The Hundredth Queen, by Emily R. King

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

An interesting premise gets wasted, buried under a muddied writing style which sets up in one direction, then abandons it for another. Orphan Kalinda has been brought up by The Sisterhood in their remote temple in the mountains (kinda Indian, kinda Sumerian, annoyingly non-specific), training in the ways of a warrior – though others have far more talent in the era. Her life is upended when the local monarch, Tarek, visits the temple and selects Kalinda to be his next wife. Next, as in he already has 99, not to mention his additional courtesans. The problem for Kalinda is, this sets up a tournament in which she can be challenged by the other women, who seek to supplant her.

The journey to Tarek’s palace is barely under way before two issues rear their head, that drive the plot the rest of the way. One is Kalinda falling into a forbidden love for Deven, the guard who’s escorting her. The other is her encounter with a “bhuta”. These are half-human, half-demons, who exist in four kinds, each possessing power over the elements of fire, earth, air and water. Might this, perhaps, be connected to the mysterious fevers from which Kalinda has been suffering from a child, only kept in check by her daily consumption of a potion?

Of course it is. For the book rarely strays from the obvious, virtually from the start when Kalinda immediately falls head-over-heels in love, with literally the first man she has ever seen. There’s no sense of chemistry here at all, or of a romance growing naturally out of the characters. It seems shoehorned in there because, dammit, it was on a checklist of things fantasy books need to be successful, which King found online somewhere. The interactions between Kalinda and the other women weren’t much more convincing, sitting somewhere between Mean Girls and The Hunger Games.

I’m not even clear on the details of the tournament, which is supposed to be the main plot device of the book. Who challenges who? What are the mechanics here? What does Tarek get out of it? It’s the ultimate plot-device, since his motivation for setting up the event is entirely obscure. It’s not as if he can exactly stream the event on pay-per-view. There are a couple of plot twists later on, that did manage to engage my interest briefly – these did help explain why Tarek picked Kalinda, when we had repeatedly been assured earlier of her plainness and lack of talent.

However, the actual competition is largely glossed over with a disapproving frown, culminating in a big, damp squib of pacifistic grrl power. This is less drama than melodrama, with every character being exactly what they appear to be, and possessing few hidden depths. The last third of this proved to be a particular slog, and it’s not a universe to which I’ll be returning in future.

Author: Emily R. King
Publisher: Skyscape, available through Amazon, both as an e-book and in a printed edition.

The Tournament (1974)

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“Face off.”

There’s a lot of chit-chat about face, honour and respect here. It begins when the master of a kung-fu school, Lau, has his daughter kidnapped by local hoodlums, after he won’t cough up protection money. Perhaps surprisingly, rather than using his skills to kick their arses, he sends two students to Thailand, including his son, Hong (Wong) in an effort to win the necessary funds. Hong loses, the other student is killed, and Lau is drummed out of the local Kung-Fu Association for having disgraced the name of Chinese martial arts by losing to foreigners. He’s so devastated, he hangs himself, leaving it up to his daughter, Siu Fung (Mao) to restore the family name, learn how to mesh Chinese kung-fu with Thai boxing, and rescue her sister. Quite the “to-do” list, I’d say.

There are 10 extremely good minutes in the middle of this, beginning when Siu Fung has to fend off a predatory takeover bid from a Japanese karate school, and their top fighter, played by Korean kicker Whang In Sik. This is immediately followed by a visit from the Kung-Fu Association, who are intent on testing her skills. Repeatedly. And against a range of opponents, including a particularly impressive battle against a young, fairly long-haired Sammo Hung. It’s glorious, and probably just about justifies the rest of the film. Because the remainder is likely only of interest if you are really into Thai boxing bouts, and since the great majority of these do not involve Mao, I was severely unimpressed.

The story is particularly poorly-written, to the extent I still couldn’t tell you with any degree of confidence what the competition proclaimed in the title actually was. Similarly, the kidnapping with which the film opens, is entirely forgotten about, for what seems like forever. Even by the low standards of plotting for the time, this is particularly weak sauce. Not least, because it’s clear that Mao is a better fighter than Wong, both in storyline and cinematic martial-arts terms – and that’s even before heading off to learn Thai boxing. For example, the sequence described above starts when Siu Fung has to rescue her brother from the Japanese, after their master has beaten Hong up. So why is she stuck on the sidelines for so much of the film? It’s immensely frustrating.

Random trivia note: the home of the Kung-Fu Association is located at 41 Cumberland Road, which in reality, was the last house Bruce Lee bought. He purchased it in July 1972, and lived there until his death a year later. Barely 12 months further on, this movie came out in Hong Kong: seems a little tastelessly quick by Golden Harvest to turn Lee’s home into a location. This nugget is likely more interesting than a good 80% of the film – specifically, the 80% which does not feature Angela Mao kicking ass. But as my gift to you, the YouTube video below is paused to start at the beginning of the best bit. You’re welcome!

Dir: Wong Fung
Star: Angela Mao, Carter Wong, Wilson Tong, Sammo Hung

The Day I Met El Chapo: The Kate Del Castillo Story

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“Life imitating art, imitating life”

Del Castillo is the undisputed queen of the action telenovela. She made her name as the original “Queen of the South” in one of the most popular entries ever, La Reina Del Sur, and has since followed that up with Ingobernable and Dueños del Paraíso, playing the Mexican First Lady and another ambitious drug dealer. It was while filming the latter, that the stranger than fiction story told in this documentary reached its climax.

As we mentioned at the end of the Reina article, in January 2012, she Tweeted about notorious drug-lord El Chapo. Three and a half years later, after he had been arrested, and subsequently escaped from prison, this led to her and Sean Penn visiting the fugitive, with the plan being to make a film based on his life. Except Penn turned it into an interview for Rolling Stone, the Mexican government got very upset with Del Castillo, and when El Chapo was recaptured, they said it was largely a result of the Del Castillo/Penn visit – with all that implies. The actress was investigated for money laundering, the charges being dropped only a couple of days ago, and is still largely persona non grata in her home country.

The three-part series tells events from her perspective. and even though she was a producer on it, Del Castillo doesn’t necessarily come out clean. From her first Tweet, she seems a little naive. “Let’s traffic love,” she says to a man who supposedly told authorities subsequently, he had killed between two and three thousand people. It feels as if Del Castillo believed the narcocorrida hype: bosses like El Chapo are often seen as folk heroes in Mexico, along the lines of Robin Hood. How much their social works are genuine, and how much practical business sense, is open to question. She does say she understands the cinematic meaning of the word “cut”, and lets go of the characters she plays. Yet I also suspect Kate may have felt that playing a trafficker on TV made her El Chapo’s “equal” somehow.

You can certainly argue that journeying into the heart of the Mexican countryside to meet the most wanted man on the world, who seems to have a crush on you, shows poor judgment. On the other hand, she does come over as courageous. While you can question her ideals, it’s hard to say she’s not entirely committed to them, regardless of the personal cost. Even now, you sense the personal cost has, if anything, probably hardened her resolve. I can’t blame her at all for that: the Mexican government appear to have engaged in a campaign of harassment of Del Castillo, little short of a vendetta. This involves everything up to, and including, fabricating text messages between her and El Chapo, with the intention of damaging her reputation and credibility.

Penn comes off little better. Though we don’t hear directly from the actor – he refused to take part in the documentary – the evidence presented here seems to suggest he used her for his own ends. Most damningly, he got journalist accreditation from Rolling Stone for himself and the film producers who also went with them – but not Del Castillo. And while he may not have directly or wittingly informed the authorities of their plans, it’s quite possible it was through his circle they became aware of the trip. In a subsequent media statement about the film, Penn’s camp didn’t hold back, saying, “This is nothing but a cheap, National Enquirer-esque tale spun by a delusional person whose hunger for fame is both tawdry and transparent.” I think it’s safe to say, if Kate ever gets to make her El Chapo movie, Penn will not be taking part.

While mostly talking heads and old news footage, it does a decent job of weaving the narrative, despite the lack of contemporary input from two-thirds of the people in the photo above. It was still interesting enough to make Chris become one of Del Castillo’s 3.5 million followers on her bilingual Twitter feed. Now, if only I can get her into watching Dueños del Paraíso

Dir: Carlos Armella

Here Alone

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“Forest of the Dead”

A viral plague has decimated mankind, turning its victims in mindless, flesh-craving ghouls. One of the few to have survived is Ann (Walters), who has taken up residence in the woods, where she has camped out. Ann uses the survival skills she received from her now-absent husband, Jason (West), only occasionally having to emerge and risk the threat of the infected, in order to gather supplies. Her secluded, yet relatively safe existence is disturbed, when she finds an injured man, Chris (Thompson) and his teenage daughter, Liv (Piersanti) on a road. They are supposed to be on their way north, to where the epidemic is reported to be in check. Yet Chris, in particular, seems curiously unwilling to be on his way.

If there’s nothing particularly new or inventive about this version of the zombie apocalypse, it’s not without its small-scale merits. Ann is far from some kind of survivalist Mary Sue: she’s barely getting by, perhaps having paid less attention to her wilderness lessons than she should have. Probably wisely, for a small budget film, the infected – the term “zombies” is never used – are kept largely out of sight, heard more than they are seen. While their shrieks are unnerving enough, the tension comes more from internal forces: the opaque nature of Chris’s motives, for example, or Ann’s dwindling supply of bullets. The former are particularly troubling: the dynamic between Chris and Liv just seems “off” in a variety of ways, and I was not surprised when this played a part in the film’s climax. However, things do not unfold in the way I expected, so credit for that.

The film does cheat a bit with regard to previous events. At the beginning of the film, Ann is already alone, and information about what happened to Jason and their child, is only doled out in teaspoon-sized flashbacks over the course of subsequent events. It matters, because these flashbacks reveal quite a lot about her character, and the way she interacts with other people: information we otherwise don’t have. By not getting it until later, we end up retro-fitting it into what we’ve already seen, and I’m not certain the additional complexity of structure imposed, serves any real purpose.

In the earlier stages, it reminded me of The Wall, with its tale of a woman thrown back entirely onto her own resources. While that solo adventure would have been difficult to sustain, it is the most interesting and original part of proceedings. I was rather disappointed when Chris + Liv showed up, because the entire dynamic changes at that point, and the film becomes something with which I’m somewhat too familiar. While there are twists down the stretch, this rejects the chance to truly separate itself from the large pack of zombie apocalypse movies in terms of plot. Fortunately, a solid performance from Walters helps the film sustain viewer interest through the weaker second half.

Dir: Rod Blackhurst
Star: Lucy Walters, Adam David Thompson, Gina Piersanti, Shane West

Manami Toyota retires from pro wrestling

Manami Toyota is perhaps the greatest wrestler you’ve never heard of – at least, unless you’ve an interest in the Japanese women’s version of the sport, known as joshi puroresu. There, she has been its almost undisputed queen for much of the past three decades. That covers the span from her debut on August 5, 1987, at the age of just 16, through to her farewell show which took place on November 3 in Yokohama’s Daisan Bashi Hall. She was in the vanguard of, and a significant force in, the joshi resurgence which took place during the mid-nineties, when women’s wrestling crossed over beyond its usual audience. That likely peaked with the Big Egg Wrestling Universe cross-promotion show at Tokyo Dome in November 1994. A crowd of more than thirty thousand attended the event, which ran for more than ten hours.

If you’ve only ever seen the WWE Divas, then joshi will come as a shock, with monsters like the aptly-named Aja Kong punting their opponents around the ring with brutal efficiency. Toyota was slightly-built in comparison: billed at 150 pounds, and that likely an exaggeration for marketing purposes. But her bouts against far larger opponents were still credible, because of three main things. First, her incredible technical ability: there’s good reason a video exists on YouTube called “Top 60 Moves of Manami Toyota“! Secondly, her fearless high-flying. for example, I remember a match outside in the rain, where Toyota was still climbing up the light rigging and flinging herself off it. Third, an insane level of stamina. She could wrestle 60 minutes non-stop, and at a pace few wrestlers of either gender could match.

Yet that intensity is what led to her retirement, Toyota increasingly suffering from neck and shoulder issues as a result of the in-ring punishment she both took and dished out. Or, should I say, her second retirement. For Toyota first “quit” due to a silly unspoken rule of the All Japan Wrestling promotion that its women wrestler had to retire at the age of 26, whether they wanted to or not. Toyota would continue for two decades after that point, surviving the fall of AJW and the resulting disintegration of the joshi scene into a slew of smaller, independent promotions. Her feuds and partnerships with the likes of Toshiyo Yamada, Akira Hokuto and Kyoko Inoue remain unmatched, even now. And, of course, Toyota would not go out quietly, wrestling fifty opponents at her retirement show, before then fighting a best-of-three falls match against her designated heiress, Tsukasa Fujimoto.

Legendary pro wrestling writer Dave Meltzer of the Wrestling Observer Newsletter (WON) called Toyota “one of the greatest wrestlers of all-time, regardless of gender,” and awarded 5+ stars to more of her matches than any other woman. Melter was famously stingy with those rankings: few would see more than one in a year. But at the peak of her career and talents, between 1991 and 1995, Toyota was involved in seventeen such matches, including three in one week. She was part of WON’s Match of the Year in both 1992 and 1995, and won named its Most Outstanding Wrestler in 1995. Neither award is divided by gender, meaning she beat all men that year as well. She was just that damn good.

Below, you’ll find a playlist including 11 of the 17 five-star matches. They might help give you some insight as to why many regard her as the greatest of all time.

Colossal

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“A giant conundrum.”

After breaking up with her boyfriend, Gloria (Hathaway) holes up in her middle-American hometown. She gets a job in a bar, run by her childhood pal, Oscar (Sudeikis) – not that this employment does much for Gloria’s burgeoning alcoholism. Meanwhile, over in Korea, the city of Seoul is being plagued by a giant monster, which will appear out of nowhere, behave oddly, and then vanish again. Gloria eventually figures out that when she goes through a particular spot – a local children’s playground – at a specific time, the creature appears in Korea, and its actions reflect hers. Turns out Oscar can do the same, manifesting in Seoul as a giant robot, and he may not be as benign with his new-found powers, as Gloria is attempting to be.

This is a severe mess in terms of genre, and very difficult to put into any particular bucket. It’s part comedy, part drama, part fantasy – yet not sufficiently any of them to the point where I can confidently say it would appeal to fans of that kind of film. It is the kind of quirky role for which Hathaway is well suited, and Sudeikis does well, in a “low-rent substitute for Ben Affleck” kinda way. I just wish Vigalondo (whose time-travel flick, Los cronocrímenes, is one of the best of its kind) had taken the concept here and really run with the possibilities. I guess budget may have limited him there, but I’d like to have seen  Gloria and Oscar do more than standing around, waving their limbs somewhat. The trailer suggested a bit more than that.

I think this might be intended to be a parable for abusive relationships, with Oscar using controlling tactics and threats to ensure that Gloria doesn’t go back to the big city and/or her boyfriend there. Or perhaps Oscar is intended to represent the alcohol which is Gloria’s bête noire? You can more or less make up whatever you want here. And you’ll probably have to, because if this film doesn’t credibly explain how two people can project into South Korean monsters (it’s something to do with a childhood trauma, a smashed show-and-tell project and lightning), you know you’re not going to be given much in the way of character motivation.

Re-reading the above, it comes over as negative to a greater extent than it should. Gloria is a likeably flawed lead, I was kept interested, generally amused and occasionally impressed. Yet, it feels like a seriously wasted opportunity, something which could have ended up occupying a deliciously excessive and demented spot between Pacific Rim and Monsters vs. Aliens. Instead, it’s far lower-key and takes place on a surprisingly small scale, than anything involving a monster, hundreds of foot high, terrorizing an Asian city should. If your expectations are similarly restrained, this is likely to work better. I can state with a fair degree of certainty, you won’t have seen anything like it before. And once you’ve seen it, you will probably understand why.

Dir: Nacho Vigalondo
Star: Anne Hathaway, Jason Sudeikis, Dan Stevens, Austin Stowell

Unlocked

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“Lisbeth Salander vs. Elf”

That would have been a more appealing title. Although the incredibly generic one here reflects the incredibly generic plot, which sinks this, despite the efforts of a well above-average cast. CIA agent Alice Racine (Rapace) has, at her own request, been assigned to the backwater of an East London community, after blaming herself for failing to stop a bombing in Paris. She’s called out of her semi-retirement to interrogate a terrorist courier, believed to be carrying a message about an imminent biological attack on a US target in London. She cracks the subject and hands over most of the intel, only to discover the recipients are not the agency employees they claimed to be, and will kill her as soon as they get what they need. She goes on the run, unsure of who she can still trust: her mentor (Douglas), the MI-5 boss (Collette), or a burglar she encounters who happens to be a former British commando (Bloom). Can she stop the attack before it’s carried out?

Yeah, if you ever wanted to see The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo go hand-to-hand against Legolas, this film is for you. Anyone else? Probably not so much. It’s the kind of striking boilerplate spy vs. spy shenanigans we’ve seen a lot of lately. This reminded me particularly of Survivor, with Rapace standing in for Milla Jovovich, though to be honest, neither film makes much impression – and what they do, isn’t necessarily good. For example here, I spotted what the target was going to be as soon as it was mentioned, and a laughably long time before the movie’s characters were able to work it out. I hope American’s real intelligence assets are considerably smarter than the ones depicted in this film. The way in which Bloom’s character, Jack Alcott, is shoehorned into proceedings is no less clunky, and the story overall has no flow, lurching through the components to its finale (obviously not endorsed by the NFL, given the non-specific names used!).

The positives here are mostly from the performances, with the exception of Bloom, who seems woefully mis-cast – though it may partly be my difficulty in taking anyone with a man-bun seriously. Rapace gives a good account of herself, kicking ass with terse efficiency, particularly when escaping from the hotel room where she’s carrying out the interrogation. Collette, previously known to us from United States of Tara, turns out to be as good with a British accent as she is with an American one, especially considering she’s neither (Australian). There’s also John Malkovich as the CIA boss, and he’s watchable as ever, albeit underused. Seems like the Czech Republic largely stood in for London, which may help explain the limited sense of place, and Apted’s direction is little better here than in one of the more underwhelming Bond flicks of recent times, The World is Not Enough. Rapace needs to keep looking for the right vehicle, one which will make use of her undeniable talents.

Dir: Michael Apted
Star: Noomi Rapace, Orlando Bloom, Toni Collette, Michael Douglas

Random Acts of Unkindness by Jacqueline Ward

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

Manchester Detective Sergeant Jan Pearce is part of an investigation into local crime lord, Connelly, whose family has managed to evade the reach of the law for decades. Indeed, this is the second recent investigation, the previous effort having collapsed, apparently due to procedural blunders. But the boss isn’t taking it lying down, beginning a campaign of intimidation against those investigating him. This hits DS Pearce, with the disappearance of her teenage son, Aiden: she’s convinced this is retribution from Connelly. But neither her colleagues on the force, nor her ex-husband, Sal, agree – they think Aiden simply ran off.

When investigating one of Connelly’s properties, Pearce finds the body of an old woman – along with a bag of cash and her hand-written memoir. It turns out the deceased, Bessy, and Jan had something in common – both had sons that went missing. As she reads the memoir and proceeds with the investigation of Connelly, Pearce gradually realizes that might not be all she shared with Bessie. But the truth about what is actually going on, in the underworld hidden below the working-class estates of Northern England, is infinitely more terrible than either of them would ever have imagined. And considering Bessy thought her son might be a victim of the infamous Moors Murderers (whom she refers to, only as “him” and “her”), that’s saying something.

I’m very much impressed by the way Ward is able to write in two entirely different voices. The sections which are Bessy’s writings, are completely different in tone and style from Jan’s, to the point it almost feels separate novels have had their chapters intertwined. The two women are opposites in many ways. Jan is a career policewoman, who has sacrificed a lot for the job – maybe too much, including her marriage and perhaps even her relationship with Aiden. Meanwhile Bessy is a housewife of the 1960’s, with no interest at all beyond being a home-maker. But the sudden loss of their child turns their worlds upside-down, and forces them to reassess what truly “matters”. Bessy’s life is, literally, never the same again, and there’s undeniable poignancy there, especially near the end of her story.

Both exhibit an utterly dogged determination to pursue what they see as the truth, regardless of the cost or what others may think. In Jan’s case, that leads her into direct peril, because she’s going up against some very dangerous people, who have good reason to prefer privacy. There’s a certain amount of happy coincidence needed for her to unravel the threads, yet there’s no denying her bravery, intelligence and tenacity. The special ops skills, of surveillance and its avoidance, don’t hurt either, though I’d have liked to see more of them being put to use. While the first in the series, it works as an entirely stand-alone novel. If you manage to see where this is going before it happens, you’re a better armchair detective than I.

Author: Jacqueline Ward
Publisher: Novelesque, available through Amazon in both printed and e-book versions.

Amazons: Miss-ology in fact and fiction

Hippolyte, queen of the Amazons, with Herakles between Amazons. Fragment of a terracotta volute-krater, created: circa 330–310 B.C

Not in strength are we inferior to men; the same our eyes, our limbs the same; one common light we see, one air we breathe; nor different is the food we eat. What then denied to us hath heaven on man bestowed?
  
— Queen Penthesilea, The Fall of Troy

Wonder Woman has spent this summer closing in on The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, for the title of biggest worldwide box-office by an action heroine (depending on how you view The Force Awakens – personally, I’m with-holding a definitive opinion until I see how the series develops). So it seems an appropriate point to take a look at the legendary Amazons – the women warriors tribe of which Diana Prince is supposedly a part. But how “legendary” were they? Is there evidence to suggest they might, in part, have been based on real women warriors of ancient times?

The Amazons of myth

The first mentions of the Amazons were by 8th-century Greek poet, Homer, in The Iliad, though these were little more than passing references. King Priam of Troy recounts a battle from his youth: “I looked on the Phrygian men with their swarming horses, so many of them, the people of Otreus and godlike Mygdon, whose camp was spread at that time along the banks of the Sangarios: and I myself, a helper in war, was marshalled among them on that day when the Amazon women came, men’s equals.” Similarly, among the exploits recounted of Bellerophon, who captured and tamed the flying horse, Pegasus, was that “he slaughtered the Amazons, who fight men in battle.”

They are more significant in the saga of Heracles (a.k.a Hercules) and his twelve tasks. The ninth was to obtain the belt belonging to Hippolyta, Queen of the Amazons. This had been given to her by Ares, the god of war, and was used to carry her sword and spear. He did convince her to hand it over peacefully, but the goddess Hera was intent on stopping Heracles, and roused Hippolyta’s subjects against him. In the ensuing battle, Hippolyta was killed by Heracles. This is the first time we hear of Themiscyra as their home. though rather than an island nation, it was a town near the Black Sea, in what’s now Turkey. Another Greek hero, Theseus, also encountered them; some stories have him accompanying Heracles and marrying an Amazon, triggering a long conflict with Athens, known as the Attic War.

The main source for information is Herodotus, a historian of the fifth century B.C. The story he tells starts with the Greeks defeating the Amazons and taking three shipfuls of them captive, only for the prisoners to overthrow their captors, and land in Scythia, on the north of the Black Sea. “The Amazons had nothing except their arms and their horses, and got their living… by hunting and by taking booty.” There, they fought the locals, until the Scythians decided to make love not war, and sent their young men out to befriend the raiders, which they did so successfully, it led eventually to an entire separate tribe, the Sauromatai, about whom he says:

From thenceforward the women of the Sauromatai practise their ancient way of living, going out regularly on horseback to the chase both in company with the men and apart from them, and going regularly to war, and wearing the same dress as the men… As regards marriages their rule is this, that no maiden is married until she has slain a man of their enemies; and some of them even grow old and die before they are married, because they are not able to fulfil the requirement of the law.

This is relatively restrained, and seems plausible compared to some of the other myths which circulated about them. Not least is the whole “cutting off a breast so they could fire their bows better” thing, which appears possibly to stem from a mistranslation of “Amazon”. None of the depictions to be found in classical art, for example, show them with a count of breasts below two. There’s also the concept that they would get together, once a year, with the men of a nearby tribe, for the purposes of procreation, retaining only the resulting female children. Or the claim by Diodorus Siculus , that the Amazons of Queen Myrina used the skins of gigantic snakes, from Libya, to protect themselves at battle. Cool story, bro’.

Our pal Diodorus is also a primary source for the tale of Queen Thalestris and Alexander the Great, though some other biographers also mention her. He says Thalestris “was remarkable for beauty and for bodily strength, and was admired by her countrywomen for bravery.” She showed up in Alexander’s camp with 300 Amazons in full armour, and when asked why she had come, replied it was to have him father a child. “He had shown himself the greatest of all men in his achievements, and she was superior to all women in strength and courage, so that presumably the offspring of such outstanding parents would surpass all other mortals in excellence.” Thirteens days of, ahem, intense diplomatic negotiations followed – but history does not record whether any offspring did!

While Wikipedia snarkily comments, “Battles between Amazons and Greeks are placed on the same level as – and often associated with – battles of Greeks and centaurs,” they were a popular subject for art, to the point where there was a word for its depiction: Amazonomachy. It symbolized the Greeks’ struggle against everything uncivilized. Typically, the Amazons were portrayed in the style of Scythian horseman, again echoing the story of Herodotus. It’s perhaps interesting to note that on the relief sculpture of two female gladiator found at Halicarnassus, they were identified as Amazonia and Achillea, presumably the “ring names” of the women involved.

The Amazons in reality

All of the above stories were regarded as just that: stories, with no basis in fact. But as the world was gradually explored, there were various encounters with local inhabitants around the globe, which suggested that the legends may not have been without same basis in fact.

Originally, there were various names for the River Amazon: Rio Grande (Great River), Mar Dulce (Sweet Sea) or Rio da Canela. The one we know today, only came about after a 1542 expedition under Spaniard Francisco Orellana. On June 24, he and his men had a skirmish against natives, and “witnessed twelve tall arrow-shooting women, pale and nearly naked, with their hair braided around their heads, apparently acting as captains of the male warriors defending against the incursion. The women clubbed any warrior who tried to retreat.” A captive described the empire of Queen Conori, and the similarities in some aspects with the Hellenic Amazons, such as capturing men for breeding purposes, impressed Orellana enough that his expedition called the river they were exploring, the Amazon. That name stuck.

They were, however, still generally regarded as being little more than mythical. Belief in them as a historical entity was limited to the fringe, most notably Swiss scholar Johann Jakob Bachofen. In 1861 Bachofen published Mother Right: an investigation of the religious and juridical character of matriarchy in the Ancient World. This suggested civilization had gone through four phases, including “Das Mutterecht,” a matriarchal ‘lunar’ phase, which was the origin of the Amazon myth. Some suggest he was an influence on Richard Wagner, in particular with regard to the Valkyries.

Elsewhere around the world, various societies and groups have evolved which mirror, in some aspects, those attributed to the Amazons by the ancient Greeks, such as being matriarchal and/or warrior in nature. For example, there were the Dahomey Amazons (right), a book about whom we previously reviewed. They were an all-female military regiment of the central African Kingdom of Dahomey, in what’s now Benin, which lasted from the 17th century until relatively recent times – their last surviving veteran reportedly died as recently as 1979. We have also talked about how the legendary Viking raiding parties were not as unisex as often supposed. And in 1857, the Daily True Delta carried this report, detailing at some length the all-women bodyguards recruited by the King of Siam (presumably when he wasn’t flirting with English schoolmarms…).

Meanwhile, back in their more traditional territory near the Black Sea, evidence in support of the myth was uncovered in the mid-90’s. Archaeologists dug up burial mounds near the town Pokrovka, in what is now Kazakhstan. Based on the content, these belonged to the Sauromatai, the tribe mentioned earlier. But the most relevant finds were multiple skeletons of women who had been interred with weapons. The New York Times reported, “One young woman, bow-legged from riding horseback, wore around her neck an amulet in the form of a leather pouch containing a bronze arrowhead. At her right side was an iron dagger; at her left, a quiver holding more than 40 arrows tipped with bronze.”

This makes sense: just as now, a gun offers a great equalizer in terms of countering an opponent’s size and strength, so did a horse and a bow in ancient times. There’s no reason why a woman would not be able to acquire just as much proficiency as a man in these areas. However, there’s nothing to suggest they lived separately from the men, in the way the ancient Greeks described. They would still have presented a startling contrast to Greek women. It’s believed they were tattooed, smoked marijuana and drank fermented mare’s milk, turning it into an alcoholic beverage known as kumis which is still consumed today, by the peoples of the Central Asian steppes.

Amazons in popular culture

Wonder Woman is just the most recent, and certainly most successful incarnation of the Amazon clan to find its way into the mass media. Virtually since the time of Herodotus, there have been a steady stream of tales, more or less exploiting prurient interest in the concept of a tribe entirely consisting of women. It has been used in ways both derogatory and complimentary: to mock women for losing their femininity, as well as to inspire them in their battle for increased rights. The suffragettes of the early twentieth century, in particular, frequently used the Amazons as a totem in their poems and stories.

One of the earliest films about them was 1933’s The Warrior’s Husband, which “tells the story of the Amazons, who ruled over men thanks to the sacred girdle of Diana, and Hercules who came to steal it.” This comedy was based on a Broadway play, most notable for giving Katherine Hepburn her big break, in the lead role of Antiope (shown right). According to The Telegraph, “The role required her to enter by leaping down a flight of steep steps while carrying a large stag on her shoulders. The RKO talent scout was so impressed by this feat that he offered her a film contract.”

We should mention the Amazon film that never made it to production. In early 1939, German film-maker Leni Riefenstahl was working on a feature about Penthesilea, the Amazon queen who fought in the Trojan Wars. She had secured funding from Hitler, locations in Libya, and had even begun training young sportswomen to play the roles of Penthesilea’s army, with Riefenstahl (a bit of an Amazon herself – she did her own free climbing for her directorial debut, Das blaue Licht) playing the queen. However, the outbreak of World War II derailed what would certainly have been an interesting take on the myth.

Two years later, in October 1941, Wonder Woman made her debut, appearing in All Star Comics #8. She was the creation of William Moulton Marston, a psychologist who had already become famous as inventor of the polygraph, and there was no doubt on which side of the battle he stood. “Wonder Woman,” Marston wrote, “is psychological propaganda for the new type of woman who should, I believe, rule the world.” He also called bondage a “respectable and noble practice,” which perhaps cast WW’s Lasso of Truth + Bracelets of Submission in a rather different light!

There have been no shortage of subsequent films to take the Amazon theme – though most of these bear about as much resemblance to the myth, as the myth does to the Scythians who inspired it! I’m not even going to attempt a comprehensive listing of these. Instead, I’ll pick and choose ten somewhat representative candidates, some of which have been reviewed on this site. They’re listed in chronological order.

  • Queen of the Amazons (1947) – or “Journey to the land of stock footage” as one review put it. The first, and certainly not the last, to relocate the myth to the African jungle.
  • Love Slaves of the Amazons (1957) – Made in Argentina in 1956, along with a film called Curucu, Beast of the Amazon, and using some of the same cast. Director Curt Siodmak claimed to have made the film because he had 10,000 feet of color film left over from Curucu but could not export the unused film.
  • Amazons of Rome (1961) – A rather misleading American retitling, of a film originally known as Le vergini di Roma, “The virgins of Rome”. But a surprising cast here, which includes Louis Jourdan, Sylvia Syms and Michel Piccoli.
  • Thor and the Amazon Women (1963) – An Italian/Yugoslavian co-production, filmed largely on location in the Postojna Caves of what is now Slovenia. Lobs some Scandinavian mythology into the mix, for no readily apparent reason, and may be anti-feminist rather than empowering!
  • Battle of the Amazons (1973) – “Tedesco makes a good impression as the feisty heroine, and it’s a nice touch to have women effectively leading both sides. Sadly, the Amazons also step aside when the action kicks off, largely being unconvincingly replaced by male stunt doubles in masks and wigs.”
  • War Goddess (1973) – “Credit is due to both Johnston and Sun, who take on material that often strays to questionable or even laughable, with a straight-faced intensity which is rather more than it deserves.”
  • Hundra (1983) – “The producers purchased some of the left-over costumes and props from Conan, which makes sense since the story here is also largely recycling its plot as well. Admittedly, it does so with a significantly enhanced feminist agenda, although this consists as much of portraying men as nothing but mindless boors as anything uplifting.”
  • Amazons (1986) – “There’s certainly plenty going on, with plots, treachery, topless human sacrifice, bad blood and an alternate dimension largely realised with dry ice and strobe lights. The action, unfortunately, sucks, though credit is due to Randolph for struggling with a lethargic snake, making it look like the most ferocious attack in cinematic history.”
  • Amazon Warrior (1998) – “The fight sequences just about pass muster – it helps if you squint at them sideways, rather than giving them your direct attention – and it appears that after civilization has collapsed into anarchy and chaos, what remains will resemble an SCA get-together, albeit with rather more fur bikinis.”
  • Amazons and Gladiators (2001) – “No real surprises in the plot, with everyone getting more or less what they deserve. But despite accents which roam the globe from Australia through England to America, it’s well-acted and well thought-out, with very few mis-steps. “

It’s to television, however, that we turn for the most well-known incarnation of an Amazon in pop-culture: the TV series Wonder Woman, which aired for three seasons from 1975-79, with Lynda Carter in the title role, playing superheroine (and Amazon refugee) Diana Prince. It followed on from an earlier, rejected pilot movie starring Cathy Lee Crosby, and the second pilot proved a much greater ratings success. After the first season was set in World War II, the following series (retitled The New Adventures of Wonder Woman) took place in the present day, and the result was one of the most iconic action heroines of the decade on television. There was a 2011 attempt to revive the show, with Adrienne Palicki as Diana; despite the presence of David E. Kelley as a writer, the pilot episode was never officially aired, and the project quickly died.

The other television show people will generally associate with Amazons is, of course, Xena: Warrior Princess. This is a bit of a grey area: despite sharing a number of characteristics, Xena herself was never a formal member of the Amazon tribe, despite helping them out on a number of occasions. However, irritating sidekick Gabrielle became their queen (more by chance than intent), and over the six seasons for which the show ran, there were typically between two and four episodes per series, featuring the tribe to some extent.

Amazons have turned up elsewhere, and sometimes in shows where you wouldn’t exactly expect to find them. Examples include Series 7 of Supernatural, which had an episode titled ‘The Slice Girls’ in which Amazons had made a bargain with their mother, the goddess Harmonia, turning them into monsters. Or in 2003, the SF show Stargate SG-1 had “Birthright”, in which the Amazonian legend was specifically mentioned, after the crew met the Hak’tyl Resistance, a group of female warriors. More recently, it was announced last year that the producer of NCIS, Charles F. Johnson, was working on Amazons, a live-action TV series about the Dahomey warriors mentioned above, though nothing more has been heard of the project.

It will be interesting to see if the critical and commercial success of the Wonder Woman feature will re-kindle interests in Amazons as a whole. While Diana Prince is a creation of DC Comics, the Amazons themselves are very much in the public domain, and can be used by any artist – be that on TV, film or in literature. The door is thus wide open for such uses: I’m a little surprised The Asylum haven’t already given us a mockbuster version of Wonder Woman, especially considering they did put out Sinister Squad… We’ll see what 2018 brings.

Elite

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“Because Mediocre  wouldn’t sell as well.”

A mission in central America against drug cartel boss Reynaldo Benitez (Garza) goes wrong, leaving eight Special Ops soldiers dead. This includes the husband of Naval Covert Operations Command agent, Abbey Vaughn (Gregory), who is intent on discovering the truth about what happened to her spouse. She links up with the only survivor of the operation, Lt. Sam Harrigan (Scarbrough), now living in a trailer, and spending his time drinking and practicing golf. Together with the rest of their team, they investigate the case, only to find the tentacles of organized crime are deeper embedded than they appear, and their inquiries put not only themselves, but Abbey’s family in serious danger.

The performances here aren’t the problem. Gregory and Scarbrough are both effective enough, and the supporting cast are equally watchable – special credit to Rousseau as team hacker Jazz, a character of whom I’d have liked to have seen more. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are also better staged than I was expecting. It appears a lot of the performers have MMA experience, along with indie wrestler Mike Dell, and this gives the fights a solid amount of credibility, with the punches appearing to have an impact on their recipients.

If only the same could be said for other aspects, which outweigh the positives overall. First, and largest, is the bane of many low-budget movies: bad audio. I had to sit with my finger on the remote control, perpetually adjusting the volume – one scene too loud, the next inaudibly quiet. The foley work on the gun-battles was simply laughable, using electronic bleeps and chirps that made bursts of semi-automatic fire sound more like birdsong. In general, anything involving armaments was problematic and unconvincing, with the production able to afford little or nothing in the way of collateral damage, to people or property.

The other main problem for me was the script, consisting of a collection of clichés and by-the-number plot points, without any genuine surprises to be found. It might have passed muster for a less discerning audience in the mid-eighties. Though unless they found the basic concept of moving pictures novel enough to be a distraction, I’m not even sure they would be satisfied. For example, immediately we saw the heroine’s father and daughter, I could guess exactly what their role in the film was going to be, and went 2-for-2 in my expectations.

It was particularly disappointing, because story-line is an area where resources shouldn’t be a problem. Yes, it will limit the scenarios open to the film-maker; however, you should still be able to do more than trot out hackneyed elements, arranged in a way that alternately bores and confuses (quite why an NCOC agent was conducting an investigation of a drug cartel escapes me, and I’m still uncertain whether a major character ended the film alive or dead). Even with a higher tolerance for small-budget cinema than most, this was still more chore than pleasure.

Dir: Mark Cantu
Star: Allison Gregory, Jason Scarbrough, Ione Rousseau, Larry Garza