Outstanding Film about Theodore Roosevelt and the Rough Riders

My friends all know me as a movie buff besides a writer of mysteries. I’d like to tell you about a movie I saw a couple of nights ago that was so good it kept me in my chair for close to three hours. No, that’s not exactly right. I got up once at the bidding of my cat who reminded me rather strongly that it was time to get his night dinner ready. Now I’ve seen so many movies in my life that I can tell when I’ve seen an outstanding film, one that stays in my memory, one that I could talk about at length, bring up in an English class as an example of craftsmanship. “Rough Riders” is one of those. It is a television film, first shown in two episodes in 1997. John Milius directed it with the script written by him and by Hugh Wilson.

Before it started, I did a little fast research. The main character is Teddy Roosevelt and his organizing the 1st US Volunteer Cavalry unit that would go to Cuba to fight in the Spanish-American War of 1898. Having read about this president, I already knew that he was sickly as a child, had bad lungs, and terrible vision. I had always wondered how he could go to fight a war with his physical problems. But from my reading I also knew that he was indomitable. He resolved to live the toughest, most challenging life he could, and this opportunity to build a unit of fighting men whom he would go with to Cuba and fight along with seemed to be just right for his ongoing quest to be as strong physically and morally too as he could be. Those who enlisted in Mr. Roosevelt’s unit, as we see in the film, were willing to endure the rigorous training that would result in them knowing how to, having the will to, kill other men. One scene is especially grizzly to me. Sam Elliott, a trainer, asks his group how many of them have had to kill something or someone. Only a couple have killed an animal; no one has killed a man. The men train fiercely to be able to do this. When they get to Cuba and face the enemy with its heavy weapons, they change into killing machines themselves, and we see that change. As we watch them mowed down, we remember that just a while ago, we saw them shooting at targets. The background for the battle scenes was gathered from diaries and military dispatches that survive, so the battles are realistic. We know that this is modern battles are often fought too, the soldiers milling about from time to time, not sure of what to do next, not sure how to react to the enemy pulling some unexpected tactic, not sure of what do to when their friends are dropping right and left of them. Another thing I liked about the movie was that the soldiers in Cuba are from all walks of life. Hamilton Fish was a familiar name to me since I am a native New Yorker. When he walks into the training ground, sticks out his hand, and courteously introduces himself, I knew already about his rich, influential family in New York. Some of the soldiers are already fierce riders of different kinds. One person is supposed to be a polo rider in a former life. Some have owned their own horses and know a thing or too about riding. And the horses are shown in battle very realistically, sometimes being shot to death and collapsing while the rider may or may not die along with the horse. The clash of the opposing forces of men and horses is shown realistically as well. Men have fought this way for centuries, the poor horses forced into war. I’ve mentioned here that the film depicts many different types of men who are fighting in this war. The Buffalo soldiers are there too. And especially interesting to me are the people who are not soldiers but writers and other types covering the war for their own purposes: William Randolph Hurst, Stephen Crane, Frederick Remington. All of these people are shown getting along with everyone else as they go about their business of actively fighting the enemy in the midst of the shells or scribbling reports so the people at home will understand what is happening to Americans in Cuba

The list of actors in this film is full of veteran actors of superb acting ability as well as younger  actors who have displayed their acting abilities. Everyone puts 1000% into their roles to get them right, it seems to me. While we become engrossed with individual soldiers, of course the most important role is that of Theodore Roosevelt, played by Tom Berenger. And he is fine and true, according to what I’ve read about Roosevelt.  To portray Roosevelt’s personality as he has been shown in biographies and do it so that the audience accepts this man/boy for his bravery, his warm feelings for his comrades, his great desire to do this thing right, to find out how to fight this war, how to somehow stay well and all the other things it will take to participate in the great event and represent our country well and nobly, must have been one of the hardest roles ever played by Mr. Berenger. It would be easy to overact and portray Roosevelt as a good-heated, naïve, rich man. I encourage everyone reading this entry to make an effort to see the film. You will never forget it.



Many Animal Rights and Animal Industries Clamor for USDA to Restore Vital Information to its Site

Recently I met a person at a social event who knows a lot about the soring of Tennessee Walking Horses. He is not a sorer himself, far from it. I told him I write about it, a blog and fiction. I paused, hoping he would drop some information from his privileged vantage point. But he only said one thing: there are fewer incidents of soring but the issue is now political. I soon found out what “political” meant. Readers will remember that the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) used to publish inspection reports and violation notices, required by The Horse Protection Act and the Animal Welfare Act. The USDA has pulled these records from its website. Readers can only imagine how useful this sad information is in bringing violators to the public’s attention and in punishing people who have broken the law. Wayne Pacelle points out that now the public cannot access these records of facilities for cosmetic testing, medical research, roadside zoos, and puppy mills. And of course, the reporting of vital information about soring violators is in the list too. Its important here to recognize that not only animal rights enthusiasts are fighting for this information to be restored to the USDA. People who have industries regulated by the group are angered by the scrubbing, saying that “it creates the impression that licensees by the Department of Agriculture have something to hide” (Dan Ashe, president and chief executive of Association of Zoos and Aquariums quoted in the Washington Post). The USDA has tried to defend its poorly thought out action but its arguments are weak. It should place all that badly needed information back in its website, aiming for complete transparency.

Thanks to Wayne Pacelle (The Humane Society) and Karin Brulliard (Washington Post)

The Story of War Horse: A Book, A Film, and Finally a Huge Puppet

A member of my family who has ridden horses and loves all things horses gave me a DVD entitled Making War Horse which I watched right away. But I had never read the famous children’s book of the same title. Things at home became less complicated and so I set about getting the novel into my Kindle and reading it. This morning I finished.  Published in 1982, Michael Morpurgo’s novel was eventually adapted for a film by Steven Spielberg and a play at the National Theater. The story uses first person point of view of the horse centrally involved in the book, named Joey. This is a technique seen in the famous children’s book of years ago, Black Beauty. War Horse too is a children’s book. Joey is a perfect horse, beautiful and smart. He goes to live at a farm, the first of many moves he has to endure. There he meets Albert, the young son of the farm’s owner, who is at the beginning of the book a mean, drunken man. But Albert loves the horse he must care for, and Joey loves Albert too. They become inseparable and have complete trust in one another. Eventually the father decrees that the horse must be sold. He has to earn his way, the father tells his son. Joey is sold to the British army; Britain is going into war with Germany; the first World War is starting. Albert pleads with the military to let him enlist as a training soldier for horses. But he is not old enough. He tells Joey he will find him and the horse goes sadly away with the military. An important part of this story is concerned with Joey telling us his impressions of other horses and other humans and how wars are fought. Mr.Morpurgo’s research for the story included how many horses died in the First World War and how they were killed.  The suffering of both the soldiers and horses is described accurately and poignantly. Indeed, the details of what Joey, with whom we are invested, suffers in Britain, Germany and France are excruciating. I was constantly afraid that Joey might be killed, as other horses are in the book and other humans who have liked Joey and tried to help him.

When the book became a play presented in the West End, the theater district in London, the brilliant idea of creating a huge, lifelike horse puppet was conceived. The Handspring Puppet Company of South Africa was commissioned to build the horse. If you would like to see what Joey looked like and his interaction with actors, go to YouTube and see that  fantastic horse move realistically, make horsey sounds, nuzzle Joey, and react to things as all horses do. To buy the DVD “Making War Horse,” go to https://www.amazon.com/Making-War-Horse-Variouis/dp/B002QW7J65/.

One of the Finest Books of Art History in 2016

I received an outstanding Christmas book last December from family members who know my interest in art and history. It is Of Arms and Artists by Paul Staiti. The esteemed Joseph J. Ellis points out in his appreciation of the book that Mr. Staiti has achieved a “fusion of art history and political narrative.” Not only are the great artworks of the Revolution discussed and reproduced in color plates and black and white illustrations for our enjoyment. As Mr. Ellis remarks, Staiti’s narrative points out the art’s political significance and what that art says about the values that make this country singularly American. We are experiencing a great fissure in latter-day America over the subject of aliens and what our policy should be toward them. John Adams wrote about the Hessians, who were fighting on Britain’s side, “Is there any Policy on this side of hell, that is inconsistent with Humanity? I have no Idea of it. I know of no policy, God is my witness but this–Piety, Humanity and Honesty are the best Policy. Blasphemy, Cruelty, and Villainy have prevailed and may again.” Both Adams and Washington believed in the American way of showing mercy toward aliens, in this case, the Hessians, says Staiti.

This book reminds us of the great country we were before and after the Revolution, and why we were different from other countries. As the strident online voices quarrel with each other over whether we should shut out all outsiders from our shores, the rest of us can pick up this book and see what the Founders had to say about the matter.

A Golden Opportunity Lost

In the January 13, 2017 issue of USA Today, everyone who loves horses and cares what happens to them was  heartened to see this headline: “USDA Announces Strict Changes to End Soring of Tennessee Walking Horses.” The struggle to end the torture of soring horses has lasted so long. It was hard to believe this horror had gone. Only a few days later, on January 24, 2017, a blog written by Wayne Pacelle started this way: “The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s anti-horse-soring rule–put in motion after a damning 2010 Inspector General’s report identified deficiencies in the execution of the federal law against horse soring —is in peril despite the agency announcing final, favorable action on the  issue just days ago.” (Italics mine.)

Mr. Pacelle, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Humane Society of the United States, whose telling title for his blog entry is “Bureaucratic Bungling, Rules Freeze Endanger Horse Soring Rule,” explains that the bungling happened at the Federal Register. This venerable, historical publication failed in its duty to publish the new USDA rule about soring when it should have been published. The new rule foundered in a move by President Trump to freeze any rule actions still moving forward. Now in line with procedure, the USDA was forced to withdraw this action. As Mr. Pacelle assesses the effect of this move, he concludes that “Horse abusers are getting a ‘get out of jail free card’ because of an ironic and potentially fatal one-two punch by the outgoing and incoming administrations.”

The new law would update the Horse Protection Law to prohibit all soring devices. The Agriculture Department Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service would take on the responsibility of training and licensing horse inspectors. The new trainers would now be only veterinarians and veterinarian educators. This change in the law would also eliminate one of the worst practices of the past: often inspectors would be employees of horse organization with vested interests and also might be exhibitors as well.