Tag Archives: historical

Safety Comes a Long Way in the World’s Premiere Motorsport: 1

1


(4/5)

Pros: Nicely captures the sights and sounds of F1; crash course history is pretty decent; lots of amazing archival footage


Cons: I really mean that this is a “crash course” examination of F1…

It’s always seemed a bit odd to me, a longtime motor racing fan, that Formula 1, F1 for short and indisputably the most popular form of auto racing in the world, has never really taken hold in the United States. It’s easy to make an argument for F1 being a European-based sport (after all, most tracks, teams, and drivers are European), but while the vast majority of American race fans are content to watch drivers circle into infinity on the tracks of NASCAR, I remember many a day in my youth waking up at the crack of dawn to watch live F1 events (since they in many cases take place on the other side of the globe, F1 events usually play in the middle of the night or in the early morning in the United States). In recent years, Formula 1 seems to have gained a bit more prominence in the minds of the American race fan however, in part due to the construction of the United States’ first purpose-built F1 facility in Austin, Texas. Several films in recent years have capitalized on this new-found interest, including the excellent 2011 documentary (about the man who became the sport’s biggest star before his death behind the wheel in 1994), the 2013 docudrama Rush (focusing on the famed rivalry between drivers Niki Lauda and James Hunt), and now the documentary 1 which deals largely with how the sport’s safety has improved over time.

fuk1lFrom bomb to missile…

Produced in 2013 and directed by Paul Crowder, 1 begins with a bang by presenting footage of the 1996 Australian Grand Prix in which the car of British driver Martin Brundle went airborne and flipped end over end before coming to rest in a gravel trap. In previous years, this accident almost certainly would have proven fatal, but Brundle not only escaped from the vehicle more or less under his own power, but actually returned to the pitlane and got into a backup car to continue the race. Anyone familiar with the sport of Formula 1 would know that this level of safety wasn’t always a guarantee – during a period from about 1967-78, an almost jaw-dropping number of drivers were killed while racing. As a documentary, 1 seeks not just to tell the basic story of Formula 1 from its early days as a thrilling and dangerous post-WWII diversion to the modern era in which incredible technology, glitz and glamour threaten to replace the racing as the sport’s primary point of interest, but rather to reveal how this premier form of motorsport cleaned up its safety record over the years.

german GP
Getting air while circling the immense Nürburgring circuit.


During the course of the documentary, 1 devotes significant time to detailing the history of some of the sport’s most recognizable drivers, teams, tracks, and situations. While it’s cool to hear about such legendary personalities as Jim Clark, Juan Manuel Fangio, Ayrton Senna, and Graham Hill, I find the information relating to the classic racing venues to be more interesting. On that note, Crowder’s film chronicles some unforgettable moments from the legendary Monaco street circuit (undoubtedly the most famous and historic track still in use by Formula 1 today), the incredibly fast Monza track in Italy, the famous (or is it infamous?) Watkins Glen circuit in New York State, and the unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring in Germany. Twenty-two kilometers in length, there are few in the world that would challenge the Nürburgring’s reputation as the world’s greatest and most challenging race circuit, yet the ever-increasing speed of Formula 1 helped ensure that the sport no longer uses the facility. It’s also pretty amazing to watch throughout the film as the typical F1 car (each of which is hand-designed by the individual teams from top to bottom, including the engine) have evolved from being clunky and frail vehicles that were little more than bombs on wheels to seeming like jet fighters that are planted to the ground.

yikes!
That is an ugly F1 car.

Easily the best thing about 1 is the presentation of astonishing archival footage and photographs (wait until you experience a lap of the from the perspective of Senna’s in-car camera). The program is assembled and edited quite well, occasionally taking a break from the chronological history to focus on more detailed discussion of various related topics. I also really appreciated the fine selection of classic and contemporary interviews that were conducted with various people who were involved with the sport. It’s always cool to hear from drivers like Jackie Stewart, Jacky Ickx, Damon Hill, and Mario Andretti as well as the those who worked behind the scenes: team owners, mechanics, and members of the F1 management. Along with the strong visuals provided in the film is a well-assembled soundtrack that contains some pretty classic tunes that serve to represent the time periods in which the story takes place very nicely.

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F1 cars head through the esses at Watkins Glen.

On the downside, 1 almost plays like a blow-by-blow history of Formula 1 fatalities and checklist of safety innovations than as a more straight-forward history of the sport, spending the majority of its duration covering the period of the early to mid 1970s. At a certain juncture of the documentary, it seems like another driver is getting killed every three to five minutes in the chronology. Obviously, the material in this film was taken straight from actual history and the sport was overflowing with tragedy in the early 1970s. Still, it seems to me that the film could have perhaps been handled a little differently so as to ensure that the sense of loss comes through more poignantly. As it stands, I could almost see a viewer being turned off of F1 due to the “consistency of death” that surrounded the sport or even becoming numb to the tragedy that’s present in the film. To me, that doesn’t much do justice to the drivers who lost their lives while piloting F1 cars, and the final five minutes of the documentary, which play as one extended advertisement for the sport, just seems a hastily-executed and empty conclusion to a film that I would have wanted to be more substantial at the end of the day.


Driver Jackie Stewart speeds past a mess of burning cars in Spain, 1970.


An additional issue I had with the film was that there was too large an amount of time spent on the 1976 season – the same story was told by filmmaker Ron Howard in his fictionalized film Rush. Obviously, I can see why this was done – the tie-in factor probably would have helped both films gain some exposure, but considering that many championship seasons are barely mentioned during the program, it seems questionable to spend this much time on a season which wasn’t ultimately that noteworthy in the bigger picture of the sport. I should also point out that although this film does include footage of fatal racing accidents, it shies away from really presenting the grim reality of how some of these drivers were killed. This could either be a good or bad thing depending on an individual viewer’s point of view, but having done a substantial amount of research into racing accidents over the years, I thought the film seemed as if it was brushing the sport’s darkest moments under the rug a bit (the for instance, was absolutely horrible in real life and played out under extremely dramatic circumstances; I don’t think the documentary does justice to just how bad it was). In truth, the producers of the film probably had to do this in order to secure the much-needed support of Formula 1 administration, but I didn’t much care for the sugar coating.

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A dejected David Purley walks away after failing to be able to pull fellow driver Roger Williamson from his burning vehicle. Purley, who stopped his car and thus abandoned the race in an attempt to save Williamson’s life, was awarded the George Medal for courage due to his actions.

In the end, 1 is outstanding for what it is, even though it perhaps isn’t the objective and comprehensive program that someone looking to be introduced to Formula 1 might have wanted. This program conveniently ignores large portions of the sport’s history in its attempt to detail the innumerable innovations that have made racing significantly more safe in recent decades, but I suppose it would be an agreeable (literal) crash course in F1 for interested viewers. Most longtime fans wouldn’t be learning much from the documentary, but as I mentioned, it’s always cool to see this vintage footage and hear from the people who experienced F1 during its glory days and helped make the sport what it is today. Though it’s imperfect, I’d still highly recommend the film to anyone interested in motor racing in general or Formula 1 specifically.

today's formula 1
Today’s F1 is a far cry from what it was in the 1970s.

** Final note: at one point during 1, the film presents a brief image of a trackside sign that exclaims a “warning” to race attendees that “motor racing is dangerous.” I feel this point is often forgotten in an era where auto racing for the most part has been relatively safe in recent years. The illusion of safety was shattered at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix which took place in early October: French driver Jules Bianchi was critically injured when his race car slammed into a crane removing a stranded car from the race course. I’ve studied this accident and there’s no doubt in my mind that modern F1 safety tech enabled Bianchi to survive an accident which at any other point in history would unquestionably have been fatal. Unfortunately, despite what race broadcasters, drivers, and documentary filmmakers would have us believe or like to believe themselves, there is always some element of risk involved in getting in any sort of car, especially one designed to travel and indeed race at speeds that often fall in the 150-200 mile per hour range. While the traditional causes of driver fatalities (basilar skull fractures; fire; internal injuries) have been mitigated, there is always the chance of “freak accidents” which can be very difficult to predict or prevent: there never should be a point at which driver safety is not improving.

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Bianchi being extricated from his car following a tremendous impact at the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix.



No extras on the DVD/Blu-ray, widescreen editions from the Millennium Studio. This film has screened numerous times this year on the NBC Sports Network as a supplement to their coverage of the 2014 Formula 1 season.


2/10 : Generally non-graphic but nonetheless violent footage of sometimes fatal auto racing accidents.


1/10 : Minimal profanity; much of this is bleeped in the version of the film that’s played on television.



1/10 : A few isolated instances of blurred topless nudity; I’m unsure as to whether this footage is similarly obscured on the DVD release.


4/10 : Probably a must for auto racing enthusiasts, with a ton of fascinating archival footage and interviews.


“We want to see something exceptional, breathtaking; that we think can’t be done. We want to see gladiators, warriors, and let’s face it: we do like to see a bit of a shunt. But we don’t want to see deaths. It is incredible how this changed and suddenly it became unacceptable to die in the name of sport.”

Real-Life Days of Thunder Racing Rivalry Plays Out in RUSH

RUSH

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(4/5)

Pros: Awesome racing sequences; nice attention to detail and historical accuracy; compelling drama

Cons: Ending was a bit on the soft side; selection of popular music on the soundtrack could have been better

Having been a fan of Formula 1 for decades, it’s always struck me as surprising and unfortunate that this form of auto racing, easily the most popular in the world, has never quite caught on in the United States for one reason or another. While NASCAR drivers typically circle around painfully similar tracks week in and week out, F1 travels to some of the most challenging and varied courses the world has to offer, with most every race playing out as high drama – particularly for those familiar with the intricacies of the sport. With the construction of the America’s first purposely built F1 circuit (Austin, TX’s Circuit of the Americas, which opened in 2012), Formula 1 appears to have finally gotten some sort of foothold in the United States, and over the past couple of years there have been a handful of films dealing with the sport.

ferraris
A sampling of Ferrari’s Formula 1 machines from over the years, from clunky bombs to jet planes on wheels.

Ron Howard’s 2013 feature Rush operates in roughly the same manner as the excellent 2010 straight documentary (which chronicled the man perhaps rightfully regarded as the best F1 driver in history) in that it focuses its attention on Formula 1’s past and plays like a biography dealing with two of the most legendary names in the sport. The film opens by introducing two young and hungry race drivers working their ways up through the ranks of Formula 3 in Europe. Almost immediately, there’s a sharp contrast between a carefree British driver named and perfectionist Austrian named : the two clash instantly on the track and a rivalry which eventually stretched across the globe was born. Flash forward several years and the pair of drivers have made their way into Formula 1, the most prestigious, high-tech, and outright dangerous form of auto racing in the world. Lauda has landed on F1’s biggest and most famous team Ferrari, while Hunt has struggled in driving for smaller and more cash-strapped organizations. Going into 1976, Hunt lands a spot on the McLaren team, arguably the “best of the rest” in the world of F1, and this sets up an epic and extremely dramatic fight for the points championship with Lauda. The main body of Rush documents this season and the ramifications it had for all parties concerned.

real life
Real life Hunt (left) and Lauda.

Howard’s film plays a bit like Days of Thunder if it was more realistic and based on actual historical events, with the brash, playboy James Hunt serving as the “Cole Trickle” type character while the wily and calculating Lauda seems like the grizzled veteran “Rowdy Burns.” Written by Peter Morgan, Rush emphasizes the differences between its main characters throughout, and details the frequently tense on-and off-track interactions that defined the relationship between Lauda and Hunt and the men themselves. A viewer really gets the idea that these guys may not at all have liked each other (at least initially), but they had to respect one another when both were piloting what amounted to a bomb on wheels that was traveling some 150 miles per hour around twisting and turning racetracks while only being inches apart. Acting from Chris Hemsworth (as Hunt) and Daniel Brühl (as Lauda) is outstanding: the two actors not only have a wonderfully compelling rapport with one another, but really seem to have identified and accentuated the true nature of their characters. It’s interesting to note that Morgan’s script and Howard’s direction seem most often to take the standpoint of Lauda, the character who comes across as the “villain” at the onset of the film. Though Hunt appears to be living the life that every male race fan would dream of, it seems like part of the goal of the film is to suggest that Lauda’s story is actually the more heroic, uplifting, and ultimately triumphant.

in the film
The pair as depicted in the film: Chris Hemsworth (left) as Hunt, and Daniel Brühl as Lauda.

Even if F1 is the most high-tech racing found in the world, in the 1970s, it was incredibly dangerous. The film drives home this point right from the beginning with the declaration that “twenty-five drivers start every year in Formula 1 and each year, two of them die,” and that statement is absolute fact. The racing scenes in Rush capture the “shake, rattle, and roll” – and overwhelming noise – of auto racing in a gritty and absolutely mesmerizing manner, and never quite allow the viewer to forget that these drivers are often quite literally teetering on the brink of life and death. The film visualizes several extremely nasty accidents (the moment early in the film where driver Francois Cevert is decapitated at Watkins Glen, though somewhat low-key in how it’s presented, really reinforces the dangers of the sport) and eventually, there are some incredibly harrowing scenes here. Midway through 1976, Lauda is horrifically burned in an accident at the German Grand Prix while leading the points standings, and the scenes relating to his medical treatments are excruciating to watch. His eventual return to the sport in just a few weeks later stands as the story’s almost obligatory “overcoming the odds” angle, but the script also takes time to point out that there are things more important than winning.


Lauda’s crash at the Nürburgring. Warning: Graphic.

To an extent, Rush is more effective as a dramatic film than as a pure action picture, but the action scenes that are here are absolutely fantastic. Editing throughout the piece is very crisp and purposeful, seeming to alternate between focusing on the humans in the midst of the action and on the mechanical beasts that they are attempting to wrangle. Camera angles during the picture frequently place the viewer right among the race participants, and we often seem to be on the verge of banging wheels with either Lauda or Hunt ourselves. I noticed a few times when the digital effects looked a bit jerky (especially during one key racing sequence), but I really appreciated the attention to historical accuracy in terms of depicting the race cars and courses of the 1970s. It was really cool for me, as a fan of F1, to see these vintage cars in action around tracks that haven’t been used in years – the epitome of which is the immense and unbelievably hazardous Nürburgring. The occasional use of on-screen graphics does a fine job of establishing the basic facts relating to this story, and the film’s sense of pacing is excellent since it seems to focus just the right amount of time on the home lives of the characters without becoming sappy or boring. Hans Zimmer provides a typically pulse-pounding and rousing music score for the story to play out in front of, and even if I thought the selection of popular music was a bit on the cheesy side, these tunes solidify the setting in which the story takes place very well.

thrill of victory
Like most sports dramas, Rush has plenty of triumph and tragedy.

Though the film takes a few liberties with its telling of the story and seems to add intensity to the rivalry between Hunt and Lauda that may not have actually existed, to me Rush seemed fairly accurate which is commendable in itself. Considering how compelling this film is both for its technical aspects and for its dramatic storyline, I’d have to call it one of the honestly better films I’ve seen in a while and a return to form for director Howard, whose career has been up-and-down in recent years. Admittedly, I probably enjoyed this film more than most simply due to the fact that I recognized the names, places, cars, and circumstances being discussed, but I think most viewers would get caught up in this intriguing story if they gave this film a chance. Despite the fact that it operates in a generally similar manner to just about every other sports biography or drama that’s out there, I’d have to call this simply outstanding cinema. Check it out if you get a chance.

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Widescreen Blu-ray from Universal includes a selection of deleted scenes, a piece focusing on director Ron Howard’s approach to the film, a multi-part “making of” feature, and a trio of documentary segments dealing with the real life story behind the film. A very nice video package overall.


6/10 : Shows the dangerous side of auto racing without flinching; some of the scenes dealing with Lauda’s medical treatments are very disturbing and graphic.


7/10 : A healthy dose of profanity, featuring many f-bombs and occasional crude remarks.


5/10 : Sexual situations pop up several times during the film and occasionally include brief glimpses of topless nudity.


5/10 : Though this would be a must for fans of F1, it comes across as a fairly typical, if more hard-hitting than usual, sports movie.


“Happiness is the enemy. It weakens you. Puts doubt in your mind. Suddenly, you have something to lose…”

Trailer:

“One Way or Another, We All Want to Escape…” HOUDINI: The Miniseries

HOUDINI on The History Channel

(2/5)

Pros: Nice photography; sharp-looking production

Cons: Very crudely made, with a frankly horrible script and sloppy direction

After what’s seemed like a media blitzkrieg in recent weeks, History Channel unveiled the first installment of its two-part biographical miniseries Houdini on Monday, September 1, 2014. Considering all the hype, the finished product seems both rushed and dubious in terms of its presentation of the world’s most famous magician and illusionist. Born Erich Weisz in Budapest, Austria-Hungary in 1874 and immigrating to the United States so that his father could become the rabbi of a congregation in Wisconsin, Weisz took up the name of “Harry Houdini” (a sort of homage to French magician Jean-Eugene Robert-Houdin) and became a traveling magician on the carny circuit, debuting as a magician in 1891. By the end of the decade, Houdini (married to a fellow performer named Bess who had taken over as his assistant) had gained fame for his ability to escape from handcuffs and jail cells, often staging these demonstrations publicly.

houdini, the man
Houdini, the man…

The Houdini miniseries chronicles the major events of the magician’s life, starting with a haphazard retelling of his childhood. From here, the narrative skips around a bit and focuses largely on the development and execution of Houdini’s trademark escapes, including ones where he escaped from the inside of a steel milk container, from inside a safe, and even from a “Chinese Water Torture Chamber” while being suspended upside-down. This first episode also devotes time to detailing the relationship between Houdini and his wife Bess, but this is one of the areas where the program seems to go a little astray.


…and a progression of screen representations. Adrien Brody on far right.

In my mind, the writer here (Nicholas Meyer, perhaps best known as the writer and/or director of several of the Star Trek films) has taken some pretty extensive liberties in telling this story – and seems to have had an ulterior motive to reveal the secrets behind as many magic tricks as possible, thus violating the cardinal rule of magicians. Houdini seems heavily dramatized to the point where one could make a strong case for this being a presentation of revisionist history. Officially based on Bernard C. Meyer’s 1976 book Houdini: A Mind in Chains: A Psychoanalytic Portrait, Nicholas Meyer’s script very much plays out in that sort of manner, more focused on what’s going on in Houdini’s head than on accurately portraying the events of his life. This tactic becomes especially noticeable during a few scenes (which will undoubtedly interest students of Freud) in which Houdini’s father intrudes on the narrative as a threatening figure. Personally, I found these attempts to delve into Houdini’s mindset to be thoroughly distracting: a sequence in which Houdini attempts to “catch” a bullet fired from a musket in his teeth becomes hilariously overblown when the German soldier shooting the firearm suddenly transforms into a hallucination of Houdini’s father. Subtlety is not one of this film’s strong points.

on stage
Wife Bess (Kristen Connolly) and Houdini (Adrien Brody) on stage.

Houdini plays out as if Meyer and director Uli Edel (whose filmmaking career has been all over the place since the genuinely excellent German-made 1983 coming of age film Christiane F.) are making this into one big, painfully predictable soap opera. I’m not by any stretch an expert on Houdini’s personal life, but for him to have stereotypically strained relationships with both his wife and his father seems like it may be a stretch – a gimmick invented just for the purpose of making this miniseries more melodramatic. Similarly questionable is the script’s decision to devote a substantial amount of time to the idea that Houdini may have been a spy working for the U.S. government during his tours of Europe in the early twentieth century. This idea has become more popular in recent years following works like William Kalush and Larry Sloman’s The Secret Life of Houdini published in 2007. In my estimation, such claims are rather far fetched: focusing a significant (or really, any) amount of time on them in this History Channel biopic suggests that there’s not a whole lot in Houdini that a viewer can really take at face value.

major excapes
Houdini chronicles all the major events of the magician’s life, but there’s no vitality to the piece.

Another major issue I had was the fact that there is extensive use of voiceover in this film – the Houdini character is constantly explaining himself in monologue to the camera. This makes the whole program seem sloppy in terms of its construction – especially when one factors in the relatively high number of montages that exist. Meyer and in turn, director Edel appear to be telling the story in about as lazy and convenient a manner as possible, with little creativity or inspiration. As is the case with many modern films, Edel relies on a string of CGI visuals to distract a viewer into believing he’s watching something that’s better than it actually is. Though the computer graphics allow the viewer to see the inner workings of various locks as Houdini manipulates their gears and pins and also allow for breathtaking views of the skylines of New York City, London, and Berlin circa 1900, during a few moments in this first episode, Houdini borders on being downright laughable due to its soap opera theatrics. The bathroom confrontation between Houdini and his wife (in which he screams about her kissing another man while she urges him to “stop being dramatic” – advice that screenwriter Meyer should have followed himself) and a scene in which Houdini showers his mother with gold coins are ludicrous and very nearly unintentionally hilarious in the manner they’re set-up onscreen. It’s not difficult to see why Edel hasn’t gotten much work in the United States since he fumbled his way through 1993’s Body of Evidence – a film whose sole reason for existence was to feature Madonna naked as much as humanly possible.

prepping
Houdini, Jim Collins (played by Evan Jones) and Bess prepare the straight-jacket escape.

One might have hoped that Academy Award winner Adrien Brody would have known better than to star in this thing, but here he is, playing Houdini as a sort of pompous, self-affected and disturbed genius with a bit of an Oedipus complex. The very pretty Kristen Connolly playing Bess comes across as the typical, long suffering wife, a portrayal that doesn’t seem particularly accurate. There’s a constant hostility between these two characters that makes neither of them the least bit likable, in turn making the whole of the first part of Houdini a definitive downer to watch. A variety of mostly unknown actors fill out the remainder of the roles here, with Evan Jones perhaps having the most to do as Jim Collins, who worked behind the scenes to design Houdini’s illusions. Generally speaking, the actors in this film were fine, it was the script that they were given – and the presentation of that script – that wound up being problematic.

the real houdini
The real Houdini preparing for a near-fatal dive off the Queen Street Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. This scene both begins and ends part one of the mini-series.

Though the attention to period detail was generally well-done and the production had some nicely-constructed individual sequences (one of the aspects I liked the most were slickly edited moments in which Houdini’s “life flashes before his eyes”), the first half of Houdini, taken as a whole, was disappointing and clearly focused on style over substance. I’ve often pointed out that it’s most unfortunate that pieces like this have to be rather dubious in terms of their historical accuracy: the information presented in this miniseries would represent the only information many viewers are likely to get about Houdini, hence, this crowd would now view the greatest magician the world has ever known as a womanizer with father issues and a horrible home life. I suppose I really shouldn’t be all that shocked that Houdini would turn out to be a somewhat (or is it mostly?) sensationalized biopic that, with its occasionally frenzied editing scheme, use of “pulse-pounding music,” and fractured, clumsy narrative, seems tailor-made for the ADHD generation (a crowd that would probably enjoy it).  Clearly, this miniseries (like most of the “educational” programs on television nowadays) is designed to hook viewers with flash and pizazz while not necessarily being all that historically accurate or educationally sound. Still, even as the edutainment piece is quite obviously is, Houdini seems sketchy at best; sure, it’s a handsome production, but I might be inclined to skip it entirely.

Target: World Supremacy! GENGHIS KHAN for the NES

GENGHIS KHAN for the Nintendo Entertainment System

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(4.5/5)

Pros: Gameplay, complexity, outstanding replay value

Cons: Unimpressive graphics and sound; some people just won’t like this game

It’s kind of amusing to look at what games for the Nintendo NES are the most sought after by collectors today, some three decades after the system debuted. Many games are quite highly-regarded by players (Super Mario Bros. 3 comes to mind), but were produced in such large quantities that one can find these games almost anywhere. On the other end of the spectrum are the games produced by Japanese game developer Koei. While companies like Konami and Ultra Games became known for the action titles they put out by the truckloads, Koei almost exclusively developed remarkably in-depth strategy games. Often, these games had downright bizarre titles like Romance of the Three Kingdoms and Nobunaga’s Ambition, and they frequently focused on historical events and periods. Though their offbeat titles ensured that I would ignore the company’s games for years (why would I play something called Bandit Kings of Ancient China when the video game of Attack of the Killer Tomatoes was right there??), in the early 1990s, I happened to give one of Koei’s games a shot and I’ve pretty much been hooked on them ever since.

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The world map – the player’s goal is to conquer it.

Genghis Khan, a turn-based strategy game produced in 1987 for various (extremely primitive) home computer systems, was ported for the NES in 1990 and offered up two scenarios in which a player assumed command of an ancient tribe or country if you will. Scenario one, “Mongol Conquest,” in set in the year 1175 AD and saw the player assume the role of young Temujin (who later would become the ruler known as Genghis Khan) as he attempted to unite the Mongol tribes under one banner. Scenario two was the bigger and better “World Conquest” which begins in the year 1206 AD. When starting a new game, up to four human players competing in the scenario would choose between four historically-based world leaders (from Mongolia, England, Byzantine, or Japan) and set out to conquer the world. This was done by executing domestic and international policies, building up individual states, keeping civilian populations happy, trading specialty items for weapons and food, negotiating with other countries, and taking command of military units to defeat enemies. Though a player can use diplomacy to aid his campaign, in the end the only way to win the game is to use military might to crush his opponents.

main game
The main game screen, which shows information about the player’s country and the various commands a player can execute on his path to world domination.

The scope of this game is pretty darn impressive for the time any way one looks at it, and though the game is difficult to describe, I’ll give it a go. The “world” as it exists in the game features all of Europe and Asia along with a bit of North Africa, and has 27 separate states (or countries if you will), each of which has its own geography, economy, civilian population, and military along with a unique ruler. During each of the four seasons of the year, players are given three “moves” and with these limited amounts of moves must manage various – and indeed all – aspects of their country, keeping the populace under control while expanding their territory through the use of military might. Each task a player does, from trading goods for profit, to training soldiers, to choosing new military leaders, to spying on enemies, to actually invading another country, has ramifications: assigning more troops to your military potentially takes them away from tasks that are needed to build up a country’s economy and defenses, but computer opponents are all too willing to take advantage of a country that has stretched its military resources a bit too thin. At the same time, by spying on enemy countries, a player can spot opportunities to swoop in and devastate enemy armies while minimizing casualties of his own. It’s also important to note that each playable character has ability parameters which deplete with every action he undertakes. Thus, the player has to manage these levels in order to keep moving forward in an effective, efficient manner.

A player could easily spend hours and hours of time building up his country since this game does a fine job of simulating domestic policy management, but eventually he will be forced to go on the march and invade a neighboring nation. This is where Genghis Khan (which feels a bit like an elaborate chess game from the beginning) truly starts to look like a game of chess as well, since the battle sequences involve a player navigating his military units through a battlefield of varying terrain while attacking enemy units whenever possible or desired. Battles in the game are relatively simple in terms of their onscreen construction, but strategy again plays a key role. Depending on how the terrain and skills of various military units are utilized, it’s possible (and extremely satisfying) to overpower a superior enemy force. Conversely, having a overwhelming military force doesn’t necessarily mean that a battle would be a cakewalk since, as in real life, an enemy force backed against the proverbial wall is an extremely dangerous one.


Thankfully, Genghis Khan makes up for its lackluster graphics with captivating gameplay.

Ultimately, this game is all about time, energy, resource, and personnel management – and success in the game is very much dependent on simply practicing and playing extensively to learn the ins and outs of the game’s mechanics. It’s no exaggeration to say that each time a person plays this game, it will be a different experience – or to say that it would take hours and hours and hours to actually win the game, let alone master it. I’ve had this game in my collection since the early 1990s, have spent WAY more time than I’d ever care to admit on it, and have actually, honest-to-goodness beaten the game a grand total of once. In some ways, it’s more fun and satisfying to start over after awhile and build up a country anew instead of pushing towards achieving total victory – at a certain point, this game has a tendency to become very frustrating. That said, I’d probably consider this one of the most mind-bogglingly difficult, complex, fascinating and addictive games ever made for the NES.

While the game is a dream come true for history or strategy game buffs, there’s a heapload of potential problems with this Koei game and most others from the company. Simply put, Genghis Khan is not designed for those who want instant gratification – the game is slowly-paced and would be devastatingly tedious for many people used to the slam-bang action of the typical NES platformer. Honestly, I think only a very select group of gamers would enjoy this title – but those who would be open to a game of this type would probably REALLY LIKE this game. It’s also worth noting that I believe this may be the most intricate “build up your nation and conquer the world” game Koei ever developed – the Super NES sequel was nowhere near as in-depth as the NES version, which is more than a little disappointing.

characters
Every character in the game has a variety of attributes that can be build up over time, as well as a unique portrait.

Graphics here are downright lousy and noticeably dull and drab. There are precious few actual animations in the game – most everything here is relayed via static screens. Despite the graphical limitations, what is here looks decent considering when the game was made and I do like the fact that every character in the game (i.e. the rulers of every state along with a never-ending string of potential officers) has their own portrait. The sound present in the game is of slightly better quality –most every country in the game has an individual music piece associated with it, and these themes effectively convey the cultural differences between different locations. Unfortunately, every battle plays out to the same, monotonous tune and I suspect that most players will quickly tire of the repetitive sound design. I usually put on some background music of my own when I play this game just to make it more tolerable.

alas
Alas, things don’t always work out well in this game – it’s time-consuming and very difficult!

There is a TON of stuff for a player to discover about this open-ended game, most of which can only be learned by playing it for long periods of time. Aside from other games released by the Koei corporation, I’m not sure I could come up with another NES game that’s quite this detailed – if a player “got into” this game, he likely could keep playing it intermittently for years and years. There’s a reason why many, many NES games have been lost to the sands of time, yet Koei games continue to be talked about with reverence. These games quite simply are some of the most demanding, challenging, potentially addictive, and utterly unique games made for the system. Genghis Khan surely wouldn’t win any awards for being the most visually-impressive game out there (even for the woefully outdated NES), but this cartridge packs a lifetime of gameplay that a select few, hardcore gamers will find themselves coming back to again and again. If it sounds at all intriguing, I’d highly recommend you check this game out – I’d easily place it in my list of top ten NES games.

Title screen and a brief look at the gameplay (with music):

Historical Fiction : Independence!

Wagon’s West        Independence!

 

independence

 

(5/5)

Pros: Compelling Read, Historical, Well Written

Cons:   None Noted

 Sam Brentwood, never one to mince words, is not at all shy when asserting his outlook to President Andrew Jackson.  “I disagree with you, Mr. President.”

Accordingly begins a narrative of the devotees who would cross the American frontier to claim land rights, pursue exploitd and bring to fruition the United States’ objective of ‘Manifest Destiny.’  Mountain man Brentwood is appointed to guide the first in what would soon be many wagon trains crossing the country from east to west.

Commencing with two wagons leaving from Long Island ferrying widowed, strong willed, twenty-three year old Claudia Humphries who is traveling only because her brother-in-law and situation dictate that she must along with Claudia’s younger sister Cathy and her husband, ageing pinchpenny Otto Van Ayl, it is not long before the train is augmented with first one and then another wagon all moving west in hopes of land and a better life.

During the journey old understandings and behaviors begin to diminish, machination presented as Russian and English interference with the train, uncertainties regarding what may lay ahead and the tedium of slow plodding travel all are part of the anecdote.  Sam Brentwood along with his long time friend, Whip Holt, must by some means bring  an assemblage of adventurers, farmers, families, widows, school teachers, ne’er do wells, destitute, and prosperous into a smooth-running machine competent to face any difficulty with clear eyed fortitude.

Dr. Robert Martin, shamed pregnant Lena Caldwell and her drunken, angry father, run away bound boy Danny, brooding Ted Woods, former prostitute Cindy and Cherokee scout Stalking Horse as well as a Baron,  Ernst Von Thalman  are some of the regular figures who appear in this and following works in this series.

While not a new series, The Wagons West books are a must read for all history buffs and particularly for those who relish reading about the westward expansion of the United States.  My fellow teachers and I first began reading the books in 1979, and I have been re-reading them from that day to this.  A proficient writer for more than a quarter century James Reasoner, who uses a variety of pen names, is a prolific author producing upwards of 100 novels dealing with numerous facets of United States history.

On the pages of writer Reasoner’s heavily researched works readers are treated to fully developed characters who conduct themselves pretty much as we all do; good, bad and silly. Family bonds are overextended, children become noncompliant, anger flickers, and distrust rears its head more than once.  Life and death are a part of life and were all part of the history of the wagon trains, and are detailed rationally on the pages of author Reasoner’s works. Settings are portrayed vibrantly, dialogue is jam-packed with pithy, convincing rhetoric and situations are true to historical fact.

Independence! Hones reader enthusiasm for more as the epic is carried from New England to the ‘jumping off’ point of Independence, Missouri.  Particularly for those of us whose ancestors arrived somewhere in New England preceding the Revolution and relocated deliberately westward, the works carry readers into the activities of people who doubtless agonized, appreciated and experienced many of the very life happenstances as did our own grandparents.

All through travel across the eastern region of the nation, the travelers face day to day living in intriguing detail. Romances flourish or cease, the slothful learn they must work or they will not eat, hardworking individuals muster mettle never before realized in the face of danger, old prestige symbols fall away and the diverse members of the group determine that they either learn to work together or they will die together along the, at times exacting, inflexible terrain.

As the work is drawing to a close we ponder the death of a six year old dying in the same attack by Army deserters promised by an English operative attempting to hamper the train’s arrival in Oregon the ultimate destination for this band of determined stalwarts.  Money, women and more if they will attack the train proved a huge inducement.  During the attack Claudia proves her mettle and ability with a rifle, her sister Cathy is widowed, Tonie Mell, Ted Woods and others of the band hold off the attackers until Sam Brentwood and his scouting party return to aid those left with the train.

The last days before reaching Independence, Missouri was filled with the knowledge that a large band of wagons and travelers were waiting to join the train.   Whip Holt who will lead the train from Independence toward Oregon cannot contain his enthusiasm for meeting the train and his old comrade Sam Brentwood, he rides out to meet the train and enter Independence with the train.  Sam and Claudia will be leaving the train.  Following their marriage they will set up a supply post as the others continue their journey.

A compelling read, Independence! Is a good fit for the home library shelf, the high school library collection and as a take along book for reading while waiting for the train to pass, the kids’ dental appointment to end or as a pleasant way to spend a wintry afternoon reading before the warmth of a fire.

Enjoyed the read very much, highly recommend to all who enjoy historical novels.  The books are available at Amazon, on eBay and can be found in jumble shops.  They are worth the time to hunt them down.

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Title Independence

Author  Dana Fuller Ross

 Mass Market Paperback: 422 pages

Publisher: Pinnacle Books; Mass Paperback Edition edition

ISBN-10: 0786021950

ISBN-13: 978-0786021956