Live and Let Die: as it says, live and let this film die

Guy Hamilton, “Live and Let Die” (1973)

Cashing in on the blaxploitation film genre that was popular in the early 1970s, this instalment in the James Bond film series has not aged well and abounds in racist and sexist stereotypes. “Live and Let Die” is the first of seven films to feature Roger Moore as the British super-spy and his portrayal is light-hearted and mild compared to predecessor Sean Connery. Unfortunately the shallow use of themes associated with blaxploitation films, crammed into the usual James Bond film formula emphasising gimmicky technology, prolonged chases and bizarre criminals, makes Moore’s debut film one of the more forgettable episodes in the JB movie series, notable mainly as a snapshot of pop culture trends in a particular decade of the 20th century.

Bond is sent to the US to investigate the mysterious deaths of three MI6 spies in New Orleans, New York and the tiny Caribbean nation San Monique in the space of 24 hours, all of whom were monitoring the activities of San Monique dictator Kananga (Yaphet Kotto). Bond’s snooping leads him to Harlem mob boss Mr Big, who runs the Fillet of Soul chain of restaurants, and the boss’s assistant Solitaire (Jane Seymour), a tarot reader with the power of second sight. Mr Big tries to get Bond killed but Bond escapes and travels to San Monique where he meets with local CIA agent Rosie Carver (Gloria Hendry) there. After a few hair-raiding incidents, Bond suspects Carver of working for Kananga; Carver tries to escape but is killed by Kananga remotely. Bond later meets and seduces Solitaire but this means her clairvoyant abilities are lost along with her virginity. Her life now in danger from Kananga, Solitaire tags along after Bond. They escape to New Orleans but are captured by Mr Big who reveals himself as Kananga to Bond. The link between Mr Big and Kananga now becomes clear: Kananga is growing opium in poppy fields across San Monique, using voodoo to terrify his people and keep them poor and oppressed, and manufactures the opium into heroin which he then exports to the Fillet of Soul restaurants where it is given away for free to increase the number of addicts and at the same time run other heroin dealers and networks out of business. Once Kananga becomes the sole supplier of heroin, he will jack up prices to reap enormous profit at the expense of those he has enslaved to heroin.

From then on, the film dives into familiar JB territory of Bond narrowly escaping death from crocodiles by literally using the animals as stepping stones to freedom, a tedious speedboat chase through Louisiana’s bayous, Bond rescuing Solitaire from becoming a voodoo sacrifice and Bond’s final confrontation with Kananga in the dictator’s underground lair which results in Kananga’s outlandish demise. Along the way we meet a cast of odd characters, notably Kananga’s collection of henchmen like iron-fisted Tee Hee (Julius W Harris), Baron Samedi (Geoffrey Holder) and Whisper (James Ellroy Brown) and Louisiana sheriff J W Pepper (Clifton James) who embodies the worst stereotypes about Deep South racist redneck white people. (Odd that the lower classes, whether white or black, are being exploited for giggles.)

The use of blaxploitation motifs in an uncritical way, mostly for laughs, makes the film appear racist even if such motifs were not intended to be racist but satirical: instead of being a megalomaniac intent on taking over the world, Kananga is more content with ensnaring people into the clutches of heroin and exploiting them that way. Granted, Kananga’s ambitions are more convincing and possibly grounded in reality – in those days, Haitian presidents François Duvalier (1957 – 1971) and his son Jean-Claude (1971 – 1986) governed their nation as absolute or near-absolute rulers and used voodoo to foster a personality cult – but the nature of Kananga’s villainy tends rather to reinforce 1970s stereotypes about African-American involvement in drug crime and to demonise voodoo as a primitive cult obsessed with death and sacrifice. Furthermore, why should Kananga be happy being just another exploitive global drug lord while his white counterparts in other James Bond films are hellbent on holding governments and central banks to ransom?

Action sequences are overlong and boring, Bond’s seduction of Solitaire is frankly creepy and manipulative, and the cast of characters is flat. The actors do what they can to inject life into their characters but they all deserved a much better script. Probably the only decent highlights of the film are Jane Seymour’s ethereal beauty and sweet nature as Solitaire, and Yaphet Kotto’s sinister and tense Kananga.

John McWhorter’s “Cancel Culture and Wokeness” talk on dangers of Critical Race Theory

John McWhorter, “Cancel Culture and Wokeness” (Internationales Literaturfestival Berlin, 10 September 2021)

John McWhorter is a linguist and associate professor of linguistics at New York City’s Columbia University where he teaches linguistics, philosophy, American cultural studies and music history. He has been involved in socio-political debates for many years and attracted much public attention by criticising the conflation of challenging power structures in Western society with aspects of Western culture to the extent that many of the tools, methods and language we use to challenge power themselves end up complicit as forms of oppression and must be replaced. By replacing these tools and methods and changing our vocabulary and grammar, we end up being hijacked by the very elites we should be challenging and our energies are deflected and directed to targeting those who should be our allies. Movements aimed at ending discrimination against minority groups with the aim of bringing people together to fight power elites end up being used by those very power elites to divide people in classic “divide and rule” fashion. Tools and methods used by feminist groups movements to create safe spaces, institutions and networks for women are are taken over by people claiming to be transgender to invade those very spaces, institutions and networks – while genuine transgender people end up being targeted and vilified for actions, behaviour and other activities they are not responsible for; similar can be said for ethnic and religious minorities that have attempted to carve out public space in Western society for their members, only to discover their culture, practices and belief systems are being exploited by governments for the latter’s own agendas and benefits, while they themselves face public wrath.

McWhorter gave a talk at the Internationales Literaturfestival in Berlin in September 2021 on cancel culture and wokeness which form one aspect of how our toolboxes in challenging power structures and networks has been taken over and abused by power elites to keep us weak and divided, and constantly at one another’s throats. In this way, we become our own oppressors, and the power elites do not have to expend any effort or energy to oppress us and to keep us away from them. The central gist of McWhorter’s lecture is that Critical Race Theory, which underlies cancel culture / wokeness, has become the base on which all current intellectual, cultural and even political and economic activity must be founded, and everything that we do must always somehow address inequalities existing between different groups in society. McWhorter likens Critical Race Theory to a religion which is a very apt comparison. He gives examples of how CRT has invaded every aspect of contemporary Western culture in talking about the musical “My Fair Lady”, the study of physics in universities and discussions about art and literature. He sees a parallel between the way CRT invades all the sciences and humanities, and the dominance of Christian theology (controlled by the Roman Catholic Church) in mediaeval Western societies nearly 1,000 years ago.

The actual talk lasted 20 minutes and the rest of the hour-long session was given over to a Q&A session. Host Matthew Karnitschning asked McWhorter for examples of how CRT is poisoning Western society and shutting down the public discourses necessary for democracy and transparency to function. McWhorter gives the example of New York Times journalist Donald G McNeil Jr being sacked for uttering the word “nigger” to high school students on a trip to Peru in 2019, while discussing with them whether their classmate should have been punished for using the word in a video she made as a 12-year-old . He also refers to college courses, publications and other practices which treat black Americans as victims of oppression but end up patronising them and reinforcing the very racism and institutional discrimination that previous generations of black activists such as Martin Luther King had railed against. Other interesting issues Karnitschning raised include the phenomenon of “virtue signalling” in which people demonstrate they are “good” by calling out what they perceive as racial prejudice or discrimination against designated victim groups: in the earlier example of Donald G McNeil Jr, the people involved in “virtue signalling” were the students and their parents who reported him for using the N-word, and the NYT staff involved in his sacking.

McWhorter took questions from the audience which ranged from whether he saw parallels with the Cultural Revolution in China (1964 – 1976) – the only parallel he saw between that period and the current CRT scare is that in both, a minority of people denounced academic and other figures, and the majority sat on the sidelines, too scared to speak up – to a query challenging his assertion that CRT is a religion demanding faith and emotional investment over truth.

The session ended on a rather downbeat note as McWhorter outlined how he saw US society and US colleges and universities in particular continuing under the reign of CRT: in McWhorter’s opinion, these institutions will become more ideologically rigid, and alternative educational institutions and systems that meet more vocationally oriented needs or demands for education based on Enlightenment values will arise. The current trend of falling enrolments of white US men at college was noted but McWhorter believes factors other than CRT (such as college being increasingly overpriced, the burden of student debt and competition from online courses) are the issue.

Strangely during the session no-one including McWhorter thought to mention if the way education systems in the US and other Western nations have been designed and allowed to develop, with private schools, colleges and universities lavished with funding at the expense of their state-funded equivalents, has played any role in birthing CRT. Indeed, the class-based hierarchical nature of Western societies in which privatisation of what should be public institutions, and that privatisation denying large segments of the general public access to education that would encourage critical thinking, logic, use of the scientific method and exposure to alternate and diverse ways of thinking and expression – which Karl Marx identified as the scourge of Western civilisation in his time – can be seen as the petri dish in which CRT and other ideologies enabling the bourgeois classes to view themselves as championing the poor and disadvantaged, or particular sections of the poor and disadvantaged, have arisen and flourished.

The most impressive part of the session is where McWhorter nailed the essence of CRT: perceiving every relationship as being based on differences in the power wielded by the people involved in the relationship, and making those power differences the core issue of every endeavour in Western society. The first 20 minutes of the session are worth repeated viewings, the Q&A session not so much so.

You Only Live Twice: tired and formulaic film shouldn’t have lived even once

Lewis Gilbert, “You Only Live Twice” (1967)

By the time this, the fifth film in the James Bond spy movie franchise, came along for the blockbuster treatment, the original Ian Fleming novels were looking tired and outdated and so “You Only Live Twice” becomes the first in the JB series to depart significantly from its source material with a completely new story that hews closely to the movie franchise’s formula. With each new film, and the hundreds of millions being made in global box office profits, the formula became more and more set in stone. Character development and a proper plot that made sense were secondary to a fast-moving string of linked set pieces. With Fleming having died in 1964, screenplay writer Roald Dahl – who had had previous experience working in British intelligence during World War II in Washington DC – nutted out a script that included various characters, plot and scene elements and devices from the novel and which stuck closely to the formula. The result is a spy fantasy that plays loose even with details and aspects of the plot and which presents flat, even stereotyped characters. The freshness of earlier James Bond films has gone and lead actor Sean Connery as Bond appears fed up, even exasperated at times.

The film is set firmly in the period of the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union and their respective allies, and also references the split between the Soviets and the Communists in China under Mao Zedong. After the now customary opening scene that sets up and readies Bond for his next assignment, the film sends him to Japan straight away where he is to discover how a remote volcanic island in the country is linked to mystery disappearances of US and Soviet spacecraft while in orbit around Earth. Through a series of sketches that involve a lot of fighting, killing and furniture being thrown about at Osato Chemicals corporate headquarters, and Bond being rescued twice by Japanese intel agent Aki (Akiko Wakabayashi) in ways that suggest she has the power of clairvoyance, the MI6 super-spy obtains secret documents that, when examined by the Japanese secret service, lead Bond and Aki to investigate the cargo ship Ning-po in Kobe. The two are ambushed by thugs and Bond is captured by none other than the Osao Chemicals CEO (Teru Shimada) and his secretary Helga Brandt (Karin Dor), both secretly working for global criminal organisation SPECTRE. The two try to kill him but Bond escapes.

Discovering from the Japanese secret service that the Ning-po had unloaded rocket fuel in the area of the remote volcanic island, Bond surveys the area in an armed autogyro; he is attacked by four helicopters and manages to defeat them all. He meets with Aki and Japanese secret service head Tiger Tanaka (Tetsuro Tamba) to arrange for him to infiltrate the volcanic island disguised as a Japanese fisherman married to a local girl pearl-diver. While Bond prepares for his mission to discover the island’s secrets before the US launches another spacecraft, SPECTRE sends out people to assassinate him: Bond thwarts all their attempts but Aki ends up as the film’s sacrificial lamb.

When the US revises its schedule to launch the spacecraft earlier than anticipated, Bond has to marry the pearl-diver Kissy Suzuki (Mie Hama), also a protegee of Tiger Tanaka, and the two go off to the volcanic island. Their discovery of a secret rocket base hidden inside the volcano leads Bond to come face-to-face with SPECTRE head Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Donald Pleasance) and Blofeld’s bodyguard Hans (Ronald Rich).

To reach the point where Bond meets Blofeld, the film has to navigate (and sometimes just crash) through a web of often unnecessary plot detours that often look like last-minute additions such as the autogyro scene, his encounter with Brandt and the fight scene with Hans that sends the bodyguard into the piranha pool. The scenes with Blofeld come very late in the film and look rushed. Pleasance is wasted in the film yet his understated portrayal of Blofeld is vivid enough that it has become the template for evil villains in Western pop culture. The actors do what they can with the plot; at least their reputations and future careers weren’t too badly affected by being in the film. The action scenes and special effects pall after too many repetitions and make the film too long. Given his career writing children’s books, Dahl’s attempts to insert often infantile humour into the film fall flat.

At least the film’s later scenes set in southern Japan (Kagoshima Prefecture on Kyushu island, Nachikatsuura in Wakayama Prefecture on Honshu island) are lovely; pity they are wasted in a silly and forgettable film.

The film’s title derives from a haiku by 17th-century poet Matsuo Basho: “You only live twice / Once when you’re born /And once when you look death in the face”. Take his advice and fill the time between birth and death watching better films.

Goldfinger: enjoyable escapist spy-thriller fantasy of its time

Guy Hamilton, “Goldfinger” (1964)

Third in the series of James Bond spy film series, “Goldfinger” remains the standard to which all other films in the series are compared and usually found wanting. “Goldfinger” more or less established the template for successor JB films to follow: an opening scene before the credits that is not always related to the film’s plot; a megalomaniacal villain with a bizarre scheme to hold the world to ransom; the villain’s main enforcer employee having a bizarre modus operandi along with a taste for brutal violence; James Bond failing to save one or two sacrificial lambs; the super-spy himself dropping sarcastic one-liners about the villains he’s disposed of; the action taking place in several foreign locations; and an emphasis on fast cars and the latest technological gizmos, even if nearly 60 years later those gizmos look quaint and cartoonish. Of course the film always ends with Bond and his love interest with the double-entendre name sinking into each other’s arms with the theme music starting up and the end credits starting to roll.

Even if viewers have seen other JB films and know what they can expect, at least “Goldfinger” does not take itself seriously – indeed, the film does overdo its self-mockery – and the actors acquit themselves well. The plot holds together well with the right balance of the plausible, the logical and the fantastic, as it strides briskly through various sketches in which Bond (Sean Connery) and the villain Auric Goldfinger (Gert Frobe) battle each other through deception and persistence on Bond’s part. Initially holidaying in Miami, Bond is directed by CIA agent Felix Leiter (Cec Linder) to observe Goldfinger cheating in a game of gin rummy: Bond discovers Goldfinger’s ruse and blackmails him into losing the game, but this results in the death of Jill Masterton (Shirley Eaton) who had been helping Goldfinger cheat. After returning to London, Bond volunteers to continue following Goldfinger to compensate for his having failed to protect Jill and to ascertain how Goldfinger is smuggling gold bullion across national boundaries in order to manipulate and game international gold prices. Bond and Goldfinger meet again to play a round of golf, during which the villain again tries to cheat but is foiled; Goldfinger then warns Bond to stay away from him in future. The spy tracks Goldfinger to Switzerland where he meets Jill Masterton’s sister Tilly (Tania Mallet) who intends to kill Goldfinger for having killed Jill. Later Bond sneaks into Goldfinger’s refinery where he discovers how the villain is smuggling gold (it is incorporated into the body of his Rolls Royce) and hears mention of Goldfinger’s plan to steal the gold held in Fort Knox in the US state of Kentucky. Bond ends up being captured and Tilly, who turns up on her own, is killed by Goldfinger’s enforcer Oddjob (Harold Sakata).

Bond is flown to Kentucky as Goldfinger’s prisoner by pilot Pussy Galore (Honor Blackman) where, through his own devices, he discovers that Goldfinger plans to kill all military personnel guarding Fort Knox by gassing them with nerve gas and then plant an atomic bomb in the gold vaults there that will detonate and irradiate the gold, rendering it useless and causing the value of Goldfinger’s own gold reserves to skyrocket and create global market chaos.

The plot is straightforward and fast, with just enough dialogue papering over any holes and other implausible aspects. Most of the violence occurs in the later half of the film and it can be brutal. For a large part of the film Bond is Goldfinger’s prisoner and must use his wits and charm to convince Pussy Galore to switch sides and betray her employer (and risk being killed later) but this significant part of the plot is treated in a crude manner. Bond’s guilt in failing to protect Jill and Tilly Masterton plays a large part in his decision to pursue Goldfinger and Oddjob to the extent that he risks his life several times but this aspect of the plot is dealt with superficially when it could have been a major part of Bond’s character development. Unfortunately though, scriptwriters back in the early 1960s were dealing with source material for the film that was homophobic and misogynist, and they did what they could to scale back the characterisations of Pussy Galore and Tilly Masterton, both portrayed as lesbians in the original novel, not to mention Bond’s aversion to homosexuality and attitude to women who refused his advances, to something more credible even in the James Bond fantasy film universe. On the plus side, the film does portray a range of women characters from capable and intelligent individuals to others, admittedly minor characters, who were little more than wallpaper.

As it is, “Goldfinger” is enjoyable for its plot, its look and its characters, but beyond those, it is no more than what it set out to be: escapist spy-thriller fantasy.

The Destruction of Laos: casting light on a shameful aspect of the Vietnam War

Carlton Meyer, “The Destruction of Laos” (Tales of the American Empire, 15 October 2021)

Many people know that the Vietnam War dragged Cambodia into its horrors – or rather, US State Secretary Henry Kissinger saw fit to drag Cambodia into the Vietnam War – but I confess to being unaware that Laos had also been dragged into the Vietnam War even though the fact that Cambodia was an unwilling participant made so by the US should have suggested to me that the US would treat Laos similarly. Here comes Carlton Meyer with his latest TofAE episode to cast light on a relatively little-known front of the Vietnam War: the US bombing of Laos. As Meyer notes, Laos in the early 1970s was a small country of some 3million yet the US saw fit to drop over 2 million tons of bombs in 580,000 bombing raids over 9 years from 1964 to 1973: that works out to one planeload of bombs being dropped onto Laos every 8 minutes! At the same time this was happening the US government denied it was bombing Laos or had US combat forces in the country.

After describing the scale of the bombing of Laos, Meyer goes on to detail how US forces and the CIA operated in the country. Combat forces worked as contractors for the CIA and trained and led Laotian and Chinese mercenaries in Laos. Many of these Americans supplemented their incomes by engaging in the opium trade. US denial of involvement in Laos meant that finding lost or missing US soldiers or pilots in the country was difficult or impossible, since that would force Washington to admit that the US did indeed have forces there.

Meyer rounds off his short documentary by explaining why the US invaded and brought the Vietnam War to Laos: the reason was to shut down the Ho Chi Minh supply trail that passed from North Vietnam through Laos and Cambodia to South Vietnam. Meyer explains how the US attempt to cut off the supply trail was bound to fail as the Vietcong in South Vietnam had support from the general public there and could obtain supplies from myriad, mostly local sources, not just from North Vietnam. Ultimately it was the determination of the Vietnamese to reunite as an independent nation, free from Western domination (whether in the form of French colonialism or US neocolonialism), that was the major factor in Vietnam’s victory.

Meyer enlivens his short video documentary with archived film, maps and snippets of old 1970s interviews including one with a US refugee worker dealing with displaced Laotians who relays what the refugees told him about the relentless nature of the bombing and the total destruction it caused. This interview with the refugee worker, which concludes the film, conveys the absolute horror of what amounted to virtual firebombing of the country. What Meyer details is indeed an absolutely shameful episode in US military history.

Meyer probably could have noted the continuing legacy of the US bombing campaign in Laos: about 30% of the bombs dropped on Laos did not explode on impact but remain in many parts of the country and continue to maim and kill Laotians, children in particular.

A litany of blunders and oversights in “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes”

Jess Reid, “Deepwater Horizon: Ten Mistakes” (2021)

An investigation into the causes of the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico near the US state of Louisiana in April 2010, that killed 11 workers and created a massive environmental catastrophe in the Gulf, this documentary manages to be fairly well researched yet easy for its target general public audience to follow. Concentrating on the major errors behind the oil rig explosion, starting with aspects of the culture of BP that emphasised the pressure of time and budget over-runs over safety issues, to mistakes and fateful decisions made by engineers on the oil rig, to underestimating the enormous size of the oil spill and the lack of proper plans to cap the well and to clean up the oil spill, the film draws out what it considers to be the major blunders behind the Deepwater Horizon catastrophe and explains how they contributed to the accident. A number of experts including former US Energy Secretary Stephen Chu who served in the first Obama administration add their perspectives to each of the issues raised. Their points are illustrated with fairly simple technical animations and archived film of the explosion and the environmental and economic disaster it caused.

Although very detailed, the film does not do enough to show how the various mistakes it identifies are linked and reflect a corporate culture in the oil industry obsessed with making profits and taking unnecessary risks, especially in a highly risky and dangerous activity such as deep-water oil drilling. In such an industry, the pressure on keeping within time and budget limits can encourage people to take short cuts, to overlook or compromise on safety issues, to conform rather than speak out or express misgivings, and downplay problems or the scale of problems when they occur. Disaster and contingency planning is given short shrift and when a disaster does occur, the corporation resorts to a quick technical fix to disperse the problem to make itself look good for the government, the media, the public and (most of all) its shareholders and investors.

The film fails to pound the US government for its weak regulation of the oil industry and its revolving door personnel policy in which oil industry executives take up positions in the US Department of Energy, loosen regulations on their former employers and then later return to the industry with a change of government. Perhaps the most depressing aspect of the film comes near its end when the government fails to punish BP in proportion to the scale of the explosion and the damage it caused to marine environments and the livelihoods of communities and the industries around the Gulf that rely on viable marine environments and ecosystems there. The consequences of the oil rig disaster and of the use of Corexit dispersant to disperse the oil spill on the health of the people who worked on the rig and in the affected environments were and still are considerable. The experts interviewed in the film agree that many of the mistakes and blunders identified have not been properly dealt with and could lead to another major deep-water oil rig explosion.

The film serves as a good introduction to a major human-made disaster that is still generating long-term environmental, economic and human costs in the Gulf. Viewers wanting more information will need to do their own research but at least they will have a handy foundation to work from.

A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper: a snapshot of discrimination against Dalit people in India

Amudhan R P, “A Day in the Life of an Untouchable Sweeper” (2003)

Known as “manual scavenging”, manually cleaning public and private toilets, open drains and streets of human excrement is still being done by thousands of men and women across India. Much of this work is traditionally done by people from the Dalit (untouchable) communities that are at the bottom of the caste social system. Dalit women sweep and clean dry waste in streets, collect it in cane or metal vessels, and carry these vessels on their heads to dispose of the shit at central disposal points in their communities. Men and women clean faeces from public and private toilets, gutters and drains, and men usually clean sewers and septic tanks.

This video, scripted and filmed by Amudhan R P, follows Mariyammal, a sanitary worker with the Madurai Municipal Corporation as she cleans a street near a temple in Madurai. Mariyammal describes her daily routine to Amudhan as she goes about her work – her employer does not give her proper protective clothing or equipment like a mask, gloves or appropriate footwear so she goes barefoot to avoid soiling her shoes – and vents her anger and frustration about the work she has to do, the lack of proper equipment she is given to do her job, and the discrimination she is forced to put up with from the people around her because she is a Dalit and a sanitary worker.

Featuring close-up shots, and with a jerky style due to Amudhan having to carry the camera on his shoulder, the film can be very confronting for viewers as they see the amount of back-breaking work Mariyammal must do every early morning: scattering ash or sanitary powder over piles of faeces, and sweeping the shit into her vessel with scoops she must obtain or buy herself. She makes three trips to a central disposal area in Madurai. She tells Amudhan that she herself is in bad health (in the opening credits, the film notes that sanitary workers are at risk for asthma, malaria and cancer from their work) but despite requesting a transfer to other work, her employer refuses to move her. She cannot give up working despite her meagre pay and demeaning job as she is a widow with a large family of boys (some of whom must work as labourers) and a huge debt with high interest to pay moneylenders after taking a loan to pay for a son’s wedding. Amudhan passes no judgement on how Mariyammal does her work or on her frustration but patiently asks questions and absorbs some of the anger she vents. Mariyammal turns out to be a feisty lady especially when she takes a break and orders morning tea for herself from a tea vendor. She is not afraid to boss local children for shitting in the street she has to clean and local people appear to tiptoe gingerly past her as she strolls through the streets like a queen.

Since the film was made, it has won awards at film festivals in Tamil Nadu and New Delhi and was even shown at a film festival in China. The street where Mariyammal worked was shut down and Mariyammal was shifted to different work. The working conditions of other Madurai sanitary workers have improved somewhat with better equipment given them as well. Providing the poor people of Madurai and elsewhere in India with better living and working conditions that might include better public sanitation infrastructure – when one sees the dreadful public toilets in Madurai, one understands why poor people prefer to poop in back lanes and alleys – and which turn the faeces into a useful asset such as fertiliser or fuel, seems to be beyond the scope of government at local, regional and national level though: the legislation to provide proper public and private sanitation, making manual scavenging unnecessary, may exist but enforcement is something else altogether.

Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity: a building’s connection to the end of an era and the beginning of another

Garrett Ryan, “Mren Cathedral and the Last World War of Antiquity” (Toldinstone, 2018)

Part of a series about ten Roman / Byzantine-era buildings built in the territory of modern Turkey, this video initially focuses on Mren Cathedral, a 7th-century Armenian church in the abandoned site of Mren, once a town in the region of Kars in far north-eastern Turkey, and in particular on a stone at the cathedral’s entrance celebrating the return of the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre by the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius (reigned 610 – 641 CE). This stone not only establishes the age of Mren Cathedral – it was built during the 630s CE – but also tells us something about the involvement of Armenia as a state in the long border wars between the Roman Empire and its Byzantine imperial successor on the one hand and the Persians (whether Parthians or Sassanids) over several hundreds of years to the 630s CE. The stone and its inscription become the basis for an interesting story told by Ryan in voiceover narration of the war between the Byzantine Empire (which Ryan calls “Roman”) under Heraclius and the Sassanid Empire under Khosrau II (reigned 590 – 626 CE): as the title of the video bluntly states, this war was the last major war fought by two imperial powers of the Classical World just before the eruption of Arab armies inspired by Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula in the same decade that Mren Cathedral was built in Armenia.

Ryan sets the scene by explaining the role Armenia played as a buffer state between the Romans / Byzantines and the Parthians / Sassanids since Classical times. Both superpowers wooed and bribed Armenian princes and rulers to their side and the western and eastern borders of Armenia seem to have changed quite frequently over the centuries. Some time in 590 CE, in a fortress town in Armenia, the young Khosrau II, newly acceded to the Sassanid throne but usurped by rebels, sought refuge with the Byzantine commander; the Byzantines agree to help him regain his throne in Persia. For a decade afterwards, the Byzantines and Sassanids were on friendly terms and respected one another’s territories but with the assassination of Byzantine Emperor Maurice Tiberius in 602 CE, Khosrau II seized the opportunity to overrun Byzantine territories in Anatolia, the Levant and Egypt. The Byzantines under Emperor Phocas were unable to stop Khosrau II’s forces as their own armies were tied up battling Avars and Slavs coming into their European territories. Among the booty that the Persians captured in their conquests was the True Cross of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, reputedly the cross on which Jesus Christ died.

In 610 CE, Heraclius became Byzantine Emperor and spent the next decade rebuilding his treasury and army. In 622 CE, he set out to reconquer the territories lost to the Sassanids with the help of the Khazars (Turkic-speaking tribes who would later establish their kingdom on the northern shores of the Caspian Sea and convert to Judaism) and of Armenian and Georgian princes. Basing his army in Armenia itself, Heraclius achieved a series of stunning successes against three Persian field armies and entered Persia itself. Finally in 626 CE, at the Battle of Nineveh, Heraclius smashed Khosrau II’s army and Khosrau II ended up being executed by his own nobles.

As a result of Heraclius’s victory against Persia, the Sassanids gave up all the territories conquered by Khosrau II and Heraclius was able to return the True Cross to its Jerusalem home. On his way to Jerusalem from Persia, Heraclius passed through Armenia and one of the Armenian princes who had accompanied Heraclius on his campaigns in western Asia commissioned the Mren Cathedral to be built with the commemoration of the Byzantine Emperor’s restoration of the True Cross.

Ryan does not say very much about the fortunes of Mren Cathedral or of Armenia itself after Heraclius’s victory over the Sassanians, except to observe that with the passing of time and the shifting of trade routes through Armenia, the town of Mren became insignificant and was eventually abandoned. The few photos of the cathedral shown in the video, which is otherwise illustrated with colourful maps showing the campaigns of Heraclius and Khosrau II, show the building to be in a parlous state, neglected by the Turkish government. Grant might have said something about post-Ottoman Turkish government attitudes (especially those of the current government under President Recep Tayyip Erdogan) toward the Armenians and their buildings and monuments in eastern Turkey but then I guess he’d never be allowed back in Turkey.

The video concludes by observing that, while Mren Cathedral was being built in Armenia, Arab armies began conquering the Arabian Peninsula and spread into western Asia (claiming Syria) and thence into Persia, destroying what remained of Sassanian power. Under the Umayyads and Abbasids, and then later under the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks, Islam would come to threaten the Byzantine Empire’s eastern territories just as the Zoroastrian Sassanians had done before them. Although Ryan does not say so, Heraclius’s victory over Khosrau II and Khosrau II’s execution surely created a vacuum within Sassanian politics that could be exploited by a new dynasty or by foreigners. Just as the World Wars of the West in the 20th century restructured Europe and changed the course and nature of Western civilisation, so too did the Last World War of Antiquity as Ryan calls it ended up changing civilisation in the Middle East and Persia – and would change the course of the Byzantine Empire in its later centuries.

The video is very entertaining if rather rushed in its narration with facts being thrown at viewers continuously right up to the end. Viewers may need to see it at least twice to absorb all the riveting information about Mren Cathedral’s connection to one of the most significant wars in the history of the world, one that would close off the Classical Era of Greek and Roman civilisation, and lead to the Mediaeval Era of Byzantine and early Islamic civilisation. There were some things though, that stayed the same: among them, Armenia would continue to be a buffer state between the Byzantines (and later the Ottomans) and the Persians, on whom the Armenians would end up relying for protection and much of their culture.

A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia: a visually sumptuous guide and introduction to a famous building and Byzantine civilisation

Garrett Ryan, “A Historical Tour of Hagia Sophia” (Told in Stone, 2020 / 2021)

Even as a short film, this video tour of Hagia Sophia / Aya Sofya, the most famous site in Istanbul (the former Constantinople before 1453) and the pinnacle of Byzantine imperial civilisation as a place of religious worship, political life and artistic achievement, is a visually sumptuous affair. As usual with Dr Ryan’s short videos for his Told in Stone Youtube channel, he gives running commentary on the building’s history and the reason for its construction, and points out the most important parts of the building, its mosaics and the figures they portray, and the messages those mosaics may convey which demonstrate aspects of Byzantine belief and values.

As viewers might expect, Dr Ryan’s voiceover narration, while speedy, starts with a general survey of the building’s importance to the Byzantine Empire and the context in which Hagia Sophia was first conceived by Emperor Justinian I. The building replaced a church, itself a replacement for the original Hagia Sophia built in 360 CE, when that church was destroyed during the Nika revolts that started in the Hippodrome and quickly spread to the rest of Constantinople, burning or destroying most of the city and leaving 30,000 dead in the space of a week in early January, 532 CE. The building was completed in 537 CE.

From there, the video focuses on particular aspects of Hagia Sophia’s architecture. The building complex features a massive dome built on four spherical triangular pendentives (construction devices that allow a circular dome to be built over a square room) which curve into and support the dome, and spread its weight down into the rest of the building. Other features of interest are the exonarthex which houses the sarcophagus of Empress Irene; the narthex; the Vestibule of Warriors; the Imperial Gate which features a mosaic of Emperor Leo VI doing penance before Christ for marrying more than three times in his quest for a male heir; the galleries where the Empress and her court sat to observe Masses and participate in public life; and the Tomb of Henricus Dandolo, a Venetian doge who led the Fourth Crusade (which never went near the Holy Land but instead concentrated on pillaging Constantinople). Mosaics of interest include those of Empress Zoe (reigned 1028 – 1050 CE) and her third husband Constantine IX (reigned 1042 – 1050 CE) whose face appears to have been changed at least once, perhaps to replace the face of one of Zoe’s former husbands: this juicy piece of information is one of many that Ryan spices his commentary with in his usual disingenuously neutral tone.

Brimming with photos and film of Hagia Sophia’s interiors, all done from as many angles as possible, this video is incredibly immersive and viewers can feel something of the long, deep and rich history of the building complex, its architecture, paintings and mosaics. At the same time, details such as the mosaics of the penitent Leo VI and Constantine IX with his cosmetic surgery, and the graffiti left behind by a fellow called Halfdan, most likely a member of the Varangian bodyguard corps employed by Byzantine Emperors after Swedish Varangians began appearing in Constantinople, help to bring a very human and humorous dimension to Hagia Sophia’s long history.

There are some references to Hagia Sophia’s history after Constantinople’s downfall in 1453 when Mehmet II entered the building and declared it a mosque. After hundreds of years doing sterling duty, the mosque was declared a museum by Turkish President Kemal Ataturk in 1935. Beginning in the early 1990s, parts of Hagia Sophia were repurposed for use in Muslim religious worship and after the new millennium began, there came increasing calls for the building to be reconverted into a mosque. President Recep Tayyip Erdogan declared Hagia Sophia a mosque in 2018.

The video serves as a good introduction to Hagia Sophia and the Byzantine civilisation it represents for tourists and students of classical Greek and Roman history. Those wanting more detail or information about Hagia Sophia’s post-Byzantine history will be disappointed with the sketchy details provided in the video and need to investigate other Youtube videos on the building complex.

Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II: how incompetence and bad decisions led to US defeat and Japanese occupation of the Philippines

Carlton Meyer, “Treachery by US Army Generals in World War II” (Tales of the American Empire, 1 October 2021)

While many people know that Japan dealt the British Empire its worst defeat in Singapore in February 1942, not many know that a few months afterwards in May 1942, Japan also defeated the United States in the Philippines after a five-month campaign (it began on 8 December 1941, just after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii) that led to 23,000 US soldiers and 100,000 Filipino soldiers dead or captured. Those captured ended up being shipped off to Japan in infamous “hell ships” (where they were crammed into cargo holds with little air, ventilation, food or water) to work as slave labour in factories or mines for as long as three years. Much of the blame for the disastrous US defeat can be laid upon the US Army generals in charge of the combined US / Filipino forces for their incompetent – and at times inexplicable – decisions that allowed much smaller Japanese forces to attack and lay waste US airfields and destroy valuable US aircraft and ships.

In this episode of his “Tales of the American Empire” series, Carlton Meyer concentrates on three examples of incompetent actions by US Army generals in the Philippines. In the early months of Japanese invasion of the Philippines after December 1941, General Douglas MacArthur withdrew US forces to Bataan Peninsula, allowing the Japanese to seize Manila which forced the colonial US government to retreat to the island of Corregidor. MacArthur’s withdrawal included the abandonment of Fort Wint on Grande Island at the entrance of Subic Bay. Japanese forces bombed Corregidor and after a long siege, starved and still waiting for reinforcements, US defenders surrendered to Japan. While Macarthur, Filipino leader Manuel Quezon and other high-ranking military officers and diplomats escaped capture and left the Philippines, others were not so lucky: at least 17 US Army generals became POWs.

One of the these officers was William F Sharp, in charge of the Visayan-Mandanao Force. Believing that Japan would execute US soldiers and other Americans captured in Corregidor, Sharp surrendered to the Japanese though many Americans and Filipinos under his command refused to give up and became guerrilla fighters. Another officer, Jonathan M Wainwright, had also surrendered in the belief that his action would minimise casualties and save hostages from being executed.

The actions of Wainwright and Sharp, to whom Wainwright transferred his command of all US and Filipino troops (at least until the Japanese insisted that all US and Filipino troops had to surrender, forcing Wainwright to pressure Sharp to surrender also), might be seen as being under duress, both generals perhaps not aware that the Japanese were not planning to execute their Corregidor hostages. The actions of MacArthur though, in following a pre-war plan to compel his troops to retreat to Bataan Peninsula, enabling the Japanese to capture Manila and Luzon Island and to cut off supplies to the Americans, beg for explanations as do also the actions of US President Franklin D Roosevelt in failing to send appropriate reinforcements to US forces in the Philippines. Why did MacArthur defer to a plan and not go on the attack against Japanese invaders? What do MacArthur’s failures and Washington’s disregard for US troops in the Philippines – never mind the Filipinos – say about US attitudes towards Japan, the Philippines and East Asia / Southeast Asia generally that might still be relevant to current US attitudes towards East Asia and China in particular?

Unfortunately Meyer’s narration, sticking to the chronology of the details of the US retreat to Bataan Peninsula and the actions of MacArthur, Wainwright and Sharp, does not dig into the motivations or reasoning of these men for making decisions that do not reflect well on their competence or ability as military leaders. What Meyer does though is tell a very well researched and detailed account of American error and Japanese determination and zeal, with plenty of archived film and photographs to flesh out the story.