Monday, November 30, 2015

A review of Neil Oliver's “A History of Scotland”

"That the Two Kingdoms of Scotland and England shall upon the first day of May next ensuing the date hereof and forever after be United into One Kingdom by the Name of Great Britain ... "

"Union with England Act of 1707," Section I (passed by the Parliament of Scotland, and completing the process of Union begun by the "Union with Scotland Act of 1706," passed by the Parliament of England)

For my overseas readers, I should preface this review by saying that I am an American, but one who has ancestors in both Scotland and England - meaning that in the many conflicts between Scotland and England, I have ancestors from both sides of these conflicts; which is actually not uncommon in America. My mother's maiden name is McGregor (a clearly Scottish name), and my father's last name is Sparks (a more English name). Thus, I might have a kind of objectivity about the struggles covered in this series - an objectivity which, perhaps, might possibly be somewhat harder for those whose ancestors are all on one side, or all on the other. I have great pride in both of these cultures, I should add - and in the significant portion of my ancestors who came to America from the various parts of the British Isles. Thus, I had reason to be interested in this series.

Friday, November 20, 2015

A review of “The Storm That Swept Mexico”

The "Great Revolution" in Mexico: It's not the war of independence from Spain

If your average person on the street overheard a brief mention of the "Great Revolution" in Mexico (perhaps when I'm talking about it myself), they might assume that we're talking about the war of independence from Spain (with Mexico's independence declared in the year 1810). But when most Mexicans speak of the "Great Revolution," they are referring to a revolution against their own government in Mexico, in the year 1910 - almost an exact century after their declaration of independence from Spain. It was a turbulent period, even by the standards of politics in Latin America; but it was one of the most important periods in Mexican history as well, and merits the attention of American history buffs who want to understand our southern neighbor.

Leaders of the Mexican revolt of 1910

There is actual footage from the time to tell this story with

Surprisingly, this historical subject caught the attention of some filmmakers at American PBS, who decided to make a documentary about it called "The Storm That Swept Mexico." (Because it was made for an American network, it is in English; and when it interviews people speaking Spanish, it uses English subtitles for its largely Gringo audience from north of the border.) It's not a very well-known film, even by PBS standards; but its quality is a lot higher than you might expect after hearing this. Because the revolution it depicts began in the year 1910, there exists actual footage from the time of its chosen subject - silent footage, it is true, but footage just the same - allowing them to make a pretty decent documentary about their subject, without a large budget for re-enactments. The silent footage from the time allows their film's visuals a primacy that even the best re-enactments would have difficulty achieving. (This is probably what allowed them to make the film in the first place, because it could thus be shot on the cheap; reducing the necessary funding for the project, and making their chances of getting that funding that much greater.)

Woodrow Wilson, president of the United States for much of this period

Pancho Villa

The Nuremberg trials: A comparison of two movies

Warning: This post contains some disturbing pictures related to the Holocaust.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

A review of “The Great War” (1964 BBC series, about World War One)

"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."

- "In Flanders Fields" (1915), by Canadian veteran John McCrae

The first series about World War One to interview the veterans

The fiftieth anniversary of the "Great War" - a.k.a. "World War One" - saw two great television documentaries being made to commemorate it - one by the Americans; and one by three British Commonwealth nations (Britain, Canada, and Australia), working together to make this series. In virtually every way, the one made by the British Commonwealth nations is better; although there are a few things where the American-made series distinguishes itself; so I will intersperse some commentary on this as well, in this post primarily focused on the British-made series.

"The Great War" DVD (made by British Commonwealth countries)

"World War One" DVD (made by American CBS)

Monday, November 9, 2015

A review of CNN's “Cold War” series

"He who ignores the lessons of history is doomed to repeat it." - George Santayana

Soviets' first atomic bomb test, 1949

It was a war that lasted forty years, which had many periods without any shooting at all. It was fought between two nuclear states, whose nuclear weapons were never fired against the other even once. And it was called the "Cold War" because of its periods without shooting, but had many "hot wars" within its complicated history, where shots were actually exchanged between the two sides.

Battle of Seoul, 1950 (during Korean War)

How is the war remembered today? (Depends on where you live, and when you lived ... )

There are many alive today who remember the Cold War, but there are also many who don't; and even many of those who lived through it fail to comprehend its true nature. Many in the communist countries only saw their government's version of things, and were forbidden to hear anything else. Many in the capitalist countries were deceived by their own side's pacifists and communist sympathizers, who could never see the deterrence capabilities of nuclear weapons (or military power generally), and had their heads in the sand about both the failures of communism, and its threat to the free world's way of life.

Interviews with eyewitnesses from all over the world

Many fail to learn the lessons of these times; but the lessons are there, for those who care to hear them; and they can be obtained even from liberal stations like CNN. From the makers of "The World at War" came the classic series about the Cold War, which spent 18 hours explaining both the complicated politics and geography of the Cold War, and showing interviews with the top personnel in the governments and military of both sides. (From the regular soldiers, airmen, civilians, and diplomatic personnel to the generals, admirals, presidents, prime ministers, and communist dictators; you hear from virtually every major player alive when the series was made, and see the real footage of the events; with a narration to help make sense out of the complicated events of this time.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Communism in Russia: How the madness got started

"The Communists disdain to conceal their views and aims. They openly declare that their ends can be attained only by the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions. Let the ruling classes tremble at a Communistic revolution."

- Karl Marx, in "The Communist Manifesto" (1848), Chapter IV

It was begun with the best of intentions, but it ended with the worst of results ...

It was a response to one failed institution called the "czars," which replaced it with another failed institution that was even worse. It was begun with the best of intentions, but it ended with the worst of results. And it was the first trial run of the communist system, which should have been the last because of the dismal results; but which was attempted time and time again with the highest of hopes, only to end in the lowest of failures every time it was tried; with few seeming to learn anything from it.

Czar Nicholas II

Despite this, no one wishes to defend the legacy of the czars ...

But in putting forth these criticisms of the Russian Revolution, let me assure my readers that I do not wish to defend the legacy of the czars. There was indeed much abuse under their regime, and the Marxist revolution was a reaction against some very real problems that Russia was experiencing at that time. I don't have time to go into all the particulars of these problems, but suffice it to say that there was a long history of repeated crackdowns on the people's liberties, with much obstruction of the kinds of progressive reforms that might have solved these problems in a more constructive way. Czar Nicholas II reminds me of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI - a monarch who could have prevented his own downfall by a few concessions to the people's wishes, but who effectively engineered his own demise by his unwillingness to do so. The parallels to the French Revolution are numerous and striking, and the Russian Revolution is eerily reminiscent of the earlier revolution in France.

Eastern Front of World War One

Monday, November 2, 2015

A review of PBS's “Marie Antoinette” movie

Other media about Marie Antoinette

Ever since her execution during the French Revolution, Queen Marie Antoinette of France has excited the public imagination. There have been numerous movies about her - including a Hollywood movie from 2006 starring Kirsten Dunst, which I have not seen - and these numerous movies may be a measure of how much interest she continues to excite. Generations since then have tried to understand her, and have found that she - like the French Revolution against her - is more complicated than she (at first) appears. It's hard to come up with a simple explanation for why she acted the way she did (and why the public reaction to her was so violent - even bloodthirsty), and I don't pretend to have all the answers. The documentary I'm about to review here doesn't have all the answers, either; but it does provide a good starting point for understanding Marie Antoinette, and it may be able to provide some useful information about whether the PBS biography movie is a good film for you. (It's not for everyone, I should make clear; but for those with an interest in history - and, perhaps, with a strong stomach to go with it - this is a tale that you can learn something from, which tells you a lot about the complicated history of this time.

Francis I - Holy Roman Emperor, King of Germany, and father of Marie Antoinette

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