Tag Archives: World War II

The past isn’t a foreign country in ‘Wonder Woman’

Everybody seems to love the new Wonder Woman movie.  There’s quite a bit that I like about it myself, especially the depiction of Diana’s personality.  And it’s nice to see a DC movie where the atmosphere isn’t so gloomy—the literal, physical atmosphere as well as the mood, I mean.  

One thing that irks me, though, is the movie’s sense of history.  It doesn’t have one.

Gal Gadot and Chris Pine, the stars of ‘Wonder Woman,’ at the 2016 San Diego Comic Con. By Gage Skidmore from Peoria, AZ, United States of America (Gal Gadot & Chris Pine) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Wonder Woman made her comics debut in 1941, a couple of months before America’s entry into World War II.  But the movie takes place near the end of the First World War, with strategists and politicians on both sides expecting an imminent armistice.  When Steve Trevor crashes into the waters off Themyscira, he’s fleeing the kaiser’s men rather than the Führer’s.  I’m not sure why the filmmakers opted for a WWI origin; maybe they wanted to distinguish their movie from Captain America: The First Avenger.

A couple of decades may not seem like a big shift, but there’s a world of difference between 1918 and 1941.  Any time traveler from 2017 would experience much more profound culture shock in the WWI era than the WWII one.  I’m not just referring to the external conditions of people’s lives, like technology and clothing, but also to the internal conditions: the ways that people of different classes, genders, and other categories conceived of themselves and related to one another.

The 1910s were much less recognizably modern than the 1940s, and much more “foreign” from the standpoint of the present day.  There’s little sense of this “foreignness” in Wonder Woman other than the hairstyles and costumes.  For a movie set a century ago, it’s notably ahistorical.  This is especially true of Steve Trevor himself.  None of his dialogue or his characterization would be inappropriate for an airman/intelligence officer of WWII.  For that matter, none of it would be out of place for a man of our own time.  

It’s interesting to contrast Wonder Woman‘s Trevor with the characters in another movie released this year, The Lost City of Z.  Portions of that film take place during WWI; in fact, both Wonder Woman and Lost City have battle sequences in which troops go over the top and into the hellscape of no man’s land.  But while Trevor is more or less interchangeable with a twenty-first-century American, Lost City‘s Percy Fawcett is very much a man of his time and class.  Indeed, the mores of the Edwardian British upper class figure in Lost City‘s plot.  Fawcett’s questionable family background hampers his advancement. It’s the story of a time and place when pedigree mattered a great deal.  Its characters’ attitudes and outlooks are distinct from our own.  Wonder Woman‘s Steve Trevor, by contrast, could be your next-door neighbor.

What’s especially curious is that the makers of Wonder Woman seem pretty uninterested in exploiting their period’s special relevance to everything that makes their title character singular.  Wonder Woman posed quite a challenge to prevailing attitudes about femininity in 1941, but imagine what a radical figure she would’ve been in 1918, before the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment.  You’d think a movie about a superhuman warrior woman that takes place in an era when women’s lives were so circumscribed would milk that fact for all it’s worth.  But the film’s engagement with 1910s gender norms is surprisingly light.  There’s a passing reference to women’s suffrage, an amusing scene in which Diana tries on a corset and underskirt for the first time, and another in which her presence inside an all-male conference room causes an uproar.  That’s about it.  I’m not trying to argue that the filmmakers should have concentrated more on Diana’s challenge to 1918 gender norms.  I just find it surprising that they didn’t engage that angle more, given their choice to set the story in the 1910s rather than the 1940s or 2010s.

I’m well aware that critiquing this movie on the basis of its historical sensibility is somewhat beside the point.  It isn’t really a “historical” film in the same sense that The Lost City of Z is.  Nobody goes to Wonder Woman to immerse themselves in the 1910s.  The filmmakers’ only real duties were to be true to the central character and to tell a good story.  But the notion of the past as a foreign country is a favorite theme of mine, so I get miffed when filmmakers and storytellers assume that people have always been more or less like us.  Some of Wonder Woman‘s most enjoyable moments are the ones in which Diana finds herself a fish out of water in a world of men.  But if any of us found ourselves in WWI-era Europe, we’d likely feel out of place, too.

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History at the movies in 2016

For a couple of years Hollywood was giving us history bloggers plenty to talk about, with acclaimed films like 2012’s Lincoln, Argo, and Django Unchained and 2013’s 12 Years a Slave.  That hasn’t been the case in 2015.  I think I only saw a couple of history-related movies this past year, none of them particularly memorable.  Or maybe we all spent so much time blogging and tweeting about that Hamilton musical that we just missed all the films aimed at history buffs.

Some of the movies headed for theaters in 2016 take American history as their subject matter, though, so let’s take a look.

The Revenant.  This one hits select theaters on Christmas Day, but doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 6.  It’s based on Michael Punke’s novelization of a true incident in the life of fur trapper Hugh Glass.  After joining an 1823 expedition into the American West, Glass barely survived a nasty bear mauling only to be abandoned by his companions, forcing him to endure a 200-mile trek to Fort Kiowa in present-day South Dakota.  The legendary mountain man Jim Bridger was a member of the same party.  The trailer’s fantastic.

The Witch.  A horror movie set in 16th-century New England seems like a no-brainer, but I don’t know that anybody has made one until now.  Looks pretty scary!  (Suggested tagline: In space canst no man heare thou screame.)

The Free State of Jones.  Matthew McConaughey plays Rebel deserter Newt Knight, who waged a mini-Civil War against Confederate authorities in Mississippi.  No trailer for this one yet, but here’s a look at the historical background.

USS Indianapolis: Men of Courage.  They did a made-for-TV movie about the Indianapolis back in the early nineties, and one of the writers of Jaws pitched the idea of building a prequel around the sinking.  (It probably would’ve been better than the Jaws sequels we eventually got.)  Mario Van Peebles directs this new version.  A local news crew visited the set during filming in Mobile, AL.

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Appalachia and the atom bomb

Today we mark a noteworthy anniversary in the history of the world—and in the history of Appalachia, although I don’t think we really associate the two as we should.

Lots of people know that the enriched uranium in “Little Boy,” the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima seventy years ago, came from the Y-12 plant at Oak Ridge here in East Tennessee.  At the very least, they know that Oak Ridge was involved somehow in the Manhattan Project.  But while plenty of people know of East Tennessee’s connection to the atomic bombing, I suspect they don’t really “get” it.  “Appalachia” connotes backwardness; people think of the mountains as a place of log cabins and hardscrabble farms, not the advent of the atomic age.

Even here in East Tennessee, it seems to me that we tend to see Oak Ridge’s wartime experience as somehow set apart from the rest of our history, as a kind of singular, brief moment in time when we suddenly became relevant before slipping back out of the mainstream.  Because we’ve let ourselves be convinced of our isolation and exceptionalism, we don’t really “own” this instance that proves how wrong those notions of isolation and exceptionalism are.  But Oak Ridge’s history, and thus the history of the atomic bomb and the world it made and unmade, is a part of Appalachian history.

Part of the job of Appalachian historians, I think, is to figure out how to integrate these aspects of the region’s past that don’t fit people’s expectations into a more comprehensive narrative.  Maybe this would help erode some of the simplistic stereotypes that continue to define popular notions of what the region is, and what it isn’t.  East Tennessee’s role in the creation of the atomic bomb might be a good entry point for this sort of thing, but that won’t happen as long as we see it as some singular development in the region’s history that has little to do with the rest of it.

With that out of the way, here are some links in recognition of what happened seventy years ago today.

Shift change at Y-12 in 1945. Department of Energy via Wikimedia Commons

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A few links to commemorate D-Day

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World War II’s oldest casualties

With The Monuments Men hitting theaters this week, I thought this might be a good opportunity to discuss the fate of valuable artifacts during WWII.  And this leads us—as all things inevitably must—to the subject of extinct reptiles.

About a hundred million years ago, North Africa was the world capital of big, carnivorous dinosaurs.  The biggest of them all was Spinosaurus, top contender for the largest known meat-eating dinosaur of all time.  Even the lowest estimates of its size would make this animal longer than T. rex, and the higher estimates—up to 59 feet from nose to tail tip—are longer by far than those for any other theropod dinosaur known to science.

By Bogdanov, modified by Matt Martyniuk (User:Dinoguy2) and User:FunkMonk. Jaw muscles taken from[1] by User:Steveoc_86. (dmitrchel@mail.ru) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html) or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Spinosaurus got its moniker from the row of spines atop its vertebrae, some of them over five feet high, giving it a prominent sail or ridge running the length of its back.  The German paleontologist Ernst Stromer came up with the name in 1915, based on some jawbones, vertebrae, and ribs discovered three years earlier in Egypt.

Ernst Stromer

For thirty years, these fossils were safe and sound in Munich’s Paläontologisches Museum.  Then the war came, and European museums weren’t safe havens anymore.

On the night of April 24, 1944 the Royal Air Force hit Munich with a bombing raid that wrecked the museum and destroyed the Spinosaurus fossils inside.  Spinosaurus bones aren’t that plentiful, so the loss of any of them is a big deal, but the loss of this specimen was especially significant because it was the holotype (the individual used in the first official scientific description of the species).  All that remains of it today are Stromer’s notes, drawings, and photos.

Perhaps the rarity and fragmentary nature of Spinosaurus fossils help explain why this dinosaur hasn’t always been as popular as you’d expect.  It’s more well known now than it used to be, largely thanks to a starring role as the main antagonist in Jurassic Park III.

I’m partial to T. rex myself, but that scene is just freaking awesome.

Another massive carnivorous dino prowling around Cretaceous North Africa was Carcharodontosaurus, first discovered in the 192os and re-named by Stromer in 1931.  Like Spinosaurus, this guy was huge—upwards of forty feet long.  Its five-foot skull was lined with serrated, eight-inch teeth.

By Ornitholestes (Own work) [CC-BY-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

And also like Spinosaurus, the holotype got pulverized by Allied bombs falling on Munich.  Expeditions to the Sahara unearthed additional specimens in the 1990s, but Stromer’s original went up in smoke during the war.

In fact, the RAF’s April attack on Munich basically wiped out Stromer’s remarkable collection, including the type specimen of the carnivorous dinosaur Bahariasaurus, the only known specimen of the unusual prehistoric crocodile Stomatosuchus, and the bones of the long-necked dinosaur Aegyptosaurus.  And the war cost Stromer much more than his fossils.  Two of his sons died in the army, while the third spent years as a prisoner of the Russians.

Incidentally, the First World War took its toll on paleontology, too.  In December 1916 the German raider Möwe sank the Canadian ship Mount Temple, along with the twenty-two crates of hadrosaur and turtle fossils on board.

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Der Führer’s derrière

One of my students collects WWII memorabilia.  His most recent acquisition is this Hitler pin cushion, which he was kind enough to bring to class and show me.  These things were apparently pretty popular in the 1940s; even FDR had one.

Pin cushion 1

Pin cushion 2

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Here’s a treat for all you WWII buffs

Rick Atkinson, the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of The Liberation Trilogy (An Army at Dawn, The Day of Battle, and The Guns at Last Light) will be speaking at Knoxville’s historic Bijou Theatre on Sunday, May 19 at 2:30 P.M.

Admission is free, but you’ll need to call (865) 215-8883 or click here to reserve a seat.

The guy’s a stellar writer and speaker.  Don’t miss it.

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