Historic America

Battle of the Windmill National Historic Site

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Rebels holed up in a stone gristmill held off the British Army for several days before being forced to surrender in this odd chapter in Canadian military history.

The Battle of the Windmill was a strange episode in North American history, when British and U.S. forces cooperated to put down a rebellion in Upper Canada, known as the “Patriot War”. The battle was fought from November 12 to November 16, 1838, between Nils von Schoultz and 250 rebels against 1,133 Canadian militia, 500 British regulars, and the British and U.S. Navy two miles east of Prescott, Ontario. The entire rebel force was killed, wounded, or captured.

On November 12, approximately 250 armed members of a “Hunters’ Lodge” attempted to land in Prescott, Ontario to touch off a war against the British ruling class. A show of force by the Prescott militia gave them second thoughts, so they occupied the nearby hamlet of Newport and Windmill Point, where they awaited reinforcements from the United States.

The next day, British infantry from the 83rd Regiment and around 600 Canadian militiamen attacked the rebels, who had holed up in and around an old gristmill. The short battle left 13 British killed and 70 wounded. The rebels lost approximately 18 killed and an unknown number wounded.

Historic America

National Infantry Museum in Columbus, Georgia

A modern, high-tech museum dedicated to the backbone of the United States Army features detailed dioramas and informative displays from all eras of U.S. military history.

Fort Benning, outside Columbus, Georgia, is named after Confederate Brigadier General Henry L. Benning. It is home to the United States Army Infantry School and Basic Combat Training for most infantry recruits, so it is generally recognized as the traditional home for U.S. infantry. It comes as no surprise that the National Infantry Museum is located there.

The museum used to be in a former Army hospital on base, but in 2008 the National Infantry Foundation, in conjunction with the U.S. Army, built a brand new museum on a 155-acre campus just off post. The 190,000 square foot state-of-the-art museum, featuring combat simulators, dioramas, a theater, a restaurant, and over 100,000 historical artifacts, opened in 2009.

It’s hard not to be in awe walking through displays spanning the history of U.S. conflicts from the Revolutionary War to the present day. The dioramas feature real military equipment, lights, and sound. There’s even a section where you can walk through a simulated Vietnam jungle while listening to a narrator describe what it was like to be there.


Outlaw King: It’s Not Braveheart

This Netflix film praised for its historical accuracy is missing that essential ingredient to make it great.

Robert the Bruce’s fourteenth-century rebellion against England is cinematically recounted in this Netflix feature that tries to cram as much history as possible in 121 minutes. Directed by David Mackenzie, Outlaw King (2018) brings to life all the intrigue and violence of late medieval feudalism. Though the film comes across as authentic and makes a genuine effort to get the history right, it lacks some essential ingredients to break into the top tier.

As the film opens, the defeated Scottish lords are vowing fealty to King Edward I of England (Stephen Dillane), including Robert Bruce (Chris Pine), Lord John III Comyn (Callan Mulvey), and Aymer de Valence (Sam Spruell). Robert has history with King Edward I’s son, Edward, Prince of Wales (Billy Howle), a weaker man who just wants his father’s approval. As a parting gift, King Edward I sends his goddaughter, Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh), to become Robert’s wife.

Things get complicated when Robert’s father dies, and Robert is left competing with Lord Comyn for the Scottish throne. When Robert learns King Edward I executed William Wallace, he senses an opportunity to renew the rebellion. Lord Comyn wants to remain loyal to England, so Robert brutally murders him in a church and then gathers an army. Unfortunately, Aymer de Valence has also remained loyal to England, ambushes Robert’s army in a forest, and destroys it.

Robert and a few companions are forced to flee. He sends his wife and daughter into hiding, where Edward, Prince of Wales captures them and brutally murders Robert’s brother. Robert decides to fight a guerilla war, culminating in the Battle of Loudoun Hill, where Robert uses the boggy terrain and clever tactics to his advantage. He defeats the English army and humiliates the Prince of Wales, who is revealed to be a miserable coward. Robert and Elizabeth are reunited and live happily ever after.


The Best War Films Show Both Sides

I recently watched 12 Strong (2018), Jerry Bruckheimer’s latest offering and a fictionalized account of the opening salvo against the Taliban and Al Qaeda in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks. The movie was exciting enough, with a fair share of action and intense battle scenes, but it just wasn’t great. After writing my review (to be posted later this month), I started to think about what elements make a great war film.

King Edward I in Braveheart

Nearly every great war film has one thing in common (aside from epic music): they at least attempt to show both sides of the story. Think about Battle of the Bulge (1965), Patton (1970), Braveheart (1995), We Were Soldiers (2002), Gettysburg (1993), and Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970). Each of these films involve a conflict between two sides and show the motivations of both sides, to varying degrees. The Japanese portion of Tora! Tora! Tora! (about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor) was actually made by Japanese filmmakers.

Establishing an antagonist with clear, realistic motivations is key to creating a compelling story in a “man against man” conflict. This is especially true in war. In Braveheart, we see both William Wallace and King Edward I as they attempt to defeat each other. No one is confused about whether Edward I is the bad guy. We see him do bad guy things, like throw his son’s lover out a window. But he’s given plenty of screen time to develop his personality and explain his motives.

Vietnamese General Nguyen Huu An in We Were Soldiers

In We Were Soldiers, the story switches between the Vietnamese and American points of view. North Vietnamese General Nguyen Huu An was portrayed as a capable and worthwhile opponent. Battle of the Bulge, Patton, A Bridge too Far (1977), and even Enemy at the Gates (2001) all portray German officers as equally courageous, brilliant, and daring as the heroes.

In 12 Strong, the antagonist is Mullah Razzan, leader of the Taliban forces, a dark-haired, mustache-twirling villain who executes a woman early in the film for teaching young girls to read. That’s all we ever learn about him. What’s his motivation? Why is he fighting? Why does he think the Taliban can win? No one seems to care, and so neither does the audience. Razzan and the hundreds of faceless Taliban fighters are just paper soldiers to be blown up.

Col. Hessler in Battle of the Bulge

You could argue perhaps the Taliban are too dastardly to be given a more humanized role. But were the Nazis less dastardly? Battle of the Bulge was released 20 years after the end of World War 2. Everyone knew about Nazi atrocities, and Allied propaganda had done a good job of dehumanizing them, yet Col. Hessler is portrayed as a competent and worthy opponent. His background and motivations are clearly established.

There’s something to be said for showing both points of view from a historical perspective as well. These were real people who engaged in a real conflict. Film gives us a unique opportunity to learn more about why men of both sides fought and died, how they perceived the conflict, and what was at stake. That’s what separates a historically-based drama from an action movie where a musclebound hero lays waste to a horde of faceless minions.

Unfortunately, 12 Strong missed an opportunity to show a more accurate, compelling, and nuanced view of early days of Operation Enduring Freedom.


Leadership: Alexander the Great vs. Darius III

alexandervdarius1Oliver Stone’s 2004 film Alexander presented an interesting contrast in leadership styles, particularly during its portrayal of the Battle of Gaugamela. From what I’ve read about the battle, Oliver Stone’s cinematic reenactment is fairly accurate. But it’s not the film’s accuracy or the battle tactics (per se) that I want to highlight. The battle shows the benefits and pitfalls of authoritarian vs shared leadership styles, personified in the characters of Alexander the Great and Persian King Darius III.

Historically, the Battle of Gaugamela was fought in what is today northern Iraq in 331 BC between the Hellenic League army, led by Alexander the Great, and the Persian army, led by Darius III. Alexander’s father, Philip II of Macedon, formed the the Hellenic League, a federation of Greek states, in 337 BC and was elected its Hegemon. Philip plotted to invade the Achaemenid Persian Empire in revenge for Persia’s previous invasions of Greece, but was assassinated before he could carry it out.

Alexander the Great took up this campaign and after a series of battles met King Darius III’s army near Gaugamela. Darius’ army is thought to have outnumbered Alexander’s 100,000-250,000 to 47,000. It was the largest army ever assembled at the time. Darius chose a flat, open plane on which to fight in order to maximize the effectiveness of his heavy chariots. Alexander, however, developed a tactic to defeat the chariots, and they were never again used as a weapon of war.

Alexander crushed Darius by executing a faint with his cavalry on the right flank, then turning to exploit a gap that opened in the Persian center. In Alexander, the Hellenic army is portrayed as a professional army of free men, fighting against a mass of poorly equipped conscripts drawn from all over the Persian Empire. When Darius fled, his army gradually crumbled and melted away.