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.

Sax Rohmer’s The Mystery of Fu-Manchu

 

Rohmer 1Sax Rohmer (listen to the podcast of the earlier version of this review here) was obsessed with what he and the lower reaches of the pre-First World War popular British press used to call ‘the Yellow Peril’ (I hope you notice the inverted commas around that phrase).  After the war, things began to get less twitchy and close-minded in fiction about the Other – people with different religions and skin colour and who didn’t live in the British Empire. Anti-Semitism and general racism became less overt, and even less necessary to the plots, even in the most formulaic fiction. But the fiction continued, peddling residual values and opinions that formed a layer of familiar views, even if they were not the current views of later readers.

Sax Rohmer was a prolific author in the first half of the 20th century, but is now only remembered for his extraordinary creation of Dr Fu-Manchu, the tall, terrifying and sinister Chinese doctor and chemist who devoted his life to the triumph of the Chinese race and the defeat, in any way possible, of the white race. These phrases are straight from the novel: don’t shoot the messenger. It’s going to be difficult to talk about this book without using racist quotes, so please do be reassured that I’m enthusiastic about this novel because of its social history value, and its existence as a piece of cultural flotsam, not because I approve of its racial politics.

Rohmer 2Rohmer was a British writer who began his career writing for the music hall before writing novels. He seems to have fostered a reputation for being active in the occult, and certainly wrote a great many novels in the 1920s and onwards that dabbled in mysterious religions. The Fu-Manchu books did not have so much to do with the supernatural or the weird as with basic Imperialism, with a dash of drama based on science. They were serialised in weekly fiction magazines, and were wildly popular, with Rohmer being persuaded after a ten-year break to write more Fu-Manchu novels from the 1930s, until his death in 1959. I’ve only read two or three, but because they were very formulaic, and had a simple structure, I’m going to assume that they shared the same form and delivered the same messages to the readers, who wouldn’t have bought them in such large numbers otherwise.

Rohmer 3The narrator of The Mystery of Fu-Manchu (the American title of the novel was The Insidious Fu-Manchu, by the way, if you’re looking for the free download from Project Gutenberg) is Dr Petrie, and he is a medical man, as he often tell us. He is settling down to do some writing one evening, when his old friend Nayland Smith walks in, and the drama begins. Dr Petrie and Nayland Smith are a very obvious Watson and Holmes re-run, right down to the eccentric investigator’s smoking habits, and his ability to make deductions out of nothing. But unlike Sherlock Holmes stories, the pace of the action in this first Fu-Manchu novel is, initially, a headlong torrent. There is no let-up for the reader. It seems as if Rohmer wanted to write an action-packed thriller with a dollop of detection, where the speed of events and the drama were to be the attraction for the reader. There is no time for narrative reflection, but, interestingly, there is a lot of time in Petrie’s narration for repetition, and repeated tirades against the ‘Yellow Peril’ which threatens the entire white race. Reading this fiction now, it seems extraordinary that anyone could have thought in such a way, or even enjoyed the sweeping generalisation, because it is so blatantly all for effect, not for sense, rationality, or even plausibility. And that’s where the interest in novels like this lie: people liked this kind of writing, and bought it to read for pleasure. What does that tell us about what their enjoyment was based on? And should we read this stuff today?

Rohmer 5Let’s go back to the plot. Nayland Smith is a civil servant, an old Burma hand, back in England on leave because he knows that Dr Fu Manchu has reached these shores, and is going to do evil and terrible things. The plot progresses as Petrie follows Nayland Smith from one locked room mystery to another, in which Eastern experts die in horrible and inventively implausible ways. It’s interesting that the power and secret knowledge that the East wants is located in the West. There is no shortage of knowledge in the East, as well as secrecy, glamour, villainy and multitudinous deadly methods: it’s astonishing how much nonsense was laid at the East’s door that the readers of the West were willing to believe. Again, that’s something worth thinking about: why did readers fall for such claptrap, even if only at the level of reading cheap and entertaining fiction?

Dr Fu-Manchu is always at the back of the devilish crimes in this novel, which are usually based on abstruse chemistry, poison left waiting, or inhaled, or delivered by an insect. The point of all the deaths is that Fu-Manchu is trying to destroy the West’s ascendancy. Because America was an important market for British fiction, the idea that Fu-Manchu was taking on the British Empire didn’t last long in the narrative, and ‘the West’ and ‘the white race’ were trumpeted as his bitter enemies, thus involving the American reader in the attempt to whip up hate and demonise Asian characters.

By killing off Eastern experts Fu-Manchu denies their services to ‘the white West’, but sometimes he wants their services himself. So he invents a drug that will produce the appearance of death, but when an antidote is injected, the victim recovers. This happens in the nick of time in the case of engineering genius Lord Southery, shortly after he has been put in his coffin and parked in the mausoleum, but not before his burial. Good thing Nayland Smith and Petrie got there in time to open the vault at midnight, in the moonlight, and administer the antidote. This episode is a blatant steal from Dracula, from only twenty years earlier. I expect the readers loved it for that reason.

Rohmer 6In another case, Petrie is taken to see the recovery of an Egyptian boy, Aziz, because the boy’s sister, the lovely Karamaneh, has been vamping Petrie from the moment she appears in the book. She wants Petrie to help her escape from Fu-Manchu’s clutches, and so she keeps appearing in exotic outfits wearing a highly traceable scent, to tell Petrie to come with her secretly and not tell Nayland Smith, and the poor fool does it every time. He is really a very unprofessional sidekick, constantly getting himself into danger, and never learning from his mistakes. Karamaneh starts off as just a glamorous villain, but Rohmer seems to have changed his mind about her quite quickly, possibly because he had such a good time writing about Petrie’s susceptibility. Petrie even thinks about marrying her, but in the end, she and her brother sail back to Egypt, and Nayland Smith gives Petrie an ambiguous mission to Egypt as well, to encourage the readers to buy the next instalment.

Nayland Smith himself is a peculiar creation: very given to histrionics, to striding up and down ceaselessly, to spilling his tobacco all over the carpet, to gripping his knuckles until they are white, and so on. Demonstrative sort of cove, as a P G Wodehouse character might have said. He is the high-handed lone detective working independently from the police, with such fine-tuned investigative instincts that he develops a supernatural awareness of the presence of Fu-Manchu. He is an Empire sniffer dog with a specialism in the mysterious East. But Nayland Smith is also closely associated with the East himself, because he is an old Burmese hand, and one of his most frequently-used descriptive characteristics is his Burmese sunburn. The idea of a ‘good’ East and a ‘bad’ East is something that Rohmer doesn’t do anything to develop – it’s not that kind of novel – but it’s certainly there, waiting for attention. There is also a morally-weighted doubling of doctors. Petrie keeps telling us that he is a ‘medical man’, that he risks losing his licence from the BMA if he resuscitates Aziz. He keeps taking personal charge of all the rescued victims of Fu-Manchu who still need care, so he is the good doctor, a ‘physician of the white races’. Fu-Manchu is the evil doctor, also a non-white doctor, and thus pagan and unprincipled.

The ordeals that Fu-Manchu puts Petrie and Nayland Smith through are wildly imaginative, probably the main attraction of the Fu-Manchu novels. The first part of the novel has them tackling the aftermath of locked room mysteries, and wrestling with monkeys, Indian bandits and giant centipedes. We’ve come across these before, in James Bond and Indiana Jones films, so I expect that Sax Rohmer was their original inspiration. But in the second part of the novel, when Fu-Manchu turns his attention to Nayland Smith and Petrie directly, they are imprisoned in an underground dungeon, and then trapped in a cave full of giant psychotropic fungi and phosphorescent mushroom growths that eat people. You really can’t get better than that for thrilling, extraordinary, ludicrous entertainment, even if the quality of the prose is a bit pedestrian, and the politics entirely beyond the pale. So although I’m not recommending Sax Rohmer as a top novelist, and I’m certainly not recommending the Fu-Manchu novels as a sophisticated literary experience, these novels have energetic and wildly inventive methods for dealing death to our unstoppable detective heroes. Just leave your political correctness at the door.