Wonder Woman, screenplay by John Buchan

JL_Wonder_WomanI 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.

wwDiana 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?

ww3.0By 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.

Mad Max: Imperator Furiosa

This is a shot that doesn't appear in the film; Furiosa NEVER sits quietly loking out of the windown while slave-Max drives with his mask on. They just want you to think that in this film, he does all the driving and she does none. Trades Description Act violation 1.
This is a shot that doesn’t appear in the film; Furiosa NEVER sits quietly looking out of the window while Max drives with his mask on. They just want you to think that in this film, he does all the driving and she does none. Trades Description Act violation 1.

(Warning: here be spoilers.) I don’t know why this Mad Max film is subtitled ‘Fury Road’. No-one cares or remembers what this ‘road’ is, because it’s a journey, not an actual road, and every film in the series has angry characters. What most people will remember as the film’s defining phrase is the lead character’s name, Imperator Furiosa, played by Charlize Theron. It’s got multi-syllabic grandeur: an epic double portion of iambs followed by the four-syllable foot called tertius paeon, the stress in the third syllable enhanced by the appropriately ‘feminine’ ending of a falling syllable.

Prosodic deconstruction over: it’s a damn good name. It means ‘furious emperor’, though the Imperator bit is probably her status and title: she’s mostly called Furiosa, but she dominates the film. She’s a top driver, the one entrusted by Citadel boss Immortan Joe to drive out to Gasoline City, run by his brother The People Eater, with the big rig and fuel pod, to pick up more fuel. She’s escorted by a flotilla of severely customised 4×4 vehicles (one hesitates to call them cars) driven by Valhalla-seeking junkies in whiteface and combat trousers who do a lot of pumped-up shrieking and waving of weaponry. But Furiosa takes a detour, the Citadel watchers see that she’s going rogue, and the chase is on, with all of the Citadel’s armaments on wheels tearing after her through the sand routes. They even bring their own musicians, a hardcore version of the musical retinue that every classical emperor had. Gasoline City also sends out a heavily-armed posse, as does The Bullet Farmer, the third brother in the triumvirate of suppliers of life’s essentials in this post-apocalyptic desert.

a lot grubbier than in the film
Furiosa and four of the five wives, a lot grubbier than in the film

The real reason for their angry pursuit is not the theft of a rig or the defection of a trusted lieutenant, but the liberation of the five ‘wives’ of Immortan Joe, who all happen to model western fashions in their day jobs. Their costume design is a visual contrast to Furiosa’s shaved-head, sweaty combats, heavily weaponised look, but realism is not a high priority. Their gauzy draperies never seem to get ripped, bloodied or greased with mud, and with all that they go through, that’s a mistake. Everyone else looks filthy apart from them. These starlets – Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Zoe Kravitz produce the strongest performances – do a good enough job at becoming their characters, reluctant breeders of Immortan’s offspring, and thus his property, as he bawls so petulantly. The women race through the desert, heading for the Green Place where Furiosa knows they’ll find sanctuary, but they have a horrible shock when they run into Furiosa’s old tribe, the Vuvulani, and hear what’s been happening in that part of the sands since she was stolen from them as a child.

yer actual Road Warrior, on a bike he only rides for five minutes
yer actual Road Warrior, on a bike he only rides for five minutes

There’s also a sub-plot to this film, which has been angering the male supremacist film ‘critics’ online. They think that the point of the Mad Max film legacy is to produce films about men who shout a lot about their jacked-up cars and explosions, and to valorise the white male loner with bad dreams and bad hair riding a trusty steed (or rusty car).  They also seem to think that Mad Max is American cultural property, when, as any fule kno, he’s Australian, and always has been. They seem unhappy that Max’s plot trajectory and his really good stunts are subordinated to the women’s mission and their control of their rig.

Max (Tom Hardy) first appears getting captured by Immortan’s scouting Warboys, and seems more annoyed about his car being commandeered than his very unpleasant ordeal of being registered as Immortan’s property (on his back, with needles), and a much-needed haircut. Now that we can see his expressions (Hardy does give good grunt), he’s hung upside down to be a blood-sack for one of the Warboys, with his transfusion line refuelling a rather weedy-looking Warboy who needs a booster dose. Max ends up as a figurehead on one of the pursuit vehicles (that’s why he’s wearing the metal muzzle), and, after some seriously clever plotting and fight choreography, becomes no. 2 driver of Furiosa’s rig, the wives having no such skills. Nor, indeed, any apparent desire to learn them.

the enemy
the enemy

For the rest of the film Furiosa and Max hold off the pursuing monstrous hordes with one explosion and pursuit gag after another. The sheer inventiveness of the plot, which is essentially a chase from A to B to A, makes superb use of the choices one has with a seemingly unbreakable rig with secret compartments and hiding places. Furiosa and Max scramble all over its outsides as it thunders at top speed through the Namibian desert, and their stunt doubles deserve big typefaced acting credits. The pace of the film, hammered into the viewing experience by a pounding soundtrack, does dip into reflective moments, and some fragments of quiet, but not very many, just enough to catch our breath, do some essential first-aid and bolt-cutting, and then we’re back on the road being chased by another madman with a flaming steering wheel.

not someone to mess with
not someone to mess with

What isn’t mentioned very often in the reviews is that Furiosa has a prosthetic arm, since she was born without her lower left arm. I imagine that Theron wore a greenscreen sock over that arm while filming, and they CGId her metallic probing pronglike bionic extension. It’s a magnificent character enhancement, since it is simply part of her. She unstraps its harness when she needs to, and she (or her stuntie) has enough upper body strength to cling to things and use her feet and legs to fight off intruders. She doesn’t need to do a Captain Hook, waving her arm around to make us nervous: her steely gaze and astonishingly fast reactions are quite good enough for that, thank you. She and other characters with bodily difference fit into this landscape perfectly. If the land has been poisoned by catastrophe, then it makes sense that some babies will be born looking different, and they get along with the same or even better chances as anyone else.

more misleadings: the only time Furiosa kneels behins Max is when she uses him to steady her gun for the last bullet he's not a good enough shot for her to risk
more misleading: the only time Furiosa kneels behind Max is when she uses him to steady her gun for the last bullet he’s not a good enough shot for her to risk

The Citadel supplies water and milk, and has some healthy-looking green fields on top of its sandstone stack outcrops, presumably the only source of fresh vegetables for miles. It’s a nurturing place, or it would have been before Immortan took it over and made it his personal fief. There’s a pervasive emphasis on breeding and feeding in the film. He has a harem of lactating wives hooked up to machines in a very comfortable-looking milking parlour. Two wives are pregnant and a baby arrives rather earlier than expected during the action. Max saves Furiosa’s life with his carefully not-discarded transfusion line: nice plotting, Mr Miller. All this feels rather different from what one might have expected from a old-school Mad Max film. The film’s editor is female: the director (her husband) wanted a different perspective on the action, and IMDB claims he said: ‘Because if a guy did it, it would look like every other action movie’. Eve Ensler (author and original performer of the feminist statement play The Vagina Monologues) was apparently consulted on the dialogue and plot, to give balance to a testosterone-rich franchise. Why should men have all the fun riding souped-up motorbikes with screaming wheels? By deliberately balancing how the plot elements might appeal to different people, not just 18-year old boys, Miller has opened up the world of Mad Max to older and newer generations. I saw the first films and was repelled, but I like this one very much indeed. I definitely prefer screaming engines driven by a rock-hard engineer who happens to be a woman who can DO something, rather than a screaming Tina Turner in a miniskirt strutting to no apparent purpose.

* edited slightly to cover up the fact that all my research failed to tell me that this is the fourth film, not the third.

Peter O’Donnell’s Modesty Blaise

Peter O'Donnell (photo: The Guardian)
Peter O’Donnell (photo: The Guardian)

(Forgetfully and foolishly I wrote this pod script up twice: here in January 2015, and here in Sept 2015. They’re mostly the same, but there will be slight differences. Sorry about that.)

This podcast was written for the letter O, the classic 1960s cartoon strip writer, Peter O’Donnell. He is most famous for his creation of the glorious Modesty Blaise: action heroine, secret agent, assassin, and all-round perfect thriller feminist. For years – really, YEARS – this podcast was the most often downloaded from Why I Really Like This Book, so I’m putting it up here in case the O’Donnell fans want to read what I say instead of hunt down what is now a rather old pod.

ModestyModesty Blaise first appeared in a cartoon strip in 1963, and was a permanent presence in British newspapers until 2001, largely unaltered in style. She was drawn by a series of different artists, but O’Donnell wrote all the stories. In 1965 his first Modesty Blaise book appeared, and came about because when O’Donnell was a soldier during the Second World War, he had noticed a girl in a displaced persons camp. The memory of how this refugee looked, how she held herself, and her confidence, and what her story might have been, stayed with him, emerging 20 years later as a character for an action story. A rather decorative film was made shortly after the first book appeared, starring Monica Vitti and Terence Stamp, but the script for that veered wildly away from the original concept.

In the books, Modesty is a retired criminal mastermind (retired in her early thirties), who made the money she wanted to through non-vice crimes, but now she is bored. Her sidekick, not her lover, Willie Garvin, is also bored, which is why he loses his touch, and gets caught by a gang in Latin America. MI5 want Modesty to help them with a sticky problem of their own, so they offer her Willie as a favour, and she rescues him from captivity. She accepts that tip-off from British intelligence as a debt of honour that she wants to repay, in sorting out a little problem for them. And so the relationship develops: Modesty and Willie become the go-to team for the really dangerous jobs that British Intelligence can’t handle alone. And they win, every time. Casual deaths with no repercussions are standard. The police rarely interfere, and when they do, they do what Modesty wants. There are a lot of set-piece impossible escapes from impossible situations, and many, many single combats, lovingly described.

Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise
Monica Vitti as Modesty Blaise

You’ll probably have spotted that Modesty is pretty much like a female James Bond, except that she’s independent. This independence is crucial for her character: she will not be tied, and she operates following her own judgement rather than following orders. She’s also an armed and unarmed combat expert, a jeweller, a diver and goodness what else. She has a compass in her head that never fails, she has yoga meditation skills that enable her to ignore pain and exhaustion etc, etc. She is effectively a superhero without supernatural powers: she just has an impossible number of phenomenal powers and skills that normal people would be glad to have only one of. It’s a very attractive combination. Did I also mention that she’s drop-dead gorgeous? It should go without saying. Modesty would be a good match for Emma Peel of The Avengers. Remember Angelina Jolie as Lara Croft, and as Mrs Smith from Mr and Mrs Smith? Modesty preceded her by about 40 years, and she’s better at the job because she does it all without computers or cell phones.

All this would be wasted material were it not for Peter O’Donnell’s writing. He is not quite as good as Ian Fleming for insouciant style, or as good as Geoffrey Household in cranking up the tension, but he comes very close. O’Donnell borrows heavily from Fleming and James Bond in his attention to detail: we hear a lot about the style and colour of clothes, even the kinds of fabrics, and of course we hear a lot about the make of drink, the way of cooking the meat, the colour of the car. On weaponry Fleming is outclassed by O’Donnell, I think, because both Modesty and Willie Garvin are expert in every kind of combat invented by humans, and probably some that O’Donnell invented himself. We hear a lot about throwing knives and a special kind of throwing and whacking weapon that lurks in the back of Modesty’s hairdo. O’Donnell is really good on ingenious places for hiding weapons: time and again Modesty strips off her clothes so she can extract the components of a bomb, or a radio transmitter, or a bow and arrows, from her underwear or her skirt. They’re kept in the seams and under false linings, for verbal titillation. It’s a good thing airport scanners hadn’t been invented then.

Peter O'Donnell in the 1960s
Peter O’Donnell in the 1960s

Modesty is not just a brilliant fighter, marksman, fencer, what have you: she’s also a strategic genius. She computes situations in her brain and produces a solution for every sticky situation. This is where O’Donnell outclasses Household. Modesty and Willie have a very long back history, and so whenever she or he is about to attack an enemy, they can throw words at each other to suggest that this is a particular trick they know well, or one that worked once and might just work again, and all this time the reader is going ‘Yes? Yes? What?’, hurtling through the narrative to find out what, precisely, they will do to free Willie from being chained to a radiator by one hand while holding a bomb at full arm’s length in the other, knowing that when Modesty bursts into the room to rescue him she will be mown down by a machine gun. Naturally he gets out of the chain by breaking it one-handed, as you do, and then she drops through the window from the floor above, having shot the machine gunner faster than he can draw. She disables the bomb for Willie, because the blood from his wounds is making his hands a bit sticky. It’s all rather exciting.

Here’s another one: they’re being held in the desert with a group of other people, and Modesty has to get them all out before they’re killed for fun. She induces the Austrian fencing champion guard to a duel, kills him by playing against the rules but also allows herself to take a slight wound. She’s fighting naked, by the way. One of the leering bad guys comes over to fondle her bloody body in her apparent exhaustion, during which time she picks his pocket of the secret notebook. Willie forges an entry in the secret notebook to make it seem that the pilot of the hired plane is to be executed, so that he will come over to their side, and get the rest of the captives away to Tangier, leaving Modesty and Willie to build an emergency sand-yacht to get across the desert to a Foreign Legion fort where Willie has the final showdown with the big boss, after performing emergency surgery on Modesty’s shoulder wound, which is now impendingly gangrenous. That caper is particularly complicated, but it is deeply, deeply satisfying. O’Donnell’s plotting is superb.

Modesty 3There is a certain forcedness in O’Donnell’s dialogue, and in his namedropping of brand names and new products. He spells Crimplene with a capital C, because when he was writing, this was an up-to-the-minute social reference. Now, of course, this dates the books quite strongly, but this is part of their attraction: they’re a repository for social history. We can see which words were new to the language in the 1960s by the difference that common usage has made in them now. Initial capitals are a common sign of this, for brand names and for things that are now generic names. We also see different, earlier spellings: ‘git’, for instance, now a mild term of abuse in British slang that also means ‘stupid idiot’, is spelt with a double tt in 1965. O’Donnell spells mac, as in mackintosh raincoat, mack. It’s linguistic archaeology.

I don’t remember Ian Fleming using Arabic as a secret language for James Bond as often as O’Donnell does. Modesty and Willie are, of course, fluent in it, and speak to each other in Arabic over the radio and in private exchanges, because the criminals they are fighting are not Arabic speakers: this is a Cold War world. The Arabic nations were not yet political powers that the west took much notice of. Arabic is also used as a language of civilised values: several times Modesty discusses Arabic poetry as a coded cover for her real intent: I don’t think you’d get that kind of respect in thrillers of a later date.

no-one knows why Monica Vitti kept her natural blonde hair in the film's publicity
no-one knows why Monica Vitti kept her natural blonde hair in the film’s publicity

O’Donnell has a very interesting attitude to Modesty, considering that he was writing her in the unliberated 1960s. The contraceptive pill was just about to be made available to British women, but ladies had to wear stockings, hats and gloves as a matter of course, and were expected to stop working once they married. Modesty preceded the swinging sixties. However, O’Donnell gives her remarkable freedoms. She is a woman, but she is also the best secret agent around. She’s sexualised, in that she has sex with whichever man she wants, but also when she wants and on her terms. This makes her a truly liberated woman, in that she controls her own sex life. It also makes her a male fantasy figure, since she is freely available and no strings of responsibility or fidelity are attached. She has a very loyal and strictly non-sexual relationship with Willie Garvin: he’s played by the breathtakingly beautiful Terence Stamp in the film, but is always drawn as a very craggy and muscular lunk in the cartoon strips. Modesty requires respect for her authority, and is treated throughout as the most powerful and skilful operator in the book. She is never a victim, but is often presented a sexual object, and O’Donnell frequently describes her as wearing her nakedness as if she wore clothes, which helps the imaginations of her readers nicely. One of her techniques for gaining a few seconds while confronting a room of guards or other male antagonists is to walk in on them, stripped to the waist. This moment of leering amazement of course allows to her to shoot them all, while they gawp. It’s a good use of that character’s power, but it’s also a predictable use of sexuality by a male writer.

Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.
Terence Stamp as Willie Garvin. Yes please.

O’Donnell had some very predictable opinions about women and sexuality in general. In the first book, Modesty is the focus of attention because she is the only active woman in a cast of men. There are two other women in that story, a dancer called Nicole who asked too many questions on Willie’s behalf, and a sadistic murderer called Mrs Fothergill. Mrs Fothergill is a close relation of of Ian Fleming’s Irma Bunt and Rosa Klebb, and also of C S Lewis’s Fairy Hardcastle, from That Hideous Strength, all of whom share a taste for sexual pleasure from torture or killing. In addition to not fulfilling conventional ideas of physical beauty, these ugly, lumpish, killer women who work with bad guys all appear to have the ‘wrong’, that is, non-heterosexual proclivities, whereas the other women who are killers in the action thriller genre, Modesty herself, and even Emma Peel, are definitely into men, and thus have the ‘right’ proclivities. I have never been able to work out exactly how Fleming’s Pussy Galore swung, so let’s leave that analogy there, and accept that O’Donnell’s sexualising of his women characters is dated about orientation too. It would have been astonishing if he had written in any other way, so let’s stop forcing anachronisms on the past.

After all this, you may wish to start reading Modesty Blaise for yourself. There are some really excellent websites and blogs out there with all the bibliographical information you need: see below. Thirteen novels were published, the last in 1996. There is a massive collected edition of all the comic strips which costs over £200. And there is always the film, but it really is not as good as the books.

The official site for the Modesty Blaise character and Peter O’Donnell’s books.

A fan site from Scandinavia

Another fan site, with the best home page image

Titan Books, where you can buy the books

A vintage book covers fan site

And finally, ‘The Complete Modesty Blaise Dossier’ (that’s what it says)