Tag Archives: great war

An Underrated Classic: “Joyeux Noël”

“Joyeux Noël”, I think, is one of the more underrated Christmas films in the oversaturated sea of Christmas specials and movies. A historical fiction film, based on actual events, “Joyeux Noël” tells how human kindness and spirit can happen in areas where even death and misery shroud the setting. Taking place during the Great War, in the awful front-line trenches, we follow German, Scottish, and French soldiers who slowly come to love and respect their enemies despite their prejudices and national identity.

I think one of the reasons why I like the film so much is the stellar production value behind it. The awful scenes of war, death, and sadness are well executed. Life in the trenches is brutal and unpleasant and everyone has a chance of an unglorified death. The stillness of the battlefield, of “No Man’s Land,” is more haunting when we see the very white snow disturbed by frozen bodies and gaping pits caused by artillery shells. The costumes, make up, and props look very realistic and the added bonus of everyone speaking their native language, further pushes the realism of the film despite its fictional narrative.

I think my favorite part of the film is the scene where the soldiers start singing Silent Night and the German tenor got so passionate about the song that he grabbed a small Christmas tree, climbed over the trenches and sang the song as passionately as he could while holding the tree as high as he could.  Definitely a highlight of the film, that’s for sure.

My two favorite characters are Palmer, the Scottish priest, and Audebert, the French Lieutenant although the other leads of the film are likable as well. Horstmayer, the Germany Lieutenant, also grows on you, especially when its revealed he is Jewish. Unfortunately, the minor characters are painted somewhat one-dimensional. In this case, I’m mainly referring to the characters comrades who did not experience the magic of Christmas and still think of their enemies as the Devil’s sons.

The film also weighs a little heavy in melodrama and it’s hard not to get emotional near the end of the film. The song, I’m Dreaming of Home, is sung throughout the film by the Scots and is again sung at the end by the German soldiers as they are shipped to the Eastern Front, certain to face their sad death. Truth be told, I like the men’s choir version more than the children’s choir but either way, this song makes my heart feel heavy and I can’t help but shed a tear or two every time I watch the end.

Despite its heavy-handed nature, this is a great Christmas film that I think should be watched but definitely not in a “Miracle on 34th Street” or “A Christmas Story” mood. If you were in a mood to watch a historical film (or more specifically a Great War film) or you want to change of pace for your overused, annual Christmas films, give this a spin, I guarantee you that you won’t be disappointed. Merry Christmas!

The Problem with Timeline-191

So I’ve already talked about two Harry Turtledove series before, Darkness and WorldWar, so now it’s time to talk about Turtledove’s other famous book series.  The unofficially named “Timeline-191” (and sometimes Southern Victory) comprises of eleven books detailing the history of the two American countries after the South won the American Civil War.  Told from multiple viewpoints from both countries (and one or two thrown in from Canada), we experience the tragic history of these two countries as they are drawn into conflict again and again up until 1945.  Now, upfront, I honestly think this may be Turtledove’s weakest major series but before I divulge why, let’s dive into the series and see what makes it so special and one of the most famous alternate history stories of our modern day and age.

So the first Timeline-191 book is called How Few Remain.  In this book we understand why the South won the American Civil War and what happened to the two countries shortly after.  After a brief prologue dedicated to the defeat of the Union, the book picks up twenty years later where the two American countries pick up arms again and fight each other but this time it’s for the C.S.A. acquisition of two Mexican provinces.  Fearing that the C.S.A. would become too strong, the U.S.A. declares war on the C.S.A. but is abysmally defeated thanks to the C.S.A.’s reliable generals and its alliance with France and Britain.

How Few Remain is probably the most interesting book in the series as it can stand by itself very easily.  The book retains all of the Second Mexican War and its immediate consequences as well and as such, many of our stories have a clear beginning and a satisfying ending.  What’s more, unlike the rest of the series, all of our viewpoint characters follow historical characters like Theodore Roosevelt and Mark Twain.  The book also offers very reasonable ideas of what the world may be like in 1881 such as the C.S.A’s continual involvement with France and Britain and the dominance of Democrats in the U.S.A. up until the 1880s.  Now, Turtledove could have just left How Few Remain as it is but he decided to take this story he created and make a mega book series out of it.  What follows is the next logical step in our timeline, and a 30 year jump with it, the Great War.

This is my favorite part of the series and it’s awesome.  Because the C.S.A. allied itself with France and Britain, the U.S.A., in return, allied itself with Germany and the Austria-Hungary Empire to acquire its own strong allies.  Of course, everything went to Hell in a handbasket, thanks to a certain Archduke, and now, not only do you have the mess of Europe fighting each other, but now you got the U.S.A. fighting Canada and the C.S.A!  It’s a literal world war at this point.

So the first reason why the Great War trilogy is my favorite part in Timeline-191 is how it’s not immediately clear who will win this war.  It could honestly go either way.  In How Few Remain, right from the start, the U.S.A. is kind of done for so there’s not as much incentive to read the book.  But for the Great War, it’s so close and even that any small event can help push the war one way or another.

I also like how Turtledove just didn’t pull any punches with the harshness of trench warfare and the dire outlook for many of the soldier’s lives.  The settings and characters are highly realistic and don’t offer that sweet storytelling guidelines many of us are familiar with.  It’s very similar to the Song of Ice and Fire series, actually.  I also like how diverse our viewpoint characters are ranging from regular soldiers, to spies, farmers, commanders, and politicians.  We definitely get a full spectrum of viewpoints that cue us in what’s happening in this crazy world.  Turtledove excels at this and has done this before in the Darkness and Worldwar series.  This is a guilty pleasure but honestly one of my favorite POV characters is Gordon McSweeney who is a stupid, badass bigot.  The things this guy says and does in this series is great.

Now, there is a third reason but let me get back to that in a moment…

Gordon McSweeney at his craziest. Image from http://jakarnilson.deviantart.com/art/Sgt-McSweeney-s-MoH-47587475

So, spoilers, the U.S.A. along with the other Central Powers, won the Great War.  The series doesn’t end there though as we are treated to our next trilogy in the series, American Empire.  This trilogy is kind of weak as there are jumps of time within the books.  The three books cover about twenty years altogether meaning there’s a lot of plot development crammed into characters whom we already don’t spend much time with.

However, the second, and primary reason, why the Timeline-191 series falters at this point is Turtledove’s over reliance in incorporating plot developments that mirror our real world.  I’m serious.  Turtledove oversaturates his story with parallel events that almost defeats the purpose of an alternate history genre.  Long story short, the C.S.A. becomes Nazi Germany and fights the U.S.A. again in the 1940s.  And guess what?  The C.S.A. loses!  Go figure!

Now, the next four books in the series, called Settling Accounts, is entertaining to read but by this point, all sense of disbelief is kind of thrown to the curb and we aren’t as engaged with the story as we kind of know what will happen in the end.  I even stopped reading the series by this point due to the aforementioned reasons and it was getting depressing fast.  You see, throwing in a little nod here or there in reference to our timeline is fun or all but this is just overkill.

This is why I liked the Great War part of the storyline the best.  True, there are historical references in this trilogy but it doesn’t control the story as much as it does later on.  The trilogy is fun, original, and not bogged down by its sheer alternate history glory.  I’ve actually read online that supposedly, the U.S.A. was going to lose the Great War and actually become the next fascist power in North America.  But then Turtledove decided later on that that wasn’t going to happen which explains several things.  One, Jake Featherston, who becomes the C.S.A.’s Hitler, was a pretty nice, if awkward, guy early on before he almost suddenly develops this hatred against African Americans; and two, Gordon McSweeney was probably going to be the U.S.A.’s version of Hitler until Turtledove pulled the plug on that idea and killed him off, rather inexplicably, at the end of the trilogy.  Very interesting fan theory for sure and I’m interested to see how that story could have turned out.  Regardless, because of this switch, the Great War trilogy is not as tied down compared to the rest of the series and that’s what makes it so good.  My advice is to read How Few Remain and the Great War trilogy and just stop there.

You gotta love the propaganda posters people make for the series as well. Image from http://s13.photobucket.com/user/Redem10/media/Turtledovepropaganda.jpg.html

There’s a lot more to talk about this series so I’ll just leave that for another time.  For now, I’m curious to see if you like this series and if you agree with me or not.  If not, is there another alternate history story you like better involving the American Civil War?  Let me know!

This Could Work-A Total War: Great War Game

Revolt, Rebellion, Revolution.  These three “R”’s are the magic words that help define both the Creative Assembly-produced Total War video game series and the awful Great War which is currently “celebrating” its centennial anniversary.  I am both surprised and not that these two topics haven’t come together to produce an in-depth, strategy-filled game that takes place during the Great War-era.  This game has the potential to be amazing but it could very easily be bogged down with bloated mechanics and stretches of time where you do nothing but click the next turn button.

I first thought about this marriage while I was playing both Empire: Total War and Napoleon: Total War.  Compared to other Total War games, both of these games take place relatively late in human history representing late 1700s and early 1800s respectively.  The use of guns and canons is a far step forward compared to the arrows and swords Total War embraces in its Rome, Medieval, and Shogun settings.  But, they are done surprisingly efficient especially when combined with cavalry and fortresses.

The Great War is also extremely perfect when playing as certain factions.  You can play as Britain, Germany, France, Austria-Hungary, Russia, and maybe even Ottoman Empire and Italy.  All seven of these nations fought in huge conflicts that ranged throughout a greater part of Europe.  And it’s not like the Great War: Total War would restrict you to certain allies or enemies.  You could start the game in say, 1900 (or even 1870 if you want to include the Franco-Prussian War) and have all the participants naturally decide their allies on their own accord.  It would be very similar to the board game Diplomacy now that I think about it.

The United States (and other foreign powers) could also play an important role in the game even if the map focuses only on Europe.  All these countries can play as a neutral to a less-than-neutral position at the beginning of the game.  Do you choose to sink a neutral power’s supply ships in hopes of hurting your opponent?  That may backfire and the neutral power could declare war on you (and your opponent could get maybe 10 more, free, soldier units or something).  Perhaps you could win over a neutral power through diplomacy, gifts, and trade agreements.  The choice is yours to make.

Given this is the late Industrial Era; you can have many improvements for your home country such as the usual factories and farms but even infrastructures such as railroads, electricity, and telecommunication.  Man, you could transport your armies so fast if you built railroads in your homeland.

The three “R”’s would also play a huge role in this game, perhaps more so than other Total War games.  Worker riots and soldier mutinies run rampant during the Great War, then you got the occasional independence rebellions like the one the Irish started in 1916 and of course, you got some major Russian revolutions to cap it off.  Soldier morale could also be affected by say recent gas attacks, current weather, or battles where many soldiers died and nothing was gain from it.  Whole units of soldiers can lay down their arms or even fight you in response to the awful conditions!  Also, can you imagine sending terrorists or instigators to your rivals in hopes of stirring a revolution?  That would be awesome!  On the one hand, you would have to keep your people happy but on the other, you can cause chaos from the inside out!  The Austria-Hungary Empire could disintegrate before your very eyes as armies representing different nationalities spring up and take back cities belonging to the people!

And maybe get a certain Archduke assassinated to start off a major conflict…? Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Archduke_Franz_Ferdinand_of_Austria

Although a Great War setting is not a far cry from Empire or Napoleon and can be done easily there are a few key differences that have to be addressed.

The first key difference, machine guns, and by extension trench warfare, were such an integral part of the Great War that it’s hard to find one without the other.   So many soldiers were killed on both sides by these weapons of war that it was probably one of the main reasons why stalemates happened all the damn time.  This is where a Great War: Total War game can be frustrating if not done right.  Your own soldiers can be killed en masse after several machine gun units mow them down.  Though historically accurate, it’s not very fun to play with (except when you’re the one shooting of course).

As such, you can do several things to nerf the power of machine guns.  For one thing, they are a better defensive than offensive weapon.  As such, soldiers carrying them would be quite slow and cumbersome.  The soldiers can also only fire them for so long before the gun either jams or overheats making them not very effective for long battles.  Technology upgrades can fix these overheating issues somewhat but you still wouldn’t be able to fire them for very long.

Gas grenades and shells would be easier to incorporate as they’re basically a stand in for the howitzers.  You could probably do some sort of penalty against soldiers with tear gas (like they’re slowed down, do not fire as well, or morale is lowered) but the awful chlorine gas is where things truly matter.  Not only would there be a lot of fatalities but it would be a good morale killer for even hardened veterans.  And of course, one of the first technology upgrades you can get for the soldiers is the ability to wear gas masks which would be represented as a button on the tool bar during the real-time battles.  The gas masks might lower accuracy and make your soldiers tire faster but at least they’re not being gassed at.

Tanks would be another technology upgrade you could easily incorporate into the game.  At the beginning of the game, you could have cavalry units for horses which although they might be useful very early on (especially if we’re starting the game 1870), they can soon be antiquated by the arrival of the machine gun.  Tanks wouldn’t make their appearance into very late in the technology tree but once they do, they can easily smash through defensive lines of barb wire and trenches.  Still though, they would be expensive to produce and they would be rather slow and have the chance to break down (again, trying to make sure they don’t become OP).

But the most difficult technology to incorporate would be airplanes.  Though it would be easy to use biplanes for reconnaissance or blimps to bomb distant cities, the real-time strategy would be much harder to handle if it’s used at all.  The real-time section of the games work on a (mostly) two dimensional terrain and adding aircraft to the mixture would make them impossible to control, much less use them for their full potential.  Perhaps you can send in a squadron to bomb a certain part of the map during the overworld phase.  Maybe a passive advantage is an added accuracy bonus for artillery allowing them to hit a group of soldiers on target.  Though both of these sound acceptable, they still don’t really use the planes to their fullest capabilities.  This will need to be played around with before aircraft are fully realized.

I really hope the Total War series makes a Great War game.  After thinking about it and writing all the potential it has, I really think it could work very well.  The lack of a prominent Great War game should be filled by a prominent series.  The Total War series is that game as its elements of nation building and alliance forging go perfect with the Great War along with its real time strategy on the battlefield.