Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Wild Geese

After viewing The Bridge On The River Kwai (see my previous blog post), I decided to revisit another movie, this time The Wild Geese, the 1978 tale of a gang of mercenaries hired to rescue an African politician.

It probably says much about the changes in my outlook that I now view The Wild Geese in a totally different light from when I previously saw it. Back then I viewed it as an entertaining, if admittedly rather overblown war film. The passages relating to the moral and political aspects I simply regarded as a hindrance, getting in the way of the "action".

Even during my recent viewing, the reasoning behind the mercenaries' mission still appeared slightly blurred. I think it may have been something to do with copper mining concessions....

The film features a veritable Who's-Who of British actors of that era. Many of them appear to be on "cruise control", although as ever Richard Burton's presence and charisma rise above the mediocrity.

Ultimately I think that The Wild Geese was intended to be an exciting and entertaining romp, and does not ask the viewer to focus on moral issues. The points at which the corny dialogue turns to discussion about imperialism, race and exploitation tend to stick out like a sore thumb.

Elements of the storyline are implausible and cartoonish, particularly the sequences in "gangland" during the recruitment of the mercenaries.

The Wild Geese is very much a product "of its time". Suffice to say that it does not warrant as in-depth a blog post as The Bridge On The River Kwai!

Monday, 26 September 2011

The Bridge On The River Kwai - movie review

I recently watched this classic 1957 movie for the first time in a couple of years. It probably now ranks second in my list of favourite films, behind Chinatown.

Although it is set during World War Two, I do not really regard The Bridge On The River Kwai as a war film. Rather, it is a film which examines and explores aspects of human nature and character, and which just happens to be placed against the backdrop of the strains of war.

The movie contains some rounded characters, such as Colonel Nicholson, played by Alec Guinness, the camp commander Colonel Saito, and the cynical American sailor Shears, memorably portrayed by William Holden. However, the medical officer Major Clipton (James Donald) is the one who appears to retain a clear head, and is able to observe the egotism and intransigence of all concerned.

The opening portions of the film centre on the battle of wills between Nicholson and Saito. In the face of repressive measures, the British officer remains obdurate, his first priority being the welfare and morale of his men.

In the face of British defiance, and confronted with the necessity to get the bridge built, the Japanese become more flexible and pragmatic, and even offer concessions.

The story really hinges on the decision of Nicholson to commit himself and his men to completing the construction of the bridge. At this point he becomes very headstrong, overruling any misgivings expressed by his subordinates. All that matters to him is to achieve his objective, and he seems oblivious to the possible ramifications, and the fact that this course of action may assist the enemy. Indeed, during the iconic final scenes Nicholson and Saito come across as allies or colleagues, rather than implacable foes.

It is also noticeable how the British men, impressed by their commander's resilience, offer their own almost slavish obedience when he announces the plan to press on with the building of the bridge. They are blinded by loyalty and emotion, and fail to appreciate how the plan could become counter-productive.

It is only when the commando team, including Shears, returns, that Nicholson realises his folly. But did he mean to fall on the detonator, as shown in the final scene?  Was he acknowledging his mistakes, or was it simply poetic irony?

What, if anything, does The Bridge On The River Kwai teach us?  It is certainly an examination of "ends" and "means". It may be seeking to warn us of the perils of blind obedience, and the dangers of failing to question authority.  Also, it tells us that in extreme conditions, such as war, people are forced to make difficult choices, and that in doing what they think is "the right thing", not of all the consequences will be pleasant or neutral. Also, in extreme situations, many people become blind to the consequences of their actions, full stop.

The medical officer, Clipton, neatly summarises things in the final piece of dialogue, after the bridge has been blown up - "Madness, madness!"

Thursday, 22 September 2011

The Glass Bead Game - Hermann Hesse

Very recently, I finished reading this remarkable book, considered one of the landmarks in 20th century European literature. It was tough going at times, but rewarding, and these are my immediate thoughts and observations.

Like much of Hesse's work, The Glass Bead Game deals with issues of spiritual exploration and identity. However, it also examines man's relationship with his intellect and how he employs and applies it, and also questions of isolation and alienation. There is little doubt also that the political climate in Europe at the time of its conception, and Hesse's reaction to it, also influenced the work.

Upon finishing the book, my reaction was that I would need to read it again, more than once, in order to fully absorb the messages, metaphors and allusions contained in its pages. The events portrayed could be subjected to myriad interpretations, and I was conscious whilst reading not to derive from it an interpretation which the author perhaps did not intend. A fully coherent and considered understanding of the book is probably not feasible after just one read.

For what it's worth, my impression was that in addition to simply relating a compelling and enjoyable tale, Hesse was posing questions about the acquisition of knowledge purely for its own sake, and to what extent there is a responsibility to share such knowledge with "the real world" for the common good, and for benign motives.

Another strand which I picked up on was the tension between the "aristocracy" of academia, and the more mundane concerns of mainstream society, and to what degree these two factions, and their requirements, could be reconciled.

These questions, and others, formed the backdrop for the journey of the central character Joseph Knecht, and his various changes and "awakenings".  The author's interest in Eastern philosophies, in transcendence, meditation and "rebirth" are a constant throughout these episodes, as well as in the chapters listed as Knecht's own writings.

I would have to say that The Glass Bead Game is denser and more multi-faceted than one of Hesse's other works, Siddhartha, which I enjoyed immensely, but which is also much more straighforward in many respects.

The fact that The Glass Bead Game was Hesse's final full-length novel also I think lends weight to the notion that in it he was pulling together all of the strands contained in his other works, and making the statement he had always been striving for.

When I have read the book again, I will post my further comments.....

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

A Day On The Railways

I have spent much of today using our much-maligned railway system. First of all, I took a mid-morning train to Huddersfield, and things were mercifully quiet. However, I soon became restless, and the lure of Manchester, and its well-stocked Waterstones bookstore, proved too much. I returned to Huddersfield's elegant station, and jumped on a connecting train.  I took a couple of photographs during the journey to Manchester:

The journey proved immensely relaxing, aided by the sounds of Richard Wagner on my MP3 player.

I travel by this route quite often, and I regularly think to myself how much we in the North of England, even those of us who live in urban areas, overlook just how much scenic beauty resides close at hand. The countryside between Leeds and Manchester has an ominous and stern kind of beauty, best exemplified during the kind of capricious weather conditions which prevailed today, and which are captured in my two photographs.

After a couple of hours of relaxation and retail therapy in Manchester, including seeing the venue for the yet-to-be-opened National Football Museum, I returned to Manchester Victoria and caught the train home. Alas, the earlier tranquility was now gone, and the hustle and bustle had been raised a few notches. Children crying, the aroma of fast food, litter, general crowding. This time I chose Queen for my musical nourishment, or rather as a means of shutting out the din of the outside world.

Matters were not helped when the train was diverted, adding some time to my journey. There can be occasions when a tipping point is reached, and the pleasure and comfort of a railway journey becomes something more wearisome and tiring. When I reached my destination, my legs were aching and I was glad to be on terra firma again.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

ITV and the Rugby World Cup - Why?

There has been much criticism of ITV's coverage of the Rugby World Cup. Much scorn has been heaped upon some of the commentators and pundits.

I am not really in a position to comment fully on the accusations being levelled against the broadcaster. As is customary these days, I have watched the matches with the TV sound turned down, and the radio commentary on, or else in blissful silence. From this "mute" vantage point, the coverage has seemed technically good at least.

My main question is why ITV continually goes out of its way to secure the rights to the tournament. After all, rugby union itself hardly seems to fit the supposed ITV "demographic".  When ITV happily relinquished its hold on the Formula 1 rights, there was much muttering that concentrating resources on football would enable the channel to more efficiently reach its target audience.

It could be argued that F1 and rugby union are generally followed by people falling into the same socio-economic categories, so why rugby and not F1?  Well, I would guess that the rights for the Webb Ellis trophy, which happens every four years, involve a considerably lower financial outlay.

Perhaps equally importantly, ITV are not investing in rugby union as such, but rather in what the Rugby World Cup represents, in emotional and patriotic terms. This is an "event", and ITV know that advertisers love all the jingoism and hoopla that goes with it. It is more difficult to generate and sell such hype with individual sports, or those which are less "tribal".

By the way, New Zealand are still my pick to win the thing!

Tuesday, 13 September 2011

US Open Tennis 2011 - Men's Final

I have just watched Novak Djokovic overcome Rafael Nadal to win the men's singles title at the US Open in New York.

The match was another example of the new heights to which men's tennis has been elevated in the past five years. The competition and rivalry involving Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and others have undoubtedly driven this, in addition of course to the quantity of talent currently on the circuit.

What is striking is the sheer intensity and quality of the tennis on display, with points more often than not being clinched by daring and skill, rather than unforced errors, and the physical and psychological resources of the protagonists being stretched to their very limits.

We are indeed lucky to be living through times when this level of competition is taking place. It seems that the tennis community, and the attached media, are acutely aware of this, and it would be a shame indeed if the wider public was not exposed to the pure excellence of the current crop of elite players.

It will be interesting to see how things develop from here. Initially, Roger Federer was the undoubted no.1, but this status came under pressure from Nadal, with Djokovic as the "comingman". Now, as Federer perhaps begins to fade slightly, Djokovic has ascended to new heights, and his reserves of resilience seem to rival even those of the Spaniard.

Who knows, perhaps a new pretender, equipped to challenge "The Big Three", is just waiting to flourish and make his mark?

Whatever happens, it will make for pulsating viewing!

Sunday, 11 September 2011

9/11 Anniversary

There is very little which I can add to what has already been said and written about the tenth anniversary of those terrible events.

As the horror unfolded far away on that day, I was in an Italian restaurant in Leeds city centre, having a business lunch with two guys who were suppliers for the company which I was working for at the time. Totally oblivious to what had occurred, I returned to the office, only for colleagues to impart what they had seen on television. Further information gradually filtered through as the afternoon progressed.

In the immediate aftermath, many people felt a deep sense of foreboding about their futures, and I for one later felt slightly ashamed at aspects of my reaction, regarding myself as rather selfish. Perhaps my actions were just part of an instinctive coping mechanism. We all deal with these things in our different ways.

The real victims on that day were those who were killed and injured, and their families and friends.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Rugby World Cup - opening game and predictions

I watched this morning's opening match between New Zealand and Tonga.  Whilst the All Blacks started vigorously, they took their collective foot off the accelerator after the interval and Tonga were able to make some inroads. New Zealand's performance, whilst efficient, will not have deeply concerned the other leading nations.

Perusing the tournament draw, I have calculated that the semi-final line up will be Australia v England and South Africa v New Zealand, with the All Blacks to defeat Australia in the final. It remains to be seen whether New Zealand will fall short of expectations, as they have a habit of doing come World Cup time. It is remarkable to think that they have only won one World Cup, the inaugural event in 1987.

Saturday, 3 September 2011

Relics From Our Childhood

One of my favourite sitcom episodes is "Storm in a Tea Chest", from "Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads".  In this particular episode, the Bob Ferris character, played by Rodney Bewes, agonizes over whether to dispose of some of his childhood nik naks and keepsakes, such as toys, books and such like, which are all contained in an old tea chest.

The dilemma is presented to Bob because he has just moved into a new house, and his wife Thelma is averse to what she regards as clutter. Bob, on the other hand, realises how his life is undergoing changes, and is anxious to retain a link to his past, and to assert his own identity.

I have myself recently been ruminating over this subject, prompted by a couple of very different occurences. Some of my recent philosophical reading has centred on the need to maintain some contact with one's beginnings, and not to become divorced from a sense of roots and humility. Then, yesterday, I saw a picture of a teddy bear on the internet, and this sowed a seed in my mind!

Upon closer contemplation, it has dawned on me that I have retained very few reminders of my childhood years, save for a few fairly inconsequential items. This situation has arisen for two main reasons. My mother was always virulently opposed to things being "hoarded" in her house, and lots was therefore disposed of. More importantly, however, in my late teens and twenties, I lost contact with my past and my identity as an individual, retreating into my own "bubble", which merely gave the illusion of comfort and contentment. Little did I know how hollow and misguided this approach was.

My biggest regret in this area is discarding things such as football and comic annuals, and diaries. It is a sign of how divorced I was from my true "self" for much of my adult life, that I did not wish to maintain any sense of continuity or progression, but just preferred to sleepwalk from crisis to crisis. Getting rid of the aforementioned items may also have been a sub-conscious attempt on my part to distance myself from years past, in parallel with the many deluded "relaunches" which have punctuated my life.

Tangible reminders of our formative years, and beyond, can help us to determine how we travelled to our current point, and in some ways indicate how we can plot a path back there, to those carefree days of innocence and purity, or at least to the mindset which still prevailed at that stage.

Some of us whose existence became largely devoid of such mementos, or at least the state of mind which they helped to foster, were forced to take a very different route back to where it all began.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

A Brief Encounter

Just recently, and totally out of the blue, I bumped into an old female acquaintance, who I had lost contact with a few years previously.

Her aura of serenity, undoubtedly underpinned by domestic contentment, was very noticeable. She has changed, and has a sense of purpose and direction. By contrast, I thought to myself, I have altered very little in some vital respects, and still fall prey to the same inertia and traps which befell me in my past.

I think the moral of this episode is that we should always strive to learn from how others move forward and enhance their lives, and take some inspiration from the steps which they have taken.

I am not one to believe in fate, but this meeting probably came at an apposite stage in my recent development. Perhaps when things like this happen, we need to take a long hard look at ourselves, and where we are heading?