Photo by Michael Afonso on Unsplash

AIRCRAFT CARRIER LOST IN TIME

These ruminations have accumulated over the last year, the year of the pandemic, when movie houses and so many other things were shut down from viral fear. I don’t even own a TV anymore. But that is no handicap with a computer linked via the internet to “streaming” services offering a king’s ransom in movies. And foreign TV series with subtitles. I haven’t been to a bookstore in months. Doubt they were open anyway. My antidote for cabin fever has become binge-watching movies and TV series.

Last night I decided on The Final Countdown, a time-travel tale in which the USS Nimitz is magically transported to December 6, 1941 and encounters the Japanese about to attack Pearl Harbor. Wish I hadn’t.

Never been much of a movie-goer. Always been a reader of books, opposed to the idea of movie-makers trying to bring novels to the silver screen. Especially those who “scalp” a book as ruthlessly as a senator scalping a colleague’s piece of legislation. For those who wisely avoid sordid details of politics, a bill is scalped when a powerful legislator strips its entire language, leaving only title and sponsor name. And then substitutes new language — usually diametrically opposite what was originally intended.

A novel is scalped by movie-makers the same way. It seemed to me in my youth this egregious practice was widespread. Other times they must have tried to tell the original story, hampered by the confines of their craft and running time. Since last night’s fare was Navy-based, I thought of Herman Wouk’s The Caine Mutiny, a big thick novel that gave us Captain Queeg. The movie wasn’t bad, and actors like Humphrey Bogart did yeoman duty. But perforce vast amounts of subtlety were left on the cutting-room floor, including the elegiac ending. The Final Countdown, compared to Wouk’s opus in film, is a bad joke.

A Western that annoyed me with gratuitous changes was The Searchers,1956.They could not resist changing the name of the principal character for no perceptible reason. The Searchers began life as a hard-edged novel by Alan Le May about Cheyenne-Texican battles post-Civil War. The movie was produced on a epic scale and went on to widespread fame. I’m a little surprised in this century it hasn’t become a target of political correctness for its unflinching portrait of Cheyenne “murder raids.” The dramatic ending shows the body language of the silent protagonist, at the end of his quest, against a lonely sky, ignored by his fellows. Mute evidence John Wayne really could act. (In the novel, the protagonist was killed; guess the director Ford liked his way better than the author’s.)

I was thirteen the year The Searchers came out. Hadn’t read the novel. I had a whole different bone to pick with this film: their incompetent display of period firearms. The setting was post-Civil War 1860s, before the widespread advent of cartridge firearms. But the Texicans all wore 1873 Colt Peacemakers, as out of place as Shakespeare’s Roman chimney pots in Julius Caesar. And their saddle guns were Winchester lever-action repeaters, produced even later than 1873. Not period-correct Spencers or Henrys. Even worse, to my boy’s eye, the searchers carried their rifles in elongated blanket- material sheaths suitable for a Kentucky long rifle or big-bore Sharps buffalo gun. Though their carbines only had twenty-inch barrels. I wondered if they used cardboard tubing to keep the sheaths stiff for cross-saddle carry.

And one scene depicted the two searchers gunning down a buffalo herd with anemic carbine rounds. (Years later in Arizona, modern buffalo hunters found even 7mm Remington Magnums and 9x57 Mausers no guarantee of a one-shot kill; bison are tough critters.) It was hard to achieve the suspension of disbelief necessary when movie-makers knew so little about actual firearms. (A topic which will come up again in The Final Countdown.)

My earliest childhood was being dragged to repeated Gene Autry movies by my grandmother, a huge fan. I was too young to question him always shooting guns out of bad guys’ hands with no noticeable blood, or finger, loss. Or his fifty-shots-without-reloading six shooter. As a young teen I was embarrassed by my earlier credulity. Television came along. Westerns became staple fare in the fifties. “Adult” Westerns, which, near as I could tell, meant characters died. Ridiculous firearms were almost stars in their own right: for instance, Steve McQueen’s “Mare’s Leg,” a sawed-off rifle on a gun belt of huge cartridges not designed for a carbine. Jock Mahoney’s Yancy Derringer performed shots as impossible as Gene Autry’s — with a hideout derringer! In any event, the small screen was right there in the living room, no need to frequent the sole movie house on The Beaches.

The next actual movie I recall was The Spy Who Came in From The Cold. I was by then a Military Policeman stationed at a secret installation in Germany. One night I was Watch Driver for the Officer of the Day. He said relax, go see the movie; if a call came in they would flash an alert for me on the screen. I found it ironic to watch a spy movie when my day job dealt with intelligence and “physical security” from spies and putative saboteurs. Richard Burton was good in the role, but again the movie could not match the novel. Two movies I emphatically did not watch in the Army were Thunderball and Mary Poppins, which had their debuts in theaters on the Champs-Elysees in Paris when four of us security policemen got a three-day pass at Christmas. Don’t know what the others did; I got laid in Pigalle.

When I got back to my civilian job as a magazine writer in Florida, my undrafted pal was immersed in movies as the magazine reviewer. The Thomas Crown Affair, the first one with Steve McQueen, had a Boston premiere I seem to recall he actually got to attend. The only movies I saw that summer were a couple James Bond flicks. Again, they bore little resemblance to Ian Fleming’s books. I avoided other movies altogether until, in another city, a friend of mine suggested a double-date, my new wife and me and him and his latest squeeze, to see The Graduate. Never read the novel upon which it supposedly was based. My pal thought the film romantic as all get-out. I on the other hand developed an unspoken (hey, I was married) lust for Mrs. Robinson, and thought the title character a selfish moron when he forsook her. Clearly, movies and I were never going to get along.

In brief stints as weekly editor in two separate towns I got free movie passes to write reviews. The one I recall is The Illustrated Man. A mishmash of Ray Bradbury short stories that really offended me, since I’d read them all in the original. I saw a couple of movies in Nassau, and quit, because you had to stand up for God Save The Queen before the film started. It felt disloyal to America but I was too much of a social coward to remain seated.

My next movie, in Pennsylvania, was Russ Meyer’s Vixen, first movie to be awarded an X rating. Almost comically “soft-core” by today’s standards, the visceral impact was nonetheless profound. The U.S. Supreme Court had not yet opened the floodgates to sexy movies as protected under the First Amendment. Within hours of my lunchtime viewing, local police raided and closed the theater, seized the film, and charged the owner — I could not make this up — with disrespecting the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. After an opening sequence in which two naked lovers disported in a bucolic glade, when they got dressed — one was a Mountie.

I spent a year in Los Angeles and attended two movies on Sunset Boulevard. One was Deliverance, based on the James Dickey novel. I have to say they brought it to the screen well. “Squeal like a pig” became on of those famous phrases like “Do you feel lucky, punk?” and “That’ll be the day!” The second was Jeremiah Johnson, based on the book Liver-Eatin’ Johnson. Among the ironies of lining up in Hollywood to watch a mountain-man saga: Johnson’s earthly remains were interred in a veteran’s cemetery in the same crowded zip code.

Beyond those two, there were the Pink Pussy Cat theaters and their increasingly graphic porn offerings: Behind the Green Door; The Devil Within Miss Jones, others. Clean well-lighted movie houses with operating popcorn machines. Seventies California couples lining up for the latest titillation. That was before VCRs brought pornography to the home TV screen. Before every video-rental store (remember those?) featured a curtained alcove for skin flicks. Before anyone heard of the internet.

And what does all this have to do with the USS Nimitz?

All prelude I suppose. I don’t know if it was based on a science-fiction novel. Don’t want to know. Science fiction deserves better. But the one grumble leads to all — my dissatisfaction with movies in general.

Those video-rental stores of the eighties of course held scores of conventional movies that’d had their run in theaters. By then I had teenagers in the house. The Princess Bride and Last of the Mohicans were repeated visitors. The former was a new experience for me: better than the novel it was based on. The latter, as expected, failed to live up to childhood memories of James Fenimore Cooper’s writing.

The years drifted by. Age offered up a new reason not to try to sit through a movie: bladder problems. At home I could hit “pause” and not miss anything. In a theater I had to stumble over complaining patrons, rush blindly up the dark aisle toward the lobby and bathroom. The last movie I remember seeing — alone — was Saving Private Ryan. No one else at home was interested in a war movie. I missed some of the action when my bladder insisted. But got the gist of the story.

And finally, there was the pandemic. Closed bookstores. Masks and viral fears. And the computer right there with its cornucopia of moving pictures. I sank right into almost daily viewing. Being me, I of course noted errors in firearms nomenclature in French detective films. And then in old American movies like The Sugarland Express which I expected to be light-hearted, given Goldie Hawn. Instead I found an alleged Texas Ranger, called in to “neutralize” two runaway kids trying to rescue their daughter from foster care, describing how his rifle would kill instantly with a brain shot. A rifle he identified as a 7mm Remington Magnum with Mauser action, firing 148-grain rounds.

No, and no. Every bolt-action rifle owes its genesis to Paul Mauser, who invented the style. But at the time of the movie, only Remington built a rifle for its proprietary round. A “push-feed” bolt gun. Mauser action implies a “controlled-round feed” like pre-64 Winchester Model 70s. And German military Mausers. Neither of which was chambered for the Remington round back then. And why 148-grain bullets? Remington issued accurate 150-and 175-grain rounds; I once had a good gunsmith work up some 120-grains for woodchuck-hunting; 148 sounds like some producer’s guesswork.

The rest of the movie had some accurate things: the captive state trooper explaining proper high-speed driving to his captor; use of Model 28 S&W Highway Patrolman revolvers; Dodge patrol cars. Most accurate: the cops lying to the runaways in order to set up a sniping kill. I thought the hundred-car chase preposterous but the internet says it was pretty true to the event. In my own time with a real-life highway patrol, commanders prohibited such ganging-up shenanigans. and directed chases with some care. The script did pay lip service to backing off — but visuals gave it the lie. If accurate, it was a damned circus.

I suppose I should be grateful for all the entertainment over the pandemic year, but I get grumpier the older I get. As mentioned, last night I looked at The Final Countdown and wished I hadn’t. The Nimitz is, without any explanation, suddenly sailing the Pacific on December 6, 1941; a single reference to Einstein saying time flows both ways. (I’m not sure he said that, but let it go.) A passing reference to the famous grandfather time-travel paradox. A couple dark predictions you can’t change the past.

And off to the races: rescue of a US Senator and his secretary and her dog from a 1941 yacht strafed by Zeros; three others killed. Two Navy jets make short work of the Zeros. A helo (Navy speak for helicopter) is dispatched to pick up the Americans. Might as well be a flying saucer to denizens of 1941. The helo also rescues a downed Zero pilot.

Which leads to gratuitous — and unbelievable — violence aboard. The Jap pilot overpowers a Marine, grabs his M-16, and guns down a couple more guards. Not only no, hell no. There were no pistol-grip rifles in 1940s Japanese inventory. Nor, for that matter in ours. When your every grab for a weapon is around the “wrist” as its called, there is simply no way you instantly reach under the stock for a pistol grip. Trust me on this. The year of my cracked cervical disk, when I could only shoot ducks one-handed, I bought a shotgun with an AR-style pistol grip to save my atrophied left shoulder. I practiced with the odd configuration. I knew my gun. And every damn time ducks dropped into the decoys I tried to grab the stock above the pistol grip as I had gripped shotguns for forty years. Ducks were gone by the time I remembered.

No, Hollywood. Suspension of disbelief utterly canceled. The Zero pilot would have been trying to figure out what amounted to a science-fiction ray-gun when the Marines either overpowered him or shot him. Even if the guard was so careless as to have a round chambered, certainly the safety would have been on. Instant discovery and use of an unfamiliar safety begs disbelief. Let alone use of an unknown charging-handle feature if there was no chambered round!

Remember Tom Horn, the famous high-plains gunfighter played in a movie by Steve McQueen? Never saw the movie — no surprise. But in real life while Horn was awaiting execution he escaped jail, grabbed a sheriff’s new-fangled semi-automatic pistol, and fled. Cornered, he turned to fight — this deadly gunfighter — and the automatic would not fire. He didn’t know how to operate the safety or the slide! Permit me to observe that a Japanese fighter pilot had to be less versed in small arms than Tom Horn.

As for time travel, well, when the Nimitz launched its planes to thwart the Pearl Harbor attack , the weird swirling time warp (or whatever) reappeared just in time to bounce everybody back to the present. Before turning into the wind, the captain had sent the senator, his daughter, and her dog away on a helo — promising them Pearl Harbor. But stranding them on an uninhabited beach. The senator resisted, grabbed a flare gun, fired it — and the helo blew up. So he was dead — again — as he would have been if the Zeros finished their strafing without Navy jet interference. Dark prediction you can’t change the past confirmed, see?

His daughter, however, and her dog, and one Navy guy were on the beach already. And were spared. And showed up, all gray and aged, in a limousine to greet the Nimitz in modern times when it returned to port. Meanwhile, no board of inquiry on the Nimitz being off-radar while elsewhere; no inquiry on the vanished helicopter and crew. Or on fighter ordnance expended against Zeroes. No board of inquiry on gunfire-injured Marines. No curiosity about a dead Japanese pilot in World War Two togs. Was he buried at sea? The crew sworn to secrecy? Fat chance.

Disappointing. Guess I’m scraping the bottom of the barrel.

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Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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Bill Burkett

Bill Burkett

Professional writer, Pacific Northwest. 20 Books: “Sleeping Planet” 1964 to “Venus Mons Iliad” 2018–19. Most on Amazon for sale. Il faut d’abord durer.

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