I pulled in an excellent haul at the Barnes & Noble clearance rack last night. I'm on a big WWII kick lately, having completed John Keegan's definitive overview of the war's military operations, now I have a whole book just on the Bletchley Park codebreakers in which to bask. Winning wars with math, what a concept.
I've also been reading Lou Cannon's very detailed book on the chaos and infighting in Ronald Reagan's White House staff. This was a Christmas gift from my well-meaning Boston liberal sister, possibly as revenge for shaming her into reading Barack Obama's first book at Christmas '05. The Role of a Lifetime is a very timely book. If you choose to read it a certain way, you can view all of the problems Reagan's people got into trying to guess what advice it was their aloof, conflict-loathing boss's desire to hear from them as a parallel for the current executive branch's failure to cohere or execute any kind of effective policy.
At the same time, I was struck by how the men of Reagan's cabinet were so deeply affected by World War II, despite the fact that most of them were Baby Boomers. The famous public relations flap caused by Reagan's visit to the German military cemetery at Bitburg in 1985 (memorialized in song by the Ramones' "Bonzo Goes to Bitburg") illustrates how deeply the ghosts of the great war continued to define international policy two generations later. NATO, the Cold War, Israel-Palestine, and in an indirect sense the civil rights movement were all proximate causes of what land everybody was holding and who owed what to whom when the fighting ceased in 1945.
(It makes me feel somewhat guilty now that despite holding a degree in history from a prestigious American land-grant university nearly everything I know about modern Europe I learned from Patrick O'Brian novels, the Call of Duty series of video games, and the 2000 Alec Baldwin miniseries Nuremberg. Did anybody else see that? Quite good. And you have to love Brian Cox in anything, especially when he takes a role as a way of saying "You didn't like my Hannibal? Not good enough for you? Just not evil enough compared to Hopkins? Well, check it out, now I'm playing Göring." Anyway my somewhat bizarre college transcript has nothing to do with a high-minded attempt on my part to concentrate my studies on the misunderstood, rarely considered flyover regions of the globe. Although I did take a semester on Canada. The real source of the lapse was my highly demanding scheduling regimen at the time, which allowed no classes on Mondays, Wednesdays, or Fridays and certainly none beginning before 12:30 in the afternoon. This was the same brilliant schedule that allowed me to stay in college for five years despite entering as a junior.)
Since I was alive during the Reagan administration, I remember what the Cold War was like. I kind of miss it. It made casting heavies in Bruce Willis movies a snap, and there's got to be something to be said for any condition of mass paranoia that causes a victory in an amateur hockey game to be viewed as a national accomplishment on par with Wellington and the Prussians' rout of the French in Belgium, 1815. But for my cousins ten years younger than I, "West Germany" is just a Minutemen song. Remember those lighter-waving music videos of 1991 and 1992 by such acts as Scorpions that managed to imply that harmonized guitar solos somehow caused the Berlin Wall to fall?
While I don't feel as if the world is suffering much culturally from the decline in popularity of Jesus Jones, there are other major works that I can't help but feel will be received very differently in the next fifty years than as in the last half-century. The particular example that is sticking in my craw at the moment is Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. The degree to which the trilogy works as an allegory for England's decline as a world power as a direct effect of global war is subject to discussion. But, it is not up for debate that the author himself was deeply affected by both the Second World War and the First, in which he served. He was a harsh critic of communism, Nazism, and (as a native South African) apartheid. It's true that the Lord of the Rings itself has some vaguely disquieting fascist undertones, but that's beyond the scope of our discussion and I'm certainly not saying the books are a blow-by-blow fictionalization of campaigns in the western theater. However, there is one aspect to Rings that's always been a part of my appreciation of the books that I imagine younger fans drawn in by Peter Jackson's laudable film adaptations miss completely.
When Return of the King, the film, first came out, like most longtime fans of the books I had to come to terms with the necessary cuts and compromises. If you have a passing familiarity with either series, I'm sure you know the specific omission to which I'm referring. There's a sequence in the novel long after all of the main action has concluded where the hobbits return to the Shire and a still very much alive Saruman has despoiled their home and enslaved their people. There is no possible way Jackson could have filmed and mounted the complicated action which resolves this and shoehorned it into a movie that was already forty-five minutes slacker than it absolutely needed to be. It would almost require a fourth film. Anyone who has managed to watch the entirety of the director's cut of Return of the King, including the interminable conclusion, knows well there can be too much of a good thing.
However. The tone on which Jackson's trilogy ends and the notes that Tolkien's last few chapters sound, despite both following the same narrative, are quite different. The novels absolutely teem with a sense of loss. The elves are leaving Middle-Earth right this minute; the dwarves and hobbits are living on borrowed time, and even the noble men of Aragorn's line (that's the fascist thread I was picking at earlier, with the Númenoreans living lifespans five or six times longer than "lesser" men and at times being described as almost a separate race) will intermarry and die out within a handful of generations. Through Jackson's vision the final departure from the Grey Havens plays out triumphantly. In the novel it's almost unbearably melancholy. Frodo suffers recurring pain from the wounds of his quest for the rest of his life in Middle-Earth. If you choose to, the analog version of Lord of the Rings can be read as deep tragedy. Our heroes (especially Frodo and Gandalf) fight tirelessly and at great personal cost to protect a world that once saved can no longer be their home. That's pretty sad, isn't it? It also seems like a message with which a British solider returning to the Home Islands in 1945 could really identify. As Keegan points out with great clarity in his military history, Britain was only able to keep its war machine running by completely liquidating its overseas assets and rampantly industrializing whatever flat land it held out of range of the Blitz. To the spiritual, nature-loving Tolkien, the cure was almost as bad as the disease.
He also didn't care very much for nuclear weapons, and you could (others surely have) spin a whole other construct off regarding the One Ring and the H-bomb, if you were so inclined. However, in terms of the overall impression left by absorbing the piece, nothing changes Lord of the Rings quite like eliminating the ambiguity of the ending. The movies are fabulous pieces of entertainment to be sure. As a matter of fact, since it's seasonal, let me share an anecdote with you. For a time, I had a streak going of having seen every Oscar Best Picture winner in the theater since Dances with Wolves in 1990. (By the way, how did that movie win Best Picture? Costner sucks.) It wasn't any sort of deliberate move on my part. Until Chicago in 2002, I saw all of them before the awards were handed out. It just seemed like for whatever reason I ended up going to see these movies, then a few weeks later they would win. It got to the point where I felt I was doing the other nominees a disservice by not going to see all the nominated films every year.
Anyway, I let the streak die last year. I did go to see Million Dollar Baby, not that I had any idea that it would win, but last year I was aware I could go see Crash somewhere after it won if I wanted to keep the run going and I decided its time was past. Why? Return of the King. One Best Picture winner in 15 years that was actually the best movie I saw that year? I don't like those odds.