Thursday, August 28, 2014
"SPEED RACER" (2008) Review
When I first saw the trailer for "SPEED RACER" . . . I had simply cringed in my seat. Granted, I had been a fan of the Japanese cartoon when I was a kid. But looking at that trailer, my mind simply cried, "Hell no!" There was no way in the world I was going to see this movie.
But the more I saw the trailer, old memories of the cartoon kept welling in my thoughts. Soon, I found myself filled with nostalgia for the cartoon. I eventually decided to go see the movie after all. It might turn out to be a pile of crap, but I had to exorcise the ghosts of my childhood. Well . . . I went ahead and saw the movie. And I must say that it turned out to be a hell of a lot better than I had expected.
At a running time of two hours and fifteen minutes, "SPEED RACER" is about a young 18 year-old American (Emile Hirsch) with natural racing instincts. His goal is to become a world-class car racer, in the wake of the tragic death of his older brother, Rex Racer (Scott Porter) during the Casa Cristo, a cross-country rally. Speed is loyal to the family business, run by his parents Pops (John Goodman) and Mom (Susan Sarandon). Pops designed Speed's car, the Mach 5. The owner of Royalton Industries (Roger Allam) makes Speed a lucrative offer to join the company's racing team, but Speed rejects the offer, angering the owner. Speed also uncovers a secret that top corporate interests, including Royalton, are fixing races and cheating to gain profit. After Speed denies his offer to join his racing conglomerate, Royalton wants to ensure that Speed will not win any future races. Speed finds support from his parents and his girlfriend Trixie (Christina Ricci) and enters the Casa Cristo Rally in a partnership with his one-time rival, Racer X (Matthew Fox), in an effort to rescue his family's business and the racing sport itself.
I must admit that when I first saw this movie, the first ten minutes had left me puzzled. Although I enjoyed how the story introduced Speed Racer's obssession with racing and the death of his older brother, Rex Racer; I must admit that I had been taken aback by the movie's visuals. It looked very cartoonish and I have not seen such bold colors since Warren Beatty's 1990 film, "DICK TRACY". But my mind adjusted to this new visual style and proceeded to enjoy the rest of the story. In fact, by the time the movie focused upon The Casa Cristo cross-country race, I found myself marveling over John Gaeta's visual effects and David Tattersall's photography. Quite frankly, I also ended up enjoying Larry and Andy Wachowski's screenplay. "SPEED RACER" must be one of the few movies based upon a cartoon that possessed a strong social message - namely one against corporations' involvment in the sport. And I found it pleasantly surprising.
As for the cast, Emile Hirsch struck me as a little flat at first. But in the scene in which Speed rejected Royalton's offer, Hirsch's Speed Racer finally bloomed into life. Christina Ricci gave a fun and charming performance as Trixie, Speed's girlfriend. Both John Goodman and Susan Sarandon were excellent as Speed's parents. Both were given the opportunities to strut their acting skills in private scenes with Hirsch's Speed. And I do not think that Matthew Fox had never been as sexy and enigmatic as he was as Racer X - Speed's rival and ally in the fight against Royalton. The movie also featured a scene in which both he and Emile Hirsch gave a superb performances in an intense conversation about car racing between the two characters. I especially enjoyed his fight with a ninja assassin. Richard Roundtree gave a surprisingly sly and funny performance as Ben Burns, a former racer who became a commentator. To my surprise, Roger Allam's slightly bombastic performance as the corrupt Royalton did not bother me at all. In fact, his character's over-the-top personality seemed perfect for the movie. The biggest surprise turned out to be Paulie Litt as Spritle, the youngest Racer sibling. Perhaps I should not have been surprised. Regis Philbin once described the young television actor as a 40 year-old in a child's body. Perhaps he is right. But young Paulie was a bundle of energy with great comic timing.
"SPEED RACER" did possess a few imperfections. Either the movie is fifteen minutes too long or its pacing managed to drop off a bit, following the Casa Cristo race sequence. And I was a little annoyed with the Wachowski Brothers' interruption of the fascinating sequence between Speed and Royalton's discussion about the racing scene with comic moments featuring Spritle and his pet monkey, Chin Chin, trying to break into the businessman's candy storage. It just seemed out of place and it nearly ruined the marvelous scene between Speed and Royalton.
Many film critics had disliked the film. I suspect that "SPEED RACER"'s unusual visual style may have been a little too mind blowing for them. Unfortunately, a good number of moviegoers ended up paying attention to those critics. Which is a shame, in my opinion. I feel that "SPEED RACER" is one of the most entertaining films I have seen this year . . . hell, in the past decade; and one of the most unusual I have seen in a long time. And it was a shame when it bombed at the box office. There is an ironic post-script to the movie. When it was first released on DVD, those moviegoers who did not bother to go see it at the theaters, expressed surprised at how much they enjoyed it. I could have told them how enjoyable it was when it first hit the theaters back in May 2008.
Monday, August 25, 2014
"JERICHO" RETROSPECT: (1.02) "Fallout"
It just occurred to me that this second episode of the CBS television series, "JERICHO" was aptly named. In a way (1.02) "Fallout" perfectly described the situation from the series' first episode, (1.01) "Pilot: The First Seventeen Hours".
The previous episode ended with the western Kansas community shaken by the sight of an atomic mushroom and news that two U.S. cities had been devastated by nuclear explosions . . . and their sheriff and one of the deputies murdered by two escaped convicts on their way to prison. "Fallout" picks up the following morning with Jericho schoolteacher Emily Sullivan trying to hitchhike her way back to Jericho, when her stalled SUV prevents her from reaching the airport to pick up her fiance. She finally receives a ride from a police cruiser being driven by two deputy sheriffs. With the car low on gas, Emily suggests they seek gasoline at the farm of Stanley and Bonnie Richmond. By the time they reach their destination, she realizes that her two saviors are not lawmen, but possibly dangerous criminals.
Back in Jericho, the town's new resident, Robert Hawkins, hints of the possibility of radioactive fallout from the Denver bombing, in the incoming rainstorm threatening Jericho. He suggests that the citizens might have to either seek shelter in their homes or the town's two fallout shelters. While the Greens, Hawkins and businessman Gray Anderson struggle to help the citizens seek shelter; Emily tries to alert the deaf Bonnie that the new visitors are criminals. She also manages to sneak outside the Richmond house in order to send a message to Jericho, via the cruiser's radio.
After watching this episode, it occurred to me that the first three episodes of "JERICHO" might have been a three-part story depicting Jericho's initial reactions to the Denver bombing and its aftermath. I came to this conclusion after noticing that "Fallout" ended the story arc about the escaped prisoners, but failed to do the same for the "radioactive rain" story arc. The episode ended with the prisoners dead, but the citizens of Jericho inside shelters, basements and in the case for many, a salt mine. Not only did the rain continue to fall, but one of the community's citizens, Stanley Richardson, was no where to be found. Also, a new story arc regarding Mayor Johnston Green's illness began in this episode. And this story arc will have far reaching impact on the series that will last into Season Two. I now have the deepest suspicion that the series' creators must have planned their story with greater detail than I had originally imagined.
Another aspect of "Fallout" that I found particularly curious was that it seemed like a mixture of a television crime drama and a disaster movie. In fact, I was hard put to see the connection between the escaped convicts story arc and the plot regarding the nuclear fallout rain. The episode ended before the two story arcs could really mesh together. Not even Jake Green's rush from the salt mine shelter to the Richmond farm, following Emily's radio message, could really bridge the two stories. I think the reason is that none of the characters involved in the plot regarding the escaped convicts - especially Emily Sullivan and Bonnie Richmond - had no real knowledge of the approaching rain storm possibly containing a nuclear fallout. In fact, the two women will learn of the fallout in the next episode, thanks to Jake. Perhaps this is why it is best to view "Fallout" as a second chapter in the story arc about the initial response to the bombings, instead of a stand alone episode. However, despite my acceptance that "Fallout" might not be a stand alone episode, I do have one major complaint about it. In one scene, Emily found two Jericho deputy sheriffs - Jimmy Taylor and Bill Kohler - gagged, bound and in their underwear inside the police cruiser's trunk. If these same two convicts were willing to murder the sheriff and one of the deputies, why did they refrain from killing Jimmy and Bill? I never understood this, especially after they forced the two deputies to hand over their uniforms.
Although I could not seriously consider "Fallout" as a stand alone episode, I must admit that I still found it fascinating to watch. I have to credit Stephen Chbosky for writing a very taut episode. Between the danger surrounding the two escaped convicts and Jericho's citizens to seek shelter from a potentially dangerous rain storm, the episode was filled with tension, action and drama. I would not consider it particularly memorable or original if it had not been for that last scene. This episode marked the first episode that featured Robert Hawkins' new home and family - wife Darcy and young son Samuel. His daughter Allison appeared in the following episode. More importantly, the episode also featured the first hint that he knew the real truth behind the bombings. One scene featured him inside the sheriff's station, using a ham radio to receive information unknown to the audience. By the end of the episode, the audience learned what Robert knew - namely some of other U.S. locations that suffered a nuclear blast.
I certainly have no complaints about the performances in "Fallout". Skeet Ulrich continued his exuberant performance as lead character Jake Green. And Lennie James proved to be just as unfathomable as the mysterious Robert Hawkins. The episode also featured excellent work from Bob Stephenson, Richard Speight Jr., Gerald McRaney, Beth Grant, Pamela Reed, Michael Gaston, Sprague Grayden, Shoshannah Stern, Clare Carey and the two actors that portrayed the convicts - Jonno Roberts and Aaron Hendry. The episode also featured the first appearances of April D. Parker as Darcy Hawkins and Darby Stanchfield as April Green, Jake's sister-in-law. Like the others, they gave solid performances. But there were four performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from Erik Knudsen and Candace Bailey as teenage outcast Dale Turner and rich girl Skylar Stevens. The two actors did an excellent job in setting up the emotional and complex relationship between the superficially mismatched pair. Kenneth Mitchell, who portrayed Jake's younger brother Eric Green, shined in one particular scene in which the mayor's younger son resorted to scare tactics to convince a group of stubborn beer guzzlers at the local tavern to seek shelter from the radioactive rain. But the woman of the hour proved to be Ashley Scott, who did a marvelous job in conveying the ordeal that Emily Sullivan endured in this episode. I was impressed at how she managed to dominate the episode without resorting to any theatrical acting.
If I must be honest, I found this episode's handling of the two deputy sheriffs' fates rather illogical. And it is obvious that"Fallout" cannot really hold up as a stand alone episode. But thanks to Stephen Chbosky's transcript, Jon Turteltaub' taut direction and a standout performance by Ashley Scott, "Fallout" proved to be an interesting episode filled with tension, solid action and good drama.
Thursday, August 21, 2014
Below are photos from the 2005 biopic about Mangal Pandey, the Indian soldier who served as the catalyst for the 1857-58 Sepoy Rebellion against the British called "THE RISING: BALLAD OF MANGAL PANDEY". Directed by Ketan Mehta, the movie starred Aamir Khan and Toby Stephens:
"MANGAL PANDEY: THE RISING" (2005) Photo Gallery
Monday, August 18, 2014
"NEMESIS" (2007) Review
Without a doubt, Agatha Christie's 1971 novel, "Nemesis", is one of her most unusual works. It is not as celebrated as 1934's "Murder on the Orient Express" or her 1926 novel, "The Murder of Roger Ackroyd". But it was the last novel she had written. And it possesses a slow, yet melancholic air that I find very rare in her body of work.
Two adaptations of the novel have aired on British television. BBC aired the first adaptation, which starred Joan Hickson as Jane Marple, in 1987. Twenty years later, the ITV network aired its own version with Geraldine McEwan in the lead. While the 1987 version adhered as close as possible to the novel, this latest version turned out to be a very loose adaptation, thanks to screenwriters Stephen Churchett and Nicolas Winding Refn, who also served as the film's director.
"NEMESIS" begins in 1940, when a German Luftwaffe pilot is forced to bail from his damaged plane during the Battle of Britain. Not long after he reaches the ground, he is spotted by a young, beautiful woman, who comes to his aid. The movie jumps some eleven years to 1951. Jane Marple has received news about the death of a friend - a financier/philanthropist named John Rafiel aka Faber, who was a refugee from Nazi Germany twenty years earlier. Rafiel recruits her from the grave to solve a murder that the murder may or may not have taken place. And the victim is unknown. All that he has given her are two tickets on the Daffodil Tour Company's Mystery Tour. Miss Marple recruits her nephew, novelist Raymond West, to accompany her on the tour. During the early stages of the tour, Miss Marple and Raymond realizes that the other members of the tour had also been "selected" by Rafiel. Miss Marple also discovers that she had been recruited the solve the murder or disappearance of a young woman named Verity Hunt - the same woman who had met the German pilot during the war. And the German pilot turned out to be one Michael Faber, Rafiel's estranged son.
I might as well state it loud and clear. "NEMESIS" is not one of the best Christie adaptations featuring Geraldine McEwan. Refn and Churchett had inflicted so many changes in the plot, it almost left me confused. Not only were some of the characters from Christie's novel eliminated, new ones were created for the film. Refn and Churchett also changed the identity of the murderer and the crime's setting. The pair even changed the identity of the Rafiel character from an English millionaire, whom Miss Marple had met in an earlier novel, to a German refugee from Nazi Germany who had befriended the elderly sleuth (he remained wealthy). And his son transformed from a ne'er-do-well to a former Luftwaffe pilot, embittered by his father's refusal to help him and Verity during the war.
The addition of World War II as a setting for Verity's death brought about other changes that left me scratching my head in confusion. In the novel, another young woman was murdered, so that her body would be confused with Verity's. In the movie, there was some kind of confusion over the identity of a RAF pilot who had died at the very convent where Verity was serving, when she first met Michael. I wish I could explain the whole matter, but I found it rather confusing. Come to think of it, I found the Verity/Nora body switching rather confusing in Christie's novel. The war did serve the movie's plot in one positive manner - namely the character of Michael Faber and his brief, wartime romance with Verity. Their romance proved to be more poignant and tragic than Verity's literary romance with Michael Rafiel.
The cast for "NEMESIS" proved to be a mixed bag. There were some . . . theatrical performances that I found wince inducing. The worst came from Ronni Ancona, who gave a ridiculously hysterical performance as Verity's half-cousin and Raymond West's former paramour, the aristocratic Amanda Dalrymple. Another over-the-top performance came from Emily Woof, who portrayed Rowena Waddy, the possessive wife of war veteran and former RAF pilot, Martin Waddy. At the other extreme, Amanda Burton gave a disturbingly minimalist performance as Sister Clotilde, one of the two nuns who knew Verity. Perhaps I had been kind by describing Burton's performance as "minimalist". Frankly, she struck me as silent and wooden.
Thankfully, there were plenty of first-rate portrayals that made "NEMESIS" enjoyable. I was impressed by solid performances from Laura Michelle Kelly, who had to portray two characters - Verity Hunt and a young wife named Margaret Lumley; George Cole, who portrayed the former butler of Verity's illegitimate father; Ruth Wilson, who gave a charming performance as the tour's guide and potential paramour for Raymond; Lee Ingleby, who portrayed the main investigator and budding novelist, DC Colin Hards; and Anne Reid, who portrayed Sister Clotilde's older and pragmatic colleague, Sister Agnes.
But there were at least four outstanding performances from the cast. One came from Will Mellor, whose portrayal of Martin Waddy, the war veteran with the damaged face, struck me as very intense and sympathetic. An equally intense performance came from the future "DOWNTON ABBEY" star, Dan Stevens. He did an outstanding job in portraying the many aspects of Michael Faber's complex personality. Richard E. Grant was a marvelous addition as Miss Marple's nephew and traveling companion, the witty Raymond West. I was amazed at how he managed to create some kind of screen chemistry with more than one cast member - especially Ruth Wilson, Lee Ingleby and Geraldine McEwan. Speaking of Ms. McEwan, she was superb as the quiet and always observant, Jane Marple. She also infused a great deal of wit and warmth into her portrayal of the elderly sleuth.
"NEMESIS" has some aspects of its production to admire. Production designer Michael Pickwoad, costumer designer Sheena Napier and cinematographer Larry Smith all did a great job in contributing to the movie's early 1950s setting and even the 1940 preclude. The movie could also boast some fine performances, especially from Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple. But many of the changes to Agatha Christie's original plot left me shaking my head in confusion. Honestly, it is not one of the better adaptations I have seen. The 1987 adaptation is better . . . but only slightly better.
Wednesday, August 13, 2014
"THE WRONG PROMISE"
While going over the LOSTTV-FORUM website, I had noticed a thread that asked members how they would have ended"LOST". After reading several other sites and articles about the series, I posted my answer.
There was one thing that I wish Cuse and Lindelof had not added into the script for (6.17)"The End". I wish they had not allowed Kate to promise Claire that she would help raise Aaron after reaching civilization.
I realize that Kate was trying to assure Claire that everything would be all right, once the latter was reunited with Aaron. But in the end, her promise to help raise Aaron struck me as the wrong one to make. Why? It was not possible for her to do so.
When she had departed Los Angeles on the Ajira Flight 316 in (5.06) "316", Kate had broken the parole imposed upon her in (4.04) "Eggtown". Her ten-year parole. I would not be surprised if the moment she returned to civilization after the plane's departure from the Island, chances are Kate ended up in prison for breaking her parole. That would have left Carole Littleton to help daughter Claire raise Aaron.
And I doubt that Kate could have set foot in Australia to reunite with Claire and Aaron after leaving prison. In fact, I doubt that the Australian government would have allowed her to re-enter the country. The last time she was in Australia, she had entered the country illegally and as a fugitive from the law.
All I can say is . . . what had Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof been thinking, when they allowed Kate to make that promise to Claire? They could have found another way for the former fugitive to ease the young Australian woman's fears. And now, the majority of fans automatically believe that Kate had helped Claire raise Aaron. Without Carole Littleton's help.
Sunday, August 10, 2014
Tuesday, August 5, 2014
Below is my review of Disney's 2004 adaptation of Jules Verne's novel called "AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS":
”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” (2004) Review
The year 2004 marked the umpteenth time that an adaptation of Jules Verne’s travelogue movie, ”Around the World in Eighty Days” hit the movie screen. Well . . . actually, the fifth time. Released by Disney Studios and directed by Frank Coraci, this adaptation starred Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan, Cécile de France, Ewan Bremmer and Jim Broadbent.
This adaptation of Verne’s novel started on a different note. It opened with a Chinese man named Xau Ling (Jackie Chan) robbing a precious statuette called the Jade Buddha from the Bank of England. Ling managed to evade the police by hiding out at the home of an English inventor named Phileas Fogg (Steve Coogan). To keep the latter from turning him in to the police, Ling pretends to be a French-born national named Passepartout, seeking work as a valet. After Fogg hired “Passepartout”, he clashed with various members of the Royal Academy of Science, including its bombastic member Lord Kelvin (Jim Broadbent). Kelvin expressed his belief that everything worth discovering has already been discovered and there is no need for further progress. The pair also discussed the bank robbery and in a blind rage, Phileas declared that that the thief could be in China in little over a month, which interests “Passepartout”. Kelvin pressured Phileas Fogg into a bet to see whether it would be possible, as his calculations say, to travel around the world in 80 days. If Fogg wins, he would become Minister of Science in Lord Kelvin's place; if not, he would have to tear down his lab and never invent anything again. Unbeknownst to both Fogg and “Passepartout”, Kelvin recruited a corrupt London police detective named Inspector Fix to prevent the pair from completing their world journey. However, upon their arrival in Paris, they met an ambitious artist named Monique Larouche (Cécile de France), who decides to accompany them on their journey. Ling also became aware of warriors under the command of a female warlord named General Fang (Karen Mok), who also happens to be an ally of Lord Kelvin.
I might as well make this short. ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” did not do well at the box. In fact, it bombed. In a way, one could see why. In compare to the 1956 and 1989 versions, it took a lot more liberties with Verne’s original story. Phileas Fogg is portrayed as an eccentric inventor, instead of a Victorian gentleman of leisure. He takes on a bet with a rival member of the Royal Academy of Science, instead of members of the Reform Club. Passepartout is actually a Chinese warrior for an order of martial arts masters trying to protect his village. Princess Aouda has become a cheeky French would-be artist named Monique. And Inspector Fix has become a corrupt member of the London Police hired by the venal aristocrat Lord Kelvin to prevent Fogg from winning his bet. Fogg, Passepartout and Monique traveled to the Middle East by the Orient Express, with a stop in Turkey. Their journey also included a long stop at Ling’s village in China, where Fogg learned about Ling’s deception.
Some of the comedy – especially those scenes involving Fix’s attempts to arrest Fogg – came off as too broad and not very funny. Also, this adaptation of Verne’s tale was not presented as some kind of travelogue epic – as in the case of the 1956 and 1989 versions. The movie made short cuts by presenting Ling and Fogg’s journey through the use of day-glow animation created by an art direction team supervised by Gary Freeman. Frankly, I thought it looked slightly cheap. I really could have done without the main characters’ stop in Turkey, where Monique almost became Prince Hapi’s (Arnold Schwarzenegger) seventh wife. It slowed down the story and it lacked any humor, whatsoever. I am a major fan of Jim Broadbent, but I must admit that last scene which featured his rant against Fogg and Queen Victoria on the steps of the Royal Academy of Science started out humorous and eventually became cringe-worthy. Poor man. He deserved better.
Did I like ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS”? Actually, I did. I found it surprisingly entertaining, despite its shortcomings. Jackie Chan and Steve Coogan made a rather funny screen team as the resourceful and clever Ling who had to deceive the slightly arrogant and uptight Fogg in order to quickly reach China. Cécile de France turned out to be a delightful addition to Chan and Coogan’s screen chemistry as the coquettish Monique, who added a great deal of spark to Fogg’s life. Granted, I had some complaints about Broadbent’s performance in his last scene. Yet, he otherwise gave a funny performance as the power-hungry and venal Lord Kelvin. It was rare to see him portray an outright villain. And although I found most of Bremmer’s scenes hard to take (I am not that big of a fan of slapstick humor), I must admit that two of his scenes left me in stitches – his attempt to arrest Ling and Fogg in India and his revelations of Lord Kelvin’s actions on the Royal Academy of Science steps.
There were many moments in David N. Titcher, David Benullo, and David Goldstein’s script that I actually enjoyed. One, I really enjoyed the entire sequence in Paris that featured Ling and Fogg’s meeting with Monique and also Ling’s encounter with some of General Fang’s warriors. Not only did it featured some top notch action; humorous performances by Chan, Coogan and de France; and colorful photography by Phil Meheux. Another first-rate sequence featured the globe-trotting travelers’ arrival at Ling’s village in China. The action in this sequence was even better thanks to the fight choreography supervised by Chan and stunt/action coordinator Chung Chi Li. It also had excellent characterization thanks to the screenwriters and the actors. One particular scene had me laughing. It featured Coogan and the two actors portraying Ling’s parents during a drunken luncheon for the travelers.
I wish I could say that this version of ”AROUND THE WORLD IN 80 DAYS” is the best I have seen. But I would be lying by making such a statement. To be honest, all three versions I have seen are flawed in their own ways. This version is probably more flawed than the others. But . . . I still managed to enjoy myself watching it. The movie can boast some first-rate performances from the cast – especially Jackie Chan, Steve Coogan and Cécile de France. And it also featured some kick-ass action scenes in at least three major sequences. Thankfully, it was not a complete waste.
Friday, August 1, 2014
Below is my attempt at a review of the late George MacDonald Fraser's fifth installment in his highly acclaimed series, The Flashman Papers - "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" (1975):
"FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" (1975) Book Review
That great fictional bully and poltroon, Harry Flashman, once said. ”Humanity is beastly and stupid, aye and helpless, and there’s no end to it,” in one of George MacDonald Fraser’s installments of The Flashman Papers - a series of novels written in memoir form about a British Army officer in Victorian Britain. Well Fraser certainly proved that momentous statement in the series’ fifth installment, "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME". First published in 1975, the novel featured Harry Flashman’s experiences during the Sepoy Rebellion aka the Indian Mutiny (1857-1858).
In order to understand Flashman’s encounters with certain characters in the story, one must remember one thing - "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" is a direct sequel to the series’ fourth novel, "FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE" (1973). At least two characters featured in the novel about the Crimean War also appeared in "GREAT GAME" - Count Nicholas Ignatieff, a ruthless Russian intelligence office; and a former schoolmate of Flashman’s named Harry “Scud” East, who had also been a fellow prisoner-of-war of Flashman during the Crimean War.
The Sepoy Rebellion had been a bloody and emotional conflict for both Britons and Indians alike. It began as an uprising of sepoys of the British East India Company's army on May 10, 1857, in the town of Meerut, and soon erupted into other mutinies and civilian rebellions largely in the upper Gangetic plain and central India, with the major hostilities confined to present-day Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, northern Madhya Pradesh, and the Delhi region. The rebellion posed a considerable threat to Company power in that region, and it was contained only with the fall of Gwalior on June 20, 1858. The sepoys were a combination of Muslim and Hindu soldiers. Just before the Sepoy Rebellion of 1857, there were over 200,000 Indians in the army compared to about 40,000 British. The forces were divided into three presidency armies: the Bombay; the Madras; and the Bengal. The Bengal army recruited higher castes, such as "Rajputs and Brahmans", mostly from the "Avadh(or oudh) and Bihar" region and even restricted the enlistment of lower castes in 1855; in contrast, the Madras and Bombay armies were "more localized, caste-neutral armies" that "did not prefer high-caste men." The domination of the Bengal high-caste in the army has been blamed in part for the Sepoy mutiny of 1857. It has been suggested that after the annexation of Oudh by the East India Company in 1856, many sepoys were disquieted both from losing their perquisites, as landed gentry, in the Oudh courts and from the anticipation of any increased land-revenue payments that the annexation might augur. Others have stressed that by 1857, some Indian soldiers, misreading the presence of missionaries as a sign of official intent, were persuaded that the East India Company was masterminding mass conversions of Hindus and Muslims to Christianity. The final spark was provided by the controversy over the new Pattern 1853 Enfield Rifle. To load the new rifle, the sepoys had to bite the cartridge open. It was believed that the paper cartridges that were standard issue with the rifle were greased with lard (pork fat) which was regarded as unclean by Muslims, or tallow (beef fat), regarded as anathema to Hindus.
One could say that Fraser had attempted to present the conflict from both views. One could say that he gave it his best shot. But it would have been impossible in the end. Especially since the novel was written from Flashman’s point of view. But I must give Fraser some credit for allowing Flashman to witness the emotions expressed by those Indians that had fought against the British . . . especially the beautiful and very memorable Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi.
The story began with Flashman receiving a summons from Prime Minister Lord Palmerston to join him at the Royal Family’s Scottish estate, Balmoral, in the early fall of 1856. Much to Flashman’s horror, he discovered that Palmerston wants him to journey to India and investigate a secret message that is being transmitted to many native villagers, sepoys (Indian soldiers under British command) and rulers alike, via a small stack of chapattis (Indian bread). Even worse, Flashman endured an unpleasant reunion with his former Crimean War foe, Count Ignatieff. The reunion resulted in a terrifying episode in the Highlands during a deer stalking party. And Ignatieff learned about Flashman’s India mission, thanks to the latter’s beautiful, but scatterbrained wife, Elspeth. Once Flashman arrived in India, he commenced upon his mission to investigate the mysterious chapattis exchange and guarantee the loyalty of Lakshambai, the Rani of Jhansi. But fate ended up dealing Flash Harry a cruel blow when a group of Thugee assassins attempted to kill him, following a clandestine tryst with the beautiful Rani. Suspecting mischief from Ignatieff (who has also arrived in India), Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim Khan, urged him to hide from Ignatieff’s plots by impersonating a sepoy at the British cantonment (fort) in Meerut. Unfortunately, Flashman’s choice of location proved to be disasterous, for the cowardly officer found himself at the very place where the sepoy uprising began.
If I had to choose my favorite Flashman novel of all time, it would not be "GREAT GAME". Quality has nothing to do with my choice. I just happen to be a fanatic about the American Old West, which is why "FLASHMAN AND THE REDSKINS" remains my favorite. However, if I had to choose the six Flashman novels I consider supreme over the others, "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" would be one of them. It is, without a doubt, one of Fraser’s finest works and one of the best historical novels I have ever read. There were times I found myself wondering about Fraser’s talent as a journalist. I believe that he certainly put it to good use in re-capturing not only London and the Scottish Highlands in the mid-19th century, but also British India.
The novel's gem or centerpiece started with Flashman’s arrival in Jhansi and ended with his escape from the siege at Cawnpore. Mind you, I was impressed by other passages in the novel:
*Flashman’s frightening encounter with Ignatieff and a Russian assassin at Balmoral
*Flashman’s lustful last moments with his wife Elspeth and her feather fan
* Flashman and an Irish wannabe hero named Thomas Henry Kavanaugh’s hilarious journey through the streets of war torn Lucknow in an attempt to contact British military forces
*Flashman’s terrifying moments with the British artillery at Gwalior
Earlier, I had mentioned how Fraser gave readers glimpses of the 1857-58 uprising not only from the viewpoints of Flashman, other Britons and loyal Indians, but also from those who had fought against the British. This was very apparent in the passages that featured Flashman’s impersonation as a sepoy in Meerut. Fraser gave readers a solid peek into the sepoys’ discontent and suspicions toward British regard for their beliefs – feelings that eventually to their uprising. In the following passage, Fraser described the Meerut sepoys’ refusal to drill with the new Enfield rifles with its infamous greased cartridges:
It wasn’t the most tactful thing to say, to that particular sepoy; I thought Sardul would go into a frenzy, the way he wept – but he wouldn’t touch the cartridges. So it went, along the line; when the end had been reached only four other men out of ninety had accepted the loads – four and that stalwart pillar of loyalty, Flashy Makarram Khan (he knew his duty, and which side his bread was buttered).
So there it was. Carmichael-Smith could hardly talk for sheer fury, but he cussed us something primitive, promising dire retribution, and then dismissed the parade. They went in silence – some stony-faced, others troubled, a number (like old Sardul) weeping openly, but mostly just sullen. For those of us who had taken the cartridges, by the way, there were no reproaches from the others – proper lot of long-suffering holy little Tom Browns they were.”
After surviving the outbreak of the uprising in Meerut, Flashman return to Jhansi for safety and discovered that another sepoy rebellion had occurred at its British cantonment. Flashman, Ilderim and a few other Ghazi (Afghan) soldiers decided to head for the British cantonment at Cawnpore. Once more, Flashy’s bad luck reared its ugly head when he and his companions discovered that the sepoys had revolted there, as well. However, the British commander at Cawnpore – General Hugh Wheeler – had foreseen a possible revolt by the sepoys and made plans to create a makeshift garrison for the British community (military and civilian), Eurasians and loyal Indians. Fraser painted a detailed description of Wheeler’s command at Cawnpore. But his description of the sepoys’ attack on June 23, 1857 really blew my mind:
”They were re-forming, a bare hundred yards off; the ground between was littered with dead and dying beasts and men. I had barely time to gulp a mouthful of warm, muddy water and seize my musket before they were howling in at us once more, and this time there were pandy infantrymen racing behind them.
‘One more volley!’ bawls Wheeler. ‘Hold your fire, there! Aim for the horses! No surrender! Ready, present – fire!’
The whole wall blasted fire, and the charge shook and wavered before it came rushing on again; half a dozen of them were rearing and plunging up to the entrenchment, the sabres were swinging about our heads, and I was rolling away to avoid the smashing hooves of a rider coming in almost on top of me. I scrambled to my feet, and there was a red-coated black devil leaping at me from the parapet; I smashed at him with my musket butt and sent him flying, and then another one was at me with his sabre, lunging. I shrieked as it flew past my head, and then we had closed, and I was clawing at his face, bearing him down by sheer weight. His sabre fell, and I plunged for it; another pandy was rushing past me, musket and bayonet extended, but I got my hand on the fallen hilt, slashing blindly; I felt a sickening shock on my head, and fell, a dead weight landed on top of me, and the next thing I knew I was on my hands and knees, with the earth swimming round me, and Wheeler was bawling.”
Ironically, one of my favorite passages featured some of the rebelling sepoys’ reaction to encountering their former commanders, following General Wheeler’s decision to surrender to their new leader, the Nana Sahib. I personally feel that it featured some of Fraser’s best writing:
”Four mutineers were hurrying up and down the untidy convoy, calling out and searching, until they spotted Vibart and his family – and then they ran hallooing and calling ‘Colonel sahib! Mem-sahib!’, and seized on the family’s baggage, and one of them, beaming and chuckling, lifted Vibart’s little lad on to his shoulders, piggyback, while the others shouted and shoved and made room for Mrs. Vibart in a wagon. Vibart was dumbfounded, and two of the mutineers were weeping as they took his hand and carried his gear – I saw another one at it, too, an old grizzled havildar of the 56th, standing on the entrenchment gazing down into the ruin of the barracks with tears running down his white beard; he was shaking his head in grief, and then he would look no more, but turned about and stared across the maidan, still crying.”
Despite the grim tone of the novel’s subject, "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" featured some hilarious moments. I had already pointed out a hilarious scene that involved Flashman traveling through the streets of Lucknow with an Irish hero wannabe named Kavanaugh. HTwo of them included quotes made by Flashman’s Afghan friend, Ilderim. While they were still in Jhansi, the Ghazi not only commented upon Flashy’s successful womanizing, but also mocked the British officer’s stubborn belief in Lakshambai’s alleged affection for him:
”Ilderim glanced at me witheringly, and bit his nail in scorn.
‘Bloody Lance,’ says he, ‘ye may be the bravest rider in the British Army, and God knows thou art no fool – but with women thou art a witless infant. Thou hast coupled this Hindoo slut, hast thou not?’
‘Damn your impudence –‘
‘I thought as much. Tell me, blood-brother, how many women hast thou covered, in thy time?’ And he winked at his mates.
‘What the devil d’you mean?’ I demanded.
‘How many? Come, as a favour to thy old friend.’
‘Eh? What’s it to you dammit? Oh, well, let’s see . . . there’s the wife, and . . . er . . . and, ah-‘
‘Aye – ye have fornicated more times than I have passed water,’ says this elegant fellow. ‘And just because they let thee have thy way, didst thou trust them therefore? Because they were beautiful or lecherous – wert thou fool enough to think it made them honest? Like enough. This Rani has beglamoured thee – well then, go thou up and knock on her palace gate tonight, and cry “Beloved, let me in.” I shall stand under the wall to catch the pieces.’”
But one of the funniest moments focused upon Flashman acting as a native escort for a red-haired British widow named Mrs. Leslie at Meerut, out for an afternoon ride. Apparently, the attractive lady had developed a lust for our hero, not realizing that he was a British officer impersonating an Afghan-born sepoy:
"'You Pathans are not truly . . . Indian, are you? I mean . . . in some ways you look . . . well, almost . . . white.'
'We are not Indian at all, mem-sahib,' says I. 'We are descended from the people of Ibrahim, Ishak and Yakub, who were led from the Khedive’s country by one Moses.'
'You mean – you’re Jewish?' says she. 'Oh.' She rode in silence for a while. 'I see. How strange.' She thought some more. 'I . . . I have Jewish acquaintances . . . in England. Most respectable people. And quite white, of course.'
Well, the Pathans believe it, and it made her (Mrs. Leslie) happy, so I hurried the matter along by suggesting next day that I show her the ruins at Aligaut, about six miles from the city; it’s a deserted temple, very overgrown, but what I hadn’t told her was that the inside walls were covered with most artistically-carved friezes depiciting all the Hindoo methods of fornicating – you known the kind of thing: effeminate-looking lads performing incredible couplings with fat-titted females. She took one look and gasped; I stood behind with the horses and waited. I saw her eyes travel round from one impossible carving to the next, while she gulped and went crimson and pale by turns, not knowing whether to scream or giggle, so I stepped up behind her and said quietly that the forty-fifth position was much admired by the discriminating. She was shivering, with her back to me, and then she turned, and I saw that her eyes were wild and her lips trembling, so I gave my swarthy ravisher’s growl, swept her up in my arms, and then down on to the mossy floor. She gave a little frightened moan, opened her eyes wide, and whispered:
'You're sure you’re Jewish . . . not . . . not Indian?'
'Han, mem-sahib,' says I, thrusting away respectfully, and she gave a contented little squeal and grappled me like a wrestler."
The novel also featured more memorable incidents and moments – including Flashman’s reunion with his old classmate and fellow prisoner-of-war, Harry “Scud” East that proved to be at first, caustic, and later, bittersweet; and his terrifying experience at being mistaken for a rebellious sepoy, following General Hugh Rose’s victory at Gwalior. But . . . there were a few flies in the ointment, so to speak. One, the last third of the novel seemed like an aftermath following Flashman’s experiences at Jhansi, Meerut and Cawnpore. He spent most of that period as an intelligence staff officer or as a prisoner of the Rani of Jhansi.
Speaking of the Rani, she and Flashy had a curious conversation about the British Empire, and also the differences between British and Indian customs that left me baffled. I found myself wondering why Harry Flashman, of all people, would go to such lengths to defend the Empire and the British way of life to an Indian queen. Mind you, I am certain that he had nothing against it, being both patriotic and racist. But why did it mattered so much to him that Lakshambai agree with his opinion on the joys of the British rule? One could say that he was simply doing his job. Yet, there was something about Flashman’s responses that made him look like an over earnest schoolboy. Especially when one considers that despite his patriotism and prejudices, the Empire has kept Flashy from England and safety more times that he care to remember. The entire conversation . . . or should I say Flashman’s responses to the Rani’s objections against the Empire rang false and out of character for me.
Another problem I had with "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" turned out to be the presence of Count Nicholas Ignatieff in the story. Granted, he seemed just as ruthless as he had been in "FLASHMAN AT THE CHARGE". But aside from his attempt to get Flashman killed at Balmoral, his presence in the story seemed rather weak. Almost unnecessary. Ignatieff did have an opportunity to torture Flashman in the dungeon beneath the Jhansi palace. But Lakshambai cut short the torture session, made Flashman her prisoner and Ignatieff permanently disappeared from the story.
Despite these minor flaws, "FLASHMAN IN THE GREAT GAME" is still a magnificent historical novel. Fraser filled his story with enough different elements – drama, action, comedy, terror, tragedy and suspense – that allowed it to become one of the most well written novels I have ever read. Through Flashman’s eyes, the author left me laughing, breathless and surprisingly enough, in tears. In fact, I find it surprising that the novel never won any literary awards. A shame, really. For I believe that it certainly deserved a great deal of them.