The Real Wolfman

Man has not always been at the top of the food chain. Our lack of fangs, claws, etc. once made us a temping treat. Only in the last two centuries or so did our ingenuity give us the tools to consistently overcome the world’s top predators. Before that, humans huddled around campfires for eons, jumping at bumps in the night and teaching their children to fear the dark. Most of the time, the fear of fire would keep our primitive superiors at bay. However, there are many instances in history where a human settlement became little more than a buffet to a lion, a pack of wolves, or the Beast of Gevaudan.

The Beast of Gevaudan (pronounced je-voo-DAN) lived, killed, and died in southeast France in the disturbingly recent 1760s. It fataly mauled and mutilated 102 people, most of them women and children. It was hunted by hundreds and shot at by dozens, many of whom were sure they had hit it, but this only seemed to increase its boldness. One cannot study this period without sensing the terror peasants must have felt, cowering in their homes as the Beast walked unchallenged through their villages. But the most frightening thing about the Beast? Nobody knew what it was.

George Deuchar

Enter the History Channel. This story has long been a source of fascination for crypto-zoologists, because whatever this creature was, it left 102 bodies behind. Ergo, it couldn’t have been a hoax or a myth. So it only makes sense that the History Channel would enlist the talents of crypto-zoologist Ken Gerhard to investigate the mystery. Why they paired Gerhard with Jersey criminal profiler George Deucher is less clear. Deucher is sort of the Dana Scully of the pair; the hard-bitten, no-nonsense skeptic. For most of the film, while Gerhard insists the Beast must have been some previously undiscovered animal or mutation, Deucher is equally adamant that it was a human serial killer. How he plans to identify this killer, however, is beyond me. One of the tricky things about crime detection is that the trail goes cold fast. It’s hard to catch a murderer a few weeks after the killing, let alone 240 years. I’m sure the man is good at his job, but it would seem Deuchar was included less for any particular expertise than for the sake of having a skeptic voice in the cast of characters.

Most of the way through, the film progresses about like you’d expect, with the cheesy reenactments that we’ve come to expect from documentaries, and the monster-cam effects that we’re used to from B-grade horror films. We see a lot of retellings of documented instances where the Beast killed. Humorously, we see the same four or five actors die over and over. These are interspersed with Deuchar and Gerhard’s visits to sites in France and arguments between them about

what the few bits of evidence they have mean. For instance, Gerhard reads an excerpt to Deuchar from one scholarly compilation

Ken Gernhardt with a statue of the Beast

of sightings. It says that one man said he heard the Beast “laughing.” He then shows Deuchar some footage of hyenas in Africa. The sound they make resembles a human laugh. His argument: laughing sound = laughing hyena. The only question is how did one get to France. This is a classic crypto-zoologist explanation, known as the out-of-place-animal.  Deuchar retorts “when I hear about a killer laughing, to me that means one thing: human serial killer.”

Realistically, the Beast could not have been a human. Too many people saw a quadruped animal, including some who were attacked by it and survived, often in broad daylight. Doubtless, the witness accounts include some embellishments. One man said he saw the Beast walk on water. Witnesses also reported the Beast to be as big as a horse. None-the-less, I don’t think there can be any doubt that there was a real, unknown animal involved.

But in its exploration of what the real animal was, The Real Wolfman betrays the problems that plague many documentaries: fast assumptions and a rush to meet a deadline. To support his hyena theory, Gerhard leads Deuchar to the Caves of Sarlat in the Gevaudan province, where the Beast was said to prowl. There they appear to discover cave paintings of over-sized, prehistoric hyenas (the editing is a bit rough here and it’s hard to tell if our detectives are seeing what we’re seeing or if this is recycled footage from somewhere else). Deuchar asks “So do you think one of these was still around in the 1700s?” Gerhard replies “Well, give me two months and a shovel and I might find evidence.” What he doesn’t say, but we all hear, is “… but we need to finish a TV show here. We don’t have time for that.” Too bad. On their way out of the cave, they find the skeleton of a goat. Gerhard says “It looks like some predatory animal drug it in here for a snack.” Deuchar pipes up “Like a human.”

We’ll never know for sure what the Beast of Gevaudan was, but, based on what I have read from the time, there are a couple of theories worth taking seriously. One thing we can be sure of is that it was no wolf. Many wolves were killed in the hunt for the Beast, yet the attacks continued unabated. What’s more, this rural shepherd population dealt with wolves on a regular basis, and the wolf had been a symbol of evil across Europe for centuries (just read a few fairy tales). A wolf killing people would not have mystified the locals. Likewise, it seems that French peasants would have recognized a bear, had one been the Beast. And with world exploration well under way by this time, they most likely would even have recognized a great cat had they seen one. A mutation has been suggested by crypto-zoologists, and cannot be totally discounted, but it should be remembered that the overwhelming majority of mutants die in infancy. Obviously, this thins the list of known large predators quite a bit, but, as Sherlock Holmes would say, once we have eliminated the impossible, what remains, however improbable, must be the truth. I think the hyena theory is plausible. As noted, prehistoric hyenas once roamed across Europe, and were larger than today’s. While they were supposed to be extinct in 1764, it would not be the first time, or the last, that a supposedly extinct animal was found alive. Failing that, it was fashionable for European nobility to collect exotic animals. One could have escaped. A hyena (above) would match most of the witness descriptions of the Beast very well, with reddish-brown, flecked or striped fur, a pig-like muzzle, and an arched back with a fringe of fur. Finally, this species would probably not be recognized by the average Frenchman in 1764. There is another most interesting, and credible, explanation I have read from a crypto-zoologist. He proposes that the Beast may have been a mesonychid, a species of hoofed predator that once roamed Europe, but supposedly went extinct around 5000 years ago. A number of witnesses said the Beast had hooves; sometimes a hoof on each toe. The mesonychid’s hooves had developed a split design that made them function more like claws. Looking at the picture (right), you can see how a mesonychid would fit descriptions of the Beast as well, and would have puzzled any witness (who lived long enough to puzzle) as to what it was. With the world being sparsely populated, and no mass media to speak of, an unusual animal could have migrated a great distance through rural Europe in those days, even killing the occasional human, without being noticed before taking up residence in Gevaudan.

Toward the end, The Real Wolfman really falls apart. The pair has found a fair amount of evidence to bolster Gerhard’s hyena theory. Out of nowhere, and maybe out of jealousy, Deuchar espouses a new theory of “a man, killing with an animal.” He asks a wolf expert if a wolf could be trained to attack on command. The wolf expert says he does not think that could be done. They then show an interview with a zoologist who works with hyenas. Looking slightly surprised at the question, he says he SUPPOSES it MIGHT be possible to train a Hyena to attack on command, due to the level of intelligence they exhibit. Where this theory came from is beyond me. They hadn’t found any evidence to support it, and it isn’t necessary to explain anything. But from there, Deuchar, at least, is on the hunt for evidence of a human trainer behind the Beast.

The official story of the Beast’s death is that a hermit named Jean Chastel, a Protestant outcast whose son had been jailed on suspicion of being a werewolf responsible for the deaths, had his bullets blessed by a Catholic priest and went out to hunt the Beast on June 19, 1767. He was charged by the Beast in the company of several witnesses and slew it with one shot. (One shot, of course, was all anybody had back then.) Upon being opened, the creature’s stomach was found to contain human remains. Being unable to identify the Beast as any creature they were familiar with, Chastel and his companions put it on a cart and began the long trek to Paris to show King Louis XV, who had promised a reward. However, this was southern France in August, and the carcass reeked unbearably before long. Needless to say, they didn’t have any cameras, and were apparently not equipped for taxidermy in the field. Somewhere along the way, the remains of the Beast were lost to history. The other problem was that, officialy, the Beast had been dead for 2 years. Louis had dispatched Francois Antoine, his Leutenant of the Hunt, who had killed an unusually large wolf. Antoine had  been given a hero’s welcom in Paris, and the matter had been closed. When the attacks in Gevaudan continued, and the peasants again begged Louis for help, he hadn’t wanted to hear it. Chastel never did recieve a reward. However, he is now considered a national hero.

At a coffee shop in Paris, Deuchar, having pretty much accepted Gerhardt’s hyena theory, argues to Gerhardt that the only way Chastel could have killed the hyena is if he had trained it. He believes he has found a motive in that “Chastel had a chance to go from from outcast to hero.”

What case they have against Chastel is completed back in the U.S. Deuchar invites Gerhardt to the shooting range where he and his cop budies hang out. In France, someone told our detectives that Chastel used silver bullets when killing the Beast, a story they seem to have accepted at face value. Deuchar has had a friend cast some silver bullets. It should be noted these are bullets of a modern design, to be fired from a modern rifle, not the musket balls Chastel would have used. Deuchar has a marksman fire three lead bullets, then three silver, at a man-shapped target. He isn’t able to be nearly as accurate with the silver as with the lead. Announcer Jonathan Adams then explains that the rifling in the gun can’t dig into the silver as well because it is harder than lead. Therefore, the bullet doesn’t spin, reducing accuracy. Next, the marksman fires a lead bullet, then a silver, through two bricks of ballisitc gel. The gel is meant to simulate the effect of a bullet on flesh. The lead bullet fractures and spreads out on its way through the gel, causing massive “tissue” damage. The silver bullet, being harder, retains its shape and makes a slim, clean puncture (although it also punches further into the gel). Deuchar argues to Gerhardt that, if Chastle had managed to hit the hyena with a silver bullet, it’s very unlikely he could have inflicted a killing shot, unless the hyena had been trained. Gerhardt muses “It’s possible the use of silver bullets at that time had more to do with superstition than actual science” (Duh.) “so you might be right.” Deuchar tells the camera “silver is lousy ballistic material.” Adams takes over. “… so how did Chastel manage to kill the Beast with a single shot? Because it was a trained animal. It knew Chastel. It obeyed him.” So there you have the veteran big city cop’s case against Chastel for 102 counts of murder: Silver is lousy ballistic material. Therefore, the Hyena of Gevaudan was trained by this impoverished hermit to kill women and children. Wait a minute.

The story of Chastel killing the Beast may simply be a folktale. Why didn’t Chastel take the Beast to the nearest taxidermist? If he couldn’t afford it, surely someone would have paid for it, in celebration of the monster’s death. Couldn’t Chastel have promised a share of the king’s reward? None-the-less, the attacks stopped, so something must have happened to the Beast. This version seems to have more support than any other.

Most records from the time don’t say anything about Chastel using silver bullets, and this was probably a story that developed later, especially considering that the silver bullet is a relatively recent addition to werewolf mythology. (See Witchcraft and the Occult, Robert Jackson, 1995.) He probably used a perfectly ordinary lead ball, and I’m sure he wasn’t the first to try having it blessed by a priest (assuming that part of the story wasn’t fabricated later for church propaganda). With the hundreds of men that hunted the Beast, it’s no surprise one of them was finally in the right place at the right time. Assuming Chastel did try a silver musket ball, and had the funds to obtain one, Deuchar’s accuracy test was flawed. Guns in 1767 didn’t have rifeling anyway, so that wouldn’t have been a factor.

Even Ken Gerhardt, on his own blog, later admitted,

“I am still not 100% convinced about the guilt of Jeanne Chastel. I mean, why didn’t anyone ever notice the hyena in Chastel’s care, with so much reward money being offered… and where did a poor outcast like Chastel acquire a rare animal in the first place? With so many eyewitnesses to the Beast, why didn’t anyone report Chastel prowling the area?”

You also have to ask, even if Chastel was such a monster, why did he keep killing children for three years, thereby increasing his risk of getting caught, and missing out on the reward? None of these questions are asked in The Real Wolfman, however. It seems that the element of the human killer needed to be forced into the History Channel’s explanation of the Beast to justify their inclusion of a cop on the investigative team. In the final scene, Gerhardt and Deuchar walk down the street, congratulating eachother. Deuchar says “It looks like we were both right, huh?” They seem oblivious to the seriousness of the accusation they have just levied against an actual historical figure with known living decendants. Seriously, if any such decendants happen to read this, it would be worth talking to an attorney about a libel suit. In summary, The Real Wolfman doesn’t deserve to be called a documentary. It’s just a lot of wild jumps to conclusions and groundless (and needless) accusations. I suppose I’ll give it a star for putting forth the Hyena theory, though it wasn’t the first work on the Beast to do so.

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Rating: 2.0/5 (3 votes cast)

Ten Commandments

So why do a review of a movie that turns 50 this year? Because every so often there is a movie so great that it transcends time; a classic. None the less, due to the shear volume of material put out by Hollywood, great films can be forgotten just because they didn’t come out in the last year or two, or because audiences get comfortable with different styles. To put it simply, greatness should not be allowed to die.

The Ten Commandments was directed by savy Hollywood operator and professing Christian Cecil B. Demille. The fact that some of Demille’s movies were based on parts of the Bible automatically drew some criticism. One contemporary accused Demille of making “small-minded movies on a huge scale.” The “huge scale” part definitely applies to The Ten Commandments. Demille had to employ a cast of thousands of extras to recreate Pharo’s army and the mass Exodus of Hebrew slaves. The story spans 85 years and takes 3:39 to unfold, and every scene – nay, every line of dialogue – drives the story. And of course, then-revolutionary techniques were used to make the Red Sea sit up and beg, making movie history.

One of the temptations that Moses brushes off like dandruf. Heston must have taken a lot of cold showers.

But small minded? No one can take an honest look at this film and seriously hold that belief. This is one of the most compelling and thoughtful pictures ever made. The early story happens during a politically volatile period in the (speculative) history of ancient Egypt. Pharo Sethi I is nearing the end of his life and his throne must naturally pass to his biological heir, the ambitious Rameses II. Yul Brynner is absolutely brilliant in this role. You don’t like him and yet you’re compelled to respect him. Driven by his desire for the crown and for the beautiful Nefretiri (Anne Baxter), he puts force that few actors can into every scene he appears in. Sethi has nearly equal force, however, and superior power. Like most old men who’ve spent their lives being waited on, he has begun to worry about his legacy. He prefers his sister’s adopted son, Moses, who never stops building tributes to him, as a successor. Rameses begins hatching plots to undo this adopted brother.

Nefretiri, a hormonal adolescent girl with the power of a princess, plays her own game. Madly in love with Moses, she can’t bear the thought of being wed to Rameses. She constantly praises Moses and sweet talks Sethi. One scene between her and Rameses is one of Hollywood’s more memorable scenes. It’s a reminder that movies were much more powerful when the sexual tension was kept below the surface. Nefretiri is not passive, however, her passion drives her to extreme lengths, including murder. There are an assortment of other wily characters with their own motivations to add interest.

All of this is superbly done, and plenty for four stars. But so far, all this political maneuvering and forbidden romance could be in The Godfather, The Good Shepherd, or any number of intrigue movies. What makes The Ten Commandments different? The protagonist. Moses never criticizes the other characters; he simply passes through the politics and back-stabbing as if he doesn’t notice it.

Prophet, priests, and king.

Differences between Moses and the others begin to show right after Nefretiri has killed her hand maiden. Moses is knocking at her door. After a minute of romance, Moses learns that she has killed Memnet. He insists on knowing why, and drags it out of her that Memnet told her about his Hebrew heritage (unknown to him). She spouts typical Hollywood rhetoric, e.g., “I love you, that’s the only truth I know.” His reply is “love cannot drown truth.” Moses is favored above everyone else in Egypt, and its throne has now been promised to him. He has every comfort he could want and a beautiful woman madly in love with him. However, the revelation drives him to uncover his past, and he actually leaves the palace to work in the brick pits. His mother and Nefretiri urge him to stay, telling him that justice and truth are better served from a throne. This is just one age-old struggle the movie addresses; shouldn’t righteous men seek out power for the benefit of all? – and yet power so often rules the one who has it and makes him more wicked than any tyrant he replaced.

After Moses is arrested, Sethi asks him “Why are you forcing me to destroy you?” Moses replies “The evil that men should turn their brothers into beasts of burden … if there is a god, he did not mean this to be so.” Moses bears the fall from next pharo to condemned prisoner with remarkable grace, out of nothing more than an un-named conviction of what is right. How many of us have that kind of strength?

We are, of course, eventually directed to the “Power that has shaped Moses’ way,” as he puts it. The Ten Commandments does a number of things that contemporary audiences will be uncomfortable with, including overt references to Yaweh, the God of Abraham, as opposed to vague references to “God.” It’s unlikely DeMille would have taken the same criticism if the film wasn’t such an uncompromising statement of Biblical truth.

Still looks real.

If you haven’t seen The Ten Commandments for a few years, you owe it to yourself to at least rent a copy. If you’ve only watched it on TV, there is a part that is usually cut. No matter how many times I watch The Ten Commandments (don’t worry, I try to stay busy while I watch it), I can never bring myself to skip past it. In an unusual (possibly unique) move, DeMille addresses the audience face to face before the film starts. DeMille’s passion is infectious, and he brings the whole purpose of the movie into focus. The theme of The Ten Commandments, DeMille emphatically states, is “whether men are to be ruled by God’s Law, or by the whim of a dictator like Rameses. Are men the property of the state, or are they free souls under God? This same battle continues throughout the world today.” How true. We need only look at the history of the United States to see that, as our government and culture have progressively rejected the Law of God, we have seen not freedom, but an explosion of government invasion of everyone’s lives.

Everyone remembers the Red Sea scene from this film, but few remember the true climax of the story, after Moses has received the Commandments from Yahweh. He goes back down the mountain to find the people worshiping the Calf and reveling in depravity. Dathan (Edward G. Robinson), a rabble-rouser, declares “We’re gathered against you Moses. We’re free!” Moses shouts “There is no freedom without the law!” What more is there to say? I guess there’s still the Gospel. But DeMille tried to force that into the 1920s version of The Ten Commandments, and it ruined it. One movie can only do so much. But this one does all that one can – and then some. The Book isn’t bad either.

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Kingdom of Heaven

KofH posterWith America’s eyes turning toward the battle for Rifqa Bary in Florida, it seemed fitting to pull this one out of the vault. Americans are famously clueless about history, but especially so when it comes to the history of Islam and Christianity. When I was in Bar Exam preparation, the lecturer, who was your typical American WASP, aparently felt the need to vent concerning the Crusades. He said the kings and knights went off to “teach Christianity to the heathens” in the Middle East, and how they completely destroyed the “Islamic Culture” there “that had existed for thousands of years.” He then went back to legal matters, but many listening had no doubt been entrenched more deeply in very popular and very dangerous misconceptions. Circumstances prevented me from addressing him directly, but I would have liked to point out that, at the time of the Crusades, “Islamic culture” had existed for about 400 years (Christianity, for the record, had been around for about 1000), that the Crusades had nothing to do with converting anyone or teaching anyone anything, but were about reclaiming territory and securing safe pilgrimages for the already faithful, and that they had hardly been unprovoked.

Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005) is one of many films about the Crusades. It does succumb to many of the same misconceptions of past films, but  represents an improvement. One review commented that the Muslims in the film were put in a surprisingly positive light. The surprise for me was that the Christians were not portrayed as completely barbaric, as tends to be the habit of Hollywood. For instance, the Kevin Coster version of Robin Hood (1992) introduced a new character in Hazeem, a Muslim who follows Robin to England from Jerusalem (Morgan Freeman). Through Hazeem, Muslims get undeserved credit for all kinds of advances in science, including gunpowder, which came from ancient China, telescopes, which were invented in Denmark in the 17th Century, and Cesarean section. Hazeem tends to be juxtaposed against Friar Tuck, a drunken, bumbling (albeit lovable) figure of Christianity. Worst of all, at one point, Robin Makes a speech, during which he declares “One man, fighting for his home, is more powerful than 10 hired soldiers!” He then looks over at Hazeem and says “The Crusades taught me that.”

And so it goes. Throughout history, from the class room to the silver screen, Christianity is portrayed as having spread out violently from Europe, destroying the peaceful, environmentally sound cultures in its path. Will the real story ever be told?

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Balian (Bloom) at the Battle of Kerak, courtessy of Wikipedia.

Kingdom of Heaven is a definite improvement. Most of the characters we get to know are on the Christian side. Most of them are admirable. The biggest surprise was that the movie portrayed Muslims, Christians and Jews as living peacefully side by side for much of the story. One knight tells the lead, Balian of Ibelin (Orlando Bloom) that his father, Grodfrey of Ibelin (Liam Neeson) kept Jerusalem as a place of prayer for all faiths, just as the Muslims did before them. (At least now both sides are equally misrepresented.) The villains of the story are Guy de Lusigan (Marton Csokas) and Reynald (Brendan Gleeson), two French knights who want to provoke a war with Syria. (Those who care to check out the DVD extras will notice the real Guy, at least, wasn’t so bad) They succeed about two thirds of the way through, which leads up to the climactic battle (which, I might add, is a great piece of film-making). We don’t see enough scenes on the Muslim side to really like or dislike them. We do see a brief shot of Saladin crying over the bodies of men slain in battle. We see a lot of shots of both sides shouting “God wills it!” as they move into battle.

In the book “Unveiling Islam,” Ergun Caner, a former Muslim,  comments that this cry (Dues Volt! in Latin) was only adopted in Europe after centuries of raids and colonization by the Arabs.  Other features of Islam seem to have rubbed off on Christians about this time. For instance, the teaching in Islam that one who dies in jihad automatically goes to paradise (Hadith 4:73, 9:93:555) seems to have been adopted by Pope Leo IV, when he promised forgiveness of sins to any who fought the Muslims.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

Saladin attacks Jerusalem in a great battle scene.

The heroes of Kingdom tend to be those who acknowledge God’s authority but insist on using cool-headed reason to end conflicts. There is a priest in Christian Jerusalem who comments “thanks to religion, I’ve seen the lunacy of madmen in every denomination be called the will of God. The kingdom God desires is here (pokes Balian in the head) and here (pokes him in the heart).” This evenhanded film is probably characteristic of the post 9/11 era where Americans want to believe all religions are the same. Today, the media can’t seem to fathom that Muslim parents, who’ve cared for their daughter for 17 years, might kill her for apostacy. As she repeatedly told an interviewer, “you guys don’t understand!”

There are a number of battles in history that I have often wished someone would make a movie out of – battles that represent some of Christian Europe’s victories over the Jihad. For instance, the Battle of Tours (A.D. 732), where the French stopped a Muslim army that had pillaged its way across northern Africa and Spain, thus saving western civilization. Or the naval Battle of Lepanto (1571) that broke the Turks’ stranglehold on the Mediterranean and liberated thousands of slaves. Or the valiant defense of Constantinople, which resisted the Ottoman empire (which terrorized the world for about 500 years) for centuries. And then, of course, there were a series of battles late in WWI that marked the final destruction of the Ottomans and the liberation of the Serbs (who are now vilified as oppressors of Muslims). Today, we’re watching the story of a young potential martyr unfold from our livingrooms.

On one hand it seems like a pipe dream to hope that these stories will ever get the remembrance and celebration they deserve in the present climate. Americans can’t seem to fathom a time when western culture was in danger of being overrun.  Still, Kingdom of Heaven might be a step in the right direction. Maybe the next Ridley Scott will read this column. Time will tell.

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John Adams

It’s all about the teeth.

Aside from the brilliant acting, spectacular setpieces, and sweeping epic scale of HBO’s John Adams, it’s the teeth that stand out more than anything.  To wit: as people age, so do their teeth, and in days long gone when toothpaste and mouthwash were as common as combustion engines and power tools, the older one got, the worse his teeth looked.  But in too many historical movies, be they epics or simple homespun character tales, nary a yellowed bit of enamel is to be found.  Be it Braveheart, A Knight’s Tale, The Passion of the Christ, or even post-apocalyptic movies like Terminator Salvation and Waterworld, nothing destroys the carefully crafted immersive quality of a film like gleaming pearly whites.

In John Adams, teeth are just one of a host of details used to create the most realistic representation of a historical time period I have seen since the BBC’s Pride and Prejudice.  Teeth are dirty, stained, and deteriorate over time, and this adds a level of realism rarely seen in movies today.  Every bit of early America is meticulously recreated onscreen in this masterwork of cinematography, and each scene is held together by the strength of Paul Giamatti’s acting as he portrays one of the most important figures in American history:  our second president himself, Mr. John Adams.

John and Abigail Adams, played by Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney.

The miniseries opens with Adams being asked to, of all things, represent a group of British soldiers who had fired into a crowd of unruly colonists.  Opening with this event, as opposed to other defining moments in Adams’ life or early political career, is a stroke of brilliance as it sets the tone for the rest of the eight-hour show:  this is not the John Adams we are used to reading about in textbooks.  This, we soon find out, is the real John Adams–the one who struggled with personal doubts, continually strove to prove himself, argued with his wife and dear friend Abigail, had severe fallings-out with his children, and fought tooth and nail to hold the fragile democracy together that he was so instrumental in creating.

Throughout the course of the series we are presented with an array of events that not only shaped the course of our nation, but affected Adams on a very personal level.  In the early days of the continental congress we see Adams bicker with delegates over the very idea of proposing independence, and we begin to realize that the picture of our early days is not nearly as rosy as we may have been led to believe by our schoolbooks.  The declaration of independence, written mostly by Adams’ friend Thomas Jefferson, was not signed in a neat little ceremony with all the representatives of the colonies gathered happily together in Philadelphia.  We see the revolutionary war through the eyes of soldiers and commoners who fought hard and bled harder.  A bitterly real plague of smallpox, from which Adams’ family is not immune, cripples New England.  In the years following the revolution we see Adams muddle along as a diplomat to France and the Netherlands, striving so hard to represent his country while not becoming mired in the pleasantries and ceremonies which, in his view, only hampered real diplomacy.  We see his lonely days as Washington’s vice president, his bitter term as president, and finally his waning years at his Peacefield home in Massachusetts.

David Morse, grateful that he got to keep his real teeth for the role.

But the sheer scope of this movie would be nothing without characters big enough to fill it, and John Adams fulfills this in spades.  George Washington, played impeccably by David Morse, was a real man with real struggles and doubts, not the cherry-tree-chopping saint most of us have read about since childhood.  Benjamin Franklin, far from the kite-flying inventor we have come to know, was a diplomat through and through–loathe to take sides even in the heady days of our revolution, and indulging far too much in the pleasures afforded him as an ambassador to France.  We also see, played with exquisite realism, other figures such as Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, John Hancock, Benjamin Rush, and other founders of our nation who are as brilliant and thoughtful and scheming and conniving as any politician today.

Through it all, though, is Adams’ rock.  His anchor.  His light in times of trouble.  His wife, Abigail, who struggles through years of separation from her husband while he is overseas in France, and not only raises their children on her own but stays fiercely devoted to her husband.  Such a character requires an actress who is not only brilliant and strong, but able to display these traits without losing an ounce of her femininity–a bra-burning militant she most certainly was not.  Laura Linney rises to the challenge of portraying one of America’s foremost females with dignity and grace, and in doing so presents one of the most astounding portrayals of a historical figure I have ever seen.

Contemplating the consequences of declaring independence.

John Adams is a force, to be sure, but much of the movie consists of long scenes of protracted dialog–often about political matters or national affairs.  The jumps between time periods are also a bit startling:  one moment John Adams is being elected, and the next he is arriving at the construction site of the white house, with nothing to indicate the passage of years other than grayer hair and tattered clothes.  Much of the actual family drama is merely hinted at, and the conflict with Adams and his youngest son draws to an unfortunate conclusion without ever really being built up enough in the meantime.

Still, this miniseries will stand among the great historical epics, and the way in which it brings a sense of realism to our founding fathers is so powerful it should be mandatory viewing in any social studies classroom.  In a scene near the end, Adams is presented with a painting of the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  Incensed, he tells the artist it is terrible, as such a picturesque scene never took place.

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pathfind posterWith “Pathfinder,” horror Director Marcus Nispel, (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre,” “Friday the 13th, Killer Cut”) attempts to branch out into the historical epic/adventure genre.

Nispel Does deserve kudos for at least one thing with this movie: venturing into a part of history where Hollywood has feared to tread. Much like his characters, he is blazing uncharted territory.

We know that Vikings began to explore North America somewhere between A.D. 900 and 1200. We also know that there were already people there. What happened next must have been a fascinating clash of cultures, and could have made for a really interesting movie. Sadly, Pathfinder never transcends a level of shallowness reminiscent of 1940s propaganda.

The first thing we see in Pathfinder is a montage of Vikings mercilessly slaughtering and enslaving Native Americans. The Vikings don’t even appear human, their horned helmets (which Vikings did not wear) hiding their faces, and they shake the very ground on their horses (which Vikings did not ride).

The text on the screen reads: “600 years before Columbus, North America was invaded by a brutal people bent on settling there. Something stopped them. This is the legend.”

In the scenes that follow, a Native American woman happens upon a wrecked dragon boat, and finds that a Viking boy, 12 years of age, is the sole survivor. She takes him to her village, where the natives in this movie, remarkably ungrizzled by thousands of winters, spout the same humanistic rhetoric as contemporary Hollywood liberals. The boy, now named “Ghost,” is allowed not only to live with the tribe, but also to retain possession of a number of artifacts of the civilization that is slaughtering his hosts, most notably a Viking sword.

Fast forward 10 years. Ghost (Karl Urban) is now a man; a loyal brave of his tribe, although someone (it’s anyone’s guess who) has apparently taught him swordplay and other Viking tactics. Things seem peaceful until another army of Vikings makes landfall nearby and begins raiding villages and killing natives. This time, however, they face a strangely pale-skinned native, who is familiar with their weapons and tactics, and once they’ve killed his adoptive parents, he wages a one-man war against them. One has to wonder how so many men and horses could fit into a few dragon boats, but at least there’s plenty of fodder for Nispel’s next gore fest. Really, the movie is less deserving of ink than the real story.

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Karl Urban takes up the sword in "Pathfinder."

Firstly, while no one could ever call the Vikings humanitarians, there was more to them than sacking and pillaging. The ones who came to the Americas were aspiring not to raiding, or “viking,” but to a quiet life of settled farming. (see What’s more, the Viking raids of European towns were motivated by a desire for precious metals and stones. Needless to say, native American villages wouldn’t have had these, although there still would have been conflicts over land and resources. It is also worth noting that European scholars recorded that Vikings were actually quite hygienic for their time. (Lost Civilizations: Vikings, Thomas H. Flaherty, 1993) The story of their colonization of Greenland is one of remarkable courage. A Viking skeleton has been found there of a man who dislocated his arm during farm work. With no medical care available, he worked with that arm for several more years until he actually wore a new socket in the scapula! (Lost Civ, Faherty, ’93)

As for what “stopped them,” the harder question would be what didn’t. The ships Vikings had were glorified canoes, and the journey – some 3,000 miles across the violent north Altlantic – would have been exceedingly difficult for seasoned sailors, let alone women, children and livestock.

The land that far north was only slightly more hospitable. ( The Vikings might have made it had they learned from the Inuit, who subsisted entirely on seals and fish. The farming lifestyle that Vikings knew would have been extremely difficult in a part of the world reputed to have “10 months of winter and two months of bad sledding.” A combination of rough seas, brutal winters and starvation are much more likely to have “stopped” the invaders than a guy with a slingshot (not to spoil the end or anything).

It also needs to be said that native Americans were far from gentle when it came to dealing with captured enemies. The Iriquoi, whom the Vikings would have encountered, made a habit of torturing prisoners. The accounts of some of their activities are enough to chill the blood. (The Jesuite Relations, Reuben Gold Thwaites, 1791) This wasn’t because they were any less civilized than anyone else, but because they were hardened by a daily fight for survival. Hollywood humanism didn’t exist yet, and a child of an enemy tribe, native or European, probably would have been ignored, if he were lucky.

It’s not that I expect movies to be 100% realistic. It’s just that this could have been a great film. The Vikings and the various native tribes of the northeast were fascinating peoples. Doubtless there was bravery, passion, and at times great evil on both sides. “Pathfinder” cheapens both sides almost beyond recognition. And all for the sake of turning our brains off for battle-action that’s too gruesome to enjoy anyway.

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