Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Archive for May, 2020

A New Cold War?

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 31st May, 2020

UyghursIn recent weeks, both houses of the US Congress almost unanimously passed a Bill calling on the Trump administration to enact sanctions against China for its human rights violations in the Xinjiang Uyghur autonomous region. Republicans expect the President soon to sign this into law. The main individual target is Chen Quanguo, the Communist Party’s regional secretary, whom the Bill accuses of gross human rights violations against the local Muslim population, many hundreds of thousands of whom have been detained in re-education camps in what some international human rights groups have termed cultural genocide. This is not the first time that China’s Han-dominated regime has tried to eradicate the religious beliefs and cultural norms of a minority ethnicity, of course; the military occupation of Tibet in 1959 caused a flood of refugees over the Himalayas to Nepal and India, while those who remained behind witnessed their heritage being largely destroyed, especially during China’s Cultural Revolution.

Josep BorrellIn the case of the Uyghurs another disturbing element has been the use of forced labour in detention centres and in factories across the country, with several major Western companies in fields such as fashion and electronics complicit in this abuse through their supply chains. The US Bill specifically calls on US companies and individuals working in the region to cut ties that involve forced labour in Xinjiang. This move in Washington coincides with the stated determination of the European Union to be more “robust” in its dealings with China. At a virtual meeting of the bloc’s Foreign Ministers on Friday, the EU in particular expressed its “grave concern” over China’s new security law relating to Hong Kong, which it said was not in line with Beijing’s international commitments. However, the EU — whose member states are divided about how strongly they want to stand up against China — stopped short of approving any sanctions against China.

Hong Kong demosThe issue of Hong Kong is particularly sensitive in Britain, the former colonial power. Now the UK is no longer a member of the EU it has to decide its own line on disagreements with Beijing. But in London, too, there are divided opinions, for example regarding the wisdom of letting the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei be integrated into the country’s 5G network. Prime Minister Boris Johnson is close to US President Trump, however, and the latter has become increasingly strident in his criticism of China, whom he particularly blames for the COVID-19 pandemic and for allegedly manipulating the WHO. Other Western governments have also increasingly expressed concern about what they see as China’s projection of disinformation since Xi Jinping consolidated his hold on power — a tactic previously mainly associated with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. This does all lead me to wonder whether a new Cold War is in the offing. The last one, between Washington plus its allies against Moscow plus theirs, ended with the collapse of Communism in Europe and the break-up of the Soviet Union. But the new one would be between Washington and Beijing, with a disparate group of nations lining up on either side. But whereas the US could with justification claim to have “won” the last Cold War, its chances this time are perhaps not so bright. Despite Donald Trump’s bluster about Making America Great Again, he has presided over his country’s decline on the international stage, while China, despite recent economic setbacks, partly related to COVID19, remains on the ascendant.

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The Unfinished Arab Spring

Posted by jonathanfryer on Friday, 29th May, 2020

The Unfinished Arab SpringIn the wake of the December 2010 self-immolation of the impoverished young Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, a wave of unrest swept across much of North Africa and the Middle East, leading to the ousting of Presidents Zine El Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt. At the time, I railed against fellow journalists who adopted the lazy slogan of “Arab Spring” for the new phenomenon. Lazy for at least two reasons. First, the term was a clumsy adaptation of the 1968 (ultimately failed) Czech uprising against the country’s Soviet occupiers (the “Prague Spring”); just as virtually every US political scandal since Watergate brought down US President Richard Nixon in 1974 has similarly been sloppily dubbed X-gate or Y-gate. But the second, and more important, reason for my displeasure was that it was blatantly obvious from the turn of events, not least when they reached Syria, where I was lecturing in March 2011, that this momentous political trend was not a matter of just one season. Or indeed one year. I predicted it would take at least a decade, probably two, before we could map its trajectory or judge its success.

Tahrir Square demosWhile I was working with the late Palestinian-Jordanian Minister, Jamal Nasir, on his autobiography, we adopted a fresh term to describe what was happening: The New Arab Awakening. We were intending to write another book, with this title, deliberately echoing that of the classic 1938 history of the rise of Arab nationalism by George Antonius, The Arab Awakening, but sadly the nonagenarian Dr Nasir died before we got very far with that. Now, however, a book has appeared that effectively does what we would have wanted to achieve, but with the added benefit of bringing together contributions from a wide range of distinguished scholars, many of them from the MENA region themselves. The title is well justified, too. The Unfinished Arab Spring  (Gingko, £40), edited by Fatima El-Issawi and Francesco Cavatorta, is in two distinct parts. The first is a series of case studies, covering Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Libya, Morocco and Algeria (Yemen being an interesting omission). Each chapter’s author takes a different approach that is country-specific and illustrates well how very differently each uprising or revolution has turned out, from “delegitimising democratic demands” in the case of Egypt to “resource competition” in Libya. The second part brings an analytical approach to the dialectic between the “dynamics of change” and the “dynamics of continuity”. Various agents and actors are identified, from well-educated youth to secular women, but so too the technological context, not least the prevalence of social media and other alternative platforms.

Algeria demosIn the second section, Tunisia receives particularly close attention, which can be justified not only because this is where the so-called Arab Spring began (in mid-Winter, of course), but also because Tunisia is the one country in which the New Arab Awakening can be said, more or less, to have been a success. Whether others will prove to be in the long term remains to be seen, though there have been encouraging recent developments in Algeria.

All of the chapters have extensive footnotes and at the end of each there is a very useful bibliography. This is, after all, a serious collection of academic papers, though most of its authors have nonetheless managed to write in a style that is accessible to the informed general reader. As a part-time SOAS academic myself, I did momentarily baulk at one chapter heading in Part Two: “Youth Activism and the Politics of ‘Mediapreneurship’: The Effects of Political Efficacy and Empowerment on Mediated Norm Conveyance in Tunisia and Morocco”. But do not be put off by this, or indeed by the price of the book. For a work of such scholarship, £40 is quite reasonable. And if you cannot afford to buy the book yourself, get your library to order it. You and they will be grateful.

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The Conservatives Are Trashing Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th May, 2020

Dominic Cummings in rose gardenWhen prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings gave an unprecedented press conference in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street yesterday afternoon he hoped to draw a line under the matter of his allegedly breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules. But the issue is not just going to evaporate. This morning the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Douglas Ross, has resigned in protest over the way Cummings’ behaviour and Boris Johnson’s unfailing support for his right-hand man have undermined official guidance for limiting the spread of the virus. All this at a time when millions of Brits have made great personal sacrifices over the past couple of months because of social distancing. It’s not just Opposition political parties and the media that are going to keep up the pressure on Cummings to be fired, given that he has asserted he is not going to resign. There is a huge amount of discontent among the general public, including members of the Conservative Party. Yet still Ministers such as Michael Gove trot out loyal statements backing Mr Cummings.

Boris Johnson scowlThe affair has already hit Boris Johnson’s personal opinion poll ratings, which have slumped. But perhaps even more worrying is the way that Britain’s reputation has taken a bashing abroad. As if it were not bad enough that the country now has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus deaths in the world, the Cummings fiasco has made us a laughing stock. Much of the foreign press is withering about how the British lion has lost its mojo. What’s more, the UK’s standing has been hit by a double whammy, as Brexit has also seen our position in the world diminished — a situation that can only get worse after the transition period ends. Boris Johnson and his pals conned the British electorate into backing him last December on the grounds that they would make Britain a proud, independent nation again, but the opposite has happened. The Johnson government is trashing the country with its incompetence. And given the way it is alienating the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it could well end up breaking up the United Kingdom as well.

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The Age of Shadows (2016) *****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 25th May, 2020

The Age of Shadows 1The Japanese occupation of Korea (1910-1945) was a painful experience for the people on the Korean peninsula. The colonial authorities imposed their will brutally, even insisting that Koreans adopt Japanese names, though they did build up the country’s industrial and transport infrastructure. That was mainly a matter of Japanese self-interest, of course, especially after the propagation of the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere from 1931. However, there was an underground resistance movement among nationalist Koreans who dreamed of reasserting Korean independence, despite the daunting Japanese superiority. It is in this context that Kim Jee-woon’s epic action drama The Age of Shadows (in Korean and Japanese, with English sub-titles, available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks) is set, as a small group of insurgents plot a daring attack on key figures in the Japanese colonial establishment. This involves going to Shanghai to fetch explosives, so most of the action in the film — which runs for well over two hours — is set in either Seoul or Shanghai, though the most dramatic section is an extended sequence on board a train travelling between the two. For fans of late 1920s style in fashion and cars, the movie is a visual delight. No expense was spared.

The Age of Shadows 2From an early scene of police and soldiers closing in on a young resistance leader, moving almost balletically across the roofs of a traditional courtyard mansion, onward the tension mounts. The characerisation is vital to the film’s success, the key figure being a Korean police captain working for the Japanese authorities but with a high degree of ambivalence, played by one of Korea’s most celebrated actors. Song Kang-ho (known in the West mainly for being the father of the indigent family in Bong Joon-ho’s Oscar-winning Parasite). The attractive group of young resistance fighters soon win the audience’s affections, but the realisation that there is a traitor in their midst undermines their solidarity. The odds are stacked against them, so their dedication to the cause is sometimes challenged by the very human desire to survive. The Japanese security forces, behind their elegant facade, are prepared to use the most brutal of methods to crush opposition. The film includes a couple of graphic interrogation sessions which are not for the squeamish, but which underline the harsh reality of the occupation.

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Boris Johnson’s Theatre of the Absurd

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th May, 2020

45810B87-930A-4425-ACB4-08E90C9DDAF3UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has usually avoided appearing at the daily Downing Street COVID-19 press conferences — understandable while he was himself ill with the virus, of course — but today he really had no choice but to appear to face allegations that his special advisor, Dominic Cummings, had undermined the government’s message of staying safe at home to prevent a further spread of the disease. The accusation, backed by strong evidence, was that when Mr. Cummings and his wife felt Coronavirus symptoms coming on they got in their car with their infant son and drove 260 miles to his parents’ farm in County Durham. Other reports claimed that later the couple went on a day trip to a local heritage site and that soon afterwards, having returned to work in London, Mr. Cummings made a second trip to Durham. During the day today there has been a cacophony of calls from politicians of all stripes — including at least half a dozen Conservative MPs, as well as members of the public — for Dominic Cummings to resign. Social media were buzzing with outrage from people who had not been able to visit sick and sometimes dying relatives, or had been obliged to miss saying farewell to loved ones at funerals, because they were abiding by the government’s rules. So Mr. Cummings’ behaviour seemed to be a prima facie contravention of health instructions. Yet a series of Cabinet Ministers went into TV studios as the day went on declaring that Mr. Cummings had done nothing wrong, and had only been acting in the best interests of his young son.

C2D345C4-58FB-42C7-BFA9-4290BCB3468COne might then have expected Boris Johnson, when he appeared this afternoon, to bite the bullet and admit that a gross error of judgment had occurred. But not a bit of it. Instead, at the press conference he came out with the novel argument that Mr. Cummings had acted properly in line with “his instincts”. Does that mean, many viewers wondered, that in future everyone can follow their own instincts in responding to the pandemic? Far from cooling things the Prime Minister has stoked the anger. After he finished speaking, an extraordinary tweet appeared on the UK Civil Service’s twitter account decrying the situation. The tweet was removed and declared “unauthorised” within 10 minutes, but not before screenshots of it had been shared multiple times. If the mandarins find out who was responsible, they will doubtless try to fire or at least demote him or her. Hats off to author J. K. Rowling for saying she would happily pay the culprit a year’s salary!

So has Boris Johnson drawn a line under the Cummings saga? Absolutely not. The chorus of disapproval has got even louder this evening, with even Tory stalwarts denouncing the way that the Prime Minister is seemingly in thrall to his special advisor.  Cummings was of course not elected to any public office but now seems to be calling the shots in 10 Downing Street, with even Boris Johnson dancing to his tune. This was an unpopular situation among many Tory MPs even before the current scandal. That can only get worse. One has almost become weary of Boris Johnson’s bluster and Trumpian lies, but now he is playing fast and furious with the whole nature of government. He may feel he has defended Dominic Cummings but in behaving as he has the Prime Minister has in fact damaged his own standing, as well as undermining public confidence in government. His way of governing has become a theatre of the absurd. But what started out being amusing for some people has now morphed into something about which Britons have the right to be absolutely furious.

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Why Cummings Must Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd May, 2020

Dominic Cummings 2Britain is going through a difficult period just now, as we enter the third month of COVID-19 lockdown, with millions of people worried about their future, not only because of the ongoing threat of the virus but also the danger of economic ruin. Many businesses, not least in the hospitality sector, face going under if they cannot soon start trading again and countless freelancers in the creative industries, as I know from my own situation, have seen their earnings plummet. But since last night, the political and media focus has been not so much on the government’s coronavirus strategy as on the behaviour of No 10 Downing’s Street’s unusual Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings. Though unelected, he is said to be the second most powerful man in the government, so strongly does Boris Johnson rely on his advice. Cummings was one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum as well as the Get Brexit Done strategy in last December’s general election. He is unconventional in his dress and manners, and is in favour of blue sky thinking. He it was who called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs to work alongside him in Number 10.

No 10 Downing Street However, the reason he is all over the news at the moment is because he allegedly broke the COVID-19 isolation and “stay at home” rules in force when he and his wife, both of whom were infected with the virus, drove with their young son 250 miles to Durham to place the boy with his elderly grandparents. There is some dispute about whether he was already ill with coronavirus, or just his wife; either way, their action flew in the face of everything that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other government Ministers and senior scientific and medical advisers have been saying over the past eight weeks, as well as demonstrating a curious lack of concern for the vulnerability of the grandparents. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and other senior Conservative figures have been trying to make out that what Cummings did was alright. But for much of the public this looks like a situation of “one rule for the toffs in charge, another for the general population”. It also makes another dent in the Prime Minister’s reputation for allowing this to happen, if he he knew about it in advance.

A number of Tory MPs are understood to be livid about the matter and opposition party figures have been calling for Cummings to go. They are right to do so. Not only has he  apparently taken liberties when it came to the lockdown rules at a time when millions of Britons have been following them assiduously, at considerable personal inconvenience or cost; he also seems to have flouted what I call the Alastair Campbell rule, in honour of Tony Blair’s former Press guru, who realised that when he had become the story rather than the policies Blair’s government was trying to implement, it was time for him to bow out. If Cummings has any sense of decency he will resign. Otherwise, he should be fired.

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Rachmaninoff and Brief Encounter

Posted by jonathanfryer on Thursday, 21st May, 2020

Brief EncounterThough many films have a musical soundtrack that has been specially commissioned, some directors opt to use a well-known piece of music which they feel fits the mood of their film perfectly. One obvious example is Bo Widerberg’s lyrical Elvira Madigan (1967), in which Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 21 in C Major helps lure the viewer into a place of special beauty. But I had forgotten until I watched David Lean’s Brief Encounter (1945 — now available on BBCiPlayer) again last night, for the first time for many years, just how important Rachmaninoff’s Second Piano Concerto in C Minor is in creating a dramatic atmosphere of passions that are doomed. To state the obvious, the minor key stimulates different emotions than the major. But Rachmaninoff also conveys a sense of movement, of building crescendos that are mirrored by the express trains rushing through the railway station that is the site of so much of the drama.

Brief Encounter 1 The film is rightly acknowledged as a masterpiece, not only for Lean’s brilliant use of light and darkness (which Carol Reed would emulate four years later in the equally memorable The Third Man) but also for Noel Coward’s poignant storyline — so much more serious than his often deliciously flippant theatrical comedies. Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson are a perfect pairing as the couple trapped by accident in a situation of illicit love. One sees most of the unfolding events through the woman’s eyes, as her comfy but uninspiring middle aged life of overseeing her little household, with the treat of a weekly excursion by train to a larger town to shop, see a film and change her library book at Boots, is rocked by a glimpse of adventure, dreams of travel and a passionate romance. The tension is broken by some of the minor comic characters in the film — the ghastly chattering gossip, the station’s refreshment room manager with her airs and graces — but Rachmaninoff’s music keeps bringing us back to the tragedy of missed opportunities and the irreconcilable demands of duty and passion.

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The Japan Affair

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 18th May, 2020

The Japan AffairIt has often been said that there are certain similarities between Britain and Japan, as island nations off the coast of a major continent, despite the self-evident differences. Relations certainly reached a nadir during the Second World War, but at other times the two countries have felt a degree of affinity, if only in being unlike the brash United States, which was still visibly an occupying force (notably in Okinawa) when I first went to Japan as a teenager in 1969, en route to Vietnam. Japanese prints and other aspects of the country’s aesthetics had a big impact on late 19th century English fashion and classics of English literature, from William Shakespeare to Charlotte Bronte, resonate surprisingly well with the concerns of a Japanese audience. With notable exceptions such as the Orientalist Arthur Waley and the novelist Francis King, surprisingly few British authors have really immersed themselves in Japanese literature or life, however. So a volume of short essays by a British politician that have appeared over the past 30-odd years as a fortnightly guest column in Japan’s English-language paper, the Japan Times, is a welcome novelty.

David HowellDavid Howell’s The Japan Affair (Gilgamesh, £19.95) offers a varied selection of these pieces, from 1985 to 2019. Though several of the early ones are broad-brush op-eds on geopolitics and economics, with intimations of Margaret Thatcher fandom, the style and to a certain degree the content become more personal and, let’s be honest, more interesting as the years go by. The truism that one learns how to write by writing seems borne out here. As David Howell — on several occasions a Conservative UK Government Minister, first in the Commons then later in the Lords — was Chair of the UK Japan 2000 Group between 1987 and 1997, inevitably issues studied by that bilateral forum form part of his text. But he comes to life when addressing more human stories, whether it is in reaction to the terrible Kobe earthquake of 1995 or the Japanese passion for Peter Rabbit and his creator Beatrix Potter’s cottage. There are interesting reflections on the transformation of soccer into a multi-billion dollar global enterprise, as well as musings on the core sociological issue of identity. Lord Howell continues to write his column, which only had a break during his time as a Minister in the 2010-2015 Coalition government. But he is able to use a postscript to this collection of pieces to make an over-arching point that perhaps Japan and the UK should put greater effort into nurturing their relationship, in an unsure world of Trump, Putin and Xi. “In areas of technology, defence, security, culture, research, innovation, the two island states are becoming steadily bound together,” he writes. “A little bit of recognition, a little bit (but not too much) of strategic push at government and ministerial levels, could make this a wonderfully strong platform for both nations in a very dangerous and uncertain world.”

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The Lure of St. Trinian’s

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 16th May, 2020

Ronald Searle St. Trinian'sThe years immediately after the Second World War in Britain were fairly grim and grey, despite the relief of victory. The physical damage of war was still visible in cities and some rationing was in force, as a new Labour government set about establishing the Welfare State. But as welcome relief from the shortages and financial hard times there were the wickedly satirical drawings of cartoonist Ronald Searle, in particular his depiction of life in a hellish girls’ school of his imagination, St. Trinian’s, where the girls are little monsters and the teaching staff delinquent. Although Searle’s first showcasing of St. Trinian’s was in Lilliput magazine in 1941, carried in many a serviceman’s jacket pocket, before the artist himself joined the army, his output was stopped by being captured at the fall of Singapore and his incarceration in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. On his release and repatriation, the cartoon strips really took off, leading to a series of books, but the caricatures were now darkened by truly horrific scenes of mistreatment and slaughter in the bedlam of a school that had lost all vestiges of morality and humanity — yet drawn in such a way that one could only laugh at the little girl horrors, with their wild hair, disheveled uniforms and fiendish grins. All very different from the jolly hockey sticks schoolgirl world of popular novelist Angela Brazil.

Blue Murder at St. Trinian'sBetween 1954 and 1966, four feature films were made by the brilliant team of Frank Launder and Sidney Gilliat, inspired by the stories, several of which can be seen on BBC iPlayer for the next few weeks. My favourite by far is Blue Murder at St. Trinian’s (1957), as it has a strong plot as well as the finest line-up of actors playing the adults, most of whose lives are tormented in one way or another by the miniature demons of the St. Trinian’s fourth form. A young George Cole, splendidly dodgy as Flash Harry, is running a variety of shady businesses with the help of the older girls, including an illicit marriage bureau. Richard Wattis is in his element as the bespectacled, bowler-hatted civil servant from the Ministry of Education, totally out of his depth. And although Joyce Grenfell is a recurring  character in the film series it is in Blue Murder that she is given the greatest opportunity to be her lolloping, ridiculous best as Police Sergeant Ruby Gates, besotted with her handsome but caddish superior officer and fiancé, who is determined not to tie the knot. By a dastardly trick, the girls of St. Trinian’s win a competition whose prize is a trip to Rome. With faux upper class conman Terry-Thomas at the wheel of their battered coach, what could possibly go wrong? Plenty, of course, with hilarious results. It must have been a welcome cathartic experience for many who saw the film when it first came out and it remains a true gem of British Lion comedy to savour against the backdrop our bizarre world of COVID-19 New Normal.

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The Eagle Has Landed (1976) ****

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 11th May, 2020

The Eagle Has Landed 1With feature films, as with the theatre, a degree of suspension of disbelief is needed. That is particularly true in what one might call the genre of “what if” movies, which site the action in a specific time and place, with fictional characters mixed in with real historical figures. Jack Higgins’ classic wartime thriller novel, The Eagle Has Landed, was an obvious candidate for this type of film, with its clever central plot of a German attempt to kidnap Winston Churchill at a time when the Nazis were clearly losing the war, in the hope of using that trump card to extract favourable peace terms. Director John Sturges picks up the ball and runs with it confidently (movie available on BBCiPlayer for the next four weeks).

The Eagle Has Landed 3 The kidnap attempt would be made during Churchill’s visit to an isolated village in Norfolk (actually picturesque Mapledurham in Oxfordshire was used as the set). The man in principle master-minding the operation is Heinrich Himmler (beautifully played with a most sinister little smile by Donald Pleasance) but the lead operator will be a much-decorated but insubordinate officer (a conveniently blond, dashing and cheeky Michael Caine). In order for the audience to feel some empathy for this Nazi commando, in an implausible early scene he attempts to rescue a Jewish girl from a transport of Jews being taken by train from the Warsaw Ghetto to a concentration camp.

The Eagle Has Landed 2Such compassion and underlying niceness (also demonstrated by one soldier who plays Bach expertly on the village church organ) will prove to be the expedition’s undoing. In the meantime, though, there are nearly two-and-a-half hours of action-packed manoeuvres. There is a bit of heavy-handed comedy to relieve the tension, for example the blundering behaviour of a completely unbelievable idiot US colonel (Larry Hagman). But the film is actually hijacked by the Canadian Donald Sutherland, who puts in an unforgettable performance as an Irish Republican who has been enlisted to the operation by the Nazis. Inevitably there has to be a love interest, to appeal to a transatlantic audience, and he is the unexpected beneficiary. But this relationship is not allowed to distract too much from the action which builds to a crescendo, all against the gorgeous backdrop of the village. By now verisimilitude has largely gone out the window, but does it matter? Not if you like action films, especially war films. So if you do, suspend your disbelief and wallow in it.

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