Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail

Movie Review: Santa Fe Trail

This 1940 production stars Errol Flynn as J.E.B. Stuart, Ronald Reagan as George Armstrong Custer, Raymond Massey as John Brown and Olivia de Havilland as Kit Carson Holliday.

Santa Fe Trail

Stuart and Custer, newly graduated from West Point, are assigned to Fort Leavenworth in Kansas.  There they battle the rogue abolitionists under the command of Brown, while competing for the hand of Holliday.  After Brown’s forces are seemingly smashed, the soldiers are recalled to Washington, and subsequently are involved in the battle of Harper’s Ferry.

It’s actually a good movie given the obvious budget constraints it was under.  The actors perform well (especially Massey), and the team of Flynn and de Havilland continues to sell the romance angle as in their previous pictures.

On the other hand, the film is crammed to the brim with both historical inaccuracies and historical revisionism.  The trend at the time was to “whitewash” slavery and portray antebellum Southerners sympathetically so as to be able to show your movies in Dixie.  Gone With the Wind had come out just the year before.

So it’s the noble and heroic Southerner Stuart and his friends battling the evil abolitionists under the command of religious fanatic Brown (okay, John Brown was a religious fanatic.) The good guys tacitly acknowledge that slavery might possibly not be a good thing, but always follow this with a condemnation of John Brown’s tactics.  It’s implied that the Southern states would have given up slavery peacefully in their own good time had the abolitionists not stirred up hatred against them.

John Brown gets to state openly that slavery is wrong, but he’s crazy from years of trying to achieve peaceful change and getting nowhere.  And secondary villain Rader, a West Point dropout, seems more driven by class envy and greed than than actual concern for the slaves.  His complaint is that Southern gentlemen like Stuart have gotten rich off using slave labor (but doesn’t mention any of the other things that made slavery bad) and he joins Brown’s forces as a mercenary trainer.  Rader winds up betraying Brown when he doesn’t get paid.

The abolitionists are portrayed as murderous invaders of Kansas, and a station on the Underground Railroad is referred to as a “cancer” in the title cards.  Care is taken to avoid mentioning the atrocities perpetrated by pro-slavery forces in the territory.

The black people in the movie are depicted as childlike, innocent victims of John Brown’s crusade on their behalf.  They’re lured in by his promise of freedom, but he has to abandon them to fend for themselves when the cavalry comes, in order to carry on his crusade.  Meanwhile, it is Jeb Stuart (a slaveowner in real life) who saves the black family when danger threatens.  Two of the rescue-es explicitly reject freedom and decide to return to “safe” slavery, while none are heard to choose to live free.

Again, as a movie it’s pretty good.  But it is a product of another time, and those who really care about history and civil rights may find their blood boiling.  Also, there’s maybe ten minutes tops spent on the Santa Fe Trail itself.

Book Review: Zorro

Book Review: Zorro by Isabel Allende

Johnston McCulley wrote the first Zorro story, “The Curse of Capistrano” way back in 1919.  Set in Spanish California, it told the tale of Don Diego (de la) Vega, a foppish young nobleman who in secret was Zorro, the fox, masked protector of justice.  It was a modest success, but Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. read the story and loved it so much he got his movie studio to buy the rights so he could appear in the film version.


“The Mark of Zorro” was a huge success, which inspired McCulley to write a sequel to his novel, and the rest is history.  But McCulley died some time back, and the folks who now own the Zorro trademark were worried that with no new print version, it might fall into obscurity.  So they asked Chilean author Isabel Allende to write an authorized book about the masked rider.

And so what we have here is an official Zorro fanfic.  Ms. Allende takes up the story of just how Diego came to be Zorro, from the improbable meeting of his parents, through the many circumstances that taught him the skills he’d need, to the origin of the Zorro name.  This all takes place prior to the timeframe of the first novel, where Diego was already working as Zorro with little said about his past.

It’s an interesting look at what might be necessary for Zorro to learn all the tricks he has, and expands greatly on the role of Bernardo, Diego’s mute servant and sometime Zorro decoy.  I was amused to see that Ms. Allende couldn’t resist putting in a self-insert character, a young woman who can see right through Diego’s foppish facade, and tellingly named Isabel.

There are numerous infodumps, which slow the story down and may irritate some readers who don’t care about the background of Jean Lafitte or the city of Barcelona.  I’m also told that this book is in a different style than most of Ms. Allende’s writing, so is non-indicative of her work.  Something that definitely comes from her is the moments of “magical realism”, with a certain amount of unreliable telepathy and a “Gypsy” fortuneteller who can really foresee the future.

It is good for what it is, but those seeking the full-fledged Zorro may want to return to the original books and stories.

Book Review: Redshirts

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I’ve been avoiding reviews of this book, so this may be very redundant of other things you’ve read about Redshirts.


The Universal Union capital ship Intrepid has a problem.  Or rather, the crew does.  Especially the lower-ranked members.  It seems that every time one of the senior officers or the astrogator go on an away mission with a lower-ranked crewmember, that crewmember dies, frequently in improbable ways.  Seriously, ice sharks?  Yet the senior officers always survive.

New crew member Ensign Andrew Dahl isn’t just going to try to avoid the issue, like many of the other lower ranks.  He’s going to investigate with the help of a handful of other people in harm’s way.  But what he finds may be more than even someone trained in esoteric philosophy can handle.

This is a very metatextual novel, and a funny one.  The parallels to classic Star Trek are deliberate and pointed out in the story itself.  It’s difficult to explain further without getting into serious spoiler territory.

After the main story, there are three codas involving minor characters and how the events of the story affect their lives.  The first is a little weak, but the other two hold up nicely.

I recommend this book for science fiction fans in general and Star Trek fans in particular, and those who enjoy metatextual fiction.

Book Review: City of Nets

Book Review: City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich

The book’s title comes from a Bertolt Brecht opera, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” Brecht had not yet come to Hollywood at the time, but “like a net set for edible birds” is a plausible description of the town.

City of Nets

“City of Nets” has little original research in it, being more a collection of anecdotes combed from more specific books. It’s arranged by year, from 1939 to 1950, with stories flashing back and forward as people are introduced when their movies are important. I think the closest comparison I can make to a movie is “That’s Entertainment!” It skips from person to person, story to story, never really settling down and examining one story in detail.

Still, it’s interesting for seeing the larger picture of what the trends were in Hollywood year by year, and what was happening at the same time. The serious scholar will be more interested in the extensive bibliography and footnotes suggesting further lines of research. Since the book was written during the Reagan years, the postscript is dated, and most of the people mentioned (including Reagan) have passed on.

I picked up my copy very cheaply used; I recommend you do the same.

Book Review: Come and See: Acts & Letters

Book Review: Come and See: Acts and Letters by Joseph L. Ponessa

Disclosure: This is a book received from the Firstreads program, on the premise that I would review it. Also, I should mention here that I am a Christian, although not Catholic, so my reaction to this is necessarily different from what it would be if I were a devout Catholic, or a non-Christian.

Come and See: Acts and Letters

As a Bible study guide, Come and See: Acts and Letters is not a stand-alone book; you’ll need both a Bible (preferably a Catholic one with all the books) and a catechism for full effect. Likewise, the fact that I read this solo is not in keeping with its true calling as a group activity. That said, let us begin the actual review.

Unlike some bible study courses I’ve seen in the past, there are not separate leader’s and student’s books. Thus the first section of the book is a “how to use this course” guide, with helpful instructions on setting up the study groups and organization. I found this section very helpful, but there were a couple of moments where the authors’ assumptions glared–most notably a blind spot about the possibility of men taking turns helping with childcare too.

The main text covers Acts and the Pauline letters, arranged in roughly chronological order. (Thus bits of Acts are split up between the letters.) I should mention here that the publisher is Emmaus Road, a reference to Paul’s conversion, and it’s clear that the authors favor Paul.

In addition to covering the content of the text, there are explanations of how these words fit into Catholic theology, some outside information on the history of the early Church, and plenty of quotations from Catholic theologians, especially John Paul II and Pope Benedict. A fair amount of time is spent on fitting pieces together, explaining how seemingly contradictory information is brought together as a whole.

Each short study section is followed by a quiz section, referring to other books of the Bible and the catechism to help bring the material into perspective. There’s also suggestions for social interaction outside the formal study.

Optional study materials include videotaped lectures by the author if there is no one in the group comfortable with that function–these did not come with my book. What did was an issue of “Lay Witness” magazine, which had some fine articles on witnessing from a lay Catholic perspective.

Overall, I found this an excellent work of its type; I do not agree with all its theology, but it is clear and consistent.

Peace be with you and yours.

Movie Review: Blue Steel

Movie Review: Blue Steel

This is a 1934 Western starring John Wayne, Gabby Hayes and Yakima Canutt.

Blue Steel

Wayne’s character witnesses a safe robbery by the Polka-Dot Bandit.  But Sheriff Hayes witnesses the events just after that, and thinks Wayne is the bandit.  While Wayne trails the bandit and Hayes tags along in hopes Wayne will lead him to the money, they both become involved with the daughter of a murdered store owner.

It turns out the local town is being squeezed dry by an outlaw gang.  They’re secretly under the control of a rancher who’s found out there’s a rich gold deposit under the homesteaders’ land.  And it just so happens that the Polka-Dot Bandit’s day job is as one of the outlaws.

The sound design is very economical, with little music, and many scenes are nearly silent.  Unfortunately, this applies to some of the dialogue as well.  Bits of comedy are scattered throughout, such as a very shy young man on his honeymoon who hasn’t quite figured out what he and his bride are going to be doing in the bridal suite.  The big chase scene at the end is standard of its type, enlivened with some handy dynamite used by the good guys.

The young lady is your standard damsel in distress, needing repeated rescuing.  Her and the Wayne character hooking up at the end is both inevitable and completely baffling.

A quick time-waster, but not something to seek out.

Comic Book Review: Batman Deathblow After the Fire

Comic Book Review: Batman Deathblow After the Fire by Brian Azzarello and Lee Bermejo

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads Giveaway on the premise that I would review it.
Cover of Batman/Deathstroke
Those of you who’ve been following my reviews for a while will know that I’m a longtime Batman fan. Not so much though as regards Deathblow, one of the many Nineties antiheroes Image pumped out back in the day. He’s an agent of International Operations (I/O) who, well, kills people.

This is not a promising basis for a team-up, and Mr. Azzarello wisely doesn’t try to make it one. Instead, Batman picks up the trail of a pyrokinetic terrorist that the now-deceased Deathblow had encountered a decade before. The story cuts between the two eras, piecing together the murky circumstances through the triple-crossing wires of espionage agencies.

Even with a good writer, Michael Cray, the Deathblow used in this story, never rises above the Nineties cliches he’s mired in. Batman is done pretty well, and Alfred is a delight. Commissioner Gordon makes a cameo to give Batman a clue. The villain has a bit more depth than is evident through most of the story, which leads to a neat little last page twist.

Lee Bermejo’s art is kind of blocky, which makes for some nice covers, but is less effective in the story itself. For this deluxe edition, he presents some sketches and alternative covers, with notes on each.

To be honest, I think this book is only getting the deluxe treatment because the author has gone on to do better work. This is one I recommend checking out at the library if you can.


Comic Book Review: Son of Samson #1 & 2

  Comic Book Review: Son of Samson #1 & 2 by Gary Martin & Sergio Cariello.

Christian kids, just like every other kid, want to read the kind of books that appeal to them. And for a while, manga volumes became huge in the bookstores.  So there was an obvious market for something that physically resembles manga but reflects wholesome Christian values.  Zondervan, a Michigan publisher, is attempting to fill this need with series like Son of Samson.

Son of Samson

The series begins ten years after Samson’s death, with the arrival of Branan, the son Samson never knew.  He wants to know more about his father, and wanders ancient Palestine hearing about Samson’s many feats.  (For purposes of this story, the Biblical account is factual.)

In Volume One, “The Judge of God”, Branan matches wits and muscles against the Philistine commander Sidon.  He’s accompanied by a not-so-faithful sidekick, the irritable camel Uzal.  There’s a bizarre side trip to a town of crazy religious fanatics awaiting Samson’s return.

Volume Two, “The Daughter of Dagon,” introduces spoiled heiress Saphira, who hires Branan as a bodyguard on a journey.  Unfortunately for Branan, her other parent is the treacherous Delilah, the only person ever to defeat Samson.

Branan is a much nicer person than his father, and the story does address the fact that Samson was a jerk.  Branan does not kill (never outright stated but it’s pretty obvious) which comes back to bite him a couple of times.  He seems to have his father’s strength and appetite, but not Samson’s love of booze or lust.

Saphira is more oblivious than evil.  About halfway through volume two, she learns that slavery is bad, and gives letters of manumission to her slaves.  She thinks that because she’s never mistreated them, the former slaves will stick around out of loyalty.  While it’s true Saphira has never abused her slaves, she’s never done anything to earn their loyalty either, and she finds herself stuck in the middle of a journey with no clue how to do anything for herself.

Delilah, on the other hand, is out for herself at any cost–even getting her daughter to do her dirty work.  And still very physically attractive.

The art does not try to be manga-style, which is a relief.  It is well suited to the humorous bits, such as the splash page of Branan and Uzal fleeing in terror in volume one.  There’s a number of backup features, including maps, discussions of the various terms, and a quick  look at how Samson might not have been a handsome muscleman at all.  (The Bible mentions his great strength, not his physique.)  Some non-Christian readers may find the Bible citations annoying.

Overall, this is a pretty good series, though clearly not for everyone.

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew by Phillip Levy


Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

This is something a little different for me, a geographical “biography” that traces the history of a particular place. In this case, the piece of land that became known as Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his boyhood years. The title alludes to the infamous Parson Weems story in which young George takes a hatchet to his father’s favorite cherry tree and owns up to it.

The history begins with the first written accounts of the area, back when the Rappahannock was a wild river, where the West began. It mentions the first person to put a house on this particular tract, Maurice Clark, and a bit about his structure (traces of which were found by the author’s archaeological team.)

There’s a fair bit on the Washington years, some from actual records and other pieces extrapolated from what was dug up there. At the time, the Washingtons were an unremarkable family, planters and slaveowners like most of the local gentry. Some difficulty over the land (which George inherited, but not without strings) meant that young George Washington had to make his own way in the world, with the results most readers will be familiar with.

One notable thing here is that the original Washington house vanished bit by bit over the years–when Washington surveyed the land shortly before selling it off, he didn’t mention its location at all. And at the time, the people of Fredericksburg weren’t much interested in memorializing Washington, even after he became president of the United States.

Interest in the farm perked up, however, after it was visited by Parson Weems, who claimed that he had interviewed many of the older locals and learned of George Washington’s childhood. It is evident now that many of his stories were made up, though at one time there had been cherry trees on the property.

After Weems came a string of promoters and farmers who tried to make something out of Ferry Farm’s connection to the first president, interrupted by the Civil War and the near destruction of Fredericksburg and everything in the vicinity. Even the Washington Bicentennial (1932) failed to get Ferry Farm off the ground as a viable historic site. Only the threat of Wal-Mart paving the whole place over as a parking lot finally got enough money and interest flowing.

Chapter Nine is an abrupt shift from third person to first person, as it details the author’s archaeological dig and how they finally found the foundations of the Washington house. i found the shift offputting, and it might have been better left in third person.

The book wraps up with a meditation on what Ferry Farm meant to Washington, and what the cherry tree story, however fabulous, has to teach us today. There are black and white photographs in the center of the book, copious footnotes, and a complete index.

I’d recommend this book to the Washington completist, American history buffs, and the geography student looking for something different to read.

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Showcase Volume 1

Comic Book Review: Showcase Presents: Showcase Volume 1

In Ouroboros  fashion, DC’s line of black and white reprint comics returns to its roots.

Taken from the cover of Showcase #14, as Flash fights "The Giants of the Time-World".

Back in 1956, National Comics (DC) had more ideas for comic books than they had publishing slots to put them in, and readers asking for dozens of different concepts. So they came up with Showcase, a series where a concept would be tried out for an issue or three, and if all went well, would be promoted to its own continuing title.  The first issue featured the subject they’d gotten an overwhelming demand for–firefighters!

“Fireman Farrell” was about the son of a famous firefighter who follows in his father’s footsteps.  In the first story, he graduates from firefighter school.  Then he battles a circus blaze, and appears on a TV program modeled after Edward R, Murrow’s “See It Now.”  The foils in each story are foolish men who ignore Farrell’s wise advice about fire safety and must be rescued.  Sadly, this was not turned into a continuing series, but Fireman Farrell has made cameo appearances in DC comics ever since.

The second and third issues featured animal stories (one with great Joe Kubert art) and frogmen respectively.  But it’s issue #4 that really hit the stride.

For Showcase #4 is the first appearance of Barry Allen, the Silver Age Flash.  And with him, the semi-official beginning of the Silver Age of comics.  In the late 1940s, superheroes had gone out of fashion, but the crime and horror comic books that had ascended for a while were crippled by the Comics Code.  The clean, morally clear world of superheroes was more easily adapted to the new rules, and Carmine Infantino’s art suited a super-speedster well.

After the Flash, there’s Manhunters (detectives), the Challengers of the Unknown (non-powered adventures), Lois Lane (Superman’s girlfriend),  the Space Ranger (outer space hero with the flimsiest secret identity ever), Adam Strange (planetary romance) and Rip Hunter, Time Master (time travel.)  And that brings us up to issue #21.

This book has a lot of history value; many of these characters went on to long careers.   However, they got their own Showcase volumes, so if you own all of those, there’s a lot of overlap.  This volume would be excellent for the new reader who wants to see where much of DC’s history comes from for a reasonable price.  There’s some fantastic art in here.

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