planted the seed of the Empire’s own destruction and derailed British rule by allowing the anxious to unite.
Railways, to be sure, enjoyed a special place in Gandhi’s journey through life. The ugly face of colonialism he faced on the way to Pretoria in South Africa led him to tour India in a third class compartment, where, it is commonly believed, the ‘Mahatma’ was born. Take a cursory glance at his writings and you soon become aware just how inextricably linked these train journeys were with Gandhi’s philosophy.
As groundbreaking as Railway Imperialism by editors Clarence B. Davis and Kenneth E. Wilburn Jr. with Ronald E. Robinson (1991) and Railways and International Politics: Paths of Empire, 1848-1945 by editors T.G. Otte and Keith Neilson (2006) are, then, Sergeant’s two-hour film presents a more profound side of affairs. Unlike the National Geographic’s 1995 film, The Great Indian Railway, the BBC production illuminates that even though Mahatma Gandhi denounced the railways as evil, they became a civil engineering triumph that united the country and played a pivotal role during the long independence movement, transporting important political leaders to the four corners of the subcontinent.
As a consequence, to paraphrase Ferguson’s concluding words in Empire, does not this feat of engineering alone expunge all the Empire’s sins in India?
SOURCE: NYT (8-12-10)
Titled “The Farmers and the Helicopters,” the video is partly and spectacularly about the Vietnam War. We first see a panning shot of forests and rice paddies in aerial view. Then helicopters arrive, swarming, landing, lifting off, buzzing and shuddering through the sky, spewing men and rockets, crashing explosively, then rising to buzz some more. Classic shock and awe.
Interspersed with these noisy scenes are recent interviews with Vietnamese people. A former Vietcong soldier recalls how, more than 40 years ago, he shot at an American chopper to make it go away, and it did. A woman describes her first sight of an American helicopter around the same time. She was so disconcerted as it hovered over her that she could only look up at the pilot and smile.
A younger man, a self-taught mechanic named Tran Quoc Hai, speaks of his lifelong infatuation with such flying machines. He says that after studying old examples in Vietnam war museums and doing some Internet research he teamed up with a farmer friend and built a helicopter from scratch, for commercial use, but also to serve as a positive symbol of his country in the contemporary world....