Black Widows

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“Bland misandry masquerading as female empowerment.”

Three women friends – Darcy (Elizabeth), Nora (Graham) and Olivia (Kocee) – are all having shitty luck with their relationships. Olivia is in the middle of an ugly divorce from Adam. Nora’s boyfriend Ryan is a control freak. And while Darcy’s new friend Blair (Brown) initially seems fine, he turns out to be the worst of them all. After he refuses to take no for an answer, the trio decide revenge is a dish best served naked in the middle of the desert. Unfortunately for him, Blair ends up lacking a pulse. Unfortunately for the film, it takes forever to get to this point, and for the vast majority of its running-time the promised “dark comedy” is neither dark nor comedic.

The writer of this was a date-rape victim herself, and it pains me to say so, but this might be the problem. According to the director, “This was an opportunity for her to wrestle with her demons.” It would probably have been better if she’d gone to therapy, written bad poetry or anything, rather than trying to turn those demons into a movie – especially one apparently trying to occupy any subgenre of comedy. For what comes over here is a relentless, bitter tone of (probably understandable, I will admit, given the writer’s history) distrust and loathing of the opposite sex, which permeates every scene of the film to such an extent that any potential humour is strangled. You can’t even call it dark, it’s closer to… jaundiced.

If the film had started with the three women standing over Blair’s body, and gone forward from there, it might have worked. For the trio have a cheerfully apathetic approach to the escalating mayhem, and there finally is dark comedy present, in the way they bicker about trivia like getting blood on their shoes. However, it is the very definition of “too little, too late,” and any interest and attention was already pushing up the daisies by this point.

As an aside – and because I’ve otherwise run out of things to say about this almost entirely forgettable item – I’ve been around the IMDb long enough to know a page stuffed with fake reviews. The obvious giveaway is when the glowing reports are almost entirely from people with precisely one review to their name. That’s what we find here, almost two-third of all write-ups being dated the week beginning August 9, the week of its release. Those 16 authors have reviewed a total of three films: this one 16 times, and two others, none more recently than 2012. At best, there was an email blast from the director to her mates, begging for reviews. At worst, paid astroturfing (though I doubt the budget went that far). It’s all painfully obvious, because it’s almost impossible to see how anyone other than a shill could have genuinely liked this mess.

Dir: Venita Ozols-Graham
Star: Brigitte Graham, Shelby Kocee, Jordan Elizabeth, Jake Brown

Body

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“Bah, humbug.”

It’s the festive season, and Holly (Rogers), Cali (Turshen), and Mel (Molina) are bored. At the suggestion of Cali, they head over to her uncle’s fabulous mansion – conveniently, he’s out of town for the holidays – for a little par-tay. Except, it’s not actually her uncle’s house. Worse is to follow, ending with the caretaker (Fessenden) lying, apparently dead, at the foot of the stairs. The three young ladies are left having to decide whether to ‘fess up and face the consequences, or cover up and create an alternative version of events.

According to Wikipedia, the three characters “represent Sigmund Freud’s model of the id, ego, and superego.” I guess that’s something you don’t see every day. Certainly, they’re radically different characters, to the extent you wonder somewhat, quite why they’re hanging out with each other. Cali is prepared to go to absolutely any lengths, to avoid responsibility. Holly is at the other end of the spectrum, convinced they are only making things worse for themselves by committing further crimes. Mel is the undecided voter, and it’s her shifting support which largely drives the second half, as Cali and Holly solicit her support. Who knew teenagers were such sticklers for the democratic process?

bodyIt kinda works, mostly for the dynamics between the trio of leading ladies. At first, Cali’s approach seems sensible, arguably a legitimate way to make the best of a bad situation. However, a change in the scenario shifts things seismically, and even the toughest of her supporters would have to admit an unpleasant streak of psychopathy is opened in her make-up. Evil sometimes wears a pretty face, and Turshen reminded me more than a little of Denise Richards in Wild Things – manipulative and . Less successful, to the point of entire irrelevance, is the boyfriend who shows up and yells for a bit. I suspect, given the slight running time of 75 minutes, his presence may have been a late-added necessity in order to reach feature length.

However, if the ending is probably when the film is most fun, it’s also where the script seems to be weakest. The eventual conclusion would likely not withstand scrutiny, by anyone with even a passing knowledge of forensic investigative techniques. In the film’s defense, that might be the point. Though given one of the girls is supposedly looking to attend law school, her pre-legal knowledge inexplicably appears about the level obtained from a few episodes of C.S.I. On the other hand, Berk and Olsen have done a fairly good job of crafting a story that fits within their resource limitations,

Dir: Dan Berk and Robert Olsen
Star: Helen Rogers, Alexandra Turshen, Lauren Molina, Larry Fessenden

Black Amazon of Mars, by Leigh Brackett

Literary rating: starstarstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2action2

Normally, I like to start a series at the beginning. But I chose to read this second novella of Brackett’s Eric John Stark series, as my long-awaited first introduction to her work, because Amazon offered me the chance to read it for free on my Kindle app. (And yes, I’ll definitely be buying a paper copy!) That means there are unanswered questions here about Stark’s origins and background, and about the Martian world –what kind of “beasts” are used as mounts here, for instance, or what the economic base of a city-state like Kushat is– that probably have answers in the first book, or earlier stories. (The author wrote about the character in both formats, and not all of the corpus is still in print.)

Genre giant Brackett stands in the Romantic tradition, and represents SF’s “soft” school; she’s known for her “swords-and-planet” tales of adventure and derring-do on mostly low-tech worlds, and her style was shaped in the hey-day of the pulp magazines. Stark himself has affinities to the typical Burroughs hero, or to some of Robert E. Howatd’s protagonists; the appeal of “primitivism” (which I’ve discussed elsewhere) is clearly present here, though in Stark’s case, he’s not a refugee or escapee from civilization. (Of Earth stock, he was born on Mercury, and apparently grew up in a rough setting and circumstances, with trauma that left him carrying a lot of psychological damage.) He’s a bit more rough-edged than , say, John Carter, and indeed can at times seem almost feral. But he’s clearly a person of principle, with a strong sense of loyalty and duty, and a willingness to put his life on the line for what’s right when it really matters.

Fans of this site, however, will be as (or more) interested in the title character here. Given the title and the cover art, we know she’s definitely a fighting female. For perhaps the first half or more of the book, however, some readers might wonder when she’s going to show up. Don’t worry, though –Brackett incorporates one plot element here, at a crucial moment, that’s meant to come as a major surprise. It does to Stark (of course, he didn’t see the cover or read the title!), but it probably won’t to most readers. Not to share any spoilers, but the phrase “hidden in plain sight” might come readily to mind. And our ax-wielding lady’s fighting prowess won’t disappoint.

Of course, if she’s judged honestly and fairly, it has to be admitted that she’s pretty much a villainess in the legitimate definition of the word; she’s motivated by selfish personal ambition for power and status, and she’s quite ruthlessly willing to inflict suffering and death on any number of people who defy that goal. But she’s also a nuanced villainess who does have some genuine good in her, which shows itself in actions. (And sometimes, when the chips are down, a nuanced villainess with some genuine good in her might find that she has the stuff inside to add “heroine” to her resume’….) That degree of nuance makes her an interesting character (at least to me).

Like many SF authors who wrote before the advent of space exploration by unmanned probes, Brackett imagined the other inner planets of our solar system to be much more hospitable to human life than they actually are. Her Mars is a cold, arid world whose fragile ecology depends on the annual summer melting of much of the polar ice cap; but it’s a world with a human-like native race (if they differ from Earth humans in any way, it’s not stated here), with a civilization originating a million years earlier, in the time of a culture hero called Ban Cruach. Much of his story is forgotten and mysterious; but at the end of his life, he passed through the Gates of Death, the high pass that is the only way through the mountains enclosing the uninhabited, permanently frozen region around the North Pole itself, after leaving behind an enigmatic talisman in the northern city of Kushat (which controls access to the pass). Now, at the behest of a dying friend, who stole the talisman years before, Stark is journeying through the bitterly cold Martian winter and across the wild, mountainous North (a region much less civilized than southern Mars) to return the object to Kushat.

Brackett’s world-building is much more plausible than that of Burrough’s Barsoom novels, and (allowing for the basic premise) the science isn’t, to a lay reader like myself, glaringly off-beam. (How the high technology –yes, there is some here, but I’m not writing any spoilers– works isn’t explained, and it’s not extrapolated from any existing technology, but that’s because we’re in the realm of soft SF; the author’s purpose isn’t to speculate about what high technology might someday do, but to use it to tell and enable a story about people in a particular dramatic situation.)

Brackett’s imagination is genuinely original, in a type of story that often wasn’t handled with great originality in the time period when she wrote. The plot covers just a few days, and incorporates a lot of action, usually violent action (corpses at one point are lying in “windrows”), but there’s no graphic wallowing in violence for its own sake. Our main characters here aren’t plaster saints, and we might disapprove (big time, in some cases!) of some of their actions; but they’re each vibrantly alive, understandable men and women whose fate we come to care deeply about. They’ll face conflicts and challenges here that involve extremely high stakes, and that will tax physical, mental and moral strength to overcome (IF they’re overcome….); and the personal interrelationships are complex and emotionally evocative.

Bottom line, if you like an old-school pulp action sci-fi yarn in which the gal gets to swing the sword (or, in this case, the ax) as well as the guy, I think you’ll find this a very good read of the type!

Author: Leigh Brackett
Publisher: Aegypan, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

Battle Girl: The Living Dead in Tokyo Bay

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“Zombies vs. wrestlers.”

battle-girlA meteor crashes into Tokyo Bay, creating a cloud of “cosmo-amphetamine” that infects everyone in the area. When they die, that drug immediately takes over, bringing them back to life as flesh-eating zombies. Colonel Kirihara is leading the rescue mission, and sends his daughter, K-ko (Suzuki) into the contaminated zone to scope things out. She finds that one of his underling, Captain Fujioka, is using the chaos to carry out human experiments, deliberately infecting survivors with the cosmo-amphetamine, in order to turn them into an unstoppable force of undead soldiers. He’s not willing to let anyone get out alive, least of all K-ko. Fortunately, her father gave her a battle suit, which helps to even the odds against the living dead army she faces.

It’s a small-scale production, though has had more than the usual thought put into it. I appreciated, for example, the scene inserted at the beginning, to explain why the power remains on in the city, despite the unfolding disaster. The first half is nicely put together, with K-ko making her way through the city, encountering the “Battle Kids”, a bus-driving group of black marketeers, and uncovering Fujioka’s evil pans for those unfortunate enough to be inside the quarantined area. It’s less effective down the stretch, becoming not much more than a series of human vs. zombie battles, that blur into each other without much sense of escalation. It’s no spoiler to say it leads to the inevitable battle between K-ko and the soldier-scientist. Albeit, only after an unconvincing gobbet of exposition, with clumsy lines like, “If the world powers dare to wipe out our nation, we’ll counter attack with 35 meltdown-ready nuclear plants in Japan and a cosmo-amphetamine mutant army which has no fear of death.”

At the time, Suzuki was one of the biggest stars in Japanese women’s pro-wrestling, and acquits herself fairly well in the action scenes. These are blocked and shot in a similar way to puroresu, with a minimum of editing, and some of her ring rivals also show up as members of Fujioka’s “Human Hunter Unit,” including Devil Masami, Shinobu Kandori and Eagle Sawai. This explains why the combat includes moves not normally seen in hand-to-hand battles, including the tilt-a-whirl backbreaker and tombstone piledriver. It does not, however, explain the battle bikini, worn in particular by one opponent. You’ll know her when you see her. Or them, if you know what I mean and I think you do…

Overall though, time has been fairly kind to this 1991 Japanese video production. A quarter of a century later, it appears to have had a significant influence on the Resident Evil films, particularly Apocalypse. It has perhaps also benefited from the renaissance in the zombie genre over the past few years. While still unquestionably low-budget, what seemed somewhat underwhelming when I originally watched it in the late nineties, now seems quite acceptable, and maybe even ahead of its time.

Dir: Kazuo Komizu
Star: Cutie Suzuki, Kera, Keiko Yahase, Kenji Otsuki

Black Rock

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“Naked and afraid”

black rockMaybe I’m getting old and deaf. Or maybe it’s just not a good idea to have dialogue that appears to consist largely of characters yelling (or whispering) over the top of each other. Either way, probably a negative the muddy audio is the main thing I remember about this survival horror film. Childhood friends Sarah (Bosworth), Abby (Aselton) and Lou (Bell) re-unite for a weekend on an island near where they grew up. There’s some reluctance here, Abby and Lou not having been on speaking terms for some years, due to the latter having slept with the former’s boyfriend years previously. The island is supposedly deserted, so they’re surprised to encounter three men hunting there, one of whom is known to Lou. A drink leads to another, and before you know it, Abby has fended off advances, in lethal fashion. The two survivors don’t take kindly to this, and begin hunting the trio to take revenge for their friend.

A credible alternative title for this one would be Stupid Decisions, Volume I. For if you’re not yelling more sensible choices at the screen, almost as soon as the action here kicks off, you are simply not paying attention. Indeed, even earlier, such as when one of the women here lies about having cancer – always a great way to build sympathy. Perhaps the nadir is the shouting match while they are supposedly trying to sneak across the beach: another wise idea. Fortunately for them, this is strictly equal-opportunity in terms of idiocy, since the men are no better equipped in the smarts department. Supposedly ex-soldiers recently returned from deployment in the Middle East after being “dishonourably discharged” [hello, giant red flag!], one suspects they wouldn’t have made it through basic training, based on the competence level they display here. The wisest approach to surviving would be to hole up and wait for the guys’ to shoot themselves in the head. It could only be a matter of time.

The film presents an awkward mix of empowering feminism and shallow exploitation. One moment, “No” means “I’m going to bash your head in with a large rock.” The next, the women are stripping out of their wet clothes for an extended sequence of running around the woods naked, after one of their many ill-advised choices, in this case a midnight swim out to a boat moored offshore. It seems equally unsure about whether it wants to destroy the tropes of the horror genre, or simply imitate them. Either way, it doesn’t do an effective job. There are only a couple of moments that pack any wallop, and you have a trio of lead characters that rarely manage to rise above irritating. Lou manages to come out the best, at least relatively: 90 minutes of her battling for survival on her own, without all the girlie chit-chat, would likely have improved this considerably.

Dir: Katie Aselton
Star: Lake Bell, Katie Aselton, Kate Bosworth, Jay Paulson

The Bride

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“Tree’s company”

thebrideAbout to get married, Kira (Riddervold) and Marco (Campos) head out for a last quiet weekend together, at a luxurious cabin in the woods. Unfortunately, they become the target for the local rednecks and their kidnapping plot. This goes wrong, leaving Marco shot dead and Kira raped, then shot dead. Both bodies are buried in the woods, but – what are the odds? – it’s at the base of a tree where a native American woman was similarly slain by American soldiers in the mid-19th century. The spirit of that victim resurrects Kira out of her grave, in order for her to take her vengeance on those responsible.

The problems from here start early, beginning with the inability to spell the word “battalion” in the opening titles. Yes, it’s a small thing, but a low budget is no excuse for such sloppiness. Things continue wobbly, with both leads clearly having English as a second acting language; Campos, in particular, is often borderline unintelligible, and I wondered if this was perhaps filmed deep in the forest territory of the lesser-known Belgian Apaches. Things perk up a bit once the kidnap kicks in. There’s a suggestion Kira might be military trained, as her hand-to-hand skills are clearly non-standard issue. This is rapidly discarded, and never mentioned again; you wonder why they bothered, especially since the main thread is supernatural power.

There are some other issues too. Too much time is spent on the bad guys, who are little more than shallow and uninteresting stereotypes – save the one who admits to a fondness for Elton John because “his music soothes me.” I did like that. Partly as a result of this padding, as well as an excess of Kira/Marco shenanigans early on, the entirety of her revenge ends up shoe-horned into the last 30 minutes, when it should certainly be the focus of the majority of the movie. On the plus side, the film goes old-school for its (fairly copious) gore, using practical effects instead of the bad CGI we see too often these days in low-budget films.

Riddervold is somewhat better when not burdened with the lumpy dialogue the film inflicts on her. I mean, who comes up with lines such as, “Fuck it in a bucket”? Probably the same person who thought it was a good idea to simulate FaceTime with video superimposed on a very obvious still photo of a hand holding a phone. Those kind of blatant and entirely unnecessary mis-steps are all too common. Sadly, they tend to rob the film of the intermittently entertaining energy it possesses, at least when concentrating on the revenge which should have been the main topic.

Dir: Marcello Daciano
Star: Henriette Riddervold, Lane Townsend, Burt Culver, Charles Campos

Blood Redd

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“What big secrets you have, Grandma…”

bloodreddLauren Redd (Huller) really doesn’t want to spend the weekend at Grandma’s house. Like most teenage girls, she has a million things she’d rather be doing than visit an elderly relation. On arriving, she meets Albert (Widener), a flamboyant caregiver – but one who turns out to be a serial killer with a wolf fetish. Fortunately, the threat – along with a little something slipped into Lauren’s drink – awakens her own inner wolf – and it’s not just a fetish, but true lycanthropy, passed down in maternal genes through her family. When Lauren wakes the next morning, she finds herself covered in blood, a severely-injured Albert not far away, and her mother (Hassett) with some serious ‘xplaining to do. However, pathologist Mortimer Clarke (Frainza) is piecing together the clues, even if no-one in the police force will take his belief in werewolves seriously, for obvious reasons.

It’s a bit of a fractured item this, with about three different stories going on, almost feeling like they come from entirely different films. First, there’s the obvious Little Red Riding Hood adaptation, focusing on the Lauren/Albert relationship, up to and immediately after her transformation. Then, there’s Lauren, coming to terms with her new talents, which are both a help and a hindrance at high-school. Finally, there’s also Clarke’s investigation, as he tries to figure out what happened at Grandma’s, and whether the supposed “dog attack” actually took place as claimed. Not all of these work equally well: the first is certainly overlong, especially given it is just not very interesting, in particular with Widener overplaying the “gay” thing like a drag queen on meth. I’d much rather have seen more of the high-school aspects, which are effectively played, reminding me somewhat of the truly awesome Ginger Snaps, or the familial history, also not dissimilar to the recently-reviewed When Animals Dream.

This is, let’s be honest, done on a much smaller budget than either, and there are aspects which make the limited resources painfully obvious, such as the actual transformation – they probably shouldn’t have bothered. On the other hand, some are well done: Hassett gives a convincing portrayal of a mother willing to do anything for her daughter, and the ending ties up the loose ends in a way that makes sense and is also emotionally satisfying. You may find, as I did, that the early going here is more than a bit of a slog, and you’ll need to persevere to reach the more interesting aspects that follow. Palmer has found some original twists for the genre, and it’s only a shame he didn’t concentrate more fully on these, instead of the less successful elements that bog things down considerably in the first half.

Dir: Brad Palmer
Star: Stephanie Hullar, Julie Marie Hassett, Christopher Frainza, Torey Widener

Blood Cross, by Faith Hunter

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2action2

bloodcrossThe first book of this series was one of the best supernatural fiction reads, and best action heroine books, that I’ve ever read. It had me fully prepared to continue reading every installment of the series. This second novel picks up just a few days after the end of the first; the denouement of the latter was only the beginning in cleaning up some dark skullduggery afoot in the vampire community of Hunter’s slightly alternate New Orleans. As expected, this one thrust Jane into even more high-risk action and deeper into the mysterious secrets of the Undead race. But even though I gave it just one star less than the previous book, it was ultimately a disappointment, and I won’t keep on reading the series.

To be sure, the four stars are earned; this book has many of the same strengths as the previous one. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t really like most of it, and almost to the very end, I fully intended to continue with the series. Hunter’s prose is as compelling and her plotting as strong as ever. The vivid sense of place, and the masterful evocation of the author’s world that draws you in for a complete immersion, is here too. Nor has her genius for characterization, skill at depicting human interactions, and ability to evoke emotional reactions from the reader deserted her. Her deft handling of the vampire mythos, and the exploration of the relationship of Jane and Beast, still fascinates. The serious exploration of Cherokee spirituality is a plus, and I appreciate Hunter’s continued restraint in the use of bad language. As always, she writes action scenes really well; I admire Jane’s prowess as a fighter and willingness to risk her life for things worth fighting for, and I continue to honestly like her as a person. (I did have an issue with the casual drug use of her occasional allies from the projects; in real life, I wouldn’t trust stoned or half-stoned fighters with automatic weapons anywhere near me. But that wasn’t my biggest problem with the book.)

As a person of faith myself, one thing that drew me to the series and to Jane’s character is the fact that she’s depicted as a professing, church-attending Christian. While she wasn’t pictured as a plaster saint (and I wouldn’t expect her, or anybody else in fiction or real life, to be one), the character portrayal in the first book was consistent with who she claimed to be. So nothing prepared me for being blindsided in this book by sexual behavior on Jane’s part (including unmarried sex, engaged in without any moral questioning) that’s totally inconsistent with her claimed Christianity, and which makes her seem, in places, as hormone-driven as the least responsible members of the adolescent community. The sexual content isn’t very explicit; and not in itself anything that would be all that shocking from a secular heroine (such as Modesty Blaise) who doesn’t base her sexual ethics on Christian beliefs, and doesn’t claim to. Coming from one who supposedly does, though, it’s feels like an exercise in false advertising, as if the author wanted to have it both ways to sell more books, with a heroine whose talk can bring in the religious readers and whose actions will appeal to the secular ones. I felt gypped and betrayed by that kind of cynicism, and it leaves a bad taste in the mouth.

Despite my disappointment with that aspect of the novel, it was a thought-provoking read in some ways, raising the question of what it means to be “human.” Because she’s a shapeshifter, Jane is told by one person, and thinks herself, that she isn’t human. But she’s a full-blooded Cherokee (which, if she’s not human, is a contradiction in terms!), and she’s physically, mentally and spiritually just as human as you and I are –she just happens to be differently abled in one respect. In my estimation, that doesn’t make her any more non-human than other people who are differently abled compared to me, like the majority of people who, for instance, can hear tonal differences in music that I can’t, or the small number of people who can guide themselves in the dark by echolocation (and yes, I thought that was strictly fictitious, too, until I learned that it isn’t). Related to this, I’ve often said that I don’t like super-hero stories, because I prefer heroes and heroines with human limitations and vulnerabilities. But I like supernatural yarns about vampires, werewolves, etc. –and the thought struck me, in reading this book, that the difference is less real than one might suppose. In a very real sense, Jane could be called a super-heroine, since she has abilities normal humans don’t. But she’s not SO super-enabled that she’s immortal and above human vulnerability. In the future, I think I might look at super-hero tales with a more nuanced perspective because of that insight!

Author: Faith Hunter
Publisher: Roc, available through Amazon, both for Kindle and as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.

The Battalion

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“War is hell.”

The above is an equal-opportunity truism and, as we see here, applies just as much to the first matriarchal unit in the modern world. This was the charmingly-named 1st Women’s Battalion of Death, created late in World War I, as the Russian Revolution was taking place. Its aim was to encourage the disillusioned regular army into continuing the fight against Germany, in a “If the ladies are fighting, surely you should be, too?” kinda way. At least initially, it’s the story of two sisters, Nadya (Kuchkova) and Vera, daughters of a rich family, who volunteer for the unit after Vera’s fiance, Petya, is killed at the front. Their mother sends their maid, Froska (Rahmanova), to try and protect her daughters, as they go through the training that will turn them into soldiers capable of taking on the enemy. The film climaxes with an initially successful, but ultimately futile, offensive – while the women initially gain ground, the regular army’s morale is so broken, they don’t support the push, allowing the Germans to counterattack [this aspect is largely true to history].

battalion1 battalion2 battalion3

However, as the film unfolds, it gradually becomes more about the founder of the battalion, Mariya Bochkareva (Aronova) and her story. That’s perhaps wise – to be honest, it’s kinda hard to tell the rank and file soldiers apart, once they’ve had their heads shaved and are wearing the same uniform! This posed particular problems once battle was joined; on at least one occasion, I was convinced a character had been killed, only for her to pop up again, entirely alive, it having been someone else who bit the bullet. Fortunately, it seems Meshiev is more interested in Bochkareva, and it’s a wise decision thanks to a thoroughly convincing performance by Aronova. If she’s hardly the “girls with guns” archetype in looks, her commanding officer is smart, capable, patriotic and ferociously brave, leading from the front; you can see why she inspires the devotion necessary for the troops to follow her into the hell of trench warfare.

And that hell is appropriately portrayed in all its grim unpleasantness from poison gas [a sequence reminiscent of the end of Fraulein Doktor] through to brutal hand-to-hand combat, where we see the soft heart of a raw rookie is no match for a grizzled veteran’s sheer ruthlessness. It’s an approach which does allow the viewer to read this in several ways: it is commending the courage of those who fight, or condemning its pointlessness? The director made his opinion on this fairly clear. In a press conference promoting the film, when asked whether the events portrayed should be taken “as a feat or as a futility”, he replied, “Why would we give birth to a child if everyone will die anyway?” Oh, those wacky Russians… It may be militaristic propaganda; I’d not argue with that as an assessment. However, I don’t care, when it is as effective and well-made as this, with the cinematography and soundtrack standing out, in addition to the fine central performance.

Dir: Dmitriy Meshiev
Star: Maria Aronova, Mariya Kozhevnikova, Irina Rakhmanova, Alyona Kuchkova

The Ballad of Cat Ballou, by Roy Chanslor

Literary rating: starstarstarstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

catballouMy generation, raised on 1950s and early 60s TV, tends to think of the classic Western genre as a male preserve, where females were the gallant cowboys’ ever-so-meek love interests or damsels in distress, but where men wore the guns and did all the shooting, cow-punching and heavy work. This reflected a moment in American pop culture, post-World War II, when the cultural and socio-political elite of that day consciously cultivated a faux “traditional” cult of female home-bound domesticity and passivity (to encourage the myriads of “Rosie the Riveters” to butt out of the workforce and free up the jobs for the returning male ex-soldiers). But that state of affairs never reflected the actual reality of the Old West, a harsh and dangerous land that often demanded that both sexes step up to plate and take their share of both fighting and strenuous work. The work of earlier Western genre writers like Edgar Rice Burroughs (The Bandit of Hell’s Bend) and pulp magazine authors like Les Savage Jr. often reflected that reality; and though written in 1956, this novel by Roy Chanslor (1899-1964), with its strong heroine, stands in that older tradition.

This is not, however, a novel of nonstop, slam-bang action from start to finish. On the contrary, Chanslor begins his story with his protagonist “Cat” (short for Catherine –she’s named after her mom) Ballou’s birth. (The titular folk “Ballad of Cat Ballou” that he quotes from, there and throughout the book, is completely fictional, as are the characters; but it imparts a mythic, larger-than-life quality to the narrative.) Then he goes back before that, to the days before her parents met, to help us understand the history of her family, the ill will between the Ballous and the Fields, and the nature of the world she was born into, in which the law was sometimes simply a perverted tool of the wealthy and powerful for plundering the weak, and where “outlaws” were sometimes only principled people fighting for their just rights. Our setting is Wyoming Territory; the localities of the main action are fictional, but supposedly in southern Wyoming, from clues in the text. Textual clues also suggest a date of ca. 1870 for Cat’s birth, and ca. 1886-87 for the crisis that ultimately confronts her. (The passing reference to territorial governor Ed Donaldson, however, isn’t a clue –no such name appears in the real-life roster of Wyoming’s governors!)

Chanslor uses an omniscient, third-person narrative voice, and a prose style that’s not unlike that of other Western writers of his generation –workmanlike, dignified without being stilted. He gives dialogue an authentic, colloquial feel, without resorting to heavy dialect. Not much attention is given to description of the natural world; the author’s focus is on the human world, and the thoughts, feelings and relationships of his characters. He’s also very good at creating an entire array of lifelike, nuanced characters, on both sides of the law (no simplistic “virtuous good guys in white hats and evil bad guys in black hats” here!). As in life, the storyline includes both tragedy and triumph. There’s violent death, and gun-play, in places (despite the cover art on the edition I read, Cat doesn’t wear or shoot a Colt here –but she’s as fast-shooting and as accurate with a rifle as any man); but it’s handled matter-of-factly, and as in the real world, it’s over quickly. (The results are what lingers.)

catballou2As is often the case with fiction that shows human beings involved in intense conflicts with life or death stakes, and making decisions about the use of deadly force, this novel brings to life very real questions about right and wrong, the relative primacy of law and order vs. justice, the moral obligations of humans to each other, the possibly conflicting claims of justice and mercy, the merits of being “fenced in” vs. freedom (and what exactly constitutes “freedom”), and what constitutes honorable behavior in difficult situations. Chanslor tends to point up right and wrong behavior by example rather than by exposition, though he does at times use Old Doc, Cat’s maternal grandfather, and Martha Babcock as mouthpieces for his opinions. In general, though, it’s clear that his own moral orientation is basically that of the traditional Code of the West, with a high value on respect for others’ rights, fair play, fidelity to one’s word, courage, and loyalty to family and friends. His attitude toward religion is aloof (Old Doc advocates reading Scripture “for the sound, not the sense”), but he’s respectful toward his preacher character, who’s definitely one of the good guys.

Romantic love plays a strong role in the tales of both Cat’s parents and her own story. In both cases, we’re dealing with situations of what could be disparaged as “insta-love.” As I’ve noted in other reviews, in pre-modern settings, what we think of as unrealistic “insta-love” could very often be true to life; men and women who didn’t expect to “date,” and who wanted matrimony rather than being afraid of it, learned to size each other up pretty quickly. Frankie and Catherine Ballou’s marriage, IMO, fits that pattern. Cat and her man’s union, though, strains the bounds of probability even for 19th-century attractions; and some of Cat’s attitudes and actions are those of a hormone-driven teen (she’s 16-17 at the time of her main story), not a responsible adult. I also felt Chanslor’s attitude was too cavalier in blithely excusing one character’s adultery when his wife was recovering from a miscarriage –I can understand the psychology of sexual deprivation, and don’t discount the value of forgiveness where penitence is genuine, but I don’t feel it’s “just being a normal male.” These points were what cost the book a star. In the main, though, the messages of the book promote sexual respect for women and glorify committed love in faithful marriage. Parts of the novel have an undercurrent of frank sensuality; but it’s monogamous sensuality that it celebrates.

I found the book a gripping read; there are moments of extreme suspense, and concern for the fate of characters you care about, and toward the end I read for longer than normal because I had to finish it! In some respects, this would actually make a great book for discussion groups to read together, because it can pose a lot to think about and discuss.

Note: Readers should be warned that the book has some d- and h-word bad language, and a fair amount of misuse of Divine names as well.

Author: Roy Chanslor
Publisher: New American Library, available through Amazon, currently only as a printed book.

A version of this review previously appeared on Goodreads.