How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy: a tale of a culinary craze in classical society

Dr Garrett Ryan, “How a Fish Bankrupted the Roman Aristocracy” (Told In Stone, 27 November 2021)

In this instalment in his Told In Stones series which explores culture and society in Classical Greece and Rome, historian Dr Garrett Ryan investigates fine dining amongst the aristocratic elites in Rome and the craze for red mullet that seized them during early imperial times. Ryan first describes the diet of ordinary Romans which was heavy on carbohydrates (in the form of bread or porridge), legumes and fruit, and cheese, and light on animal protein. Wealthy Romans on the other hand could afford a vast range of foods and especially meats: shellfish, snails, all kinds of poultry and game birds, and red meats … including the notorious predilection for stuffed dormice. Such foods were usually served at evening banquets consisting of several courses ending in desserts of fruit, nuts and honey. The Roman elites were especially fond of delicacies that modern Western palates would find odd or downright unpalatable, such as parts of the internal plumbing of sows or the working parts of songbirds. Many of these foods were doused in a sauce called garum, made from the fermented intestines of fish and used in ways similar to how fish sauce is currently used in Southeast Asian cuisines.

Pride of place in his talk is given to red mullet (actually two species of small fish) which was eaten both for its supposed aphrodisiac and (paradoxically) contraceptive properties. The high demand for red mullet among Roman elites coupled with the difficulty of domesticating the creature and farming it drove prices for the fish to such levels that a banquet featuring a dozen large mullets could rival a small villa in cost. Overfishing would have driven up prices for red mullet even further, fuelling the craze. The obsession with red mullet and the status attached to it, with all the signals of power and hierarchy attached to being able to host banquets featuring the fish in a number of dishes, apparently lasted some 200 years before fading away.

While the talk is very entertaining and funny, and as usual is illustrated with stunning visuals, it actually says nothing about how the demand for the fish “bankrupted” the Roman elites – if anything, the Roman elites were already bankrupt, thanks to the fixed power structures of Roman society in which the elites lived in a world parallel with, and dependent on, the rest of Roman society while having very little to do with it – or how this craze and similar crazes were symptoms reflecting the nature of a layer of society far removed and insulated from the concerns and stresses that belaboured ordinary Romans. If there is a silver lining in this particular cloud, it may be that the Roman elites were such a small class of people that their greed, traumatic though it may have been for the populations of the two red mullet species in the seas around the Italian peninsula, did not have a huge impact on a society in which the rudiments of the modern financial economy that would make speculative bubbles based on the demand for and supply of red mullet or tulips possible did not yet exist.

Watership Down: exploring political freedom in the form of a foundation myth

Martin Rosen, John Hubley, “Watership Down” (1978)

A vivid and beautifully presented tale, this British film portrays what might be a foundation myth of an imaginary community of rabbits living in Watership Down in southern England. The community is founded by a small group of bunnies that break away from a warren in Sandleford when one of their number, Fiver (who has the gift of foresight), foresees a terrible disaster that could wipe out their people. Fiver (Richard Briers) and his older brother Hazel (John Hurt) beg their leader to take them all to safety but the leader refuses to listen to them and orders his lieutenant, Captain Holly (John Bennett), to arrest them. Fiver, Hazel and their friend Bigwig (Michael Graham Cox) lead a small breakaway group and flee through the woods to escape Captain Holly’s forces, on the way passing a sign (which they would not have been able to read, less understand) that a residential development by humans is being constructed in their area.

The group survives many ordeals but unfortunately the only doe among them is taken by a hawk. The young rabbits take shelter with another community of rabbits but Fiver learns that these rabbits are being fattened for food by humans. Leaving these other rabbits, the group continues its journey until the rabbits sight the hill known as Watership Down in the distance and Fiver recognises it as the place of salvation in his earlier visions. (In the meantime their original community at Sandleford has been destroyed by humans and only Captain Holly has been able to escape and reach them to tell the sorry story.) They all reach Watership Down where they meet an injured seagull, Kehaar (Zero Mostel), who agrees to help them find does so they can found a new community.

The rest of the film follows the new Watership Down community in finding young does: after one failed attempt to free some does from a farm, the rabbits are led by Kehaar to another warren community ruled by oppressive tyrant General Woundwort. Bigwig infiltrates the community and is made an officer by Woundwort; in this capacity, Bigwig persuades several does and a few bucks to join him and move to Watership Down. The escapees manage to flee to Watership Down with Kehaar’s help but Woundwort and his forces manage to track them down and besiege the Watership Down community. While Bigwig manages to hold Woundwort at bay, Hazel and a couple of escapees entice a dog from the farm where they had previously tried to free some does to follow them back to Watership Down to confront Woundwort (Harry Andrews).

The film moves briskly with some gaps in the narrative, including one at the very climax of the film from which one has to deduce that things work out well for Watership Down – especially as the film jumps a few years into the future to reveal Hazel in his old age. The leaps in plot are unfortunate as much information that could reveal something of the personalities of Fiver, Hazel, Bigwig and Kehaar is lost and viewers have to make quite major assumptions to make sense of the film. The plot is otherwise highly absorbing and intense with many layers of meaning, and young children who watch the film will learn quite a few lessons about loyalty and camaraderie, courage under tremendous stress and pressure, resilience and self-sacrifice. Creatures that are the very symbols of vulnerability and fragility demonstrate enormous bravery when they are most afraid, and lay down their lives and freedom not only to help their own but to help and heal outsiders like Kehaar and to rescue other animals suffering from enslavement.

In its presentation as a foundation myth, following a creation story explaining how rabbits came to be and why they have so many enemies, and concluding with the death of Hazel and his entry into the afterlife to join the Rabbit Creator God, “Watership Down” can be viewed as a survey of religion and society, and of how societies use stories and legends to create and sustain their own identities and pass on significant values and morals to their young. The film’s visuals are rich with detailed English rural backgrounds painted in watercolour though the main characters are rather roughly drawn and lack much individuality. The cast voicing the animals are perhaps rather too mature and younger 20-something actors would have been more appropriate.

Despite the film having originally received a rating from British censors suggesting that it is suitable for young viewers, it is perhaps better seen by older children and teenagers as it is actually a complex and layered film about politics and in particular about choosing between political freedom and material security.

A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt: an entertaining exploration of legal trials during Roman imperial rule

Dr Garrett Ryan, “A Murder Mystery in Roman Egypt” (Told In Stone, 24 November 2021)

This entertaining little documentary is actually less a whodunnit tale and more an exploration of an aspect of Roman rule over Egypt during the Classical Era. As narrator Dr Ryan drily notes, Egypt was Roman for 600 years yet in many ways this region was distinct from the rest of the Roman Empire due to (as Ryan adds) its isolation from other Roman-ruled areas, its huge wealth and its unique history and cultural legacy at the time. For us moderns, another distinct aspect of Roman Egypt is that, compared to other parts of the Roman Empire, the province bequeathed an enormous wealth of papyrus documents ranging from literary works to taxation receipts thanks in no small part to its physical geography which favours the preservation of papyrus and thus the preservation of archived documents. Not to mention of course, Roman Egyptian citizens’ propensity to safeguard items and documents they considered valuable from the eyes and hands of thieves and robbers!

Many of the preserved documents from Roman Egypt feature court cases dealing with the resolution of crimes. The documents show that theft was the most common crime, and that much theft was opportunistic or the result of ongoing personal or family conflicts between the thief and the victim. In one case, a man attended a funeral and when he later went home, he found his house had been stripped bare of all its belongings. Occasionally organised crimes are mentioned and in some cases of organised crime, the local authorities who would have responsible for investigating crime have been paid off by the defendants. Skirmishes between rival villages – perhaps the ancient equivalent of Mafia-style vendettas – are reported. Interestingly, murders seem to be seldom mentioned – but when they are mentioned, they are quite dramatic, even sensational. Among the murder cases Dr Ryan mentions, a powerful Alexandrian city councillor is brought to trial for the murder of a prostitute despite his efforts to intimidate city authorities with his cronies: he comes face to face with the prostitute’s mother in a confrontation and (presumably in an outburst) gives himself away. The man is later executed for his crime. In another case, in the 2nd century CE a man called Artemidorus was mummified and buried: recent CT scanning shows the back of his head was crushed in a way consistent with being hit repeatedly by a blunt instrument.

The eponymous murder mystery is sourced from the transcript of a trial that took place in 6th-century Byzantine Egypt: the transcript itself was pieced together from fragments of papyri found in a pit in 1905 beneath an Egyptian villager’s house when the man was renovating it. Archaeologists investigating the trove of papyrus documents in the pit discovered it had belonged to a lawyer / landowner called Dioskuros. The documents include part of the transcript of the trial. As the rest of the transcript is lost, we cannot know the details of what exactly transpired but the trial revolved around a conspiracy that included bribery and two savage murders of a priest and a villager in the village of Aphrodito. A soldier and an aristocrat were brought to trial over the murders. The soldier apparently denied any involvement in the death of the priest. What transpired later in the trial remains unknown and Ryan speculates that the priest and villager may have been killed because they knew too much about a scheme, possibly of embezzlement, being hatched by people who may have been the defendants in the trial.

Illustrated with vivid stills and photographs of Roman and Byzantine-era mosaics, statues and portraits – one portrait being that of a Greek diviner called Artemidorus, though likely not the Artemidorus subjected to being bashed – the mini-documentary runs at a brisk pace, gossipy in some ways with quite droll commentary from Ryan. Though the murder mystery is never solved, it is told in a very captivating if perhaps rather speedy (and actually dry) way by the historian. The documentary gives an insight into an aspect of Roman rule and administration in Egypt, and how perhaps Roman institutions and the individual representatives of those institutions came up against and treated (or mistreated) local Egyptian people, and dealt with their conflicts and spats.

The 1964 Coup in Brazil: how Brazil and South America were set back for 21 years by US regime change action

Carlton Meyer, “The 1964 Coup in Brazil” (Tales of the American Empire, 12 November 2021)

This instalment in Meyer’s ongoing series investigating the long history of US imperialism across the globe focuses on the overthrow of Brazilian President João Goulart by his nation’s military in 1964 and the role the US government under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson played in that coup. Goulart came to power in Brazil in September 1961 on a platform of educational, taxation, electoral and land reforms aimed at benefiting the poor and stimulating the national economy. He was friendly towards the Castro government in Cuba during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis and his belief in Cuban independence and self-determination led the Kennedy government to consider overthrowing Goulart’s government. The plan to get rid of Goulart became Operation Brother Sam. After Kennedy’s assassination in November 1963, US President Lyndon B Johnson then authorised a US naval task force and aircraft to travel to Brazil, ostensibly to conduct a military exercise, to support the March 1964 coup. The coup was organised by the CIA together with the Brazilian military.

The mini-documentary shows how supposedly progressive US governments like those of Kennedy and Johnson actually supported right-wing forces in Latin American nations and thwarted those nations’ drive for self-determination so as to safeguard US corporate interests. Archived film interviews and Brazilian television news reports help demonstrate how the Brazilian Chief of Army General Staff Castelo Branco was persuaded to support the coup by US military attaché Vernon A Walters who told him that the US naval force and aircraft would assist in regime change (to the extent of openly invading the country) if the coup were to falter. The film does not note that Castelo Branco later benefited from supporting the coup – he became President in April 1964 – which would have been rich irony.

As a result of the coup Brazil suffered repressive military rule for 21 years during which time the country served as the model and template for US-assisted overthrow of other South American leaders and governments deemed undesirable by Washington DC: this 21-year period includes the 1973 overthrow of Chilean President Salvador Allende by the Chilean military. Many consequences of the 1964 coup against Goulart were to follow and are still working their effects through Brazilian society and the rest of South America. Unfortunately Meyer’s video, concentrating on the details of Goulart’s overthrow and the US role in it, does not have the time or the scope to cover the full significance of the coup for Brazil and the entire Latin American region.

Vampires in Greek Myth: an introduction to a universal cultural phenomenon through the Ancient Greek worldview

Dr Garrett Ryan, “Vampires in Greek Myth” (Told In Stone, 30 October 2021)

Casting our fears regarding death and women who might be less than ideal mothers or loving wives and partners by personifying them as bloodthirsty monsters – in other words, vampires or vampire equivalents – seems to be a universal practice across all human cultures. Post-Classical Greek culture certainly believed in vampire-like beings but may have borrowed the concept from Slavs who migrated into the Balkans during the 5th and 6th centuries CE. Did the Greeks of Classical times also believe in vampires? Dr Ryan’s short film tutorial shows the ancient Greeks certainly did believe in bloodthirsty female demons or ghosts that preyed upon susceptible young men with the intent to drain them of their blood and vitality. Structured around two entertaining tales – one taken from Philostratus’s biography “Life of Apollonius of Tyana” in which Apollonius warns his student Menippus that the younger man’s new girlfriend is something of a manhunter, the other being The Bride of Corinth – the film discusses the lamia, the stryx and the empousa. All three are described in their lurid monstrosity: the lamia appears to humans as a beautiful woman in its upper body but its lower body having the form of a snake; the strix is a foul-smelling nocturnal bat monster with a human head and a penchant for attacking sleeping children through open windows; and the empousa is a shapeshifting ghost who goes after young men.

While the film is certainly entertaining and the artwork featured is rich and gorgeous, there isn’t much information about the place of these monsters in Greek mythology: how they came to be, what their relation might have been to the Olympians, the Titans or other beings that populated the ancient Greek imagination, and what importance they held for the people who feared them. What remedies did ordinary people believe in to ward off these creatures and what important cultural values or morals were emphasised in the stories people told and passed on to others about these creatures? The lessons one could take from the tale of Apollonius and Menippus, and the story of the Bride of Corinth might include warnings that romantic love or lust is not a good basis for a long-lasting relationship and that marriage is much more than a union of two people.

The film is best viewed as an introduction to the ways in which ancient Greeks coped with and expressed the universal human fear and fascination with death, blood, menstruation and women’s ability to give birth, the connections among all of these – and how in both imagination and reality these connections can be explored by being turned into their polar opposites in the form of vampiric monsters.

Murder on the Orient Express (dir. Sidney Lumet): a pedestrian treatment of a murder mystery

Sidney Lumet, “Murder on the Orient Express” (1974)

Initially beginning as a lavish drama set in an exotic 1930s Istanbul, Sidney Lumet’s “Murder on the Orient Express” turns out to be a pedestrian treatment of the Agatha Christie novel. Belgian detective Hercule Poirot (Albert Finney), urged by his superiors to return to London straight away after having solved a case for the British Army in Transjordan, manages to secure a last-minute place on the famed Orient Express long-distance train with the help of his friend Bianchi (Martin Balsam), a director of the company that owns the railway line on which the train runs. Aside from Poirot, Bianchi and a Greek doctor (George Coulouris), thirteen other passengers have also boarded the train and these include Samuel Ratchett (Richard Widmark), an American businessman who, on hearing that Poirot is aboard, tries to secure the detective’s services as a bodyguard as he, Ratchett, has been receiving death threats. Poirot senses something distasteful about Ratchett and turns down the American’s offer of $15,000 for his services. Later in the day, Poirot and Bianchi exchange compartments and Poirot ends up sleeping not far from Ratchett’s cabin. The train is trapped in a snowdrift while travelling through Yugoslavia and during the night Poirot is awakened a number of times by noises in the corridor. The following morning, Ratchett is found dead in his cabin from numerous stab wounds. Bianchi asks Poirot to solve the case before the train is freed from the snowdrift which might allow the murderer to escape before his/her identity is discovered.

From here on, Poirot interviews the passengers and discovers the connections they all have with one another and the murder victim. Ratchett is really Lanfranco Cassetti, a gangster who, five years ago, kidnapped and murdered the infant daughter Daisy of British Army colonel Hamish Armstrong and his pregnant American wife Sonia. On learning of Daisy’s death despite handing over the ransom money, Sonia miscarried her second child and died giving birth, and her grieving widower husband committed suicide. Their maid Paulette was suspected of working with Cassetti in kidnapping Daisy; to avoid being arrested and charged, Paulette killed herself. The train passengers turn out to be either relatives, personal friends or former domestic employees of the Armstrongs or related to Paulette. Having figured out all the passengers’ connections to the Armstrongs and Paulette, Poirot describes two possible solutions to Ratchett / Cassetti’s murder: the first solution can simply be that an unknown passenger on the train killed the gangster and managed to escape; the second solution is to link all thirteen passengers in the coach to the murder. Bianchi, now knowing how depraved Cassetti was, has to choose which solution the Yugoslavian police would prefer.

The plot runs smoothly and surely to its climax (though there are significant gaps within, forcing viewers to guess what happens during those gaps) with Finney’s strident and shouty Poirot coming close to hammed-up parody with an accent hard to understand and gesticulations conforming to the worst stereotypes about excitable French-speaking people. The cast of actors, all of whom were either film legends or popular actors at the time the film was made, perform barely adequately in the tiny amounts of time they are given to shine. The stand-out performances come from Anthony Perkins as Ratchett / Cassetti’s secretary Hector McQueen and Martin Balsam as Bianchi who is given the unenviable task of playing God in a climax that side-steps away from Poirot’s existential unease at burying the truth in order for vigilante justice to be served on an evil man who ruined so many lives and left others in psychological limbo. Vanessa Redgrave is wasted in a tiny role, Lauren Bacall is all brass as Harriett Hubbard and Ingrid Bergman lays on a thick Swedish accent while camping up as mousy missionary Anna Ohlsson. Sean Connery is perhaps rather too charismatic in his role as Colonel Armstrong’s friend and John Gielgud, for all his reputation as a formidable stage actor, struggles with small details (like holding the murder weapon correctly as he stabs Ratchett / Cassetti) as Edward Beddoes, butler to the odious gangster.

The film finishes up rather too tidily and there is nothing of the unease that Poirot feels at his universe being less than orderly and logical: a universe where people act according to the law and refrain from impulsive acts of retribution no matter how repulsive or evil the target victim is. The result is that viewers may end up not having much sympathy for Poirot at all, given that his character is more likely to irritate and alienate people than to gain their support. When Poirot’s worldview is challenged by Bianchi’s decision, viewers are likely to think Bianchi did the right thing even though in a sense justice has not really been served and the sweet taste of revenge and closure may be all too brief and sour consequences take place.

There is little sense of the film’s action taking place in a confined space, with all the tension and claustrophobia that could have been generated. What we end up with is a peek into what the world might have looked like for a privileged layer of American and European society between World Wars I and II: a world of luxury and decadence that would soon be swept away forever. But this peek reveals nothing of the arrogance and decay that would be responsible for the short-lived nature of this world.

The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill: a real health emergency smeared with a fantasy plot and intrigue

John Blair, “The Man Putin Couldn’t Kill” (2021)

Covering the incident in which Russian political / anti-corruption activist Alexei Navalny collapsed in pain on a passenger jet while travelling from Tomsk to Moscow in August 2020, was taken to hospital in Omsk and later whisked to the Charite Hospital in Berlin where he was declared to have been poisoned with Novichok, this supposed documentary makes much of the poisoning story without offering any actual first-hand evidence supporting it. Interviews with figures associated with Navalny – his wife Julia and Russian opposition politician Vladimir Kara-Murza feature prominently – and speculation over the identities of the FSB spies who apparently have been following Navalny over past several years and who must have done the dastardly deed pad out a narrative about Navalny’s rise to popularity through social media, the threat his popularity poses to Russian President Vladimir Putin and how Putin has dealt with figures who oppose his government and leadership.

With producer Marcel Theroux also narrating the supposed plot against Navalny and its details off-screen, the documentary’s presentation is po-faced and fails to note Putin’s sarcasm when the politician observes publicly that if the FSB had really tried to kill Navalny, its agents would have finished the job properly. It seems also that the producers, the interviewees and other sources relied on, such as the notorious Bellingcat investigators, cannot see how idiotic the notion of poisoning Navalny’s underwear with Novichok is: how would the FSB agents have been able to come anywhere near Navalny’s wardrobe when the activist is surrounded by aides and how can the agents know that Navalny would be using the underpants without washing them first, given that Novichok degrades in water?

The documentary also makes much of Navalny’s career as a political and anti-corruption activist on social media over the past 15 years but omits more than it admits: his appeal to anti-immigration and other fascist elements in the Russian population; the charges of embezzlement against him for stealing timber from a state-owned company in Kirov Oblast and misusing money from Yves Rocher for which he was put under home detention; and the fact that his popularity among the Russian voting public, as measured by polls, has never been higher than 2%.

The film mentions Navalny’s attempt to accuse Putin of owning a lavish palace in the Black Sea region in a video after his arrest and imprisonment when the activist returned to Russia from Germany in earky 2021. The accusation fell apart when reporters visited the palace and discovered it was a five-star hotel owned by Russian energy billionaire Arkady Rotenberg: the hotel was undergoing renovations at the time.

Nowhere in the documentary are there any interviews with or reports from the doctors who treated Navalny in Omsk, the paramedics who took him to the hospital or the airline crew and passengers on the jet where Navalny fell ill. The police who might have investigated the incident initially are also absent. Mention of the water bottle that was supposed to have contained the Novichok initially is given short shrift.

Humourless as well as being completely immersed in a fantasy about an activist who is actually not popular with the voting public in Russia, let alone be an opposition politician, this film offers nothing that informs viewers about what actually happened to Navalny in August 2020, that they would not already know from reading mainstream news media.

The World Is Not Enough: this film is just not enough

Michael Apted, “The World Is Not Enough” (1999)

Sent to protect a wealthy oil heiress after her father is killed by explosives in money delivered to him at MI6 headquarters in London, super-spy James Bond finds himself embroiled in yet another humdrum series of incidents that take him back and forth between Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Istanbul, and which among other things keep drenching him in water or throw him into huge underground mazes that end up being destroyed by bomb explosions. Oh, and of course there are the obligatory chases, whether in speedboats, on skis or by a helicopter carrying an aerial saw for trimming trees. The original twist (long overdue in the film series, actually) is that one of the villains turns out to be a classic Bond girl supposedly in harm’s way from the other villain. Such is the film “The World Is Not Enough”, for the most part a highly derivative flick plundering some of the earlier JB films like “From Russia With Love” and the original Ian Fleming novels like “Casino Royale” for inspiration. Not only is the action predictable and the plot lacking in freshness and originality but even small details in the plot reveal either laziness or an appalling lack of general knowledge on the part of the scriptwriters and the rest of the film production crew. Do people not realise that since the early 1990s Azerbaijan has been primarily a Muslim country?

Anyway, once Bond (Pierce Brosnan) has been tasked with protecting Elektra King (Sophie Marceau), the unfortunate daughter of the slain oil billionaire Robert King, he flies out to Azerbaijan where she is overseeing the construction of an oil pipeline that will go from the Caspian Sea through Azerbaijan and Turkey to Europe, bypassing Russia and the Black Sea. Bond and Elektra King narrowly escape being killed by a hit squad so Bond contacts Valentin Zukovsky (Robbie Coltrane), a former Russian Mafia boss / current casino owner, to get information about the hit squad; at Zukovsky’s casino, he unexpectedly meets King again. King loses $1 million at the casino and this makes Bond suspicious of her behaviour – but he eventually ends up seducing her anyway.

Under the guise of a Russian nuclear scientist, Bond later travels to a Russian ICBM base in Kazakhstan where he meets US nuclear scientist Dr Christmas Jones (a badly miscast Denise Richards) and comes across the former KGB agent now turned terrorist Renard (Robert Carlyle) who had earlier sent the money laced with explosives to Robert King. Renard steals a bomb from the ICBM base and escapes, leaving everyone else there to die in the inevitable explosions but Bond and Jones get out in the nick of time.

After more shenanigans, in which Bond and Jones again narrowly escape with their lives from an explosion and King kidnaps Bond’s boss M (Judi Dench) as part of a revenge scheme (because M had advised her father against paying ransom money to Renard after Renard had kidnapped King), Bond learns that King and Renard are working together to set off a nuclear meltdown that would destroy Istanbul and irradiate Russian oil pipelines in the Bosporus; Europe would then become dependent on King’s oil pipeline and King would reap enormous profits in manipulating oil supplies. Jones is captured by Renard who takes her on board a submarine captained by Zukovsky’s nephew and Bond is subjected to garrotting by King. Bond’s dilemma is how to escape in a limited amount of time to rescue Jones and also rescue M who is being held prisoner in a watch-tower.

The poor script and Apted’s lack of experience in directing action thriller films result in a badly made film with overly long and implausible chase sequences, and equally unconvincing escapes from impossible situations. The actors just manage to get by in their respective roles: Richards especially has the unenviable job of making her nuclear scientist role look credible, the character itself lacking a backstory that might justify the actor’s casting. It may be though that with Brosnan having settled on a Bond persona that is an odd mix of pretty-boy seducer / New Age sensitive / cold-hearted killer and not quite getting it right, the film has to settle for a cast of characters that make his Bond look good and so the characters are either comic or utterly bizarre. The usually good Carlyle is wasted as the villain Renard who can feel no pain and Marceau’s character becomes sillier and more unbelievable as the spoilt rich kid who throws in her lot with the crooks because her John-Paul-Getty styled Daddy wouldn’t cough up the ransom money.

This film about shifting energy politics and the ructions it can cause in geopolitics and even personal loyalties – not to mention how past decisions and actions can have devastating blowback effects as M, not for the first or last time, discovers for herself and for the King family – could have been a thoughtful if perhaps not exciting work under Apted’s direction. It ends up being buried under a puerile script crammed with character stereotypes and plot elements that have been overused in other films within and outside the James Bond film series. In such films, audiences cannot fail but notice other details that reveal a woeful lack of research and general knowledge.

Tomorrow Never Dies: satire on the power and influence of media trapped in a formula that never dies

Roger Spottiswoode, “Tomorrow Never Dies” (1997)

The second of four films that Irish actor Pierce Brosnan starred in as British wonder spy James Bond for EON Productions, “Tomorrow Never Dies” is competent enough but after accounting for the JB film formula’s requirements of megalomaniac villain, a super-violent henchman, two overlong chase sequences, two or even three flings with attractive women, product positioning galore and a convoluted plot set in various exotic locales that culminates in a mushroom-cloud explosion in the villain’s underground labyrinthine hide-out, the film has very little to commend it. Viewers can almost see the film going through a check-list of required plot detours and comedy mini-sketches to flog some life into a narrative about the power and influence of global media corporations and how they (and by implication, other private mega-companies) can deploy that power to change world politics and set international relations on new and dangerous courses.

In this film, the second made after the end of the Cold War, China has become a significant protagonist for Western intelligence agencies and MI6 especially to deal with. Global media mogul Elliot Carver (Jonathan Pryce) plans to exploit the tensions between China and the West by using an encoder obtained online at a black market bazaar in Russia by his employee Henry Gupta to send a British frigate off-course into Vietnamese maritime territory in the South China Sea where it is ambushed and sunk by his own stealth (ie off-radar) ship which also steals a missile from the frigate. At the same time, the stealth ship brings down a Chinese fighter jet and uses Chinese ammunition to kill off the frigate’s crew. Carver’s media organisations broadcast the news about the crisis the sinking of the frigate has caused and M (Judi Dench) becomes suspicious. She sends Bond to investigate the Carver media empire because she knows that Carver’s wife Paris (Teri Hatcher) is an old flame of Bond’s.

Bond travels to Hamburg to seduce Paris and get information out of her to retrieve the stolen encoder. After the requisite violent encounters with various of Carver’s thugs and the seduction, Bond obtains the information and successfully infiltrates Carver’s newspaper printing press and recovers the encoder. While he is gone however, Paris is killed by one of Carver’s henchmen. The thug also tries to kill Bond but Bond escapes in a prolonged car chase through a car park with the encoder intact.

Examining the encoder at a US airforce base in Okinawa, Bond learns it has been tampered with and goes to investigate the sunken frigate where he meets Colonel Wai Lin (Michelle Yeoh), a Chinese spy who is investigating the shootdown of the fighter jet and the theft of its ammunition. The two are captured by Carver’s No 1 henchman Stamper (Gotz Otto) and held prisoner in Carver’s tower in Saigon – erm, has no-one told the film-makers the city is no longer called Saigon? – but they escape by rappelling down the side of the tower and breaking into a lower floor and then evade Carver’s thugs through the streets of Saigon on a motorcycle. Deciding to work together, Bond and Wai notify their respective governments of Carver’s plans to push their countries into war, from which Carver’s media conglomerate will profit by obtaining exclusive broadcasting rights in China.

From then on the film grinds its way to the showdown between Bond and Carver amid the requisite capture and rescue of the Bond girlfriend, confronting No 1 henchman, blowing up the hide-out and romancing the girlfriend among the wreckage – which is presumably leaking radiation and toxic chemicals but don’t let those facts spoil the ending. Along the way the cast of actors have done the best they could with their scripts – Brosnan works at balancing his New-Age sensitive pretty boy persona with the tough gritty spy character and Yeoh basically updates the Bond girl stereotype with her HK martial arts action film persona. Pryce hams up his scenes as Carver where possible and Hatcher does well with her minimal approach to playing the embittered trophy wife. The “Saigon” scenes (actually filmed in Bangkok) probably do no justice to Ho Chi Minh City in the late 1990s and might actually be seen as racist in future years, otherwise the Asian locations in the film’s second half are among the better features along with the carpark car chase and the motorcycle chase of a pedestrian film in thrall to an overused and tired script formula.

Ancient Greek Buddhists: a vivid snapshot of ancient Greek and Indian cultural contacts

Garrett Ryan, “Ancient Greek Buddhists” (Toldinstone, 16 October 2021)

A very fascinating snapshot of a short period in ancient Central Asian and Indian subcontinent history, this video explores the cultural interactions between Hellenistic Greeks and parts of present-day Pakistan and northern India about two thousands years ago. The Hellenistic presence in the Middle East and Central Asia was a consequence of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BCE: the Seleucid Empire, succeeding Alexander the Great, held large territories in western Asia and the kingdom of Bactria occupied territory in what is now Afghanistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. Indians themselves were not untouched by the Macedonian invasions: Alexander and his forces ranged over areas around the Indus River valley, leaving behind captured cities, defeated local kings and garrisons. For a long time afterwards, the Seleucids and the Bactrians bordered the Mauryan Empire in northwest India but after the Mauryan Empire fell in the early 2nd century BCE, the Bactrians invaded and conquered parts of northern India as far south as Gujarat and as far east as the Ganges River delta. Bactria ended up over-extended and split into two kingdoms, Bactria proper and the Indo-Greek kingdom

In India, the Greek Bactrian elites were impressed by Buddhism and converted to the religion; many of these people such as Menander I (reigned 165 or 155 – 130 BCE) of the Indo-Greek kingdom became Buddhist missionaries. As the video demonstrates in vivid stills of archaeological finds and sculptures, Greek Bactrian leaders and politicians established stupas and shrines, and their remains sometimes ended up in temples to be revered alongside images of the Buddha. After Bactria faded into the Parthian Empire and the Indo-Greek kingdom disintegrated after Menander I’s death, the Roman Empire became the major source of European contact with the Indian subcontinent through maritime trade. Indians or their products are known to have reached the Roman Empire: the film shows a picture of an Indian statuette found in the ruins of Pompeii.

Greeks and Romans in Europe seem to have been rather confused about the nature of Buddhism and its philosophies – even to the extent of mixing the religion up with Hinduism and Jainism – and Buddhism made no appreciable impact on Greek and Roman culture generally in spite of its attraction for the Indo-Greek elites. Hellenistic influence on Indian culture is demonstrated by the adoption of Greek sculptural techniques by Indian sculptors in creating free-standing, realistic human figures in draped Greek-styled clothes. It may be that the depiction of the Buddha as a human figure may have begun with the Indo-Greeks and that this form of portrayal spread wherever Buddhism went.

The short documentary is one of the most stunning and beautiful of the videos I have seen so far from the Toldinstone channel on Youtube. Dr Ryan’s narration is fast and viewers may have to run the film a few times to take in all the historical details. Unfortunately he has little to say about why the Indo-Greeks adopted Buddhism enthusiastically but seem to have stayed away from Hinduism, Jainism and other religions in the region. Aside from the material archaeological evidence of coins and our knowledge of Roman contacts with India, there is very little about the Indo-Greek economy. We can only know from what the material evidence tells us.