Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Combination Plate 17

Combination Plate 17

Some books and some films and some thoughts about them--

1. The Purple Plain, a film set in Burma during WWII

2. Michael Connelly: The Narrows, a thriller that brings together several of Connelly's characters from previous novels--Harry Bosch, Rachel Walling, The Poet

3. The Book of Eli, an SF film, post-holocaust

4. Anthony Trollope: Doctor Thorne

5. Eric Frank Russell: Wasp, an SF novel

6. Fantasia, the original Disney animated classic film

Warning: I will discuss significant plot elements and endings in some cases.


The Purple Plain (1954)

This is a WWII film set in Burma. Bill Forrester (Gregory Peck), a Canadian fighter pilot, risks his life and those of his crew when he takes unnecessary risks in combat. What appears to be driving him is the loss of his bride on their wedding night during a bombing raid on London. One of his fellow officers insists on telling Forrester that his problem is that he has nothing to live for back home, as he himself does--his wife and children. That's what keeps him going. It isn't clear if the obnoxious officer is aware of Forrester's personal tragedy. Forrester is forced by the unit's medical officer to socialize and eventually meets an attractive young Burmese woman at a party.

The obnoxious officer is transferred and Forrester is to fly him to his new station. During the flight, Forrester is forced to make a landing in rough terrain. Forrester and the obnoxious officer escape with minor bruises and scrapes, while the co-pilot suffers a broken leg.

The officer wishes to remain with the plane and wait for rescue. Forrester insists there won't be any search for them and their only hope for survival is to walk out, hoping to find a river and the inevitable village.

The rest of the film is predictable. The ironic twist is that the obnoxious officer who kept saying that he had something to live for is the one to give up in the end. The question is whether Forrester was able to go on even though he had nothing to live for, which would prove the other officer wrong, doubly wrong since the officer presumably did have something to live for and still gave up hope, or did the potential relationship with the Burmese woman give him that "something to live for.''

Overall Reaction: definitely not a large scale epic but a rather quiet film with more of an emphasis on a somewhat superficial focus on character rather than on action in combat.

What does the film have going for it? Gregory Peck! As expected, he gives a competent, convincing performance.


Michael Connelly
The Narrows
Mystery Type: Paid professional
Setting: West Coast, contemporary

This is sort of a sequel to Connelly's Blood Work, in which Terry McCaleb, an FBI profiler, tracks down the killer of the woman whose heart he had received as a transplant. It is set less than a year later. Disgraced FBI agent Rachel Walling, exiled to Rapid City, Iowa, gets an order to come to the Mohave Desert. The Poet, an ex-FBI profiler turned serial killer, is back. He's killed again and left a message: "Hello Rachel."

Harry Bosch, no longer with the LAPD, is contacted by McCaleb's widow. McCaleb died a short time after the events of Blood Work. She's not satisfied that his death was the result of an heart attack and wants Bosch to look into it.

Eventually the two supposedly separate investigations collide and conflict arises. Bosch and Walling find that they are on one side and the FBI on the other. The plot is a bit convoluted, as those who have read any of Connelly's other works can testify. As usual, things aren't what they seem to be, most of the time anyway. The fun is deciding which are what they seem to be and which aren't.

Connelly also has some fun with shifting levels of reality. In the novel, Blood Work, Terry McCaleb has a friend, Buddy Lockridge. During his investigation into McCaleb's death in the second novel, Bosch meets up with Lockridge. Lockridge is very unhappy and spends a considerable amount of time complaining about what happened to him in the film version. In Blood Work the film, Clint Eastwood plays the role of Terry McCaleb, and Buddy Lockridge suddenly becomes a villain who's only pretending to be McCaleb's friend in order to keep an eye on McCaleb's investigation. So, we have a fictional character complaining about his treatment in a real world film.

Overall Reaction: good, fast-paced complex thriller. Recommended.


The Book of Eli, a film

This is a post-holocaust film set some 30 years after the war. It has the same feel and some of the same elements as A Boy and His Dog (1975) and Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome, along with numerous other films. A lone traveler encounters a small community set in a wasteland, in which the inhabitants struggle to survive, partially by cannibalizing the ruins of pre-war cities and towns. The Boss of the town maintains control with a group of thugs. If the town survives and prospers, a century or so in the future, the Boss's heirs will be the nobility and the thugs will be either a military or a police force. Bards will sing of the ruling prince's noble ancestors.

This film, though, is a bit different. One can call it a quest film for the Boss has a goal. Carnegie (Gary Oldman) believes it's his destiny to reunite all of the area under him and that he can do it quickly and almost painlessly if he has the Book. For in the Book are the ways to say things that will convince people to follow him.

Eli (Denzel Washington), the lone traveler, also has a quest. A Voice has told him he must take to the West Coast the Book that he will be shown. There he will find people who can make copies of the book and share its wisdom with others. In this way, people can begin to rebuild and avoid the mistakes of the past. The Voice promises him that he will be protected as long as he follows the Path (a touch of Taoism there?).

Carnegie learns of Eli's book and decides that's the one he's looking for. He gives Eli a choice-- give it up voluntarily or involuntarily. This provides the major conflict in the film.

As can be expected, the film is action-oriented as Eli, with sword and pistol, routinely disposes of groups of five or more attackers. While the message of the Book is peace, the film focuses mostly on the other path.

Overall Reaction: action film primarily. Washington makes Eli a different sort of post-holocaust hero. Eli is almost comes across as a simple soul or perhaps Holy Fool in that he says what he means and expects others to accept what he has to say. Washington does a decent job in the part but I kept wishing that Morgan Freeman had been cast for the part.


Anthony Trollope
Doctor Thorne

Doctor Thorne is the third of the six novels in Trollope's Barsetshire series. I've read a number of his other works, and this one is a bit unusual. In most of Trollope's novels, there is a central problem: who is to get a particular position? who is the owner of the Eustace diamonds? how does one get elected to Parliament? what happens when a highly competent man is made prime minister but is no true politician? The main plots do not always end satisfactorily for those involved.

In addition to the main problem are one or more subplots, one of which invariably involves the young lovers. The course of true love does not run smoothly for Trollope's lovers, or at least not for the first 600 or 700 pages. Trollope manages to throw every obstacle he can think of in the path of the young lovers; feuding families, status or class differences, or as in this novel, financial concerns. Frank Gresham, the young heir, must "marry money," or the family estate will go bankrupt.

Regardless of the way the main plot turns out, Trollope always manages to bring the young lovers together in the last chapter or two. The only real question, therefore, is the way in which he manages to accomplish this.

The Greshams are deeply in debt to the Scatcherds. It's the classic contrast: the Greshams have status but no money, while the Scatcherds have money but no status. If Frank Gresham doesn't marry money soon, the Greshams will lose everything, for the Scatcherds are beginning to lose patience and are preparing to call in the loans.

The predictable happy ending for the young lovers is what makes this novel different, for if the young lovers do marry, then all will be well. Since Trollope's young lovers have always won out in the end, or at least they have in the ten or more novels I've read, then there is no question that Frank will "marry money" and in addition will wed his true love, Mary Thorne, the niece of Doctor Thorne. But, the main obstacle, aside from her somewhat suspect heritage, is that she is penniless. There is no way that marrying Mary will save the Gresham estate. Or, at least no way that anyone knows of, except for Doctor Thorne. Thus, the Gresham's are absolutely opposed to any marriage between Frank and Mary.

What Doctor Thorne knows and what nobody else knows is simply this. He knows the full story of Mary's parentage. Her mother, now living in Canada, is a Scatcherd. Old Scatcherd, about to die of alcoholism, has made his will and named his son, Young Scatcherd, his heir. If the son dies before he marries and has a child, the new heir will be the oldest child of Mary's mother, who is Mary. Young Scatcherd is also an alcoholic, but he lacks the physical stamina of his father. Doctor Thorne has warned him that he must change his ways or he will never reach his twenty-fifth year.

The characters are well-drawn and interesting. Frank's mother is the classic "mother from hell." One knows exactly what her reaction will be once she learns that Mary, whose possible marriage to Frank she was so violently opposed to, will not only inherit a sizable fortune, but also will be the Gresham family chief creditor.

Doctor Thorne is an extremely honest individual. Unfortunately, he also speaks his mind. He considers his fellow physicians to be quacks, and he says so. This makes him an outcast among the local medical fraternity. In fact, one of the main targets of Trollope's satirical pen in this novel is the medical profession.

Overall Reaction: although this lacks the drama of Trollope's other novels--the ending is known a short way into the story-- it still is an enjoyable read.


Eric Frank Russell

Although first published in 1957, Wasp is even more appropriate today than it was then. It is not because of any scientific advances but simply human psychology.

Earth is at war with the Sirian Combine. It's been going on a long time, and the Terrans decide it's time for a different tactic. Agent James Mowry lived at one time, before the war, on a Sirian Combine planet and speaks the language flawlessly. He is surgically altered to resemble the native population on Jaimec, after being trained "in the arts of espionage, subversion, and propaganda." They sent him there alone to work behind the lines and do what he could to disrupt the manufacturing and shipment of war materials, to tie down troops that should be on the front lines, and to increase or create as much disaffection and dissatisfaction among the civilian population as possible.

My copy has an introduction by Jack Chalker, an Sf novelist, that was written in 1986. Chalker writes: "Wasp has a certain timeliness that transcends the ordinary SF adventure. We can not believe that one man could have such an impact; yet watching, step by step, we see not purple aliens but our own culture being rattled in the just the fashion the Sirians are here. We know that it will work. Today, when one terrorist act can panic an entire country and when whole armies are tied up chasing down a few hundred guerrillas, Wasp holds even more urgent message for us, particularly as Russell gives a blueprint for how one man may confound a nation--but so rooted are his successes in human nature and modern culture, he provides no clue as to how to deal with it. And that, perhaps, is this book's disturbing, serious message.

This book is great fun, but its underlying principles are, alas, timeless."

Chalker wrote this in 1986, yet when I read "when one terrorist act can panic an entire country" how can I not think of 9/11 and what that has done to our freedoms?

Overall Reaction: One of Russell's best novels and certainly one that is the most prophetic of his many stories, unfortunately.


Fantasia, an animated film by Disney

I think Fantasia is the best film Disney has ever made. It is a sheer joy to watch and listen to. The film is a celebration of color and sound and motion. I don't think I've ever seen anything that can match it, even with today's far more sophisticated computer graphics. The program ranges from Bach's "Toccata and Fugue in D Minor" (probably best known for its appearance in The Phantom of the Opera) which uses color and motion to illustrate the music to "Rites of Spring" in which the Disney animators provide the story of the evolution of the Earth and its life forms beginning with a single-celled animal and ending with the passing of the dinosaurs.

Probably the most famous part is the "Sorcerer's Apprentice" featuring Mickey Mouse who casts a spell on a broom and forgets how to stop it. My favorite though is Beethoven's Pastoral Symphony (probably because of the music), which is set on Olympus and features flying horses, cupids, fauns, centaurs, various gods, Bacchus, and satyrs and a storm. And, who can forget those silly hippos, and knock-kneed ostriches, and slithery crocs (or gators?) in "The Nutcracker Suite."

Overall Reaction: now that it's been remastered and available, I'll be scheduling it for viewing at least once a year.


  1. Fred,

    In The Book of Eli, do you ever find out what the book is? ( Just tell me yes or no, if it's a major spoiler.) Did you think this movie is worth watching?

  2. Cheryl,

    I don't think it's a major surprise as there are sufficient clues throughout. You could probably guess what the Book is without having seen the film.

    If you enjoyed films such as _Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome_ or _A Boy and His Dog_ (based on Harlon Ellison's short work) or other post-holocaust SF films, I think you will enjoy this one.