Film

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Rutland Reindeer

A recent comment by J Campbell raised the question of whether Nevil Shute's 1949 novel No Highway was in fact a prediction of the De Havilland Comet airliner's metal fatigue problems, which led to two crashes ('hull losses', in industry parlance) in 1954. My response was that it seemed unlikely that Shute had any particular insider knowledge which could have led to such a prediction (made before the prototype had even flown) given that he had already been out of the aircraft manufacturing business for some years. (And if he did have reason to think that the Comet would have metal fatigue, why not warn de Havilland instead of writing a novel?) My own suggestion was that instead No Highway might have been loosely inspired by the R101 disaster back in 1930, a formative moment in Shute's life. Having read the novel now, I don't have any actual evidence for this, but there is an intriguing additional parallel which may have been overlooked (or not, I'm no Shute scholar).

In Shute's novel -- spoilers ahead -- the tailplane of the (fictional) Rutland Reindeer (seen above, from the 1951 film version No Highway In The Sky) is believed by an RAE scientist named Theodore Honey to be susceptible to metal fatigue. The story revolves around the efforts of Honey and Scott, his superior at Farnborough, to prove that an earlier Reindeer crash was due to metal fatigue and so ground the Reindeer fleet before disaster strikes. The obstacles include a slapdash investigation of the previous accident, entrenched interests at the Reindeer's manufacturer Rutland and its operator CATO, the (also fictional) Commonwealth Atlantic Transport Organisation, the novelty of Honey's fatigue theory (inspired by recent advances in nuclear physics!), and Honey's own diffident character and his eclectic interests, including pyramidology, British Israelism, the Second Coming (predicted for 1994), interplanetary rocket travel and spiritualism. Of which more in a moment.
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British Fact and German Fiction

Thanks to Frank Herrera for pointing me to British Fact and German Fiction. It's a British propaganda film just under fifteen minutes long, made in 1917 by the Thanhouser Company for the Department of Information. Since it has Portuguese Spanish intertitles (luckily with more recent English subtitles), it was obviously shown overseas, though from the comments in Nicholas Reeves' Official British Film Propaganda During the First World War (1986) it does seem it was intended for domestic consumption. I can't embed the film here but you can watch it at the appropriately named Europa Film Treasures website.

The 'German fiction' referred to was a letter supposedly published in a German newspaper claiming to be an eyewitness account of serious damage caused to various London icons -- the Tower of London, the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Bridge, Hyde Park, Piccadilly Circus, Charing Cross Station, the Bank of England, Trafalgar Square, St Paul's Cathedral, Liverpool Street Station, Buckingham Palace -- by German air raids in July, August and September. I say supposedly because as the Imperial War Museum notes (IWM 443), the newspaper is hard to identify based on the English title given, the Westphalia Daily News. But if the German press did claim this, it was an own goal because this film shows that the locations were still all intact, at least as of 25 and 26 September when the film was supposedly shot. Again, I say supposedly, because this is established by a policeman holding a placard showing the date in many of the scenes, but we have to take this on trust.1 In this case, however, there's no reason I can see for the DOI to fake the date, as it was quite true that the damage done was vastly exaggerated by the letter-writer, and in fact simply made up. There is also footage of some of the places German bombs did hit: working class homes, small businesses, the road in front of a hotel. The text sarcastically says these are the Germans' idea of 'munition factories', though the British (like everyone else who ever dropped bombs in anger) were just as prone to claiming they only bombed military targets.
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  1. There's also a shot of the front page of the Evening Standard, though the date is not visible. The headline -- 'Zeps and Gothas raid together' -- does pretty much tie it down to 26 September. 

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In lieu of a more substantial post, here are some flying aeroplanes. Clicking the above picture will take you to a British Pathé newsreel issued on 7 July 1938, showing 'Britain's latest air fighter', also known as the Supermarine Spitfire Mk I. Unfortunately the narration is missing, but I think this is the first production Spitfire, K9787 (at least, I can make out a -87 serial number in places), which first flew in May 1938. That looks like Jeffrey Quill in the cockpit about a third of the way through. A photo on page 18 of the 28 June issue of The Times shows a Spitfire in flight, noting that it was 'undergoing acceptance trials', and the newsreel footage was presumably part of the same Air Ministry propaganda exercise. Other newsreel companies produced similar items.

This was the British public's introduction to the Spitfire, at least on a large scale. The prototype, K5054, was on display at the 1936 RAF Pageant, but it took two years to get into production, and in those years biplanes still formed the air defence of Britain. I'm surprised that the British government didn't make more of their fast new fighters (the Hurricane debuted only a little earlier) in propaganda terms in late 1938. Of course, there weren't very many of them yet. But just the sight of them cavorting across cinema screens might have increased public confidence in Fighter Command, and weakened support for appeasement. On second thoughts, perhaps I shouldn't be surprised after all.

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[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

Guernica

A couple of years ago I outed myself as something of a philistine by admitting that I didn't 'get' Guernica, and thought that direct representations -- photographs -- of the ruined city were more powerful, more affecting than Picasso's masterpiece. My incomprehension generated a fair degree of discussion, which was useful, but it was having to teach Guernica this week in tutorials which finally helped me make my peace with it. More specifically, learning something of Picasso's process of design and composition, and the politics of his commission from the Republican government, led me to a better appreciation of its symbolism. Although it depicts -- or rather is inspired by -- the bombing of a city, it seems to be set inside as much as outside, somehow. The woman holding a lantern could be leaning out of a window, one who survived the destruction but suffers from what she has seen. Or she could be leaning in, perhaps symbolising the inaction of the international community after seeing what had happened to Guernica. Creative ambiguity, indeed.

But the other source the students looked at this week was the 1959 French-Japanese film Hiroshima mon amour. And while I've come to understand something of Guernica's power, figurative and non-literal though it may be, I now have a problem with Hiroshima mon amour. In the most simplistic terms, it is a love story between a French woman and a Japanese man, who have a doomed affair in Hiroshima, ca. 1957. But the romance is not the point. Marguerite Duras, author of the screenplay, later wrote that:

Nothing is 'given' at Hiroshima. Every gesture, every word, takes on an aura of meaning that transcends its literal meaning. And this is one of the principal goals of the film: to have done with the description of horror by horror, for that has been done by the Japanese themselves, but make this horror rise again from its ashes by incorporating it in a love that will necessarily be special and 'wonderful', one that will be more credible than if it had occurred any where else in the world a place that death had not preserved.

But if she wanted 'to have done with the description of horror by horror', then why did she and director Alain Resnais include -- at times harrowing -- documentary footage of the ruined city and the victims of the atomic bomb? (Starting from 7.53, continued in the second clip.)
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A belated Anzac Day post.

Here's C. E. W. Bean, the official historian of Australia's involvement in the First World War, on why the infamous Suvla landings on 6 August 1915 didn't cut the Gallipoli peninsula and open the road to Constantinople:

The reasons for the failure, which affected the fate of the Australian and New Zealand forces more profoundly than any other episode in the campaign, may be laid bare by future historians, probing unflinchingly for the causes. Many of the Anzac troops, on whom it left an enduring impression, attributed it partly to the senility of the leadership, partly to the inexperience of the troops, but largely to causes which lie deeper in the mentality of the British people. The same respect for the established order which caused Kitchener to entrust the enterprise to unsuitable commanders simply because they were senior, appeared to render each soldier inactive unless his officer directed, and each officer dumb unless his senior spoke. The men had doubtless the high qualities of their race, among them orderliness, decency, and modesty; they could follow a good leader anywhere as bravely as any troops in the Peninsula. But an enterprise such as that of Suvla demanded more than the ability to follow; it required that each man, or at least a high proportion of the force, should be able to lead; and the necessary quality of decision, which even a few years' emancipation from the social restrictions of the Old World appeared to have bred in the emigrant, was -- to colonial eyes -- lacking in the Suvla troops. Moreover a large proportion of the new force had come straight from the highly organised life in or around overcrowded cities, and as a result they lacked the resourcefulness required for any activity in open country. They lacked also the hardness to set a high standard of achievement for themselves, while that demanded of them by the regimental and brigade staffs was -- to put it mildly -- inadequate for one of the decisive battles of the war. Further, though many reports had been heard concerning the excellent physique of the New Army, the standard in that respect was very uneven. There were in reality two well-defined types, the officers as a class being tall and well developed, but a majority of the men cramped in stature, presumably as the result of life in overcrowded industrial centres under conditions not yet operative to any marked extent in the great cities in Australia.

Hmm, so it's the fault of the British soldier for being 'cramped in nature' and lacking in 'resourcefulness' and 'hardness', unlike the strapping young colonials, of course. At least Bean allows himself an out, in the form of 'future historians'. One of these historians, Robin Prior, argues that -- contrary to received wisdom -- the primary aim at Suvla was actually just to set up a supply base for the northern Allied forces, which it did successfully. Any advances across the peninsula were secondary to this, and in any case were never likely to amount to much given the geography, the forces available and the operational plan. Which last, as it happens, was partly authored by Captain Cecil Aspinall, who later wrote (as Aspinall-Oglander) the British official history of the Gallipoli campaign, where he was quite happy to blame the commander on the ground, the elderly but inexperienced Lieutenant-General Sir Frederick Stopford, for the 'failure' of his plan.

Something for me to bear in mind when I talk to my students in a few weeks about the (brilliant but misleading) 1981 film Gallipoli. Especially the scene where the radio operator at the Nek, where waves of Australian soldiers have been uselessly slaughtered in assaults against Turkish trenches in support of the landings, reports that the British at Suvla have met no resistance but, instead of advancing inland, are 'sitting on the beach drinking cups of tea'. Peter Weir probably can't be blamed for portraying the British military, officers and other ranks both, as incompetent when even the official historians are happy to do the same.

See C. E. W. Bean, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, volume 2: The Story of ANZAC from 4 May, 1915, to the evacuation of the Gallipoli Peninsula, 11th edition (Sydney: Angus and Robertson, 1941), 715-6; Robin Prior, Gallipoli: The End of the Myth (Sydney: UNSW Press, 2009), 207-9.

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[Cross-posted at Cliopatria.]

A random thought while sitting in a lecture today: if there is (or can be) such a thing as total war, does that imply that total peace is a meaningful concept?

Firstly, what is total war? One definition, drawn from the ubiquitous set of conference proceedings edited by Stig Förster et al (and more directly, from today's lecture notes), goes something like this. Total war consists of:

  1. total aims: e.g. the destruction of an enemy nation
  2. total methods: e.g. bombing cities
  3. total mobilisation: e.g. conscription for both the armed forces and for labour
  4. total control: e.g. censorship, dictatorship

More briefly, total war is the subordination of every other consideration (law, custom, morality, etc) to the prosecution of war. Total war is an ideal form of warfare, something which can be approached more or less closely, but which can never actually be fully attained. Well, hopefully not, because that would be bad.

So what would total peace look like? I don't think it can simply be the absence of total war; that's just peace generically. Total peace must be total in some sense.
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I've added another biography to the sidebar, that of devil-may-care flying fool Claude Grahame-White. He is probably most remembered today for his daring night flight in 1910 while attempting to win the Daily Mail London to Manchester prize. (His film career seems to have attracted somewhat less attention.) But for me Grahame-White's main significance is as an airpower propagandist and as one of the originators, along with his co-author Harry Harper, of the knock-out blow theory.1

Note the snub to British aeronautics: he was a member of the Aero Club of America in 1937, but not the Royal Aero Club!


  1. And for his involvement with the phantom airship scares: it has been suggested that he was responsible for the Sheerness incident, and he also searched for a phantom airship over London on the night of 5 September 1914. 

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A few articles have been appearing in the British press over the last few days about Harry Grindell Matthews, who (among many other things) claimed in 1924 to have invented a death ray. There's no actual news attached to these stories, as far as I can tell, other than the fact that a new biography of the man has just come out (Jonathan Foster, The Death Ray: The Secret Life of Harry Grindell Matthews). In them, and presumably in the book, Grindell Matthews is portrayed as an unrecognised scientific genius who will now hopefully get his due. While he's certainly a fascinating figure, and one who pops up in my thesis, I think he was another of those inventors who was as much showman as scientist, someone who claimed to have invented many amazing things but which somehow rarely seem to have resulted in a finished product.

The death ray itself is a good example of this. It was claimed to be an electromagnetic weapon which could kill over long ranges, or explode gunpowder, or stop an internal combustion engine. The last ability was key to the possible use of the death ray as an anti-aircraft weapon, and this is what most press attention at the time focused on. There was a press campaign waged on Grindell Matthews' behalf which clamoured for the government to acquire this weapon for Britain. Officials from the Air Ministry were given a demonstration, but were unimpressed. The government was not entirely uninterested, and even offered him a thousand pounds for a successful test under their own conditions. But Grindell Matthews lost patience and hopped over to Paris to hawk the death ray there. He came back to Britain, made a film with Pathé called The Death Ray, and eventually gave up and went to America.

This sounds a lot like charlatanism. Grindell Matthews claimed much for his invention, but was reluctant to submit it to reasonable scrutiny, even when offered when more than fair compensation for his time. On the other hand, the Wright brothers, for example, had been just as suspicious when trying to sell their flyers to the world's militaries, and ended up not making a whole lot of money from their inspiration and perspiration. So such behaviour wasn't unprecedented. On the other other hand, the reason why the Wrights didn't profit fully from their invention of flight was that other people duplicated it, refined it, improved it and marketed it. If Grindell Matthews was just a bad businessman, then why didn't a practical death ray ever appear from somebody else's lab?

It certainly wasn't because nobody else was trying. Here's a (partial) list of others who claimed to have invented a death ray before 1939:
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I watched Dr. Strangelove or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb the other night for the umpteenth time, and I found myself wondering what the ending means. Vera Lynn singing her Second World War hit 'We'll meet again' over a montage of hydrogen bomb explosions (see above). I think the key has to be that -- at least according to popular mythology -- 'We'll meet again' was a favourite song for loved ones separated by war. Here are some thoughts I came up with (or across):

  • Contrast between WWII and WWIII. No one will be meeting again after this one is over.
  • Contrast between the Good War and the Cold War. Back then we fought to save the world from the Nazis, this time we'll be using Nazis to destroy it.
  • Yeah baby! The film has sexual metaphors and allusions all the way through it; the ending then depicts the orgasmic final embrace of the USA and USSR (i.e. what happens when couples 'meet again').

It's probably none of those, of course. Any ideas?