Friday, October 20, 2017

Cupid in Madrid: The Lovers of Hotel Florida (I)

War and romance have been staples of literature since Paris kidnapped Helen of Troy, but it’s not common for a nonfiction book to offer the stuff of which romantic fiction is made. In Hotel Florida, Truth, Love and Death in the Spanish Civil War, Amanda Vaill describes three couples living their love upon a background of violence and political strife. It is not a history book, it is not a memoir, according to the author it is “a reconstruction.” She reconstructs three romantic tales bound together by the same historical and geographical setting in which they develop.

Amanda Vaill (the author of Everybody Was So Young) presents the reader with an unusual Spanish Civil War yarn. It does not pretend to be a history book, nor is the conflict the focus of her narrative. She narrows her subject to the adventures of six people who, at some point or another, resided at the Hotel Florida in La Gran Via, in Madrid, between the years 1936-1938.

These residents were Arturo Barea, not yet a famed writer, but head of the Republican Press Censorship Office and his deputy Ilse Kulcsar, the woman that would become his lifelong companion. The second couple consisted of would-be-legend photographer Robert Capa, and his equally legendary lover and colleague, Gerda Taro. The last actors on this stage are the omnipresent Ernest Hemingway, and his soon- to-be third wife, war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. As I turned the pages, and this book is indeed a page-turner, I realized how much I knew about the Hemingway couple, how little I knew about Capa and Taro, and how fascinating Barea and his Ilse were. I was glad to know all their stories from birth onward. One thing about Amanda Vaill, using diaries, letters, and interviews, she painstakingly details the life of each character prior, during, and after the Spanish conflict.

Arturo Barea, the only Spaniard in the group, came from a lower middle-class family. Orphaned at an early age, and thanks to his well-to-do uncle, he got to know a better life, had access to a fine education and nursed dreams of becoming an engineer and a novelist. His uncle’s death cut short his dreams. Proud as only a Spaniard can be, Barea resented his new bank clerk job. He walked out of it in the most strident manner, and set up a patent business, hoping it would provide the social mobility he craved for.
Arturo Barea

Despite his socialist views, Barea had Señorito habits that never abandoned him. By 1936, his business was doing well, and he could keep his wife Aurelia, and their children, in a first-rate apartment. Alas! not in the upper-class neighborhood his Aurelia would approved of. Neither would she have approved that her husband was also keeping, and bedding Maria, his secretary (had she known about it).

The war placed Arturo Barea into the role of the Spanish Republic’s official censor, and in charge of the foreign press office. It was a good job. One that granted him privileges, and helped him meet important and interesting people that were drawn to the Spanish struggle. Among them, Barea would meet the love of his life. Ilse Pollack hailed from a Jewish middle-class Viennese family. By 1922, the time she married Leopold Kulcsar, Ilse had been an exchange student in Scandinavia, was fluent in six languages and had embraced communism while majoring in political sciences at Vienna University.
Ilse Pollack, laater Kulcsar, later Barea.

The Kulcsar quit the Communist Party in 1924, joining the more moderate Social Democrats. But even that militancy made the couple clash with Chancellor Dollfuss’ regime. In 1934, the Kulcsar moved to Czechoslovakia where they edited a leftist paper. The Spanish Civil War gave Ilse a chance to do something useful, but also to drift away from a husband she no longer cared for. Little did she know that her post in Madrid would change her life and bring her face to face with her true love.

Barea’s and Kulcksar love story proves how opposites attract but equally different were the next romantic partners. Capa and Taro are now myths. In 1936 they were anything but, even those names were in the future. They shared nothing in common except their idealism, an Eastern European Jewish background and the fact they were penniless exiles in Paris. Even photography, which would be Taro’s ticket to fame, was something she had yet to try.

Born Gerta Polyher, she came from a family of wealthy Galician Jews that had settled in Stuttgart when she was a little girl. She had attended finishing school, mastered several foreign languages, and trained as a secretary. She could have married a wealthy man, but instead she chose to take an active part in politics. After a stint in a Nazi jail, Gerta moved to Paris where she led a life of squalor with no official papers and doing menial secretarial work to make ends meet.  In this bleak stage of her life, she was not exactly excited to serve as chaperone for Ruth, her roommate, and the scruffy- looking Hungarian the latter was dating.
Gerda Taro

Indeed, Endre Friedmann was no prospect for any girl. He dressed like a tramp, was used to a glass of sugared water in lieu of meals, and his Leica spent more time at the pawnshop than in his hands. Yet he possessed a boyish candor that made him look younger than his twenty-two years.  Endre had been his mother’s darling. Perhaps that accounted for him being self-assured without cockiness, and for his easygoing approach to people. He charmed women and made friends easily. Vaill constantly refers to him running, in Paris or Madrid, into former classmates or childhood chums, all willing to embrace his friendship again.

The Friedmann family had lost its fortune in the 1929 crash.  Endre, then sixteen, had taken to the streets and had become involved in anti-Horthy resistance. After an arrest and a beating by the police, he was thrown out of Hungary. He had gone to Berlin and majored in journalism at the Deutsche Hoschschule für Politik (German School of Politics). It was in those last days of the Weimar Republic, that Endre took up photography, his real vocation. The advent of Nazism propelled the photographer to Paris and to Gerta Polyher. It was not too long before he realized that he had fallen for this saucy little blonde.

Robert Capa in Paris, 1934

Gerta was considered pretty, sensual and shrewd. Some compared her with a fox. She was sexually liberated, took care of herself and was incredible modern in the sense that she did not believe in exclusive relationships or that a woman should be monogamous. This shocked and excited the future Robert Capa. She felt protective of this funny looking boy, recognized his talent and took him under her wing. They moved into a flat so Endre would get proper food and stop wasting money eating in cafés. She taught him how to dress, shave, and comb his hair. He got her involved in photography.

Soon they realized that Gerta, pretty, educated and possessing her own brand of chic, sold more photographs than her lover. She could move among the Haute Monde and wanted Endre to follow suit. Together, they came up with a great scheme: the invention of “Robert Capa,” a famous American photographer. It was Robert Capa who got a generously paid Spanish assignment. Endre would wear this more Aryan pseudonym (“Capa” means shark in Hungarian) until his death. Gerta also changed her name to the more exotic “Gerda Taro” and eventually would sell her Spanish photographs as “Taro Photographs.”

Finally, we get to Gellhorn and Hemingway. The winter of 1936 found “Papa” Hemingway in Florida, sunk deep in an existential crisis. He had settled down to a life of luxury, spending summers hunting in Wyoming and winters fishing in Key West, all paid by Pauline, the second Mrs. Hemingway. And yet, Hem was restless. Struggling with the writing of To Have and Have Not, unhappy with the reviews of Death in the Afternoon, his latest novel, he needed a change.  War and a blonde he would meet over Christmas, would provide such change.
Hemingway in Key West, 1936

Since college, Martha Gellhorn had obsessed over Hemingway, keeping his picture on her dorm’s wall. Her hero-worship was finally rewarded with their random encounter at a Key West bar named “Sloppy Joe’s.” They had things in common. Both came from affluent Midwestern homes. Hem hailed from Illinois, Martha from Missouri. His father was a doctor, her father was a Jewish German gynecologist. They had both lived abroad, and were both writers. Although Martha fitted into the profile Papa liked— beautiful, refined and intellectually savvy— she was different from his other wives and lovers.

Martha’s mother, Edna, had been a suffragette and was still heavily involved in politics. She was a close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, a friendship her daughter would inherit. Edna had instilled in Martha a love for activism and a penchant for independence, but she had also tremendously cossetted her only daughter. Gellhorn grew up with a sense of entitlement that would turn her into a contradictory, complex woman, and play a major part in her charm.

Martha Gellhorn around the time she met "Papa"

Martha dropped out of Bryn Mawr before graduation, convinced that to write and report she just needed to travel, see and live. After a stint of journalism in her hometown of St. Louis, she moved to Paris. In France, she was to acquire two tastes that would define her forever: A need to have affairs with brilliant, yet very married men, and a love for beautiful clothing, perfumes and furs. Through three countries and two continents, Amanda Vaill takes us shopping with Gellhorn. By the time the book is over, we can safely label Martha a “shopaholic.”

In 1930, Martha suffered her first disappointment. Her chick lit novel What Mad Pursuit did poorly in the market. Critics hated it, and worse, Dr. Gellhorn didn’t like it. He also disapproved of his daughter’s lifestyle.  “There are two kinds of women in the world,” he told her, “and you are the other kind.”  Hurt, Martha decided to return to the States and do something useful. Through the Roosevelts, she got involved with Harry Hopkins’ Federal Emergency Relief, and travelled throughout the country covering the life of those most affected by the Great Depression. In partnership with Dorothea Lange, she made history in photojournalism. Martha‘s efforts crystallized in four novellas published under the title The Troubles I Have Seen. Critics raved over the book and compared the author to Gellhorn’s idol, Ernest Hemingway.
Nicole Kidman and Clive Owern at "Sloppy Joe's" in  HBO's "Hemingway and Gellhorn."

This was the baggage, Martha Gellhorn carried with her to that fateful encounter in “Sloppy Joe’s.” She revered the novelist, but did not fall for the man. Shocked by Hem’s unkempt appearance, she thought he looked “dirty.” Hem, been Hem, went wild about her long legs and dreamt of spreading them, but Martha Gellhorn, who married twice and had a string of lovers, was never into sex. That would have to wait for Madrid and Hotel Florida.

In the interim, the veteran writer and the novice author spent ten days in Miami, mostly talking about their mutual crafts. Pauline Hemingway was not crazy about their friendship, but it seemed so innocent, she couldn’t complain. Martha wrote to Mrs. Roosevelt, about her new relationship. Although, in her letters she does sound like a starry-eyed schoolgirl, she was not in love with her new mentor, no more than she had been with H.G. Wells, her previous literary tutor, at whose house she had recently stayed in London.

In early 1937, Martha Gellhorn wrote to a friend: “I’m going to Spain with the boys. I don’t know who the boys are, but I’m going with them.” One of the boys certainly was Ernest Hemingway. He was going to cover the Spanish war, he was in lust with Gellhorn, he wanted her along. However, he was not planning to upset his marriage and wife, so they kept up appearances and traveled separately.

Chaperoned by fabled Brooklyn bullfighter, Sydney Franklin, Gellhorn arrived in Paris with a ten piece-luggage. She left the matador to look after her suitcases, and bearing a knapsack, a duffel bag stuffed with food cans, and a Collier’s letter  certifying her as a bona fide journalist, she crossed the border into Spain. After two trains and a ride in a government car, she checked in at the Hotel Florida’s front desk. Hemingway was already registered there.
Martha and "the boys"(Hem, Capa and Joris Ivens) in HBO's "Hemingway and Gellhorn."

Two weeks after Martha’s arrival at the Florida, after a day at the front and a night of heavy drinking, she and Hemingway became lovers. She wrote to her mother “I think he loves me,” but it would take her a year to fall in love with Papa. So, like the romances of Barea and Kulcksar and Capa and Taro, Hemingway and Gellhorn’s passion was fostered by the Spanish Civil War.

Books and films tell us that Martha Gellhorn was a devoted journalist who found her call under Franco’s bombs. Amanda Vaill gives us a different version. The weeks, prior to her first night of love with Hemingway, Martha spent at the beauty parlor, shopping, and (according to her own words) gaining weight. How could she gain weight in a city where half of the population was on the verge of starvation?

As we learn from the book, nobody starved at Hotel Florida. Foreign journalists always had food available (Hemingway kept his own well-stocked pantry) and alcohol ran plenty.  Vaill offers us a surrealistic perspective of Madrid at war. Her protagonists share drinks at the Florida’s bar, lunch at the basement of Hotel Gran Via where black market American cigarettes could be obtained at an exorbitant price, or go to parties (usually hosted by the Soviets, the new Madrileño aristocracy) where whisky and vodka flow freely.
Stacey Keach living La Vida Loca in war-torn Madrid, in "Hemingway."

The book juggles images of death, carnage and hunger with the luxurious life led by journalists at the Florida, and other ritzy joints. The oddity of these love affairs is that they evolve between two worlds which grants them an aura of fantasy. It’s what made Hotel Florida so close to a historical romance.  I keep visualizing it on a screen whether as a film or miniseries.

In my next blogs, I’ll continue exploring the book and its characters. Following Vaill’s narratives we’ll see how the Spanish Republica died from the inside, and how death will split Capa and Gerda, while Spain and the conflict will push the other couples to marriage and commitment. We will learn how political upheaval within the Spanish government will affect our protagonists.

It’s no accident that Amanda Vaill included the word “Truth” in her title. She chronicles how Hemingway and the photographers handled such truth, and how truth forced Barea to choose between his country and the woman he loved. You’ll see how romance brought out the best of Barea and Capa, and the worst in Gellhorn-Hemingway, and how death would split the most idealistic couple in this fantastic book that reads like romantic fiction but it’s based on true bygone events.

Monday, October 2, 2017

Dopey Prince Charles, Slutty Minette and Other Disastrous Stuarts: On Why They Can’t Replace The Tudors

Ever since “The Tudors” ended in 2010, producers have been trying to find a royal family that can fulfill an audience’s craving for dysfunctional bluebloods. An article by Elizabeth Fremantle, a renown historical fiction author, got me thinking if the Stuarts could be the new trend. I happen to love the Stuarts, but I must display skepticism at such elevation.  Judging by contemporary period dramas, they were not exactly the most exciting or most positive royals around. One tremendous example is what Starz “Outlander” (and Diana Gabaldon) have done with Bonnie Prince Charlie, the most famous and charming of the Stuart family.

While preparing for the third season of “Outlander,” I decided to watch earlier episodes.  I was struck by the tragic Jacobite devotion for The King over the Water. On the first season, Claire is mystified by this readiness to die for a king that she knows was undeserving. After we catch a glimpse of the real item, viewers share her impression. In books and series, Bonnie Prince Charlie is shown as a selfish dunce, but that is how historical fiction perceives the Stuart overall, some bunch of useless idiots. I cannot see them ever replacing the Tudors.

Stuartmania vs Tudormania?
To replace Tudormania with Stuartmania, writers and producers would have to wipe our minds clean of any preconceptions and misconceptions dealing with the regalest of Scottish clans. Michael Hirst, Philippa Gregory and Hilary Mantel were the architects of the second and more everlasting wave of Tudor fascination but they had to work their heads off rewriting historical facts and characters and making them palatable to the public.

History tells us Henry VII, founder of the Tudor dynasty, was a tyrant, and usurper, and a greedy man. In comes Pippa Gregory and turns him into a frightened young man who stands king only through the joint efforts of his formidable mother and his little York wife. In Starz’s crazy adaptation of “The White Princess” Queen Lizzie became a badass and a black hearted dominatrix, bent into making her monster children the future rulers of England.

The White Princess and her king

We all know Henry VIII was a fat satyr, a wife-murderer, and a despotic king, but modern historical fiction gives us a thin and brooding tragic hero. His daughter, Bess, who was a distrustful, neurotic bully has been transformed into a cross between a British Madonna (the Virgin Mary not the former Mrs. Guy Ritchie) and Spencer’s idealized Fairie Queen. Even her sadistic sister, in “The Tudors,” falls into the wronged little princess stereotype, the Sansa Stark of Henry’s Court.

No such treatment has befallen on the Stuarts.  There is always Mary, but let’s be honest, there was more Guise and Tudor in the genes of the Queen of Scots, than Stuart wishy-washiness. She was French born, and French bred, had no understanding of Scotland, and no cultural links to the British Isles.
Mary's happiest years were in France

Dull King James and the Two Charles
 And yet, once the Stuart princes projected a glamorous image on the silver screen. David Niven in kilt was a proud and gallant Bonnie Prince Charlie, and a fantastic dashing Sam Neill was his uncle Charles II in lovely “Restoration.” It’s the Third Millennium which has taken the Stuarts to task by conferring them infamous fame. The family is well represented in current television series, and some films as well, but none of these Stuarts kings (or their kin) can muster up the same allure mad Tudors exercise upon us.
Sam Neill as Charles II

 Poor King James who united England and Scotland, has only shown his face in two recent dramatizations. In “Gunpowder: Love and Treason” he was played by the ever-competent Robert Carlyle, but something went wrong. Carlyle, fresh from his starring role in “Hitler,” enacted James as if the actor was still in a brown shirt. The king came across as a paranoid tyrant, not a man who would rewrite the Bible.
Tormented King James and his Danish queen

Jonathan Pryce also played Mary Stuart’s only son in “The New World,” but he was overshadowed by a steamy triangle where Colin Farrell and Christian Bale fought for the hand of lovely maiden Pocahontas.  We as public have yet to know the factors that made King James interesting. None of those films showed his remarkable knowledge, his literary patronage, his witch-hunting, or his bisexuality.

So much for James, then comes his poor beheaded son. Rupert Everett was a decent Charles I, in the film “To Kill a King,” but he seemed a bit dazed perhaps because there were so many historical inexactitudes in that account. Also, because Tim Roth, impersonating a bloodthirsty Cromwell, was bent to chew the scene to the point that he climbed to the scaffold with the king. For a moment, I thought he would chop off Charles’ head. He could have, since in real life, the two official hangmen of the reign refused to commit regicide. To this day, nobody knows who decapitated Charles.

Rupert Everett and Tim Roth, on the scaffold, in "To Kill a King"

The martyred king was again decapitated in the rather dull ITV miniseries “The Devil’s Whore,” where he was played impeccably by Peter Capaldi in his pre-Dr. Who stage. And that is the extent that we get to know about poor beheaded Charles whose sole purpose in life seems to have begotten the flamboyant Charles II. But even the executed king’s son has merited a dull treatment.

Taking advantage of the public’s appetite for royal affairs, the BBC, in 2003, decided to gift us with “Charles II: The Pride and the Passion.” Despite its bombastic title, it was a tepid affair. Not even charming Rufus Sewell could lift that sinking weight. To add insult to injury, the series was cut, chopped, butchered, in the clumsiest manner, so American audiences got to watch a fragmented and confused tale.

Still, Charles II is too good material to waste. In 2004, Rupert Everett, who likes to play kings and charming princes, went on to portray old King Charlie in “Stage Beauty.” As his was a secondary character, we tend to remember that he slept with Nell Gwynn (Zoe Tapper) more than any other kingly things he performed. A much more prominent role was given to John Malkovich in “The Libertine.” Obviously, Malkovich was out staged by Johnny Depp who can out stage a giant kraken, but oddly the king seemed more destructive than his friend and protégé, the infamous Earl of Rochester (Depp). Charles came out as a self-serving, incompetent monarch. Rochester had to drag himself on crutches (and with a face corroded by syphilis) to save his king from Parliament. How torpid can a sovereign be to need that?

That is the image Charles II, and other Stuarts, on the rebound, project on films obviously made by anti-monarchists. Just think of Jeremy Northman in “New Worlds” (I loved his wig, though), Jack Huston in “The Great Fire,” or Daniel Lapaine in “Versailles.” I haven’t seen Charles Dance in the Dutch film “Michel de Ruyter,” but I can bet money that he is not a positive Charles. If the sexiest of the Stuarts gets bad press, what is left for the others?

The Stuart Queens
Charles had a brother, James, but not even his subjects loved him and had him replaced by Mary, his Protestant daughter, whom I have yet to see in any piece of fiction. Oh, wait, "Versailles" showed her on the first season’s finale. A little girl that is offered to William of Orange as a future bride.  Aside from the fact that Maryland was named after her, what do we know of this Queen Mary?  She was barren, had a crush on a girlfriend when she was young and her husband was supposed to be gay. Maybe something could be done with that. 
"Queen Mary and William of Orange

Her sister Anne, who was also a queen, made a career giving birth to dead babies, had chairs named after her, and was totally under the thumb of her favorite lady-in-waiting, Sarah Churchill. Soon we are to see Anne played by Olivia Coleman in “The Favorite,” but in this incoming film, all the action will be centered around Sarah (Rachel Weisz). That is the rub with Queen Anne, she matters only as patron-friend-bitch of the Duke of Marlborough’s wife.

The “Bonnie” Prince
We should go back to rejected king James II  to find a Stuart with an ounce of charisma. Not old James—he comes across as a true monster in literature. Victor Hugo makes him the mastermind behind the deformity of his protagonist, in The Man Who Laughs. By James’ royal whim poor Captain Blood is sold into slavery. We do not need to hear more of James, it’s his grandson who matters, the charmer in the family, the aptly named “Bonnie” Prince Charlie.

The real Charles James Stuart

Bonnie and charming he was in literature, especially in Sir Walter Scott’s novels, or played by Ivor Novello in the silent cinema or David Niven in the talkies. Thanks to those works, I had a romanticized vision of this unhappy prince and his lost Jacobite Cause. It was hard for me to reconcile him with what the historians told me, that he was a petulant stubborn man, who neglected his illegitimate children, raped his wife and led thousands of his subjects to death or misery. Nevertheless, that was the vision “Outlander” spouses. Diana Gabaldon really dropped the bomb on Charles Stuart, and the series echoed her scorn for the Young Pretender.

In the second season of “Outlander,” time traveler Claire and her husband Jaime Frazer decide that the only way to save Scotland from the tragedy of Culloden is to ensure that battle will never happen. They travel to France to thwart Charles Stuart’s plans to travel to Scotland. Through the ministrations of his cousin Jared, Jamie gets an audience with the Bonnie Prince, but since Charles is living incognito, they meet at the most unlikely of places, a brothel.

The setting foreshadows the Prince’s appetites, his lust, and frivolous and irresponsible nature. Charles is charming and not stupid, but he is also naïve and rather cutout from reality. He displays dismissive arrogance with Murtagh (who is escorting his godson) and is angry at Jamie when he is not told what he wants to hear.

In a way, Charles acts like Daenerys Targaryen in a powdered wig. After demanding that Jamie tells him the truth, he feels offended when young Frazer tells him that the clans are too busy fighting each other to rally behind a pretender to battle the English. However, in a twist that displays his volatile personality the prince praises Jamie’s honesty and patriotism and charges him with getting the necessary funds to finance his enterprise.

Now the Frasers must double their efforts to hinder the upcoming rebellion. It’s an impossible task, the Jacobean Cause does get French support thanks to Bonnie Prince Charlie’s personal magnetism, which appears to be his sole virtue. The Frasers and the public are dismayed since this future king seems to be more into conducting affairs of the boudoir than of states. He is soon involved in a liaison with his sassy married cousin Louise de la Tour D’Auvergne and gets her pregnant.

What horrifies Claire is Charles’ incompetence and his lack of care for both the people and the land he expects to rule. He’s never set foot in Scotland, he knows nothing of his people, and has no interest in learning. He is driven by a sense of mission inadmissible to modern logic. He believes to be divinely anointed, almost as if Melisandre had whispered such notion in his ear. We, historical fiction fans, are used to hear monarchs harping about their divine right to reign, but there is something tragicomic in Charles, an actual Beggar King, making that claim in the middle of a brothel.

This negative portrait of legendary Bonnie Prince Charlie was noted by a public that still saw him as the epitome of Charming (ergo ill-fated) Prince. In an interview in IGN, Sam Houghton, who plays Jamie Frazer, expressed his shock  at learning that a beloved Scottish folk-hero was, in fact,  not very heroic:

“He’s been romanticized in Scotland to an extraordinary degree. The Skye Boat Song is about him, our main theme is about him. There’s pictures of him in Scotland,” Heughan said of Bonnie Prince Charlie. “It’s been romanticized about the great rebellion and his escape, and actually when you look at history you see that he was useless. He was completely ineffectual and led these Highlanders to their doom.”

With this sad portrayal of the selfish pretender, the Stuart Cause was lost. There was no way the public could be galvanized by that royal last name once its most fascinating bearer was outed as a narcissistic idiot. Henry VIII was egotistical and vain, but he won battles, got his women, and ruled his country. Poor Charlie couldn’t rule himself.

Minette, the Silly Slut
Moreover, the same year that “Outlander” pulled down Bonnie Prince Charles from the altar of historical heroes, another show went after another Stuart icon. For centuries, historians and writers have portrayed Henrietta Marie, the sister of Charles II, as a victim; a wronged wife, forced to marry a homosexual, and probably murdered by her husband’s jealous lover. In real life, she who was nicknamed “Minette,” was a hysterical anorexic, an adulteress, and a bad mother to boot.

“Versailles” characterizes Minette as a silly slut, indulging in an affair with her brother-in -law, the Sun King, a relationship that in those days was deemed as incestuous. Played by Swiss actress, Naomi Schmidt, Minette lies, schemes, betrays and breaks the heart of her poor husband.

 She also lets her royal lover use her body as well as her mind. He sends her in a secret mission to England to ensure her brother’s support in France’s war against William of Orange. Although in real life, Minette did possess diplomatic skills, in the series she’s seen just like a talking doll delivering her lover’s words to her brother, the King of England. Daniel Lapaine as Charles II didn’t seem very bright either, so we can say “Versailles” did its best to show us the Stuarts as a family of dull morons.

Lesser Stuarts may prove to be more fetching
If the Stuart Kings prove to be less than appealing, we would have to look among their siblings to find stories deserving to be told, for example tragic Arabella Stuart, the Queen of Scots’ niece,  who is the protagonist of The Girl in the Glass Tower, Elizabeth Fremantle’s latest novel.

There is also James Stuart, Duke of Monmouth, Charles II’s illegitimate son who attempted to grab the throne from his uncle and namesake, and ended up losing his head. If you add that Monmouth could have been the real Man in the Iron Mask, you have plenty to work with.

The Duke of Monmouth
The current British monarch, Queen Elizabeth II can trace back her Stuart ancestry to Princess Elizabeth, daughter of the first King James. The Winter Queen, as she was known, could have been queen of England had the Gunpowder Conspiracy succeeded. She made a love match (a rarity in royal families of the time) to Prince Frederick of the Palatinate, became the mother of thirteen children, and was the grandmother of George, first Hanover king of England. Dear Lieselotte of “Versailles” fame was her granddaughter, too. Elizabeth did eventually rule Bohemia, part of modern Czechoslovakia. Alas, her reign was short and sad.
The Winter Queen

I’m fond of Elizabeth of Bohemia, but my favorite Stuart is her son, Prince Rupert of the Rhine, famed military man, inventor, artist, and rumor has it, wizard. He even had a magic dog that died fighting alongside his master. So, it is possible to sell the Stuarts to the public, but only looking beyond their dysfunctional kings. Do you have a favorite among that outlandish royal family?

Saturday, September 9, 2017

Autumn in Period Drama Land: 2017 Fall Schedule

September is here. I never thought I would see another autumn in New York again. It’s such a gorgeous experience. And another gorgeous experience, for us period drama fans, is the cavalcade of historical fiction that will hit  our television screen and our nearby theaters, on this very fall.

Let us start with TV.  September 10, in Starz, marks our get-together with “Outlander”.  It is also a time of meetings in our favorite time-travel tale, when after twenty years of loveless marriage, now widowed Dr. Claire Randall comes across her eighteen-century husband, Jamie Fraser.

To those who have not read Voyager, the novel of which the third season is based, just know that Claire will travel to the past on Halloween. She will reunite with Jamie in Edinburgh, but twenty years have also gone by in Old Scotland. Claire will be less than happy after learning there have been other women and other children in Jamie’s life. The couple will reconcile and travel together to France and finally to the West Indies.

For those of us in the USA, who don’t stream, early autumn would give us the chance to catch up with old favorites and new period pieces. Ovation is bringing us the second season of  “Versailles” (September 30th) and the debut in American TV of ”The Halcyon,” (October 2th).

After Minette’s death, Philippe D`Orleans,  is forced by his sovereign- brother to marry again. How will sweet, down-to-earth, Liselotte of Palatinate put up with a gay husband and his meddlesome lover? That is a question “Versailles” will have to answer. Courtiers are once again rebellious. Royal torturer Fabien Marechal will have his hands full, as he grows closer to girl-doctor Claudine, while spying and being intrigued by devious Madame de Clermont. Meanwhile, his liaison with scheming Madame de Montespan has clouded the King Sun’s intellect. History buffs know that this will lead to black masses, black magic, and black poison in Versailles.

They keep on trying to sell “The Halcyon” as the new “Downton Abbey,” but critics and clips tell me that is hardly the case. Yet as a WWII buff, I can’t stand missing a story about a ritzy London hotel during The Blitz.

On October 1th,  PBS brings us “ Poldark” in his third season. Captain Poldark and devoted Demelza will expand their family in different ways, but jealousy will take a toll on their marriage as Mrs. Poldark gets suspicious of Elizabeth’s premature baby. Dr. Enys will get married, but he’ll spend his honeymoon in a French jail. Ross will have to go to Revolutionary France to rescue his pal. New characters will join this Cornish romance as Elizabeth’s cousins and Demelza’s brothers join their lives.

October the 15th is when we go back to the Greek islands with “The Durrels.”  I haven’t even seen the first season yet, but I saw and loved “My Family and Other Animals” so I know all about zoologist Gerald Durrell’s extravagant yet loving family. To make ends meet, Louisa Durrell takes her children to live in Corfu in the mid Thirties. There, young Gerry grows up unschooled, but learning a lot from the local fauna he collects, and that includes some fascinating humans.

November 23 will face us with the new “Anne of Green Gables.” Since I have decided that the original Anne grew up to become Catherine de Medici, I have no qualms with Ella Ballentine replacing Megan Fellows, in this new version of Lucy Maud Montgomery’s children classic. Oh, and to launch winter and to celebrate Christmas, we’ll get to see the  annual special of “Call the Midwife, ”on December 25th.

We don’t have a date yet, but History Channel keeps on bombarding us with messages that “this fall” we’ll get to meet  “Knightfall.” I’m in a great mood to watch medieval feats, and I’m the first one to sign up for anything dealing with the Templars. Tom Cullen, formerly Lord Gillingham in “Downton Abbey, ” is Sir Landry, a Crusades veteran, bent into finding the Holy Grail, but does he have time to do it? The series is set in the days of Philippe Le Bel, and we all know what that king did to the Order of Knights of the Temple.

Cullen is also playing Guy Fawkes in the BBC baroque drama  “Gunpowder.” The new Targaryen in residence, Kit Harington, will be playing conspirator Robert Catesby who also happens to be the actor’s ancestor. Although it will be a while before we see it in America,  BBC is hoping to have it ready by November for British consumption.

And for us lucky bilinguals, Antena 3 is presenting (hopefully to American audiences too) a new miniseries this fall. “Tiempos de Guerra” (War Times). It takes place in an exotic locale and period, the Rif War,  in 1921. It chronicles the adventures of a bunch of aristocratic nurses sent to Morocco by order of Queen Victoria Eugenia, to tend the wounded soldiers. So, it’s going to be a sort of Iberian “Crimson Field.”

This autumn, TNT will air “The Alienist.” Based on Caleb Starr’s bestseller, it’s a detective story set in turn-of-the-century New York. After the police is unable to solve a series of murders that target “boy-whores,” Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt sets up a secret and unusual team. It is composed by journalist John Moore (Luke Evans), secretary Sara Howard (Dakota Fanning) and Viennese Dr. Lazlo Kreisler (Daniel Bruhl). Dr. Kreisler is a sort of Sherlock Holmes who will bring into detective work his psychiatric knowledge.

What about incoming projects? This past spring saw the shooting of the third season of “Versailles,” and Poldark and the Durrels have green light for future seasons. Orlando Bloom will head the cast of a Victorian fantasy called “Carnival Cross”; the filming of the new version of Thackeray’s Vanity Fair will begin this September; and a new version of Pride and Prejudice has been announced. Are we game for more Darcy and Lizzie? The answer is always a positive one.

 For those who like more modern times, Channel Four has announced the production of “Jerusalem,” a Cold War thriller set in England in 1945.  The Cold War has become part of period drama repertoire. Guillermo del Toro has also set his newest fantasy “The Shape of Water” on that milieu. By the way, "The Shape of Water"has just won the Golden Lion at the Venice Festival, so it's a must see film. 
And now we go to moving pictures.

Period Drama on the Silver Screen
Our first exciting news   is the release of pictures of  “Mary , Queen of Scots,” Michael Hirst’s follow- up to his Tudors and Elizabeths. In the latest contribution to the immortal Tudormania, “Vikings’ writer tackles the unhappy story of that mischievous Queen of Scots, and on the rebound, we get to see Cousin Bess. Saoirse Ronan is a strawberry blonde Mary Stuart, and Australian Margot Robbie is brick-topped Elizabeth Tudor.

Knowing how deprived us poor Downties are,  Julian Fellowes has finally announced that yes, he is bringing us the “Downton Abbey” movie. Lord Fellowes has apparently shelved his project (“The Gilded Age”) to do an American Downton Abbey. But he’s been busy. He recently adapted Agatha Christie’s Crooked House that introduces the audience to one of the writer’s lesser known detectives Charles Hayward, played by Max Irons, who is becoming an item in period pieces. The cast that encompasses big names from Glenn Close to Christina Kendrick, will be working on the first adaptation of one of Dame Agatha’s favorite works.

Fellowes has also adapted The Chaperone, based on Laura Moriarty’s bestseller, and chronicling the travel from her native Kansas to New York of the soon-to-be-legend, Louise Brooks.  But the future Lulu is saddled with a complete stranger as a chaperone. Haley Lou Richardson will play unconventional fifteen-year-old Brooks and Elizabeth McGovern—Lady Cora herself—will play her chaperone, the mysterious Cora Carlisle.

Talking about bestsellers, Tom Holland will play real-life hero Pino Lella in a film adaptation of Mark Sullivan’s Beneath a Scarlet Sky.  In this Second World War thriller, Holland will reenact Pino’s struggles in German-invaded Italy.  First rescuing Jewish children, then driving for a German general and finally working for the resistance.

Historical fantasies will be well represented with the aforementioned “Carnival Cross” and del Toro’s  “The Shape of Water,” but cinema is also planning to pay homage to the greatest master of epic fantasy. A biopic is in development about the life of J. R. R.  Tolkien. Little is known about the project, aside from the fact that Jennifer Lawrence playing Edith Bratt, Tolkien’s wife and muse.

While we wait for all these wonders, let’s check what we could see this fall on a theater near us. September has finally brought to America “The Viceroy’s House.” Gillian Anderson and Hugh Bonneville portray Lady Edwina and Lord Louis Mountbatten, the last Viceroy  of India. Alicia Vikander is a demure housewife in Seventeenth Century Holland,  who gets caught up  in adultery and the “Tulip Fever.”  September also marks the debuts of “Savage in the Rye,” the biopic of J. D. Salinger; and Dame Judi Dench recreates her Queen Victoria role in “Victoria and Abdul.”

We  also get the unusual treat of a Norwegian film. “The King’s Choice” covers the days in 1940 that took King Haakon to decide whether to stay and surrender Norway to the Nazis, or flee to England to continue his fight against Germany.

October offers us another biopic, “Marshall” based on Thurgood Marshall’s experiences as the first African-American Supreme Court Justice. Chadwick  “Black Panther” Boseman will play the judge. Kenneth Branagh’s much expected “Murder in the Orient Express” will be seen in November. Branagh is Hercule Poirot and his cast of suspects includes Johnny Depp and Penelope Cruz.

November also brings us another tale of Churchill and World War Two. In “The Darkest Hour” Gary Oldman stands unrecognizable as the formidable Prime Minister. Dame Kristin Scott-Thomas is his devoted wife, and Lily James (who won’t miss a good period piece ) is his secretary.  The year will end with a historical  musical. Based on  Barnum, the Broadway classic, “The Greatest Showman” will have Hugh Jackman playing P.T. Barnum, Michelle Williams will be his wife, and Rebeca Ferguson (The White Queen) will be the renowned Swedish soprano, Jenny Lind.

So much variety! Have I skipped anything? Are there still period pieces on the making out there? Which one of those in my list are you looking forward to?

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Dunkirk and the Politics of Reverse Sexism

In a previous blog, I described how cultural diversity upholders have pilloried Christopher Nolan and his “Dunkirk” for whitewashing Operation Dynamo, and how even the French are complaining that the film ignores them. But the biggest heat Nolan’s unconventional war flick received came from the Faux-Feminists who precisely challenge the movie for following combat film conventions.

The FF group has a tremendous beef with the lack of feminine presence in “Dunkirk.” Let me start by saying I do wish there were more women in Dunkirk, but as a war film connoisseur I understand the absence of estrogen and applaud Nolan for at least showing us some girls in his epic.

“Dunkirk” belongs to a subgenre better known as “combat story.” It’s one of the many subgenres that shelters under a huge umbrella known as “War Film.” Other subgenres are Holocaust movies, medical army yarns, resistance tales, espionage flicks and home front drama. In those categories, women rule. Just think ”Diary of Anne Frank,” ”The English Patient, ” “Charlotte Gray, ” and  “Mrs. Miniver.”
Women in war films

On the other hand, it’s a century old convention that films dealing with combat experience in Korean, Vietnam and World Wars do not have women characters hovering about the battlefield. Are there recognizable women around in films such as “Saving Private Ryan, “ ”The Sands of Iwo Jima,” ”The Thin Red Line,” “The Great Escape,” or “Apocalypse Now ?”  Even “Black Hawk Down” and “The Hurt Locker” lacked feminine presence.
(Daily Mail)

Our images of women involved in Operation Dynamo come from old photographs and newsreels, and they are always on English soil: nurses bearing wounded soldiers on stretchers, canteen workers pouring thousands of cups of tea, and, of course, the women that waited on shore for their men. We met them as the “jambusters” of Great Paxton in “Home Fires.” Farmer Steph welcoming her husband back; housewife Pat not so happy to know that her abusive husband is returning after being wounded in Dunkirk; butcher Mim mourning her son missing at sea, and Sarah coming to terms with knowing her husband, and Great Paxton’s vicar, is now a prisoner of war.

Steph gets her husband back, but Dunkirk has traumatized him.

So, it is highly innovative that Nolan placed women in the thick of the battle. Because, despite all the nitpicking, the film does show us female nurses tending soldiers on the ships. And, ohhh my, they look courageous and useful. In fact, their brief appearance makes them seem morally stronger than many of those poor hysterical soldiers. But complainers (complaining is such a free and rewarding habit) already find fault in his inclusion. The nurses are annonymous, they have few dialogues, etc.

Hey, how many male characters have names in Dunkirk? There is Sir Mark Rylance’s Dawson and his crew, they got names. Kenneth Branagh is Commander Bolton, Tom Hardy is Farriers and his sidekick is Collins (played by Jack Lowden. Don’t forget THAT name). Do they get first names? No, that would be too much.
Hurry! Harry Styles is drowning! Give him more lines!

 Harry Styles is called Alex and gets lots of lines (but no last name) because…let’s face it!  He is Harry Styles. Aneurin Bernard’s dog tags identify him as Gibson. But we learn that he has not a Gibson bone in his body. No spoilers here, but it is linked to the French accusing the film as Francophobe. Cillian Murphy’s character is terribly important, and gets to spout gibberish a lot, but in the credits, he is strictly known as “Shivering Soldier.” Hi, Shivering!

The one that is a hoot is Finn Whitehead, who for some reason, is believed to be the main character. In the credits, he is known as “Tommy. “ Critics and reviewers missing the irony, think his name is Thomas. Wrong!!! Tommy was an affectionate nickname for British soldiers.  Sort of Gi Joe. Since Nolan has directed an allegory, Tommy comes to be a sort of Everyman, a representation of all those stranded on that beach, dreaming of haven.

So, it is established that. in “Dunkirk,” male characters have few lines to speak and even less names to wear. Therefore, we cannot hold against Nolan that his women are discreet, but diligent and helpful. Still, I have a feeling that women did play a part in that epic retreat, a larger part.

For years I have wished to write something about a woman in Dunkirk, but who could she be: a nurse, a refugee, a girl crossdressing as a soldier? Then, at the turn of the Millennium, I began writing a novel about the war. At some point, one of the heroines borrows her dad’s yacht and heads to Dunkirk to rescue her French husband. Was there a precedent in real life? Did women man some little boats? Were they part of the crew?

Right before seeing “Dunkirk”, I got to see “Their Finest.”  In that comedy, Gemma Atherton is hired by the Ministry of War to write a script about two girls who crossed the Channel in their dad’s boat. Except that eventually it is found out that due to engine problems, Rose and Lily never got too far from the shore. For propaganda purposes, the filming of  "The Nancy Starling"continues.

 I got a sour taste in my mouth. So that’s what women efforts amount, then and now? To celebrate epic anecdotes that never took place? To make things worse, now “Their Finest” is being peddled as a reverse-Dunkirk, a film that does “highlight the role of women in the Second World War.” Don't get me wrong. I love "Their Finest"but it's not comparable to "Dunkirk."

 In a way, Christopher Nolan has saved the day for us girls. He does include female sailors. In one Little Ship, we see a lady in skirts. Yes, she is woman, doesn’t look like a Scottish soldier on a kilt. And then we have Kim Hartmann, in an apron, all Mama Weasley feeding rescued soldiers in a boat. As her small craft passes Commander Bolton on the pier, she yells at him that she is coming all the way from Dartmoor.

Nevertheless, faux-feminism is not satisfied. The final pearl came from Mehera Bonner. This Marie Claire contributor, took over Twitter to complain about “Dunkirk” calling it “mediocre,” an excuse “for men to celebrate maleness,” and went on to describe Second World War as a war “dominated by brave male soldiers.”  She expanded her peeves further in an article where she summons Nolan to make war films about women or about other marginalized groups. I believe that since so little has been done on Dunkirk, this movie IS ABOUT a marginalized group.

Bonner also says she would rather stick to films like “Wonder Woman.” I happen to like “Wonder Woman,” but I can tell the difference between light fantasy and historical fiction. Bonner’s opinion is of no consequence to me, but the fact that her bizarre tweets got 22.000 Likes tells me she is not alone in Idiocy Land, and that worries me.

For the record, Dunkirk is not a macho movie. My brother fell asleep while watching it, and pronounced it “not riveting enough.” On the other hand, my ovaries had me on the edge of the seat, biting my nails and crying.  Oh, I did cry watching those not so brave male soldiers being rescued by the very  old, the very young, the very feminine. And I’m not a lonely voice in the wilderness. 
Writing for The Federalist, Emily Zanotti has called Bonner’s opinion “offensive” and “sexist” and has remembered that the ones that buried down women’s contributions to Second World War were the late 20th century feminists who, like their icon Jane Fonda (and others),  were sooo anti-war.

 I feel all this nitpicking has dragged us away from the film, its merits and its flaws. Isn’t it about time to bury the hatchet, and concentrate on “Dunkirk” as an artistic achievement?  All the controversy should be settled by an enlightened opinion such as that expressed by  Rohan Nahar  in The Hindustan Times:

Dunkirk is about an ideal - which is why none of the characters are defined beyond basic traits, like their first names and perhaps their rank. We know nothing about them. We care because the film inspires empathy. We don’t want to see human beings die a terrible death. These characters are meant to represent everyone who was involved in the operation. It is a celebration of the bravery shown by common people. And if Indians were involved, the film, however abstract it is in its ways, pays homage to them too.

 I hope as the hype goes down, people will go into libraries and do research about the forgotten minorities.  I hope that in the incoming months more will be written about Dunkirk, about the Indians, the French, the Women, (and even if it’s not politically correct, about the Jews, as well) that were involved in the rescue. Christopher Nolan’s film has opened a door for all of us who are not militant, just afflicted by insufferable intellectual curiosity, to learn about an important but terribly overlooked historical event.