Wednesday, August 27, 2014

TIME MACHINE: Battle of Bladensburg

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TIME MACHINE: BATTLE OF BLADENSBURG

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg, which was a major conflict fought during the War of 1812. The battle was fought on August 24, 1814 in Bladensburg, Maryland; and played a major role in the fate of the United States' capital, Washington D.C. and a future battle fought around Baltimore, Maryland. 

Although the Royal Navy had controlled the Chesapeake Bay region since early 1813, the lack of substantial British troops due to the Napoleonic Wars had limited to mounting small-scale raids. However, Napoleon Bonaparte was defeated by April 1814, leaving the British Army to focus full attention to the war on the North American continent. Major General Robert Ross, assumed command of veterans from the Duke of Wellington's army and other British troops serving along the East Coast. They were transported to Chesapeake Bay to create a diversion from a British invasion of New York, led by Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada and commander in chief in North America. Although Ross commanded the troops, the point of attack was to be decided by Vice Admiral Alexander Cochrane, Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy's North American Station.

When Ross and Cochrane's forces arrived at the town Benedict, along the Patuxent River, President James Madison sent Secretary of State James Monroe to reconnoiter. President Madison received a dispatch from Secretary Monroe on August 23 that stated - "The enemy are in full march to Washington, Have the materials prepared to destroy the bridges, PS – You had better remove the records." Unfortunately, Madison and his advisers ignored Monroe's warning and reports. The Washington and Baltimore area served as the Tenth Military District and it was under the command of General William H. Winder, who had been an attorney before the war broke out. In theory, Winder was supposed to have at least 15,000 militia troops, but he actually had only 120 Dragoons and 300 other Regulars, plus 1,500 poorly trained and under-equipped militiamen at his immediate disposal. Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr. and other advisers incorrectly assumed that the British were destined for Baltimore and that Washington would not be attacked since he deemed it strategically unimportant.

Winder ordered the destruction of the two bridges across the Anacostia River as a precaution to protect the Capital. This act left a route through Bladensburg as the logical approach. He also sent troops to Marlborough to intercept the British at Upper Marlboro on August 20. Unfortunately, those troops quickly returned when the Americans learned that British troops were already entering Blandesburg. Following a brief clash with Ross' leading forces on August 22, Winder ordered a hasty retreat. Several Maryland militia regiments were summoned from Baltimore to defend Washington. Winder ordered Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury to move from Baltimore to Bladensburg and take the best position in advance of Bladensburg in order to resist as long as possible. The latter deployed his force atop Lowndes Hill, just east of Bladensburg. The road from Annapolis crossed the hill, and the road from Upper Marlboro ran to its south and west. Furthermore, the roads to Washington, Georgetown, and Baltimore all intersected behind between it and Bladensburg. From this position, Stansbury dominated the approaches available to the British while controlling the lines of communication. Then on August 23, Stansbury received a message from Winder, informing the former that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch and he intended to fire the lower bridge. A surprised Stansbury was seized by an irrational fear that his right flank could be turned. Instead of strengthening his commanding position, he immediately removed his exhausted troops and marched across Bladensburg bridge, which he did not burn. Stansbury ended up tossing away almost every tactical advantage available to him.

The British forces reached Bladensburg on August 24, around noon. Around noon on 24 August, Ross's army reached Bladensburg and Stansbury's tactical errors quickly became apparent. Had he continued to hold Lowndes Hill, Stansbury could have made the British approach a costly one. With the use of Bladensburg's brick structures, which were ready-made mini-fortresses, Stansbury might have drawn Ross's troops into bloody street fighting. Since Stansbury failed to burn the bridge, he was forced to defend it. Stansbury's infantry and artillery were posted too far from the river's edge to contest an effective crossing. The British sweep across the Bladensburg Bridge proved to be very strong. Although the Americans repulsed the British forces three times by artillery fire and launched a counter-attack led by U.S. Naval officer Commodore Joshua Barney and his almost 600 seasoned Marines and sailors. Despite their valiant repulse, the authorities in Washington simply forgot about Barney for several days. Without orders they were tardy arrivals on the field of contest. Had they been supplied with sufficient ammunition and supporting infantry, the course of the battle could have been changed. But in the end, Barney and his men were flanked and overwhelmed by British forces. Barney was wounded and captured.

Although the British had suffered heavier casualties than the Americans, thanks to Barney's guns; they had completely routed the defenders. The British are believed to suffer casualties of 64 dead and 185 wounded. Some of the British dead "died without sustaining a scratch. They collapsed from heat exhaustion and the strain of punishing forced marches over the five days since landing at Benedict. General Winder had not given any instructions to his commanders before the battle in regard to a possible retreat. When the American militia left the battlefield, he issued contradictory orders - either to halt and reform, fall back on the Capitol where Secretary of War Armstrong hoped vainly to make a stand using the Federal buildings as strong points, or retreat through Georgetown to Tenleytown. Most of the militia simply fled the field with no destination in mind, or deserted the ranks to see to the safety of their families. The Americans actually fled through the streets of Washington, D.C. President Madison and most of the rest of the federal government had been present at the battle, and had nearly been captured. They too fled the capital, and scattered through Maryland and Virginia. That same night the British entered Washington unopposed and set fire to many of the government buildings in what became known as the Burning of Washington.

If you are more interested in reading more information on the Battle of Bladensburg and the Burning of Washington, I suggest you read the following books:


*"When Britain Burned the White House: The 1814 Invasion of Washington (2014) by Peter Snow

*"The Darkest Day: The Washington-Baltimore Campaign During the War of 1812" (2003) by Charles G. Mueller

Monday, August 25, 2014

"THE WOMAN HE LOVED" (1988) Review

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"THE WOMAN HE LOVED" (1988) Review

I have come to the conclusion that any movie producer willing to do a project on Wallis Warfield Simpson, later theDuchess of Windsor would eventually realize that said project is bound to generate a great deal of emotion - not only in Great Britain, but even in the United States. I have never come across a female historical figure who has polarized the public the way this 20th century American-born socialite has. 

The first screen production about Wallis Simpson and her romance with Edward, Prince of Wales, later King Edward VIII and the Duke of Windsor I ever saw was the 1978 BBC miniseries, "EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON". But I have seen screen portrayals of both Mrs. Simpson and Edward VIII in other productions, including this television movie called "THE WOMAN HE LOVED". The television movie aired on CBS in 1988. I wish I could say this movie was the best on-screen interpretation of the infamous romance that rocked the British monarchy back in the mid-1930s. However, I would be lying if I did. But I certainly do not believe it is the worst.

"THE WOMAN HE LOVED" told the story of the famous romance mainly from Mrs. Simpson's point-of-view, via flashbacks. The movie began in 1972 with her arrival in Britain for the first time in years to attend the funeral of her third and final husband, the Duke of Windsor. While the recently widowed Duchess seeks solitude inside Buckingham Palace as a guest of the Royal Family, she reminisces about about her marriage to American-born businessman Ernest Simpson in 1928 led to her entry into British high society and her relationship with Edward Windsor. Aside from the 1972 flashback, most of the movie began with Wallis' marriage to Simpson and ended with her marriage to the newly created Duke of Windsor in May 1937. It also covered Wallis and Edward's affair, which began when he was Prince of Wales and continued after he became King Edward VIII. Also, Wallis' marital problems with Simpson, along with their divorce and theAbdication Crisis, which occurred during the fall of 1936 were also covered in this film. This is not surprising, considering this is the narrative formula that is used in most productions about the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

How did I feel about the movie? Well . . . I did not hate it. But I did not exactly love it. I must admit that its production values were top notch for a television film with a foreign setting. One has to give Kenneth Sharp credit for a detailed re-creation of London and Great Britain between 1928 and 1936. If there is one thing I can say about "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" is that it is a beautiful looking period drama. Sharp's work was ably assisted by Brian Morgan's sharp and colorful cinematography. Hell, his work looked better than many period dramas I have seen on both the small and large screen. Although I found Allyn Ferguson's score not particularly memorable, I thought he and director Charles Jarrott did an excellent in selecting certain tunes that added to the movie's 1930s setting. But one aspect of the movie's technical aspect that really blew my mind was Robin Fraser-Paye's costume designs. Can I say . . . WOW? Or better yet, below are images of Fraser-Paye's work:

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On the other hand, William Luce's screenplay did not have the same effect upon me. As I had hinted earlier, the screenplay for "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" was the basic narrative used for most productions about the historic couple. I would go even further to say that Luce's work was paint-by-the-numbers job. There were moments that did impress me. Most of those moments featured conversations between Wallis and Simpson - especially when their marriage was breaking apart. I was especially amused by one particular quarrel between them that ended with Wallis sharply ordering their dog from her bed. Some of the biggest problems I had with "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" is that Wallis and Edward's story is treated solely as a movie adaptation of a romance novel. And I am not a fan of romance novels. I did not expect the movie to be some Charles Higham-style trashy revelation about the Windsor couple. I have seen plenty of recent productions - "UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS (Season One)" and "THE KING'S SPEECH" - that portray Wallis as some kind of gauche, gold digging whore. Unfortunately, "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" went to another extreme - painting Wallis as some kind of American-born Cinderella and Edward as this poor, misunderstood prince who had been denied some sliver of happiness due to royal tradition. The movie did offer crumbs of the couple's ambiguity - Wallis' affair with Edward and the latter's determination to steal another man's wife. But despite these moments of ambiguity, "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" was simply an exercise in romantic gloss.

"THE WOMAN HE LOVED" featured the screen reunion of Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews, who first co-starred with each other in the 1982 television costume movie, "THE SCARLET PIMPERNEL". Both were outstanding in that film. I wish I could say the same about their performances in "THE WOMAN HE LOVED" . . . but I cannot. I am not saying they gave bad performances. Both Seymour and Andrews offered glimpses of their talent in a few scenes. Most of Seymour's best scenes were with actor Tom Wilkinson, who portrayed Ernest Simpson. Perhaps her performances in these scenes led to her Emmy nomination. Perhaps. However, I find it easy to question this nomination, due to Seymour's inability to utilize a decent Upper South accent (Wallis Simpson came from an old Baltimore family). And Andrews had a particularly effective scene in which his Edward angrily expressed his frustration with the British Establishment, who refused to accept Wallis as his future wife. I found this a breath of fresh air, considering most of his consisted of dialogue that struck me as wooden. But in the end, both actors were hampered by Luce's romantically one-note screenplay.

Olivia De Havilland also received an Emmy nomination - a Best Supporting Actress nod for her portrayal of Wallis' aunt, Bessie Merryman. And if I must be honest, I find this puzzling. I am not criticizing De Havilland. I thought she gave a solid performance, considering the slight amount of screen time given to her. But there was nothing about it that dazzled me. Lucy Gutteridge portrayed Edward's previous mistress, the American-born Thelma, Viscountess Furness. By some ironic twist, Gutteridge portrayed Furness' twin sister, Gloria Morgan Vanderbilt, in the 1982 television movie, "LITTLE GLORIA, HAPPY AT LAST" and earned an Emmy nomination. As for her portrayal of Thelma, it was pretty solid, but not particularly mind dazzling. In fact, none of the other supporting performances in the movie - Julie Harris, Robert Hardy, Phyllis Calvert and David Waller - did not strike me as particularly memorable. I must admit I was surprised to see Waller reprise his role as Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin, which he had originated in "EDWARD AND MRS. SIMPSON". Only Tom Wilkinson's wry and cynical portrayal of the cuckolded Ernest Simpson came close to really impressing me. While everyone else seemed to be a bit too theatrical or simply going through the motions, Wilkinson made the low-key Simpson a rather interesting personality.

I really do not know what else to say about "THE WOMAN HE LOVED". I cannot deny that visually, it is a very beautiful looking movie that did an excellent job of re-creating Great Britain during the two decades between the two world wars. But instead of providing a balanced and ambiguous portrait of Wallis Simpson and her third husband, King Edward VIII; director Charles Jarrott and screenwriter William Luce decided to portray their relationship as some kind of cinematic romance novel. And I believe their work may have hampered the performances of the cast led by the usually talented Jane Seymour and Anthony Andrews. If you want a realistic feel of the Wallis Simpson/Edward VIII affair, this may not be your movie. But if it is a onscreen fairy tale romance you are looking for, this might be your flick.

Friday, August 22, 2014

"THE MIRROR CRACK'D" (1980) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "THE MIRROR CRACK'D", the 1980 adaptation of Agatha Christie's 1962 novel. Directed by Guy Hamilton, the movie starred Angela Landsbury as Miss Jane Marple: 


"THE MIRROR CRACK'D" (1980) Photo Gallery

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