Archive for December, 2014

The Great Escape: 50th anniversary

December 25th, 2014

Given how much the film is loved now, it is surprising to learn that Sturges had some initial difficulties finding a studio that would back the project. A possible reason is that for the previous few years cinema screens had been blocked solid with war films – a genre that the British understandably took to with relish, but of which the big studios were growing weary. Another possible reason is that the film’s narrative featured no women, no love interest. The lack of a glamorous actress in the cast may have made it seem very much less bankable.

McQueen wasjealous of James Garner’s white sweater (REX FEATURES)

Nevertheless, the Mirisch Company and United Artists rode in. As with The Magnificent Seven, this was to be an ensemble piece, and would even feature three of the Seven: James Coburn, Charles Bronson and the rapidly rising star Steve McQueen. The other big American name was James Garner, who was famous for playing the card-sharp anti-hero of the hit television series Maverick.

From the British side, the main role of ‘Big X’ – Sqd Ldr Roger Bartlett – went to a commanding Richard Attenborough (the original Bartlett, Richard Harris, had dropped out, having apparently objected to the part being diminished in a script re-draft). Donald Pleasence was ‘The Forger’, Colin Blythe, crippled by failing eyesight; Gordon Jackson was the RAF intelligence officer Andy ‘Mac’ Macdonald. Today part of the pleasure of watching the film is wondering how on earth they managed to force together so many vertiginous egos and actually keep the cameras rolling. The truth was that they didn’t always manage to do so.

The three-month shoot took place near Munich, starting in June 1962. The budget, at about $ 4 million, would have seemed big to the British actors, but perhaps rather more modest to their Hollywood counterparts. Certainly Sturges felt that he had to keep the whole operation very tight and was keenly aware that time and money could not be squandered.

The initial idea had been to make the film in California, largely for logistical reasons. But Sturges and his crew couldn’t find anywhere in America that resembled a Bavarian forest. Before long they fixed on coming to Europe because, as Sturges pointed out, ‘Germany looks like Germany.’

The crew found an area of forest in which to build the main set – the vast Stalag Luft camp. To do so they stripped away hundreds of trees, with the promise that they would replant two for every one that came down.

The set construction was, according to the actor David McCallum, who played Flt Lt Eric Ashley-Pitt, in charge of ‘dispersal’, sometimes a communal affair. ‘Every time we had a break,’ he recalled a few years ago, ‘we were asked to sit there and knit together these pieces of rubber tubing, which went on to be the barbed wire that ran around the camp.’

Off-set, life was much more lively. McCallum said, ‘Everyone drove like a maniac, including Donald Pleasence, who’d brought his Jag over. But Steve [McQueen] was the guy – mirroring the film, almost – who took the most risks and had the traffic police in awe of him. When he was pulled over they’d say, “Herr McQueen, good morning, we’re delighted that once again you’ve won the special prize,” and cart him off to the jail. Once I asked him what he did in a crash. He told me you should aim for the smallest trees.’

Tom Adams, 23 at the time, had just come from doing Shakespeare in London theatres for comically modest wages. By contrast, the money he received for playing RAF officer Dai Nimmo, in charge of ‘diversions’, would enable him to buy his first car. And the expenses he received while living in Munich gave him – and all the actors – the run of the best restaurants and bars.

McQueen has his make-up touched up in one of the tunnels (REX FEATURES)

‘It was a lovely summer. I had a hell of a time,’ he says now. ‘Steve McQueen was as mad as a hatter. He wrote off six or seven cars out there.’ Adams knew instantly that he was in the presence of someone special. ‘Whatever it was about Steve McQueen… I couldn’t put my finger on it,’ Adams, 74, says. ‘There he was, about five foot seven, skinny… But on nights out in Munich, if he walked into the bar, the women – whoomph – would be around him. What did he have?’

One thing McQueen certainly had was chutzpah. Though not yet a bona fide film legend (Bullitt, Le Mans and The Thomas Crown Affair would come much later), he was already exhibiting the behaviour of a great Hollywood diva.

A few days into shooting he was invited to view rushes of the footage that had been shot so far, and it was immediately apparent to him that his character, the insolent, fiercely independent Capt Virgil Hilts, veteran of 17 escape attempts, seemed to be spending much of his screen time in the isolation cell, the ‘cooler’. By contrast, his acting rival James Garner, playing Hendley the ingenious ‘Scrounger’ who could procure everything from chocolates to cameras, was getting rather meatier material. McQueen – according to many of his co-stars and crew members – furiously declined to film any more of his scenes until the script was reworked to give him more to do; hence the brilliant, though wholly fictional, motorbike chase, which had not figured in the original script.

‘On another occasion,’ Adams remembers, ‘I overheard McQueen and the director in a corner. The director was saying, “For God’s sake, Steve, you have to say the lines!” McQueen didn’t want to deliver the lines, he wanted the scene to be all reaction shots. He wasn’t a big star then – but he knew this was his chance to become a big star.’

Such were the crises that McQueen’s agent had to fly over to Germany to smooth things over. ‘McQueen had power for the first time in his life,’ Adams says. ‘He was jealous of James Garner, who was very handsome in character with his white sweater. McQueen was upset about that sweater.’ So upset, that he demanded a costume swap, according to Adams. ‘The production people said, “We’ll get Garner to change into a sweatshirt and you can wear the jumper.”’ Eventually, McQueen calmed down and the swap never took place.

For his part, James Garner was amused by McQueen’s attempts to manoeuvre himself to the apex of the ensemble cast. Rather than feeling threatened, he had a part in trying to talk the actor round when he threw a tantrum.

‘He [Steve] wanted to re-shoot everything that we’d done,’ Garner said in an interview some 40 years later, ‘and hell, we were hurting for money and time and everything. So a couple of days later, John Sturges came to me and said, “Jim, you’re the star of the picture. Steve is out.”’ Rather than grabbing for glory, Garner decided to open up diplomatic channels to bring McQueen back.

‘I took Steve and Coburn,’ Garner recalled, ‘and we went over to my house in Munich and we went through the script. I said, “Well, what’s your problem, Steve?” “Well, I don’t like this. I don’t like that.” We went through a lot of scenes. I said, “This is silly. You don’t like anything, Steve.”’ Part of the problem, it seemed, was McQueen’s determination that his character remain cool and inscrutable. ‘We finally figured out,’ Garner said, ‘“Steve, you want to be the hero, but you don’t want to do anything heroic.”’

Donald Pleasence as Colin Blythe, the ‘Forger’ (REX FEATURES)

There was also tension between McQueen and Richard Attenborough, who, as escape mastermind Bartlett, had a big chunk of screen time, which rattled McQueen. Attenborough asked why the American was so hostile towards him. James Coburn told him that it was ‘paranoia’.

McQueen wasn’t the only cast member who wanted to exert his influence on the script. Donald Pleasence was keen to offer advice about the reality of life in the PoW camps to Sturges, but was impatiently shooed away for his impertinence. Pleasence had not let on to Sturges that while serving with the RAF during the war he had spent time as a PoW after his Lancaster bomber was shot down over Nazi territory – he knew his stuff rather better than the director. (When Sturges found out the truth he went to some pains to consult Pleasence properly.)

Many of the cast were delighted just to be there. Among the younger actors was the pop star John Leyton (who had recorded the number-one hit Johnny Remember Me for the producer Joe Meek in 1961). In the film he portrayed Willie the ‘Tunnel King’, right-hand man to Charles Bronson’s hot-headed Danny.

Leyton, now 78, remembers fondly not only how the production opened other Hollywood doors for him, but also how it got him out of an awkward spot in England. A trained actor, he was a reluctant heart-throb to the nation’s teenage girls. ‘I welcomed the film being shot in Germany because I’d just recorded another couple of singles and in England I was being followed down the street by screaming fans,’ he recalls. ‘They were becoming quite a problem. I couldn’t go out on my own, it was getting that bad.’

Charles Bronson was a brooding presence on set, and although Leyton recalls his screen buddy with some fondness, he acknowledges that others were not so enamoured. ‘Charlie Bronson didn’t get on too well with James Garner,’ he says. ‘Charlie could be quite abrupt. He could come out with some outrageous remarks. He was introduced one night to a German woman and instantly said to her, “Why don’t you shave under your goddam arms?”’

Leyton recalls one eventful evening at the house Garner was renting in Munich. ‘We started playing cards,’ he says. ‘And I was winning. But then Garner accused Bronson of not playing his hand properly. Bronson said, “You accusing me?” And suddenly they were squaring off. It was handbags at dawn.’

There was also the delicate matter off-set of Bronson making eyes at David McCallum’s wife, the actress Jill Ireland – and Ireland reciprocating. Tom Adams recalls the excruciating awkwardness of nights out in Munich when Bronson and Ireland would be spotted together in restaurants. ‘Charlie Bronson was a monster,’ Adams says, with some feeling. ‘He should have been in horror films.’ Jill Ireland clearly didn’t think so – four years later she divorced McCallum and married Bronson (the two men somehow remained friends).

Possibly the film’s most totemic moment, and its biggest diversion from the real-life escape – Steve McQueen’s doomed motorcycle leap over the Swiss border fences – was carried out by the stuntman Bud Ekins. Which is not to say that McQueen couldn’t have pulled it off. He was an accomplished biker, just as able as many of the stunt riders working on the film.

The stuntman Bud Ekins performs the jump over the wires (REX FEATURES)

While Ekins played McQueen’s character, Hilts, McQueen appeared in the same sequence, playing a German rider giving chase. Keen to show off his prowess, he also played a German soldier who is knocked off his bike after Hilts strings wire across the road. The film’s insurers, however, refused to allow McQueen to tackle the final leap.

But when the cameras stopped rolling, it was a very different story, John Leyton recalls. ‘The stupid thing,’ he says, ‘was that Steve and me and James Coburn and Charlie Bronson all did the jump when the crew went home after shooting. We took the bikes out, rode them round and did the jump. And,’ he adds, laughing, ‘it was actually quite easy. Well – Coburn nearly came off. But obviously it was not proper barbed wire, it was simply rubber. Also, when you rode into that dip behind the hillock, there was a hidden ramp. So you automatically went into the air. And Bud Ekins was there to show us how to do it.’

When the shoot ended, there were wrap parties and everyone went their own ways – Leyton heard little more about the film until its release the following summer, when he went to the London premiere. Aside from some newspaper advertising, there was little of the intense hype that we take for granted with today’s blockbusters, although the premiere attracted the A-list of the day. Leyton recalls, ‘Terence Stamp came up to me in the interval and congratulated me on my screen relationship with Charles Bronson.’

Not everyone was impressed. Penelope Gilliatt, one of the foremost film critics of the time, wrote, ‘The cocky music doesn’t help… nor does the fact that the German who runs the camp is 10 times more sympathetic than his charges, like a weary schoolmaster in charge of a maddening class.’ She concluded that the film had ‘a script ready made for the Goons’.

Time magazine also had concerns, partly about the use of colour in what it felt ought to have been a stark, monochrome film, but it at least observed that The Great Escape was ‘the greatest escapism’. Audiences agreed with gusto – in its first year the film pulled in about $ 12 million, making it one of the biggest financial successes of 1963. Its reputation thereafter grew and grew. Millions of people introduced to the film via television would probably argue that Christmas and Bank Holidays are not quite complete without it.

Importantly, the film was also appreciated by the men who had actually been in the PoW camps. Steve McQueen’s jump may have been pure Hollywood (to appeal to US audiences, American involvement in the filmed escape was exaggerated), but John Leyton and Tom Adams fondly recall how the film afforded them the chance to meet real veterans, both on the shoot and then years later at military reunions. There was one at the Imperial War Museum in 2003 at which, Adams remembers with a rueful laugh, ‘there were more real veterans than there were surviving actors from the film. Real live wires. And when you think about it now – what a story, and all true. The tunnel bellows, the dyeing of the uniforms, and above all, the courage.’

The film is now enthralling a new generation. ‘Little boys come up to me saying it’s their favourite film,’ Leyton says. ‘It’s pure Boy’s Own. But the real PoW veterans were very happy. They were impressed at how the film caught the reality of it all.’

The Great Escape is broadcast on December 25 at 2.50pm (5USA)

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Saving Private Ryan, review

December 23rd, 2014

Director: Steven Spielberg
Written by: Robert Rodat
Starring: Tom Hanks, Tom Sizemore, Edward Burns, Barry Pepper, Vin Diesel, Giovanni Ribisi, Adam Goldberg, Jeremy Davies and Matt Damon.

The opening 27-minute sequence is unforgettable, depicting the Omaha Beach assault of June 6, 1944 in a way that is as graphic as any war footage. You are forced to confront the chaos that faced the poor troops on the beach, as when a soldier has his arm blown off. He staggers, dazed, open to further fire, and then he bends and picks up his arm, as if he will need it later. Few film-makers have ever plunged the audience into the nowhere-to-hide horror of battle as Spielberg does in that opening. It’s a genuinely terrifying spectacle, and a moving tribute to the men who did it for real.

Saving Private Ryan was nominated for 11 Academy Awards, winning five, including Best Director for Steven Spielberg

General George C Marshall decides that the fourth brother, Private James Francis Ryan, lost in Normandy with the scattered 101st Airborne, must be brought home alive and Captain John H Miller (Tom Hanks) is assigned to lead a small band of men through enemy lines to find and save Private Ryan, who is well played by Matt Damon.

Saving Private Ryan becomes a mission movie and although the bookish, decent intellectual facing up to the horrors of war for the first time is nothing new, it is a role played to perfection by Hanks.

Spielberg opens the film with three generations of an American family visiting a military graveyard in Nineties France, the grandfather clearly on an emotional pilgrimage. Spielberg is an admirer of British wartime filmmakers Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, and the elderly veteran’s wife is played by Kathleen Byron, who appeared in several of their films.

The climactic stand in the town of Ramelle still packs a fearsome punch and although it is a tough film to watch, there is a message of hope. “Earn it,” Miller says to Ryan in one key scene. It is the audience Spielberg is addressing.

Saving Private Ryan is broadcast on December 23 at 10pm (Channel 5)

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Scrap merchants held for plundering Royal Navy warships

December 23rd, 2014

“Our department cannot carry out patrols as we do not have the vessels, but I have asked the Coast Guard and the Maritime Enforcement Agency to provide assistance and to patrol the area,” he said.

That intervention appears to have paid off, with the Malaysian warship KD Perkasa responding on Sunday to information provided by the Pahang Fishermen’s Association.

“The foreign fishermen who were diving illegally in the waters about 60 nautical miles from Tanjung Gelang were apprehended at 6.45am,” The Royal Malaysian Navy said in a statement.

“KD Perkasa detained a fishing boat which had been modified into a diving boat and its 17 Vietnamese crew, including some who were still diving at the sea bed, believed to be looting a warship that was sunk during the Second World War,” it said. Of the crew, only the captain had identification papers.

“It is very positive that they have caught people in the act of damaging the ships and detained them,” said Jeremy Whitaker, who has made video recordings of the damage being caused to the two ships.

“It’s interesting that they were in the water that early in the morning as it would have been dark and clearly not safe,” he said. “They obviously want to try to keep their work quiet.

“When we used to arrive at the site during the diving season, from May to October, they would see us coming, saw through their buoy lines and get away in any direction they could go.”

Descending on the wrecks subsequently, Mr Whitaker and the other TechThailand divers would find dynamite stuffed in coffee cans attached to the hull and primed to detonate.

“We once dived on the Prince of Wales and tied our lines to the prop shaft,” Mr Whitaker said. “We went back two weeks later and it was gone. It was lying in the sand with ropes attached and waiting to be lifted.”

Made of phosphorous bronze and an estimated 15 feet long and 14 inches thick, it would have been a valuable recovery for the scrap metal merchants.

“I hope they prosecute these people to the maximum extent, although I doubt it will keep them all away,” Mr Whitaker said.

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A man unbroken: the hero of Angelina Jolie’s new film

December 14th, 2014

Unbroken’s saviour has been Laura Hillenbrand, who wrote the 2010 biography on which the film is based. Hillenbrand had written Seabiscuit, which became a screen success. Her book persuaded the studio that the film was likely to be popular. The search was on again for a director. Jolie scored the job.

Cynthia and Luke knew the outline of their father’s life, but it wasn’t until Hillenbrand’s book that they realised quite what he endured. “We knew what he went through,” says Cynthia, “but not the graphic or extreme nature of it. My father did not share every detail of his suffering with us because he wasn’t that kind of a man. He lived a positive life. I only discovered the true depths to which he was pushed – the degradation, the dehumanisation – in Laura’s book.”

Reading about her father changed the way Cynthia saw him. “I fell in love with him. It was a very strange feeling. I saw this beautiful, tragic, heroic, capable young man being tormented and suffering. Had I been at the camp, I would have died for him.”

Jolie’s film has intensified Cynthia’s feelings. “I knew I would cry when I saw it,” she says. “I was hoping I would be deeply moved.”

As children, Cynthia and Luke found their father’s tales fantastical. “They were my bedtime stories,” says Luke. “Dad would tell me about wrestling the sharks or his plane going down. He had no problem talking about it; he just didn’t obsess over it.”

Louie Zamperini in the US air force during the Second World War

But it took Louie several years to get to this point. After returning from the war, he suffered post-traumatic stress disorder. Every night, he dreamt of strangling the most sadistic guard, Mutsuhiro Watanabe (“the Bird”), once almost strangling his pregnant wife. He drank excessively and fixated on returning to Japan to kill the prison officer. His wife threatened divorce.

Then, in 1949, she dragged him to a rally led by an evangelist preacher, Billy Graham. Hearing the sermon, Louie, a lapsed Roman Catholic, remembered the prayers he’d said on the raft and in the camp, forgave his captors instantly and never had another nightmare.

Over the following years, he returned to Japan to forgive the guards in person, and was fond of telling his children, “Hating someone is like drinking poison and expecting them to die.”

Louie’s transformation, say Luke and Cynthia, was typical of his character. Until his late teenage years, Louie was always fighting and stealing in Torrance, California, where he grew up. It was Pete, his older brother, who changed his life, by encouraging him to run.

Louie was the fastest high-school runner in the US, and in 1936 competed in the Olympics in Berlin. He finished eighth in the 5,000 metres, but he caught the attention of Hitler by running the final lap in 56 seconds. The Führer commented, “Ah, you’re the boy with the fast finish.” Once Louie committed to something, that was it. He just had to get to that point.

Louie was known as the Torrance Tornado for his speed

It was Louie’s rebelliousness and defiance, they say, that got him through the war. He refused to surrender to his torturers; he refused to die. After his religious conversion, it was the same defiance that led him to pursue such an active life, the life his captors would have taken away.

Louie went mountain climbing and white-water rafting, and ran a camp for delinquent boys to improve their ways. In 1998, he carried the Olympic torch in the relay for the Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan, and ran a mile uphill every day in his 80s. He credited and celebrated his faith, but didn’t force it upon his children. “It was a religious household, but a very happy and joyous one,” says Cynthia. “We were taken to Sunday school, but we were free to believe what we wanted. It was not his style to force it down people’s throats.”

Luke and Cynthia remember their father as attentive – he once stayed up all night nursing Luke’s pet rats back to health – and resourceful. “He had every tool you could imagine in his workshop,” says Cynthia. “He fixed everything.”

“We’ve both inherited his mechanical mind,” says Luke. “If we see a problem, we find a way to fix it – whether it’s a broken car, a watch or a person.”

Neither sibling, however, has inherited Louie’s passion and talent for running. Cynthia was more into ballet. “I was Dad’s little athlete,” she says. “Mum would bring me home from class and Dad would have an athlete’s dinner waiting on the table for me: steak, potatoes and a glass of milk.”

Meanwhile, when Luke’s coaches at school asked whether he was going out for track, he’d be devising a way to have a cigarette. Louie would be proud of the defiance.

It was only as adults that Cynthia and Luke glimpsed times when their father’s more harrowing memories returned.

Cynthia once visited Louie in hospital, where he was being treated for an irregular heartbeat. “I walked in and he had this haunted look on his face. He was facing his mortality for the first time since the war. He told me, ‘I was just thinking about being in the prison camp.’ It was the first time in my life that my father said, ‘How could someone do that to another human being?’

“He had travelled back emotionally. He was thinking, ‘This could be the end.’” Louie went on to live for several years.

Jack O’Connell as Louis Zamperini in ‘Unbroken’

Luke had a similar experience with his father when Louie was reading Hillenbrand’s book. “The descriptions were so detailed that when my father read it, he had a very difficult time. He had to stop and look out of the window to make sure he was still in California. Laura put him right back into prison camp; it was that realistic.”

Neither sibling worried too much, however, about the impact on Louie of making a film. The more his story was told, the more it helped him – and his children – process his experiences.

And they are sure that Jolie was right for the job. “She bought all this feminine passion to the film,” says Cynthia. “Louie became a father figure to her because she hadn’t really had her own father in her life.”

Angelina Jolie watches footage of ‘Unbroken’

Unbroken, of course, can’t show everything, and the Zamperinis would have liked it to include more of Louie’s pranks and his love of music (the Andrews Sisters and Glenn Miller). But ultimately, it’s a record of a Louie they loved. The Louie on screen, says Cynthia, is “someone with flaws who becomes a heroic survivor. We all make mistakes and we all want to be able to conquer our fears and our anger. Louie’s an inspiration.”

‘Unbroken’ is out on Boxing Day

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Bulldozer attack on Nazi concentration camp

December 10th, 2014

Unknown assailants used a stolen bulldozer to smash their way into the memorial at the site of the Langenstein-Zwieberge camp, where more than 2,000 prisoners were worked to death, and caused an estimated €50,000 (£40,000) of damage.

“At this stage of the investigation, we suspect a more likely culprit is someone who started the bulldozer up and drove it a few kilometers as a prank. We don’t have any other leads,” a police spokesman told MDR, a local radio broadcaster.

The bulldozer was stolen from a nearby building site and driven a mile across fields, before being used to tear down the entire perimeter fence at the memorial site, and ram the main gates to the eight miles of underground tunnels built by forced labourers at the site. It was later found torched nearby.

Langenstein-Zwieberge, a subcamp of the notorious Buchenwald concentration camp, was established towards the end of the war in 1944. The Nazis sent more than 7,000 prisoners from 23 countries there as slave labourers, to construct vast underground passages where warplane and weapons manufacturing could be concealed from Allied bombers.

More than 2,000 of the inmates were literally worked to death. Life expectancy at the camp was just six months. Some of the tunnels were big enough to contain train carriages, and were built with Nazi “cost projections” of a death for every metre built.

Despite a €3,000 reward offered for its recovery, the “Arbeit macht frei” sign which was stolen from Dachau last month still has not been found, and police are continuing their enquiries.

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German court throws out Nazi massacre case

December 10th, 2014

On June 10, 1944, the SS sealed off the village and ordered the people to assemble in the square. The women and children were locked in the church while the men were herded into barns and sheds and machine-gunned. According to a survivor, the SS aimed at their legs so they would die slowly.

The SS then set fire to the church where the women and children were locked in. Those who tried to escape through the windows were shot dead. A total of 247 women and 205 children were killed.

A downed US airman who visited the village shortly afterwards described seeing “one baby who had been crucified”, according to declassified military documents.

Although the massacre was well documented, few perpetrators were held to account. A trial in France in 1953 was torn apart by acrimony because some of the accused were French nationals from Alsace and claimed to have been drafted into the SS by force. Although 20 men were found guilty, and two were sentenced to death, all were later released.

The SS general in charge of the unit that carried out the massacre, Heinz Lammerding, was tried in absentia but France never secured his extradition, and he died in his bed in 1971. In a separate case, one SS officer, Heinz Barth, was tried in East Germany in 1983 and served 14 years in prison for his part in the atrocity.

German prosecutors reopened the case in 2010 in an effort to bring more of those involved to justice, but only pursued charges in the case of the 89-year-old, who has now been cleared.

Werner C, who was 19 years old at the time of the massacre, was accused of shooting 25 men and being an accessory to the murder of the women and children in the church.

But the court ruled there was no evidence to contradict his version of events, that he was in Oradour at the time but did not fire a shot or take part in the massacre.

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Blood and mud: living on a former battlefield in Singapore

December 9th, 2014

Then the Japanese invaded on February 8, 1942. Families were evacuated, leaving clothes, furniture and toys in their wake.

The estate was the site of an intense three days of fighting in the battle for Singapore. The men of the 1st Battalion Cambridgeshire Regiment held off a series of attacks by the troops of the Japanese 41st (Fukuyama) Regiment but the island collapsed to the Japanese.

The Allied soldiers were sent to Changi Prison and the estate was turned into a prisoner of war camp, with Japanese soldiers using the homes as a base (pictured below.) The island was only liberated when America dropped an atom bomb on Hiroshima, in Japan, in August 1945.

When peace came, the buildings in Adam Park were patched up and became private homes again as they remain today. With the consent of the homeowners, Jon has dug gas masks, empty bullet cases and regimental insignia from among the shell scraps hidden in their gardens.

“We have a lot of visitors [to the battlefield] from the UK, US and Australia, as well as expats,” Jon said.

“These are countries united by the fact that, although they took part in a world war, they didn’t fight a battle on their own soil. People struggle to understand the battlefield. Without military service most people’s experience is the picture painted by a trip to the cinema.”

Much of Singapore was a battlefield, and living here I have become immersed in the past. Some of the buildings surrounding my home housed soldiers. I can imagine snipers at the windows, and platoons patrolling the undergrowth. I have a real connection to the soil I stand on.

“The aim of the Adam Park project is to show the heritage potential of the battlefields. It is important as it gives people a sense of who they are and why they’re here,” Jon said.

“In the UK we take heritage and history for granted. If people understand the past they can have pride in the future. As Brits we can learn from this kind of nationalism. Singaporeans are proud of who they are.”

Jon, 49, has written books on the military and holds a Master of Literature in conflict and battlefield archaeology from Glasgow University. He was born in Canada where his father had been seconded from the Royal Navy to the Royal Canadian Navy, and brought up in Cannock, Staffordshire.

He’s served in the Merchant Navy himself, and later the RAF. With six years of expat life in Singapore under his belt – he lives there with wife Alison and their two children – he has the academic and practical experience to bring the battlefield to life.

“The British have left a strong legacy here and Singapore has built on that to become one of the greatest cities in the world,” he said.

A Colonial-era house in Adam Park, Singapore today

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Japan’s nationalists attack Angelina Jolie war film

December 8th, 2014

Watanabe once forced the malnourished and weak Zamperini to hold a heavy length of wood over his head for 37 minutes before punching him in the stomach.

Japan’s naitonalists are particularly incensed at descriptions in the book of POWs being “beaten, burned, stabbed or clubbed to death, shot, beheaded, killed during medical experiments or eaten alive in ritual acts of cannibalism”.

“It’s pure fabrication,” Hiromichi Moteki, secretary general of the Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, a nationalist pressure group, told The Telegraph.

“If there is no verification of the things he said, then anyone can make such claims,” he added. “This movie has no credibility and is immoral.”

In comments on social media, posters have accused director Angelina Jolie of “racial discrimination” and of defaming Japan, while others are calling for her to be denied entry to Japan in the future and for protests at cinemas that decide to show the film.

A petition on has attracted more than 8,000 signatures and demands that Ms Jolie – whom it describes as a “demon” – halt distribution of the film on the grounds that it is “contradictory to the facts.”

However, activists attempting to encourage Japan to face up to its brutal imperial past say criticising “Unbroken” is taking “denier-history to a new level”.

“It is one thing to question the memories of illiterate women who were forced into sexual slavery for the Japanese military,” said Mindy Kotler, director of Asia Policy Point. “It is quite another to question the memory of a white male Olympian who was a disciple of Billy Graham.

“Further, there is plenty of documentation on the abuse and tortures inflicted upon POWs,” she told The Telegraph. “There is also plenty of eyewitness and forensic evidence of Japanese cannibalism of prisoners as well of fellow soldiers.

“With the majority of war crimes trials and much of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal focused on atrocities against POWs, discrediting POW testimony is an important step toward discrediting the war crimes trials,” she added. “This is the objective of it all.

“It is outrageous and reprehensible to deny what happened to Louis Zamperini.

“It will not be something that the US government will be able to ignore,” she added. “Both the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which is predicated on acceptance of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, and the honour of American veterans need to be defended.”

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Cumberbatch Enigma film unlocks code to a family secret

December 8th, 2014

Mr Harrison, who died in 2012, was head-hunted to join the codebreaking team while he was an economics student at Cambridge University.

At the time, in the early 1940s, Britain was losing the Battle of the Atlantic and faced the prospect of a German invasion. Outstanding intellects were needed to crack the cryptic code used by the Germans to communicate with their U-boat submarines.

Mr Harrison was among a team recruited to work with Alan Turing at Bletchley Park HQ in Buckinghamshire. They were bound by the Official Secrets Act and forbidden to utter a word of their mission. After the war he enjoyed a career as an accountant in London before retiring to St Andrews.

True to his word, Mr Harrison kept most of his work secret until his death at the age of 90. He revealed brief details only when Mrs Smith asked if he would speak about his war work to her class.

“I was teaching the children how to gather impartial evidence from people who had lived or witnessed historical events,” she said.

“However, dad told me he wouldn’t have had much to say about the war except he went to work at Bletchley Park in a suit and carried a briefcase every day and he’d been drafted into it after

solving a crossword. The talk to pupils never happened.”

Mrs Smith did not recognise the significance of his words until she went to see the The Imitation Game, starring Benedict Cumberbatch.

“It was only when I watched the film with my husband, Blair, last week that the final pieces of the jigsaw fell into place and we truly realised dad’s contribution to the war,” she said. “No one would ever have known or guessed his part in the Alan Turing story because dad was never one to boast or push himself forward.

“This was so typical of him and his loyalty to his country.

“Now the story is unfolding, we are prouder than ever of his contribution.”

She added: “His love of puzzles lasted till a few months before his death and dad was as sharp as a tack to the end.”

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens ‘like Europe in 1944′

December 3rd, 2014

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be the darkest Star Wars film yet, with a LucasFilm insider comparing the galaxy’s situation to “the European theatre of 1944″, with the Empire being Germany and the Republic the Allies in a war of attrition.

The rumours come from a substantial leak of information from a 4Chan user called Spoiler Man, who claims to be a LucasFilm employee. Around 3,000 words of character information, plotlines and even parts of the script emerged online during the weekend and have since been posted on the Star Wars Reddit feed.

Given the source, the information is being treated cautiously by fans, however some of it corroborates with leaked concept art and other already reported spoilers about The Force Awakens.

Although there are potentially big giveaways about the character and plotlines of the characters played by Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Lupita N’yongo, the leak suggests JJ Abrams’ film will lack the levity and humour of the original trilogy. Instead, the script, which is described as being “too good for Abrams”, is far more dystopian, with people bunkering down and keeping a low profile for safety in the war-torn universe.

Notably, Luke is among those who have exiled themselves for his own safety and “a handful” of future Jedi trainees who must also never appear in the open.

Spoiler Man added that, despite ongoing rumours, Benedict Cumberbatch will not be making an appearance in the film, and that all rumours will be confirmed in February when the contracts of those who worked on the film in the UK will end – allowing them to let on more information.

Read the full post on Reddit at your peril. Here’s our rundown of Star Wars news, rumours and spoilers so far.

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