Tuesday, July 08, 2014

"....With Our Own Feathers..."

A few weeks ago I glanced through a list of what a writer considered the ten best American TV mini-series ever. It contained some of my own longtime favourites, such as Centennial, Lonesome Dove, Rich Man Poor Man. Commenters had added some lesser-known (to me) titles, including one from 1976, Once an Eagle starring Sam Elliott. OOooo--h! Sam Elliott! Gotta get me one of those DVDs! I did, and we've now watched the 7-episode, 9 hour set. It's a younger Sam Elliott than I've been used to, less grizzled, but that voice is still the same. Sam is one star who has truly aged like a good wine - there aren't many like him. (Stop drooling blogger!)

Once an Eagle is also title of the novel by Anton Myrer from which the mini-series was adpated. After the first couple of episodes, while pondering the series' title, I suspected it might have come from a poem, or perhaps from a bible quotation. The title is, indeed, a quote from poetry by Æschylus (525 BC – 456 BC), a playwright of ancient Greece:

So in the Libyan fable it is told
That once an eagle, stricken with a dart,
Said, when he saw the fashion of the shaft,
"With our own feathers, not by others' hands,
Are we now smitten."
Frag. 135 (trans. by Plumptre), reported in Bartlett's Familiar Quotations, 10th ed. (1919)

I think, if I'm understanding those words correctly, that Walt Kelly's character Pogo said much the same thing, centuries later:
"We have met the enemy and he is us".

In war, as in peace those words have echoed through the centuries. We truly are our own worst enemies. There are different ways of interpreting this thought though. In a review of the novel (HERE) the reviewer states:
".....I offer the quote from the flyleaf where Myrer found his title. This is a powerful warning to those who would do right by America and her armed forces. There are numerous enemies operating from within. This book gives us a wonderful hero but, it also warns us to look over our shoulders as well. The resurgence of this book should also serve as a reminder to the "perfumed princes" in the officer corps that their oath is to the Constitution, that their duty is to the country and that honor demands that they put the nation above personal consideration. The men and women of the armed forces, who are sworn to obey the orders of the officers appointed over them, deserve no less. The nation deserves no less and Anton Myrer's novel from 1968 reminds us of that even today."
From Once an Eagle, watched in 2014, a somewhat wider message came over for me, in Elliott's sensitively acted facial expressions as enemies closely face one another, as his longtime friends are killed in action, or as suggestion of more insightful plans and methods are trampled upon by those who put self-interest above everything else. What's it all about - war? Sam Damon admitted he didn't know, but did know that "there'll be another" and we should be ready, and he felt the need to be a part of the "being ready".

From our perspective now, post Korea, Vietnam, several minor conflicts, 9/11, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, murdering drone attacks...that ancient poetry means, to me, that we are "smiting" ourselves by creating, then inflaming, what we perceive as enemies. Our own metaphorical feathers could come back in a different form one day to harm, or even destroy us, just as the eagle's feathers helped to propel the arrow that eventually killed it.

Although the style of filming in Once an Eagle is more than a tad dated now, it's still an engaging and informing tale of US army life in the early to mid-20th century. This isn't a story of the two World Wars though, it's a story of army people - and a people story in general, how they coped, or didn't, during and between the wars. It's the story of Sam Damon, a Nebraska farm boy who enlisted in the regular army. His story begins in 1916. Two years later, in France, he became an infantry squad leader, excelled in that position and and won a battlefield commission to, eventually, the rank of Major.

Sam Elliott, in some ways, was playing another version of the cowboy in the white hat, while actor Cliff Potts played the cowboy in the black hat, Courtney (Court) Massengale, an ambitious self-absorbed climber through the ranks, of limited skills, climbing in any way he could devise, including judicious choice of well-connected wife. The story takes us through World War I, then the dreary (for some) between-wars period, Sam's and Court's marriages, and their wives' gradual disillusionment, then on to World War II.

There are lots of soapy elements running through the series, of course: wives, families, loyalties, disloyalties, and an interval when Damon, on extended leave, helps out in a relative's factory. There he strikes out against racism, still rampant even in the northern part of the US, and finds he'd be as effective a leader in civilian life as in the military; but he admits to his wife that he loves the army too much to give it up. His wife remains unimpressed, especially when their son enlists in the airforce at the start of World War II, serves in a bomber squadron based in England.....and....you guessed didn't you?

I understand the novel takes the story on past 1945 to the Vietnam conflict, the TV series ends during the second half of World War II, in a very abrupt and unsatisfying fashion. Many loose ends were left dangling. I had to wonder whether, back in 1976, the producers had hoped to make a sequel, but that didn't happen.

A reviewer some years ago (HERE) proposed that Sam Damon is "a metaphor for the U.S. Army itself in the first seven decades of the 20th century. It came of age in World War I, achieved greatness in World War II and withered in Vietnam".


mike said...

Well, I'm pleased that Sam is your eye candy, Twilight...and a zesty, younger version, at that, in "Once an Eagle". I think in some previous post you mentioned that his voice gets you...so, some ear candy, too.

We humans tend to exhibit wars of many kinds...mini and maxi wars within our families, neighbors, working environments, politics, religion, etc. We wage war on our environment with mechanical weapons and toxins to kill any perceived pestilence...reroute and resurface the natural world. Greedy accumulation preventing the needy from a fair share.

As your post indicates, we are doing ourselves in and taking most of the natural world with us. It would be fine with me, if we humans forfeited out existence on Earth...sooner the better in fact, if it isn't too late right now. Bad enough that we are our own worst enemies, but we are the enemies of the entirety of all organisms on the globe, as well as the Earth, itself.

Twilight said...

mike ~ Sam sounds as good as he looks, yes! Years ago I used to think Tom Selleck was the best looking guy on film/TV, but he hasn't aged well at all - and I've discovered he's Republican too (not that that is always a drawback, I still like Clint, Bruce and Charlton for their portrayals on screen) but it was a big disappointment in Tom's case.

Anyway - back to the topic in hand....
Yes, you've extended the purview of that ancient quotation even further, and I agree. It'll be best for the universe if we exit stage left before we have the chance to do damage to the whole solar system as well as to our selves and our planet home.

♥ Sonny ♥ said...

Sam is not only eye and ear candy, he's private and keeps his political opinions to himself. worries me a bit though what great friends Tom an Sam are in real life.. umm maybe I better not think or research that too much, thus end up finding out more than I wanna know:)
I'll just pretend Sam is a Dem and leave it at that.

as for War, its done thousands of times a day.. we are a warring species.
parents to children n vise versa- boss to employee and v/v - friend to friend.
there's even a war raging within us with us.
in all these ways shall we destroy our species from within.

Twilight said...

Sonny ~ Oh! I didn't know they were friends, Tom Selleck & Sam Elliott - that is a bit worrying. :-/
I shall try not to think about it !
He's wise to keep politics out of it - he'd be liable to lose some of his fans.

Re war - yes, you're right - it's in our DNA and in our astrology too - but we do have potential to restrain ourselves. I think that's our main lesson - but we are not good students - in fact we suck as students - and suck pretty darn badly!