Archive | April, 2012

Get Off Your Horse and What?

15 Apr

It’s just as well I’m not very interested in being fashionable.

If I was, I’d never be able to admit that I like watching Westerns.

It’s okay to like some Westerns, of course.

You can like Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, because, well… it was made by Clint Eastwood and somehow anything Clint Eastwood does is cool.

For a while, it was also okay to like Dances With Wolves. (Although personally I found it to be pretentious and tedious. And all that PC talk about how wonderful it was to see Native American actors being cast to play Native American roles blithely ignored the fact that both John Ford and Sam Peckinpah routinely cast Native American actors long before anyone had even heard of Kevin Costner).

But in general it’s not really okay to like Westerns.

It’s also virtually impossible to make Westerns and I really don’t expect to see anyone else giving the genre another go any time soon.

I suppose it’s all down to a bit of an image problem.

There seems to be a perception that Westerns are necessarily racist, sexist and that they generally falsify history and glorify right-wing political ideas.

So if that’s what you think, then you’re not alone, since it seems to have become accepted wisdom over the years, although I suspect that most of the people who do think along those lines probably haven’t seen too many Westerns.

So if that really is what you think, then maybe you should try watching a couple of Westerns and find out whether or not that accepted wisdom has any truth in it.

Of course there are some Westerns I wouldn’t recommend.

In spite of a stellar cast and some amazing directing talent (or possibly because of it) How the West Was Won really irritates me.

Mostly what I dislike about it is it’s consistent dishonesty. It pretty much airbrushes non-whites out of American history. (You could argue that many Westerns do, but this particular film pretends to be a sweeping account of the history of the West, so it has less of an excuse than other films that don’t have the same pretensions). It’s also a film that suffers from the presence of Debbie Reynolds (I know, she was terribly sweet in Singing in the Rain, but aside from that I find her deeply irritating. Especially when she sings).

I also loathe Shane.

I read the book (under duress) at school, and I thought it was pretty much okay for a children’s book. Not wonderful, you understand, but fairly short and a fast, undemanding read.

How someone managed to turn it into the bloated, ponderous pile of stodge that is the film version, I do not know.

I suppose some idiot decided that this was a ‘classic’ and concluded that it had to be treated accordingly. This, I assume, is why the damn’ thing has all the vivacity and pace of a tortoise on haloperidol.

Even Jack Palance, (on magnificently wicked form as the nasty gunslinger), can’t save it.

Of course anyone with cinephile pretensions will probably know and love films like, The Magnificent Seven, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Stagecoach or High Noon. With a little luck they might even know about The Wild Bunch or Ulzana’s Raid.

But I’d like to make a pitch for a couple of less well-known films.

You see many of the best Westerns, in my opinion, are low-budget, unpretentious little films that get on with the business of telling their story without a whole load of extraneous twaddle.

To give you an example; Last Train from Gun Hill was made in 1959 and stars Kirk Douglas as a Marshall looking for the men who raped and murdered his wife, while Anthony Quinn plays the rancher who’s son is one of the culprits. (Both actors were in their prime, at this point, but not yet the mega stars they later became).

Essentially what you have here is the irresistible force (Douglas) meeting the immovable object (Quinn) while Carolyn Jones (Morticia from the TV version of The Addams Family) slinks between them with a truly feline poise as Quinn’s ex-girlfriend.

(She’s his ex because he beat her up and put her in hospital and she’s really not the kind of woman to take that kind of thing. Westerns quite often feature strong and intelligent female characters. Not balloon-chested, gun-toting amazons you understand, but credible human characters).

Carolyn Jones’ role in this film is particularly interesting, because she not only plays a key role in the mechanics of moving the plot along, but she’s also important in challenging other characters.

Kirk Douglas’ character is driven by vengeance, while Anthony Quinn’s is driven by his need to protect his son. Unfortunately, the son is a weakling who’s trying to live up to the warped image of manhood provided by his overbearing father. (Even here there’s a degree of complexity, there are hints that the son really doesn’t want to be the kind of man that he thinks his father wants him to be and that, left to his own devices, he might have been a gentler and more civilised person).

To one extent or another, then, all of these men need a reality check and it’s Carolyn Jones’ character who goes some way towards providing it.

Hopefully I’ve caught your interest, and if you want to know how the story ends, then watch the film. It shouldn’t be too hard to track down.

Like so many of my favourite Westerns Last Train from Gun Hill was never meant to be a classic film. It was a relatively low-budget film that just rolled off the studio production line.

What makes it special is the cast and an intelligent script.

(One of the joys of this kind of film is that no one was paying too much attention to them at the time and every now and then it allowed someone to try something a bit different or a bit contentious. The kind of thing they couldn’t do in a higher profile production).

If you want something even more obscure, you can try a film called No Name On The Bullet. This film would have a small place in film history anyway, because it was Audie Murphy’s last film.

(Audie Murphy was the most decorated American soldier of WWII who was picked up by Hollywood, and turned out to be a pretty useful actor.

His range may have been a bit limited, but he had a real screen presence. Somehow, even after a pretty harsh life before the war and his impressive record during the war, he managed to retain a youthful, even baby-faced, appearance that contrasted with a certain steely eyed harshness that showed through from time to time. Actually if you check out his biography, you’ll find that he was a pretty impressive human being who showed a remarkable amount of courage and integrity, not only during the war, but also in battling depression and working for other veterans who were suffering from mental health problems. He’s also credited with bringing an unusually large dose of authenticity to the film adaptation of his life story To Hell and Back).

No Name on The Bullet is set towards the end of the Western period at a time when people have settled down and built their churches, schoolhouses and law courts. This is a period when you just can no longer just go around shooting people and riding off into the sunset with no questions asked.

Audie Murphy plays a notorious killer for hire who has adapted to the changing circumstances by manipulating his intended victims into starting a gunfight so that he can shoot them with impunity.

He is an intelligent and articulate character. He is also clearly ruthless and cynical, but there is also a certain honesty about him. This honesty contrasts with the ‘respectable’ townsfolk who all know that he has been hired by one of their number in order to kill one of them. What had seemed to be such a nice little town actually turns out to be a hotbed of conspiracy and hypocrisy.

What drives the plot, and produces much of the tension, is the guilt-driven paranoia that besets almost everyone in the town as they turn on each other while the gunslinger simply sits back and watches until he’s ready to strike.


I’m not saying it’s classic cinema, but it’s an interesting little film and it was made for grown-ups. (As opposed to so many contemporary blockbusters, which can be fun and certainly have their place, but are not really made for someone who wants something to think about).

Westerns are easy to mock. (Mel Brooks did it brilliantly in Blazing Saddles) and I don’t suppose it’s really possible to make them any more. They’re often associated with deeply unfashionable ideas about masculinity and a mythology about American history that has been shown to have little bearing on the truth. So any Western that gets made these days will have to be at the very least a ‘revisionist’, that may well be no closer to the truth than the mythology it seeks to replace, but will probably be a lot less fun as well.

In truth a lot of Hollywood Westerns really were unfair and patronising (if nothing worse) towards various minorities. All too often native Americans are treated as savages (albeit sometimes ‘noble savages’), while African-Americans were generally either totally absent or reduced to providing comic relief.

Similarly Mexicans were often portrayed as childlike characters or comic book villains.

(If you’re not sure what I mean, try watching The Magnificent Seven back to back with Fistful of Dollars or For a Few Dollars More. Much though I love The Magnificent Seven, Sergio Leone’s Mexicans, mostly played by Spanish Gypsies, are much more serious, not to mention scary, characters than any of the Mexicans you’ll find in the mainstream Hollywood films of the time).

Having acknowledged that, I think it’s still true to say that the Western allowed film makers to explore ideas and themes in a setting that allowed them to strip away everything but the bare essentials.

The classic example would be High Noon.

What other genre would allow you to examine questions of integrity, courage, pacifism and loyalty with such trenchant clarity?

At this point I’d like to include a short comment about Randolph Scott.

For many years I thought of Randolph Scott as a bit of a joke. Then I watched a couple of his films and I changed my mind.

He was a tall man with a rugged sort of face. Not every film he appeared in was a Western (60 out of the more than 100 films he made), but he will always be associated with Westerns more than any other kind of film.

When he rode into a film you knew that he would be the kind of man who knew how to do things. He would know how to ride, and shoot guns (that’s pretty standard in a screen cowboy), but he’d also know how to make and fix things, how to look after sick horses, find water in a desert and all sorts of other useful, practical things.

Generally speaking he would be honest and self-reliant and he would always be courteous and respectful to women.

He could be ruthless at times, and sometimes he was driven and obsessive, but he could be gentle too. He was taciturn and often a loner, but he would be intelligent and articulate when he wanted to be. (Actually his screen persona reminds me a little of Homer’s Odysseus, even if Odysseus is a lot more inclined to lie. The fact that Odysseus is a king is irrelevant, he’s not a very rich king and his influence, like Randolph Scott’s came from his personal qualities, not his social status).

In other words, Randolph Scott, like Gary Cooper, knew how to play a good and decent man without making him insipid or preachy.

(This is a rare talent. Think how many of the ‘heroes’ in contemporary films are not just flawed but virtually pathological. It seems that many film makers, knowing that it’s easier to create a charismatic villain than an interesting hero, now want to present us with ‘heroes’ who are essentially just villains who happen to be a bit less villainous than their antagonists. I don’t think this has anything to do with realism or reflecting moral complexity, I think it’s just lazy).

You could say that Randolph Scott embodied the mythology of the West in his screen performances.

That the mythology didn’t have much to do with the reality of the Old West, but so what?

If you want history then read a history book. (And I do read quite a lot of history, I’d recommend it to anyone).

Fiction isn’t the truth and it was never meant to be.

Fiction is a lie that tells a different kind of truth.

But the truth isn’t always bleak. It doesn’t have to batter us down into nasty, mean, crabbed little lives. Sometimes we can do a little better than that.

And I don’t mean that we should all aspire to shoot ‘the bad guy’.

After all, you can seldom do much good in the world by killing people, but the point to High Noon isn’t that Will Kane shoots Frank Miller. It’s the fact that he stands up for the truth in spite of being alone and afraid. (And at times Gary Cooper shows you just how scared Kane really is and just how tempted he is to get on his horse and ride out). Most of the townspeople want to pretend that Frank Miller isn’t all that bad, or that if they leave him alone he’ll behave himself.

(A few are more honest and they simply want Miller back because they made good money when he was running things and to hell with the rule of law. At least some know that Miller will be a disaster for the town but they just want to leave him to it as long as they can get clear before things really kick off). 

High Noon is often seen as an allegory for Carl Foreman’s own predicament during the McCarthy witch hunts, but I don’t think you need to know anything about Senator Joe McCarthy, Communism or Blacklists to understand or appreciate the film.

I think that all you really need to do is watch it.


Me and the Telegraph Pole

8 Apr

It was about thirty years ago that I was given rather a lot to think about one reasonably sunny afternoon.

Most of us in the United Kingdom had just become acquainted with the fact that we were in possession of a small group of islands in the South Atlantic called the Falkland Islands. Unfortunately, before we’d had much of a chance to assimilate this information, we then learned that in Argentina they already knew all about the Falkland Islands. Except that they called them the Malvinas, and there was a general consensus that the Malvinas were actually the rightful property of Argentina and that the UK really ought to do the decent thing and give them back. Apparently there had been negotiations going on between the UK and Argentina over the Falklands/Malvinas for years, but virtually no one in the UK knew anything about it and the Argentinians were fed up because they were pretty sure that the negotiations were going nowhere and as far as the UK was concerned, they never would go anywhere.

Having just become aware of these facts, we in the UK, then became aware of some scrap metal merchants who had landed on South Georgia, with dubious legality and probably no real interest in salvaging any of the scrap metal on the island.

Shortly after that we had Argentinean troops landing on the Falklands/Malvinas and all sorts of diplomacy was going on in the hope of trying to resolve the situation. I won’t bore you with the ins and outs of the diplomacy. Obviously it failed and we had a war.

Even at the time, I wasn’t desperately hopeful that diplomacy had much chance of success, in this situation, given the nature of the governments in both the UK and Argentina.

(They had a military Junta with dwindling popularity and a hideous record of human rights abuses and we had the Thatcher régime, whose popularity was also waning at the time. Neither of these governments ever showed much interest in negotiation or compromise).

So it looked as though we were heading for war and, whatever anyone might want to claim now, people in the UK were not, as far as I could see at the time, particularly cheerful or united at the prospect. As a matter of fact, most of the people I was talking to at the time seemed to veer, as I did, between disbelief and nausea at the prospect of a war over a distant group of islands that most of had never even heard of only a matter of a week or two before.

(At the time the more vainglorious warmongers in the media and politics tended to confabulate this reluctance to go to war with a lack of patriotism, or a failure to support ‘our boys’. This was, and still is strictly bullshit. You do not undermine the men and women in our armed forces by hating the idea of putting them in harm’s way without a compelling reason. As a matter of fact, I think the alternative is to insult service men and women by treating them as an expandable commodity).

I don’t recall that this reluctance had much to do with any fear that the UK would lose the war. I think we all more or less took it for granted that we would win.

(This turned out to be sheer prejudice. It became apparent during the conflict that the UK was heavily dependent on the United States for logistical support. Some time after the conclusion of hostilities it became apparent that the UK armed forces actually came very close to running out of ammunition and that the whole war was far more of a gamble than most of us knew at the time).

Of course I had a certain interest in these events from the moment that the crisis first arose, but I would have said that, just at first, it wasn’t a terribly personal concern for me. It was current affairs. Not personal.

Then, for about twenty minutes, it became personal. Very personal. And I don’t think my view of current affairs has ever been quite so impersonal ever since.

Every now and then when the UK gets itself into trouble, rumours start to fly around about the reintroduction of National Service (Conscription).

At this point in my life I was aged 18 and I hadn’t come across this phenomenon before. I have come across it a number of times since, however.

So when I came across this rumour for the first time, I was also acutely aware that I was about the same age as a lot of the soldiers who had been conscripted from the United States into the Vietnam War. More to the point, I was also aware that many of the men and women who were being mobilised to serve in the South Atlantic, were also about the same age.

Of course common sense set in after a relatively short time. Whichever way things were going to go in the Falklands/Malvinas, it was all going to be over before anyone could even enact the legislation for conscription in the UK and long before anyone could be selected, drafted, trained etc.

There was also the fact that the British military have never liked conscription and would have fought against it tooth and nail. (For good reason, except in a national emergency, conscripts tend to be poorly motivated and therefore hard to discipline and train. For most purposes you’re much better off with a relatively small military establishment staffed by highly trained and motivated professionals).

And then again, I was also a university student at the time and would quite possibly have been exempt on those grounds alone. (Students very often are exempt from conscription. I frame no hypothesis as to why this is the case. You can draw your own conclusions if you want to).

So my concern was irrational and short-lived. But then again, it was also quite real, if rather selfish, and in the end rather instructive.

You see, quite far from being gripped by patriotic fervour, my immediate reaction to the prospect of conscription was to suggest that if anyone wanted to put me in the army then they’d need to find a bus with doors wide enough to take me and the fucking telegraph pole.

Rank cowardice, you may say.

Well, I won’t deny that.

I was certainly concerned about my immediate welfare and I wasn’t at all convinced that, what I saw as the diplomatic stupidity of Thatcher’s government in failing to avoid the conflict was a cause worth the loss of my life, or indeed anyone else’s. As a matter of fact I didn’t even think it was worth the loss of a finger, let alone an arm or a leg.

(It was apparent even at that point that the warning signs had been quite apparent for some time before the landing on South Georgia and that previous UK Governments had responded to similar warning signs and headed off armed conflict at various times in the past. These facts were known at the time although the subsequent enquiry seemed to have remarkably little to say about any of this and Thatcher’s eulogists, or should I say hagiographers, have never wanted to know anything about this aspect of the story).

I suppose if my country had been in real danger, I might have knuckled down to the business of military service, stopped whining about saving my own skin and got on with whatever had to be done.

I have sometimes wondered how many young men felt pretty much as I did when they were called to fight in World War II, but then went on to serve their countries with courage and resilience.

Maybe I would have done the same.

Maybe not.

I don’t suppose I’ll ever know, and I certainly don’t have any examples of heroic activity in my life to offer in support of any claim I might want to make on my own behalf.

What I would say is that I’m not sure I was as afraid of being killed or injured as I was afraid of having the person I had spent my time trying to become, and hoped to go on shaping through my ongoing education, shaped by other forces and for other purposes than my own.

I had an idea of what I wanted to be. I haven’t become that person, maybe I never could have, but I really didn’t want the project of my life to be taken out of my hands as a result of the stupidity and arrogance of a bunch of politicians. (And Generals usurping the position of politicians).

So you can say I wasn’t exactly heroic, and I was a little short on selfless devotion to duty. (Or at least some people’s ideas of what my duty might have been).

But one thing I’d say in my own defence is that at the very least I’ve always made my reaction to the prospect of conscription (however illusory) inform my attitude and behaviour in the years that have followed.

As a consequence I have the greatest respect for anyone who’s willing to serve in the military.

After all, they’re doing something I wouldn’t (probably couldn’t) do, so they deserve my respect.

They also deserve my support, which is why I make a point of contributing to the Earl Haig fund. I don’t see it as supporting militarism. I see it as making a small contribution to filling the gap left by the long-standing tradition of neglect and parsimony that has been followed by governments of all persuasions when it comes to looking after the people who are harmed as a result of war’s they choose to fight. (And, whatever they may say in public, governments generally choose which wars they fight. There are exceptions, but not many).

I am also consistently opposed to sending our armed forces to fight (meaning to kill, maim, get killed and maimed and generally participate in a localised form of hell on Earth) unless the alternative really is worse. (And very often it isn’t really when you look behind the political rhetoric).

I also favour a very simple expedient that might curb the willingness of politicians to send other people out to kill and die for them.

I think that as a matter of law, no politician should be entitled to vote in favour of armed intervention until they’ve been to one of the trouble spots of the world, not for a photo opportunity, but in order to fill a body bag. Preferably with the corpse of some civilian casualty who has been left out in the open for a few days.

Maybe that would make them a little bit less heroic when it comes to sacrificing other people’s lives.

Unlike some, I give Thatcher no credit at all for courage in sending the Task Force down to the Falklands.

In fact, I blame her for not preventing the war.

But once Argentinean troops had landed on the Islands I think war was unavoidable. I think Thatcher only did what any other UK Prime Minister would have done under the circumstances.

I also think that whatever the rights and wrongs of Britain’s possession of the Falklands (And even the Duke of Wellington thought our claim was shaky to say the least). It would have been wrong in principle to allow the Argentinean Junta to profit from armed aggression. (I’m well aware that many other countries have been allowed to profit from their aggression before and since, but the fact that we sometimes allow the wrong thing to happen is no excuse for not even trying to stop it when we can).

As a curious footnote to the above, I learned some time after the fighting had ended in the Falklands that one of the guys I’d known at school had been involved in the fighting.

I was horrified at the thought.

He was such a nice guy; I could never picture him with a gun in his hand.

He wasn’t a lifelong buddy of mine and as a matter of fact I never really knew him all that well, but I used to play football with him from time to time. These weren’t organised matches; they were silly ad hoc games with improvised facilities and pretty fluid rules.

Generally speaking we would use a tennis ball, because it was easier to carry around than a proper football, but if we didn’t have a tennis ball we’d use a bottle top.

(You have to stamp on the bottle top to flatten it then you don’t exactly kick it, you put your foot on it and sort of flick it).

On one (brief) occasion we tried using a golf ball.

(Don’t try it, unless you’ve got a really high tolerance of pain).

Anyway, this guy came back from the South Atlantic without a scratch on him, as I later found out, and he used some of his back pay to buy a bicycle. The first time he took his bike out on the road, some idiot in a truck ran him off the road.

He survived this too, with only minor injuries, but the point remains that riding a bike in any major city in the UK can be more hazardous to your health than fighting in a small war.

Maybe I’m being facetious.

I could pretend to be more serious by quoting statistics about the casualties of the war, 649 Argentinians killed, 1068 wounded, 258 British killed, 775 wounded, but what does that tell you?

If you don’t know any of those people it’s hard to see these figures as anything more than statistics. Maybe that’s why I was so upset about my old school chum going to war and why I wanted to mention him here. The fact is that I lost track of this guy almost as soon as I left school and only learned that he’d joined the army by pure fluke, but that isn’t the point.

If he had been killed or suffered life changing physical or mental injuries in the Falklands War that would have been more than a statistic for me.

In that one instance the casualty would have had a name and a face for me. He would have been a human being and not a number and I would have had to remember his jokes, his agility, the times I got in his way and we scuffled around a bit and swapped a few insults. (This was always an integral part of the game as we played it).

So maybe that’s the real lesson to take from all this.

Maybe when we read the statistics about so many people killed and injured in some incident or accident we should try to picture some of the people we know. Not heroes. Just people.

After all, every one of those statistics was a human being before history dropped feet first all over them.

Of course another casualty of the war was the slight, faint hope of a negotiated settlement to the dispute over the Falklands/Malvinas.

Sean Penn can fulminate as much as he likes (and who knows? On some level he may even be right). But the point remains that after shedding so much blood, it will be many years, (decades? generations?) before any government in the United Kingdom will ever be able to even consider any kind of deal that the Argentinians might find close to being acceptable. (And that’s before you even try to factor in considerations about possible oil reserves and claims to Antarctic territory).

So did the war do any good for anyone?

It virtually guaranteed Thatcher’s re election. (Which was looking unlikely before the war).

It brought down the military Junta in Argentina and opened the way for democracy.

It has been credited with restoring the UK’s battered confidence and wiping out the ignominy of the Suez Crises. (Does any of that even mean anything to anyone younger than me?)

It made a negotiated settlement over the disputed islands virtually impossible. (And it will remain virtually impossible for the foreseeable future).

It gave my motorcycle instructor a useful terminology for one of the hazards faced by bikers (The Exocet Dog).

It totally failed to resolve the dispute between the UK and Argentina (Which at the time of writing is still causing friction).

It was a major, formative step on my path to becoming the seditious, obnoxious, iconoclastic, not quite pacifist that I have become.



The Aliens are Coming (Or Not)

1 Apr

Some time ago I had a conversation with someone that inspired a train of thought.
He had just seen Independence Day and he seemed to think he’d had some kind of revelation. It had occurred to him that science fiction films about alien invaders always had the same basic structure i.e. Aliens arrive, aliens turn out to be nasty. Humans fight back and suffer a massive defeat, humans have a period of despondency, giving us a chance to survey all the damage caused by the nasty aliens. Then the humans come up with a cunning plan. The cunning plan is then implemented, in spite of a few set backs, and the aliens finally get their comeuppance and everyone’s happy. (Except the aliens, but they don’t really count).

I wouldn’t say that this insight ranks alongside Vladimir Propp’s work on the morphology of folktales, or Joseph Campbell’s various tomes on narrative structure.

(Unfortunately these works have given rise to the theory that there are only six, eight, ten, or maybe even a dozen basic stories and that all the films, novels, plays etc that you will ever come across fit into one or another of the categories identified in whichever version of the theory you happen to have come across. Personally I think this theory is baloney, but a fair number of people have made quite a lot of money out of aspiring authors on it and who am I to argue against commercial success?)

Having said that, I do think it’s sometimes worth thinking in terms of the different permutations that can arise from any given story premise.

So on this basis we start with the notion of aliens arriving and look at the different scenarios that can follow on from it.

1/ Aliens don’t come.
There might seem to be no potential in this, but think of the panic caused by Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of War of the Worlds and you’ll see that you can actually make a story out of this. You could also go down the route of someone mounting a deliberate hoax in order to divert attention from something else. (I’m sure this happened in at least one of the Scooby Do cartoons).

2/ Aliens arrive and nobody notices.
Think of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, or even This Island Earth. Or you could simply tell the story from the point of view of the aliens and present their perception of humanity.

3/ Aliens arrive. They’re very nice. We’re nice to them. Everyone has a good time.
It might not seem to have much potential, but it could make a charming little story for very young children.

4/ Aliens arrive. They’re nice. We’re not so nice.
The Man Who Fell to Earth, The Abyss, ET (Which I hate) or, to a degree, The Day the Earth Stood Still. Some critics have over stated the benevolence of the aliens in the original version of this film. Michael Rennie is very personable, but his message isn’t as benevolent as the lazier commentators have suggested. He isn’t trying to save humanity, he’s telling us that we can do as we please on our own planet, but that his people and their allies won’t tolerate it if we try to bring our nasty habits with us when we venture into space. (The remake is very pretty to watch, but I found it a bit confused and I’m not even going to try to comment on it).
5/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back, aliens get creamed.
This would make for a rather short story, but maybe you could make something of it. Who knows?

6/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back and get creamed.
Rather a depressing story but you could make it work if there was something you wanted to say about living under an oppressive government.

7/ Aliens arrive, they’re not very nice, but they seem to be nice for a while.
This was the basic premise behind the original TV series V. (I haven’t seen the remake so I don’t want to comment on it).
This was a deeply frustrating series for me because it touched on a number of interesting themes and then immediately veered off into the banality of TV narrative conventions. For example, it touched on issues about when suspicions about the alien are well founded and when they might simply be prejudice, also questions about how far you can ‘just follow orders’ and when you have to rebel. There were also hints of the moral issues that arise from trying to resist occupation, such as who are legitimate targets and who are innocent victims, and questions about collaboration and collaborators and what to do about them. There were also issues about the extent to which our own leaders will sell us out to oppression and exploitation in order to secure their own positions of power.

8/ Aliens arrive. They’re not very nice. Humans fight back and initially lose, but later fight back etc and we’re back to where we started with the basic structure of Independence Day. (And also HG Well’s War of the Worlds, albeit with a bit of a twist, the Earthlings who nail the alien invaders aren’t human, they’re microbes).

This last permutation clearly isn’t the only one with real potential, nor is it even necessarily the best permutation. All you can really say is that it’s probably the best permutation for a Hollywood blockbuster. After all, it’ll give you plenty of scope for action and special effects, lots of dramatic tension and a nice ‘feel good’ climax to round things off.

You may well feel that the approach to narrative structure outlined above is a bit too mechanistic and that it will produce mechanistic and stereotyped stories. And if you do, well, all I can really say is that I agree, and it’s not an approach I would use in developing my own stories. That’s not really what it’s for. All it’s really for is looking at the different choices available from a basic story premise in the hope of finding a starting point.

Once you have a point to start from I think it’s better to let the characters drive the plot, rather than forcing the characters into a predetermined plot. If you go down that route you’re liable to wind up losing credibility as your characters to behave in inconsistent and improbable ways.

I would also add that I would not analyse films or novels that I really like along these lines. (As a matter of fact, I don’t tend to analyse the stories that I really like to any great extent. I’m always worried that if I try to analyse them too much I’ll lose the magic).

As a matter of fact I only tend to analyse the stories that don’t quite work for me. (Crap films, TV programmes and novels can be amazingly productive as a source of ideas for stories. All you have to do is work out what you don’t like about them and then look for a way to ‘fix’ them).

I don’t think I’m alone in looking at alternative permutations on existing plot lines.
For example, I think it’s fairly well known that High Plains Drifter started off with a thought about what would have happened if you take the premise of High Noon and then think about what would have happened if Will Kane had been killed.

(There’s another story in there about what would have happened if Frank Miller turns out to be a reformed character who tries to go straight, and another one if Will Kane bows to pressure and tries to avoid the confrontation. Yet another permutation, and one that appeals to me, is a story where Will Kane is tempted into forming an alliance with someone just as bad as Frank Miller in order to have a fighting chance against Miller and his gang).

In a similar vein, there was a lot of talk about Quentin Tarantino ripping off a Hong Kong film called City on Fire for his debut film Reservoir Dogs. Having seen both films I think I can see the connection, but I also think it was greatly exaggerated in the anti-Tarantino backlash.
As far as I can see, the real connection between these films is that they’re both heist films, where the robbery goes wrong and the robbers believe that one of their number is an undercover cop. This leads to a stand off where a number of characters are pointing guns at each other. In City on Fire the confrontation goes one way and, assuming Tarantino was influenced by the film at all, he simply seems to have thought about what would have happened if that confrontation had gone the other way.

Personally, I wouldn’t see this as any kind of rip off or plagiarism. To me it’s nothing more than the licence that any storyteller has to explore the different permutations that can arise from any given story premise.

(There is also a brief homage where Harvey Keitel’s character shoots at a police car with a pistol in either hand, but this image of a central character blasting away with a gun in each hand was a staple of Hong Kong action films in general. It was used to great effect by John Woo, amongst others and the fact that Tarantino’s detractors associated it with City on Fire in particular just shows that they weren’t as familiar with Hong Kong action films as they might have been trying to pretend).

Every jazz musician knows that he, or she, has an inalienable right to take any tune that appeals to him, or her, and do whatever they like with it. And as far as I’m concerned every storyteller has the same rights with regard to any story that appeals to them.

After all, there’s some evidence that this is exactly what Homer did when he, or she (we really don’t know who Homer really was) wrote The Iliad and The Odyssey.

This is why I was able to enjoy Wolfgang Petersen’s film Troy, in spite of the fact that I’ve lived with the Homeric epics for long enough to see the main characters as neighbours, if not family.

So while I’d hate to see Achilles or Odysseus being cheapened or maligned, (I’ve never forgiven Virgil for his portrayal of them in the Aenead), I’m really not too precious about how people adapt or update the Homeric epics. What I care about is how well the stories are told and how well the characters are developed. And what I really care about is that the stories are still told and the characters still live.

So if you have a new take on Achilles or Odysseus then go for it. Just do it well and I’m with you.

All you have do is do it right.