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Nostalgia trip: a film, album and book on theme of armies

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 20 June, 2015, 11:02pm

Sam Peckinpah's neglected 1977 film one of the best ever war movies 

Armies of filmmakers have cited it as one of the best war (or, anti-war) films ever made. Orson Welles hailed it upon its release, Quentin Tarantino used it as a blueprint for Inglourious Basterds, and everyone from Michael Mann to John Woo has taken its themes to heart.

But Cross of Iron had the unfortunate timing of being released in May 1977, just weeks before Star Wars changed the cinema-going experience forever. Gone were the bleak philosophies, the thorough honesty and the refreshing cynicism of "New Hollywood", replaced by worry-free spectacle and big-budget special effects.

It's unfortunate, since this is one of cult director Sam Peckinpah's greatest films, and certainly his most underrated. The German army is beaten and battered at the end of the second world war, fighting a futile battle on Russian soil. Within this chaos are two officers: a working-class German sergeant (Coburn) renowned for his bravery and valour, and his commanding captain, an arrogant Prussian aristocrat (Schell), fearful of not only battle but his standing in society if he doesn't return home with an Iron Cross, given for valour.

Cross enlightens as much as it reminds. It's unique for not only its depiction of the Russian battlefront (which most historians agree is where the war was truly lost), but also for the way it sympathises with those commonly depicted as "evil men". These soldiers are Germans, but they're not necessarily Nazis. Some, like the two leads, are apolitical and just fighting for pride, whether it be personal or their country's.

And even though they don't necessarily agree with Hitler's ideals of Jewish genocide and Aryan supremacy, they do what they must to get by. Peckinpah's trademark sense of violence, emotionally heightened through slow motion and surreal imagery, fills the movie. But where his popular westerns used the techniques for visceral effect, here they deliver a visually compelling anti-war message - all amplified by the philosophies of everything in between.

Extended discussions on various topics give the film a sense of gravitas and humanist regret so lacking in adrenaline-fuelled modern war films, a depiction of army in-fighting that feels so very real against the "band of brothers" mentality we're all so used to. Cross wasn't Peckinpah's last film, but it was certainly his most personal - a final statement from a filmmaker frequently at odds with Hollywood and audiences, before drugs and drinking led to his death in 1984.

And as armies of popcorn-guzzlers march their way to cinemas this summer for yet another superheroes flick, remember these words from a commanding officer describing our brave sergeant, but just as relevant to Peckinpah and all that was lost: "Men like him are our last hope. And in that sense, he is a truly dangerous man."

Cross of Iron  James Coburn, Maximilian Schell, James Mason Director: Sam Peckinpah

Tubeway Army's march into synth pop changed the direction of music

Punk rewrote the rock rulebook, throwing open the floodgates to experimentalism on a grand scale. It allowed bands of the immediate post-punk era the freedom to adopt once-taboo styles and even instruments, from free jazz and musique concrète to discordant noise and even opera. In this brave new musical world, the artists felt free to create the future, and none of them felt this more so than the early synth adopters.

Bands such as Human League and Cabaret Voltaire from Britain and Devo from the US embraced technology not just as a musical form but also as an art form.

Crushing it was, then, that a wannabe British pop star with ambitions to be a commercial hit should establish synth as the backbone of new pop.

Gary Numan - born Gary Webb - neither liked punk nor wanted to be a punk rocker, but he liked the genre's aggressive sound. While his contemporaries were making political and artistic points, he and his band, Tubeway Army, simply wanted to rock out.

It was only when they came to record their first album that Numan would make the chance discovery that would change his career and the direction of pop music.

The Minimoog was one of the earliest commercially available synths. When Numan found one at the recording studio and began tinkering with it, he immediately recognised its possibilities.

The band's second album, Replicas, saw Numan fully realise his electronic musical vision, recording all tracks on synths. The first single, Down in the Park, tanked. The second became one of pop's most iconic tracks.

Are "Friends" Electric was released in May 1979 and immediately caught the wave of science-fiction obsession that had been set two years earlier by the success of Star Wars and its multifarious spin-offs and cash-ins.

Within weeks it had become the first all-synth chart topper and set in train the synth-pop juggernaut, which dominated white pop for at least a decade.

Friends was unlike anything else on the charts at the time. To give an indication, Anita Ward's tinnitus-inducing disco romp Ring My Bell preceded it as No1 in Britain, and Cliff Richard's We Don't Talk Any More followed it. Friends was groundbreaking. It was gloomy and downbeat, a seedy tale of sex with an android prostitute inspired by the works of sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick, one of the few writers - along with British sci-fi overlord J.G. Ballard - whom Numan admired.

It was a cold track; catchy, but frosty. Its entirely mechanical sound matched Numan's stage persona - an other-worldly gaze from an androgynous pale white face and humourless delivery - and earned him the media label of "the Numanoid".

Numan has gone on record many times to explain that his pallid look was the result of a BBC Top of the Pops TV make-up artist being too liberal with the pan stick as they tried to cover the singer's spots. And the vacant stare? Asperger's syndrome, with which he was diagnosed years later.

His career rocketed from then on, inspiring a slew of followers including Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson.

And the arty post-punk synth vanguard he left? They eventually had their days in the sun, as well. Most importantly, synth became ubiquitous, making possible punk's DIY dream of everyone becoming a musician.

Replicas  Tubeway Army (Beggars Banquet)

 

Armies of the Night, Norman Mailer's lauded 'non-fiction novel'

The 1960s was a decade of bold literary and journalistic experimentation in the United States, and Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1965) is widely accepted as the first "non-fiction novel".

Capote's groundbreaking book, which explored real-life multiple murders that had been committed in Kansas in 1959, pioneered the genre, shedding light on actual events and historical figures by using the storytelling techniques of a novel. Others soon followed.

Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels (1966) fuses traditional reporting with the iconoclastic writer's personal experiences and opinions, and Thompson himself is intrinsic to his tale of outlaw motorcycle gangs running wild in California. Subjectivity was also integral to America's school of New Journalism, as spelled out by Tom Wolfe, whose Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (1968) - about the antics of counterculture figurehead Ken Kesey and his druggy pals - is essentially playful faux reportage.

Published in the same year, Norman Mailer's The Armies of the Night received the most fervent attention of the period's non-fiction novels. When it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for General Non-Fiction in 1969, it conferred legitimacy on the genre, sometimes referred to today as "faction".

The Armies of the Night concerns an anti-Vietnam-war march in October 1967 in Washington that attracted thousands of leftists, intellectuals, students, African Americans, feminists and assorted counterculture types. Mailer's text is split into two distinct sections.

While boxer Muhammad Ali, political commentator Noam Chomsky, paediatrician Dr Benjamin Spock, and flower-power icons Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman all have walk-on roles, Mailer is unafraid to take centre stage. That's fair enough, perhaps, considering that the writer - along with hundreds of other protesters - was arrested. He was more than just a dispassionate observer.

Like Thompson and Wolfe, Mailer believed the non-fiction novel could reveal journalistic truth more readily than simple-to-obtain facts and quotes, and possibly had the power to convey more about the human condition.

That's why Time magazine wrote: "His genuine wit and bellicose charm, and his fervent and intense sense of legitimately caring, render The Armies of the Night an artful document worthy to be judged as literature".

The Armies of the Night  by Norman Mailer (New American Library)