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    Welcome to a brand-new feature of the INCspotlight, where I interview independent authors, artists, musicians, and whoever else I feel like. (Yes, I'll still be doing film/comic/etc. reviews.) My first guest is Wendy H. Jones, a crime novelist, radio show host, literary festival founder, veteran, and much more besides! So get comfy in your chair, grab your favorite snack, and enjoy my first ever INCspotlight interview!

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    INC: First up, can you tell us a bit about yourself?

    WHJ: I am Wendy, a Scottish author writing crime books set in Scotland. I live in Dundee on the East Coast. I came to writing after a career as a nurse in both the Royal Navy and the Army. I retired with the rank of Major, a title I keep until the day I die. I write as Wendy H. Jones. The "H" is important, as you get some strange results if you do a search on Amazon without it.

    INC: So I've learned in my interview prep. How did the DI Shona McKenzie series come about?

    WHJ: They say never start a book with a dream. My entire series started with a dream, or rather a nightmare. When I woke, I though this would make a brilliant crime book and started writing. Dundee is famous for its feisty women, so I wanted a feisty female lead. Hence, DI Shona McKenzie heads up CID.

    INC: Nice. For non-Scottish readers, how else does Dundee - or the Scottish setting in general - influence the story or characters?

    WHJ: Dundee is the murder capital of Scotland. Seriously it is. However, it's not as bad as it's portrayed. Dundee is an old whaling city and has a proud history of strong characters. It is built around an extinct volcano and has a mixture of old narrow streets and new areas. Very often, old and new buildings are snuggled up next to each other, coexisting happily. Dundee is known as the City of Jam, Jute and Journalism.

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    INC: How did you go about constructing the mysteries themselves and how they're solved?

    WHJ: When I start, I now who the killer is and why they do it. The books follow two strands, that of the police, and that of the killer. The reader follows the killer's journey and gets a glimpse into their psyche and their motivations. The strands come ever closer together as the book progresses. However, the reader does not know who the killer is until the end.

    INC: What kinds of research have you had to do?

    WHJ: I had to research Scottish law, which is completely different to English law. Also, I had to research various weapons, etc. I'm surprised I'm not on a government watchlist. My local police sergeant came round my house, and we had a pleasant few hours chatting about all things crime related. I also try to travel to the places I mention in order to ensure that my setting is realistic. That's fun.

    INC: I'm sure. Getting back to Shona McKenzie herself, what else went into constructing her backstory and personality, aside from her being a feisty woman of Dundee?

    WHJ: Shona is from Dundee, but was brought up in Oxford in England. Therefore, she speaks English and doesn't understand half of what's going on. This leads to some comedic moments. I asked Shona 100 questions about herself and she answered them. This gave me a clear picture of her. She also orders me about - she started of as a wine drinker until she very firmly told me she drank whisky and it had to be Talisker. She's a bit funny, a bit sharp, but can be a right softy at times.

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    INC: Has she evolved or changed over the series? And did she have any say in that as well?

    WHJ: She started off not liking men, for various reasons explained in the book. However, a romance with the Procurator Fiscal has changed her mind on this and she is much softer because of it. She did have a say, and sometimes, despite my best efforts she can be right shirty with her boyfriend, Douglas.

    INC: What about the supporting cast? How do you decide on how to balance everyone's screen time throughout the series?

    WHJ: When it comes to a police team, there is a fine balance. They're all at a crime scene, but who gets centre stage changes at each scene. Also when they go to interview witnesses, or possible suspects, Shon is always involved, but the other team member rotates. However, I need to make sure they all get equal billing, unless there is a very good reason why not.

    INC: Do you have more control over them than Shona?

    WHJ: Not really. Roy and Jason are always fighting, Russian thugs turn up and refuse to leave, there's an ex-Lord provost who is more criminal than the thugs but measles out of everything, corrupt lawyers. They are always milling around and I can't get rid of them. Seriously, these characters have minds of their own.

    INC: You also have a new series, The Fergus and Flora Mysteries. How did that idea come about?

    WHJ: I was approached by a publisher who asked if I had an idea for a young adult series of Mysteries. I said yes and pitched it to them. I signed a contract for a three book deal.

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    INC: As a writer, what do you do differently for Fergus and Flora as opposed to Shona McKenzie's stories?

    WHJ: In many ways, it is similar, but Fergus and Flora are more mysteries than crime books. I try to keep the characters real and to make them act like real teens. One thing which is difficult is the way teens talk. I can't use modern slang, as it could be out of date by next week, never mind by the time the book is published

    INC: I'm sure many future readers will thank you for that. I understand you have your own radio series, Wendy's Book Buzz. What made you decide on a radio format for that?

    WHJ: Again, this happened much by accident. I went to the radio station to be interviewed about my life as an author. At the end, they said I was good at it, and would I like my own show. How could I say no?

    INC: How indeed? Last but not least, can you tell us about the literary festival you founded, Crime at the Castle?

    WHJ: I had been long thinking about doing a literary festival at Glamis Castle and calling it Crime at the Castle. A chance encounter with their events manager, Pauline Cowdery, led to a discussion, and the festival was born. The first event takes place on 24th February 2018. Many of the top Scottish Crime Writers, such as Val McDemid, Christopher Brookmyer, Caro Ramsay, Alex Grey, Craig Robertson, Michael J Malone, and Lina Anderson will be taking part, as will many others with a mixture of talks, interviews, and writers workshops. There is something for everyone

    INC: Impressive lineup. Anything else you'd like your potential future readers to know about you or your work?

    WHJ: I also run Equipped to Write, a coaching company to help writers with both writing and marketing, and I am an international public speaker.

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    Wendy H. Jones's books can be purchased on Amazon, and you can find out more about her books at her personal webpage. Click here for more information on the Crime at the Castle literary convention, or here for information on Equipped to Write.

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    If you enjoyed this interview and would like to see more like this, or want to see certain questions asked in future interviews, I'd love to hear your feedback, either on Twitter, my Facebook page, or the comments below! I'm not accepting unsolicited interview requests at this time, but that might change in the future. In the meantime, more reviews are still to come, as are more interviews, so until then!
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    Sean Connery masterminds a daring theft in The Great Train Robbery, a well-crafted caper comedy set in Victorian England.

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    Note: This review is part of the "It Takes a Thief" blogathon, focusing on cinematic heists and capers, hosted by Debra Vega of the website Moon in Gemini. As with the Swashathon blogathon, which I participated in over the summer, I'm merely one of many bloggers getting in on this, and I hope you'll check out the other participants' work - as well as Ms. Vega's own blogs on her site. I also want to welcome my new readers who are dropping by the INCspotlight for the first time as part of this blogathon. I hope you'll check out some of my other reviews - I've done more than one caper film prior to this one - as well as the work of the other contributors to this site.

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    The Great Train Robbery is not a remake of the original silent film from 1903 (although I wouldn't be at all surprised to see someone attempt that). It's an adaptation of the 1975 novel by Michael Crichton (1942-2008), inspired by true events - and is in fact directed by none other than Crichton himself. Those of you who know him as a sci-fi novelist - particularly of The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park - may be surprised to see him associated with a 19th century heist story in any capacity, let alone directing a film about it. (I certainly was.) Crichton's writing background goes back to his teen years, during which he had a travel column published in the New York Times. He originally wanted to become an English teacher, studying English at Harvard, but he switched to medicine after being fed up with teaching standards. While in medical school, he published his first novel, Odds On (1966) under the pseudonym of John Lange. Other books followed under other pseudonyms (usually involving plays on his height - the guy was 6"9 - in various languages), mostly thrillers and capers. His first literary success was the sci-fi thriller The Andromeda Strain (1969), a huge bestseller. Many more books in various genres followed, often cautionary tales of various aspects of modern science, as well as corporate thrillers and adventure thrillers, and a sizable number of them were adapted to the big and small screen.

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    The Great Train Robbery isn't even Crichton's directorial debut. That would be the 1972 TV movie Pursuit, adapted from his own novel - Crichton refused to sell the rights unless he got to direct it himself. It got a good enough reception to lead him to directing feature films, his first being Westworld (1973), which he also wrote the screenplay for. (Crichton was reluctant to do a sci-fi movie, but deemed it his best road to a filmmaking career.) Westworld was a huge box-office success, as well as a pioneer in the use of computerized special effects. Next came the medical thriller Coma (1978), which he adapted from Robin Cook's novel, and it also was a big hit. When the time came for him to adapt The Great Train Robbery, Crichton chose to make it lighter and more comedic in tone than his original novel. (Upon its release in the United Kingdom, the title was changed to The First Great Train Robbery on account of a real-life theft that had taken place in 1963.)

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    WARNING: Here be MAJOR spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    As explained to us by Edward Pierce (Sean Connery), the year is 1855, and England is embroiled in the Crimean War against Russia. In order to pay its soldiers, twenty-five thousand pounds of gold are shipped east by train. However, the gold is kept in a bank before it's loaded onto the train, stored in two safes, each requiring two keys. Pierce, a gentleman thief who poses as a wealthy businessman, has his eye on the gold and a plan for getting it. He also has some help, thanks to his lady friend Miriam (Lesley-Anne Down) and Robert Agar (Donald Sutherland), a veteran pickpocket and safe cracker. Pierce's plan is to snag and duplicate the four keys, which requires a combination of sweet-talking, burglary, a honey trap, and a couple of extra accomplices. However, when one of said accomplices, Clean Willy (Wayne Sleep) gets nabbed, it puts the authorities on higher alert and the security measures are changed - meaning all their efforts to replicate the keys have been for nothing. Not wanting to admit defeat, Pierce decides on a daring new plan to swipe the gold from the train...while it's moving.

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    Like the best caper movies, The Great Train Robbery has two things going for it: the intricate orchestration of how the robbery is to be committed, and a cast so charismatic, you can't help rooting for them even though they're breaking the law. It's hard to get more charismatic that Sean Connery bringing his A-game, as he does in this movie. If it was anyone else in this role, it might be harder to want Edward Pierce to succeed in the robbery, given the nature of his character. Pierce isn't a Robin Hood figure, stealing from someone who the audience is inclined to root against, or settling a personal grudge. Heck, he even murders one of his turncoat underlings at one point. He's an enigmatic character who's not one to open up to people, not even his closest confidants - and as a result, we don't really get to know him either. We don't get to peek behind the curtain at what's driving him, until the very end of the film when he's on trial. (Hey, that's what the spoiler warning is for.) It bothered me at first, but by the end of the film, I couldn't help feeling like the lack of insight was all a setup to a big joke. When pressed for his motives by the judge, Pierce simply says, "I wanted the money," which cracks up the spectators. Not only is it a pretty clear motive, but Connery's delivery of said line is so perfect and natural, and delivered with just the right pinch of mockery. It almost feels like the movie is making fun of everyone trying to over-analyze Pierce and what makes him tick. I don't know it that's intentional, but that's how it came off to me, and honestly, it works. The rest of the cast pulls their own weight as well, particularly Lesley-Anne Down in what could have been a forgettable throwaway role, but this is Connery's show all the way. And no, that's not a complaint.

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    As for the caper itself, given how many heist movies I've seen in recent years dealing with state-of-the-art technology to either prevent or accomplish a robbery, it's interesting to see a theft of this magnitude being planned when those resources simply don't exist. There's no hacking, no EMPs or simulated earthquakes, or anything like that. I'm not knocking movies that use stuff like that by any means - just pointing out a contrast. It requires a completely different type of planning and very different skill sets from the characters. It means a slower pace - too slow, at times, to be honest - but the low-tech nature of the robbery against what seems such impossible odds still make for a compelling thriller. And the climax on board the train itself is a thrill to see, thanks to some impressive stunts that you can tell were actually filmed atop a moving train. (Connery did his own stunts for these scenes, which royally pissed off his wife when she saw the movie and how dangerous said stunts were.).

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    This is the only film directed by Michael Crichton than I've seen, and I'm impressed with his attention to technical detail and sense of pacing. To borrow a phrase from John Hammond (the film version, anyway), Crichton "spared no expense" recreating London's Strand Street, which cost about ten percent of the film's entire budget. It was money well-spent, as Strand Street looks like a real location rather than a film set, and the quality of the period costumes helps to sell the illusion. The Great Train Robbery was one of the last movies acclaimed cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth shot before his death in 1978, and the film is dedicated to his memory. Jerry Goldsmith's musical score helps give the film a light-hearted, comedic tone, a good example of the importance of music to establish mood. (Which makes the aforementioned murder scene stand out all the more, as it stands out completely tone-wise from the rest of the film.)

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    The Great Train Robbery nabbed a decent profit at the box office, and was well-liked by critics, who praised the light tone and the detailed costumes and sets. Roger Ebert's review highlighted Connery's performance, which he compared favorably to his James Bond films. In 1980, Crichton's screenplay earned him an Edgar Award from the Mystery Writers of America. However, this would be the last time a Crichton-directed film would be a box office winner. The next three movies he directed - Looker (1981), Runaway (1984), and Physical Evidence (1989) - were all flops, and I'm not sure whether he gave up directing of his own accord or studios became reluctant to put him behind the camera again. However, a number of his novels were adapted into financially successful films, including Rising Sun (1991), Jurassic Park (1993), and Disclosure (1994). (Connery and Sutherland would have prominent roles in Rising Sun and Disclosure respectively, and Connery passed on the role of John Hammond for Jurassic Park.) He would also help develop and produce the long-running hit medical drama ER (1994-2009).

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    The Great Train Robbery has a lot to offer, especially if you're either a fan of capers or Sean Connery. I don't know how likely I am to see this multiple times, but I'm glad I watched it, and you probably will be too.

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    My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $0.99! The price will be going up to $2.99 on January 2nd, 2018, so nab it now!

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    Anniversary reviews and posts are typically a time when I review or spotlight something I have a personal connection with. This particular year, in light of recent events, that holds especially true.

    A little over a month ago, I finally self-published my first novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, a swashbuckling adventure story set during the Golden Age of Piracy. It was a long road turning a half-baked idea for a pirate story into something complete and purchasable - we're talking at least twelve years. A lot of people have gotten my back on this project throughout that time, and even before I had the idea itself was born. Family and friends throughout my life have not only encouraged my interest in writing, but also enabled my passion for swashbuckling fiction, as well as the "factual" history they take place in, in all sorts of ways. Sometimes that influence was very direct (parents springing for fencing lessons and steering me toward a stage combat group), and other times it was more of a chain reaction. Regardless of how it happened, though, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag never would have come about without all of this encouragement, and I will always be grateful for that.

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    However, what I would like to focus on for this particular anniversary post is some of the works that have inspired my own, many of which have shown up - or will show up - on this blog at some point. The purpose of the INCspotlight has mostly been to hopefully introduce readers to what seem to be less well-known movies, books, comics, games, and so on. (And to indulge the occasional critical thrashing.) I do this not only because I honestly think you guys would find them interesting, but also as a means of paying it forward. I've gotten a lot of enjoyment and inspiration out of almost everything I've reviewed on this blog in one way or another, and I want to introduce them to as many people as possible so they in turn can check them out. What I especially want to spotlight today is some of these works that helped make my literary debut possible. Whether they inspired ideas or just kept me focused on writing when I needed it, (When my work was closed for four days straight due to a snowstorm, I spent my unexpected free time working on The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, and this was when it really started shaping up into something I could be satisfied with.) To maintain my momentum, when I wasn't writing, I was reading pirate books, watching pirate movies, and playing pirate video games. And it worked, because long after the snowstorm was over, I was able to maintain said that writing streak for months afterward. It faded after a while, and sometimes a healthy dose of swashbuckling fiction would be enough to reignite the spark again. And after many, many, many such doses - fueling countless hours of writing, editing, querying, and learning about self-publishing - The Brotherhood of the Black Flag was finally complete.

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    Ranking some of these was tough, simply because it was hard to quantify how much any of these had a direct influence on my book, or how often I turned to them for ideas or to spark a writing streak. Still, each of them played their part in some way, and I hope you'll be willing to give them a try at some point. Aside from what I owe them, they're all worth reading, watching or playing for one reason or another. Who knows, maybe these might spark some story ideas for you guys.

    So without further ado, and with much gratitude, here are the Top 10 Works That Inspired The Brotherhood of the Black Flag.


    10) Hollywood swashbucklers

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    Yeah, I'm sure this was a no-brainer to anyone who's read The Brotherhood of the Black Flag or my blog for any length of time (or known me in person), which is the only reason why this entry ranks at the bottom. (I just couldn't bring myself to single out only a couple of films for this list.) But this is pretty much where it all started, particularly The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), one of the first live-action movies I remember seeing. Robin Hood made me want to see other movies like it, from silent classics to The Mask of Zorro and the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Not only that, but the movies got me interested in the original novels they were based on (where applicable), as well as the "factual" history behind them. Long before I even started thinking about The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, I'd fantasized about writing my own adventure stories, jam-packed with lots of sword fights, although as you'll see in a bit, it took something else to get me to actually do it. And I'm not done with that just because Black Flag is finished - I've got more in the works.


    9) The King's Buccaneer, by Raymond E. Feist

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    A longtime favorite novel, I recently reviewed this one on Talk Like a Pirate Day - the same day my own book was published. This was my introduction to various deviations from tropes I was just starting to become familiar with, an important lesson for any aspiring writers working within genre fiction. There were other aspects of writing I learned from this, such as balancing a large number of supporting characters, establishing high stakes, and constructing various action scenes. I even got some solid guidance on how to pace scenes at sea, and the kinds of details that do and don't need to be included for the sake of keeping the narrative moving.


    8) Pirate Latitudes, by Michael Crichton

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    I've actually considered reviewing this novel here on the INCspotlight. However, given that it was published after Crichton's death and it's clearly not a polished final draft, I don't think I could do so fairly. (It doesn't help that I'm not a huge Crichton fan to begin with.) That being said, despite some serious issues, it had enough going for it that I read it all the way through, and it would've been interesting to see how this turned out if Crichton had lived long enough to give it some more fine-tuning. More importantly, Pirate Latitudes was one of the works I used to keep myself immersed in all things piratical during that blizzard I mentioned earlier. In fact, it may have been what inspired said streak to begin with - I honestly don't remember. If that is indeed the case, then I owe a hell of a debt to this book.


    7) The Monkey Island Games

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    A cousin introduced me to The Secret of Monkey Island a long time ago, and it wasn't until years later that I finally got my hands on it and played it all the way through - as well as the next three games in the series. They're a ton of fun, loaded with hilarious jokes and clever puzzles. (And you can't go wrong with all the Insult Sword Fighting you get to do.) Like Pirate Latitudes, I marathoned a couple of the games in the series during my week being snowbound, just to keep me in the mood to work on pirate-related stuff. In the very earliest draft of The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, there were actually two supporting characters called Threepwood and Marley, named after characters from the game, who were always bickering. Sadly, I had to cut them because I couldn't think of anything to do with them, but game creator Ron Gilbert got a character named after him.


    6) The Captain Alatriste Series, by Arturo Pérez-Reverte

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    While I haven't gone into a lot of detail about these books, I mentioned them when I reviewed the sadly-disappointing film adaptation, starring Viggo Mortensen. As for the novels themselves, I have mixed feelings about them, to be honest, despite how many times I've re-read all the books that have been translated into English. There's a ton of exposition to get through in each book, and the tone is pretty bleak (not surprising, given the author's background as a war correspondent.) However, the dialogue, the sense of intrigue and danger, and the way the characters play off each other keeps me frantically turning pages to find out what happens next and how our heroes can possibly survive the odds against them. There's also a good amount of action, and I've looked to them on more than one occasion for guidance and tips on writing sword fights, especially on how to balance describing the fight while maintaining a sense of urgency and danger. The King's Gold, the fourth and my favorite of the series, had the most direct impact, due to Alatriste having to pretend to be a pirate as part of a gold heist, but all of them played their part in one way or another.


    5) Firefly (2002-2003)

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    I'm not typically a huge sci-fi fan, especially TV sci-fi, and I had to be dragged kicking and screaming into Firefly fandom. I wasn't even that big of a Joss Whedon fan - all I knew about him at the time was his involvement with Buffy the Vampire Slayer and his undoing of the death of Colossus in the Astonishing X-Men comics. (As much as I liked the character, I thought he had a good death, and I was sad to see it undone.) But once I gave the show a try, I was hooked by the razor-sharp dialogue and the engaging characters. Heck, one episode even had a sword fight in it. Plus, it got a lot of wheels turning for some of the supporting characters' arcs, and I got the idea to write a sea shanty for my novel thanks to the Firefly theme, "The Ballad of Serenity" (as well as the more traditional "Health to the Company"). There are other shout-outs to this show sprinkled throughout the novel - I'll be curious to see how many of them Browncoats can pick up on.


    4) Sid Meier's Pirates! (NES version)

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    It took me a long time to figure out how to play this game, as I didn't have an instruction manual for it, but thanks to Google, I got it figured out. Once I did, I played the ever-loving hell out of it. Everything you can picture a pirate doing - dueling with swords, ship-to-ship combat, raiding towns, searching for buried treasure - you get to do. You also get to make or break alliances with various countries, court (and marry) governors' daughters, and you even have a sub-plot where you're searching for various family members kidnapped by various evil Spaniards. Obviously, this made for great writing inspiration, and at least one of my strategies I used in the game made its way into The Brotherhood of the Black Flag. I've only played the Nintendo version, and I know there are more elaborate remakes out there. Time-permitting, maybe I'll give those a try some day.


    3) Highlander: The Series (1992 - 1998)

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    Highlander, both the original movie and the television series, is an engaging blend of various elements that came together to make something truly special. Not flawless, but engaging and inspiring all the same. The television series in particular sparked all sorts of ideas for historical novels set in various locations and locales, not to mention tons of sword fights to study. Given how many sword fighting scenes there are in Black Flag - including training scenes - getting to see such a variety of fighting styles, as well as commentary from the fight choreographers really helped me try and make each one unique. I also liked some of the show's recurring themes, such as the line between honor and pride, or all the different ways it looked at the possibility of redemption and forgiveness for past deeds. These are themes I toyed with a bit in Black Flag, and I plan to revisit them in other stories. One of the guest actors made such a strong impression that I modeled a supporting character on him, and even named him after David Tynan, one of the recurring writers on the show (including the episode said actor turned up in).


    2) Captain Blood, by Rafael Sabatini

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    Rafael Sabatini is my favorite author, and his novel Captain Blood is one of my favorite books. (I reviewed the 1935 film adaptation starring Errol Flynn a couple of years ago.) I don't recall what exactly made me decide to track it down, or other Sabatini novels, but it quickly became one of those books I read so many times that I could just open it to any page and start reading, picking up from wherever I left off, no matter how long it had been since I last read it. In fact, I'm pretty sure that this was the book that made me want to tell an adventure story specifically about pirates, as opposed to the other ideas I had stewing around in my head. The specific ideas for the story and the setting came later, but Captain Blood was what got the "pirate story" ball rolling. That makes a book I already enjoy for its own merits all the more special to me. However, it wasn't what gave me my first real push into wanting to write novels to begin with - that honor falls to the next, and top, item on the list.

    And speaking of which, coming in at number one...

    1) Lunar: The Silver Star (1992)

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    Who knew that a game my dad just happened to pick out for me one day would have such a huge impact on me? I certainly didn't when I first played it - heck, I didn't even really understand how RPGs really worked until I played this one, and even that took some time. But something about it grabbed my attention and kept me playing all the way through, introducing me to all sorts of fantasy fiction tropes in the process. More importantly, though, Lunar was my introduction to fandom, and without wanting to go into too much detail, said introduction inspired me to try actually writing out my own stories, rather than just keeping them in my head. I shared them with the other people in said fandom, and the positive feedback I got inspired me to get more and more ambitious, to the point where I was ready to try going for something novel-length. And then Captain Blood came into the picture, which focused that effort into attempting the pirate story that became The Brotherhood of the Black Flag. I've also met several of my closest friends through Lunar fandom, who have also served as beta readers and friendly ears for my own writing, Black Flag included. Who knows, maybe something else might have inspired me to first start writing out and sharing my stories, but then again, maybe not. Either way, Lunar gave me the strongest urge to start writing and sharing my stories, so it gets the top spot on this list.

    HONORABLE MENTION

    The reviewers of Channel Awesome


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    I'm probably going to come off as a brown-noser for this one, but I'd be lying if I denied the impact Channel Awesome and its contributors, past and present, have had on my writing, including for The Brotherhood of the Black Flag. First of all, quite a few swashbucklers have been reviewed on this site over the years. Lindsay Ellis took apart Cutthroat Island, Film Brain shredded Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (even though he gave Welshy the chance to defend it), the Nostalgia Critic savaged The Legend of Zorro, and the Blockbuster Buster has busted more than one bad adaptation of The Three Musketeers. (I'd even include The Spoony One's reviews of the Highlander sequels in this batch.) Said video reviews, in addition to providing lots of laughs, have also served as writing prompts and kept me focused on swashbuckling fiction - especially when I don't have the time to watch an entire movie or play through an entire game. Beyond that, however, I've learned a ton from this site and its reviewers over the years about things to watch out for in my own writing. These include making sure there's payoff for whatever I establish, my characterization is consistent, or not to have too much or too little exposition - things like that. I've also gained greater awareness of certain tropes and their negative implications, and I'd like to think I've gotten a lot more careful about this thanks to this site.

    And so ends my fourth year here on Channel Awesome! Like the previous year, it's been a slower one than when I first started out, but I am still committed to keeping this blog going for as long as possible. There are so many works out there I want to share with my readers, and I'm discovering new ones all the time. In the meantime, I want to thank all of you for your giving this little indulgence of a blog your time and attention, and I hope it's encouraged you to read, watch, or play something you might not have checked out otherwise. And to those who have read and reviewed The Brotherhood of the Black Flag since its publication, I can't tell you how much your support means to me. I also want to once again thank Channel Awesome once again for giving me a platform to host this blog. I've learned a lot from the folks here at Channel Awesome, past and present, and I've enjoyed the time I've spent hanging out on the forums. Last but not least, I owe a special thank you to my Trusty Research Assistant for all his hard work!

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    If you haven't snagged it yet, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is currently on sale at Amazon and Barnes & Noble for $0.99, and will be until January 2, 2018. I'm raising the price after that, so get it now! Right now, it's only available as an ebook, but I am planning on a paperback at some point.

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    Take care, all, and here's to the next four years and beyond!
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    I can't give this breakneck classic comedy anything but love, baby - even if audiences felt differently when it was released.

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    Katharine Hepburn (1907 - 2003) was one of the most acclaimed superstars to ever hit the big screen, winning a total of four Academy Awards for her performances - more than Meryl Streep so far (although not as many nominations). Her legacy as an actor and the doors she opened for other women in the film industry have made her a beloved icon of Hollywood. A good deal of this came from her upbringing, as she and her siblings were raised to be independent thinkers and to speak their minds, traits that some of her most memorable characters would also exhibit. Her father was a urologist who sought to educate the public about sexually transmitted diseases, while her mother was a suffragette and birth control advocate. Her father also encouraged athletics, and Hepburn was known as a tomboy as a child - even shortening her hair and going by Jimmy. She was also a hardcore movie fan with a passion for acting, and she would stage plays with her family and friends for her neighbors, donating the admission fees to charity on behalf of the Navajo nation. Home-schooled as a child, Hepburn attended Bryn Mawr College, where she decided to become a professional actress.

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    The story of an actor transitioning from Broadway to film ought to be a familiar one by now to longtime readers, and Hepburn's led her to RKO Radio Pictures. Her first film performance was a supporting role in A Bill of Divorcement (1932), opposite John Barrymore. A Bill of Divorcement's success paved the way for starring roles, which were also successful, including Little Women (1933) and Morning Glory (1933) which earned Hepburn her first Academy Award. Hepburn, however, refused to play the Hollywood game, and she developed a reputation for arrogance. She avoided interviews or publicity photos, and preferred wearing pants to skirts or dresses. Unfortunately, this turned off audiences and critics, and her career suffered as a result. (I'm sure this sounds unpleasantly familiar to a lot of readers.) Over the next few years, her films and plays largely flopped, and sadly, Bringing up Baby's failure at the box office was another nail in the coffin - for a short while, anyway.

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    Morning Glory (1933)

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Dr. David Huxley (Cary Grant) is a meek paleontologist with two passions: the long-awaited completion of a Brontosaurus skeleton, and his fiancée, Alice (Virginia Walker) - although Alice insists that their marriage be purely for professional reasons with no "domestic entanglements." Their museum might be in the running for a million dollar donation from Mrs. Elizabeth Random (May Robson), and Alice dispatches David to seal the deal. However, David's numerous attempts to talk with Mr. Peabody (George Irving), Mrs. Random's lawyer, are thwarted by chance encounters with Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn), a flighty chatterbox. Said encounters result in embarrassing wardrobe malfunctions, accidentally braining Mr. Peabody with a rock, numerous brushes with the law, and the impromptu delivery of a leopard named Baby to Susan's Connecticut home. (It mostly makes sense in context.) Although Susan drives David nuts, she naturally becomes rather smitten with him, and comes up with various ways to keep him from going back to New York City, each more harrowing for David than the last. And that's just the tip of this comedy of errors iceberg!

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    Bringing up Baby certainly puts the screwball in "screwball comedy" - even Howard Hawks, the director, thought he made a mistake by not having any "normal" characters for the audience to relate to. Most of the appeal comes from our lead performers, Katharine Hepburn and Cary Grant. This was Hepburn's first time doing comedy of this sort, but you'd never know it from her performance. Hepburn delivers her rapid-fire lines and performs the slapstick so effortlessly, you'd think this was her regular kind of role. She got a lot of coaching from cast and crew alike, and it obviously worked. As for Grant, he plays Dr. Huxley like an overly beleaguered Clark Kent, glasses and all. (In fact, for the original Superman movie series, Christopher Reeve modeled his portrayal of Clark Kent on Grant's performance in this film.) As the fall guy, Grant has a particularly rough balancing act to pull off, playing a character you don't feel bad about laughing at while still caring about him and becoming invested in him. (Fun bit of trivia: Grant's ad-libbed line "Because I just went gay all of a sudden!" - spoken while wearing a lady's bathrobe - is believed to be the first time the word "gay" was used to refer to someone who is LGBTQ.) Hepburn and Grant have wonderful chemistry together, and one of the supposed reasons the film went over schedule was how often they'd crack each other up while filming.

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    The supporting cast gets to pull their own weight as well. The best of the supporting performances, in my opinion, goes to Walter Catlett, who plays the obstinate Constable Slocum. Slocum was a vaudeville comedian who coached Hepburn on her performance for this film. (She ended up not only getting him the role of Slocum, but also a greatly expanded role in the film.) May Robson will surely get some good laughs as Susan's overbearing Aunt Elizabeth, as will Fritz Field as Dr. Lehman, a psychiatrist who keeps getting ensnared in Susan's antics and making things worse while trying to help. I could have done without Charles Ruggles's character of Major Applegate, just because there are already a lot of characters in this film that I didn't even get to, and he's the least interesting of the lot. On the other hand, I'd have liked to have seen more of Alice and how Virginia Walker played off of Cary Grant as a contrast to Hepburn's more manic performance.

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    However, it's not performances alone that make a movie. There's a lot of clever dialogue throughout Bringing up Baby, mostly Susan's one-liner comebacks, but how much of it was scripted and how much came from all the ad-libbing isn't clear. The pacing sometimes feels frantic, always on the go and never really giving us a chance to catch our breaths. The visual effects are especially impressive - so much so that I didn't even know they used any for certain scenes. While Hepburn was fearless around the leopards used for the film, Grant was anything but, and he had to be doubled for certain shots involving Dr. Huxley and Baby. However, there were other tricks used to integrate the leopards into the film, such as rear projection and split-screen shots. They're pretty seamless effects; if I hadn't been scouring the IMDB trivia pages looking for my customary behind-the-scenes tidbits, I never would have known that said visuals were used at all. They're that good. Also, there's a neat bit of stuntwork in the final scene of the film that I don't want to spoil.

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    Despite strong critical acclaim and ticket sales in some parts of the country, Bringing up Baby was a box office disaster, and Hawks going over-budget and over-schedule probably didn't help matters any. RKO ended their contract with Hawks early, firing him from directing the upcoming Gunga Din (1939) - which starred an-apparently-unscathed-by-this-movie Cary Grant. As for Hepburn, like I said earlier, she had already gained a reputation as box office poison, and Bringing up Baby's failure cemented that rep. She returned to Broadway to star in The Philadelphia Story, which was a huge success. She ended up buying the film rights to the play and selling said rights to MGM, on the condition she starred in it. The Philadelphia Story (1940), which also co-starred Cary Grant and Jimmy Stewart, was a success on all fronts, and paved the way for a new Golden Age of her career. In 1942, she co-starred with Spencer Tracy for the first time in Adam's Rib (1942), the beginning of a long partnership - and friendship. Her last theatrically released movie was Love Affair (1994). As for Bringing up Baby, history has vindicated this film, as it's now regarded as a comedy classic - among the best ever made. It was theatrically re-released in the 1940s, where it made a decent profit, and got an extra dose of popularity when it was shown on TV in the 1950s.

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    For modern audiences, Bringing up Baby might be something of an acquired taste, but it's worth giving a try. Katharine Hepburn fans more used to her more serious or snarky roles are sure to enjoy her performance here. Give it a try and see for yourselves.

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    ***
    My debut novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now available from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $0.99! The price will be going up to $2.99 on January 2nd, 2018, so nab it now!

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    A young prince must pose as a pirate as part of a daring rescue mission in The King's Buccaneer, a novel from Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar Cycle.

    It's Talk Like a Pirate Day once again on the INCspotlight, and this year's is an important one for me, as it happens to be the day my own novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, officially becomes a published work! (Yes, it's a pirate novel. Yes, the timing was on purpose.) And to celebrate, I want to spotlight one of the novels that made Black Flag possible (even though King's Buccaneer is fantasy and Black Flag is historical fiction). I first came across it by chance at my local library when I was in middle school, and thought it might be a fun read. As I said in my review of The Face in the Frost, I wasn't that much of a fantasy reader when I was younger - not because of lack of interest in the genre (far from it), but because every fantasy novel I seemed to come across was a multi-volume series that required a time (and/or financial) commitment I simply wasn't able to make at the time. The King's Buccaneer, on the other hand, seemed to be a self-contained story, so I was more willing to give it a shot. Unfortunately, I never had the chance to finish the book before having to return it. I kept meaning to go back to it, finally snagging it when I started college. This time, now that I had own copy and more control of my time, I was able to read it all the way through - something I would do so many more times over the years, as it's one of my all-time favorite novels. It even went with me around the world when I participated in the Semester at Sea program, reading it repeatedly during rare quieter moments. (I've had to replace that copy since, due to wearing it out from re-reading it that many times.) I've gotten to the point where I can open up the book at random and start reading without needing to go back for context.

    Born Raymond E. Gonzales III in Southern California in 1945, Feist grew up an avid fan of classic adventure fiction, including some favorites of mine - Sir Anthony Hope's The Prisoner of Zenda and Rafael Sabatini's Captain Blood. (Both of those books have also inspired my own writing, just as The King's Buccaneer did.) While attending college at the University of California in San Diego, Feist became a fan of fantasy fiction via computer and tabletop role-playing games. His friends, the Thursday Nighters, either came up with either their own Dungeons & Dragons campaign or a new table-top role-playing game altogether - I've heard both, depending on what source I'm using, and I'm not sure which is accurate. Either way, the setting for this game was the world of Midkemia, where Feist would later set the majority of his famed Riftwar Cycle. The series began with Magician (1982), which started off as the story of a young orphan boy named Pug who wanted to be...um...a magician. Magician (which was released in two parts: Apprentice and Master) was the first book of a trilogy known as the Riftwar Saga, which also comprised of Silverthorn (1985) and A Darkness at Sethanon (1986). Although Pug was originally the main character, the trilogy slowly shifted its spotlight to other characters: Tomas, Pug's childhood friend who gains immense power from a suit of armor that once belonged to the godlike Valheru; Arutha conDoin, the future prince of Krondor; his half-brother Martin Longbow, who had been raised by elves; Jimmy the Hand, a daring young thief who becomes Arutha's squire; and last but not least, Amos Trask, a soon-to-be-former pirate.

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    The story continued across nearly thirty books published over just as many years, comprised of numerous smaller sagas that told their own self-contained story, while also setting up the pieces for later and greater conflicts. Some of the novels have also been adapted into comic book format, and there have even been two PC games (Betrayal at Krondor and Return to Krondor, which Feist himself later adapted into the novels Krondor: the Betrayal and Krondor: Tear of the Gods). As for where The King's Buccaneer fits into all this, it's one of the novels in the sub-saga Krondor's Sons, telling of the adventures of Prince Arutha's sons as they come of age, each in their own way.

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Prince Nicholas, the youngest son of Prince Arutha, is nearly an adult, and his father is worried about whether he's ready for the responsibilities that come with his rank. Not only is Nicholas quiet, shy, and reserved by nature - unlike his hellraising older brothers Borric and Erland - but he's been treated with kid gloves on account of the deformed foot he was born with. His friend and squire, Harry of Ludland, has a tendency to get Nicholas into trouble, but the young prince's sense of caution and indecision still troubles Arutha. Amos Trask, now admiral of Krondor's fleet, suggests sending Nicholas to his half-brother Martin, now duke of Crydee, to season him a bit. Nicholas becomes Martin's squire, while Harry squires for Martin's taciturn son Marcus. Nicholas soon settles into his new routine, while developing a rivalry with his cousin Marcus over the affections of Abigail, lovely companion to Marcus's sister Margaret. However, one night, a pirate horde attacks and destroys Crydee, ruthlessly slaughtering thousands and abducting Abigail and Margaret, along with numerous other villagers. The now-reclusive sorcerer Pug is contacted for aid, but after thwarting a magical attack, he reveals that the prisoners are hostages to ensure he - and the royal fleet - don't attempt to pursue the raiders. In order to safely hunt down the masterminds behind the raid, Trask devises a cunning plan - the rescue party will pose as pirates. Their mission will lead them to infiltrate a pirate haven, endure a monstrous storm at sea, cross a distant continent, and venture into the clutches of an ancient enemy with a plan more insidious than any of them could have possibly imagined. And Nicholas will be forced to make some hard choices to protect those he loves.

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    The King's Buccaneer has pretty much everything you'd expect to see in either a fantasy/adventure novel. We're treated to a wide variety of locations, from your standard Western medieval castes and villages to pirate havens, harsh seascapes, desert camps, and evil-infested palaces. Likewise, while there's not a ton of action scenes in the novel, there's a good amount, including both one-on-one duels, castle and ship raids, and desert skirmishes, not to mention the obligatory storm at sea (although this one is at least a magical storm). And of course, there are some standard fantasy elements, such as dragons, magicians, death-cults, and ancient gods. The story may have a "been-there-done-that" feel for seasoned fantasy readers, but as a newbie still learning the genre tropes, it was all fresh and interesting. It gets bloody at times, and there's a substantial amount of fanservice, but we're not talking Game of Thrones here. Interestingly, while Feist plays some of the standard genre tropes straight, he also plays with some. The most noticeable one is that very few of the book's romances start and end where you think they will, and the first person a character is attracted to isn't necessarily the one they'll end up with. (I've seen this in Feist's other Riftwar books.) While I appreciated not needing to have read the previous books in the Cycle to follow The King's Buccaneer, it did make me want to, on account of how invested I became in the characters and the world I'd been introduced to. I've still got a long ways to go before I finish the entire Cycle, but reading the whole thing is certainly on my bucket list, and I've re-read (or plan to re-read) all of the ones I've made my way through so far.

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    More importantly than the story, the characters were for the most part easy to invest in and connect with, and that's what keeps me coming back to this book time after time. Trying to capture what makes the characters and story engaging and exciting while keeping the summary succinct and spoiler-free is one of the harder balancing acts I've had to attempt on this blog. Nicholas makes a great protagonist, easy to empathize with, particularly his compassionate nature. It's that compassion that drives his fear of failure, not his ego or fear of disappointing his family, but his desire to save and protect lives, and not make any reckless decisions that can get people killed. (Also, kudos to Nicholas for telling Harry to stop harassing the palace's serving girls - and kudos to Harry for listening.) In retrospect, maybe it would have been interesting for him to make a mistake and learn from it, but the book already packs a lot in, especially with some of the decisions he has to make for the greater good. His reserved nature also makes it fun to see him try and act like a badass pirate or mercenary captain, sometimes more successfully than others. Fortunately, he also uses his brains as well, particularly when it comes to making friends and alliances.

    The supporting cast is pretty big, and some don't even show up until the third act, but their presence is justified, and I can't think of anyone who feels superfluous. They're all given at least some characterization and distinctive personalities, enough to make them engaging. Amos Trask in particular lights up any scene he's in, and has some of the best banter and one-liners. Harry easily could have been an annoying sidekick character, and while he starts off as something of a one-note character, he's a steady voice of reason for Nicholas, and one of the few people he can open up to. Marcus and the half-elf Calis are among the less likable characters due to their more stoic natures, and Calis is very much a Mary Sue on par with Orlando Bloom's depiction of Legolas (to be fair, The King's Buccaneer came first), but there's still some decent substance to them. And then there's the enigmatic Nakor, who rivals Trask in ability to steal any scene he's in, and who has more substance to him than one might think. There aren't as many female characters as male, and Abigail is the one character who started to get on my nerves after a while, although that seems to be deliberate on Feist's part. Still, Margaret's consistent defiance is a welcome counter-point, and the feisty street-thief Brisa has some great moments.

    As for the writing, The King's Buccaneer is solid overall, and I especially like Feist's dialogue. The plot has a lot of moving parts to it, but everything fits together, with little in the way of hanging threads, and as I said earlier, Feist manages to balance everyone's screen-time despite the size of the cast. Pacing-wise, the first two thirds of the book are solid, keeping the story moving at a steady pace, without rushing things or neglecting to establish character. The final third, however, is a bit more of a rocky read than what came before, introducing a bunch of new characters and throwing a lot of exposition at us, but it picks up again toward the end (although I had to re-read certain scenes a few times to follow everything). While none of the action scenes are particularly long, there's a good amount of them spread out through the book, the highlight being Nicholas's saber duel with Captain Render. The only thing it truly lacks is a strong, interesting villain. Captain Render, the leader of the pirates that attack Crydee, is a rather generic villain, even if he has a memorable character design, and he gets whacked about halfway through the book. As for the masterminds behind this plot, they mostly stay in the shadows, and their point person barely shows up. Although to be fair, there are so many characters to develop and explore among the protagonists that trying to work that same magic with an antagonist might have bogged things down too much.

    Whether you're into high fantasy or not, The King's Buccaneer is definitely worth your time, and like I said before, you can read it and appreciate it on its own - although if you want to read the Riftwar Saga first, by all means, do so. It's perhaps an unconventional choice for a Talk Like a Pirate Day review, but that's part of why I write this blog - to put the spotlight on various works I've discovered and enjoyed over the years so that other people can have the chance to do the same. Besides, I owe a great deal to this book, both for the immense pleasure I get out of reading it and for its role in inspiring my own writing (I'm holding off on how for a later INCspotlight post). So I hope you'll give The King's Buccaneer a read and, if you like it, recommend it to others.

    ***​

    At long last, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag is now officially published! It's available in ebook format from Amazon and Barnes & Noble for only $0.99! The price will be going up to $2.99 on January 2nd, 2018, so nab it now! (And yes, a paperback version will be coming along at some point.) All reviews are appreciated, as that's how we rookie authors build up our readership, and I'll be taking all feedback into account for future works. It's been a long road to get here, and I want to thank everyone who has made it possible, from friends and family to my awesome editor and cover artist, and all my INCspotlight readers for all your support!

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    A mad artist sets out to create his greatest masterpieces at a hideous cost in House of Wax, a classic horror flick starring Vincent Price.

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    In the early 1950s, Hollywood had been dealt a serious blow by the advent of television, with box office attendance dropping by tens of millions between 1948 and 1951. Naturally, the studios went looking for new ways to lure back the crowds who could now enjoy entertainment from the comfort of their own home. One attempted gimmick was screening movies in 3-D, a fad which only lasted for the first half of the decade. 3-D movies had their first success with 1952's Bwana Devil, an independent production distributed by United Artists. In the wake of Bwana Devil's success, Warner Bros. decided to try their own 3-D project. , a remake of Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933), which had starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. (Ironically, House of Wax's director, André De Toth, was blind in one eye, and couldn't actually see the 3-D effect.) The fad only lasted a few more years, but it's made a comeback these past few years. Personally, I'm indifferent to seeing something in 3-D, although for certain blockbusters such as How to Train Your Dragon and Doctor Strange, it works quite well.

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    House of Wax is also significant for its impact on the career of legendary actor Vincent Price (1911-1993), who is no stranger to the INCspotlight, although I haven't had much of an opportunity to talk about his background until now. Born in St. Louis, Missouri, Price was the son of a candy-making company president and grandson of the guy who patented tartar-based baking powder, which established the Price family fortune. Price first became interested in acting while attending Yale, and performed on stage for the first time in England, where he'd attended the University of London's Courtald Institute. He had a prominent role in the Gate Theater's production of "Victoria Regina," a play so successful that it ended up on Broadway, and Price along with it. Like so many of his contemporaries, Broadway led to Hollywood, where Price made his screen debut in Universal's Service de Luxe (1938), a comedy directed by Rowland V. Lee. He worked steadily in film over the next decade or so in a variety of genres, as well as on the radio. One of his more notworthy pre-superstardom roles was Simon Templar, aka The Saint, on the radio series The Saint from 1947 through 1951, succeeding Edgar Barrier and Brian Aherne in the role of Leslie Charteris's "Robin Hood of modern crime." (This is the same Saint that Roger Moore and Val Kilmer would later depict, although Kilmer's version has nothing in common with Charterisis' character other than the name.) He even shared the screen with big box office draws such as Boris Karloff, Bette Davis, and Errol Flynn, although not becoming one himself until House of Wax came along.

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    For all of Price's acclaim as an actor, his off-screen activities are also interesting to note. In addition to his acting talents, Price was also a connoisseur of wine, art (his Bachelor's degree from Yale was in art history, and he spent a year as an art teacher), and gourmet food (and he authored several cookbooks). Price was also politically active, speaking out against racial, religious, and anti-LGBTQ bigotry and labeling them as poisons that emboldened America's enemies, and he was an honorary board member of the organization Parents, Families and Friends of Lesbians and Gays (PFLAG). In 1957, President Eisenhower's administration nominated him to the Indian Arts and Crafts Board (much to the surprise of Price, who was a registered Democrat), and Price used his position to champion Native American rights.

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Professor Henry Jarrod (Vincent Price) has a rare gift for artistry, particularly carving beautifully lifelike wax figures that he considers to be his friends. His museum is the toast of 1890s New York, but it's not enough for his greedy business partner, Matthew Burke (Roy Roberts). Burke wants more sensational, macabre waxworks to bring in even more audiences, which Jarrod refuses. In retaliation, Burke tries to burn down the museum to collect on the insurance, and although Jarrod tries to stop him, Burke succeeds in destroying the museum, leaving Jarrod to die among the flames with his creations. However, Jarrod survives, and years later turns up with a new wax museum, this time delivering the gruesome thrills Burke originally wanted. Despite having sustained serious injuries, Jarrod is able to once again create remarkably lifelike sculptures with the aid of his assistant Igor (Charles Bronson - yes, that Charles Bronson). However, a string of murders coincides with Jarrod's new museum, including Burke and his lady friend Cathy Gray (Carolyn Jones). When Cathy's body vanishes from the morgue and a wax sculpture that bears a remarkable resemblance to her shows up in Jarrod's gallery, her roommate Sue Allen (Phyllis Kirk) becomes suspicious. She naturally decides to investigate, leading her to a gruesome discovery.

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    I've always had something of a soft spot for House of Wax. It was one of those films that kept popping up on classic movie stations when I was younger, and I'd watch it with my dad when it did. However, fond childhood nostalgia aside, House of Wax still holds up, even if it's predictable as hell and not the least bit scary. (I didn't even think so when I was a kid.) Vincent Price's performance is mostly what carries this movie, and it's no wonder he specialized in these types of roles of most of the rest of his career. His drawling, cultured tones and his low-key malevolence make him as much fun to watch as he's clearly having performing this role. However, for all his delightfully hammy malevolence, the opening scenes successfully establish him as a tragic figure, someone you can empathize and feel sorry for, even as he does terrible things. It helps that Roy Roberts plays Burke as utterly detestable, blind to Jerrod's artistry and consumed by greed, making it easier to sympathize with Jarrod. The rest of the cast is mostly forgettable - even Carolyn Jones, who would later play Morticia Addams on The Addams Family didn't leave much of an impression (other than annoying me with her high-pitched giggle). So it's a good thing Price has the talent to pick up the slack. Phyllis Kirk, however, does what she can with what is basically a throwaway role - and given her ambivalence to being in this film in the first place (she kept trying to get out of it, not wanting to be type-cast as a scream queen), I have to give her credit for putting some genuine effort into her performance. (She later admitted that once shooting actually started, she had a lot of fun making this movie.)

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    House of Wax also holds up technically, even without the 3-D effect. The makeup effects are decent (to the point where Price lamented he was banned from the studio commisarry while wearing it), and the cinematography makes good use of shadows during the scenes that are supposed to be creepy. One of the scenes that still stands out for me is Burke's destruction of Jarrod's gallery. The way the camera lingers over every immaculately-crafted sculpture as it's consumed by fire, backed by David Buttolph's score, is heart-rending, and does as much to make you feed for Jarrod as Price's acting does. (You'd never even know that the spot fires on the set got out of control when shooting this scene. De Toth had the cinematographers keep filming to avoid the expense of recreating the set and wax sculptures from scratch.) Also, while House of Wax isn't scary, it does create some exciting tension during the big climax. The weakest moment in the film is the scene from before Jerrod reveals his new wax museum, consisting of a carnival barker aiming a paddle-ball at the audience, accompanied by some dancing girls - a scene that only exists to show off 3-D technology. If you're not watching this in this format, it does nothing but bring the narrative to a screeching halt for a few minutes. (I've never seen it in 3-D, so I don't know if I'd feel any differently if I saw it in that format.)

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    I don't know whether it was on account of the 3-D or the film's own considerable merits, but either way, House of Wax was a blockbuster success at the box office, Warner Bros's biggest success in years. (Price attended a screening and freaked out the people sitting in front of him when the movie was over when he asked if they liked it.) Contemporary critics deem House of Wax to be among the best horror films of the 1950s, if not the genre as a whole, and I can see why. Even if it's not scary, it's enjoyable to watch, in no small part thanks to Vincent Price. Price, naturally, went on to play numerous villains in film and television over the next few decades, his favorite roles including Egghead on the Adam West Batman series, and Professor Ratigan in Disney's The Great Mouse Detective (1986). Director Tim Burton was a huge fan of Price, and not only did Price provide voice work for his short film Vincent (1982), but Burton wrote the role of The Inventor in Edward Scissorhands (1990) specifically for him. His last on-screen appearance before his death was the TV movie The Heart of Justice (1992). After his death, The Thief and the Cobbler (1993), for which he'd provided voice work, was released after a decades-long troubled production history.

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    House of Wax will most likely be campy fun for modern audiences, rather than chill-inducing horror, but it's definitely worth seeing. Vincent Price's engaging performance will surely keep you entertained, even if nothing else does.

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    * * *​

    My first novel, The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, is now available for pre-order in ebook from Amazon and Barnes & Noble! The official publication date is September 19th, but you can get it now for only 99 cents! I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I've enjoyed writing it!

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    John Barrymore once again returns to the INCspotlight as one of the world's most infamous womanizers in Don Juan, a landmark of the soon-to-no-longer-be-silent cinema.

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    Note: This review is part of Swashathon, a blogathon focusing on swashbuckling cinema, hosted by Movies Silently. Please be sure to check out the other reviewers participating in this - there are a lot of great films and film reviewers waiting to be discovered! I also want to thank Movies Silently for providing this opportunity (and to point out that a sizable number of the screencaps I'll be using in this review came from said website). And to those reading the INCspotlight for the first time thanks to Swashathon, I've previously reviewed a number of silent films and swashbucklers alike, and I hope you'll peruse some of my older reviews (and return for newer ones to come).

    Also, I'm taking the opportunity at the end of this blog to make a very special announcement I've been waiting a long time to make.

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    The legend of Don Juan (aka Don Giovanni) goes back centuries, inspiring plays, operas, and poems by some of history's greatest artisans. Naturally, the original story differs quite strikingly from the several Hollywood versions. Don Juan is originally depicted as the embodiment of vice and wickedness, a wealthy womanizer and hedonist who kills the father of one of his conquests. Later, he invites a statue of the man he killed to a dinner party he's throwing, and in most versions of the story, said party ends quite badly for our lustful libertine. Famed Spanish playwright Tirso de Molina was the first to put Don Juan's story on paper in 1630 with the play El Burlador de Sevilla (The Trickster of Seville and the Stone Guest), and France's Jean-Baptiste Poquelin (better known by the pen name of Molière) followed suit with his own production of Dom Juan (no, that's not a typo) in 1655. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart put his own take on the legend with his opera Don Giovanni (1787), which is now an opera staple and considered to be one of his greatest works. However, it was Lord Byron's unfinished epic poem Don Juan (1821) that allegedly had the most impact on Hollywood, as it depicted the character in a more romantic, favorable light, while also critiquing sexual double standards. There have been other notable writers and composers who have also been inspired by the Don Juan story, including George Bernard Shaw, Richard Strauss, and Albert Camus, to name but a few. (Even famous fictional characters have gotten in on the Don Juan action - in Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, the titular Phantom has written his own opera about him.) Barrymore's Don Juan, directed by Alan Crosland, isn't even the character's first foray into the big screen. There was a Mexican production as early as 1898 helmed by Salvador Toscano, Mexico's first filmmaker, and another from the Netherlands in 1913.

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    Playbill from the 1788 Vienna premiere of Mozart's Don Giovanni

    Crosland's film, however, holds the distinction of being the first to use synchronized sound, including sound effects and a musical score, as opposed to live music. (In the silent era, live performers provided the musical soundtrack - this could range from one guy on a piano to a full orchestra.) Filmmakers had been attempting to combine sound and visuals since the very beginning of the medium, with limited success at best. Thomas Edison attempted using a gramophone that was synched to the film Nursery Favorites (1913), but the film ended up being projected at the wrong speed, throwing off the synch with the sound. D.W. Griffith had some success using it for the opening segment of Dream Street (1921), but abandoned the pursuit of sound pictures, fearing spoken dialogue would turn off international non-English speaking audiences. It was actually the invention of radio that spurred renewed attempts to integrate sound into movies. Warner Bros., only a minor studio at the time, was a major pioneer in the pursuit of sound pictures, although initially, it was only intended to be used for musical accompaniment, not spoken dialogue. At Don Juan's premiere, the movie was preceded by a number of screened musical performances designed to show off this technological innovation, as well as a filmed speech by MPPDA head Will Hays (and yes, you actually hear his voice). Some of the highlights of these musical performances include Wagner's overture to Tannhäuser, which should sound familiar to anyone who's seen the Bugs Bunny cartoon What's Opera, Doc? ("Wetuuurn my wooooove..."), and tenor Giovanni Martinelli performing the famed aria "Vesti la Giubba." (You'd recognize it from countless films and TV shows, trust me.)

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    And speaking of Alan Crosland (1894 - 1936), his bio is also worth taking a look at. Born in New York City and educated as a child in England, Crosland started out as a journalist. He eventually got a gig at the New York Globe, writing articles for movie magazines on the side, as well as some stage acting. He later joined up with the Edison Company as an actor and stage manager, later transitioning to directing - Crosland would end up directing Edison's last movie, The Unbeliever (1918). After this, his filmmaking career was cut short by his getting drafted into World War I, during which he served with the Army Photo Service. He resumed his career after the war ended, working with the independent studio Select until 1922. Over the next several years, he bounced around between studios, including Goldwyn-Cosmopolitan, where he earned wide acclaim as a director for Under the Red Robe (1923), before joining up with Warner Bros. Crosland was on the front lines of Warner's make-or-break transition to sound, directing not only Don Juan, but the following year's The Jazz Singer (1927), the first movie to feature spoken dialogue. Dapper and quick-witted, Crosland's other claim to fame as a director was his ability to get along with just about anybody, even some of the most difficult people in Hollywood to work with - Erich von Stroheim, Al Jolson, and brothers Lionel and John Barrymore (the latter of whom Crosland would direct in three more movies after this one). Crosland kept directing movies throughout the talkies era he helped usher in, until his death in a car accident in 1936.

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    We start off with a rather twisted origin story that does a lot to explain how Don Juan turned out the way he did. His father, Don José de Maraña (John Barrymore), was a Spanish nobleman and possessively devoted to his wife, Donna Isobel (Jane Winton). When he learned of her infidelity, he naturally didn't take it well. And by not taking it well, I mean he buried the lover alive, kicked Donna Isobel out of his castle, and vowed to never trust women again - all witnessed by a tearful Juan (Yvonne Day). As the years passed Don José devoted himself to all-out debauchery, romancing numerous women at once, and apparently teaching a pre-teen Juan (Philippe De Lacy) to do the same. Unfortunately for Don José, one of his mistresses was jealous over the lack of attention she was getting, and after snogging young Juan, she stabbed Don José. With his dying words, Don José instructed Juan to take love from women whenever he wanted to, but never love or trust women in return.

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    The film time jumps to years later, after the now-adult Don Juan (now also played by Barrymore) has completed his studies and set himself up in Rome, dominated by the ruthless Borgia family. Our horndog protagonist has acquired quite the reputation as a lover, to the point where he has to depend on his servant Pedrillo (Willard Louis) to keep his affairs (often literally) in order. Said reputation earns him the attention of none other than Lucrezia Borgia (Estelle Taylor), sister to Cesare Borgia (Warner Oland), and she invites him to a party in the hopes of making him one of her conquests. However, Juan is more interested in Adriana della Varnesse (Mary Astor), infuriating the jealous Lucrezia. It doesn't help that Adriana's father, the Duke della Varnesse (Josef Swickard) is a supporter of the Orsinis, enemies of the Borgia family - and Juan thwarts an attempt on the duke's life. Not only that, but Count Giano Donati (Montagu Love), a Borgia loyalist and kinsman, has his eye on Adriana - and her family's fortune. However, such triflings aren't about to get in Don Juan's way, kickstarting his road to redemption and true love, as well as an inevitable clash with the Borgias.

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    There's a lot to talk about with this particular film, particularly the problematic characterization of its protagonist. The film's depiction of Don Juan, mostly a creation of screenwriter Bess Meredyth (who also worked on the 1940 version of The Mark of Zorro), is not your typical Hollywood swashbuckling hero - anti-hero is probably a more appropriate label, and at times, he can be outright villainous. He certainly has his redeeming qualities, such as his saving the life of Adriana's father, and it's certainly entertaining to watch him talk his way out of death at the hands of Duke Margoni - whose wife, niece, and mistress have all enjoyed Don Juan's attention on the same morning. (Pedrillo had the unenviable task of keeping them separate from each other.) However, rather than coming off like a lovable rogue or bewitching romantic, there's something predatory about his womanzing. His pursuit of women is all about self-indulgence (and the influence of his father), rather than a romantic search for the ideal companion. While most of this seems to be consensual, when Adriana promises to reward him for saving her father, he takes as a license to - there's no way to sugar-coat this - attempt to rape her. It's a disturbing scene to watch, and he drives a desperate Adriana to attempt suicide rather than allow Don Juan to have his way with her. This ends up shocking him out of his behavior and leads to his reformation, but does said redemption let him off the hook? Opinions will most likely differ on this. Don Juan's characterization can also be viewed as a cautionary parenting tale - even before Don José's discovered his wife's affair, he frequently referred to her as a prized object, rather than someone he actually loved. (Not to mention the callous way Don José teaches Juan to regard women.)

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    For the most part, it's John Barrymore's screen presence and charisma, not to mention his considerable acting talents (even if he does tend to ham it up), that make the character compelling, rather than the writing or characterization. I also have to give him props for how convincingly he plays both Don Juan and Don José as completely separate characters. As Don José, he's an imposing, devilish figure, who glowers and rages to such a degree that it's a wonder the sets don't have bite marks all over them. As our protagonist, however, he's much more languid, barely blinking in the face of threats from jealous husbands or the Borgias. (Also, his mustache has an odd tendency to change thickness across scenes and sometimes disappear altogether.) Not that he doesn't have his hammier moments, but for the most part, his portrayal of Don Juan comes over as more of as a dry, sardonic type. Barrymore's also capable of demonstrating remarkable subtleties in his performance at times, particularly in Don Juan's moments of introspection and self-loathing. For all his reputation as a hammy film actor, it's easy to forget how good and versatile he could actually be on screen. I just wish he had a more compelling character to work with in Don Juan. Nothing really seems to drive him except the pursuit of women until he decides to redeem himself, and like I said earlier, said pursuit is more predatory than romantic.

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    Don Juan also boasts a strong supporting cast giving entertaining (if not exactly restrained) performances. Willard Louis was already a veteran of stage and screen (including playing Friar Tuck in Douglas Fairbanks Sr.'s Robin Hood) by the time he was cast in Don Juan, and unfortunately, it turned out to be his last role. He passed away during production of this film, which he was making at the same time as The Honeymoon Express (also 1926). As a final role, Pedrillo provides some comic relief early on in the film as Juan's beleaguered servant. Mary Astor's performance is a complete 180 from the beguiling femme fatale she would later play in The Maltese Falcon (1941) opposite Humphrey Bogart. She's the very picture of youthful innocence and naïveté who recoils in horror at the debauchery she so frequently is forced to behold and smiles tenderly at what may be her first attraction to a man. Nigel de Brulier, who's been in numerous Douglas Fairbanks Sr. films (as well as the serial The Adventures of Captain Marvel, portraying the wizard Shazam) has a rather odd role as the Marquis Rinaldo, whose wife kills herself when he discovers her affair with Juan, driving him insane. (And to top it off, Juan callously frames him for his wife's murder. Dick.) His subplot doesn't really go anywhere, aside from a bit of dramatic irony later on, but de Brulier's manic energy keeps these scenes from dragging too badly. It's different from his more subdued, malevolent depiction of Cardinal Richelieu in Fairbanks's The Three Musketeers (1921). Come to think of it, most of the cast seems to be playing against type in this film, even the villains.

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    And speaking of villains, they deserve a paragraph to themselves as well. Our evil trio is clearly enjoying themselves as hammy, over the top bad guys. Warner Oland, who would later appear in The Jazz Singer and star in a series of Charlie Chan movies, plays Cesare Borgia well enough, although he's somewhat overshadowed by the other two villains. Montagu Love is almost unrecognizable in this movie as Count Donati, and I did one hell of a double-take when I realized it was him. I've seen him various classic swashbucklers - The Adventures of Robin Hood (1938), The Mark of Zorro (1940), and The Sea Hawk (1940) - usually playing a rather stiff, austere character of cold dignity. Here he plays a classless, leering brute - and quite a formidable one when swords are drawn. (More on that in a bit.) However, it's Estelle Taylor (who previously played Miriam in Cecil B. DeMille's original Ten Commandments from 1923) that provides the bulk of the villainy, as its her jealousy and desire for Juan that most drives the plot. And fortunately, Taylor has the acting chops to make Lucrezia a vibrant, repulsive villain. As an extra bonus, we have future screen legend Myrna Loy as Lucrezia's crafty maid, and an uncredited Gustav von Seyffertitz (who played Professor Moriarty opposite Barrymore in 1922's Sherlock Holmes - which I reviewed a couple of years ago) as Neri, Cesare Borgia's astrologer and torturer.

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    Like many silent epics, Don Juan is a lavish spectacle, stuffed to the gills with opulent sets and costumes, and cinematographer Byron Haskin uses plenty of wide-angle shots to show their scope and scale. (Barrymore's wardrobe - and more disturbingly, Philippe de Lacy's as the 10-year-old Juan - would make Jareth from Labyrinth jealous.) In addition to the visual appeal, Crosland and art director Ben Carré clearly understood how to use set design to establish characterization - compare the grotesque ostentation of the Borgia's palatial home to the simple elegance of Adriana's quarters. While the film has its issues when it comes to Don Juan's characterization, the title cards have some clever lines, and it's mostly well-paced, the subplot with the Marquis Rinaldo aside. One thing that may surprise today's audiences is how risqué it is - way the hell tame by modern standards, true, but far bawdier than perhaps most people realized films from the 1920s could get away with. Besides Juan's sleeping around, there's a lot of fanservice provided by numerous dancing girls (one of whom strokes 10-year-old Juan's leg, which is kinda creepy), and Lucrezia even has a line overtly mocking Adriana for being flat-chested. The musical score, performed by the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, is nothing special, although to be fair, music as part of storytelling in a film wasn't really a thing yet. The music was there to show that it could be done, and that's about it. The same applies to the few instances of sound effects within the film - a hand knocking heavily on a door or the click of blades during the climactic duel (not always perfectly synched).

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    Now let's get to talking about the swordplay, which was choreographed by the legendary Fred Cavens. If you're looking for swashbuckling thrills, those don't come until the third act of the movie, and even those defy the typical swashbuckling tropes. When Don Juan crosses swords with Count Donati, it's not a heroic attempt to save Adriana from being married to Donati against her will. The wedding has already taken place, and Don Juan, driven mad by the ringing of the church bells, gate-crashes Donati's bawdy wedding celebration to murder his ass. The sword fight that follows, for all of its grace and flair, is a vicious one, with both Barrymore and Love selling that they're out for blood - and there's quite a bit of it, as both of their characters get cut up before the delivery of the coup de grace. The cinematography, which includes panning shots of the combatants circling each other as they slash and parry, adds to the frenetic energy of the duel. It's a great fight, one that made it onto my top 10 list of favorite movie sword fights back in the early days of the INCspotlight. There's some more swordplay at the end when Juan crosses blades with a number of Borgia henchmen on horseback, but it's the duel with Count Donati that's the swashbuckling highlight.

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    Between the production values and the sound synchronization, Don Juan was the most expensive film Warner Bros. had ever produced at the time. While it was a huge box office hit, and the critical praise was favorable, it was only a moderate financial success in the end on account of how much it had cost to make. Don Juan's technical accomplishments were quickly upstaged by The Jazz Singer, and Errol Flynn's Adventures of Don Juan (1948) would also end up overshadowing Barrymore's, as would Johnny Depp's Don Juan deMarco. Fortunately, Don Juan was one of the first films made available by Warner Archives on DVD, and if you're into silent cinema, it's well worth snagging. In addition to the film itself, the DVD also includes all of the musical shorts and Hays's speech that preceded the film when it was theatrically released. (While the sound quality isn't anything spectacular, it's still good music, and it's fun to imagine people seeing and hearing this technical innovation for the first time in their lives.) As for me, while acknowledging its troublesome main character, I still enjoy this film, mostly on account of its witty script, entertaining performances, and the sheer spectacle of it.

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    For all its faults, particularly by modern standards, Don Juan is an entertaining part of film history that has a lot to offer, particularly for classic swashbuckler fans.

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    And while we're on the subject of swashbucklers...

    On September 19th, I will finally be making my literary debut with my novel The Brotherhood of the Black Flag, set during the Golden Age of Piracy. (And no, it's not a coincidence that September 19th is International Talk Like a Pirate Day.) It is currently available for pre-order as an ebook through Amazon.com, and I'm working on making it available in other formats (NOOK, etc.) as well as a paperback version. For updates as they come, please like and subscribe to my Facebook Author's Page, or follow me on Twitter.

    A lot of work has gone into making this book possible, and I'm truly grateful to the many, many people who have supported me in this effort - from my beta readers, editor, and cover artist to friends and family who have provided moral support - in the dozen years it's taken me to get this thing ready for publication.

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    Tiffany Brannan likes this.
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    Swashbuckling movies introduced me to historical fiction and the history behind it. The Lunar role-playing games inspired a stronger interest in epic fantasy. And the Adam West Batman series (1966-1968) introduced me not only to the Caped Crusader, but possibly superheroes altogether.

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    A lot has been written about this show, about its origins, inception, and legacy, so there really isn't much left for me to say on that. Instead, I'll go into my long-standing history with the show. I remember seeing this series pop up on various stations at different points of my life, starting very early on in elementary school. I didn't know anything about superheroes other than seeing them on other kids' lunchboxes, t-shirts, etc. Still, when I originally saw the show, I liked it for the action, the villains, and the cliffhanger endings. (Trailers for the Batman movie left me confused as to why it was so different from the show.) When I got older, I still liked the action and the villains' performances, as well as finding the humor in how eye-rolling this show could be at times. (I did, however, go through a time when I resented the show for what it did to the image of superheroes for a time, but I got over myself.) Courtesy of syndication, I've literally seen all 120 episodes of this series multiple times, and I'm one of the legions of fans thrilled that this show finally got a DVD release. (I point-hoarded on my credit card for a loooong time in order to snag this, and I was ecstatic when I finally was able to.)

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    So this show's intersected with my life on various occasions over the years, and naturally, it hit me pretty hard to hear of Adam West's passing over the weekend. (I'm especially sorry I missed the chance to see him at last year's Awesome Con, but the timing just didn't work out.) I wonder if I still would have been a comic book fan if not for this show, or if something else would have come along and made me one. Even if the latter is true, I still got a lot of enjoyment out of this show over the decades, and even if I don't owe it anything else, I at least owe it that. So for all its faults, I'm glad to see it still has its fans and its been getting new attention in recent years, between the show's release on DVD and even the Batman '66 comic book series, which I'm a big fan of. It'll be interesting to see how the show lives on and what future generations will think of it.

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    Naturally, with this many episodes, there are some that stood out from the others, and some I've re-watched more than others. Given the cliffhanger nature of the series, each entry on this list is technically two episodes, but given that they're clearly meant to be watched together,

    So without further ado, here are my Top 10 Favorite Episodes of the Adam West Batman series!

    10) "Fine Feathered Finks" and "The Penguin's a Jinx"

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    The second two-parter of the series, these episodes mark Burgess Meredith's beloved tenure as The Penguin on this show, and are adapted directly from Batman #169 (after years of hunting, I finally snagged this issue at a miraculously affordable price on eBay). Both the comic and the show involve a brilliant Penguin scheme - The Penguin's run out of ideas for crimes, so he plants a bunch of random clues in the hopes that Batman will "figure out" what he's planning and how - in other words, The Penguin tricks Batman into unwittingly planning the Pengun's entire crime and its execution. It's a creative storyline, and it was fun to see a story adapted directly from the comics (something that would only be done occasionally).

    9) "The Joker Goes to School" and "He Meets His Match, The Grisly Ghoul"

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    The earlier episodes of this series had some weak spots when it came to writing and pacing, but they also had some stand-out moments, this two-parter in particular where the Joker sets out to corrupt Gotham City's high-schoolers. Also, the villains were a little less harmless at the beginning than how they were later depicted. The Joker (Cesar Romero) has devised a scheme to corrupt Gotham's youth into lives of crime, and he's more ruthless than he would later get, willing to poison a high school girl to get her out of the way. (In a later episode, he would express concern that gas from a death trap might kill innocent passersby.) Also, we get to see a bit of emphasis on Dick Grayson as a character in this show for what may be the only time in the series, and Burt Ward gets to flex his acting muscles a bit. And for all of Batman's square-jawed straight-edged personality, there's an endearing earnestness to him when he cautions a group of high schoolers against taking the easy way out in life.

    8) "The Minstrel's Shakedown" and "Barbecued Batman?"

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    I was kinda "meh" on this one as a kid, but seeing it again, it's better than I remembered it being. Van Johnson is surprisingly menacing as The Minstrel (I'm actually sorry he didn't appear more often), and it's kinda refreshing to see the Caped Crusader to take on a villain they've never heard of before and don't know what to expect from. Chief O'hara's out of nowhere supposition that maybe Batman and The Minstrel are in cahoots, leading to an argument with Commissioner Gordon, gave both of these supporting characters a chance to shine performance-wise, and now that I think about it, that would have made for an interesting dynamic for the series as a whole.

    7) "Instant Freeze" and "Rats Like Cheese"
    (Man, talk about desparate for a rhyme...)

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    Mr. Freeze was originally a one-shot comic book villain named Mr. Zero, but thanks to this show (and probably the name change), he's now one of the more noteworthy Batman villains. He made three appearances in this series, each time played by a different actor - George Sanders, Otto Preminger, and Eli Wallach. Of the three, while Preminger is the most iconic, Sanders was my personal favorite. He's an excellent actor, and while I didn't know who he was when I first saw these episodes as a little kid, I've become much more familiar with his work through discovering classic films. For all the requisite hamming it up the role required, Sanders could be both ice-cold sinister, but also express moments of genuine pathos, a hallmark of the better writing at the beginning of the series. (Also, this two-parter is a rare instance of an origin being given to a Batman villain.)

    6) "The Spell of Tut" and "Tut's Case is Shut"

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    Any installment of a series or genre that gets me into said series/genre typically makes any Top 10 list, and the second half of this cliffhanger was the very first episode of Batman I ever saw. The King Tut episodes, with Victor Buono as Egyptologist turned supervillain King Tut, always drive the ham factor of this show up to the max, which makes them a heck of a lot of fun to watch. (Buono himself said that he loved playing King Tut because it allowed him to overact as much as he wanted to.) This time around, Tut is using extracts from ancient insects preserved in amber to develop a mind-control potion that will bend all of Gotham City to his will. I still remember seeing Robin standing on a receding plank above a crocodile pit (and having no idea who Robin was but still being drawn in by his impending doom), my very first memory of this show.

    5) "A Piece of the Action" and "Batman's Satisfaction"

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    The very first time I saw this crossover with the Green Hornet TV series, I didn't know who Bruce Lee was, let alone who or what The Green Hornet was - I didn't even know there was a Green Hornet show. I did learn about Bruce Lee eventually, though, not to mention the Green Hornet show (which not only got me into the radio series, but may have been my gateway to martial arts cinema, and that's a whole 'nother chain reaction right there...) Once I had this context, I got really excited whenever these two episodes aired on reruns. It's fun to see Adam West and Van Willaims play off each other (and for Batman and The Green Hornet to fight each other). The idea of Robin standing up to Kato, though, is laughable under any circumstances - Burt Ward was a highly skilled martial artist, with a black belt in tae kwon do, but the original idea for Robin to beat Kato in a fight was too ridiculous even for this show. (It ended in a draw). The villain, Colonel Gumm, was pretty stupid, as was his stamp counterfeiting scheme, but the Batman/Green Hornet stuff more than makes up for this. (Like with Batman, I can't help wondering if I still would have been into martial arts films if I hadn't been introduced to The Green Hornet via the Batman series.)

    4) "Hizzonner the Penguin" and "Dizzonner the Penguin"

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    Thanks to the last few presidential elections (the 2008 election in particular), these episodes have moved up a few notches on the favorites list. The Penguin has decided to run for mayor, and his charming con man personality give him a solid shot at the job. (Yeah...) To counter this, Batman is talked into running for mayor, but his focus on issues and substance leaves voters cold. (Do I really need to add any bitter snark here?) It's brilliant political parody, still relevant today, and The Penguin's troll logic during his debate with Batman is hysterical. Bonus points for Batman apparently sacrificing his life to save Robin's during the big cliffhanger resolution, which was a jaw-dropper when I was young.

    3) "Death in Slow Motion" and "The Riddler's False Notion"


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    A lot of fans don't like these episodes for some reason, mostly because they felt The Riddler was the wrong choice of villain. In the comic book story these episodes were adapted from ("The Joker's Comedy Capers," Detective Comics #341), the villain was The Joker instead of The Riddler, and I've heard a lot of people say it should have stayed that way. Fair point, but I still enjoy these episodes just because I'm a silent film fan. It's not perfect - Robin catching a Batarang with his teeth as he falls of a building is right up there with Indiana Jones surviving a nuclear blast by hiding in a fridge, and there's not as much in the way of fisticuffs as I'd like. Still, it's a fun tribute to silent films, and you can't go wrong with a Frank Gorshin Riddler episode. (Fun fact: not only does famous silent film star Francis X. Bushman guest star in these episodes, but Neil Hamilton, who played Commissioner Gordon in the series, had a long and illustrious career in silent films.)

    2) "That Darn Catwoman" and "Scat! Darn Catwoman"

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    I don't think I've enjoyed any other depiction of Catwoman more than Julie Newmar's performance in this series - not even the comic version. You could tell how much she relished her performance, and she had great chemistry with all of her co-stars, West in particular (obviously). This one, however, was the best of all her storylines throughout the series, thanks to her taking mental control of Robin and setting him against Batman. Even now, I still consider it to be one of the few episodes that actually managed to be exciting, thanks to Catwoman seemingly having all the cards in her favor. Combine that with a climactic final chase that ends rather shockingly (and Lesley Gorre performing "California Nights," which I rather like). and you have a near-perfect episode.

    And coming in at number one...

    1) "The Zodiac Crimes," "The Joker's Hard Times," and "The Penguin Declines"

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    This was the first three-parter in the series, and it was fantastic. The Joker and The Penguin (missing from the middle episode) team up to commit one crime for every sign of the zodiac. Not only was this a more ambitious crime than usual, but Batman finds himself smitten with The Joker's henchwoman of the week, Venus (Terry Moore) - she and West played off each other quite well. The second death-trap's cliffhanger death trap is among the most infamous, with Robin being swallowed by a giant clam - hilarious now, but as a kid, it was quite a shock - I really did think Robin was a goner this time. Top it off with a climactic battle in the Bat-Cave with The Joker, The Penguin, and a small army of goons, and you'll see why these episodes stand above the rest.

    HONORABLE MENTION

    "Beware the Gray Ghost," Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1994)


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    Yeah, I know, I'm cheating on this one, but come on - how is this episode not about the Adam West series? In this episode of the Emmy-winning animated series from the 1990s, Adam West guest-stars as Simon Trent, who played a superhero on a TV show called The Gray Ghost, which Bruce Wayne (Kevin Conroy) was a huge fan of as a kid - currently out of print. When a serial bomber re-enacts one of the episodes of the show, Batman turns to Trent for help. Trent actually ends up joining Batman in action, in full Gray Ghost regalia. Naturally, there are some parallels to how West's post-Batman career turned out, which gives emotional weight to West's own performance, which is stellar. Rather than being a mockery of the Batman show of the 1960s, this pays homage to it and to all the modern day fans who continue to enjoy it and be inspired by it in various ways.

    Everybody has their own take on who the definitive Batman was. Mine has changed over the years, but there's no denying who was the very first. Rest in peace, old chum...and thanks for everything.

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    This July, the INCspotlight will be participating in Swashathon, a blogathon dedicated to swashbuckling cinema in all its glory. Hosted by the web blog Movies Silently, Swashathon will be a roundup of newly-written reviews of swashbuckling films, from the silent era to modern-day entries. Long-time INCspotlight readers and those following my Author page on Facebook undoubtedly know of my fondness for this genre, so my wanting to get in on this is probably no surprise. (My choice of film to review has been on my list to review for this blog since I first had the idea to write said blog in the first place - and no, it's not pictured here.)


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    However, the purpose of this post is not to talk about me, but to call attention to the other bloggers that will be participating in Swashathon. I'm always looking for new swashbucklers to watch and read, and I'm hoping Swashathon will give me the opportunity to discover some new movies to track down. (As much as I love swashbucklers, I'm sure there's a ton of great ones out there I still haven't gotten to.) Not only that, but I'll be curious to see other people's takes on some of the ones I've seen, pick up new insights and see these films from different perspectives that will make me appreciate them even more. I hope that all my readers, old and new, will be equally curious to discover (or re-discover) a genre I've enjoyed for as long as I can remember. And if this sounds like something any of my fellow bloggers want in on this, now's the time! A lot of great movies have already been claimed, but if you put your own spin on them, take an approach nobody else is, your odds are pretty good. (They have to be new reviews, though.) If swashbucklers aren't your thing, I think they do other blogathons focused on various topics, so keep your eyes open so you don't miss your chance!

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    So when Swashathon comes around (July 14 - 17), I hope you'll take the time to not only check out my own contribution, but also discover new films to watch and film bloggers to follow. Also, whether you're a longtime fan of silent movies or looking to get into them, make sure to check out Movies Silently - there's a ton of reviews and interesting articles on all sorts of aspects of silent cinema. They post pretty regularly on twitter too - numerous tidbits of silent film history, celebrations of birthdays of silent stars, debunking rumors, that sort of thing.

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    Hopefully I'll get in another review before then. If not, I'll see you back here in July! 'Till next time!

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    Two of martial arts lore's greatest heroes team up against the Qing Dynasty in Heroes Two, the first film in Chang Cheh's famed shaolin cycle.

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    With millennia of legacy behind it, it's probably no surprise that many kung fu movie protagonists come directly from China's rich history and folklore. The titular protagonists of Heroes Two are no exceptions - Hung Hsi-kuan and Fang Shi-yu. (They're also known by their Cantonese names of Hung Hei-gun and Fong Sai-yuk. The subtitles and dubbing on the version I watched both use the Mandarin names, so I'll be following suit for this review). Hung (1745-1825) was a tea merchant who became a lay disciple of shaolin, which meant that he studied martial arts there, but wasn't training to become a monk - which was quite common in the shaolin sect. Under the tutelage of Abbott Jee-sin, Hung learned the hei hu quan (Black Tiger Fist) style, and would later create his own - hung gar. Details of the exact lineage are murky, but consensus appears to be that he taught hung gar to fellow student Luk Ah-choi, who would later train Wong Kei-ying in this style - and according to some sources, Wong Fei-hung himself. And then there were all the figures of early Chinese cinema that were students of Wong Fei-hung's disciples (including Lau Charn, father of legendary director Lau Kar-leung, who studied under Lam Sai-wing), and on it goes.

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    Fang Shi-yu, on the other hand, may be a purely fictional character, created for wuxia (martial chivalry) stories. His father was a wealthy merchant, and he learned martial arts from his mother, a daughter of one of the famed Five Elders of Shaolin. When he was still an infant, legend has it that his mother subjected him to a harsh medical treatment that made his body as hard as metal, similar to the myth of Achilles's famed invulnerability. A highly skilled martial artist, Fang was also brash and quick-tempered, and provoked a feud between the shaolin and wudan sects. He was supposedly killed either during or after the Qings destroyed the shaolin temples (I had a whole section on that planned for this review, but I cut it for length - I'll have plenty of occasion to come back to the depiction of the Qing Dynasty in martial arts cinema).

    Filmmakers, by and large, seem to favor Fang Shi-yu as a protagonist, as opposed to Hung Hsi-kuan. I can't say for certain how far back Fang's cinematic history goes, between a lack of adequate information and the possibility of lost films we don't even know about. However, there were movies about him as early as 1938, starring Sun-ma Si-tsang. Sek Yen-tsi depicted him in a series of films that ran for several decades, beginning in 1948, and Hung Hsi-kuan was a supporting character in several of these, each time portrayed by a different actor. Meng Fei depicted Fang several times in low-budget Taiwanese movies, and famed Shaw Bros. star Alexander Fu Sheng - more on him in just a bit - would go on to portray him numerous times in later Shaw Bros. movies. Still, Hung Hsi-kuan's has had his time to shine here and there. In addition to being a supporting character in some of the previous Fang Shi-yu movies I mentioned, Hung had his own television series, The Kung Fu Master (1994), in which he was portrayed by Donnie Yen. Jet Li has not only played Fang in Fong Sai-yuk and its sequel (both in 1993), but also played Hung Hsi-kuan in Wong Jing's The New Legend of Shaolin (1994) - which seems more of a Lone Wolf & Cub ripoff than anything else.

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    Jet Li as Fang Shi-yu/Fong Sai-yuk in...um...Fong Sai-yuk (1993)

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    Jet Li as Hung Hsi-kuan/Hung Hei-gun in The New Legend of Shaolin (1994)

    Last but not least, before I get to talking about Heroes Two itself, I need to go into a little bit of detail about its cast - namely Chen Kuan-tai and Alexander Fu Sheng, two of Shaw Bros.'s biggest stars. Unlike most of Shaw's talent pool, who learned their fighting skills at the studio's acting academy, Chen had an extensive martial arts background, including tournament competitions, and had worked as a firefighter before going into the movies. In fact, one of Chen's first films was one of the last of the original Wong Fei-hung movies, a series that lasted for 99 films. Following that, he joined up with Shaw Bros., and made his mark while being loaned out to Ng See-yuen for Ng's directorial debut, The Bloody Fists (1972). (Shaw recalled Chen during production of The Bloody Fists, requiring the use of a masked stand-in for some scenes.) Chen starred or co-starred in a number of Shaw's most prestigious kung fu movies, working with all of their top directors, for as long as the studio was around. He's still making movies to this day, including supporting roles in Wilson Yip's Dragon Tiger Gate (2006), starring Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse, and RZA's The Man with the Iron Fists (2012).

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    On the other hand, Cheung Fu-sheng (1954-1983) - better known as Alexander Fu Sheng - was a relative newcomer by the time he starred in this film at the age of 19. Fang Shi-yu seemed to be a role he was destined for, as there are many ironic similarities between the two. His father was a businessman who moved his family to Hawaii for a few years, where Cheung began his martial arts training. He dropped out of school as a teenager and enrolled in Shaw Bros.'s Southern Drama School, intent on becoming an actor. Chang Cheh, one of Shaw's top directors, noticed him immediately and had him train with Lau Kar-leung for six months before casting him as the lead in Police Force (1973). Heroes Two was his next film, the first of many classic kung fu epics he would act in for Shaw Bros. Thanks to his natural agility and looks, he became of of Shaw Bros.'s most popular stars, with some saying he was the next Bruce Lee. Unfortunately, in another tragic parallel with Fang Shi-yu (not to mention Bruce Lee), he died young, killed in a car accident at the age of 28.

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    Okay, that's more than enough exposition. (You should have seen the original draft - I cut a lot out, saving it for future reviews.) On to the review!

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!


    The Ming Dynasty has fallen to the Manchus, and the Shaolin temples have fallen as well. However, Hung Hsi-kuan (Chen Kuan-tai), a famed rebel, manages to escape the Qing forces. General Che Kang (Zhu Mu) is determined to see him dead, as is his top henchman, the brutal Lord Teh Hsiang (Wong Ching). Fortunately for our hero, Hung is more than capable of returning the favor to any solider that gets in his way, leaving an impressive body count in his wake. Another shaolin loyalist, the impulsive Fang Shi-yu (Alexander Fu Sheng), is also on the run, and encounters one of Che's henchmen, Mai Hsin (Feng Yi). Mai plays it smart and tells Fang that there's a murderous bandit on the loose killing innocent people, and asks for his help in capturing him. Fang agrees, and Fang and Hung meet in battle, with Hung being captured thanks to some backstabbing. When Fang leans the truth, he must regain the trust of his fellow rebels and rescue Hung from Che Kang's clutches - and small army of goons.

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    I'm not typically a big fan of Shaw Bros.'s martial arts films outside of a small handful, and Heroes Two definitely falls into that handful. As is typical of a Chang Cheh movie, the story is a simple one, revolving around the concept of camaraderie and brotherhood between patriotic heroes. (Chang directed more than 100 movies for Shaw Bros., specializing in "heroic bloodshed" movies such as this one, and he deemed it necessary to stick to formulas in order to have such a prolific output.) And thanks to the performances of Alexander Fu Sheng and Chen Kuan-tai, it works. Fu Sheng makes for a very engaging Fang Shi-yu, a light-hearted smart-aleck who is way too easily duped, but whose earnest efforts to make things right make him sympathetic. Chen Kuan-tai doesn't really get to do all that much in this movie aside from fight and be a prisoner, but his strong screen presence and solid chemistry with Fu Sheng make what we see of him all the more enjoyable. As for our villains, Zhu Mu and Wong Ching certainly look and act menacing, and we get to see Fung Hak-on and Feng Yi, veteran henchmen of many a kung fu movie, among the movie's mini-boss squad. Fong Sam makes the most of what little she gets to do as the one female character in the movie, a rarity for this genre. Hers is the most down-to-earth performance - as is typical of the genre, the rest of the cast, even the best performers, have a tendency to ham things up.

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    Although the film makes plenty of time for character establishment and to establish the relationships between them, there's still a ton of fight scenes in this movie, choreographed by Lau Kar-leung, who frequently collaborated with Chang Cheh. For the most part, they're pretty good when our leads are taking on a bunch of Qing henchmen - or each other. Alexander Fu Sheng's grace and flexibility contrasts well with Chen Kuan-tai's raw power and ferocity. Unlike Hollywood fight scenes, the takes are long and shot with wide-angle framing so as to capture the fighters' movements. (In an interview, Chen Kuan-tai stated that action shots could contain anywhere between 15 - 60 specific moves. One such 60-move shot required nine takes to get right.) It's only when they go up against the main villains that the action falters. Zhu Mu and Wong Ching look formidable, but their moves are painfully stiff and slow, and they don't come off as impressive fighters as a result. (Maybe I'm just spoiled by the likes of later villain actors.) I'm also disappointed that Fung Hak-on, who plays one of the main underlings, doesn't get to show what he can do in this film as a fighter - he's just a punching bag. I've seen this guy credibly go up against Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, and Donnie Yen, so I was hoping he would have picked up some of the slack from the other bad guy actors, but nope. If the villains had been better screen fighters, Heroes Two might have knocked Heroes of the East (1979) from it's "favorite Shaw Bros. movie" spot.

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    Heroes Two has its technical merits as well, as do most Shaw Bros. films. It's a grand spectacle to look at, thanks to detailed sets, lavish costumes, and dozens of extras, all vividly shot by cinematographer Kung Mu-to. A student of Japanese jidai geki and chanbara cinema, Chang Cheh borrows one of their techniques during the final battle, using a red filter to de-emphasize the blood and gore when a redshirt gets killed by an enemy mook. Wang Fu-ling's musical score is catchy (almost too catchy - I've had it stuck in my head ever since I watched this), reminiscent of an old Hollywood Western. Long-time readers know I'm quite picky about pacing, and Heroes Two strikes the kind of balance that I like. The action scenes are exciting enough that they don't drag, and the ones with the villains who can't screen fight that well are thankfully short, and the character building scenes keep me invested without feeling like filler in between people getting beaten up.

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    Hitting theaters in January 1974, Heroes Two made decent money at the Hong Kong box office, and as I said before, it launched a whole series of Chang Cheh films about the survivors of the shaolin temple continuing their fight for freedom. Among kung fu movie fans, particularly of Shaw Bros. movies, Heroes Two is well regarded, and even though it won't go on my favorites list, I'll probably want to see it again at least a couple of times at some point. If you're interested, it's been released on DVD with both English dubbing and a Chinese language track with English subtitles, whatever you prefer. It's also available for viewing for free if you have an Amazon Prime account, although there's only an English dubbed option.

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    Hardcore kung fu movie fans will surely enjoy Heroes Two on account of its plentiful action and the chance to see Shaw's top talent at work. If you're a newbie, it makes for a decent introduction to the genre. Either way, it's worth a watch.

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  11. [​IMG]

    Jimmy Stewart is at his most charming in Harvey, a delightful little comedy about a man whose best friend is an invisible six-foot-tall rabbit.

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    Of all the stars the Golden Age of Hollywood produced, James Stewart (1908-1997) is among the most beloved and renowned. Born in Indiana, Stewart got his start as an actor while attending a boarding school in Pennsylvania. joining a drama club and choir among other extra-curricular activities. Although he spent his first summer break back home working construction, he would spend the following two summers on stage with his friend, a stage magician - not as an actor, but musician, as he'd learned to play the accordion and piano as a child. At his father's insistence, Stewart attended Princeton instead of the United States Naval Academy, becoming the only freshman allowed to perform in Princeton's Triangle Club. He majored in architecture, but doubted whether he'd be able to find work in that field in the wake of the Wall Street Crash of 1929 that kicked off the Great Depression. Some college friends of his got him a gig with a summer stock group called the University Players, although he mostly worked as crew, building and designing sets while getting the occasional bit part. The Players made their way to New York in 1932 for a Broadway gig, and Stewart went with them, rooming with fellow future Hollywood star Henry Fonda, who would be a lifelong friend of his. Stewart began getting more and better roles in a variety of Broadway productions from 1932 through 1934, and he made his film debut in 1934 in the Warner Bros. short Art Trouble (1934), starring Shemp Howard. However, it was his performance in the Broadway production of Yellow Jack (1934) that earned him a shot at a screen test - and a contract - with MGM

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    Despite his acting talents, Stewart found it hard to snag decent roles on account of his natural shyness and stuttering voice (later to be hallmarks of his more famous early roles), and at first, he was used more often for screen-testing other actors. His first film with MGM, The Murder Man (1935), had him playing a supporting role opposite Spencer Tracy, but it wasn't well-received. His next few films were hit-or-miss, spread out over several different genres, including playing nicely against type in After the Thin Man (1936). However, things started to change for Stewart when MGM loaned him out to Columbia at the request of Frank Capra, who thought he'd be ideal to star in You Can't Take in With You (1938). The film was a huge critical and box-office success, even winning Best Picture at the Academy Awards (as did Capra for Best Director). In 1939, Stewart and Capra teamed up again for Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, which was also a big hit, earning Stewart his first Academy Award nomination. Next came his first Western, a genre he'd be closely identified with later on, Destry Rides Again (1939). More hits followed, including The Philadelphia Story (1940), his only Oscar win (and one he felt was undeserved). Although his father repeatedly tried to get him to quit acting, Stewart nevertheless sent him his Oscar statuette, which he proudly displayed in his store.

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    James Stewart, Cary Grant, and Katharine Hepburn in The Philadelphia Story (1940)

    However, it wasn't his father's wishes that compelled him to leave Hollywood for a time, but the impending outbreak of World War II. (As much as I'd love to cover Stewart's distinguished military service, I I think that's best saved for a different review, just for pacing purposes - this section's getting pretty long as it is.) After the war, Stewart struggled not only with rebuilding his Hollywood career, but also with PTSD - something he was able to channel into his vivid performance in Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life (1946), his first role in five years and one of his best remembered. Unfortunately, It's a Wonderful Life was a commercial flop, as were his next few movies. He returned to the stage to take over the leading role in Harvey, a hugely successful play penned by Mary Coyle Chase. Stewart stayed with the production for three years, and when Universal decided to bring it to the big screen, Stewart came along with it, as did Josephine Hull, who played his long-suffering sister. Harvey's stage success meant a huge payout for the film rights, but it was money well spent, given the quality of the film.

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    It's a Wonderful Life (1946)

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Not many people have a rabbit as a best friend - particularly a pooka, a benevolent but mischief-prone figure from Irish lore, who manifests itself as an invisible six-foot-tall talking rabbit. Elwood P. Dowd (Jimmy Stewart), a wealthy, middle-aged eccentric claims to be such a man, referring to his dear friend as "Harvey." Dowd takes great pleasure in introducing Harvey to everyone he happens to strike up a conversation with, and not surprisingly, most people are put off by a middle-aged man with an imaginary pal. His sister, Veta Simmons (Josephine Hull), is increasingly despondent over the impact Harvey is having on his niece Myrtle Mae (Victoria Horne)'s social prospects, and she decides to have Elwood committed. However, when she tells Dr. Sanderson (Charles Drake) about Harvey, Sanderson believes she's the crazy one and ends up committing her instead. A clever comedy of errors of all sorts ensues, as Dr. Sanderson and his nurse Kelly (Peggy Dow) and short-tempered orderly Mr. Wilson (Jesse White) try to track Dowd down. In the midst of the chaos, we discover that maybe Harvey isn't as imaginary as everyone thinks he is...

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    The role of Elwood P. Dowd seems like it would be a very easy one to overplay, even for the best of actors. Fortunately, this is Jimmy Stewart we're talking about, who strikes the right balance a role like this requires. It's not just how he talks and listens to Harvey, but his artful movement and body language, which does a lot to sell his belief that Harvey is right there with him. Another thing that makes his performance - and the film as a whole - work for me is how well Stewart brings out Dowd's naturally gentle, kindly personality. He conveys a sincere interest in meeting new people, wanting to get to know them over a drink or dinner, and listening to whatever they may have to say.

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    The rest of Harvey's cast pull their own weight quite well, and I don't think there's any dead weight among them. Josephine Hull is hysterical as Veta, especially in the aftermath of being mistaken for a mental patient. However, she also has her sweeter moments as well, particularly at the end of the film. (Stewart said that Hull had the hardest role, having to believe and not believe in Harvey at the same time.) Charles Drake and Peggy Dow are the straight men of the show, the calming voices genuinely concerned with Dowd's well-being and wanting to understand him better. I wouldn't say they have the most smoldering chemistry with each other, but what we get is certainly serviceable, and most likely appropriately limited by the demands of their scripted personalities. However, they also demonstrate perfect comedic timing in numerous scenes, and they pull it off so naturally, with nothing even close to a knowing wink to the audience. Cecil Kellaway's performance as Dr. Chumley, the straitlaced administrator of the asylum, also has a lot of warmth to it, especially when he discovers the truth about Harvey.

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    Aside from the performances, Harvey holds up well on a technical level as well. It strikes that perfect sweet spot between not rushing and not dragging. At Jimmy Stewart's suggestion, cinematographer William H. Daniels used wide shots whenever Harvey was "in frame," which I thought was a clever touch. However, like everything else about the film, it's a subtle one, and one I don't think I'd have picked up on had I not known that little detail beforehand. The filmmakers had considered having Harvey appear at the very end of the movie, but this decision was widely scrapped. The first time this had been tried on stage was also the last, due to the scathing audience feedback. As for the comedic elements, I've found that it's hard to talk about the brilliance of a really good comedy, particularly when it comes to timing and deadpan delivery of some clever lines, so you'll just have to take my word on that part. (This is one reason I don't review more comedies.)

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    Harvey wasn't a bomb, but it wasn't a huge hit either, and the cost of the film rights to the play ate up quite a bit of the film's profits. It did attract strong critical acclaim, with Stewart earning his fourth of five Academy Award nominations, and Josephine Hull taking one home for Best Supporting Actress. However, one critic felt that it was too easy of a role for Stewart, who was basically playing his same-old screen persona. This may have been what prompted Stewart to take on more challenging and darker roles later on, including Westerns and numerous Alfred Hitchcock thrillers. His performance in Harvey remained among his favorites, however, and when it was released on VHS in 1990 (which went on to be a huge seller), he recorded a special introduction to the film. If you want to catch it, it's been released on both DVD and blu-ray, and it looks like you can snag it at a decent price - and, of course, there's always TCM if you have it.

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    I really can't think of a better way to describe Harvey other than "sweet." It's a delightful little comedy with lots of charm to it, and one I definitely recommend.

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    Sodapopcorn likes this.
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    Sir Francis Drake fights for queen and country in Seven Seas to Calais, another film that tries to recapture the magic of the Golden Age of swashbucklers.

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    Drake (1540? - 1596) is one of history's more renowned action-adventure heroes, although the real Drake was more villain than hero. His family worked on the estate of Lord Francis Russell, who held the title of Earl of Bedford, and Drake himself was apprenticed to a merchant, learning seacraft and navigation when accompanying said merchant on his international travels. Some members of Drake's family had gotten into the privateering business and recruited him, as he had a talent for seamanship, and eventually Drake was commanding his own ship. His piracy career began with slave trading, and he developed a seething hatred of Spain after a near escape in Mexico that got most of his men killed. He received his commission as a privateer from Queen Elizabeth I in 1572, and kicked off his new line of work with a successful raid on Panama, despite being seriously wounded in the fray. It was during his years of service to Elizabeth that Drake became the first Englishman to circumnavigate the globe, a mission the queen secretly assigned him. He continued to plunder Spanish ships and towns, culminating in his defeat and destruction of the Spanish Armada in 1588. (History would repeat itself decades later when the British navy sank another Spanish armada at the Battle of Cape Passaro in 1718.) Drake died in 1596 during a failed military expedition to Panama, buried at sea in a lead coffin which to this day has never been found.

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    Drake's notoriety, particularly the slave trading, is probably why he rarely features as a main protagonist in fiction, instead relegated to supporting roles or character backstory. Pulp hero Solomon Kane, one of Robert E. Howard's numerous creations, served under Drake at one point in his career, and was present for his infamous execution of Thomas Daughty, one of Drake's co-commanders. Nathan Drake, the protagonist of the Uncharted video game series, is a direct descendant of Sir Francis, and was inspired by the exploits of his famous ancestor. There have also been fictional pastiches of Drake, such as Errol Flynn's character of Captain Geoffrey Thorpe in The Sea Hawk (1940), widely considered to be one of the greatest swashbuckler movies ever made. (Yes, I'll be getting to this one.) Other than that, if you're looking for fiction about Drake, especially with Drake as the main character, Seven Seas to Calais might be one of your only bets.

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    Errol Flynn as Captain Geoffrey Thorpe, a Drake pastiche, in The Sea Hawk (1940)

    To play Drake, MGM brought aboard Rod Taylor (1930-2015), who had originally made a name for himself as an actor in his native Australia. He started off in radio before making his big screen debut in King of the Coral Sea (1954), which became one of the most financially successful Australian films of the 1950s. He was soon on his way to Hollywood, where he continued to be cast in a number of supporting roles in movies and guest appearances on television, including an episode of The Twilight Zone. In 1960, he made his starring role debut in The Time Machine, which was a solid hit. Although the next film he starred in, Colossus and the Amazon Queen (1960) wasn't anything to brag about, critically or commercially, he followed it up with voicing Pongo in the Disney classic One Hundred and One Dalmatians, which fared much better on both fronts. His performance in the TV series Hong Kong earned him favorable press, and later would help land him the starring role in Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963). Taylor would continue to work for MGM over the years, continuously racking up screen credits in film and television. (He would have played the role of Roper in 1973's Enter the Dragon, opposite Bruce Lee, had he not been deemed too tall for the role.) His last on-screen appearance was a cameo in Quentin Tarantino's Inglorious Basterds (2009), in which he played Winston Churchill.

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    On a dark night in Plymouth, 1577, young nobleman Malcolm Marsh (Keith Mitchell) tries to rescue a man from Spanish assassins. The rescue fails, but the man has time to give Marsh a message for Captain Francis Drake (Rod Taylor) before he dies. Marsh fights his way to where Drake's ship is docked, eventually rescued by Drake and his crew. The message turns out to be a map of Spanish gold mines in the New World, and Drake petitions Queen Elizabeth (Irene Worth) for permission to raid the mines. Drake sets sail, Marsh joining his crew after saying what I'm sure was supposed to be a tearful, heartfelt farewell to his fiancée, Arabella Ducleau (Edy Vessel). Under Drake's command, Marsh contends with Spanish forces, a mutinous crew, and tumultuous seas during their many travels across the globe. But while Drake's away, there's intrigue afoot, courtesy of a Spanish plot to assassinate Elizabeth and secretly assemble a mighty Spanish armada in preparation for war with England. Not only that, but the treacherous Lord Babington (Terence Hill) is part of the conspiracy, and he plans to use Arabella as a dupe to help carry it out.

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    It's hard for me to say whether I liked Seven Seas to Calais, or whether I thought it was good overall. There are some aspects of the film that are quite well done, and some that aren't. When critiquing the flaws, there are some mitigating factors that need to be kept in mind. For one thing, this production was clearly hampered by a low budget - one of the reasons it was shot in Italy and used local talent - although this is an obstacle I've seen numerous other films overcome. Then again, while Seven Seas to Calais lacks the visual splendor and spectacle of MGM's earlier swashbucklers from the 1940s and 1950s (which I've criticized before for emphasizing style over substance), the end result is something of a gritty realism. This was also the last film to be directed by Rudolph Maté (1898 - 1964), who started off as a cinematographer during the Silent Era before switching to directing in the late 1940s. In fact, Maté didn't even direct the entire film - he shares a director's credit with Primo Zeglio, who had already directed a number of pirate films and swashbucklers before this one. Maybe two different directors with different styles account for some of the film's issues, although this could have been overcome with a stronger script.

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    I have to give Seven Seas to Calais props for Taylor's strong performance as Drake, which did a lot to keep me engaged. He's convincing as a swashbuckling hero, something I can't say about others who have tried following in the footsteps of Errol Flynn, such as Cornel Wilde, Robert Taylor, or Kerwin Matthews. He's decent with a sword, handles his dialogue naturally, and walks a fine line between taking his role as a historical action hero seriously without forgetting to have some fun with the role. Taylor is particularly effective at conveying a sense of melancholy and internal conflict in some of the film's quieter moments. Keith Mitchell is...okay as Marsh. He's a bland character, but not unbearable to put up with. The same, however, cannot be said for Edy Vessel, delivering her lines in a terrible French accent without much in the way of conviction. (She might have just been badly dubbed, but I can't find anything to confirm this.) It would have been bad enough if she was just a thrown-in romantic interest, just there to look pretty and not contribute much to the plot (a fate that has befallen quite a few actresses in this genre, unfortunately). Unfortunately, she plays a crucial role in the plot, so the role really should have gone to an actress capable of delivering a stronger performance. (I did, however, like how when Marsh was indignant with her spending time with Babington, she called him on it by pointing out his dalliance with a native girl during his travels.) Likewise, Terence Hill as Babington and Arturo Dominici as the Spanish ambassador, Don Bernardino de Mendoza, are rather weak antagonists, lacking any real sense of menace, which hurts the film in the climax. On the other hand, veteran stage actress Irene Worth simply shines as Queen Elizabeth, playing her as a wily, clever ruler who knows which face to put on when.

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    The film's premise certainly sounds exciting on paper, and indeed, Seven Seas to Calais starts off strong in terms of building solid dramatic tension. As soon as the opening credits end, we get mysterious strangers meeting on the night-shrouded streets of Plymouth, armed Spanish agents on the prowl, a mysterious message for Captain Drake, and some decent swordplay. The sense of intrigue and adventure is maintained throughout the first half of the movie, especially thanks to an attempted mutiny and a well-filmed raid on a gold mine. (Drake's duel with the mutinous Corrigan was my favorite of the action scenes - a good, lengthy duel with solid bladework by both actors.)

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    Unfortunately, the second half gets bogged down with story and editing issues; Drake's adventures eventually just become a series of events, choppily edited together between scenes of the Spanish plotting against Elizabeth. The climactic rescue of Queen Elizabeth and the attack on the Spanish Armada are disappointingly lackluster, especially when compared to the earlier action scenes, and the destruction of the armada in particular is woefully anti-climactic. Some plot threads have some interesting build-up that don't pan out well enough, such as the rivalry between Marsh and Babington, or the consequences of Arabella's unwitting involvement in the plot against Elizabeth. It's enough to make you wonder why the filmmakers even bothered putting these scenes in the movie. The interlude on the island is particularly cringe-worthy on account of its stereotypical imagery and the comedic shift in tone that feels like it belongs in the film. (And while Drake is credited as one of the people who supposedly introduced the potato to England, I'd be willing to bet it wasn't named for a native girl who had the hots for his first mate. Yes, there's actually a character named Potato in this movie.) Last but not least, Franco Mennino's musical score is okay, but way too repetitive, and it's hard to not notice this.

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    For all its faults, Seven Seas to Calais raked in a decent profit for MGM. On a budget of about $650,000, it raked in over $2 million at the box office, half of it from overseas attendance. I wasn't able to find any reviews from when it was released, so I don't know how it was received critically, although Jeffrey Richards praised the swashbuckling elements of the film in Swordsmen of the Screen. The film was released on DVD in 2012, courtesy of the Warner Archives, and every once in a while, you can find it on Turner Classic Movies (which is how I saw it). As for me, while I think Seven Seas to Calais had some excellent moments, particularly earlier on in the film, the whole isn't better than the sum of its parts, and it missed its potential to be better than it was.

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    I certainly wouldn't call Seven Seas to Calais unwatchable, and it's better than other MGM swashbucklers I've seen, but it does have its issues. My advice: catch it on TCM some time and make your own call.

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  13. [​IMG]

    A southern teacher attempts to save a local school in Within Our Gates, the oldest known surviving film by Oscar Micheaux.

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    I am by no means a film expert, and even when it comes to favorite genres and filmmakers, I have huge gaps in my knowledge base. That being said, Oscar Micheaux (1884 - 1951) is a name I'm surprised I didn't hear sooner than I did, as he was the first African-American to ever direct a feature-length movie. Different sources have provided contradictory details about his early life, even including how many siblings he had, so I apologize for any inaccuracies in my standard brief bio. The son of former slaves, Micheaux (originally Michaux) was born on a farm near Metropolis, Illinois, but the family quit the farming life either to give the kids access to good education or because of money woes (most likely a combination of the two). At the age of 17, he moved to Chicago, working as a porter (among other jobs) before buying some land in South Dakota, becoming a lone black homesteader among white neighbors. This new venture lasted two years before a drought forced him out of business. Micheaux turned to writing novels, his first being The Conquest: The Story of a Negro Pioneer (1913), based on his experiences as a sharecropper. He established his own publishing company to print them and went door-to-door selling copies of his novel, which he later reworked as The Homesteader in 1917.

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    Soon after its publication, The Homesteader got the attention of the black-owned and managed Lincoln Motion Picture Company, and they tried to negotiate with Micheaux for the movie rights. However, the deal fell through when they wouldn't let Micheaux direct The Homesteader himself. Instead, Micheaux establishing his own filmmaking enterprise, adapting his own novel into a feature-length film. Within Our Gates was his next film, and the one he's most famous for. It's commonly considered to be a counter-point to D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (1915), although Micheaux himself denied this intent. He kept directing films for the next twenty years - including Body and Soul (1924), in which Paul Robseon made his film debut - all the way through the sound era, during which he became the first African-American to direct a talkie (1931's The Exile), directing over 40 movies throughout his career. As a filmmaker, Micheaux used the medium to depict the realities of contemporary black life in America. In addition to criticizing systemic racism and bigotry and challenging stereotypical depictions of African-Americans, his work also bluntly depicted class and gender struggles within African-American communities themselves, while also vociferously condemning "Uncle Tom" type characters who sold out their fellow African-Americans to gain favor with white bigots. Micheaux was also greatly influenced by the writings of Booker T. Washington, and his works reflect the idea of the self-made person.

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    Within Our Gates falls under the category of "race films," a label used most commonly to refer to movies targeting African-American audiences and featuring predominantly African-American casts and crews. Some of this was a result of segregation laws, which banned African-Americans from going to the same theaters as whites. (While these laws were more common in the south, northern theaters would also segregate black audience members, either delegating them to separate sections of the theater or only allowing them to attend particular showtimes.) That same bigotry also closed doors to African-American filmmakers looking to get their films produced and distributed, meaning they had to do it all themselves, and with much fewer resources. Unfortunately, many of these early films were lost (although Kino Lorber is working on restoring what can be found). In fact, Within Our Gates was thought to be a lost film for a long time until a print of it was found in Spain in the 1990s, and it remains the oldest surviving full-length movie directed by an African-American. The title cards had to be recreated, translated from Spanish and worded based on Micheaux's writing style from his novels.

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Sylvia Landry (Evelyn Preer) is visiting her cousin Alma (Flo Clements) up north. She's eagerly awaiting the return of her fiance Conrad (James D. Ruffin), who is due to return home from army service in Europe after World War I any day now. However, Alma has her eye on Conrad herself, and successfully engineers a rift between the two. She also plots to set up Sylvia with her brother-in-law Larry (Jack Chenault), a gambler and crook. In the wake of all this, Sylvia sadly returns down south to Piney Woods, "where ignorance and the lynch law reign supreme," to quote one of the film's inter-titles. The local school for African-American children, run by Reverend Jacobs, is faced with closure due to crowding and neglectful state officials who refuse to provide adequate funding. A teacher herself, Sylvia decides to head back up north to raise funds for the school, without much initial success at first.

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    After a series of remarkable coincidences, she secures the funds with the aid of Dr. Vivian (Charles D. Lucas), who falls in love with Sylvia. The money actually comes from Mrs. Elena Warwick ("Mrs. Evelyn" - yes, that's how she's credited), a white anti-segregationist. All seems lost, however, when Mrs. Warwick seeks the advice of Mrs. Geraldine Stratton (Bernice Ladd), a bitter opponent of the suffrage movement who fears that educated black women will one day get the right to vote. (Within Our Gates was released on January 12, 1920; the Nineteenth Amendment, which gave women the right to vote, would not be ratified until August 18 of that same year.) She tries to persuade Mrs. Warwick that education won't do African-Americans any good, that they can't handle it, the usual bigoted claptrap. However, in the end, Mrs. Warwick decides to make the donation anyway and save the school (going far above and beyond the amount Sylvia needed to raise in the process). We then find out why saving the school was so important to Sylvia. As a child, her attending school allowed her to help her father (William Stark) manage the family finances and discover he was being cheated of his wages by his boss, Mr. Girdlestone (Ralph Johnson). When Girdlestone was murdered, his black servant Efram (E.G. Tatum), fearing he'd be falsely accused, pinned the blame on the Landrys, leading to their deaths. Oh, and there's also a love triangle between Sylvia, Dr. Vivian, and Reverend Jacobs.

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    Given the times and the circumstances under which it was made, Within Our Gates is a remarkable achievement. Quite a few cast members only acted in a small handful of films before and after this one, and for others, this would be their on-screen performance. Evelyn Preer, a former stage actress who carries the film quite well, is the only one who seems to have continued acting in the long-term. The rest of the cast is pretty good; their performances are low-key when compared to other silent era performances I've seen, which I think is appropriate for a film such as this. The standout performance for me was Old Ned's, and I wish I had been able to find out who played him. His performance at the end of his scene, in which he berates himself for selling out his fellow African-Americans, is heart-wrenching to watch. Writing-wise, although there's a lot of plot crammed in, Within Our Gates does an effective job of getting its message across, and Micheaux isn't afraid to be blunt about it. Inspired by the writings of Booker T. Washington, Micheaux preaches a message of pulling one's self up by the bootstraps. As contemptable as the instituonalized racism depicted in the film is, Micheaux also lays part of the onus on the African-American community to rise above their stereotypical image, and presents education as the key to achieving their full potential.

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    For all the merits of its message, cinematically, this film has some issues. Like I said, there's a lot of story crammed into the 80-minute running time (including several sub-plots I didn't cover for the purposes of conciseness), and not all of it fits together. For instance, Sylvia's backstory isn't introduced until after she's gotten the money for the school and the main conflict has been resolved, and it's presented as something of an "oh yeah, I should probably address this" afterthought. Likewise, as emotionally moving as the scene with Old Ned is, particularly the closing of the scene, it doesn't really have anything to do with our main characters. I certainly don't object to those scenes being included in the film, but I would have liked for them to have been fit into the narrative a bit more smoothly. In all fairness, however, not only was Micheaux still an inexperienced film director by this point (again, this was only his second film), but film itself was still a young medium. Also, Micheaux was on a tight budget, unable to reshoot scenes, so that's something that needs to be taken into context in the interest of fair criticism. (It's also possible that current prints of the film may not be complete; there may be some missing scenes out there that might have addressed the cohesiveness issues.)

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    Micheaux didn't have an easy time getting Within Our Gates released. Censors in Chicago and Omaha, still reeling from recent race riots, were among the cities that initially blocked its release. They claimed they were concerned that the depictions of lynchings, mob violence, and attempted rape would provoke further violence. In some cities, certain scenes were cut or trimmed from the prints. However, when it was released, it drew sizable audiences and favorable press, and not just from black audience members. Within Our Gates is today recognized as a snapshot of African-American life in both the north and the south after World War I, not to an important milestone in African-American culture. The fact that it's the oldest surviving feature-length film by a black director has only added to its historical and cultural significance over time. For my part, Within Our Gates has made me curious to see more of Micheaux's work - the only reason I haven't is the same time constraints that made me stop doing this blog on a weekly basis.

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    Within Our Gates is an important landmark not only of African-American culture, but film history itself, and sadly, still all too relevant today. This one's definitely worth a watch.

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  14. [​IMG]

    The X-Men's arch-nemesis begins his transition from cardboard cutout villain to tragic figure in this milestone issue. From October 1981, this is "I, Magneto..."

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    I already went into the premise and publication history of the X-Men the last time I reviewed one of their comics (one of my favorite INCspotlight reviews I've ever written), so I won't do so again here. Instead, let's focus on our villain, Magneto, the self-styled Master of Magnetism. Magneto made his debut in [Uncanny] X-Men #1 (September, 1963), the same issue that introduced the X-Men themselves. (I think of all the Marvel superheroes that came out of the Silver Age, the X-Men are unique in this regard - the others didn't go up against their arch-enemies until months or even years after they were first introduced, unless you count S.H.I.E.L.D. and HYDRA.) The X-Men were initially trained to defend normal humanity, who hated and feared them, from evil mutants who sought to conquer and enslave them. Magneto was one such mutant, who felt that his power gave him the grounds to pick on people weaker than him and make them his slaves. Following his first encounter with the X-Men, he returned in the fourth issue with a team of his own, the ridiculously named Brotherhood of Evil Mutants, although he would also attack our heroes solo sometimes.

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    Originally, there wasn't much that was distinctive about Magneto - he was just a typical bad guy out for world domination and that was it. He claimed to his followers that he was driven by fear that humans would turn on mutants, but I'm under the impression that he didn't really believes this in his earliest appearances, given his rants to the X-Men. This may have just been a ploy to persuade some of his more reluctant underlings (Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch, who eventually reformed and joined the Avengers) to fight for him. Not that he wasn't a force to be reckoned with on his own. Even from the beginning, he was able to use his mutant powers of controlling magnetic fields and manipulating metal in a wide variety of ways, as well as displaying some mental abilities (which were never mentioned again after the Silver Age). Although the X-Men were his primary foes, his agenda brought him into conflict with other Marvel heroes, including Thor, the Avengers, the Fantastic Four, and the Defenders. An encounter with the last of these ended up with him reduced to infancy (man, this is a weird genre), seemingly ending the threat he posed to the world.

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    The Uncanny X-Men #4 (March, 1964)

    In March, 1970, X-Men was effective cancelled as of Issue #66, the next few years of the series dedicated to reprinting earlier issues before ending with Issue #93 in April, 1975. However, one month later, a new lineup made its debut in Giant-Size X-Men #1, packing more raw power, hailing from different countries around the world, and having a much more volatile team dynamic. The new team members included the demonic-looking teleporter Nightcrawler (Kurt Wagner); Storm (Ororo Munroe), possessing the power to control the weather; the gentle-hearted Colossus (Piotr Rasputin), who could transform himself into solid steel; and, of course, the enigmatic Wolverine (Logan), whose healing factor allowed him to survive a gruesome experiment that laced his skeleton (including natural claws) with adamantium, an indestructible metal. Founding member Cyclops stuck around for a while, as did Jean Grey, until her tragic "death" at the conclusion of the Dark Phoenix storyline (Uncanny X-Men #129-138), which prompted Cyclops to leave the team. The new X-Men not only faced new enemies, but also was quickly reunited with some old ones, including the Master of Magnetism himself, restored to his physical prime. But we still didn't get much in the way of what really made Magneto tick, aside from a quick scene in Uncanny X-Men #125 of Magneto pining for his late wife as he recovers from a recent encounter with the X-Men. At least, not until this issue. (And even then, lots of blanks were still left to be filled, including his name. At some point after today's comic was published, his name was given as Erik Magnus Lensherr, but this turned out to be an alias. His true name was eventually revealed to be Max Eisenhardt decades later. But all that is yet to come.)

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    Uncanny X-Men #112 (August, 1978)

    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Our comic begins with Magneto, using his advanced technology, sending a threat to world leaders from around the globe. He demands that every nation dismantle its nuclear arsenals in order to protect mutantkind from getting caught in the crossfire of a nuclear war, or face utter destruction. As he explains to the currently retired X-Man Cyclops and his human girlfriend, Lee Forrester (captives on his island for the past several issues following a shipwreck and powerless thanks to an inhibitor thingie), the funds spent on such weapons could now go to more worthwhile causes, such as combating hunger, disease, and poverty, ushering a new golden age - with mutants ruling humans and himself ruling mutants. Cyclops counters that there will be resistance, and a Soviet submarine, the Leningrad, proves him correct when it fires a nuke at Magneto's island - an attack he easily repels. He then uses his powers to sink the sub, killing all aboard.

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    Meanwhile, the X-Men have been out looking for Magneto, as they've been since last issue, and they finally happen upon his island base. Unfortunately, the island's safeguards not only disable their plane, but their powers as well. However, they're fortunate enough to meet up with Cyclops, who not only gives them the lay of the land, but also details about Magneto's ultimate plan. He means to enforce his demands with a device that can manipulate the earth's crust, and destroying it is now their top objective. Although they don't have their powers, their natural skills enable them to destroy Magneto's inhibitor. Magneto is unfortunately alerted to their presence, but with the X-Men's mutant abilities restored, the battle is on, both the X-Men and Magneto getting good shots in. However, when Magneto nearly kills Sprite (Kitty Pryde, the latest addition to the team and in her early teens), he realizes just how far he's fallen and how much he's become like the people that destroyed his family, and he backs down. Storm tries to reason with him to change his ways, but Magneto is doubtful he can change, having lived with his hatred for too long. With the danger over, Magneto slips away, and Xavier hopes this encounter inspires their old enemy to change his ways after all, and end his war with mankind.

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    Admittedly, I initially snagged this comic merely because it offered a fight between the X-Men and Magneto, not realizing how significant of a story it was to X-Men continuity, even after reading it for the first time. As long-time INCspotlight readers know, my favorite superhero comics to collect are the ones where the hero dukes it out with someone from his or her recurring rogues gallery, and brownie points if it's their arch-enemy. Magneto's bouts with the X-Men get even higher priority, since they happen so much less often in modern times, thanks to Magneto's frequently shifting loyalties (more on that in a bit). So when I found this on eBay, and at a really good price, this was something I simply couldn't pass up. And milestone issue aside, I was glad I didn't. The rich depth of character and the quality of Chris Claremont's writing (even if the prose can be a little too purple and the dialogue a bit too cliche-ridden) help demonstrate how the X-Men became so popular after their relaunch. In addition to Magneto, the X-Men themselves get some solid moments of their own: Cyclops ruminating on how Magneto's supposed Golden Age will cause more problems than it will solve, Storm's temptation to murder Magneto as he sleeps and her post-battle attempts to reason with him, the inexperienced Kitty's terror of dying, and Lee dealing with what it's like to be hated and despised just because of who you are. Dave Cockrum's art can be a little stiff sometimes, and there's something about the way he draws Storm's face that bugs me (specifically her eyes), but I think that's just a matter of personal taste. Other than that, he does a solid job of portraying a character's emotions. Fans of superheroics and actions will have plenty to enjoy here as well, and the way the X-Men go into action without their powers shows ingenuity on Claremont's part.The battle between the X-Men and Magneto is a good one, with both heroes and villain using their powers cleverly, so that neither side comes off looking badly. It's clear the X-Men have learned from their past encounters with Magneto, pushing him farther than they have previously.

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    This is also the comic that establishes Magneto's backstory as a Holocaust survivor, who witnessed the murder of his entire family at Auschwitz. Having lived through one genocide, Magneto was from here on out portrayed as wanting to prevent a similar fate from befalling mutantkind. As if this wasn't bad enough, we also find out in this issue that he'd built a new family for himself years after World War II with a wife and daughter, only to lose them to anti-mutant violence. With a background such as this, it's no wonder he turned out the way he did. Obviously this doesn't excuse what he's done, or his anti-human bigotry, but it does make him a more complex, three-dimensional character, and thereby a more interesting villain. Incidentally, there was speculation that Magneto's origins meant he was Jewish, something Marvel was hesitant to state at first, probably thinking that it would be considered anti-Semitic to have a Jewish villain. As someone who is Jewish myself, the idea of Magneto being Jewish has never bothered me, and I was glad when his Jewish heritage was later confirmed. Much to my delight, this was even kept it in the live-action movies. In X-Men (2000), a young Erik Lensherr is clearly seen wearing a yellow star on his clothes, and X-Men: First Class (2011) has him remembering celebrating Hanukkah as a child with his family (although it would have been nice if they'd gotten the chanukkiah right).

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    From here on out, everything was different for Magneto. I could go into a lot more detail here than I'm about to, but X-Men continuity is so complex and in-depth that it would take forever, and it's not really relevant to this particular story. Suffice to say, after this story, he was almost always depicted in a more complex light, even being a member of the X-Men at more than one point. (The first time, he even led the team.) Even on the occasions he resumed his war against the X-Men and the human race, he never returned to his "the world shall be mine, muah ha ha ha" demeanor. (Grant Morrison's "Planet X" storyline, which showed Magneto engaging in mass genocide and putting humans in concentration camps, was widely reviled by fans for being so out of character. The story was later retconned with the revalation that Magneto had been impersonated.) The haunted, fanatical survivor aspect of his personality has become such an integral part of his personality that it's carried over to alternate continuities (except for the Ultimate universe), various video games, the beloved animated series from the 1990s, and, of course, the live-action movies, in which he was portrayed by both Sir Ian McKellen and Michael Fassbender. The dynamic between Xavier and Magneto also changed over time, a later issue revealing they had been friends when they were younger, but fell out over their drastically different beliefs. Just as the X-Men themselves have been seen as an allegory for the civil rights movement, the Xavier/Magneto feud has often been compared to the rivalry between Dr. Martin Luther King and the more militant Malcolm X.

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    Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen as Professor X and Magneto, X-Men (2000)

    Normally I dislike it when a villain becomes a hero, for the same reason I like seeing villains killed off. Like I said, I enjoy seeing heroes duke it out with their villains, and making the villain a hero takes away that conflict. More importantly, I like to see good stories come from the clash of ideologies. Having the X-Men, who fight for peaceful co-existence, clash with an embittered victim of prejudice who sees force as the only answer makes for great storytelling and drama when it's done right. In Magneto's case, however, I think his occasional reformations work. The times when he does fight alongside the good guys is probably the ultimate tragedy that defines the character. He probably could have been one of Earth's greatest heroes all along instead of one of humanity's most dangerous enemies, if not for the many losses he's endured at the hands of hate-filled bigots. It's probably why he remains such a compelling, enduring character over the years, and one of the key elements in the success of the X-Men franchise. He's been depowered and re-powered, an X-Man leader and antagonist, killed off and resurrected. But through all this, Magneto remains a tragic figure, haunted both by his past and his increasingly justified fears for the future.

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    The last X-Men comic I reviewed showed the team at arguably its worst. This one shows them at their best. If you're an X-Men fan, you owe it to yourself to snag this.

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  15. [​IMG]

    INCspotlight regular Errol Flynn returns in the unfortunately mediocre melodrama Another Dawn, starring Kay Francis.

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    Given how many Errol Flynn movies I've reviewed on the INCspotlight so far (and there are many more to come), I'm kinda running out of things to say about the guy, so let's talk about his leading lady, Kay Francis (1905 - 1968) - who was one of the biggest stars of her day. Francis's real name was Katherine Edwina Gibbs, leading people to assume her mother (also Katherine) was the founder of a chain of vocational schools - something Francis never bothered correcting people about. Her mother was actually an actress, but Francis herself didn't get into showbiz until 1925, with a small part in a modern-dress Broadway production of Hamlet. More stage roles followed, earning her Paramount's attention and leading to a two-year contract with said studio. After a small role alongside the Marx Bros. in The Cocoanuts (1929), she began to get bigger parts more and more frequently in films such as Trouble in Paradise and The False Madonna (both in 1932). In most of her roles with Paramount, she was typically cast as wily villainesses, which she quickly tired of. Eventually, Warner Bros. lured her away from Paramount with the promise of better pay as well as better parts.

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    During her time with Warner Bros., Francis's career skyrocketed, thanks to a number of high-grossing hits such as I Found Stella Parish (1935), The White Angel (1936), and Confession (1937). She was such a box office draw that she was earning more money than any other actress in America, and her face appeared on more movie magazine covers than anyone else at the time except for Shirley Temple. All this in spite of a slight speech impediment that caused her to pronounce the letters L and R as W. (On the Paramount lot, she was known as "the wavishing Kay Fwancis.") In fact, when she was cast in Another Dawn (adapted from the play Caesar's Wife) opposite Errol Flynn, Francis was the one who got top billing. Then again, hers is the main character, so that's only fair. (Fun fact about this movie's title: apparently, in previous Warner Bros. films that had scenes with a movie marquee, they kept using the title Another Dawn. When the studio couldn't come up with a title for this particular movie, they just slapped that title onto it.)

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    Another Dawn's director, William Dieterle (1893-1972), also deserves some spotlighting here. A native of Germany, Dieterle started off as an actor while in his teens, including six years under the direction of Max Reinhardt. Dieterele started off as a romantic lead, a type of role he continued as he transitioned to film roles during the Silent Era, under the direction of German Expressionism pioneers such as F.W. Murnau (including his 1926 classic Faust) and Paul Leni. Eventually, Dieterle lost interest in acting in favor of directing, making his directorial debut in 1923 with Man by the Roadside, featuring pre-stardom Marlene Dietrich. Dieterle's association with Warner Bros. began in 1930, prompting his emigration to the United States, and initially he directed German-language movies for the German market before moving on to their regular films, beginning with The Last Flight (1931). In 1935, Dieterle and Reinhardt reunited for a lavish big-screen adaptation of A Midsummer Night's Dream that unfortunately performed poorly at the box office. Fortunately, some of Dieterle's later films for Warner Bros. fared far better, including The Life of Emil Zola (1937) and Juarez (1939), as well as RKO's The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939).

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    WARNING: Here be spoilers! Read further at your own risk!

    Our story is set in the fictional (?) British colony of Dickit, somewhere in India. The local garrison is commanded by Colonel John Wister (Ian Hunter), with the aid of the gallant Captain Denny Roarke (Errol Flynn), an old friend of his. During a trip to England, Wister meets Julia Ashton (Kay Francis), whose fiancé recently passed away. The two hit it off over several more encounters, and she eventually agrees to marry Wister, hoping to find contentment, if not exactly happiness, as she's still emotionally in mourning. However, after her arrival in India, she meets Roarke, and the two fall in love. Julia is torn between being a faithful wife and finding genuine love with Roarke, while Roarke faces a similar dilemma regarding his friendship with Wistin. Wistin is no fool, and when the opportunity comes for a convenient opportunity for self-sacrifice, he naturally takes it for the sake of Julia's happiness. (Hey, that's what the spoiler warning is for. Besides, it's an ending you can see coming ten minutes into the movie.)

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    It's a short plot summary, I know. Then again, it's a short movie, only clocking in at 73 minutes. However, it felt longer than that; as big an Errol Flynn fan as I am, this was a chore to sit through. None of the romances in this movie, on which the entirety of the story depend on, feel at all natural or organic. They seem to happen just because the plot says so (and because it's Errol Flynn - of course he's gonna have the hots for a lady). Even Wistin's sacrifice for the sake of Julia's happiness at the end (an overdone cliche I've seen done much better in numerous other movies) just happens, with no emotional build-up. The dull script and lack of chemistry between the leads share the blame for this one. Kay Francis's performance in this movie is painfully dull, both her line delivery and facial expressions. I know she doesn't have that interesting of a character to portray, and the dialogue she's stuck with is as stiff as a frozen turkey leg, but she doesn't seem to be even trying to elevate it. By her own account, she was dismissive of her role in this movie due to its lack of substance, and it shows. (Come to think of it, this seems to be a movie nobody wanted any part of. Flynn also disliked this movie - like Kay Francis, he was tired of being typecast as a romantic lead - and Dieterle only directed it as a favor to Hal Wallis, one of Warner Bros.'s top producers.) Ian Hunter's performance is utterly forgettable, and he lacks chemistry with the other leads in the cast.

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    Is there anything redeeming about this movie? A few things here and there. Flynn's performance is a saving grace, making the best of what he can, which isn't much. Not only do I continue to maintain he's a better actor than he's given credit for, but there's no denying he has a magnetic screen presence - it's not hard to see why he was such a big box office draw. Yet it's Herbert Mundin, who plays Colonel Wister's uptight orderly Wilkins, who probably gives the best performance of the movie. Wilkins actually has an interesting subplot dedicated to him; apparently ran away during a battle and has been derided by his fellow soldiers for it ever since. Naturally, in the movie's only action scene, a pretty decent desert battle, he gets the chance to redeem himself. Unfortunately, it doesn't really seem to connect with the main plot in any way, nor does it really have anything in the way of payoff. (Another subplot involving Roarke's sister Grace, played by Frieda Inescort, also feels disconnected and goes nowhere interesting.) Last but not least, while Another Dawn doesn't sport one of my favorite Erich Wolfgang Korngold scores, it's still an Erich Wolfgang Korngold score, which is a welcome addition to any film. (Much to my surprise, Korngold's score for this movie was one of his favorites that he ever composed, even using parts of it for his 1947 violin concerto.)

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    Upon its release, Another Dawn didn't earn much more than a "meh" reception from critics. However, as the studio hoped, Francis and Flynn's combined star power was enough to bring in audiences, and the film took in double its budget at the box office. Ever since starring in Captain Blood (1935), Errol Flynn had a hot streak of one hit after another after another, Another Dawn included, and it would be years before it fizzled out. Kay Francis, however, was not so fortunate. Shortly after Another Dawn's release, her dissatisfaction with the roles she kept getting led to arguments with the studio bosses, and her career took a bad swan dive shortly thereafter, to the point where she was officially considered box office poison for a while, until former co-star Carol Lombarde helped her snag a choice role in In Name Only (1939) for RKO. She enjoyed a nice rebound after this until World War II, during which she did extensive volunteer work. After the war, though, she struggled to get work, even turning to poverty row studios such as Monogram Pictures, and she retired from acting in 1948.

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    As a fan of Errol Flynn's movies, this is definitely not one of his better ones. I didn't hate Another Dawn the way I hated Santa Fe Trail (1940), but that was on account of Santa Fe Trail's favorable depiction of slavery and escaped slave hunters - other than that, I have to admit that it was a technically well-made film. I also didn't find it as tedious as Silver River (1948), which was overly long and slowly-paced, although Flynn and Ann Sheridan deliver solid performances. Still, there's no denying this is one of his lesser efforts and lesser films, and while I'm not sorry I saw it, I doubt I'll be rewatching this one any time soon.

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    I can't recommend Another Dawn except to the most hardcore of Flynn fans. If you miss out on this one, it's no great loss.

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