The Part-Time Critic

Monday, October 5, 2020

Five Reflections on the Indian Wars for the American West

9:06 AM 0
Five Reflections on the Indian Wars for the American West


After my recent kick of history books on World History and early American History, I found myself drawn to the settling of the American West. Outside of films and video games, this is a time period that has long been a bit of a blank spot in my mind. Were the movies and games about the West accurate? How should I think about what the Americans did to the Indians? To try and bring some light into these questions I picked up Peter Cozzens 2018 book The Earth is Weeping: The Epic Story of the Indian Wars for the American West. The book is an excellent read filled with tons of detail on the people, places, and events that shaped American interaction with the Indians as they settled the West. While Cozzens is not afraid to editorialize and qualify when needed, the book is more concerned with painting the picture than judging it. This won't be a book recommendation (although I do recommend it), instead the following blog will feature five broad reflections about the time period that struck me as I learned the sweep of these details. These are developing thoughts (thinking out loud), so feel free to interact with them and help me develop them. I hope they are helpful to you as you think about this time period and how it can influence us in our own.

1. The Basic Cycle of American and Indian Interaction: The scope of the book covers interactions with Native Americans in the Southern and Northern Plains, Apacheria, and the Northwest Pacific. While each encounter with the tribes in these regions can be considered unique they also seemed to follow a general pattern that can be helpful to outline.
  • Encroachment: The first step is American encroachment on Indian lands. Americans emigrated West to settle the land (farming, homesteading, ranches), search for resources (game, gold, copper, silver, etc.) or just for travel to another destination (trails and railroads). For example:
    • Gold Rush: “In August 1848, gold was discovered in California’s American River. The following year saw a mass migration unequaled in the young nation’s history. Within a decade, there were more whites in California than there were Indians in the entire West. Genocidal gold seekers decimated California’s peaceable small tribes, and the growth of white settlements in the newly organized Oregon Territory alarmed the stronger northwestern tribes.” (16)
    • Homestead Act: “In 1862, Congress passed the Homestead Act. Beginning January 1, 1863, and U.S. citizen or intended citizen, including free slaves and female heads of household, would receive title to 160 acres of federal land west of the Mississippi River, provided the claimant had improved the property, had resided on it for five consecutive years, and had never taken up arms against the United States…The population boom led to the creation of six territories between 1861 and 1864: Nevada, Idaho, Arizona, Montana, Dakota, and Colorado, which grew fastest of them all.” (25)
    • Buffalo Hunting: “With hunters in high demand, practically anyone capable of handling the deadly accurate .50 caliber buffalo rifle and mounted telescope was hired, and in the Mooar brothers’ wake came scores of misfits, miscreants, outlaws, and fugitives, drawn to the vast Kansas herds like flies to putrefying buffalo carcasses. Fort Dodge, in southwestern Kansas, became the center of the trade. In just three years, railroad cars hauled a staggering 4,373,730 hides to eastern markets. The Southern Plains tribes abhorred the wanton slaughter, but so long as the hunters remained north of the Arkansas River, the Indians had no recourse, short of war.” (156)
  • Skirmishes: Second, as the Americans emigrated West they engaged with the Indians – sometimes peacefully intermingling, but often leading to skirmishes of offense and defense. Sometimes naked aggression or simple defense is claimed on either side. The Indian tribes were not usually united in their response to this encroachment and still saw other tribes as their greatest threat, not the “white man.”
  • Peace Policy: In response to these skirmishes, the American government gets involved by protecting settlers, travelers, or business interests (railroad, hunters, ranchers, etc). They create forts to maintain control, order, protect travelers/settlers and extend their presence throughout the West. They generally sought to protect their migrating citizens by punishing Indian war raids on settlers/travelers, and closing off Indians to their own territory through a system of treaties and agencies/reservations. This policy is known as concentration – removing Indians from land whites wanted to some far-off land. Some tribes respond immediately with surrender and receive mostly peaceful treatment. Others are not sure how to respond and do so with mixed interest, others are not interested at all. Once on these concentrated lands, the job of turning Indians into Christian farmers would begin.
  • Breakdown into Violence: Whether by overzealous settlers/miners, corrupt agency officials, genuine miscommunication, deep seated mistrust, uncontrolled war raids on white settlers/travelers, or any number of issues – peace, trust, and treaties are constantly broken. The army is called in to police, raid, and sometimes destroy Indian groups deemed outlaws, rebellious, or not amenable enough to the treaty/reservation life. The U.S. frontier army is poorly funded, understaffed, undersupplied, and composed of poorly educated and skilled men. The existence of a solider in this era was tough and typically wound up filled with drinking, whoring, gambling, or deserting. The officer corp. was at best a fractious group filled with grudges and ambitions. When they could, the Army would smartly use enemy tribes as scouts and allowed them to lead battles and kill without mercy. Any battle won by the Army was devastating to Indian unity and confidence whereas any battle won by Indians (think Little Big Horn) was met with such shock by the American populace that it only meant renewed men and resources were thrown at the issue. Continually encroaching whites, broken treaties, boredom, loss of game (the Buffalo), not accepting a farming existence, disunity among the tribes, incompetent or corrupt generals, officials, and chiefs all lead to a series of raids, battles, and massacres across the West reduced the Indian tribes of the West to the loss of their existence or to subsistence and dependence on government rations on a reservation.
  • American Dominance & Indian Destruction: In each area of the West the story might be a bit different, but the story is consistent: each tribe is ultimately taken out of existence or removed to a small reservation area, often not of their choosing. Their existence on the reservation is often at subsistence levels and exploited by corrupt officials and bootleggers. “In the blink of an eye, the Ute culture had vanished. An army captain marveled at the sudden transformation of the Ute country. ‘As we pushed the Indians onward, we permitted the whites to follow, and in three days the rich lands of the Uncompahgres were all occupied, towns were being laid out, and lots being sold at high prices. In short order the Uncompahgre Valley – previously a desert – became the garden spot of Colorado, covered with bountiful farmland and orchards.’” (356)

2. Law and Order:
The stories of tracking down Indian outlaws who raided American settlements seemed oddly familiar to the early 1900's FBI tracking down the outlaws and gangsters who “raided” banks and other places for survival, for fun, for pride or whatever reason they mustered. Story after story could be told of authorities hearing of a raid, unrest, warriors hiding out on reservation land, or of influential leaders that could lead uprisings, and a (mostly) well-meaning proactive arrest or meeting with Indian leaders/warriors could spark a violent conflict due to misunderstandings and frustrations and distrust. In this way, many of these moments read like police reports about arrests gone bad and neighborhoods violently responding in kind. As I think back on such events, like the botched arrest of Sitting Bull and the chaotic beginning to the Wounded Knee battle (massacre?), I am reminded at how difficult it is to find peace and unity when both sides harbor fundamental distrust of the other. On another level, this isn’t just about distrust, but about different ways of living.

3. A Clash of Civilizations: This is a story not fundamentally of law and order vs outlaws or good natives vs evil imperialists (though there are strong elements of that), but a story of the clash of emigrant people with different ways of life. The story of the American West being settled can be read as the reactionary death throes of the Indian way of life being stamped out by another. The arrival of Europeans into the North American continent and their interactions with the Native tribes forever altered them. Horses, guns, religion, and disease introduced by the white European changed Indian culture forever.
  • “In the two and half centuries between the settlement of the Jamestown colony in Virginia and Lincoln’s cautionary words to the Cheyenne chief, a relentlessly expansionist white population had driven the Indians westward without regard to treaty obligations or, sometimes, even simple humanity. The government of the young American Republic had not intended to exterminate the Indians. Nor had the founding fathers simply coveted Indian land. They had also wanted to ‘enlighten and refine’ the Indian, to lead him from ‘savagery’ to Christianity, and to bestow on him the blessings of agriculture and the domestic arts – in other words, to destroy an incompatible Indian way of life by civilizing rather than by killing the Indians.” (13)
Most of the tribes of the American West were hunters and gatherers and moved periodically with the game (mostly buffalo) they hunted and the seasons of the year. It is important to understand that the Native tribes of the plains cannot be summarized by the “noble savages” stereotype that often predominates our memory (this is typically a trope used to contrast against the evil American). The Indians of the plains had a strong war culture that took a central role in their life. It was normal to go to war against other tribes and raid them for the best horses, women, and hunting grounds. From an early age, young boys were trained up to become warriors:
  • “…the patterns of tribal government and warfare among the Rocky Mountain and Plains tribes were strikingly similar. Fathers raised their sons to aspire to great martial deeds, and training for a warrior’s life began early. At age five or six, boys were made to run long distances and to swim streams and were regularly deprived of food, water, and sleep – all with a view to toughening their bodies. Between the ages of seven and ten, boys received their first bow and arrows and were taught to shoot first for distance and then for accuracy. By the time a boy reached adolescence, his riding skills were unparalleled; he was, to quote Colonel Dodge, not only the finest soldier but also ‘the best rough rider and natural horsemen in the world.’ By age eighteen, a young man was expected to have counted coup, stolen a horse, and taken a scalp. At age twenty, he had perhaps shown enough ability to lead a small war or raiding party. By twenty-five, he might be a sub-chief. If he had been successful, he could expect to have won many war honors and stolen many horses and perhaps even have two lodges (tipis) with a wife and children in each.” (48)
The Indian tradition of “scalping” and mutilation of the dead in war horrified the whites and was seen as an example of the savagery of the Indian. Additionally, many warriors did kidnap, rape, and mutilate innocent women and children during their raids. While this is true, it’s also helpful to see these actions from the view of the Indians:
  • “Indian scalps counted more than those of whites, whom most Indians considered inferior opponents. At the Fettermen Fight, warriors contemptuously tossed the scalps of soldiers on the ground besides their victims. The mutilation of enemy dead was a common Plains Indian practice in which both sexes indulged. Westerners considered it conclusive proof that Indians were irredeemable savages; for their part, the Indians believed that disfiguring an enemy’s corpse protected the killer from the dead man’s spirit in the afterlife.” (49)
  • “The Pawnees did most of the killing at Summit Springs, and they killed without mercy. The Cheyennes expected as much. ‘I do not belittle the Pawnees for their killing of women or children because as far back as any of us could remember the Cheyenne and Sioux slaughtered every male, female, and child they could run across of the Pawnee,’ said a Dog Soldier survivor. ‘Each tribe hated each other with a deadly passion and savage hearts [that] know only total war.’ Sherman and Sheridan’s notion of total war paled beside that of the Plains Indians.” (110-111) 
As Americans moved West, two ways of life clashed. The Western way of life centered on owning and working the land, building permanent cities, and instilling secular governmental authorities to oversee law and order could not have been more different from a nomadic hunting and gathering way of life that saw war and raiding on neighbors as part of life. This brief reflection should not be intended to justify American or Indian actions, just to note that at a fundamental level, their engagement involves a clash of civilization and not just a clash of ambition.

4. The Randomness of Massacre: The term “massacre” is loaded with baggage. As I read story after story of battles in the Indian Wars, it became clear that the motive behind “massacre” can sometimes be hard to pin down. The easy thing to do is point fingers at the indiscriminate killing of women and children – and yes this went on in both American victories and Indian victories. I am not here saying both sides are equally guilty nor am I knowledgeable enough to say which side was worse. I simply want to share the reflection that it seems surprisingly easy to go from “orderly” war to massacre – much easier than we’d like to think. For instance, after the Battle of Wounded Knee, the author Cozzens shares this anecdote:

“The search for survivors began. Combing the field, a humane private came across a dead woman and her baby, who was sucking on a piece of hardtack. He picked up the child and cradled it in his arms. Continuing on, he found another dead woman with a baby still alive beside her. Her carried both infants to the hospital tent, where a number of Indian women had gathered. As he neared the tent, the private encountered a burly sergeant, who suggested he smash the babies against a tree; otherwise, the sergeant said, ‘someday they’ll be fighting us.’ The soldier recoiled in disgust. ‘I told him I would rather smash him than those little innocent children. The Indian women were so glad that I saved the papooses that they almost kissed me.’” (458)

Imagine if that “humane private” had got caught up in other business and was not the one to deliver the babies and the burly sergeant’s desire had won the day? The difference here between a story of good-hearted humanity and a cold-blooded murder of babies turned on such utter randomness. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t praise or judge either character because they are decision-less pawns, just that if someone else had randomly been there the outcome might be horrifically different - and our judgment of the sides would be irrevocably altered. How many “massacres” turn on these random moments: A weak person doesn’t stand up to a sadist, a miscommunication leads to chaos, a good intention is misconstrued, etc? We want to judge, and we should judge, but our measurement of the actions of others in the heat of war and death should always reflect the insight that given the right circumstances we are capable of monstrous atrocities.

5. What Else Could Be Done: Perhaps the most haunting thought I had while reading this book was simply, “If I could go back and be a leader of the American expansion, could I have done any better? What else could have been done?” The easy route is to simply judge the American actions and they deserve tons of righteous judgment. However, when one is required to not just judge their actions but then get into the nitty gritty of alternative actions, then one is forced into some very difficult questions. For instance, with the remove of a hundred and fifty years it’s easy to say we should have left the Indians alone and let them have states/territories of their own. However, was that politically feasible? Remember that with the gold rush of 1848, more people poured into California than Indians populated the entire West! How do you hold back the active and growing population of Americans? Do you use the army to police them and kill them from expanding into lands that are little occupied and little exploited? Remember, you just fought an exhausting Civil War that led to the deaths of half a million Americans. If you do use force, how quickly are you thrown out of power and your protest amounts to nothing else? Think of the furor that arose from Indian raids that resulted in murders, kids being kidnapped, and women raped – how do you respond to that? Peaceful and lawful is the obvious response, but what do you do when the warriors responsible are being harbored by a peaceful tribe that won’t give them up? What do you do when genuine mineral resources that can be used to the betterment of society and social wealth just sits fallow because it's part of a large area of "hunting grounds" for a tribe? These are real issues.

None of this is to excuse horrific behavior, but it is helpful to understand the context in which it arose. Additionally, think of the perspective of the Native American – how were you to react? Could they have reacted better? Would it have mattered? Colonel John Gibbon put it thusly, “Put yourself in his place and let the white man ask himself this question: What would I do if threatened as the Indian has been and is? Suppose a race superior to mine were to land upon the shores of this great continent, trade or cheat us out of our land foot by foot, gradually encroach upon our domain until we were finally driven, a degraded, demoralized band into a small corner of the continent, where to live at all it was necessary to steal, perhaps to do worse? Suppose that in a spirit of justice, this superior race should recognize the fact that it was in duty bound to place food in our mouths and blankets on our backs, what would we do in the premises? I have seen one who hates an Indian as he does a snake, and thinks there is no good Indian but a dead one, on having the proposition put to him in his way, grind his teeth in rage and exclaim, ‘I would cut the heart out of everyone I could lay my hand on,’ and so he would; and so we all would.” (221-222)

I mentioned before that a fundamental element of this story is a clash of civilizations and I wonder if it was possible for the growing Western culture of the Americans to peacefully co-exist with the hunter-gatherer culture of the Indians: could they have lived in two peaceful countries of their own if cooler and more peaceful heads prevailed? Would one culture have to give way to the other? Would it have been possible for the Indian leaders or American leaders to restrain their warriors/settlers/miners from invading the space of the other and causing problems?

I have no idea. It could be that given the right leaders, we’d live in a vastly different and more peaceful world today with a thriving Indian population. Or, and this is a historical judgment not a spiritual/moral one, it could be that the Indian population fared better at the emigrating Americans of the 1700’s-1800’s who did as much as their current worldview allowed than they would have from any other expanding civilization in history up until that time. I don’t know and that is haunting.

What I do know is how I can act in my day and age. An understanding of how American ambition, power, and limited/corrupted moral worldview influenced their historical relations with the Indians in the settlement of the West should inform us today in how we interact with each other. We must be more willing than our ancestors at calling out current injustices and at using our moral convictions to restrain the ambitions of our neighbors (and our own) that infringe on the rights of others. We must always remind ourselves of the cycle of violence and how revenge is sweet in the short term but leads to broken communities of mistrust and disunity in the long term. These communities are easy to exploit and destroy. With the same moral conviction we use to call out the unjust ambitions of our neighbors we must forgive our enemies. We should be wise in our critique of the historical actions of our ancestors with an eye for how their failures (and successes) can inform us today. The historical circumstances are never the exact same (making all comparisons an art more than a science), but that doesn’t mean we cannot grow wise from reflection that begins with the question, “What else could be done?”

“Less than a generation had passed since Red Cloud had won his war on the Bozeman Trail forts but then gradually lost the peace. The Lakotas had held the Crow lands they had conquered for less than a decade. It had been just fifteen years since the great but ultimately Pyrrhic Indian victory at the Little Bighorn. Now nothing remained. The Lakotas, the Cheyennes, the Arapahos, the Nez Perces, the Utes, the Modocs, the Apaches, and even some Texan-hating Kiowas and Comanches had tried to coexist amicably with the white man, but he would not be peaceably contained. Tribes had divided bitterly over the issue of war or peace. The Indians who had gone to war against the government had usually done so reluctantly, and they had lost their land and their way of life anyway. Accommodation had failed. War had failed. And the bullet-riven Ghost shirts buried with their wearers in the mass grave on the lone knoll above Wounded Knee Creek were ample proof that religion too had failed the Indians. There was no room left for the Indians in the West but what the government saw fit to permit them. One elderly chief who had witnessed the march of events from the Treaty of Fort Laramie in 1851 to the tragedy at Wounded Knee four decades later saw nothing remarkable in what had transpired. ‘The government made us many promises,’ he told a white a friend, ‘more than I can remember, but they never kept but one; they promised to take our land, and they took it.’” (466)

Saturday, September 12, 2020

Some Reflections on Conservative Political Philosophy

6:25 PM 0
Some Reflections on Conservative Political Philosophy

By my estimation, the political philosophy of Conservatism does not seem to have a good reputation in America (or the world) today. I've identified as a Conservative for most of my life and this has mostly meant agreeing with what had been traditional conservative views of the last 20-25 years: smaller government, balanced budgets, protection of the unborn, less taxes, reformed welfare, strong national defense, etc. Although these positions weren't always consistently articulated or perfectly represented in Republican candidates, my support has mostly gone to them. However, in the last five years, many of these positions have become marginalized in the Republican party and in some cases, entirely extinct. In fact, the ideological and platform change undergone by the Republicans in the last five years has pushed me to think more deeply on what "conservatism" means, what I truly believed, and why. Additionally, my recent viewing of the musical Hamilton and reading of Jospeh Ellis' The Quartet has provided a large spark to my investigation.

To this end, I took a friend's advice and picked up Roger Scruton's 2019 book How To Be a Conservative. Scruton is a British philosopher and writer, but he writes broadly enough about Conservatism that it's a good read no matter the country you come from. I enjoyed his articulation of the conservatism so much that I began summarzing/paraphrasing a chapter at a time on my Facebook page. Now that I've gone through the entire book, reflecting on each chapter, I think it would be helpful for me to try and create a kind of overall reflection by synthesizing his direct quotes and my own paraphrasing/structuring of them. What I'm trying to say is this - what follows is my own concoction that includes my own thoughts, direct quotes from Scruton, and lightly edited/re-worded versions of his quotes. In all - I think there's a lot to glean here and much that I fully agree with.

As I begin, let me state my own personal view on "conservatism" - I am committed foremost to the truth, beauty, and goodness of God. To the extent that a political party and ideology seeks to preserve the truth, beauty, and goodness we have inherited in our society I am a conservative. To the extent it seeks to extend and deepen in new ways the truth, beauty, and goodness in our society, I am a progressive. From here on out - this is a Leaman/Scruton synthesis:

The core of the political ideology of Conservatism tells us that we have collectively inherited good things (peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life), those things are difficult to create, easy to destroy, are currently under threat, and we must strive to keep them – especially when worse things are proposed in their place.

The great problem of politics is figuring out how we can live in peaceful community with each person enjoying their freedom and pursuing their goals. In other words, what kind of society can retain individual freedoms while remaining a united and harmonious community? Or to put the issue into broader philosophical terms, “How can we be diverse and unified at the same time?” The Conservative ideology believes that any successful answer to this question must acknowledge two important truths about societies we have learned throughout history:
  • Sense of Community: A successful society must develop in its individuals a sense of “we” – a love for home and the people in it that spurs them to call the community “ours” and take the non-contractual obligation of being a steward and a guardian of the community. This philosophy of settlement is the primary fact from which all community and politics begin and is central to conservatism. This sense of community cannot ultimately be achieved by a top-down contract where an alliance is made between the people and the state toward a goal that is rationally managed to that end, but must come from the bottom up world of face to face interaction and community association (in family, clubs, societies, schools, workplace, church, team, regiment, universities, etc)
  • Historical Embedding: A successful society must develop in its community a sense that it is not just an association of those who are alive but also of those who came before (the dead) and those yet to be born. Thus, successful societies must see themselves not just as temporary communities for their own benefit, but as a community inheriting benefits from those who came before and passing them on to those yet to come in an unbroken line of obligation. 
In light of these two truths (I’ll call them a “Community-Historical Society” from here on out), Conservatism (which really came into being as a political philosophy with the Enlightenment, the scientific revolution, the overcoming of religious conflict, the rise of the secular state, and the triumph of liberal individualism) should acknowledge, protect, and encourage the beautiful and good developments received by our society. Below is an overview of seven of the most important institutions/policies that we have inherited and should protect for ourselves and for those who are yet to come:

1. The Nation State: The society that has most successfully developed the sense of community and a historical embedding is the nation state. Societal cooperation and harmony among individuals with different skills, tribes, religious beliefs, and ethnicity, requires a politics of compromise. Unless and until people identify themselves with the country, its territory and its cultural inheritance – in something like the way people identify themselves with a family – the necessary forming of agreements among neighbors both to grant each other space and to protect that space as a common territory will not happen. Ultimately, the nation state is the by-product of neighborliness, shaped by an ‘invisible hand’ from the countless agreements between people who speak the same language and live side by side. Additionally, it is the sovereign nation state that when international disputed arise, can resolve them by treaty rather than through force. Sovereign nation states are legal persons and should deal with each other through a system of rights, duties, liabilities, and responsibilities. To make these dealings possible, nation states must be sovereign – that is, able to decide matters for themselves – and also willing to relinquish powers to those bodies charged with maintaining international agreements and the law that governs them. The nation state is worth conserving against the contemporary forces of globalism that seek to dissolve their sovereignty.

2. Traditional Liberalism: A successful Community-Historical society protects the freedom of the individual as one of the prime purposes of the state. Ultimately, it is the concept of citizenship in a nation state where these freedoms are outlined and protected by the state that has proven the best safeguard of individual freedom. Citizenship enables strangers to stand side by side against authority and to assert their common rights. It therefore provides a shield against oppression and an echo to the dissenting voice. Traditional liberalism, which grew out of the Enlightenment that proposed a universal human nature, governed by universal moral law, from which the state emerges through the consent of the governed, is the view that such a society is possible only if the individual members have sovereignty over their own lives. These sovereign rights force people to treat you as a free being, with sovereignty over your life and as one who has an equal claim on others’ respect. Rights, then, enable us to establish a society in which consensual relations are the norm, and they do this by defining for each of us the sphere of sovereignty from which others are excluded. The classical liberal tradition of constitutional thinking should be understood in this way, as addressing the question of how to limit the power of government, without losing its benefits – namely that of the sovereignty of the individual. That tradition has given us the fixed points of liberal jurisprudence: the doctrine of the separation of powers, the theory of judicial independence, and the procedural idea of justice, according to which all citizens are equal before the law, and the judge must be impartial. If we look at rights in this way, as instruments that safeguard sovereignty, and so make free dealings between sovereign partners into the cement of society, then we see immediately why freedom rights have the best claim to universality.

3. Free Association: A successful Community-Historical society grows from below through the associative impulse of human beings that create civil associations. From the raw material of human affection, we construct enduring associations, with their rules, offices, ceremonies, and hierarchies that endow our activities with intrinsic worth. Schools, churches, libraries; choirs, orchestras, bands, theatre groups; cricket clubs, football teams, chess tournaments; the historical society, the women’s institute, the museum, the hunt, the angler’s club – in a thousand ways people combine not just in circles of friendship but in formal associations, willingly adopting and submitting to rules and procedures that regiment their conduct and make them accountable for doing things correctly. These association grow from below, through relations of love, respect, and accountability. Free association is necessary to us because intrinsic values emerge from social cooperation; they are not imposed by some outside authority or instilled through fear. This view of civil association extends to the conservative view of the military and policing, which ought to exist to protect the freedom of the individual not to control it. Military and policing institutions should be an expression of civil society, rooted in the local community, and responsive as much to local conditions as to the requirements of national government.

4. Secular Law: A successful Community-Historical society develops a secular law that derives from national sovereignty and can adapt to the changing conditions of the people. It is one of the triumphs of our inherited Christian civilization to have held on to the Christian vision while acknowledging the priority of secular law. This was not achieved without intense conflict, and a slow, steady recognition that a society could be founded on the duties of neighborliness and yet permit distinctions of faith. The achievement of Christian civilization is to have endowed institutions with a religious authority without demanding a religious, as opposed to a secular obedience to them. But religious obedience is not a necessary part of citizenship, and in any conflict it is the duties of the citizen, and not those of the believer, that must prevail. The story of the Good Samaritan, offered in answer to the question, ‘Who is my neighbor?’, tells us that love of neighbor, while a religious duty, does not require the imposition of religious conformity, and is not a form of brotherhood. It is directed as much to the stranger as to the friend. You love your neighbor by administering to his needs in adversity, regardless of whether he belongs to you through family, faith, or ethnic identity. Thus, it is through religious toleration and a secular law that a community of different religions can still be unified and can still protect the most important person – the individual willing to question whether the majority is right.

5. Private Property and Free Exchange: A successful Community-Historical society encourages a market economy based on private property and free exchange. It is only when people have rights of property and can freely exchange what they own for what they need that a society of strangers can achieve economic coordination. Three key truths here must be embraced: 1) Economic activity depends upon knowledge of other people’s wants, needs, and resources 2) This knowledge is dispersed throughout society and is not the property of any individual 3) In the free exchange of goods and services, the price mechanism provides access to this knowledge – not as a theoretical statement, but as a signal to action. Prices in a free economy offer the solution to countless simultaneous equations mapping individual demand against available supply. These three points are tied together and lead to the conclusion that the price of a commodity conveys reliable economic information only if the economy is free.

6. Civic Cultural Unity: A successful Community-Historical society can absorb and integrate people from various cultures, even those bearing strange God, through a strong and unified civic culture. Thanks to the ‘civic culture’ that grew in the post-Enlightenment West, social membership was primarily freed from religious affiliation, from racial, ethnic, and kinship ties, and from the ‘rites of passage’ whereby communities laid claim to the souls of their members. This is why it has become so easy to emigrate to Western states – nothing more is required of the immigrant than the adoption of the civic culture, and the assumption of the duties implied in it. Our obligations to others, to the country and to the state have been revised in a direction that has opened the way to the admission of people from outside the community – provided that they , too, can live according to the liberal ideal of citizenship. The long-term effect of this has been to open Western societies to immigration, and to impart an ideal citizenship that, it is hoped, will enable people of disparate origins and backgrounds to live together, recognizing that the real source of their obligations lies not in that which divides them – race and religion in particular – but in that which unites them – territory, good government, the day-to-day routines of neighborliness, the institutions of civil society, and the workings of the law. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

7. Obligation of Gratitude: A successful Community-Historical society must embrace the core truth in the political ideology of Socialism, the truth of our mutual dependence. We need to do what we can to spread the benefits of social membership to those whose own efforts do not suffice to obtain them. The more we take from our arrangement in society, the more we must give in return. This must remain an obligation of gratitude and cannot become a contractual obligation from the state. How this is to be done is an intricate political question, but the socialist movement is not the answer as it confuses misfortune with injustice, divides rather unifies, will produce a welfare state that will inevitably collapse, creates rents on the taxpayers earnings rather than redistributes, and is based on a zero-sum fallacy. This obligation of gratitude acknowledges how we are inheritors of good things from our ancestors (I suppose you could call this Western civilization privilege?) and protectors of these good for those coming after us. This is why some form of a collective welfare system and stewardship of the environment should be core conservative causes. 

There you have it - two core principles and seven major points of protection to help outline a better Conservative political philosophy. What do you think? Is this a helpful summation?

Sunday, August 2, 2020

Part-Time Recommendation: The Quartet

7:25 PM 0
Part-Time Recommendation: The Quartet
The Quartet by Joseph J. Ellis: 9780804172486 ...
I've been trying to read Brothers Karamazov for the past two weeks, but every time I pick it up, I keep thinking about world history and how much I'd rather be reading history texts. You've had this problem right? Anyways, I've learned that unless I have the motivation, I won't do it. So, for the time being, I put it away and picked up Joseph Ellis' The Quartet, a book on the "Second American Revolution" I picked up after watching Hamilton sparked my re-interest in the founding of the country.

I heartily recommend this book to you. I completed in two days and I predict I'll be taking notes and reflecting on it for weeks. What does Ellis mean by a second revolution? Ellis says the American Revolution wasn't about fighting to make America a nation, it was about fighting for the sovereignty of the thirteen states and once the war had ended, the weak Articles of Confederation were insufficient to manage a nation. The first revolution was about freedom from Britain, but a second revolution was needed to make the thirteen states into a nation. As the author puts it:

My argument is that four men made the transition from confederation to nation happen. They are George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison…my contention is that this political quartet diagnosed the systemic dysfunctions under the Articles, manipulated the political process to force a calling of the Constitutional Convention, collaborated to set the agenda in Philadelphia, attempted somewhat successfully to orchestrate the debates in the state ratifying conventions, then drafted the Bill of Rights as an insurance policy to ensure state compliance with the constitutional settlement. If I am right, this was arguably the most creative and consequential act of political leadership in American history.

The book is well-written, direct, and extremely knowledgeable on the subject. Reading it in the context of the volumes of the three volumes of World History I read earlier in the summer has been eye-opening. I'm struck by two things in particular:

1. How the overwhelming pattern in world history is after the revolution the United States would succumb to interstate rivalries, wars, and power struggles creating a power vacuum that would allow European powers to to form entangling alliances and treaties that and carve out new confederations and regional alliances. Such diverse and widespread cultures as we saw in the colonies typically don't remain united, they descend into centuries of fights. It seems, we have this "second revolution" to thank for that!

2. The book does not shy away from the failures and comprises of these founding fathers. In fact, the more human realism(without being tendentious and axe-grinding) we give to our founders, I believe the more awe and gratitude historical perspective gives us of them. Figures like Washington, Madison, Hamilton, and Jay were no perfect and in many ways were men that indulged in the vices and worldview they grew up in. However, once we are able to acknowledge this, we are able to more fully grasp how these men. each in different ways, were able to rise above and distance themselves from the vices and worldview they grew up in. Just as the stars shine brighter the darker the night grows, the more historical perspective we get on human behavior, leadership, and the use of power - the more their star shines. They are not perfect men and I'm not one who looks to divinize them, their work, or the nation they helped found - but I've become so much more grateful for their them, not less, the more I learn.

Anyways, if Hamilton peaked your interest in the founding of the nation, then this book is a substantive, yet accessible, way to jump in. 

You can buy it HERE from Amazon.

Tuesday, July 28, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Mission Impossible Edition

10:34 PM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Mission Impossible Edition
*scroll down past the introduction to get straight to the rankings
I really enjoyed revisiting the Mission: Impossible (yeah, there's a colon there) franchise. I counted 32 action sequences (I'll qualify later) spread out over the six movies from the summer of 1996 to the summer of  2018. In general, there's not a bad film to be found in the franchise. The use of various directors (four different directors) filtered through Cruise's production team gives the franchise a very high floor when it comes to consistency, but has given us various ceilings and quirks based on each director. I'm not sure there's a "masterpiece" in the franchise, but it is remarkably consistent over the six film run so far. For those interested in knowing before you get into the ratings, here's how I would rank the six films:

6. Mission: Impossible II (C+)
5. Mission: Impossible III (B-)
4. Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol (B)
3. Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation (B)
2. Mission: Impossible (B)
1. Mission: Impossible - Fallout (B+)

As you will see represented in the sequences below, the franchise has evolved from a more grounded noir'esque spy film punctuated by some action (Cruise never fires a gun in the first film) into an all-out action/stunt extravaganza where Cruise plays the contemporary equivalent of Craig's James Bond mixed with Jackie Chan filtered through the team dynamics of The Fast & the Furious franchise. As I watched the films, it was clear there were three major categories of "action" sequences: heist sequences, stunt spectacles, and traditional action set pieces. Normally, I wouldn't count heist sequences like the iconic CIA break-in sequence from the first film as an "action" sequence, but this franchise really does treat them like one, so I will. Similarly, there are some sequences that are focused primarily on a stunt and not traditional action, I'll also include these since they are a vital part of the franchise formula. Some sequences blend these categories and I think the #1 entry on this list blends all of them perfectly for the perfect Mission: Impossible sequence.

I've written a decent bit of commentary for each sequence, so I'll keep the introduction short. If this were a tier list, I'd say you're really getting to the best of the best around sequence 6 or so. Enjoy!

32. “Getting the Satellite Codes from an Indian Playboy” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: My least favorite sequence in the entire franchise. The entire “jump” magnet gag and server room stuff is miserably redundant being the third time in the same film they’ve hacked computer systems. The other major beat in this sequence is the attempted seduction of the Indian playboy, which is also far-fetched and not that entertaining. This entire sequence feels lifted out of some of the worst Bond movies. To up the stakes of the scene they randomly give us several timers and countdowns as well, including a stupid “Cobalt is gonna shut down the server before we shut down the satellite!” Then they get the code and it fails and it still doesn’t matter. It's my least favorite part of what I think is the worst 3rd act in the entire franchise.

31. “Plutonium Exchange in Berlin Goes South” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- Category: Action
- Commentary: Brief, a bit unclear and messy, feels like a victim of the editing process.

30. “Finale: Stopping Cobalt's Launch Ends at an Auto Parking Garage” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
- Category: Action
- Commentary: The second half of the third act begun by the billionaire playboy sequence mentioned earlier - It’s so sad to see so much talent and so many good intentions get drowned in a sea of increasingly ludicrous moments (topped by Ethan’s what 70ft car drop survival) wrapped in the context of a writer who has to be trolling us trying to milk the same formula over and over: the team fails, but there’s one more chance, they fail, but there’s one more chance, etc. It’s numbing by the end. I really don’t like this sequence. In my opinion, the entire third act of Ghost Protocol is one of the worst, high talent/production, sequences in major blockbuster cinema.

29. “Finale: Shanghai Showdown with Davian” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This finale is a bit of a mess. It’s hard to tell if it was intended to be this way or they just wrote themselves into a corner and were forced to come up with what feels like such an ad hoc and small-scale ending. The death of Owen Davian is anti-climactic, the "kill me with a shock and then shoot the bad guys on your own" role Ethan's wife plays is not close to satisfying, and the hilarious way in which the rabbit’s foot literally just rolls into their presence at the end has to be the writer trolling us. One good thing to come out of this sequence is a fantastic stretch of Tom Cruise running down a Chinese waterfront. 

28. “Kidnapping the Prime Minister” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: Coming late into the film, this heist sequence has no right being as quick as it is. The way the plot unfolds it is sometime in the morning/afternoon that Hunt is told he is required to kidnap and get information from the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. For something of this scale/gravity to not come off as cheesy you need time to lay it out and unfold it. Unfortunately, we are to believe that somehow Ethan concocts the entire plan, gets admission to the private event, can copy the likeness of someone he’s never met, trick and manipulate multiple smart people, and still come out entirely clean - all within a few hours before the event he had no idea about before the day. Entire movies are devoted to getting kidnapped Presidents or Prime Ministers to launch missiles or say the word and release prisoners – but this sequence just handles it all in 6-10 minutes. It’s neat the way it plays out, but it is so clean, easy, and quick – that it’s actually comical and creates a bit of whiplash to the viewer who has hanging in with the more methodical and measured take the movie had chosen so far.

27. “Elevator Escape: Ethan Eludes IMF Custody” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: After the Vatican heist sequence the third movie settled into a series of smaller sequences like this one. It’s minor, but well executed.

26. “Shootout: Breaking In to Destroying the Virus and Escaping” -Mission: Impossible 2
- Category: Action 

25. “Ethan Attempts to Recruit During a Cliffside Car Chase” -Mission: Impossible 2 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: Here’s a sequence that easily punches above its weight. It’s short and it’s not meant to be “action” necessarily but it includes some amazing car stunts in its short span. It’s really quite enjoyable, but not quite believable.

24. “Opening: Russian Prison Breakout” -Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is one of those action sequences that are just meant to be “fun” and kind of re-build the myth and image of Ethan at the beginning of a new movie, but it just never clicked with me. Ethan being in a Russian prison, breaking out by causing the harm/possible death of inmates and guards just feels a bit reckless and cheeky without giving us some kind of wow spectacle, tension, or genuine action. Instead, it’s an action sequence that riffs on the heist template, except the heist is of Ethan getting out, not getting in. Its pulled off with relative ease and almost totally with gadgetry. It just comes off to me as trying to be too cool without much substance – something that would have been criticized if it was John Woo, but since its Brad Bird, it gets talked up more without criticism.

23. “Opening: Cliff Climbing” -Mission: Impossible 2
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle

22. “HALO Jump Over Paris” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle
- Commentary: This is a tough one because the actual stunt of the halo jump is fantastic and the photography of it is perfect. The extra weather dramatics like lightning added on top of the realism feels really unnecessary and against the idea of doing the HALO jump for real. Why not show off the realism? Isn't that spectacle enough? Instead, it feels a bit over the top and hard to swallow the unnecessary dramatics of the sequence. Looks great though.

21. “Moroccan Power Plant Heist” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: The main heist sequence of Rogue Nation is a pretty big misfire for me. They do a good job laying out the obstacles and creating a new take on Cruise having to do something athletic to get to information, but the setting feels too CGI heavy for my tastes. The location ultimately feels fake and invented purely to present Hunt with novel obstacles. Additionally, the tension of getting the information uploaded before Benji reaches the profile analysis is completely arbitrary since Ethan could have uploaded the information hours before hand and there would be no significant difference to the logic of the scene. Doing it right before Benji arrives is pure writer room invention. In other words, most of the drama and tension here feels manipulative rather than organic. Still, there’s a practical element to Cruise’s performance underwater that feels genuine and is still appreciated here.

20. “Shanghai Heist: Getting the Rabbit's Foot” -Mission: Impossible III 
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle 
- Commentary: The second half of Mission: Impossible III is given over to a lot of small action sequences. In a normal film, this would be considered a huge set piece and we’d devote 20-30 minutes of time to the setup, execution, and aftermath. However, this film gives about 7-10 minutes for the whole thing. What we get is good and competent, but there’s a kind of inability to get engaged when the movie presents you with a challenge and immediately begins to overcome the "impossibility" of it. We need time to soak in the scale and difficulty, but this one just pushes through. The jump stunts in Shanghai look great but the sequence skips over the actual acquiring of the rabbit’s foot and just gives us Ethan leaving the building with it and we get a mediocre car chase to end it. Great start, meh ending.

19. “Ilsa Helps Ethan Escape Syndicate Custody” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is a fun little sequence where we are introduced to Ilsa as another undercover agent whose motives are unclear. I love how they highlight just how well Ethan and Ilsa work together, almost instinctively. Coming near the beginning of the film, smaller little mini action scenes like this work well for setting tone and introducing characters.

18. “Finale: London Tower Showdown with Lane Ends in a Glass Box” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
- Category: Action
- Commentary: As a stand-alone sequence, this is decent chase/shoot-out/fight stuff; not great, but decent. As the finale of a movie with some thoughtful and methodical action sequences, this is a disappointment. Not only is it just decent for a finale, it’s too hard to swallow that Hunt planned all along to lure Lane to one particular spot in London so we can get our great glass box ending or would even be able to set it up in the time they had. Coming at the end of several little mini-action sequences that essentially all take place within hours of each other, stuff that requires so much prep and setup just smacks too much of the writers room and not an organic ending.

17. “Transporting Damian: Attack on the Bridge” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action
- Commentary: I consider this sequence a great missed opportunity. What we get is really good. The setting and most of the execution is done well, but much of the “action” consists of a circling drone and Ethan running to and from vehicles to mostly no end. He doesn’t accomplish much and while that’s probably one of the ideas behind the sequence, it makes for a rather kinetic but pointless scene as Hunt essentially just watches his prisoner taken away. I think that a couple minutes more of well-designed give and take action with some strategy adaption by both sides, could have made this a defining sequence.

16. “Nighttime Warehouse Rescue of Agent Ferris Goes Wrong” -Mission: Impossible III
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is a very technically competent sequence and it features all of the obvious techniques to ramp up the tension and drama. It’s a good and effective sequence that ends on the very memorable and affecting death of Keri Russell’s Agent Farris. The issue with this sequence is something that plagues much of J.J. Abrams work to me – it’s shot mostly in medium, is a lot of sound and fury and technique, but rarely does it feel substantive or stand out from its peers.

15. “Kremlin Break-In Goes Wrong” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: I find this heist sequence a tough one to rate. Brad Bird’s vision of Mission: Impossible spycraft was to try and fill it with an edgy coolness and load it down with a lot of “fun” gadgets. I don't think he's able to successfully pull it off here, despite some good moments. In this heist, there’s some stuff that works well, the fake projector is neat, and it all feels fun – but it also feels like they have a gadget for every little unique circumstance that just comes out of nowhere. Upload their fake identity?  Gadget, for that. Need a key card? Gadget for that. Get past the hallway unseen? Gadget for that. Need to distract the guard? Gadget for that…get the idea? It works mostly, especially when they raise the stakes by having the gadgets almost fail, but it just never feels as risky or skillful as other heists in the series. The double-cross ending and explosion is a nice ending however.

14. “Code Exchange: From Burge Khalifa into a Sandstorm” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol
- Category: Heist 
- Commentary: This sequence blends heist and traditional action, but I think is a heist scene at its core. The goal here is to heist the missile launch codes by tricking two parties at once. As far as the heist goes – it’s pretty good. The audience is given just enough information to be engaged, but enough kept away from us that we aren’t sure how it is all going to go down and remain surprised throughout the sequence. There's a major fault here though - once the team realizes they have to give away the real codes, the entire ruse becomes unimportant – they could let the real exchange take place and then detain or follow them as necessary. That’s a bit of a plot hole to me – but they do it to up the stakes (something Bird tries to do ad nauseam leading to that awful third act). That said, the chase into the sandstorm is a bit of a miss for me as well. It’s shot well, but the sand (so obviously CGI) really mucks up the sequence and makes it uninteresting and not really worth re-watching in my opinion. At least we get another classic Cruise run from the sequence!

13. “Team Ambush: Prague Mission Goes Sideways” -Mission: Impossible
- Category: Action
- Commentary: I love this mission gone haywire. It's probably more of a dramatic sequence in the end, but they really film it as if it was action. I love how thoroughly De Palma lays the mission out to the audience, briefs us on the different roles, and walks us through the basic mission as it plays in real time. I love how it doesn’t feel like it has technology that’s too far high-tech to feel like arbitrary nonsense (as many later ones did), but it all feels very grounded in spycraft with the tech pushed just a little. When things start to go wrong, there’s enough chaos to make us uncertain, but enough clues to give us insight. The way the team goes down like dominoes and the ambush builds is well edited and laid out. By the end of the sequence, the audience is hooked and ready for the follow-up.

12. “Underground Shootout & Foot Chase Through London” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout
- Category: Action
- Commentary: You'll notice the blending of categories (that really began in film five) here as traditional action turns into a stunt/run sequence across London. This sequence starts off on the wrong foot though with a dark, chaotic, and somewhat sloppy shootout with multiple different parties with different agendas (nightmares of the worst Pirates of the Caribbean habits). I get that 'chaotic' is a desired tone, but much of the beginning just ends up being confusing and unenjoyable. However, once Ethan gets out from underground and on the chase for Walker we get some of the finest Cruise run moments of all-time as he strides through London landmarks: St. Pauls, over the Thames, and ending at the Tate Modern. All of this is shot beautifully to emphasize the sheer speed and scale of the run with London in the background. It’s too bad the run is sandwiched between a kind of lackluster and chaotic shootout and a bit of an anticlimactic elevator ending. Otherwise, this run is legendary. 

11. “Finale: Escaping with the Virus, Motorcycles, & Beach Fights” -Mission: Impossible 2
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is Ethan Hunt filtered through the style of John Woo. Does it work? Eh, mostly. The second film ends with a lengthy action finale that is standard John Woo stuff, but is a little incongruous with the Ethan Hunt we knew from the first film. It’s such a drastic and obvious change that I would submit, despite their clear good faith effort, it never fully clicks. The finale sequence is anchored by a motorcycle chase filled with gunplay and stunts. A reason why the sequences generally hold up, despite their ridiculousness, is that Woo films them primarily in wide and everything looks real and practical. There is a lot of cool looking stuff here that still looks great on screen. The downside is that I think it crosses the line into silliness a little too much. The slow-motion fight at the beach after the two enemies jump off their bikes into each other keeps pushing the over-the-top envelope until it really hurts the sequence as a whole. I’m glad the series didn’t return to this well again.

Top Ten Action Sequences
10. “Opening: Ethan Hunt hangs outside a plane” –Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation 
- Category: Stunt/Spectacle
- Commentary: A great stunt based opening sequence for the fifth film. If you are going to do a “mini-action” scene and not a set piece, then this is how and when you do it. There’s almost no way to tell what was done practically and what was CGI’ed, and that’s exactly how it should feel. It feels real. It feels amazing.

9. “Finale: Train, Tunnels, & Turmoil” -Mission: Impossible 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This is one of the more underrated action sequences of the franchise. Like the CIA heist sequence earlier in the film, the gambit of Hunt having something of high value and trolling it out to bring out the bad guys while hoping it “doesn’t get out in the open” is a template the series would go back to over and over. Watching this sequence again, I’m struck by how good the top of the train stuff looks even decades later. It was the first time, in the cinema in 1996, I’ve ever seen “top of a train” action be so impacted by the wind - the way the face and clothes are visibly impacted is such an important part of the sell here. Once you can get past the ridiculousness of the helicopter following the train into the tunnel, the rest of the sequence looks so visually real that I can’t help but find it immensely compelling. That the sequence manages to wrap up Phelps, Kittridge, and Max at the same time makes it all the better.

8. “Mountain Duel: Helicopters and Hand to Hand” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout 
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: Unlike the Paris sequence from this film, this is one that gets a bit worse for me every time I revisit it. First, the helicopter stunts are incredible and blew me away in the theater. Still, we despite the amazing commitment to doing as much practical work with the helicopters, we have to admit it’s a bit over the top. It’s amazing stunt stuff, but it becomes such a zany sequence (admittedly, well done zany) that it doesn’t quite feel at home with the general tone of the rest of film and the rest of their more grounded action sequences. Second, the helicopter stuff, despite my gripes, would still be an A- sequence in my opinion, but unfortunately it’s intercut A LOT with Benji and Ilsa trying to track down the other bombs and stop Solomon Lane. I get intercutting it a bit, but it’s given equal time and it’s just not at all as interesting as the Ethan stuff. Third, the sequence just goes on forever – making it harder and harder to believe the 15 minute countdown. I know the countdown is a laugh, but for a film trying to be so grounded, they milk it way too much. Gripes aside, man is this sequence fun. 

7. “Bathroom Carnage: Fistfight with Lark” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout 
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: Beautifully shot fight sequence here. In the context of the Mission: Impossible films, this is easily the best fight sequence they’ve ever produced and I love that Ethan isn't portrayed as an expert fighter. It takes both he and Walker to equal the opponent. In the grand scheme of fight sequences, it’s very good, but a little short and a little dependent on a dues ex machina ending. I would have liked to see a bit more back and forth and a less arbitrary ending.

6. “Stealing the Noc List from the CIA” -Mission: Impossible 
- Category: Heist
- Commentary: This sequence not only went on to spawn a million imitations but would become the basic template for so many of the heist sequences throughout the rest of the series. The setup is all “there’s no way this can be done” but we are going to cleverly chip away at each defense through technology and clever subterfuge. The high-wire act is this sequence’s unique contribution to the genre and is perhaps challenged only by the Burg Khalifa sequence from Ghost Protocol as the most iconic visual sequence for the franchise. De Palma does a wonderful job amping up the tension and drama and Cruise sells the physical difficulty of the acrobatics perfectly. As great as this sequence is, there are a couple of faults that are difficult to look past (even with the passage of time). For instance, the biggest moment of tension, the sweat drop going across Ethan’s glasses and threatening to hit the floor is resolved by Ethan catching the sweat with an outstretched palm – an act that is physically impossible given his spread eagle nature and closeness to the floor. Additionally, the logic and luck of how they acquire the sign-in password by waiting above the computer attendant makes no sense and is so much luck that the “grounded” nature they are going for here is undercut. Still – despite these and other flaws, this is one of the best “action” heist sequences of the series and in cinema.

5. “Chasing Ilsa in Morocco: Cars & Motorcycles” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This exotic car chase sequence is great evidence that Rogue One saw itself as the Mission: Impossible take on Bond film. The sequence is an amazing adrenaline filled car and motorcycle chase through the streets and hills of “Morocco” but filtered with the "I'm a superman, but not immune to failing in funny ways" schtick Ethan adopted from Jackie Chan. The chase has the unfortunate distinction of being kicked down from a masterpiece status to just “really really good” with one idiotic stunt – Hunt’s car doing multiple somersaults and landing with a thud and they come out unscathed. It’s a shame because everything else feels so intense, grounded, and enhanced by Hunt’s “I’m recovering from death” obliviousness. 

4. “Vienna Opera House Assassination Goes Sideways” -Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation 
- Category: Action
- Commentary: This sequence is a breath of fresh air into the franchise. There is nothing quite like it throughout the entire franchise. Instead of being centered on a heist, this methodical sequence is about hunting an assassin and allowing multiple parties to unfold their mysterious agendas to the beautiful backdrop of the Vienna opera. The entire sequence plays much closer to a contemporary take on mashing together Hitchcock (think the opera sequence from The Man Who Knew Too Much) and the more methodical old school Bond sequences featuring a mysterious femme fatale. Commitment to letting the sequence play out slowly, a painterly cinematography, Hitchcockian unfolding of the story, and contemporary action sensibilities make this a standout sequence in the franchise and the best sequence in all of Rogue Nation.

3. “Vatican Valuables: Kidnapping Owen Davian” -Mission: Impossible III 
- Category: Heist
- Community: This is easily the standout sequence of the entire third film and the best beginning to end heist in the entire franchise. It’s often overlooked in the forgotten third film, but this heist is thorough, flashy, fun, and unfolds with enough grounding, practicality, and real life locations to give make it stand out from it's peers. It’s not as iconic as the CIA heist, but it’s more comprehensive, fun, and (within the tone of the film’s universe) logically consistent.

2. “Burg Khalifa: Breaking into the Server Room” -Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol 
- Category: Stunt/spectacle
- Commentary: This sequence (before the heist gets underway) is best considered and evaluated as a stunt spectacular and on that level – it’s a jaw-dropping masterpiece. Thankfuly, the sequence not intercut to death with other plotlines, and is allowed to mostly play itself out. The whole thing is a visual feast and if CGI was used you can’t tell; it feels as real as possible. The added comedic level and gadgetry breaking at the most opportune moments really works here. As far as pure stunt sequences goes, this is the gold standard of the entire series.

1. “Paris Mayhem: Ambush, Chase, and Escape” -Mission: Impossible – Fallout 
- Category: Action 
- Commentary: I really enjoyed this sequence in the cinema, but have grown to appreciate it more and more with each viewing. This sequence is a perfect example of how the director found a way to blend all three major categories together into one. Essentially, the team is their to heist Solomon Lane. The action and stunts are blended seamlessly between stunt filled car/motorcycle chase scenes and shootouts. The sequence goes on for about 20 minutes and is a masterpiece of action that moves the plot forward and throws multiple enemies and obstacles at our hero. It feels like it progresses through multiple stages and at each stage throws a new obstacle – from the Dark Knight ‘esque heist of Solomon Lane, to the motorcycle chase, a gun standoff for some emotional gravity, and then a final car chase against Ilsa. The entire thing ends with a bit of drama over taking the tracking chip off Solomon Lane that plays like an homage to the original films tracking of the fake noc list. High energy, beautiful cinematography, great stunts with real physical motorcycles and cars (there’s a lot of CGI cars to enhance, but most of the actual stuff is real). This represents the best elements of the series and is my choice for the best action the Mission: Impossible franchise has to offer.

Monday, July 27, 2020

Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Pirates of the Caribbean Edition

3:24 PM 0
Best Action Scenes of All-Time: Pirates of the Caribbean Edition
*scroll down to skip the introduction and get to the rankings
The Pirates of the Caribbean film franchise now has five entries and is so popular that it is easy to forget that Disney was taking a leap in the dark in 2003 by giving Gore Verbinski and a handful of writers the task of turning their famous theme park attraction into a major film franchise. My first interaction with the franchise didn't start well as I fell asleep in the theater watching 2003's Curse of the Black Pearl and didn't really care for it. It was so popular and had so many people talking that I was convinced I must have been in a bad state on my viewing and I went back and watched it a second time. I ended up falling asleep a second time. 

Despite my initial "meh" feeling towards the franchise, I initially loved the 2006 follow-up Dead Man's Chest (my love of the film has tempered over the years) and was immensely disappointed by the 2007 trilogy capper At World's End and found the fourth and fifth films to be unimaginative and derivative cash grabs. If I had to rank the movies I probably order them this way:

1. Dead Man's Chest (B+)
2. Curse of the Black Pearl (B)
3. At World's End (C)
4. Dead Men Tell No Tales (C-)
5. On Stranger Tides (C-)

I'm not here to review the films, I'm here to take a look at the action sequences. In all, I gotta say, I wasn't too impressed with the full body of sequences in the franchise. I think there's an inherent problem with “action” in these films for most action junkies like me. In general, we are looking for something to stand out, whether it is athleticism, force, spectacle, skill, violence, strategy, intensity, etc. The issue with this franchise is that the central character isn’t meant to be an impressive action stars - his character is built on avoiding fights and weaseling out of them as much as possible. So the films are forced to try and find increasingly unique and quirky ways for Sparrow to get out of trouble or beat his opponents that doesn’t simply rely upon his skill in swordfighting or his superior captaining abilities. This means the filmmakers depend a lot on the environments and finding ways, closer to Buster Keaton than Jackie Chan, that Jack escapes. This can sometimes lead to creative gold (see my #1 sequence) and it can often lead to a complete creative misfire (see the finale of At World’s End). It does mean that the sequences, outside of Will Turner who is more in the vein of the traditional hero, aren’t always easy to compare to the traditional adventure sequences of other films. 

Despite that, there are some very good large scale sequences here. As I went through the films I counted twenty sequences. I've ranked them all below and included some commentary for each. Enjoy.

20. “Finale: Showdown with Beckett's Fleet” -At World’s End 
- The maelstrom setting (initiated by Calypso) is certainly an attempt to up the epic setting, but it unfortunately makes the entire sequence dependent on CGI – which ends up undercutting a sense of grounding in real practical settings - an ingredient of the best sequences of the franchise. The setup of a final round of double crosses and heel turns feels so arbitrary and wild and crazy by this point in the film that it’s hard for me to take anything seriously as this sequence begins. What other turns are coming, why does anyone trust or believe in anything any more? Additionally, the initial Pearl vs Dutchman sequence doesn’t make a lot of logic as the Dutchman and Davy and his crew are kinda invincible and have shown they can even dive under the water when needed. Are we to believe that a few canon broadsides could bring them down? How long are they circling this maelstrom? Is that really all Calypso is doing? Jack’s stealing of Davy’s chest is conveniently easy (for a laugh), Swann and Turners marriage during a sword fight is conveniently easy (for a laugh), does this finale actually take stakes seriously? I feel bad for the CGI artists who spent countless hours animating complex CGI maelstrom backgrounds and complex CGI opponents for a sequence that’s not even about the action – but is about a cheesy laugh. Forget strategy, or adaptation, or genuine back and forth competitiveness – this action all feels arbitrary and for a laugh…until it isn’t…and then it isn’t. Lord Beckett is smart and quick to respond…until he isn’t and he blunders and can't act. It’s hard for me to understate just how badly this entire 30 minute finale misses the mark to me despite its great ambitions. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a sequence with this much talent, effort, time, and ambition go so wrong on a logical, design, and execution level. An major nit for an action fan like me is this – they tease an epic fleet showdown with pirates from around the globe and a giant British armada, but the finale ends up really being the Pearl vs the Dutchman and then they turn on the Endeavor. That’s it. It’s a shame really, because there’s still Verbinski’s strong visual presentation here including a great shot of Beckett in slow-motion as his ship is destroyed around him. 

19. “Palm Tree Escape: Sparrow Hops on Palms” -On Stranger Tides
- The finale of At World’s End may be more ambitious and creative, but at least this sequence is mercifully over in just 3 minutes. This sequence, perhaps on paper sounded fun, comes close to mocking the audience with Jack’s ridiculous escape method of catapulting from palm tree to palm tree and then somehow tying up the dumbest soldiers in history by running a rope around all of them.

18. “Pearl & Sao Feng Rebel & Escape Beckett's HMS Endeavor” -At World’s End
- Coming after a lengthy bit of exposition and double-turns, this quick and messy sequence, like the Singapore sequence earlier in the film, feels rushed and made up on the spot. It doesn’t make a ton of sense and unfortunately makes Becket less of a threat as he’s bested by people who are essentially prisoners.

17. “Finale: Fountain of Youth Fight” -On Stranger Tides
- Devoid of new inspiration, this boring finale set piece can’t even get up the energy to at least match the visual presentation of the previous POTC finales it slavishly imitates. By film four, a final round of double crosses and weaseling by Jack Sparrow over another "spiritual" McGuffin isn’t interesting anymore – it’s just plain boring.

16. “Salazar and his Sharks Chase Jack in the Water” -Dead Men Tell No Tales
- A sequence wholly ruined by near complete use of CGI and wonky physics. Salazar releases monster sharks that act incredibly dumb and give our heroes a chance to escape to land…and wouldn’t you know it, Salazar can’t step foot on land! If Salazar and his crew could run on water, why did they need to release the sharks?

15. “Barbossa's Pirates Arrive in Port Royal & Take Elizabeth” -The Curse of the Black Pearl 
- It's okay.

14. “Kraken is Unleashed Upon Turner's Escape Ship” -Dead Man’s Chest
- More of a disaster sequence than an action one - still, it's an okay spectacle. Short, but decent. 

13. “Jack Sparrow Fights His Doppelganger” -On Stranger Tides
- Creative idea with decent execution. The fight feels more like an un-creative tour of the room, imitating other similar “environment” fights, than it does feel like anything fresh, exciting, or interesting.

12. “Singapore Spa Showdown” -At World’s End
- This is a genuine disappointment. The Singapore bath house set is incredible, there are new characters to the story, and we are waiting to be wowed at the beginning of this film. Instead, the sequence feels rushed, a bit of a mess, and features none of the next level visual presentation that the stand-out set pieces of the first two films had. 

11. “Black Pearl vs. The Intercept: Barbossa Catches Turner” -The Curse of the Black Pearl
- On a technical level, this sequence is pretty good. We get a well shot sequence of two major sailing ships intersect, fire a volley close in, and even a fight while they board. The problem with this sequence is its role in the story and the logic of the fight. First, in the story, it’s essentially unnecessary as this sequence could have happened back at the Isla da Muerta, but seems padded and convoluted told this way. It can feel arbitrary the way it plays out, two steps forward two steps back, and is something that plagues the series throughout. Additionally, the logic of the battle – there’s not much tension fighting immortal beings and their idea to practically destroy the ship without thinking about what they might do to the medallion. The person with the medallion has leverage, but they are too dumb to use it. Even now, as I proofread this, I'm struggling to distinguish this sequence from several other similar ones in the franchise.

10. “Finale: Fight for Trident and Escaping the Trench” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- Visually, there is a lot to commend here. As an action sequence and culmination of character moments – aggressively predictable and mediocre. (This could be the theme for most of the sequences in the franchise)

9. “The Crew Rescues Sparrow from Execution” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- Other than a bit of visual cleverness with a guillotine, this is a pretty standard "last second execution rescue" scene. Nothing that great, nothing that bad.

8. “Pearl vs. Salazar: Canon Hopping at Night” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- This is a mediocre sequence made better by the clever idea of having Sparrow and Salazar using the exposed canons on the sides of their two ships (facing each other) to battle it out. It’s a clever idea – but given we know Salazar is quick and can run on the water, it doesn’t make a lot of sense. In fact, like nearly every entry into the franchise, we don’t really know how the bad guy can be killed in combat outside of their arbitrary kryptonite like (can’t step on land, stab his heart, etc.) weakness that's not always explained clearly. It’s redundant and repetitive and a bit of visual cleverness can’t overcome that the sequence takes place at night, with CGI backgrounds abounding.

7. “London Tour: Escaping British Custody” -On Stranger Tides 
- I enjoy this sequence more for the convincing 18th century London backdrops that the rather standard chase sequence plays out on rather than its specific action. The action isn't bad, it’s shot with some clarity, but it’s also doesn’t really exhibit much skill, awe, wonder, violence, or anything else to make it stand out in a sea of films with great sequences. It’s kind of an extended hide and seek with some mild parkour thrown in.

6. “Finale: Pirates, British, and Sparrow Fight the Cursed” -The Curse of the Black Pearl 
-This interesting and technically impressive sequence is almost completely undercut for me by the inability of the cursed pirates to die. It renders all their gun and sword fights moot until they become mortal again. Sparrow and Barbossa fight for a while and then acknowledge their immortality and wonder if they’ll keep going forever. It’s cheeky, but it’s a genuine feeling of the audience too – none of the fights can be meaningful in the world of the story as long as the characters are invincible.

5. “Bank Vault Robbery in Saint Martin” -Dead Men Tell No Tales 
- This sequence just missed out on being one of the greats. I love the setting, the scale, the basic idea, and most of the execution. Unfortunately, the setup is a bit cliché now, and about halfway through the sequence loses it’s way and is intercut with a “she’s a witch” plotline that nearly sinks the entire thing. A few adjustments and this could have been so much more. The directors should have watched Bond's tank sequence in Goldeneye for reference.

4. “Finale: Dutchman & the Kraken Take Out the Pearl” -Dead Man’s Chest 
- I really like the sense of strategy they gave Will Turner in directing this fight against the Kraken. Of course, the Kraken acts slower and more methodical here than in previous outings, but the visual presentation is on another level. Although the Kraken is clearly CGI (though very good CGI), we get treated to a moving camera around what looks like very practical sets of the entire ship, helping to ground the sequence and give it some dynamism without the whole thing looking like it was all made in a computer. Overall, the sequence plays out in three distinct phases with stakes and character altering decisions for our main players. Hard to fault a scene like that.

3. “Escape from Cannibal Island” -Dead Man’s Chest 
- A tough one to rate as it’s certainly an “action” sequence, but it’s a unique comedic/slapstick escape sequence that mostly works. I say mostly because viewer mileage might vary as the sequence takes a pretty big step up in suspension of disbelief (hanging over a bottomless abyss in a human bone cages and Sparrow surviving a fall from hundreds of feet up are two examples) and relies heavily on the viewer enjoying the humor. Myself – at times I love it and feel it should be rated much higher and at others I feel like its an overrated joke. Probably the best Keaton-esque sequence in the franchise. The use of CGI to enhance the location shooting rather than replace - allows the sequence some grounding and a beautiful and memorable palette of colors.

2. “Sword Fight: Turner vs. Sparrow” -The Curse of the Black Pearl 
- This is a fun  sequence that introduces that Sparrow has some sword prowess but isn’t quite in the league with the best and requires luck and scheming to get of jams more than pure skill. It’s shot well, with a bit of humor, and sets the tone for the rest of the film.

1. “Island Mayhem: Fighting for the Chest and the Key” -Dead Man’s Chest 
- I think this action sequence exists an entire tier up from the rest. After finding the chest of Davey Jones, we get a quick layout of the conflicting ambitions of each of the major players: Norrington, Turner, and Sparrow. The sword fighting begins and the sequence grows more and more complicated with the addition of the Dutchman crew and Sparrow’s crew that see their own angle. The beach setting here with the white sand, turquoise water, and rustic water wheel is incredible and Gore Verbinski does a great job using it to highlight the human action. Additionally, this is probably the greatest “adventure” moment for the entire franchise when it comes to the full score. What was nice in the first film finds its full bombastic and definitive nature here during this sequence. Sure, most of the sword action here is pretty standard, but that's not really the point. The biggest feature is the camera work – the visual presentation of the warring parties and how cleverly and dynamically their three-way struggle can play out in this beautiful setting behind the score at full blast. The biggest highlight for me is the playful camera work in presenting the three main players fighting inside a detached water wheel. In the end, this sequence is the best execution of what the entire franchise seemed to have been shooting for (to always less success than here): a fun, quirky, and comedic adventure where multiple parties with their own agendas are fighting over treasured objects in a beautiful Caribbean setting. This sequence nailed it.