Cat Flag 100th Veterans Day Special

At 11:00 a.m. on November 11, 1918, World War I came to an end.

Or, rather, a general cease-fire was signed by Germany and the Allied powers who were fighting its forces on the infamous Western Front. Ending a war is a complicated matter, and as we have discussed on this blog before, it is usually quite hard to pin down an actual day, let alone time, that a war ends.

The first country to make peace was Russia, which signed the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Central Powers on March 3, 1918. This was a direct result of the Russian Revolution. Not only was Russia now too busy fighting itself to put up a fight against Germany and its allies, but the Bolsheviks that had just seized power had done so in part on a promise of peace to a war-weary people.

Next, Bulgaria, the smallest of the Central Powers, agreed to withdraw from the war on September 29. Then, on October 30, the Turkish Ottoman Empire signed an armistice with the Allies, having lost what little remained of their once-great empire to the Allies and Arab rebels. On November 3, Italy signed an armistice with Austria-Hungary, a country that had functionally ceased to exist by that point as it collapsed into a patchwork of new, squabbling nations and what little remained of the Austro-Hungarian Army disbanded. In Germany, revolution spilled onto the streets and the Kaiser was overthrown. Two days later, at about 5 a.m., the Germans signed the final armistice to end the fighting. The armistice was to take effect at 11 a.m., and for those last few hours of the war, fighting continued and 11,000 further people became casualties. Yet, when the clock struck eleven, the guns fell silent, and crowds around the world cheered that the bloodiest war in history thus far was over.

Except in Russia, where the Bolsheviks were still fighting their civil war against the anticommunist White Army. Or in Turkey, which rejected the peace terms the Allies imposed and fought another war against them that lasted until they achieved peace terms they would accept in 1923.

Indeed, even after the armistice was signed, Germany was still technically at war with the Allies until the signing of the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, and with the United States (which had rejected the treaty) until Congress passed the Knox-Porter Resolution in 1921. Like I said, ending a war is always complicated.

Even so, the day the guns fell silent on the Western Front meant the end of four years of brutal, futile, and suicidal trench warfare that cost more than four million people their lives. One can scarcely imagine the whole slew of emotions that would have overcome the survivors on that dramatic day. It is no wonder, then, that many countries around the world commemorate the day. Some countries call it Armistice Day, others Remembrance Day.

Here in the United States, president Woodrow Wilson declared that November 11, 1919, would be Armistice Day, in honor of those Americans who died during the Great War. In those days, the standard practice was to stop whatever you were doing at 11:00 on the dot and just stand in silence for a few minutes. There are still some places that continue this practice; I specifically remember doing this at one of the elementary schools I attended. However, these days it is more common for Americans to have a “moment of silence” on December 7 in honor of those who died in the Attack on Pearl Harbor, or September 11, in honor of the victims of the terrorist attacks in 2001.

Therein lies the problem with “the war to end all wars”, as it was dubbed by none other than H.G. Wells in 1914. This rallying cry to justify this conflict that numerous soldiers would die for proved to be nothing more than an elusive pipe dream. There was, after all, a Second World War, and there have been numerous wars ever since. In fact, in 1954 the United States changed both the name and meaning of Armistice Day to recognize this reality – now it’s called Veterans Day, and it honors all those Americans who have served in any war. In May, we have Memorial Day to honor those American servicemen who died in any war, though that day was also more specific at its inception, originally a way to honor those who died in the American Civil War.

The last Civil War veteran died in 1956, and the last veteran of World War I died in 2012. Humans are mortal beings, and it won’t be that long until we live in a world with no more living veterans of World War II. I am not the only person who is pondering these things on the 100th anniversary of the armistice of November 11. How do we remember the sacrifices and stories of those that fought in wars that are long past?

This brings me to, of all things, poppies.

Yes, the flower.

In 1915, Canadian Lt. Col. John McCrae wrote a poem, In Flanders Fields, which was an instant smash hit upon its publication later that year. It was used during the war to drum up support for the war effort in the British Empire, and after the war the “remembrance poppy” became a popular symbol for the veterans who were returning home. The poem’s use of poppies as a symbol of those who died in battle somehow struck a chord with the public. It was an American, Moina Michael, who started the tradition of making hand-made poppy pins to give to WWI veterans as a token of gratitude, and the American Legion (which was started by WWI veterans) took the idea and ran with it. It soon came to be even more popular in the British Empire, and to this day many people in the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand wear poppies on Remembrance Day. It is the official symbol of the Royal British Legion, a charity that supports British veterans. Some people even fly poppy-themed flags in honor of the war’s memory.

McCrae died in 1918, months before the war ended, and never saw the phenomenon that he started. It is humbling to think that someone so famous could become yet another war dead statistic. It makes me feel humble, a man who has never been on a battlefield, never risked my life for my country, never put anything on the line for my freedom.

It also makes me feel grateful to those brave souls who did serve, and that I have had the pleasure of knowing. Before I moved to my current home, my next-door neighbor was a WWII navy veteran, whose story you may remember from a video I made. My high school history teacher once brought in a former pilot from the famous Flying Tigers that fought in China during the war. I am grateful for the opportunity to have heard their stories, and I would encourage anyone who knows a veteran to ask them about their stories. I would also encourage everyone to thank those veterans for the sacrifices that they have given.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

A Big, Bohemian Mess of a Movie

Queen was one of the most unique and iconic bands of the 1970’s and 1980’s, with a style and charisma all their own. Lead singer Freddie Mercury has gone down as one of rock history’s greats, and he certainly lived like a rock star in his day. That a movie about this band would be made was surely inevitable. However, I did not expect it to be this kind of movie.

This is an Oscar bait film.

First of all, the film was released near the end of the year, a tactic often used by films that are hoping to snag some Academy Awards in order to be fresh in the minds of Academy voters. It also picked a subject matter that plays at Hollywood’s love of nostalgia. What really gives it away as Oscar bait, though, is the movie’s style.

The cinematography has that characteristic, super-serious “I’m a biopic about some important person in history and you should take me seriously” style. Over-lit and washed-out with lots of white; conversations filmed and edited into a bog-standard “shot-reverse shot” series of close-ups. Every scene having a self-important sense of gravitas. The sort of film-making that characterizes such films as The King’s Speech or Argo or 12 Years A Slave. Not that that’s a bad thing; I do enjoy that sort of film. I’m just not convinced that it’s appropriate for the story of a band as rebellious, as energetic, and as fun as Queen. The style and the subject matter clash at a very fundamental level.

So, why? Why make this an Oscar bait movie? Well, I don’t know, obviously; I wasn’t in the Hollywood boardrooms where these decisions are made. But I do have an educated guess, and it all has to do with the film’s director: Bryan Singer (X-Men, The Usual Suspects).

See, there have multiple accusations of sexual harassment and sexual assault against Singer, and in 2014 he fought multiple lawsuits over these allegations. It wouldn’t surprise me if it turned out that Singer was hoping that winning some Academy Awards would redeem him in the minds of his Hollywood peers and the general public, allowing him to move past these allegations. Again, that’s just a guess on my part, and I could be completely wrong. Regardless of what Singer’s intentions were, he was fired just one month before filming on the movie was completed, and Dexter Fletcher had to step in to finish the film.

In any case, the style choice clearly works to this film’s detriment. This movie makes Queen look boring and lame, two adjectives that by rights should never be applied to this band. When the band’s most iconic songs are played – something any movie about any band would obviously want to do – it feels like a crutch. “Remember this song? Don’t you love it? Don’t you, by extension, love this film?”

That’s just the beginning of this movie’s problems. In any biopic, you want the movie to be about something. You want to focus on one aspect of the character or historical event you are portraying and really drive home your thesis about it. Operation Finale did a great job with this, taking a deep look at what kinds of men its main hero and villain were. Bohemian Rhapsody, in contrast, feels like it just doesn’t know what it wants to say. Is it about the struggles of an artist against the system? About the complicated relationships in Freddie Mercury’s life? A cautionary tale about the dangers of hard living? It feels like the film just can’t make up its mind. The whole movie is just one plot thread after another that starts and stops with no real coherence to them and no satisfactory conclusion to any of them.

One aspect of the movie that really suffers is the haphazard and mishandled “exploration” of Mercury’s backstory. We see hints at his troubled relationship with his family, and the clash between the sort of man Farrokh Bulsara (Mercury’s real name) was and his family’s conservative Indian traditions and values. Yet we only see glimpses of this conflict in a handful of scenes. In fact, for most of the movie’s runtime, it’s easy to forget that the film ever brought the singer’s family up at all. It’s like it’s there just to be a little token lip service to Mercury’s heritage. Heck, there are two specific times in the film where people throw racial slurs at him, and that is literally all that we see of Mercury having to deal with racism. I mean, if you are going to bring these topics up, you should actually examine them!

Having said all of that, I didn’t hate the movie. It has many good parts. Rami Malek (Mr. Robot, The Master) does a phenomenal job portraying Mercury. The scenes where we watch the band crafting their most memorable songs really work well at showing the creative process and the way the dynamics between the band members helped shape their music. My favorite scene is the one where the band members argue over “I’m In Love With My Car”. Yes, really.

The strongest part of the movie, however, comes in the final act. The climax is centered around Queen’s performance at Live Aid in 1985, and it is a real tear-jerker. It is a very powerful, emotional, and effective ending to the movie. If this movie does win any Oscars, it will be for Malek’s magnificent performance in these final scenes. It’s just such a shame that the rest of the movie couldn’t be as good as that ending.

Between the super-serious biopic style, the confusing mess of half-formed plot threads that covers most of the runtime, and the lack of any coherent message or theme, this movie’s good parts just aren’t enough to elevate the whole. I’m giving it a 5 out of 10. Another one bites the dust, indeed.