Like journalists, illustrators like Rockwell and Nast speak to the masses

Great artists don’t reproduce history, they interpret it.

Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Oct. 26, 2016

Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., Oct. 26, 2016

Earlier this week I went out to Stockbridge, Massachusetts to the museum dedicated to illustrator, Norman Rockwell. I’ve said since my art school days that the major diff. between a fine artist and an illustrator was that the latter has to tell a story and convey information. A fine artist in the modern era does not have to.

Rockwell’s art from his early Saturday Evening News covers to the Four Freedoms to the civil rights and UN paintings always told stories. His work may now viewed as kitschy or dated, but it has an emotional timelessness. In fact, the New York Times mentions the upcoming sale of his “Which One? (Undecided; Man in Voting Booth)” in relation to the election.

I came away from Rockwell thinking that if he were alive today, he would have loved the multi-cultural world that’s coming. He’d have taken the complicated narrative of the 2016 presidential politics and provided one, maybe two, paintings that would sum today’s Presidential politics up in all its terrible glory. Like journalists, illustrators speak to the masses.

The exhibit of Thomas Nast's cartoons. (Yes, it's blurry. My camera malfunctioned.)

The exhibit of Thomas Nast’s cartoons. (Yes, it’s blurry. My camera malfunctioned.)

Along with Rockwell’s paintings, the Museum had a show of Thomas Nast’s political cartoons which helped bring down NY’s corrupt Tammany Hall in an exhibit, Presidents, Politics & the Pen. The cartoons show the timeless elements of politics and elections: corruption and greed.

Politics have invaded too much of our lives this year. We’ve been privy to wicker cage fights in the primaries, the Thunderdomes of the national debates. Every day someone whips off the sheets to reveal some other political item to feed or, that feeds the open mouths of voracious readers. It’s like watching the lions be served new victims in Rome’s Colosseum on a daily basis although it’s a toss-up who are the lions are each day.

With the Internet we are bombarded endlessly with information, with visual, with video, with immediacy. Each piece of information has the same weight of importance as the piece of drivel before it. It’s a flow of endless visual and written graffiti full of daily crap.

Both Norman Rockwell and Thomas Nast were storytellers. Their works have a clarity that tells a reader what they are saying without having a caption.

That’s what we need nowadays. Clarity with wit (Rockwell) and a sting (Nash.)

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A century ago aviator Norman Prince died in WWI

Now he’s being remembered for his life, patriotic deeds and the manner of his passing.

WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C.,

WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C.,

Prince is credited with creating the famed Lafayette Escadrille, a group of American volunteer flyers who were part of of the French Air Service during World War I before the U.S. joined the war in 1917.

These are centennial years of World War I, the War to End All Wars, 1914-1918, the war that scarred generations in Europe on both sides. The ramifications shattered the elite governments and countries that ruled before. It remade the Middle East; it created lasting grudges, and it gave aviation a boost in the way for air combat.

Prince was an American aristocrat, a graduate of the elite Groton School and Harvard. He was a lawyer with a passion for aviation that led him to learn to fly when few people would take the risks of early aircraft. His family had an estate in France, and he spoke the language.

In 1915, the second year of the Great War when the U.S. was still neutral, Prince sailed to France and convinced the military and government that he, and other flyers, could aid them against the Germans.

The French agreed. American volunteers flew French Nieuport 11 bi-planes and took heavy casualties, but more volunteers arrived to take their place. In December 1916, they became known as the Lafayette Escadrille.

However two months earlier, Prince had become a casualty. He was returning to his aerodrome after doing escort duty, during which he shot down an enemy plane, another kill. Night had fallen, and as he glided down in the dark, his wheels caught on a wire. The Nieuport flipped, crashed.

Bailey injured, he died two days later.

Prince could have been just another flyer lost in history except for his afterlife. His body was returned to the U.S. and buried in the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in an elaborate tomb with a near life-size statue, and testaments from two Marshals of France.

Carved on one side of the tomb is “In 1915 Norman Prince and his 267 aviators flew to the help of the Liberty of the world – Foch Marshal of France,”  while on the other is “(Norman Prince) has distinguished himself by a bravery and a devotion beyond compare – Joffre – Marshal of France.”

On October 14, 2016 the Washington National Cathedral held a commemoration of his death a century ago. Descendents of his family attended as did the U.S. Air Force Honor Guard, members of the World War I Centennial Commission and Rear Admiral Margaret Grun Kibben, Chief of Chaplains, United States Navy. The tomb was flanked by American and French flags.

The tomb of WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C., Oct 14, 2016

The tomb of WWI aviator Norman Prince, flanked by U.S. and French flags, in Washington National Cathedral in D.C., Oct 14, 2016

Several casual onlookers sat in the nave.

Kibben said that Prince was “America’s son, rough and rowdy,” one of the 16,710 who died in that war among whom are Ernest Hemingway who wrote “A Farewell To Arms” and poet Alan Seeger whose poem “I have a Rendezvous with Death” was invoked at the commemoration. (Seeger was the uncle of noted folk singer Pete Seeger.)

After the main ceremony, the family went into the alcove where the tomb stands to lay a wreath, and prayer given.

“…We humbly beseech thee, O Lord of Hosts, to accept our thanksgiving for all who have fought a good fight and won the crown of victory, especially for your servant Norman Prince…”

The roll call of names of the flyers from the Escadrille was called. Family answered until l Norman Prince’s name rang out.

Silence. A second call. Silence. A third time. Then, the bugler played Taps, filling the cathedral with sorrow.


The U.S. Air Force Honor Guard cases the colors as they leave the tomb of WWI aviator Norman Prince in Washington National Cathedral in D.C., Oct 14, 2016

It was over. The Honor Guard left. The family filed out. The casual watchers left. Prince was left in peace.

In her homily, Kibben said that Norman Prince was one of a generation  “committed to the God of their parents.”

His parents are buried in the National Cathedral’s crypt a floor below… almost exactly beneath their son.

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The Rat Patrol (another classic of 1966)

50 years ago, 1966, was a good year for television.

We’ve already had numerous documentaries on Star Trek which led to movies, series, spin-offs. Mission Impossible (hello, Tom Cruise!) also premiered which has also had an afterlife, The Monkees made young fans (me) swoon and The Prisoner debuted as an intriguing puzzle box of reality and security. People talk about it even now.

And then there was The Rat Patrol first broadcast September 12, 1966. It was based (sort of) on the real life exploits of the British Long-Range Desert Patrols during the North African campaign of World War II.  it starred Jeeps!, war, tanks, and five very handsome men, only four of them on the Allied side – the late Christopher George (Sam Troy),

British actor Gary Raymond, star of The Rat Patrol, in 2001 at the Long Range Desert Convention

British actor Gary Raymond, star of The Rat Patrol, in 2001 at the Long Range Desert Convention

Gary Raymond (Jack Moffitt of the British Army), Justin Tarr (Tully Pettigrew) and Lawrence Casey (Mark Hitchcock) on the Allied side.

Hans Gudegast played Captain Dietrich of the German Army. He later changed his name to Eric Braeden, of The Young and the Restless.

Rat Patrol had all the ingredients to make it a hit. First filmed in Spain, then in Los Angeles, it was adventure-laden. It ended its run in 1968. (UK viewers back in the day, and likely now, protested the twisting of their real wartime history for television, a complaint heard even today in Hollywood.)

But there were dangerous accidents. Actors were switched in and out. Chris George had a terrible accident at one point.

After The Rat Patrol‘s run ended, the show vanished into late night television. Cable TV would run it occasionally. Fans in the know dug out their VCRs and made tapes, knowing that the show had probably been hacked apart for more advertising. Then came 2010 and the DVDs. Finally it was possible to see the complete shows.

What did fans find out about it?  It had bang-bang action. It was fun to enjoy. Despite being historically-inaccurate, you could get a feeling for a little-known (in the U.S.) period of World War II.

The characters weren’t one-dimensional. Dietrich was a Captain in Rommel’s Afrika Corp and considerably smarter than almost every other character in the show. He just had rotten luck every time he ran up against the Rat Patrol. His injuries included getting shot at, hit in the head, and dragged in the street. Then again, many members of the Rat Patrol took damage as well. (I suspect they would have been invalided out in one week if the show had reflected reality.)

It wasn’t as simplistic as it could have been. There were men of virtue, honesty and bravery on all sides. (Also handsome actors.) The Englishman, Moffitt, contrasted with the Americans. The German,  Dietrich, is a contrast with all of them. The Allies always win, though sometimes it was a Pyrrhic victory. The shows often showed deception and espionage. They often asked the question “Who can you trust?” and sometimes it was the enemy.

The actors moved on to other projects. Christopher George died in 1983 of a heart attack. Justin Tarr was reported dead in a surfing accident in 2012. Lawrence Casey lives in the New York area. Gary Raymond continued acting in the UK, and in 2001, came to the US for a small Rat Patrol convention where I had the honor of meeting him.

Gary Raymond or "Sgt Jack Moffitt" of The Rat Patrol at the 2001 Long Range Desert Convention

Gary Raymond or “Sgt Jack Moffitt” of The Rat Patrol at the 2001 Long Range Desert Convention

So, 50 years later, thank you creators, actors and fans of The Rat Patrol. It’s still a hell of a fun show.

As they would say, before roaring off in a shower of sand – “Let’s shake it!”



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Fans will love ‘Will’ and ‘Jane’ in DC Folger’s Austen/Shakespeare exhibit

He has a bobble head, and she’s on a gin bottle but they’re just examples of the continuing popularity of William Shakespeare and Jane Austen.

The exhibit, “Will & Jane: Shakespeare, Austen, and the Cult of Celebrity” at the Folger Shakespeare Library, is a look at the popularity and the popularization of two classic writers. It’s not a very large, but a very choice, exhibit that covers the plays, books, films, toys, games and centuries of admiration, extending beyond death for some admirers.

The Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit on William Shakespeare and Jane Austen

The Folger Shakespeare Library exhibit on William Shakespeare and Jane Austen

The cult of  “Will” started not long after his death in 1616, (as the exhibit shows) the classic paintings that readers know as well as a reproduction of the 1623 Droeshout engraving in the First Folio of his plays.

In the case of “Jane” the exhibit points out that “Several images of Austen were made during her lifetime, but most were considered inadequate as a public author portrait — too informal and too young.”  The  best known portrait is a modification approved by her mother and sister after Austen’s death.

Among the highlights of the exhibit are the excellent wall panel explanations. They  treat the topic of “celebrity” as regards the long-deceased authors with some respect. They also don’t mock the fans.

From "Will & Jane" exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library includes "Jane Austen's Bath Gin"

From “Will & Jane” exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library includes “Jane Austen’s Bath Gin”

You get some examples of branded merchandise written up with a sense of humor. For example, “Celebrities sell products — sometimes unwittingly.” Then there’s a list that includes “hotels and shoes to pubs, gin, and beer.” The Shakespeare pub sign hangs nearby.

Among the exhibits is a “Bath Gin”  bottle with bearing Jane Austen’s likeness.

“Will and Jane” at the movies are well represented. There’s a touchscreen panel where you can see clips from various films such as Shakespeare in Love, and listen to the actors speaking their lines

The famous wet shirt incident of Colin Firth’s from “Pride and Prejudice” is part of a film montage of other actors re-enacting the image — including Benedict Cumberbatch’s wet shirt charity shot for Cancer Research UK.

By the way, Firth’s Mr. Darcy shirt (dry) is on display.

Rudyard Kipling's magazine story called "The Janeites" are part of the Folger Shakespeare Library's exhibit on Shakespeare and Austen

Rudyard Kipling’s magazine story called “The Janeites” are part of the Folger Shakespeare Library’s exhibit on Shakespeare and Austen

Rudyard Kipling wrote a story called “The Janeites” and a copy of it is included. Both Shakespeare and Austen were sent to troops in World War I and II. (I know that my father, on the Burma Road during World War II, read and memorized Shakespeare’s sonnets from an Army edition.)

One of the best aspects of the show is the fact that it’s not stiff. For the modern age there are even authors’ Action Figures. The William Shakespeare doll has a “Removable Quill Pen and Book!” while Jane Austen’s has a “writing desk and quill pen.”


The cult of celebrity for “Will and Jane” has led to the modernizing of their works as well. Just think of the many different versions of Macbeth set in contemporary settings – and the adaptations of Austen in modern chic-lit.

The display case of “Travesties” has the delightful label, “Once a literary celebrity’s work becomes household knowledge, it is ripe for parody.” Here you’ll also find Pride and Prejudice and Zombies and Sense and Sensibility and Sea-Monsters And, one I hadn’t seen before by Arielle Eckstut and Dennis Ashton – Pride and Promiscuity: The Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austin. 

From "Will & Jane" exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Examples of parodies including Sense and Sensibilities and Sea-Monsters.

From “Will & Jane” exhibit at the Folger Shakespeare Library. Examples of parodies including Sense and Sensibilities and Sea-Monsters.

(One they missed was George MacDonald Fraser’s Mr. American with its description of an Othello performance (pg. 21) in a gold rush-era silver mining camp.)

The exhibit includes a wall panel on “Fan Fictions” which go from Internet “characterizations” to Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead and P.D. James’ Death Comes to Pemberly.

Fan idolatry has extended beyond the owner’s death.  One panel has a note from Louise West of the Jane Austen’s House Museum, Chawton, Hampshire, “It is distressing to see mounds of human ash, particularly so for our gardener. Also, it is of no benefit to the garden!”

This year was the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare, with a year-long celebration being held in the UK. Next year comes the celebration of Jane Austen’s death in 1817, so expect a torrent of new items.

But, you can get a jump on them at the Folger Library’s exhibit which runs through November 6, 2016.


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Is the new “Ghostbusters” so special?

So many of my friends are over-the-stars about the new all-woman Ghostbusters that I decided to see it a second time to see if my first reaction was wrong. They sing it’s importance in the fight for female equality.

I just thought it was a good summer movie. Entertaining.

I laughed the first time I saw it. I laughed a bit more the second time. The chemistry between the female leads (Kristin Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Kate McKinnon and Leslie Jones) works and Chris Hemsworth’s comedy is really wonderful. I didn’t feel that I wasted money either viewings.

But the differences between 1984 and now are pretty stark even outside of the gender switch of the Ghostbusters. It’s does show the differences in what we accept in popular culture then versus what we will now.

After seeing the 2016 version, I went back and watched the 1984 original.

What stood out to me was how differently the comedy felt. 1984 is a simpler movie. The plot is straightforward.

Bill Murray’s Venkman is a lech with some decency in him (see scene with Dana/Zool). Ackroyd’s enthusiastic non-cynical Stanz and Harold Ramis’ scientific Spengler are a team. They know instinctively that each man, including new Ghostbuster Winston Zeddmore, has their backs when they go up against Zool. There’s no discussion of it.

The New York City of 1984 embraced the Ghostbusters, (a Chinese restauranteur gives them food in payment,) and the city’s political establishment just kind of ignores their existence until the walls start to bleed. Their greatest enemy is the Environmental Protection Agency. (I mean, seriously? The EPA? Though I loved watching the agent get soaked in marshmallow creme at the end.)

By 2016, it’s all become more complicated (rather like life itself.) Here the political establishment and Mayor actively disavowals and mocks the Ghostbusters. The Department Homeland Security comes down on them for reasons DHS never gives as far as I saw. Hey, DHS why not get them a National Security Letter and have done with it? Or does this mean that DHS has a Ghostbust-ing office? Maybe run by Scully and Mulder, formerly of the FBI?

Unlike the men, the women have to struggle to be taken seriously. Wiig’s Erin Gilbert is trying to get tenure in Physics at Columbia University and her recommendation from Princeton is put down by the (male) head of the committee. McCarthy’s Abby Yates is working on paranormal studies, along with McKinnon’s Holtzmann. Their university doesn’t even realize they exist – despite paying them salary. Oh, really? Yates can’t even get the Chinese restaurant to give her more than one wonton in her chicken soup. In a lovely bow to the earlier flick, in 2016, the Ghostbusters look at the firehouse but with soaring 2016 NYC rents, end up above a Chinese restaurant, that of the one-wonton soup delivery. It’s a good  touch. Subway worker Leslie Jones’ Peggy Tolan has apparently chased off the subway’s graffiti artist more than once — hell, she knows him by name — since he doesn’t respect her.

In 1984, the men basically shrugged off the need to be taken seriously. They just set up their own shop in a fire house, after being chased out of the university, (based on Stanz’s taking three mortgages on the inherited family home,) and go out busting.

2016 has many more scenes of McKinnon’s scientist/creator of ghost-busting nuclear power packs, testing the equipment — which pad out the plot with special effects and side moments. You didn’t see that much in 1984. It didn’t need them. The emphasis was on the plot not CGI special effects that had to outdo other summer movies.

1984 has a competent woman receptionist; 2016 has dim-but-decorative Hemsworth (a.k.a. Thor at 1:46) in a role that shows you his comedic chops and decorative pecs. (This has been a fine year for men’s half-naked torsos. See The Legend of Tarzan.)

The differences define our times as well as cinematic advances and need for modern marketing. In 1984, the movie was just viewed as maybe selling a few costumes, patches, posters. In 2016, it’s all that, plus worldwide social media interest, new female role models and more. Movie studios need to feel the beast so their film will live more than just one week in theaters and, in this case, overcome ignorant-of-movie negative Internet buzz. Both movies were summer releases.

Cinematically, 1984’s special effects were fairly simple. 2016 has whirlpools of psychic energy, recreations of a past NYC, flying hearses and re-imaginations of characters from 32 years of Ghostbuster productions (see the ghost Slimer.)

So at the end, I guess that I end up where I started. I enjoyed the 1984 because it reminded me of the flawed, gritty NYC that I lived in. The new 2016 film stands out for humor and originality. It might even have legs to stay in theaters into August.

But a game changer in Fight for Equality? Not feeling that right now.

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“Tarzan” has come a long way

The new movie The Legend of Tarzan is not your great-grandfather’s “Tarzan.”

I admit I went for Alexander Skarsgård’s admirable muscles and pecs, but stayed for the plot. I even went back for a second viewing.

The original  “Tarzan of the Apes” was published in an early 20th century pulp magazine. Over the decades the Tarzan stories have been adapted for films and television. They have also moved with the times.

So now, we have The Legend of Tarzan, an updated telling of the story, and that updating is pretty good.

For anyone coming in late, Tarzan was actually the son of Lord John Clayton and his wife Alice who were shipwrecked on the African coast. The Claytons perish and their son, also named John, is raised by Kala, a female ape. Later, it’s discovered that Tarzan is the heir to Greystoke Manor and he returns to England.

By taking little bits out of the original Tarzan stories and an actual historical document “An Open Letter to King Leopold on the Congo, 1890”, The Legend of Tarzan‘s screenwriters built a workable plot based in the 1890s involving slavery in the Belgium Congo, massive uncut diamonds and revenge. The black natives are respected. The evil villain (Christoph Waltz) has reasons for doing what he does and they make sense. Jane’s (Margot Robbie) rebellious spirit also makes sense. In the original story, Jane Porter is an American. She is here as well and it’s a good touch. The story of Tarzan’s history is shown in flashbacks but a viewer never loses where they are in the story. The cinematography is beautiful and the music  by Rupert Gregson-Williams is superb. The animals – apes, elephants, lions – come off okay despite being CGI.

While there are iffy moments, including too-modern dialogue, but most watchers will get carried along with the adventure story (as you do in the original book despite the racial stereotyping.)

The downside of The Legend of Tarzan is that everyone is so uptight at adapting this (old) story that it shows. You expect Waltz to twirl his moustache like a villain in a black-and-white silent movie at times. Robbie’s feisty Jane gets to clobber people but no one clobbers her back like would probably have happened. Frankly, she’s there as the lure for Tarzan to get captured and to be rescued.

I am certain that if she had died, Tarzan would be after Waltz’s balls with just as much energy as he shows here. Also, Waltz would die very slowly and painfully.

Since most moviegoers know the story of Tarzan, the writers have added a (real) American politician and fighter, George Washington Williams (Samuel L. Jackson) to move the plot along.  Jackson is a former soldier, and mercenary, is haunted by what happened to the Native Americans in the decades after the American Civil War — horrible acts that he had a hand in. That’s one of the reasons he’s come to the Belgium Congo to prove that there’s enslavement of the natives — natives who are also Tarzan’s friends. Still, he doesn’t quite fit comfortably into the movie. Giving the writers’ kudos, at the end, they quote from Williams’ “Open Letter” to the King of Belgians calling him out on the treatment of the Congo natives.

On the other hand, he also provides moments of much-needed humor to the action sequences.

At the heart of The Legend of Tarzan is a love story that of Tarzan and Jane.   Unlike many movies there’s no misunderstanding of the love between the man and woman. Here Jane has no doubt of her husband rescuing her. Greystoke/Tarzan has no thought outside of rescuing Jane. What is more romantic than that?

So you have an action plot, mercenaries and a top-notch villain, a history lesson, a beautiful woman who loves her husband, and her husband who is intelligent as well as looking like a magnificently muscled Greek god when stripped down to only his pants.
What more do you need for a summer movie?




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Movie Review: Free State of Jones

I’m back! My apologies for not posting recently. I have been posting some of my movie reviews at an U.K. website but this movie, Free State of Jones is about the American Civil War from the Confederate side. I decided to publish it here.

There’s so much good in Free State of Jones that I’m going to start with the bad that drags it down.

It’s a very static film. By the end of 2 plus hours, you ask, “Great history lesson but couldn’t you make it a bit more exciting?”

Free State of Jones is based in American history. During the Civil War, the southern Confederate States fought the Union northerners, starting in 1861 and ending in 1865.

Newton Knight (Matthew McConaughey) is a stretcher bearer on the Confederate side who rescues the dying, taking them to the overwhelmed hospital. The first ten minutes of the film is harrowing since doctors are sawing off limbs and bloodied bandages are rewashed for the next day’s set of casualties.

Knight finds that a young relative has been conscripted off the family farm in Jones, Mississippi and decides he has to leave, that the slaughter is wrong. The next day’s fighting kills the boy. Knight, disgusted by the carnage, ties the body to a mule and deserts, walking back to his home.

Here is where history lesson enters the picture.

Most Civil War reading is about the battles. The suffering of the southern civilians is mentioned as part of Union Major General Sherman’s to Atlanta in 1864.

The story Free State tells is that of the Confederate homefront, where to feed the army with food and more men, the Confederacy raids small farms and homes.

Knight protects a woman on a neighboring when the Confederates come to take their hogs and corn that would have fed the family through the winter. The officers send slave hunters with dogs to find him as a deserter.
He finds safety in the Mississippi swamps with escaped blacks, and it is from this, the story builds into how Knight, with the help of fellow deserters and the blacks, creates a ‘free state’ in Jones County in the face of the Confederacy.

The story continues after the war’s end of 1865 when the plantation owners and Confederate soldiers return – all having now sworn ‘loyalty to the Union’ – through Reconstruction, the depredations of the rising Ku Klux Klan and the lynching of blacks. Newton’s wife returns to find he has another woman/wife, Rachel, who is black. Both women live peaceably together.

To add some complication to the film is a secondary story based in the 1940’s about David Knight, Newton’s descendent. Under the laws of Mississippi with one-eighth black blood, since he’s a descendent of Rachel and Newton, he is tried and convicted on the charge of marrying a white woman. He was released when his appeal might overturn the law against miscegenation. Unfortunately this story is confusing to the main story of Newton Knight.

The movie’s action comes in spurts. Most of the movie is McConaughey looking determined (and doing it superbly. He’s got Knight down pat.) So much of the action happens off-stage. Even the scene where the (maybe) Klan comes for Knight’s home isn’t seen; what you see is him rebuilding the burned shell.

So Free State of Jones boils down to a great history lesson with beautiful cinematography, realism, and information not generally covered in stories of the American Civil War, especially in the South.

But the lesson could have been a great film and should have been. It’s a missed opportunity.

Posted in 2016, History, movies, Uncategorized | Tagged , | 1 Comment