DODGING THE BULLET II

Nukes are particularly fiendish weapons. Over the last couple of decades, war-hungry politicians and generals have attempted to lump them into a generalized category called “weapons of mass destruction.” But this is word-play. No other weapon – no nerve gas, no weaponized disease agent, no chemical or radiological poison – comes close to the horrible destructive power of atomic and thermonuclear bombs.

Nukes kill in a variety of ways. A nuclear blast burns and disintegrates; its brilliant flash blinds the beholder; it issues shockwaves which rupture eardrums and knock buildings down; it sends clouds of ash and debris into the atmosphere; the mass fires which follow it (when the target is something burnable, such as a city or a town) continue to pollute the atmosphere and affect the climate; its radiation kills some people within hours or days; others take longer to die of a variety of cancers. The sheer size of a nuclear blast and its outlying disaster areas render recovery impossible. There are simply not enough first responders or firefighters to attend to the injured or evacuate survivors, especially as the transportation infrastructure of the town or city in question will be gone as well.

For all these reasons, after the first two atom bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki it was widely remarked that “the survivors envied the dead.”

How could such fiendish weapons ever have been devised? What was the need for them?

Supposedly, nukes were developed by the Americans and the British because they feared a fiendish regime, Nazi Germany, might also develop them. But the Germans never came close to building such weapons, and surrendered before the scientists at Los Alamos had achieved their goal. At that point, nukes became a massive and expensive war project without a purpose. So they were dropped on Japan, instead.

The nuking of two Japanese cities – targeting almost exclusively civilians – is debated to this day. Some claim that atom-bombing Hiroshima and Nagasaki “shortened the war” and “saved a million American lives.” Others assert that the Japanese government was desperate to end the war, and that President Truman ordered the bombs dropped as a “message” to the Russians — a warning to his Communist enemies of the new power the United States possessed.

Sam Cohen, one of the inventors of the Neutron Bomb, who worked with Edward Teller at Los Alamos – told me that the Nagasaki bomb was dropped as an experiment: to see if its untried technology would work or not. This may sound insane, a case of science losing all moral compass and descending into total evil, but one of Sam’s favorite films was DR. STRANGELOVE. He didn’t consider the film a comedy, but told me it seemed to him an accurate depiction of the nuclear establishment, and the environment in which he worked.

I became interested in this subject because of a film-related scandal. In the early 1960s, the BBC encouraged the careers of several talented young directors, including Ken Russell, Ken Loach, and Peter Watkins. In 1964 directed a highly-regarded docudrama, CULLODEN – “an account of one of the most mishandled and brutal battles ever fought in Britain” according to its opening titles. CULLODEN was a fine film which pulled no punches, and on its strength, Watkins was commissioned by the BBC to make another faux-documentary: this one about nuclear war.

When Watkins delivered THE WAR GAME to the BBC, the broadcaster decided not to screen it. Watkins had done an enormous amount of research and made a meticulous, brilliant film about the consequences, on the ground, of a “limited” nuke attack on Southern England. But the film was perceived, by the BBC’s mandarins, and probably the government of the day, as simply “too much” for the general public. Ironically, Her Majesty’s Government already knew everything that was depicted in THE WAR GAME, and much worse: eight years earlier, the Strath Committee had reported:

If only 10 bombs were dropped on UK cities, the result would be
‘utter devastation’ with up to 12 million deaths, including 3 million
from radiation. There would be a further 4 million serious casualties
which would swamp the medical facilities available. Half of Britain’s
industrial capacity would be destroyed, the distributive system
would break down … water and food would be contaminated,
leaving the 40 million survivors living in siege conditions.”

We knew nothing of this. British school kids didn’t do “duck and cover” exercises in their classrooms. There were no signs indicating the whereabouts of a fallout shelter. Britain’s politicians went right on developing nuclear weapons, testing and stockpiling atomic bombs…

The banning of THE WAR GAME caused something of a controversy in the press. At the tender age of ten or so, I became aware of it, and was suitably offended that I wasn’t allowed to see this film, which my parents’ television license fees had paid for. I had seen CULLODEN on its first broadcast the year before, and found it quite disturbing. But I imagined THE WAR GAME to be some kind of science fiction film, perhaps with two-headed people, or giant ants… the kind of monster movies Jack Arnold made, back in the days of the fifties atom bomb scare…

I didn’t get to see THE WAR GAME for many years. But in 1967, rather amazingly, it won the Oscar for Best Documentary Picture in the United States. So presumably Watkins’ non-documentary enjoyed an American distribution… Avon Books in the US and Sphere in the UK published an illustrated paperback, THE WAR GAME, based on Watkins’ script and maps and images from the film. Unable to see the picture, I could still buy the book! And so I too was immersed in this terrible vision of the likely consequences of a “limited” nuclear exchange.

Gone was the friendly BBC bobby-on-his-bicycle. In Watkins’ film, post-attack, the police are armed and put to work, first euthanizing the casualties of the attack, then executing killers and thieves. But food is running out, the surviving population is either desperate or apathetic, living in the vilest conditions, without medical attention, without hope of things being fixed…

This was the conclusion of the Strath Report, as well: “The Report found it impossible to predict whether Britain could recover, with the social and economic fabric of the country destroyed.” (John Baylis, Ambiguity and Deterrence: British Nuclear Strategy 1945-1964, Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1995)

Nukes are civilization-killers. More than 90 percent of the population lives in towns or cities, and all of them – rich and poor – depend on efficient systems of food distribution to survive. If a metropolis is devastated by fire, blast, and radiation, and its infrastructure of highways, railways, bridges, tunnels, and surface streets severely damaged, how is the surviving population to be fed? What if multiple cities are similarly attacked? Who will fix things? Who will reconnect the grid?

That little book THE WAR GAME was my introduction to these things. Its images are devastating, but even more so are the narrative descriptions, which read like ghastly poetry:

This is a fire storm.

Rochester, in Kent.

2 1/2 miles from the impact point
of a Soviet thermonuclear missile
which has exploded off-course
on its flight to London Airport.

Within its centre a column
of hot air and fire one mile
broad at the base reaches
1 1/2 miles into the sky.

In a bookstore in Santa Monica a dozen years later – Midnight Special – I ran into a copy of The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists. Amazing thing! Here was a regular glossy magazine, written in reasonable English, apparently by atomic scientists, for their colleagues and the general public to read. It dealt both with nuclear power and with the nuclear weapons complex. For the next decade, I was hooked. I doubt that I missed an issue. It taught me more than I needed to know and much of it became infused a lot of my work – including THE HOT CLUB, a script I wrote for Peter McCarthy and Jonathan Wacks, and THE HAPPY HOUR, a screenplay I wrote for the English director Adrian Lyne.

REPO MAN was originally the story of a runaway nuclear scientist, the inventor of the Neutron Bomb, and an LA repo man’s attempt to track down his car full of stolen nuclear materials. The screenplay ended with the Neutron Bomb concealed within exploding – killing off the protagonists and the population of the city center with a massive radiation dose. But as we progressed with the film we became more bonded with the characters, and, I suppose, with that strange place, Los Angeles. And so we came up with another ending which did not require the city’s nuclear devastation. Salutary though it might have been.

So what?

Comparatively few films deal with the prospect of nuclear war. It is an awful, saddening subject, and people, we are told, want to be entertained.

Yet is it not the great story – fiction or non-fiction – of our time?

The nuclear-weapons-complex is vast, powerful, and currently expanding, thanks to President Obama’s trillion-dollar nuke upgrade. It includes two branches of the military (as far as I know the Army no longer fields nuclear bazookas), a huge raft of corporations and specialist manufacturers, labor unions, an attendant nuclear-power-complex, and an array of politicians, academics, consultants, security experts, and lobbyists.

The complex holds within its hands the power of life or death over an entire planet — or at least that planet’s northern hemisphere. It would be crazy to use it, right?

We’d better hope so. Our best hope that all the workers with good union jobs assembling plutonium triggers, and the air force crews and pilots, and sailors on the nuclear subs, and the security people, and the contractors and big businessmen, and the generals and the admirals, and the president and his or her associates are all really well-intentioned, level-headed people. That they do what they do with pure intent, and make the right decisions, and don’t make any mistakes, ever.

And we’d best hope the same about “the enemy” – possessor of a similarly-large nuclear force, to be delivered by aircraft, missile, and submarine, very much in need of an expensive upgrade: that all the workers in their nuclear-weapons complex, their air force and navy guys, their security and  kontraktniki and oligarchs, their generals and admirals, their president and associates, are all sane, thoughtful, level-headed. With good intent, always making the right choices, never, ever, making any mistakes.

Because if that IS the case then we don’t need to worry about human error, or a misunderstanding, or a crazy person, starting a nuclear war. All we need to worry about are electrical short circuits, power or equipment failures, accidents, or terrorists getting their hands on nukes.

Unfortunately, various heads of state have over the years threatened to use nuclear weapons for political purposes. The dread dictator of North Korea may spring to mind, and we shall investigate the danger of his nuclear stockpile later. But democratically elected Presidents have also threatened to use nuclear weapons.

During the Korean War, President Truman authorized the Pentagon to use nukes against Korean targets – just as he had against Japan. The Pentagon declined, not being able to identify any surviving targets. President Eisenhower offered the French the use of two American nuclear weapons as they wound down their Vietnam War; they, too declined. President Kennedy twice brought the United States to the brink of nuclear confrontation with Russia, first over Berlin, then over Cuba. President Nixon and his advisor Henry Kissinger frequently threatened to the Russians that the United States might use nukes to destroy dams and harbors in Vietnam. The Russians became so accustomed to Nixon’s nuclear threats that, uncertain what to believe, they discounted all of them. President Carter let it be known that he was “contemplating the unthinkable” when Iranians stormed the US embassy in Teheran.

Ordinary people do not find politicians in the least credible. Politicians, perhaps aware of this, cling to the word “credibility” and use it frequently when describing US relations with foreign nations. “Creditability” is a dangerous word when used thus, suggesting a willingness to engage in acts of violence, possibly nuclear, to obtain unclear goals.

Even if we assume that the current class of American politicians are all above this, and unlikely to fly off the deep end into nuclear combat with the Russians or the Chinese, even if we assume the human aspect of the nuclear-weapons-complex is 100% perfect, can we discount the danger of an accidental nuclear exchange?

We, the public, know of several occasions when such an exchange almost occurred.

On Nov 9, 1979, three US command posts showed a massive Russian nuclear strike incoming. US missiles were put on high alert, jet bombers scrambled, and “Looking Glass “ – the President’s doomsday command plane – took to the air without the President on board. But there was no attack. A training tape, simulating a Russian first strike, had been mistakenly inserted into the Pentagon’s computer system.

On June 3, 1980, another red alert took place – showing anywhere between two and 200 missiles on their way to devastate the USA. An investigation revealed no missiles, just a faulty computer chip.

On Sept 27, 1983, the Russian satellite warning system reported five American Minutemen missiles heading for Moscow. The Russian military command prepared for war, then stood down when it became apparent that the satellites had mistaken sunlight reflecting off clouds for missile launches.

In November 1983, the US and its NATO allies embarked on a nuclear weapons exercise called ‘Able Archer.’ This came during a period of great US-Russian tension. The US was siting Cruise and Pershing Missiles in Europe; the rhetoric of President Reagan and Prime Minister Thatcher was bellicose, and Russian President Andropov believed that the US was planning a nuclear first strike. According to CIA director Robert Gates, “the KGB concluded that American forces … might have begun the countdown to nuclear war … we in the CIA did not really grasp how alarmed the Soviet leaders might have been.”

The Able Archer incident is perhaps the closest the US and Russia have come to full-scale nuclear war. We have no way of knowing for certain, since most of these mistakes and misunderstandings remain classified. Yet they continued: on Jan 25, 1995, Russian radar mistook a Norwegian scientific rocket for a US Trident submarine missile launch. Again, the Russian commander realized the alert was a false alarm.

Nuclear weapons delivery systems are extremely complex. There are many things that can go wrong. As Command and Control points out, the US Minuteman fleet is decrepit and dangerous, with widespread dereliction of duty by its crews. The Russian submarine fleet is similarly unreliable. In 2000 a Russian sub, the Kursk, sank with all hands: most of the Russian boats are in such bad shape that they cannot leave port. Smaller nuclear “powers” may suffer even worse maintenance problems: whistleblower and UK Navy submariner William McNeilly describes serial technical mishaps and breakdowns aboard HMS Neptune, one of the subs Britain maintains as launch platforms for the Trident missiles it rents from the US.

McNeilly’s report – released by WikiLeaks – depicts what the whistleblower calls “shockingly extreme conditions” ranging from a complete absence of security, via contaminated food and flooded toilets, to “a blazing inferno in the Missile Compartment.”

A June 2016 attempt to fire a Trident missile off the coast of Florida went catastrophically wrong. The Vanguard-class nuclear submarine, HMS Vengeance, launched a nuclear-capable missile in the direction of West Africa. But a computer malfunction sent the Trident missile in the opposite direction, towards the US mainland. The test was aborted, and the missile destroyed.

Trident missiles cost 17 million pounds apiece, so HM Government doesn’t test them very often.

Perhaps the above has given some indication of the instability of the nuclear weapons systems themselves, and also of the instability of those who allegedly maintain them and decide when and where they will be used.

Let us turn next to the numbers. How many nuclear weapons are there in the world? And how many would be needed to wipe us out?

It’s impossible to say how many nukes there are. None of the nuclear weapons states is entirely honest regarding its inventory. One of them refuses to acknowledge possessing any nukes, a fiction which permits the New York Times and other American newspapers to omit Israel entirely when listing nuclear weapons states.

According to the Bulletin, based on the best information available in 2014 there were approximately 16,300 nuclear weapons located at some 97 sites in 14 countries. Approximately 4,000 were operationally available,and some 1,800 were on high alert.

Russia and the US possessed then (and possess today) the largest concentration of nukes: 93 percent of the total global inventory. Seven other countries had (and have) nuclear weapon stockpiles: England, France, China, Israel, India, Pakistan, and North Korea. Five NATO countries also possessed nuclear weapons: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey. These were supposedly under the control of the Americans.

In terms of rough numbers, in 2014 the Russians had some 8,000 nuclear weapons, of which 4,300 were operational or potentially operational (the others were in theory retired and awaiting dismantlement). In 2016 the Bulletin estimated that Russia had 4,500 warheads “assigned for use.” In 2014 the United States had some 7,300 nuclear weapons, of which 4,760 were operational or in military custody (the others were in theory retired). In January 2017 the Bulletin reports that the US now has 4,480 operational warheads.

In 2014 France possessed roughly 300 nukes, China 250, and England 225 (I use the term ”England” throughout since though London’s nukes are stored in Scotland, that country, like Ireland and Wales, is resolutely anti-nuclear. As with all the worst aspects of my country, this is all about London. London runs the sorry show.)

Of the “lesser” nuclear powers, Israel had approximately 80 weapons, Pakistan more than a hundred, India roughly the same number, and North Korea less than ten. By 2016 the Bulletin estimated that China had 260 warheads, India 110–120, and Pakistan 130—140.

Both the US and Russia rely on a perverse variant of the Holy Trinity called the Nuclear Triad. This is a nuclear weapons attack force divided into three parts: ground-based ballistic missiles, submarine-based missiles, and aircraft-based missiles and bombs. Keeping a constant array of nukes underground, in the air, and under the sea is supposed to guarantee their survivability, just as the Father, Son and Holy Ghost are supposed to promise the eternal survival of the human soul.

(Apparently the Israelis share the same nuclear creed, as in addition to nuclear-armed rockets and aircraft they are buying three nuclear-capable submarines from Germany.)

So, strictly in terms of numbers it might seem that the Russians are slightly ahead of the Americans, and the Pakistanis ahead of the Indians. But numbers don’t tell the whole story. Each warhead has a certain megatonnage – the size of its destructive power. There are “small” bombs, and gigantic ones. Some are “dirty” bombs, designed to maximize the spread of radiation. The bombs’ utility depends on the delivery system: how reliable is the missile or bomber which carries them? Does the delivery system contain only one bomb, or multiple warheads, each assigned a different target? What is its range?

There are certainly fewer nuclear weapons today than in the mid-1980s, when the US and Russia possessed 70,000 nukes.

But the nukes which remain are more accurate and more versatile than the multiple bombs of yesteryear. Just as the Americans are upgrading their nukes at a cost of a trillion dollars, we must assume that the Russians will do the same: credibility and the “deterrence” theory make this obligatory.  So – if we recall that the Strath Committee reported that “only” ten bombs could cause the complete collapse of British society, how many would it take to cause the collapse of the USA, or of Russia?

One hundred?

And the United States and Russia between them possess almost 9,000 useable nuclear weapons.

Redundancy and survivability, the nuclear mandarins will reply (if they bother to reply, since their expertise, and the practicality of political/nuclear planning are almost never discussed, much less questioned). Obviously, some delivery systems will fail — missiles will explode on launch, showering the motherland with nuclear weapons debris; some planes or missiles will be shot down by enemy defenses; some bombs will fail to go off. Hence the need for redundancy.

Survivability is justified by the threat of a surprise attack. What if the enemy launches a massive, nuclear sneak attack against our nuclear forces and our heads of state – a “decapitating” strike? Our beloved leaders may be lost, but at least we can retain sufficient nuclear weapons – dispersed in triad form around the world – to mount a “credible” counterstrike.

These are the arguments for massive over-capacity in nuclear weapons systems: we have so many bombs that even though some of them won’t work, or will kill the wrong people, some of them will work. Those weapons will kill our enemies, and destroy their industries, and their unused weapons.

“Brinkmanship” was a popular political style in the United States at one time. Among other outcomes it gave us MAD — the doctrine of “mutually assured destruction” which holds that the US and the Russia will play ball because neither can win a nuclear war due to the mightiness of their respective arsenals.

Destruction mutually assured through redundancy! “Survivability” becomes a contradiction here because that word implies that after nuclear war breaks out the survivors will be left with something to protect, or to promote, or to prove. And that the destruction will not be mutual, but to one side’s advantage. And hence that there can be winners in a nuclear war!

It’s hard to see how victory can be achieved, in a large war or a small one, between two nuclear-armed powers.

Three professors, Brian Toon, Alan Robock and Rich Turco, have written a paper, Environmental Consequences of Nuclear War. It is very worth a read. They estimate major pollution from even a “small” war as likely to cause 44 million casualties and a brief ice age, and quote a book with the same title as their paper, by M.A. Harrell and TC Hutchison: “Earth’s human population has a much greater vulnerability to the indirect effects of nuclear war, especially mediated through impacts on food productivity and food availability, than to the direct effects of nuclear war itself.”

Toon, Robock and Turco also consider a “counterforce” nuclear war in which Russia targets 1000 weapons on the US, and 200 each on France, Germany, India, Japan, Pakistan, and the UK; and the US targets 1100 weapons each on China and Russia. They estimate 770 million immediate casualties, depending on the areas targeted and the resulting fires. Such a war would devastate noncombatant countries, and bring mass starvation the southern hemisphere as well as the north. The human death toll would be in the billions.

(The “counterforce” strike involves less than half Russia or the United States’ actively available nuclear inventory.)

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DODGING THE BULLET

TOMBSTONE RASHOMON is almost complete, and so I return to this poor blog, which I have left abandoned for quite a while.

What concerns me now isn’t filmic, specifically. It’s how close we’ve come to nuclear war. Not just a “little” war between India and Pakistan, involving only 200 nukes or so, but the big one. The one I’ve spent my entire life hoping to avoid — the multiple-warhead, multiple-strike nuclear conflict between the United States and Russia.

When I was teaching film at CU Boulder, I taught a colleague’s class on DR. STRANGELOVE. One of the students, an extremely bright woman in her early twenties, objected to being made to watch Kubrick’s film. “Just because there was an atom bomb scare in the 1950s doesn’t mean we have to watch this antiquated stuff today,” she told me. Now, this was a very bright person. Almost all the students I met at that fine research university were very bright, with good communication skills. They had only two weaknesses: none of them (unless their parents were first-generation immigrants) could speak a foreign language. And none of them had been taught any history at high school.

In the 1960s, thanks partially to Kubrick’s film, and also to Peter Watkins’ banned masterpiece, THE WAR GAME, ordinary members of the public were aware of the danger nuclear weapons presented. This is no longer the case. Instead we have perhaps the least-educated, most distracted polity that has ever existed. Most journalists don’t do journalism any more – certainly not investigative journalism which may go against the interests of their bosses or a hugely-powerful and wealthy military-industrial complex. Hollywood and the BBC are similarly contant to toe the propaganda line, and parade their usual array of cardboard foreign villains, fictional or “real”. The political class is largely too young and too privileged to have participated in any kind of war, and with rare exceptions is uninterested in educating itself regarding nuclear power and weapons.

Which leaves us with the totally bizarro situation we currently face: the “liberal” US and British media beat the drum for confrontation with Russia; the losing candidate in the recent presidential election was determined to impose a “no fly” zone over Syria, knowing this would involve American troops in combat with the Russians; while the winning candidate is excoriated because he doesn’t demonize Mr Putin or follow the orders of the CIA.

This illegal CIA involvement in US domestic politics has reached unprecedented heights. Not since Dallas or Watergate has the CIA intervened so heavy-handedly to influence either the result of a presidential election or the foreign policy of the president. James Clapper, a serial liar who should be in jail for perjuring himself before Congress, insists that Russian spies won the election for Mr Trump. Jeff Bezos, the Amazon billionaire with multiple military-industrial-technical contracts, has bought the Washington Post and uses it as a propaganda tool to beat the war drums: Counterpunch and The Intercept are conduits for Russian spy propaganda! The Russians have taken over the electricity supply of the Eastern Seaboard! The New York Times and The Guardian follow grovellingly along.

One can’t say for sure that CIA murdered President Kennedy – Mark Lane and others make an excellent case for this, but there are too many other candidates – but there is no doubt that the CIA was involved in domestic politics a few years later, when three CIA operatives (Hunt, McCord and Sturgis) burgled the Watergate Hotel, bringing down Nixon’s presidency and giving us the unelected President Ford. CIA encouraged its Contra proteges to flood the US with crack cocaine, founded the Mujehedeen, and then fabricated evidence which took us to war in Afghanistan and Iraq. Anyone involved in such pestilential activities should be in jail. Instead, mysteriously fearful of this new president, the intelligence community is going all out to either 1) discredit the Trump presidency, or 2) force him to adopt an aggressive posture towards the Russians.

If Hillary Clinton had been elected, we would be hearing a lot about US “creditibility” from her and her supporters in the military-industrial complex: Kissinger, Cheney, McCain et al. US “credibility” in foreign affairs means that the US reseves the right to be the biggest bully on the block, and – when its bullying ways have caused multiple disasters – to redouble its efforts to screw other nations up. This works with smaller countries – the Pentagon has the largest military in the world so the US has managed to turn Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Somalia, Yemen, El Salvador and other unhappy places into failed states. In the case of medium-sized countries like Mexico, Venezuela and Brazil it’s a question of turning up the screws until the economy screams, and then stealing the vote. But Russia isn’t like these other countries. It is very large, has a substantial population, and most important of all, several thousand nuclear warheads, all ready for launch.

CIA and the Pentagon and the bozos on Capitol Hill can play the game of empire for a while yet. In the 1990s they were even able to influence elections in Russia, and keep Yeltsin in power for a additional term. Now things are different. The Russians aren’t fools and unfortunately for them and us they are armed to the teeth with nukes — just like the Americans. The liberal media denegrate Mr Trump for alleged instablity, and unsuitability to put his finger on the nuclear trigger. But it is Mr Obama who has embarked on a trillion dollar upgrade of America’s nuclear weapons. And it was Ms Clinton who, as secretary of state, destroyed Libya and cackled “We came, we saw, he died” after that country’s president was murdered.

This is sort of important stuff. There are fewer nukes in Russian and American service now than there were thirty years ago. But the nuclear face-off never ended, and of the thousands of bombs and missiles which still exist, many are only seconds away from launch. Once that war begins, things will happen so quickly that a “limited” nuclear war between the two great powers is almost certainly impossible.

So, under the rubric of DODGING THE BULLET (something which is also impossible, no matter what Hollywood may claim)  I’m going to visit matters nuclear. Specifically, how – as a mere English schoolkid – I became aware of these issues thanks to a film I wasn’t allowed to watch; how The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists inspired and educated me (before ceasing physical publication and retreating behind an expensive academic firewall); why WHOLE WORLD ON FIRE is the most important book you can ever read; the enviromental consequences of nuclear warfare (and why it isn’t worth worrying about global warming as a result!); how many nukes there are, and who has them; how nuclear power continues to serve as an expensive and deadly figleaf for nuclear weapons; and what is to be done about all this?

Even as Bezos and CIA seek to set us up for military confrontation with the Russians, remarkable things are brewing at the United Nations. This will be an interesting year.

DEADWOOD … AND McCABE & MRS MILLER

I haven’t written much about TOMBSTONE RASHOMON of late — though there is much to tell, it’s been going directly to the film’s backers as updates. So if you backed the film you already know how the shoot went, and what’s happening in post.

But last week I was struck down by a summer cold and, incapacitated, decided to watch the first season of DEADWOOD, which Cindy and Drew – the kind neighbours who also donated boots to the production – had lent me. I live in my own little world, do a lot of reading, and don’t watch television. So this was the first eposodic TV drama I had watched in its entirety since THE PRISONER.

The biggest surprise of my binge-watch was how linear the whole thing was. I had imagined that DEADWOOD would consist of separate, free-standing episodes with the same basic cast — like RUN FOR YOUR LIFE, or THE MAN FROM UNCLE, or early STAR TREK. This is a nice format which permits the shuffling of directors, multiple writers, many cast members, and sometimes permits an individal episode to stray far from the reservation (“Living In Harmony”).  Instead, I was presented with something very old fashioned indeed: what they used to call a “TV series”.

The constraints of a TV series seem very tight indeed. First: the characters must be established in the first episode, and reappear in every episode thereafter. Once they have been established as characters, they cannot be killed — unless their death is a necessary part of the historical story, as in the case of Wild Bill Hickock — so you can guarantee that almost everyone you met in episode one will still be hanging around at the end of episode ten.

Two: there cannot be a plethora of characters. Supporting actors may come and go, but DEADWOOD relies on a basic cast of about a dozen individuals, all of whose stories must be told. This is unfortunate, since few of the supporting characters have much character: there is a doomed gunfighter, an angry, alcoholic doctor, a no-speakee-English Chinese merchant, more than one whore-with-a-heart-of-gold, and so forth. We are familiar with these stereotypes which is why regular feature Westerns give them so little screen time. But in TV series, we are invited to share their lives at some length.

Three: it all moves extremely slowly. The first season of DEADWOOD contains as many gunfights as the average Italian Western. An Italian Western may run from eighty to 180 minutes. The first ten episodes of DEADWOOD are five hundred minutes long. My dog Pearl doesn’t like gunshots, so she won’t stay beneath my desk if I watch MY DARLING CLEMENTINE or FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE. But she lay happy and at peace there thoughout DEADWOOD, gunshots being far less frequent than sentimental music and closeups of people looking at things. The slow pace is exacerbated by the sub-plots involving the various stereotyped supporting characters, who often fill up their screen time by describing what is happening, or what has just occurred.

In a feature film, obviously, there is no time for this. In 90 minutes (what Buñuel wrote was the duration of a human dream cycle) you must introduce your characters, depict things as they happen, show the results, and wrap it up. This is the type of storytelling I’m used to, yet strangely I find my DEADWOOD viewing reassuring. Pondering the future of REPO MAN when it reverts to me three years from now, I’d imagined that to create an episodic TV series involved a very complicated plot and scores if not hundreds of characters. Not a bit of it! Just write a regular feature treatment, slow it down by a factor of 25, and hire Walter Hill to direct the pilot. Leisurely if not glacial pace guaranteed.

Not that I mean to be mean. There are good things in DEADWOOD. Some of the acting is excellent. Who cannot admire Ian McShane’s horrendous saloonkeeper, or his scurrilous henchmen, or the posh ex-laudanum-addict in widows’ weeds? There was a tendency to sentimentalize McShane’s character as the series progressed, though: in the first episode, he is the mastermind of the murder of a pilgrim family, offering $50 apiece for severed Indian heads; by the end of the first series he is the upright hero’s supporter and friend, performing mercy killings and revealing he is an orphan. Aaahhh…

It’s interesting to compare DEADWOOD to McCABE & MRS MILLER, a film the series’ creators have presumably seen. Both feature a similar number of characters, similarly attired. McShane’s character (at least before he starts to reform) is a combination of McCabe – who relies almost exclusively on charm and vision to get his way – and the gigantic English murderer who is sent by corporate interests to execute McCabe and appropriate his saloon. McShane is such a good actor that he pulls the mixture off, but his character is graphic novel-deep at best. He beats his whores and threatens to murder them, and is the master of every situation, whereas Beatty’s saloonkeeper is consistently charming, never swears, doesn’t abuse women, doesn’t even raise his voice, and fails at everything, in the end.

McCABE & MRS MILLER is a fine film, from that fecund period of New American Cinema, which ran from the mid-60s to the mid-70s, which experimented with a new type of protagonist, and achieved amazing things. DEADWOOD is a product of its times, as well.

 

TO TUCSON

Four days’ drive has brought me and Pearl to Tucson, where we shall shoot TOMBSTONE RASHOMON in three weeks’ time. Before I left Oregon my friend Drew Pratt gave me five pairs of boots which he thinks either are, or resemble, “period.” I shall give them to Sam, our costume designer, when we meet this week. After the shoot we’ll donate them to the Old Tucson wardrobe dept. The lovely boots can be seen here:

TR_Boots_72.jpg
I made a slight detour en route to visit Earp, a town in California originally called Drennen. Wyatt Earp and Josephine Marcus lived there in the early 20th Century and Wyatt prospected there for a while. In 1929, after his death, Josephine petitioned to have the town’s name changed to Earp. I’d forgotten that I’d already been to Earp – we shot part of SEARCHERS 2.0 there: the scene where Mel, Delilah and Fred stand overlooking the Colorado River and decide to eschew the freeway entirely, en route to Monument Valley.

But I had not ventured inside the general store (the only building that remains) and so was rewarded with a substantial shrine to Wyatt Earp. There is a life-size dummy of Earp, wearing a long black coat, a mural of the Tombstone gunfight, a replica of his pistol, and, best of all, a Wyatt Earp fortune telling machine. This comes to life if you stand near it, and Wyatt says, “Step up, pardner, and get your fortune told.”

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It cost a dollar, and I could not resist, though my fortune was pretty strange:

“You may be riding the winds of change… As the blessings of health and fortune have a beginning, so they must also have an end… He who could foresee affairs but three days in advance would be rich for thousands of years.”

Well, okay. I get the idea of making money by being able to predict the future. But to stay rich for thousands of years might be more of a curse than a blessing. So I guess I’ll eschew that and carry on as before.

Over the next three weeks I’ll meet the local actors, do some rehearsin’, and spend a lot of time with the art department, and our designer, M.

Time will fly. No doubt there will be developments along the way.

THE LIBRARY

Touch wood, we are on schedule for our shoot at Old Tuscon in mid-May. Pre-production begins in late April, but pre-pre-production is already here, and the designs of the art department advance. What follows is a ramble, if you’re interested, about the sources on which the characters and incidents in the screenplay are based.

For TOMBSTONE RASHOMON there’s no shortage of published source material – a lot more than in the case of William Walker. In the 1960s I read, in the school library, Stuart N. Lake’s WYATT EARP, FRONTIER MARSHAL. This was the third of three biographies Wyatt Earp collaborated on, and the first to be completed. It is, of course, a hagiography, but as I recall and entertaining one. It was the basis for Allan Dwan’s FRONTIER MARSHAL, and for John Ford’s MY DARLING CLEMENTINE, which followed Dwan’s film and borrowed substantially from it.

Some years later I read a paperback biography of Doc Holliday, which had an action painting of a fearsome (and impossibly beefy) Doc on the cover – the title eludes me now – and enjoyed Frank Perry’s anti-Earp Western, DOC. Over the last year, in preparation for screenwriting, I’ve acquired some fifteen other volumes dealing with the OK Corral gunfight, and found some good magazine articles online.

Wild West magazine has excellent pieces which fill in background detail and make the story even richer. In addition to political rivalries between the Republican faction (the Earps, Tombstone Mayor Clum, Pima County Sheriff Bob Paul, The Epitaph) and the Democrats (Johnny Behan, the Clantons, the McLowrys, former Pima County Sheriff Charles Shibell, The Nugget), there was also deadly turf war between gambling factions – the Slopers (from California and Nevada) and the Easterners (Kansas gamblers with whom the Earps were allied): see Roger Jay’s article The Gamblers’ War in Tombstone (Wild West, Oct 2004), and Bob Palmquist’s Short vs. Storms (in the same issue). Curly Bill Brocius, whom Wyatt Earp claimed to have killed, is featured in The Winding Trail of Curly Bill (Wild West, Oct 2001). Colonel Hafford, ornithologist and saloon owner, is briefly profiled in The Bird Man of Tombstone, by Jane Eppinga (Wild West, Aug 2012). Twenty-Four Hours with Ike Clanton, by John Rose (Wild West, Oct 2006), A Gunfight Shrouded in Mystery, by Casey Tefertiller and Jeff Morey (Wild West, Oct 2001) and Fatal Mix-Up on Fremont Street by Roger Jay (Oct 2012) are all good resources.

In terms of the books, Walter Noble Burns’ TOMBSTONE: AN ILLIAD OF THE SOUTHWEST is a splendid read (as they say on book jackets). First published in 1927, it is highly pro-Earp, and written in the most flamboyant style. Some of its descriptive passages, such as Curly Bill’s cowboy ambush of Mexican smugglers, are outstanding. One of the first books to take a critical view of the Earps and Holliday was Frank Waters’ EARP BROTHERS OF TOMBSTONE, published in 1960. Waters tells the story from the perspective of the women in the Earp clan: as a small boy he knew Allie, Virgil’s wife. Allie was not partial to Wyatt.

Casey Tefertiller’s Wyatt Earp biography, published in 1997, is a big, serious, well-written book on the side of the Earps. Allen Barra’s INVENTING WYATT EARP (1998) is a lively history of Earp and the development of his legendary character. Andrew Isenberg’s WYATT EARP: A VIGILANTE LIFE (2013) is another good biography; and THE LAST GUNFIGHT, by Jeff Guinn (2011) is a fine account of the event, its proceedings, and its surroundings. All are Earp-friendly.

Anti-Earp books which are worth a read include AND DIE IN THE WEST by Paula Mitchell Marks (1989) and Joyce Aros’ MURDERED ON THE STREETS OF TOMBSTONE, published in Tombstone in 2013 (I purchased my autographed copy at the excellent bookstore there). Bob Alexander’s SACRIFICED SHERIFF (2002), previously mentioned here, is a good biography of Johnny Behan. And Ward Churchill very kindly sent me his copy of THE GUNFIGHER WHO NEVER WAS, by Jack Burrows (1987), which tells all there is know about the Clantons’ crony John Ringo, and more besides.

The best resources, as far as our script has been concerned, are John Richard Stevens’ WYATT EARP SPEAKS! – a collection of interviews by Earp and Holliday, which also contains a letter from Kate Horoney/Elder/Fisher to her niece – and THE OK CORRAL INQUEST edited by Alford E. Turner. These two books give us a taste of the Earps, Holliday, Ike Clanton and Kate speaking their own words, and have been invaluable.

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THE LIBRARY

A couple of weeks ago, in Bandon, Oregon, I made an incredible haul of twenty Time-Life “Old West” books. Are you familiar with these? These Time-Life were collectible series for my parents’ generation: rows of large format, hard-backed books about home repair, cooking, World War II, nature, the family car, et al. All share the American-exceptionalist, Manifest-Destiny, casually sexist world-view of Time-Life (to accompany the 27 books about cowboys, gunfighters, townsmen, great chiefs, forty-niners et al, there is a lone volume titled “The Women”) and they are very handsome tomes. My twenty cost me forty bucks. I am so happy to have reconnected with them, and to have them in time for the shoot. Due to the quality and number of their illustrations, the faux-leather-bound Old West series are a serious asset to an art department, a costumer… or a screenwriter!

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part of the Time Life OLD WEST series…

 

INTRO TO FILM – THE BOOK!

The series of posts I made regarding film history and related matters is now a book: Alex Cox’s Introduction to Film, published by Kamera Books in England. You can read about it here.

There are three links there to buy the book – all of them in the UK – but I imagine copies will be available in other countries too, in due course…

Even if you’ve read all my posts – which were based on a class I taught at the University of Colorado – there is new information in the book, and errors and typos have (I hope) been corrected. I also added a short section about fair use/fair dealing in European law, and the bizarre Deckmyn decision, in which a Flanders court decided that the right of parody only applies to nice people!

Please buy my book! And if you’re a film teacher, please consider assigning it to your Intro class (it’s a lot shorter than most of the books on the subject, which in my experience the students don’t buy or read anyway). If you’re using it for educational purposes and run into difficulties finding any of the films I mention, you can contact me at the address in the introduction and I’ll do my best to help you track them down.

TOMBSTONE, ITS SHERIFF AND ITS LAW ENFORCEMENT POLICIES

The third draft of the script being done, I’ve immediately embarked on the fourth — mainly because of some very good feedback from Frank Cottrell Boyce. (Frank is the screenwriter of REVENGERS TRAGEDY and the author of many other novels and screenplays, a man of impeccable taste and discernment). Frank felt that Ike Clanton’s interview – or at least the part where he brings out the family Bible and identifies the participants in the Gunfight, who lived, and who died – should be at the very beginning. Because, of course, not everyone knows what the Gunfight at the OK Corral was, or who Doc Holliday was, or that there ever was a town called Tombstone.

Frank and I are of the same generation, and we grew up with Westerns – on television, playing at the cinema. Since then, another generation has acquired its media foundation myths elsewhere: courtesy of George Lucas, and Disney, and Marvel Comics.

What images should accompany Ike’s testimony? Black screen (symbole de qualite!)? Portraits of those involved? Shots of southern Arizona policing circa 2016? There’s that temptation — to have Doc and the Earps emerge from Hafford’s Saloon and get into a squad car and drive to the gunfight; to have the Clantons and the McLaurys be young black guys… But our story is complex and multi-faceted already. It’s about a police action, which resulted in three deaths, with class and politics in the background. I think it might be wrong to be too on the money…

Two books are very interesting in this context. One is No Duty to Retreat, by Richard Maxwell Brown (OUP, 1991). For an academic tome, it’s hard to pin down: part law text-book, part history, part “comment is free” section. The author makes the interesting observation that American law forked significantly in this area. In English common law, the ordinary person’s obligation – if threatened with fighting words or violence – is to get the heck out of there. You’re expected to avoid a fight, even to the extent of running away. A homicide in your own defence is only justified if you have no other way out; if your back is against the wall. Whereas American jurists developed the notion of “no duty to retreat” – whereby, essentially, if you feel threatened, you can legally respond with equal or greater violence.

This, at its base, is TOMBSTONE RASHOMON. Two groups of men – whose grandparents came from England, or Ireland, or Scotland – both relying on the “no duty to retreat” doctrine, standing their ground. When Maxwell Brown wrote his book, Bernard Goetz – the “subway shooter” had relied on the doctrine to avoid an attempted murder charge. More recently, a stand-your-ground law allowed Trayvon Martin’s killer to go free.

The other, very contemporary, aspect of our confrontation is that both parties had such ready access to firearms. The Earps’ attacks on Ike Clanton and Tom McLaury stemmed from the latter packing pistols and a rifle, in defiance of the city of Tombstone’s anti-carry law. Bad words had been spoken by both sides, and Virgil Earp, the city marshal, was under pressure from its better elements to “take action.”

Maxwell Brown devotes a fascinating chapter to Western gunfighters, and Western gunfights. I’m not so sure there were as many straight on, stand-in-the-street-facing-your-adversary-type gunfights, as the author is.  He writes:

“By about the end of the nineteenth century, there had been, according to an authoritative tabulation, 255 professional gunfighters, who were involved in 587 gunfights, resulting in 181 deaths. This is, however, a drastic undercount of gunfighting, for it includes only the glorified gunfighters: Hickok, the Earps, Billy the Kid, [J.W.] Hardin, and the rest.”

That figure of 587 gunfights is footnoted as “O’Neal, Encyclopedia, 3-16 and passim.” The reference is to one Bill O’Neill, author of an Encyclopedia of Western Gunfighters (U of Oklahoma, 1969), but if the figure is limited to celebrated individuals it seems extremely large. How many “glorified” (in the sense of storied, and once legendary) gunfighters were there? Fifteen? Twenty? Surely not more than thirty, and that would mean that each one of them was involved in almost 20 face-to-face gunfights.

This cannot be. In my research for a project about Western showdowns, called GUNFIGHTER NATION in homage to Richard Slotkin’s fine book, I found a serious shortage of genuine, face-to-face gunfights. The vast majority of these affairs were ambushes. Jesse James, Billy the Kid, Morgan Earp, Virgil Earp, Belle Starr, and Wild Bill Hickock were shot, not face to face, but by a hidden assailant. The prototypical scene of Western gunplay is thus the pre-credits sequence of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, in which a rider, his saddlebags jingling with money, is shot from his horse by an unseen assassin.

Prior to the Gunfight outside the OK Corral, in what gunplay had the participants been involved? Frank McLaury was said to be a well-practiced shot, and the McLaurys and the Clantons were alleged to have taken part in a massacre of Mexicans in Skeleton Canyon. But those are simply allegations; none of them had any kind of violent “rap sheet” at the time, and Frank had taken strong public exception to being called a mule thief in pages of the Daily Nugget.

As for the Earps and Holliday, only the dentist had a reputation as a gunfighter. He exchanged shots with a saloon keeper, Charles Austin, in Dallas in 1873; was alleged (by Bat Masterson) to have killed a soldier at Jacksonboro; killed a gambler, Bud Ryan, with a knife in Denver in 1876; was alleged (by Masterson) to have killed a former army scout, Mike Gordon, in Las Vegas, NM in 1879; and got in a shooting scrape with saloon keeper Milt Joyce in Tombstone in 1880. He was by nature reckless, bad-tempered, and confrontational, and he drank to excess.

The Earps’ preferred method of law enforcement was to buffalo the suspect and drag him before the judge. They were less geared towards gunplay than Doc. In 1878, as an assistant marshal in Dodge City, Wyatt drew his pistol and fired on a group of fleeing Texan rowdies. Several others fired as well, but Wyatt insisted it was he whose bullet hit cowboy George Hoy and knocked him off his horse (Hoy later died of gangrene). As Wyatt later told it, he and Doc Holliday later faced down an angry Texan crowd with pistols. Wyatt also later claimed that he had beaten a Texan gunfighter, Clay Allison, to the draw, but spared his life. The same year he pursued and shot the horse of an escaping killer, Mifflin Kennedy. Such was the extent of Wyatt’s prior gunfighting, by his own admission.

In 1777, Virgil Earp fired on a pair of escaped fugitives, Wilson and Tallos, outside Prescott. He was one of several shooters; both men died. In Tombstone, he was one of several lawmen (including Johnny Behan) who faced down a lynch mob and saved the life of a gambler, Johnny Behind-the-Deuce. (Wyatt claimed to have overpowered the mob alone, but the newspaper did not mention his presence.)

Morgan rode in posses and worked as a shotgun messenger for Wells, Fargo, but doesn’t seem to have any recorded experience as a gunfighter, “glorified” or otherwise.

The other book that has my current attention bears the somewhat clunkety title Sacrificed Sheriff. By Bob Alexander (High Lonesome Books, 2002), it’s a good history of Johnny Behan, often portrayed as a buffoon or villain, by a former peace officer who clearly sympathizes with Behan’s approach on the day of the difficulty. As Alexander observes, while Wyatt Earp was running saloons and gambling operations in Alaska, John Behan went from one well-paid public service job to job to another: he was the warden of the Territorial Prison at Yuma, Chinese Exclusion Officer (!) for the Customs Service, and head teamster for the US invasion of Cuba during the Spanish-American War. Alexander’s book could use some proof-reading, but it’s essential material for the actor who plays the Sheriff!