Thursday, January 24, 2008

Canadian Runagate - The Basic Bethune

Last week a university student of my acquaintance launched into an excited introduction of a extraordinary and important Canadian from the past, whom he had just "discovered" while researching a term paper at U.B.C. The great hero had sacrificed his life for Mao's China and more students "should be taught about him". Within a moment or two I broke into a broad grin, as I realized he was referring to Dr. Norman Bethune, one of Canada's most notorious runagates.
"Discovered"? When did Bethune ever become lost? During my time at university, the late 1970s, the political ghost of Norman Bethune attracted more press than the average NHL star. The CBC has a webpage with over a dozen interviews available for download, and you can judge for yourself the dimensions of Bethune mania in the 1970s. The fact that we are now in the period of the 70th Anniversary of the sojourn of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion to Spain, fairly guarantees that Dr. Bethune's story will be popping up soon enough. In fact I had a heads up today from UBC Press that they have a new book on Canadians in Spain coming in March.

Since Wikipedia seems to be the primary source for most curious students these days, I took a look at the Bethune page and was arrested by the bald claim that he was "virtually unknown in his homeland during his lifetime." Unknown? As apposed to whom? Anyone who cared to follow Canadian politics in the 1930s, especially the significant inroads achieved by the Communists among labour and arts groups, or anyone who had any sort of opinion about the Spanish Civil War, knew of Dr. Bethune. Because he was famous, and had credibility, he made appearances across the country after his return from Spain. Bethune was one of the most interesting personalities of his era, and a master at self promotion. Indeed, as early as 1943 his story was in script development at 20th Century Fox - because China was then a war Ally, one of the "Big Five Powers". The propagandists were hungry for material.

I have researched Bethune for about thirty years, (he is one among a large cast of runagate Canadian communists) and suspect that a legion of the curious but silent also invest productive hours studying his legacy. I hope to contribute my "rendition" of a Bethune profile, but not yet. Not yet. I do agree that the Bethune story needs to be taught to every generation of young Canadians, but surely not in the fashion that the Maoists and Trudeau Era Liberals sold it. That tune is worn out from over playing.
To assist curious students in finding inexpensive material on Dr. Bethune I have put together what I choose to call "The Basic Bethune" - the most common material published during the Bethune Boom of the 1970s. I put the set together for $15, tax included, and you can too. Of course there were other important Bethune milestones in the 1970s, like an NFB documentary and a telefilm, but those are not easily accessed.

This is Dr. Bethune in one of the many publicity photos made in Madrid. The Renault motor ambulance is nifty but note the sedan with Great Britain motor registration CXE 26, which he and Henning Sorensen drove into Spain. It was given a military two colour disruptive camouflage pattern and an "S.R.I." Socorro Rojo Internacional insignia above the bumper. (It tickles me that the boys in the communist paint shop didn't remove the chrome Automobile Association "A.A." badge screwed to the licence plate. The badges had serial numbers, and remained the property of the A.A.) I doubt the car or badge ever made it back to England. Bethune was a committed Communist, but like George Orwell became the victim of Communist duplicity and infighting. Orwell learned, and left us his prophetic warning Nineteen Eighty four. Bethune just became angrier and threw his life away in China.
1. The Scalpel, the Sword, revised edition, Toronto 1971
2. Prologue to Norman: The Canadian Bethunes, Oakville. 1976
3. Bethune – a Play, Vancouver, 1975
4. The Chinese Voyages of Angus Bethune, [article] The Beaver, 1977
5. BETHUNE, [paperback edition] Don Mills, 1973
6. BETHUNE, Toronto, 1973
7. The Mind of Norman Bethune, Toronto 1977

Roderick Stewart's BETHUNE is still the standard biography although his scholarship has been surpassed recently by that of Larry Hannant and Michael Petrou who had access to higher grade archives. Stewart's later book - The Mind of Norman Bethune has wonderful photos. Beth loved posing for photos. Ted Allan's The Scalpel, the Sword is crap, and manages to combine plagiarism with two other tricks of fraudulent writing. The article on Angus Bethune is fun because it describes the grandfather's voyages to China, history which Dr. Bethune's biographers missed, and which even the runagate grandson was probably unaware. (Items 1, 4, 5 and 7 contain photographs.)

Much more has been published since the 1970s on Dr. Bethune. So much that it fills an entire shelf... the 1990 movie and postage stamps, memoirs by the Ewen's, new books on the Canadian volunteers in Spain, the archives of the COMINTERN etc, etc. Still, it was the Trudeau - China political agenda which will always be credited with the national popularization of Norman Bethune. He may be reassessed by future generations of historians, but surely never forgotten.

Playwright Rod Langley published a play in 1975 called simply "Bethune". First performed at the Globe in Regina, and then the Centaur in Montreal, this poster was for the show at the Owen Sound Little Theatre (OSLT).

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Fugue for a Darkening Island

I read the PAN edition of Christopher Priest's prophetic novel, Fugue for a Darkening Island, sometime in the 1990s, and it made a lasting impression. The novel came to mind yesterday, just as I began reading a story in the GUARDIAN about African migrants massing in Libya. In "Fugue" Priest postulates a near future in which Africa has been blighted by nuclear bombs, resulting in a colossal move northward of refugees, supported by African troops. England, hobbled in its responses by civil rights legislation, is overrun to the extent that heavily laden ships steam up the Thames and refugees easily de-bus onto the docks. The protagonist in the tale is Alan Whitman, a white liberal with no particular interest in politics or any desire to confront the migrants. After losing his family to violence and being made a refugee in his own country, the change in his personality is profound.
Originally published in 1972 to excellent reviews, (in the U.S. it is known as Darkening Island, and won a Campbell Award) it was accepted as just one more dystopian prediction for England - no more outrageous than say, Orwell's Nineteen Eightyfour. But Fugue attracted vociferous critics on the Left during the period of the Thatcher ascendancy, which offended the science fiction writer. Still, his novel remains in print.
There is a short BBC documentary discussing the novel and the furor it created, on YOUtube. Listen to the author read passages from his novel.

In May of 2007 - twenty seven African migrants held a Maltese tuna boat captain's gear hostage in the Mediterranean. Each had paid a snakehead $1000 for safe passage into Europe. After a three day standoff, clinging to the net, the dehydrated Africans were granted admission to migrant processing facilities in Italy.

If the novel Darkening Island erred in its predictions, it was only in the naive assumption of a nuclear exchange in Africa. Today's sub-Saharan migrants are motivated by the need to make a living, not escape radioactive fallout. Black Africa long ago gave the boot to all European colonial powers, but that boot is now worn through and barefooted Africans are doggedly following the uprooted settlers home. This week a London newspaper warned the authorities of an unprecedented massing of illegal migrants in Libya, and they are about to overwhelm Europe's maritime and customs defences. "New estimates reveal that there are two million migrants massed in the North African country and that half of them plan to sail to the European mainland and travel on to Britain in the hope of building a new life. According to the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), there are currently most have travelled from sub-Saharan states such as Ghana and Sierra Leone, attracted by Libya's reputation as a centre for people smugglers. Most are expected to wait until the spring, when the seas are calmer, before making the crossing on un-seaworthy and crowded vessels."

The British Isles are now very densely populated and reached 60 million inhabitants by August 2006. Worse news, militant Muslim clerics in London are agitating to have the government abandon its centuries old ties with the Church of England, a cunning demand that may prove a fatal blow to the status quo. Unrest within the existing population is already a reality and the Brits seek to avoid even more destabilising events like Tex-Mex style border swarming.

Interviews by the I.O.M. have determined that England is the preferred destination for most of the migrants. Leaven that news with the fact that Libya's paramount leader holds a special animosity for the British. Gaddafi has no particular reason to interdict the migrants at his southern border, even if the European Union pays him to try. If anything, the destabilizing Europe makes for sound Libyan tactics.

According to Laurence Hart of the I.O.M., "It would be accurate to say you've got about a million people in Libya who are looking to get to Europe at some time in the future. The numbers setting sail from Libya are so great that half of the military budget of Malta -- 350km from North Africa -- is spent trying to deal with migrants sailing north."

Christopher Priest discussed only possibilities in his fiction, offering no solutions. It ends on a bleak note. Those Brits who have smirked at U.S. inability to stem the illegal traffic in migrants are invited to enjoy the list of their own diminishing options.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

LION OF THE DESERT- a DVD backgrounder

LION OF THE DESERT,  2-Disc DVD set This 1981 bio-pic pits the "lion," famed Senussi guerrilla leader Omar Mukhtar against the Italian bull, 6' 4" tall General Rodolfo Graziani.

The vast majority of war movies produced in the 20th Century focus on less than a dozen wars, and the result is a distortion of the past. Very few African wars, for example, have been filmed. Niche films, those which tell a good story while offering glimpses of limited conflicts, are particularly scarce. I missed out on adding a good one, LION OF THE DESERT, to my DVD collection when it was released in 1998, and the primary DVD sellers in my area - Futureshop, HMV and Best Buy, have never stocked it. All the more reason to pounce when the 2-Disc Special Edition turned up in a post-Christmas sale bin at Walmart. It's a fact of life that some of the most elusive titles turn up in delete bins, which is why I stay alert for them.

The director/producer, Moustapha Akkad, a Syrian-American who is most most famous for making the eight HALLOWEEN horror movies, went to great lengths and expense to build detailed sets and replicate military equipment, which I found a real joy. Enthused, I did a little post-viewing research in order to check the facts behind this film treatment. (It's an old habit.) The film's researcher is said to be one "Michael Starkey" and I tried to determine if he was an historian. He could not be found so perhaps the name was just a pseudonym.

Make no mistake, this is a propaganda movie intended to showcase a Muslim "martyr" hanged by Italian fascism. Most of the $35 million dollars in production costs (filming started in 1979) was Libyan oil money. Specifically it came from strongman Muammar Gaddafi , the dictator who still holds power nearly 30 years later. Gaddafi had earlier bankrolled Akkad's film THE MESSAGE, which also starred Anthony Quinn.

Islamic polemics aside, LION is still a fabulous movie with plenty of action, Hollywood style stunts, and three engaging lead characters. Oliver Reed is masterful as General Rodolfo Graziani and Rod Steiger did a superlative job portraying Mussolini. Anthony Quinn stars as Omar Mukhtar, a guerrilla fighter of more than twenty years experience, whom we are told was a teacher before he took up the gun. Quinn played him as a reticent wise-man type, and here the screenplay is at fault, not the actor. Still the Muslim world went gagga for this movie (as Gaddafi intended) and most Muslim websites today use a still photo of actor Quinn playing Omar Mukhtar, rather than a photo of the real man. (He's on Wiki)

Omar Mukhtar, age 73, in shackles outside Italian courthouse in 1931. Note the man in the white shoes. He too appears in the movie, below.

This is a movie and not a history video, but the director was very clever in his use of old Italian newsreel footage, which goes a long way toward convincing us to accept the major premises of the story. Still, in most of the battle scenes the Italian troops are a bit too inept for my taste. At least three times we witness armoured columns totally annihilated by Mukhtar's horsemen, but most problematic is the telescoping of events to make it appear that Graziani was outwitted endlessly. The Fascist officer, already with a long service in Libya, was promoted General of Division and appointed Vice Governor of Cyrenaica (province) in 1930. Many other officers had failed to quash tribal resistance and Graziani assumed his new duties with a frenzy. Within a year he had taken the Senussi "capital", Kufra (Feb. 20, 1931) and scooped up Mukhtar (Sept. 12, 1931).

You don't have to know the history of Libya or more specifically Cyrenaica, to enjoy the film, but it does help one sort through the premises we are being exposed to. During World War I the Senussi were our enemy. The Germans supplied them with several shiploads of arms and the Ottoman Turks trained hundreds of tribesmen to infiltrate into Egypt and report back on Allied troop movements and fortifications. The R.F.C. bombed the Senussi and the Brits raided their villages. The Italians hanged Mukhtar in 1931 but the Senussi spiritual leader escaped into British controlled Egypt and was given sanctuary. More, the British gave arms to his militia, the so-called "Free Libya Force", which had a tiny role in the North Africa Campaign in WW2.

Most egregious is the extended scene which has the Italians defeating the Muslims before Kufra by resorting to the use of mustard gas released from pressurized tanks, in violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on war gases. (Mussolini authorized use of gas in 1929.) Aircraft had dropped mustard bombs on at least two missions, but they were not operations conducted by Graziani. The general certainly used poison gases in his later campaign in Italian Eritrea, and with that war crime on his record, the director felt entitled to add it to his Libyan tale of anti-fascist warfare. More to the point, at the time Muammar Gaddafi was funding this movie, 1979-81, he had full scale production underway of choking and blistering agents, as well as nerve gas. He later used it offensively, against his neighbor Chad.

The second DVD disc contains the Arabic version of the film and an Arabic version of the "making of" featurette. It is significantly different in content, and contains lengthier interview segments with Director Akkad in which he repeatedly describes Omar Mukhtar's resistance campaign as a "Jihad".
One irony associated with this bio-pic is that it was originally General Graziani who was the "Lion," and not his Muslim opponent. When he died in 1955, TIME magazine dubbed Graziani the "Desert Lion".
One of several replica tanks built by British production designers in 1979. Because turrets were not well bolted to the hulls, they shake or rattle in some closeups of armour on the move.

Two film extras, out of uniform, mug for a private photo between takes. Site is of an ambush on a mountain road - the best scene in the movie. Supporting material on the DVD includes an interesting "making of" film, with emphasis on the weaponry.
The greatest irony associated with this movie is that its well intentioned Director was consumed by the very forces of Islamic militance and faction fighting which he has tried to portray as purely anti-colonialist in nature. In November of 2005 Akkad was in Amman, Jordan on the day terrorists launched a coordinated attack on three American owned luxury hotels. He was standing in the lobby talking to his daughter when a suicide bomber detonated an explosive vest. They were both killed. Akkad's next project was to be a historical drama about Saladin; perhaps one more cinematic attempt to put a heroic or benign face on today's armed Islamic resurgence.
Director/producer Moustapha Akkad and his daughter Rima Akkad at her marriage. The two were murdered in Amman, Jordan by terrorist bomb.