Wonder Woman, screenplay by John Buchan

WW 1I saw Wonder Woman last night, and have things on my mind (there will be SPOILERS if you read on). There were only seven people in the cinema (Tuesday night, 17.40 showing, my own private cinema), but by god the Dolby surround was loud, we needed more bodies to absorb the boom.

The Themiscyra parts were epic and idyllic, but the Amazon civilisation seemed only to consist of a warrior elite and ruling class: where were the farmers? stonemasons? armourers? weavers?  bakers? brewers? (Though, no-one is actually seen eating or drinking: did they not need sustenance?) They may have been self-sufficient for most things (silk-worms?) but where did they get the twelve books that told Diana all she wanted to know about sex? Written on the island? There was a suggestion that some applicants for the soldiery might be rejected if not good enough, but we weren’t seeing much more than a Bronze Age hierarchy. Fantastic workmanship from their leather-working tradition, by the way.

The Amazons fighting, training, performing their military exercises were epic. I read a snatch of an Entertainment Weekly article about how the Amazons were played by real-life police officers, soldiers, stuntwomen, athletes and so on, and how much fun they had training to be an elite fighting force. It shows: those women were magnificent, and totally believable.

Then Steve Trevor crashes into the sea, followed quickly by the Germans in hot pursuit. What sea, exactly, is Themiscyra in? I’m happy to accept that it’s protected by a gods-given dome of opacity that lets the sunlight in to create a Mediterranean climate, so if Steve stole the notebook from a location in the Ottoman Empire (I will come back to geography), and then flew away with it in a stolen plane (with a fuel range of what?), it’s the Adriatic. (Updated after correction in the comments, below.)

At this point Reason raises her head and says ‘It’s a story. Diana is a god. She’s fighting Ares. Does it matter where the bloody plane crashed?’. Yes. Yes, it does. The film is set in an alternative history of the world, so gods and mortals can walk the earth together. But if the First World War is part of that alternative history, with all its domestic detail and the social codes of the period (there will be much more on this), then that’s a part of alt hist that needs grounding, to be attached to the mythic elements. And it’s fuzzed over.

Diana and Steve leave Themiscyra (can she ever go back? options for sequels abound) and next morning are sailing up the Thames underneath London Bridge, because they ‘caught a ride’. If the Adriatic is where they started sailing, it would take DAYS to get to the Thames. It’s also not explained from whom they ‘caught’ (horrible anachronistic vocab) a ride: or whether the fishermen boggled at seeing an American in German uniform and a black-cloaked woman in leather armour on a Greek ship in their waters.

WONDER WOMANDiana is met by a helpful woman (the very funny and tonally perfect Lucy Davis) who shows her how to buy suitable clothes for 1918 England. Very good scene, but why did no-one in the shop notice, laugh, object, or gather in crowds to see this strange woman with a sword? Also, women of the class that Diana is placed in did not try on clothes openly in public view. Her eventual outfit is pretty good, on the whole, as an approximation of what might be worn at the time, though the collar would not have been open, but buttoned high. Her glasses are wrong (‘you’re … too distracting’), but they’re soon to be crushed in a fight.

Diana arrives at a high-level military meeting, and goes into the room as if by right, which is fine characterisation, but astonishing: soldiers would have been on duty, far more people would have prevented her getting in. I don’t know what rank Steve was (Captain?) but he is too low on the military ranking to have attended meetings with generals, let alone be allowed to walk about the room berating them. I did like the repeated line ‘There’s a WOMAN in the room’, but this was one of the few historically plausible details.

At this point I was powerfully reminded of John Buchan’s novel The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915), in which the lone hero addresses the military bigwigs about his secret mission. Bells began to ring. When Steve and Diana gather a group of trusted colleagues to go on a secret mission behind the Front, I was reminded of John Buchan’s novel Greenmantle (1916), in which exactly this happens, German disguises and all, AND Buchan’s heroes foregather in Constantinople and have much to do with the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Their mission is to find the secret German laboratory that is creating a deadly poison gas: see John Buchan’s novel Mr Standfast (1919), in which EXACTLY the same plot point, deployed on the eve of the Armistice, creates the thrilling end to that excellent novel of British and American espionage. Wonder Woman‘s script-writers clearly knew their Buchan, usefully long out of copyright, but it’s quite astonishing that no-one else has noticed. Perhaps I can help writing the next First World War action thriller.

Geography and linguistics time. Diana is taken to a Flemish part of the Western Front, and speaks perfect Flemish to a distressed civilian in the trenches (no civilians would have been allowed anywhere near the trenches, or would have been blown up trying to get there). She has already shown off her language skills, but this was very pleasing: a war film that acknowledges geographic reality, that the Western Front was not all francophone. The photographer in the village has a French accent: again, perfectly plausible, the Belgian professional and upper classes used French habitually. But the Germans have thick German accents when they’re speaking to themselves, whereas the Flemish speak Flemish when they’re in their own village. Where’s the consistency there?

WW3By this time, as Steve and Diana and friends weave their way through the trenches, I’m beginning to wonder whether, as a god, Diana simply isn’t noticeable by mortals, whether she assumes invisibility. Otherwise why is no-one groping or whistling at her, why aren’t officers and sentries forcing her back to the supply lines, and how did they get to the trenches in the first place? One does not simply walk into Passchendaele. And then she magically appears in full leather short-skirted kit (where did the nice grey clothes go?) and climbs the ladder over the top into No-Man’s Land (good reasoning, Eowyn). It’s magnificent, the most splendidly heroic part of the film, but really? She isn’t ripped apart by massed machine-gun fire and mortars because she’s got a shield? Reason throws up her hands and stalks away.

The summit, the pre-Armistice gala thing that gets Diana into a blue evening dress with the sword shoved down the back of the dress like an ornate jewel: where did that come from? And why were women allowed so near the Front? German women in stealable frocks too? What part of Belgium are we now in, close enough to allow German civilians to arrive in evening clothes, all the way from, ooh, let’s say Aachen to Antwerp, to attend a party, in a war zone?

Other historical niggles: I was dubious about the four-engined bomber that Steve flies at the end, because I thought they only came in during the Second World War, but I’ve been corrected in the comments, below. Diana is given an ice-cream on the station, in a cone, from a station vendor. The ice-cream cone was in existence at the time, but ices were generally taken in glasses and eaten with spoons, ladies didn’t eat food in public while walking along, and women always wore hats in public too. When Diana loses hers she doesn’t bother with a replacement, and consequently breaks a major sartorial rule in society for that time. Even girls wore hats in public, if they had them.

However, Diana is a god, she’s fighting a god (David Thewlis’ ‘tache is perfect for the period, a superb Adolfian nod to the further future, but looks totally stupid on a Transformer-like Greek god), and none of this matters. It’s a film, it’s a fabulous fantastical creation, Patty Jenkins deserves many more film projects, and I’m almost tempted to see that Superman Batman film that everyone hated so I can see more of Gal Gadot, who is the best thing in Wonder Woman by light years. She is the most well-rounded authentic superhero character in cinema for years, certainly the best female hero since Imperator Furiosa. Go see it.

John Buchan and The Power-House

Buchan remarketed in the 1960s as a thriller author

The novel of 1913 that I’m resurrecting from the Really Like This Book podcast scripts is the first modern thriller, The Power-House by John Buchan. This is often overlooked because of its far more famous younger brother, The Thirty-Nine Steps, which was published two years later in 1915. When Buchan wrote The Power-House, he was still hoping for literary fame. He’d been a writer for nearly twenty years, but his life kept distracting him as he kept looking for the career in intellectual public service that he felt he was destined for, and for which he had been training himself. Politics was getting him nowhere (the 1911 general election, for which he had been groomed as a prospective parliamentary candidate, didn’t happen). He’d tried being a colonial civil servant in South Africa, but didn’t find a new post when his first one ended. He tried journalism, and wrote a great many excellent book reviews and opinion pieces, but only rose to become temporary deputy editor of The Spectator. He had trained as a barrister, but this didn’t seem to draw him in: perhaps the law was too dry and inward-looking, and simply not concerned enough with words as literature.

buchan-5With hindsight, it is perfectly obvious that Buchan was a born writer. What is not so obvious is that, unlike many of his peers, he ignored the tug of words for over fifteen years before being able to write them full-time. Other novelists got their heads down and did this: it was their job. Buchan tended to write his fiction in the evenings of his day job, and perhaps this less intense application showed in the time it took for him to finally get it together and write the novel that the times, and the public wanted. The market and his developing writing style finally came together in the first months of the First World War and burst upon the waiting world in 1915. The Thirty-Nine Steps really was a breakthrough for him, a masterpiece in many ways. What is interesting about the over-shadowed The Power-House was that it was the last novel but one before The Thirty-Nine Steps, and contains many of the elements that made The Thirty-Nine Steps a winner.

It was written while Buchan had been steadily settling into a new career as the literary advisor for Thomas Nelson, a Scottish publisher. He was their talent spotter and editor, and an expert negotiator, but he was increasingly drawn to writing books for them himself. It’s as if he couldn’t stop himself. Buchan had to read a lot of current popular fiction and new novels, to see if they would suit Nelson’s own reprint series, and then handle the negotiations between authors and agents. He couldn’t have thought up a better way to survey the market for fiction if he’d tried. He even knew exactly how to pitch and market his own books: he did this very well with his own books that he wrote for Nelson’s: Prester John in 1910, and the biographies of Montrose and Sir Walter Ralegh a few years later. But with The Power-House, Buchan struck out on his own, and gave the novel (really a novella) to a different publisher, William Blackwood, for publication in Blackwood’s Magazine. Why did he do this?

buchan-2With Nelson’s he had a captive publisher he could persuade to give him good terms, and the novel was short enough not to matter too much if it failed, but Buchan was clearly after more than in-house publishing comfort. He wanted independent fame (and who can blame him?) Blackwood’s Magazine was also a lot more prestigious than Thomas Nelson, which was more known for its Christian and children’s lists. Nelson’s was not a natural home for a best-seller, and Buchan really wanted this. Getting his novel in a magazine for its first publication was also very good business. He’d be paid for that publication, and be paid again if any US magazine wanted to do the same (though, as it happened, no other magazine did reprint The Power-House). He undoubtedly expected that afterwards there would be book publication royalties, but for The Power-House these took their time, because Blackwood didn’t do anything with the story until after The Thirty-Nine Steps had had a massive success, and so The Power-House didn’t appear as a book until 1916. This must have been galling, because it proved, once again, that as a novelist Buchan was not considered (by the prestigious but stuffy and old-fashioned House of Blackwood) to be worth much investment. What Buchan needed was a real hit, and a new publisher, and The Power-House did not give him these. After The Thirty-Nine Steps was a smash success for William Blackwood, despite their almost complete lack of advertising or publicity, Buchan’s next novel went to Hodder & Stoughton, with whom he stayed for the rest of his life.

buchan-3So why was The Power-House not the kind of book that Blackwood preferred to invest in? It was not steady, reliable, Victorian or safe. It did not rehash Imperial adventures and colonial values. In fact, it did the opposite. A dastardly spy plot is discovered, and an innocent man is being hunted by wicked foreign conspirators in the exotic and very nineteenth-century adventure playground of the Victorians, Bokhara and the Pamirs. But the central joke behind the novel is that all this conventional drama happens off-stage, while the really thrilling events happen in London, on the narrator’s own doorstep. With The Power-House Buchan invented the thriller that could happen to any one of us. The novel’s narrator, Edward Leithen, is a barrister and an MP, he has easy relations with the police and Embassy staff, he has a chauffeur (this was the early period of driving, when a car routinely needed a driver, because the owner didn’t know how to drive), but for all of this, Edward Leithen is One of Us, an ordinary man in an extraordinary situation.

So the hunted man disappears off to the Russian borderlands to hide from someone or something mysterious, and Leithen is left in London wondering what can be done to help. Small coincidences keep accumulating. Leithen keeps coming across connections between the man who has had to vanish, and a house in south London, a collector of Wedgwood china, his horrible butler, an old trade union embezzlement scandal, and some odd Russian names. He knows they’re connected, but doesn’t find the key until one weekend when he has a car accident in the countryside, and is offered hospitality for the night at a gentleman’s house nearby. As we will find in pretty much all of Buchan’s novels, another coincidence appears, because the gentleman is revealed as the connecting link between all the clues. He is Mr Lumley, the super-intelligent leader of a shadowy international criminal gang who are plotting to bring down western civilisation. The rest of the novel is devoted to the excitement of Leithen’s attempts to stop Lumley, and to stop being assassinated himself.

one of the best modern covers, from the French Editions de Londres

And this is where Buchan really makes thriller writing new. Edgar Wallace had published a fair few London-based thrillers before The Power-House, but Wallace was ponderous, slangy, sensational, cheap and rather too swiftly dashed off (there‘s a great early 20th-century cartoon in which a bookstall owner offers the ‘midday Wallace’ to a perplexed customer). Buchan was a seriously good classicist, a very well-read son of the manse, and a good historian. He wrote this thriller with the example of Wallace before him, but wearing his learning lightly. He did not sacrifice the breathtaking chases and dramas in tight spots to sloppy plotting or laughable dialogue: he just wrote well, and believably, and fast. Speed is Buchan’s thing: his novels zip along just as his heroes do, and he pares the action down to the essential details which also remain completely memorable.

When Leithen is pursued by persons unknown who are determined to nobble him, he has to find a safe way through crowded London streets. Never have building sites on Oxford Street seemed so dangerous. Never has going to a seedy little restaurant in the East End seemed so worrying. Leithen also has a lot of friends who help him out, and by this London seems less of a huge anonymous city, but a familiar neighbourhood. Because he has friends in high places and low, we accompany him to rare and unusual places throughout the whole adventure.

Re-reading the novel in 1913, preparing to teach it, some things jumped out at me that I hadn’t noticed before. The anti-German spy fever was at its height at this time, and Buchan does slip in references to a German spy being caught in England; as if this were a commonplace (when in fact no such creatures existed). The Russian angle is also interesting: I don’t know what the Comintern was up to in 1913, or the British-based Socialists, but it’s interesting that Buchan makes one of the chief villains a former union executive. Admittedly he did the union wrong and stole all their money, but there is a suggestion that a trade union would naturally attract that kind of evil swine. Buchan was a Conservative, which shows in the central theme of the novel: that the border between civilisation and anarchy is very thin, and could be broken by the smallest events. Civilisation, in Buchan’s view, was inherently antithetical to all that the forces of the Left, which included anarchy, and trade unions, stood for. He was certainly right that civilisation was about to be broken up pretty thoroughly, only twelve months later, but the threat wouldn’t come from the Left, but from the rotting corpse of ninetenth-century Imperialism.


Antony Hope’s The Prisoner of Zenda

Hope 1Antony Hope’s invention* of the cardboard kingdom in The Prisoner of Zenda is the subject of this week’s Really Like This Book podcast scripts catch-up. Hope was a respectable Victorian London lawyer, but he had a secret passion for the romantic and dramatic, and wrote many novels. His most famous is The Prisoner of Zenda, from 1894, in which Rudolf Rassendyll, a flaming-haired English gentleman, travels to Ruritania for a holiday, and discovers that he is the spitting image of that nation’s king. This is not a great surprise, because Rudolf Rassendyll is also descended from the Ruritanian royal family, after a dangerous liaison between Rudolf V and his married grandmother, earlier in the century. But Rudolf arrives at the moment of a crisis. The king, also a Rudolf, is about to be crowned, but he has also just been kidnapped, by his wicked half-brother Black Michael, and if he does not ascend the throne at the appointed time, Michael will take it, and his fiancée, their cousin, the impossibly beautiful Princess Flavia, from him. Step in, replacement cousin Rudolf, and take the throne, take the princess, and take out Black Michael. Just temporarily, you understand, until the real Rudolf is found and rescued. But what if the replacement Rudolf and Princess Flavia fall in love? What if during the duels and sword-fights to rescue the king, the king accidentally gets spiked? What if the will of the Ruritanian people, who are very keen on their king marrying the princess, rushes the impersonator to the throne? Could an English gentleman ascend the throne of Ruritania?

Hope 2This delicate political point is the reason for the long, long popularity of this novel. It is a terrific swashbuckler, full of action, and tense moments of physical drama. It is delightful to read so much dashing about on horseback and swimming across moats. The moments of passion between the English Rudolf and Flavia are believable because they’re so cinematic: we can reframe the Victorian melodrama into a nice period costume film. But they’re also believable because, at heart, every reader would like to think that they are as a good as a king, or princess, and could ascend a throne. And this is why Antony Hope invented what is now called the cardboard kingdom. It’s related to Arcadia, an invented country, a not-real place, to which the characters can go to have rollicking adventures in freedom, or retire from the world to sort out their problems. This is a very old literary trope. Shakespeare used it all the time, for instance in As You Like It. Hope developed the idea by making Arcadia a kingdom. It has to have a royal presence, and a throne to be fought over, and a dynasty to save. The whole point of the cardboard kingdom is that a gentleman outsider will arrive and sort out their problems. In the hands of Victorian English excursions to the cardboard kingdom, this was a way of affirming the superiority of the English, the world leaders at sorting out other nations’ problems. Hope’s Ruritania was the first of many similar fictional kingdoms, which is why the name of his cardboard kingdom has become the generic term for the concept.

Hope 3The kingdom also has to be located somewhere in middle Europe. In relation to Britain, it should not be as far east as Kazakhstan, but also not as close as Germany. The cardboard kingdom needs to be vaguely familiar: in the atlas, but not on a page we’ve looked at very often. That way, a gentleman traveller can be sure that the trains will run there (for there are always trains in Europe), and that he will be able to leave when he wants to, without consequences, to return to his own world. Sometimes the inhabitants of the cardboard kingdom come to Europe, and then go back into cardboard land. This happened with Elinor Glyn’s notorious and scandalous novel Three Weeks, in which a young English diplomat found himself having an affair with a glamorous foreign lady in her rented villa off Lake Geneva, only to find that she was the queen of a cardboard kingdom, and, later, that he had become a father. That’s the most interesting inversion of the idea that I’ve come across: most cardboard kingdom novels by Dornford Yates, or John Buchan, for example, just copy what Hope did, in different ways.

Hope 4What Hope did to make his novel so long-lasting, and so popular, was to distill the essence of romance and adventure into a very short novel. It won’t take you more than an evening to read. It begins at a late Victorian breakfast table. Rudolf’s sister-in-law is a slightly prissy Victorian lady, embarrassed at the very existence of an illegitimacy scandal in her husband’s family. But when Rudolf arrives in Ruritania, somehow he’s gone back a few more decades, to a way of life that feels more Napoleonic rather than Victorian. By the time that he and his accomplices are plotting their rescue of the king, and dealing with chamber maids and henchmen, their language has become positively Shakespearian. Time seems to slip in Ruritania, but a gentleman’s honour is timeless. The English Rudolf is the soul of honour, and this drives his conduct throughout the story. He will not betray or abandon the king by refusing to help him, or by allowing him to die in his prison, but, since the king has shown no interest in Princess Flavia, it’s perfectly fine for Rudolf to fall in love with her, and to woo her, to the great delight of the population. She, in turn, is pleased by his attentions, and finds that the new Rudolf is a much more attractive person than he had been before, until it’s too late and she is just as much in love with the new Rudolf as he with her. It’s an interesting point of behaviour, how not to betray your king by falling in love with his impersonator, but Flavia’s honour is strong: she will not renounce the king, and she will do her duty (probably through gritted teeth). However, every year, she sends the English Rudolf a red rose in a box, with the message ‘Rudolf – Flavia – always’. So romantic. Also very, very transparent, because it’s the interception of this box that brings about the sequel to The Prisoner of Zenda, the even more dashing and magnificent Rupert of Hentzau.

Peter Sellers in the Stewart Granger swashbuckling role?
Peter Sellers in the Stewart Granger swashbuckling role?

Rupert is the maverick in the otherwise perfectly ordered world of the Ruritanian deception. All the other Ruritanians seem not to notice the difference between Rudolf the king and the English Rudolf, which makes the set-up seem a little like a pantomime. But Rupert can see the marks of the English Rudolf’s shaved moustache and crown imperial beard, and the unaccountable difference in the king’s attitude towards Flavia after the coronation, and her blushes and generally infatuated demeanour which were simply not in evidence before. These, taken singly, might not add up to much. But Rupert also knows that the king is in prison, because he is one of the king’s noble guards, and potential murderers. So when he sees the English Rudolf play-acting as the king in Strelsau, he just laughs up his sleeve, and awaits developments with enjoyment. Rupert is fun. He is absolutely modern, utterly irreverent, has a wicked sense of timing, and is a terrific duellist. He and the English Rudolf battle with swords and revolvers, and both secretly swim across the same moat at midnight on the same night. They’re clearly the same kind of adventurous chap. But Rupert is amoral, not a bad chap exactly, but not at all the upright soul of honour that English Rudolf represents. It’s fine for a Ruritanian to have a flexible understanding of honour, but for an Englishman, this cannot be so. Rupert is Rudolf’s foil, his wicked alter ego, and he completes the enjoyment of this fine swashbuckling novel.

* Hope didn’t invent the cardboard kingdom: Neil Harvey points out that Robert Louis Stevenson’s Prince Otto predates Zenda, and so does Meredith’s The Adventures of Harry Richmond. For more on the subject, see Raymond P Wallace, ‘Cardboard kingdoms’, San José Studies 13:2 (1987), 23-34.