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Uncle Orson Reviews Everything
December 28, 2003

First appeared in print in The Rhinoceros Times, Greensboro, NC.


EZ Cutter, Peter Pan, and Two Books on War

After spending a lifetime wrestling with the serrated metal cutters on boxes of plastic wrap, waxed paper, and aluminum foil, somebody actually designed a box with a built-in cutter that does not put the skin of your fingers in peril.

Reynolds Plastic Wrap's new EZ Slide Cutter does exactly what it says: You pull out the length of plastic wrap that you need, then pass the safety blade over the plastic, and you have paper with a straight edge. No snagging, no bloodshed, no waving your hands around in midair.

There's a short learning curve -- old habits die hard -- but by the third use I was sold on it.

Reynolds was already our preferred plastic wrap; it's nice when it's the best product that gets even better.

*

P.J. Hogan was already one of my favorite directors. I first noticed him with Muriel's Wedding, which he wrote as well, but what won my heart was his brilliant My Best Friend's Wedding, the best Hollywood musical in years -- though it was never billed as such.

But all that was prelude, apparently. With the live action Peter Pan that was released on Christmas day, Hogan has created something that I can only call perfect.

It's easy to forget, in the decades since Disney's animated Peter Pan changed the story into something lighter and frothier, that when it first appeared as a play in 1904 (it didn't reach print as a book until 1911) it was not perceived as being merely for children.

In fact, it had a profound influence on other writers, including J.R.R. Tolkien, as having something truthful to say about life.

And in Hogan's Peter Pan, the work reemerges with all its darkness, deep human longing, mythic roots, satirical wit, and, yes, splendor.

The casting is brilliant. Jason Isaacs, best known as the villainous Lucius Malfoy in the Harry Potter movies, follows the old theatrical tradition by playing both the father and Captain Hook. He reveals a flair for comedy that is more than mere mugging, and without his fine performance, the movie would not work.

Delightful comic work is also offered by Lynn Redgrave as the aunt and Richard Briers(whom some of us remember fondly as Tom Good from the British TV series Good Neighbors) as Smee.

Nevertheless, the performances that speak most deeply to the heart come from the astonishingly magical young Jeremy Sumpter as Peter Pan, Olivia Williams as an ethereal Mrs. Darling, and Rachel Hurd-Wood as Wendy.

It is in the face of Jeremy Sumpter that the serious intent of the filmmakers is first revealed. This is not a boy cast for his cuteness, but rather for a disturbing mixture of beauty, love, and dangerous selfishness that make him at once attractive and scary.

In the story as envisioned by Hogan and co-writer Michael Goldenberg (and, of course, J.M. Barrie), Peter Pan has overtones of mythic godhood. When he's away from Neverland, it's winter there; things only come to life when he returns. Indeed, while this will sail right over children's heads, this version of the story owes much to the myth of Eros and Psyche.

These two children, Wendy coming of age, and Peter obstinately refusing to do so, show romantic love in its ideal and yet most dangerous form -- what it would be like if civilization did not protect children from its first stirrings.

Meanwhile, Olivia Williams shows the fierce loyalty and beauty of idealized motherhood -- what Wendy might become; the opposite of Tinkerbell, self-indulgent, fiercely jealous, and stupidly conniving.

The troop of Lost Boys join with Wendy's brothers to show one of the finest ensembles of boy actors since ... well, I was going to say "since Oliver!", but I must be honest and say that these kids are better.

There is darkness in this story; death is both catastrophic and casual and is always imminent. This is no benign, ineffectual Captain Hook; he is dangerous and filled with malice. More to the point, however, Peter Pan himself is dangerous, not just to Hook, but to Wendy and the boys as well. His adamant refusal to grow up is not benign. It is a rejection of responsibility, and ultimately of humanity. He will remain a god because to be human hurts too much. When you try to cling to something, its loss will make you grieve.

And in the reaction of the parents to the disappearance of their children, we see, not comedy, but tragedy. The phenomenon of vanished children -- kidnapped, perhaps murdered, certainly harmed --was not invented in the age of television. It was a great and terrible mystery in the late Victorian era, too, and while there is a kind of comfort in the story of Peter Pan, there is agony in it, too. Children without their parents; parents without their children; it is unbearable, and yet they bear it and make a kind of life in the shadow of loss.

So it's all here in this movie: The whimsy and delight (have there ever been better fairies onscreen?); the real-world story of families torn and damaged; the mythic tale of the god who abducts a mortal; the struggle between love and death; slapstick comedy involving large dogs knocking people down; and even some Wildean satire and wit.

There are a few special effects that were lacking -- but most were excellent; I might have wished for a more believable Tinkerbell, but the actress they cast, for all her mugging, does not interfere with the story.

But these are the normal imperfections that no movie escapes.

The perfection of Peter Pan is in its wholeness, its integrity. There are no attempts to pander to the modern audience, as in Spielberg's embarrassing Hook; there is no point where the story is altered in order to fit some foolish little film-school dictum, as occasionally marred even the wonderful Lord of the Rings.

Instead, Hogan made the movie that I always wished for without knowing it -- one that captures all the magic and terror and beauty and ugliness of childhood.

Our nine-year-old loved this story for the sheer, breakneck rollicking adventure of it. I loved it as a parent and a reformed child, and wept in places where my daughter had no thought of such feelings, because she has not had the experiences that the film called upon for resonance.

Hollywood likes to pass off drivel like About Schmidt and The Hours as art, but now and then a film like Peter Pan sneaks through to remind you what truth and beauty look like in a darkened theater.

*

Two books I read back to back this week make an interesting contrast. Rick Atkinson's An Army at Dawn: The War in North Africa, 1942-1943 is amazingly readable for a book so dense with accurate information -- or perhaps it is amazingly detailed for a book so readable.

Either way, it is the story of the Allied armies -- and in particular the American army -- during the North African campaign in World War II.

This was the first blooding of the army -- and the alliance -- that would eventually make the D-Day landings in Normandy. The story is full of bitter irony, like the fact that the first Americans to die in the European theater of war were killed by French soldiers. It is also full of bitter frustration, as so many American commanders revealed themselves to be petty bureaucrats, constantly trying to shape the war so as to advance their careers and avoid setbacks -- sometimes at great cost to the soldiers serving under them.

Indeed, the most dreadful section of the book is the account of the rout of the Americans at the battles of the Kasserine Pass, where our soldiers were driven back 85 miles in headlong flight with only flashes of serious resistance.

The tragedy of it was that while the soldiers were the ones who ran and therefore looked (and felt) like cowards, they were always willing to stand and fight wherever they were decently equipped and competently led.

In fact, if you were a soldier who found himself surrounded by enemy troops that were slaughtering your comrades, and the orders coming from a distant headquarters were ridiculous commands to "stand and fight to the last man" when your weapons couldn't even make a dent in the enemy's armor, the only rational conclusion you can reach is that these idiots are going to get you killed without accomplishing anything -- if you keep obeying them.

By the end of the North African campaign, some of the incompetent generals (including Eisenhower) proved themselves able to learn from the bitter consequences of their mistakes; some of competent generals were able to show what they could do and were entrusted with greater command; and, perhaps most important, the stupidest and most selfish of them were exposed and removed from a position where they could get their young soldiers killed.

But along the way, so many thousands of young soldiers and officers, full of promise and courage, died or were crippled or captured, not for any noble cause, but because they entrusted their lives to the orders of idiots.

In fairness, the idiots did not have the benefit of our modern means of gathering information. But over and over again they were given ample warnings, and underlings tried to persuade them to listen, and they studiously ignored all the warnings. American commanders seemed to have studied all the mistakes of the generals Napoleon defeated in his long series of triumphs and tried to duplicate every error they made.

It's a miracle we went on to win our part of the war.

(And it makes you appreciate the way that our contemporary army managed to keep the careerist deadwood from getting excessive numbers of our young men killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Has there ever been a war where so many combat-inexperienced troops performed so well and were used so effectively?)

The other book comes at a similar story from the opposite angle. Tolkien and the Gread War: The Threshold of Middle-earth, by John Garth, does not look at World War I from the point of view of the generals -- Garth takes it for granted that the reader already knows that this was the most pointlessly bloody and, on the allied side, the most incompetently conducted war in history.

Instead, he focuses on John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his dear friends from prep school days; the club-cum-secret society they formed, called the "TCBS"; their dreams of greatness through the arts they were trying to perfect; and the way the war came into their lives, tore them away from their friends and family and even their dreams, and in the end left only two of them alive, with the shadow of dear dead friends constantly darkening even their brightest post-war days.

They emerged from the war with smaller dreams; and even though Tolkien's achievements were eventually as great as any of them might have hoped, his companions on that last journey were new friends -- the Inklings, most notably C.S. Lewis -- and his wife and children.

Of course adolescent dreams are meant to fade, mostly unfulfilled. I remember all too well the passionate dreams that I and my fellow theatre students shared in college, which so few of us have fulfilled, and none of us in the ways that we supposed we would. It was no war, but merely time and maturity and the limitations of our own talent or ambition that bent us from that hoped-for path to glory.

But just because dreams are bound to fade or change does not diminish the terrible impact of the trenches and killing grounds of the battlefront in France. Those of us who know and love Lord of the Rings will find a special poignancy in this account, because now when we think of the characters who grieve over fallen comrades or brothers or sons, we will know that in Tolkien's heart there were memories of beloved friends lost forever in a struggle over a few bitter acres of dirt.

Oddly enough, though, while Wilfred Owen, Robert Graves, Erich Maria Remarque, and other writers formed a public image of war that concentrated only on the futility of it, some writers, like Tolkien, remembered that in fact World War I was a battle of civilizations, and while the West had the stupidest commanders, who most pointlessly wasted the lives of vast numbers of their men, it had a cause that mattered.

During actual combat, soldiers are not thinking of the Noble Cause -- they fight for their own self-respect, the respect of their comrades, and out of hatred of the enemy. But that does not mean that the noble cause does not exist, that it does not give meaning to the sacrifices of the living and the dead. Tolkien came out of the war fully aware of its pain, but also aware of its occasional and desperate necessity.

He came out of it, in other words, able to create a character who, when faced with a task as impossible as, say, climbing out of a trench and charging against machine guns in the midst of exploding artillery shells, would say, "I will do it, though I do not know the way."

The events of the past have no lessons in themselves; the lessons we take from history (or, more accurately, make into history) reveal more about our own wants and needs and fears than about what actually happened in the event.

It is Tolkien who came out of the war with the story that must be believed by any society that intends to survive: That there are times when you must fight in order to keep all the good and beautiful things and people you love from being destroyed or enslaved; and though the fighting may be marked by error, waste, brutality, cruelty, and wanton destruction, and even the side of Good can corruptly or foolishly led, nevertheless good people will take up arms in a noble cause.

Noble causes, like ignoble ones, are fought out in mud and blood, amid weeping and screams of agony, and a wound suffered by a good man does not hurt less or more than the same wound suffered by a coward or a bully. Yet what the good man does in war matters. It is worthy of a story or a song.

And, in their own way, each of these history books is that story, to bring to memory good people who might otherwise be forgotten.


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