Tag Archives: World War II

Knitting, not reading (pace Stevie Smith)

Typical, nothing for weeks then three come along at once! I have been on a long knitting jag, with jerseys, blankets and cardigans flying off the needles, it becomes compulsive after a while, but impedes the reading, AudioBooks become the order of the day (& night)…

So what have we in mind today. Two books about World War II, a non-fiction treatment and a semi-fiction treatment and one book about the “Indian Wars”, that is to say the European Americans and what they then called Red Indians, now spoken of as Native Americans.

So I shall start with that one. Paulette Jiles has written many books about this period of American history, that is to say the Civil War and the Indian Wars.

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It was while writing a previous book, Enemy Women, that she came across the story of Britt Johnson. Moses Johnson with fifteen white women and  five black including children left the war torn areas and moved to North Texas. Britt Johnson was a manumitted African American (called negro, black or nigger at the time depending on the speaker), he took the family and settled in North Texas. Britt had a wife and three children. The Colour of Lightning is their story. How the Comanche and Kiowa descended on the settlement, killed one child and captured Mary and the remaining two children, went on to capture another woman, Elizabeth Fitzgerald, and her two grandchildren.

None of this was written down at the time, 1865-1870s or thereabouts, and was only recorded after Britt Johnson’s death by people who knew him, or had heard about him, in 1900. So Paulette Jiles has pieced together the myth and the historical facts as known and created a story that brings all the characters to life, most of the people in this book are real, one or two are like people that existed, like the Indian Agent, a pacifist Quaker named Samuel Hammond, sent for purposes that only God knew, to control and negotiate with the most war-like tribes: the Comanche, the Kiowa and the Kiowa-Apache.

Britt Johnson is real, he was away when his family were attacked, he determined to recover his family, and other captives and having accomplished that to set up as a freight-driver. This is the story of how this ambition was realised.

Samuel Hammond, however, is based, but lightly, upon a real Indian Agent called Lawrie Tatum and Samuel is in the novel in order to explore the dilemma facing the Quaker settlers from Philadelphia, who took no part in the Civil War (though Samuel drove an ambulance), and therefore were little regarded by many European (white) Americans, and were now part of the great re-settlement (in reservations) of the Native (Reds, as they were known) Americans. How does a pacifist deal with a tribal custom that includes killing, raping and mutilating victims, taking of captives and a nomadic life that cannot be contained in a reservation, no matter how big?
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This map shows the territory as it was in 1864-65.

The other two books are rather different. Hemingway at War by Terry Mort, rather speaks for itself. Much has been written, not least by Ernest Hemingway himself, about his escapades, much has been exaggerated, mostly by EH and much has been denigrated by others. Moonglow, on the other hand, is a fictionalised account of a grandfather’s experience in Europe, principally Germany, towards the end of World War II. In this book, Michael Chabon recounts the stories told him by his grandfather towards the end of his life, while in a hospital and dying, suddenly and for the first time, he began to describe incidents in his past life, especially those dealing with his experiences in Germany. The novel is an amalgam of things that Michael knew about his grandfather and also these revelations made almost when it was too late to press for details.

Both books in their own ways give us an account of that cataclysm which cannot but broaden our view of the conflict.

Hemingway, though a non-combatant, saw quite a lot of fighting at first hand as he attached himself to the American 22nd Regiment and went with them from Normandy right through to the liberation of Paris and on to Germany, until they were decimated at the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, this small but intense part of the war was the bloodiest, most deadly encounter that the 22nd had experienced. Not unlike the Battle of the Bulge, it was fought in dense forest, with little or no room for deep trench defenses, and splinters of wood from blasted trees inflicting as many casualties and fatalities as ordinary shrapnel.PhotoScan (6)

Hemingway himself, claims to have killed at least 100 Germans, which as a journalist he was not entitled to do, but at the same time it was known that for him “enough was never enough” and he was inclined to dress it up a bit. Strangely, the one engagement about which he wrote not one sentence was Hürtgen, perhaps finally, “enough” was way too much. In any event, he left the combat zones for good and returned to Paris, a privilege not afforded to what remained of the 22nd, who fought on to Berlin.

Moonglow was, in many ways, a more satisfactory book. Maybe novels are always better at presenting messy, complicated lives in a digestible fashion. Chabon’s grandfather was also in Europe towards the end of World War II, but on a quite different mission. As a noted chemist and engineer himself, he was tasked with seeking out as many German engineers and chemist, especially those involved with the V1 and V2 Rocket programme, to find them, capture them and extradite them to America, preferably before the Russians.PhotoScan (4)

The other parts of the book present a wonderful eccentric, a talented engineer engaged in rocketry, even before the war. Passionate about space exploration, but also with a haunted and difficult married life. This is a truly remarkable book, by a wonderfully talented and inventive writer.


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Family secrets

Tolstoy is supposed to have said “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way“, the same can be said of family secrets, happy families have small secrets that do no harm; unhappy families seem to have secrets that can cause damage generation after generation. So it is with the two books I am writing about today.

conradThe one I read first was Conrad and Eleanor by Jane Rogers. The two eponymous characters are scientists, they met at Cambridge, married when Eleanor fell pregnant, have four children and have been married some twenty five years. The children are all very different, but the third child, Caro is even physically different from the rest of the family.

But one quite outwardly ordinary day, Conrad fails to return from a conference in Germany. For a couple of days, Eleanor convinces herself that this is just because he missed his flight, she had the wrong day anyway or some fairly logical but unexplained reason. But soon, the continued silence, the fact that his colleagues seem perplexed by his non-appearance and her children’s concern force upon her than this is no ordinary absence.

Caro takes off to Munich in pursuit, Eleanor feels conflicted, was this the best option? But there is no stopping Caro, she will go and find him. Meanwhile, Eleanor overhears her other children discussing the possibility that she has “done away with him”.

During the course of this novel, we see both partners considering their past relationships; ones they have with other people as well as each other. The disappearance makes Eleanor review her behaviour, which has not been admirable and Conrad reviews the circumstances that have caused him to run and hide…

Professional conflict, work related stress and general busyness accounts for some of the fracture, professional jealousy also plays into the mix, and personal jealousy contributes to a fairly toxic situation. But it is not until there is a crisis on this scale that either of them take the necessary steps to resolve the failing marriage.  Inertia has caused them to carry on, both on a separate trajectory that is contributing to their lack of communication plus the dreaded secret – the uncovering of which has caused a leprosy of distrust to blight the marriage, the slow deadening of feelings…

Jane Rogers has the ability to observe human frailty with a warm and insightful gaze, to impart this on to the page in a way that packs an immense punch. To pick up almost any of her novels is to enter a world of awareness into characters that may be widely different in age and circumstance from our own and to inhabit their world completely for the next three hundred or so pages. Gifted and brilliant writing.

The second novel, also by a well known writer, is Cousins by Sally Vickers. This is a book after my own heart. It speaks to me of the sort of family I know, Northumbrians root and branch, with a pedigree that goes back generations and who have lived man and boy in the same house for many, many years. Dowlands, at the start of this novel, is in the hands of Hetta’s parents having been given over to them in a rather run-down state by Hetta’s grandfather. The book is told from the point of view of three women, all related to William Tye whose devastating accident is the focal point of the opening chapter.cousins

Hetta Tye is William’s younger sister, the older girl is called Sydella, know as Syd who lives in Jordan with her husband Omar. Hetta recounts all of the first section. Bell recounts the second section.  Bell is William’s aunt, sister of his father, and mother (single) of Cecelia always called Cele. Bell is a wild card, rackety and irresponsible but with a generous heart, in the eyes of the family she finally redeems herself.

As you might imagine, from the title of the book, William, Cele and Hetta are very close, and have been for as long as anyone could remember. Cele was often, not to say always, parked with William and Hetta either at Dowlands or at the house of their grandparents, Wilfred and Bertha Tye, always know as Fred and Betsy, while Bell was off with one partner or another.

Betsy, William’s grandmother, is the narrator in the third section and the final section returns to Hetta. There are more cousins, Fred and Betsy happen to be first cousins, they have three children, the eldest is Nathaniel, he also figures in this story, although even before the beginning of the novel he has died in an accident; another uncle who has died is Fred’s older brother who was killed in action.

This may all seem rather incestuous now, but reading around from books that include The Bible and many Victorian novels, the marriage of first cousins was not thought in any way odd or unsavoury or, even, unwise until quite recently. The Tye family are in no way unique, you only have to look at many Quaker family trees to find married first cousins, and as I said, Abraham sent Isaac off to marry one of the daughters of his brother.

Consanguinity and its consequences were not recognised until the mid-twentieth century. Inbreeding increases the risk of genetic disorders which leads to a decreased biological fitness, a fact which was only studied properly fairly recently. Parents with similar genetic mutations may be unaware of and unaffected by any disorder, however their children are at a higher risk and may be susceptible. Even second cousins who marry and have children, will have given their offspring a higher level  of risk than the rest of the population.

Cousins is not really about the genetic risks, but there is a definite undercurrent of family disasters being visited upon generation after generation. It is this that makes the novel so fascinating, the hidden histories that are slowly revealed, family secrets that impact one upon another. Collateral damage being how each event impacts on the rest of the group, in much the same way as a pebble thrown into a lake.

This is also a book about love and the risks that one will take, for love or through loving someone enough, or too much.

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Happy New Year!

I should probably apologise for not posting anything since October. The impending arrival of two new grandchildren meant that I was reading knitting pattern books and listening to the Radio (or audiobooks) but here is the New Year, the knitting pile complete and my readings are back.

My first post of this year deals with memory, one book is fiction – Sebastian Faulks new novel Where my heart used to beat. The other is a compelling exploration of history through a single house. The House by the Lake is a family history, a memorial and a history of Germany by Thomas Harding.

My heartIn his novel Faulks has combined two of his interests, the war and psychiatry. The narrator is a psychiatrist who has been invited by letter to visit an island retreat of another well known but slightly discredited member of the same profession. The hook is the fact that this person claims to have known Hendricks’ father.

His father having died in action during the First World War, Hendricks is minded to go, but hesitant. His mother has never explained fully what his father had done in the war, saying it was “all too painful”. Adult now and having had his “own” war, Hendricks feels conflicted. Will learning more about his father confirm or destroy the “hero” status that his boyhood fabrications had given this unknown but important absentee?

Suffice it to say that Hendricks himself has had a difficult and conflicted war, parts of which he has repressed and parts deliberately buried – there is a subtle difference. The author takes us on a journey through the mind of a psychiatrist who knows both how to manage emotion and conflict in others, but also is fully aware that parts of his own inner confusion are lying unexamined. Will “finding” his father help unblock his own lost youth?

Beautifully unravelled, this tale is about love, memory, madness and loss. It captures, in spare and perfect prose, the full incredible complexity of the human capacities of loving, forgetting and repressing memory and how that in leaving “stuff” unexamined we can twist our personalities and blight our lives irreparably.

houseBlighted lives, past histories and reconciliation are the subject of the other book. The house by the lake is real, the lake is Groß Glienicke, the house is a small wooden construction comprising several rooms looking on to the lake, bathrooms and a kitchen suitable for summer vacations and weekends, a small annexe for a chauffeur and a plot of land which has access directly on to the lake within easy reach of Berlin and Postdam.

The BBC have just broadcast this as a edited book on morning radio, it so annoys me when they do this. Do many people go out and buy the book afterwards? – It was already sitting in my pile, so each morning I had to quickly flick the radio off!

We first arrive at Groß Glienicke with Otto Wollank who is considering buying the whole estate when it was put up for sale by the owner who needed to raise money having fallen on hard times. Later on Wollank, himself, leases plots of land for building and the house is built by Alfred Alexander with Fritz Munk taking the plot next to it and building a similar wooden house.

Alfred Alexander is a well known, highly respected Jewish doctor whose patients (and visitors to the house by the lake) included Albert Einstein, James Franck, the actors Paul Wegener, Max Pallenberg and Sybille Binder and many similar. He marries and has several children, Elsie being the one who binds the author, Thomas Harding, to the house. She has clearly loved this place, a “soul place” she calls it.

So this is the interesting thing, Thomas Harding. Sounds thoroughly English? But only one generation back his family name was Hirschowitz, his grandmother Elsie and her husband Erich having escaped from Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, Erich Anglicised their surname.

Thomas Harding, after the war, after the reunification of Germany goes in search of this house which mattered so much to his grandmother and finding it began to research its history. When he first arrives the house is due for demolition and the City of Potsdam intend to use the plot for a low-cost housing development. Harding, through effort, determination and enthusiastic support achieves his aim and eventually the house gets Denkmal status.

The book contains his research into who had owned the house after his family had retreated. The Aryanisation programme, then the Second World War, then East Germany, the Berlin Wall – which ran right along the edge of the lake and ten metres away from the house itself, squatters, and a gamut of families – each one with a special place in its history.

Harding (and his research team) chases them up, interviews and excites them and finally wins over his family, the house will become a museum and reconciliation centre for Groß Glienicke. It is the history of a country seen through a single lens – the story of a house.

I cannot recommend it too highly. More information can be found at http://www.Alexanderhaus.org

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Turn Our Captivity, O Lord

This comes from Psalm 126. Some may think this oddly inappropriate? But here goes…

The GFSSimon Mawer has followed up his Second World War Resistance novel, with a new book about the same woman. In The Girl Who Fell from the Sky we follow the wartime exploits Marian Sutro, part English and part French who is recruited to the SOE, though most of the time she seems too naive to have worked that out. She has some well trodden fictional paths to follow and one extremely unusual one, she is recruited by a rival secret operation to persuade a one-time friend to leave France and come to England.

It is this adventure that makes this an interesting novel. The Resistance work, the drop over France, the clandestine meetings and messages are covered elsewhere, not better probably but more of the same. Marian’s other adventure and her time in Paris doing it, is both more exciting, more edge of the seat and slightly less likely, but nevertheless gripping stuff.

As with all his books, Simon Mawer keeps his hand well hidden and the gradual reveal is all the more telling with the final shocking denouement. The Girl Who Fell from the Sky does not match his previous hauntingly beautiful book The Glass Room about an architect’s dream project in Germany and the people who lived there, but it is a page turner.

The new novel, Tightrope, Tightropereaches another level all together. Once again, Marian Sutro is our heroine, this is her life after the war. She is trying to settle down, she is trying to forget and she has drifted into an unsuitable marriage. Unsuitable because she is much cleverer than her husband, she married on the rebound and anyway life in peacetime simply is not as vivid, nerve-stretching or interesting as her time in the front line. How could it be? In a book like this? Very interesting indeed.

These are both very unusual novels, but exploring the life after seems to be a richer seam, partly because it is a road less travelled – though one that is being travelled more and more frequently by others, Kate Atkinson for example, but also Sebastian Faulks.

Wolf BorderThe other book that I read along the same lines is The Wolf Border by Sarah Hall.  What?! I hear you cry…bear with me.

The heroine of this book, Rachel Caine, is also recruited, this time by a wealthy landowning aristocrat, Earl of Annerdale, with a plan.  He wants, as one of his playthings, a pair of wolves and as she has worked on an American reservation protecting wolves there, she seems the best target for his operation.

At first reluctant, Rachel then finds herself in an awkward situation and so opts out of the wild wolf project to start a captivity project for a pair of Grey Wolves, to be imported according to all the strictest laws and restrictions. from Europe.  This beautiful pair, who will live, she supposes, on the Earl’s estate (which seems limitless) in a magnificently, expensively constructed enclosure with every modern security system available. are an experiment in controlled reintroduction .

Apart from some serious animal rights protest, some anxious neighbours and some angry farmers, what could possibly go wrong?  The Earl is boundless in his enthusiasm, then seems to lose interest; his daughter uses this as her gap year project, about which Rachel has serious misgivings, but is won over; apart from one break in, luckily before the pair are released from their quarantine enclosure, everything goes like clockwork.

The pair are released after being carefully monitored and having GPS chips inserted under their coats.  A wild-life photographer sets up his hides and all is set.  Wonderfully, the pair like each other and in the absence of any alpha-females, they breed successfully in the first spring, producing four beautiful wolf-cubs…Rachel, who has also been breeding, could not be happier.

This all sounds very fanciful. Actually, it is as much about family life as about the wild. The manifest tensions around sibling rivalry and how it can be resolved, its causes and the lasting damage.  Rachel has been away for years, estranged from her rackety mother and distant from her brother, returning to England she is able to resolve some of these issues.  The Earl. too, has parental problems resulting from an accident in a plane which caused the death of his wife.  This does not seem to have prevented him from flying, however but has caused near-permanent estrangement from his son, who will eventually inherit, though the daughter seems to care more about the land and its attendant responsibilities.

Sarah Hall has a good eye for landscape and she is in familiar territory here as most of the action takes place in and around the Lake District.  Previous books have been selected by the Man Booker judges for the Shortlist, but she has yet to win.

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Hitler’s Last Gamble

ArdennesBlood, sweat and tears. This is what Winston Churchill offered the stunned British people at the beginning of World War II, when we stood alone against a powerful enemy. By 1944 in Europe, when that hideous and lengthy conflict had brought into its insatiable grip even the Americans whose reluctant President Theodore Roosevelt had finally joined with Churchill and Joseph Stalin in the fight against Hitler and Japan, the war was to all intents and purposes won by the Allies.

In spite of growing doubts expressed by his generals, Adolf Hitler decided to throw his army once more into France. By this time, his paranoia was bordering on madness, two failed attempts on his life increased his sense of isolation but did nothing to increase his sense of reality. With the forces of the Russians bearing down on his country from the East, he took charge of all military strategy and focussed on a doomed attempt to throw the Allied Armies out of Germany and out of the war.

So began the Ardennes offensive, know now by its more familiar moniker: The Battle of the Bulge. With tremendous and successful secrecy, the German army moved soldiers, tank and armaments towards the Albert Canal, which ran from Antwerp to the River Meuse (Maas). From there the intention was to smash their way past the Americans and British and to recapture France.

Partly because the Allies had in mind that victory was in their grasp and partly because this action was unexpected (and with hindsight pointless) initially the Germans were successful in punching through a large area of recently retaken territory. In his new book, Ardennes 1944, Antony Beevor brings to the page yet another masterpiece of research and writing.

mapThe territory was difficult, the weather was appalling and the surprise was absolute. The Panzer divisions smacked right through a weakened front, which because it was wooded, hilly and full of deep escarpments, the Americans had assumed was secure. The effect of the surprise attack was nearly disastrous. Small groups of men were dug in among the trees with little visibility and poor communications, the foxholes were small and not deep because of the tree roots and after days of fierce fighting the Germans won back village after village as the Allies retreated towards Bastogne.

Reading the accounts, garnered from diaries, letters and official records one gets the visceral, bowel-loosening horror of fighting. It was bitterly cold and wet, rations often had to be eaten cold and insomnia, wet feet and misery was increased once the shooting began. In the morning there was fog to contend with, so that the noise of moving tanks, mortar fire and small arms fire was muffled and hard to locate; the Germans had obtained, from their prisoners of war American uniforms, so that road blocks had to be mounted at all times in case of infiltration.

Fortunately for the Allies, the parachute drop behind their lines was a failure, this was partly due to the weather and partly inexperience. Many of the soldiers in this exercise were between 16 and 19 years old, were virtually untrained and were not told that they were dropping into battle stations until they were actually in the air and above the drop zone. In the end, only 150 of them dropped any where near where they should have been, and eventually their commander, Oberst Friedrich August Heydte, told them to split up and try to get back into Germany.

This one theatre of war was costly, there were terrible losses on both sides and the Germans broke several rules of engagement. Among these was the wearing of Allied uniforms and the mass killing of Allied prisoners, the massacre of Malmédy being the most egregious – about one hundred and fifty unarmed Americans were marched into a field and their captors opened fire; eighty-five were killed, several got away into the trees. This was the worst but there were many other examples, and in the end the retaliation and retribution was just as fierce. Belgian citizens were not any better off, many were shot even women and children.

There were remarkable successes for the Germans to begin with, several thousand American troops were captured, although the Germans were astonished at the resistance that the Americans put up, they had been told that this was an all-but-spent force.  However, small groups of determined men fought heroically, holding up the Panzer divisions long enough for the Allies to re-group.  Once the Allies took stock, other enterprises were halted and a concentrated counter attack, led in part by General Patton, turned the situation around and the push towards Berlin began again in earnest.

This is the content of the Tom Hanks/Steven Spielberg HBO mini-series Band of Brothers. Band of BrothersWhile Antony Beevor gives us the historical detail, the mini-series gives us the visual taste of what it was like, adding also pieces by the surviving soldiers who took part on one of the bloodiest, most brutal and most terribly wasteful theatres of World War II.

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58th LFF The Galas and Lebanon

The Gala films which I avoid at the actual festival, are reaching our screens. I have just been to see Fury (Brad Pitt and pals). This is a very good, but not mind-expanding war film. It does not begin to touch Lebanon, a festival film which I saw in 2009 before I started this blog. [More of that later].

Fury is set in the Second World War (I think after the Battle of the Bulge, a period which was amply and excellently covered by the HBO series Band of Brothers) by the time the American tank regiments are entering Germany. Fury is the name of a tank, which has survived with the team more or less intact through Africa, the Normandy landings and all the way to Germany. In this at least, it is unique. Right at the start of this film they lose one tank driver, enter a new tank driver who has been in the army for eight weeks. So this is both a war film and a coming-of-age film. Some American war films have a disastrous habit of being like a traditional Western: the good guys chase the bad guys (in this case Americans versus Germans) across a vast territory (Monument Valley/Germany) and this is no exception except that the acting and the dialogue are brilliant, the tension is massive and you simply cannot imagine what will happen next, and what happens is terrible, messy, bloody, noisy and terrifying.

Mr Turner, the new Mike Leigh film is out this Friday and The Imitation Game comes out on November 14th. Both these will be good to see. Mike Leigh is always a good watch and Timothy Spaull gives a gruff, rather growly rendition of the Great Master, but this biopic is more his domestic life than his artistry, this is the man not his painting – though that comes into it obviously.

The biopic of Alan Turing, with Benedict Cumberbatch playing Turing is probably marred by the addition of Keira Knightley, playing the ingénue code breaker. I know that there were women code breakers, one of my first boyfriend’s mother was one, but I am quite sure they were a great deal more serious and more sensible that Ms Knightley, who for all her charm cannot act, and plays herself whether she is in Love Actually, Atonement or any other cinematic vehicle including perfume advertisements.

The Imitation Game is a belated attempt at rehabilitation for an inventor who (to its eternal shame) was destroyed by the British Establishment. Alan Turing was one of the most brilliant mathematicians ever seen in this country, and a superb inventor. His achievement in the war, and against all the odds, was suppressed not only because it was top secret but because he was a homosexual. In fact what he invented and successfully got operational was the first calculator/computer, a machine that could calculate every possible solution to the Enigma codes that the Germans were using to communicate with each other, both on land and at sea.

The Enigma machine was an invention of a brilliant and complex German engineer, Arthur Scherbius at the end of the First World War. Used by many countries, it came into its own encrypting German communiqués during the Second World War. So sophisticated were the encryptions that they were nearly impossible to decipher, until that is a machine was captured in 1941, but even then the code encryptions were frequently changed and it took careless operators making mistakes to give any clues, and decrypting took too long.

Lebanon: The Soldier’s journey is available on DVD, made in 2009 and presented in the London Film Festival it was a film I went to see by accident. If you believe is teleology, then believe this: it was a film I was meant to see. The cinema (Vue 7, Leicester Square) was packed, I was in an aisle seat, the auditorium filled and no one came to claim my seat, though it was not until the film started that I became aware that I was at the wrong screening. The person at the door had not checked my ticket and so let me in to the wrong screen AND although every single seat was taken, my seat for some reason was never claimed by the correct occupant. The film is the story of a very frightened and inexperienced tank crew who get “lost” during an action in the First Israeli-Lebanon War (1982). They never leave the tank, and the whole film is taken from their point of view (do not ask me how actors and film crew were all inside a tank, I have no idea! But it was horribly claustrophobic).

At the Q&A afterwards, the Director-Screenwriter, Samuel Maoz told us about his own experience as a tank crew commander, why he wrote/made this film and what it meant to him. The acting (Yoav Donat, Itay Tiran and Oshri Cohen) and the screening is beyond brilliant, it is moving and horrible as the tank crew panic and drive the tank about in an ecstasy of fear and loathing. All the while you need to remember first that the Israeli Army is conscripted and that the Israeli-Lebanon war was unmercifully brutal.

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Based on a true story:

When you read this at the beginning of a film does your heart, like mine, sink ever so slightly? I have just been to The Monuments Men. There were several reasons for this. Firstly my son is in the film, admittedly not in a main part but in it nevertheless, and as long as you know when he is going to appear and in what scene and you don’t blink for the first forty-five minutes you will get to see him. I shall buy the DVD in the hope that there will be extras that show any scenes cut from the movie…for the same reason. The second reason is more silly and trivial: I simply adore George Clooney, what a tired trope that is! Me, and a few million other women. Never mind, I think he is gorgeous and no matter how silly, fatuous or excellent his films you will find me there – even at Gravity which is pretty nearly the most pointless film I have ever been to.

So back to this film, which to be brutally honest is based very, very loosely on a true story. The real “Monuments Men” numbered about 350 men and women, all experts in their field which was art and archives in all their various manifestations. They did not all survive, which is true of this film also. But oddly, in the film they give a completely fictional character one of the great true life moments: the discovery, then loss, then rediscovery of the only Michelangelo sculpture ever to leave Italy: The Madonna and Child from Bruges Cathedral, which thanks to these men you and I can go to see today.

The man who really identified where the Madonna and Child was, Major Ronald Edmond Balfour, arrived in Bruges only to find that he was a week too late; the Germans had already moved it. He then went on to find several other important pieces, and in 1945 was in Clèves (perhaps more famous for the fateful English Queen of Henry VIII) where he saved countless works of art but was killed by a shell while removing some sacred statues from the Church. His fellow monuments officer, Sir Leonard Woolley acknowledged his death as a great loss to the team and to the art world. Major Butler was an art historian and Fellow of Kings Cambridge before the war, he signed up to the MFAA (Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives) almost as soon as it was created and was one of the first people on the ground.

The film also covers the loss and rediscovery of the Ghent Altarpiece, the rediscovery of which alone might have justified the whole enterprise, in spite of the deaths of several members of the team. Which can be seen today, again thanks to these men.

Another really important part of the true story, the discovery and exposure of the major forgeries of Vermeers by Hans Van Meegeren also escapes this film. Two were discovered and identified as forgeries by members of MFAA, Sir Ellis K Waterhouse and Geoffrey Webb. One of them, Christ with a Woman taken in Adultery was in Hermann Göring’s collection of stolen art. This was maybe a wise exclusion, honestly there was not time to cover every single aspect of the story because there was a lot of time driving around in American jeeps from one shattered town to another until by some miracle they find a treasure map with all the main sites marked on it, and then it was a race to beat the Russians. [Göring crops up with his stolen art in the book described in my previous post on Priscilla Doynel, she may have been friends with, or only acquainted with, his art dealer Otto Brandl.]

George Clooney plays Frank Stokes, the fictional American art historian who persuades President Roosevelt to sanction this expedition and Matt Damon plays James Granger, another fictional character, responsible for the French art collections – in fact the character most akin to Squadron Leader Douglas Cooper, a well know collector of modern art and part of MFAA, himself responsible for the discovery of the Schenker Papers which listed the art works moved from France to Germany and where each piece went. Douglas Cooper went on to expose the Swiss art dealers who were complicit in assisting the sale of incredible numbers of looted art works from private collections (largely Jewish) which funded the escape plans of a considerable number of highly suspect and wanted Nazis. Winston Churchill himself intervened and two of the best know dealers were mysteriously pardoned, their galleries were still operational in London long after the War.


Both Clooney’s character and Matt Damon’s are fictional, as indeed are all the characters in the film. As I said, loosely based on a true story. Films are not and never can be true life, but seeing that there is a huge amount of true and interesting material surrounding the MFAA, it seems rather perverse, darling Georgie, to have turned this film into a cross between Ocean’s Eleven (a sort of reverse heist) and The Good German, even using many of the same actors…but don’t let my pernickety carping stop you from going to the film. It is like the Parson’s Egg – good in parts! It is a moderately good film loosely based on a true story.

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