No One Pays Attention to History…Until It’s Too Late

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The other day, I concluded the first of a four-part lecture series on the American Civil War for Brookdale. We started with the causes of the war and ended right at the start of the Peninsula Campaign. When it was over, a few participants came up to me to chat. Mainly a greeting, maybe saying they enjoyed it, or shared a trip they took to a battlefield. But the last person waited until everyone was gone. She said she had a question. “I didn’t want to ask this earlier because you know how people get, but do you see any similarities between now and right before the Civil War began?” My short answer was yes. She was no doubt referring to a few slides I had covering the antebellum years of our history, regarding differences in society. We seem to forget that the lines were not just drawn between pro and anti slavery, but the differences in lifestyles and views aside from that were just too great. Part of me wanted to relate it to now, but it was the first class and, well, you know how people get.

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Smithsonian Giving Us what the History Channel Used To

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No aliens, rednecks, rusty cars, Bigfoot, or swamp rats here. The Smithsonian Channel is giving us what the History Channel should be. It was a total joy when I finally started watching their programming last week, after hearing about how good it was for years. As I sat there, I thought to myself, “This is what the History Channel used to be like.” The types of shows ranged from World War II and early American history to more modern or current world historical events and even nature and science. After catching a two-hour special titled Hindenburg: The Untold Story, I was hooked. It was a dramatic recreation, combining newsreel and archive footage with reenactments and historian interviews. It was perfect—factual but entertaining, straightforward yet stylistic. The production values were extremely high and I began to wonder, “How hard can this be? Is it that difficult to churn out credible quality historical programming that people will find interesting?”

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“Oh, the humanity!”: The 75th Anniversary of the Hindenburg Disaster

Are all children fascinated with disasters, or was it just me? As I said just a few weeks ago when we commemorated the 100th anniversary of the launch and sinking of the Titanic, I had a few books about it in my collection as a small child. Today, as we recognize another anniversary, one where the world’s finest airship exploded and crashed upon attempting to land 75 years ago, I recollect one book on the subject that I just loved to muse through. It was a massive, coffee-table sized book, loaded with tons of information on this rather small event. The main feature which always captivated me was an enormous, four-panel fold-out diagram of the Hindenburg ship, which was so detailed, it sparked a lot in my young imagination, and led to me viewing The Hindenburg, a film which starred George C. Scott, shortly after. I do not know what it was with my fascination in disasters such as this, but then again, I guess I am not the only one, for there are many books, all on different tragic events, geared toward children, perhaps to plant the seed in young minds of what can become of human error and placing too much faith in vessels that were deemed too safe to fail.

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Movie Review: Valkyrie (2008)

Just when I thought that Hollywood could no longer deliver an entertaining and historically accurate movie all in the same billing, Brian Singer’s Valkyrie proved me wrong. This story is quite intriguing, as it is unheard of by most people and is left out of history publications, first and foremost excluding textbooks.

Valkyrie tells a very simple story, whose inner workings are anything but. This is the story of one of the forty separate attempts to assassinate Adolf Hitler, by his own men. This plot, which in German is called Wulkure, was the closest anyone ever came to killing the Fuhrer.

Tom Cruise, who I really did not like beforehand, showed how much he matured as an actor by nailing the role of Colonel Claus Von Stauffenberg, the man in charge of Operation Valkyrie. He delivered a straightforward, and honest performance, as the man who loves Germany, and will even risk death for high treason to try to save it from the destructive Nazi regime.

This movie is also loaded with excellent supporting characters. Tom Wilkinson, who I loved in The Patriot and The Exorcism of Emily Rose, was perfect for the job of General Fromm, the ultra-important commanding general of the German Reserve Army, which the plot depends upon mightily.

Terence Stamp and Bill Nighy also fit in nicely with their roles, and this was a bit of a reunion for the cast of the 2002 A & E miniseries Shackleton, as Kenneth Branagh, Kevin McNally, Danny Webb, and Chris Larkin appear in both films. Branagh and McNally also each appeared in another film as Nazis in the Holocaust themed HBO production Conspiracy, in which another Valkyrie star, Ian McNiece also appeared (read my review of that here).

Christian Berkel, of Der Untergang, also appears, as does Eddie Izzard and Carice Van Houten.

The one thing that this film executed really well was the absence of accents. Most historical dramas often find the actors trying to put on foreign accents that end up sounding downright horrible. This film had the actors using their normal accents, and in the beginning of the film, established German as the vernacular, by having Tom Cruise begin in German with English subtitles at the bottom, before it slowly transforms into plain English.

I also enjoyed seeing, or rather, hearing, Richard Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries find its way into the film, as Wagner was a favorite composer of Hitler and was the reason for the name of the plot. I have watched this movie with two people, and upon hearing this music, they both asked, “Isn’t that the music from Apocalypse Now?” Yes it is.

The real Valkyrie Plot was very complex, and this movie, although it did a terrific job, really rushed it along. In order to tell the story fully, a miniseries would have been better, because at least four hours would probably have been needed. However, for less than two hours, the film did try to include everything, but it may have been confusing to people with no prior knowledge of the event.

Overall, I will give this movie a 8 out of 10 because of the attention paid to historical accuracy and because the movie is quite intense and the final half will keep you on the edge of your seat. Also, it must be brought up how much Cruise and the real Stauffenberg resembled one another.

If you notice, Stauffenberg is in the left and center, while Cruise is on the right.

I highly recommend that if you love history, or just want to see a good action film, to give this a shot. I imagine it will be shown in more history classes as well, because it deserves more attention. This film finally shows a group of Germans standing up to the mighty Hitler, unlike what we read in textbooks, where they are all shown to be mindless drones.

Movie Review: Conspiracy (2001)

Just want to start off by saying that just because a movie is not labeled in the horror genre, or does not contain graphic or disturbing imagery, does not mean a movie cannot be absolutely horrifying. Conspiracy is proof of that.

This 2001 HBO production focuses on the Wannsee Conference of 1942, in which top Nazi officials discussed and planned the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question”. In just over an hour, the details would be laid on how to round up and eventually exterminate all of the Jews in Europe. Their discussions, and the manner in which they so nonchalantly discuss how they are going to murder people will just leave you in awe.

Kenneth Branagh stars as Reinhard Heydrich, the man left in charge by Adolf Hitler to come up with this final solution. He is aided by the more well know Adolf Eichmann, played by Stanley Tucci who organized the meeting to gather the other officials.

Both actors did a great job in their portrayals, because they made the characters seem human, and not evil, only adding to how disturbing the situation was.

This movie is based on the actual case file minutes recorded by Martin Luther, played by Kevin McNally.

Conspiracy stands at just over an hour and a half, and although that may seem rather short for a television film production, the meeting in real life lasted only about that time. It is truly amazing that the plan that would result in more than six million deaths was decided in only an hour.

This film does a good job in showing the meeting, and takes place almost all in one room. The discussions are intense, and save for a few profanities here and there, this would be a great film to show in a classroom when teaching about the Holocaust or Nazi Germany in general.

My final rating for this will be a 9 out of 10. The final few minutes detailed what the fate would be of some of the officials after the conference. I thought that was a very nice touch.

Movie Review: Judgment at Nuremberg (1961)

The 1960’s were loaded with films in which the director gathered every big-name star he could afford and then throw them into the movie. Unfortunately, hardly any of those films worked; all except one, and that is Stanley Kramer’s Judgment at Nuremberg.

From beginning to end, this film enthralls the audience with a fictional take on the Nuremberg Trials in Germany, following the fall of Hitler and the Third Reich. This trial is a secondary one, which focuses on trying four judges, indicted of war crimes, although they themselves were not in high positions of power. Tension shifts between wanting to let the men get off easy because they were not directly involved, to wanting to give them harsh sentences because they did nothing to stop it.

This three-hour epic is loaded with endless dialogue, which touch on the prosecution, defense, and all legal proceedings in the between, so if you are not a fan of courtroom dramas, stand clear of this.

However, even with all the dialogue, I found this to be a very engrossing movie, and it immediately became a personal favorite.

In the 1961 Academy Awards, the film would be nominated for eleven Oscars, including both Maximilian Schell  and Spencer Tracy for best actor, Montgomery Clift for best supporting actor, Judy Garland for best supporting actress, Stanley Kramer for best director and best picture, as well as nominations for best adapted screenplay, best art direction, best cinematography, and best costume design. Schell would win for best actor, and Abby Mann for best screenplay.

The film also stars other marquee actors Richard Widmark, Burt Lancaster, Marlene Dietrich, and a very young (and lean) William Shatner is a small, supporting role.

Schell gives the performance of a lifetime as the passionate defense attorney Hans Rolfe, who has the almost impossible task of defending the four judges on trial for war crimes.

Clift also is fantastic in his role as a mentally challenged man who testifies against the four due to a forced sterilization he underwent during the reign of the Nazi’s. To me, he was robbed of an Oscar.

Spencer Tracy is great as his normal, professional self as the laid back, presiding judge from the backwoods of Maine who does not consider himself important. Lancaster is also great as one of the defendants, and the makeup job done on him to make him seem twenty years older was great as well.

For the ladies, Marlene Dietrich does well in her part as the wife of an executed SS officer who makes it clear to Tracy that she and her husband hated Hitler and the Nazi’s. I felt she was more deserving of an Oscar nomination than Garland, who was not that good in her small role, which got her nominated.

Overall, my least favorite of the main actors was Richard Widmark. I found him to be too gruff, and too dramatic in his role. I don’t think he was bad, I just did not particularly care for him here, although I do like him in other movies.

This film, although historical fiction, should be shown in more schools across the country to make people more aware of what these trials were like. Stanley Kramer was very attentive when it came to detail, going as far as to make sure all characters were wearing headphones during their prosecution, because in real life, the people were all not speaking the same language.

I rate very few movies with a 10, but this movie made me think hard about it. Because some parts are drawn out, I will give my final rating of this film a 9 out of 10. Not any movies I see instantly grow on me to the point where I could watch it again right away, but this one did, and I must make note of that.