Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano

Tuesday, 19 January 2021 13:13

DeStefano Reviews

DeStefano Reviews

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a Ph.D. in History from Fordham University, where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial adviser. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history.

“Sully”

A few years ago, my wife and I saw “Sully,” the film produced and directed by Clint Eastwood, about the forced landing of US Airways flight 1549 in the Hudson River on January 15, 2009. It is a thrilling and very moving film about the crew, the passengers, and the first responders whose combined efforts saved all 155 people on the flight. 

Tom Hanks plays the role of captain Chesley Sullenberger (Sully) with the quiet calm and dignity that fits the pilot who became an overnight hero. The rest of the cast is equally good. I especially liked the two flight attendants who rose to the occasion as they prepared the passengers for impact. 

Actually, you might say that the film is a tribute to the competence of all those involved. At one point the captain notes that over his forty-year career he had transported over 1,000,000 passengers safely, but people now call him a hero because of one crash landing. At the end he says to his co-pilot, “We were just doing our job.”

In addition to the drama of the emergency landing on water and the subsequent rescue of the passengers from the almost frozen waters, the film centers around the drama of the subsequent inquiry by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) into the performance of the captain and co-pilot on the flight. Apparently, computers indicated that the plane could have made it back safely to La Guardia airport, and that one engine was still functional.

Some have complained that director Eastwood went a little overboard in portraying the NTSB examiners as out to establish “pilot error” in the case of flight 1549. Unlike the depiction is Sullenburger’s subsequent autobiography, director Eastwood portrayed the examiners as inquisitors or bad guys. But to my mind it seemed as if they were also just doing their job. 

Speaking about doing one’s job, I was especially pleased with the portrayal of the air traffic controllers trying to deal with the extremely stressful “mayday” situation. It brought back memories of my first real job back in 1964 with the Federal Aviation Agency. 

I had taken the civil service exam as a fallback in case I would not be able to land a teaching job. Not too long afterwards I was surprised when a letter came asking me to interview for an entry level management analysis position at New York’s Idlewild airport. The name had yet to be changed to honor the recently assassinated President Kennedy.

Although I had no idea what a management analyst was or did, I was offered the position, and took it. I found myself in a small office on the airport grounds with a bureau chief and four senior analysts. I soon came to see that I was in the least significant part of the vast organization in charge of ensuring flight safety in the ever-more-crowded American skies. I believe that we were distrusted or regarded as nuisances by the people doing the job in the control towers and flight control centers. 

I remember, on one occasion, visiting one of those centers on Long Island. Seeing air traffic controllers hunched over their primitive radar screens watching little white blips apparently approaching each other was an experience I have never forgotten. I found out that it was one of the most stressful jobs in the world.

Most of the controllers were former Air Force pilots which perhaps explains the way they would talk with and bond with the pilots in the air. The job was so stressful that most were forced to take early retirement. Insurance companies believed that the controllers had such a short life expectancy that they would not offer them life insurance. When one died on the job, all the other controllers in the country would chip in to provide funds for his widow. 

These men, and they were all men in those days, were unsung heroes and Clint Eastwood did a good job in giving them recognition. Although I only stayed with the FAA for one year, I have never lost my respect for them and the job they did. I must confess that I sympathized with them when President Reagan fired them all in response to an attempt to strike.

However, I have no sympathy for anyone involved in the making of the films shown in the innumerable coming attractions we had to witness before the start of “Sully.” In particular, the violence and destruction depicted was graphic, offensive, and totally over the top. The weaponry employed by the so-called heroes of these films was incredible. How can Hollywood movie makers pretend to be for gun control when they employ so many assault weapons in their films? These films are not a reflection of the violence in our society, but a training ground for violence.

“LaLa Land”

In 2016 “LaLa Land” received much critical acclaim, but still turned out to be a big disappointment for moviegoers. I thought it would be right up my alley since reviewers indicated that it was kind of a throwback to the great Astaire/Rogers films that I have always loved. Despite fine acting and great cinematography, I had to agree that it was a disappointment. It was not just that the songs and dances did not measure up. How could they in this day and age? I dare anyone to remember more than the first three words of “City of Stars,” the song that won the Oscar for best song.

The biggest disappointment had to do with dreams. “LaLa Land” could have been titled “Dreamland.” Both the main characters, played so well by Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone, were driven to fulfill their dreams, or to, as the saying goes, “live their dream.” He wanted to own and operate a jazz nightclub where he could exhibit his great talent as a jazz piano virtuoso. Her dream was to be a great actress playing leading roles in significant films.

The first 90 percent of the film developed the love story between these two appealing figures, but then, for some inexplicable reason, it was decided that they must break up in order to fulfill their dreams. I think it was the sad ending that disappointed moviegoers. 

Five years after the breakup, she is a movie star and happily married with a loving husband and adorable child. Meanwhile, her ex-boyfriend has opened his club and it is a huge success. By chance, she and her husband walk into the club one night and she hears her old boyfriend playing the piano. Then, we are treated to an extended dream sequence where she imagines what might have happened if they had not broken up. But it is only a dream, and she and her husband leave after only one number.

What a downer! In the old days the ending would certainly have been altered after previews discovered a negative reaction to the ending among sample audiences. But not today, when directors and so-called creative artists would lose their Hollywood cachet if they came up with a happy ending. 

Perhaps it’s because I’m from a much older generation that I object to the decision of the two lovers to give each other up in pursuit of their dreams. I don’t recall that as a young man I had any dreams or ambitions that I would not give up if the right young woman came along. When she did come along, we had a fine romance that has lasted to the present day. 

I guess we were lucky, but it is also true that our backgrounds and traditions kept our feet on the ground. Sitting in that theater, I wanted to urge the young couple to give up their dreams for the one they loved. In my case, I found that anything I gave up was worth little in comparison to what I gained. We were not the only ones in our generation to choose real life over dreams.

Coincidentally, I had just read the wartime diaries of Anne Morrow Lindbergh, an aspiring writer who was also the wife of famed aviator Charles Lindbergh. They were a dream couple in their own time. She came from a wealthy and accomplished family, and he was the great American hero because of his groundbreaking flight across the Atlantic in 1927.

But by the outbreak of World War II, things had gone sour. Even after they had recovered from the murder of their first-born son by a kidnapper, Charles Lindbergh had become a figure of controversy because of his leadership in the movement to keep America out of the war. He lost his commission in the army, and President Roosevelt and his supporters came close to branding him a traitor.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, Lindbergh, despite his age and growing family, offered his services to the war effort, but he never regained his pre-war popularity. His wife stood by her husband during these years despite the fact that practically all of their friends had deserted them. They were still well off, but she had never dreamed that she would be a lonely housewife struggling to find herself. She talked of her dreams in her diary entry of April 8, 1942. (In her diary, “C” is her husband, Charles.):

“Almost every young person is a romantic idealist. Certainly, I was — and am still — in a sense. There has always been a ‘dream figure’ in my life — not always a person of course. But some people learn to accept life and that it is better than ‘the dream.’ At least I got married and had children.

“I told C., speaking of this conversation (we were talking of idealizing people), and C. said, ‘You can’t meet your heroes if you feel that way about them.’ And I said, ‘Well I don’t know — I didn’t lose my dream by marrying it!’ He said, ‘that’s the nicest thing you ever said to me.’

 

“But I said it the wrong way round really. For I didn’t marry my ‘dream.’ C. wasn’t my ‘dream.’ I never idealized him before I met him. It wasn’t the hero I loved in him. It was the man — the man who has never disappointed me. I had my ‘dreams,’ too, very different from C. That was what all the struggle was about, giving up my ‘dreams’ for this flesh-and-blood man—who I loved, God knew.

 

“I sometimes feel it is the one thing I deserve credit for, the one thing I am intensely proud of, that I had the courage and the wisdom to give up my ‘dreams’ for real life, to realize that ‘life’ was better than ‘dreams’ and that C. was life.”

 

   War Within and Without, Diaries and Letters, by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, (Harvest Book) Paperback – Illustrated, January 13, 1995.   *

Wednesday, 12 February 2020 13:19

"High Noon"

“High Noon”

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano is a long-time subscriber to the St. Croix Review. He holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.

Periodically, my wife and I watch “High Noon,” the great 1952 Western directed by Fred Zinneman that starred the legendary Gary Cooper. Unfortunately, the film lost out in the best picture category that year to “The Greatest Show on Earth,” a circus drama that is virtually unwatchable today.

I call “High Noon” a great film for the simple reason that it can be viewed over and over again, not only with enjoyment but with total involvement. It is not just that repeated viewings bring out things you might have missed originally. It is not the nuances or the background that makes a film great, but the central core, the thing that the director most wanted the viewer to see and know.

Any great story or work of art works in that way. As children when we heard a story like Goldilocks or Red Riding Hood we wanted to hear it over and over again. We knew the characters, what they would do, and how it would end, but every telling seemed new. We know that most great literature works that way also. The Homeric epics were meant to be told repeatedly to audiences who were totally familiar with them. Year after year we can hear in church the stories of the Prodigal Son or the Good Samaritan and be totally engaged.

I can’t say how many times I have seen “High Noon” since I first saw it as a thirteen-year-old back in 1952. In those days we went to the movies practically every Saturday for a double feature with five color cartoons and a newsreel. We must have seen countless Westerns but “High Noon” was something different.

It was, and still is, a gripping, compelling drama of a small town marshal who is forced to confront four vicious killers. I must have sat open mouthed in the darkened theater as one by one the marshal’s friends refused, for various reasons, to come to his assistance. In the end he was left alone on the deserted street of the town to face the killers whose leader was arriving on the noon train.

Gary Cooper, a veritable American icon, played Marshal Kane. Maybe he was a little old for the part, especially since his new bride was played by young and beautiful Grace Kelly in her first major role. Nevertheless, I can’t think of any other actor of that time, or any time, who could have played the role of the abandoned marshal as well. He won a well-deserved Oscar.

Cooper was surrounded by an outstanding cast. Grace Kelly was fine as a young Quaker bride whose wedding to Cooper takes place a few minutes before the news comes of the impending arrival of Frank Miller and his gang. However, Katy Jurado was magnificent as a Mexican woman of the world who had once been Kane’s lover. She won a Golden Globe in 1953 for best supporting actress. I’ll never forget her rebuke to Grace Kelly, whose Quaker principles prevented her from helping her new husband: “What kind of a woman are you?”

Lloyd Bridges, Thomas Mitchell, Lon Chaney, Jr., and a young Harry Morgan were all excellent in supporting roles.

As a young teenager I could not realize that the real stars of the show were Fred Zinneman, the director, and Carl Foreman, the writer. For some reason Zinneman decided to do the film in black and white and omit any colorful Western scenery. The sky is hardly visible in the film and the town seems isolated in a kind of haze. Along with his cameraman, and editor, Zinneman produced a film of incredible pace and tension. It never drags and the tension is heightened by the constant references to clocks ticking in the background as the hands approach high noon.

Carl Foreman’s script was taut, adult, and free of the usual Western clichés. Characters were able to appear as human and many-sided and each had a chance to state his or her case.

Back in 1952 I had no idea of the controversy that surrounded this film and that still crops up in most critical evaluations. I was certainly not aware of Cooper’s womanizing off screen, nor could I have imagined the tragedy that awaited Grace Kelly. I would not have know that Fred Zinneman was an Austrian Jew or wondered why he would make an American Western. Neither was I aware of the investigation spearheaded by the House Un-American Activities Committee to track down Communists in the American film industry. 

Carl Foreman had been called before the Committee and admitted that he had been a Communist years before but had become disillusioned with the Party and left. Nevertheless, he was blacklisted in Hollywood and eventually left the country to settle in England. He only returned a couple of years before his death. In a commentary that accompanied the DVD, Foreman’s son said that his father told his own story in High Noon. He felt that he had been deserted by all his former friends and employers in Hollywood and left alone to face his critics.

I’m glad that I didn’t know any of this background information back in 1952, and today, more than 50 years later, I don’t think it matters any more. The film is still a great film. The director, writer, cameraman, editor, and cast all came together to make a work of art that transcended their personal lives and politics. 

I should not fail to mention the haunting ballad, “Do Not Forsake Me, O My Darling” that was sung by Tex Ritter and that provides most of the musical background. How could a film that includes these lyrics be un-American?

“I do not know what fate awaits me.

I only know I must be brave.

For I must face a man who hates me,

Or lie a coward, a craven coward;

Or lie a coward in my grave.”     * 

Tuesday, 04 June 2019 13:28

The Spanish Inquisition

The Spanish Inquisition

Francis P. DeStefano

Francis P. DeStefano holds a PhD in History from Fordham University where his field of concentration was 18th century British politics. He left the academy to pursue a career as a financial advisor. He retired in 2008 and is pursuing his interest in history, especially Renaissance art history. He resides in Fairfield, Connecticut.

 

Editor’s Note: Francis P. DeStefano is one of our subscribers — and we hope he continues to send us essays. We do encourage our subscribers to submit essays for publication, because we know we have an exceptionally well-educated and patriotic subscribership.

      

The Spanish Inquisition has become a code word for human cruelty and injustice. During his term even President Obama equated the Inquisition with the atrocities perpetrated by ISIS Moslem fanatics in devastated Iraq.

Some years ago I pored through Benzion Netanyahu’s massive study of the Spanish Inquisition. If the author’s name sounds familiar, it is because he was the father of Bibi Netanyahu, the current Prime Minister of Israel. Although Benzion Netanyahu took a leading role in the founding of the State of Israel, he will perhaps be best remembered as a great scholar. His field of study was the Spanish Inquisition and his masterpiece, The Origins of the Inquisition in Fifteenth Century Spain, revolutionized the study of the subject.

Few people understand that the Inquisition in Spain was not directed against Jews in Spain but against Christians. The Inquisition had no authority to persecute or even investigate the Jewish population. It was specifically chartered to deal with popular charges leveled against Christians of Jewish ancestry and their families who had converted to Christianity. These converts were known as “conversos,” and there were elements in all levels of Spanish society who suspected that the conversos were not sincere Christians, even if their families had converted more than a century before.

Periodically charges were made that the conversos had only converted to gain political or financial advantage. Indeed, they were often suspected of adhering to their Jewish beliefs and practices in secret, and even working to undermine Christian society. Some regarded them as a kind of “fifth column” in the struggle against the Moslem Kingdom of Granada.

It is true that many of the conversos had prospered during the century before the creation of the Spanish Inquisition. Some had risen to high places in the administrations of the various Kings of Castile. Aristocratic grandees who regarded themselves as pure-blooded Christians without any trace of Judaism in their veins were often jealous and contemptuous of these conversos in high places. Among the lower classes it didn’t help the reputation of the conversos that some of them had become tax collectors for the Royal government.

Netanyahu’s 1,000 plus pages demonstrated that the charges leveled against the conversos were false. He marshaled an enormous amount of evidence to show that the conversos were almost always sincere, even dedicated, converts to Christianity. Like many converts, before and after, these converts from Judaism to Christianity in medieval Spain could even be more zealous or committed than the cradle Catholics of the time.

Descendants of conversos often become theologians and clergymen. Some bishops and abbots of famed monasteries could trace their origins to converso forebears. Even Torquemada, the first head of the Inquisition in Castile and a favorite of Queen Isabella, had converso roots.

Nevertheless, in times of political turmoil, military defeat, or economic hardship the conversos were often blamed. Sometimes the charges erupted into mob violence and riots. It was to deal with these charges and riots in very difficult times, that Ferdinand and Isabella sought permission from the Pope to set up an Inquisition in Isabella’s Kingdom of Castile.

The young Isabella had inherited the throne under the most dangerous of circumstances. Castilian grandees or warlords disputed her right and authority. The King of Portugal put up a rival claimant to the throne and launched an invasion of Castile. Once these threats were somewhat subdued, she had to turn her attention to the constant border menace of the Moslem Kingdom of Granada in the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula.

Islam was a real threat. In 1480 an Islamic naval expedition had landed on the Adriatic coast of Italy and destroyed the city of Otranto. The invaders tortured and killed 12,000 of the 22,000 inhabitants of the city. Every priest was murdered and the Archbishop of Otranto was sawed in two. Those who were not killed were forced to convert or taken into slavery. In Spain there was constant border fighting and raids with Moslem Granada.

It was a time of great peril from both within and without and fear led to the inevitable outcry of charges against the conversos. Isabella established an Inquisition in Spain to deal with the charges directed against the conversos and to unite her country in the war effort. One modern historian has called the Spanish Inquisition “a disciplinary body called into existence to meet a national emergency.”

The word “inquisition” has the same root as the word “inquiry.” The inquisitors were to look into the charges, call witnesses, and take testimony. In its origins the Inquisition resembles the way in which President Obama ordered his Justice department to examine the causes of local unrest and riots in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore. An outside body is called in hopefully to fairly and impartially examine the charges and counter-charges in an emotionally charged situation.

The fact that the great, great majority of the conversos accused before the tribunal of the Inquisition were released is a testimony to Netanyahu’s thesis that they were innocent, sincere Christians, and that the charges leveled against them were baseless. Since the publication of Netanyahu’s book, historians have had to alter their perspective on the Inquisition, its methods, and its results.

In many ways the Inquisition represented an enormous improvement in methods of justice prevailing throughout the European and Moslem worlds at the time.  The proceedings of the Inquisition were carried out in public and not in secrecy. Its prisons were only temporary detention centers with conditions much better than in local jails. There were no pits with giant swinging razor-sharp pendulums. Torture was rarely used, in contrast to the methods almost universally used in other European and Moslem countries. Even when torture was applied, there was little danger to life and limb.

Studies of the Spanish Inquisition that followed upon the publication of Netanyahu’s masterpiece have shown that the “scenes of sadism conjured up by popular writers . . . have little basis in reality,” and that the inquisitors “had little interest in cruelty and often attempted to temper justice with mercy.” Indeed, as one historian noted: “The proportionally small number of executions is an effective argument against the legend of a bloodthirsty tribunal.”

Nevertheless, the Spanish Inquisition has become synonymous with barbaric cruelty and injustice. In the wars of religion that followed upon the Protestant Reformation, a “Black Legend” arose primarily in Protestant England, which found itself involved in a life and death struggle with Catholic Spain. The Black Legend has gained mythical status and is still used as a weapon to batter Spain and the Catholic Church. It was one of the factors behind the hatred engendered in modern history by the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

In one of history’s interesting footnotes, the bitterness and hatred engendered by the Spanish Civil War did not prevent Spain under Generalissimo Franco from standing almost alone in offering sanctuary to Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. The Franco government maintained neutrality throughout the war, and insisted that all Jews who could claim Spanish citizenship be given safe conduct back to Spain from Nazi occupied countries. The Franco government even went so far as to offer Spanish citizenship and sanctuary to all Jews who could trace their ancestry back to the time of the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492.

Benzion Netanyahu’s masterpiece is now recognized by scholars like Joseph Perez and Henry Kamen who have followed his lead. Nevertheless, their findings will probably never eradicate the myths still propagated today. Politicians and ideologues will still continue to grind their axes, as will popular TV shows like Monty Python. Who will ever forget the three red-robed cardinals breaking into someone’s living room shouting, “No one expects the Spanish Inquisition”?     *

Calendar of Events

Annual Dinner 2020
Thu Oct 22, 2020 @ 5:00PM - 08:00PM
St Croix Review Seminar
Thu Oct 22, 2020 @ 2:00PM - 04:30PM
Annual Dinner 2019
Tue Oct 08, 2019 @ 6:00PM - 08:00PM
Annual Dinner 2018
Mon Oct 15, 2018 @ 6:00PM - 09:00PM
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Thu Oct 19, 2017 @ 6:00PM -

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