Much earlier this year I remember watching the trailer for “Greyhound” and thinking, golly, that sure looks like C.S. Forester’s book, The Good Shepherd.

I may have mentioned somewhere in this blog that I’m a long-time fan of C.S. Forester. I forget exactly when I first read Forester’s The Good Shepherd, but I was probably in my 20s. Forester’s books carried a blurb by Ernest Hemingway to the effect that, “I recommend Forester to every literate I know.”

Well, I’m going to recommend “Greyhound” to everyone I know.

Before watching it, I read some of the reviews. One thing that struck me, among the negative reviews, was a fairly consistent complaint that the film was shallow and lacked character development. 

I have no idea what the reviewers mean by that. Perhaps I’m merely a fly-over country Neanderthal who learned everything I know about writing by reading great writers. I’m not an MFA, so I developed whatever poor talent I have as a writer by writing and by osmosis, if you will. A lot of my favorite writers had their heyday before 1970. Again, maybe that makes me a Neanderthal, but because of that I have a different perspective on stories like this.

To me, the story is done very much in the style of what one might consider not merely movies of the early 1940s, but from a 1940s perspective, period. (You wonder what the movie would have looked like in black and white.) In that, Hanks’ adaptation was faithful to Forester’s work. People who grew up in the shadow of World War II may see more in this movie than younger folks, because of shared cultural context. Folks who study World War II will also get it. Perhaps, though, that lack of shared context underlies some of the negative criticism about character development.

For most people this movie may be something like opening a window back in time. That window will be the size of your TV screen. Through it, you can observe events as they happened aboard the USS Greyhound. In the North Atlantic. In February, 1942. Understanding and interpreting what you see, as well as the characters in the story, will depend solely on your powers of observation through that window, and whatever other knowledge you bring with you.

In short, don’t expect this story to tell you what is happening. It’s going to bloody well show you. My advice? Hang on and pay attention.

Via the story, you will witness a period of about 50 hours of extremely intense and unrelenting action and danger. During that time the captain and crew of the Greyhound aren’t focused on their feelies; they’re focused on doing their job. That job is protecting the convoy they are escorting from marauding U-boats while staying alive in a North Atlantic winter. In that situation “character development” focuses on how people do their jobs, what it costs them to do their jobs, and the choices they make to continue to do their jobs. 

I used the word “feelies” very deliberately. There’s a scene in the movie that illustrates my choice perfectly: a very young telephone talker, whose job is to repeat messages and convey information between the captain and various departments, sneezes and garbles a message at a crucial point. He asks for a repeat, causing a delay. After that, one of his officers takes him aside and tells him, quietly but firmly, that if he can’t do the job he will be relieved.

The officer wasn’t being insensitive or uncaring. Quite the opposite, in fact. In that context, the lives of the crew, and the success of their mission, which is the protection of a convoy from those who would destroy it, absolutely depends on doing your job, whatever it might be, whatever the personal cost, and doing it the way you’re trained to do it. You don’t do that job, people will die. What seems superficially insensitive reflects the reality of the situation.

I’m trying to keep you alive, sailor. That’s the underlying message. “Character development”? You’re looking right at it. I mean, right at it. As it is made.

You want to feel something, feel that. Feel what it costs you to be a teenager with responsibilities, even in a relatively “minor” job, that might mean life or death not only for you but for your shipmates. It’s not something that we, today, in 2020, understand all that well. That’s at least partly because those teenage kids in 1942 went out and shouldered that burden and bore that cost. They developed their characters, and those who survived came home and built the world we have today.

If you allow it, Tom Hanks and “Greyhound” will let you experience a little of what that was like for our fathers and grandfathers and, increasingly, sadly, our vanishing great-grandfathers.

So, shallow characterization? Maybe. I hope I’ve made it clear that there’s a different way to look at that issue in this story.

On a techie level, hope you have a big-screen TV with a good sound system, because the CGI is simply off the charts! Some critics found the CGI “unbelievable in places.” I’d like them to be a little more specific, since otherwise that’s just a cheap shot. Personally I think if I’d seen this in the theater, I would’ve found myself wishing I had a life preserver. That water looked awfully real to me.

One minor note: near the end of the film there’s a shot of Greyhound where her bow is visible, and so is her hull number: 548. Greyhound is portrayed as a Fletcher-class destroyer, but if you look it up (just google “DD-548”) you find that there is no destroyer with the number 548. For some reason the Navy didn’t use it. But that’s perfect. DD-548 is the Greyhound. She doesn’t have to be any other destroyer but herself.

Watch the movie. But maybe keep a life preserver handy, just in case. Even in the safety of your own home.

Good Airplane Movies

Good Airplane Movies

If you hang out with pilots for any length of time and the movies come up you’ll very likely hear the more or less unanimous opinion that Hollywood doesn’t make good movies about aviation.

I agree good aviation movies are few and far between, but it should be noted that an aviation movie is about people flying or otherwise involved with airplanes. An “aviation movie” should let the non-flying viewer glimpse what motivates otherwise normal people to learn to fly and deliberately, even eagerly, perform the unnatural act of flying.

Pilots don’t tend to talk about the faults in the story. That’s sort of secondary. They tend to focus on technical inaccuracies about the airplanes or the techniques of flying them. A particularly egregious example is a movie where a Spitfire pilot manages to break the speed of sound by “cross-controlling” – possibly a misunderstanding of the control reversal phenomenon experienced by some airplanes as they near Mach One – an event that, even at the time the film was made, was known to be not merely incorrect but something that would lead to the destruction of the aircraft and probably its pilot. Exceeding Mach One in a propeller-driven aircraft is an aerodynamic impossibility, anyway.

My personal favorite mistakes include identification of one type of airplane as another. The film “Midway” (1976) had aerial shots that identified an airplane with four engines (probably a C-130 Hercules) as a twin-engine PBY Catalina; a long shot of an aerial dogfight where the airplanes involved all appeared to have in-line engines, whereas all the airplanes at Midway had radial engines; or the scene where an American TBF torpedo bomber is identified as a Japanese “Kate” even though the white star of the US national insignia, as opposed to the red rising sun of Japan, is plainly visible.

Directors would probably argue, with some justice, that to most people an airplane is an airplane is an airplane and what the blank, they’ve all got wings, don’t they? So what difference does it make? Besides, it costs a lot of money to shoot those aerial scenes right. Look at Howard Hughes nearly going broke shooting “Hell’s Angels.”

So what’s the big deal?

Well…you don’t become a pilot unless flying means something to you beyond the ordinary, and given the vanishingly small percentage of people who actually become pilots, much less professional pilots, maybe it isn’t surprising that so few people understand why it’s important to pilots to get these “little details” right.

Because, you see, to pilots, especially professional pilots who may have lives riding on their skill and expertise, there’s no such thing as a small or unimportant detail. Little things can kill you.

So I suspect at least two reasons why pilots scowl at aviation movies. First, as noted, if overlooking details can result in damage, death, or disaster, then one can understand why pilots – the ones who tend to live longest, anyway – tend to acquire a thorough and painstaking knowledge of their craft and the airplanes they fly. It should also be understandable why pilots tend to be intolerant of mistakes and ignorance. Those can get you killed.

That seems pretty obvious, but there is a second reason, a little more subtle, and it involves the craft of writing a story. The fiction story usually requires something called “dramatic conflict” – a compelling reason, interesting to the reader, for the character or characters to be confronted with a problem to be solved. The detective story is a perfect example; the actions of the detective in solving the case carry the action of a story in a most satisfying way, if properly written.

If a pilot performs properly, aviation, from outside of the cockpit, appears uneventful, a transit between two points in varying degrees of comfort. Pilots work very hard indeed to achieve that level of apparent lack of drama.

When things go bad and pilots do what they’re supposed to do in an emergency, far more often than not dealing with the emergency, from outside the cockpit, still has that aura of the ordinary and uneventful. It’s not every day that Sully Sullenberger has to put an airliner into the Hudson, less than three minutes after departure, because both engines of his airplane ingest birds and flame out. I got a real kick out of listening to the tape of Sullenberger on the radio with the air traffic controllers. They’d ask him if he could reach this airport, or that airport, and Sully, being perhaps a tad busy, consistently replies with nothing more than “Unable.” That recording is available on YouTube. Listen to Sully’s voice. It’s the voice of a master at work.

Even more, it’s not every day that a flight crew is confronted with engine failure combined with hydraulic failure resulting in inoperative controls, a condition highly likely to lead to a catastrophic departure from controlled flight, as nearly happened to United Flight 232 on July 19, 1989. That crew, aided by a United Airlines training check airman who was aboard, gave new meaning to cliches like “used every trick in the book” and “snatched victory from the jaws of death.” Victory in this case meant most of the passengers survived the crash landing, when casualties could easily have been 100%. They survived because the members of the flight crew were consummate practitioners of their craft.

In aviation, dramatic conflict usually means death or the danger thereof. That’s how most people see it, anyway. Maybe that’s why pilots don’t like aviation movies. No one likes to be reminded of how things can go to pieces and leave you to pick up the mess, if you can. Especially when the blank-blank details are wrong. Some fool kid might think it was right, go try it, and end up in a smoking hole at the scene of the accident.

All of that being said I’m going to recommend the following five movies as good aviation films, maybe not always spot-on with details, but true at least in spirit. These films, to me, show something very close to what it means to be a pilot. Feel free to agree or disagree with my choices, and by all means make other recommendations.

“Spirit of St. Louis” (1957)

“Dawn Patrol” (1938)

“Only Angels Have Wings” (1939)

“The Bridges at Toko-Ri” (1954)

“I Wanted Wings” (1941)

Ghosts of Facebook

Ghosts of Facebook

Ghosts are a real thing, and they exist on Facebook.

I know this because Facebook keeps reminding me of, among other things, a friend’s birthday. Or a post I shared with that friend, or that was shared with me, one or two or six years in the past. Or it’s the occasion of our “Friendversary.”

So today, November 26, 2019 is my friend J. R. Hafer’s birthday. I got that notification a few minutes ago, and sat there looking at it for awhile. Mostly because J.R. passed away in 2018, a few days before his birthday.

I don’t remember the date of our “Friendversary,” but I remember very well the first time I met J.R. He grew up here in Hickory, NC, and would visit from his home in Florida with his lovely wife Myra. J.R. belonged to that oddball fraternity of pilots and aviation enthusiasts, the Hickory Aviation Museum, and at that time I worked at the Hickory Regional Airport. I think I was in the terminal building, probably replacing trashbags or checking the bathrooms or something equally glamorous. J.R. came up with a mutual acquaintance from the Museum, who performed introductions.

At the time I had just published my first book, Everything We Had, about two brothers caught up in the early Pacific air war in 1941. We were talking about books and of course, being an aggressive author in search of readers, I asked why he hadn’t read MY book. I think it took him aback a little bit, but we exchanged addresses and I sent him a complimentary copy.

There’s a stage when you first start publishing where you are on absolute pins and needles about the reception of your (baby!) book. You’ve absolutely no idea how it will be received, and, of course, you know you’re the best writer around (writers are like fighter pilots that way), you just hope everyone else sees that too. Unlike fighter pilots, a writer can’t crawl up a reader’s six and … well, complete that image in your own mind. Every sale is a victory, let’s put it that way.

In truth I’d half-forgotten about sending the book to J.R., and when, two weeks later, I got a phone call from a number with a Florida area code I started not to answer it. Durned telemarketers, I thought, and answered it anyway.

It was J.R.

Calling me to rave about my book. Which rave review he backed up with another on Amazon.

You HOPE for things like that. And when it happens you’re floored. Sort of like, “You mean, I really am almost as good as I have to tell myself I am to keep writing?”

I remember that moment distinctly. There don’t tend to be too many moments like that in your life.

Today is J.R.’s birthday, and I wish he were still here, because I’d like to share with him that my new book, The New Kids, should be available on Amazon by mid-December.

Personally I believe in ghosts, and not just the ghosts on Facebook. So I hope J.R., and the other phantoms of my personal pantheon, are looking over my shoulder right now. Hopefully they’re all rolling their eyes and prodding me with ectoplasmic fingers and saying something like, “Don’t brag about it until you hit the SEND button!”

Anyway, J.R., this one’s for you. Happy birthday, and I wish you were still around so I could share this one with you.

East to the Dawn – A Review

East to the Dawn — A Review

Usually I don’t read biographies. I made an exception for Susan Butler’s East to the Dawn – the Life of Amelia Earhart because of, well, Amelia Earhart.

Amelia has always been a favorite of mine. I remember reading her chapter in a book by Robert S. Owen, They Flew to Fame, when I was nine or ten years old. It was the chapter just after Lindbergh’s which, in retrospect, seems fitting.

I confess I found the story of Amelia’s early life a little slow. That’s not Ms. Butler’s fault; a person’s life moves at its own pace, and even Amelia’s was no exception. There were still interesting things to be found in the first half of the book; I knew Amelia had been a social worker, but I had no idea at ten what a “social worker” was (except for the reference in a song from “West Side Story”) or the fact that in the mid-20s it was considered a cutting-edge career for women. I also didn’t know about the misfortunes of Amelia’s early family life, which I won’t go in to — read the book yourself.

I’m also not quite sure at what point I became enthralled with the book. It was probably when Ms. Butler pointed out that once Amelia made a success of herself as a social worker at the Denison House she could have had a brilliant career in that field, possibly living to a respected and accomplished old age. I simply hadn’t thought of that, and that point, the idea that an historical figure actually had choices, is not something that one sees brought out in biographies very often, because they are nearly always about people who are famous for doing something we already know about. For that reason choices made often seem the only ones possible; set in stone, or predestined, if you will. Ms. Butler avoids that, and her work is all the better for it.

From that point on the biography, already well done, became in my opinion inspired, and I began to consider what Ms. Butler had to put in to the writing.

I asked myself what caused the author to undertake the task of this book? Writing a fresh biography of a figure like Amelia Earhart, famous and well-known in her own time, the subject of many other biographies, is surely a daunting undertaking. Ms. Butler seems to have approached the task with a will. The level of effort employed is to be appreciated only by looking at the extensive notes and bibliography.

That level of effort involved many interviews with people still living who knew Amelia; a search through previously unpublished contemporary records, such as diaries, journals and letters, the mere ferreting out of which in itself had to be a monumental task; searching through records official and unofficial. Merely compiling the data alone is a task involving years of focus, discipline and purpose.

One might say such an effort has elements of obsession, but I see obsession as a negative quality, and there is nothing of the negative in the quality of Ms. Butler’s work. It is rather a work of love, undertaken in the spirit of a duty one sometimes finds oneself selected to bear, the duty of bringing witness to greatness.

No one can write words that put us inside the skin of another, and if they could that still might not be the greatest artistry. The great writer, in whatever form, through words creates a platform of the imagination which strikes in the mind and soul of the reader sparks of sympathy, empathy and compassion, a light in that darkness surrounding our souls that permits us a glimpse, a trembling glimpse across an awful void, to where the soul of another may be discerned.

So it is with this biography.

Quite aside from anything else, as an aviation enthusiast I found Ms. Butler’s anecdotes of the aviation community of the 1920s and 1930s to be fascinating and informative. Her account of Amelia’s last flight, particularly the last legs from Java and New Guinea to remote Howland Island, was poignant, the last line of that chapter heart-wrenching for anyone who has ever flown.

Need I add that I thoroughly recommend this work?

Captain America is My Hero

Captain America is My Hero

He’s a character from a comic book, the genre that epitomizes simplified plots and uncomplicated dialog. Yet Captain America may tap into something truly and uniquely American, the spirit we as a nation found during World War II, the spirit that enabled us to come together, to fight, to win. Maybe that’s a little much to put on a comic book character who has become, in turn, an action-movie icon. Maybe, but let’s study on it a little.

Cap started out as a young man named Steve Rogers. Steve was 4F, a Selective Service classification meaning physically unfit for service. He was also the quintessential “98-pound weakling.” Steve got into fights he couldn’t win, with opponents bigger, tougher, faster; he got knocked down, but he kept getting up and returning to the fight. He also kept going back to the draft board, hoping he could finagle his way into the service, hoping against hope that he wouldn’t be rejected. Steve had a big heart, and that heart wanted to serve his country in time of need.

Finally Steve gets his chance. It seems there was a scientist who developed a miraculous serum that was the basis of a process that would rewire the young man’s brain and rebuild his body. The serum turned Steve Rogers into what an earlier time would have called a demi-god, investing him with superior strength, agility, reflexes, endurance and durability.

Steve Rogers got his wish, and more. He became a super soldier.

He was supposed to be the first of many, but Dr. Erskine, the scientist who developed the serum, was assassinated, the project laboratory destroyed. Steve Rogers, the first super soldier, would now be the only one of his kind.

This is the origin of Captain America, the 98-pound weakling who becomes a super-soldier. What can we make of that in terms of symbolism?

Maybe we could look at the real US of A in 1940. In truth, in many ways, our country was a 98-pound weakling on the international stage. In 1940, we had the 19th largest army in the world — after Yugoslavia. We had a good Navy, but our Air Force was still called the Air Corps. In 1940, indeed, through 1941, it couldn’t have matched the Nazi Luftwaffe or Britain’s RAF. When war came in December of 1941, our Air Corps, undertrained and poorly equipped, tried valiantly to oppose the Japanese. But at that time we were a 98-pound weakling, and like the weak everywhere, we got our butts kicked. Sure, we had the potential. We had the best workers, the best brains (look at the Manhattan Project!) and the most money. But the US was still way, way behind.

The US was Steve Rogers, before the serum.

The country’s “special serum” was Pearl Harbor. Few events in history have mobilized a nation the way the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor did. Every World War II veteran I’ve ever spoken with mentioned that as a factor in wanting to join up.

We’re looking at symbolism, though, so let’s stay with Cap.

What about the “Super Soldier Program”? I contend one might see this as a metaphor for that ancient rite of passage called “basic training.” It takes time and a tough drill sergeant to turn civilians into soldiers. Lots of civilians went through this during World War II. Maybe there weren’t “super soldiers.” Sure as hell they were the next best thing.

That silly, gaudy costume Cap wore. Think of Captain America as the action-hero version of a symbol that’s been around for a long time: Uncle Sam. Then think of every recruiting poster from World War II, especially those of the Marine Corps if they showed Marines in their dress blues. A lot of those recruiting posters might remind you of Captain America.

A symbol has to be a little more universal in its appeal. Not just to future Marines, but to all of us. That’s Cap.

In our cynical times we tend to see Cap as a little too much of a Boy Scout. People like that, we think, are suckers, easily deceived and taken advantage of. Just what are those qualities, though? A Scout, as I recall, is trustworthy, loyal, brave, courteous, reverent, truthful, and someother qualities I’d have to look up in my Boy Scout Handbook to remember. What’s wrong with being trustworthy, courteous and truthful?  It’s worth remembering now that those qualities were pretty much taken for granted as a standard for behavior in the 1930s and 1940s. Even the bad guys acknowledged that was what the “good guys” stood for, even if the bad guys – gangsters, Nazis or whomever – laughed at them for it. Cap is straightforward, unsubtle and uncomplicated: what you see is what you get. That made Cap vulnerable to deception, since fundamentally honest and uncomplicated people have to learn by bitter experience about the capacity for deception in others. Then they have to learn something even harder: the fact that, in deceiving others, regardless of purity of motive, you run the risk of deceiving yourself and becoming the thing you fight. Deceiving yourself renders you more and not less vulnerable to deception by others, especially when those others know your self-deceptions. In deceiving yourself, you lose sight of something precious: who you really are.

If you don’t believe that, watch some of the cowboy movies that came out of Hollywood in the 1930s. Better yet, read the novels of Zane Grey. Zane Grey also understood the American psyche. His cowboy and gunfighter heroes would have known Cap as a kindred spirit immediately. They probably would have joshed him about the costume, though: “Pard Cap, why don’t yuh just wear a white hat? At least it’d keep the sun out of yore eyes.”

The organization Hydra and its leader, the Red Skull, are masters at the art of deception. They hide their true nature like the Red Skull uses a mask to hide his own misshapen appearance. Of course, if we knew who he really was, would we go anywhere near him? But that ugly red skull is itself symbolic, conveying the true nature of the Nazis, or, perhaps, the Soviets, or whatever enemy is hiding and betraying in our midst at the present time.

So what have we got? Steve Rogers and Captain America are part of the American psyche, and still have the power to resonate within us. Hopefully they remind us about what is best in America and warn us about what could destroy that spirit. If we become our enemies, by adopting their deceptions and tactics as our own, who wins? The motto of Hydra, after all, is “Cut off one head, two spring up in its place.”

It was a mythological hero who slew the Hydra. Maybe my hero Captain America taps into something of that same ancient force. I’d like to think so.

Boxcar Red Leader – A Review

Boxcar Red Leader – A Review

I have the privilege of knowing veterans who have been kind enough to read and review my work over the years. Among them is a gentleman named Larry Huggins.

Larry is the real deal. Two tours in Vietnam, flying the F-105D Thunderchief, and the  F-105F “Wild Weasel.”

About the Weasels. There’s an old adage among fighter pilots regarding ground-attack missions: “One pass, haul ass.” In other words, don’t stick around to duel with the flak guns or, in more modern times, SAMs. Yet that was the mission of the Wild Weasels, to seek out and destroy SAM sites in North Vietnam. For courage and dedication to duty, the Weasels were among the very best. For sheer skill, also among the very best.

Larry survived combat in one of the most heavily-defended pieces of airspace in the world, and ended up a brigadier general, having flown in his career everything from J-3 Cubs to the F-16.

Now, when someone like Larry has kind words for an aviation story you’ve written, that’s pretty damned special to the writer. I know it is for me. Here, quoted with his permission, is what Larry had to say about Boxcar Red Leader:

Picked up your latest book at HAM on the way to Seabrooke Island, SC for our family reunion on Wednesday. Read it straight through Thur night. I can not for the life of me know how you can write like you are in the cockpit and at the controls of real airplanes. For someone that has not been in real dogfights, you sure as heck know as much about them as many combat ready fighter pilots do! Tom, you are simply amazing! Keep these books coming.

I wrote Everything We Had, A Snowball’s Chance, and Boxcar Red Leader for a lot of reasons, some of which I’ve mentioned in this blog. But one major reason I wrote those books was to remember those guys, holding the line against the Japanese, in a time and a place where it was by no means certain that we’d be able to win. I think it important that we, as Americans, remember what we, as Americans, can do, when in Kipling’s words, fate lays upon us our task.

Thanks, Larry. Praise like this helps a writer keep going. And I’m hard at work on that next book!

A Friend Is Gone

A Friend Is Gone

When I got back from a long sojourn out of town, I found out that a friend, Col. John Parker, USAF-Ret., had died.

A few years back John told me he wanted to live to be at least 102, because then he and his two brothers would all be over 100 years old. John was, I think, 97 years old, and if you live through 33 missions over Germany and a lively career in the USAF which included service in Vietnam, living into your late 90s ain’t bad.

In the time I was privileged to spend with John I learned to always carry a voice recorder. John would tell stories that started from the here-and-now but then, with no more transition than a sentence or two, would take you into his seat at the navigator’s table of his B-17, guiding the bomber to a target in Germany with flak exploding all around. Sometimes it could take your breath away and make your hair stand on end, to be sitting with this little, quiet guy, telling you in his soft, matter-of-fact voice about seeing the lead bomber take a hit from flak and start burning. And that would happen right beside you, and the seventy years distance in time fell away.

I hope I captured a little of that, because now that direct line to the past is gone. That’s part of my mourning for John’s passing.

Because it can be quite an education, being around someone like John Parker. Little bits and pieces of the past, of how it was, would simply be there for anyone with the eyes to see and ears to listen. And there’s something about those guys who served in World War Two that was hard to put your finger on, for all it was there.

Maybe because that time was still with them, still part of their lives, who they were.

Like the time I thought I’d have to keep John out of a fist-fight with another old codger. See, once upon a time we had a lot of WW2 guys at the Hickory Aviation Museum, and one of them was named Bob Morgan. (Bob would be quick to tell you he wasn’t THAT Bob Morgan. You know, the “Memphis Belle” guy.) Bob was special in his own right. He logged 37,000-odd hours flying cargo and charter after being in Air Transport Command (ATC) during the war, flying, among other things, the Curtiss C-46 over the Hump to China. That wasn’t safe duty. Losses to weather and terrain on the Hump run were pretty much the same as in flying combat.

So when Bob Morgan met John Parker the first time they shook hands and had a conversation that, to the best of my recollection, went something like this:

BOB: Well, John, you look like you were old enough to be there. What did you do?

JOHN: Me? Navigator. Eighth Air Force. You?


JOHN (innocently): ATC? Oh, Allergic To Combat?

And Bob’s face got red and his teeth gritted, and after 60+ years that wartime gibe stung to the point where I thought Bob would take a poke at John, and I found myself repressing laughter and getting ready to step between them if I had to.

Here’s the thing: John wasn’t a big guy, maybe five-five, with big ears and a resemblance to the cartoon character Sad Sack. Bob wasn’t all that big, but he was a good bit bigger than John.

And not that Bob wasn’t a tough old bird.

It’s just that I know who I would’ve bet on to finish that fight.

Bet on, without thinking about it.

But John is gone, and the world diminished by his passing.

I miss him.

Alistair 1918

There’s an interesting low-budget scifi flick on Amazon Prime titled “Alistair1918”. It begins with Poppy, a young sociology student assigned to film a documentary on homeless people in LA. Poppy and her film crew come across a strange man in an old-fashioned English Army uniform, living in Griffith Park and feeding on squirrels. The man claims to have been transported to modern-day LA from 1918. He gives his name as Alistair.

Spoiler alert! If you like time-travel stories you might like this one, and like any time travel story, this one depends on surprises.
Despite some defects, most, I’m sure, due to the necessities of a low-budget production, I found the story quite charming and worth watching. I will also state that “defect” is my own word, and perhaps a bit strong. The story could have been handled differently, and because it’s my own opinion about it, of course it would be a better story if handled my way!

I found the initial setup of the story to be quite effective. A documentary film crew stumbling on something unusual? Sure. A man looking like an old-fashioned English soldier, living homeless in a park in LA? Could be any number of reasons for that. Maybe the uniform was thrown out of some bankrupt studio’s Costume Department and ended up at the Goodwill. I mean, shades of “The Blair Witch Project,” right?

Although…right down to the puttees? I thought those were a good touch. Puttees haven’t been worn by soldiers since World War II. That little touch of authenticity went a long way with me. However, in a later scene we see Alistair’s boots. Some attempt was made to make them look like the stiff hobnailed boots the British infantry wore; not entirely successful, but A for effort.

There were one or two other things that might have been done to increase the authenticity of Alistair’s character. I’ll point out that external appearance is key here. Alistair states he lost his “gun” (I would’ve preferred “rifle”; I doubt a proper Brit infantryman would refer to his Enfield as a “gun”) and his “papers” in an explosion. Yet other papers survived in an inner pocket, and I’m fairly (not totally) sure ID tags were used in the Royal Army by 1918. What about his equipment belt and harness? Also lost in the explosion, despite the fact that his uniform is in good shape, without obvious tears or stains one might expect after living through an explosion that tossed you into the air. Dropping your rifle and having your helmet blown off as you fly through the air is plausible, but if Alistair had pulled out his equipment belt and canteen that would’ve added to his appearance. Maybe, on second thought, a bit too much. There’s the issue of ambiguity required to keep a necessary conclusion at bay until the proper moment, after all.

So, enough authenticity of appearance without too much? Judgment call over which any two reasonable writers could easily differ. But imagine a scene where Alistair pulls out his equipment belt, to which would’ve been attached a bayonet at least a foot and a half long.


BRANDON: Uh…hey, man, a knife that big is illegal in California.
ALISTAIR: (offhand) It’s not a knife, mate, it’s a bayonet.
BRANDON: (puzzled) Bayonet?
ALISTAIR: You’ve not been in the Army, then?
ALISTAIR: (patiently) It goes on the end of your rifle. Very handy for keeping unfriendly blokes at a distance.
BRANDON: Well, it’s still illegal in California.

Or something like that.

I will say, and here comes a real spoiler, that the scene where the filmmaker, Poppy, reveals her sexual orientation to Alistair struck a false note with me. A provincial middle-class Englishman like Alistair might not have any idea what a lesbian is, and for Alistair to simply take it in stride was the moment where I thought, here’s where the writers reveal Alistair is a fraud, or for Poppy to think, wait, why didn’t he react differently? Or perhaps I’m the provincial; after all, there are indications that male homosexuality was not unknown in England at that time, even if it was persecuted and frowned upon. The question should also be asked, how much did this scene further the story? As far as I can see, all it did was create a bond between Alistair and Poppy, of two lonely people who have both experienced the loss of those they loved. Maybe that was all it needed to do, but it seems there was far more potential in the scene than ended up on screen.

The “handwavium” required to explain Alistair’s presence and SPOILER ALERT! to return him to his own time I found charmingly naïve, and yet, again, given the probable budget constraints, oddly effective. The gorgeous female scientist was a nice contrast to the usual scifi trope of a wild-haired middle-aged man no one listens to. Her being from Denmark was interesting; people forget that Copenhagen was once home to Neils Bohr, a pioneering nuclear physicist. But her accent? Sounded more French than Danish to me. The distortion effect in the air was the most convincing item in the film’s meager special effects arsenal. I also found the “magic laptop” the scientist used to track the wandering wormholes an interesting idea. Hey, it’s a laptop, surely there’s an app to track wormholes, I mean, why not? And the three little balls? Effective simply because they were so cheesy. You can’t hire Industrial Light & Magic on a shoestring budget, now can you? And who knows what a time machine would look like, anyway?

The only other major point I would raise regards the scene where Alistair figures out the wormhole is traveling “east” instead of “west.” The scene was in the sense of the hero gathering his forces for one last throw of the dice, the “final confrontation” with the forces arrayed against him, if you will. We learn Alistair was a journalist before the war, so the idea that he can ask the right questions and put together a coherent story isn’t too surprising. But how did a person from 1918 figure something out that the modern-day physicist overlooks? That needed a little more from Alistair’s character than I think the story to that point established he could give, and probably no more than a few lines of dialog would have been enough to plug the hole. The scene with Alistair playing football with the little kid could maybe have been used for this. Something on the order of the following:

POPPY: Wow, you really know where the ball’s going to be.
ALISTAIR: Oh, I can always see the direction things are going

The ending: MAJOR SPOILER ALERT. I thought the ending was absolutely fabulous, ending on a fascinating question rather than any sort of certainty. Poppy gives Alistair a GoPro to record his experience. Alistair promises to come to America and bury the GoPro under his squirrel trap. When Poppy strikes something in the spot where Alistair left his squirrel trap, she looks up with the most incredulous look of surprise. Then, FADE TO BLACK. We don’t know for sure what’s there, but something is there, and what story do we choose to tell ourselves about it? Wonderfully ambiguous!

To me, though, the ending raised another question.

Put yourself in Alistair’s position. What if you really did travel forward in time and then backwards? You’ve been in the future for 6 weeks or so. You have an email account and a cell phone. If you kept your eyes and ears open you could have learned a lot about history, and you have a major incentive to be curious, after all. When you get back to your own time, though, first you’re on a live battlefield, unarmed and unequipped, since you’ve returned to where you started from. You have to survive that, and the following six months of the war. Only then do you arrive at the rest of your life.

So my question is: what do you do with your life after the war? When you know a lot about what the future brings?

To put it mundanely: What do you say when your wife asks you, with great asperity, who this Poppy person you keep dreaming about might be?

It almost begs for a sequel, in my mind, with a logline something like “How do you live in the past when you’ve been to the future and returned?” Imagine explaining that in 1918! “Ah, you daft bugger, go on with your silly tales. Who do you think you are? H.G. Wells?”

Who was still alive in 1918…