A Thousand Words: Billy The Kid VS Dracula

Billy The Kid VS Dracula

When I saw the title of the 1966 film Billy The Kid vs. Dracula, I knew I had to watch it. With a name like that, you know you’re in for something special. And this indeed was something very special. A vampire Western that hits every single cliche of both genres, the story is that Billy The Kid has reformed (!) and aims for a new peaceful life, but his fiancee is threated by Dracula.

Actually, there’s one point in which the movie is surprisingly progressive for its time: The inevitable Native American attack on the stagecoach is explicit as only happening because Dracula killed one of the previously stated as friendly ones and blamed it on the other passengers. Apart from that, it differs in how stupid and clueless everyone, including female lead Melinda Plowman, is. I was rooting for the vampire, especially because John Carradine (David’s father) delivers one of the few good performances as the monster.

This is very much a B-movie with B-movie problems, but its pure weirdness means it’s worth a watch.

A Thousand Words: Airport

Airport: The Movie

I was not exactly the fondest of the original novel Airport. So what did I think about the Burt Lancaster movie, which basically created the disaster genre? It was mixed, but I’m willing to give it a break based on its limitations. Having read the book first was not the best way to appreciate the movie, especially as it tracks the plot well. Too well.

First off, the cinematography is dated and clunky. This isn’t the movie’s fault, but it was one of the last “old fluffy Hollywood” movies, and it was made just before movies got more dynamic and more of an edge (the low body count in this compared to later disaster films is something.) But that’s not really its fault.

What I do think is its fault is trying to cram too many subplots from the book into an inherently shorter movie. A looser adaptation would have been preferable, especially because the book is not very movie friendly. It has too much overhang of “look inside an airport” and less focus on the main “a plane is in danger” plot.

Thankfully, the cast and crew are undeniably talented, and they do the best within these limitations. It’s easy to see why it made so many imitators, and at the time, it would have been seen rightfully as a giant spectacle.

Review: Airport

Airport

Author Arthur Hailey had a gimmick. He would find a certain field, research it massively, and then build a thriller and/or pop epic around said filed. One of his most famous and successful novels was 1968’s Airport, which inspired the movie series and the parody Airplane!. In it, an airliner is threatened by a both literal and figurative perfect storm of everything from horrible weather to a blocked runway to angry neighbors to a man determined to kill himself and blow up the plane-for the sake of insurance, nothing political.

Hailey spent a gargantuan amount of time on research, and it shows. I’ve always wondered if him being around in the age of the internet would have made his endeavours quicker and easier, or if it would have just prompted him to go even further down the rabbit hole. My hunch is the latter. There’s a lot of well-done and accurate depictions of airport operations (and a lot of weird-in-hindsight 1960s futurism, such as talk of superlifter cargo planes being thought of as something that would render sea freighters as obsolete as ocean liners and passenger pods being loaded into civilian C-5s).

The biggest issue is that the pacing is incredibly slow and lethargic for about four fifths of the book, then it hurriedly sprints to its conclusion. Maybe it was deliberate to try and be suspenseful, but if so, it didn’t work. The second biggest issue is that the characters are dull and dated-most obviously shown in a subplot where one of the main characters gets a flight attendant pregnant and the resulting drama.

This is a decent product of its time, but it’s still a product of its time and not the most recommended for later readers. It comes from an age when air travel was still something novel, and where readers would be less familiar with it. It’s not Hailey’s fault, but the book has aged terribly in that regard. Now it just comes across as 80% Herman Melville’s Airport Tales and 20% A Brief Disaster Novella, neither of which can really stand up.

Review: Confrontation

Confrontation: The War With Indonesia 1962-1966

Peter van der Bijl’s Confrontation is a military history of the four-year small war known as the Konfrontasi. It goes into extremely military detail. What’s not to like? The answer is, surprisingly, a lot. This isn’t really a bad book, but it is a flawed one.

The first flaw comes from the nature of the war: It really wasn’t much of one. It was more a political stunt by Sukarno than anything else, and the actual service chiefs did the bare minimum to support it. This isn’t the author’s fault, but his priorities are. There’s less of the politics (though they’re still present) and more of firefights in the jungle that blend together (almost always ending with “better-trained Commonwealth troops get the better of worse Indonesians”).

The second comes from the author’s biases. There are a lot of rants about journalists, especially journalists covering the Troubles, which feel kind of out of place. Worse is the absolute fawning hagiography of the British and Commonwealth armies. This is accurate in terms of specifics vis a vis the Indonesians, but still gets annoying, as does the very British slant of “unlike you knuckle-dragging Yanks, we won our jungle war” without noticing the very different context of Malaya. Finally, there’s no real attempt to explore escalation counterfactuals beyond just “The Indonesian air force and navy wasn’t very good”.

This ultimately comes across as just a series of jungle warfare vignettes. It’s not the worst book about its conflict, but it’s not the best and could be much more.

Review: Tarnsman of Gor

Tarnsman of Gor

The Gor series is perhaps the most infamous science fiction one ever. Yet you’d never know it from the beginning entry, Tarnsman of Gor. What that is is a somewhat sleazier and really, really blatant John Carter of Mars knockoff. As transported Earthman Tarl Cabot goes to a world of barbarians, slavery, and giant birds (the titular “tarns”), a clunky narrative ensues.

The series devolved fairly quickly into what is best known as slave sleaze, where it becomes filled with blocky rants about how men holding women as slaves is the best, most natural form of society, and how many Earthwomen suddenly find themselves loving being slaves. This isn’t as present in the first installment, but Cabot is still not exactly the most ideal protagonist.

More interesting than the blocky prose is how the series got its reputation: I mean, there’s certainly no shortage of outright and far more explicit sleaze fiction, whether in the 1960s-70s or today. So why do sci-fi/fantasy fans turn their anger more on Gor and not those? I’d argue that it’s because it makes the fig leaf of “sword and planet adventure” too blatant, putting it in a different standard. Even Dray Prescot got into mocking Gor, naming a barbaric continent of slavers “Gah”.

But yeah, even in the early, less problematic books, I can unhesitatingly say: Skip Gor. Author John Norman rivals William W. Johnstone for “worst mainstream published author”, and that is no small feat.

Review: Siege

Siege

Edwin Corley’s Siege is a 1968 thriller with a bizarre premise. In many ways it’s like the ahead-of-its-time version of Mike Lunnon-Wood’s Dark Rose. Except everything the much later Dark Rose does right, this does wrong.

The premise here is that Black Power militants are holding Manhattan hostage so that the American government will give them New Jersey as a new homeland for African Americans. As a New Yorker, I am obligated to bash Jersey, but I will suppresses the urges here. This makes it seem like the book would be wacky. But it’s actually not. It’s very dreary and sometimes even ugly.

First, the obvious issue. You might think a cheap thriller from 1968 would not be the most progressive or racially sensitive novel. And you would be right. But even by those low standards, the racial content becomes outright uncomfortable too many times here. Second, even leaving that aside, the book is terribly paced. Like Richard Rohmer, it’s just mostly meetings and plans, and the competence of the characters changes on a dime. Skip this book. It’s not worth it.

Review: McNamara’s Folly

McNamara’s Folly: The Use Of Low-IQ Troops in the Vietnam War

Involving applicants and draftees who would previously have been rejected, Project 100,000 was one of the least-covered but most horrendous parts of the Vietnam War. Hamilton Gregory, who served along multiple “entrants”, writes one of the most scathing and personally touching history books in McNamara’s Folly. I say “personal” because I have some mental conditions, and growing up, went to school with others with traits very similar to those described in the book. To send these people into battle, whatever one thinks of the Vietnam War as a whole, feels particularly wrong-as did the theory that military service would make them better.

Project 100,000 was done mostly to avoid tapping into a National Guard/reserve force that came from a wealthier and more politically sensitive background (only around a hundred National Guardsmen were killed in action in the whole war). Its recruits were killed in action at a rate three times greater that of serving soldiers as a whole. Officers of all ranks hated the program, and their reactions ranged from trying to steer the “Moron Corps” (or less nice terms) people into the least dangerous areas to having them be the point man on patrols because of perceived expendability. Gregory is clear to point out that he could not find any confirmed cases of Project 100,000 recruits being deliberately executed by their compatriots to prevent their ineptitude from resulting in more deaths, but the constant rumors are telling.

Weaving personal experiences (such as one particularly chilling story of a fellow recruit who didn’t even know that the Vietnam War was happening when he entered boot camp) with scholarly research, this is an excellent recounting of a project that benefited no one, save for maybe the North Vietnamese.

Review: Once an Eagle

Once an Eagle

A fairly long time ago, I received Anton Myrer’s Once an Eagle as a gift, because I liked books on military fiction. This book is a classic of its genre and is very highly spoken of. The only issue is, well, I didn’t like it very much. Granted, my first impression of it was clouded simply by a mismatch of tastes. To me (esp. at the time), “military fiction” meant Dale Brown-style thrillers. This book is a sweeping pop epic that just happens to have the American military as its setting, the way my own The Sure Bet King has the underground sports betting industry or Susan Howatch’s Sins of the Fathers has the New York banking industry.

However, even accepting that it’s an orange rather than an apple, I still don’t think it’s a very good orange. Main character Sam Damon is an obvious and massive Mary Sue, and the Manichean nature of the book doesn’t really suit a horrifically complex subject. Maybe if Myrer’s writing fundamentals were really good, they could have saved the book. They aren’t.

You could definitely do (and people undoubtedly have done) a gigantic, excellent pop epic on a long military career. But this is not it.

Review: Hitler’s Last Levy

Hitler’s Last Levy

Hans Kissell was chief of operations for the German “Volkssturm” (lit. “People’s Storm”), the infamous last-ditch militia created at the end of World War II. In Hitler’s Last Levy, published in German in the 1960s and translated decades later, he told their story. It’s an interesting look at a horrific footnote.

The Volkssturm was both a desperation formation and Martin Bormann’s attempt at making his own pet army (like the SS was for Himmler or the Luftwaffe ground formations were for Goering). Kissell goes into detail and includes a massive amount of direct primary sources. While this is a work by a German WWII commander, its subject matter makes it at least a little better than the usual “we fought in our unstoppable kitty-tanks until we ran out of ammunition and fought totally cleanly” memoirs. It’s impossible to portray the ragged old men as some kind of super-army, and they had far less opportunity to commit war crimes simply because by that point they were losing. And Kissell doesn’t hesitate to point to their (many) weaknesses.

Because of this, and because of the wealth of primary sources and details (for instance, describing how on paper, some Volkstturm battalions had an organic battery of captured anti-tank guns), I recommend this for anyone wanting to know about them or similar emergency territorial formations. Yes, it’s dated and slanted. But it’s not nearly as bad in those regards as you might think.

Review: Brute Madness

Brute Madness

Ledru Baker’s Brute Madness is the kind of book I haven’t read in a while. The kind of novel that’s both ridiculously stupid and ridiculously, stupidly fun. A hardboiled Cold War spy thriller about a nuclear scientist and a woman, this book has action, adventure, and… well, what made me see the book in the first place.

That “distinction”, and one that made me go “I have to see this” when I heard it was the claim that the book had some of the worst sex scenes ever written. I was not “disappointed”. In fact, the book has the audacity to make such a scene its very first paragraph. Wow. Adding to the uh, experience is Baker’s constant repetition of the word “erect” to refer to things like someone standing up, something with obvious Freudian connotations.

The book overall is an ultra-trashy cheap thriller. But it’s a fun ultra-trashy cheap thriller. There’s definitely a place out there for horribly so-bad-its-good books like this.