Sunday, February 26, 2012

My Favorite Savoy Kings

I - King Victor Amadeus III: The third King of Piedmont-Sardinia, Victor Amadeus III was my kind of guy; very conservative, very religious and very pro-military, which was generally the rule rather than the exception in the House of Savoy. He was an adherent of the old adage that, when change is not necessary it is necessary not to change. This meant that he was conservative where it mattered but open to reform areas that needed improvement. These included some bureaucratic changes and infrastructure improvements but his most famous reform was of the army which he did by following the example of the Prussian model; the most efficient and effective army of the day, particularly inspirational for leaders of small countries with small available forces. He even thought of attempting an alliance with Prussia to offset the danger posed by the recent Franco-Austrian alliance, however, when the French Revolution broke out he put all else aside and provided a safe haven to French royalists and refugees. Devotion to the monarchial principle compelled him to go to war with the French Republic even though the odds were clearly hopeless. He was also a good natured and generous man who was popular with his people.

II - King Charles Emmanuel IV: A favorite of mine mostly for his own qualities rather than any great accomplishments on his part, which was no fault of his own but due to the fact that he reigned at a time when Revolutionary France was on the rampage and all neighboring states had been occupied. He spent most of his reign in exile in Sardinia and Rome. He was a dutiful man who never gave up the struggle to return Savoy rule to Turin and he was also a very kind and religious man. He had an arranged marriage to a French princess who was mocked in her own country for being overweight and unattractive and she was never able to give the King any children, yet Charles Emmanuel IV loved her and her alone as long as she lived. He did so, not out of duty, not with any hint of sacrifice (indeed he had nothing but praise for his wife) but because they both shared the same deep, sincere faith. He saw the “inner beauty” of her devout soul and felt himself fortunate to have her. When she died he was absolutely distraught and decided to give himself entirely to the service of God, joining the Society of Jesus for the remainder of his years. In terms of character and spiritual devotion, Charles Emmanuel IV was a great man.

III - King Charles Felix: As someone who is proudly reactionary, I cannot help but admire King Charles Felix. He came to the throne in the midst of a revolutionary uprising during which a more liberal relative (future King Charles Albert) granted a constitution. Well, King Charles Felix was having none of that silliness. He returned to Turin, put a royal smack-down on the dissidents and did away with all of that constitution nonsense. King Charles Felix stands out, even among the Savoy, as an ardent and sincere believer in the sacred nature of monarchy. Memories of the French Revolution still lingered and he was determined to remove every last trace of the imposed revolutionary regime from Piedmont -and he was not kidding about that, he really meant every, single, last trace of it. My favorite illustration of this was the restoration of the aristocratic posts at court. When this resulted in “pageboys” including a number of middle-aged men among the usual early teenagers it made no difference to Charles Felix. Everyone entitled to a place would have it back! He was also a patron of the arts, music and theatre and sent a punitive expedition to Tunisia in 1825, strengthening the future Italian claim to the area.

IV - King Umberto I: Although he was a far from perfect man, King Umberto I took a number of actions that earns him high marks with me. He was a very monarchist monarch, joining in the Triple Alliance with Germany and Italy’s traditional enemy of Austria because of efforts by the French republic to export their kingless form of government to Italy. The French seizure of Tunisia also infuriated the court in Rome. Although more realistic than his father, Umberto I nonetheless had high aspirations for the Kingdom of Italy and supported the policies of his Prime Minister, Francesco Crispi, which saw the establishment of the first Italian colony in East Africa in Eritrea. Hopes for further expansion were dashed by the defeat at Adowa but King Umberto responded well, defending his unjustly maligned general and secretly using his own funds to pay the victorious Africans the money they demanded and to release their Italian prisoners. He had no compunction about swatting socialist revolutionaries and was generous and helpful toward his people. The fact that he was assassinated by a socialist revolutionary also makes me view him as something of a political martyr.

V - King Victor Emmanuel III: The most controversial of course, King Victor Emmanuel III was an imperfect man who certainly made mistakes, however, I have always had a soft spot for him. I detest people who make an issue of his size (as I do with those who do the same for Charles I of Britain and other ‘vertically challenged’ royals) and I detest those who ridicule his decisions without ever proposing alternatives or considering the consequences of those alternatives. Despite the sad ending, his reign accomplished many things his predecessors had long sought but never achieved; return of Italian-populated lands in the northeast, Italian dominance in East Africa, a foothold on the opposite shore of the Adriatic, restored friendship with the Church and greater strides in terms of national development. Circumstances aside, Italy reached her zenith of power under his reign with, for the first time in many, many centuries, Rome again becoming an imperial capital. He was also a good man, a devoted husband and was usually on the right side of issues even if few followed his advice when it mattered most. He usually did the right thing but suffered the consequences of often being a little late in doing so.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

General Giovanni Durando

General Giovanni Durando was one of the most prominent and controversial figures in the first war of Italian unification. During his career he has been called a patriot by some and a traitor to others. He was born in Mondovi on June 23, 1804 Giacomo Durando, a future leading Italian nationalist, and Blessed Marcantonio Durando were his brothers. Early on he set his sights on a military career and eventually gained a place in the Royal Guard of King Victor Emmanuel I of Piedmont-Sardinia in 1822. In a short span of time he became very caught up in the liberal movement that was sweeping Europe, first as a revolutionary and later as a committed monarchist of the moderate-liberal variety. With his brother he was forced to flee his homeland for a time for implication in a plot to force the very conservative King Charles Felix to accept a constitution and during his exile he gained ever more extensive military experience. He was a firm believer in liberal monarchy and saw it as the only way to preserve basic liberties without the chaos that would come with a revolutionary republic.

Between 1822 and 1842 Giovanni Durando served as a lieutenant in the Belgian Foreign Legion as a lieutenant, then as a captain in the Portuguese army fighting for Don Pedro and finally he moved to Spain where he rose to the rank of general fighting for the liberal monarchy there against the Carlists. Piedmont was never far from his thoughts though and he was happy to be repatriated home in 1842. Like most liberals he welcomed the election of Pope Pius IX who had been known for his liberal sympathies and his embrace of the idea of an Italian nationality. Indeed, for a time the unofficial anthem of the Italian nationalists was a hymn of praise to Pope Pius IX. For a time it was a widely held belief that for the long sought after goal of Italian unification to be achieved it would require the cooperation and partnership of the two dominant cities on the peninsula; Turin and Rome. While Piedmont-Sardinia worked to consolidate control over northern Italy, Giovanni Durando was among the Piedmontese party in Rome urging the Pope to embrace the cause of Italian unity under the moderating leadership of the House of Savoy.

For a time this seemed a real possibility as the Pope reprimanded an overzealous Austrian commander for an incursion on Papal territory and organized forces to show them the temporal power of the Papacy would not be violated by anyone. The Austrians backed down and it seemed that the Pope was on the side of the nationalists who went to war with Austria in 1848 when the outbreak of revolution in Vienna seemed to offer a golden opportunity. Pope Pius IX excited many more liberal hearts when he ordered Papal forces to march to the frontier of Romagna when hostilities broke out to ensure that the Austrians did not violate his territory. He chose two men to command that gave the liberals even more encouragement; General Giovanni Durando to command the majority (a Piedmontese monarchist known to favor unification) and Colonel Andrea Ferrari to command the Roman volunteers who was a liberal republican. Most took this as a sign that the Pope might have been, if anything, even more to the left than Durando.

However, this expedition led to a great controversy when General Durando actually engaged the Austrian army in cooperation with the forces of Piedmont-Sardinia (whose army also included many deserters from the Papal service). The Pope angrily denounced the affair saying that he had never ordered his army to cross the Po and fight the Austrians; he had only intended them to stand watch and rebuff any incursion of Papal territory. Neither the Pope nor his general emerged well from the affair. General Durando was defeated by the Austrians and his actions were later blamed for allowed the Austrians to concentrate their forces to overwhelm the main Piedmontese army under King Charles Albert. The Pope, likewise, came off looking either foolish or duplicitous for sending an army to a battlefront under the command of men ardently in favor of fighting the Austrians only to order them not to do so. Some in the army even believed the order was meant to be ignored and had been issued only to provide cover for the Pope if his troops were defeated by the Austrians. Obviously the Pope would never have acted so dishonestly, however his image was still sullied by those who believed him. Given his attitude it seemed incredible to have appointed a Piedmontese general known for his nationalist sympathies and support for Italian unity to organize, train and then command the Papal Army.

General Durando quit the Papal service when the Pope publicly condemned the war against Austria, which also saw a major shift in public opinion away from the Pope as many Italians took this as the Pope taking the side of Austria against his own people. Holding the rank of lieutenant general in the royal army of Piedmont-Sardinia, Durando continued to serve in the war against Austria, winning great fame for his defense of Vincenzo, and suppressed rebellions against royal authority in Sardinia where republican revolutionaries wished to seize leadership of the nationalist movement away from the royal court in Turin or simply to break away on their own. In 1855 he was sent with the Italian expedition to the Crimean War where the forces of King Victor Emmanuel II earned high praise at the battle of Chernaya and the siege of Sevastopol. In the Third Italian War of Independence General Durando was wounded at the disastrous battle of Custoza in 1866 where he commanded the I Corps. In 1860 he was appointed to the rank of Senator and after the formal proclamation of the Kingdom of Italy the following year was sent to command royal forces in the former Kingdom of the Two-Sicilies to wipe out the widespread banditry that had taken hold in the absence of a stable government. Serving his king to the last, he died in Florence on May 27, 1869.

Monday, February 13, 2012

MM Movie Review: El Alamein - La linea del fuoco

“El Alamein - La Linea del Fuoco” (‘the line of fire’) is a very well done and moving film that is often mislabeled. In fact, even the title is a bit misleading. It is not about the famous World War II battle of El Alamein at all, in fact it has very little to do with the actual battle. It is, in the strictest sense, a “war movie” but if you are looking for lots of action, close combat battle scenes and heavy gunfire you will be sorely disappointed. I would be surprised if there was even five minutes of actual fighting on screen in the entire movie. However, with all due apologies to the action junkies, that should not discourage you from seeing this movie. If it has anything to do with the battle of El Alamein it is mostly in the aftermath of the battle, which was a British victory and a disaster for the Axis forces and the Italian army in particular. What is truly great about this movie is that it tells a story few know anything about, it shows the real life of an Italian army unit in North Africa which was far from glamorous or exciting and it shows the stoic courage of Italian soldiers put in an impossible position through no fault of their own. It is a moving and realistic look at an aspect of World War II few think about.

The central character is Private Serra, a fresh-faced university volunteer from Sicily who arrives in Egypt pumped full of promises from Mussolini that soon Italian troops will be marching into Alexandria and break the back of the British Empire. He is assigned to the Pavia Division at the extreme southern end of the front. His unit is literally the last in line with nothing below them but the impassable Qattara Depression. As soon as he arrives he sees first-hand the dangers of his new environment as the corporal guiding him to his squad is blasted to nothing by an incoming British artillery shell (a severed ear being all that remains of the man). He is taken in and shown the ropes by his sergeant, Rizzo, (an excellent performance by Pierfrancesco Favino) a veteran soldier from a peasant background with little education but a great deal of real-life experience at war. He had once been a POW of the British and that experience made him determined never to be taken alive again. Serra meets and quickly befriends the other men of his squad, the closest being Private Spagna, Corporal De Vita who, along with Serra and Sergeant Rizzo, form a close circle of friends. Lt. Fiore is their officer, a good man but an exhausted one who is a father-figure in the best sense to his soldiers.

I have noticed that in similar American war movies there are always fights inside every unit, the bullies and the bullied and it was nice to see one where this never really happened (though Serra is warned at the outset to remove his “University Volunteer” patch for fear this will upset his comrades). All share the same dangers and privations and they all pretty much stick together and look out for one another, which was a refreshing change. The first part of the movie shows Serra getting used to life at the front, learning about the dangers of enemy shelling, the environment, mines and dysentery. As he relates in letters home, it is not what he expected with long stretches of inactive boredom punctuated by occasional shelling by an enemy none can see. When the unit comes under attack by a British sniper, shooting medics as well as infantry, enraging the Italians, they call for their expert mortar operator to take out the sniper. This stood out to me as being a good and historically accurate scene. Because the Italian army was often lacking in proper weapons and equipment their mortar teams became renowned for their expertise, an expertise born out of necessity as they often had to do the job better suited to weapons the Italian forces lacked.

Serra is also told about the “three miracles” every soldier gets only to learn that he already used up two within days of his arrival. The first was when the corporal guiding him was “turned to sand” yet Serra wasn’t touched. The second was when he stepped on a mine only to discover it was an anti-tank mine and he wasn’t heavy enough to set it off. So he had only one miracle left, yet, after questioning his comrades, he learned that they all used up all three of their miracles months, if not years, before. However, their biggest problem is a lack of almost everything; food, water, ammunition, new uniforms and replacements for their losses. When a supply convoy is lost they almost eat Mussolini’s horse but the lieutenant cannot bring himself to kill the animal. Again, the scene is illustrative of the wider war. The trucks were carrying shoe polish and the horse Mussolini would ride triumphantly into Alexandria. While the soldiers at the front had next to nothing and felt forgotten, their dictator was using up supply trucks and fuel to prepare for a victory parade that would never happen. Overcome by privation, Sergeant Rizzo and his squad break orders while on a mission to pick up supplies and drive to the coast for a few forbidden minutes of swimming and pretending there is no war.

Not long after returning, Serra discovers a camel which he shoots for his comrades to feast on. This leads to the discovery that certain areas have been de-mined which makes the men think the British are planning an attack. Later, Lt. Fiore informs Sergeant Rizzo that a scouting party of bersaglieri had gone missing in the Qattara Depression and that he has to take a man to go look for them and see if the British might be trying to pass through the impassable sea of sand. Rizzo chooses Serra to go with him since he is new and he doesn’t want to risk the lives of other men who have served so much longer on what could be a dangerous assignment. After an epic trek through the barren wasteland they find the bersaglieri all dead and bury them and hurry back to camp as they hear artillery fire in the distance. Little did they know, they might have saved their lives by being away as the missed the main British attack of the second battle of El Alamein. They return to their pit to find everything in shambles, Corporal De Vita suffering from shell shock and Spagna shaken but unhurt.

The group then learns that they are pulling back to another defensive line where they deal with another British attack and then are told the army is retreating again. This begins the primary “story” to this movie which is the real-life experience of the Italian X Army Corps which was abandoned during the Axis retreat after the battle of El Alamein. They have no transportation, no relief for their wounded men and as they trudge through the desert soon have nothing at all. Attrition wears them down and their numbers dwindle as they cross a seemingly infinite expanse of desert. This is historically accurate as the X Corp, including the Pavia Division, was abandoned during the retreat, most being captured by the British or dropping dead of their wounds or exhaustion. It is one of the most terrible but often overlooked disasters of World War II.

The famous German Field Marshal Rommel had been absent during the British attack at El Alamein and when he returned and found things in a mess he ordered an immediate retreat, not just out of Egypt, but ultimately all the way back to Tunisia. This greatly upset the Italians (many of whom had disapproved of the offensive in the first place as being too reckless and foolhardy) for a number of reasons. Among these was the fact that, whereas the German Africa Corps was highly motorized, the Italian army was severely lacking in transportation and, as was the case with the X Corps, many men would have to be left behind. Also, the Italians wished to at least attempt to defend Libya, which was their land, but which the Germans had no interest in. These brutal historical facts are illustrated in the film in a couple of scenes; one in which a column of haughty Germans speed past the Italians in trucks, cars and half-tracks, refusing to help and shouting insults at them. Later an Italian truck comes by but, while somewhat more sympathetic, is already overloaded with men and has no room for any others.

So, the remnants of the X Corps struggle on. Lt. Fiore leads the way, soon he, Sgt. Rizzo and Pvt. Serra are all that remains of his command. Each time they reach what would have been their destination they find out that the army had already retreated to another point hundreds of kilometers away. Passing vehicles promise to send a truck back for them but none ever arrive. Although our focus is on this little band, it is made clear that there are many more just like them, thousands of men who have been left to their fate, left to the mercy of the desert of their British enemies. It was a shameful page in the history of the German Africa Corps which stands out all the more because, unlike other fronts in the war, the German army in Africa was usually noted for behaving in a humane and professional manner. In the film, almost by chance, Fiore, Rizzo and Serra avoid being captured with the rest of the Italian forces they were traveling with while camping for the night at a small Muslim shrine. Lt. Fiore, badly wounded, becomes weaker and closer to death when they finally discover an abandoned motorcycle and get it working.

At the very beginning of the film, Serra was taken to the front by a Bersaglieri soldier on a motorcycle. It is when he first sees North Africa, and finds it beautiful. In a scene meant to mirror the opening, Fiore says he cannot make it and the loyal Sergeant Rizzo will not leave him behind. So, Serra is sent alone to take the motorcycle in the hope that he can escape to safety and perhaps send back a rescue for the two others. From what we have seen so far though, it does not look like Lt. Fiore will live very long. Serra seems to sense this as well as tears stream down his face as he races away on the precious motorcycle, leaving as he came, but full of sorrow where he had arrived with so much optimism. With no more resolution than that we fade to black as text appears on the screen relating the historical facts and the stunning statistics of the Pavia Division and the X Italian Army Corps which was abandoned and totally lost in the aftermath of El Alamein.

The ending some may have a problem with. Nothing is really resolved, we don’t know for sure what happens. Do Fiore and Rizzo survive? Are they rescued? Does Serra even manage to get to the Italo-German lines? We don’t know and, as the closing shots show the marble blocks for the remains of all those marked “unknown” perhaps this was to make an intentional point. It does drive home the realism of the whole piece, which is a tragedy, that in real life, you don’t always get the happy ending, sometimes you don’t get an ending at all. In that sense, it is a fitting way to end the film but it certainly is not satisfying in the typical way most are used to. The acting in the movie is top-notch all around. Pierfrancesco Favino as Sgt. Rizzo particularly stood out, which is not surprising given his record as an award-winning actor.

This movie won three Italian Academy Awards and all due credit should go to Enzo Monteleone for making a movie that feels like an epic on a very restricted budget. Using night battles, swirling sand and strategic placement of extras, he is able to convey the feeling that a much larger war is raging all the time in the background even without an army of extras. Paolo Briguglia, who played Pvt. Serra, won a Golden Globe for best actor debut with this movie and I have to give credit to someone new to me, Emilio Solfrizzi who played Lt. Fiori. He gave a very powerful dramatic performance which impressed me all the more when I found out afterward that the man is a comedian. All I can say is that he definitely has what they call in the acting world “range” and that is impressive. The attention to detail throughout the film seemed pretty good to me. I’m no expert to quibble on such things but I did notice they were wearing the correct collar patches for soldiers of the Pavia Division.

This movie will not be to everyone’s taste. However, it is very well done and tells an important story that few have ever heard. That is probably what I liked best about it was simply the subject matter. I like that this story was told and told so well. In truth, the Italian commander in North Africa, Marshal of Italy Bastico, was against the invasion of Egypt, even German Air Marshal Kesselring was against it but Rommel, perhaps over-confident from his string of victories, pushed ahead. Marshal Bastico predicted that they would stretch their supply lines to the breaking point and these would already be over-stressed since the conquest of Malta was postponed in favor of the Egyptian campaign. Everything came out as he predicted. The British were victorious and the Italians were left high and dry, even after putting up truly heroic resistance. The Folgore Division was particularly cited (and this was mentioned in the film) for stopping a major British attack with little more than their bare hands. This movie tells an important story, a story of brave Italian soldiers who did all that could be expected, who were brave, determined and hard fighters but who were sadly abandoned. Their courage and sacrifice deserves to be remembered.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Birthday of the Prince of Naples

It was on this day in 1937 that HRH Prince Vittorio Emanuele of Naples was born to the future King Umberto II and Queen Marie Jose of Italy. It was also on this day in 1935 that his future bride, Marina Ricolfi-Doria, was born in Switzerland. When Prince Vittorio Emanuele was born it was an occasion of great celebration in the Kingdom of Italy. Of course it brought added stability to the monarchy by ensuring the future succession for another generation but, being 1937, it was also a time when the fortunes of Italy seemed to be riding high and PNF-media sources proudly proclaimed him the first Savoy prince to be born in the era of the "empire". He was the second child of the (then) Prince and Princess of Piedmont and the only masculine child of their four children. When the vicious factions that rose to dominance at the end of World War II began to threaten the continued life of the Kingdom of Italy, some suggested that King Umberto II abdicate, making his son "King Vittorio Emanuele IV" and appointing an acceptable regent to rule in his minority.

However, that was as close as the little prince would ever come to the throne. The monarchy was abolished, the King, Queen and their children were forced to go into exile and nearly a thousand years of Savoy rule came to an end in Europe. For Prince Vittorio Emanuele, trouble would follow him like a loyal dog for the rest of his life. In 1971 he carried out his unequal marriage to Marina Ricolfi-Doria in Iran (during festivities celebrating the anniversary of the Persian monarchy) which, many would later claim, invalidated him for the position of Head of the House of Savoy and heir to the former throne of the Kingdom of Italy. He has also been involved in numerous troubles that have caused many to regard him as having an unsavory reputation. In 1969 he even attempted to "usurp" the position of his father by declaring himself King of Italy in exile. The fact that he later renounced his claim to the throne and swore allegiance to the Italian republic in order to be able to return to Italy after the ban against the family was lifted in 2002 also caused many to regard him as having surrendered any claim to the leadership of the House of Savoy.

Those who believe that his unequal marriage (and other reasons mentioned) invalidates him as the rightful successor to his father have looked to HRH Prince Amedeo, Duke of Aosta for leadership. Each have their adherents and both can present evidence for their claim and point to flaws in that put forward by the other side. However, regardless of which side one may take, there is no denying the fact that Prince Vittorio Emanuele is the only son of the last King of Italy and therefore holds a special significance in the very long history of the Savoia dynasty. Whether the future of the Italian royal legacy resides with his son, Prince Emanuele Filiberto, or the son of the Duke of Aosta, Prince Aimone, is something every individual must decide for themselves at this point. For now, I only point out that the last son of a King of Italy was born 75 years ago today.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

MM Movie Review: Lion of the Desert

Let me state right at the beginning that “Lion of the Desert” is not a film I agreed with. It is entertaining, has some excellent performances and I will watch it when I come across it but, to save everyone time and aggravation, if you really liked this movie or if Omar Mukhtar is a hero to you -stop reading this review right now. You will not like it, nothing will be accomplished besides upsetting you and you are certainly not going to change my mind on it so, for the sake of your own peace of mind, avoid frustration and quit now. For those of you not favorably inclined toward this movie or for those who have not seen it and can approach it with an open mind, we shall get to the review. “Lion of the Desert” is a love letter to the Libyan national hero Omar Mukhtar who led a (failed) guerilla war against the Italian colonial authorities from 1912 until 1931. The film was made in 1981 by Syrian-American director Moustapha Akkad (of “Halloween” fame) who in 1976 had made “Mohammad, Messenger of God”, a movie about the revered founding prophet of Islam which, in keeping with strict Muslims rules, never actually shows Mohammad. All of which is a pretty far cry from financing movies about naked American teenage girls getting their throats cut by a masked psychopath.

The movie was filmed in Libya and financed by the brutal dictator Colonel Muammar Gaddafi and I have a big problem with this. Akkad never admitted to Gaddafi trying to influence the film in any way but he did not really need to. Gaddafi was eager to lift up Omar Mukhtar as a Libyan national hero and this was exactly the portrayal the film would make and what Akkad intended anyway. But, as the old saying goes, he who drinks the King’s wine must sing the King’s song and I doubt anyone would be kind to a director who accepted vast amounts of funding from someone like Hitler or, perhaps more to the point, Mussolini. Gaddafi loved the movie, which was filmed in English and Arabic language versions, and it became widely shown to young fanatics as part of their training to become Islamic terrorists, specifically because a hopeless fight unto death was being glorified in it. It also did not hurt their cause than an Islamic, desert people were portrayed so righteously heroic and Europeans were portrayed as villainous and cruel. It is no surprise that the movie was a flop considering that, especially in 1981, Europe and America were the biggest markets for the film though the people who love the film will still defend it by pointing to some positive reviews by critics. The fact remains that, regardless of what the critics said, most people did not like this movie.

The acting was fine throughout, even excellent in some cases. Anthony Quinn starred as Omar Mukhtar, Oliver Reed co-starred as his nemesis the Italian general Graziani. Other minor parts were filled by Irene Papas, Raf Vallone and Rod Steiger who played the part of Mussolini. Irene Papas and Anthony Quinn were both favorites of Akkad and had both starred in “Mohammad, Messenger of God”. Anthony Quinn played his part masterfully, though there was not much to the part as written, but it certainly shows the extent to which he loved the character and immersed himself in the role. Oliver Reed gave a show-stealing performance as Graziani and Raf Vallone did his usually good job at portraying one of the two “good” Italians in the whole movie. Rod Steiger was a great actor, I loved him in “Waterloo” and he has turned in some excellent performances in numerous movies and numerous great historical films. However, I just did not buy him as Mussolini. It is hard for me to put my finger on, perhaps that he is simply too refined a man to play a bombastic socialist revolutionary turned Fascist dictator. Again, I like Rod Steiger, I just didn’t like him in this. John Gielgud also makes an appearance as the token “bad” Libyan, a local prince who works with the Italians. Maybe I’m making too much of it but it just seemed rather funny that the one Libyan who is not portrayed in a heroically righteous way is played by an English actor.

The movie is pretty basic in its layout. From the start we see the Italians invade Libya, we see Italians executing Libyans, shooting them, hanging them but we are told that there is a guerilla war going on and the Italians are losing. So, Mussolini sends General Graziani, a really tough, brutal guy we are led to believe, to stamp out the rebellion so that, “the military logic of Fascism will not be compromised”. Whatever that means. Meanwhile, Omar Mukhtar is a peaceful, grandfatherly old school teacher instructing village children in the mercy of God (it is always God and never “Allah” in the movie) and the wisdom of “the book” (it is only referred to once as the Koran and that is by an Italian). However, when Graziani arrives his reputation has preceded him and Mukhtar takes action, ruining a welcome party for the general with news of another Italian defeat. Graziani sends one of his best officers out on a retaliatory strike, complete with mass executions, but Mukhtar outwits and defeats the man (Gastone Moschin who also played Don Fanucci in The Godfather Part II). However, Mukhtar is merciful and stops his men from killing the last two Italians left alive and allows the young lieutenant to return to his general.

An incensed Graziani retaliates by putting Libyans into concentration camps. He is still defeated by Mukhtar. He then agrees to peace-talks with Mukhtar but only as a ruse so that he can land more reinforcements for an attack on the holy city of the Senussi Islamic sect at Kufra. Mukhtar still eludes and harasses him so he obtains the permission of Mussolini to “fence in Libya” to starve the rebels into submission. This finally begins to work and, after the Italians deploy poison gas, Mukhtar is separated from his men and stumbles into the Italian army which takes him prisoner. After a dramatic meeting with Graziani he is taken out and hanged with the film lingering on his words that, ‘We will never surrender. We win or we die, and don’t think it stops there. After this generation you will have the next to fight and after that the next, and so on.’ Despite all the alleged historical accuracy Akkad claimed in making the movie, the biggest problem it has is simply being so biased as to be unbelievable. The Italians are portrayed in the worst light possible, though, as Akkad said, he does not portray all Italians as being bad -he gives us a grand total of two “good” Italians, one of whom is murdered by his own people. What is most obvious though is the over-sanctification of the Libyan side. So hard is it hammered into the viewer that these are the “good guys” that it quickly becomes preposterous.

For example, the Libyans all fight on horseback armed only with old, single-shot rifles. The Italians have tanks, machine guns, armored cars, airplanes and, finally, chemical weapons. Yet, the Libyans win virtually every battle! That is simply not realistic. The only Italian victory shown is the capture of Kufra and, we are told ahead of time, this should not really count since Mukhtar was not even attempting to defend it. He basically let the Italians have it because it would have been impossible to defend. This makes it seem rather ridiculous and anti-climactic when Mukhtar is finally captured. How could he have lost the war when he won every battle? In fact, it staggers the imagination to think that this, as the film tells us, could have been going on for decades without Italy giving up Libya and going home. The truth, of course, is that this movie is not historically accurate in the least. It has become popular to criticize Italy for having forbid the movie to be shown in the country because it was an “insult to the Italian army” but, the movie is an insult to the Italian army. Sure, most of the dastardly deeds are done by the black-shirted Fascist militia rather than the regular army but, seriously, are your average film-goers going to know the difference between an army uniform and an MVSN uniform? Are they even going to know what the MVSN was? No, all they see are Italians wearing uniforms, carrying guns and doing bad things.

Omar Mukhtar is portrayed in such a way that he is too good to be true and just comes off as unbelievable. Part of this is because he is made to embody values that were not those of the period in question. We also never see any of the Bedouin attacks on Italian farmers that are mentioned. The Arabs do not deny making them, they justify them in fact, but we never see them. We only ever see them portrayed positively as righteous heroes or pitiful victims of Italian brutality. The whole thing is set up as a country fighting for its independence from a foreign conqueror. It makes for stirring propaganda but the truth is that Libya had never been an independent country. In fact it had never been a united country at all until the Italians grouped three formerly Ottoman provinces together and named them “Libya” which was the name used by the ancient Romans for the region. The Senussi Islamic sect, of which Mukhtar was a part and which dominated at least one of the three provinces of Libya, had previously been just as troublesome to the Ottoman Turks who had ruled the area before the Italo-Turkish War when the area that became Libya was ceded to the Italians as part of the peace settlement.

The Libyans in the movie stress, over and over, that their rebellion is justified because Italy has “no right” to rule the country. However, this assumes that Libya had always been a country, which it never had been. It begs the question of what “right” the Ottoman Turks had to it? Prior to 1951 the area we now know as Libya had never been independent. It had belonged to the Italians, before them the Ottoman Turks, before them the Umayyad Caliphate out of Damascus, before them by the Byzantines and before them by the Romans. This is actually mentioned in the film, though scorned as being of little importance, but the fact remains that Libya had belonged to the Italians long before the Arabs ever swept across North Africa and long before the Islamic religion ever existed. If one is to speak of “rights” as Mukhtar was so fond of doing in the film, one must concede the point made by General Graziani that, “Italy has hundreds of years of right here”. Or as he put it more simply, “We’re back here, that’s all”. If you’re going to bring up the issue of one group of people having a “right” to a country that another group of people does not have you better make sure your people were there first before making it; and if you are anywhere around the Mediterranean basin the people you are dealing with are the Italians then you’re probably out of luck in any event. This would be like a group of English colonists who are attacked by Native Americans telling them that they have “no right” to the land that colony was established on. It’s ridiculous.

The truth is that the Libyans had not been totally peaceful under Ottoman Turkish rule but generally accepted it just as most generally accepted it when Ottoman rule was exchanged for Italian rule. In fact, some Libyans profited considerably from Italian rule, some joined the Italian army. In another example of the historical inaccuracy of this movie, in fact Omar Mukhtar was not captured by Italian soldiers at all but by a troop of Libyan cavalry who were on the Italian side and blamed Mukhtar for causing trouble and making life harder on everyone. The fact, as is inadvertently shown in the film, that the Italians are coming in with trucks and motorcycles and airplanes while all the Libyans are still riding horses or camels everywhere shows that prior to the Italian colonial period the Libyans were living in a backward state of near total stagnation. It was only after the arrival of Italian rule that the region began to progress toward modernity with the first modern roads, bridges, hospitals, airfields and infrastructure in general being established.

It is also stated, in the “trial” of Omar Mukhtar at the end of the film, that he had never accepted Italian rule, never took subsidy from the Italian government and therefore should have been treated as a prisoner of war. It sounded nice from a propaganda point of view, but this too is totally false. Mukhtar had recognized Italian rule. At one point, he had made peace with them and laid down his arms. However, once his forces were replenished he went on the attack again. And how could he be a POW? No one had declared war on anyone else nor was he part of any recognized army. This would be like Great Britain giving Ulster to the Republic of Ireland and a northern Irish Unionist then waging war against the government in Dublin because he never recognized the “right” of the Republic of Ireland to rule in Ulster. Well, I’m sorry folks but governments rule and make decisions on behalf of their people and law and order does not depend on the free consent of absolutely every individual person involved. When the Republic of Texas joined the United States someone couldn't start carrying out their own war against America just because he did not approve of the annexation and never recognized the change in sovereignty. Again, this goes back to the false assumption that Libya was a sovereign nation conquered by Italy which it was not.

The fact that, for a time, this movie was considered too offensive to be show in Italy is not surprising. It is extremely blatant anti-Italian propaganda. The Fascist regime was certainly not known for being kind and gentle but this rebellion was going on before Mussolini came to power. During World War I the rebels even allied with their former overlords, the Ottoman Turks, to fight against the French and British as well. Some bad things happened during this period, in reaction to the rebellion it must be said (they would not have happened otherwise) but the fact remains that the Italians did not occupy Libya as brutal conquerors. They did not destroy cities, massacre people and force everyone to convert to Catholicism (the same could not be said when the Muslims took the region in the 7th Century by the way). The movie is so one-sided and biased as to be laughable, the characters are unbelievable and in the end you are left with something that is not so much trying to entertain you as much as indoctrinate you. A big thumbs-down from me.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Queen Mary of Modena

Today everyone is talking about the 60th anniversary of HM Elizabeth II becoming Queen. An historic accomplishment without doubt, but this was also the day in history that the last Catholic King of Great Britain, James II, came to the throne (a good man despite the popular image of him). As such, it was also on this day in 1685 that Britain was given an Italian queen in the person of James II's wife Mary of Modena. She was the daughter of Duke Alfonso IV of Modena and was given a very cold welcome when she arrived in England as the wife of the then Duke of York because the country was so dominated by Protestant bigotry. She was demure, tall, very beautiful and quite pious, in every way the ideal consort. Many were won over by her but for many more she would always be disliked; her charm, virtue and good qualities meant nothing to those who could see no farther than her faith. When King Charles II passed away and James II and his lovely Italian bride became King and Queen of England, Scotland, Ireland and France there were great festivities as theirs was the first joint-coronation of a King and Queen since that of King Henry VIII and Queen Catherine of Aragon.

She was a great queen but when she gave birth to an heir to the throne the Protestants rose up in rebellion, aided by the King's son-in-law the Prince of Orange. As a result of the so-called "Glorious Revolution" of 1688 King James and Queen Mary were forced to relocate to France. Efforts by the King to reclaim his throne were unsuccessful. Queen Mary sold her jewels to help finance these expeditions and spared no effort in supporting her husband and his cause, which was the cause of Catholicism and royal legitimism in Britain and Ireland. When James II died the Queen wore black the rest of her life and acted as regent on behalf of her son who the loyal Jacobites declared King James III. She put out a manifesto and when Scottish lords came to convince her to give up her boy so that he could convert to Protestantism and be all but assured of success in retaking the throne from the still unpopular usurpers she remained strong and defiant. She would not give up her son nor see him renounce the Catholic faith for any earthly gain. She agreed to religious freedom and to make no move against the Church of England but the faith of her own family was non-negotiable.

When James III turned 16 the regency ended and the devoutly religious Queen Mary spent much of the rest of her life in the Convent of the Visitations (she had wished to become a nun in her youth) devoted to prayer. She died in poverty in 1718, having sacrified all in the cause of her family and faith. She was buried with the religious sisters she so admired and was considered by some contemporaries to be a saint. Certainly she was a great Queen, devoted, pious, beautiful and attentive to her family even under the most difficult circumstances. Few consorts in British history could match her quality.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Italian Disaster in Africa

The battle of Adowa is one of the most famous yet often misunderstood battles fought by Italy on the continent of Africa. Usually Italy is portrayed as the aggressive would-be conqueror and the Ethiopians as the hapless, innocent victims of foreign imperialism. As with most things, the truth is neither. The First Italo-Abyssinian War was the result of a misunderstanding and it was Ethiopia that made the first move. Moreover, Adowa was the one major defeat in a war which had previously been dominated by Italian victories. Prime Minister Francesco Crispi, with the support of King Umberto I, had been anxious to ensure that Italy was not totally left out of the colonial race going on at that time. Italy was also newly united and had yet to prove herself on the international stage. In contrast, Ethiopia was a complex network of tribes, often at war with each other and nominally under the rule of a “King of Kings” or Emperor but whose actual control over the country tended to be intermittent. In 1869 an Italian company purchased land for a coaling station in Assab Bay and in 1883 sold the territory to the Italian government. This area eventually became the colony of Eritrea. There were clashes with the religious rebels of Mohammed Ahmed, who claimed to be the “Mahdi” or Islamic messiah (basically the Islamic terrorists of the day) in the Sudan as well as clashes with Ethiopians as the Italians moved farther inland.

Emperor Menelik II
The nominal ruler of Abyssinia, Ethiopian Emperor Yohannes IV (who had sided with the British in a clash with a previous “King of Kings” in exchange for weapons which helped him seize power) clashed with the Italians but eventually came to terms with them. Meanwhile, one of his leading nobles, Menelik of Shewa, was building up his forces, making use of modern weapons sold to him by the Italians in return for his neutrality during the conflict with Yohannes IV. When the Emperor was on his deathbed he named his nephew, Ras Mangasha as his heir in 1889. In Abyssinia, power rarely changed hands peacefully and the throne usually went to whoever was strong enough to take it. In 1889 it was Menelik who controlled the best land, had the most men and who had the most advanced weaponry. When Yohannes IV died the ruler of Shewa declared himself Emperor Menelik II and negotiated Italian support for his seizure of power. Anxious to avoid being drawn into local conflicts and confident that Menelik was their ally, Italy signed the Treaty of Wuchale on May 2, 1889 by which Rome recognized Menelik as Emperor of Ethiopia in return for which he recognized Italian ownership of Eritrea. Permanent friendship was pledged and trade agreements established, however, confusion over one clause in the treaty would ultimately lead to war.

Ras Mangasha
Article 17 was the cause of the trouble as it was different in the Italian and Ethiopian versions. According to the Italian version Menelik II had basically agreed that Ethiopia was an Italian protectorate. In the Ethiopian version the Emperor had the option to avail himself of Italian protection but no clear obligation to do so. When Menelik II sought agreements with other European powers Italy objected. Emperor Menelik II was offended by this and sent a letter of protest to King Umberto I of Italy. When the King failed to respond satisfactorily, Menelik II repudiated the Treaty of Wuchale, effectively declaring war on the Kingdom of Italy on February 27, 1893. After dealing with the forces of the Mahdi, who clashed with the Ethiopians and Italians alike, the focus shifted to the important province of Tigre. Menelik II, hoping to make an ally out of the man he had displaced, offered the province to Ras Mangasha if he could take it from the Italians. Ras Mangasha pretended to be friendly with the Italians and raised an army on the pretense of fighting the forces of the Mahdi. However, once gathered, he launched a surprise attack on the Italians. Mangasha was defeated but the fight resulted in Italy being drawn into a larger and more risky confrontation.

General Baratieri
Major General Oreste Baratieri was dispatched with a large Italian colonial army, most of the rank and file being native African troops under Italian command. He won a number of early victories while Emperor Menelik II spent his time gathering a massive army from across Ethiopia. Both armies fought a proxy war and played for time until they were each forced into a confrontation due to dwindling supplies. The feudal levies of the Ethiopian army could not be kept in the field, inactive for long and General Baratieri was being pushed by the government in Rome for a swift and decisive victory. Baratieri, a veteran of Garibaldi’s red shirts and a respected soldier, suspected treachery and wished to pull back but all of his subordinates insisted on advancing. The two armies moved and came together near the town of Adowa. Italian reinforcements had been dispatched to Africa but would not arrive in time and General Baratieri had no idea of how large an army was massed against him. He had expected, at most, about 60,000 men when in fact Menelik II was able to field over 100,000 warriors compared to only about 15,000 Italian colonial troops. Exact figures are not known but the Italians would be outnumbered at least 8 to 1 by most accounts.

Contrary to popular belief, the Ethiopians were not a purely primitive army. They had Russian military advisors, many warriors carried rifles and his army even possessed some artillery. In some cases, their imported weapons were even superior than what the Italian army had to work with. Deception and trickery were also well utilized by the Ethiopians. Most of the scouts working for the Italians were actually in the employ of Menelik II and he used other means to trick the Italians into thinking his army was mostly dispersed. The Italians had also underestimated Menelik II himself. They had hoped to influence local chieftains against him or to at least secure their neutrality (as they had previously done with Menelik himself) but this time it didn’t work. Menelik II, upon taking the throne, passed what we might call ’tax cuts for the rich’, ending requirements of feudal tribute to ensure the nobility would support him and the vast majority did exactly that. He moved his army forward while the Italians, unfamiliar with the terrain and being fed bad information by their native scouts, stumbled about in the dark and became separated.

As the Italian forces advanced on a night march the units became mixed up, setting back their timetable and a misunderstanding over the name of a certain hill caused General Matteo Albertone, commanding the leading Native Brigade, to advance far beyond the rest of the army. This caused something of a chain-reaction as the next brigade, told to take their place alongside Albertone, also became separated. By the time Emperor Menelik II sent his warriors charging against the enemy on the morning of March 1, 1896 the Italian forces were perfectly placed to be wiped out by the Ethiopians one piece at a time. In terms of the forces engaged, this was almost a purely African battle with the Italians involved being a minority. The African natives of the Italian army fought with remarkable discipline against tremendous odds, holding their positions and delivering devastating volleys of fire that took an immense toll on the attackers. Nonetheless, the Ethiopian warriors were relentless in their ferocity and attacked again and again. As the day wore on the Ethiopians finally overwhelmed the Italians, destroying or routing the entire brigade. General Albertone himself was killed in the struggle, fighting to the death.

Of the four Italian brigades, one was annihilated and another already close to the same fate when General Baratieri realized none of his messages had gotten through or if they had, lack of knowledge of the terrain meant they had not been properly followed. He tried to organize a strong defensive position in the center of his intended battle line but, for the most part, by that time it was too little and too late. Fleeing troops overran these positions with Ethiopian warriors hot on their heels and despite some heroic stands the Italian position began to totally disintegrate. General Vittorio Dabormida, commanding the brigade sent to the relief of Albertone, was trapped and wiped out by Ethiopian forces. Virtually the entire brigade was destroyed and again, the commanding general was among the dead, struck down while using his saber in close combat after being surrounded and overrun by enemy warriors.

General Baratieri tried to pull off a fighting withdrawal, and some units held off a few attacks, but this proved impossible and soon the entire army, or at least what was left of it, was in retreat. Emperor Menelik II called upon the local population to rise up against his enemies and many more Italians and colonial troops were killed after falling behind, collapsing from exhaustion or becoming lost during the retreat. Thus many men had their throats cut as they lay helpless on the roadside by peasants from nearby villages. Some faced even worse fates. In all the Italians had lost 6,133 men either killed in the battle or slaughtered during the retreat. Another 1,428 were wounded and all 56 pieces of artillery were captured by the Ethiopians. Emperor Menelik II lost about 7,000 men dead and 10,000 wounded; a much greater number certainly but representing only a fraction of his overall strength whereas the Italian losses counted for over half of their total force. Many of the Italian wounded also suffered a more horrific fate, some being killed, some being mutilated as Ethiopians castrated wounded men as grisly war trophies. The African colonial troops often suffered worse as, depending on their origin, many of these men were considered traitors by the Ethiopians and had one hand and one foot cut off so as to make them permanently helpless and, in most cases, doomed to a slow, agonizing death from starvation.

General Baratieri
The results of the battle were immediate and dramatic. In Rome the government of Francesco Crispi immediately fell and General Baratieri was wrongly blamed of abandoning his men in disgrace. Fortunately, he was cleared by a court martial but his reputation had suffered irreparable harm. All Italian colonial expansion in Africa was halted for more than a decade and total Ethiopian independence was recognized. Emperor Menelik II made this his only real demand. While others howled for more blood, he realized that provoking an all-out war might have resulted in the loss of his throne and the total ruination of his country. He had gained what he wanted, achieved near god-like status among the Africans and was content to leave well enough alone. He felt himself so superior to his fellow Africans that, when questioned about leading a pan-African movement he said, “I wish you the greatest possible success. But in coming to me to take the leadership, you are knocking at the wrong door, so to speak. You know, I am not a Negro at all. I am a Caucasian.”

That exchange, of course, would be forgotten by those who wished to seize on the battle of Adowa as a symbol of African racial prowess. One thing the battle did was to ensure that the Italians would not underestimate the Ethiopians next time; and Italy was determined that there would be a next time when the defeat of Adowa would be avenged. When the next contest came it would be the Ethiopians who, remembering their victory at Adowa, would tend to underestimate the Italians with disastrous results. The next time the two countries went to war, Italy would be fully prepared, leaving nothing to chance and would see all of Ethiopia conquered in seven months after which King Vittorio Emanuele III was declared Emperor.