There you have it. Almost every commercial is narrated by cool, in-the-know people who recognize your specialness and want to sell you something to distract you from your mortality.
Howard Fast’s SPARTACUS, which he self-published in 1951, is one of my favorite novels. It was later adapted into a terrific film directed by Stanley Kubrick and starring Kirk Douglas, Tony Curtis, Jean Simmons, Laurence Olivier, Charles Laughton and Peter Ustinov. Both are worth enjoying as the same but distinctly separate stories of Spartacus’ life.
Fast wrote SPARTACUS in response to the three months in prison he spent during the McCarthy Era, and self-published it because no publisher would touch it. Now it’s a classic.
SPARTACUS tells the story of the slave uprising against Rome during the Third Servile War (73-71 BC), led by Spartacus, a Thracian gladiator. Fast’s novelization of his life differs in some key respects from the life of the historical Spartacus so as to tell the story he wanted, which is an interpretation of Spartacus. The novel expresses the theme that life, love and freedom are paramount human values, and that oppression and slavery debase humanity.
The theme is evidenced in the story structure, which is split between two narratives. In one, a group of Roman nobles travel Italy touring the “tokens of punishment” (crucified slaves), the other flashbacks and stories describing Spartacus and his fight to end slavery. The Romans have the best of everything, a rich life built on the labor and suffering of millions of slaves. They don’t particularly enjoy it, though. Wealth and idleness have corrupted the virtues that build their republic, enabled by slavery. They hate and fear the slaves they exploit, going so far as to call them “instrumentum vocale,” or tools with a voice.
In the other narrative, we see Spartacus struggling to survive as a slave working in a marble mine and then as a gladiator in the arena. It disgusts him that people could be used up and thrown away to thrill jaded Romans. Gladiatorial combat isn’t gloried as it in films like GLADIATOR or the TV series SPARTACUS. Men don’t slaughter each other just to hear crowds cheer. The novel is closer to real life, which is the gladiators were fed and adored and pampered but only for their ability to kill other men until they themselves were finally killed. They hated it.
Spartacus leads the gladiators in a revolt and begins building a slave army that intends to overthrow Rome and begin a new golden age reminiscent of idealized simpler times. He smashes army after army sent against him until finally the Romans destroy him. But have they destroyed what Spartacus represents, the human spirit?
SPARTACUS is beautifully written and stirring. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend picking it up.
THE WITCH is a historical supernatural horror film written and directed by Robert Eggers.
The story begins with William and his family standing before Puritan church elders. William stubbornly maintains a religious difference with the church and decides to leave the plantation to live in the wilderness. He and his family find fertile land and praise God before building their new home.
Some time later, his wife Katherine gives birth to a son. While Thomasin, their oldest daughter, is watching him, he disappears, the first sign that evil lives in the forest.
What follows is despair, further nightmarish assaults, religious paranoia and accusations, culminating in horrific violence.
THE WITCH is dark, moody, slow. It’s not your typical horror movie. It’s a slow, character-driven burn of a story. The director takes his time, which fits with this being a period piece. He also took great pains to ensure everything in the film is historically as authentic as possible. By the end, we feel the characters’ isolation and paranoia, and see the surrounding thick woods as ominous and threatening.
I enjoyed THE WITCH as a standout film in the horror genre.
Hayao Miyazaki is a Japanese producer/director, animator/author/screenwriter, and manga artist. Over the past 50 years, he achieved widespread acclaim as the creator of anime feature films that are commercial successes in Japan, mostly through his production company Studio Ghibli. Most people in the West hadn’t heard of him until Princess Mononoke.
Miyazaki is a traditionalist, favoring hand-painted animation, often using water colors. He usually starts the animation before the script is finished and the storyboards are still developing.
His work is amazing. I’ve been working my way through his films thanks to friends Ron and Ella. So far, I’ve seen Spirited Away, Howl’s Moving Castle, My Neighbor Totoro, Porco Rosso, Castle of Cagliostro and Princes Mononoke. My favorite is definitely Porco Rosso, the tale of a WWI fighter pilot who lives his life as a pig.
Miyazaki manages to convey a breathtaking sense of wonder in his films, amazingly charming characters, and interesting stories. He infuses each character with very human traits revealed through action, which conveys a deep sense of empathy and realism.
If you enjoy anime and haven’t watched his films yet, I recommend you check them out.
CRASH DIVE, my submarine series, is so fun to write, I’ve been thinking about writing a series about the crew of a Sherman tank. First step is to see what else is out there, which brought me to LADY BUG. In Paul Telegdi’s war novel, the crew of a Sherman tank fights from North Africa to Italy during WW2. Not all of them will be coming home, however, at least in one piece.
LADY BUG is a flawed minor masterpiece. First, the flaws. The character development is sketchy in the first hundred pages. The point of view jumps around a bit before we find out Hawkins, the tank commander, is the main character. Often, the characters less converse than give speeches to each other. In many cases, those speeches serve as minor info dumps about the war, and the reader is left with the impression the author is talking, not the character.
Nonetheless, like I said, it’s a bit of a masterpiece.
Despite its flaws, the novel feels completely authentic. Telegdi didn’t serve in WW2, but he clearly did his homework. Not only does he capture the geographies and weaponry in excellent detail, but the routines of Army life. The novel reads as if written by somebody who’d been there, done that.
The action scenes are short but enormously powerful. You really feel the rush and horror of combat, what it might have been like to fight inside one of those tanks.
An interesting development is about half the book takes place stateside as one of the characters recovers from an injury and tries to reintegrate into civilian society after the horrors he’s witnessed. This was a risky move, but once it gets rolling, it works, and it elevates the book to something greater than just a pulpy war novel. The result is bigger than the sum of its parts. It achieves something like pathos.
Telegdi has written a lot of other books. I’m curious to check them out.
Uh-oh, these zombies know parkour. We’re toast.